Evernote is an extremely powerful tool and with it’s incredible feature set including omnipresence on all devices and platforms it is amongst the essential applications of many. I had an on/off relationship with Evernote for some years, mainly due to it’s instability and a feeling of me and my data being locked in, but in the last two years I have eventually embraced it as my default application for reference material including a premium subscription.

This has happened as a consequence of more stable releases of the application and improved - although still far from perfect - export options. And, to be brutally honest, also due to lack of alternatives.

While Dropbox can store your PDFs and sync them on your various devices, you’ll miss the tagging, OCR and many other functionalities that Evernote provides. Beyond Dropbox, with can be greatly enhanced with various tools and applications on both Mac OS and iOS pushing it closer to Evernote’s feature set, there really is not a single viable alternative. Even without a strong rival Evernote evolved neatly in the last years, but some competition would certainly help this market as it helps every market.

yojimbo-glamourOnce there was Yojimbo, the beloved ‘everything’-bucket of many nerds. While it still exists, it definitely did not keep up with Evernote. Maybe Bare Bones Software, the developers of Yojimbo, also did not want to keep up and focussed their efforts on their other main product, BBEdit. With barely any feature releases over the years, the disappearance of MobileMe and iDisk, on which Yojimbo relied for Mac-to-Mac sync, and with a half-baked iPad version (Wifi sync, sensa iCloud), it is way behind, feeling abandoned by it’s once large user base and potentially also by it’s developers.

Evernote and GTD

If you store every little snippet, note and document in Evernote, you’ll quickly start thinking “why not using it for your task management as well?”. Evernote’s flexible note formatting includes the ability to create task lists and it’s incredible powerful search allows you to find your task lists back. Even to a granularity of searching for incomplete (unchecked) actions (try a search with todo:{false|true}) across all your notes.

For many this is a viable option saving them some hard earned cash that otherwise needed to be invested into not necessarily inexpensive task management suites like OmniFocus and Things. Dependent on your task management requirements Evernote may be just what you need.

In his post about titled “From OmniFocus to Evernote” Fraser Speirs reflects how he employed Evernote to be his trusted and fully integrated system for everything GTD. Just like I have written about in the past, Fraser has recognised the dilution of contexts such as ‘online’ and ‘offline’.

In my GTD system, I would estimate that 95% of all tasks could be done "anywhere": contact someone, send a file, write a thing. The vanishingly few things that can't are not worth planning for. Basically, contexts had lost their relevance in GTD for me. Projects still matter, as do actions, but contexts weren't working.

Following this conclusion he has seen Reference Material becoming more important to him, his projects and actions. OmniFocus is not particular good when it comes to Reference Material (actually I believe Fraser is referring more to Support Material, which is aiding the projects you are working on and different to Reference Material - at least in the original David Allen GTD definition - which is for, well, general reference). You can link folders and files into the note fields of projects and tasks and there are helpful AppleScripts that get you some level of integration between OmniFocus and your file system, including Dropbox if you like, but that is as far as it goes.

Fraser Speirs decided that his Reference Material which already is in Evernote is so fundamental to his workflow that he could and should have is tasks managed in Evernote as well. Using Notebook Stacks that represent his Areas of Responsibility, he created corresponding task list notes for each of them and enjoys the tight integration that Evernote offers with many other services

  • Because so many iOS apps support "send this thing by email", it's easy to get files, images, etc into Evernote from iOS.
  • Reference material or tasks that arrive via email get forwarded to my Evernote email address. I can tag them by adding hashtags to the subject and route them to notebooks using @notebook. I'm using Gmail filters to automatically add some emails to Evernote.
  • I use ifttt.com to archive my Instagram photos into Evernote.
  • I can use Siri to dictate a note by composing an email to my Evernote upload address. Tip: add your Evernote address to your personal address card and give it the label "evernote", then you can tell Siri to "Email evernote".
  • I can tweet to Evernote by sending a DM to @myEN (more info on this here) - this is doubly convenient with "Tap to Tweet" in iOS 6's Notification Center.
  • Although I have switched to Pocket, the web-to-Evernote workflow I documented a while ago is still possible.

