Dropping Evernote

I used to use Evernote for everything I possibly could use it for. I loved it. Now, I don't use it at all, and only keep it around while I'm moving data elsewhere. What went wrong? It's kind of a…


I’ve been using Evernote for years. More years than it’s officially been available, as I was in the private beta. I’ve loved it, enthused about it, and recommended it to everyone who would listen. And quite a few reluctant people who wouldn’t. It’s been my default place to store everything; and for years, if something could possibly be done with Evernote, that’s how I did it.

Cracks Appearing

A few cracks had started to appear in my love for Evernote. I used the Windows version quite heavily at work, and it still had some surprisingly basic problems with editing – copy and paste didn’t always work as expected, and sometimes just wouldn’t work at all. It seemed to hang quite often when trying to do anything much – it isn’t a high-spec PC, but good enough for most things.

I didn’t often need to use it on my old iMac, but it became completely incapable of syncing on there. I deleted it, deleted all its data, and reinstalled. It never managed to complete an initial sync, so it wasn’t usable at all.

While the CEO had promised they would double-down on fixing bugs and getting the basics right last year, it didn’t seem to have got far enough. Too many new features and commercial tie-ins started to appear – cross-promotions with Moleskine and Post-it notes, for example. A new ‘work chat’ feature appeared that made no sense at all as far as I could tell. Maybe for work users with groups of people working on documents in a shared Evernote notebook, but that seemed likely to be a fairly small minority of users. The feature was pushed front-and-centre in every client, and couldn’t be disabled.

I’d always found Evernote a distracting environment for working, and it seemed to be getting worse. A new deal started suggesting related content from the Wall Street Journal while editing notes.

It all felt like Evernote wasn’t aimed at people like me any more. Most of the new features seemed to be aimed very much at business users, who would be buying Evernote for, say, 50 people working in the same department, to use for shared projects. My personal use didn’t seem to fit with the new direction.

At the same time, we started using OneNote at work for shared stuff, and it worked better than Evernote did. I didn’t like to admit it at first, but it was faster, worked better, and didn’t push irrelevant things at me – it was just nicer to work in.

Breaking Completely

I still wasn’t ready to admit that Evernote didn’t suit me any more, but I knew it was time to do a bit more thinking about how to use it. I started reorganising my tags.

They all vanished.

Looking back on it, I’m fairly confident it must have been my own fault. I must have somehow selected all tags and deleted them, when intending to select a few. But I couldn’t even see what was happening, because the Evernote client just hung. By time I worked out what had happened, it had synced with the server, and all my tags had gone. Although I was starting to use tags less than I had, some of them were still important.

I opened my first Evernote support ticket, and explained what had happened. They responded reasonably quickly (around 24 hours, I think), but the answer was that they couldn’t bring them back. They don’t have a way of rolling back a change. I have my own Time Machine backups, so I could restore my Mac’s copy of Evernote back to a state when all the tags were still there, but that would give me another problem. All links between notes, and to notes from outside Evernote, would break. All the notes would be ‘new’ as far as their servers were concerned, so they’d get new IDs.

I finally decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble and the loss of links to get my tags back, so I just accepted the loss. Not being able to recover from a simple error, though, was worrying.

Using the Right Tools

I was starting to feel like my general tactic of using Evernote for anything I possibly could use Evernote for wasn’t working out for me any more. I was using it for things where it just wasn’t really appropriate. I started to think about what I was doing with it, and which of those things could be better done elsewhere.

  • To Do items were a fairly obvious case. They were one of the biggest pain points, because of bugs with editing in the Windows version of Evernote, and our adoption of OneNote at work added some incentive to use that there. For personal stuff, my needs were modest, so almost anything would do.
  • Writing was another thing I’d never quite felt happy with in Evernote. There were too many distractions, and the addition of more ‘related content’ features added more (though they can be disabled). I really don’t like writing in anything with formatting, because I like working in Markdown (just text, essentially).
  • Reading was another problem one. I added web pages I wanted to read to a notebook in Evernote, and archived them after I got around to reading them. But Evernote wasn’t a good place to read them, and moving them to another notebook wasn’t as quick and easy as it should be. More importantly, the time taken to open Evernote, open the ‘Reading’ notebook, find a note to read, and open that, was far too much. I didn’t get as much reading done as I could because it just wasn’t quick and easy enough.

On top of these things, I’d started to think a bit more about how much I really got out of my determination to keep a full copy of every article I’d read, or anything I found interesting on a web site. I seemed to spend too much time capturing this stuff, and very rarely needed it again. In some ways, it made it harder to find the things I actually did need to find, because they were drowned out in a mountain of web pages I’d read once, years ago, that weren’t really relevant to anything.

Starting to Move

I started to experiment with moving just some things out of Evernote, to see if I benefitted.

  • I moved all my work-related to-do lists into OneNote, which seemed to work well. It meant they were in the same app as our shared lists, and could easily link to reference materials and work in progress. OneNote’s basic editing features are really good, and it all felt like quite an improvement.
  • For personal to-do lists, I just started with Apple’s own Reminders app, which isn’t perfect, but it does the job well enough. With time, I extended that to using the Notes app too, for tracking projects that needed a bit more long-term tracking and notes. The addition of checkbox lists to the Notes app that came with El Capitan helped a lot with that.
  • I tried moving anything I was writing into iA Writer, and worked on it there. For a while, I kept notes relating to those articles in Apple’s Notes app, but that felt a bit awkward as a combination. I’m now using Ulysses, which is working out really well. The roughly £35 cost is quite high, but it’s well worth it, and it wasn’t long before I bought it. I’m using it to write this. I’ve started doing a bit more writing again, and it’s useful for work too, which is a bonus.
  • Reading was a fairly obvious choice for me – Instapaper. I’ve used both Pocket and Instapaper, and both are really good. For me, the simplicity of Instapaper wins – it just feels quicker and easier to open it, read something, archive it. I get a lot more reading done now, which is the whole point, so this one has been a real win.

I took a different approach with my general hoarding of web pages that seemed interesting. I just stopped. It’s felt a bit unnerving at times, with articles that I’ve thought I may want to find again later, but I haven’t regretted it yet. And I’ve saved a whole lot of time I would have spent capturing the data, then sorting it out, tagging it and filing it in the appropriate notebooks. Or, more accurately, piling it up in the ‘Inbox’ notebook and never getting around to dealing with it, piling up the guilt as much as the articles to deal with.

It turned out that after all that, there wasn’t much left over. I’d already decided I wanted to move software serial numbers and activation codes into 1Password, so I got on and did it. The few lists and notes I was left with, I started keeping in Apple’s Notes app. Notes was awful. It really was. Dreadful. But it was enough. It got much better with El Capitan, and is now quite good enough. It works ok, and syncs between all my devices quite reliably. The ability to add checkbox lists in there too makes it quite decent for managing the bigger ‘project’ tasks that the simple Reminders app falls a bit short with.

I still have somewhere around 10,000 notes in Evernote, which I need to at least check through to make sure I’m not getting rid of anything that might be important later, but that will take time.

On the whole, I’m happier with all aspects of my information management. I get more reading done, I get more writing done. I’m more in control of my to-do lists both at home and at work. My oddments of reference notes are easier to get to. And I spend less time fighting software to store information I’ll never need again.

Some time back, I finally cancelled my premium account, and haven’t regretted it.

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