More Efficient Meal Planning, Part Two

Today I wanted to check back into a post I shared recently about how we’ve been approaching meal planning.

We’ve been using the Cook Once Eat All Week cookbook for 8 weeks now. I feel like I can count the number of things I’ve stuck with for 8 weeks over my entire life on one hand, so to say that we’ve stuck to this for so long says something about how well it’s working for us.

As I mentioned in the prior post, each week we pick a week that’s in season from the book. I actually wrote the seasons directly in the book so it’s easily accessible but she offers a Seasonal Guide chart as a downloadable PDF when you buy the book. Admittedly, now that we’re several weeks in, it’s becoming more challenging to pick a week that’s in-season that we’d both like that doesn’t seem like something we just had, but with a little compromise, we’ve been able to make it work.

One of the things I also mentioned was that I’ve been keeping a log of sorts in Evernote to capture our thoughts on each of the weeks we’ve tried. In the log, I include a link to a separate note containing photos of the recipes and meal prep instructions (more on why below), the main ingredients, when the week’s in season, how easy or hard the prep was and how we liked each of the meals. At the end of the week, these give us a pretty good idea as to whether we would make the week again, so I color code the week accordingly.

Our Evernote Log

One of the unexpected benefits of keeping this log is that it’s allowed us to see that many of our favorite recipes, despite being from different weeks, still share similar ingredients. With our confidence in meal prepping increasing with each week, we’ve started toying with the idea of our own custom “weeks”. (Side note: I realize the concepts of meal planning and prepping aren’t new, but they are fairly new to us, so the concepts in this book have helped teach us the basics without seeming overwhelming.)

I was already saving our favorite recipes from each week into my recipe manager, Paprika, for safekeeping, and Paprika’s built-in menu feature makes creating custom weeks almost as easy as having them in the book. To make a custom week, I pick 3 of our recipes with similar ingredients to add to the menu. In the description section of the menu, I note any meal prep instructions specific to those meals. Since many of the ingredients are similar, we can still take advantage of prepping in bulk ahead of time.  As far as the grocery list, Paprika does all the heavy lifting to combine like ingredients and generate a grocery list that can be sent directly to our shared shopping list in Reminders.

Custom Menu in Paprika

Our Shopping List in RemindersSpeaking of our shared shopping list, for weeks we pull directly from the book, I’ve been saving time by copying them from the ebook (If considering the ebook, be sure to see my note below). Each week, I copy the week’s grocery list and paste it into Drafts. Unfortunately, this removes all the line breaks, so do I have to go back and add them back in, but from there, I just use a Send to Shopping List action to send everything directly to our shopping list. As an added bonus, the sections Cassey breaks the items into tend to map quite closely to our local Aldi’s layout, so I keep them and indent the ingredients as sub-tasks to organize the list.

A note on the Kindle version: As someone who prefers cooking from my iPad, I bought a copy of the Kindle version of the book thinking I’d be able to use it while cooking. However, the Kindle version strips out all of the formatting that makes the physical copy of the book so easy to follow. (This is the reason I’ve been snapping pictures of each week’s recipes to Evernote.) If you’re an e-book person like myself, I strongly recommend NOT getting the ebook version of this book.

In my first post about how we were meal planning, I shared a few of the benefits we saw right away (mainly focused around keeping our kitchen cleaner), so before I go, I wanted to wrap up by sharing some of the other benefits we’ve noticed now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of months :

  1. Because we have a plan for the week, impulse buys have pretty much stopped. Don’t get me wrong, we still grab the occasional ice cream or candy, but our pantry, fridge, and freezer are no longer bursting at the seams with random ingredients we picked up thinking they might be useful for a meal one day.
  2. We have a better understanding of what we actually have. Without all the random ingredients, it’s easier to notice the extra chicken in the freezer, which means we reduce the amount of chicken we buy for the week accordingly to use up what we already have.
  3. We’ve started making better use of our freezer. Another benefit of having a freezer that’s not overflowing with freezer meals is that we actually have room to freeze leftover ingredients and meals, instead of letting them go to waste.
  4. We’ve reorganized our kitchen. In most cases, this was as simple as relocating things we use regularly to be more easily within reach, but we did spend a few dollars on things like lazy susans or bins to make better use of our space as well. As a vertically challenged person, not having to get out a step stool to grab things is a huge time saver.
  5. We’re learning which tools we use, which we don’t, and most importantly what’s worth upgrading. For example, I had been thinking about replacing my cheap set of kitchen utensils for a while, but it turns out, nine times out of ten, I reach for my favorite spatula when cooking. I ended up just buying another spatula instead of a full set.

