I get a lot of questions about how I organize my notes in Evernote so I thought I would use this week’s post to describe my taxonomy and provide tips for creating your own taxonomy. One caveat that I should point out from the start: a taxonomy–how we organize information–tends to be a very personal thing. But there are a few common elements to developing a taxonomy. Today’s post offers some tips for doing that, while describing my own taxonomy in some detail.
Tip #1: Define your requirements before your taxonomy
When I began using Evernote to go paperless, I had some very specific ideas in mind about how I wanted to use it. I did not want it to be just a place to store documents online. I wanted it to be a living, breathing tool that allowed me to get through my day without the need for paper. I also took Evernote’s slogan of “remember everything” seriously and wanted it to be a place that I could go to find out when something happened. So before I ever created a single notebook, I listed out a set of requirements:
- I wanted to be able to store anything that was in paper form electronically.
- I wanted to be able to jot notes in the tool instead of having to grab a scrap of paper
- I wanted a taxonomy that would be unambiguous; that is, I never wanted to pause, wondering if I should tag a note as X or as Y; the taxonomy should be simple enough to make such decisions obvious
- I did not want to spend more than 5 seconds applying my taxonomy to a note
- I wanted to be able to find anything I was looking for in less than 5 seconds
It might seem silly to specify such a short time space (5 seconds to tag a note; 5 seconds to search for any note) but what I was trying to do was force myself to develop a taxonomy that minimized the time I’d spent applying tags and other attributes and still make searching fast. Based on these requirements, I decided to organize my notebooks to correspond to the major areas of my life. I identified 3 major areas:
- Home Life. This includes my “paperless filing cabinet” which replaced my physical filing cabinet. It also includes things like school art projects that my kids produce, electronic copies of magazines, recipes and other miscellaneous items.
- Work Life. This includes everything related to my day job. Meeting notes, code snippets, software architectural sketches, important e-mail messages, whatever is related to my day job.
- Writing Life. This includes anything related to my life as a science fiction writer and blogger. Contracts, copies of checks for payments I’ve received, notes for stories and blog posts, galleys, story critiques from my writing group, guest posts and articles I’ve written. It all goes here.
I make use of Evernote’s notebook “stacks” to collect all of this information into the three stacks listed above. Within each of those stacks (Home Life, Work Life, and Writing Life) are one or more notebooks. I try to keep the notebooks to a minimum because I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to remember where to put something. I only create notebooks where there are clear boundaries.
That seemed like a good start but there was something missing. Evernote prides itself on its ability to help you “remember everything” and I took that seriously. That kind of thing is important to me. For instance, I’ve kept a diary in one form or another since I was 23 years old. I like the fact that I can go back to any date and see what I was doing on that day. How could I replicate this within Evernote?
I decided I needed another notebook stack, one that I called “Diary”. Within that stack I added three notebooks:
- Social Networking
Anything I read, a book, a story, whatever, gets a note that is tossed into the Reading notebook. I have a list of everything I’ve read since January 1, 1996 and it is all there in Evernote. Sometimes, it’s just a note containing the title, author, and a tag to tell me if it is a novel, short story, nonfiction, etc. Sometimes, I’ve written a review of what I read right there in the note. Sometimes, I’ve just made a few remarks.
The Social Networking notebook is a repository for a lot of my online activity. I use a service (IFTTT.com) to automatically send all of my tweets to Evernote, for example. I do the same for Foursquare check-ins. I never have to think about capturing this stuff. It just flows automatically into this notebook as the updates are made. I will discuss this in more detail in next week’s post.
The Timeline notebook is the most important of all of these. It is here that the real power of Evernote’s “remember everything” slogan takes shape. Anything I want to remember goes in here in discrete notes. My kid gets a haircut, I’ll make a note, “Kid got haircut” and toss it onto the timeline. Maybe I’ll add a photo to it. My baby daughter says, “Da-da” for the first time, and I’ll add a quick note to the timeline. Go to the movies? Find out I sold a story. It all goes onto the timeline. How I use the timeline to “remember everything” is what next week’s post is all about.
