Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows

Tips & Stories

Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows

Posted by Tiago Forte on 11 Dec 2015

Posted by Tiago Forte on 11 Dec 2015

One of the classic debates for Evernote organization essentially is, ‘to tag or not to tag.’

From Michael Hyatt to Thomas Honeyman, thousands upon thousands of you have relied on tags as your primary organizational system. But, the power of Evernote is in its flexibility.

Tiago Forte offers up a different approach.

Tiago posits that Evernote is a thinking tool. You can create your own digital system that systematically helps remind you of past ideas, inspirations, and insights. If the genesis of creativity is built on the foundation of our spontaneous connections to seemingly unrelated things — then Evernote can serve as a cognitive tool to assist you against the ravages of forgetfulness while helping you take on all your creative challenges.

Tiago is an internationally recognized speaker, media commentator, and productivity expert. He draws on his background in UX design and technology startups to promote a vision of work that is both more innovative and more sustainable. He gave an incredible talk on productivity at Evernote HQ in 2013 and just last week, he talked to GTD legend David Allen about Evernote, creativity, and productivity. Here’s more on his approach to using Evernote for creative workflows. 

Your brain is great at recognition, but pretty terrible at recall. It outperforms the fastest supercomputers on the former, and is outdone by a 1980’s solar calculator on the latter.

When you rely heavily on tags, you have to perfectly recall every single tag you’ve ever used, and exactly how it is spelled and punctuated. “Parent” tags that create dropdown menus are no solution — that just leaves you squinting at a tiny list of options to choose from.

And autofill doesn’t address this either — first because it doesn’t work on every device, and second because sometimes there are very different ways of formulating the same thing (graphic design, UX design, interaction design…)
As good as your brain is at recognizing patterns, it is terrible at storing and recalling multiple patterns precisely since the patterns of neuronal activation interfere with each other. Yet this is exactly what you’re doing straining to remember the right tag. What a terrifically unnecessary expenditure of mental resources.

Lack of Stigmergy

One of the most important discoveries in cognitive science in recent years is that cognition is embodied and situated.

This means that our primary mode of thinking is not manipulating abstract symbols (like a computer does), but rather using our body (“embodiment”) to directly interact with objects in the environment (where they are “situated”). In this way, we offload some of our cognitive processing onto our environment, which is after all capable of storing information much more efficiently than our brains are.

This is one way that memory grandmasters train, called a “memory palace.” By associating information to be memorized with specific locations (“on the cupboard in the kitchen,” or “third left-hand drawer in the study”), they harness the brain’s vast location-dependent memory.

Think about it: memorizing a phone number without constant review is a challenge, yet you can probably identify the locations of hundreds of objects in your house.

This concept is called stigmergy (or stigmergic cognition) and represents one of our brains’ greatest innovations in saving energy.

Yet tags completely disregard stigmergy and instead force us to think about our notes in a completely abstract way — as virtual holograms existing in multiple parallel and complex interconnecting universes, instead of as physical objects residing in a single physical location (even if that location is a notebook or other metaphor). The “limitation” of notes residing “only” in a single location is in fact a strength!

Perverse Affordances

In design, you create affordances when you want your user to do something, and disturbances when you want them to not do something. Thus you encourage desired behaviors by making them easier, and discourage undesired behaviors by making them harder.

So which behaviors are desired and undesired when it comes to organization? In any organizational system, the constant temptation is to over organize, i.e. to create too many categories, too many subdivisions that are too specific. As the number of tags grows arithmetically, their complexity grows geometrically, for multiple reasons, both technological and cognitive. This phenomenon is all the more problematic with unlimited digital storage that never runs into physical constraints.

Yet in Evernote and most other tagging systems, all it takes to create a new tag is to type one. If the tag is not recognized as already existing, it is created.

Thus the most problematic behavior is implicitly encouraged and enabled. Grrrrrrr. It could be a misspelling. It could be a slip of the finger. It could be a different capitalization, punctuation, or tense, whatever. No warning or indication is given, and a divergent tag is created, for you to hopefully notice and fix later.


Speaking of over-optimization, tags are the poster child.

I theorize that the mentality behind using tags to create hyper-specific targeted searches (“.conversations I had with *Jeremy about ^butternut_squash while wearing #shorts”) comes from the mainframe age, when “running a search” required, basically, writing a custom program that took hours or days to run.

In that case, the transaction cost of running another search was so high, that accuracy was paramount.

But everything’s changed. Notes are stored locally so there is no lag, search is blazing fast, and the search bar provides recommendations and suggestions that are far more accurate and helpful than tags.

In this new paradigm, who cares if I can instantly narrow down my target using obscure criteria the very first time? If I fail to find the conversation I’m looking for by typing “shorts,” I’m sure I’ll find it by typing “butternut squash” or some other combination of terms. It comes down to a simple equation:

energy required to tag every note > energy required to run multiple searches

We’ve reached the point where search is so good, effectively the whole document is made up of tags, and the cognitive load of meticulously tagging every note becomes truly unforgivable.


You may be wondering at this point, “Does this really matter?”
I could say something about efficiency and productivity and multiplying one second saved by 3 gazillion and yada, yada, yada. But I think there’s something deeper here.

I used to think that the point of Evernote (and Dropbox, and Apple Notes, and all the other filing or note-taking systems) was to store “important information.” But working with people from very different backgrounds, from one-on-one to groups to thousands at a time online, I’ve come to realize that these systems are about much more than functional utility.

They enable one of the most important aspects of all creative work: what I call creative self-esteem.

Ask yourself this: when you have an idea, any idea, what do you do with it?

Do you obsessively write every single one down, but never look at them again? Or do you let it pass, thinking “Well it probably wasn’t that good of an idea anyway”? Both these extremes characterize someone with low creative self-esteem — they don’t put much stock in their own ideas.

