How I Use Evernote in Youth Ministry

“I don’t know how you do it,” I often say to people. I like to ask them about how they manage all the info that they collect, organize and are responsible for doing something with on a regular basis. Most people I talk to (especially youth pastors) don’t really have a system, hence my response. They must have really big brains, I assume. Mine is not that big, so I use Evernote. I’ll tell you what it is and how I use it. I’ll give you a few tips and show you some cool features for working smarter with Evernote. By the end, you’ll be asking Why NOT use Evernote?

I like Evernote for two reasons: 1) It acts as my second brain, storing all my relevant–and even irrelevant info that I can’t seem to let go of but I think I need–in one place; and 2) It syncs seamlessly with all of my devices so my info is with me at all times.

This is great, but with so much info it’d quickly get out of control (it has happened to me many times before). But the right setup will prevent confusion and loss of info and create a second brain that won’t fail when yours does. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Understanding Evernote in 3 Steps:

1. Notes are what you will be working with in Evernote. A Note is simply a text file, but you can upload pictures, PDFs, Microsoft Office documents, audio clips from your phone, videos, and more to your notes.

2. Notes go into Notebooks. You are familiar with a computer folder such as “My Documents.” In Evernote, this is referred to as a Notebook. Just like with computer folders, you can have notebooks within notebooks. In Evernote, this is referred to as a Notebook Stack.

Which notes go into notebooks?

I like my notebooks to contain notes I’m actually using: files for current projects, thoughts from books I’m reading, an inbox to temporarily keep ideas and junk that needs sifting through, etc. However, with Evernote you can upload as many files as you want (there’s a monthly upload limit) so I like to keep reference material in Evernote too. For these type of files, I don’t look at them regularly so I keep an archive notebook.

I’m you sure can imagine how this could get messy. This is where tags come into play.

3. Marking notes with Tags. Tags are simply words used to link similar notes within your notebooks. For example, say I like to write about people’s emotions. If I had a Work notebook, and a Personal notebook to keep info about the people I encounter in each of those areas, and I wanted to see all the examples of anger I had written about, I’d create a tag called anger and apply it to those specific notes. By clicking on the tag anger, it would pull up those notes from each of my notebooks. Just like with notebooks, you can create a tag within a tag. In the emotions example, I actually have a tag for emotions, and within that tag are specific emotions like anger, disappointment, fear, love, etc. The idea here is that this system keeps your tags organized, clean, and easy to find.

The trick to Evernote is deciding when to use a Notebook and when to use a Tag. The next part of this post will help you understand how to do that.

SETUP: Notebooks & Tags

In the image below, you’ll notice three panels marked by the red arrows. Notebooks and tags are stored on the left, using drop down arrows to show/hide them. Clicking on a notebook or tag will bring up the notes associated with it in the center panel. Clicking on a note will open it on the right. Note: Evernote looks a little different on different operating systems. I’m using the Windows desktop version, which I recommend over their website. It’s cleaner and notes are stored on your computer for offline use.

You’ll need to begin creating your notebooks and tags. I’m not going to tell you how to do that, but you should be able to figure it out. This is where a little work has to be done. Unfortunately (and fortunately, depending on how you look at it) there isn’t a magical system for Evernote. YOU have to choose which notebooks and tags you will use, based on your needs. Here are some ideas that may help you:

5 TIPS: Notebooks or Tags?

1. Most things don’t need to go into a specific notebook. I use to have a notebook for work. I would store things like God Moments for sharing in staff meetings, Emails of weekly ministry updates, copies of Receipts for events, and on and on. That system could work for you, but at one point I realized that all these things could be found just as easily if they were tagged appropriately and put into a general archived notebook. Doing this reduced the clutter of my notebooks and relieved a little bit of stress just from a cleaner setup.

2. Archiving. How do you keep your notebooks current? What do you do with a notebook when it is no longer current, but think you will need it again in the future? I see two options: Either, 1) Move the notebook to an archive notebook stack; or 2) Move only the notes to the archive notebook, delete the old notebook, and use the tag system to find what you’re looking for in the future. I can always create a new notebook whenever it becomes relevant again and move the notes back simply by searching for the tags.

3. To tag or not to tag? Do I need to tag everything that goes into the archive notebook? For example, I have a note with the pedestrian gate code for the gated community I live in. Most codes I remember so I don’t really store Codes in Evernote. But I rarely use the pedestrian gate so I can never remember the code. So, do I create a tag just for this note, or do I just leave it without a tag, put it in the archive notebook, and trust my brain to remember that if I ever forget this code I can just type “gate code” into the search, and, there it is? Or, what about my current notebooks? I’d say, tag everything, especially if you don’t trust your brain to remember it. David Allen (you definitely need to read his book) says,

“It seems that when we make a commitment with ourselves at any level–small, big, personal, professional, sophisticated, mundane–that we don’t complete in the moment, that ‘open loop’ is tracked in our psyche, and some part of us is continually trying to move on it. It’s as if we’ve hooked a fish that keeps pulling on the line until we reel it in or cut it loose. Instead of our thinking being free and targeted toward one object, it is trying to accommodate dozens if not hundreds of things simultaneously.” –Making It All Work, p 46

That is a monumental point to wrap your mind around when working with Evernote. Your mind needs to be free, not bogged down with wondering where your notes are located. Your setup means everything.

