Bending Evernote: An Interview With Mind Mapping Expert Chuck Frey

Bending Evernote – Is an interview series I will be highlighting here on the Deconstructing Everyday Blog featuring Evernote Users that have pushed Evernote beyond its ordinary use to achieve extraordinary results of productivity or maximum efficiency.

In this first installment, I had the good pleasure of interviewing Chuck Frey, an expert in Mind Mapping, Visual Thinking, Creativity and the author of 2 books. Chuck shares how his expertise, book writing and Evernote converge to create a Über efficient method for writing a book in record time.

Interview between Jason Frasca and Chuck Frey:

Tell me a little about your online businesses. How did you get started and where are you now?

Chuck Frey Jason Frasca Evernite Mind Mapping Interview
Well, Jason, it’s been pretty varied. My career has been focused on business-to-business PR and managing web development.

I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned from my full-time work and parlay it into several websites that have become leaders in their niches. I founded and ran a site called Innovation Tools for 10 years, which gave me a deep background in the principles, practices and tools of innovation, creativity and brainstorming.

Eight years ago, I spun off from Innovation Tools to create The Mind Mapping Software Blog. It’s now the world’s leading blog focused on mind mapping software. In the last several years, I have expanded its scope to include visual thinking, which is the larger frame that surrounds the topic of mind mapping. It includes topics like diagramming, sketchnoting and graphical facilitation.

I have also written two e-books. One is based upon what I’ve learned over the years about business creativity – the mindset, tools and techniques that work exceptionally well to help readers solve problems and cultivate new ideas. It’s called Creativity Hacks: Shortcuts to Help You Crush Your Challenges & Lead a Kick-Ass Life.

The other e-book I’ve written is called Up Your Impact: 52 Powerful Ideas to Get Noticed, Get Promoted and Become Indispensable at Work. It’s focused on helping readers get unstuck in their careers and advance by adding greater value to their work. It’s website contains a blog, which I use as a platform to write about a variety of topics related to personal and professional development, productivity tools and strategies and more.

All of these ventures have a common theme, which is helping people to differentiate themselves and create new ideas and solutions that will accelerate their careers.

Part of your evolution has included personal productivity. What type of software do you use to maximize your personal productivity?

First and foremost in my toolkit is Evernote. I use it to capture interesting articles online and especially as an idea capture and writing tool. I like the fact that it’s with my wherever I go: on my laptop and desktop computer at home, my laptop at work, my iPhone and my iPad. So, for example, when inspiration strikes when I’m out somewhere, I can open a note and capture the idea. Later, I can access that idea and continue to add details to it. Evernote is incredibly convenient that way! Last year, I wrote my Up Your Impact book almost entirely in Evernote.

I’m also a big fan of Dropbox, which gives me instant access to all my files, no matter where I’m working. It’s fast and reliable, and I can even view my files on my iPhone!

I also use an app on my iPhone to help me remember key tasks I need to do, for my job, my business and my home life. I have ADD, which means that things sometimes slip through the cracks. It’s hard for me to keep up with all the details. If I can create a task and set an alarm to notify me what I need to do at a specific date and time, that’s huge for me. I can “set it and forget it,” and no longer have what David Allen of GTD fame would call “an open mental loop” for that item taking up space in my brain.

For a to-do list app, I’ve been using ReQall, but the developer recently announced that it will discontinue this app because of the expense of having to rewrite it to comply with iOS 7. So now I’m experimenting with Wunderlist. We’ll see how that goes.

Finally, mind mapping software helps me to think and plan faster than I could if I was just recording information in linear form in a Word document. I like to compare this form of thinking to building a skeleton. In this form, stripped of all extraneous information and formatting, you can easily see what details are missing, what needs to be organized better and what’s superfluous and can be eliminated. Once I’m satisfied that I have a complete skeleton, then I can export my mind map to Word and put flesh on the bones, so to speak.

Why is this important? Because if you just start thinking and planning in a linear format like Word provides, you can’t see the structure of your ideas – it’s buried in the paragraphs and sentences you’re writing. Outlining your plan or report in visual form first is not only faster, but I’m convinced the end result is far better, because I have clarified my thinking up front – BEFORE I start to write.

How did you first discover Evernote? What was your Green Light bulb moment where you realized Evernote was going to have an impact on your life?

For many years, I have been searching for the perfect portable tool to capture my ideas. I’ve experimented with small, paper-clipped stacks of index cards and a mini-pen, small notebooks, pocket-sized audio recorders, PDAs and more. I found out about Evernote early on, maybe about a year or two after it’s launch. I think I read a review of it somewhere, and it looked intriguing. As part of my exploration for the perfect personal information manager, I had been a user of InfoSelect from Micro Logic on and off. But even though it’s a very powerful application, its developers never cloud-enabled it. Evernote seemed to take a more elegant and usable approach to the same types of needs, and had a bigger vision for what it could become.

