Revisiting Evernote

About two years ago, I took a look at Evernote (here’s the main Evernote web site), which at that time was still in beta. While I was intrigued with the idea of Evernote, at that time I struggled with getting data into Evernote. The Web Clipper didn’t seem intuitive to me, and I wrestled with how best to use Evernote within my fledgling productivity system.

Since that time, I settled on the use of OmniFocus for organizing commitments and Yojimbo for organizing information (more on how I use these two applications is found in this update on my Getting Things Done setup). Using AppleScript as the glue between the consumption, organization, and creation layers has been tremendously useful for me. While I still have plenty of room to grow and improve, I feel like the system I’ve built really helps me stay productive, in part because it’s transparent (i.e., it doesn’t get in my way).

When I first evaluated Evernote, I wasn’t too familiar with AppleScript and I believe that the Mac version of Evernote had very little or no AppleScript support. With recent releases of the Mac Evernote application, their AppleScript support has improved dramatically, and so I thought I should revisit Evernote. Now that I could use AppleScript to help ease the process of getting information into Evernote, perhaps it would be a good fit into my workflow. In addition, I’d gain the ability to have access to my notes from my Mac, my iPhone, my iPad, and any web browser. Just as OmniFocus is available from any of my devices, so too would my information be available.

I was right about the AppleScript part; I was able to relatively easily adapt the scripts I’d written for Yojimbo to work with Evernote. Combined with FastScripts, this made capturing a URL from Camino or NetNewsWire into Evernote as simple as pressing a hotkey. (If anyone is interested in the scripts themselves, let me know and I’ll make them available.)

Unfortunately, I now find that my system is no longer as transparent as it used to be. The system is now getting in my way. I’ll grant you that some of this could be due to the switch from Yojimbo to Evernote. It takes time to grow accustomed to any change, and this is no different. The question then becomes: is it worth the effort to sustain the change? What benefits will switching to Evernote get me, and what challenges will it introduce? I’ve done a little bit of thinking about this, and here’s where things stand currently:

  • First, everything in Evernote is a note. This means that I have to take extra steps to separate out different data types in the event that I need to view or act upon only certain data types. Yojimbo, on the other hand, has separate data types for notes, bookmarks, images, etc. Is this a big deal? Not a huge deal, but it does introduce a small amount of additional work if I stick with Evernote.
  • Second, Evernote’s UI is terribly clunky compared to Yojimbo’s. Anytime you do anything with tags, the Tags area in the left-hand pane of the Evernote window expands—even if you don’t want it to. Searching for items by tag means using Evernote’s extended search syntax, which is buried at the end of the user’s guide (you’ll need to use something like “tag:ToRead” to find all items tagged “ToRead”). Evernote lacks Tag Explorer-like functionality. There’s no Smart Collections (or Smart Folders) functionality in Evernote, although you can use saved searches; unfortunately, Evernote doesn’t provide a UI for creating saved searches. All in all, it makes working with Evernote more difficult than performing a comparable task in Yojimbo (in my opinion).
  • Third, for Evernote to treat everything as a note, it’s note functionality is surprisingly simplistic. If you use fonts and formatting in your Evernote notes, the iOS versions of Evernote can’t edit them. (To be fair, this is an Apple iOS limitation.) Even when I attempted to convert notes back to the equivalent of plain text using the Simplify Formatting command, some of the formatting remained, and there did not appear to be any way of correcting that behavior. Even more irritating, converting these notes back to plain text equivalent wasn’t detected as a change by the Evernote client, which meant that the updated note wasn’t synced up Evernote’s online service. In fact, unless I actually edited the note (for example, by adding a character and then removing the character), Evernote wouldn’t even save the changes to plain text equivalence.
  • Yojimbo lacks the ability to sync data across multiple platforms. Heck, Yojimbo is a Mac-only application—it doesn’t have apps for any other platforms, much less the ability to synchronize the data. Keeping data in sync across devices and platforms is, of course, one of Evernote’s key features. So, how much is the ability to sync and access data across multiple applications worth? How much of an advantage will this truly offer? I’ve seen the benefits of having my commitments available on multiple platforms via OmniFocus, and I’m seeing the benefits of keeping my RSS feed synchronized via Google Reader (using NetNewsWire on my Mac and NewsRack on my iPhone and iPad). Will the same benefit hold true for notes?

All things considered, it seems as if I’m finding one potential advantage to Evernote (syncing data across devices) and three known drawbacks (lack of multiple data types, note functionality issues, and an unintuitive user interface). I just can’t decide if having information like URLs and brief notes available across devices is really as worthwhile as it’s made out to be. I’d love to hear feedback from readers about their viewpoint—has Evernote syncing really been useful? Speak up in the comments below. Thanks!

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  1. Jeramiah Dooley’s avatar

    I’ve been using Evernote to manage my expense report data for a while (article here: http://vtrey.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/organizing-expense-reports-with-evernote/) and it’s done well. The more narrow the use-case, the better Evernote seems to be, but I guess that’s to be expected. I’ve been pretty happy with the rate of updates to the software, and for me the syncing (Sprint EVO/Android, iPad, Windows PC) has been huge. Hopefully it continues to get better.

