Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 1: Getting Started

December 1, 2013

What IS Evernote Anyway?

Evernote is an idea trapper and information organizer. Ideas and information are entered as Notes, which can be organized into Notebooks and Stacks and Tagged for quick filtering. Using a file cabinet analogy, a Note is a piece of paper, a Notebook is a file folder, and a Stack is a hanging folder. In this series, I’ll refer to these three key components collectively as “elements”. If you’re looking for a pure To-Do list or Calendar, look elsewhere. But Evernote is so much more powerful than either one that it doesn’t matter. And it can easily be integrated with your calendar and to-do solutions because all notes can be referenced by a link.

Evernote is available in two versions:

  1. FREE: The free version is a great no-risk way to get started. You may find that you’re perfectly happy with the free version and never need to upgrade.
  2. Premium: The Premium version ($45/year) adds several features that I consider essential:
    • Offline notebooks: In the free version, your mobile device must be connected to the Internet in order to view and sync notes. The Premium version allows you to save some or all of your content locally on the device so you can view it even when you are out of cell/wifi range.
    • OCR: the Search capability is one of Evernote’s strongest features, but in the free version it is limited to text. Premium adds automatic OCR of all images and PDFs stored in Evernote, which exposes that content in Search results as well.
    • Better collaboration: I use Evernote for both personal and work, and I share several of my work notebooks with colleagues. With Premium, I can give them the ability to add and edit notes instead of just viewing mine.

Why I Started Using It

I’ve gone through an assortment of tools and strategies over the past two decades in an effort to manage my ADD. The challenge has always been to trap ideas and information before they float out of my head (SHINY!!!), and then be able to produce that information when I need it. The latest candidate is Evernote and so far it’s a winner. For me, its most compelling feature is that it runs on every electronic device I have access to and automatically synchronizes between them. That means that I always have a way to trap information and it is instantly available everywhere. Even if I have to resort to paper for my notes (sometimes it’s just easier than typing), I can usually keep track of the paper long enough to get it transferred, or at least get a photo of it (which is all I need, as you’ll see later).

There are as many ways to use Evernote as there are people using it (and I think that everybody should use it). But the same power and flexibility that makes the program so valuable can also make it somewhat daunting to start using. There are many “How To…” resources available for Evernote, but I think the best way to start is by seeing how other people are using it  and then adapt and expand it for your own needs. I’m not an expert by any means, and there many features that I don’t even know about. But I’m enough of an Evernote evangelist that I decided to jot down some of the ways I use it – it will be simpler to just send this blog link (which I’ll store in Evernote) when I recommend it to a friend and they want more information.

Core Features

These are the core features that contribute most heavily to my success with Evernote:

  1. Cross-platform synchronization. As I mentioned above, all notes are instantly available on all connected devices, regardless of platform – Desktop clients (Windows or Mac), Mobile (iOS, Android, Windows phone), any Web browser on any machine or device.
  2. Search. I can quickly search across all notes (I currently have nearly 1500), or limit my search to a particular notebook or stack. And as mentioned above, with Premium, all images and PDFs stored in Evernote are OCR’d and included in the search. Type-ahead suggestion of matching phrases is a relatively new feature that simplifies searches.
  3. Ease of entry: There are many ways to enter notes and trap information (see next section)
  4. Tagging: Tagging provides a mechanism to instantly gather related notes from different notebooks and stacks.
  5. Flexibility: Easy to reorganize if your initial strategies aren’t working for you (which is why you should just dive in)
  6. 3rd Party Integration: Evernote has gotten so popular that all sorts of apps have cropped up to provide integration.

How does stuff get into Evernote?

Almost any way you can think of. Here are the main ways I get stuff into Evernote:

  1. Direct Entry: self-explanatory, type it in. (Not device-dependent.)
  2. Dictation: Second only to text messaging, dictating notes into Evernote is one of my main uses for Siri on my iPhone. (Mobile only, unless you have some sort of dictation software.)
  3. Web Clipping: install the plug-in for the browser of your choice, and with just a few clicks, you can add anything from the Internet into Evernote. Using the browser plug-in, you can clip a URL, an article, a selection, or a full page. And with recent enhancements, you can even select the target Notebook on the fly. (Currently only available natively on Desktop browsers, although I believe there are some apps that overcome this deficiency on mobile platforms.)
  4. Email: There are two ways to get information from e-mails into Evernote. If you use Outlook on your Desktop, there is a plug-in so you can just click a button. With any other email program (including Mobile), you can forward messages to your Evernote e-mail address.
  5. File import: With Evernote, you can set up any number of import folders on your PC – anything you save in these folders gets sucked into a specified notebook folder. I use this for bringing in PDFs – dog show premiums, appliance manuals, etc. (Desktop only, for obvious reasons.)
  6. FileThis: cloud service for gathering statements and receipts from financial, insurance and utility vendors, and sending them directly to Evernote. (More details in Part 2.)

