The Verge at work: backing up your brain

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The Verge at Work is a series about process. We’re not scientists, and we’re not gurus, we’re just trying to get some work done. The solutions presented here are highly personal, and highly personalized. Not the only way, but our way.

Writing about the history of commonplace books in The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton notes that readers in early modern England, from the layperson to famous minds like Francis Bacon and John Milton, “read in fits,” moving from book to book, grabbing bites, consuming and rearranging them. They’d transcribe and revisit notable passages in their commonplace books as a way to further comprehend the written word. Darnton writes, “[Reading and writing] belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”

Sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush imagined a hypertext information machine (a memex) in his essay ‘As We May Think’ that would act as an “intimate supplement” to memory. Bush imagined a desk-sized machine for keeping track of a user’s books, records, and communications, tracking what you read and your notes like a modern day version of the commonplace book. Years after reading a book or writing down a note, the user would be able to return to it, tracing written thoughts in “trails” that can be recalled, shared, and stored. “Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race,” Bush wrote, surely unaware of where hypertext would take us.

"Reading and writing belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things."

Stumbling on all of this years ago got me thinking, and I started playing around with my own notes after reading author Steven Johnson’s article in the New York Times where he described his own system. He saw digital tools helping "the subtle arts of inspiration and association," providing a unique way to not only augment memory but share idea creation with the machines. Johnson used an app called DevonThink to store his writings, notes, highlights from a decade’s worth of books, and other things that had influenced him, building a personal database of reading, writing, and thinking (dig into his process at his personal site). But it’s not just for having all of this information at your fingerprints, Johnson explains. The promise of the system was its ability to find documents that he’d entirely forgotten about, "documents I didn’t know I was looking for."

Writing a few years later in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein agreed:

I’m much likelier to be routinely confronted with old insights and facts that I might have forgotten. In that world, I don’t need to rely on my memory of what I’ve read so much as the judgments I made when I was doing the reading. And I trust those a lot more.

Enough with the history lesson. Here’s how it all works.

Section TOC Title

The setup


I’ve toyed with DevonThink several times — the search and tools for discovering semantic relationships are fantastic — and have also tinkered with Yojimbo, VoodooPad, OneNote, and even a batch of folders on my local hard drive. A hard drive crashing forced me to finally commit to one service a few years ago, and the latest version of Evernote at the time seemed fast and stable enough. I spent a weekend importing all my notes, strewn across several computers and bookmarking services like Del.icio.us.

Evernote’s a bit of a blank slate that’s able to do a lot of things, which can feel entirely overwhelming on figuring out how you should use it. For my purposes, it’s a place for keeping track of what I read, see, and think about. I’m not storing emails, half-written articles, a wonky GTD system here, or half-written articles (those are kept in Google Docs). I note highlights from what I read online, snip lines from books and magazines, save meeting notes and ideas from work, gather layout and design concepts, and archive the occasional GIF worth saving. While I chose Evernote, much of what follows can be done with many of the other apps and services out there.

Importing 101

Evernote’s official Chrome clipper (it’s also available for Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer) is probably my most used tool for adding to my library. While in Chrome, I just highlight a phrase, paragraph, or picture, right click, and select Save to Evernote. In a few seconds, it will appear in the Evernote app, with a link back to the site that I found it on. When it comes to text, note that I’m very rarely saving entire articles; building on Johnson’s approach, I clip those moments, phrases, facts, and figures that strike me as memorable at the time.

I’ve got notes and highlights from nearly everything I’ve read during the past decade

This isn’t only for things I find on the web, though. About once a month I’ll plug my Kindle into my computer and grab the Clippings.txt file, which keeps track of everything I’ve highlighted in ebooks. Each book gets its own text file in a "books" folder in Evernote, complete with additional notes on when I read it and any additional thoughts. Print books get the same treatment — I’ll type up notes and passages every few months from whatever I’ve recently finished that’s sitting on my bookshelf. It’s tedious at first, but it’s now a regular habit, and after doing this for several years, I’ve now got access to thousands of notes, phrases, and paragraphs from nearly everything I’ve read.