The real potential of a digital organizational system is to be a tool for capturing and systematically reminding you of past ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections. The heart of creativity and innovation is making spontaneous connections between seemingly unrelated things, and products like Evernote can, when used correctly, serve as a cognitive exoskeleton, not only protecting us from the ravages of forgetfulness but also amplifying our blows as we take on creative challenges.

The real problem with tags, and why they not only fail to help, but actually even hurt people’s creative self-esteem, is that they give the impression that keeping a useful collection of personal notes requires nothing less than a heroic feat of comprehensive planning, followed by years of meticulous, unwavering cataloging and annotating. Thus I see many creative people, justly overwhelmed at this task for which their minds are not well suited, give up on the idea altogether.

Don’t worry about creating the perfect system, as if that exists. Just start capturing. Your mind, noticing you start to record and value your ideas, will respond in kind and start producing more. Begin the cycle, and eventually, maybe, one of those great ideas that will occur to you down the road will reveal the “perfect” system for you.

When I look at successful people, I notice again and again that it is this — the ability to systematically capture and review and deploy their ideas, further strengthening their creative self-esteem, leading them to value and generate more ideas, and so on in a virtuous loop — that really sets them apart. Not the original quantity or quality of ideas, not their brilliance from birth, not luck.

The best of the best use organizational systems as a means to a very worthy end: to create rapid, self-reinforcing learning and feedback loops that can be adapted and reconfigured to any purpose.

Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows

Now we’re ready to build a new system from scratch.

Let’s start with trying to answer the question “What is Evernote for?” by drilling down into its original mission:

“To give you a second brain and help you remember everything”

It’s not just “remembering things.” Our brains are not particularly good at that anyway, so having a second one wouldn’t help much.

This includes the storage and retrieval of straightforward factual information: parking tickets, receipts, user manuals, packing lists, recipes, menus, business cards, language materials, doctor’s notes, government documents, tax documents, logins/passwords, school assignments, etc.

This is “dumb” information by design, so an intelligent tool doesn’t add much value.

What the brain does best is thinking. Evernote is most valuable not as a remembering tool, but as a thinking tool.

But if a tool like Evernote doesn’t add much value performing low-level tasks like “remembering things,” and it’s incapable of performing high-level creative thinking, what is it good for?

Answer: Creating a cognitive environment that promotes creativity

To describe what this environment would look like, we need to dive deep into what creativity means and how it’s enabled.

We need to answer, in detail: What exactly are the conditions required for high-performance creativity, and how can we use Evernote to create these conditions?

I can think of five.

1. Promoting unusual associations
It’s been said in many different ways: creativity is connecting things, especially things that don’t seem to be connected.

Eddie Opara writes in The Atlantic, describing his research scanning the brains of highly accomplished creatives, that “creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections…”
Evernote’s ability to capture an extremely diverse range of media formats is a strong hint that this is what it should be used for. It prioritizes this kind of flexibility over speed (it’s not the fastest syncing out there), collaboration (real-time shared editing is not a core function), and uniformity (copying and pasting can lead to formatting issues).

Scott Barry Kauffman writes in Harvard Business Review: “…increased sensitivity to unusual associations is another important contributor to creativity.”


2. Creating visual artifacts of ideas 

Research on cognition has shown that our basic mode of thinking is not abstract reasoning and planning, but “interacting via perception and action with the environmental situation.”
Essentially, it’s easier for us to interact with physical objects in the environment than with abstract ideas in our heads.

The book Learning to Think Spatially tells the story of how Watson and Crick used this approach to discover the structure of DNA.

Although their model had to account for abstract chemical and mathematical observations, they relied heavily on building physical models to arrive at the double helix.

Manifesting their thinking in external structures revealed approach vectors that pure math and two-dimensional diagrams simply couldn’t provide.

By externalizing your ideas in a variety of formats — text, sketches, photos, videos, documents, diagrams, web clips, hyperlinks — you create a system of distributed cognition across “artifacts” that can be moved, edited, rearranged, and combined.

You don’t need “artificial intelligence” to do the thinking for you (the stupidity of even the most advanced personal assistant app is a testament to this). You just need visual and spatial anchors for the most advanced supercomputer on the planet — your brain.

3. Incubating ideas over long periods of time
I think one of the least appreciated methods for connecting ideas and producing breakthrough work is the “slow burn.”

Richard Feynman put it best:

“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Too often, we force ourselves to take an idea from blue sky ideation to practical execution in 48 hours flat. We call it a “rapid prototyping sprint,” and pride ourselves on how little time was spent, as if a new idea is something to be excreted and moved on from as quickly as possible.

But again, this is not how our mind works. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about how the brain continues working on problems through the night, or as you do household chores, or take a shower, or do grocery shopping. Ok just one: August Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene in a dream.

TiagoImage3This post is itself the product of a long, slow burn. It uses 25 direct sources, and many other indirect ones, collected over more than a year, but once those pieces were in place, it only took 18 hours to write and edit.

Think about how much longer it would have taken me to find, read, summarize, and synthesize that many sources, starting from scratch.

Even when we do invest the time, we usually don’t create notes that can be re-used and recycled in other projects. We don’t know what we know, because this information, which we’ve spent precious time and attention to absorb, remains disconnected, fragmented, and scattered. The seeds of insight hide in mysteriously titled folders and documents, opaque black boxes floating in the cloud.

Evernote provides much of the infrastructure for making the slow burn possible. It is durable, universal, centralized, and persistent, increasing the chance that your “dozen favorite problems” repeatedly see the light of day.

4. Providing the raw material for unique interpretations and perspectives
With all the hysteria around machines replacing jobs, there’s one sobering trend that I don’t feel is getting the attention it deserves: increasingly, it is not low-skilled and routine jobs that are being replaced, it is jobs requiring skill, advanced training, complexity, and even human contact.

TiagoImage4So much for “more education” being the answer to all our employment troubles.

A big part of the problem is that, as Cal Newport says, “knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish.”