Why Evernote is not ideal for GTD

In the above example the main reason why Fraser Speirs implementation works for him is because he has entirely dropped the concept of contexts. He did it by purpose and his system, centred on projects and Areas of Responsibility, works well for him now which is the most important point.

However, if you still need and like contexts you could follow other GTD implementation guides like The Secret Weapon or essentially create an action list by contexts, just like you would do if you would implement GTD with plain text files or paper.

Still you need to appreciate that Evernote is designed to be a bucket for all your notes, plain text, pictures, audio, PDFs or other file types and not specifically developed to manage tasks. The main challenge many will face is that Evernote looks at a task list - or better at a note that contains, amongst other things, tasks - as one solid note. Nearly all task management applications understand the concept of a single task as an entity and allow you to combine, view and search your actions at that level of granularity. This is how OmniFocus Perspective feature works or how tasks with certain tags in Things get displayed if you decide to filter by them. Flagging individual tasks or sorting by due dates is something Evernote is not capable of doing and may never be. This is why it may work for some people as a task management tool, but by far not for everyone.

A fairly good indication that my assessment is not entirely off is the fact that “Evernote Essentials” author Brett Kelly uses OmniFocus as his tool of choice when it comes to task management. There is nothing wrong with that as it just illustrates that still different applications are developed for different purposes.

Evernote for Support and Reference Material

Where Evernote really excels is in keeping your Support and Reference Materials always available on all your devices with fast and easy access. That’s also exactly what I use it for.

Less for Support Materials as these tend to be documents I am actively working on that are not well kept in Evernote while being in progress. Whether these are Excel sheets, Pages documents, PowerPoint presentations or even plain text drafts of blog posts, Evernote really does not integrate too good with my creation, review and edit workflow. Once you have the final version Evernote may well be a good place to store them for future reference.

However, if you work for a big corporation like I do storing any (confidential) business documents on Evernote may get you into trouble with your Information Security Policy. Even though you can have local notebooks in Evernote that do not sync with the cloud I keep professional documents out of Evernote in principle. They live on my local hard drive and that’s it. Also having local notebooks in Evernote feels like you are missing out on 50% of Evernote’s value.

What I really use Evernote for is all my private Reference Materials: Mainly PDFs and web snippets are wha I store in Evernote. When being on the road spotting something of interest I want to remember, like a great wine or nice restaurant, I may even take a picture or make a quick audio note in Evernote on my iPhone.

But the majority of stuff that finds its way into Evernote are invoices, receipts, stuff like insurance contracts and manuals. Many of them get automatically picked up by Hazel from my Downloads folder, renamed and imported via AppleScript straight into Evernote. Others end there as part of my paperless workflow after being scanned with my Doxie Go.

Interesting (productivity) articles from the web, research for my OmniFocus eBook, web design and development tutorials as well as mundane things like recipes or research for a planned purchase are dropped into Evernote via it’s web browser clipping service. Using Pocket lots of articles are saved for reading later and considered valuable once read also get directly imported into Evernote through Pocket’s direct integration.

Evernote 5.0

Evernote has recently launched Evernote 5.0 for Mac as a public beta and also announced major overhauls of it’s iOS version. The new version feature significant improvements of the user interface and interaction design on all platform and are a joy to use. Finally, as we like to say in tech-lala-land, Evernote is polishing the human interface to it’s powerful and useful service and meeting today’s high UI/UX standards. The below video gives you an overview of the Evernote 5.0 for Mac changes and this post on the Evernote blog helps you getting the public beta onto your machine.

I am sure my mate Brett Kelly is frantically updating his eBook to reflect the changes of Evernote 5.0, but meanwhile it is still worth ordering your copy of “Evernote Essentials” as pretty much all tips are still as good and valid as prior to Evernote 5.0. You are missing out if you are a heavy Evernote user and you do not have Brett’s book yet.