Going Paperless: How I Title My Notes in Evernote

This week’s topic was a reader suggestion. Alton Blom emailed me to ask me how I got about titling my notes in Evernote and suggested it might be an interesting topic for a post–and I agree. I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the forums and other places on how people go about titling their notes in Evernote. Just like how you organize your notes, how you title them can vary widely by personal preference. As with most things, however, I try to establish and then follow a set of rules so that there is as much consistency in my note titles as there is in my note organization. This has been something of an organic process for me, but I’ve been able to discern some discrete “rules” I follow for titling my notes.

Tip #1: Determine Your Requirements

Long-time readers will note a theme with me. I’m often urging people to figure out what you want to get out of something (like going paperless, for instance) before you consider how you will do it. This probably comes from my background developing software, in which requirements play a key role.

As I’ve written about before, my key method for finding stuff in Evernote is by using its powerful search capabilities. I don’t like spending a lot of time tagging and organizing notes, especially when I could find them just as quickly without the tagging and organization. (I do tag and organize, but often for purposes other than just making the notes easy to find.) With that in mind, I think I had four requirements when I started thinking about my note titles.

  1. Keep them as short and simple as possible
  2. Don’t include information in a title that can be gotten from somewhere else in the note.
  3. Use consistent titles for given note types
  4. Don’t worry about duplicate titles when other data makes the notes distinct.

In the subsequent tips, I’ll discuss each of these “rules” in more detail.

Tip #2: Keep note titles as short and simple as possible

Note titles can be pretty elaborate. I’ve seen people attempt to embed so much information into a note title that they become difficult to read and understand. That is not what I wanted. I wanted the simplest possible title for identifying the note in a search result. That last part is important: since I am often doing searches in Evernote to find what I am looking for, I don’t want to have to go into the body of the note to figure out what the note is. I should be able to figure it out from the title.

For example, I keep track of all of my reading in Evernote. I like knowing when I started reading something and when I finished reading something. (I have a whole collection of scripts that pulls interesting analytics from this data.) If I wanted to see the list of things I’ve read by Stephen King, for instance, I could run a simple search that looks like this:

tag:reading created:2013 by stephen king

What my search is asking is to find any notes tagged “reading” that were created after 1/1/2013 and have the words “by stephen king” in the note somewhere. The results of such a search look like this:

Evernote Titles

One thing you’ll see immediately is that all of the note titles follow the same format. That format is, roughly:

[Action] [Title] by [Author]

Which comes out as:

Started reading Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

The title exactly describes the note. Looking through the results list, I can easily find the particular note I’m looking for without having to ply my way through more complicated titles.

Tip #3: Don’t include information in the title you can get from elsewhere in the note

“But the problem with those titles,” some may say, “is that it makes it hard to tell when you read the book.” Wouldn’t it be better to include the dates in the title? Absolutely not, and for two important reasons:

First, I hate redundant data. Nature abhors a vacuum. Jamie abhors redundant data. The date for when I started or finished reading a book is already captured by the note create date. You see, I tend to create these notes at the same time that I start or finish reading the book. So the create dates accurately reflect the date of the action. And if I happen to forget to create the note for the book I started reading yesterday? Well, when I do create the note, I simply modify the create date to reflect the date I actually started (or finished) reading the book1.

Second, while dates in titles may seem like a good idea, they end up being generally awful because they make the note very hard to search. If my note had been titled something like:

Finished reading Gerald's Game by Stephen King on 2013-03-03

It would be a much more complicated search to find all of the Stephen King books I read in March 2013 than if I had simply left the date out of the title and used the create date instead. With the create date I can do relative searches. I can’t do that with dates embedded in the titles. Put another way, if I use the create date to represent the date of the action, I can do this search:

tag:reading created:20130301 -created:20130401 by stephen king

That search will find any notes tagged “reading”, created on or after 3/1/2013 and before 4/1/2013 containing the words “by stephen king.” I have no idea how I’d manage the same search if I embedded my date in the title. It might be possible, but it would certainly be more complicated.

Indeed, when I scan a document, I set the “create date” of the document to the date listed on the document. In this way, if someone refers to “the letter dated February 25, 2013″, I don’t have to search the text of the notes, I can simply search for any note with a create date of 2/25/2013. Here’s one such example from yesterday’s mail. I received a letter from Wells Fargo, which I scanned in yesterday (March 4):

Letter date

 

Note that while the note was actually scanned on March 4, the Created date was changed to match the date on the letter (February 25). The updated date is the date that the letter was actually scanned. (I didn’t have to change that date at all). Moreover, note the title. It is simple and to the point:

Wells Fargo Letter on Home Rebate Credit

It’s possible I have 2 or 3 notes with this exact title, but the dates will help me figure out which one I am looking for.

