I’ve done it – I’ve committed myself to Evernote for my digital administration

The Evernote logoFollowing on from last week’s blog, I have started using Evernote to improve my digital organisation. It may be a bit premature to start recommending it, but I think I’m ready to take the risk. It’s a very versatile program, but it’s also one that’s very easy to start using. However, the only way you’ll find out if it will work for you is to “suck it and see”. You may have tried programs like this in the past and then abandoned them for no apparent reason. Actually, in my experience, there is probably one or both of two reasons that so-called “productivity programs” fall by the wayside of the electronic superhighway:

  • You don’t use it for long enough for it to become an established part of your routine (so you soon forget all about it and then, when you do remember it, you can’t remember how it works).
  • There is more effort and/or time required in using it than you get back in terms of the benefits of using it. As my mother used to say, “the game isn’t worth the candle”.

Evernote really helps in both these respects because it’s very easy to get started with it and to start organising your data in a way that is meaningful to you. To use some management-speak, the learning curve is very shallow. Thereafter, there are any number of ways that you can make better use of its capabilities.

Shortcomings

I’m very much a beginner with it, so I don’t know all its shortcomings yet. However, if I list the ones that I’ve found so far, then it may just save you from wasting time if these limitations are crucial to you:

  • You can not “print” a document from a program so that it goes directly into the Evernote system. This is not such a problem if you can create a pdf file from the program you are using (either with Adobe Acrobat or from within Word, for instance) as you can create a pdf file in a folder whose contents are automatically imported into Evernote.
  • There isn’t much encryption available. It does require a username and password to open the entire “file”, but, thereafter, there isn’t much choice. It is possible to encrypt a selected piece of text (and this seems to work well enough), but you can’t encrypt (or hide) complete notes or notebooks.
  • Evernote doesn’t deal in “files and folders” as such, so you can’t just copy Evernote notes around your computer as if they were files available to other programs. They can be “exported” to html files but this isn’t the same thing at all.

Benefits

On the other hand, I’ve already found loads of huge “pluses”, such as:

    • You can designate folders on your computer as “import folders” for Evernote. Anything placed in these folders is automatically imported into Evernote as notes (the original files are unaffected). I am using this to store the maps I keep that remind me of the route and journey time to my clients. This will be really useful for clients that I see rarely as I think that punctuality is very important. I am also using it to import copies of my client invoices automatically. Incidentally, both of these import folders are Dropbox folders, so the data was already accessible from all of my computers and devices. I’m expecting, though, that it will be much easier to access it from within Evernote.
    • You can put shortcuts inside notes – eg to launch programs.
Paper Filing System

Would you like to move away from paper filing systems?

  • You can create voice memos (eg from a smartphone) and include tags so that you can identify and store that voice memo (eg by tagging it with a client code). I am trying to get into the habit of creating a voice memo when I leave a client so that there is a record of the visit. Evernote allows me to do this “on the hoof” with my iPhone such that I don’t need to do any subsequent filing or labelling or anything at all. The memo will just be there if I need it. I will be able to identify it by its tag (client code) and its date and time.
  • When I started with Evernote it seemed as if the “notebooks” were just a “flat” structure. In other words, it seems at first sight as if all notebooks are independent of each other. This could start getting out of hand if there are, say, dozens of them. However, I then discovered what Evernote calls “stacks” (stacks of notebooks). The result is like nesting folders within folders. So, you could have a stack called “Clients” and have notebooks inside it called “Invoices”, “Pending”, “Finished Work”, “Contact Details” etc.
  • You can send emails directly into your Evernote system and automatically file them in the right notebook and with relevant tags.
  • You can send web pages or clips of web pages directly into your Evernote system and, again, specify the notebook and any relevant tags.
  • There are comprehensive search facilities.
  • Evernote supports Windows, Mac OSX, Apple IOS, Android, and Blackberry.

Evernote ItemsI was so impressed within the first few days of using it that I bought the premium version (actually, it’s a subscription – £35pa), so now my mobile devices can store a local copy of the data and the data upload limit goes up from 60mb per month in the free version to 1gb.

I don’t care if I do sound sad for enthusing over a data organising system. This might just be the closest thing yet to having all my work data organised from one place. And that’s important in helping me to provide an efficient service to my computer clients – and it may just be important to you, too.

