Making Evernote My Single Source of Truth

Restless today, but with no will to work on anything long, and with an abiding sense of frustration about all my little inboxes.

Spending some time observing how I do things when I’m not thinking about them much taught me that I go to Evernote pretty quickly for just about everything. It fills the space VoodooPad used to, before the iPhone came along and made “must do mobile” so much more important to me.

For instance, Evernote is where:

  • every expense receipt
  • every whiteboard session
  • every quick, ad-hoc note-taking session in front of a computer
  • every web receipt

goes.

Once something is in there, it’s searchable (including handwritten stuff). And like the old Emacs Remembrance Agent, it’s continually updating a list of notes related to what I’m looking at or writing in it.

Evernote has been getting smarter and smarter over time, too. Some time in the past several months I snapped a picture of a whiteboard during a meeting and noticed that Evernote had named the note for the title of the meeting I was in from my calendar.

It’s also got free clients for iOS, Mac and Windows (and the web interface doesn’t appear to be terrible, but I’ve never forced myself to use it for long).

It always feels a little risky trusting a company with something this important, but I kind of do. Evernote has definitely had a few screwups here and there, but the application itself continues to improve. It doesn’t feel like any worse a bet to me than many other applications, and it feels considerably more substantial to me than a lot of other cloud offerings. It’s also possible to get all the data kept in it back out should it ever prove to be headed in the wrong direction.

So I’m going to experiment with making it my single source of truth for a while, just to see how it goes.

Making It a Place for Actions

I’ve tried making general todos fit into Evernote, and it has a reasonable facility for making that work:

If you use cmd-shift-t in the text of a note, you get a checkbox. Then if you search Evernote for todo:true, you get a list of notes with unticked todo boxes. You can drag that search into the shortcuts in your sidebar, and you’ve suddenly got all your todo lists in one place.

That’s pretty good for when you’re sitting in front of Evernote specifically and you’re making a list. The thing it doesn’t really do for you is to turn things from the outside (e.g. bookmarks, email messages) into actions. You can sort of hack that in by editing a note created from an outside source and adding a single checkbox to it.

But that hasn’t really satisfied, and I was trying to use Evernote as a system of notes within folders, and that didn’t feel quite right. So I’ve been hobbling along with either Things or OS X Reminders or legal pads. As much as I’m not a super big fan of GTD as a religious movement, though, I completely get the value of a single source of truth. Because I put so much stuff in Evernote already, I’d like it to be where things can not only become records — things I want to get at and read later —but also actions.

What’s keeping me from that? Not much. Evernote’s a pretty decent inbox. It just needs a few things to make it better, it comes with an awesome AppleScript dictionary, and it has decent integration with ifttt.

So here are some ways to mix all that up and make Evernote a fairly complete inbox/action list.

Working With Paper

I like working on paper, but I don’t like living in paper. I hoped for the longest time that I’d be able to use my iPad as a notebook, but until something better than “draw words with your finger” or “use a stylus the size of an end of a hotdog” comes along, it won’t feel quite right.

I also don’t like dragging my laptop all over the office for meetings where I can get by looking things up on the iPad or jotting notes on a legal pad. Evernote’s all about that: I just snap pictures of my notes in its special document mode and it captures them fine (and even labels them with the name of the meeting I’m in from my calendar).

Working From the Desktop

From the desktop, the Evernote Clipper provides a decent tool for getting things into Evernote.

The clipper can be invoked with ctrl-cmd-n for typing in a quick note. Much like Notational Velocity, the first line becomes the title of the new note. The clipper can also be used to capture files ( cmd-c to copy the file, ctrl-cmd-n to invoke the clipper, cmd-v to paste the file into the clipper).

So that’s as good a way as anything to capture todos and things you want to act on when you’re right in front of the computer.

Working With Email

Lots of actions start life as emails, so I’m always curious about the ways a new tool can capture email in a way that helps me keep the information, but also get back to the original message (for followups).

