People focus on the wrong thing when using Evernote. Write better notes to improve your experience

If you look for people’s experiences with Evernote, a lot of the content you find focuses on either the organization of notes, notebooks and stack. Many others complain about the slow progress in improving the editor. Another discursive thread is the price of the product. Of course, as with all software, there is no lack of people discussing alternatives to Evernote which supposedly solve all of its problems.

My take is that many people focus on the wrong things when they evaluate Evernote. Obviously, this is just my personal perspective. I’ve never been interested that much in creating fancy notes, content being much more important. Of course, there is nothing wrong with discussing organizational schemes, many of which I have tried in the past. And there is definitely room for improvement on many different aspects of Evernote. But fundamentally, I see very little comments about the actual act of writing notes.

There are exceptions, of course. Tiago Forte, for example, has written extensively about creating discoverable and insightful notes, although his approach is aimed specifically at summarizing other media. I found that a similar, but less structured, approach also helped me in creating richer, higher-density notes about the other areas in my life.

What do you put in Evernote (or any other note-taking app you may use)? Honestly, when I started using Evernote years ago, I pretty much used it like that messy drawer you have in your desk. You know, the one with the rubber bands, paperclips, insurance policies and other both important and unimportant treasures. When I still received documents, which now happens rarely anymore, I would scan them to Evernote. During certain periods of time, I would forward my mails. Whenever I remembered I had the web clipper, I’d get interesting stuff from the web in there. For some time, I tried to keep a digital copy of my bullet journal as well, which turned out to be way too time-consuming. I ended up with about 2500 notes.

Organization is often a crutch to alleviate flaws in content

From an organizational point a view, I progressed from tags, over notebooks, over title-coding to Tiago Forte’s PARA method. I applied his method over different tools I used (Evernote, Dropbox, Onedrive and others I probably forget), but in the end, it is simply too much work to maintain. I generally work on many different projects at the same time, which means I end up spending hours moving project notebook in and out of the Archive stack. And that is just using Evernote. Keeping the folder structure in sync over different applications just seems like a horrible waste of time. Especially because I end up using the search function to look for content anyway.

It may have to do with the nature of my work as well: since a big part of my work relates to technology, it is extremely hard not to create overlapping Resource notebooks. I’m dabbling in React now. Should I have a React notebook or a Web Development notebook? Maybe Javascript? Maybe move up one level and create one big Development notebook? If I have the Development notebook, do I also put notes about my work with Collibra there? Everything or just the notes which strictly deal with development and not, for example, notes regarding to our partnership with the company?

So while I was considering these problems with my implementation of Tiago’s method, it dawned on me that the problem was not necessarily the structure, but rather the quality of my notes. They tend to be packets of raw information: a mail chain, a receipt, a scan of some document, a picture of a hand-written diagram on a whiteboard and so on. The structure then becomes really important to provide context for the de-contextualized notes. Therefore, the solution is not tweaking the structure of the notebooks and stack, and even less coming up with some tagging scheme, the solution is improving the notes, so that they contain knowledge, rather than raw data or information.

Moving from more notes to better notes

I’ll start with the lowest-hanging fruit I can think off: my Accounts notebook. In the early days of using Evernote, long before I started using the PARA method, I created an Account notebook. There was also a License Keys notebook which held, predictably, license keys to different pieces of software. My workflow was extremely basic: I’d receive an email confirmation for registering or purchasing an account or license and would dump the mail in the respective folder. when I re-installed the software, I’d just have to search for the name of the software and I’d be good to go. Or not?

Often, over time, I’d get multiple licenses for the same software (for example, with version changes or installs on different machines). The solution was obvious: I created a single note with all account and license information in a clean table which contained expiration dates and other useful information. Rather than the 50 notes I used to comb through looking for the correct information, I now just have to maintain the single note.

Yes, I know, this should have been obvious from the start.

Work notes: from thinking tool to documentation

A slightly more complex example are my work notes. My current assignment involves quite a bit of development, which generally comes in two flavors: one the one hand, I develop workflows that enable users to interact with the assets stores in Collibra, on the other hand, I build integrations through an external REST API.

I tend to write a lot during development: diagrams, lists, mappings, etc. and I prefer to do this by hand. Mostly, I have been using a Rocketbook to do this, but lately, I have some trouble writing in it. I can’t really put my finger on it, it just feels like the ink has more trouble sticking to the reusable paper, but I digress. I also use my bullet journal for this, especially when it’s something important, such as: “Replacing relations in the REST API template will remove the old relations, omitting relations will not remove anything”. The act of writing and drawing helps me a lot in solving problems, but clearly the notes created like this contain plenty of useful information.

Initially, I would scan the pages of my Rocketbook with the app and the scans would then be imported into Evernote. Unfortunately, retrieving the notes is unreliable at best, since I have pretty terrible handwriting. Also, these notes are not meant to be consumed later: they are purely work products. Some of the information is not interesting, such as names of variables and relations. Besides, I found that the need to write down variable names is also an indication that I should have picked a better name to begin with.

Here, I am currently in the processes of refining my work notes into more structured, documentary notes, intended for easy retrieval of information. One of the notes I have contains code snippets for often recurring tasks, or for particular problems that took me some time to solve them. Another note contains server names for different environments and other configuration information and actions we took to troubleshoot particular problems.

Another type of note, related to work, is the reference note, which contains lists of allowed values for specific REST calls, form input and output types for the workflows and other pieces of information I often need. Usually, I don’t put information here when I retrieve it the first time. After all, these things can be found in other places, almost by definition. However, if I find I have to guess for the second time whether an attribute type takes STRING, string, TEXT or textual as its type, it’s time to look it up and put it in the reference note. This saves me a bunch of time.

Results and drawbacks

Over the last few weeks, the number of notes in my Evernote has gradually been decreasing, although I still add a lot of notes from my mailbox. As I collect reference information about Collibra, for example, into a single note, this begins to look more and more like an actual manual. Rather than having a disparate collection of notes and scraps of information, everything is now captured in one place, which I think is exactly the point.

When it comes to other types of notes, I find that the process of collating information into more logical structures actually helps to generate new insights and ideas. For example, I usually use my bullet journal for idea generation (again, putting pen to paper seems to help with the creative process). Afterwards, I collect the ideas into one big table in Evernote, which forces me to come up with a short, descriptive name for the idea and to define some metadata about the ideas, such as the date or maybe even the type of idea.

The obvious drawback is that all of this takes some time: refining the notes is way more time-consuming than just dumping all the information into Evernote. Another, less obvious drawback (although you could say it just unearths an already existing problem) is that by collating information from different notes, the categorization system via stacks and notebooks often breaks down. As I pull more information from different notes together, it sometimes becomes more difficult to clearly classify the note in the “correct” notebook.

Finally, I’m still having difficulty getting my hand-written notes into Evernote without too much manual rework. I recently pre-ordered a reMarkable 2, which should be arriving in August. When it gets here, I’ll let you know if it helped.

Enterprise Implementation Manager at Collibra - I also blog at https://notthenewoil.org