One last thing of note, while you can buy a spiral-bound copy of the book, the copy we have is the regular paperback version which has a tendency to close while we’re cooking if we don’t weigh it down. Recently, however, I saw someone who had rebound their copy using discs and seeing as how I still had a disc binding punch leftover from my paper planning days, it seemed like a logical upgrade for our book as well, so wish us luck in performing a bit of surgery on our copy.

More Efficient Meal Planning

I wanted to take a bit of a detour on the blog today and share something that I’ve been trying out recently to simplify things at home and save us a bit of money in the process. (Added bonus, it’s also helping me be more healthy so it’s also contributing to my year of health).

I received a copy of Cook Once Eat All Week for Christmas, and it’s been getting used just about every week since.

In essence it’s a cookbook centered on meal planning, but if by meal planning, you’re thinking you have to eat the same thing packaged into containers for a week straight, think again. The recipes are each quite different.

Meal Prepped Food In Containers

Prepped Ingredients from Week 1

The title itself is actually a bit of a misnomer. You don’t actually cook once. You actually cook throughout the week. What you actually do once is most of the meal prep, which cuts the time you spend on cooking during the rest week down to 10 or 20 minutes.

There are a few things about the book that have made it work for us more-so than other cookbooks or recipe services we’ve tried in the past:

  1. Each week is based around 3 main ingredients (usually a protein, a veggie, and a starch). This means we can save by buying things in bulk even though we’re only a household of two with limited freezer space.
  2. Each week features 3 recipes that serve 4-6 (plus two bonus meals). Well before this book, I found that planning for 3 dinners at home is the perfect amount for us each week. Three dinners (plus our usual night or two out or ordering carryout) usually leave just enough leftovers for lunches or nights when only one of us is home without throwing away a ton of food. This has taken a lot of the guesswork out of which meals to make each week. I just pick a week and those are my three meals. For larger families or those who prefer to eat in every night, I realize 3 meals isn’t enough, but for us, it’s just about perfect.
  3. Grocery lists are already made. Each week also comes with a pre-prepared grocery list meaning as long as we stick to those 3 meals, our grocery list is practically made for us give or take a few usual extras like milk, coffee creamer, or some time of fruit.
  4. Ingredients are straight forward. I’ve tried meal planning services in the past, and the one thing I couldn’t stand was always having to buy some obscure ingredient. Not only did this require a special trip to a grocery store other than Aldi, I often never used the items again. This book seems to feature pretty common ingredients. There have been a few items Aldi hasn’t stocked but they’re often pantry items I’ve reused in subsequent weeks. As we start to stock our pantry properly, I’m finding that our grocery list is becoming mostly just meats and produce.

Unexpectedly, I’ve found a couple unexpected bonuses as well:

  • Prepping everything on a single day means the kitchen only gets really messy for one day versus multiple days. Most of the messy steps requiring pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards have already been taken care of prior to cooking during the week.
  • It simplifies trash and compost. We tend to do our shopping and meal prep on Sundays or Mondays which happens to be around the time we set out our trash to get picked up for the week so most of the packaging gets thrown out almost immediately. I also keep our compost bin out and open while prepping so the bulk of our scraps get tossed into the bin all at once rather than having to open it several times throughout the week.
  • Last but not least, I find I’m getting more confident in the kitchen. I don’t mind cooking, and I’ve never been told I’m terrible at it. That being said, I tend to gravitate towards making what I’m comfortable with and that tends to be some variation of a cheesy chicken casserole found on Pinterest. This book has pushed me out of my comfort zone both in terms of flavors but also by helping me improve overall skills.

The book is composed of 26 weeks of recipes. Rather than working straight through from Week 1-26, we’re working through the weeks based on what’s in season (based on a chart included as an online extra). Thus far, we’re halfway through our 5th week and have made Weeks 1, 3, 4, and now 8.

