Using Evernote as a Brain Extension

Last summer, American writer Nicholas Carr prompted heated debate online when he released his book “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember” The book was a development on the ideas he had previously explored in an earlier essay he had written for The Atlantic magazine under the contentious title ‘Is Google making us stupid?

In it, he posited that our brains are literally being rewired through constant Internet use. Having the sum collected product of all human knowledge available at our finger tips at all times causes us to be, mentally at least, in a permanent state of hunter-gatherer. Ever on the quest for new information.

This means we have forgotten how to focus and take the time to process the information we already have, which leads to a generation of people who are losing any kind of attention span. One who will only read superficially and, once they find their attention wandering, click away to seek out the next tiny nugget of information that will momentarily satiate the constant need for new input.

Technophile that I may be, I do still have to concede that, to a degree, he may have a point. I am sometimes prone to what Mark Zuckerberg calls ‘The Facebook trance’ and I do feel like my attention span is maybe a bit shorter these days than it was when I was younger. Is that something that we need to worry about though?

Even if it turns out to be true, and the jury is still well and truly out on that, when you consider the great advances that the Internet brings us all, is it a worthy trade off? We have all come to rely on the immediacy of the Internet and many of the advances it brings have heralded new methods of organisation, collaboration, creativity and productivity which wouldn’t have been imaginable, never mind possible, even just a decade ago.

The one tool I personally could not live without is Evernote. When I say I view Evernote as an extension to my brain, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve been using it for about three years and it has become such a vital tool in my day to day life I really can’t imagine how I’d stay organised and creative without it.

Note: Evernote comes in two flavours, free and paid for. I use the paid version which allows you greater storage space and offline access, but almost everything I describe should be possible with the free version too.

So what’s so great about Evernote that I can’t live without it? I’ve always been of the opinion that creativity lives in the area between two or more ideas colliding. It’s why brainstorming works. Throw as many ideas out as you can, then spark them against each other to see which ones ignite and take you to new ideas greater than the sum of the parts. Well, Evernote is REALLY good at bringing all your ideas together and serving up exactly the right ones just at the point they are most useful.

The same goes for writing in a more general sense. The ability to pull together previous research when writing a report or essay speeds up the process and allows you to arrive at conclusions you may not have otherwise. Consider the opening of this article. I wanted to write an article on how I view Evernote as an extension to my brain and wanted something punchy to open with. I searched my notes for ‘brain’ and came across the original article by Nicholas Carr which I ‘clipped’ a year ago. I probably wouldn’t otherwise have thought of that article right at the point I was writing this one, but it was a perfect counter to the points I wanted to get across.

What really makes it such an invaluable tool is the fact it is so ubiquitous. If you have an Evernote account, you can access it from more or less anywhere. There are apps for android, iPad, windows phone, iPhone and blackberry. There are also installable versions for Windows and Mac but even on a machine where it’s not installed, you can access it via any web browser. There’s even a tiny bookmarklet called the web clipper that you can save to your browser which allows you to save as a note the entire webpage you are currently viewing with just one click. Wherever you happen to be, you can view, edit and add notes. If you’re offline, it will remember any changes you make and automatically synchronise it across all your devices invisibly as soon as you are online again.

Always being available makes it easy to get notes in to the system. You can use it to organise the notes you scribbled on the back of an envelope during an important call by photographing it with your phone and uploading to Evernote. Once you upload it, they will scan it using OCR so your writing will be searchable. You can use it directly to take notes in a meeting or even just generally organising your thoughts.

But as well as typing up notes, or drawing quick sketches on the touchscreen of your phone, you can use it for example, in a store, to quickly snap a photo of an item or it’s barcode that you think would make a good birthday present for your partner, then retrieve the note nearer the time. Or, if you have a thought while driving of something you have to do later, record a quick voice memo, with the push of one button, to jog your memory later when you can do something about it.

Of course, there would be no point using it to capture all your thoughts and ideas if you had no way to find what you needed when you needed it, which is why Evernote allows you to sort notes into separate notebooks as well as tag each note with relevant keywords so you can later quickly and easily locate just the notes you are looking for.

And the more you use it, the more you want to use it. Once you begin to trust the system, you find yourself using it for absolutely everything. Looking back, I made my first note in Evernote on 1st April 2008, back when it was still in beta. I dipped my toe into the service at first, but over time, I have gradually found myself using it to fulfil a number of roles.

For example, I’ve been intending to write a piece about Evernote for a while, but was prompted to get started when I was recently emailed this article to my work address. I didn’t have time to read the article there and then. What I used to do in this situation was hang onto the email that had the link and have it clogging up my inbox until I finally got round to doing something with it.

What I do now is use the web clipper to capture the entire text and image of the article and tag it #readlater. Once every couple of days when I have time, I will pull up any notes with that tag and read through them. Since it clips the entire article for offline access, and I always have my phone with me, I can read through these wherever I am if I find myself with a spare few minutes, even if there is no phone signal.

I also tagged that article with other relevant keywords such as iPad and Productivity, so if I was writing or researching anything months from now about either of those two subjects, I’ll be presented with that article again.

I use Evernote as a place to store and organise all my bookmarks so I can easily find sites again later on. I used to use but, again, the benefits of having everything in one place far outweigh the merits of a number of individual services. I’ve read of other people use it to clip and organise recipes. Then if they are stuck for what to make for dinner one night, just search for a few of the ingredients they have and it will suggest dishes they could make. or prhaps ake a note when you notice you’re about to, for example, run out of toothpaste and tag it #shopping, then when you go to do your weekly shopping, you can pull up any notes you’ve made throughout the week that you may have otherwise forgotten about. It is also possible to share notes publicly on Facebook or collaborate on notes with specific individuals.

Personally, I also use it to organise all my todo lists and projects using a variation on David Allens GTD method. I use a combination of tags like #nextaction along with context tags such as @work or @home. This allows me a fairly granular control of my task lists. As well as this, I create a new tag for every new project I embark on and use it for all related notes and tasks which allows me to quickly pull everything for a single project together in one place. I always use the format :mums_birthday or :new_car_shopping. I precede the project tag with a colon since this allows me to get an overview of all outstanding projects in one place.

Evernote also encourage third party companies to create apps and services which work with them so you get services like Shoeboxed. Sign up for a Shoeboxed account then once a month, post them all your bills. They will scan them all and upload them to Evernote for you so they are all searchable. Or the Android app Total Recall which records the audio from your phone calls then uploads to Evernote as a searchable note. There is also Egretlist for the iPhone which takes the same basic task management techniques I described above and adds a slick, eyecatching interface to it.

All of this is just scratching the surface. A quick google will find you many articles outlining 5, 7, 10, 14, 20 and even 100 ways to use Evernote. There are probably techniques you can think of that would suit your way of working that I would never dream of. That’s the beauty of the system. It’s so open ended that it can be interpreted and used entirely different ways by different people.

It’s worth mentioning that there are other, similar services such as Diigo, Springpad and Microsoft Onenote. Each one of them is better than Evernote in at least one small area. Onenote in particular surpasses Evernote in a lot of ways, but none of them are quite as flexible and ubiquitous as Evernote, which is why, even though I’ve thoroughly tested all of them, I keep coming back to Evernote.

If you don’t already have an evernote account, you can sign up for free here.

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