Getting Started – Dive Right In

I recommend starting on your computer (PC or Mac) by downloading the Desktop program. Not all Evernote platforms are created equally and the Desktop app is by far the most powerful and flexible. I do all of my set-up and organization on the PC and use the iOS version for consumption and entering new notes. Open the Desktop app and just start playing around with it. Pretend you have a stack of ideas and information on one side of the room, boxes of file folders and labels in the middle of the room, and an empty file cabinet on the other side of the room. There is no wrong way to start – just start gathering and entering and organizing information. If you don’t like where you put something, drag-and-drop it to somewhere else. If you don’t like the name you gave a folder, rename it. If you find you’ve entered information you don’t need, delete it.

As I was gathering resources for this post, I found this great blog article by Jon Mitchell, which focuses on “How to Think about Evernote” rather than “How to Use Evernote”. Very succinct, and saved me a bunch of time because I don’t have to re-write everything that the author has already presented so well. I highly recommend you read it. Some of the details vary from my usage, but I agree with everything he has said.

Check out these free online training resources

Next up: Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 2: How I Use It

Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 2: How I Use It

December 1, 2013

If you don’t yet know what Evernote is, please start with the previous installment: Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 1: Overview.


I’ve been using Evernote for over a year and my usage continues to evolve. But here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:

  • Be diligent. Get the information in. Somehow. Worry about organizing it later. You can always Search for it in the meantime.
  • Naming matters. I use strict naming conventions in most of my Evernote elements for two reasons:
  1. To force sorting. I can completely control how my elements sort by using naming. Since I use Evernote for both Personal and Work information, all of my Personal stacks are prefaced with “Personal” and likewise, Work stacks with “Work”. I also use special characters (primarily “!”) to force certain elements to the top of the list.
  2. To identify which stack/notebook a note “belongs” to when I search for a note another way. For example: all notebooks in my “Events” stack are named “Events-<date> <description”.
  • Keep exploring. The popularity of this program is phenomenal. The developers pay close attention to the user community and each new version includes enhancements that have been requested along the way. The 3rd party app/service/accessory support is very strong and new things are coming out every day. And the knowledgebase and training resources on the Internet are huge. New ideas for getting the most out of Evernote are exploding. I’m as guilty as anyone of getting in a rut by using it the same way tomorrow as I use it today, so I’m adding this as a reminder to myself as much as anything.

Organizing: Tagging vs Stacks/Notebooks

Organization in Evernote is a complex topic that deserves some extra discussion. I have found in my research that some Evernote users minimize their use of stacks and notebooks and rely completely on tagging for organization. They like the dynamic nature of tagging and the fact that multiple tags can be applied to individual Notes. This is a very “database-y” view and you can find many resources if this is how your brain works.

Not me. I’m an old school paper filer, so I rely heavily on notebooks and stacks and use tagging as a supplement tool for very specific filtering. In fact, I used to be frustrated by the 2-level limitation of stacks and notebooks (no notebooks within notebooks). But I realized that goes back to my PC background and how I organize files on a computer. Once I adopted the hanging file/file folder analogy, I realized that the 2-level model actually makes sense. And combined with the power of Search and the alternative view provided by Tagging, it’s all I need.

Here are some examples of tags I use:

  • Shopping: any note that includes something I need to shop for gets a shopping tag. When we’re out doing errands, I can pull up the ‘shopping’ filter and be sure I don’t miss something.
  • Sewing: I have a varied list of stuff I want to make – dog beds, generator covers, a padded sleeve for the solar panel in my trailer. They’re all tagged with ‘sewing’ so that I can check that filter on the rare occasions that I break out the sewing machine.
  • Charity: itemized lists that went to Goodwill or other charities, receipts for “X-a-Thon” entries that my friends do, random donations – these all get tagged with ‘charity’ to simplify the report at tax time.

Evernote-ToDoTo-Do Lists

I’ve already conceded that Evernote is not the best To-Do manager, but I have adapted it to do exactly what I need it to do. My “!Personal To-Dos” stack (note the “!” that sorts it to the top of the stack list) contains various notebooks that serve to both prioritize and categorize. This stack is by far the most fluid in my Evernote scheme.

  • Now, Soon, and Back Burner are prioritization tools. Notes get edited and moved around frequently between these three.
  • The Bay Team notebook started when I was on the Board of Bay Team, but I use it now to keep track of other responsibilities I have for the club, like ordering awards. And I added Dog to combine two related notebooks into one.
  • Blog Ideas? Self-explanatory. I have lots of ideas, and every once in a while they come together in a post like this one.
  • The Stuff to Get Rid Of notebook includes notes for Freecycle, Goodwill, Craig’s List, Ebay, and Bay Team (agility stuff). It gets updated every time I venture into the garage.
  • The Travel Trailer and Echo Lake notebooks get updated with ideas every time I go to the lake or travel in the trailer. I consult them on weekends when I’m looking for something to do.