Food in Casserole Dish

BBQ Chicken Broccoli Cauliflower Rice Casserole Before it went in the oven

Admittedly, some weeks have been home runs (e.g. Week 1) and others not so much, so I’m recording our thoughts on each week in Evernote in hopes that I can find at least several to rotate through. As an added help on my part, I’m also snapping photos of each week’s worth of prep and recipes and including them in Evernote as well. Not only does this allow me to have the recipes on my iPad while I cook, which I prefer, I can also pull up the recipes or prep instructions while I’m away from home if I need to. For our home run recipes like the Loaded Cauliflower Casserole from Week 3, I’ve also added just the recipes themselves directly to my recipe manager, Paprika, in the event we just want to make the recipe on its own.

All in all, this book has taken most of the guesswork out of cooking for the week. Cooking is almost fun again. We’re eating at home more and we’re eating much better too. Two thumbs up for this book from me.

My Current State of Notetaking

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A number of people have been asking what notetaking system I’m using lately. I’ve written about it in passing like when I explained why I was no longer using DevonThink or why I didn’t renew my Agenda subscription, but I wanted to give a more concrete answer.

First things first, I’m back to primarily using Evernote for my notes and have been for quite some time.

I say primarily, because I’m still using Apple Notes for things I need to share with my other half. There’s just no way I’d be able to get him to become an Evernote user, whereas he was already using Notes on his own when I met him. (Props to him!)

If Apple decides to add more to Apple Notes down the road, I’m certainly interested in switching back to Apple Notes, but right now that list of features to add is pretty significant:

  • Tagging
  • Saved Searches
  • Note Links (Apple Notes has this, but I pretend I’m sharing a note with someone to get the link.)
  • Integration with my email client, Spark
  • A better web clipper – Evernote’s web clipper is simply miles ahead of Apple’s share extension.

With that out of the way, I also wanted to quickly update how I’m structuring Evernote because it’s changed since I last posted about my set up.

I’m still very much a fan of Tiago Forte’s P.A.R.A. system. However, my current notebook structure is much more reminiscent of my set up in other applications like Things, making it easier to mentally switch between systems.

Instead of stacks for Projects, Areas, Resources, I now have a stacks for each of the main area of my life: this blog, Home, Personal, and Work. Then, within each of those stacks, I have my notebooks for my active projects, areas, and resources.

I do still maintain an Archive stack, and within it, I have a notebook for each of the areas mentioned above. (As with before, as projects are archived, I’ll tag all the notes with the name of the project and move them into their respective area’s archive notebook.) The main reason I kept my Archive notebooks separate from my area stacks is because I do have a few areas (like my Undergraduate and Graduate School notes) that are no longer active with content I still wanted to hold on to.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Meeting Notes with Evernote and Things 3

When the makers of Agenda announced they were adding support for Reminders, I immediately began envisioning a future where action items were seamlessly captured and imported into Things via its Import from Reminders feature as I took meeting notes. Unfortunately, in practice, the process wasn’t nearly as seamless as I hoped.

When creating a reminder in Agenda, the developers’ expectations were that users would want to process the details of task immediately. In my opinion, there are two problems with this line of thinking:

  1. It’s often best to capture action items quickly and worry about adding in the details (due dates, sorting them, etc) later so that you can maintain your focus on the meeting.
  2. You may not have all the details of a task up front. You might need to reword it or you may need to spend time thinking about when to tackle it. Processing a task properly requires additional thinking, which is why it’s often a separate step in a planning process.

Another important but missing feature is a lack of any way to view all of your outstanding reminders in one place inside Agenda. You have to use the Reminders app. You can view dated reminders within the calendar view in the sidebar, but undated reminders only reside within the note. If you’re a Things user, like myself, any imported reminders are immediately deleted from the Reminders app after they’re imported to Things, so for my use case, they’re basically lost in Agenda. The suggested workaround in their forums is to not only create a reminder, but also add a tag to it such as #todo. By tagging the reminder, you could then create a saved search based on that tag to see any outstanding reminders, which is more work on my part.

Now before I continue, I want to say the guys behind Agenda are great. In fact, they already have a few solutions up their sleeves to solve the problems I mentioned above. Unfortunately, those features don’t have any definite release schedule, and with my premium subscription up for renewal, I wasn’t sold on paying for a note taking app I was only using for meeting agendas when I already pay for similar apps.

In the end, I decided not to renew my subscription and opted to move all my meeting notes back Evernote.

A few of you long time readers might be thinking, “But wait a minute, Andrea. You said you moved to Agenda because you like keeping your meeting agendas separate.” But in the time since that post, I’ve seriously rethought how I use tags, which has allowed me to create a saved search to quickly see all my active meeting notes throughout Evernote.

