I believe Evernote is underutilized as a tool for long-term research and big ideas. In part, this is because a lot of people don’t have a system to retrieve notes that aren’t project related with specific due dates. In this post, I will suggest a few of my strategies for when using Evernote for research and big ideas.
Notes I Don’t Want to Remember
I saw a blog post this morning where I fellow listed his seven “most practical” uses for Evernote. These included using Evernote to save recipes, gift ideas, medical information, pet information, travel ideas, and owner’s manuals. These types of notes fall into a category I call “Notes I don’t need to remember.” I call them my “Steelcase notes” because they are the notes I would otherwise save in a regular filing cabinet. It’s the notes I don’t want to commit to memory, but I know when and where to find them when I need them. That’s fine. I use Evernote to store notes I don’t want to remember all the time.
Pretty much anyone can figure out how to organize notes you don’t want to remember. Notes and tags are just categories of information just like a manila folder in a filing cabinet. So just save these notes and file them the way you would in a regular filing cabinet. And if your filing system doesn’t work out just right, it’s so easy to change it later that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get it right the first time.
Notes I Want to Remember
But by far my largest category of notes are the notes I want to remember. There are my “Big Idea notes.” This category of notes includes everything from marketing ideas, to notes on a lecture I attended, to book highlights, to drafts of things I’m writing, and general research. These notes are notes that, if I could, I’d commit them all to memory. But since I can’t commit my 8,400 notes to memory, I need a system of reminders to put them in front of me when I need them.
How to Recall the Big Ideas with Evernote
How you handle the notes you want to remember is tricky. The problem is that it is impossible to remember all these notes, and so you have to do something to make sure these notes pop up in the right context even after you’ve forgotten them.
We developed Crusoe to solve the problem of how to recall the Big Idea Notes. You can browse the posts in this blog to find out more about Crusoe and how to use it. But since Crusoe isn’t yet available outside of iOS devices, most people need an alternative to Crusoe. Below I discuss a few tactics.
Evernote Note Links
I use both notebooks and tags, but with Big Idea notes categorizing things was never that useful for me. I never open up files in my Steelcase filing cabinet just to look through everything in the file, and neither do I ever think to do the same thing with notes and tags.
What I do think is more like this: “Show me other notes I might have that I think relate directly to the note I’m reading right now.” And note links can help with that a lot.
A note link is a hyperlink to another note in Evernote. If you click and drag the title of one note into the body of another note, that will create a note link. Just click it and Evernote will bring up the other note. If I’m reading one note and another note pops into my head, I put the respective note links in each note so that if I pull up one of those notes, I’ll be sure to see the other. Or if I think of a new idea while reading a note, I’ll capture that new idea in a separate note and then note link the two. I could just put the new idea in the same note that I’m reading, but I can think of three reasons not to do that.
Three Reasons Not to Merge Notes
- Long notes don’t get re-read. I try to avoid adding too much information to a single note because I’ll be less likely to re-read the note later when I’m pushed for time. Multiple notes let you build on what you know.
- The notes you link were saved at different times in different contexts. You lose that context when you lump research into one big note. I will typically write a quick note underneath a note link explaining why I linked the two notes (you can do the same thing more efficiently in Crusoe’s note annotations). This way it is much easier for me to recall the context behind the links.
- One note could matter to you for multiple reasons. When you merge all those different contexts into one note you end up with a long and meandering note. Keep things separate and use note links.
Without note links my notes are like puzzle pieces in a jigsaw puzzle box. The box is the notebook or tag, but the individual pieces or notes don’t make a lot of sense until everything is assembled.
When tags first came out I used to create new ones left and right. At one point I had over 300 tags. Bad idea. I had more tags than I could possibly remember, and I’ve been deleting tags ever since.
When it comes to big idea notes, I don’t use tags much, with one exception…
Book tags: Every time I read a book I create a tag that looks like this: “Frankenstein | Mary Shelly” I maintain that format every time with “[Title] | [Author’s name]” and then I stack those tags in Evernote desktop under the parent tag “Library.”
As I read the book I take screenshots (if I’m reading an ebook) or photos (if I’m reading a paper book) of the pages I want to save. I put the photos in the note and then I tag it with the title and author of the book. This is a much better system than relying on the notes feature in the Amazon Kindle for the reasons explained here.
So note links are ideal, but the downside they take time and diligence (unless you have Crusoe, in which case they are quick and easy). You can develop work flows to speed up the process, but it still requires a big commitment.
So that brings me to search terms. Search terms are a block of stream-of-conscious text I type in the bottom of a note. Here’s how it works. I ask myself what kind of searches I can imagine myself doing in the future to look up this note. For instance, I had an email argument about fish in restaurants with my friend Tom Donovan recently, and in the course of that argument, I found a note in Evernote to send his way. At the bottom of that note I typed: “Donovan email about fish.” I added it to another search term that was already there: “Kerrie won’t eat tilapia.” And there were a couple of others. If you find it easy to remember vulgarities as many memory experts recommend, then add them to your search terms.
Since Donovan is a friend of mine, there’s a good chance I’ll remember this email exchange. I might completely forget about this note, but it doesn’t matter. I often remember email exchanges and so I by combining a friend’s name with fish should give me a narrow enough search result. And it makes sense that if I’m thinking about that email exchange then I want to see this note again (yes, I could just search my email, but hey, this is just an example).
Shoot for uncommon search terms.
Donovan is my friend’s last name. His first name is Tom. A search on “Donovan fish” is going to give me more precise results than “Tom fish.” Likewise “Kerrie tilapia.”
Over time, that email exchange will fade from my mind. In the meantime, however, that note might prove useful in another context. Say my friend Jim blogs about food and there’s something in my note that contradicts something Jim wrote. Jim is too common a name so I might type his full name, his nickname, the name of his blog, whatever. The point is that I keep adding search terms over time in hope that the note will come up in the searches where I want to see it.
Bringing it all together
As I said at the beginning, Big Idea Notes generally don’t have due dates associated with them. Therefore, you need to populate these notes in various ways to make sure they pop up when you could use them.
Note links is my favorite technique to make sure I retrieve important notes I’d otherwise forget. Populating a note with possible search terms—terms that aren’t already in the note—is another way to make yourself stumble across important notes even after you’ve forgotten them.