How I Use Evernote: The Basics

I love technology. Although it can be distracting, and overall a waste of time, it can also be used so that it adds tremendous value to your life.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are so many apps out there that I’ve tested, used, and tossed, or replaced, but I want to let you in on just the highlights.

To start this list is the app I’ve used for the longest. The one that has served me well, and has saved my bacon more times than I can count.

This app is Evernote.

I have used Evernote as my “eternal brain” (as they like to call it) for about 5 years now and it’s been amazing. It’s definitely something that takes some front-end work in order to get it to “sing” for you, but it’s definitely worth it. As of the time of this writing I have 10,619 notes so I consider myself fairly fluent with the program (that number doesn't include the couple thousand notes I exported when I left a previous job a few years ago).

Evernote has proven itself to be invaluable when I’ve needed to retrieve:

  • A vehicle manual while on the side of the road
  • Past emails and information for clients
  • Leases, marriage license, software license, receipts, book notes, code snippets, previous ideas, and so much more!

It’s amazing how useful Evernote can be, yet with as many people as I’ve known who’ve tried to use it, it’s also amazing how hard it can be to find a system that works for you.

The Problem:

Before getting into my system, I want to point out the problem with starting to use Evernote: It’s very flexible.

I almost wrote “too flexible” until I realized that’s not true. I think it’s flexible just enough to work for anyone, yet it’s not impossibly flexible. Whatever the case is, it can be difficult to wrap your head around how YOU are going to use it. Sure, thousands of people use it all in different ways, yet how will YOU use it. I hope showing you my general method helps you find how it can be useful for your situation.


What I Use Evernote For:

I primarily use Evernote as an information storage system. There is more that Evernote offers to do, such as task management, but I haven’t had good results with that. I used it with GTD methodology, and it works, but it’s not the best method, so I don’t use it for tasks anymore. As far as information goes, however, almost everything that is on my computer is stored there (especially text). The only things that don’t go in Evernote are files that are either to big (100 mb limit per note for premium users). For the most part I separate these into major life categories (which Evernote calls “notebooks”):

  • Inbox
  • Home
  • Read/Notes
  • Redemption Church
  • Work

I have more notebooks than this, but only for the purpose of sharing information with other people. One of Evernote’s features is being able to share notebooks publicly or between specific people. I have many shared notebooks such as different breakdowns in the Redemption Church notebook, Evernote Tips, and some others that I make available publicly. If it wasn’t for the purpose of sharing some information and not others, I would be able to do very well with just these notebooks. I tell you this because your situation is different than mine. For the most part, anyone could do well with just a couple notebooks, with the only additional notebooks being ones that need to be shared with other people.


How I Use Evernote:

As I mentioned, most people can get away with a few notebooks for personal use, and then additional if information is to be shared. The reason is that Evernote has an amazing search capability, and also a great tagging system. When I first started, I tagged everything to an unhealthy level. Yes, it was organized, but I eventually had to ask myself this question:

"What is the minimal amount of organizing that will produce the greatest result?"

Basically, I needed to figure out what method would allow the least amount of front-end work, with the most amount of back-end payoff. This is a fairly subjective question, but here’s my three part answer:

1. Consistent Phrasing

One of the major killers of digital organization is being inconsistent with titles and content. Some of the ways I’ve been able to keep consistency within my information is using a standard date stamp, and by also using Text Expander, and Drafts. I’ll explain those apps in future posts, but what’s important to know is that by being consistent in your information will help you find what you’re looking for later.

Date Stamps:

By using a date stamp, you can organize and find any information you get, no matter where it’s stored. I prefer to use dashes so my date stamps look like this: YYYY-MM-DD. Today, for example would look like "2015-10-05". Putting a zero in front of your single digit month or day is extremely important, otherwise, it’s usefulness is dropped considerably because when search 2015-1, you’ll come up with January, October, November, AND December documents. It also helps things be in true date order when sorting by name.

Consistent Titles and Content:

An example of this would be how I organize past monthly reports for Redemption Church. I use this title for every report:

"YYY-MM Profit and Loss Standard and Detail Quickbooks Income and Expense Summary for Redemption Church."