The more our work resembles a computer algorithm, the more easily it will be replaced by a computer algorithm.

Newport’s solution is straightforward, if not exactly actionable: “We need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results.”

But just try ignoring this “shallow work” (email, meetings, etc.) for a couple days and see what happens.

The solution is suggested by another study, seeking to identify which kinds of jobs best survived the technological replacement of the last tech boom.

What they found was interesting: it wasn’t jobs requiring advanced skills, or comprehensive knowledge, or years of training that fared best. It was jobs that required the ability to convey “not just information but a particular interpretation of information.”

In other words, the jobs that seem to best resist technological unemployment are those that involve building, maintaining, promoting, and defending a particular perspective.

Think of a salesperson citing past results to close a sale. Or a researcher using data to back up their interpretation of an experiment. Or a project manager citing a couple key precedents to support a decision. All these perspectives can benefit from a repository of supporting information.
And here’s where a tool like Evernote comes in. Because defending a perspective takes ammunition.

And by ammunition, I mean examples, illustrations, stories, statistics, diagrams, analogies, metaphors, photos, mindmaps, conversation notes, quotes, book notes — these are the kinds of things you should be capturing.

The more raw material you have to work with, and the more diverse your sources, the stronger and more unassailable your argument will be.

5. Creating opportunities for resonance
The previous point may have left you wondering, “So what does amassing vast amounts of research have to do with creativity?”

First, don’t think quantity, think quality. Again, the design of the app hints at this in multiple ways: upload restrictions, performance optimized for large numbers of notes instead of large individual notes, and a limited 3-level hierarchy (note, notebook, stack).

Instead, you should pick and choose what you capture very carefully. Think of Evernote as a Cliff’s Notes to everything valuable that you’ve learned in the past — it should include only the key points, not every single detail.

But don’t go to the other extreme, being too picky about what you save. The best rule of thumb is not to set out explicit decision criteria for what you keep. Just thinking about that is exhausting.

Instead, use resonance as your criteria. As in, “that resonates with me.” We know from neuroscience research that “emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking.” Often, when something “resonates” with us, it is our intuitive/right brain/System 1 mind telling us something is valuable before our analytical/left brain/System 2 mind even knows what’s going on.

In fact, I very often find that the most counterintuitively insightful pieces of information I save are the ones whose practical application is initially the least clear. My intuition tells me there’s something special about what I’m seeing or hearing, and only much later does the logic become clear.

There’s empirical evidence this really works. From the book: Designing for Behavior Change:

“Participants in a famous study were given four biased decks of cards — some that would win them money, and some that would cause them to lose. When they started the game, they didn’t know that the decks were biased. As they played the game, though, people’s bodies started showing signs of physical “stress” when their conscious minds were about to use a money-losing deck. The stress was an automatic response that occurred because the intuitive mind realized something was wrong — long before the conscious mind realized anything was amiss.”

Their conclusion: “Our intuitive mind learns, and responds, even without our conscious awareness.”

Misdirected optimization is the root of all evil

Before we can outline a strategy for creating this environment, we need to identify our most scarce resource.

In other words:

What are we optimizing for?

This turns out to be a fairly profound question, with radical implications for how we organize the information in our lives.
To illustrate:

  1. If you are optimizing for storage space, you’ll sign up for the cheapest cloud storage service you can find. There are some out there so cheap, it can take them a couple days to retrieve your data if you need it.
  2. If you’re optimizing for security, you’d better not use cloud services at all, and store your data in encrypted files backed up to RAID 10s. And don’t forget to distribute them to remote bank vaults in case of nuclear attack.
  3. For comprehensiveness, you comprehensiveness, you hoard every single thing you come across in its entirety, like a digital packrat. These are the people complaining they can’t use Evernote because of the upload limitations (trust me — they are there for your protection).
  4. For collaboration, you go with a real-time, browser-based editing platform like Google Docs.
  5. For simplicity, you go with Dropbox, and its Zen no-features-as-feature.

I use these platforms and many others to store various kinds of information, but there is a reason Evernote is uniquely suited to the demands of creative knowledge work and continues to be so beloved in tech and startup circles.
It optimizes for the most important metric in the modern digital workplace:

Return-on-Attention (ROA)

The concept of Return-on-Attention came to me as I was wrestling with a different, but highly related question:

What makes one note more valuable than another?

No approach to organizing information can add value without answering this question.

Many people’s first instinct is to assume that, if the value of information is in its connections to other information, we should label as many of these connections as possible. This leads to the tactic of tagging each note with as many conceivable categories as possible.

But this approach reveals a fundamental paradox: any attempt to increase the value of a piece of information by tagging, labeling, categorizing, grouping, cross-referencing, or otherwise explicitly identifying a relationship of any kind, in reality, has the potential of limiting how this information is used.

For example, for the research paper cited above on cognition, one of the most influential works on my thinking, I had the following tags assigned to the note where it was captured:

complexity, cybernetics, decision making, GTD, information management, information overload, knowledge work, neuroscience, notes, optimization, prioritization, problem-solving, productivity, project management

At first glance, this seems like a wonderful job I’ve done associating this note with so many categories. But what I’ve realized is that for such an insightful (i.e. valuable) work as this one, these tags represent a constraint on my future efforts to link this information with new and unexpected ideas.

These tags represent, by definition, pre-existing problem frames through which to view this information. Remember our definition of creativity above?

…connecting things, especially things that don’t seem to be connected.

By labeling this note with so many cross-referenced tags, I’m not only locking myself into conventional ways of approaching these fields, I’m creating a false sense of confidence that I’ll be able to find the “right” information when I need it.

But I also couldn’t accept the polar opposite: having no structure whatsoever, letting all the notes slosh around randomly, relying on the magical savior of search to rescue me. There had to be a middle path.

The conclusion I came to was that there is no substitute for the deeply creative act of seeing two puzzle pieces, and applying focused attention to intuit how they fit together. No system can directly replace this kind of thinking through “hard links,” so the only option is to make the process of creating “soft links” on the fly as easy as possible, thus conserving the amount of attention applied.

