How I try to get things done with Evernote

Being a student is hard. Being a graduate student is a little harder. When I was in elementary school, I didn’t really need to keep track of much. I was given my homework assignment at the end of the day, and I would go home and do it before going outside to play with my friends. (Homework didn’t turn into torture until high school.) When I entered college, things got a little more complicated. All of a sudden, I had to keep track of different classes, with different assignments, at different times… And I also had a job and a private life to keep up with.

During my college years, my brain was sharper, and I could do more with it than I can now. I also didn’t need a lot of sleep. Four to six hours were enough. I wasn’t grumpy like I am now if I don’t get at least six hours of sleep. So I managed with notes scribbled on the margins of papers. It was also the dawn of the email era, and almost all of my professors quickly adopted the concept of emailing us assignment reminders.

Once I graduated from college, life was simple again. All I had to remember was when to show up to the lab and work. Outside of work, there was very few to remember. Sure, I had to remember people’s birthdays, or where and when to meet someone on a date or for a get-together. I took care of remembering all that by carrying around a printed copy of the lab schedule and placing sticky notes on a calendar on my fridge.

When I decided to go back for my MPH, it was back to more detailed notes and a paper-and-pen personal organizer. The organizer was bulky, but it served its purpose. The only time I got in trouble was a time I made it all the way to DC before realizing that I had forgotten it at the lab. I wasn’t completely lost because I remembered what I had going on that day, but it was still kind of confusing.

By the time I finished the MPH (in 2007), Google and its services had come into their own. Smartphones were taking off, and laptops were getting thinner. I was able to carry around my email and Google Calendar with me everywhere. Between those two, I was able to keep track of meetings and other special dates. However, I still had no really good way of keeping track of case investigation notes from work, or important documents that should go with those notes.

Thankfully, the advent of the iPhone and similar app-based smartphones pushed innovation in the field of “getting things done” (aka GTD). A ton of apps came out that would allow me to take notes, store them, and look them up later. However, most of those notes were typed, or I had to try and hand-write on an electronic screen. It wasn’t at all like pen and paper. There is no replacement for that.

Then came “Evernote”. Evernote is an application that started off just storing scans of documents and type-written notes. Little by little, the folks at Evernote kept adding more and more to the app, eventually making it a superb application for GTD. Today, Evernote can store a typed note, a scanned document (that I can scan with a desktop scanner or with my iPhone through their app), a web link, a web article, files of almost all types (e.g. PDFs, Word documents), and even set reminders for me. And that whole thing about me loving to write on paper with pen? They have that covered as well.

Evernote and Moleskine (a notebook company) teamed up to create these “smart notebooks” where I can write something down on the paper, using any pen, and I can then use the iPhone app to scan that note into an electronic notebook. Best of all, I can actually search for words within those notes since Evernote does optical character recognition (if your handwriting is good enough). Here’s a note I wrote as part of a journal I kept of my adventure in Colombia. I found that note by looking for “translations” in my notes, by the way.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 7.12.14 PM

Lately, I’ve been using Evernote to keep track of the different projects I’m working on. For example, I use Evernote’s ability to save web links and PDF documents to do research for my thesis. I then write mini-drafts of the thesis proposal in the notes themselves. The best part about saving PDFs is that my notes in the margins are searchable on Evernote as well, whether I wrote them by hand and then scanned in the document or used a PDF annotator (like Evernote’s own Penultimate) to write on the PDF file electronically.

Evernote also has “Scannable,” an app on the iPhone that allows me to scan almost any document and save it to Evernote (like I can do with the Evernote app itself) or email it as a PDF to anyone. The scanning from it is so good that I’ve almost given up using my desktop scanner to scan things. And it is only going to get better as the cameras on iPhones and other smartphones get better, I’m sure. Finally, Evernote also has “Skitch,” an app on the iPhone (and other platforms) that allows me to annotate a picture, or even pixelize a picture to cover something I don’t want people to see. (It’s how I do screen shots of websites and such.)