The saved search simply looks for all notes tagged with a “#meeting note” tag that’s not tagged with an “archive” tag. I’ve saved it as a shortcut so all of my active meeting notes are just a click away.

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And now you might be asking, what about your vision of a seamless integration with Things? Evernote definitely hasn’t added any integration for Things nor do they have plans to, but the ever-trusty Keyboard Maestro can automate just about anything, so that’s what I did.

I set up a macro triggered by typing the string “/todo”. By typing “/todo” at the end of a line in Evernote, Keyboard Maestro copies the current line of text, launches the Things Quick Entry pane, pastes the current line of text into the Quick Entry Pane and saves the task. It then returns me to Evernote where it formats the line as a To-do item. You can see it in action here:

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The whole process takes mere seconds, and instead of shifting my attention away from the meeting, I can remain focused on what’s being discussed in the moment knowing my action items will be waiting for me to process them in the Things inbox later. It’s exactly the seamless process I was hoping for.

Practical vs. Pretty: Finding Balance Between Features and Design

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With all the buzz about Cal Newport’s latest book Digital Minimalism, I’ve been thinking a lot about intentional use of technology. It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind, but right now, it’s front and center.

As a self-proclaimed power user, I’ve always had a thing for finding the best apps. Finding the “best” app meant finding the app that let me accomplish what I want while spending the least amount of time doing it, which usually meant finding the “pro” app with the most features.

But something else recently slipped into my decision process – almost without me noticing.

“Best” is no longer just about what saves me the most time. It also now includes whether or not I enjoy using it. The Marie Kondo’s of the world might ask, “Does it spark joy?”

These days, I’m becoming less and less interested in the apps with the most features. Features mean nothing if I don’t enjoy using the app. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Almost weekly, I discover a former OmniFocus user discussing why he or she has switched to Things. Things is not only practical. It’s pretty. It’s the balance between practical and pretty that wins people over. It’s why people really enjoy using it.

Another example is something I’ve been struggling to write about…

In the tech world, once you write about using an app, there’s a belief that you’ll continue to use it in perpetuity. It’s an odd belief, really. Just because I blogged on LiveJournal when I was little doesn’t mean I should still be using it for this blog today. Our needs change. Our thoughts change. Technology does as well.

So with that disclaimer out of the way…

I’ve recently succumbed to DevonThink’s terribly outdated UI and moved back to Evernote. Like OmniFocus, DevonThink is still an incredibly powerful (practical) app that I highly recommend for archival knowledge management. For daily knowledge management, however, I just didn’t enjoy looking at it which kept me from using it to its full extent. To be fair, I don’t particularly enjoy using Evernote either, but based on the balance of practicality AND pretty, Evernote wins.

More and more, I’m finding myself swapping practical apps out for prettier apps, and I’m seeing others do the same. I can’t help but wonder if this is part of a larger trend of people really starting to rethink how they use their technology and why. If it is a trend, I’m excited to see where this new wave of both practical and pretty apps can take us.

Photo by mnm.all on Unsplash

Notes – My New Version of Planner Fail

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When I first started this blog years ago, I wrote mainly about paper planners. I was a bit obsessive about my Filofax(es) and switched up my “system” just about every week. For anyone in that community, planner fail isn’t uncommon. In fact, Filofaxes almost encourage the behavior, but when I went digital, I thought my days of planner fail were behind me.

Then, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how thrilled I was to abandon Evernote and consolidate all my notes into Apple Notes. Well, it took me about 2 weeks to realize that probably wasn’t the smartest move after all. As much as I thought I’d like having my notes all in one place, in practice, it actually frustrated me.

Now I will say, none of this was a fault of Apple Notes. Apple Notes is surprisingly powerful and handled everything I threw at it. My frustration was due more to how my brain works than software limitations.

Apple Notes originally won me over with its simplicity, but once you add a few hundred notes, it turns out Apple Notes or any system for that matter stops being so simple. Having everything in Apple Notes forced me to accept that I actually prefer having some sort of distinction between my active notes and reference notes.

And this is where planner-fail returns… but as notes fail.

