Going Paperless: Creating and Sharing Household Instructions Using Evernote

Ican remember back when television remote controls were these big brown boxes push buttons that popped down, and brown wires that wound their way back to the television like some kind of country snake. They were very easy to use. You had twenty buttons, each one representing a channel, and when you pushed the button, you got that channel.

They’ve only gotten more complex in the decades since that brown box. Regular readers know that if I have to do something more than once, I try to automate it. But remote controls flummox me1. And when we have guests, I used to have to give them a 3-part course on how to use the remote control for the big television in the family room. It was a good course, and at the end they received a certificate of completion. But there was a problem. On any subsequent visit, I’d have to repeat the course because all of the information was lost.

Our guests would look at me sheepishly and say, “How do I turn on the TV?”

So I decided to come as close as I could to automating this process. I documented the instructions in Evernote, and then share them with guests when they arrive. Here’s how I did it.

Documenting household instructions

Step 1: Snap a photo of the remote control

Our family room TV is controlled via 2 remotes, one for the television/cable box, and the other for the BluRay player. The first thing I did was snap photos of each of the remote controls.

I put the remote control against a white background before I snapped the photo because I knew that I was going to be marking up the photo and the white background would help the markup to stand out.

Step 2: Mark up the photos using Skitch

One I had my photos, I used Skitch to mark them up. I tried to highlight only those elements that a guest would need to use when trying to watch television, or play a BluRay disc. Here’s what the marked up photo of my cable remote looks like:

Cable Remote

Step 3: Write the instructions

With the marked-up photos, I created a new note in Evernote and began writing up simple instructions for using the television. I included only the minimum instructions I could manage and kept it as simple as possible. My instructions included:

  • How to turn on the TV
  • How to turn off the TV
  • How to get the Guide and change the channels
  • How to switch to the BluRay player
  • How to switch back to the TV

I titled the note “TV Remote, Family Room” and filed in my Digital House notebook. I ran a pilot test of the instructions with some guests we had and then refined the parts that were confusing.

Sharing household instructions

With the TV remote instructions complete and tested, all that’s left to do is share them. Evernote makes this pretty easy. I do this in two ways. The first thing I did was to paste a link to the instructions on the back of the remote control:

  1. Go to the note in Evernote
  2. Click the Share menu
    Evernote Share Menu
  3. Select the “Copy Note URL to Clipboard” option. This gives you the long URL for the link to the note in Evernote. Anyone with this link can access the note.
  4. I use bit.ly to create a short link to the note.
  5. I created a small label with the following text that I then taped to the back of the remote control:

TV Instructions: http://bit.ly/jtr_remote

This makes it easy to tell our guests where they can find the instruction. Of course, I can also easily email them the instructions:

  1. Go to the note in Evernote
  2. Click the Share menu
  3. Select the Send By Email… option.

If you are curious to see what my instructions look like, you can find them here.

Beyond remote controls

Obviously, creating and sharing household instructions works for more than just the TV remote control. There are countless ways that this can be used, from how to set the thermostat, to instructions for connecting to your home wireless network2.

Over the weekend, I fixed the wiring on our doorbell, and in the process, realized that the labeling of our circuit-breaker wasn’t particularly detailed, or good. So I snapped a photo of the circuit breaker, and then marked it up using Skitch to clearly indicate which breaker corresponded to what outlets and functions in the house. I included a floor plan of the house and color-coded the markups to correspond with the parts of the house affected. Now, if I need to shut down the power to any part of the house, all I have to do is glance at my note in Evernote to know which breaker to kill.

Oh, and inside the door of the circuit breaker, I taped a QR code that, when scanned, opens up my circuit breaker note in Evernote.

In case you missed it, last week I created a /r/goingpaperless subreddit on Reddit for all of your Redditors out there. It contains links to all of these Going Paperless posts, as well as other links of interest, and you can post your own links there.  Feel free to head over and check it out, if you use Reddit. You can find it in at /r/goingpaperless.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Ask Me Anything about Going Paperless, Using Evernote, or Automation.

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  1. I know that there are newer “universal remotes” that purport to do everything, but none of them are up to my standards of usability.
  2. Of course, for this, a person would need some other form of Internet access first, unless you decide to, eek! print the instructions on paper.


  1. Color coded floor plan for the circuit breaker??? Wow, and I thought I was organized by using an old-fashioned label maker to label each breaker. 😉 Great idea though!

  2. Brilliant! I could also scan owners manuals and stick a label on the item/appliance with a bit.ly link (or QR code) for the Evernote URL. For example, I can never remember what size battery goes in my car remote (and I can never get the stupid thing open while I’m in CVS looking at batteries!). I could make a note in Evernote, and tape a little QR label to the back – problem solved! I could also do this with the owners manual for my sewing machine. So many possibilities! So much LESS PAPER! 🙂


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