Improve Your Productivity with Evernote & Find Things Fast

October 26, 2017

As “Jacks of All Trades,” we in nonprofit work spend some portion of our time each week being knowledge workers. As such, we have to acquire, analyze and manipulate information.

Because the volume of information coming our way can be vast and there is often a need to retrieve it down the road, we need a simple system for storing and finding things later. Without such a system, the longer the passage of time that exists between saving and retrieval, the greater the finding frustration, as shown in the diagram below.

As Time Moves on, Frustration in Finding Things Escalates without Evernote

With such a system, the frustration in finding things later is minimal, no matter how much time passes between saving and retrieval, as shown in the diagram below.

Frustration in Finding Things Later is Reduced with Evernote

I want to show you how I use Evernote as my system for storing selected email, attachments and other items saved from the Internet and for quickly retrieving them later. This system depends for its integrity on (1) Establishing principles for where we store things and why, (2) Using the Evernote Web Clipper (available for Chrome, Outlook, iOS and Android) and (3) Developing a coherent system of Evernote Notebooks and Tags.

1. Improve Your Productivity with Evernote: Develop Principles for Where Things are Stored

As we will see in a moment, I store a lot of email, attachments, PDFs and other material saved from the web in Evernote, rather than on the hard drive of my computer.  My rule for what goes where is pretty simple:  I want to have on my hard drive those documents that any person who might have to pick up after me and run the nonprofit would need to be able to do so. So, there are board meeting agendas and minutes, policies, procedures, financial information and tax returns, etc.  I also have a folder for each board committee, containing documents relevant to the work of each. Board members can log into a special page on our website where there are view only links to these folders and documents, which are backed up to the Web via Dropbox and Google Drive.

2. Improve Your Productivity with Evernote: Use the Web Clipper

Everything that is not stored in one of the above-referenced folders is in Evernote. And typically it lands there via what I think is Evernote’s most valuable feature: the Web Clipper. The Web Clipper is available for Chrome, iOS, Outlook, and Android.  Below, I’m going to give you a taste of how it works in Chrome for clipping things from the Internet and from Gmail.

Let’s say I’m doing some research on best accounting software for nonprofits and I want to save items found on the Internet for later. I first need to install the Evernote Web Clipper Extension for Chrome.  After successfully doing that, my menu bar should look like the image below:

Evernote Web Clipper Extension for Chrome

To use the web clipper, all I need to do is click on it.  It will them prompt me for several kinds of information, especially Notebooks and Tags.  Let’s discuss each briefly and then see how to use them together to store clipped items and retrieve them later in Evernote.

A. Evernote Notebooks

In Evernote, Notebooks are like folders in Windows.  Many people make the mistake of mirroring their Windows folder structure in Evernote. I say this is a mistake because I believe that part of Evernote’s true power is in the use of Tags to find things rather than Notebooks.

Evernote limits you to 250 different Notebooks.  But you can have up to 100,000 different Tags. I have only a few Notebooks in Evernote.  Among the ones I will share with you are “*Cabinet,” “Read Later,” “Receipts” and “Scanned Documents.”

*Cabinet is the place for nearly everything I capture with the Web Clipper. Given its importance, I put an asterisk in front of the title so that this Notebook will appear at the top of my Notebook structure. “Read Later” is the place where I store things to read when I have time. “Receipts” is pretty self-explanatory. I use my phone to scan into Evernote those receipts I need to save for reimbursement or tax purposes. Finally, “Scanned Documents” is the default folder for things scanned into Evernote from the Scan Snap Evernote Scanner that sits on my desk.  (You can find out more about this scanner on my Resource Page).  Most of the scanned documents are sent to *Cabinet or Receipts after scanning.  Others go directly to a Dropbox folder on my hard drive.

B. Evernote Tags

Now to one of Evernote’s most important features: Tags. The beauty of Tags is that they allow you to find the same document in many different ways.  But you have to have a good system of tags to take full advantage of this Evernote feature.  The system I’ve adopted is one I borrowed and adapted from Michael Hyatt.  Here’s how it works.