Loading and Unloading

What then is the main cognitive barrier to comparing two ideas? It’s the process of “loading” an idea into your brain.

Initially, this takes a considerable amount of time, as we consume close to 100% of the material to get the 5–10% (at most) that is actually insightful. The problem comes when we step away from our desks, promptly forgetting (“unloading”) the superstructure of ideas we’re holding in our short-term memory, since we don’t make any effort to preserve the thinking that was done.

This is best illustrated by the experience of putting a complex project aside, and only returning to it months later. The relevant ideas are no longer in RAM, and it takes you a lot of time/energy to get “back to speed.”
Think about the investment reaching this state of mind entails. It’s not just your years of education and training, your vast store of work and life experiences, the effort of managing stress, nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc. so that you’re functioning at your best.

What really makes it terribly expensive is the startlingly small amount of time you actually have to focus on deep, meaningful work. I’ve been meticulously tracking my time for years, and I find that I almost never spend more than about 15 hours per week on focused, creative tasks, despite the fact that I work alone.

Returning to Cal Newport: “…Unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, [knowledge workers] lack a culture of systematic improvement.

And it’s true. If we consider these periods of intense, focused work as our primary asset as knowledge workers, and think about how precious few hours of quality attention we have to spend each week, and how few weeks and years we have on this planet to make something that matters, it is unforgivable that we make no effort to build a personal knowledge base that appreciates over time. Each day we start again from scratch, trading something invaluable for something merely valuable.

What is the best way to intelligently manage a scarce resource? Measure it.

This realization helped me answer the question of what makes one note more valuable than another:

The value of a note corresponds to how much attention you’ve spent on it.

In an economy where attention really is currency, the value of a note is based on how much attention has been invested in it. In the same way that the price of a physical product is based on the cost of goods that have been invested in it.

This, in turn suggests an entirely new purpose for Evernote:

A system for tracking how much attention has been paid to a given note.

My conclusion was that the global structure of Evernote’s notebooks and stacks is relatively unimportant. I keep notebooks just specific enough to make it obvious where a particular note belongs, mostly to satisfy my spatial itch.

The most salient factor in making ideas accessible for day-to-day use is instead the design of individual notes.

Let me give you a tangible example based on this note:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 1.51.00 PM

1. I originally clipped this Amazon product page, reminding me that I wanted to read this book.

Almost no attention was spent, so the value of this note was 1 on a scale of 1–10.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 1.49.37 PM


2. A couple months later, when I had some free time, I read the book, highlighting the parts I thought were most interesting in the Kindle app and exporting them (I use Bookcision for Kindle or the built-in “Share to Evernote” feature in iBooks and Pocket) to the note.

Some time and attention were applied, so its value is now 4, although it’s still too much information to “load” quickly.

3. A few weeks later, I reviewed this note and spent some time re-reading my notes, bolding the most insightful and unique sections.

Value now equals 7, as I can much more quickly assimilate the key points by scanning only the bolded sections.

4. Some time later, when I started a project drawing on this area, I reviewed only the bolded parts and highlighted (using Evernote’s separate highlighting feature, in yellow) only the very most important parts, leaving me with only 15 highlighted passages from a whole book.

Considerable time and attention has now been applied, and it would be difficult to justify this “expense” if the results of my thinking were not stored in a durable, easily loadable format. Note that as the total amount of content highlighted has dwindled, it has become much easier to quickly grasp its key points, increasing its value proportionally to 10.

This note has now become a potent information weapon, its ideas and facts ready to be used in a wide variety of future contexts, at a moment’s notice.

Note Design

What we’re talking about here is putting a lot more thought into the design of each individual note. It is about making individual notes the most prominent actors, like discrete atoms that can be assembled into any form.

Design is always about balancing priorities — in this case: comprehensiveness and compression.

Compression values condensing big ideas into small packages. We gain tremendous value in condensing the Bible (and even whole religions) into the rule of thumb “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Consuming highly compressed ideas is inherently rewarding, because we can feel that each word is rich with substance. It also helps us conserve our precious attention by eliminating the “fluff” (see Derek Sivers’ post on “compressing knowledge into directives” for more examples).

Comprehensiveness values knowing all the facts. It is the voice in your head that says “Prove it.” It wants more data, and examples, and cited sources. It is the fear that you’ll remember the main point, but forget why it matters. It helps us not let anything fall through the cracks, but also drives us toward packrat insanity.

The way to balance these competing priorities is to:

  1. Progressively summarize the most important points of a source in small stages (compression), and…
  2. Preserve each of these stages in layers that can be peeled back on demand (comprehensiveness).

Basically, you need to be able to quickly assimilate the main points of a source to evaluate its relevance to the task at hand, while simultaneously preserving the ability to quickly “go deeper” into the source if you judge it to be highly relevant.

But even this “going deeper” must be staged, because you want to avoid creating a black-or-white, all-or-nothing choice between reading just a few key points, or having to go back and re-read the entire original source.

This is the problem with popular articles summarizing the “actionable tips” from influential books. Without the ability to selectively explore the context of a given piece of advice, it means nothing.

Most notes will fall somewhere on a spectrum of relevance, and you want to be able to calibrate the corresponding time you spend “loading” them.

This layering turns a note from a dense, impenetrable jungle into a rocky landscape.


Sometimes you want to do a high-elevation flyover, seeing only the tallest peaks. Other times you want to explore the middle ranges by helicopter, perhaps identifying stories or juicy factoids to illustrate a point. And sometimes, you want to parachute in and hack your way through the underbrush, poring over each source and following every rabbit trail.

Designing your note in easily uncoverable layers is like giving yourself a digital map of the terrain that can be zoomed in or out to any level of detail you need. You’re creating an environment in which your “radar” — your semi-conscious, rapid scanning ability to recognize complex patterns and non-obvious connections intuitively — works to maximum effect.

