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NewHero

Why I'm Sticking with Evernote

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Evernote is currently under stiff competition and lots of pressure from users to keep updating and improving UI, features etc. I wanted to write a little bit about why I love Evernote as someone who has used it for five years and has stuck with it even though I tried out competitors. I really think this stuff will be broadly applicable, even if some of it might sound particular to how I use Evernote. I hope that Evernote will be able to overcome the competition, keep adding amazing features, but keep what makes it special.

Evernote is the Secret Weapon

I knew I was hooked on Evernote when I first watched The Secret Weapon. If you aren't familiar with it, TSW was a video guide made quite a few years back which gave a step by step approach on how to implement David Allen's famous "Getting Things Done" approach with Evernote. The videos still use the old version of Evernote, which is nice to see. It would be years until I read GTD, but the secret weapon captured a few of its ideas really well. But more importantly, it helped me understand how to use Evernote: use it for everything.

Evernote gets better the more stuff you put in it. Evernote is inherently an everything bucket. The old company tagline was "Remember everything" and that was exactly right. In GTD David Allen speaks about the importance of capturing everything and why you should try to do that:

Quote

Your head is for having ideas, not holding them

A software which comes along promising that you will be able to do that is a software which can help you radically change your approach to productivity. Allen includes lots of promises as to what happens when you become properly organized (starting by capturing everything):

  • Productivity becomes stress free
  • Your relationships improve because you become good at keeping commitments
  • You achieve your goals - starting with small ones which emboldens you to achieve bigger ones
  • You become more creative because you have space in your head to think, and a desire to note it all down

For me this is what Evernote is about as a productivity tool. It's the only note taking tool which takes this idea seriously, whether or not it was built for GTD. The underlying principle is self-evident once you get it - only by really noting everything down in a system you can trust, can you have any hope of properly dealing with everything you have to. And Evernote is that system.

Tags and Notebooks Make Deep Organization Possible 

Evernote has this dual structure system: tags and notebooks. Like everything on the internet there is debate about how these should work. But what I value about Evernote is the fact that it has two systems for organizing which can be almost completely independent of each other. Mathematically, it means you can search for things in two dimensions. Whichever you prefer (notebooks or tags), the fact that you have both makes it super easy to locate and organize things. But I want to make the case for the form of using Evernote which I think is most effective.

Tags are for subjects, projects, tasks and topics... There isn't any limit on how many tags you can have. You can nest them together and give them interesting names. Notebooks are for workflows. Look across all your tasks and you will see that there are common elements any project: brainstorming, planning, to-do lists, deferred, extra resources... These things are agnostic to the specific topic. If you are a novelist, every book and every chapter has character development, setting, plot elements and styling to it. If you're a scientist, the scientific method asks you to develop an aim, a hypothesis, literature review, a method, collect results and discuss... for whatever specific project. These 'workflows' are finite, fixed steps which help you get through a project.

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If you use Evernote just for school, then you probably have a few workflows: one for essays, one for practicals, one for exam prep... these would be stacks and in each stack you'd have notebooks. For 'essays' you would have notebooks like 'Research and Referencing', 'Outlining and Arguments', 'Main Draft'... That would cut across all your subjects (tags are history, English, sociology...) Of course, if you use Evernote for multiple roles like I do, then I just have a generic project management workflow as my notebooks (see image above). I have one or two other workflows that are particularly important to me (Studying and Journalling) so I separate it out from the generic project management stuff.

The secret to really narrowing down the role of your notebooks is that absolutely everything else goes in tags.You can have hundreds of tags and with very little work nest them neatly together, showing how all your projects and tasks relate to each other. Tags are much simpler than notebooks, but they are the heart of what allows you to 'capture everything'. 

What really matters is that notebooks and tags are perpendicular. You can use one, or the other, or both... But they don't overlap. The key idea is to have two dimensional search. Even with 1000s of notes, if your notebooks and tags are well defined, you can usually narrow it down by just choosing a tag (or sub-tag) and then selecting the specific notebook. It's actually such a simple idea - tags are for topics, notebooks are for workflows - but none of Evernote's competitor's implement a similar system convincingly. Everything is, in one way or another, just notebooks.

The final secret is Evernote's 'list' view. It gives you a flat list and shows your notes, their notebooks and tags which you can sort and filter rapidly. If you give descriptive titles, you can narrow down an enormous number of notes by selecting a notebook and a tag (or tags) as appropriate, and then just eyeball it to see which note you're interested in. I usually open the specific note in its own window - this lets me keep Evernote in the list view, minimize the editor to get speed, and focus on one single note when I'm busy with it.

