Are You Using Evernote All Wrong? An Introduction to Spaced Repetition for Rapid Learning

evernote totals

Five years ago, I downloaded Evernote with glee. As someone with a terrible memory, I had long been searching for a great digital notebook, and Evernote fit the bill. Searchable notebooks? Checklists? Syncing with all of my devices? Yes please.

Nowadays, that feeling of glee has been replaced with overwhelm. When I open Evernote, I see an anxiety-inducing grand total of ~800 notes (see the image above); it dawns on me, I have no idea what’s in most of them.

Was I receiving any benefit from these long-forgotten notes buried in the proverbial basement of Evernote? Were these simply records, or actionable information I should be aware of? It’s a question I’ve shrugged off – until today.

“What the hell is in my Evernote account?”

Thankfully, I was a diligent Evernoter; I properly tagged and categorized nearly all of my notes. There were a few categories of notes I seemed to come across:

  • Data exports, mostly from IFTTT integration with my devices and web services.
  • Scanned documents when the thought of holding on to real mail seemed ridiculous. Tax documents abound.
  • Journal entries, along with photos and other memories.
  • Recipes and other food-related notes

These examples were fine. Evernote is great for this, and I’ll keep using it for scanning and data integrations.

It’s the fifth and final category of notes that I had a big problem with: clipped web articles. I was dumping web article after web article into Evernote using their web clipper extension.

People love this feature. And for a while, I did too. It’s a way to capture knowledge from well-written content on the web with little to no effort required.

Hundreds of my Evernote notes were such clippings – I felt burdened. Now I have to sort through all of this content to see if it’s even relevant anymore? Ugh.

As I feared, a quick scan through my knowledge repository showed dozens of articles that, indeed, were no longer relevant.

Can you relate? If so, the rest of this post of for you, because I’ll show you how to turn a nightmarish conglomeration of hoarded internet content into a well-oiled learning machine.

But first, let’s review two reasons why Evernote as knowledge capture can backfire.

Reason 1: You become an information hoarder.

Information hoarding describes exactly what I was doing with Evernote for years. As writer Steven Crandell describes it, “By trying to hold everything, we lose what is of value. Human memory is porous for a reason. It allows us to regularly renew what is useful and meaningful and let the dross float away.”

Crandell goes even further to say that, “We dehumanize ourselves when we abdicate the traditional practice of deciding what’s worth remembering, when we stop holding our defining details and stories in our hearts.”

Intense stuff.

Power users of Evernote have started to chime in with similar feelings. Take Vladimir Oane, for example, who writes:

Evernote wants to act like your second brain. But storage of data has no intrinsic value by itself. Even saving itself is devoid of any goal. In my case the secondary brain is a wonderful analogy but my main interest is in saving information in my primary brain. I want to remember the things I am saving, not burry [sic] them in a database.

I agree with both Crandell and Oane. Whereas our minds can let certain memories fade away with time, Evernote users need to manually purge out their account if they choose to keep actionable information in there. There’s also value in spontaneous ideas generated from the information we’ve committed to memory.

As such, Evernote strikes me as a great place to store tax documents or pictures – things that are nice to review leisurely or pull up on occasion. But it’s an awful place to store knowledge that you consider insightful or actionable for your life.

Reason 2: You end up mixing personal and non-personal information in one search experience (not ideal).

This one took me by surprise. After realizing I had hundreds of notes in Evernote I’d like to be more searchable, I began experimenting with Evernote’s Google extension. It’s actually a pretty cool concept; when you perform a Google search, a handy little widget will also search your Evernote account on the same page. Check it out:

"Evernote, meet Google"

I search for recipes, and Evernote will suggest a few recipes from my Cooking notebook. Not bad, right?

For a while, I thought that this was going to be what I needed to activate the power of the dormant knowledge I’ve crammed into Evernote over the years.

But then, this happened:

"Google meets private journal entries"

If you use Evernote to store sensitive documents (tax records, journal entries, etc.) you’ll notice sensitive documents popping up unexpectedly based on a matched phrase you weren’t expecting.

If you ask a friend to Google the nearest coffee shop, you definitely don’t want private journal entries popping up in the Evernote extension, which is what started happening to me. Unfortunately, there’s no way to disable certain notebooks from search integration. You can’t lock individual notebooks, either.

It was at this point that I realized I needed to separate my concerns. Financial records, pictures, recipes, and journal entries still made perfect sense in Evernote. But knowledge I wanted to recall on a regular basis needed a drastically different approach. Enter spaced repetition.

A better approach: spaced repetition.

Let’s turn to the always-reliable Wikipedia for a definition of spaced repetition (emphasis mine):

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect … Although the principle is useful in many contexts, spaced repetition is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory.