  2. Chris B’s avatar

    Evernote is best used for notes. I use it for having pre & meeting notes, short notes for reminders/to dos.

  3. Rick Schlander’s avatar

    I would have to agree with Chris B. I’ve been an Evernote user for a long time now and find it great for quick notes and archiving snapshots such as whiteboard drawings. I have also used the web clipper for some things and “tried” to keep documents in it, but found Dropbox to be a better option for document management.

  4. Herschelle42’s avatar

    I love the ability to access my notes from work or home, just to jot things down whilst at home to remember to do at work. Agreed lack of RTF type support on the iPad is a pain if you would just like to edit an existing note. Folders would be a welcome addition. Due to the current limitations between client access types (web client, iPad, full client), it would be nice to have a setting that forces everything to plain text, notepad-esq.

  5. Brian Feeny’s avatar

    I am a big fan of GTD as well. I am using OmniFocus and Outlook 2011. I use to use xPad for my notes, but recently moved them to Outlook 2011 just to have them in one place. OmniFocus is a big project/to-do manager, my main GTD instrument. I use AppleScript integration between OmniFocus and Outlook.

    It’s not all ideal, but I don’t feel like I have a complex setup. I would like to see more features added to OmniFocus to sort of do some of the things Yojimbo can.

  6. slowe’s avatar

    So, for those people who do use Evernote and find it useful, are you storing only notes or are you also storing URLs and such there?

  7. Christoph Leygraf’s avatar

    I put most of the informations I need in evernote: websnippets, all notes (during meetings, at customer site, many kinds of lists), important data I want to have accessible while offline ( I use offline notebooks on my iPad) like booking confirmations, businesscards, expense reports, pdf’s (I have most of VMware documentation offline availabe).
    What I love is, that you can access notes while offline. E. g. I read many blog posts and pdf documents in the train using my iPAd.
    And you can crypt parts of a note, so can put sensitive data in evernote.

    Documents I create with ms word etc. I store in Dropbox. But I can’t sync the documents to my iPad to access them while being offline.

  8. Andy Kitzke’s avatar

    For Tasks I use Toodledo. It integrates with Outlook via a free plug-in and I can manage the tasks through outlook, it’s web interface or the iPhone/iPad applications. It’s categorizing and alerting is really useful.

    As far as note taking, I still use OneNote, but I’ve been looking hard to find a replacement that I abstract the platform from and use anywhere. My problem with Evernote is that the data is stored in the cloud and I’m not as familiar with what they are doing to keep that data secure. I haven’t found any articles yet about how they secure your data, but I’ll keep looking.

  9. ND Mike’s avatar

    I originally tried Evernote myself and found it lacking also. I have since tried and like Spingpad. I don’t use a Mac/IOS (I’m a PC/Android myself) but I find it easier to use. It might be worth a look. http://springpadit.com/

  10. Andrew Miller’s avatar

    I’ve been messing with Evernote on and off for a while….using it more the last couple months.

    My largest beef is around the formatting (both the lack of rich formatting on the iPhone and also the general formatting weakness). I use Apple Mail a good bit as well as Confluence (enterprise wiki) and just something on par with those would be good enough frankly. Evernote is particularly quirky around bulleted lists (something Mail does pretty well).

    Beyond that, the desktop program does just feel “heavy”…but I do really want a local program for times when internet access isn’t available (or just my MiFi is acting up).

    I keep wanting to like Evernote but it just doesn’t seem quite “there” yet….I’m still using it a decent amount though just for its syncing capabilities.

    I’ve also considered some kind of roll your own service — separate out the capabilities by using Dropbox for syncing, a text editor on my Mac, and DocsToGo or QuickOffice on my iPhone….might be a better option.

  11. Dan’s avatar

    For implementing GTD you can use this web-based application:

    Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    Comes with a mobile version too, and with an Android app.

  12. slowe’s avatar

    Dan,

    In the future, please be sure to disclose all affiliations. It’s important for readers to know that you are affiliated with Gtdagenda when you make a recommendation for that service. Thanks!

  13. Tim FitzGerald’s avatar

    Thanks for this interesting article on Evernote. I’m an evernote fan for meeting notes and archival of all types of information. Integration with other tools has proven a big time saver. Would you send the scripts referenced in your article. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Jason Linden’s avatar

    Scott, Thanks for sharing, very insightful.

    Have you created any AppleScripts for exporting/importing Evernote Notes from Evernote into a OmniFocus task? I’ve been scouring the web for some but haven’t found any. If you have, would you mind sharing?

  15. slowe’s avatar

    Jason, unfortunately I don’t have any scripts like that. My focus has been on getting information into Evernote/Yojimbo and OmniFocus but not necessarily between the two applications. If I get some free time, I might have to give that a swing. If I come up with anything, I’ll be sure to post it here. Thanks!