Workplace

How Evernote built its to-do list feature — and why it took a decade

After several tries and a total reinvention of the product, it works.

Evernote on a laptop and phone

The company is finally ready to roll out an early version of Evernote Tasks.

Photo: Evernote

Evernote has tried to build a to-do list feature before. A couple of times, actually. In 2011, then-CEO Phil Libin said "to-do lists are coming," and that what he actually wanted to build was an app that helped people do stuff, not just keep a list of stuff needing to get done. When Chris O'Neill took over, he carried on the vision. "If you have to search, that's a failure," he said in 2017. "We should just surface information just at the right time for you."

The point is, the big idea for Evernote Tasks hasn't changed in more than a decade. For users who put all their information, all their notes, their whole lives into the app, Evernote should be able to give them the context and information they need not to just know what has to get done, but to actually get it done. Users wanted it; Evernote wanted to build it.

And yet, Evernote never managed to ship the thing. Not until this month, anyway, when the company finally rolled out an early version of Evernote Tasks. That it finally happened, said CEO Ian Small, is proof that the massive overhaul he and his team started almost two years ago was actually worth it. "We spent two years rebuilding the clients, rebuilding the infrastructure, redesigning how Evernote worked on the inside, so that we could for the first time ship Tasks."

That process has been neither short nor simple. Soon after he joined the company in 2018, Small and Evernote shifted their entire focus to consolidating the app. Instead of five teams building five apps for five platforms, Evernote became a single thing, accessible everywhere. The codebase got smaller, the tech debt started to disappear and after two years of not shipping much, the company started to be able to ship much faster.

When Evernote launched the first version of its new system in late 2020, it felt like something of a rebirth. Some users were furious. They'd come to rely on some of those platform-specific features, didn't understand why Evernote would take away some of the most basic features it had offered for a decade and saw only the downside of upgrading to the new product. Consistency and feature parity are well and good, Small said, but "at the end of the day, none of that matters to an individual user who's like, 'I'm missing my widget, whatever my widget is.'" Plus, the new apps came with a litany of first-version bugs and issues that felt like a step back. Evernote took the unusual route of continuing to offer its old app, even months after shipping the new one.

Small said he understood the feedback, good and bad. "While we have made considerable progress in our new apps, rebuilding them from the ground up, the releases have not gone as smoothly as any of us would have liked," he wrote in a blog post in December. And he acknowledged that the trade-offs would be painful, but that Evernote was working quickly on two things: bringing New Evernote up to feature parity with Old Evernote, and building new features that made clear why New Evernote was worth all the hassle.

Tasks pulls to-do items out of all of a user's notes, which Evernote has never been able to do before.Image: Evernote

Tasks is pure New Evernote. Rather than build a separate app or consign to-do lists to its own corner of Evernote, it's a compilation of every task inside every note a user has, sorted by due date or the note they're in. That sounds simple enough — and again, has been the vision all along — but Small said it just wasn't possible before. "It's really the first demonstration of the kind of thing we can do with the new infrastructure," he said, "because you've never been able to take a slice of content that cuts across all your notes, touch the content inside the note and change inside the note."

That, in a nutshell, is what Evernote spent the last two years working on: turning its platform from a digital filing cabinet into a system that can smartly surface information at the right time and place, and actually help users do the things inside their notes. Evernote's big idea was always that notes were a powerful way to build a store of personal knowledge and information, and now it's finally getting around to figuring out what to do with it all. Over time, that will also mean modernizing Evernote's API to work better with other tools and improving its search and processing capabilities, all of which Small said is on the roadmap as well.

In that way, Evernote is right in line with the productivity industry, which as a whole is looking for ways to use machine learning and user data to more proactively help people get stuff done. "The sector is hot again," Small said, but he said he's not concerned about the uptick in competition from companies like Notion, Roam and Monday. "There's nobody out there that has an idea that is, like, so revolutionary that it would take us off the path that we're on," he said. One thing that's different about Evernote? It's still focused on a single-player experience, rather than trying to sell to enterprise teams. But that could change, Small said. "Over time, Evernote will become richer for collaborative work," he said. "But it's not yet our No. 1 focus."

Small said there's much more to come on that front. "There's a tiny demonstration of that" in Evernote's new Suggested Notes panel, he said, "and you'll see more and more of those little bits creeping in over time." Those are the things he's hoping will win over the holdouts, the users who left or have clung to their old version of the apps. Maybe they'll make New Evernote worth switching to, even if it's missing a few Old Evernote features that a few power-users loved.

After two years of quietly revamping the company and product, the Evernote team is back to shipping fast and often. For Small, the most important job is prioritizing, especially as Evernote continues on some fronts to try to catch up to where it was two years ago. One example: Many of Evernote's Windows users loved a feature called Import Folder, where you could drag a file into a desktop folder and have it automatically sync to Evernote. That feature has been missing for months, and users have been furious. But on Tuesday, Evernote announced the feature is coming back, and coming to all platforms."I've got it on my desktop now," Small said. New Evernote is in many ways now almost (though still not quite) as good as Old Evernote, and is starting to be drastically better in other ways, too.

Same goes for Tasks, which Small described as "a pretty good V-1," but a version one nonetheless. Beta testers have already made Evernote a long list of ways to improve the feature. "There's years of work to be done with Tasks, and we will do it right," Small said. There are no excuses left for Evernote, and a long list of stuff to do. But for the first time in a long time, Small said, it feels like there's nothing in the way.

Climate

The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Enterprise

The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Entertainment

'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Workplace

Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins