The Evolution of a Digital Hoarder

May 22, 2012

I’m a hoarder of bits, a collector of info, an accumulator of concepts. I have no shame about this, and it certainly isn’t a secret if you’ve followed along here for any period of time. I launched this blog with a series called Capture Everything, and I’m still at it.

In that early series, I wrote about the importance of distinguishing between two types of data: tasks and ideas. Tasks are captured until they are completed. They are temporary. Ideas don’t have an end — often they are only a beginning. When properly captured they are filed out of sight, but quickly recovered when the time for reference or further development arrives.

Since I started this blog, my one system of capturing and managing tasks has remained OmniFocus. The only changes, and welcome changes at that, have come through the growth of the app, and expansion to iOS devices.

But capturing ideas has been a different story. I’m talking about more than ideas — it’s data related to any projects I’m working on, or notions I want to explore more someday somehow. Because the data is so diverse, I’m always open to finding a better way to store, capture and retrieve it.

In my adult, and digital, life, here’s how my collection of concepts has been stored:

  1. Folders within Folders within Folders: Like most, my early organization of data was within documents, usually from Word — or if we are going way back, Word Perfect. I won’t afflict you with a review of the different ways I tried sorting all of those documents into folders, but I know that some of the folders still slumber on my hard drive, and I fear them.
  2. Microsoft OneNote: OneNote changed how I thought about digital storage. For the first time, I didn’t think of everything as merely documents, but as a repository of formed, and unformed, thoughts that could be collated and searched. My ideas moved from documents to database. It was my favorite Windows application, and the most difficult to let go of when I transitioned to Mac in 2006.
  3. Yojimbo and Yep: My search for a Mac replacement for OneNote landed on Yojimbo. It was a different way of structuring my data, but I soon learned it worked better for me as I was able to create a database of more than just words. There are many posts in the archives recounting my love of Yojimbo. Alongside Yojimbo, I started using Yep for a paperless filing system, scanning documents an letting Yep organize them with tags.
  4. DevonThink and text files: As powerful operating systems moved to smaller devices (you know…iOS), the priority of not only capturing, but also carrying my data began to rise. The trendy and powerful simplicity of a collection of text files captured my heart, and I moved anything I could to an easily searched Dropbox folder access through NVAlt on the desktop and any number of interchangeable iOS apps. (PlainText was my preference.) Alongside text files, I discovered DevonThink as the nucleus of a powerful document database, able to store and catalog just about anything. Yojimbo records that didn’t work as text files were gracefully shuffled into DevonThink, where I have created a hoarder’s utopia of old papers, teaching outlines, book notes and more to draw from for future projects. It also replaced Yep, and quite capably, as my scanned records catalog.
  5. And finally, all of this has led me to…

  6. Evernote (with a dash of DevonThink): Before I get to Evernote, I can say that I still use DevonThink for my reference library and scanned documents. It’s perfect for both of those uses because of the diversity of data in can catalog and the power of it’s search features. But I’ve had a need to store more than text files, and for day to day data, DevonThink is too cumbersome. It doesn’t travel well, even to it’s own iOS app. So…Evernote.

I’ve taken a number of looks at Evernote, admiring some of it’s possibilities, but never quite feeling like it was a good fit. I’ve been downright hard on it at times. I still have a few critiques, but the benefits have finally surpassed the barriers. Over the last few years, the means to better organize data has grown, and the apps look and feel good. The Mac app looks like a Mac app. The iPhone app has matured nicely and works well both for quick capture and data access. Getting data in is easy, sync is thoughtless, and I can find what I want on any device.

My critiques are below, but the whole Evernote ecosystem has matured enough that I’m hopeful these will be addressed in the future:

  • The iPad App: For the most part, it’s useful, but it’s lagging behind in features and not even able to display notebook stacks. In a number of ways, I prefer the Android app on my Kindle Fire.
  • Archiving: There’s some data I want to keep, but also want to slide it into an archive and out of my way — notes and records from old client projects, for example. In order to do so, I have to export the notebook to a location on my hard drive, and restore it when necessary. Silly.
  • Data Dead End: My biggest hesitation about moving to Evernote is the way it limits access to my data. Everything is in the propietary format and not easily moved. For example, I can’t drag an image to my desktop. I can’t drag an item from Evernote into Scrivener. (Well, I can, but all it does is create a link to the Evernote item.) The only way to move data out is cut and paste, or export it as HTML or a proprietary Evernote format. This makes me squeamish.
  • Data Fencing: Relate to above, Evernote data is immune to outside interaction. There are no Automator actions or Hazel rules that can be applied to data in Evernote. There is not, that I’m aware of, a way to apply Applescripting to data in Evernote. These tools can be used to get data in to Evernote, but can’t touch it once it’s in there. While it’s not too limiting to me so far, I’m sure it continues to scare away users more powerful and geeky than I.

So, here I am in Evernote, and it’s a gamble, because I’ve pushed much of my data into a corner. But it’s a nice corner, well furnished, with a fairly good view. And for now, I’ll be happy to hang out here. And hope for the best.

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