There are a few ways to deal with email and Evernote:

  • Set up an email address with Evernote to which you can send/forward email messages to turn them into notes. I don’t like the way the resulting notes look (they’re forwarded, so they’re a little harder to parse). That’s still an option if you’re mobile and want to make sure you’ve captured the message.
  • Set up a ifttt recipe that turns any starred email into a note. The formatting isn’t great (linebreaks are removed) and there’s no link back to the mail. Not recommended.
  • Select all the text in the message, copy it, then use the Evernote clipper. This is pretty good, and if you’re using Apple Mail you usually get a link back to the message in the Evernote URL field (making it possible to recall the original message within Mail.app). The one downside to this is that it takes a few keystrokes.
  • Recommended: Select the message itself from the message list, copy it with cmd-c, then paste it with the clipper (ctrl-cmd-v). This copies the message text into the note, nicely formatted, and you get a link back to the message in Mail.app.

If you’re a Mailplane user, by the way, you can also use its Evernote integration to capture messages. It provides a link back to the webpage version of the Gmail message (not, sadly, the Mailplane version).

Working With Bookmarks and RSS (especially when mobile)

So, a few years ago I wrote this thing called panopticon. It was meant to help tackle the problem of turning everything I liked, starred, flagged or saved into an actionable todo item for later review. It knew about:

  • flagged email messages
  • new Evernote notes
  • new delicious bookmarks
  • flagged NetNewsWire items

I’d run it at the end of each day, it’d turn all the stuff into Things todos (with a panopticon tag for easy review), and I’d get a handy tickler list full of stuff I’d seen or had been interested in that I could then either turn into a proper action (or get back to at a later time).

I wrote it in rb-appscript, which was a fine decision at the time: I could automate the interrogation of desktop apps for whatever I was interested in without having to write AppleScript. Apple has since deprecated the APIs rb-appscript depends on, so there’s no point in going back to it for anything I expect to be using in another three years.

However, Evernote has an API and it talks to ifttt just fine. ifttt is purpose-built for this sort of automation. So I don’t really need Panopticon anymore. I just need to use services supported by ifttt, and that’s not a problem at all: I moved to pinboard a while back, and I do my RSS reading with tools that use Feedly as the backend. So I can make ifttt recipes that turn pinboard bookmarks and favorited Feedly items into Evernote notes and dump them into a folder of their own for easy review.

A Mobile Digression

That probably seems a little roundabout, and it is. But it helps with the mobile use case: Moving content around in iOS still completely blows. The built-in share tools involve email or social media, and you have to context switch for everything else. With pinboard and Feedly, however, bookmarks and starred items are usually just a tap away from Mobile Safari, Mr. Reader or Reeder, so ifttt makes it a breeze to capture things from those apps into Evernote on a mobile device.

Probably the real answer here is to start using Android devices. I read the ridiculous workarounds Apple enthusiasts come up with to make it easier to share/act on content in iOS using apps like Drafts, then I think about how unique and completely awesome OS X’s services API is, and I feel very sad. Android completely kills iOS in this area.

Special URL schemes aren’t really an answer here, either. Apps should be able to register as receivers with a global service broker, then be available to every other app that can share the kind of data they’re set up to process. The current system of “hope that the developer of app A agrees that app B is pretty cool and deserves a space on the share menu, or else that they provide a way to peck in a special URL scheme in their configuration tool” is stupid and broken.

Anyhow, ifttt makes it pretty painless to work around all that: Just set up a recipe and accept that the results won’t be instantaneous, but that if you star something on the train, it’ll be in Evernote by the time you finish the walk from Union Station to the office.

And From the Command Line

I recently found Geeknote, which provides a command line interface to Evernote. You can designate the editor you prefer to use (e.g. vim or Emacs) and create notes from the shell. Alternately, you can pipe output into Geeknote and turn it into Evernote notes.

My current use case is weekly analytics reporting: I built an analytics framework in Padrino that I currently use most via the command line and Ruby scripts. It’s dead simple to do this when I need to generate a new report:

ruby recent_posts.rb|geeknote --title 'Recent Posts - 2013-10-12'

and get a new Evernote note with the last 30 days worth of stats.

