On the seventh day, God rested. On the eighth day, God invented Evernote. Okay, that’s not entirely true (Stepan Pachikov launched Evernote in 2008), but for the past seven years, Evernote has delighted ataxophobics like me. I use Evernote for many things, including keeping track of recipes, recording lists of what my kids want for Christmas, and organizing articles I want to refer to later.
Evernote has benefited me most, however, as a tool for managing my blog topics and ideas. Thanks to Evernote – and other tools that I plan to write about later – I maintain what I call a never-ending idea file. This post doesn’t step-by-step details of how to use Evernote; you can find an Evernote user guide here. However, I hope my methods benefit you, whether you’re an Evernote padawan or Jedi master.
Step Into My Mind Palace
“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
If you’re a fan of the BBC’s “Sherlock” series, then you’re familiar with the concept of a mind palace. It’s your own personal Appledore vault, the place in your mind where you store memory files to retrieve later.
Ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos supposedly invented the mind palace concept. He referred to it as loci, or the ability to remember things based on their location. The mind palace technique involves envisioning a physical location, whether it’s a set of vaults, a file cabinet, or a street with different houses, where you store different memories.
I have an almost photographic memory. Because I remember so much of what I see and read, my memory becomes a jumble of tangled information. Over the years, I’ve become more efficient by retaining only important snippets and storing the rest where I can quickly retrieve it. Information falls into two tiers: the kind that I memorize, and the kind I remember how to locate.
As Sherlock points out, a mind palace can get crowded, and sometimes, you delete files to make room for new ones. In my case, I remember where to find things I don’t immediately need instead of storing them in my mind palace. In some cases, I note something as important, remember a key phrase and a publication, and Google it later when I need the information. At other times, I declutter my mind palace by sending some of the overflow to Evernote.
In addition to storing random factoids and information, Evernote also serves as a triage center for my new blog topics and ideas. I collect ideas using the Web clipper, by emailing them into Evernote, or by creating notes on the go.
In the course of a day, I locate many sources of information in my online travels. Sometimes, when I’m researching a topic for a client, I see another link that catches my eye. Instead of getting distracted and reading the other article, I click on it and decide whether it could be a valuable resource or trigger for a writing topic. If it is, I clip it using Evernote’s Chrome Web clipper extension.
I also curate a lot of content from others that I follow online. When people share something interesting on social networks or in an email newsletter, I click the link and then scan it to evaluate its depth and usefulness. If I think it could generate a writing topic idea or support an ongoing project, I use Web clipper to store it in Evernote. The note goes into either a designated notebook or a triage notebook that I call “Notes to Classify.”
Emailing Into Evernote
In Evernote under “Account Info,” every user has a dedicated Evernote email address. You can use it to email notes directly to your designated Evernote notebook if you're a Premium user. For example, if I come across an article while I’m using my iPhone, I copy the link and email it into Evernote. I use a short description followed by @(notebook name) in the subject line (e.g., “Inspiring Web Designs @Design). I follow a few email lists, and when they share content that I find valuable, I simply forward the messages to Evernote. The emailing feature also helps when I’m using my smartphone and can’t access the Web clipper extension.
Notes on the Go
In addition to grabbing blog topics and ideas when I’m working, I use Evernote’s mobile app on my iPhone to create quick notes on the go. For instance, if a short story idea comes to me while I’m out running an errand, I open the app. I create a note by either snapping a photo of something that gives me an idea or jotting down a sentence or two. When the time comes to write fiction, I open Evernote and find my ideas waiting for me.
Storage and Retrieval
In addition to using Evernote on my iPhone, I keep Evernote’s desktop app on my Mac. I use the iPhone app for idea collection and the desktop app for both collection and idea management.
If you’re just getting started with Evernote or want to re-envision the way that you organize it, I suggest starting with just a triage notebook. Send all of your Web clips, emails, and on-the-go notes to triage. Then, on a daily or weekly basis, sort your triaged notes into categories that make sense. These categories become notebooks; eventually, related notebooks become stacks of notebooks. Once you’ve established a few notebooks, start sending your notes directly into notebooks instead of sending them through triage. If you aren’t sure where to store a note, your triage notebook is always there as a backup.
If I know I’ve started a note on a topic and I find another source or snippet of information, then I copy and paste the link and add it to my note, or I jot down a quick sentence about what I want to remember. Sometimes, within a notebook, I keep a running note titled “(Subject) Topic Ideas.” If I don’t have a source for a topic, but I have a quick idea, I add it to the ideas list and flesh it out later.
Let’s say a client of mine wants a blog post centered on a university’s MBA program I open my Evernote notebook called MBA Topics and see the following image:
From here, I see my list of snippets, which are images or articles that I’ve observed and thought, “That would make an interesting topic.” I review the file, put together a pitch, and send it to my client.
Always Have Ideas
When you have blog topics or ideas, or you see an article that warrants further study, don’t think too much about developing the concept. Instead, grab it, store it in Evernote, and know that it’s there the next time you need it.
I believe one of the secrets to creative work is volume. Write a lot, draw a lot, compose a lot, and then snatch the best ideas out of the pile. Try to collect a lot of ideas without judgment instead of telling yourself why they won’t work. The idea you might have thrown away could become one of your most engaging blog posts or articles.
And What I Mean By That Is...
While my topic ideas are parked in Evernote, they’re marinating and developing inside my subconscious mind. For example, I thought of creating this blog post about how I use Evernote a few months ago, and I created a note for my idea and went on with other tasks. As the idea simmered, I realized that I use many tools to find and juggle topic ideas, including Pocket and Twitter Lists. I realized that the subject wasn’t just Evernote; the subject was how to create an unending supply of ideas.
Ideas are kind of like rabbits; if you leave them alone long enough, they start to breed and multiply. I can create blog posts on how I use Evernote, Pocket, and Twitter Lists, but I also see a larger thread on how to never run out of ideas. If I’d dismissed my Evernote topic – “everyone loves Evernote and writes about it” – instead of adding it to a note, I would have missed out on a series of creative ideas. I would also have missed out on identifying one of my greatest strengths as a creative person: I’m great at hoarding ideas.
Keep Your Mind Palace in Order
Whether you use Evernote or a paper notebook, always carry something so that you can jot down ideas the moment they bubble up or the instant you spot them in your environment. Then, when you’re approached for a writing project or feel the urge to create something, you’ll always have a place to begin.
If you're struggling to come up with writing ideas or create a publishing strategy for your blog, I can help. Hire me as a managing editor for your blog.
Image credit: whatleydude from Flickr