In my last post I mentioned that I was experimenting with a daily email and that I’d let you all know when it was out of “beta”. Well, we are a month and a half in now and I feel pretty good about it. It’s called Why is this interesting? and it’s a collaboration between myself and Colin Nagy with the occasional guest post. Subscribe if that sounds interesting. Thanks! – Noah
I keep a backlog of email ideas to help stave off the feeling of despair that can arrive around 3pm when Colin and I haven’t figured out the next day’s edition yet. One of the items on the list for awhile has been “how I use Evernote.” It probably would have remained there if my friend Dave hadn’t messaged me yesterday morning asking to remind him of the name of the “thing I use to file all the articles away”. I told him Evernote and felt inspired enough to write it up as an email.
Why is this interesting?
Digital archiving is a core part of my life. I like to read and research (hence this email), and all those words have to go somewhere. I first became enamored with the idea after reading Steven Johnson write about his use of archiving software to keep track of his book research. From a piece he wrote for the New York Times in 2005:
… if the modern word processor has become a near-universal tool for today’s writers, its impact has been less revolutionary than you might think. Word processors let us create sentences without the unwieldy cross-outs and erasures of paper, and despite the occasional catastrophic failure, our hard drives are better suited for storing and retrieving documents than file cabinets. But writers don’t normally rely on the computer for the more subtle arts of inspiration and association. We use the computer to process words, but the ideas that animate those words originate somewhere else, away from the screen. The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn’t yet changed the way we think.
DEVONthink, Johnson’s tool of choice, was bridging that gap. “Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster,” Johnson wrote. “Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.” Unfortunately, I (and many others) found DEVONthink was way too overwhelming to set up and use regularly.
Some of that was solved by cloud and syncing, but to be honest the space hasn’t developed as much as I thought it would in the last 14 years. I suspect there are two big reasons why. First, personal productivity software is a famously hard nut to crack. While there’s abundant energy to be more productive, motivation can quickly fade and declaring task bankruptcy is never more than a new app away. Second, especially in this realm of archiving, the audience is limited to writers, researchers, and super-nerds like myself. This presents a tough product and business problem, as companies try to find the line between being a personal and a professional system. Evernote’s growth and subsequent challenges are a good illustration of what can happen if you get stuck in the middle. Those challenges have left the space with very few players. Evernote is the leader who leaves much to be desired, OneNote is bundled with Office and seems fine if that’s your thing, and Notion is a new app that does a little of everything, including, they claim, replace Evernote. (I’ve purposely left off the pure note taking apps because I consider that a different category.)
Ultimately I’ve stuck with Evernote for a few reasons: It’s got the best browser extension by far (you can grab full text and add highlights to any article), it offers full text PDF search (I archive a lot of research papers), and the PDF highlighting with cover pages is better than any other I’ve seen (they pull all your highlights out to a cover page with just the good stuff). From there my usage is reasonably simple. Everything I find or read that’s interesting gets put into the system with some loose categorization (since the main purpose is search, I don’t worry too much about that). If I’m on my computer the browser extension does the trick and if it’s my phone, I use mobile Safari reader mode (the four little lines on the left side of the URL bar) and then email the full text to my secret Evernote email with an @ at the end of the subject that the system parses to put it in the right folder. Again, since it’s about finding things again I tend towards over-save, throwing anything that seems moderately interesting into the archive. I also use IFTTT to automate some saving, including pushing all my Tweets and YouTube likes directly into the system.
While it’s far from perfect, I use Evernote multiple times a day and it’s become my outboard brain, allowing me to recall articles I’ve read or papers I’ve discovered in an instant. It’s basically a personal search engine for me.