My Escape from Evernote

I dropped my Evernote Premium subscription back in February, and I just got all my content out a few days ago. Less than 48 hours after my escape, the Evernote team announced a price increase and serious new limits to the free tier. I decided I better share my story and a few tips for other potential escapees.

Background

Back in 2008, I heard about a cool app for my iPhone 3G called Evernote. Michelle and I were looking for a way to easily share notes and sync between all our devices, and Evernote seemed like an obvious choice at the time. We started a free account and set it up on all our devices. After a couple years of using the free version of Evernote as a glorified shared to-do list, I decided to make Evernote the center of a new paperless approach to all our document storage needs. In 2010, I bought the original Doxie scanner, and several marathon scanning sessions later, we were off and running.

Over the years, I kept adding to our archive, and happily upgraded to Evernote’s Premium service to unlock the increased monthly upload capacity and most importantly, the automatic server-side OCR. For the uninitiated, OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition, a process for identifying the text in your scanned documents to allow for full text search among other things.

Dissatisfaction

Despite my ongoing use and our ever-expanding repository, I never really got in the habit of using Evernote as anything but a glorified filing cabinet. Worse yet, when I occasionally remembered to open the iPhone or iPad app to search my archive, even the most obvious keyword searches seldom yielded the document I was actually looking for. At the same time, Evernote seemed to be making regular expansions of their offerings into areas I didn't care about, from something called Skitch that I still don't actually know what it does, to physical notebooks with stickers for some reason.

I realize now the thing Evernote didn't seem to be spending any time on was educating premium customers like me on how I could really get the most out of my annual subscription. I kept filing, and never gave a thought to what else this service could do for me. That led to my cancellation in February.

There was nothing new Evernote did in February 2016 that drove me to cancel my Premium account. I simply have a regular process where I look at recurring payments and re-evaluate if they are earning their keep. In the case of Evernote, I realized I was already paying for Dropbox, and I hate using the Evernote apps. So why not just move everything to Dropbox in more common file formats like PDF and TXT that will be portable to just about any future platform? I had a vague recollection of something I read from David Sparks along those lines, and that was enough for me to push the cancellation button.

Export

Once I stopped paying for a Premium subscription, peak season in my day job meant I didn't immediately worry about exporting all my content, which was approximately 1,500 'notes'. Once work calmed down in mid-June, I knew it was finally time to move.

Step 1: I re-read Paperless by David Sparks

David Sparks (aka MacSparky) has written several great “Field Guides” that take full advantage of the multimedia capabilities of the iBooks platform. I like his work and generally buy whatever he makes, even if I don't have an immediate use for the subject matter. In the case of Paperless, I gave it a quick skim when I originally bought it, but ultimately wasn't ready to make major changes to my system. However, it was David's book that planted the seed for a Dropbox-based retention system. I went back last week and read the book in full, and realized this was almost exactly what I wanted to do. Even though the book is now a few years old, it has aged surprisingly well thanks to a few version updates from David along the way. And the basic tenets of David's system will serve you regardless of the toolset you choose to implement.

Step 2: Setting up my Dropbox Archive

This wasn't very complicated since Dropbox is already installed on all the devices in my life. I chose my desktop (a 2009 Mac Pro) as the base of operations for Project Escape. I started by adding a 'Records' folder to the root of my Dropbox directory. The exact folder structure below that will vary based on your exact needs, but mine includes things like Automobiles, Home, Manuals, and Utilities. There isn't really any other setup you absolutely must do in Dropbox, though if you have laptops with limited storage that are not yet using selective sync, you may want to enable that feature and remove your new 'Records' folder from the sync before you start loading it up with documents. In my case, my wife's laptop is already on selective sync, so any time I create a new folder inside Dropbox, it doesn't sync to her machine by default.

Step 3: Prepare Your Evernote Library

My next step was to launch Evernote and review my content to prepare for export. On the surface, Evernote only offers export formats of HTML and their own flavor of XML. I didn't want either of these, so I knew I needed to take a different approach. I started off by dividing my notes into three groups:

1) Notes that included attachments and nothing else
2) Plain text notes
3) Other Content (Primarily clipped web pages)

Fortunately for me, the vast majority of my notes fell into the first group. Years of scanned bills, invoices, manuals, and other documents that solely existed as PDFs embedded within a note. For notes like this, you can simply select all the notes at the same time, then use the "Save Attachments" function and pick your export location. Depending on how many different notebooks you have, you may want to go one notebook at a time and export these to different locations, saving yourself from filing them into sub folders later. For example, if all your water bills are in the same notebook, just select those, and save the attachments directly to your new Utilities--Water location in Dropbox. Alternatively, you can simply grab everything at the same time and save all the attachments to a new clearinghouse folder for later sorting. I started with the first approach to get about half of my attachments pre-sorted, then decided my priority was to get everything out, and I would just deal with the final filing later.