Ther are a few key qualities that make this system both useful and feasible:

1. Non-universal

This system is very purposefully not universal. The last thing you want to do is put every single note through multiple layers of compression. That is a terrible waste of attention.

Instead, customize the level of compression based on how intuitively resonant the source is with your work. I would guess my personal breakdown, with about 2,300 notes, is approximately:

  1. layer of compression (saving any notes on the source): 50%
  2. layers (bolding the best parts): 25%
  3. layers (highlighting the very best parts): 20%
  4. layers or more (restating the ideas in my own words, applying them to my own context, creating summary outlines, etc.): 5% or less

In general, avoid the temptation to apply the same system everywhere. Not everything needs to scale.

2. Pattern-matching

Our brains far outperform any supercomputer in finding and identifying patterns. You could say our minds are optimized for pattern recognition, which is why we do it quickly and effortlessly.

The note-taking system we create should enable this type of thinking by exposing semantic triggers, not fight against it by burying the most important points in a massive wall o’ text.

Here’s a recent piece by Haley Thurston, where one pass was enough to extract the point:


See how that one phrase jumps out at you, even at this zoomed out elevation?

It will likewise jump out at me if, 6 months from now, I come across this note and need to judge whether it’s worth reading in 5 seconds or less. If the keywords in this highlighted phrase match the pattern of the problem I’m working on, I will start by reading the paragraph in which it’s found. If it still matches, I’ll read the rest of the note. If this ends up being a critical piece of the puzzle I’m solving, I’ll click the link and revisit the whole piece. The attention I’m willing to spend has to be justified upfront.

There’s a reason we want to keep all these “layers” within a single note, by the way, instead of, say, creating a master note containing “key points” from various sources: often, the keywords you’ll search for won’t actually be in the “best parts” you’ve highlighted.

A profound quote on productivity very often won’t actually contain the word “productivity.” But the surrounding text is much more likely to contain these “meta-descriptive” words; thus, every word in the entire document serves as “tags” that increase the likelihood of turning it up.

3. Simple

Notice how simple this system is. It’s just a few loose formatting guidelines, and one rule: spend more time/attention on things that interest and resonate with you.

Simple, clear purposes and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior. — David Allen, Author & originator of GTD

There are ways you could make this system more “optimized,” but at the cost of metastasizing complexity. The best system is the one you stick to.

4. Situated

Compressing your notes in this way has an interesting effect: it makes them more valuable to you, but less valuable to others. In other words, this information is highly “situated” in your mental context.

That’s because progressively identifying and highlighting the “best parts” based on an extremely subjective measure like “resonance” has the effect of making the information more legible to you, but less legible to others. You’ll find yourself picking out 2 sentences from a long article, whose relevance is only apparent to someone with your life experiences and “dozen favorite problems.”

Have you ever read a book in which someone else has taken notes? The margin notes either don’t make sense, or their conclusions are totally obvious. Evernotes are the new marginalia — the personal musings and insights of a unique mind — extracted from paper and indexed for maximum searchability.

This “situated” phenomenon gives rise to a wonderful paradox.

I believe my Evernote database is my single greatest business asset, the sum total of my best thinking over years, yet if someone stole it in its entirety it would be of little use to them.

This not only is comforting in an insecure digital world but allows me to do something otherwise unthinkable: share my most valuable notes.

I share them in blog posts (like this one), in projects with clients, and often send them to people I know are tackling a problem for which a source I’ve compressed would be useful. It becomes almost like a personal Wikipedia of learnings I can selectively share to create value for others while preserving the highest value (the connections to other notes) for myself.

5. Self-Organizing

There’s another, less obvious quality of this system: it is self-organizing.

I said previously that the purpose of Evernote is to “track how much attention has been paid to a given note.” But even this tracking shouldn’t be done explicitly. We humans don’t do well on consistency, thus, any system that requires us to use tags to explicitly “track” how much attention has been applied (i.e. Layer 1, Layer 2, Layer 3) is bound to fail.

Instead, use the appearance of the note itself to tell you how much attention has been applied. Just like ants don’t try to remember the path to food — they leave pheromone trails to guide their efforts and others’ — imprint your progress on the terrain itself, allowing your future self to pick up instantly where you left off, whether it was yesterday or a year ago.

Ant pheromone trails

Ant pheromone trails

In this system, I know that any source with notes attached is at Layer 1, any bolded parts indicate Layer 2, and any highlights indicate Layer 3. As long as I stay consistent with this much simpler and more natural system, I’ll know how much thinking has been done at any point in the future.

The Point

I started my career as a productivity coach, giving 1-on-1 advice to help people improve their productivity.

I used to think my job was to give people the “right” productivity tip. I maintained databases of such tips and tricks and hacks, like a pharmacist cataloging elixirs. In fact, this is how I started using Evernote. I was convinced that if I could just give each person the right medicine, I could “fix” their problem.

But over time, I noticed something: people fail to be organized and productive not because they lack a critical piece of information; they fail because they don’t see themselves as organized, productive people. It is a self-reinforcing loop.

I realized my role was to change self-narratives, to help people design and carry out small experiments in narrowly defined areas to prove to themselves they could believe a different story about themselves. Because once they believe a different story, they access the energy and confidence to seek out all the practical methods and tools for themselves.

I was struck by a study, described by NPR’s Alix Spiegel, that illustrated the power of self-narratives: it showed that hotel maids, when informed about how their typical daily movements burned a significant number of calories, actually showed improved blood pressure and weight loss compared to a control group.

It wasn’t that they started working harder: the researchers concluded that their bodies actually changed their functioning in response to the changed perceptions.

Start believing that you’re exercising, even without changing your behavior, and you actually will be. This is exactly what we’re using Evernote for: if you start acting like you are creative, your body and mind will respond, and you will be.

