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Getting Organized – Goodbye Paper?

[This is the first in a 4 part series of posts about “Getting Organized” , on track and my use of Evernote.]

Getting Organized Series Outline

Do you struggle with organization? Note taking? Note Finding? I do and I could have found the fix for me. Leave a comment for the contest at the bottom and I’ll give you a one year premium account to the tool I’m using. Details are at the bottom.

Maybe this blog post is too early. “They” say it takes 3 months of doing something for it to become a habit. Well, I am writing after experiencing something new that is still new to me and being tweaked but it is really helping.

Yeah - My notebooks
A mockup of a real notebook (even with the doodle)

The Problem Statement

“They” also say a picture is worth 1,000 words. In this case the picture probably represents hundreds of thousands of written words. The picture to the right is an example of what one of my (many) notebooks would look like. Chicken scratch writing, doodles from being on long calls and lost Action Items.

The Problem Statement here could be “I am wasting time writing notes I can’t find or use later, what should I do?”

I normally have a few notebooks in circulation at a time. Some for personal notes, some for blog ideas, some for client work. I have a general idea of where something is but sometimes I start a new one if it isn’t handy. I can’t understand the context sometimes. Maybe that was alright because my note taking used to be more just about writing it once to get it into memory and that worked most of the time. I still did a lot of mental gymnastics trying to recall what a note meant. I also lacked the discipline to go back through all the “Action Item” tags to bring them onto a list. I’ve used many systems (Outlook Tasks, Franklin Covey, Typed To Do Lists, etc.)

Another problem statement? I’m getting sick and tired of paper. I am finding myself hating paper’s clutter a little more each year. (In case my wife is reading – only a little more, that’s why I still have so much πŸ˜‰ but I am getting to where you are, quickly)

Other problems: The notebooks aren’t searchable and aren’t always there; the kids like to cut and draw when they find paper; I look like a fool fumbling through the notebooks; Can you read my writing? I can’t always either; It’s a pain to link thoughts and track them over time… I could keep going.

Yeah.. It's a mac - my first
The inspiration to get organized

An Answer?

No, it isn’t the Mac but the picture shows the simplicity of the solution. It doesn’t require a notebook at all. At work I show up with my Mac Book and phone. At a client I bring the home windows laptop (That over sized, noisy, ugly laptop πŸ˜‰ ) and phone. I always have the windows mobile phone (does that make up for the mac?). If I ever don’t have a device, I probably can get to the internet somehow.

All of these tools allow me to use a new tool in my arsenal: Evernote. They describe their product:

Use Evernote to save your ideas, things you see, and things you like. Then find them all on any computer, phone or device you use. For free.

That’s it. That’s what it does. So far I have used the tool to manage notes, whiteboard images, business cards and it has been enjoyable, usable and makes me want to keep using it. Some tasks I’ve performed:

  • Save notes from meetings
  • Create Action Items with priority and category (Where are they from? Which “Mike” has to worry about them?)
  • Track my spending and eating (why not, I need to be better at both)
  • Remember ideas for blog posts (like this series you are reading)
  • Do things at home that I normally would have “yes’d” and forgotten about (until gently reminded)
  • Started to store links and captures from websites of useful information about a topic of interest
  • Search for previous notes and quickly find them
  • Upload images (White Boards, Business Cards) and search them with decentΒ  (for OCR) results
  • Solve world peace and middle east hunger (Were you paying attention?)

How Have I Done This?

With some tags, folders and typing in Evernote. I keep saying that word, I’m not getting paid to talk about their tool, I just really like it so far. I’ve used the features available in the Mac Client (which is lacking a few things, in my opinion… We’ll get to that in part 2 or 3) during the day. I’ve even downloaded and used the features on the phone, like taking an audio note when I was in need of duct tape and a knife in my truck (it’s not what you think.. I didn’t need a cooler). Evernote is definitely not a task management tool by default and I started using it for searchable notes in “one” place that I won’t clutter my house with. Using the note capabilities, It is working out alright for task management.

I’ll go into more details in the next post where I give you the lowdown on the techniques I am using and some more details.Β  The plan I have for the next posts:

Part 2 – My Evernote Technique – How I use the product, the tags/folders I use and method. Works for me, maybe can help you design your own. Also how I plan on using it to both make my life more search-able and reduce the paper clutter.

Part 3 – Evernote Wish List – Evernote just unveiled a neat “trunk” of apps and there are a few apps I’d still like to see created with a few features I’d love to see in the Mac client. So a small wishlist.

A Contest

Evernote is free and the free features are probably fine for most casual uses, even serious uses in the free version. With a premium account you can get rid of the advertisements, get some neat features (ability to search PDFs, quicker OCR on the Mac client, import more file types, import more data to name a handful) and feel good about supporting a well done piece of software.