Retaining a large number of items indefinitely in memory? Sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.

If you’re looking for an extremely details analysis of spaced repetition, I encourage you to read Gwern’s spaced repetition post.

For those who want the quick and dirty summary, here’s how your memory behaves when you learn something once and never review it:

"Look at how quickly you forget"

Here’s how spaced repetition brings up the piece of information at the right time to prevent you from forgetting it:

"Ah, that's more like it."

And the best part is, because spaced repetition only shows you a flash card when you’re in need of a memory boost, it doesn’t show you the whole pack every day. In fact, it may choose to have you review only a fraction of the deck each day, which makes it super efficient.

This efficiency allows decks to scale to very large sizes without much problem; Gwern makes a note of how large the flashcard decks can become:

[Without] spaced repetition, it would be very hard to keep up with 18,300+ flashcards. But because it is using spaced repetition, keeping up is very easy.

Nor is 18.3k extraordinary. Many users have decks in the 6-7k range, Mnemosyne developer Peter Bienstman has >8.5k & Patrick Kenny >27k, Hugh Chen has a 73k+ deck, and in #anki, they tell me of one user who triggered bugs with his >200k deck.

So what does any of this have to do with Evernote? Simple. Any knowledge I want to commit to memory for regular use in my life (especially for goal planning and analysis), I put in a spaced repetition app instead of Evernote.

I personally use Anki, but Mnemosyne, SuperMemo and Repetitions are all solid options.

What if I want to keep my data in Evernote?

Luckily, there are some smart people trying to transform Evernote into a spaced repetition solution.

The two that I’ve discovered, but haven’t tried are Revunote and Reflect. If you have any thoughts on these two apps, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

But what about searching?

Good point. By taking clippings out of Evernote and placing them in a spaced repetition flash card system, you lose the ability to search through them if you choose to delete them from Evernote.

Personally, I feel liberated now that this content no longer plagues my Evernote account. But for those of you who prefer to retain your search experience, you have two options:

  1. Just use Google. Nine times out of ten, I was able to find the original article via Google many months later when a similar situation presented itself.
  2. You can still keep everything in Evernote, and also use spaced repetition for important information that needs frequent recall.

How has spaced repetition worked out for me?

In a word: fantastically. Relevant quotes, interesting stats, and useful pieces of advice are now available in my working memory very quickly in conversations and goal brainstorming sessions. No longer is useful wisdom locked away in Evernote where I’d need to remember to search for it and review it.

And all I need to do is review my Anki flashcards once per day with my morning tea (it only takes a few minutes each morning).

The feeling of completing each day’s cards becomes more gratifying with every day that I find the information I reviewed coming in handy.

"I've learned to love this message"

Conclusion: Evernote is no longer the dominant player in my information workflow.

Evernote is an amazing tool. It’s revolutionized how I store information, but I also no longer believe the hype that Evernote is a great solution for every use case.

My new information workflow is as follows:

  • Would this information be useful to have recallable in memory? If so, create an Anki card for it. A good example of this would be a list of the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables when I’m out grocery shopping.
  • If not, would it be useful to have a logged record of this somewhere for future reference? This stuff goes in Evernote. (E.g. tax documents, recipes)
  • And finally, if neither of the above apply, I discard the information.

This system works well for me, and I’m curious to hear if you feel the same! If you’ve had frustrations with Evernote, this approach may be worth trying.

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.
  • finneycanhelp

    “Personally, I liberated now..” change to –> “Personally, I feel liberated now…” ?

  • Fixed! Thanks for the heads up 🙂

  • finneycanhelp

    Anytime, my friend.

  • Great solution to the overwhelm that is Evernote.

    Spaced repetition is the Holy Grail for me, but haven’t found any apps (until now, thanks to you) that seemed to scratch my itch in how I capture info.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • supermikko

    Very nice idea to use spaced repetition system like general a notebook!

    I have used spaced repetition just to study for exams. Actually I have even developed my own system, because I didn’t quite like the available free systems. If you want to check out my system, it’s available at http://www.memomash.com (you can even import cards from Anki) Do you have any suggestions, what would be useful features for a SR-system, when used like you do? I would imagine that a powerful search through all your cards would be nice, so you could check something easily even if you’re a little uncertain if you recall the information correctly.

    Anyways, thanks for the great post!

  • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Joshua! Anki is fantastic. The iOS version is also solid, but only if you don’t mind the hefty price tag.

  • Thanks, supermikko! I’m a fairly basic user of spaced repetition — I don’t do anything fancy (yet), so Anki satisfies my needs pretty well. But thanks for letting my readers know about memomash!