My workflow with Evernote is pretty simple. I open it up on my phone, tablet, laptop or desktop (depending on where I’m working) and I just write away. If I need to enter a document, I scan it with the Evernote app. If I need to send it to someone, I use Scannable. If I’m at a meeting, I write on a pad of paper and then scan it into Evernote. (If I use the notebook, the scans are a little cleaner and can be read by the optical character recognition.)

I have several different “notebooks” on Evernote, each for the different projects I’m working on. I even have a notebook for blogging. Evernote has a very good word processor with it, so I just write away on it and then later copy/paste the text into the blog. So I can jot ideas for later blog posts as I’m working on other things. (Trust me, I have a ton of ideas come to me throughout the day.)

One of the things that I really like about Evernote is the ability to forward emails to a special email address that Evernote assigns you. That email I forward gets turned into a note, added to a notebook I specify in the subject line, and any attachments in the email show up as files with the note. It’s really handy when I get an email and need to follow-up later, or I get documents related to a project. Later, I open Evernote and get to work on the notes further.

Evernote also has a function called “Work Chat” that allows you to communicate with people who are collaborating with you on a project. You send them a note from your notebook in the form of an email, and they can see, edit, or comment (you decide) on it. You can then keep working on that note to come up with a product.

At the end of the day, I try to keep my head above water when it comes to all the things I’m juggling. From the thesis research (and all that goes into it), to the things I still need to get done and haven’t been able to get around to, Evernote and its associated applications (or “apps”) allow me to at least keep track of notes, documents, emails, and even “to do” reminders. It really has come a long way from when I first signed up for it back in 2010. I also use other apps to get things done, but I’ll talk about those at some other time.

One more thing… If this sounds like an advertisement for Evernote, it isn’t. I don’t get anything for writing this. However, if you want to give it a try, use this link, and I’ll get points that I can redeem toward extending my subscription on Evernote. You get a month of their “premium” service (which is about $50 a year). That’s about as close as I’ll come to being a shill for them. Who knows? You might get a little more organized? On the other hand, if electronic apps are not your thing, I’d love to hear how you get things done and/or keep organized and/or keep yourself from going insane with all the things you need to do each day.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

8 thoughts on “How I try to get things done with Evernote

  1. In some ways, I’m positively a Luddite, for I’m known to still use pen and paper.
    In others, I use collaboration apps at work, Google calendar or even my non-Google synced calendar.
    My notes are infamous for being indecipherable by any but me, both in handwriting that none can read (save pharmacists, who have the ability to read my handwriting), sparse notes with keywords that trigger the entire concept behind that note. But hey, they’re *my* notes, not intended to teach a class, but to remind me of a concept.
    Once, in high school, someone needed my notes. I read through what they couldn’t figure out, they took notes from what I said and they passed that test.

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  2. How does it handle encryption? Sounds like it makes things very easy for the user, but for any research/clinical applications, I’d be concerned about how it handles protection to prevent any PHI getting out where it shouldn’t be, either by being intercepted during transmission, or by a portable device getting lost or stolen.

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      • The company claims that data is encrypted on their servers, however, digging down, the data is not encrypted on customer devices.
        Leaving the most vulnerable part of the chain wide open for exploitation and data exfiltration.
        The company does encourage users to encrypt their devices.

        Quick poll, who here has an encrypted system drive and especially, an encrypted portable device?

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          • Fully encrypts your drive, so even if you lose your device or someone steals it, they can’t simply hack your regular login password and gain access to your files. Probably a simplistic explanation. Wzrd1 could provide a better explanation, as well as recommendations for how to go about it.

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          • My drives on the macs and the backups are encrypted. And the passwords are 15 characters long, with random letters, numbers, and characters. They’ll have to torture me before I tell them I keep my passwords in my wallet. (Joking)

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          • My Mac’s HD and backup HD are both encrypted, not that they’re doing me much good.
            After dinner one evening, my Mac complained of thirst, so I gave it a glass of sangria. Now, I need to replace the MacBook Pro motherboard.

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