Offloading My Brain: A Love Letter to Evernote

I've always been fairly organized, but my organization system? A disaster. Then I discovered Evernote.

It was a comical idea, me writing about apps to organize your life. I've always been fairly organized, but my organization system? A disaster. Until recently, it was a jumble of sticky notes (both virtual and paper), draft emails of lists, Google Calendar entries, and things floating around my own brain but nowhere else. For the first year I had an iPhone, I didn't have a single productivity app. I figured I'd test-drive a few I knew other people talked about, compile a slideshow of the options for other people, and continue using my own crazy-but-effective system.

Then I discovered Evernote.

A graduate student friend recommended the program to me eons ago, and I made a mental note, but forgot about it (I never claimed my old system was perfect). My interest was briefly piqued again when I learned several months ago that the program could be synced with Instapaper, which I use to save longform articles to read later, so I downloaded the free version but never opened it. I remembered I had it last month, when I needed a way to catalog hundreds of blog posts for a feature story. Since then, Evernote has been permanently open on my laptop.

What sets the program apart from the dozens of other productivity apps on the market is its flexibility. Some coworkers swear by TeuxDeux, which is elegant for simple lists but can't handle links, attachments, photos, or anything other than plain text. If grocery shopping is on your agenda, you'll need your recipe pasted somewhere else. And while I use Dropbox to send large files, it's a pretty clunky way to save material for my own use. For newbies to outsourcing organization, the idea of the "top 10 productivity apps you shouldn't be without" is abhorent—I'm trying to make my life easier.

Some might object to Evernote trying to be everything to everybody, but I've found the catch-all nature to be the biggest advantage. Evernote founder Phil Libin has described Evernote as "your brain offloaded to a server," which seems about right—a PDF of an academic paper, a recipe and accompanying grocery list, a funny GIF, and my Instapaper list all go into the program instead of taking up valuable real estate in my mind. When I'm diligent, I organize the different types of content neatly into different "notebooks." When I'm too crazed to file things correctly, the search function is powerful enough that I can find what I'm looking for regardless. One button allows me to email information to anybody I want to share it with. And syncing happens automatically, which means everything I jot down lands on my desktop, my iPhone, and my account online.

Like smartphones themselves, much of the magic of Evernote is in the add-ons (the website lists hundreds). My favorite is a simple bookmarklet that allows me to "clip" entire webpages. Imagine a screenshot that's searchable and editable. Or a regular webpage you don't need a URL to access. It made dealing with those hundreds of blog posts a dream, but now I'm using it for everyday tasks too.

Before I ever read Libin's comparison between Evernote and my brain, I'd thought of the same analogy. The major technological leap the program represents is that I no longer have to organize my life the way some software developer thinks people should—it adapts to my methods. And that's worth ditching the sticky notes.


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