Going paperless: answers to your paperless lifestyle questions

In this week’s Going Paperless post, I am answering the questions that folks asked in the comments to last week’s “open forum” post. I looks like I got seven questions, covering a fairly wide range of topics. I’ve answered them in the order they appeared below. I’ve tried to provide a general topic area for each question so that folks have an easier time finding what you’re looking for. And so, without further delay, here are the questions that you asked and my answers.

1. [Scanners] Adam asks, “In one of your recent Paperless post you did for Evernote, you mentioned a scanner that has great capabilities fit for EN users (particularly Scan Directly to EN) I cannot recall the model number, but it was a portable Fujitsu. I am after the same capabilities, however in the form of a printer/scanner combo. Did your road to a paperless lifestyle ever take you into the printer/scanner world with your research?”

The scanner I use is a Canon ImageFormula P-150M, which I discussed here and here. When I decided to go paperless, I wanted to stick with a minimalist approach as much as possible, and that included finding a good portable scanner that integrated with Evernote, in case I wanted to take the scanner along with me. So during my research, I really only looked at portable scanners and not the combos. Many other people do use Fujitsu scanners to scan directly into Evernote and they are very happy with them. I believe the Fujitsu model I’ve seen most frequently mentioned is the SnapScan line. My reasons for liking these smaller, portable scanners were pretty straight forward:

  • They integrate directly with Evernote. (My ImageFormula scanner has a programmable button that sends scans directly to Evernote, for instance)
  • The ImageFormula scans both sides of a page at the same time, speeding up the overall process of scanning.
  • The scanner can scan something like 14 pages per minute at standard resolutions, which is convenient for my volume of scanning
  • The scanner uses a very small area on my desk

In all of the time I’ve used this scanner, I haven’t run into any problems. I scanned normal documents, business cards, greeting cards, and other types of documents and they all seem to work just fine running through the scanner.

I can’t say much more about scanners beyond that. Once I found what I was looking for, I bought it and stopped looking. However, many other people have made recommendations for a variety of scanners. I’d suggest checking out Evernote’s Paperless Lifestyle forum and searching for “scanner” or a specific model to see if anyone has something to say about other scanners beyond what I’ve mentioned in my posts.

2. [Exporting] John asks, “EN a really interesting option for a digital filling cabinet. I’ve just been using a dropbox folder. My concern with EN is future proofing. Can you walk through the process to extract files (PDF/images) from EN exports should something in the future happen to EN, so that we can see how we can get our raw files back if need be.”

John, I covered this somewhat in my post on securing and protecting your digital file cabinet. But let me go through it again here with your question in mind. The concern, it seems to me, is: what happens if Evernote as a company goes away. I don’t think this is likely anytime soon, but let’s pretend it happens. How do you get back your data?

First thing’s first. You should have a backup of your data. As I explained in an earlier post, I backup my Evernote data once a month. I do this as part of my normal process of protecting my data, not out of any fear that the service might go away. It’s just a good practice, like having car insurance or life insurance. Here is how I backup my data:

  1. From inside the Evernote client application (Windows or Mac), I select “All Notes” under Notebooks.
  2. In the Notes column (the column just to the right that lists all of the notes) I select all of the notes in the list.
  3. From the File menu: click Export…
  4. In the Export dialog, I use the ENEX format to export my dataEvernote export 1.PNG

    You can
    see that I’m exporting 1,877 notes. The ENEX format is an XML format which embeds the binaries (like PDFs, photos, etc.) as encoded documents, in much the same way said documents are encoded as an email attachment. If you were to open up this file, it would be readable as plain text and look like XML but with sections of data that look like gibberish. These are the encoded documents.

  5. I click the Options… button and make sure that the “Tags” attribute is checked.
  6. I click Export.
  7. I give the export a file name. I will typically call it “Monthly Evernote Backup” because this will replace the previous month’s backup, which is important for my particular backup scheme.
  8. I click Save.

This will start the export process, which can take quite a while, depending on how many notes you have any how much data is contained in the notes. Also, the size of the ENEX file can be quite large. My last backup of Evernote data (May 2012) was 640 MB. So when the backup is finished, I will compress the file. This will typically bring it down to about the 480 MB range.

Once the backup is done, I move the file to my external hard disk (I have a 1 TB external drive). I keep this type of data on the drive (as well as media files like photos, videos, music, etc.) so that it is separate from my OS drive. All of my disks are also backed up using a cloud backup service. The backups are incremental and happen nightly without me having to do anything. So each time a new Evernote export file is created, it not only resides on my external drive, it is also backed up to the cloud.