By having a consistent label on all my reports, I can search and find them all very quickly.

Tagging:

I have come up with what I consider the perfect tagging system. It’s based off of how I think about information generally so that I can quickly narrow down to a group of information which I then use Evernote’s search to filter though. The breakdown goes like this:

  • Context
    • Church
    • Conference
    • Devotions
    • Digital
    • Other
    • School
    • Work
  • Subject
    • Bible
    • Blogging
    • Business
    • Ministry
    • Music
    • Other
    • Productivity
  • Type
    • File
    • Journal
    • Media
    • Memories
    • Notes
    • Reading

NOTE: In addition to these, I added “Quality” which I’ve used very infrequently (besides contact info) so I might dump this one eventually.

  • Quality
    • Contact Info
    • Favorite
    • Funny
    • Illustration
    • Quote

Beyond these, I have very few tags, mainly ones that groups a very specific group of information I need such as receipts, health information, or manuals for things in our home.

Further than even having these tags, I make sure I use the appropriate one by prefacing each tag with a group identifier.

For example, I want to make sure every note has a context, subject, and type connected to it so the tags that fall under context are labeled with "c.” i.e.: “c.church, c.conference, c.digital” and so on. For Subjects and Types I use “s.” and “t.” respectively.

By doing this, when I type in “c.” into the tagging section of Evernote, I get a list of all my context tags which helps me make sure I tag it with the correct one (this is especially helpful in the beginning, but now my tags have become second nature).

Search:

Searching Notes:

The last step in using Evernote after consistent phrasing and tagging is using their amazing search function. Although it can take some trust at first, I’ve learned that using search functions can be extremely useful. Whether in Finder, Mail, or Evernote - searching has become far better than an extreme filing system. When searching, it’s best to think of words that will be used in what you’re searching for, but won’t be found in every document. The best part about searching Evernote is that you’re the one who put the information there in the first place, which means it’ll be much easier to find.

In addition to simply searching for text, you can also search tags, notebooks, date, and even location! Evernote note allows for complex searching. Some examples of my favorite searches are:

  • notebook:
  • -notebook:
  • tag:
  • -tag:
  • resource:image
  • -resource:image

In addition to these, there are many more types of searches you can do. In addition to these, you can also use an asterisk to expand your search into a prefix just like you can on Google Searches.

For example, if you search:

potato

You’ll only find notes with the specific word “potato”.

However, if you use the search:

potato*

Then you’ll find notes that use the word “potato”, OR “potatoes”.

This asterisk trick works for tags as well! One of the ways I used this was to sort my top level tags (context, type, and subject). By searching:

-tag:c.*

I was able to find if there were any notes that hadn’t yet received a context tag, which would help insure that my tagging system was complete in order to be more useful.

Again, there are many more search queries that you can use to filter through your notes - these are just the ones I use most.

You can read a huge list of search abilities I’ve saved inside my Evernote at this link:
Evernote Search Grammar

Saved Searches:

One last search tip is that you can also save searches in order to create shortcuts to a specific group of notes.

One way I’ve utilized this is to separate receipts that I need to reconcile in our finances. Here’s that saved search:

tag:h.receipts -tag:tdtodo.done

 This search finds me notes that are tagged with h.receipts which means it’s a receipt, but only the notes that are also NOT tagged tdtodo.done - which is the tag I use after I’ve reconciled our tags. This means that once I tag a receipt with tdtodo.done,  it will no longer show up in this saved search.

Other examples of saved searches I use a lot are:

  • Review
    • These are notes I’ve tagged to review. These include book notes, sermon notes, or ideas/thoughts I want to come back to
  • Blog Ideas
    • These are notes that contain blog post ideas I’ve had, or incomplete blog posts
  • Active Clients
    • This allows me to immediately find information on all current clients while hiding past clients.

There are so many possible uses for Evernote, and so many ways to use it. I hope this has helped you find your specific use for it, and how you will accomplish it.

Again, I’ve used this program for so long and so in depth that it’s become second nature to me. If you have any questions, thoughts, or comments, I’d love to hear from you so feel free to write in the comments below.

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