I've Been Using It Wrong: Here's Why Evernote Is Actually Amazing

For years, I kept hearing how awesome Evernote was. How it could store everything you possibly needed, make it available everywhere, and how scores of people couldn't live without it. I tried it multiple times and never saw the appeal until now. Here's what I was missing.

Any time we talk about Evernote, a good number of you say the same thing: you've tried it time and time again, but you could never really "get into it". I was in the same camp, but after reading the other side's experiences in this article and its comments, I decided to give it another shot. If you haven't yet experienced the greatness of Evernote, here are some things you should try.

The More You Add, the More Useful Evernote Becomes

Let's start with the most important trick: In order to see why everyone likes Evernote, it's important to take advantage of everything it has to offer (rather than use it as just another note taker). Lifehacker reader ppdd says it best:

The key to Evernote is to commit to it and jump in with both feet. It's pretty rotten if you're just using it for a few isolated tasks, because absolutely, it doesn't do any one thing perfectly and it's not as fast as other apps.

It really starts to show its brilliance once you start using it as your default bookmark/webclip app, notetaker, recipe box, repository of all your reference material, and so on. It's great to have ALL the information you need indexed and searchable across every single platform you have. I love opening it up in a meeting and recording the meeting audio right along with my typed notes on my iPad. If I miss something (entirely possible while pecking things out on a glass screen) I can always return to it after the meeting.

So, if you want to give Evernote another shot, try putting everything in it that you want to hang onto. The more you add, the more useful Evernote becomes. Here are a few examples of what you could do.

Use the Web Clipper

I always thought Evernote's web clipper extension was pointless. If I needed to reference articles for later, I'd just save them in my browser's bookmarks folder or drag them to my desktop. However, that didn't allow me to make notes on an article or save it with other related notes on that project. Evernote solved that problem perfectly.

Test Case: Buying a New Barbecue

I just moved into a new apartment, and I need to buy a new barbecue. After a bit of searching, I found a few I liked but wasn't ready to buy. I used the Web Clipper to throw its product page into a note under a new notebook, entitled "Wish List". Now, when I come into some extra money, I can open up Evernote and see my top picks at the top of my "Wish List" notebook.

Bonus tip: Evernote's Web Clipper also integrates with Google. For example, let's say I'm not quite done with my barbecue research. I head back to Google later on to search for "gas barbecues". When I do, any related Evernote clippings will show up in the right side of my search results to remind me which grills I already liked and saved. To turn on this feature, just open up Evernote's options and check the box next to "Related Results".

Don't Be Afraid to Create Lots of Notes and Notebooks

I always tried to keep my notes to a minimum, so I didn't get buried under an endless amount of notes that I could never filter through. Evernote is better than this though: it manages a multitude of notes easily thanks to notebooks, tags and note links (see below). I found that most of my "notes" should have, in fact, been "notebooks", allowing me to better organise larger volumes of information.

Test Case: Troubleshooting a Finicky PC

I have a home server that I love, but it always seems to give me problems, so it's a "work in progress". Back in the day, I used to keep track of this project in one note, jotting down lines from log files, troubleshooting commands I wanted to run and links to research all jumbled together in one big block of text. Even with some subheadings and formatting, it was still very difficult to navigate.

Now, I have an entire notebook dedicated to my home server. Right now, it has three notes:

  1. Some sections of my server's log, containing all the information I need to troubleshoot my most recent problem
  2. A web clipping from an article on the best VPN providers, since I'm installing a VPN on my home server
  3. A web clipping on how to install OpenVPN on my home server, since I don't remember how to do it by heart
  4. A web clipping on setting file permissions, since I need to give my girlfriend access to my server's files

Because I saved each article with the Web Clipper, I have the entire text of the article and the source link right there, plus any highlights and notes I've made in each. This is light years better for me than just pasting the links to each article or trying to write everything down myself into one giant note. Plus, by creating an entire notebook, each note functions as an item in a to-do list, which makes finishing the project much easier.

The bottom line: Don't be afraid to create a lot of different notebooks and a lot of different notes. Evernote equips you with the ability to easily handle thousands of notes, and what seems overwhelming will soon feel like the best organisational scheme you've ever had.

Bonus Tip: Create a notebook called _INBOX, right-click on it, and make it your default notebook. That way, any new notes you send to Evernote show up in this inbox, at the top of your list of notebooks, ready for you to funnel into one of your other notebooks.

Sift Through Notes with Saved Searches and Tags

Using tags always felt like a waste of time to me: tagging every note seemed like a chore, and serves the same purpose that filing notes into notebooks does. However, tags can be useful if you have notes that you think could fit into multiple notebooks — or are on the same subject — without getting overwhelming. You don't need to tag every note you have, and you only need a few really important ones. It basically makes your archive easier to search through with Evernote's advanced search operators. You can even then save those searches by clicking the little arrow next to the search bar, and pressing the magnifying glass.