Tip #4: Use consistent title for a given note type.

In my post on how I organize my notes, I discussed how I thought notes fell into 5 different “types” or “classes”:

  1. Documents
  2. Events
  3. Milestones
  4. Information

While the format of my note titles vary from class to class, they are consistent within a given class. The reading note examples that I gave fall into the “event” category. Most of my “event” notes have similar title formats: [Action] [Event] [Modifier]. This could be “Started reading BOOK by AUTHOR.” It could also be a note representing a phone call or a meeting, in which case the title would look something like: “Called accountant about upcoming tax preparation.”

I try to be consistent within each of the classes and in doing so, it means I really only have to remember four “patterns” or “templates” for note titles. I’ve already given an example from the “Documents” class, “Wells Fargo Letter on Home Rebate Credit.”

Tip #5: Don’t worry about duplicate note titles

I sometimes get the feeling that people think every note has to have a unique title. But why? If I was searching for my “workplace checking” statements, for instance, I could do a simple search like:

tag:statements workplace checking

which would result in the following:

Same Titles

Note that the titles of the resulting notes are identical. But so what? They accurately describe the note, and when coupled with the create date–which matches the date on the statement itself–it is remarkably easy to find the one I’m looking for, which as it turns out is the one from April 2012.


I’ve found that by keeping my note titles simple, and by keeping them consistent, following the rules I outlined above, I save myself a lot of time. I save time coming up with a title, because I only put the minimum amount that accurately describes what’s in the note. And I save time in searching because I can use the full power of Evernote to help me find what I’m looking for. These suggestions might work for you too.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, I’d love to hear it. Contact me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. And as always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts, is also available on Pinterest.

Notes

  1. Modifying the create date is only available in the thick clients for Windows and Mac, and not in iOS or the web. But that’s okay, because I am usually in the Mac client at least once a day when I am processing any paper that I’ve received.

18 thoughts on “Going Paperless: How I Title My Notes in Evernote

  1. Jamie,
    Is the ability to change the create date only available for paid Evernote accounts? I’m using the Windows Evernote client and don’t seem to have the ability to change the create date.

    1. I don’t think it’s limited to paid accounts. I’m in my Windows client right now and if I click on the create date of a note, it becomes an editable field. Some notes, I see, it doesn’t work on, like those created in applications like Evernote Food. But otherwise, it seems to work just fine and I’ve never had a problem changing the create date.

    2. Hi. I had to go searching for the option…

      Windows Client:
      1) In the ‘View’ menu, choose ‘Show Note Info’.
      Repeat again and you should see the Created/Updated fields.
      2) Click the little blue menu-expander arrow
      next to the note name. Click it again.
      3) F8, F8

      Keep up the good ideas, Jamie!

      1. Hmmm. What version of Windows are you on. No amount of pressing F8 or showing details gives me an ‘updated’ field. I get the ‘created’ only. I’m a premium account holder.

        1. Gordon, you’re not pressing hard enough.
          F8 like you mean it! :)

          Have you actually made a change to the note since you first created it? If not, then there has been no update to date-stamp. Once you make a change, Updated will soon appear next to Created. (it takes a minute or two. or when you change notes.)

          FWIW, I never noticed this until you asked.
          This post really got me thinking about how I use Evernote.

          Evernote 4.6.3.8096, Freebie account.
          Win 7 Pro 64-bit, SP1.

  2. Great post. I had no idea you could change the create date. I recently archived some emails from an old account and I was irritated because they keep sorting with the new notes. Will definitely be trying that out.

  3. Jamie,

    I just want to say a quick thank you for this excellent blog series on using Evernote! Having read every post I especially appreciate your clear, logical explanations on why and how you use this service, a superior approach I believe to dogmatic statements such as those made by a prominent technologist who recently stated “real men don’t use tags.” Much of how I have structured my EN setup has been adapted from your blog.

    In a future post I’d love to hear if there are any other iPhone apps you use as data-input sources to Evernote besides Foursquare check-ins via IFTTT and other Evernote apps such as Hello/Food/Skitch. (I’m currently using FastEver set to a .TASKS notebook for quick GTD task input in my GTD system, FE Snap for quick photo input bypassing camera roll and PostEver, which though pricey, allows incremental updates to a daily journal in my Timeline.)