A note on mobile

Evernote’s iOS app is essentially unusable on my phone — the iPhone 4 is crushed under the load of tens of thousands of notes — but I’ve got a workaround. I do much of my web reading in Instapaper, so I’ll send notable excerpts to Evernote via the email import option (grab your customized address here). It’s a little clunky, but on the upside it works even during a subway commute or with a terrible signal; the outgoing emails stay in my outbox until I get a working connection again, and notes from the articles I’ve read show up in Evernote by the time I get to my desk.


The fantastic IFTTT service also works well for saving things to Evernote in a delightfully lazy way, and once you set up the site’s recipes, IFTTT will download everything from photos and articles you’ve starred on Google Reader to your tumblr posts and Foursquare check-ins. A few other ideas:

  • New images you’ve uploaded to Instagram
  • Starred articles in Google Reader
  • Articles liked on Instapaper
  • Your Tumblr likes

Unfortunately, Twitter’s since disabled IFTTT integration, so being able to star a tweet and automatically save it to an Evernote file is a bit more of a pain (use this RSS workaround recipe).

Everyday use

Everyday use


Organize your library however you want, but let's take a brief look at my setup. I prefer a mix of tags and folders, where folders serve as large buckets for types of content, and tags are used mostly as a way to add metadata to content. For example, I have a folder that keeps all the text I’ve saved from stories on the web and a separate one for highlights and notes from books. Tags then, are used for quickly finding favorites across all of these different folders, or adding general information for what an article is about (e.g. "architecture", "politics", or "copyright"). I can, for example, just click my #top tag to view all of the notable articles I’ve read over the past couple years, or #longreads to see everything in the running for my weekly roundup.

  • Inbox: this folder is set up to receive every new note saved to Evernote, whether via the browser tool or email
  • Reading: web, books, quotes, etc…
  • Work: meeting notes, office photoshops, secret internal GIFs
  • Queue: books, restaurants, movies, music
  • Images: I’ve settled on sub-folders within here for art, architecture, illustrations, typography and layouts, photography, and several other categories

Over on the right, for example, you’ll see a screenshot of several of the design ideas I’ve recently saved. In any of these folders, I can dig deeper by using a tag as a filter, revealing things related to nyc, infographics, or design.

A new kind of search

A new kind of search


Of course, years of clipping, noting, and squirreling away tagged, sorted, and synced images is worthless if I can’t easily access it. While Evernote may not be on the level of DevonThink for text search and word frequency comparisons between notes, it’s still pretty good and offers one killer feature (in addition to cloud-syncing) that enhances something you probably do hundreds of times a week.

If you use the Evernote Clipper, search results from your library will show up next to Google’s usual list of results (in the Clipper preferences, make sure Related Results is checked). This means if I’m searching Google for author Roberto Bolaño, I’ll see Google’s results on the left, and on the right two great pieces I’d saved to Evernote a couple years ago and probably forgot about. This isn’t like Google’s Search Plus Your World that algorithmically returns relevant links from my friends. Comparing Google results and his own archives, Steven Johnson explained that "there’s a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library."


A deeper way to read and write online

The whole system is a work in process. I tinker with tags and folders, and fluctuate between adding too many tags and not enough. I still have thousands of unsorted bookmarks from all my years of using Del.icio.us that I’ll probably never get around to (though sadly most of the sources have been decimated by the natural linkrot of the web). And as crazy as it all may look, it's still far easier than writing it all down by hand. For all its problems, it lets me dive back in time to see what I was reading, noting, and considering late last summer, or even during the early spring of 2005. Digging back through all these old clips and snippets often reveals old ideas and prompts for writing while researching. Ultimately, it’s a different, more reflective approach to reading online, with the added benefit of revealing new connections months and even years later.

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