One of the most frequently-asked questions I get in my capacity as Evernote’s Ambassador for Paperless Lifestyle is how I organize my notebooks and tags in Evernote. Back in January, I wrote in some detail about how I organize my notes. I also provided an annotation of my tags and notebook structure. The short answer to the question is pretty simple:
I try to use the fewest tags and notebooks I can get away with. Instead, I depend upon Evernote’s substantial search capabilities.
There are several reasons I work this way:
- Tagging and filing notes takes time. I want to get the note into Evernote as quickly as I can and be able to find it equally fast.
- An elaborate tagging and notebook structure has to be maintained. Tags can grow like weeds, and like any garden, the weeds must be pulled–and that takes time.
- Too many tags and notebook can lead to ambiguities. Do I file this in my Filing Cabinet notebook or my Business notebook? Do I tag this note as “confirmation” or “receipt” (or both)? Too many ambiguities make it hard to file notes, as well as hard to find them.
- Evernote has very powerful search capabilities that make an elaborate tagging and notebook structure unnecessary for me.
I’ve covered some of this territory before, so I thought I’d use today’s post to describe how I think about searching in Evernote, and how that informs how I tag and organize my notes.
All of my searches fall into 4 categories
When I look at the searches I do in Evernote, I find that they fall into 4 familiar categories:
This can be better illustrated as follows:
When searching for something in Evernote I almost always think in terms of Who, What, When, and Where. These don’t refer to the form of the question but how I go about doing the search. “What” means that I have an idea of what I am searching for (“DMV registration notice”). “When” means I have an idea of the time frame I want to search (last month, in February 2012). “Where” means I have an idea of where the note was created (“Castine, Maine”). “Who” means I have an idea who the note is related to.
Note that in the above diagram, almost all of these questions can be answered by attributes of a note that already exists. For instance, when I’m searching for the “what” (e.g. “DMV Registration Renewal Notice”) I can search the note title, or within an attachment in the note.
In searching for “when?” I can use the note date attributes. I can search by note creation date, updated date, or even reminder date. For documents that I scan into Evernote, I set the note creation date to the date on the document so that I get more accurate search results. (If the bank statement is dated September 30, 2013, I change the note create date to 9/30/20131 once the statement has been scanned in.)
If I am searching by location (“Where did I park the car in airport parking garage?”) I can use the Location features in Evernote to locate the note. For instance, I can open the Atlas and look for any notes created in a certain region.
Searching for “who?” is the trickiest, and this is where I will use tags (sparingly). If a note or document is specific to a person (usually a family member) I will tag the note with the person’s name. This allows me to find notes for me, or Kelly or the kids.
The search categories can work in combination
Of course, I often have to search in more than one category to find what I am looking for. The four categories can overlap in 13 ways that look something like this:
One nice thing about this diagram is that is just happens to represent the relative frequency that the more complex searches occur. Searches labeled 1-4 are not complex at all. I am searching just one element, and given the size of these, they are the most common searches that I do.
Searches labeled 5-8 are more complex. They involve an intersection of two searches: What and Who, or Who and Where, or What and When. For instance, rather than searching for the “DMV registration renewal” I might want a specific renewal, so I might search for Jamie’s DMV registration renewal (using a tag for my name and a text search for the rest).
Searches 9-12 involve three elements and I almost never need to search at this level of complexity. And search 13 involves all four elements, Who, What, When, and Where. I don’t think I’ve ever needed a search this complex.
Virtually all of these searches, simple or complex, use existing attributes of the note. The only time tags come in really handy is when I am looking for the “who” since I tag my notes with family members names. Tags also come in handy when searching for lists of related notes.
With this search methodology I can usually find what I am looking for, without elaborate tagging, using the built-in attributes of a note. And I can usually find it within a few seconds. Because of this, I have no need for an elaborate tag or notebook framework. It adds overhead that I don’t need and wouldn’t make use of if I had it.
I understand that not everyone works this way, but I thought I’d share how I think about searching because it informs how I use Evernote in my efforts to go paperless.
If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.
Last week’s post: Quick Tip: Capturing Meme Quiz Results in Evernote
- There was a typo here earlier, where I’d put “9/20/2013.” Thanks to Joe for pointing it out. ↩