If Staying Organized is a Headache, Try Evernote

When I started grad school back in 2005, I bought a file cabinet.  I was pretty fed up figuring out how to organize the countless papers in my life so I bit the bullet and got what every office at the time had for their one-size-fits-all filing solution.  2 years later when I finished my degree and was ready to move, the cabinet had maybe only 6 or 7 folders in use.  In fact, the entire bottom shelf was still empty, and the vast majority of my documents and folders were scattered across the floor, piled on my desk, and folded between pages of my books.  Like most people who came of age when computers and the Internet were ubiquitous, I struggled with traditional methods of filing.  Little did I know at the time that a small startup named Evernote Corporation was developing software that would radically simplify my life 7 years later by mitigating my piles of paper and managing my information overload.


Why Evernote?


Imagine having your own virtual file cabinet stored on the Internet and accessible by most modern computers and mobile devices from anywhere with a connection.  Every important document in your life, be it articles, to-do lists, notes, drafts for a blog or novel, etc. are organized and tagged so you can search this file cabinet the same way you search the Internet with Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.  You can even insert your own photos into the file cabinet from your smartphone or camera, and as a bonus, any words in those photos will be recognized in future searches!  For example, if you put a photograph of a billboard with the words “furniture sale” into Evernote and later search Evernote for the words “furniture sale”, that image will come up.


With Evernote, all of the following are possible:

  • Writing plain text notes on a subject and assigning it to its respective folder.
  • Photographing and eliminating unnecessary paper documents and being able to bring them up if the words you search match the words in the document (Evernote supports OCR.)
  • Saving individual webpages so you can quickly associate reference material for a particular project by placing it in the same folder or assigning it a unique tag.  (Plus, you don’t have to worry if the webpage is deleted in the future.)
  • Storing information and being able to access it for the rest of your life.
  • Searching your entire collection or just a particular folder or tag.

In a way, Evernote is like a bookmarking app for life, not just your Internet activity.  The ability to gather and view information with your smartphone anywhere with an Internet connection makes it even more powerful.  Besides, its simplicity combined with versatility makes it useful in a variety of situations, and I’m still learning even after 2+ years.


Getting Started


This section is geared more towards introducing new users to my way of using Evernote.  If you’re already comfortable with Evernote, I suggest you stick with your established routines and maybe skim through here.  Evernote is highly versatile and there’s no right way to use it, so I recommend playing with it and discovering your own personal style.  In other words, understand the Principles behind my Tactics for using Evernote, then better tailor them to your own preferences.


So head over to Evernote.com and install Evernote for your computer.  (If you’re a Linux user, get NixNote.)  Create a FREE account for now (you can pay for Premium later if you need the extra features or space.)


Video Companion


If anything I’ve explained so far or further down in this article isn’t clear, please refer to my Youtube video for a visual demonstration:



Web Clipper


Next, download the Web Clipper for Evernote and install it for your browser(s).  This allows you to save webpages directly into Evernote or at least a URL to the website.  Why save webpages when you can access them anytime via a bookmark in your browser?  First, websites that are around today might not be in the future so this is a great way to preserve an article that you don’t ever want to lose.  Second, it’s handy to capture reference material for a particular project and organize it into the respective folder.  Third, that saved webpage will turn up when you do keyword searches of your private collection in Evernote if any relevant words in it are matched.  However,  since FREE accounts are limited to 60MB of new material every month, you might want to be selective as to which websites you clip; sites that you find marginally useful should be handled with the “Clip Bookmark” option.


GTD Basics


Getting Things Done (aka GTD) is a system for organizing one’s to-do list devised by David Allen.  He published the technique in his book from the early 2000s, but that version does not utilize the more modern tools available since the 2010s.  I learned how to implement GTD using Evernote through the video tutorials at The Secret Weapon and later tweaked the method to fit my own style.  While I feel the basics of GTD are pretty solid, some of the more complex processes require a lot of overhead to execute; if you have time, I recommend you view the videos at The Secret Weapon as well for an alternative but more complex implementation of GTD + Evernote.


First, open and log in to Evernote on your computer.  Rename the first (and only) folder to “001 Inbox” without the quotes.  (Since Evernote uses alphabetical ordering, the “001” causes the folder to float to the top.  This is your default folder so it’s more convenient to have it at the top.)  Next, create another folder called 1-Now.  Add the “001 Inbox” and 1-Now folders to a New Stack.  Rename this Stack to “001 Tasks” (without the quotes.)  Create additional folders and add them all to the “001 Tasks” Stack: 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday, 6-Waiting.


