Going Paperless Rerun: A Closer Look at How I Organize My Notes

I am on vacation for the next couple of weeks. So I hope you don’t mind a few reruns. This week and next, I present the two most popular Going Paperless posts of 2013. Today’s post was first published back on January 29 and is the most popular post of the year so far. And if you missed it the first time around, well, then it is new to you!


Of all of the questions I get in my capacity as Evernote’s ambassador for paperless lifestyle, the one asked most frequently is: “How do you organize your notes?” I’ve written on this subject before, way back in May, when I provided some tips on organizing your digital filing cabinet. But if I have learned one thing about note organization in the months since, it’s that it is an evolving process. At least, that’s the way it has been in my case. So this week, I thought I would dive into more detail on how and why I organize my notes the way I do, and in doing so, take a closer look at note organization in general. ETA (1/30/13): I’ve created a subsequent post that annotates my actual notebook and tag structure because a lot of people asked for it.

A Caveat About Organization

The question I get asked is “how do you organize your notes.” That is what this post is about. How I organize my notes and what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary. One things I’ve learned is that there can be as many organizational schemes as there are people using Evernote. There is no wrong or right way to do it. What I describe below works for me because it meets the goals I set out from the very start. And while the organizational scheme you choose may look entirely different, it should be based on a clear set of goals. You should be asking yourself: why are you trying to organize your notes in the first place?

Defining Goals

In my earlier post on the subject, I suggested that the very first step in note organization was defining your goals. For people starting out with Evernote, I would suggestion not worrying much about organization until you figure out how you use the tool and what your goals are for using the tool. Here are the goals I defined for myself at the start:

  1. Capture any paper that comes into my life in digital format.
  2. Jot down any notes in Evernote as opposed to on scrapes of paper.
  3. Have an unambiguous taxonomy.
  4. Spend less than five seconds figuring out where a note goes and what tags it gets.
  5. Find anything I was looking for in less than 5 seconds.

In the months since I wrote that first post, my goals have evolved a little. Today, they look something like this:

  1. Capture all paper that comes into my life in digital format.
  2. Capture all events and milestones in a timeline.
  3. Have the simplest possible unambiguous taxonomy.
  4. Maximize the automatic creation and organization of notes
  5. Find what I am looking for in less than 5 seconds.

When I say “unambiguous taxonomy” what I am talking about is eliminating decision-points. My tagging and notebook structure should be such that it is instantly obvious how something should be tagged or what notebook it should go in. If a note could go in more than one notebook the system is too ambiguous for my purposes.

At Its Most Basic Level, I Think of Evernote as a Timeline

Suppose that there was no ability to create notebooks in Evernote. Each note has a create date which is added to the note automatically upon creation. At its most basic level, notes in Evernote create one big timeline. When I first considered this, it was critical to my thinking on how to organize my notes. I take Evernote’s “remember everything” slogan seriously. We often remember things based on when they happened relative to other things.

It helps that Evernote allows the Create Date of a note to be edited. I don’t change the create date of a note all the time, but I have a simple set of rules for when I do change the create date of a note:

  1. If I scan a document, I’ll alter the create date to the date on the document itself. So if I scan in a statement on January 7th, and the statement is dated December 29, I’ll alter the date to match the document. This avoids trying to cram awkward dates into note titles. If I need to search for a document dated December 29, I can search by the create date.
  2. If I add a note that represents some kind of “event” after-the-fact, I’ll alter the create date of the note to reflect the date the event occurred.

Because I think of Evernote as a timeline, and because I capture all my notes, at the most basic level, as if they were on a timeline, I can easily produce searches for standard intervals. For instance, I have two saved searches: “Activities: Today” and “Activities: Yesterday.” These searches bring up all of the notes created either “today” or “yesterday” respectively so that I have a quick way of getting to recently created notes. I also have a saved search called “One Year Ago” which pulls up all of the notes created one year ago from the present date.

