Published by Adam French on August 6th, 2013
I've been using Evernote now for about 4 years and, while I'm certainly not an expert in it's use, I have identified a few Best Practices for ways to really see benefits from its use. Without further adieu than that, I'm just going to dive right in.
Having access to Evernote is one thing. Remembering to use Evernote is another.
If you think about Evernote as your brain outside of your head, there are a couple of things that your actual brain will do better than Evernote. For example you don't have to dig your brain out of your bag if you want to use it. You don't have to crack open your sleeping device, wake it up, enter the access codes and navigate to the right app to use your actual brain. You just think and your brain kicks into gear.
Evernote has no biological connections into your head (yet...the singularity, after all, is coming) and thus has to fight the battle to be as convenient as possible.
Put bluntly, Evernote needs to be where you are in order to function at its best.
I suspect that this notion is what drives evernote to release so many applications for so many different platforms. If Evernote is in your pocket, in your backpack, on your wrist or even on your face (google glasses), its as close as it can get to being a part of you.
Therefore, to get the most out of Evernote, keep it with you as much as possible. Install it on every device you own that it can be installed on. Evaluate third-party apps found in Evernote Trunk for the devices you own which don't otherwise have an official client from Evernote. Install all of the browser extensions, utilize your Evernote email address, wire up @myen for your twitter account...anything and everything to maximize the convenience needed to use Evernote as your external brain.
But, sadly, the story doesn't end there. Just because Evernote is only a few taps of your finger away doesn't mean that you'll remember to use it. That's on you. The trick I discovered is to connect thoughts of "this is important. I'll need this again in the future" with "I should put this in Evernote." Anytime you find yourself thinking "I hope I remember this", that's when you want to capture it into Evernote.
On a similar note, anytime you find yourself digging around your head for some important minutiae, that's when you should fallback to searching in Evernote. Connect that effort required with the thought of "hey, I might have that in my Evernote."
We'll talk about best practices on both the capture and retrieval sides separately from here on out, but this initial best practice is important. Evernote is only as useful as what you put into it AND where it's available, so using it as often as you can is the single best piece of advice you can ever be given regarding its use.
Capture now. Organize whenever.
Notebooks are evernote's concept for hierarchically organizing your information. You'll get that explanation from most every other articles about Evernote so I won't explain the concept much further than that.
Instead I want to talk about the Default Notebook.
When you first capture a note, that note lives in whichever notebook you have configured as the Default Notebook. Many people set their most frequently used notebook as the Default, but ultimately that may or may not be that notes final resting place.
Instead of trying to utilize the Default Notebook concept to automatically file things for you, let it manage its own notebook. Create a "!Inbox" notebook specifically to be a holding ground for recently created notes until you can get around to organizing it. The act of creating a note doesn't have to include organizing that note right then and there.
When you get around to it, file the notes in your "!Inbox" notebook somewhere else, but there's no pressing need to empty that notebook right now. It's an inbox in the same way your email inbox works.
...and if your wondering why I preceded the notebook name with a "!", its because notebooks are always sorted lexically...therefore, the "!Inbox" notebook will always be at the top of lists.
Less organization, more search
While we're on the topic of organization, I should say that there ultimately is no "best practice" for how you should organize your Evernote account because there's ultimately no need to organize your Evernote account. People who have just one notebook and don't use tags at all are going to have as rich of an experience as users with strict organizational rules and an exhaustive list of tags. Why? Because Evernote's search feature is seriously powerful.
Evernote's search is so powerful, in fact, that you will eventually want to better scope your searches by context so that you get more relevant search results when you go looking for something. This is where notebook and tags come into play. They should help you better access the things you need to find, and not add to the cognitive load of yet-another-online-service you use.
For example, I keep my number of notebook stacks to a minimum - !Inbox, Personal and Work and that's it. All of the notebooks inside of those stacks help provide better context for searches but ultimately don't matter that much because I perform most of my searches across all of my notes. When I get too many search results, I'll make a guess at what scope the information is likely to be in and search just within that scope.
Again, whatever organization scheme you use doesn't really matter to Evernote so don't let it get you down or aggravate you either. Keep it simple and you'll enjoy your Evernote experience more.
Notes can be very very simple things
Notes are rather curious beasts. With the Evernote company committing itself to a "100 year and beyond" goal, a note may potentially outlive you. Yet a note doesn't have to be thoroughly filled out to be useful to you.
When you first create a note, it is completely blank. No title, no body, just some metadata about when and where it was created. In this empty state, the note is actually complete and already living in your Evernote account. Evernote doesn't require any specific attributes for the note to somehow become a first-class citizen. Only enter what you need to enter and don't let yourself feel obligated to fill in absolutely every attribute about your note.
From what I can tell, Evernote doesn't prioritize search results with hits in the note's Title over ones with hits in it's body or tags - which makes any field on an Evernote note fair game to search within. If the thing you want to remember doesn't require a body, don't fill one in, it's as simple as that.
Evernote notes are little letters to your future self. If you know you wouldn't read something because it's too long, then don't write it that way.
Additionally, don't feel like you HAVE to transcribe text in an image to actual text either. While Evernote's OCR technology isn't perfect, it's plenty good enough for relevant image search results. It's always a good thing when you DO provide the transcription in the form of text in the title or body on a note, but don't let that add to the cognitive load of maintaining your Evernote account. If you have some downtime - maybe in the morning while you sip your coffee - peruse your image-heavy notes and add more information about what's in the images.
Evernote as a scratchpad
Outside of very deliberate instances where you consciously reach for Evernote to capture something, there are instances where you just need to jot something down right this very second and return to a conversation or task right away. The unwashed non-evernote using masses generally reach for a scrap bit of paper - maybe a back of an envelope or leaf of an outdated newspaper - to jot down something really quickly. By the time they wrap up their main task and have a moment to themselves, they'll have a bit of paper to deal with.
Now Evernote may not ever be more convenient than pen and paper for this particular use case…but it doesn't have to be. A quick snap of a photo with their smartphone and that bit of information is captured and ready for use. Most smartphones have quick access to their camera functionality simply by a flick of a finger from the lock screen - use it!
If you really must return to the primary task right this very second, consider recording a quick second or two of audio to go along with the captured scrap. When you get around to emptying your "!Inbox" notebook, simply use that recorded audio* as extra context for whatever that scratchpad jot was supposed to be. Whoever said that your note could only have one kind of media attached to it lied through their teeth!
*I should warn you, though, that Evernote as of yet doesn't have speech recognition technology to automatically index your audio recordings. If you need something transcribed, you'll have to do that yourself