Create Your Own “How To” File

How-To Manual I am going to share with you one of my smartest ideas ever. I’m not saying I’m smart, because if I were really smart, I would have come up with this idea a lot sooner!

A while back, I wrote How to Learn ANYTHING (which is a resource that will complement this current topic beautifully). I mentioned a very strange issue that my computer developed that totally stumped me. When I was online, no phone numbers would show on any website. Actually, they would show, but only for the briefest of moments before disappearing. You don’t realize how much you use the web for locating phone numbers until none of them are visible! This was an issue that I had to get fixed. I found the answer by “Googling it” and fixed the issue within a matter of a few minutes. But I didn’t stop there.

I then created a simple note with these directions:


This was due to the Skype mastermind add-on. In Internet Explorer, click Tools (be sure it is the IE toolbar and not the Google toolbar), Enable or Disable Add-ons, locate the Skype Mastermind add-on, highlight it, then click Disable.  Voila!  Problem solved.

Back then, I used the note file in Outlook for items like this; I now use Evernote (to see why I love Evernote, read Another Favorite App and its sequel). I have a notebook called “How To,” and I have all kinds of notes similar to the one above: How to uncrash your site, How to embed a Youtube video, How to Wire Funds Internationally, How to Copy a DVD’s Audio-only into iTunes, etc.

My how-to file has saved me countless hours. I find that I use it mostly for “technical” issues, but that is only because so much of my work revolves around the computer. You could use the same idea for any field: music, cooking, crafts, writing, teaching, etc. Any process that is not intuitive but which you may have to repeat should go in your “How To” file.

Here are some general guidelines for optimizing your file and keeping it user-friendly.

1. Use your own language.

In my example above, note the title: DISAPPEARING PHONE NUMBERS IN INTERNET EXPLORER. If that issue were to occur again and I needed to quickly find how to correct it, the words that would come to mind would be “disappearing” and “phone numbers.” Therefore, that is how I titled the “note” to myself for future reference. In the search box in Evernote, I would type “disappearing” or “phone number” or “Skype” (which is in the body of the note), and Evernote would instantly return the appropriate note. Always think in terms of “search.” What’s the most likely words you would enter in the search box to find those particular instructions? Whatever your answer, be sure those words are in the title or the body of your note.

2. Make your instructions shareable. Write clear enough for others.

The reason for this is two-fold. If you write the note to yourself today, but don’t actually need it for another year, it will be like reading it for the first time—and in that case, you will be the “others” that you wrote for. So make it very clear, or you’ll be very angry with the vague author!

The other reason is obvious. You can be a resource to others at the drop of a hat. I’ve never had occasion to pass along my “disappearing phone number” note, but I have shared other more complicated “how to’s.” For instance, I mentioned a particularly complicated note above: “How to Copy a DVD’s Audio-only into iTunes.” You may wonder why I would want to do such a thing. Have you ever listened to a teaching DVD and wished you could get it into a format that you could carry with you and listen to while you drive or while you work out? That was my desire. I Googled it, learned that, indeed, it could be done, but not without some commitment to the process! My “how to” for this process is over half a page long. Truly, to go that much trouble, I really wanted those teachings on my iPhone.

However, I have used those instructions numerous times since. What took me hours the first time takes minutes now—because I have step-by-step directions. Furthermore, I have passed those instructions on to friends and saved them hours of time, too. (By the way, sharing notes is a breeze in Evernote. Simply right-click on the note, click “Share” and then type the recipient’s email address.)

Here are two pointers for keeping your instructions clear and shareable:

  • Number the steps. The more complicated your “how to” is, the more valuable this pointer is. It is so much easier to follow a numbered sequence than it is to follow directions written in paragraph form. Of course if it is as simple as my “disappearing phone number” note, a sentence or two will not be overwhelming. Anything more complicated, however, is best presented in a step-by-step format.
  • Warn of tricky issues and distinguish them clearly such as typing them in ALL CAPS or bold lettering or even a different color font. In my complicated DVD-audio-only-to-iTunes note, I have inserted a sentence that looks like this:


The resetting-to-the-first-track issue is something I “learned by doing,” and it is very frustrating to realize that you have copied the same part repeatedly, only with a different title. So I warn myself in my notes so I don’t make that time-consuming mistake again. You’ll note, I even offer myself a polite explanation (“Handbrake [which is the name of the software I used] seems to want to reset to the first track…”). I do this so I’ll know why I must pay attention to this detail.

3. Save all your instructions in the same “how to” file (or note) and in the cloud.

In my case, I could be tempted to have a “how to” file for real estate tasks (I am a real estate agent), for computer/technical issues, for ministry tasks (such as year-end receipts), etc. However, that is a recipe for wasted time. Where did I save those instructions? Just create one “How To” file (called a “note” in Evernote) and put all your how-to’s in it—with good keywords in the title and body, as mentioned above. In other words, rely on your keywords rather than your filing system.

Over time, this file will become invaluable to you. Therefore, do yourself a favor and save it “in the cloud” (this means it is saved out in cyberspace somewhere, but you still have access to it on your computer—or any other computer, for that matter). If you use Evernote, saving to the cloud is automatic, and your notes are synced to all your devices (computer, smart phone, iPad, etc.), thus making them accessible wherever you are.

It takes just a few minutes to create a how-to note for yourself, but it can save you hours of time down the road. Do you already have a “How To” file? If so, can you share some additional pointers? As you were reading this, did you think of some ways to implement this idea? If so, please share. Your brainstorm could be our brainstorm!

Photo compliments of CUEVA2008 via Compfight

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