Jump to content

(Archived) How I use Evernote (long and boring)

Recommended Posts

So I have been setting up a system of my own that really aims to make Evernote my second, and more rational brain to co-exist with my disappointing and slowly deteriorating real brain. I’m sure many here have similar set ups in Evernote and it’s always interesting to read about how people go about doing this.

I myself wanted to get clear on what my system was so I scribbled something together that looks like a write up so I thought I might as well post it, even though no one will or should read it. This wall of text should have come with a 56k modem warning and one for grammar too, I’m sure. English and I aren’t on the best of terms this late evening.

How I use Evernote

Like many of you I have been using Evernote as not only my external brain but really as a sort of “action terminal” to help me get an overview of everything and see what needs to be done next.

To help me do this I picked up what is probably the standard work of personal organizing: David Allen's ‘Getting Things Done’ or “GTD”.

I might just add that for some reason I’ve never liked the so-called self-help genre of books. Whenever someone claims they have “figured it out” or stumbled upon a ‘fundamental wisdom’ they are either deluded or charlatans. From what little of these books I’ve been exposed to, it tends to be worse than the “think positive” type solutions that annoy me so much, even more than your regular New Age pseudoscience.

Let’s just say I was skeptical going in, but relieved to find that GTD was just a really simple system to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. It gives you something to look at so you can have some kind of oversight over what is going on with your life. It’s simplicity and functionality makes you stick to it.

In other words, it’s not some kind of “Now-I’m-pumped-Up-and-I’m-Going-to-get-organized-God-Damn-It!”-placebo effect. It is just functional and simple.

Now that the GTD infomercial is over. Let’s see how I turned this simple and apparently fabulous system into something that looks complicated and awful in Evernote (though it works great for me).

First of, as you might be aware ‘Getting Things Done’ simply asks you to ask yourself the question of what it is that you actually ought to do with a note. Does it require an action? Is it just a reference? Neither? And then the note falls into a few categories depending on the answer.


So you see depending on the note it can end up in the trash, on the calendar, becoming a project or any of the other “gray” destinations on that map. All we’ve got to do in Evernote is to make these into folders, or tags, depending on your inclination.


(I personally use tags, and notebooks are only for what is commonly called “the inbox”. I have one default notebook where all things initially ends up. It is called “unsorted”. When I have tagged that note properly I send it to my other folder called “sorted”)


Now this neatly covers everything that is ‘actionable’ so that I get around to doing the things that needs doing. But Evernote is not just the “action terminal” but as they say, an external memory for all that which is worth remembrance. To me, 80% of all notes is not something I have to do anything about, but rather is something I keep for reference.

Let’s say, for example, that I found a great article about forms of government around the world, an interesting piece of cognitive science research and a poem that I want to remember, along with some thoughts about the author.

Instead of dumping these into an increasingly amorphous reference tag, I figured I would slice up the reference tag into two major categories each with subcategories.

The categories are:

1. Things that has to do with my person, and

2. Things that have to do with the rest of the world.

I call the first category “Personal” and the other “Academic” (you’ll soon see why).

The idea here was that between these two tag categories everything that I could conceivably want to reference would be covered so that I would easily know exactly where they were should I need them.

In other words, I was trying to organize the known universe into neat categories for later reference.

To start with the latter of the two (the one about everything in the world), it was quite easy to set up. Since all things known to man are also subjects of study, universities and encyclopedias have already done the heavy lifting by categorizing human knowledge into a number of fields.

Most such institutions have come to roughly the same conclusions about this (save for some demarcation problems), but I went with Wikipedia’s version (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_disciplines) for I found it to be the most exhaustive, and simple, at the same time.


As you can see there are five main fields of knowledge, and I’ve found pretty much anything that has to do with “the world” falls into either of these categories.


If you have something about economics that you want to remember, throw that into Social Sciences along with that aforementioned “forms of government” piece.

The poem goes into Humanities -> Literature (where you could make a poetry section should that get to crowded).

Cognitive research is an interdisciplinary subject and is therefore up to you where it goes. I would put it in in Social Sciences -> Psychology.


Next up we have the final piece to the note puzzle, and the second of the main categories - the Personal - or that which relates to me.

This wasn’t a very tough nut to crack either. I again wanted the minimal amount of tagging but still have that overview of the things that may concern me. I came up with these categories:


Where health includes exercise, dental, diet etc.

Residence would include furniture, maintenance and safety.

These categories work fine for me, but were not conceived by referring to some standard indexing of things, but I ran by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs) and everything seems to be covered.

So whenever I grab a note from somewhere, I ask myself if I ought to do something with it, if so it ends up in any of the “!Organize”-tags. If it’s just a reference it ends up in Academic or Personal.

in conclusion, the end result is that I have the standard action terminal to see my next actions or my current projects, along with a comprehensible reference system that gives me an easy overview of everything that needs recollection.

It may seem complicated and bloated but it’s really easy to set up and use. I mostly only tag a note with two tags, (ie a math formula would be “Formal Science -> Mathematics”) or three tags if I would also like to add that formula to a current project.

It’s getting late and I might as well wrap this up before I rant on any longer,

I know some people like to use few tags, if any, and just use search to find what they are looking for. While that sounds very interesting, I use a system like this to get a complete overview, of not just myself but everything really. I get reminded of things I would not have thought of if I were to only use search, and find just that which I’m looking for.

You also become keenly aware of the gaps in your knowledge by seeing in which fields most of your notes end up in, and which get neglected.

That might be both the best and the worst thing of all.

Link to comment

Thanks for the detailed note. I'm always interested in how others use Evernote and tie in GTD. However, since I look at EN as more of a "Remember Everthing", I categorize all the things I want to keep notes on (Family, Health, Vehicles, Parenting, Hobbies, Faith, House, Work, Finance, Miscellanea) but I've found it not real helpful a a "to do" app. Without alarms, and better calendarizing, and reminders, it doesn't really help me. But that's just me, and what I need to be organized.

I supplement EN with Astrid, and use Astrid's widgets for my separate to-do lists and alarms and reminders. For ME, this works beautifully. However, your post has given me a great new way to look at how I use Astrid, not Evernote.

I can divide my Astrid lists into the GTD categories you suggest (Next Action, Some Day, Waiting For). To me, using EN for GTD still requires drilling down to see my to dos and they don't have good widgets to have at first glance (although you can make a to do a short cut, but that's not the same). My 4 Astrid to do widgets are on my home screen, at quick glance, color coded for easy prioritization and with reminders that work with my Google calendar.

I wish I knew how to take pics of my set up on my phone, I'd love to share my screens and EN org.


Link to comment


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...