In the early days of Evernote, I used it somewhat. But I didn’t really “get” its full potential. It was only after they added the iPhone app and web client and started to expand its capabilities to enable easy capture of any kind of digital information that I realized that here was the ideal idea capture tool I had been searching for. It’s cloud capability means that my ideas are only a few clicks or taps away, no matter where I am.

I didn’t always use Evernote for writing, though. Some of the earlier versions of the Evernote Windows client really left a lot to be desired. It was very clunky, and on my PCs, for some reason it didn’t place carriage returns at the end of lines. So the text just stretched on forever. It was weird. During that time, I mainly used the iPhone app and the web version of Evernote for idea capture, but used Word or Notepad for the actual writing. It was only in the last version or two that the Windows client got to be good enough for writing, in my opinion.

Tell me more about writing your Up Your Impact book in Evernote

What I envisioned was to create a book that contained 52 brief chapters, each a few pages long, containing tips on how to be more productive, creative and successful at work. A bunch of authors have written books about how to leave your job and start your own business on a shoestring – you know, the whole 4-hour-workweek thing. It didn’t seem like anyone was addressing the needs of people who love where they work, but who are feeling stuck in their position. This book draws upon the very best of the ideas and advice I’ve come across during my career – principles and strategies that no one seems to be writing about.

The underlying idea of Up Your Impact is that executives get promoted because they outgrow their current job. And you do that by learning more, and being able to do more. In part, they also advance by becoming better problem solvers and better at seeing new opportunities and developing creative ideas and solutions. So it starts with an expanded mindset, and then incorporates some innovative ideas, tools and strategies that will take you farther. They are proven strategies that I have benefited from, or timeless principles that have stood the test of time, but which no one is writing about any more. It’s not some mumbo-jumbo self-help jive – these are real, practical, proven ways to get ahead and get more satisfaction from your work.

I needed a way to keep this project moving along efficiently, so I decided to experiment with Evernote. It seemed to be a good match for the short chapters I planned to write.

As soon as I started to write Up Your Impact, it quickly became apparent that simply writing each chapter and putting them into one Evernote Notebook wouldn’t be sufficient. To solve this problem, I devised a Notebook structure that served as a workflow. In other words, based on which Notebook a note was stored in, that told me what the next action was that I needed to take on that note. You can read more about that and see a diagram of the Notebook structure here. I also had a few other Notebooks for administrative notes, such as book promotion and additional resources I planned to offer as part of the book launch.

This Notebook system worked very well. I was able to work on the book in short bursts, whenever and wherever I had some spare time. The Notebooks saved me a lot of headaches, because I could immediately look at a note and know what I needed to do in order to move it to the next step. It was incredibly efficient, and enabled me to get the book done faster than I ever dreamed possible!

How did Evernote change your workflow as you developed and wrote Up Your Impact?

Well, as I said earlier, I created Notebooks to help me understand what the next step was with each piece of content for my book. I started out with just a few Notebooks, but then added more as it became apparent that I needed to be more finite in my planning and doing.

Here’s my workflow: First, a chapter would start out as an idea. So it would reside in a Notebook of that name. The next step was a Notebook I called “in process.” When I looked at an item in this Notebook, I knew that the idea wasn’t fully formed yet, and that I needed to invest time brainstorming exactly what I wanted to say about it. It also contained chapters where the writing was just about complete, but I hadn’t gone through and given it a rigorous copy edit. Once that was done, it moved to a Notebook named “edited.” That signified to me that a chapter was “done” – ready to include in the book’s manuscript.

About two-thirds of the way through the writing process, I realized that I could add a lot of value to readers by including action items at the end of each chapter, which transformed it into more of a workbook. So now I needed a way to keep track of which chapters I had written action steps for, and which ones still needed to be done. So, on the fly, I created two new Notebooks, “actions written” and “actions complete.” That worked very well. Once all 52 chapters were stored in that final Notebook, I knew the time was right to copy and paste everything over to Word and get to work on formatting, adding images, and so forth.

Another example of how my workflow changed was this: I realized as I was putting the finishing touches on Up Your Impact, I needed to create a book launch package that would include some “bonus” resources. So I created a new Notebook called “other” to capture bonus ideas, as well as odds and ends like the introduction to the book. And as I got to thinking about strategies for promoting the book, bloggers I needed to reach out to and so forth, I created a “promo” Notebook to capture all of those thoughts and ideas.

In short, I’m amazed at how well the whole process worked, and how I could adapt Evernote on the fly to meet my evolving needs. What’s most striking, as I look back on this project, is how I reframed the idea of Evernote Notebooks as not just containers to store notes, but as a tool to move content through a step-by-step process. In essence, the Notebook wasn’t just a place to store related items, it also provided meaning and context to each note. I’m not sure how Evernote would work with long chapters for a novel, but for writing this kind of a tips and strategies book, it was fantastic!

Any final words Chuck?

As you and talked about recently, Jason, we both love to “bend” tools and technologies to see how far we can push them.

Thanks for the interview opportunity, Jason!

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