Start acting like every idea you come across or come up with has the potential for brilliance, and that potential is more likely to be realized.

Creativity can’t be created directly, but it can be cultivated. Like all complex, emergent phenomena, you can’t plan it precisely, but you can create the right conditions for it to emerge.

And increasingly, it’s a necessity, not a luxury.

There’s a last quality of self-organizing, adaptive systems, like the one we’re creating here, that I want to highlight: they have the tendency to coalesce around “attractors,” stable regimes of activity that seem to “pull” the actions of agents toward them.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon as a sort of “emergent intelligence” my notes exhibit. They seem to pop up at serendipitous times, to seek each other out across boundaries, to conspire together to push my thinking in certain directions. It’s almost like my Evernote database has its own beliefs, its own conclusions. You could even say, it’s almost like it has a mind of its own.

What’s most interesting about attractors is that they function identically to goals or intentions. They organize diverse means toward coherent ends, creating order out of disorder. In fact, the well-established “order from noise” principle states the more random variation (“noise”) such a system is exposed to, the faster it will self-organize.


In other words, don’t pursue goals. Instead, create systems that encourage attractors to emerge on their own. With such a system in place, the more chaotic your environment, the more randomness and uncertainty you are exposed to, the faster you will be propelled to interesting places, as long as you’re open to wherever that may lead.

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48 Comments RSS

  • Lisandro Carrizo

    Wonderful post. I was trying to do some creative labour but this post was so interesting I couldn’t stop reading it.
    Congrats and keep it up!

  • Debbie Stott

    This was a fascinating article and I cannot believe that I read the whole thing. I was interested to read all the research on brain science and creativity too. As a user of tags, I am intrigued by your ‘layer’ system, and it is one that I may try in some of my notes.

  • Shawn Collins

    Excellent post. One the best I’ve read all year which makes it a game changer for the upcoming New Year.

    I agree tags and the decision process in organizing can be overwhelming. Since you advocate not using tags I would like to hear more on searching and getting older notes to resurface.

  • John

    Interesting but you lost me.. How can I apply your approach to my life? Would be great to have a summary of what I need to do next…

    • Ashlea

      Evernote this article. Come back to it in a month and highlight the most appealing sections. Review those sections after a month and think of a problem that you’re currently stuck on that you want to apply the idea to. Muse on that for a day or two, then make an action plan.

  • Virginia

    This article was so facinating that I plan to start implementing the layered technique right away. I have a lot of notes that could greatly benefit from this technique.

  • Gan Sharma

    One of the best articles that I’ve ever read, period.

  • Devinee

    I’m a grad student working on my thesis. I probably google “good writing apps” once a week…yet I continue to inefficiently use Evernote and Google Docs + Proquest Flow and Asana and so on…my thesis is somewhere among them. Thank you for this post.

  • Handiwork

    I read this post a day or so after spending several hours tagging about 950 notes…

    Practically speaking, I’ve trained myself to dump anything of potential value into Evernote and because I do this, when I need something, I head straight to Evernote and search for it.

    I’m just busy enough to skip tagging because I know I can find whatever I need via search.

  • V

    evernoted this one… 🙂
    Thanks for the Explanation. In the old discussion about to tag or not – this (for myself) offers a new perspective and a new idea to structure the sometimes (seemingly) overwhelming information in a meaningful way. And while describing a “new system” i like that you state 2 importand facts: ‘avoid the temptation to apply the same system everywhere.’ and ‘The best system is the one you stick to.’

  • Justin -

    Awesome perspective and intuitive approach to looking beyond the problem of organization and show how to use this great product in an effective manner.

  • JF Charland

    Great post!

    Such a pleasure to read some profound and modern thinking to Evernote, instead of mindlessly regurgitating the usual tips and tricks.

    Thank-you, Tiago! You’ve eloquently put into words a unique vision of what Evernote is for and why I will continue using Evernote in the future.

    • Taylor Pipes

      Thank you for the wonderful compliment! We hope to continue writing more content like this in the New Year!

  • Emerson

    This article was just what I needed. Thanks.

    • Taylor Pipes

      Emerson, We are happy to hear that you found this article to be useful! We hope it helps you have a most productive 2016!

  • Wayne Stiles

    Awesome, but really, really long. Would love summary up front with the details to follow.

  • Randy Zeitman


    Now THAT’s a blog!

  • Jeffrey T

    Rich, engrossing article. Will your book discuss how you measure attention – more on this idea of ROA (return on attention). And not sure I see how I’d be able to look at all of my Evernote entries to see which of the three recommended layers they occupy. Suppose I’ll just have to start. Am sure I’ll sort it out. Thanks again. I look forward to following your thoughts throughout the New Year via your blog as well.

    • Tiago Forte

      It is a little disconcerting at first, because if you’re Type A, you’re used to very clear lines and explicit meaning. This system is more opportunistic – you add extra “layers” only if and when needed, not a priori “just because.” Once you get used to it, you are able to very quickly tell what layer a note is at in a glance – highlight means 4+, bold means 3, extracted notes means 2.

  • Anjalee Hutchinson

    Excellent post! Will be sharing this with my students! I teach theatre and so many of these ideas relate to our work in meaningful and tangible ways. Thank you!

  • Brad Sayets

    Good article and thanks for the time you spent writing it.

    However I would still like more practical advice. Especially since Evernote itself has been shedding non core elements in search of the best way to use this amazing tool.

    I remember when tags only (with one notebook) became fashionable. Now we’re talking minimizing tagging – or at least tagging better.

    I was a bit creeped out by touching your Amazon note so many times. Am I wrong to want to touch a note as little as possible while still having it show up in a search?

    I have read a lot over the years and spent ample time thinking about how to improve my own interactions with Evernote. Perhaps one takeaway for me after reading this article would be to spend a little more time and thought at the creation stage of a note.


    • Maureen

      I think Tiago’s method is a little like review of a personal journal, a way to if there is substance that still needs attention, good or bad and do something with it. Original ideas may seem at first to be stupendous, but maybe less important when recalled.

