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How to Use Evernote as your External Brain


The data stored every day grows at a rate that is four times faster than the global economy!

I will let that sink for a second.

Our appetite for information is far greater than our need for food and even our desire to progress!

And thanks to the digital revolution it is ridiculously easy to generate as well as share data.

So, if you’re like me, most of the inputs you receive from your network circle are digital in nature.

Emails pinging your inbox with updates.

Meeting notes begging your attention.

Instant messages driving home the urgency to respond.

And word documents and spreadsheets overwhelming you with – you guessed it right – more critical information.

BUT All That We Receive Isn’t Actionable

Some of it is just for reference.

Stuff you may need to use in future to assist projects or connect with the right people and solutions.

But given the almost exponential increase in the inputs coming our way, even if all of it isn’t being used right away, simply organizing this data for reference is a major challenge.

As the complexity of our lives grows, our tools need to become more sophisticated and powerful to stay effective.

This is why I ditched my cobbled together set-up and sought a better system to use as my external brain.

After searching for a while, I zeroed in on Evernote. And frankly it’s perfect.

Reasons to Love Evernote:

  • Powerful tagging and search system. The software literally pulls up notes in seconds.
  • Regular feature updates. I don’t need to worry about working with an outdated system. Any time there is a change to the UX or a functionality is augmented, my version of the solution is automatically and seamlessly brought to par.
  • Available on all platforms (PC / Mac / Browser / Mobile Apps). This kind of flexibility makes syncing very effective. I can retrieve and reference information from my laptop, my work PCs and my smartphones or tablets for heightened productivity.

My External Brain: How the Evernote System Works

I could have gone with a very elaborate set-up. But the more I need to think about a system, the more I am “holding in my head”. And as a GTD® practitioner, that doesn’t appeal to me.

So I have come up with something that is simple and logical.

Less is More: Notebooks

I don’t need to have several Notebooks to serve my purpose. I have deleted everything and now work with just two:

** !Inbox (this is where all incoming notes are captured)

** My Notebook (this is where I put all the notes after I have put them through my tagging process)

Notebooks Evernote

Context is Key: Tags

I’ve realized that all the information I receive or generate can be categorized in the context of four descriptors:

Topic (What is the piece of information about?)

Entity (The Person or Organization that has generated the information or will receive it)

DocType (Document Type –  Photo, Meeting Notes, Email Draft, Video)

Project (A Project is an endeavour that requires several steps to complete. Information I receive or create generally pertains to one of the several projects I am involved with at a particular point of time. It can be our GTD Workshops or our next Sufi Comic)

So every time I create a note, I ask myself,

What is This About?”

The answer without fail contains one or all of the descriptors I have discussed above. It is generally a one-liner that goes something like:

This is a [^doc-type] on [#topic] for/by [@entity] regarding [.Project]

To further structure the system and really set the descriptors apart, I have also assigned a special character to each:

# (for topics)

^ (for DocType)

@ (for an Entity)

. (for a Project)

Here are some examples of how I tag notes:

This is an [^email draft] for [@DavidAllen]

This is a [^check-list] for [.GTDWorkshop]

This is a [^comic script] for [.40 Sufi Comics]

This is a [^Web Clipping] on [#Procrastination] for [.GTD]

A word of caution.

Over time the number of tags under each descriptor (or context) will grow. So it is better to create a new tag only for the projects or entities or topics that you are fairly confident will gather more than ten notes.

It is all about priorities.

Here’s a limited screenshot of my tagging set-up. 

Tags Evernote

If you want to deepen your understanding of tags and the workflow, this blog is a great resource.

Why This System Works So Well and Using It

I think the beauty of the set-up lies in its simplicity. I just need to ask myself one question to retrieve any type of information:  

What Do I Want?”

The answer is a combination of topic, document type, project or entity. I simply put the first tag that comes to mind into the search bar.

The great thing is that I just need to get one right – for it to show me the note that I’m looking for.

To start using this system:

  1. Download Evernote
  2. Create two notebooks “!Inbox” and “My Notebook
  3. Make “!Inbox” your default notebook. This is where you’re going to capture all your incoming notes
  4. Organize your tags by descriptors
  5. Once a week bring your Evernote “!Inbox” to zero by categorizing its contents with the appropriate tags and moving the notes to “My Notebook”
  6. Anytime you want to search for a note, use shortcut Ctrl+Q and type the descriptor that comes to mind

It literally can’t get easier than this.

Once you start trusting the fact that you have a reliable external brain and your creative human brain doesn’t have to act as a filing cabinet, you experience freedom.

Information becomes beautiful again instead of overwhelming you with its sheer volume.

Try it!

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