So… I want you to have a free upgrade to premium. I will select a name (based on some method I choose, inspire me with your story, I guess) if two conditions have happened: the comment is made before midnight EST on Friday, 7/23 and I have at least 10 comments by that time. Just tell me about your current system in the comments. How do you keep track of this all? How could a tool like Evernote help you? What is your biggest frustration with time and task management? Would you hire someone who essentially starts out a blog post with “I need to be better at time management, note taking and organization?” πŸ™‚

Subscribe to this blog’s feed to see the next posts and the contest winner when announced.

Mike Walsh
Article by Mike Walsh
Mike loves mentoring clients on the right Systems or High Availability architectures because he enjoys those lightbulb moments and loves watching the right design and setup come together for a client. He started Straight Path in 2010 when he decided that after over a decade working with SQL Server in various roles, it was time to try and take his experience, passion, and knowledge to help clients of all shapes and sizes. Mike is a husband, father to four great children, and a Christian. He’s a volunteer Firefighter and EMT in his small town in New Hampshire, and when he isn’t playing with his family, solving SQL Server issues, or talking shop, it seems like he has plenty to do with his family running a small farm in NH raising Beef Cattle, Chickens, Pigs, Sheep, Goats, Honeybees and who knows what other animals have been added!

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34 thoughts on “Getting Organized – Goodbye Paper?”

  1. I have been using onenote (the online version) made available from Microsoft, and although a good tool, it is a PAIN to do most simple things (like maybe print?!?). I ran across someone talking about evernote on twitter (yesterday)…. and in less than 24 hours I have:
    1) Installed on my netbook
    2) Installed on my work desktop
    3) Installed on my home PC

    4) Converted all of my onenote docs (and DELTED them from onenote… I am not going back)

    5) Created our usual travel “packing list” as a checklist in evernote… and turned it over to my wife (she loves it)
    6) Created a shared PASS notebook (which is why I want to win your contest!!!… I want to share edit).
    7) Emailed some pictures… the word recognition is pretty cool!

    I have to say, I am hooked…. and faster than I have been hooked on a piece of software in a LONG time.

    • We have a similar experience with the quick time to hooking, Stefan. Thanks for the comments. I’ll look forward to seeing your comments on part 2 when I post it next week.

  2. Nice write up, Mike!

    For years I carried a Moleskine notebook to journal the business day in – who I met with, what I/they said, notes I’d need later, etc. But it was lacking in many, many way. More on that in a future blog I’ve got scheduled. Anyway, I started using EverNote a few weeks ago and love it.

    Looking forward to installments 2 & 3.


    • Hey Joe – The moleskine is nice. I’ll actually mention that in Part 2, sort of. I’d be looking forward to reading your future post on the lack it has on your blog. Hope you and your tribe are well πŸ™‚

  3. Good post! My relationship with Evernote has been off an on for almost a year. Some of the uses you listed have peaked my interest. I’m off to the app store to get it on my iPhone.

    • Sounds great, James! Let us know how it works out. I’ll talk about my technique next week. It has worked out well so far.

  4. Mike, I tried this on my BlackBerry (*only*, which was probably a bad idea)…and quit after 2 days. This was a long time ago though. I’ll probably give it another shot and install it on my laptop and home PC after I read installment 2. πŸ™‚

    I’m excited!

    • Hey Janice! Thanks for the comment πŸ™‚

      Yeah, If I just saw the Windows Mobile version of this app, I wouldn’t go further. What sold me was the web and mac app. Just installed the Windows app for the first time on the home laptop to look at. From some comments out there, I fear I’ll like it better than the mac app but even that works fine for me. Not too much noise and features I’ll never use but get “confused” by.

      I’m looking forward to hearing about your adventures with giving it a shot after the next parts next week.

  5. Interesting. I’ve never heard of this before. I’ve been trying to become more organized and I just feel so scattered with all of the different gadgets I have (iphone used as an ipod touch, android, laptop, work computer, home computer, zune, etc.) I’m going to have to give this a try in the hopes that it brings all of my documents together.

    • That is one of the selling features for me -> It works on all of those. And I can scan the paper stuff in. One Tool to Rule them all. Of course I get paranoid about the future of a product with online storage that I am putting my hope and faith into (more on that in part 3) πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. I’ve used EverNote mostly as a free replacement for OneNote. It works reasonably well and I just don’t use enough larger files to come close to maxing out my free account at this point. Of course, your story does remind me of http://thedailywtf.com/Articles/Web_0_0x2e_1.aspx – one of the better stories that keeps propagating through that site in the comments.

