How digital note-taking has changed my life

I first created a free account and started using the Evernote note taking app in an on/off basis just over a year ago. I'd seen others in my industry using it and thought it might be quite useful for taking notes whilst on the move using my smart phone. For those of you who've not used it before, Evernote is basically a cloud based digital notebook. Using the free app on your phone, tablet and desk/laptop gives you the ability to create 'notebooks' containing 'notes' that can include formatted text, digital photos, screenshots and even digital audio clips. Content added to your account is stored online and can be added to, edited and accessed on whichever digital platform you are using.

 

Example of the Evernote ‘notebook’ structure on the desktop app

 

Example of the Evernote ‘note’ structure and desktop interface

Going 'Paperless'

As a relatively new starter at Webcredible I took this as an opportunity to attempt going 'paperless'. Working in a bustling agency means that on a daily basis you can often find yourself performing numerous tasks, anything from project kick-off's and internal development projects to writing blogs. All of these tasks require note-taking for which I've relied on a combination of:

  • A4 notepads for client specific work
  • A5 notepads for daily 'to-do list', and quick rough notes
  • 'Moleskines' for personal/professional development and note taking at industry events
  • An sketchpad or whiteboard for designing screen layouts or rough prototypes
  • Twitter: For the sharing and 'favouriting' of useful online resources and links
  • Outlook:
    • 'Tasks' - to keep on top of requests from others
    • 'Calendar' - to define and share meeting agendas, and make preparation notes to myself for a particular activity

Just looking at that list makes me shudder. It brings back memories of misplaced notebooks, untraceable notes, illegible scribbles, last minute struggles to find stationary, not to mention the sheer amount of head-scratching needed to locate materials relevant to a particular task. It may seem that such a system was simply extraneous and somewhat redundant to begin with, but I'm the sort of person who likes to write stuff down. I find it offers the following benefits:

  • Full records of what has been agreed between you and your colleagues/clients minimise the amount of follow-up communication needed, and reduces the chance of mis-interpretation when it comes to responding to briefs/objectives
  • Simply jotting down summaries of conversations or talks increases my ability to remember their content
  • Writing down thoughts or ideas as soon as they pop into your head means you can forget about them in the short term and return to them at a later date without losing that initial spark

Since starting at Webcredible I've been refining how best I can continue taking extensive notes, and remove the headaches caused by keeping everything in a variety of paper and digital formats. Like I said above I have been trialling Evernote for the best part of the past year taking notes using the Android mobile app on my phone whilst at conferences, documenting what was said at meetings to even saving recipes. I'd subsequently access and update these notes at a later date, at home or work.

Evernote in practice

Initially I decided to see if I could do away with using paper at work altogether, so I installed the Evernote app on my work desktop, and made sure to keep my phone or the company tablet at hand when in meetings or travelling to and from clients' offices. Using the app is relatively easy, as shown in the screen-shots above you simply create a folder structure of 'notebooks' and populate them with notes. The notes save locally (on your device) in real-time, this is handy as on occasion the app does have a tendency to crash;  I've not lost any notes to date. Though you don't have to worry about 'saving' notes you must make sure that you've 'synced' them to the cloud for access on all your devices, again this happens automatically but not in real-time. Since I've been using Evernote recently there have been times where I've booted my computer up at home to copy across content into the app in preparation for a day’s work, or tried to embed a photo as a note only to realise that I'd forgotten to to 'hit' sync or give enough time for the sync to take place (particularly when I hadn't opened the app for a while). On these occasions I've arrived to work missing vital documents to make my job easier, and as a result had to come up with some interesting work-a-rounds. In terms of going paperless I have managed to ditch the notebooks, and now have a way to quickly retrieve work I've done on sketch-pads or white-boards by including them as photos in notes I’ve taken. I also find the hierarchical folder structuring of Evernote's 'notebooks' has improved the efficiency of how I both take and retrieve notes; I can now easily group all content related to a particular project or topic. It has also changed the way in which I take notes, I've found:

  • As soon as I have an idea I am more likely to type it straight into my phone (as I always have it on me) and don’t have to fumble around for a pen and paper
  • I can now easily pick out the most relevant information from digitl documents I read and save it as a helpful reminder of either how to do something or how long I've got to do something

Writing digital notes also has also given me the additional benefits of being able to:

  • Include screen-shots or copy and paste links and content directly from the web or other digital documents. This greatly reduces the time it takes to copy out such information by hand, and increases the likelihood I will reuse the information
  • Transcribe meeting notes instantaneously, and subsequently tidy up the formatting
  • Edit and re-edit notes to make them shareable with colleagues

Drawbacks

I must confess however, for some tasks you will still find me relying on Post-its or a sketchpad to quickly write rough, throw away notes and calculations. I find this is the case when I write down a day's to do list or I'm in a situation (or mood) where simply using  good old pen and paper is more appealing. Similarly I've noticed a few drawbacks of using Evernote (and digital note taking in general):

  • Getting used to the notions of 'saving' my work locally and 'syncing' to the cloud took a while to get used to
  • In client facing meetings taking notes on your smart phone can come across as looking like your dis-interested and responding to emails rather than taking notes or making a contribution (Tip: make clients aware of how you are taking notes)
  • Spending an hour or more tapping away on to your smart phone and even your tablet quickly becomes uncomfortable if you have numerous meetings in one day (Tip: take a laptop)
  • Using the mobile version of the app it can be difficult to organise and navigate content (Tip: Jot notes in any location on the move, and organise when at your desk)

Conclusion

I would say that over the course of the past year I've gradually found making digital notes more and more useful. I have developed ways to use Evernote to improve my day to day working efficiency and am now less reliant on paper based alternatives and even other less 'fit for purpose' digital products (such as Outlook). Using the free version of the app I've found the functionality more than adequate for my needs, and though it's taken me a while to get used to certain parts of the interface and functionality, the benefits outweigh the effort this has required. I mentioned that I was only using the free version of Evernote, and I've not tried some of the more advanced plug-ins to the app or really felt the need to upgrade to a premium account (with a paid subscription) . Also I have noticed that Microsoft now include a similar product as part of their MS Office suite (called 'OneNote').  I did try it but I did not like the interface or the fact that I had to link my archaic Windows Live account (which I've forgotten the details of) to use. If you have any comments on your own experiences with digital note-taking, or know of any other alternatives, please let us know!

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