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:
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.
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).
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.