A lot of business users and home computer users automatically turn to Microsoft Word every time they want to create text that needs to be saved. Word is a great fully-featured “word processing package” but using it often seems like using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut, and it doesn’t necessarily offer a good solution in terms of organising snippets of information and finding them again in a hurry. Indeed, a lot of people would argue that Word has now become too clever and complicated for its own good, confusing average users with a plethora of options while not answering the real-world needs of data storage and retrieval.

Think, for example, of wanting to record notes about household things such as car maintenance records, or recipes, or anything else where you want to record information that you might just need to find again in the future. It seems to me that the trick is to make it as easy as possible to do the recording while, at the same time, making it as easy as possible to find something in, say, a year’s time.

Let’s take this a bit further by adding the possibility of including images (including screen captures), links to web pages, and links to files on your own computer. What we are beginning to see now is not just a program for recording text but an entire “information management system”.

Microsoft does have its own program for this kind of need. It’s called OneNote and it’s included in Microsoft Office packages. However, in all the years that I’ve been providing computer support in London I have never heard a single client mention it. I’ve been testing it for myself for the last three months or so. If I decide it’s worth using I’ll write a blog post on it, but I have to say that so far I’m finding it a bit irritating and possibly resource-hungry. On the other hand, it does seem quite powerful and useful.

In the meantime, the program I use for this kind of thing is one called “Treepad”. Indeed, I write these blog posts using Treepad and then copy and paste them onto my website. The reasons for using Treepad in this context are:

  • I can concentrate on creating the text without worrying about formatting etc.
  • I can easily drop images into the text that I might want to include in the blog post.

I also use Treepad for all kinds of computer technical notes that I may never need again or that I might just need one day. I have found that the really important thing is that the effort of writing down and saving information like this is only repaid if it’s easy to find it again. That also means that it has to be easy to do the recording. Treepad is excellent in these respects.

Treepad - showing the tree and part of an article

Figure 1 - Treepad - showing the tree structure on the left and part of an article (the contents of a node) on the right

Treepad is basically a text manager that allows you to organise content in a “tree structure”. On the left of the screen is the structure, and on the right is the content of the particular “node” that is currently selected. Nodes can be “nested” inside nodes in much the same way that Windows organises folders within folders (see Figure 1). By the by, you can see from the top of Figure 1 that I keep my Treepad files in my Dropbox folder so that they are always available on all my computers – see my blog about Dropbox.

But it is not only text that can entered into a node. We can also paste images, hyperlinks to programs or data files on the same computer, hyperlinks to websites, and links to other nodes in the same Treepad data file. It’s very easy to use and it’s powerful.

The only major gripe that I have with Treepad is that there is no inbuilt “tagging”. By that, I mean the ability to define each node as belonging to one or several user-defined “definitions” or “groups”. For instance, I might want to tag the content of nodes with “computer support London” or “silver surfer pc training” or “one-to-one computer training” or “blog ideas” so that all nodes with one or more specific tags can be selected easily. This is not absolutely critical, though, as there is a search routine, so I try to remember to add the words that I would like to treat as tags to the top line of the content of nodes. If I then search for a specific word it will list all nodes that include that word.

Treepad search results

Figure 2 - Treepad Search Results

Figure 2 shows the results of searching my Treepad file for “AVG”:

I can then click on any selected node to see it in its entirety.

Treepad is available in several versions. There is a free version so it costs nothing except a bit of time to give it a try. If you are the sort of person who is forever mislaying bits of information that you think should be easily accessible on your computer then it could pay you to have a look at it. I’ve been using the “Business” version for several years.

I started looking at Microsoft’s OneNote because it appears to be a more sophisticated program (you can scan documents directly into OneNote for instance), but I find its text handling a bit, shall we say, idiosyncratic (ie annoying) so I don’t know yet whether I would recommend it. Treepad is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth but it’s easy to use and repays the minimal effort required to use it.

I’m going to have a look at how good Treepad might be as a password manager program as I know that most of my IT clients do not have a simple, effective, consistent way of storing these and could do with a bit of well-aimed computer advice on the subject. Watch this space….

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Computer Support in London
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