Some Thoughts On Note Types

Another consideration that helped improve the organization of my notes was notion that not all notes fall into the same class. When I think about the notes that I create, I can see several different broad categories of notes:

  1. Documents. These are any notes with attachments, whether they are PDFs, images, Word files, etc. Document notes are wrappers for the documents they contains. They are the manilla folder equivalent for a single document with all of the associated meta-data about that document, like create date, modified date, tags, location, author, etc.
  2. Events. These are notes that represent some event on a timeline. For me, they tend to be action-oriented in some respect. My Foursquare checkins, which are automatically pulled into Evernote via IFTTT are one example of an “event.” Phone calls or meetings are other types of events. Others include things like notes representing things I read. (For these, I usually have one note that indicates “Started reading…” and a second note that indicates “Finished reading…” Both of these notes are events on my overall timeline, and I can see all of the other notes in and among them. So not only do I know when I started and finished reading a given book, but I also know what else was going on at the time.
  3. Milestones. Milestones are a special class of events. They represent some achievement that I want to call out specifically. For instance, I have a bunch of notes indicating various milestones of my kids. When they said their first words, when we first left them with a baby-sitter, when they first went off to school, etc. I also have milestones for other things. For instance, when I passed 1,000 followers on Twitter, I grabbed a screenshot of the Twitter data and created a milestone event out of it. At the end of the year, I grab a bunch of these milestone events as a benchmark for the coming year.
  4. Information. Informational notes are just that. Notes on which useful pieces of information are contained. This could be an idea for a story or a blog post. It could be the address of the party I’m supposed to attend over the weekend. It might be an idea for a gift for my wife or kids. Or a book that I want to read, or a recipe. Informational notes also contain other things. Like the weather. I have the day’s weather automatically emailed to Evernote so that I have a record of the weather along with all of the other notes.

Considered all together, these four types of notes can paint a very accurate picture of a day in my life, as well as provide a simple framework for thinking about how I organize my notes.

A Simple Framework for Organizing My Notebooks

What is the purpose of a notebook, if you think of all of your notes as residing on one big timeline? This is a question I’ve considered quite a bit. At its most basic level, a notebook provides “partitioning,” an easy way to separate one arbitrary collection of notes from another. Another way to think of partitioning is that a notebook reduces the scope of notes. I can see just my “work”-related notes on a timeline; or just my “writing”-related notes. With this in mind, I tried to consider the best way to minimize the number of notebooks I used, but still have them partitioned in some useful way.

Initially, I had a set of notebook stacks that revolved around the areas of my life: “Home Life”, “Work Life” and “Writing Life.” Over time, however, I found myself trying to cram in notes that didn’t really fit these three area. So my notebook stacks grew somewhat until today, where they stand at 7 stacks:

dff7d7aae6d9027828b742078b0dcb66.png

Let me briefly describe each of my stacks:

  • Home: this contains a few notebooks related to my home life, including my “Filing Cabinet” notebook. It is in this notebook where nearly all of the “Document”-type notes get filed.
  • Work: this contains notebooks related to my day job. There is one notebook that contains most of my notes, like meeting notes, important email messages and documents. In another notebook, I have code snippets and queries that I want to be able to reference quickly. And finally I have a notebook dealing with the HR side of the job, benefits, reviews, etc.
  • Freelance Writing: this contains all of my freelance writing-related documents, and with 10 notebooks, is the one place that is ripe for simplification.
  • Diary: this contains a couple of notebooks that serve as a place to store those “event” and “milestone” notes that don’t really fit anywhere else. I have a “Social Networking” notebook and it is into this notebook that all of my social media automation notes go. All of my tweets are archived here. All of my blog posts are archived here. All of my Foursquare checkins, etc. It also contains a notebooks called, “Timeline” in which notes are placed that are specifically geared toward going on a timeline, like milestone events.
  • Reference: this stack contains notebooks that collect reference information. The notes in these notebooks are almost exclusively either “document” notes or “information” notes. Anything I clip from the web using the Web Clipper or Evernote Clearly go into my “Clippings” notebook in this stack. All of my instructions, either ones I’ve written for myself, or manuals that I’ve scanned in go into my HOWTO notebook in this stack.
  • Shared: this stack contains notebook that I have shared with the public.
  • Special Projects: sometimes, circumstances are such that having a specific notebook for a project is useful. These notebooks go into my “special projects” stack. I have one such notebook at present, for my Baseball Century Experiment.