Now, if Evernote ever went away, the local software would still work. That is, I could still start Evernote on my computer. Once I started Evernote, I could go to File->Import->Evernote Export Files. I could select the ENEX file that I want to import, make sure the “Import Note Tags” box is checked, and click Open. This will import the files into a local notebook called “Imported Notes.” That the data is imported to a local notebook is key if the Evernote service is no longer available. Local notebooks reside only on your local machine and not on the Evernote servers, so you don’t need the Evernote service to import. If the service is available (which, of course, it is), you will also see this message:

Evernote export 2.PNG

If you want them imported back to a synchronized notebook, click Yes, otherwise, click No. Once the notes have been imported locally, you have access to all of your note data, including any documents and attachments.

You can sort of simulate what it would be like if the Evernote service didn’t exist. To do the simulation, I would do the following:

  1. Export a small set of notes (with at least a few attachments) as documented above.
  2. Disconnect your computer from all networks (so that you don’t have access to the Evernote service)
  3. Import your small set of notes to a local notebook
  4. Verify that you can access them.

Once you know you can access your notes using the Evernote client, but without the service, you should be good to go.

3. [Clipping data] Veronica asks, “Any suggestions on moving materials into Evernote from devices that do not copy and paste well? For web materials, I use Pocket as a queue for materials (such as recipes) that I would like to put into Evernote. Any other suggestions would be appreciated. I’m also wondering if there’s any way of moving recipes from magazines viewed on the Kindle Fire into Evernote.”

Veronica, I am generally not using devices that don’t copy and paste well, but I suspect it can be done as a two-step process, especially if you are willing to batch things together. For instance, I might try something like this:

  1. Send the link for the web page in question to a service like Instapaper (you mention Pocket).
  2. When you are on a computer that has better capabilities, go to Instapaper.
  3. For each page you want to capture in Evernote, open the page from Instapaper and use the Evernote clipper in your web browser to send the page to Evernote.

You can probably speed up this process and at least partially automate it by using a service like IFTTT, which I discussed in detail in my post on how I use Evernote to remember everything. IFTTT lets you make “recipes” that allow different web services to talk to one another. Indeed, IFTTT supports Pocket, so you could setup a “recipe” that would allow you to automatically send anything you put into Pocket directly into Evernote. Here is how you would do that:

  1. Go to IFTTT and sign up for the service (if you haven’t already done so). It is free.
  2. Create a new task
  3. For the THIS part of your task, select Pocket as your trigger
  4. You may be prompted to activate the service. Follow the prompts to do this. It is a one-time setup.
  5. Click “New Item Marked as Read”
  6. Click “Create Trigger”
  7. For the THAT part of your task, select Evernote
  8. You may be prompted to activate the service. Follow the prompts to do this. It is a one-time setup.
  9. Choose “Create a new Link Note”
  10. Leave all of the values as the default, except you may want to update the Notebook and tags that the notes go into
  11. Click Create Action

Once this is done, each time you send a link to Pocket and then read the item in Pocket, that item will get automatically sent to the notebook in Evernote that you specified.

I use this service quite frequently. For instance, when I take a picture with Instagram, it gets sent to a notebook in Evernote. When I update twitter, that too gets sent to a notebook in Evernote. It’s a great tool for this type of automation and it may help you with getting your queued Pocket material into Evernote.

Unfortunately, I have no experience with the Kindle Fire so I can’t make any suggestions there, but others reading this post might have ideas.

4. [Mobile access] Ralph asks, “If you don’t have Premium and you are on the go and you only have wi-fi access how would look up the things you mentioned in your blog?”

The condundrum here, of course, is not having Premium service and only having Wi-Fi access. For folks who don’t know, Evernote’s premium service allows you to mark notebooks as “offline” notebooks on devices like an iPad. Notes in an offline notebook are still synchronized, but they are also available to you when you have no Internet access. I love this feature of Evernote premium, but of course, not everyone is willing or able to pay for that additional service.

I think this becomes a kind of cost-benefit analysis. If you do have Wi-Fi access, then when you are on the go, you should be able to connect to public Wi-Fi almost anywhere you are, at least in metropolitan areas, which is where the bulk of my own experience is. If I walk into a Barnes & Noble with my iPad, I can generally use their public Wi-Fi for free. But some places (like some airports or hotels) charge you a fee to use their Wi-Fi. The key point is: if you have Wi-Fi access, you can access your notes in Evernote.

The question is: are you willing to pay for Wi-Fi access?

I think the Evernote Premium service is $5/month or $45/year. I know that some hotels charge as much as $12/day for their Wi-Fi service. For me, the cost-benefit falls on the side of the Premium service. I can pay $45 for an entire year of premium service, mark those notebooks that I want access to as “offline” and not worry about whether I can connect to Wi-Fi or not. If I make one business trip a year, and stay in a hotel for a week, the Evernote Premium service ends up being cheaper than hotel Wi-Fi. Of course, I can also use the Evernote premium service when I am at Home Depot, or the doctor’s office or the DMV even if I am not connected because my notes are available offline.