    Thanks again,
    Daniel

    1. One of the apps I use to get information into Evernote is “Drafts”. This great little app has become my electronic steno pad (legal secretary background, always have a steno pad next to the phone) where I can jot something down quickly as it occurs to me, and then later transfer it to the database(s) where I want it – Evernote, Toodledo, Rememberthemilk, etc. It supports Markdown, you can set up custom actions, set up a shortcut to send it to a particular Evernote notebook, etc.

      I also send photos to Evernote using Photostream.

      iSmoothRun automatically sends my running stats to Evernote via e-mail.

      eHighlighter to send quotes from physical books (as opposed to ebooks).

      Everwebclipper to clip pages from Safari to Evernote.

      Filters in gmail to send certain reports or information straight to Evernote.

      1. Great tips, I’ll check on them. Can you explain your Photostream – Evernote integration? Does it individually send each photo as it is added to your desktop? What I’d prefer is a daily summary. My current approach is having Waapwolf.com watch my Camera Uploads Dropbox folder, downscale it (retaining the original), and move the smaller photo to another folder which I periodically will copy to that day’s journal entry.

        1. I have a shared photostream “Evernote”. The folder resides in my Dropbox, so I have it set up as an Import folder in Evernote. So whenever I share a photo with that photostream, it is automatically imported into Evernote. You can actually set it up to use your main photostream folder as an Import folder, and it will import a copy of every photo you take into Evernote, but that was too much for me.

          1. PDW,

            Wow, thank you for the tip on Drafts! Powerful little app – one more tap than another app I was using with far more functionality. Especially like that I can setup an email action that retains the first line of text yet adds any additional notebook/tags fields. Also downloaded eHighlighter (nice concept, would love to see it further developed) and will look into EverWebClipper.

            After Googling, I understand now your Dropbox photostream sync. The main downside I see to that from what I’ve read is that you have to move your entire iCloud photostream folder structure into dropbox so you can easily run into your free limits.

          2. Yes, I love Drafts!

            There are ways to hack dropbox to sync folders outside of dropbox. Or you could use Sugarsync or another program. My dropbox limits are pretty generous right now, so I am able to just use dropbox.

  4. Great post. I currently have a Timeline notebook as well. I use dates in the title for three reasons:
    1. Sort order, rather than have to re-sort every time I go into that notebook, they will always be in the same order (name or date).
    2. To keep them separate from the other notes in “All Notes”. They sort at the top and can be easily skipped.
    3. The third reason is redundancy in the event that I lose data and have to import a backup, the created date will not save, and will change to the date I imported the backup. I suppose if I put the date in the body of the note, that would serve the same purpose.
    I’m on the fence with this one, but might try and change the way i do this.

  5. I have over 4,000 recipes in Evernote, and they can be a challenge to manage!

    I use the “intitle” search operator a lot, because you don’t want to be searching for cookies, and get back a recipe for meatballs because the recipe says to bake them on a cookie sheet, or because the blogger has posted a “you might also like” link to a cookie recipe, or because you use a cookie cutter or cookie scoop for part of the recipe.

    “intitle” is also good for when you have a lot of carrots in the fridge that you need to use up, so you only want the search to return recipes with carrots as the main ingredient, as opposed to a salad that you just grate some carrots over top of.

    Since I rely mostly on intitle searches in my recipe notebooks, I need to be sure to name them appropriately. When I fail to find what I am looking for in a search, it is a good opportunity to figure out how I need to tweak my naming. When I search for “buns” and don’t turn up my favourite recipe, because the title says “rolls”, then I will likely add the word “buns” into the title so that next time it doesn’t matter which word I search, I will find it.

    As I continue to process and refine my recipe notebooks, I need to add broader descriptions into the titles of recipes that I just imported into Evernote with their original filename. Just what makes this carrot cake recipe different than that one? Why am I keeping both?

  6. As usual, a very useful post. I have to say, for time sensitive notes, I have always used the date (YYMMDD) in the title, and started each note with that. Same reason as Tyler. It’s always sorted by date that way. I may look into using the create date though. I hadn’t realised how easy it is to change.

    However, in windows, I cannot see a modified field as in your image. Any ideas?

  7. Great post. I had no idea you could change the create date. I recently archived some emails from an old account and I was irritated because they keep sorting with the new notes. Will definitely be trying that out.

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