An IMPORTANT question: Maybe the trick in knowing whether to use a notebook or a tag is to ask yourself this question: Do I need to access the note with a single mouse click, or am I ok with typing a word in the search box? For example, in Evernote, if I’m working on a blog post and referencing other notes, it’s easier for me, after finding my referenced notes, to just click on my Blog notebook and be right back where I left off. The point being, notes you work on frequently should be a click away.

4. Print out your list of tags and hang them in front of your desk. The problem with so much info being stored in one place is that it’s easy to forget about. It’s the whole “out of sight, out of mind” idea. Evernote will not work unless you are very intentional about keeping it current. You don’t need to memorize the whole system, but you should know it pretty well. Keep your tag list in front of you and update it as you change it.

If you’re wondering, I have a lot of tags. And as a youth pastor, I need those tags because there are a thousand things to track. Here a few of my main categories:

5. Be flexible. My setup changes a lot. I’m always looking for a better way to organize my info. Like I said earlier, you have to figure out what works for you based on your needs. Feel free to change it, but stick with a system.

Working Smarter with Evernote

The next part of this post will show you some of Evernote’s cool features that I like to use.

Quick Access Bar. I have a lot of tags, but that doesn’t need to scare me. If I want to find a tag, I don’t have to look through a long list of them. Instead, click on the tags drop down button in the quick access bar and just begin typing. It’ll automatically pull up what you’re looking for and even highlight it in your nested tag list. “Where was that ‘prayer’ tag I created?” This feature will show you. Another cool feature of the quick access bar is to drag and drop a note to it, which will create a shortcut to that note. Simply drag it off to remove it. I use this to keep an important note from a current project handy (such as a to-do list).

Share. You can share single notes or whole Notebooks with others. This makes for great team collaboration. You can even post notes to Facebook, Twitter, or email from within Evernote.

Saved Searches. Evernote has a number of search operators that will help you find your notes. And you can save them for easy access. For example, often I find myself with random youth ministry ideas which are entered into a number of different notebooks – my journal, from conversations with people, from books, etc. Keeping these in one place isn’t easy. You can always just tag them, but another option is to save a specific search. In the search box, type “tag:’youth ministry idea’ tag:review.” (see image below) Click the blue drop down arrow to open the beige search field, then save it by clicking the little magnifying glass icon. This feature makes it easy to search through specific ideas that I know I’ll want to review, rather than seeing all my notes with ideas. The options for this are limitless, really.

Web Clipper. For the Internet Browser on your computer, you can install the Evernote Web Clipper extension. Once installed, this little icon will appear in your browser tool bar. The next time you’re surfing the Internet and see something you’d like to remember, such as an article, an icebreaker activity, a picture, a recipe, or anything else, just click the little icon and it will save to your Evernote account; you can specify which notebook and tags. It also acts as a bookmark. Say you clip games from a favorite youth ministry resource site. Whenever you browse that site, click the little icon again and it will show you which items you’ve clipped. Pretty cool.

Note Links. Each of your notes has a live URL that you can link to within your Evernote app or wherever you have Internet access. You can paste a note link into another note for quick access, or you can paste it as a URL in emails and documents. Just right-click a note and select Copy Note Link.

Email. Evernote gives you a unique email address. Save this to your address book and you can directly email notes into Evernote. I use a filter within Gmail to automatically forward certain emails to Evernote. I also forward important emails that I need to keep for reference, such as info about a person or event. You can even specify in the subject line what notebook and tags should be applied. Tools –> Account Info

Import Folders. Create a folder on your computer, and link it to Evernote. Any document, image, etc that you put into this folder will automatically import into Evernote. There’s even an option to automatically delete the file from your computer. Tools –> Import Folders

Checkboxes (To-Do’s). You can insert checkboxes to track items you need to complete. You can search for items completed or incomplete.

Android/iPhone Apps. Aside from being able to access all your notes on the go, there are many great features for these mobile apps. Browsing the Internet on your phone, or using other apps like Twitter, you can save info directly to Evernote. Menu–>Share. If you’re using Android, you can record an audio note and Evernote will transcribe it into text. This is great for capturing thoughts on the go.

The Trunk. Evernote works with hundreds, if not more, of other third-party applications. You can connect your Evernote account to apps that will save notes to your calendar, import news feeds or hand written notes, view and save Bible passages and notes, and much more. A lot of cool and useful things here.

Why Evernote?

Final Thoughts

As if I haven’t told you enough already, these final two thoughts bring us way back to the beginning of this post; the two main reasons why I like Evernote.

1) Almost everything I need is in Evernote and I can easily work on multiple things at once. For example, I find myself working on a blog entry when something else comes to mind. Rather than having to search through my computer, find the document, open it, wait for my slow computer to load Microsoft Word, type the new thought, save it, and then go back to where I was working on my blog entry. Or worse, if I don’t have the document I’m looking for, so I write the thought down (or trust my brain to remember it) and then put it in some random spot that I’ll probably forget later. Instead, I have all my notebooks setup right in Evernote. Switching between thoughts is a simple as one click. No searching, no saving, no losing info.

2) It’s always with me. Editing an idea while I’m waiting for an oil change, when I get back to my desk the changes are already complete. BAM!

Maybe the question should be, why would I NOT use Evernote?

If this is going to work for you, you can’t let Evernote just sit there. The more you make it a part of your weekly routine, the more effective it will become. If you’d like a second brain (who wouldn’t?) you have to use yours a little bit to get this one going. The difference could mean accomplishing your dreams!

Google “Evernote” and you’ll find a thousand great posts, written by a thousand different Evernote fanatics like myself. Much of what I know I learned from doing just that. The rest I learned by testing it out.

Good luck, and let me know what works for you!

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