What do you actually use Evernote for?

I’ve written in the past about my dislike for Evernote and near continuous search for an alternative to it. I won’t rehearse my issues with it here but the one that really matters is that I simply can’t stand the interface. I find it hard to pin down precisely what my problem with it is but I feel immensely antipathetic towards using it. It just doesn’t cohere with how I think or with the kinds of information I want to use it to record. The notebooks soon become arbitrary structures, filled with information organised in a sub optimal way and I’m never known how to rectify that state of affairs. To be fair, this was every bit as true when I used to carry organisational clutter around in moleskine notebooks instead: ‘notebooks’ provide too much organisation at the macro level and too little organisation at the micro level. Perhaps for these reasons, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that there’s something about Evernote and something about myself which just isn’t going to be compatible, no matter how many times I hear people who I respect sing its praises. I’ve tried Centrallo, which uses a structure that does work for me, though I realised that in spite of the ontology (I like lists much more than notebooks!) being more suitable, as well as the interface and synching being excellent, it was set up to store much more information than I was ever likely to need it for.

I recently started using Day One journal instead. It’s a carefully designed app, available for iOS and OS X, described as a “simple and elegant journal”. However it’s remarkably feature rich in spite of this simplicity, including reminders, photos, location, automatic backup, iCloud synching, publishing to social media and PDF exports amongst many others. I suspect there’s a risk the developers compromise its ‘elegance’ if they continue to add functionality but at least thus far they have not. The thing that made me fall in love with this app was the experience of writing – in a manner only matched by the Medium blogging platform, it makes writing a pleasure with a lovely distraction-free white screen waiting to be filled, complete avoidance of the lag that often characterises typing on iOS apps, markdown support and oddly satisfying Tweetbot like tapping noises as you type. The entries are filed chronologically, which I realised I associate with blogging these days much more readily than I do an actual journal, though can be favourited and tagged, as well as searched in a variety of ways.

The material I wanted to use Evernote for is probably much more specific than what most people use it for. I want a place to store my plans – I’ve been using Omnifocus for a few years now and I’m so entrenched in this way of reflexively organising my life that I would probably cease to function without it. However Omnifocus is task-orientated – the whole system is designed around the enactment of short, medium and long-term projects as sequences of discrete actions which should only be visible to you at the correct moment. It’s a system designed to overcome procrastination and inertia by offering you a continuing stream of relevant actions which you can take to work towards overarching projects of whatever sort, avoiding overwhelm by shielding the many actions which aren’t relevant (at this particular moment in this particular context) from your awareness. It’s hard to use, literally taking me a year to get to grips with the software, but when it does work it’s difficult to describe how powerful it is. Hence I think the creepy tone which often creeps into discussions about it. The problem with Omnifocus is that it’s not set up to store reference material (in the GTD sense) adequately* – the information which both informs your planning and is required by it, stuff you need to consult in the process of doing things but also to work with as a basis to decide what to do. This is what I’m now using Day One journal for and it really seems to work – I write ad hoc notes in the diary as things occur to me, stuff that I used to put in my Omnifocus inbox but that isn’t actually action orientated and so shouldn’t be in there, which I then review in the same way as I do with Omnifocus. Those thoughts, ideas, realisations etc that are important get tagged and incorporated into a structure which keeps track of the broader perspectives (20,000 to 50,000 feet in GTD terminology) which I’ve found tend to be collapsed into the temporal horizon of a few months at most in Omnifocus:

photo (1)

really like this way of working and it’s the first time I’ve found an app like this which I suspect I’ll stick with. However I think my experience illustrates a broader point about information capture and organisational apps like Evernote: what do you actually want to use it for? What is it you’re trying to capture? How are you trying to organise it? It’s only when we address these questions that we can begin to get a handle on which apps will actually help us do things more effectively in a way that avoids distraction and procrastination. So in that spirit, here are the various apps I use and the purposes I use them for:

  1. I use my Gmail account as a catch all place to store URLs that I might later want to retrieve. I can access it from anywhere I have an internet connection and everything goes into two folders ‘blogging/twitter’ and ‘reading’ (for academic papers) which then become inboxes of sorts for blogging (particularly for Sociological Imagination) and for research (the papers are unstructured but the reason I’ve saved them is because they’re relevant to a project).
  2. I use Pocket to capture online stuff (up to and including LRB length long reads) which I want to read but don’t care about saving the citation details for. If I don’t think I’ll pay attention to it when I come across it or if it would distract me to do so then I save it to Pocket. This leaves it accessible on my iPhone and/or iPad at a time which is more conducive to reading it attentively.
  3. I use Bundlr to organise online stuff for other people. If I think it’s useful to others to collect a package of links and share on Twitter then this is an easy and effective way to do it.
  4. I use Papership to collect PDFs, bibliographic details and notes I’ve made on journal articles and books etc.
  5. I use my blog as a commonplace book – extracts, videos or images that I’ve found interesting in some way and want to ensure I can retrieve at a later date (i.e. unlike things in Pocket where I just want to make sure I read them properly).
  6. I use my blog as a research journal – collecting short thoughts, mini essays, notes on reading, responses to papers etc in a way that I group into thematic tasks and come back to as a resource when I’m doing ‘serious’ academic writing.
  7. I use Day One to keep track of what I’m doing and why in a general overarching sense.

