Category: software

Using Evernote to prepare for tax season

Having been more or less paperless for the bulk of 2011, I recently had the opportunity to collect all of my tax documentation for sending along to my accountant. Despite having an accountant do the actual work of figuring out how much I owe (or the government owes me), it typically takes up several hours of my time to collect everything together. In the past, I’d keep the most important paperwork in an easy-to-access folder on a shelf near my desk. The bulk of the time was then spent tracking down things like receipts, contracts and payments for my writing-related work.

This year, I am pleased to say, it took me 15 minutes to get everything ready for my accountant.

Throughout the year, I’d been going through my process of scanning in paper each after checking the mail. For tax paperwork, I’d scan it in, tag it, and then file the originals in the same folder I’ve used all long. At the same time, I’ve also been scanning in my receipts, contracts and payments for my writing. Thus, preparing my taxes was as easy as doing a search for “taxes” and documents dated 2011. (I use the creation date of tax-related documents as the placeholder for the tax year so that I don’t have to mess with tags for dates.) The search took all of 1 second, and another 59 seconds or so to verify that I had everything I needed.

So why 15 minutes to prepare my paperwork?

Well, the other 14 minutes were spend composing the summary letter I send to my accountant each year.

My accountant also supplies me with a tax preparation worksheet, which I filled out, scanned in, and included with the package of papers I sent to her. But I also now had the ability to send her the entire package electronically. Granted, she will need some of the original documents for the actual filing, but sending them electronically allows her to get started right away. The very next day, I put the paper in the mail (and scanned my delivery confirmation slip into Evernote). She received the physical papers the next day.

Once I get my tax return from the accountant, I can put that into Evernote as well and for the first time, I will have a completely electronic record of an entire tax year, one that was collected in real time. I estimate that the time to scan in all of the tax-related documents spread throughout the year was less than 20 minutes. That means that by going paperless, I saved myself at least a couple of hours of tax preparation time in my 2011 filing. And given how busy I am and how precious little free time I have available, every little bit is worth its weight in gold.

Scrivener, Dropbox, Elements and an improved process for the iPad

When I am at home in my office, I do all of my fiction-writing on my MacBook using Scrivener. It used to be that when I was away from my office, I took my laptop with me, but after getting my iPad last spring, I decided to leave the laptop at home and do my writing on the iPad. The trick was, how best to sync my Scrivener projects with my iPad.

For a while, I synced my Scrivener projects with SimpleNote, which had a nice app for the iPad. But over time, I found three problems with the process:

  1. SimpleNote didn’t have the clean screen editing I was looking for. It’s maximum font size was too small for me.
  2. The way the files are organized is a bit confusing.
  3. SimpleNote’s cloud system is proprietary for its editor.

Maybe it’s just me, but I felt there could be improvements in the process. So I went about looking for a really good text editor for the iPad and what I came up with after a fairly exhaustive search was Elements by Second Gear. Elements has the font sizes I want, the clean screen look to it, and it synchronizes with Dropbox–which means I can make it sync seamlessly with Scrivener.

Why is font size so important to me?

When I write on the iPad, I use an external BlueTooth keyboard–the very same keyboard I use when writing on my MacBook. This is so that the feel of writing is the same, even if the screens are different. But I am also more comfortable if the iPad isn’t sitting right in my face. I like setting it back a bit, and it helps to have  font size that I can still read easily while I work.

Having just returned from a 10-day vacation in which I wrote using nothing but my iPad, I thought I’d share the process in case anyone else was interested. Here’s what I did:

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Scrivener for iPhone/iPad is in development

For anyone who might have missed the news, the Scrivener blog made the official announcement:

We’ve been dropping hints for a while, but can finally make an official announcement: Scrivener for iOS is now in development.

Looks like a version will be released sometime in 2012. This is so cool, and I’m so excited that progress is being made on this front. It will be great to be able to use Scrivener on my iPad.

You can read the full blog post here.

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.

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Introducing Evernote’s newest “paperless” lifestyle ambassador: Me!

Today, Evernote is introducing a new ambassador program. They have asked a bunch of their hardcore users to become ambassadors in different areas of expertise to help spread the word on how Evernote can be used to make life easier in a variety of areas. I was asked to be Evernote’s lifestyle ambassador for going paperless.

I’ve heard whispers of this thing called a “paperless office” for more than a decade now. In my day job, where I work with technology on a regular basis, those whispers grow louder, but they’ve remained nothing more than loud whispers. People seems to like the idea of going paperless, but have a difficult time figuring out just how to get started. More than a year ago, I decided to cut my ties to paper at the day job. And in January of this year, I decided to do the same thing at home. The only reason I could do this was because Evernote provides the features and functions I need to “go digital.”

I didn’t get rid of all paper over night in either case. It is a gradual process that goes in stages. But moving to a paperless environment has not only greatly reduced the clutter and saved me time, it has made it easier to find things that I need–and because Evernote is a cloud-based application–that is, the data is stored on their servers–I can access my data anywhere. I don’t have to be pinned to my office where my file cabinet resides. I’ve sat in homeowners meetings and pulled up digitized versions of homeowner association budgets. When our second child was born and we were in the hospital, I was able to pull up digital version of medical records. Going paperless makes life so much easier!

In my role as ambassador for a paperless lifestyle, I’ll be writing some blog posts (like this) as well as monitoring Evernote’s discussion forum for going paperless and answering questions about how I use Evernote to go paperless. If you are interested in going paperless, please join in the discussion. You can find out more about Evernote here.

And for those who are interested in getting started with a paperless lifestyle, here are 3 tips that helped me when I went paperless:

  1. Start by going forward, not backward. When I decided to go paperless, I decided I wasn’t going to worry about the paper already in my filing cabinet. I was going to focus on incoming paper only. This made the job easier as deciding how to digitize an entire filing cabinet can be a daunting task.
  2. Start by keeping your notebook and tag organization simple. Evernote provides a lot of flexibility on how you store and organize your notes and documents. I opted to keep my “taxonomy” simple at the start. One thing that would discourage me, I was certain, was trying to remember how to file a document in a complex system. I use one notebook, which I call my “Paperless Filing Cabinet” and in that notebook, I tag my documents. But mostly, I make use of Evernote’s excellent search feature combined with Saved Searched to find what I am looking for.
  3. Establish a routine. I found for me that to go paperless meant to get the documents into Evernote as quickly as possible and then get rid of the paper. My routine works like this: when I get home from work, I grab the mail, sort through it, scan in anything I want to keep, and then shred the originals. I do this once every day at roughly the same time. It takes just a few minutes and it prevents paper from piling up.

I’d also urge you to check out the other forums in the Evernote Lifestyle discussion boards. They include things like Blogging, Outdoor Travel, Public Speaking, Teaching,  and more.

I hope to see you in the discussion!