Evernote and studying Chinese herbs – Part 2

Not too long ago, I released a podcast I recorded in my car where I rambled about Evernote and various other Mac-based technology I use to study Chinese herbs.  Ifollowed that up with a quick post about Evernote itself, and how I have set up my Evernote system when it comes to Chinese herbs.  From the emails and comments I’ve received, I’m not the only one impressed with this versatile and ubiquitous software application.

I just wanted to finish up this train of thought by discussing how I actually use the system to study

Before I go there, though, I want to make something clear.  I believe a system like this only really shines when it is full of as much information as possible.  If I have a thought about a formula, it goes in my system.  If I sit in on a clinic shift, and the doctor says something interesting, I type it in a note.  I take pictures of pages of books I’m studying that contain interesting information.  I clip audio, video, pictures and text from the Internet using the web clippers Evernote comes with.  When I doodle something interesting about the organ clock or a particular herb, it goes in there.


The advantages of a system like this should be clear.  No more lugging around all my books.  No more trying to remember in which notebook and where I wrote that thing that I think my teacher said at some point in the past.  Everything searchable, everything organized, everything on multiple platforms and accessible online.

I do believe that memorizing things is important, however.

The fact that all of this information is at my fingertips doesn’t let me off the hook.  There’s a special alchemy that seems to happen when you keep a bunch of information in your head about a particular topic.  Particularly when it comes to deeply interconnected systems of information – like Chinese herbal formulas – letting things marinate together is essential.  There’s a lot more that could be said here – but that’s not the point of this post.

How I use Evernote to do general study

This is simple.  When there is a topic I’m working with, I have Evernote always open nearby – whether on my Macbook Air, my iPad or my iPhone.  If I’m researching something primarily online, things are simple.  Let’s say I’m researching the herb Chaihu / 柴胡 / Bupleurum chinense.  I might want to know more about its ecology and lifecycle.  I may do a general web search, or look at Google Scholar, or poke around the various databases of plant information.  As I run across pages that add to my knowledge, I’ll read through them and use the web clipper to add them to a special Evernote notebook containing all of that research.

If you’d like to see a brief video of how this works – you’re in luck.

If I’m working with information in a book, or working with a plant directly, not much changes.  I still have Evernote open near me somewhere in almost all cases. I may take photos of the pages I’m reading or the plant itself, and often will type notes directly into Evernote.  Sometimes, having the computer with me is impractical. In that case, I carefully handwrite notes which I later scan or type into Evernote.  Evernote does a fairly good job of recognizing handrwriting – but you do need to have decent print handwriting.  Script works poorly and Chinese characters not at all.

So – as I’m studying a topic, I’m busy filling my database full of information I can keep, digitally, forever – instantly accessible.

How I use Evernote to memorize

As I said, I’m no stranger to memorization.  In fact, I spend a couple of hours every week just working on memorizing and re-memorizing basic data like lines in the classical texts, herb and formula properties and uses, acupuncture points and so on.  Evernote makes this easy.  Let me show you three ways I use Evernote in my memorization workflow.

Using Evernote’s companion product – StudyBlue

Studyblue is an online flashcard system that syncs with mobile devices (Android and iOS, including iPad) and has a nice web interface, too.  The integration between Evernote and Studyblue is through a special folder that Studyblue creates in your Evernote system.  Beneath that folder, it creates subfolders for each “class” you are working on.  Since I’m no longer in school, the “class” oriented system is a little clunky for me.  I simply invent class names for whatever I’m working on.

In those class folders that Studyblue creates, you can add whatever materials you like.  If I were studying Chaihu formulas, for instance, I might move all of my materials pertaining to Chaihu formulas into the relevant Studyblue folder.  These materials are then fully viewable on the Studyblue website.  This means that while I’m creating new flashcards in their system, I can quickly reference the important Evernote notes without going back and forth between my web browser and Studyblue – pretty handy!

Watch the video below if you want to see how I use this functionality – aren’t you excited?

Once I create flashcards, I can then review them using their apps on my iOS devices, which means I can study my formulas when I’m waiting for a haircut, stuck in the airport, or anywhere I like.  While paper flashcards are great, I like that I never have to “remember” to bring them along.  I very rarely leave the house without my phone, so they’re always ready whenever the urge strikes me to study.

Using Evernote Peek instead of regular flashcards

A quick note for iPad users.  Evernote has a fun auxillary program called Evernote Peek.  This is pretty specialized, as it relies on you not only having an iPad running Evernote.  It also works best if you have Apple’s Smart Cover.  However, there is a built in method for using the application without the Smart Cover.  Regardless, for most of you, this isn’t going to be particularly useful. Still, it’s a pretty fun way to study Chinese herbs notes that are already in Evernote.  You can watch a very brief video of me using this program below.

Using Mental Case -my favorite Mac based flashcards

I do realize that a majority of you do NOT use Mac or iOS.  I’m sorry to be so Mac-centric, I’m sure there are fantastic applications out there for Windows, Linux, Android and other OS users that do something similar.  Evernote, as I’ve mentioned, is cross-platform, so most of what I’ve said in this short series should be of use to a majority of you.  But, please pardon me as I swerve into Apple-only territory for just another few minutes.  I promise, no video.

For me, there are two reasons to use digital flashcards rather than paper.  First, the ubiquity factor – which I’ve already talked about.  I usually have my phone, and nothing else, on me.  That means I have my entire Evernote database available as well as any flashcards I have on the phone – whatever system I happen to be using to make them.  The other reason is that I can put a number of things on a digital flashcard that would be impossible or at least difficult if I were using paper only.

Mental Case does all of this for me, and more.  It lives on my Mac, my iPhone and my iPad.  It’s quick and easy to create cards, and I can add amazing things to each card, including audio, photos, video, drawings and, of course, text.  This means I can create a set of flashcards, quickly and easily, of various forms of an herb that I want to identify by sight.  I can also add pronunciation of various herbs or other Chinese words to help me sound less ridiculous when I speak.

I pull all of the information I use in Mental Case from my Evernote database. I also usually make duplicate cards in Evernote (just a title and short text note) for each Mental Case card I create – that way I can use Evernote Peek or something else if I desire. Yes, I know, that sounds like a lot of work!

One great thing is the app will help you decide when to study, and will feed you cards in a way that takes advantage of your natural memory capabilities (and weaknesses).  It uses the spaced repetition concept to maximize the effectiveness of your time spent studying. Read the information in that link if you want to know more, it’s a little tricky to explain and I’d rather Wikipedia do it for me.

Anyway, I really love Mentalcase – and if you have a Mac or iOS device, I think you will as well.  Go watch their intro video.

The point is – study!

Whether you use Evernote, some other software, or no database at all is not the point. The point is to study, and not to stop. I hope this short post series has inspired you to keep at it!

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

View all posts by Eric Grey - Website: http://chinesemedicinecentral.com