Do You Spend Too Much Time Managing Your Notes? You Shouldn‘t Have To.
If you are a busy professional, you probably use a note-taking tool to store your information. If so, you will likely spend a lot of time managing your data, which consumes time and attention that you would prefer to invest in creative work. We thought this was a problem, so we built a tool to solve it.
The Everything Bucket
Note-taking tools such as Evernote are sometimes referred to as “Everything Buckets“: you just throw all your information into them, and it will be there when you need it again. People use their Everything Buckets to store anything from Lolcat collections to todo lists to scientific research notes.
Everything Buckets are very popular tools, and there are many products available on the market; the best known of which are probably Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, Apple Notes and Google Keep.
If you use one of these tools as a personal and professional archive, you may easily accumulate thousands of individual notes spread across 100 categories or more, and you will have to make a significant effort to keep them organized.
Note Management is a Chore
Specialized software tools know what kind of data you want to store and provide a corresponding structure for it. For example, the contacts app on your smartphone knows about First Name, Second Name, Mobile Number, Office Address, and many more items that are specific to contact information.
By contrast, Everything Buckets have to be agnostic with regard to the user’s application. This means they can only provide generic mechanisms for structuring the user’s data. In Evernote, for example, there are only two basic methods: tags that you can attach to notes, and notebooks for collecting notes that belong to the same topic.
The flexibility of an Everything Bucket therefore comes at a price: the larger your database, the more effort you have to invest in keeping it organized. Some people have even had to declare note-taking “bankruptcy” because they had neglected their housekeeping chores for so long that they could no longer find anything.
Your “Mental Filing System”
In order to use an Everything Bucket effectively, you first have to create a structure for your data in your mind. We call this your “mental filing system”. This system is your strategy for organizing your information in a way that is logical to you and helps you to store (and retrieve) any particular item of data efficiently. For example, your mental filing system might contain the following categories and meta-categories of notes:
- Writing a novel: Plot Points, Character Descriptions, Unusual Words, Locations, Character Relationships, …
- Tasks: Next 30 Days, This Week, As Soon As Possible, Overdue, …
- Product Management: Customer Input, Development Roadmap, Ongoing Projects, Test Results, …
- Personal: Kids, Home, Taxes, Personal Development, Inspiration, Health and Fitness, …
It is this mental filing system that you then have to replicate in your note-taking app using the mechanisms provided so that you can store your notes where you would expect to find them later.
Creating and maintaining this mental image of your data in your note-taking app can become a significant challenge. Tiago Forte calls it “a heroic feat of comprehensive planning”. Furthermore, even a tiny mistake might have severe consequences: if you are self-employed and forget to add the tag Taxes to a note containing a customer invoice, then it will very likely be missing from your income tax returns.
Let Your Computer do the Work
The actions you have to perform in order to keep your data in order are extremely repetitive – every time you collect a new recipe, you have to tag it with Recipe or move it into your Recipes notebook. Ironically, it is precisely this kind of repetitive task that computers can do much better than humans.
This was our original insight which led us to develop a digital assistant for Evernote that we call Filterize. With Filterize, the user can define frequently occurring data management tasks, which the software can execute automatically in the background for them.
For example, you might collect recipes in a notebook named Recipes. It is very likely that any note that contains the phrase preheat oven is a recipe, so you can instruct Filterize to move any note that contains this phrase to the Recipes notebook automatically. This is what the corresponding rule looks like in Filterize:
As long as this rule is activated, any time you create a note containing preheat oven – for example by clipping a recipe from a web site such as Allrecipes – Filterize will move it to the correct location for you.
Rules such this save time, improve focus and eliminate the risk of forgetting the action altogether. This has proved to be immensely valuable: some of our users have created more than 100 rules, which save them thousands of manual actions every month.
Stepping up the Game with AI
Artificial Intelligence holds the promise of delivering even greater benefits to Everything Bucket users. For example, AI algorithms can partially reconstruct a user’s mental filing system by analyzing their notes. This makes it possible to guess the rules that the user regularly applies when inserting new notes into their database.
For example, imagine you worked in a team and that Susan is your team leader. Susan assigns you tasks by creating notes that she tags with todo and then shares with you. Each time you receive such a note, you move it to a notebook you have called Team Tasks. After you have collected a few tasks in this manner, the AI figures out what you are doing and suggests a new rule to you:
If you accept this rule, then from that moment on, every such note will be relocated to the correct notebook for you.
The beauty of this feature is, of course, that you don’t even need to specify this rule – the AI discovers it for you!
If you use Evernote intensively, there may be more than a million rules that can explain some aspect of the organization of your notes. The technical challenge for us lies not so much in generating these rules, but in selecting the ones that you are most likely to have had in mind. This is a task that we are still working on.
The Untapped Potential of AI
Everything Buckets are useful tools that are used by millions, and we believe that AI has the potential to radically improve their user experience. Our first success – the ability to automatically detect and apply simple data management rules – already relieves users of a significant portion of their housekeeping chores. However, this is just the first of many possible future developments.
The next AI-enabled improvement that we expect to see is the ability to detect anomalies in the user’s data. These anomalies may be the result of forgetfulness or of mistakes such as dragging-and-dropping a note into the wrong notebook. When development is complete, the AI will not only be able to find anomalies, but also to suggest repairs, as in this (currently fictitious) example:
We can even foresee AI making suggestions on how to improve the basic structure of the database. One example of this would be recommending splitting the overcrowded notebook Hobbies into the two notebooks Woodworking and Model Railways.
We believe that in the near future, features such these will transform the user experience of note-taking apps. They will be transformed from passive “information buckets” to intelligent assistants that can proactively shape and improve the information structures on which we so heavily depend.
Originally published at medium.com on Januar 22, 2019
Filterize is a cloud service that acts as your personal Evernote assistant. Tell the software how you organize your notes or just let its Artificial Intelligence learn how to do it automatically. Filterize will then manage your notes in the background, eliminating repetitive tasks, avoiding errors and saving you time.