Usually when someone speaks about the benefits of going paperless, they talk about reducing clutter, better organization, and the ability to find what you are looking for from anywhere. Those are powerful reasons for going paperless and I’ve discussed many of them in these tips. But there is another reason for going paperless, one that we are just beginning to see the benefits of, and one which I think will grow by leaps and bounds over the coming years: paperless automation.
Because paperless documents and notes are digital, they can be manipulated by computer programs. I can take an email message from Outlook and send it to Evernote, for instance. There are some fairly common examples of automation. For instance, I have an IFTTT recipe that takes any starred item in Google Reader and sends it to Evernote. I think these kinds of automations are just the tip of the iceberg. I have been going through the process of automating quite a bit of things using the information and data that I store in Evernote. I thought I’d provide some examples of the automation that I use to illustrate the possibilities.
One caveat: I’ve spent my day job for the last 18 years as an application developer. I write code, I manage software projects. Writing code is not a big deal for me. Some of the automation you see below involve the ability to write code in order to make them work. That said, I don’t think it will be long before someone with time on their hands picks up the threads, sees the demand, and creates apps and services that do these things for you. In any case, I’ll start with some examples that require no programming at all.
1. Automatically send your Tweets to Evernote
I take Evernote’s motto, “Remember everything,” literally and in doing so, I make an effort to capture as much as I can in Evernote. At the same time, I don’t want to spend all of my waking hours entering notes by hand into Evernote. So I look for quick ways to automate the process. I’ve written about the IFTTT service before. IFTTT allows you to take data from one web application and send it to another. This is done through “recipes” and these recipes can be shared with others.
I like having a history of all of my tweets that is readily searchable from within Evernote. Also, since I follow a “timeline” model, where I can see what I did or what happened on any given day, it’s convenient for tweets to show up on their respective days as well. All of this was very easy for me to automate using the IFTTT service.
Twitter recently made changes to its API that forced IFTTT to remove its triggers from their service, but I came up with a workaround using twitter’s RSS feed that has been working fine right down to this very moment1. I never have to think about this. I tweet as usual and the tweets just show up in Evernote. For instance, if I search Evernote for all of the tweets created yesterday, here is what I find:
You can see that all of the tweets I made are captured (see the arrow for “Search results”) and when one note is selected, the content of that note not only has the complete tweet, but a link back to the original in Twitter itself.
I use similar recipes to pull in all of my Foursquare checkins and copies of each of my blog posts via my RSS feed.
2. Automatically create a meeting minutes note 15 minutes prior to your meeting
I’ve written about this tip as well. Here, I use IFTTT to create automation between Google Calendar and Evernote. Basically here is what happens:
- I add an item to my Google Calendar.
- If I want meeting minutes for that item automatically created in Evernote, I add the term “@en” somewhere in the title of the meeting.
- 15 minutes before the meeting, IFTTT creates a note in Evernote with the title of the meeting. The body of the note is populated with my “meeting minutes template.”
So long as my Evernote client is synced up, when I walk into the meeting room, that note will be created. I don’t have to spend time copying and pasting, which can be particularly tricky on an iPad. And if I review the note before going into the meeting, I can begin adding items to it so that I am more prepared (with less effort) when I get there.
Having given a couple of examples of automation that doesn’t require any kind of programming. Now let me give a few examples of automation that I’ve done using some scripting. For most of these examples, I make use of a product called GeekNote, which allows you to access your Evernote data from a terminal session. This allows you to integrate the results with scripting languages like perl or PHP. If you are not a programmer, you don’t have to worry. These are examples that are useful to me, and like I said, I think they give some idea of what will be possible when automation is more widespread.
3. Capture the items I completed from my To-Do list each day.
I don’t use Evernote for my t0-do list. Instead, I use a simple command-line tool called todotxt, about which I’ve written in some detail. It is simple, fast, and has iOS apps that allow me to quickly update my lists. Since those lists are ultimately stored as plain text files in Dropbox, they are prime candidates for automation. For those curious, here is what my todo list looks like on the command line (as of 9:30am this morning):
And here is that same list on the iPhone app:
When I complete an item and check it off my list, it is removed from the active “to-do” file and put into a “done” file. I wanted to be able to capture what I’d completed on each day and have that automatically stored in Evernote. So, using Geeknote to access Evernote, I wrote a perl script that pulls out all of the items completed on a given day, and creates a note in Evernote with the list of items in the body. The script is scheduled to run every night at 11:45pm. Here is what the note looks like from last night:
Once again, I don’t have to do anything beyond what I normally do: update my to-do list. My script send the completed items to Evernote each day and when I search for notes created on a given day, they become part of the results set.
4. Automatically generate content for my monthly “what I read” posts
At the end of each month, I create a post that lists all of the articles, book, and stories that I read. I keep these lists in Evernote. Each time I finish reading something, be it a story, article, or book, I create a note for it. The title of the note contains the title of the item and who wrote it. I tag it with several tags that classify the kind of thing that it is (short story, article, novelette, novel, etc.). Sometimes I will add a “recommended” tag, to indicate it’s something that I’d recommend to others. The body contains my notes, if I’ve chosen to take any, on the piece. Here is the most recent example of one of these posts, listing what I read back in October. You’ll note in that post it indicates that it is now partially automated.
That is because I use Geeknote to extract data from Evernote. Using 3 different search strings, I pull out three different lists from Evernote, including articles I read in a given month, short fiction I read in a given month, and books I read in a given month. I use a perl script to extract this data (via Geeknote). The script then formats that data using simple HTML and produces an output file that I then paste into my blog post. The only piece I actually add myself are the paragraphs that appear before the lists.
Once again, I’m only doing what I normally do: keep track of what I read in Evernote. I then use scripts to automate the creation of the blog posts listing what I’ve read. I’d estimate it used to take me 30-40 minutes to put together one of those blog posts. It now takes me 5 minutes. Over the course of a year, I’ve saved myself about 6 hours of time with this simple automation2.
Other examples of automation
Without going into the details, here are a few more things that I’ve managed to automate:
- Taking data from my FitBit device and creating a daily summary note in Evernote.
- Taking notes from a meeting an automatically sending a copy to the appropriate team (based on how it is tagged).
- Parsing my to-do list by context and priority and emailing myself a “getting started” list each morning, so I have an idea of what I need to work on right away. (And of course when I cross these items off my list, they are pulled into Evernote.)
Again, I understand not everyone writes code and that some of what I am doing is pretty specific. But I think it illustrates the beginnings of what will become possible when your data is free of paper, and can be processed digitally. Going paperless no longer just reduces physical clutter. It will eventually help to unclutter your day.
(And PS: If you haven’t already seen it: I got to visit the Evernote Headquarters last week!)
- And from what I can tell it will continue to work through the first half of next year, giving me time to look for an alternative. ↩
- And yes, I am looking into having the script post directly to WordPress. The only reason I haven’t is because I usually have some commentary to make that is unique to each post. ↩