Can Evernote do all that? Life with my favorite productivity tool

It's often difficult for new users to realize the full potential of this powerful cloud-based productivity tool. David Gewirtz shares his Evernote tips and tricks.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

If you read the tech news sites and blogs, you'll know that Evernote is a troubled company. It has lost C-level executives, laid off a substantial number of workers, and, most recently, shuttered its online products store. The company also cancelled the Clearly browser extension, a feature I used regularly.

And yet, the company has millions of users who depend on Evernote. I'm one of those users. I've written before about how Evernote is a key component of my daily workflow. In fact, I have just about 10,000 notes in Evernote.

In this article, I'm going to answer a bunch of reader questions by explaining the many ways in which I use Evernote.

How Evernote organizes information

Before I begin, I'd like to introduce the three organizational elements Evernote uses to keep track of information. This topology is essential for getting the most out of Evernote.

The fundamental information object in Evernote is the note. A note can be (or contain) text, images, and even PDF and Microsoft Office documents. If you're storing information in Evernote, you're storing it in a note.

Notes can be grouped into notebooks. A note can be in only one notebook at a time. For example, I have a notebook called Blogs-in-Progress. It contains a bunch of notes for ideas and posts. In fact, I'm writing this article right now in a note that's in Blogs-in-Progress.

You can group notebooks into stacks. A stack is a set of notebooks. I have a stack called Blogging. In that stack are the notebooks Blogs-in-Progress, Blogs Complete, and a bunch of other related notebooks. A notebook can be in only one stack at a time.

Then there are tags. You can assign tags to notes. A note can have many tags, and the same tag can be used in many notes. This provides an easy way to create an organizational structure that augments notebooks and stacks. I'll give an example of this when I talk about client work below.

If Evernote were a book, stacks would be sections and notebooks would be chapters. Notes would be pages. Tags would be the index at the back.

How I use Evernote

Next, let's go through some of the main ways I use Evernote. Because of the flexible way Evernote is structured, everyone uses it a little differently. That's okay. You don't have to mirror my approach. Just use it as inspiration.

Before I begin, I should also note that I pay $50/year for Evernote Premium. This provides an increased upload capacity, the ability to use larger notes, and - critical to me - the ability to search inside PDFs and Microsoft Office documents that I've uploaded to Evernote.

Writing and planning articles - I use Evernote for planning my articles. As mentioned above, I have a Blogs-in-Progress section that's my main working dashboard for all the columns I'm working on. Once a week or so, I start a new note with the topics I think I might be working on, and use that as a way to keep track of my upcoming work.

Managing client projects - As a big part of my "day job", I write, produce, and deliver webcasts, lectures, briefing papers, advisory statements, opinion pieces, and detailed analysis. All of this work goes into a stack I call Client Work.

Client Work is then subdivided by client entity. All the work I'm doing, along with much of the supporting research material for a given project, goes into the client's notebook.

In the notebook for each client, I put in my meeting notes, as well as many associated documents that seem relevant. Here, I use Evernote's Web page capture to drop pages related to projects into the appropriate notebook.

As you might imaging, those notebooks can contain a ton of information, so once a project is completed, I move that information into a Completed Projects notebook.

Here's where tags come into play. I am often working on a number of different projects for clients. Since you can't have notebooks inside of notebooks, I use tags. Each project is given a tag, so it's relatively easy for me to pull up all of the associated materials for a given project by its tag.

This is also where Evernote's search capability becomes important. I often have to look for a resource I've used in a previous project. I can search using tags, or I can just do a full-text search. Evernote goes through my Completed Projects notebook, my regular notebooks, and even my full stack of research resources. It's possible to limit the search to a given notebook, as well, so this is a very powerful feature.

I also use encryption heavily in the Client Work stack. I'm often working on confidential projects prior to either public announcement or internal advisory work. All of that information is encrypted before it goes into the Evernote cloud.

Managing students and grading - I teach object-oriented programming at the UC Berkeley extension, so I have a constant flow of student interaction. While the school uses the Canvas learning management system (and previously used Angel), that's not enough to keep track of everything I might need to help students succeed in their studies.