Test Case: Filter Out Family Members

Our own Walter Glenn uses tags, albeit sparingly, to keep track of things across multiple notebooks. Both he and weblog Nerd Gap, for example, recommend creating a tag for each member of your family. That way, if you have notes across different notebooks that apply to someone besides you, it's easy to find them through a simple search. Nerd Gap explains:

I have tags for both of my kids and my wife. When I look up my son's tag, I get everything from pictures he's drawn for me to the results of his last check-up with the doctor.

You could also create tags for work (if your work likely spans multiple notebooks and you want to filter out work-related notes after 5pm), to-do items (since your to-dos will span different notebooks) and so on. You can then save more complex searches related to those tags — say, tag:todo created:week-1 for to-do items created in the last week — and access them with one click in your sidebar.

Again, don't go overboard. Walter notes that tags are only really useful if you have a few that you really remember and use. They can be a godsend once you start amassing thousands of notes. Check out Nerd Gap's introduction to tags and search for more ideas on how to use these features.

Use Note Links to Jump Between Related Stuff

Once you have more notes and notebooks than you know what to do with, Evernote can linking everything together so you don't have to search high and low for contextual information.

Right-click on one of your notes and choose "Copy Note Link". Then paste that link into another note for quick access later.

Test Case: Researching This Article

When I write a long article (like this one), I create a notebook for that article. Then I create a text note with a basic outline of how I want the article to look, with all its subheadings. As I research, I clip all relevant web articles to that notebook, highlighting all the important parts and cutting out the irrelevant stuff. Then I'll copy each note's individual link, paste it in the article outline, and I'll have a general skeleton of what that article's going to look like, using just the stuff I've saved in Evernote.

Walter notes that if he has a lot of notes in a notebook, he'll often just create a "Table of Contents" note at the top, where he can dump links to all the notes in that notebook, organised however he sees fit. This can be particularly helpful if Evernote's sorting options don't really fit your needs.

Bonus Tip: You can also drag any note to Evernote's toolbar to quickly access the ones you use every day. That way, your most-used notes are always one click away. For example, I have a note entitled "Post Ideas" that I access throughout the day. I've added a button to my toolbar, so no matter where I am inside Evernote, I can get to it right away.

Other Things You Can Put In Evernote

We've talked a little bit about what you can store in Evernote, and I've given some examples above. Again, the more you put in, the more useful it becomes. Anything you need to save, put it in Evernote and see how it works. For example, you could use it to store:

...and anything else you can possibly think of.

Is this approach for everyone? Of course not. In fact, our own former editor Adam Pash found the "everything bucket" model too limiting for him (and he he advocates Simplenote instead). Like most things, it depends on the kind of work you do and how your brain wants to organise that information. Sometimes, you just need a simple app with a bunch of text notes. Evernote can do that if you want — that's part of its beauty — but it isn't what makes Evernote special.

If you've tried it over and over again and can't understand what the fuss is all about, focus its more specific features like notebooks, note links and the web clipper. You might finally find the organisational nirvana you've been looking for.


Comments

    Coming from a massive evernote fan and user, this is one of the best articles i have seen on evernote and how to best use it. This is going to be a regular forward to everyone i try to convince on how great evernote is!

    Is evernote just a free alternative to something like OneNote?

    Iv always wondered what the major difference between the 2 are as they look very similar

      i havnt used onenote for quite a few years, but if it hasn't evolved then evernote is far superior. read the article for yourself.

    ive been using it as a mobile magazine. ill be moving soon and i wont be able to take all my photography magazines with me, which i find indispensable. therefor over the last few weeks i have been coming across essential articles on both photography and photoshop to keep handy at all times, on both desktop and laptop.

    My problem with Evernote is regularly experiencing "conflicts" (note version conflicts) - i use it on phone, desktop, laptop, and i log out of one or the other to prevent a conflict, but i always, always, seem to encounter this.

    Great article.
    Any recommendation on backing up Evernote to Box/Dropbox?

      I was looking at this the other day. I really want all my cloud stuff to be in one place, however Evernote is really useful on my phone. I had a look and found a service called CloudHQ which will do it, however I'm not sure how it does it, especially if it does it in a readable format rather than just the database file if something ever happens to Evernote (maybe HTML?)

      Anyway, it's available from here: https://www.cloudhq.net/dropbox/prices. I haven't used it because it costs money, however in the future it may be worthwhile.

        Thanks Josh, I had a quick look at CloudHQ and as good as it sounds, I'm looking for (of course) a free alternative.
        I had a quick look at Ifttt & Zapier, but I'm not sure it does 1/1 copies. Has anyone tried?

          I agree completely, I'd love a free alternative as well, but CloudHQ seems to be the only provider for something like that (at the moment!) I'm thinking of writing a small script for my own usage and keep it running on my home server which I use for random stuff like that. I really like Evernote and Dropbox, but want to keep everything in one place, and since I pay for Dropbox, it's the best place.

    One of the most useful features (for me) is that I can store notes on my windows install. I tend to reinstall windows every 3-6 months or so and have a heavily customed install. ie, custom keyboard macros, windows drivers, custom registry settings, etc etc.. and even on a good day, takes me a good 5+ hours to reformat it.