Evernote-EventsEvent Tracking

My “Personal Events” Stack contains notebooks for all upcoming events that have more information than can easily be stored in a calendar entry. I use a strict naming convention so the notebooks sort in calendar order. Once the event is over, I simply delete the entire notebook. If there is a deadline involved (like sending a trial entry), the new Reminder feature helps by sending a message on whatever device is running Evernote. The actual notes for each event vary with the type of event. Here are some examples:

  • Concerts/Shows: Tickets, web site, receipt, google map to site, nearby restaurant ideas and menus
  • Dog Shows and Seminars: premium/application, confirmation letter, receipt, web page, RV information, timeline estimates, worker schedule, notes to myself if I’m on the microphone
  • Travel: plane ticket receipt, hotel confirmations, ideas for things to do when I get there, and websites

Evernote-HomeImpHome Improvement

I could not have managed my recent kitchen remodel without Evernote, and I’m still using it for ongoing household projects. Each room or project has a notebook in the “Personal Home Improvement” stack. Here are some examples of the notes that go into the individual notebooks:

  • Web clips: I spend a lot of time surfing for ideas for furniture, lighting, carpet, flooring, accessories, you name it. When I find something that might matter, I can stick a web clip into the appropriate notebook with just a few clicks. Same is true for ideas that I find on Houzz.
  • Images: I take a lot of photos when we go shopping for ideas – tile and floor samples, cabinet organization ideas, lighting, again, you name it. The photos all get sent straight to the appropriate notebook for future reference. This is also how I kept track of business cards – snap a photo and put it in Evernote – since it gets OCR’d, I can find the card by searching for text (like “tile”).
  • Ideas and Notes: Wish lists, ideas for specific areas, notes for the contractor, shopping lists.
  • Measurements and Plans: Everything got measured and drawn: existing furniture, room sizes, available space in drawers and cabinets, etc. This made it easy to avoid making mistakes when shopping.

Evernote-DigitalLifeDigital Record Keeping

I got this idea from Jamie Todd Rubin, Evernote’s Paperless Lifestyle Ambassador. Great blog with an RSS feed so you don’t have to miss a single update. I haven’t fully implemented all of his ideas, but I’m off to a good start. Here are the notebooks I’ve been developing:

  • Information Panels: I can’t think of a better way to keep track of serial numbers and model numbers. Take a picture of the information plate on each of your appliances and electronic components, store it in the notebook. If you need it for warranty service or parts ordering or even an insurance claim, they’re all right at your fingertips.
  • Manuals: Many manuals are available for download from the manufacturer web sites. I have started collecting them in a notebook so they’re easier to find. I haven’t quite gotten up the nerve to dump my paper collection, but that time will come.
  • Vehicles (Pink Slips and Insurance Cards): Take a photo, store it in a notebook, have it when you need it.

Miscellaneous Information

  • Recipes: Someone posts a recipe on Facebook that looks interesting? Clip the selection to Evernote. Your favorite food blog? Clip the URL to Evernote. That recipe for your mom’s fondue that is floating around on a piece of paper getting ruined? Enter it (by typing or snapping a photo) before it gets lost forever.
  • Project Research: Similar to my home improvement stack, I start a notebook every time I think about or embark on a new project of any sort. Most recent example? We’ve been looking for a new boat for the lake for years. I trapped all of my research, pricing, information, contacts, etc. in one place. I finally bought the boat of my dreams last summer – no longer need the research information, so poof, it’s gone.
  • Work: I haven’t even begun to go into my work usage – maybe that will be a separate installment. In a nutshell, everything I do or think about doing at work goes into Evernote. Keeps me focused in the face of interruptions, and serves as the basis of great documentation.

Apps and Services Integration

The list of apps, services and accessories that integrate with Evernote is growing daily – you can get an idea by browsing the Evernote Market (formerly called the Trunk). I check back every once in a while to get new ideas, plus I google periodically to see what others are doing.

The most important service I currently have integrated with Evernote is FileThis. Over the years, I have gone paperless for as many of my financial services as possible and store all of my statements in PDF format. Until recently, that was a tedious process of going to each web site to download the monthly statement. FileThis is a service that does all the work for me, automatically, and drops the PDF into Evernote. It supports all of the major national financial and utilities companies, and recently even added support for my local credit union. I don’t actually leave it there – I use it as a trigger to reconcile against Quicken, save the PDF, then delete it. I can also see the value of leaving them there because all of your credit card transactions would be searchable. FileThis has three plans – as with Evernote, you can start with the free version and work your way up if the added connections and frequency add value:

  • Free: 6 connections, weekly update
  • $20/year: 12 connections, weekly update
  • $50/year: 30 connections, daily update

Disclaimer: Yes, I do have to provide the web credentials for each vendor to FileThis. I am confident in their security, but I don’t recommend doing anything online that makes you uncomfortable.

Thank you for reading my Evernote Guide. I haven’t covered every detail of how I use Evernote, but I hope I’ve given you enough ideas to get you going on your own path to Evernote success!