I have 4 kinds of tags, each represented by a symbol and a word:

(1) .what: The “period what” Tag allows me to classify the item according to “what” it represents.  The period symbol allows all of the tags of this kind to be sorted together. For my nonprofit land trust, the “what” Tags align with the major board committees as follows:

  • .property (for things I save related to particular conservation properties)
  • .commfund (for things related to communications and fundraising)
  • .stewardship (for things related to stewardship activities)
  • .acctfin (for things related to accounting and finance)

It’s important to keep the number of these “what Tags” to a minimum of not more than 20 or so for the system to remain viable as a search tool.  You really need to be able to remember the “what” Tags to be able to find things quickly.

(2) *who or **who: The “asterisk who” Tag allows me to classify items according to who is involved. I use a single asterisk for an entity and a double asterisk for a person. Some examples are:

  • **me for things related to me or things assigned to me
  • *Land Trust Alliance, which is the national umbrella organization for U.S. land trusts
  • *ns for things related to my organization, NeighborSpace
  • **Bob King for things related to my board chair

Chances are good that you are going to have many more *who or **who tags than any other type.

(3) >when: This Tag is used to be able to find things by year or by special event. An example is “>2017 Rally:” which I use as a Tag on all of the notes I’ve clipped into Evernote about the 2017 Land Trust Alliance Conference, known as “Rally” (e.g., Amtrak E-ticket, hotel reservations, conference schedule).

(4) ^context: This Tag provides additional context. I will add it as a way of helping to organize specific information related to projects. For example, we have a consultant developing management plans for our properties at the moment. This work falls under our stewardship committee. So it already has “.stewardship” as a Tag.  But as a way to help me quickly find the emails, attachments and other things the consultant has sent me, I have added a context Tag “^management plan work” to these notes.

It’s important to understand that not every note is tagged with all of the foregoing types of tags – that would be overkill.  But most typically get a “.what” Tag and a “*who” or “**who” Tag.

3. Using Notebooks and Tags to Improve Your Productivity with Evernote

So let’s see how this system works in clipping items from the Internet.  To clip in Chrome, I simply click on the Web Clipper on the page I want to clip into Evernote and the following menu appears:

Chrome Evernote Web Clipper & Saving Items from Internet

We need to assign the Note to a Notebook and then add Tags. I’ve added two tags a .what Tag, “acct&finance” & a *who Tag, “*ns.”  (I work with a lot of nonprofits, so the “*ns” Tag helps me find things specifically related to the nonprofit I run).

The Web Clipper works the same way in Gmail. Below, I’ve used the web clipper to grab an email and related attachment dealing with creating a new chart of accounts for my organization. This really doesn’t meet my litmus test for saving in my Windows folder structure, so I decide to clip it to Evernote. Note that the file attachment is clipped to Evernote along with the body of the email.  It is important to understand that you  can open the file attachment, edit it with software on your computer, and save it and those changes will be saved to the copy of the file attached to the Note in Evernote.

Evernote Web Clipper & Clipping Email

4. Improve Your Productivity with Evernote: Find Things Fast

Now let’s see how easy it is to find these things later.  I have roughly 6,000 notes in Evernote so, a good system of Tags is essential for me to remain productive.  The first step in finding things is typically to navigate to the correct Notebook.  I know that the Notebook I saved things in is called *Cabinet.  Below, you can see how the asterisk makes it sort first in my notebook list.

Using symbols to sort Evernote Notebooks

Within my list, I now want to find the items I “clipped” into Evernote.  To do this, I use a simple keyboard shortcut, which consists of “Ctrl” and “q.”  That produces the following list in Evernote:

Finding Things Fast in Evernote

Note that in the above view, my search yields a total of 116 notes with the .acct&fin tag.  I find the most recent ones easily by sorting the “Created” column in reverse chronological order.

Here’s what the clipped “Chart of Accounts” email looks like in Evernote:

See Gmail Email in Evernote

Now that it’s in Evernote, there are many more things I can do with it, like printing and sharing via Work Chat or via a simple hyperlink. These additional features of Evernote will be the subject of future posts.  If you’re not yet an Evernote user, check out my review of the various plans, including the plan that’s completely free, here. Use this link to sign up for the plan that’s right for you.  If you’re already using Evernote, consider implementing the system of clipping and tagging I’ve suggested here. No matter what your level of expertise with Evernote, you’ll find this book, Evernote Essentials, by Brett Kelly to be a great resource for learning more about this powerful software product.

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