    Of course, I appreciate that EverNote is cross-platform, though I do wish the WM client was more full-featured. (Of course, I realize that WM is pretty much dead with all efforts on that side pointing @ WP7.) It’s been nice to just enter notes, categorize, tag, and sync so they’re available everywhere.

    And yes, I was paying attention to all of your uses for Evernote. πŸ™‚

    • Glad you were paying attention πŸ™‚

      I like OneNote also though. I agree on the WM client as the proud owner of a WM 6.5 device. But I will add that the simplicity -> two clicks and I am typing, speaking or snapshotting a note direct to my “inbox” notebook (more on that in part 2). Agreed though – the syncing is great. All my notes everywhere!

      • Like I said – I wish WM had something similar. Evernote for WM is pretty pathetic. Phatnotes works reasonably well, but doesn’t have the same syncing ability. OneNote for WM is pretty much a joke – no formatting of any sort. Hoping there might be an Evernote client for WP7, but not holding my breath at the moment. I can definitely understand that they might want to hold off to see how well the device does.

        Still, it’s a good intro to Evernote and it is a good program.

  7. Really enjoyed this, Mike. I’ve been using Evernote a little here and there, but plan on using it more and more in the future. Another neat tool I’ve been using for a while for to-do’s is ToodleDo–they have a great website and iOS app (and mobile site) and a lot of powerful features, like goal-setting and such. I wish I could somehow consolidate the two apps into one ultimate app, though. Maybe someday.

    • Hey Jordan!

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I just heard of ToodleDo for the first time today. Maybe someone is already working on integrating the two πŸ™‚

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  9. Hey Mike, great post. I have a hard time getting into the habit of using “productivity” tools like this. Like you, I have developed a habit of leaving pieces of paper all over the place, and recently my fiancee stacked 14 somewhat-filled composition books to demonstrate how unorganized I am. Since I take the train a lot, it is easier to rip out a few pages and stuff them in my pocket, than to carry a notebook. And while obviously it would be better to not have the paper at all, it just seems like the effort to use these tools is a hump I can’t get over. I tried RememberTheMilk for a bit, but still found myself using the Notes app on my iPhone for all sorts of reminders and lists. And I have to use paper sometimes because, in meetings, it can often be perceived that we are surfing or playing scrabble if we are paying more attention to a device (even if we are furiously taking notes).

    Maybe EverNote is worth a try; it’s the very first step (putting down the pen) that seems to be the blocker for me.

    • Aaron –

      You and I are a lot alike in what hampers us. I have tried all sorts of productivity tools and they all didn’t work for me. The biggest reason I am liking Evernote so far (and it is only 2 weeks into it or so but it “feels” different than any other time… “She’s the one! I just feel it!”) is because it is not a productivity tool. It’s a big electronic notebook.. Actually, it’s several notebooks all in one user account. And I can use it on my Windows Mobile, The Web, The Mac, The PC and the work issued iPhone so I always have it. Your explanation of “getting over the hump” is why I don’t use Remember the Milk, Outlook Tasks, GTD apps, etc. My implementation of priorities and tasks would probably make a certified task/time management instructor laugh but it seems to be working and the tool’s ability to just take notes, like I’m used to (only now I can read them because I typed them and I can search them/categorize them) makes it great to use.

      As for the looks. I’ve just come right out and said it at the start, “I’m using Evernote to take notes, I’m paying attention but the typing is note taking only”. I was in a vendor meeting with our NetApp vendor the other day, I had tons of questions (first time working with NetApp) and I took furious notes in the tool. I created some action items (that is still a bit manual but less likely to lose them than the notebook tasks) and most importantly –> All that good knowledge I can read anytime. If I was with a notebook, scrap of paper, index card, stickies (my old style), the info in my head would be usable.. The notes would be scribbled over when taking quick info and in about 2 months when I was sick at looking at the pile on my desk they’d be recycled… Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself, this is all Part 2 stuff for next week’s posts πŸ™‚

      And yes – putting down the pen is tough. I’m strange in that sometimes a “nice” and “comfortable” notebook and a good pen make me just want to write something. I like putting pen to paper. But so far I’m actually alright with it most of the time and if I want to write something down, I can just scan it or photograph it and let the OCR grab it (or most of it) and throw the paper away πŸ™‚

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  11. Mike, I enjoyed your blog post. I am always looking for ways to get things out of my head and into a system that I can use to be more productive. I have been using Microsoft OneNote exclusively for this, but after reading your post I went out and downloaded Evernote to check it out. I just need to spend a little more time figuring it out.