  • Stan Schwartz

    I’ve been using Evernote since 1.0. Your article is incredible and achieves that resonance you describe.

    But there is a place for tags. Every home has a junk drawer–the place you put something that has no intuitive place. You put it there because the junk drawer becomes that place-of-no-place. You’ve place a virtual ‘junk drawer” tag on the item.

    Search only works when you hit the right words. Sadly, you can’t search for notions or ideas without these word tags, as you describe them. I save interesting things I find about travel–but I may forget the details by the time I am planning a trip. So I tag those “travel ideas” and sure enough, I always find something I forgot I kept.

    Tags have a place as metadata to ideas. Just keep them broad and not just a restatement of “word tags” already there.

    • Devon

      Exactly this. You can’t search ideas/concepts – that’s where tags come into play. I commonplace in my Evernote, so I save a lot of quotes. Not every quote about death has the word “death” in it, so search is useless. I must tag them.

  • Maureen

    This gives me good reason to re-visit my notes for the value I first gave them. Now, my notes will have more purpose.

  • Bryan

    Thanks for the insightful post. I have a reference question. In the 7th paragraph of the 4th condition required for high-performance creativity, your reference, you write “The solution is suggested by another study” Can you provide a reference for that study? I fully support the idea promoted there and would love to be able to reference the study by name.

    • Tiago Forte

      You can find the original article, with the link you mentioned and others, here: https://medium.com/forte-labs/how-to-use-evernote-for-your-creative-workflow-f048f0aa3ed1#.2y4xmxwrb

  • Marcia Malone-Ray

    Probably one of the best “how-to” articles I’ve read on processing, and, more importantly, benefiting from, the collection of information. Thank you!!

    • Taylor Pipes

      Very happy that you were able to get so much out of this article. Thanks for reading!

      • Eric Kaplan

        Love the concept, not quite sure how to do the layering and be able to search

  • DTLow

    Wow, this might be overthinking things.
    On one level, Evernote is simply a filing cabinet.
    I have a piece of paper in my hand, for a receipt.
    I open the file drawer, shove in the paper.
    That’s all there is to it; just a place to shove the piece of paper or idea.
    Also mentioned was the value of a note. I submit the value is realized when you need the note. In the case of filed receipts, most of the have no value, except for the one time you need the receipt for some warranty work.

  • Ilan

    Couldn’t disagree more with the concept of avoiding tags. I agree that search syntax can be very powerful but I use tags as I would drawers that I dump similar material. For example, if I’m going to Hawaii this winter I will have a tag called Hawaii 2015. I will use this to tag anything that pertains to this trip. Airline tickets, rental cars, hotel info, snorkeling trips, tripadvisor clips etc etc. When I’m planning my trip all I have to do is click that tag and I can see all of the notes that pertain to this trip. I don’t know how to do it otherwise. I could make a point of naming everything that pertains to this trip as “…Hawaii 2015” but this would be cumbersome and would require an equally rigid way of naming every item that I want to file away. The advantage of tags is that you can be a little looser with the actual name of the note because you are relying on the tag as a secondary (and often most important) method of searching. Another example: if I get an EOB from Blue Cross for my wife I can tag it with “Cindy”, “EOB”, “BC” and then name it Cindy BC EOB 12-4-2015. If I misname it I will still find it quite easily by querying for all tags that pertain to Cindy and also to BC and EOB. Honestly, I don’t see the advantage of saving a few seconds to tag and then having to concentrate on very precise naming of every note!

    • Stan Schwartz

      Absolutely agree. I’ve also used tags like “utah2015” to curate all the items associated with a trip–reservations, tickets, rentals, maps, GPS coordinates. Being disciplined about putting every possible relevant item in evernote is the key. Also, entitling notes properly to find them later with an “intitle:” search also really helps. The key there is to predict what your future self will bring to mind when looking for the note.

    • Brendan Murphy

      I think you’re missing the main context about the comments on tagging. He’s addressing creative thinking processes when he’s talking about the limitations of tags. I doubt you’re going to spend much creative energy thinking about your wife’s EOB’s, or tax documents, or receipts, etc. If however you save an article like this in EN, there is no way you could come up with enough tags that would sufficiently catalog the connections your brain could come up with for using this information in the future. Let’s say you tagged this under “Evernote Organization” for example, and whenever you pulled up the article you saw that tag an instantly your brain lumped the whole article in that category. You’d be missing out on a lot of other information in the article that has nothing to do with Evernote, and that could limit your creative ability to use the information. That’s the point. Recognize what tags are good for, and what they aren’t, and how they could even limit your use of the information.

  • Landry

    One of the best articles I’ve read. So insightful. I’m a school based counselor and assessor of learning disabilities, and this article has so much personal and professional insight to cognitive and emotional responses and I gleaned

  • aleihn

    Excelente post, gracias por compartir!

  • Brad

    I am currently reading ‘The Organized Mind’ and found this post particularly relevant with the my current preoccupations on ways I can push thoughts into the external world. The simplicity of less is more with the way you organise notes is compelling. A wonderful article.

  • David C

    I haven’t even finished this post yet (only had a couple minutes), but I’m so stoked to get back to it later. This is what blogging should be. ★★★★★

  • David Gleason

    I spent 20 minutes reading this blog and I only got 1/4 way through it. I’ll save it and return since so many readers are impressed. I’m just not sure where it’s going yet, but I’m willing to keep trying!

  • Mike Edwards

    This is honestly one of the best articles I’ve ever read. THANK YOU for all the research to help everyone who read this!

