The Art of Notetaking

For quite a few years, digital creators have invented and shaped many note-taking apps. Some of my colleagues touched already on the art of taking notes in the digital era (for two most recent examples, see this post by Cornelis van Lit, and this one by Daigengna Dour). Apple has Notes, which has a very simple design, but several perks related to it being an Apple product, such as Siri Integration. I had used Notes ever since I had my first Mac, and one I got hold of an iPhone as well, I liked that everything gets synced automatically. I can take notes offline on both phone and laptop, and as soon as I go online, the machines do their work at making sure I find it all in one place.

Even so, I decided to give a try to Evernote, the task management application that so many swear by. Very often I am scrolling through Twitter and looking up things with my phone, and end up taking screenshots of things I mean to look up later, and… I never do. They sit in my photo album until either I bump into it accidentally, or recall that I had once seen something that could be relevant, and spend some time scrolling through old photos. Other times, I skim articles in Chinese and decide that they are relevant for my research, so I want to save them and get back to them later. While you can do all of this in multiple ways, and all note-taking apps have similar aspects (such as tags to catalogue them), I will share two aspects of Evernote that worked for me. Before getting into it, I want to emphasize those two final words: at the end of the day, this is what worked for me, but it may not work for you at all. What works best to keep notes and work organized is pretty subjective and depends on the kind of work being done. I work with texts, not images, for example, and this makes a difference. A final disclaimer: I work with the free version of Evernote only. I have the app on my phone and use the browser version on my laptop.

#1

The web-clipping option is of big help for me. I am a big webpage saver. I skim pages in Chinese, I do not always remember how to read (and thus type) a word, but I still want to save it to be able to return to it. Previously I used to pin tabs in my Safari window (I do not like how Chrome loses all the pins if you use multiple windows), to the point that I had close to no space, everything was taken up by pinned tabs. While Safari gives a small icon as a way to preview the content, often this is not enough for me to remember exactly what the page is. For example, in the image below, I can tell that one tab is an article from the Guardian, but which article exactly?

pinned tabs in Safari

Similarly in Notes, when you save a webpage, but if you are working on a 13” or 15” laptop chances are that this preview is clipped in ways that do not give you a full overview. I often have to open the note to trigger my memory and recall what that link is about.

Evernote vs. Notes

Evernote, instead, is structured so that you have the equivalent of a post-it, so to speak. It gives you the full title of the page and a couple of lines, which works better to recall what the content is about. What I do not like is that when you in Evernote click on the link to return to the original page, Evernote inserts another step asking “You are leaving Evernote. Press “Continue” to go to…” Given that this opens as a new tab, leaving your Evernote tab still fully functional right next to it, it’s a tad annoying. Yes, Evernote, I want to leave.

#2

When you share your notes, you can choose to have a sharable link that takes you to a webpage version of the note that other users can see as if it were any other webpage. It does not require users to have Evernote. If you update the note, people returning to it with the same link will also see the updates. (This feature is present in Notion as well.)

Naturally, you will eventually need to share the link at some point, likely in an email, so why not share the content in the email directly? This is an objection that I often hear when I suggest to use sharing tools to do collaborative work. For one, having a link reduces the number of emails n the inbox. Furthermore, while I enjoy email exchanges for work and projects, having my email app open means being continuously distracted by incoming emails that have nothing to do with the project itself (and often with me altogether).

By way of conclusion, I do want to say that I am still using Notes, pinned tabs, and manual notes to dot down everything that goes through my mind and passes in front of my eyes during workdays. Once a month I invest a couple of hours in clearing up the sea of annotations I have made, a task that I do not consider a waste of time. Going through Evernote, Notes, and my notes helps me see what I did accomplish, what I have collected, and where I need to go next. A bit of old style analog work that relies on the first computational tool humans ever had, the brain.

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