    That said, whilst I could keep a file repository of all notes/settings etc, it's much easier keeping them as notes and then attaching all the relevant .reg, .bat, .exe, .ini files etc all synced to the cloud so that I can pretty much retrieve them at my finger tips. Whenever I make a setting change, I can just delete/reattach the new version. Also a great way to store all of my product serial numbers etc. I like to make a note and attach a known working driver, as sometimes you can find new drivers which actually break stuff.

    The web clipper also comes in very handy as I can save tips/tricks/notes at the click of a button and store them in my windows install notebook. Again, I could make a bookmark, but it tends to get lost in the sea of other bookmarks, or the page just vanishes altogether.

    I'm well aware that I could do a backup/restore of my windows install, but, I tend to install and uninstall a lot of stuff which usually ends up breaking something and no amount of fiddling fixes it.

    Also, I like to keep notes on my relatives/friends machines etc, as it can be a bit overwhelming trying to keep track of 20+ machines that you kinda inherit in maintaining their upkeep. Again, things like drivers, system settings etc are all stored in a separate notebook for each friend/relative. I also keep things like teamviewer settings handy should I need to log in remotely. I usually build peoples machines so keep a copy of the receipt/invoice because you can guarantee that at some point in future, a hard drive/mobo/PSU will fail and they have no idea where the receipt went, so makes my life so much more easier when doing RMAs.

    Last edited 13/03/13 12:11 pm

      Come on man, go full hardcore! sysprep your freshly configured install and make your own isntall disk! It's actually easier than you'd think.

    Huh, always just assumed Evernote was similar to Onenote, apparently not.

    That web clipper function looks damned awesome.

    A few more uses:
    - Scan a copy of your passport, or other ID (especially useful when you live overseas)
    - Use in conjunction with Skitch and Google Maps to store directions to places
    - Store pictures of taxi cards (again, good for overseas)
    - Use in conjunction with IFTTT to sync with other things like Facebook, Twitter, Diigo, etc.
    - Share notebooks with family or colleagues
    - Store travel itineraries, shopping lists, things to buy, that you can open wherever and whenever
    - Use it to quickly transfer photos from your phone to computer
    - Store all of your guitar tabs (makes it very easy to search if you use tags)
    - Store all of your electronic manuals (phone, camera, TV, etc)

      I'm a bit cautious about keeping a scanned copy of passport in the cloud. I use Dropbox extensively, however whilst obviously I'd prefer it was private, I always keep in mind "what's the worst that could happen if this was made public?" I do have scanned copies of some personal identifiable information, but they are heavily encrypted in a TrueCrypt volume. Inconvenient, yes, however worth it.

        You can easily store your scanned documents in the Evernote cloud using Saferoom app. This application is an encryption extension for Evernote, which allows you to encrypt your Evernote data and store it safely in the Evernote cloud

    I've wanted to join the Evernote revolution and have tried it a few times and I actually have quite a bit stored, but always the same thing stops me - the weird search just doesn't work! I'll put a word or a tag in the search, click the button and it just gives me its "nothing found" message - even when I can see that the article is right there by navigating to it. Surely any bulk information storage & organisation system is only as good as its retrieval performance. I gave up in the end.

    There's an article on The Verge which does an amazing job at explaining how Evernote works. http://www.theverge.com/2012/12/10/3743350/verge-at-work-backing-up-your-brain-evernote

    The other problem this solved over saving bookmarks for later, are with regards to those rare gem blog articles I sometimes find to solve a weird problem at work only to find the same article missing 2 or 3 years later when I need to refer back to it again making the bookmark absolutely pointless. It happens quite often as bloggers switch platforms and don't transfer their articles or similar bad habits. Sometimes to best solutions to problems don't come from professional bloggers (quite frankly, they rarely come from people that just talk a lot about doing things) and come instead from those in the trenches so these days they're clipped, tagged with relevant product information, possibly with annotations and references to the product manuals, which are usually PDF files dumped in the same notebook. The only thing missing is a pretty bow wrapped around it, because when those rare weird problems show up again a few months or years later everything is neatly stacked together with no external dependencies that can let you down.

    I have been using Evernote for a couple years, but I've not jumped in and committed my life to it yet. Why? I'm apparently one of the minority that does not have constant internet access on my phone.

    I know that if I paid for the Premium service I could have offline notebooks, but I'm stuck in that chicken and egg situation -- my experience hasn't yet convinced me it is worth paying for because I don't have constant access and the lack of constant access is probably hindering me from becoming convinced it is totally awesome. Yeah, I guess I'm probably in the minority, but it makes me wonder how many other "toe dippers" remain doubtful for similar reasons. Maybe Evernote should consider offering a 15 day trial period or something similar.

    I like evernote; however I have a problem with it not being encrypted. I have seen some articles on how to encrypt some text in notes but disable OCR. I will pay for Evernote when they can encrypt all my data.

      I think you might be interested in Saferoom application, which allows to encrypt your notes locally, store them safely in the Evernote cloud and access it when you need it.

    what about collamark.com? a recently started easy-to-use & fun bookmarking tool

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