I suspect Evernote works very well for 1-6. I’m not convinced it works well for 7. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to disentangle my own use of apps from the broader practical needs they serve because I’m writing a chapter of my social media book on curation tools and managing information at the moment. So if anyone has got this far, I’d love to hear whether activities 1 to 7 map on to your own use of apps and experience of reflexively approaching your work.

*You can add attachments to projects but this atomises overarching plans. There’s no space for ‘big picture’ stuff in Omnifocus.

10 responses to “What do you actually use Evernote for?”

  1. I don’t use Evernote at all more, but before I used to storage text, but the interface sucks and doesn’t suit the way I organise things, I should just delete the account, but have been lazy and not got it done yet. Centrallo on the other hand came as an angel from heaven right after Springpads demise. I still miss SP though, but life must go on.

  2. Hi Mark,

    It seems like you may be expecting Evernote to do just about everything. I’m not sure why you would want Evernote to keep track of tasks… nor why you would try to wangle a reference material repository out of Omnificus. It’s like trying to substitute pineapple in banana split.

    I do have the sneaky suspicion that WorkFlowy might be a solution to many of your organizational woes on this journey of yours. I am a raving Evernote fanatic… But it just doesn’t make sense to manage my tasks there… Or do any complex outlining. WorKFlowy is note taking on a lot of the workflow that Evernote used to shoulder, mainly in the area of planning.

    It seems like you’ve got some decent solutions already for task management… But for sure, Evernote is not your app for that. WorkFlowy could easily take on task management, although I use another system similar to Trello.

    For academic writing, you might want to take a peek at Gingko app. It is the only tree-based word processor that exists. It’s gaining a reputation for itself. I would liken it to a hybrid between Trello and WorkFlowy. It has to be seen to be understood.

    If anything, Evernote is fantastic in the following departments, if not in a category of its own:

    1. OCR in images
    2. Web clipping + email clipping
    3. Sheer diversity of integration with many popular apps (Pocket, for one)

    I don’t expect the world from Evernote, but it is irreplaceable in many ways. But then again, it depends on your use case(s). You did mention a near continuous search for an Evernote alternative. That’s going to be a tough one. If you can look past my very opinionated and biased response here, you would be pleasantly surprised by WorkFlowy and/ or Gingko app.


  3. Reblogged this on Mitredner and commented:
    Social Media dienen nicht nur dem Teilen von Gedanken und Gefundenem, sie lassen sich auch hervorragend nutzen, um die eigene Arbeit zu organisieren und zu strukturieren, wie @marc_carrigan in seinem Post zeigt.

  4. Crossed wires, I’m saying the exact opposite! I thought if I had wanted it to do everything (the 1 – 7 things I mentioned) then Evernote might have worked much better for me than it did. I wouldn’t for a second try and store tasks in Evernote, I’ve only ever wanted it as somewhere to store my GTD reference material i.e. I’ve wanted something as a specialised supplement to Omnifocus

    I like Workflowy on the web version but really struggled with the iPad version. Never heard of Ginko, will take a look, thanks!

  5. Okie… Got it. BTW, it’s Gingko. Adriano, the creator of the app intentionally misspelled the app 🙂

  6. Here’s what I use it for (not all academic related):

    1) Cookbook
    2) Insurance documents
    3) Pictures of valuables to go along with insurance docs
    4) Serial numbers for software for work
    5) Copies of project expenses (just take a photo)
    6) PDFs of work documents that I want to searchable
    7) Meeting notes – I write in a normal notebook, rip out the pages, email them to myself and evernote makes them readable
    8) Copies of project emails so that I have longtitude record of what I occured if/when writing impact case-studies
    9) Clipping webpages in a easy to read format (as it strips out adverts and the like)

    I don’t write or have research journals so I can’t comment on that.

  7. that’s really helpful thanks charles, do you use a smart phone to record the pages to e-mail to yourself?

  8. I found Evernote to be a great repository app, basically a ubiquitous and searchable file cabinet. I eventually moved to OneNote as I’m in a Microsoft centric workplace.

    Neither replaces Outlook as my primary (work) GTD collection and task system however.

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