I didn’t go running back to Evernote. I’ve actually enjoyed my time without the green elephant and even turned off my subscription. I also didn’t abandon Apple Notes – at least not entirely. Apple Notes continues to be the home for “active” notes that I access regularly – my heavily-used collection of carryout menus, jotting down quick notes, and things like the list of things to do that I share with my boyfriend.

The rest of my notes, the reference and project-based notes, all now live in…

drumroll

DEVONthink Pro Office!

As a self-proclaimed Mac Power User, the move to DEVONthink has been a long time coming. I’d just been avoiding the learning curve and let’s be honest the price (although the education discount helped!).

While I still don’t care for the dated interface (which I hear may be getting a facelift in the future), there are a number of things I do enjoy.

  1. I get to pick where my data is stored – and it doesn’t belong to Evernote. I have 3 separate databases. My personal database is synced via iCloud. My other two databases, Work and School, are synced via my university’s Box cloud storage.
  2. Getting data into DEVONthink is about as easy as it was with Evernote (and much easier than Apple Notes). DEVONthink’s browser extension does what I need it to for archiving websites, and I can archive emails from Airmail directly to DEVONthink as well (although they’re plain text – Airmail team, if you’re listening, you could do better!). Airmail had no integration with Apple Notes
  3. I can search my notes with Alfred. Alfred couldn’t search Apple Notes which forced me to use Spotlight.
  4. I get to use my favorite apps. Plenty of apps integrate with Evernote and Apple Notes as far as saving things into them, but once something is saved, you’re limited to editing a note within the Evernote or Apple Notes apps. With DEVONthink, I can use the Open with Feature and edit saved files within my favorite apps. (I’m writing this post in FoldingText, but it’s actually stored in DEVONthink.)
  5. Artificial Intelligence – This is a feature I didn’t really think much of when I bought it. It sounded cool, but I figured it’d be a gimmick like Evernote’s, context feature. My main motivation for having a central place to store notes was to hopefully be able to find connections between things I’m storing, and DEVONthink’s AI feature does this automatically! Looking at my book notes for Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, I also get suggestions for notes I’ve taken on his other book, Homo Deus. It even makes suggestions for books I would have never even made connections to like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. This is a game changer (and it may be enough of a game changer to sway me into continuing on for my Ph.D.).

DEVONthink isn’t perfect. I’ve had to make a few changes to adapt to its interface and storage methods, but I’m pretty confident that DEVONthink is here to stay as part of my tool bag of pro apps.

Lastly, if you’re on the fence about DevonThink or were like me and downloaded the trial a handful of times only to delete the app out of overwhelm, I highly recommend reading Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2.

Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash

An Experiment: Migrating from Evernote to Apple Notes

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The other day I got a crazy idea to migrate everything in Evernote over to Apple Notes.

Why you might ask?

Having my shared notes in Apple Notes while everything else lived in Evernote really bugged me – probably more than it reasonably should have, but such is my life.

The other issue nagging at me was having to pay for Evernote Premium. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind paying for the service if it weren’t for their 2 device sync limit seeming like a total cash grab. Also, I’m already paying for the iCloud storage so why not use it.

Making the switch was a bit time-consuming, but I really didn’t have to give up as much as I thought I would. In fact, in some cases, Apple Notes has actually turned out to be better.

What I’m Liking:

  • Sharing Things to Notes – It’s no surprise that Apple has baked ways to add things to Notes into just about every part of MacOS and iOS, with one notable exception which I’ll discuss a bit later.
  • Sharing Notes with Others – Sure Evernote allows you to share notes, but none of my friends or family use Evernote, so the feature was lost on me, and a big reason I was stuck using Apple Notes.
  • Simplicity of Design – I really started to notice the feature bloat of Evernote. (Evernote, if you’re listening, please let users with only one account hide the account switcher in the sidebar.) Apple Notes brings me back to a much more minimal design.06_20_18 at 12.11.23PM
  • Folder Hierarchy – I don’t need crazy folder structures for my notes, but Evernote’s insistence on a two-level hierarchy forced me to adopt some weird workarounds including prefixing my notebooks and using tags as a way to add additional levels. As long as you’re adding folders from a Mac, Apple doesn’t seem to care how many levels you want to have.
  • Apple Pencil Support – Evernote claims to have Apple Pencil support but it’s horribly laggy and a real pain to use. As a result, I was already using other apps, including Apple Notes to do any sort of Apple Pencil work.

