My Evernote system for learning Chinese herbs

I wanted to follow up on my recent podcast about how I use Evernote to study Chinese herbs.  If you’ve not listened to it yet, just click here to be taken to the post.  I’ve been working on this post for a long time.  I was really surprised how hard it was to write all of this down.  I use these systems so intuitively, it was dreadfully hard to put into words.

In fact, I’ve had to make two posts out of it!  This post covers my personal system and some basic information about the software I use.

In the next post, I’ll show how I actually use it to study – and especially memorize – Chinese herbs & Chinese herbal formulas.  My hope is that this will inspire you to create your own system and, especially for the busy practitioners in the audience, show you that you can have a simple, organized system for studying efficiently.  Of course, there are a hundred ways to do this – many not involving computers.  But, if you’re like me and a huge dork, you’ll like this system.

What is Evernote?

Evernote has been amply described in many places.  You might want to check out the description from Evernote’s website, or this discussion about using Evernote for work, or another good post here about using Evernote in the practice of Western medicine.  Finally, you can do no better – if you’re into this – than buying Brett Kelly’s awesome Evernote Essentials.  Go read about the basics of Evernote, then come back to this post!

To me?  Evernote is simply an infinitely flexible, always available multi-media notebook that keeps everything in my life organized, searchable and available.  I run it on my Macbook Air, my iPhone and my iPad as well as occasionally accessing it via the web interface.  I put things in it via all of these platforms, as well as by emailing notes into it (I do this a LOT) and the web clipper that allows me to take all or part of webpages and put them directly into my database.

I’ve tried MANY DATABASE SYSTEMS available on the Mac.  Maybe all of them.  Time and time again, I come back to Evernote.  It’s not perfect, but I’ve settled on it, and I pay for a premium account.  Too late to turn back.  😉  The only system that comes close is Devonthink, which I’ve written about before.  Unfortunately, their development team is a little slow for my taste, and the “available everywhere” thing is just not there.

What does my personal Chinese Herbs Database look like in Evernote?

The infrastructure is rather simple.  First, I have a “central” note for each formula and each single herb.  This central note acts as a hub of information, and is my “quick look” resource when I just want to remember something about that formula.  This includes the herbs, dosages, the lines from the text and where it is in the text (both Chinese version and translation).  It also includes any symptoms or signs (pulse, tongue, palpation) that relate to the formula but are not contained in the line – so – lineage information I received from my teachers.

Chaihu Guizhi Ganjiang Tang Evernote Note Eric Grey

Here's what one of those "central notes" looks like. Click to embiggen.

Over time, I accumulate a lot of information related to formulas.

This includes journal articles, tweets and Facebook shares, websites with discussions of the formula or case studies, information from my own patient files, little notes that my mentors have made about the formulas, and so on.  I don’t want all of this information on my central note, as that is meant to be the thing I glance at when I want to remember something (it also forms the core of my study system).

I try to keep these notes (really, all my notes) as simple as possible – usually containing only one or two discrete bits of information.

This makes the searching work much better, and helps load times – especially on my iPhone.  All of these little bits have their own descriptive names, and plenty of tags to knit them together.  However, I do like the idea of having one place where I can see EVERYTHING, so I use the Evernote “note linking” system.  I simply right click on the note title, choose the option to “copy note link” and then I paste that link at the bottom of the central note so at the end of my central note I can quickly and easily access everything in my database related to that formula.  It’s awesome.

A quick note about this.  One huge problem in database systems like this is the existence of these HUGE handouts one gets at conferences and lectures.  Searching in them is quite inefficient, and in the case of a big chart of different formulas or something, it just makes your system useless.  The key is to break your information down into the smallest units that make sense for you.  I still keep my handouts, but in a separate folder in my Dropbox.  That way, I can still access that information in the chronological format in which it was given to me, should my memory decide to work that way, temporarily.

Remember – all of this is about quick, efficient recall and use of information.

I am not yet at the point where all of this is in my head, but I want my system to function as much like my brain as possible.  To that point – you might be interested to read this article about Evernote, neurobiology and memory.   Anyway, that’s why the small bits of information are so important.  In most cases, a quick search for a keyword is going to be the best way to get to your information.  For some of you, that just won’t work.  Maybe you DO remember things more temporally (“I remember Dr. Zhang telling us about this back in Fall term of 2002…”) or perhaps more visually (in which case Personal Brain might be a better choice).

I have a similar structure for single herbs, with a few differences.

There’s a central note, which contains all the basic information you would expect.  Names, flavor, nature, TCM category, TCM channel affinity (perverse, I know), Shennong ben cao jing line, as well as information from any other classical texts.  I also do the same thing with note links as I do for formulas – wherever someone has said something interesting, I create a discrete note, and link to it on the central page.  Single herbs also get a lot of images.  Things I find online as well as my own photos.  I like to find as many as I can.

I’m actually in the process of linking all my single herbs notes into the basic data on the formulas fields.  That way, in the dosage information would be a link to that single herb, and if something was tickling my mind about that single herb, I could just click and be taken there.

Tagging versus folders

I use folders AND tagging.  Folders are honestly mostly a memory tool for me.  I do this less with medicine and more with my general life folders.  For instance, under my “Household” folder, I have several sub-folders corresponding to different areas of my life that I need to keep up with.  House repairs and the like.  Having the folder there means that when I scan the folder structure, I’m reminded that I need to keep up with that realm.  I have lots of other ways to remind me of things like this, but that’s one of them.

I use tags in Evernote in an interesting way, I think.  I have tags corresponding to each possible herb dosage within a formula, for example.  So, I have Guizhi 3, Guizhi 6, Guizhi 9, Guizhi 12, Guizhi 15.  So, with a quick search, I could find all formulas that have been tagged with Guizhi 9 – so all formulas that use 9 grams of Guizhi.  On the other hand, I could do a search for ALL of those Guizhi dosages and thus get a list of all the Guizhi formulas that exist in my database.  If you look back at that image, above, of the central note – you’ll see an example of using the tags that way.

I use tags for some other things, but I’ve probably gone too far down the dork rabbit hole for most of you.  Sorry about that.

Pulling it all together

In the end, I have a system that includes all the information I get about Chinese herbs and Chinese herbal formulas from all possible sources.  That information is available to me on a variety of devices (regardless of Internet connection), editable anywhere, interlinked in an intelligent way and very searchable.

My system is not 100% complete, however.  I recently changed the way I do the central article so that I can put all the lines of the text in my system.  Sooner or later, I won’t have to lug around all the books I normally lug around.  While some of you will LAMENT that I won’t be touching paper, I find myself to be quite platform agnostic in that way.  Books are nice, I have lots, but when it comes to studying anywhere in my busy life, electronic is where it’s at.

In the next article in this series, I’ll show you how I study using this system.  Thanks for reading!



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.

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