Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Evernote: Your brain's right hand man

OK, I have a confession to make.  My brain has a tendency to be cluttered and running with many thoughts and ideas almost 24/7.  Thanks to Evernote, I've managed to mitigate this problem by organizing my thoughts into a user-friendly database (as well as reducing paper clutter around the house.)

In 2005, I bought a file cabinet as I started grad school, hoping to stay organized.  2 years later, I ended up ditching the file cabinet as it had only accumulated about 5 folders and a handful of documents.  Evernote was first launched in 2005, and had I discovered it back then, I would have gotten a much needed head start to supercharging my organization.  I did first try it out in 2010 but gave up shortly after finding it too burdensome for a beginner.  Only since 2012, after reading Tim Ferriss's recommendations and tips regarding Evernote in his best seller The 4 Hour Work Week, did Evernote become a regular part of my repertoire.

What Evernote Does

I like to think of it as a simple word processor that stores notes into an organized database.  You can add pictures, create tables, change fonts, etc. as you like.  The most powerful features is being able to search your notes as well as having access to your notes in the cloud, no matter if you're at your computer, on your mobile device, or logged in at an airport web terminal.

Find an interesting news article that you might want to refer to years later?  File it in Evernote.  Find some recipe you'd like to try out when you have the chance?  Use the web clipper and file it in Evernote.  See an interesting billboard while riding the bus?  Take a picture with your phone, file it in Evernote, and it'll recognize the text so you can search for it later!  This latter feature is known as OCR (optical character recognition) and it allows you to snap photos of documents and be able to search for them later - very convenient for a messy person like me!

Over time as you amass hundreds or even thousands of notes, you'll notice a dialog at the bottom of each note called "Similar Notes".  Evernote uses artificial intelligence algorithms to search and find notes that have similar keywords and contents to your current note.  Maybe that news article you clipped 2 years ago discussed something relevant to the article you just clipped.

Getting Started

Evernote is fairly easy to start using but has a ton of features that are nonessential but make life easier.  While folders and tags are used without second thought by seasoned veterans, I suggest you ignore them in the beginning.  Evernote is still fully functional if you don't tag any of your notes or use multiple folders.  Don't make my mistake back when I first tried using Evernote - start with the simplest implementation first and try out new features as you go along!

When you first install Evernote and sign up for an account, you'll have 1 folder.  Rename it to "001 Inbox" or something with 0's in the beginning (and without quotes) so it'll always stay at the top.  For now, put all of your notes into this folder.  You can later add new folders once you have a large assortment of notes here (say 50+).  This also makes it easier to name your folders as you discover common themes among your notes.  From now on, I'll refer to this "001 Inbox" folder as simply Inbox.

3 Modes of Using Evernote: Collecting, Organizing, and Searching.

When I'm using Evernote, I find it too cumbersome to immediately file and/or tag my notes.  I could be brainstorming, searching the web for articles, or snapping pictures of documents, and organizing my notes while doing that really distracts me from the task at hand.  Just snap that picture, clip that article, or put your thoughts to paper (I mean note) and it goes into your Inbox by default.   If you're pretty sure what tags you want to assign to the note or what folder it should go into, just make a note of it in the body of the note (no pun intended.)  I call this "Collecting".  So when you're Collecting, do not even think about how you're gonna Organize your notes (yet)!

At least once a week (or maybe once a day if you have a TON of notes), go through your Inbox and categorize your notes.  Put them in your relevant folders and/or add tags.  Although I'm guilty of it from time to time, resist the temptation of putting off this step for more than week as it'll sometimes be difficult to remember the background information relevant to a note in order to best tag and file it for the future.  (I find the Pomodoro Technique very helpful for staying focused at this step.) I call this "Organizing".

Searching is pretty straight forward..  when you need information, you use the Search function in Evernote to find it.  It's much easier to search when you've done all the work upfront by Collecting and Organizing.  If you use folders and tags, you can perform more targeted searches.  If you can't find it with your targeted search, you can try a more general search (no tags and all folders) and see if something pops up; chances are, you did not categorize it or miscategorized it, and this is a great opportunity to correct it.

If a great idea pops into your head, get it into Evernote ASAP

This happens to us every once in a while: a great idea pops into your head when you're minding your business.  Getting the idea into Evernote is your top priority, not minding all the red tape of tags and folders (like I said earlier.)  You should also create a shortcut to Evernote on your mobile device's home screen for situations like this so you can bring up Evernote immediately.  Any minor distraction is often enough for you to "lose" your genius idea in your moment of inspiration.  Record it in audio form (and later transcribe it to make it searchable) if you need to.

What to Use Evernote For

You can start by looking at these lists for inspiration:

100 Different Evernote Uses
101 Evernote Uses

The more I use Evernote, the more I discover new ways it can improve and simplify my life.  I'm still discovering new ways every month even after using it for 1.5 years.  I actually have a separate folder called "Evernote Tips" that contain articles about different ways other people use Evernote.

Here are some of my day-to-day uses of Evernote:

  • Shopping Lists: This is probably one of the most common uses of Evernote.
  • This Blog: If I have a great idea for this blog, I'll quickly make a note of it in Evernote instead of letting it fade away as I go and tend to the other aspects of my life.
  • Researching Investments: A lot of times, I will run into a stock or fund I'd like to buy but chose not to pull the trigger.  Later, I find out the investment really took off and I missed out on a bunch of profit.  If I had taken notes at the time I was considering buying the investment, I can go back and review them to hopefully not make the same mistake again in the future.
  • Travel Itinerary: When I take a trip somewhere, I'll create a new folder for it with my hotel reservations, maps, attractions, etc. all clipped into one place.
  • Networking: When I meet someone new at networking events that I find interesting, I'll take notes on them after the event (i.e. including what we talked about as well as details like what they were wearing or eating.)  There's an extension called Evernote Hello that supposedly simplifies this process but I personally find it awkward pulling out your phone and asking to exchange information at the end of a conversation.  Maybe if enough people do that with me, I'll start using it as well...
  • Home Organization: I tend to misplace things a lot so I've come up with this idea in recent weeks.  I took pictures of all the drawers, shelves, cupboards, containers, etc. and labeled them with a number starting from 1 by annotating in Evernote.  Then I created a separate note for each container with the number in the title and listing the contents of that container (i.e. clothes, medicines, old books, spices, utensils, documents, etc.)  No more excuses for misplacing things around the house anymore!
  • CFA Exam: I'm preparing for the CFA exam (a certification in Finance) and there's a TON of information to remember.  Fortunately, the curriculum is organized by LOS's (Learning Outcome Statements.)  So I created a separate note for each LOS to better organize the information overload.  Even better, the "Similar Notes" feature helps tremendously when it finds LOS's with overlapping topics.
  • Recepits: I rent out my car and need to keep track of expenses that I incurred as a result to deduct during tax time.  I also photograph receipts of big ticket items (generally $100+) in case I need to return them or use the warranty.

I will elaborate some of the ideas above in future posts.  Do you have any new ideas for using Evernote?  Please share them in the comments below!

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