So you have to decide for yourself:

  • Pay for the premium service OR
  • Pay for Wi-Fi each time you connect OR
  • Take your chance that you’ll visit places that have free public Wi-Fi.

For me, the premium service is the cheapest option to having full access to my notes wherever I go.

5. [Organization] Michael asks, “How would you organize the evernote notebooks for a couple, e.g. wife and husband? Especially if one of the two is not into archiving everything digitally?”

I keep my notebooks organized in a few simple stacks, which I discussed in greater detail in my post on organizing your digital filing cabinet. And since between me and my wife, I am the one who does the digital organizing, maybe my organization will work for you too. I have the following stacks:

  • Diary
  • Home Life
  • Reference
  • Work Life
  • Writing Life

The notebooks in those stacks help to organize things a little better for me, but in general, I’ve organized my stacks around those major areas of my life. Home Life contains notebooks relating to all household stuff, including my main “paperless filing cabinet” where most scans go. Work Life includes notes related to my day job. And Writing Life contains all of the notebooks related to my role as a science fiction writer and blogger. Diary contains a lot of automatically generated notes, like all of the tweets I make or all of the instagram photos I take or all of the Foursquare checkins I make. And reference is a placeholder for various reference material.

With stuff organized this way, it is pretty easy to find what you are looking for. My wife rarely goes in to search for stuff, but when she does, she knows she can pretty much select a notebook within a stack and type in a keyword or phrase (“kia,” for instance) and should find the last time we had the car services, and the maintenance record and receipt thereof.

I have in the past set up some of these notebooks as shared notebooks and given my wife access to them, but she didn’t use them enough to make it worthwhile. Now, when she needs some information, she”ll either do a quick search herself on the computer at home, or she’ll ask me to find what she needs. It’s worked pretty well so far.

6. [Receipts] Todd asks, “Love the Evernote blog. I am new to Evernote and am fascinated by the potential for organizing my life. I am concerned about scanning receipts and throwing them away. Will stores accept a receipt that I show them on my phone? Do I have to reprint the receipt before going to the store? It seems as if I would be wasting more paper by doing the latter.”

Todd, in my limited experience, on those rare occasions when I’ve had to return something (two or three times in the last two years), I’ve never been asked for the original receipt. Most receipts these days have codes on them that the customer service people can enter to look up the information they need. On two occasions, I’d thrown away the original receipt and simply printed out the PDF from the note in Evernote. I did this because, while I might be paperless, the rest of the world is not. One time, I had a receipt that had a barcode on it, and I simply pulled up the PDF on my iPhone and let them scan it. They were willing and it worked!

These were all for relatively inexpensive things. I think there are a couple of factors involved:

  • How much the thing costs
  • How knowledgeable the customer service people are
  • What the individual store policy is

I tend to gamble. We don’t return much stuff and so with a couple of rare exceptions, I’ll scan the receipts and toss the originals. Hasn’t been a problem for me so far, but I suppose it is always a good idea to check with the store to see if a scanned version of a receipt is acceptable for returns. My suggestion might be: scan the receipt, and keep your originals for a while. If you have to return something, try it with the scanned version first, but have the original as a backup. If the scanned versions turn out to be acceptable, you’ll get a read on whether or not you can dump your printed receipts.

Remember, a big part of going paperless is being comfortable. You don’t need to go cold turkey with everything. The rest of the world is not yet paperless and even the most paperless people in the world still have to deal with paper from time-to-time.

7. [Organization] Tom asks, “I’m interested to know how many notebooks you have in each of your stacks. I’m with you that tagging slows the process down when adding notes without the pay-off when searching, but I’m already feeling the need to add notebook after notebook and worried it could get out of control.”

Here is a list of my notebook stacks and the notebooks contained within:

1. Diary (notebook stack)

  • Reading (notebook): a note for each thing that I read, be it a book, story, or article. Note is created on the date I finish reading. Sometimes contains an image of the cover, or notes I’ve made about what I read.
  • Social Networking (notebook): automated notes created using IFTTT. Things like my Foursquare checkins, instagram photos, tweets and blog post I’ve made. It’s all captured in this notebook without me having to do anything. IFTTT is awesome.
  • Timeline (notebook). Contains notes that I create manually that I want in my timeline. Things like notes about my son’s 3rd birthday party. Or that fact that I got no sleep 2 nights ago because my 10 month old kept me awake. Or that I had a good annual review at the day job. Or that I sold a new story.

