rearranging the deck chairs

I’ve been working on a few things lately to improve the way I keep things organized. I’ve already blogged about my move from KeePass to 1Password. I’m also working on consolidating all my personal notes in Evernote. And I spent some time this weekend cleaning up my GMail inbox, and reviewing my use of OtherInbox Organizer, and thinking about whether or not I want to keep using that.

All of this “work,” when viewed from a certain perspective, looks a bit like pointless busy work, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” as it were. GMail, for instance, gives me enough space that I really don’t ever need to delete an email. And the search tools in GMail are good enough that I really don’t need to categorize anything, if I don’t want to. If I need an old email, I can probably find it in a few seconds with no problem. Evernote is almost as good. The limits on even a free account are generous enough that I’m not going to hit them, and the search is good enough that I can find stuff quite easily, regardless of how little I’ve bothered organizing things.

But there is a real point to smoothing out the kinks in the system, reviewing old notes, and cleaning up old cruft. It’s a way of reviewing my own recent history, maybe seeing some patterns that I didn’t notice before, or remembering projects that I had abandoned but would like to pick back up, or sweeping away old projects that aren’t relevant or interesting to me anymore. And, even if none of that mattered, it’s still something to do that just makes me feel a little better about myself and my control over my own life, so it’s worth it just for that mental benefit, even if it’s fleeting and possibly illusory.

So, having said all that, I’m now going to bore anyone still reading this with some details on what I’ve been doing. First, with 1Password, I am now about 80% of the way through moving everything over from KeePass. I have the iOS, Mac, and Windows clients all installed and running, and the Firefox extension installed on my Mac & Windows machines. I’m not sure if I’m entirely happy with the Firefox extension, and its ability to automate logging in to a site; it seems to get that wrong most of the time. That’s probably something I can straighten out with some more work, though I’m not sure if it’s worth spending too much time on it.

With Evernote, I’m trying to convince myself that I can use it to replace Backpack, and I want to try and consolidate all of my random notes from various other systems into Evernote. Backpack is a product that has been pretty much retired by 37signals. They still keep it running for existing users; I pay $7 per month for it, and it works fine. But I know it’s not getting any new updates or features, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to shut it down entirely at some point. So it seems prudent to get my data out of it and into a more actively-supported product. A while back, I paid a flat fee to set up a personal Basecamp account, which is now 37signals’ only active product. I haven’t really done anything with it though. While I could shoehorn my Backpack data into it, it’s not really appropriate as a general note-taking and reference tool.

Looking at some other options, I would be tempted to go with OneNote, since it’s now freely available across Windows, Mac, and iOS, but I’m not convinced that Microsoft isn’t going to pull the rug out from under the Mac and/or iOS versions at some point. Their commitment to alternative platforms comes and goes, so I just don’t feel like it would be a great idea for me to commit to a product that might disappear in the next management shake-up.

Evernote, on the other hand, is (of course) the main product for Evernote, the company. They’ve always been cross-platform, and I can’t think of any reason why that would change any time soon. And they seem pretty stable as a company, and not not likely to run out of money, or get acquired and shut down, or any of the other things that tend to happen with small, young, Internet start-ups.

There are two things, functionally, that I don’t like about Evernote. First, I don’t entirely like the simple linear organization of notes. As stated above, yes, you can easily search through the notes to find what you need, but I still like to have a bit more structure. (OneNote is really good on that front.) And it bothers me a bit that they don’t support plain-text notes, only rich-text. That might not seems like a big deal to most people, but it can get in the way when I want to paste some source code into a note. The “paste as plain text” option helps out there, but I’d really like an option to just have a new note be either rich text or plain text, and maybe to set an entire notebook to be plain-text by default. But I think I can live with both of these slight annoyances.

What I’ve decided to do with Evernote, in terms of imposing some organization on it, is to create multiple notebooks (but not too many) to sort things out into a few major buckets, then use tags to make it easier to find certain things, such as all notes related to comic books, or all notes related to F# programming. I’ve renamed my default notebook to “Inbox”, and I’ll be using it as an inbox in the usual GTD sense (though maybe not being as strict as I could be). New stuff will go in there until I sort it out somewhere else or delete it. The other major notebooks I’ve set up are:

  • Lists: various active lists, such as my list of which Dresden Files books I’ve read and which I haven’t.
  • Reference: various notes that I may need for reference in the future, such as the note reminding me that “sudo killall coreaudiod” is the command I need to use on my Mac whenever sound stops working.
  • Archive: old notes that I probably won’t ever need again, but maybe I will, so I might as well keep them.

That’s probably all I need, but I’ve also created a “Travel” notebook, for travel-related notes, and I may create a few other topic-specific notebooks.

Once I get to the point where I feel like I’ve got a good system going in Evernote, I’m going to want to consolidate the notes that I have in other systems into Evernote. I’ve already mentioned Backpack; that’s been my primary GTD and general note-keeping system for some time now. Copying stuff out of there and into Evernote shouldn’t be too big a problem.

I also have a bunch of old notes on my Mac in DevonThink. I actually really like DevonThink, and I kind of wish I could use it as a front-end to Evernote, but it’s really a Mac-only solution. What I have in there, at this point, is mostly software license info (which could go into either Evernote or 1Password), and some miscellaneous lists and Mac-specific reference info.

And, finally, I have a fair amount of stuff in OneNote on my desktop PC. This all dates back to a time when I was using that desktop PC a lot more often than I am now. I don’t recall entering any new info into OneNote this year. So, again, it shouldn’t be too hard to get that stuff into Evernote, mostly into the ‘Reference’ or ‘Archive’ notebooks.

The benefits of doing all this will be:

  1. I’ll have all my notes in a single store, accessible on my Mac, PC, and iOS devices, and via the web. (The stuff that was previously only on the Mac or PC will now be available everywhere.)
  2. I can discontinue my $7/month Backpack subscription. (I don’t currently have a paid Evernote account, and I probably don’t need one. But if I want one, it’s still a bit cheaper than Backpack was.)
  3. I don’t have to worry about relying on a product that’s not really supported anymore, and might get discontinued at any time.

So this has turned into a pretty ridiculously long blog post, but writing it helped me straighten a few things out in my head, and maybe reading it will help someone else out someday. (Or at least amuse someone slightly.)

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