If you still have stacks of physical manuals somewhere, do yourself a favor and find the PDFs online so you can recycle the hard copies. Everything is out there already--even our old humidifier.

If you still have stacks of physical manuals somewhere, do yourself a favor and find the PDFs online so you can recycle the hard copies. Everything is out there already--even our old humidifier.

Now for the fun stuff. Group two is where things start to get more complicated. As I mentioned, neither of Evernote's built in formats would give me what I wanted, mostly because their HTML option gives you a result that looks like a shitty company intranet from over a decade ago. I should know, because I built a shitty company intranet back in 2003. That won't work for me, I just want nice plain text files--the kind of files I know I will be able to migrate to pretty much any future system when I inevitably decide to jettison my Dropbox setup one day.

The more ambitious among you may want to take your notes and use a GitHub repository like ever2simple. I just didn't have enough notes in this group to mess with command line utilities. Instead, I fired up my old friend Automator, and made a quick service that would allow me to take the contents of the clipboard and add that to a new .txt file with a custom name I could specify at runtime. Click here to download the Automator workflow file for yourself.

Not the prettiest thing I've done, but it took less than five minutes to develop.

Not the prettiest thing I've done, but it took less than five minutes to develop.

The service then saves the clipboard as a plain file with the name I specified, appending a date-time string to ensure no duplicates. In less than 30 minutes, I ran through my text notes and migrated them all to Dropbox as beautiful unformatted text.

Select your text and copy to the clipboard before you pick the Automator service from the menu.

Select your text and copy to the clipboard before you pick the Automator service from the menu.

Note the confirm button says 'Save to Inbox' because I hard coded the workflow to point to my clearinghouse folder inside Dropbox.

Note the confirm button says 'Save to Inbox' because I hard coded the workflow to point to my clearinghouse folder inside Dropbox.

This is a pretty good basic granola recipe. Pick your favorite nuts and dried fruits to make it just for you.

This is a pretty good basic granola recipe. Pick your favorite nuts and dried fruits to make it just for you.

And now for the final pain in the ass. Group three consists of content I created over the years using Evernote's web clipping plugins for either Safari or Chrome. Fortunately for Present Dan, Past Dan mostly used this to save crap that seemed interesting at the time, but is no longer worth saving. Kind of like services like Instapaper or Pocket, but with a really terrible interface that explains why I never got back to these notes until now. That meant a quick run through my notes allowed me to delete a whole bunch of crap I had completely forgotten was hidden in the depths of my library. For the files I actually wanted to keep, I used the Print dialog and saved them as PDFs.

Please don't buy this desk before I can snag it. I'd like to write future posts from it while looking out my bedroom window, like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm.

Please don't buy this desk before I can snag it. I'd like to write future posts from it while looking out my bedroom window, like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm.

Step 4: Plan for the Future

Now that you're free from proprietary bullshit, it's time to plan your ongoing archive process. For me, that's going to mean a bunch of Hazel rules, as recommended by Counselor Sparks, and of course I still need to sort and file all the stuff I dumped in my new "Inbox" folder. Once I get a handle on my exact plan, I'll post a follow-up.

Wrap Up

One thing I haven't really talked about is the potential privacy concerns with putting all this data in the cloud. My assumption here is everything you have in Evernote is already in the cloud and I don't see any reason to feel any less secure about using Dropbox as an alternative cloud-based service to store these documents. For that reason, everything I had in Evernote that needed to be kept has gone right into my new Dropbox system. If you have a concern about some of your data, just keep it local. And for goodness sake, make backup copies of everything, regardless of the location! (If you need a backup mentor, there’s none better than John Siracusa)

John Siracusa is my personal backup hero.

John Siracusa is my personal backup hero.

I'm sure others will find efficiencies in forming their own escape plans, and I look forward to hearing what anyone else has come up with while plotting their route to freedom. You can find me @nerddotis on Twitter if you want to swap export stories.

I'll tell you one thing for sure, no matter how you get out, it feels great to be in control of your data, especially when keeping control costs less than a service that took your control away.

Now that's a nice feeling.

Now that's a nice feeling.