What I’m Missing:

  • Searching Notes – You’d think searching notes stored in the stock notes app would be easy for a Mac, and if you use Spotlight, it is. Unfortunately, I use Alfred, and for whatever reason, Apple has chosen to store notes in a database that seems to be ever changing preventing any Alfred workflows from keeping up. For now, I’m searching my notes using Spotlight, which means remembering a separate keyboard shortcut. (The fact that Apple’s storing these notes in a database could also be a real pain if I ever need to get my notes out of Apple Notes, but I’m going to choose not to think about that right now because Evernote’s no better.)
  • Evernote’s Web Clipper – It’s really hard to come anywhere close to Evernote’s Web Clipper. Apple Notes can only save links to websites not a full page unless you do a web archive or save it as a PDF which requires a few additional steps. That being said, I was noticing Evernote’s Web Clipper had been doing some odd things to some of my clipped websites, so maybe not all is lost.
  • Note Links – I like to include links to other notes in my notes, as well as within Omnifocus tasks and projects. With Apple Notes, you can’t actually get a link to a note unless you pretend to share the note with someone.
  • Saving Email Content – My mail client of choice, Airmail, has native support for sharing content to Evernote, but surprisingly not Apple Notes. I frequently save important emails for reference, so this is one of my most frustrating features to lose. Surprisingly, Apple’s own Mail apps also lack any ability to share to Notes.
  • Tags – I didn’t use tags extensively in Evernote, but they were helpful in grouping things by topic without having to create a full-blown notebook. For now, I’m dealing with this by sub-folders, but I hope Apple considers adding tags in the future.

There are a few scripts and tools to help you migrate from Evernote to Apple Notes, but I opted to migrate most of my notes manually unless they were purely text-based, which meant this was a pretty time-consuming experiment. (Thankfully, it seems to be a successful experiment.) I’m nearly done migrating the last of my Grad School notes, but already I’m feeling a lot better having one single place for all of my notes.

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Archiving Notebooks in Evernote (and a few thoughts on Tags)

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I’ve discussed how the way I organize Evernote has evolved recently. One of those more recent additions is that I’ve started creating notebooks for active projects, but I hadn’t come to a decision on what to do with them once they were no longer active.

Having just returned from Ireland, making my “Trip to Ireland” project inactive, I had a decision to make. That decision was that notes from inactive projects would get tagged and collapsed into their respective Reference notebook. In the case of my “Trip to Ireland” notes, I tagged them all with Ireland and moved them to my Personal reference notebook. They’re all still easily accessible in case I get the opportunity to go to Ireland again or someone asks about it, but otherwise out of the way.

Interestingly enough, shortly after I made my decision, Stacey Harmon came out with a post suggesting that very same thing:

Collapsing or archiving notebooks. If you’re regularly managing your notebooks (see above), you can use tags to convert your Notebooks to tags when you’re no longer using them. Simply tag all the data in that Notebook, and put it into an Archive notebook.

Her post is a great read if you’re having trouble with deciding how to organize Evernote. While I don’t follow her method, I do agree with her on why tags shouldn’t be your primary way of organizing Evernote. That being said, what I find most interesting about the Evernote community though, is how quickly and adamantly the user base divided into two camps: using tags is the only way to go or using notebooks is the only way to go.

My system has developed from a mix of ideas from GTD, Tiago Forte, and Stacey Harmon. New items go to the inbox (GTD) where they’re then filed away in their appropriate notebooks based on how often I’ll need to be using them (Forte and Harmon). Tags are used to identify overarching themes or topics (e.g. Buddhism, Ireland, accessibility, quantified self, etc.) allowing me to browse by topic if need be, but Evernote’s search is always my first instinct. It works without all the fiddly effort of managing a complex tagging system.

My Grad School Notetaking Workflow

Now that I’ve had my iPad Pro for a while, I’ve finally settled into a routine for managing my course notes. I rely on two main apps (Goodnotes and Evernote) and both my Macbook Pro and iPad Pro.

Setting Up for the Week

Each week before class, I duplicate an existing copy of my weekly course notes to save time typing out my preferred format. It’s broken down into Administrative (typically action items or important information about the course), a list of assigned readings, an area for taking notes during that week’s lecture, and a place for the lecture slides.

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(Note in the screenshot above I have two reminders listed in the sidebar. They serve as a workaround to pin notes to the top like Apple Notes. Until Evernote decides to add the feature, this is the next best thing. I just turn off notifications so I’m not pestered by dates.)

