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How to take reading notes with Instapaper, IFTTT, and Evernote

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. For the past six months I’ve written a 700-ish word postscript in the weekly newsletter. The crazy part? They only take about an hour to write. Yes, this can be attributed to developing a consistent writing practice. But I mostly attribute it to having an integrated digital system for aggregating all of my notes from the blogs, articles, and books that I read.

I wrote about the system’s first principles and today wanted to specifically lay out how I use three apps: Instapaper, Evernote, and IFTTT to take notes on anything I read on the web. (Kindle notes require a slightly different workflow). This system is almost entirely the result of taking RadReader Tiago Forte’s class Building A Second Brain (note: Affiliate Link).

Step 1: Set up the three appsWomen's Freebird Freebird Cognac Women's Sammi Boot qzSRw5TPE

I probably don’t need to explain how to get an Evernote and Instapaper account (both components of our productivity stack). Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work with Pocket (which does not have a native highlighting feature). You’re probably less familiar with IFTTT, a service that allows different apps to “talk to each other” without any coding experience. Once the three apps are set up, connect them using the IFTTT recipe: Append Instapaper highlights to Evernote.

Step 2: Configure your Evernote notebooks

It’s important to have a consistent place to store your notes. Personally, I use the following five notebooks:


The LJ is a personal abbreviation for Learning Journal and the categories should be self-explanatory. I then aggregate all of these notebooks into an Evernote Home Ibiza ROMIKA Ibiza Home 322 Anthracite ROMIKA Stack (which I call Resources). This will be important when we discuss searching.

Step 3: How to read

No, I’m not trolling you. I read everything (except for books) via Instapaper. (An awesome use case has been using this system on Wikipedia pages). As I read, I highlight entire paragraphs that I find interesting. It’s important to grab entire paragraphs, so that you can preserve the context for later dates.

Step 4: Annotating in Evernote

As I’m highlighting, IFTTT automatically generates a single note in the ROMIKA 322 ROMIKA Home Anthracite Ibiza Ibiza Home Default notebook. What you’re left with is effectively a bunch of paragraphs you find interesting. I then use two levels of annotation using Forte’s Progressive Summarization approach: bold (important) and highlights (more important). I don’t overthink this step, but the two levels give your notes visual cues that “age well.” For context, a standard blog post might have two highlighted paragraphs and a longform piece 7-10.

Then at the bottom of the note, I quickly drop in a stream of consciousness list of tags that are associated with the article. These can include, the sender, author, publication, keywords just to give my future self a better chance of surfacing up the article via search. I don’t use the Evernote’s tag functionality, simply because it takes too much time.

Once these steps are complete, I “steal” from the GTD approach and move the fully annotated note out of the Default notebook and into the corresponding notebook. As an example, here are Sneaker Women's Fashion Jungle Hermione Gun ARA Metallic Street ATwSHtxq (which I sent to my humanities notebookTangerine Georgica Flat Jelly White Jack Women's Sandal Rogers Striped w0q0Onz7).

Step 5: Create custom searches (and then save them)

Your Evernote will probably include lots of other documents like receipts, emails, and clippings that you’ll want to exclude from your search when you’re reviewing your notes. It’s pretty easy to set up customized searches in Evernote to give yourself the best odds of surfacing up the right note. Here are two types of customized searches:

  • Notebook:”LJ_HUMANITIES” [your search term]
  • Stack:”Resources” [your search term]

Step 6: Remix your notes

You’ll probably find yourself revisiting certain notes via search. Use that as a signal that this note is rich in information content. Forte encourages you to “remix these notes.” Move some of the more salient information to the top (i.e. like the “top results from google”) or add a few bullet points. I’ll add emojis (like a for awesome notes or  to denote good stories or quotes) to the titles to give me more visual cues that this specific note is one that I often revisit.

This probably looks daunting to an outsider, but at it’s core, it’s really just grabbing paragraphs as you read plus bolding/highlighting specific sentences. Next week, I’ll cover a similar approach but using the Kindle and the Chrome extension Bookcision.

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