Search - Evernote's Power Tool

Evernote's most unique feature, at first, was Saved Search. Tags and Notebooks allow you to store 1000s of notes in a neat and organized way. Saved Search brings that organization to life. You can filter on tags and notebooks to define a specific kind of 'thing' you're looking for - maybe all your brainstorming relating to a geography project you have - and then save it. That's not really that amazing - you could just do the search manually (as long as you didn't tag a note with like 15 tags). But the power of saved search is that it enables Evernote's search grammar.

Search is Evernote's power tool. The search grammar is the drill bit itself and saved search is like electric wiring that brings it to life. The search grammar allows you to slice and dice your notes based on metadata besides just notebooks and tags. You can define dates and the type of content (e.g. checkboxes, reminders) that your notes should have. Of course, you can also search for keywords in the note body.

Search does to notebooks and tags what notebooks and tags do to notes. Tags (with notebooks) let you turn 100 notes into a 1000. Saved search lets you turn 100 tags into 1000 if you really want. Saved search works very well together with normal search: you can save a search template and then add to it incrementally in the search bar. 

The Everything Box

Evernote is a box. You're supposed to put things in it. Evernote has been consistently leading when it comes to that. The Web Clipper was a beautiful idea which turned the internet into something you could simply save into Evernote. Web pages are the source of so much of our information today - any note taking app has to have some kind of interface to get things from the web. And Evernote built the best one first.

Some people talk about Evernote's development as if it lacks features. But there are some really powerful features that a lot of people are probably not using:

  • You can email things right into Evernote. Not only does Evernote have an email address for your account, it can tag and send emails straight to a notebook, and each note created by email has a searchable attribute for source:email. A lot of our daily tasks appear in the form of email - Evernote's got you covered.
  • You can create a folder on your computer and set it up so that when you drop something in it, that file is attached to a new note in Evernote. Many people are unaware of this feature, but it's a hidden gem.
  • Evernote's image recognition is to mobile what the web clipper was to web: mobile is the new platform we are all on, and when you save images from your smartphone camera to Evernote, you can search for text within those images directly. If you take a picture of an informative poster, or screenshot something cool you see on your phone, you can easily send it to Evernote and search it later.
  • On mobile, you can save voice notes into Evernote and use a stylus to draw with ink right inside normal notes.
  • But the grand daddy of all minor features: CTRL+SHIFT+V. Paste directly into Evernote. You can copy any image or text anywhere and paste it straight into evernote. I take so many screenshots on my computer or come across so many passages which I will send straight to Evernote to rediscover later. Images are searchable so I could screenshot a Tweet and send it to Evernote in less than three seconds... this is my favourite feature...

The value of these tools goes back to the original point. Evernote lets you capture everything - images, audio, ink, text, email... And capturing everything is that start of clearing your mind, seeing what you have to do, and getting organized. And everything is synced across all its devices.

What About OneNote and Notion?

OneNote has the most beautiful experience using ink. Evernote's doesn't compare - on the Windows desktop app, we don't even have inline ink.

Notion has the most beautiful and powerful editor in the game. Evernote recently added more attractive tables - Notion allows you to basically create a database inside of it.

But if you go back and look at everything I wrote, you'll understand something. Evernote's strength is not as an editor - whether of ink, or tables or whatever. Its UI is not that attractive either and it doesn't have to be. I'd happily take the UI from the TSW video so long as that program could really help me really organize my life and never forget anything

What Evernote does uniquely is it helps you organize everything. For five years I've searched for a competitor on this and I haven't found one. Because everyone is missing the key idea here: creating and organizing are two very distinct functionalities that all note-taking apps have to have, and organizing is more important. OneNote and Notion beat Evernote in terms of note creation and editing. But Evernote is not primarily a tool for editing and formatting notes. It's not even really a to-do list app. It's a tool for creating your own, personalized system for being organized, from scratch. Evernote's killer feature is that it lets you get organized and stay organized. Nothing else comes close on that front for me.

Evernote Moving Forward

I'm sticking with Evernote.

Evernote does need to improve, like any other software or business. And I do think there are some basic features that, in the short term, would help it at least cover the same ground as OneNote and Notion.

