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:

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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.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about why I think Evernote is overrated. Since then I’ve been looking for alternatives and I think I’ve finally found one. Centrallo is an initially slightly confusing hybrid between a Getting Things Done orientated task manager and an outliner application. I was initially a bit baffled by it but within twenty minutes I rapidly understood why this combination is so powerful. Centrallo has an inbox, displayed below, into which all ‘inputs’ are immediately placed. It’s possible to send things to the inbox via e-mail. This is a feature I was sceptical of when Omnifocus introduced it but I’ve come to rely on it. Unless I’m using Omnifocus on the iPad (my favourite device for it) I tend to just send everything via e-mail (which because of autocomplete means simply typing ‘of’) and sort it out later. It’s particularly useful when clearing your inbox, allowing you to forward things that need to be addressed, rather than switching to a photodifferent app and manually adding a note. I could imagine using the e-mail to inbox feature a lot as I get used to using Centrallo. I’ve been obsessed for years with recording every potentially interesting or useful thought I have (with many of them being deleted later but when I’ve had chance to reflect on it). This is what ‘inbox’ functionality is perfect for. You quickly record it and you know that it’s going to be there for you to come back to later.

The basic form of input to Centrallo are rich text notes. The editor isn’t perfect but it’s already better than Evernote. It also allows images, reminders and voice notes to be attached to any particular note. These can also be shared on social media, integration with which is another pleasing feature of Centrallo. I like the fact that my account uses my google ID rather than being another name and password which i have to remember.

Notes from the inbox are then filed away in the ‘lists’ section, either on their own or as part of a hierarchy. Notes can also be marked priorities (“!!!” in the image above) which leaves them accessible through a distinct section of the interface. The ensuing taxonomies make much more sense to me than Evernote stacks. I’m not entirely sure why this is but Centrallo feels like piling up notes in precisely the way I do with paper I have to organise. Whereas Evernote felt like I was trying to create a structure to reflect how I think but they never quite matched. Part of this intuitive feel, once you get past the initial confusion, comes from the interface. It’s a very smooth quintessentially iOS7 experience, which begrudgingly I’m starting to like even if it did break my iPad, as opposed to the extraordinarily clunky interface in Evernote. Even though iOS7 was an improvement, I always found using Evernote a chore. Not least of all because of the absurdly unreliable synching process. Again, the synch in Centrallo isn’t perfect but it’s a big improvement on Evernote. It’s aspiring to the kind of frictionless synching which Omnifocus has mastered, in which the process is so smooth that you never have to think about the fact the devices are synching.

I’ve only been using Centrallo for a few days but I’m already impressed. It’s obviously a very early version of the app but it seems extremely promising. It meets precisely the need that Evernote purported to but didn’t (at least for me): somewhere to store information and lists that aren’t related to specific tasks. So I have writing plans, project plans, funding bid plans and similar things in there, as well as mailing lists and logistical info for upcoming events. Potential ideas for the future and outlines of upcoming projects which will feed into specific actionable tasks but do not do so yet. These are the sorts of things that cluttered up Omnifocus when I used it to store them but that I never really get used to trusting Evernote with. In short, it’s an early version but if you’re dissatisfied with Evernote then I’d really recommend trying Centrallo.

  1. It’s astonishingly easy for the syncing process to get mixed up. The synch for Omnifocus, which surely has a much more complex database, never gets confused. I seem to generate synch conflicts on a small minority of occasions that I use Evernote. These synch conflicts sometimes lead me to lose data. Usually they’re just annoying though.
  2. The notes look radically different depending on the computer and device I’m using. Obviously this is unavoidable to some degree but the discrepancies between how a note looks on my home desktop, my laptop, my office PC, my iPad and my iPhone really irritate me.
  3. They still haven’t fixed the WYSIWYG editor. The same problems that frustrated me when I first tried Evernote a few years ago (insertion of errant full stops, spacing inconsistencies, line breaks that get stuck in place) are still mostly there. If you’ve got used to using minimalist text editors, it makes writing in Evernote an incredibly frustrating experience.
  4. It’s too slow to function usefully as a place to instantaneously store ideas. I’ll grant it’s improved over time in this respect (the iOS 7 version is a big improvement) but I still find myself using Omnifocus instead just because it’s much quicker.
  5. The other reason I put notes into my Omnifocus inbox instead (either through the app or via e-mail) is that I trust Omnifocus and don’t trust Evernote. All these little niggling inadequacies contribute to an inability to forget about the software. I know Omnifocus will work without me thinking about it. I can’t say the same about Evernote. That’s why I think Evernote is overrated and that’s why I’m now regretting having paid for a premium subscription.

Oh how I wish the Omni Group would build an Evernote alternative. The stuff I store in Evernote (e.g. my research agenda, mailing lists, plans for future events) could be stored in Omnifocus but it doesn’t quite work because these are things which don’t attach to particular tasks. They could be made to attach to them but it’s not how I think (and the congruence with how I think is what makes Omnifocus such a powerfully ingratiating application). I think I want a work space. Something kind of like Scrivnr but for all my research, projects and paid work. Evernote certainly isn’t it. But I’m not sure what is.