Using Evernote as a surrogate memory; or answering the question “When did X happen?”

For a very long time, I kept a paper diary: a row of those red books with the words STANDARD DIARY sit on one of my bookshelves. I didn’t use the diary to record my secret desires and fantasies. Instead, it was a place to record the days events so that I could recall them to memory if needed. Often, a typical entry would have things in it like: “Another long day at work spent fixing bugs on the Smart Form UI. Paid the gas bill when I got home: a whopping $14.07. No workout tonight because of the rain.” The diaries were replaced by this blog in late 2005. This blog has, on occasion, served a similar function for me. But there are still times when I want to remember when something happened: when I paid a bill. When my little girl smiled for the first time. Or perhaps I want to prove to a friend that X did indeed happen before Y and not the other way around.

When I started using Evernote, my primary goal was to use it to go completely paperless. But I quickly found that it has many other uses. Evernote’s tagline is: “Remember everything” and that go me thinking: can I used Evernote to remember for me the kinds of things for which I used to use my diary? Turns out, it does this remarkably well, and with less effort than the diary used to take. Here is how I do it:

The setup

At first, I thought I could get away with a simple tag on note that I could then create a Saved Search for. But that proved to be a little too simple for my needs. So I created a tag called “Timeline.” I tag any note that I want to show up in my “memory timeline.”

I also created a Notebook called “Timeline.” The notebook acts as a repository for notes for things I want to remember that don’t fit properly in any of my other notebooks.

How I use it

Let’s say I want to remember when I paid a bill. Most of my bills are paid automatically but some I have to pay by hand. Medical bills for instance. Anyone who has gone to the hospital and come home with an infant knows that doctors and hospitals are prolific bill-senders. So when I get a bill from a doctor I:

  1. Scan the bill into Evernote
  2. Pay the bill
  3. Note in the the same note created in Step 1 the date and method the bill was paid.

If I pay the bill online, I’ll clip the confirmation page or email and paste it into the same note as the scanned bill itself. If I mail off a check, I’ll just add some text to the scanned note indicated the date I sent the check, and the check number.

Now when I want to know when I paid a bill, I can simply search for the bill and look for my notes.

But what about other things?

  • On the day I saw The Little Miss smile for the first time, I pulled out my iPhone, jotted down a note that read: “Little Miss smiled for the first time today” and added it to my timeline notebook. Later, when I caught a picture of her smiling the same day, I went back and added the picture to the note.
  • When I got my check for the story that I sold to Analog, I created a note that said, “Received check for $xxx from Dell Magazines today. How cool is that!”. That note went into my timeline notebook. (Of course, I also scanned the check into Evernote and the scanned copy went into my “Business” notebook in my “Writing Life” notebook stack.)
  • When traveling, I might create a note that said, “Headed off to Newport today. JetBlue flight XXX out of National.”
  • At a checkup for the Little Miss, I’ll create a note: “Little Miss’s 2-month checkup. She’s 10 pounds, 2 ounces!”
  • At a science fiction convention, I created a note that reads, “Had drinks with XXX, editor of YYY and pitched a story. He liked it, and had these suggestions.”
  • The techie in me adds notes like, “Updated to Lion today–no issues” or “Installed the new version of Mathematica”

Any of these things are things that I want to remember. Sometimes there are small and might only have meaning for me. Other times they are significant. I can imagine recording things like birthday and graduation, little successes and failures. When did I put in the new plants? When was the chimney last cleaned?

The value, of course, is that I can easily find any of these things with a quick search in Evernote. There is additional value in being able to include more information with these little memory notes, like the picture of the Little Miss smiling at me. And because Evernote records the time the note was created, I don’t have to worry about doing that myself. I can look at my timeline notebook and sort the notes by create date and see the exact order in which things happened. Or I can use the saved search to include notes outside the timeline notebook that are tagged as “timeline.” You can see how useful this might be as a supplement to memory. I’ve always thought I had a pretty good memory but as I get older, I find it comforting to know that I can store things like this outside my brain and yet easily retrieve them.

The trickiest part to all of this is remembering to make the note in real time. When I first got the idea, I was excited about it. A few weeks later, I’d have forgotten some piece of information and kick myself for note adding it to my timeline notebook when it happened. But you start to develop a pattern of thought that helps. (Waiting in line to pay the cashier for my state inspection: hey, maybe I should jot a note that I got the car inspected today!) And whether I enter them at a computer or from a mobile device, it takes just seconds to get the note into Evernote.

I’ve built up a nice little collection of “memories” that I keep in Evernote and can recall at once, whether sitting at my computer, from my iPhone or my iPad. And it reduces anxiety. I don’t have to try and remember everything myself. Plus, it’s been fun capturing the little milestones of my kids. For that alone it’s worth the effort.


  1. I used Evernote when it first went into Beta. I wanted a place to store my writing notes instead of in folders on my hard drive. But over the last year, I started looking into OneNote, and I started using it last month. You can build notebooks with categories with subpages and subcategories. I’ve dumped everything I absolutely can into it. It doesn’t seem to handle Excel spreadsheets very well, so those are still on my hard drive, but I’ve linked to them in the program – which is nice. Click, Click.

  2. I confess. I tried it once and uninstalled it. But when I upgraded my Office suite last month, I thought I’d give it a chance again. So here I am.

    1. I hear you. I did that when I first started using Scrivener for my fiction writing. I installed it and just started using it, deciding that I would learn it and make it work for me.

  3. I’ve been using Evernote for a while now and have a few signature things like my son telling me he loved me for the first time. It never occurred to me to create a timeline though. That is a $*#&%P#@ brilliant idea! I’m starting one tonight.

  4. I was a dyed-in-the-wool OneNote user, and I loved it! Saved my life more than once at work and at home, and I especially loved the visuals – the way it is laid out.

    However, about a year and a half ago, I retired and switched to MAC. Searched for weeks to find a substitution for OneNote, tried lots of programs and finally settled on Evernote. I am now a convert – I use it for everything. Am trying to go paperless and working out the kinks. Retrieving scanned documents is still a challenge, but I will continue to work on it.

  5. I started using Evernote about six months ago as a digital
    Diary for a contract I’m doing. Bought a scansnap about 2 weeks ago and now basically scanning, dragging, creating a digital depository for my life. Memories, receipts, important moments, websites, emails, tax time info, website logins. Like having a filing cabinet in my pocket

    Cheers Rob

  6. wonder if anyone knows more about the security issues related to the above mentioned technique of scanning bills and other potentially sensitive info into evernote
    my guess it that it isnt a good idea


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.