  • We do need inline ink, at long last - visual thinking by drawing is different to writing things out, and it's something you can't do without once you get into it
  • We could do with more colours and easier formatting options
  • The UI could be a little bit more slick...
  • Better image insertion to make Evernote more visual - header images for notes, choosing the image to preview in snippet views or card views

Some of the most recent improvements in Evernote have been in this vein - like Present and Templates.

But long term, I think Evernote can continue to fend off competitors not by trying to compete with them on UI or editing features or whatever, but by continuing to outcompete them in creating a tool which can help you get organized flexibly. And the features we need should lean heavily on the organization aspect:

  • If we get inline ink, then we should make ink handwriting searchable
  • With AI developing as it is, voice notes should be directly searchable, with speech-to-text auto-generated and available in every voice note. Either searchable using text-speech matching, or you should be able to speak into the search bar. There should be parity between speech and text for recording notes and searching them.
  • Better faster linking between notes, with an improved and smarter 'Context' recommender
  • Image recognition and searching should be even smarter. I should be able to for image_of:building and get pictures of buildings, and then filter it by location or date as per normal search.
  • A dedicated 'Search in Evernote' tool outside of the app's search bar. So if I'm looking at a document or web-page, I should be able to click something that says 'Find Related Notes in Evernote'... I used to use a tool called Word Web which let you highlight a word and click a keyboard shortcut to open a dictionary defining that word. Evernote could make a tool that lets you highlight a paragraph or click on an image and then hit a shortcut to search for notes related to that.
    • This might sound like a lot but we already have something very close to this! The web clipper will recommend related notes to you as soon as you clip a web page. If you allow it, it will also recommend related notes when you do a Google Search which is really cool.
  • Full-Text Search with full Boolean options - remember, this is Evernote's power tool.
  • Smart import folders. This is a hidden gem feature in Evernote which can be built up. Lots of people use Evernote as a filing cabinet, and that's perfect.
  • More powerful reminders - recurring reminders, location-based reminders like in Google Keep, better syncing with calendar apps and tools
  • Smarter template notes - auto templating options for chosen notebooks and tags (if I create a new note in tag A/notebook B, it should create it with that template and have a non-intrusive "revert to blank note / choose different template" dialog box on the side

This is a wishlist of some out there ideas. But the point for me is just to say that these kind of features - organization enhancers - should be the bulk of Evernote's concentration. Not editing (although it is important to have solid competencies there too).

Conclusion

I love Evernote. It's been my secret weapon for 5 years now. What I've found is that you can go off and try other note taking tools with nicer editing features and UI, but Evernote is incomparable in helping you get organized. It gets better the more you use it - 1000 notes is better than 100 notes. And so I wrote this piece just to share my favourite features, how I think about and use Evernote, and what I hope to see going forward. I hope it was useful to someone.

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I'm also an Evernote fan, and use it for the storage and organization of all my notes/documents  

I looked at TSW but converted to a Reminder based task management process

For me, Evernote's most impressive organization paradigm was the elimination of folder methodology.   
I'm a tagger with minimal notebooks.   
Basically tags cover everything, but Evernote has some special notebook features (sync'd'/local, private/shared, default, offline)

Evernote uses an enml format; basically html.  
This is text based and doesn't support "inline ink"   
Ink is supported via note attachments, and Evernote also implemented handwriting OCR for search indexing

The search feature is extensive   
I agree full Boolean is needed, and upgrades are needed for the indexing (special characters, stop words, full phrase, ...)

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1 minute ago, DTLow said:

I'm also an Evernote fan, and use it for the storage and organization of all my notes/documents  

I looked at TSW but converted to a Reminder based task management process

I'm a tagger with minimal notebooks.   
Basically tags cover everything, but Evernote has some special notebook features (sync'd'/local, private/shared, default, offline)   
For me, Evernote's most impressive organization paradigm was the elimination of folder methodology

Evernote uses an enml format; basically html.  This is text based and doesn't support "inline ink"   
Ink is supported via note attachments, and Evernote also implemented handwriting OCR for search indexing

The search feature is extensive   
I agree full Boolean is needed, and upgrades are needed for the indexing (special characters, stop words, full phrase, ...)

How do you do a reminder based process? I'd love to hear more about the workflow.

By inline ink, I just meant that I should be able to insert a handwritten drawing in a text note on desktop. In the current production version on Windows, you can only 'draw' on a separate "Ink Note" which doesn't accept text... Although on Android you can draw in a text note...

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1 hour ago, NewHero said:

How do you do a reminder based process? I'd love to hear more about the workflow.

