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Become The Ultimate Gift Giver With Evernote

Last year, December 20-24 were dark days I’d like to forget. This year, I had found 80 percent of my gifts by December 1. The big difference? Smart use of the free Evernote service to keep a year-round gift idea database.

Photo by alancleaver_2000.

Below, I’m going to go step-by-step through how I use Evernote as singular spot for capturing gift ideas all year long, so that when birthdays, holidays, and special occasions come up, you’re never stuck buying hey-I-barely-tried gift cards or trying to jam a last-minute shopping dash into your schedule.

Used wisely, Evernote is the perfect gift idea tool, both for friends and relatives and for your own birthdays and holiday lists. It’s available to you almost anywhere you have a phone, a computer, or just something to write on, its tags and text recognition, and search are powerful, and it won’t get lost with all your other notes and to-dos. From a single web page, you can search out cheap gifts for a certain friend, brilliant gifts for your spouse, and quickly tally up your own personal wish list months after you last thought about that wireless printer adaptor.

What you’ll need

  • Free Evernote account: If you get addicted to Evernote’s brain-expanding ways, you can pay for expanded storage, faster image-to-text conversion, and premium support. For me, and probably most people, however, Evernote’s 40 MB of upload allowance per month is plenty.
  • A capture tool you always have around: For me, it’s my Android-powered G1 and its camera. For you, that might be a regular mobile phone with a camera, text messaging, and/or email abilities. If you’re the type to rock a pen and paper in the Hipster PDA fashion, that’s fine, too—you can scan your notes in later, and Evernote will usually convert your handwriting to search-able text.
  • The Evernote bookmarklet (a.k.a. Web Clipper): This one gets even better with a quick keyword bookmarklet set up, too—but we’ll get into that in a bit.

You can, of course, install Evernote’s desktop software and smartphone applications, install it as a “Send to” item in Google Reader, and even tweet your notes to Evernote. For the purposes of just gathering and saving gift ideas, though, any camera or SMS-capable phone is usually fine, and the bookmarklet works just fine on most browsers.

Capturing gifts and notes

The key to using Evernote as a premiere gift idea database isn’t actually using Evernote—it’s ubiquitous capture. When you’re hanging out with your spouse, friends, relatives, co-workers, or anyone you like enough to ever spend time or money on, you have to be able to do two things: recognise when they’re wishing for something out loud, and have the neurotic drive to capture it right then and there.

Not the next time you have your phone or notes handy. Not after lunch. And, for goodness’ sake, not when you get home. Do it right that very instant. You can wait a few seconds if you don’t want to tip your hand, but, trust me, most people have forgotten that you seemed suspiciously note-take-y by the end of the week, let alone in a few months. Act like you just remembered to pay a bill, or you just received an unexpected text message, or that you want to snap a picture for your own wish list. Get your secret agent on and try to lose them in the store and double-back, if you have to. Just don’t wait too many seconds beyond when you walk by the window and hear a sentence starting with “I’ve always wanted …”

If you’re doing the pen and paper thing, you’ve only got the what and the who to worry about, then scan it in later when suspicious eyes aren’t around. If you’re using a cameraphone, grab as clear and head-on a shot as you can, and try to grab the most important title or text on the object or box clearly. Evernote will automatically run a text recognition filter through your pictures, so even if you get lazy and forget to tag this picture the way you should (explained next), there’s a good chance you can do a vague search for “coffee” later and find the Keurig model your dad’s been dreaming of.

If you’re using a standard phone without web access or email capabilities, check if you can send SMS messages to an email address. Most phones can, and Evernote gives you a private address (found in your account settings) that you can send pictures and text to, with the subject becoming the note title and the text included as notes. If you’ve got a smartphone with the Evernote app installed, well, this is a piece of cake, no?

For your web-inspired gift ideas, put the Evernote web clipper somewhere in your bookmarks. If you’re using Firefox or a browser that supports keywording, create the quickest shortcut you can (I use “ev”), and type that into your address bar (usually reached by Alt+D) whenever you hit a page with something gift-worthy on it. Need a deeper how-to on this? We’ve got you covered. I prefer to highlight just the relevant part of the page—a name, price, and picture—and then hit the bookmarklet, and un-check the “Clip full page” option, because the bookmarklet sometimes gets a little funny with formatting pages on Amazon and elsewhere.

The tagging system


Evernote’s tagging is what makes it better than most tools as an idea-catcher. You can tag any item with multiple tags you make up, then filter those items later with certain tags and not others. Once your stuff is tagged, you can also narrow things down by the date created or modified, which tool you used to capture, and more criteria.

Ubiquitous capture is all about the path of least resistance. If you used Evernote for other things, you could create a separate notebook for your gifts, but I just tag everything that’s a potential gift, for me or others, as “gift”. If it’s for my friend Josh, I add a “Josh” tag. If it’s for my own wish list, I add “me.”. For me, that creates a 99.8 percent improvement over a late-night Amazon search on Dec. 14.

If you wanted, you could get more specific and filter-friendly by adding tags like:

  • cheap or pricey to balance out spending.
  • mall, online, local, or homemade to generate mini-lists of things you can buy all at once to save time or shipping, or items you plan to make yourself.
  • genius or backup for gifts you really want to make sure you grab, because they’re brilliant, and gifts you can always grab two days before if things don’t work out.

The one big downfall to paper note scanning and SMS/email uploading is the lack of support for tag recognition. You can, however, kinda-sorta get around that by adding your own Twitter-style hashtags to your notes. In the message body of your upload, or on the paper you’re writing on, add #gifts and #josh, for example. When you’re later searching Evernote for your gift ideas, a search for the word “gifts” should pull up both your tagged and hash-tagged items, though you can try “gifts or #gifts to be sure.

That’s how one editor uses Evernote for his annual gift-buying and list-providing rituals. It’s a fairly open-ended process, though, so we’d love to hear in the comments how you use Evernote, or any other capture tools (OneNote, anyone?) to become the gift giver everyone gives an A++ to.