Why Evernote kept failing me and what I did about it

If Evernote feels like a drag to use, but you can't explain why (especially when everyone around you is raving about it) it might be because you have a different goal for note-taking. You might be using the wrong tool for the job. That was the case with me.

For starters I want to mention that Evernote is a great company, making the most successful note-taking app in the world. Many times I found myself inspired by its leadership team, the values of the company and I have the biggest respect for  the people working there. I say all this because this article may seem a critique of Evernote, when in fact is an introspective analysis of a category of tools. A category of tools whose poster-child is Evernote.

The promise

Evernote (and similar apps) promise to be the database in the cloud that stores everything.

"Evernote is your second brain" says Phil Libin, Evernote's CEO.  From that point of view Evernote is just like insurance. You take notes out of fear of loosing some information you are looking at. And this seems to work great for recipes, business cards or various scribbles. 

The problem

The problem comes when you are not saving notes out of fear, but to add a specific piece of information to your personal knowledge base. When you are taking notes to expand your knowledge.

Evernote wants to act like your second brain. But storage of data has no intrinsic value by itself. Even saving itself is devoid of any goal. In my case the secondary brain is a wonderful analogy but my main interest is in saving information in my primary brain.  I want to remember the things I am saving, not burry them in a database. My goal, in that sense, is to record and organize the information I collect so I can create my own repository of knowledge. That is what I am going after and note-taking is just a tool, not a goal in itself.

For me, the second brain promise seems to me like the storage from the basement of my house. A place where you dump all the things you may need at some point in the future. But where you rarely go to because the place is a dark cave with piles of crap.

"Dear Evernote, it not you, it's me. I don't think there anything inherently wrong with your approach to note-taking. After all, there are people who are in love with your method. But I need a tool to act like a facilitator for learning and development. And you are not it."

The main issues

There are a few thing I discovered I need from my note-taking apps. Here are the main 2:

Flat structure

Evernote has an (almost) flat system of organizing things. You have access to tags and you can organize notes in notebooks. But folders work better for creating your own knowledge-base. Folders have a bad rep nowadays and everyone seems to prefer tags. However I found that the rigidity of folders works better as an information model for learning. Because order matters too. When you use folders you have to decide where to put that note. You need to give it a place. That requires more effort than with tags but it also helps you reviewing the note at a later date.

Some of my notes need to stay on top of other, because that is how I mapped the theme(or topic) in my notebook. I absorb information in a non-linear fashion (meaning I can get to something interesting from an article today or by watching a documentary a month from now) but the map of those topics is quite linear. And rigid. 

As an example I read a very interesting article about the 3rd battle of Ypres. In Evernote I could  save the article with their awesome clipper but that article would (at best) live in a collection of articles about WWI. It may be placed at the top of the list or in between a note for Verdun and one for the Somme battle. That does not make any sense to me, as I like to save notes on historical events in the right chronological order.

Unsophisticated authoring tools

Evernote has a very bare editor.  And I get why. It was designed as a tool to save recipes, meeting notes etc. You know, simple stuff …. If you take notes to learn new things than you will soon find the tool quite limiting.

Let's take another example: I was browsing Reddit today and found this list of questions founders should be prepared to answer when they are making their first hires. Some of those questions are interesting so I copied them in my Hiring file (which is part of Management, which lives under Business).

To get to hiring in Evernote, I would search for hiring or filter by a notebook if I have one. And get to a collection of notes like this :

Here is the top of my hiring file now:

Wrapping up

To conclude: If you are struggling to adopt Evernote (or any other similar tools) think harder about your use-case. Why do you take notes in the first place? If you are like me and taking notes to learn new things and improve yourself than you may look for tools better created for this task.

I switched to OneNote a few moths ago and I couldn't be more happier. The tool supports my twisted way of improving myself. If you are interested in how I use it please let me know in the comments section and I will write about it.