This may require a new discussion topic, but I'll give an overview

An important requirement is date specific tasks    
Due date is supported in the Reminder feature   

Next actions are also important, supported by non-dated reminders    
Reminders also support a completion date/status

My current task list is generated by a saved search   
reminderOrder:* -reminderTime:day+1 -reminderDoneTime:*    
(all reminders, exclude future date, exclude completed)

Finally, the Evernote note list has limited presentation options (filtered, sorted)     
I take the list to a spreadsheet where I have more options for presentation

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17 minutes ago, NewHero said:

In the current production version on Windows, you can only 'draw' on a separate "Ink Note" which doesn't accept text... Although on Android you can draw in a text note...

I'm not a Windows user   
On my platforms, we don't have "Ink notes" , just notes with ink attachments

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Hi All,

I also actively use Evernote for organising ideas fo work, home and learning.  As noted above I see the tags and saved searches as key to organise ideas.   My most cherished feature is the ability to save searches based on key words not tags.  Looking at the competitors I also agree we don’t want Evernote to get too complex.  

In the future I want Evernote to be smarter and to be able to identify keywords that I type and then show me in a saved search these as a suggestion.  (Google does this with photos). I want to be able to review these topics. In a way the tool could act like a “reflection feature” you wrote down this week about “Australia, chemistry, energy etc”. Here is the collected ideas you wrote on those topics.  This would help me to reflect on an idea and build on it. For those studying think of it as at the end of the week Evernote reminds you of the key topics you learnt.  Evernote suddenly starts helping you learn.  Eventually Evernote could use AI and know more about me than me:)

Pls like this idea if you agree...I am deliberately writing it here to get user support first.

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10 hours ago, grantr said:

My most cherished feature is the ability to save searches based on key words not tags

What do you see as the difference between keywords and tags?

In my use, tags are applied at the note level (metadata), and keywords are specified as text within the note contents 
I use the tag list as a source for my keyword selection (Mac AppleScript)

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8 hours ago, grantr said:

My most cherished feature is the ability to save searches based on key words not tags.

If I'm understanding what you want this can be done today on Windows and the Mac.  As you type keywords, tags, or any search criteria the note list updates with the filtered view of notes.  You can then save that search string as a saved search for later use if you want.

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I've been using Evernote for over 11 years and David Allen's GTD methodology for even longer. I can't say that I am using my folders only for workflow and I could be more disciplined with my tags, but I have been a fan of tagging / labeling over foldering for over 20 years. I recently started a new job that requires Outlook and I can't install third-part apps to add tagging and it is driving me crazy. 

The one thing I disagree with, however, is that Evernote has never lived up to its promise of being a place to dump everything. The file size limit means I frequently am unable to file PDFs of technical manuals into Evernote.  I have to manage a separate personal reference filing system in Google Drive. I was excited to see Google Drive integration advertised, but it doesn't even work on the Web version of Evernote. 

I've used OneNote and Notion extensively for various work projects, and they are great apps, but have never met my needs as well as Evernote. If it were easier to migrate from Evernote to Google Drive / Keep, however, I would certainly test it, because I'm getting tired of having to manage references and materials in two locations. 

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On 5/17/2020 at 7:11 AM, grantr said:

Hi All,

I also actively use Evernote for organising ideas fo work, home and learning.  As noted above I see the tags and saved searches as key to organise ideas.   My most cherished feature is the ability to save searches based on key words not tags.  Looking at the competitors I also agree we don’t want Evernote to get too complex.  

In the future I want Evernote to be smarter and to be able to identify keywords that I type and then show me in a saved search these as a suggestion.  (Google does this with photos). I want to be able to review these topics. In a way the tool could act like a “reflection feature” you wrote down this week about “Australia, chemistry, energy etc”. Here is the collected ideas you wrote on those topics.  This would help me to reflect on an idea and build on it. For those studying think of it as at the end of the week Evernote reminds you of the key topics you learnt.  Evernote suddenly starts helping you learn.  Eventually Evernote could use AI and know more about me than me:)

Pls like this idea if you agree...I am deliberately writing it here to get user support first.

Have you tried the context feature in Evernote. It literally recommends 'related notes' based on the content of what I'm typing. Also, in the Web Clipper, you can add a widget to your Google searches so that when you search in Google it also shows related notes...

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On 5/10/2020 at 3:49 AM, NewHero said:

Evernote is not primarily a tool for editing and formatting notes. It's not even really a to-do list app. It's a tool for creating your own, personalized system for being organized, from scratch. Evernote's killer feature is that it lets you get organized and stay organized. Nothing else comes close on that front for me.