I have one notebook for general documents (standard letters, school policies, etc. I have a notebook dedicated to resources and projects related to the class and the instructional design of class materials.

I also have one notebook that has all the final exam PDFs so I can go back and reference them if students have questions. Because Berkeley is subject to FERPA regulations, I make sure to encrypt each student's exam before I store it in Evernote.

Managing class work and thesis - Back when I was working on my Master's degree, I had a stack for it, with a notebook for each class. I also had a bunch of notebooks for working on my thesis, with various research phases, and research notes, cataloged.

Organizing technical information - I have a stack called Technical Information that has notebooks for almost all technical areas I work on, including 3D printing, various programming endeavors, technical information on applications and systems I use, my studio, and anything else that requires keeping track of technical information, articles, tips, techniques, and notes.

I make considerable use of Evernote's Web Clipper here to bring in articles that have information I'll want to refer to later when working on a project.

Keeping historical project and lab notes - A have another stack that catalogs notes by project, with one notebook per project. While I now publish my lab notes online, all of my older notes are stored here, along with detailed documentation related to individual projects and design elements.

Managing elder care responsibilities - I haven't talked about this much publicly, but my wife and I spent three years managing my parents' end-of-life care. I won't lie to you. It was rough. But Evernote proved to be a huge help.

I used Evernote extensively to manage my parents' financial situation, medical care, insurance, caregiving, and, ultimately, funeral preparation. This included notebooks of thousands of documents scanned in, notebooks of status information, notebooks containing account tracking information, and so forth. Here, too, I made extensive use of Evernote's encryption capability.

Another tool I relied on was Evernote's Scannable app. The power of this app is that it uses the iPhone's camera to take a copy of a document and store it in Evernote. The unique value add is that it automatically aligns, focuses, and grabs an image of that document as soon as it senses the document is fully in view of the iPhone's camera.

This allowed me to capture the hundreds of business cards of the various medical and elder care professionals I met, along with all the documents that those encounters generated, without having to fiddle with my phone to find the right camera settings. I could give my full attention to the people I was interacting with, while simultaneously cataloging the documentary information I would later need to manage my parents' care.

Evernote proved invaluable over this three year period (that proved to be one of the most challenging of my life). During a period of time when my wife and I had a our scope of responsibility suddenly and intensely increased, Evernote helped to prevent it from becoming so much worse.

Scripted document management - I have a AppleScript running on my iMac that watches a folder, and automatically uploads documents into Evernote from certain scan folders. While it's helpful now, I used it particularly heavily during the parent management phase when we had to scan in boatloads of documents. As the documents got scanned in, they were automatically uploaded into the appropriate parent management folder.

Personal information - I also use Evernote for tracking personal information, like my car purchase, house-related information, recipes, and the hobbies I never have time for but always wish I could do.

Research resources and document management

From what you read, you might infer that I use Evernote to do all of my document management. That's not the case. I use Evernote when it's appropriate, and other tools when they're a better fit.

Before there was Evernote, I used an academic archiving program called Zotero to capture Web articles for later reference. It proved quite frustrating, because the documents weren't stored in the cloud. Zotero had a very cumbersome sync mechanism to make them match across machines.

At the time when I adopted Chrome as my main browser, Zotero didn't support Chrome. So I moved all of those notes into Evernote. But when I started to use Pocket, I found it was better at capturing articles (although Pocket's search isn't quite as good).

It should be noted that I also use file share folders to store documents like manuals and other important papers, and have not migrated everything to Evernote. I also have client folders with documents that I get via email, and with all the pieces that go into my PowerPoints (my last slide deck had 300 images and about 30 research documents). So not everything goes into Evernote.

How do you use Evernote?

Clearly, my use of Evernote will differ from yours. But if you've been wondering how to get the most out of the product, perhaps my story will inspire you with ideas on how you might derive more value from this tool.

I'm really curious how others use Evernote, so please comment below and share the ways you're making use of Evernote at work and at home.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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