  • S Davis

    Overthought…overwrought..how about just doing vs. planning to do…

  • Patrick Park

    Hi, just wanted to thank you for that amazing article! Probably one of the best pieces of content I have read in a while. I referenced the concept of “Perverse Affordances” in my Medium Post 🙂

  • Clare

    There is another truth under these suggestions, and that is that it’s very, very hard to cheat the sheer time that it takes to perceive the useful patterns in the things we collect. The suggestions here basically boil down to revisiting notes repeatedly, re-acquainting oneself with what one noticed before to see how it makes sense now, as opposed to simply using Evernote as a place to dump stuff because that’s what we’re mostly told to do with it. I have tried, and ultimately given up on various tagging and coding systems to organize the galaxies of material that are in the interviews and observations that are core to my research. In the end, reading, listening, looking, again and again, is the best way towards extracting the meaning one is looking for.

  • luke a. call

    This is an eloquent description of why I’m working on an alternative tool (Hey evernote: want to collaborate?): http://www.onemodel.org .

    I wrote a detailed reply here:

    …but the whole thread could be interesting, discussing other facets:

  • Bruce Smith

    Very useful ideas, I am always looking for powerful organizing “schemes”. I use parameters of fundamental concepts as tags. Communities are made up of Members, social practices, choice principles, status, language, and worlds. One of things this does is allow me to assess where difference communities overlap. Thanks for some great ideas.

  • Kyle

    I fundamentally disagree with most of this. The author is failing to see that Tags and Notebooks (and even Stacks) are really just forms of metadata attached to Notes. Yes, those different kinds of metadata *happen* to be handled somewhat differently by Evernote: Tags have hierarchy, Notebooks don’t; a note can have one and only one Notebook metadatum, but it can have zero, one or more than one Tag metadata; Notebooks offer an obvious physical analogy, whereas Tags don’t; and so on. But that’s an implementation detail and not a function of anything deeper, such as stigmergy. It certainly doesn’t leave Tags anywhere as burdensome as the author makes out. Suppose, for example, I created a set of Tags that I used instead of Notebooks but essentially *as* “notebook Tags”. So where I might have had Notebooks called Project1, Project2, Project3 and so on, instead I have Tags with those names. As a matter of convention, I restrict myself to having at most one of those Tags on any Note. What’s so complex about that? Of course I *could* *also* have a vast and complex hierarchy of other Tags, but *that* — an overly-complex information architecture — is the problem, not the Tags. As for stigmergy, Notebooks may seem to have it whereas Tags don’t, but that’s only because that’s the way the author appears to think about those words. Clearly an EN Notebook is not *really* a notebook, but he is (quite reasonably) allowing the metaphor to guide his thinking. But the same can be done with Tags. I just did it: I proposed Project1, Project2, etc to be “notebook” Tags. There you go; instant stigmergy. Yes, care is needed because the Tagging mechanism will allow me to apply more than one to a Note. Tagging is also not as “strongly typed” as Notebooks, in the sense that if I type Porject1, instead of Project1, I won’t be warned about my mistake. But again, that’s mere implementation.

    I don’t know what the underlying storage architecture is of EN, but in its most abstract form I would imagine that we are seeing in the actual EN we run each day, one particular implementation of a more general set of metadata being attached to the core “atoms” of storage, namely The Note. The fact that it *is* a particular implementation — i.e. Notes do behave differently from Tags — is important, and reflects UI and HCI decisions on the part of EN’s architects. But that’s *all* it is — *an* implementation.

    Conclusion: Notebooks are fine. Tags are fine too. Use what is useful to you, and for most people that’s going to be a combination of both.

  • Tomas

    Congrats! It’s the most disruptive article I’ve read about the topic. And I can’t figure out why yet. I’ve measured that with the parameters of “attractor” and “resonate”… 🙂
    I couldn’t stop reading it, even when it was a little long.
    I can say: It reflects in an accurate way how I tend to think. But I don’t (or couldn’t yet) make my note-taking in the flowing way I understand the contents.
    After reading the post, I think I’m begining to figure out why is that happening, and how may I scratch the itch.
    Thanks! And keep thinking…!
    I’ll try to give my Evernote the creative use you recommend, so we’ll see…

  • realize

    i’ve been using tags but am typically less than happy with them. i’ve read this before but didn’t act on it – but will now.

    one thing that has worked quite well for me is folders for context which is typically linked to my motivation to capture and record.

    there’s action contexts – my main two are sdmb STUFF Purchases and sdmb ACTIVITIES. I love evernotes storage ability, and so i naturally have a “collector” stack, which includes -FILE – which anything historical (which i will rarely look at but makes me secure knowing i can find it), and @Stuff/Bought/Receipts. But that’s just to reduce the clutter.

    The folders that really work for me represent my varied life roles and interests – which are what are motivating to save or create a note to being with. some examples are: Aesthetist (where i save things that inspire me around beauty or design), Communicator (related to my interest in effective and conscious communication), Connector (involving relationships and networking – “connecting” people), Marketer (one of my work roles), GTDist (linked to David Allen’s inspiring work so shorthand for lifehacks and organizational efficiency and “mind like water”), Healthist (supporting my interest in health and well-being), Giver (connecting the circle and giving back), Dad, Instrospectionist (items that inspire, deserve further attention, hit home as create ways to share ‘truth’, that motivate me to think deeper and further, seeking more), Learner (linked to learning opportunities moreso to differentiate vs. the former), Integrator (another job interest around integrating different technical platforms or data sources), Jokester (humor and stuff that makes me laugh), Lover (about relationship), Spiritualist (more enlightened introspectionisty stuff), Entrepreneur, Leader Manager (ideas on how to do better), and others.

    These allow me to keep things sort-of grouped in ways that make reviewing the content more consistent and clear as to how it could serve me (in what role) while not being overly restrictive.

    i’ve got over 11,000 notes and about 30 folders and 1200+ tags. interesting on the tags – 9 pages of them, but if i sort them by “count” then the first page goes from 700 down to 25, the second page ends with 10 notes each, the 3rd page ends with 6 each, 7th with 4,

    no discussion of folders was proferred, unless i missed part of the article.

    a very powerful tool in regards to evernote is the web clipper.