When I first became a freelance writer, I started to drown in scraps of paper. Loose leaves from pads, sticky notes, brochures and leaflets scattered everywhere. Finding anything became a nightmare, and so I developed the discipline of recording everything in a bound notebook – I called it my Brain. I had a new one every year. The contents was a hotch-potch of idle thoughts, to do lists, research and outlines for articles and show notes for the podcast. If I wanted to, I could go back and flip through everything for inspiration, or to relocate an idea.

I still scribble ideas down, but these days I file them away in Evernote, and in the two years since I’ve had it, I have become an Evernote evangelist. When I mention it to people, they ask what it is, and the simple answer is that Evernote is a database. It lives in the Cloud, and you can access your data via the website, via free software downloaded onto your computer (Mac or PC), or via one of their mobile apps. Everything is branded with the jaunty elephant logo – because elephants never forget, I assume.

Elephant's foot

That’s a pretty factual description of Evernote, though, and it doesn’t sound at all exciting. The key is that Evernote is what you make of it – you can store pretty much anything in there, and fine tune it to meet your needs. Evernote is based on Notebooks, which can be local or synchronised, so that you can access them on all of your devices, which is pretty handy if you work in more than one location. You begin with a default Notebook, and build from there. I have been doing a little bit of rearranging over the last couple of weeks, and at the moment I have 42. The contents range from book ideas to research notes, to recipes, important bits of information that are handy to have around, and the index to my library of books and a separate one for To Do lists and things that need to be done.

You can share Notebooks, if you want, either publicly or with other Evernote users. Shopping lists with loved ones, project notes with co-workers. A list of places to go, or the family recipe book. I now have two Evernote accounts, one personal and one for work – my To Do list Notebook is shared between the two.

One of the nicest features is that you can clip things from the web (just the URL, selected text, an article or the whole web page, via the Evernote Web Clipper), and preserve them in all their glory in Evernote. Pictures, recipes, interesting articles you want to read later, anything you want. You could sync your Evernote before you left home, and read through everything on the train to work.

Elephant's backside

You can tag every note, with as many tags as you wish. You can annotate, and highlight. You can type in your own notes, and the mobile app lets you upload photos directly. This year I will be experimenting with one of the Moleskine Evernote journals, which is specially designed so that you write on a page, tag it with stickers and then upload a photograph into Evernote. Whether it’s the best of analogue-meets-digital, or a gimmick I won’t really make use of, remains to be seen. [Evernote Moleskines come with a code for Evernote Premium, which makes them better value than they might initially appear.]

Of course, storing all this information is only of use if you can get your hands on it later, and this is where Evernote really comes into its own, because it has a really good search function. You can search through all of the notes, in a specific notebook, or for a specific tag. You can display all of the notes with a given tag. You can link one note to another, and upload PDF files, although they only become full-text searchable if you upgrade from the free version to Evernote Premium [Premium users also get 1 Gb of uploads a month, and a larger maximum note size (100 Mb)]. You can scan documents in – really useful if you’d like a digital repository of all your scraps of paper. Are you one of those people who cuts bits out of magazines to read later?

The upshot of all this is that this year I won’t be having a paper Brain. I’m keeping a journal in my Evernote Moleskine instead, and keeping all my ephemera neatly tucked away in Evernote. if you’d like to try it, you can use Evernote for free, including free downloads of the software – you just need to sign up via the Evernote website. If you do do via that link, you’ll also get a month’s free Evernote Premium; I’ll get some referral points I can use to extend my subscription.

I used to get told off at school, fairly often, for having my head in the clouds. It’s nice to know, so many years later, that I can be more productive by keeping my Brain in the Cloud 😉

Elephant's ears

If you’re already an Evernote fan, do let me know in the comments how you use yours, or share your best Evernote tip with everyone!