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5 handy tips for using Evernote

My job has taken me on the road over most of the last two weeks, as I’ve been working on several articles including covering the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco. One tool that has helped me stay organised throughout the past fortnight is Evernote, and in this article I’m going to share five tips for how to use the note-taking tool to stay on top of everything.

In a nutshell, Evernote is an app that lets you save notes. These notes can be swiftly typed up text notes, photos, voice memos, or even documents that you upload. Evernote syncs these notes across all the Evernote apps you have installed on your devices, so a note you write on your smartphone also pops up on your iPad, as well as your PC – and anywhere else you use the service. You can organise notes into notebooks, just as you would put files into folders on your desktop or laptop computer. Evernote has a few more neat tricks up its sleeve that help with organisation, which you can see in action in the video below.

I use Evernote to save all kinds of notes, from drafts of articles through business meeting notes to photographs of wine and beer labels when I drink something I like. The first few times I used Evernote, it felt odd to have only two or three notes, but after a few weeks, I had dozens, and shortly after that, hundreds. It's not until you reach that critical mass of notes that Evernote's organisational abilities really come to light.

Here are five tips for using Evernote effectively, with some additional explanation of how I personally use the service.

1. Create an inbox

Allow me to shamelessly credit Brandon Collins for providing this first tip in his eBook “The 2-Hour Guide to Mastering Evernote.” Create an Inbox, and use it as your default folder in Evernote.

My inbox folder is actually written as "_INBOX," all in caps so that it stands out, with an underscore at the front so that it’s alphabetically in front of most of my other folders.

As Collins recommends, my _INBOX captures new notes by default. When I'm out and about or rushing to jot down an idea, the last thing I want to have to do is pick the appropriate notebook for my note. So by default, the new note goes into this folder, where I can manage it later.

Every time I sit down to Evernote on a PC or Mac, the _INBOX folder gets my attention. It's the focal point in the same way an email inbox is the focal point of that system. I know it's where all my latest notes have gone, so I take a few moments to review the notes there and sort them appropriately. I love the fact that this method forces you to look again at notes you've written. Too often, people write down thoughts but never refer back to them. Although it's an unintended consequence, using an Evernote inbox forces you to do just that.

2. Connect other apps

Evernote can connect to other apps, and using this capability is especially important if you have a free Evernote account. Premium (£35 per year) accounts boast offline notebooks, meaning locally saved notes on mobile devices – in other words, you don't need an Internet connection to read your notes and edit them. Free users don't have this benefit, but they can achieve the same result by connecting another app that does let them store files locally.

I actually connect my Evernote account to a mobile app called Awesome Note (+ToDo), which is a to-do list app and daily planner. I sync a handful of notes that I want to have backed up to more than one place. This includes a note listing all my frequent flier mile account numbers, as well as notes with my travel itineraries. If I'm in a foreign country and haven't had Internet service in a few days, I want to be double-sure that my flight confirmation number is in a place where I can find it – and backed up to a second place, too, just in case.

3. Install the web clipper and Outlook plugin

Two years ago, I had to look for a new apartment, and used Evernote to save clips of apartment listings I found online by way of the Evernote web clipper. This simple extension appears as an icon in your web browser's bar. When you find a page you want to clip, either in whole or in part, you simply hit the Evernote button, and it does all the work for you. There's no need to reformat the text or copy anything at all. It's a great time-saver.

The web clipper comes in handy for news stories you want to save to read later, recipes, research – anything you want to save that you see online. And when you save it into Evernote, you can tag it and sort it into a notebook so that it has greater relevance to you and becomes easier to find.

Evernote has a similar plugin for Outlook that lets you clip emails into Evernote. I think the Outlook plugin makes for a great way to save informational emails, the kind of messages that are really memos or instructions. They might be company policy emails or details about how to set up a VPN connection to corporate headquarters. Whatever it is, you know you will never accidentally delete the info if it's saved to Evernote and not stored in your email inbox. (Outlook already offers a very similar integration with Microsoft OneNote, which is another option for achieving essentially the same thing while staying within the Microsoft suite of products, if you prefer.)

4. Tag emails

I mentioned that Evernote contains tags. I love that tags make notes searchable for information that was not necessarily explicit in them, like an email that doesn't reference what's really being discussed. Think about it – that happens all the time. You'll get an email from your boss asking, for example, to make sure you remind the clients in Portugal about a UK-specific bank holiday – but the email doesn't use the client's name, the project name, or words like "holiday schedule." When you save an email note to Evernote, you can add tags that make sense to you, like "Project X," "Client Y," and "holiday."

What this particular tip really aims to tackle is search issues. If you've ever searched long and hard for a file or email and couldn't find it because the text didn't contain the same key words that were in your memory, you’ll know what I mean. The ability to add tags that are a direct reflection of the way you think greatly speeds up the time it takes to find information.

5. Use Evernote for meeting notes

Perhaps my favourite use of Evernote is for meeting notes. All the reasons I've explained above about how tags ease the process of searching for information apply to meeting notes, too.

If you travel for work, turn on Evernote's geolocation feature so that you can tell where you were when you wrote a meeting note, and also search by location. I will remember off the top of my head that I met two different web designers in Los Angeles in 2008, but I have no recollection of the company names. With geotagged notes, I can simply find notes from Los Angeles in a few clicks.