So my taxonomy had four notebook stacks: Home Life, Work Life, Writing Life, and Diary. And this worked well for a few days until I realized there was one category that was missing: Reference. Sometimes I’d come across a code snippet that I thought was useful, but it wasn’t clear where it should go. Maybe the code snippet was for Mathematica and I was using it for personal analytics. Work Life didn’t seem right, nor did Writing Life or Home Life. Diary wasn’t a place for something like that. So I created one more stack, called “Reference” to keep this kind of information.
Tip #2: Have a specific purpose in mind when you do use a tag
Having defined a good set of requirements for how I wanted to use Evernote to go paperless, I decided that I would need to be a tagging minimalist in order to meet my requirements. If you have lots of tags, you have to spend lots of time thinking about which tags to apply to your notes. I didn’t want to do that. I decided that I would only use tags when I wanted to be able to group a set of notes together in a list of some kind. I’d say that 60% of my notes have no tags. Indeed, the place you’ll find the most tags is in my Reading notebook and my Timeline. And the only reason I use tags there is to define some boundaries in the type of data that appears in the timeline or to easily be able to see a list of novellas that I’ve read.
Tip #3: Be consistent in the way you use note attributes
Notes have a number of useful attributes: when it was created, when it was last modified, what type of data it contains, where it came from, etc. By being consistent in how these are used, it makes it much easier for me to find what I am looking for.
For example: because I am interested in when things happened relative to other things (when did that bill come in? When was the last time I took the little boy for a haircut) I use the Created Date field of the note to represent the time of the event in question, not necessarily the time the note was created. Sometimes the two coincide, but not always. After I read a book, I’ll create a note and toss it into my reading folder. If it happens to be the same day that I finished the book, I don’t do anything else. If, however, I finish the book on Friday and don’t add the note until Sunday, then I’ll change the create date of the note to Friday because it represents the time of the event (finishing the book). By doing this, when I search by dates, I know that the dates represented are always the date on which the event took place.
Tip #4: Use Evernote’s native search capabilities to find what you are looking for
Being a tag minimalist allows me to get notes entered quickly, without having to wonder or worry much how to tag them. But what about find the notes that I am looking for?
In part, I decided I didn’t need elaborate tags because Evernote’s search capabilities are good enough to go without them. Remember my requirement for being able to find whatever I am looking for within 5 seconds? I think that I hit that mark 99% of the time, even without tags.
I received a jury summons a few months back. The summons told me I had to call on Sunday evening, April 29, 2012 to see if my group was to report for jury duty the following Monday. I scanned in the summons as part of my regular routine. It went into my “paperless filing cabinet” automatically. I added no tags to it whatsoever. Sunday evening, I found myself at the airport, waiting in the cell phone parking lot. I noted that it was time to check to see if my group needed to report to jury duty. I pulled out my iPhone, opened up Evernote, and in the Search field, I typed “jury.” In less than 5 seconds (even at 3G speeds), the first note in the result list was my Jury Duty summons. I looked up the number and then checked to see my status. (Turns out my group was not called.) Thanks to the fact that Evernote provides search data for scanned in PDFs as part of their premium service, I had no need to tag the document. It saved me time by not tagging it, and yet I was still able to find it and pull it up in under 5 seconds.
But what if I had a lot of notes with similar text? Suppose, for instance, I was trying to remember the name of the Malcolm Jameson story I read earlier in the year. I’ve read half of dozen of his stories this year, so searching for “Malcolm Jameson” might bring up too many results. Well, because I use the attributs consistently, I can take advantage of that to narrow the search. I know I read the story in the last 2 months. I know the author is Malcolm Jameson. So my search might look something like this:
notebook:reading created:month-2 author:jameson*
This would show me any notes in my reading notebooks that were created in the last 2 months where the Author field begins with Jameson.
I find that using the native search features are much faster than messing with tags. They take a little getting used to but they are well worth the effort.
As I said at the beginning, taxonomies can vary greatly from person-to-person. Part of my goal in going paperless was not to bog myself down with more taxonomy. I wanted to keep things simple. I was not trying to implement a GTD solution or tag and classify my notes the way a librarian might. I was looking for the fasted way to get paper into digital form and the fasted way to find that “digital” paper once it was in the system. Using the tips I listed above, Evernote helped me do just that.
Next week, I’ll talk about how this taxonomy really allowed me to push the boundary of Evernote’s slogan “remember everything.”