As you may have guessed, those folders named 1-Now, 2-Next, etc are used to hold tasks based on their priority.  1-Now is the most urgent and 5-Someway the least.  I also use the following rule of thumb to decide which folders to use based on deadlines (these are just guidelines, not strict rules):

  • 1-Now: Do it ASAP, preferably within 3 days
  • 2-Next: Due in around a week.
  • 3-Soon: Due in around a month.
  • 4-Later: Due in around a quarter (3 months).
  • 5-Someday: Due more than 3 months in the future or something I’m only considering starting.
  • 6-Waiting: A Task that can’t be progressed until I’ve gotten a response from someone else.

Create another 2 folders: “001 Default” and “002 Evernote Tips” and put them into a new Stack: “003 Cabinet“.  This stack is where you store your documents for the long run.  These folders are pretty self-explanatory, and you’d want to have a dedicated folder for articles and tips as you learn Evernote.  Clip this page as well and put it in the “002 Evernote Tips” folder if you like.  Put your project folders here too; you can create folders such as “Work“, “Shopping“, “House“, etc. if they’re relevant.


(If this part is confusing, please take a look at my video above.)


Now, the save the following step for the next available day when you have a couple continuous hours of free time.  Sit down and with your full attention and write down everything on your “mental” to-do list (basically, do a brain dump of everything you can think of that needs to be done.)  Create a new note in Evernote for each task with the summary of the task as the subject.  (i.e. “Clean desk”, “Call mom”, “Change the oil in the car”, etc.)  If you have some thoughts, instructions, etc you can jot them down in the body of the note but it’s fine to leave that part blank.  Then move the note to the respective folder based on the priority (1-Now, 3-Soon, etc.)  Keep in mind the 2 minute rule as well: if it’ll take you less than roughly 2 minutes to finish the task now, just do it now instead of creating a new note in Evernote.


Mobile Setup


Evernote is available for most major mobile OS’s including iOS, Android, etc. so download it to your phone from your respective app store, log in, and voila: you now have access to your notes on the go!  And it’s very convenient for taking photographs, especially those with text.  Also, throughout your life, if some idea or to-do item pops up in your head wherever you are, just create a new note on your phone or tablet and write it down in the subject line.  Get into the habit of taking brief notes with your phone if you think of something important but want to act on it later.  You can organize or take action on it at a more convenient time in the next step.


Daily Review


Once a day, save about 30 minutes to clean out your Inbox and review your tasks from 1-Now to 6-Waiting.  (You can assign a single Pomodoro for this as well.)  Take a look each Inbox item and decide if it’s a task you’d like to perform and put it in the respective folder.  Articles you’ve clipped that teach you a new skill or tactic should be assigned a priority of 1 to 5 based on how badly you want to learn it.  Articles or notes that contain good reference material you’d like to read in the future should go in the respective folder in the “003 Cabinet” stack.


Go through your GTD folders: 1-Now to 6-Waiting.  Update the priority of each task by dragging them to the correct folders.   For example, a 2-Next task that you’ve put off for a few days should be reassigned to the 1-Now folder.  If you finished the task, either delete it or move it to an appropriate folder in “003 Cabinet” (especially the latter if you want to refer back to it in the future.)


You should never have more than, say, about 20 items combined in your 1-Now and 2-Next folders, nor should your Daily Review take more than 30 minutes to empty your Evernote inbox.  Otherwise, there’s a problem, and you have a few options:

  • Stop procrastinating and get to work!
  • If you’re already working hard and smart, then you might want to delegate some of the tasks.  Hire a virtual assistant if you can afford one.  Or outsource it (i.e. eat out instead of cooking, get your car fixed in the shop instead of doing it yourself, etc.)
  • If you’re plain overwhelmed despite your best efforts and cannot afford outside help, then you’ll want to downgrade some high priority items.  Go through every 1-Now and 2-Next item and ask yourself “what’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t do this?”  If the worst case scenario of skipping each particular task isn’t too bad, consider downgrading or outright deleting it.


Final Thoughts


Did you use my system for Evernote?  If so, what did you change over time to fit your preferences?  Please share in the comments!

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