Next, I download the assigned readings for the next week as well as the lecture slides from the previous class from the course site on Blackboard. Newly assigned readings get put into Goodnotes on the Mac. While I’m in Goodnotes, I also export any readings from the previous week to PDF and delete the previous week’s category.

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Back in Evernote, I create notes for each of the new readings and link to them in the weekly note using the Copy Note Link feature. I used to include my reading notes directly in the Weekly notes, but after noticing a few of the assigned readings were papers I’d already read for another class, I switched to keeping my notes directly with the papers themselves, linking each class to the single note for the paper. It makes noticing connections a lot easier.

The last step in preparing for the week is to create tasks in Omnifocus. I typically prefer to have all the assignments plugged in at the start of the semester, but for this class, it’s easier to enter them on a weekly basis.

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Reading

With set up done, I switch to my iPad Pro for reading and annotation within Goodnotes. If something seems particularly noteworthy I make note of that in the stub note in Evernote, but for the most part, the annotation is sufficient.

In Class

During class, I use my iPad Pro to switch between typing notes into Evernote and making additional annotations in Goodnotes.

Tidying Up

The day after class, I make sure my weekly note for the previous class is complete by adding the final annotated copy of the readings into the stub notes I created for them (they’re already linked to the main weekly note), adding the lecture slides. I end up with something that looks a bit like this.

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And then it’s time to start this whole process over for the next week!

 

A Few Improvements to my Evernote Organization

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

 

A few months ago I wrote about how I’m organizing Evernote. Have no fear! I’m still loving my basic set up, but I have made a few additions to keep important information at hand.

I’m not sure which podcast introduced me to Tiago Forte, but in the weeks after learning of him, I spent hours reading into his P.A.R.A. method – a “universal system for organizing digital information.” His idea is simple – The tools you use aren’t important as long as you have a system to organize things. Of course, any mention of systems has my attention.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but P.A.R.A. stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. He has a 4-part series if you’re interested in learning all the details. Unfortunately, the posts are now behind a paywall though, so here’s an interview he did with Evernote that goes over the basics.

I’ve not adopted his system fully, but I did walk away with a few insights.

Take Away 1: Projects vs. Areas of Responsibility

Coming from a GTD mindset, projects and areas of responsibility seem fairly straightforward, but I was surprised to discover I was mixing them up just as Forte mentioned. He describes a project as “a series of tasks linked to a goal with a deadline,” whereas an area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” Projects can be completed. Areas of responsibility are ongoing.

Forte argues that when you mix the two together, it’s difficult to see everything you’ve committed to, and I couldn’t agree more. Clarifying the commitments required by my ongoing areas of responsibility has given me a better understanding of just how feasible taking on that extra project might be.

Take Away 2: Make Most Used Information the Most Accessible

It’s no surprise that information isn’t equal. Some notes are used more than others. Part of Forte’s P.A.R.A. method includes keeping your notes organized hierarchically so that your most used information is easily accessible. More actionable information flows up to the top Project level, whereas lesser-used information flows down to Archives.

Forte suggests moving everything into Archives to start. As you need to use notes, move them to their appropriate level, and they will gradually end up in their respective areas. I actually tried this, but quickly found his distinctions between Resources, Areas, and Archives too arbitrary for my needs.

Instead, I settled on a simplified system. I created two stacks – one for Current Projects and one for everything else, Reference. Like, Forte suggested, I just moved my existing notebooks into a Reference stack. For any projects that require supporting documentation, I create a notebook under Current Projects. Once completed, their content will be archived to their respective area under Reference.

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(Side note: I’ve also made two other changes: Agendas now live in their own notebook for easier access, and I created a separate Reference notebook for book highlights.)

Take Away 3: Review and Improve your Notes as You Use Them

A lot of people seem to treat Evernote as a junk drawer. I’m guilty as well. Forte has a whole system for randomly resurfacing his notes and annotating them. As cool as it is, I simply don’t have time to review and revise notes each day. Moreover, I find his rules for when to highlight versus bold a bit fiddly. Instead, I’m simply trying to make a point to improve my notes each time I use them. As I use a note, I’ll clarify or highlight the portion I used.

With these three takeaways, my notes should become more and more useful over time. I’m sure that the system will evolve, but for now this seems to be a nice blend of simplicity and functionality.

 

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