But What About the Action-ness of This Stuff?

So, that’s all toward getting things into Evernote in a readable format for later review. And I briefly noted that there are ways to make todo lists in Evernote. That doesn’t quite get us to the actionability of these things.

Earlier this year, Evernote introduced reminders. With reminders, you can take a note, append a reminder to it, and optionally assign a due date to it. At that point, it becomes sort of special: It appears in the reminders list for a given notebook where it can be marked as completed. If it gets a due date, you can get alerts via Evernote itself or email.

The UX on this isn’t really ideal yet. Evernote hasn’t yet wired up a keyboard shortcut to turn a note into a reminder, so you have to manually click a link in the UI, then click another link to add a date. It’s a little better in the mobile app, where you can bring up a dedicated reminder view and then create new reminders from there.

Still, you can do some good things with reminders. For instance, if you select more than one reminder in the special list Evernote provides at the top of each notebook, Evernote presents an option to “Create a Table of Contents Note.” Click that, and the resulting list of reminders appear in a new note with links to each reminder. Change the title of the note to something like “Todo:” then press cmd-shift-d to auto-insert the date into the title, and you’ve got an action list for the day.

It would be nice, though, to be able to make notes into reminders without having to reach for the mouse, or do several clicks, so I wrote a quick AppleScript to help with that:

I bound the script to a keyboard shortcut in FastScripts, and now it’s possible to select a batch of notes, press ctrl-cmd-r, and turn them all into reminders with a due date of one day from now.

Systemitzing

So, all that goes toward getting things into the inbox. There are a few ways to think about organizing it all beyond that.

I’m leaning toward tagging items with project names, then dragging project tags in and out of the shortcut bar as I work on them/complete them.

The reminder list at the top of any list of notes always reflects the organization of the main note list, whether it’s based on a tag, a folder or search results. So putting the “freelancers” tag in the shortcut bar means that when I click on that link, I’ll get a list of every actionable note tagged that way at the top of the window, then all the not-necessarily-actionable notes (research material, for instance) also tagged that way at the bottom.

Elephant Graveyard

Here are some things I’ve thought about and/or tried and/or even used for a while, and why I don’t care to use them:

  • OmniFocus: Way too heavy, and its sense of “notes” is too bolted on for my tastes. There are ways to improve the way action item notes present, but I prefer Evernote’s rich text editor. Also, Omni Group is going to be holding its hand out for OmniFocus 2 and OmniFocus 2 for iPad shortly.
  • Things: Slow development (goes toward not really trusting the developers), and it has been crashy recently.
  • TaskPaper: Too simple, and a little crabby when it comes to tabs/whitespace. Also not great for capture of anything more than simple text. I’m also not fond of the author’s meandering development pace.
  • Notational Velocity (or whatever that Markdown-centric fork is): Seems fine, but I don’t get the impression you can leave it open on one machine then open it on another without risking some confusion or corruption. Don’t think it’s good for much more than simple text, doubt it’s good for capture.
  • org mode: I think I’ve been clear on this.
  • VoodooPad: Capture isn’t quite right on the desktop, and it doesn’t have a super useful mobile app.

Wishlist

Which isn’t to say Evernote is perfect. Here are some things I wish it could do:

  • Use Markdown for notes or …
  • at least use styles on top of structured text. I’d like to be able to designate a level 2 heading or a level 3 heading instead of fiddling with physical styles
  • Provide an outline mode inside notes. It doesn’t have to be much, but being able to collapse or expose lines in an outliner would be pretty handy
  • Provide wiki-style linking (you can link to notes now, but it’s a drag and drop operation)
 
  • http://alphaefficiency.com/ Bojan Djordjevic

    I am using Omnifocus and Evernote side by side. While in fact Evernote is great, I find it too cumbersome to be my task manager. However all my “stuff” go in it.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.