Going Paperless: 4 Tips for Organizing Documents in Evernote’s 30-Day Paperless Challenge

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So we’ve entered the second week of Evernote’s 30-Day Paperless Challenge. Last week I provided some tips for getting started, the most important of which was to make a habit out of scanning incoming paper each day. It takes a while for a habit to stick, but meanwhile, you’ve probably got a lot of digital documents accumulating and the next obvious question is: what do you do with those? So today, I’ve got a few tips for organizing digital documents, and deciding what to scan in the first place. These are what worked for me. Adjust the recipe as necessary to your tastes.

Tip #1: Make your “default” notebook a digital “inbox” for fasting processing

Each evening, after I pick up the mail, I sit at my desk and go through my paper inbox, scanning those documents I want to keep, and discarding the rest. These documents get scanned into an “Inbox” notebook. Likewise, I use a number of services that send notes to Evernote and in some instances, those notes end up in my Inbox. I don’t worry about tagging or re-filing the documents while I am scanning the stuff.

After I’ve scanned in all of the paper in my paper inbox, I then go through my digital inbox. My goal is to empty it out–or re-file–as much as possible. I do this organizational step separately because I found that if I am trying to cram these decisions into the 10 minutes I give myself for scanning each evening, I often make hasty decision, creating unneeded notebooks or tags. By going through my digital inbox separately, I dedicate that time to deciding where documents belong. During this, I try to ask a few questions about each document before I re-file it:

  1. Is the document title good enough? I try to be fairly consistent about how I title similar documents. For instance, contracts for stories that I’ve sold are all titled: “Story contract for XXXX” Consistent titles make it easier to search for documents. [Hint: create a note with a list of your standard title formats for document types.]
  2. To what part of my life does the document apply? I’ve written before about how I organize my notebook stacks around parts of my life. If the document applies to a specific part of my life, I’ll file it in a notebook in that stack. (Story contracts go in my Writing Life notebook stack.) If it applies to multiple areas or is a kind of general thing, I’ll file it in my Paperless Filing Cabinet notebook, which is where the bulk of my scanned documents end up.
  3. Does it require tags? I use tags only for very specific purposes, like managing lists within Evernote. I’m a big believer in making full use of Evernote’s rich search syntax (see Tip #3 below). I try not to spend too much time tagging documents or building up complex tag taxonomies. The only exception (aside from lists) are when I use tags for different types of automation or integration with other applications.
  4. Is the create date of the document what I want it to be? Generally, I don’t touch the create date. I make exceptions for documents that are dated themselves. If I scan in a contract dated August 1 on August 5, I’ll change the create date from August 5 to August 1 to match the date on the contract. I do this because I don’t have to build up elaborate titles that include dates and can use Evernote’s search capabilities to find the document.

I try to empty my digital inbox each evening. I’m not always successful, but I try not to get too far behind. Stuff piles up quickly!

Tip #2: Always ask: do you really need that document in the first place?

When I started out, I decided to put off going back and scanning all of the paper in my filing cabinet. I did this for 2 reasons:

  1. I wanted to build a habit of scanning incoming paper and didn’t want to get bogged down with old stuff.
  2. I realized that I almost never used the old stuff, so why scan it in the first place.

When you go to scan a document, ask yourself if you really need the document at all. Two years after “going paperless” I still haven’t scanned a single document from my filing cabinet. But I also have not opened that filing cabinet at all in the entire time. This tells me it would be a waste of my time to scan those documents in. If you think you’ll need a document, by all means, scan it in, but if there is a hesitation, you might leave it in your paper inbox for a while and see if you really end up needing it.

Everyone’s personality is different when it comes to what to keep and how to organize information. If you are not sure whether or not to scan something, you might check out the tip post I wrote a few months back: To Scan or Not To Scan: That Is the Question.

Tip #3: Learn and use Evernote’s search functionality

Evernote provides a robust search capability. It may not match the complexity of Google’s search capabilities, but it has never failed me so far. The easiest way to search is to type in what you are looking for in the search box and skimming the results. But Evernote’s search functionality goes far beyond that. Here are some of the things you can do with searching:

  • intitle:term: allows you to search for a term it the title of a note
  • notebook:name: allow you to narrow your search to a specific notebook
  • tag:term: allows you to search for notes with a specific tag; you can repeat these (e.g. tag:meetings tag:work) to include multiple tags.
  • created:date: allows you to search by the date the note was created. You can use some other terms with this. I have a search for all notes created today that is simply: created:day. For notes created in the last week, you can do: created:day-7
  • todo:true/false: allows you to find notes with checkboxes set to either true or false

There are lots more search operators. It is worthwhile to learn them. I have a dozen Saved Searches that I use that make it easy to find a lot of what I am looking for. It means I spend less time having to organize all of my documents, but can still find them quickly.