    I do look forward to reading your series on this.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cameron. One Note is also a great tool. I like the price point and “any device/online” visibility of Evernote. Evernote doesn’t have as many features/options as OneNote. To some that is bad. To me that just means I’m more likely to use the tool than get lost in features πŸ™‚ I’d be interested to hear how you do task management/productivity with OneNote, perhaps a topic to blog about? πŸ™‚

  12. I’ve been trying to use tasks in gmail (I’ve used OneNote in the past also but no longer have a Tablet) but find I always tend to slip back to paper lists. I take great pleasure in having a paper list of marked off items that I can then tear off and toss and having a clean new sheet.

    Evernote looks interesting. The photo, scanning, OCR and indexing features are interesting.

    • Hey Brandon –

      Thanks for the comment. I hear you on the paper and checkmarks. My problem? I’m not consistent with it and I misplace (or misuse) the paper with the tasks. There is one feature in Evernote i’ll be talking about in Part 3 that gives me most of that same feeling of satisfaction as the paper list with tick boxes.

  13. I have ADD something fierce (something that drives @thenovicechef nuts!). At work I have several notebooks with no discernable order. One page may have meeting notes and some tasks, others notes taken from webinar or SQLSaturday, another has stick figures fighting a T-Rex (true story). In the last few months I’ve been trying to organize myself by somewhat doing the GTD methodology. I’m currently trying to read the book but…see first sentence. On iPhone I got Appigo’s Todo and also got their Notebook app via Twitter giveaway which is nice because they integrate and also sync up with Toodledo.com (which I upgraded for purposes of getting subtasks and other goodies) but haven’t found a method that just clicks and I stick with. I’m looking forward to reading your whole series!

    • You may want to just look at the GTD diagram. There are a couple out there. The diagram pretty well summarizes the whole process. Do immediately if < 5 minutes. Categorize/defer if longer than 5 minutes. Here's one diagram/workflow that works pretty well:


      Of course, the harder part is really sitting down to plan out what you need to tackle and then focusing on those. ADD makes it worse when you see (e.g.) a tweet that catches your attention and next thing you know you've responded to @buckwoody and the rest of the #sql gang and lost an hour. πŸ™‚ Great socializing perhaps, but not necessarily helping with getting your work done.

      I've appreciated this way of looking at Evernote. Pretty neat stuff. However, if you've read David Allen's tech methods, he was doing this all with built-in Palm software – no special stuff needed. Me – I tend to use Outlook tasks the most, but I can see some of the Evernote benefits.

      • The cool thing here is you don’t need evernote for this. I happen to like it because of the features I’ve been mentioning but it is really doable with anything, You could theoretically do it with paper notebooks but I get lost that way and disorganized. I used to use outlook tasks but I couldn’t use those to take the meeting notes and the searching wasn’t great, adding notes wasn’t always simple and I never stuck with the tasks in the format. Outlook search folders tagged as the priority lists I described in Part 2 would maybe work.

        Anyway you hit the nail on the head is sitting down and planning things out and then doing.

        And Jorge – Thanks for the comments. So far I think I am cool with just the one app in Evernote, and really the free version seems to do most of what I need but the upgrade gave me more space.

  14. Great series, Mike, I’ve clipped all 4 to my Evernote notebook. I’m struggling with the same thing, torn between digital and analog, but have been using Evernote for a few years now, first with my Windows laptops and Windows Mobile phones, now with my Macbook Pro (mostly running Windows 7, though) and iPhone.

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  16. Hey Mike – so, I am too late to be in the contest running. πŸ˜‰ But this sounds like a fabulous tool. I have business tools to manage my tasks, projects and goals at work. And, I have made a New Year’s resolution to leave work at work. πŸ™‚ But, in terms of my personal life – I see where this could be extremely beneficial to consolidate some of the things I do with different resources into one place – like the resources calorie counter websites offer, household budgeting, meal planning, creating a schedule for all of the things I have to do to keep the household running efficiently – vacuuming, caring for the animals, chores. Etc. You get the idea. So, thanks for this resource. Going to check it out now. πŸ™‚

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  18. I *really* want to use my iPad as a more efficient productivity tool. I think Evernote may be my key. Thanks for sharing what’s working for you.

  19. I have been a paper person for years. I was one of the 1st I knew of to get a Franklin Planner. I also attended a Franklin seminar and for years I went back and forth always missing my Franklin. I went from Franklin to Palm planner back to Franklin. Franklin to Blackberry planner, back to Franklin. Franklin to Evernote. This is the first time I am not going back. I can access my notes, plans and life from anywhere and I don’t have to worry about where my Franklin is. I only have to know where my iphone or nearest computer is. I am forever and Evernote person. I haven’t looked at a Franklin catalog or website in over a year. I am well on my way becomming paperless and it feels great.


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