2. Home Life (notebook stack)

  • Digital home (notebook): floorplans, elevations and annotated photos of my house
  • My notebook (notebook): where miscellaneous stuff goes when there is no other place for us. This stuff usually gets refiled later.
  • Kids (notebook): stuff related to the kids. Scanned in art work, birthday cards, etc.
  • Magazines (notebook): PDF versions of magazines I get in electronic format, like Scientific American)
  • Paperless Filing Cabinet (notebook): my digital filing cabinet and where most of my scanned documents go. This is my default notebook.

3. Reference (notebook stack)

  • Tech clippings (notebook): code snippets I’ve written, or tech articles I’ve kept

4. Work Life (notebook stack)

  • Queries (notebook): SQL queries I’ve written that I want to reuse in the future
  • Work notebook (notebook): all of my other work notes, kind of the paperless filing cabinet equivalent for my day job

5. Writing Life (notebook stack)

  • Book reviews (notebook): book review columns I’ve written
  • Business (notebook): contracts, correspondence, receipts, etc. related to the writing business
  • Conventions (notebook): notes pertaining to science fiction conventions I’ve attended or will be attending
  • Critiques (notebook): critiques I’ve written for my fellow writers in writers groups, etc.
  • Guest Posts and Articles (notebook): guest posts and articles I’ve written for other venues
  • Ideas (notebook): idea file for stories and blog posts
  • Interviews (notebook): interviews I’ve done
  • My Daily Fiction (notebook): fiction I’ve written on any given day. I don’t write fiction in Evernote, but I collect it there afterward so I know what I wrote on a particular day
  • Published Fiction (notebook): electronic copies of my published stories.
  • Research (notebook): writing-related research and notes
  • Vacation in the Golden Age (notebook): notes for my bi-weekly Vacation in the Golden Age posts
  • Writing Groups (notebook): stuff related to the writing groups to which I belong.

All of my notebooks are designed with the timeline concept in mind. That is, I can do a general search of all notebooks for notes created or updated on a specific date and see everything that happened on that date:

  • Where did I go (Foursquare checkins from Social Network)
  • Tweets I made (from Social Networking)
  • Writing I did (from Social Networking for blog posts and Daily Fiction Writing for fiction)
  • Stories I sold (from Timeline)
  • Bills I received (from Paperless Filing Cabinet)

You get the idea. I like being able to quickly find out what was going on a given day and I’ve organized my notebooks to help support this.


Thanks to everyone for your great questions.  I think I was able to answer all of them, although some probably better than others. In next week’s post, I’ll be talking about “digitizing your house” which will discuss in great detail what I meant by the “Digital Home” notebook in the Home Life stack above. Stay-tuned.

(As always, this post, along with all of my other Going Paperless posts is available on Pinterest.)

11 thoughts on “Going paperless: answers to your paperless lifestyle questions

  1. Great article. Thank you for helping me go the same paperless route. We’re about 1/2 way done with our filing cabinet at home.

    I clipped your article right off the browser in to Evernote. THAT’s how to do it :)

  2. I’ve seen a couple of your posts on scanners that scan directly to Evernote. How does this work if an iPad is my only “computer?” Will the scanner you recommend connect directly to the iPad and then scan directly into my EN?

  3. @Curtis, can’t comment on the scanner mentioned here but I have the doxiego, no need for connections, scans to jpeg to a memory card which I then plug into the iPad CCK. Can also work over eye-fi. can also connect to a pc and the doxie software integrates right into Evernote too.
    Had mine since last december and it’s been flawless.

  4. Jamie,

    How can I view exported Evernote notes if I select the .enex option? Like you said it looks like giberish. I’m not a computer scientist so I can’t read it. Do you have to use Evernote to be able to read it? I thought when exporting notes they would just become PDF files. This has me concerned if I want to Archive my files.


    1. Ben, if you want to actually view the stuff in your Evernote export as opposed to having it available for easy reimport back into the application then you’ll need to use a different export format. The steps are the same, but instead of using the ENEX format, use the “Export as Multiple Web Pages” format. This will export each note as a single web page and will include an index page for all of your exported notes. In addition, it will export all of the attachments (images, PDFs, etc) into folders associated with each note. Exporting in this manner gets you back the files in their original formats without having to re-import them into Evernote.

  5. Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for the breakdown of your notebooks. Very helpful – I’ll reign myself in and get better at searching.

    Re your point 4 (Ralph), it is of course possible to “star” individual notes for offline viewing, at least on the iPhone and iPad. You need to do it on each device separately, and obviously you need to do it at a point in time when you have some sort of data connection, but that can be a useful way round the need for Premium.

    I’ve always used that for keeping things like travel itineraries so I can pull them up when I’m abroad without the need for data roaming or airport wifi – which is, as you rightly point out, rather expensive!


  6. Yeah evernote is awesome. We use it to bridge the gap between our regular paperless document system. Evernote just isn’t geared for enterprise yet, but it can be combined with other products.

    Anyone tried out CNG or OneNote?

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