Tip #4: If you want to build up a more elaborate taxonomy for your notebooks and tags, define your requirements first

Some people find it useful to construct a more elaborate taxonomy. They have dozens of notebooks and hundreds of tags. If you are one of these people, my suggestion is to list out your requirements first. What are you trying to achieve in organizing your documents? Do you want to find them quickly Do you want them to be cataloged in a way that meets some business requirement or some federal regulation? You’ve already spent a week scanning in documents: skim through all of the documents you’ve scanned in so far and see if there are patterns from which a taxonomy will start to emerge. (How can you find everything you’ve scanned in the last week? Try typing this in the search box:

created:day-7

I recommend doing this before you start creating lots of tags and notebooks, because you may find that your business requirements, or your goal in scanning in documents in the first place dictate how you should organize your information. And if you are participating in the challenge just because you like the idea of going paperless, then the documents you’ve scanned so far may provide a hint at how they should be organized.


How is everyone doing with the 30 Day Paperless Challenge so far? Leave a comment and let everyone know how it’s going. Or head over to the Facebook Event Page and let us know how the first week went for you?

(As always, this post, and all of my Going Paperless tips are also available on Pinterest.)

10 thoughts on “Going Paperless: 4 Tips for Organizing Documents in Evernote’s 30-Day Paperless Challenge

  1. Jamie,
    I like the hint tip on creating a note with your common title formats. Here’s my question. I see where alot of people on the Evernote forum start with a date syntax, i.e. yyyymmdd then a description in the title. I get the impression you don’t. Just curious as to your thoughts on that.

    Thanks

    1. Wendell, because I use Evernote’s search operators extensively, I’ve found it more useful to have the create date of the note match the date on the document. I will often alter the create date of the note, therefore, to whatever date is listed on the document. Rather than have to do awkward titles, I can use the “created” search operator to locate the document in time. I can use other search operators to narrow down the search (to a notebook, set of tags, etc.) And I can also use this to find a collection of notes in a given time periods. Say I needed all tax statements from last month. My search might look like this:

      tag:statements tag:taxes created:month-1

      Because I use the note create date to equal the document date, I can also search ranges (which I can’t do with a date in the title). For instance:

      created:20120301 -created:20120306

      Allows me to look for all notes with a create date between March 1 and March 6 of 2012. (“Created” by itself means on-or-after the date/time specified. “-Created” means before the date/time specified.”

      This works much better for me than putting dates in the title. Also, the documents then sort in the proper order if you look at all notes as a timeline, which I do.

      1. Jamie, Understood. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Thanks so much for the explanation on your routine.

  2. I’ve worked toward being paperless for a number of years now, but – until the Evernote Paperless Challenge – I did not take the concept very seriously. One week in and I have successfully NOT generated any new paper. I have converted paper to PDFs and rid myself of more. I have a clear file cabinet and am left wondering what to do with it.

    Brilliant moment! I’ll use it to store decades worth of sewing and knitting patterns!

  3. I’ve been using Evernote for quite a while and love it. I use it for all the email I constantly get on projects. I click the little elephant on Outlook and the email with attachments go to appropriate project and then I can delete the email from my in box. No more printing stuff out.
    Thanks!

  4. So far so good! I really like the tip on creating an Inbox and organizing notes from there! I created mine and will start using that system. I’ve also been able to use the new Evernote iOS picture update to take pictures of my class syllabus’ and get rid of the paper!

  5. I have a bad experience last time when I scanned the purchase receipt and discarded the original one. When I subsequently took the faulty item back to the shop for an exchange, the person in charged insisted on the original receipt, which I could not produce!

  6. Thanks so much for being SPECIFIC about exactly HOW you create your searches! I had not idea ! I have used the search function clumsily, I’m afraid, but have still been able to retrieve what I need.(EN is truly awesome!) However, now that I know about better ways to search I will use them directly.
    Thanks SO much! Babs

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