Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Evernote – part 2 – How I Organize and My 10 Best Uses

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Last week I wrote about Evernote Basics - what it is and some samples for how to use it.  Today I'll dig a little deeper and share how I use it personally - both how I organize my digital notes and what purposes I use it for.  But before I dig into the details, I want to take a step back and talk conceptually about notes and filing.

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Digital vs Paper

There really isn't much difference between digital and paper notes.  Forget digital for a minute, and think about paper notes:

If you write something down, or print a web page, or have a photo, that paper item actually exists.  You can hold it, feel it, read it, share it, and eventually - put it somewhere.  Your ability to access the information on that piece of paper is only as good as your ability to remember where you put it.  If you put a minute's effort into filing it into a well-labeled file folder hanging in a drawer in a filing cabinet, odds are you'll be able to find it when you need it.  If you throw the note onto the kitchen counter, along with piles of other notes & junk mail, odds are you won't remember exactly what happened to it a few months from now.

Digital notes are very similar to paper notes.  Each note is an individual piece of information that you might want to access again later.  You can be very meticulous about filing them, or you can be less rigid.

Digital notes are also very different to paper notes.  Each note can have an unlimited amount of information on it, including whole web pages, links to other notes, pictures, audio clips, and any other file (word document, pdf file, spreadsheet, etc.).  In addition, the notes are search-able, so even if you just throw your notes into a big pile on the Evernote kitchen counter, you'll most likely still be able to find the note you're looking for.  I have some notes which only contain a subject line - just a short phrase to remind me of something I need to do, and I have other notes which are several megabytes and contain several attachments - one of these notes might be an entire file folder if I had to print it all out!

Storage, Use, and Growth

My first boss was an organization maniac.  He would preach that we take lots of notes, because nobody had a good enough memory.  He taught us that if you have 5 pieces of paper on the same topic, that topic needed its own folder.  If (or when) a topic's folder got too big (maybe 50 pieces of paper), you needed to break it out into more, smaller folders - either chronologically or by subtopic.

This process leads to a slow but steady accumulation of files, with an ever-evolving organization system based on how many notes you have about various topics.  You don't go out on day 1 and pre-name hundreds of files, drawers, and cabinets with what you *think* you're going to need to file; you slowly add a file here and there as you have the need for them.

image (my file cabinet, 3 years ago.)

I use this exact same system for Evernote.  I started with one notebook, adding a few notes each day.  That quickly became several notebooks representing various topics.  Eventually I wanted to group related topics together, so I gave them a Notebook Stack.  This is the Evernote equivalent of moving related file folders into the same drawer in the file cabinet.  Over time my file tree has consistently grown; I currently have 1,993 notes in 72 notebooks and 9 notebook stacks.  Looking at them today, I have only 1 notebook with more than 100 notes, and I have a dozen or so with less than 10 notes.  Just last week I created a new notebook stack, when I felt like one stack was getting really big and it contained notebooks representing 2 different topic genres, so it was easy to break it out into 2.

I don't use tags - they tend to confuse me.  Each note only needs to reside in one place - the right notebook.  Tags feel sloppy and haphazard.  But that's just me.  Google "organizing Evernote" and you'll find more people who preach tags than those who don't.  It's all about making organization work for you.  I've been using Evernote for 2 years, I have almost two thousand notes, and I can find any of them in about 2 seconds from any of my computers or phones - it simply works!

My 10 Best Uses for Evernote

1.  Kids' School Work.  the kids bring home mountains of paperwork from school, and my wife wants to save all of it!   I scan or snap a photo of each page, then put it into an Evernote notebook.  now it's stored forever, without any boxes of old crap to keep in the attic!

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2. Client Files.  each client/project gets a notebook, and EVERYTHING goes into it. I now have all my info & notes, neatly together, wherever I am.  For organization & clutter sake, and because Evernote has a limit of 250 notebooks (although they'll allow thousands of tags), once the client closes I move their notes into a combined notebook - I still have everything available, but I have fewer notebooks to sift through.

3. To Do List. I've used dozens of task managers over the years, but I keep coming back to Evernote.  It's fast & easy to jot down a to-do item as I think of it, it's with me all the time on all my devices, and it's easy to add notes, screen clips, emails, etc. to my to-do notes.  I have one notebook for my tasks that are due immediately - today or tomorrow, and another notebook for tasks due in the future.

4. Web Research.  I have taken screen clips of tons of things over the last couple of years - maps, computer comparisons, cell phone plans, state parks and hiking information, hotel information and confirmation, online shopping receipts, etc. etc.  Anything that shows up on my computer screen that I want to keep a picture of - done.

5. Special Foods.  My oldest son is on a restricted diet, so I've taken pictures of some of his foods with my cell phone & shared them to Evernote.  Then, when my wife asks me to stop at the store on the way home to pick up some ________ , I get the right kind!  I've also taken pics of the vitamins he takes, so when my wife calls from Sprouts to ask which specific brand is his, I can tell her.  (Bonus husband points for me!)

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6. Bookmarks.  Evernote has a browser add-in which allows you to highlight any part of a web page and keep that selection as a new note, with the web page's URL attached to it.  (or, don't highlight anything and Evernote captures the whole page.)  I use this to add bookmarks with one mouse click, and my bookmarks are now available to me from any browser on any computer.

7. Names.  I like to jot down a quick note of people's names, especially when I meet a group of new people.  It helps me remember the names better, and it gives me a quick reference guide to review on the way to an event where I'm likely to see those people again.

8. Journal.  A couple days a week I do a voice recording on my way home, (using Hi-Q MP3 android app to record in mp-3 format), as a way to journal what's going on - mostly notes about the kids, but I also journal about work, triathlon training, and whatever other thoughts I have.  It's become a great record of the last couple of years.  I can also add text and photos to my journal notebook - sometimes I just take a picture of the kids with my cell phone & share it to my Evernote Journal Notebook - done.

9. Blogging.  Combining the Web Research and Journal functions gives me a great blogging resource.  I store ideas for future posts, web articles & research, and rough drafts.  In fact, this post was composed entirely in Evernote.  I wrote some of it from my desktop, then I added some notes from my phone during my son's soccer practice, then I used my laptop, before finishing it from my desktop.

10. Paperless.  I expanded on my Kids' School Work concept and started scanning &/or photo'ing all my admin files:  records and receipts for the cars, medical receipts, notes & receipts from household items, etc.  Once my records are in Evernote, I'm able to shred or trash the paper document.  I also take pictures of the box or the model/serial number when I buy new things (dishwasher, SLR camera, etc.), so I'll have the information I'll need in a few years for a repair or replacement part.  Right now I'm 99% paperless, and I'm more organized, with more information that's easier to find, then I've ever been.  1,993 Evernote notes and counting.

Remember my filing cabinet from 3 years ago?  Here's my filing cabinet today.

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It's also my briefcase.  The silver one on the right is my backup.  Not only is it easier to find what I need when I need it from wherever I am, but the next time I move is going to be a whole lot easier!  ;-)

Your Evernote-lovin’ Realtor,

Chris Butterworth