@NewHero Wow... not sure how I missed this great narrative when it was posted, but thanks for putting together this well thought-out piece.  I couldn't agree more with the statement above!

For me, Evernote's strength is not as a note editor, but as a digital filing cabinet.  It is my GTD filing system for supporting documents, and it is an added bonus that it also operates as my GTD inbox and project organization.  Whenever I try to make it do more, I get frustrated.  Therefore, I use other services for tables (Google Sheets), editing documents (Google Docs) and ink (GoodNotes), then link or import those files into Evernote for storage/reference.  

Here is a short summary of my setup...

As a filing cabinet, the Evernote stack is the equivalent of the filing cabinet, and the notebook is the drawer or large expandable folder inside a specific drawer.  In my system, the individual notes are organized into "folders" within the notebook through the note title (I rarely use tags).  I typically start the note with a sub-topic that may be common among many notes in that notebook, then use a date (YY-MM-DD) and then a short descriptive title.  That way if I sort the notes in a note book by the title bar, it sorts the individual notes into their folders and sorts them by date.  I can then use the search for "intitle" to find whatever I need. 

For example, a typical note title is: Short Topic YY-MM-DD Longer Keyword Heavy Description of Note

(I have never been able to wrap my head around tags or make them work, so basically I view everything in the title of the note as a keyword/tag I may want to search.  I don't find it to be a limitation that a note can only go into one notebook, as I am used to the same limitation from prior use of a physical filing cabinet)

For the GTD project organization, I typically have one note for each project and start it with a "#" symbol so that it shows at the top of a notebook when sorted by title.  Then I add links to the important supporting documentation and use TODO lists to outline the various subtasks that need to be done for that project.  I then assign a reminder to the project note, and include the next few actions in the title.

For example, a typical note title for a project note is: #Project description: +Next Action > Future Action > Future Action" (with reminder set for today if it is active or future if I am waiting for something to do the next action)

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5 hours ago, aukirk said:

As a filing cabinet, the Evernote stack is the equivalent of the filing cabinet, and the notebook is the drawer or large expandable folder inside a specific drawer.  In my system, the individual notes are organized into "folders" within the notebook through the note title

As I mentioned above, Evernote dropped the folder methodology
There's no filing cabinet, drawers, folders; just a flat collection of notes

Evernote's organizational structure is based on the notebook/tag fields   
Some users emulate folders using the notebook/tag trees

>>I don't find it to be a limitation that a note can only go into one notebook

I find it to be a serious limitation, which is why I use minimal notebooks and focus on tags
We can restrict ourselves to a single tag per note

>>Therefore, I use other services for tables (Google Sheets), editing documents (Google Docs) and ink (GoodNotes), then link or import those files into Evernote for storage/reference.  

In addition, I find Evernote's note list limiting; we can only filter and sort
I export the note list to a spreadsheet for better processing options; for example budget/expense and task reports

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57 minutes ago, DTLow said:

In addition, I find Evernote's note list limiting; we can only filter and sort
I export the note list to a spreadsheet for better processing options; for example budget/expense and task reports

How do you export a note list to a spreadsheet?  Also, what do you mean by processing and how do you get any of the changes/notes made to the spreadsheet back into Evernote?

 

 

59 minutes ago, DTLow said:

As I mentioned above, Evernote dropped the folder methodology
There's no filing cabinet, drawers, folders; just a flat collection of notes

My reference to folders and drawers was as an analogy to the prior method of filing and saving material that myself and a lot of the world used for decades before the introduction of the concept of tagging or digital systems that make that possible.  I get that you and many others find that to be a great benefit, but I was just explaining my system and how I view Evernote as my digital version of the filing system I have used well before the existence of Evernote.

 

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3 hours ago, aukirk said:

How do you export a note list to a spreadsheet? 

I use scripting on a Mac (Applescript)   
Copy/Paste also works

>>what do you mean by processing421290167_ScreenShot2020-06-14at11_18_37AM.png.e19839359ad7226d68e98af506c1870b.png

Budget/expense reports   
- summarize by budget category   
- graphs/charts

 

 

Task reports   
- Tasks listed in a gantt timeline view568958488_ScreenShot2020-06-14at11_15_14AM.png.f047568c9ca69b934b7a70543e85d138.png

 

>>how do you get any of the changes/notes made to the spreadsheet back into Evernote?

It's a one way transfer, although the spreadsheets can be stored as note attachments 

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