A few months ago, I wrote a book called Mastering Evernote: The Two Hour Guide. It’s been reviewed almost 200 times and downloaded over 30,000 times.
All that to say, people are curious about Evernote.
When people find out that I wrote a book about Evernote, they usually ask me one of the following questions, “What is Evernote? Why is it so great? Should I use it? Is it better than my current system?”
The answer is easier to experience than it is to explain. For that reason, I often find myself giving people examples of how Evernote has saved me time and energy and helped keep me organized, but often this falls short of an “ah ha!” moment for the listener. Toward that end, I’ve thought through a simple, thorough answer to these questions that I hope will lead to nothing less than an “ah ha!” moment for every person who reads this article.
Evernote is a universal information container
Right now, you have lots of places to keep your information: Word documents, binders with physical paper, contact books, browser links, folders of images on your computer, folders with important emails. Evernote provides a place for all of these things to come together. I’m not suggesting that you should put everything in Evernote. I’m suggesting that you put ALMOST everything in Evernote.
Why? Because then you know exactly where to look for it. Everything is managed in one powerful database.
“But how will I keep all of that organized?” I was just getting to that…
Evernote emphasizes topical rather than hierarchical organization
Right now, you normally store your digital stuff in a hierarchy. On a windows PC, that looks like a bunch of folders with other folders inside of them, and so on.
You have a work folder and a personal folder. In the work folder, you have a projects folder, a trips folder, a documents folder, a receipts folder, and so on. In your documents folder, you have a meeting notes folder, a reports folder, a memos folder, and so on.
So when you want to find something, you have to:
- Know exactly where it is in the hierarchy. “Did I put that email from my boss in memos or in the project folder that it was related to?” If you don’t know the answer to that question, you have quite a few clicks ahead of you to find it.
- Move through every level of hierarchy even if you know exactly where you want to end up. If the item you’re looking for is 7 levels deep in your hierarchy, you have to click through all 7 levels of folders no matter what.
To summarize: Hierarchy is not the best way to organize stuff.
It used to make sense. But not anymore. Now we have topical organization and it’s a million times better. Instead of putting something in one place, we can label or tag it with as many topics as we want. Then we can view those topics later and see everything that relates to those topics.
“But,” you say, “I’m really good at hierarchy. I’m used to thinking this way; it’s how my mind works. I’m an organized person. I always know exactly where I put something.”
Even if that is true, I can almost guarantee that hierarchy is still a bad idea. Here’s why.
First, hierarchy takes mental energy to create, maintain, and use. Everything has to have a place and everything has to be in the right place or the system breaks down. The problem is that sometimes it makes logical sense for something to belong in more than one place and it can only end up in one spot. With labels or tags, you can associate something with multiple topics and it’s a far more organic form of organization.
Secondly, hierarchy allows for only one search type. When you put things in a folder, they are grouped in that folder forever. Unless you rearrange them, they will always be viewed together and will never be viewed along with anything else. With tags, you can view things in 100 different ways depending on what your looking for.
If you have a folder for each project with meeting notes in each folder, you have no way of viewing all of your meeting notes at once. You have to open up each folder individually… LAME.
If you’re using tags, you can view anything tagged with “meeting notes”, OR you can view anything tagged with a specific project title… WAY BETTER.
Thirdly, hierarchy breaks down with lots of information. Face it, the more you add to your hierarchy, the more time it takes to use and maintain it. More folders, more sub-folders, more clicks, more time spent organizing, more forgetting exactly where you put something.
Imagine if you went to Google one day and found that they had completely changed how they do online search. Instead of a search box where you can type what you’re looking for, you see 4 large categories you can click. Maybe they are something like:
If you’re looking for something like recipes for chocolate fondue, where would you click? There’s no way to know which one is the right topic. Even if you knew exactly where to find those recipes, imagine how long it would take you to navigate to the recipe. The thing that makes Google so great is that they can look at content online and figure out what it is about. Then when you’re looking for that, they show it to you. That is amazing when you think about it! There are millions and millions of things it COULD show you, but it shows you the right thing. That is the power of topical organization.
You’re not going to save the whole internet in your Evernote, but you will likely end up with thousands and thousands of things stored there. When that time comes, you will want topical search.
Evernote is the easiest and fastest place to put stuff
The folks at Evernote have made it completely seamless to save something whether you’re reading it online, in your email inbox, or on a piece of paper in your hand. Every other system has more “friction”. That means it will take you more time and effort to store something than it does with Evernote.
- Emails can be forwarded right into Evernote.
- Documents and files can be sent to Evernote with 2 clicks.
- Web pages can be sent to Evernote with 2 clicks.
- Audio can be recorded right into Evernote using your smartphone or tablet.
- Pictures can be snapped directly into Evernote.
- You can even automate things going into Evernote (for example, “Every time I post a picture on Facebook, save it to Evernote as well.”).
Evernote is with you everywhere you go
With Evernote, all of your stuff is saved online. That means you can sit down on a public computer at a library in Mongolia and have access to all of your stuff. You can be standing outside a locked building where you thought you had a meeting and pull up the meeting details you saved in Evernote on your smartphone to make sure you’re at the right place (yes, I’ve done this before). You put something into Evernote on your tablet and it will be on your computer and your phone automatically.
Evernote has super-powers
- Optical Character Recognition (OCR) means that Evernote can “look” at a picture of a scanned newspaper article and “read” every word on the page. It can read handwriting (even if it’s a little messy), signs, license plates, business cards… you get the idea.
- Evernote remembers where something was made. If you take a picture of a house you’re interested in buying on your smartphone, Evernote can use your GPS to save the coordinates right into the note (automatically, without your help). Then it can show you where your notes were created on a map.
- Evernote remembers where something came from. It can tell you if something came from an email, a web page, from your computer, or from your phone… automatically, without your help.
I can almost guarantee that your current system doesn’t do any of these.
There you have it. Hopefully you can see why Evernote is valuable. If you haven’t had the “ah ha!” moment… then you’re hopeless.
Just kidding, let me know in the comments if you have questions or if it still doesn’t make sense. Also, here is a good article that also might help you think through some things.