My “Inbox” notebook is my default notebook where my notes go by default, for instance when they are initially scanned in. I usually try to review and clear out what’s in my Inbox notebook once a day or so.

A Simple Framework for Tagging My Notes

Tagging, while useful, can rapidly grow out of control without some simple rules for keeping tags at bay. I’ve tried a number of different methodologies for my tagging, and what I have ultimately landed on is as simple as I can make it for my purposes.

I use tags for three purposes:

  1. Grouping notes together across the timeline and/or across notebooks.
  2. Relating notes to a person (almost always an immediate family member).
  3. Organizing lists.

My rules for tagging can be consolidated into this simple flowchart:

Tagging Flowchart (1).png

 

This kind of tagging is minimal, allows for very quick tagging decisions, and allows me to more easily search my notes based on the contexts that I look for things: by a person; in a list; as a grouping.

A lot of my notes never get tagged, but because Evernote has such powerful search capabilities, I can usually find what I am looking for in a matter of seconds. In these cases, tagging only adds overhead and takes more time.

Putting It All Together

So, what does this method of organization buy me? Well, I can find just about anything I’m looking for within seconds without spending a lot of time building a complex taxonomy and then having to remember how to organize each note that is created. I was trying to figure out a way to visualize the results. The following diagrams are the best that I could come up with.

First, the overall taxonomy, visualized:

Note Organization.png

In the above illustration, the horizontal axis represent the create date of all notes. This is my timeline, and it doesn’t matter what notebook a note falls into. If I am searching “all notes” then I am essentially searching for things on my timeline. The vertical axis represent the artificial partitions created by notebooks. And the circles represent my three conditions for tagging notes. Some notes have more than one tag and that is why these circles can overlap. They can also grow or shrink depending on the overall scope of the search. By highlighting certain parts of this diagram, you can see the result of searches that I can run in Evernote.

Example 1: Search “all notes” for the term “Evernote.” Inside the red box represents the scope of the notes being searched:

6079e3eb6e39cad0cb812c6a85a13ca5.png

Example 2: Search my “Work” notebook for the term “.NET”. Once again, the inside the red box represents the scope of the notes being searched:

39c972c9e885fa34789346187c33b500.png

Example 3: Search for tax-related notes related to my freelance writing in 2010. Note that in this case, the time being searched is limited, as well as the notebook. And the tag used is one that groups a collection of notes together, in this case, “taxes.”

42bd898f15d11f01eb71b8a9844ac1f6.png

The size of the tag “circles” can change with the scope of the search, of course. These are crude illustrations designed to provide a simple visualization of the scope of searches.

Automating My Note Organization

Once you have a framework that works for your purposes, you can cut down on the time you spend organizing your notes by automating the organization process. I’ve done this using a lot of the tools that integrate with Evernote. Some examples:

  • When I clip articles using Evernote’s Web Clipper or Evernote Clearly, the clips automatically get put into my Clippings notebook and are tagged “to-read”. I have a saved search that I use to review the notes I have to read. Once I review them, I either get rid of the note, or remove the “to-read” tag.
  • All of my automated social networking notes (Tweets, Foursquare check-ins, blog posts, etc.) are automatically filed into the Social Networking notebook and tagged with the proper grouping to describe them.
  • Sending articles from my RSS feed to Evernote automatically puts them into my “Clippings” notebook, and tags them as “to-read.”
  • Images captured and edited with Skitch automatically go into a Skitch notebook.
  • Notes captures from scripts I run on my local machine are also automatically put into notebooks, and tagged, if necessary. These include things like capturing notes of my daily fiction-writing, and tasks I completed from my projects lists.

As it turns out, these notes tend to make up the majority of the notes I capture, which means that for the majority of notes, despite my taking no action on my part, the notes are properly organized into my simple framework.

Refining My Organization

The way I organize my notes in Evernote is constantly evolving and (hopefully) improving. But I always have the goal of minimizing the time I spend actually doing organization work, and minimize the time it takes for me to search for what I am looking for. Put another way, I want to be able to get notes in and out as quickly as I possibly can. With the organization described above, I have been able to do this very well.


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: What’s in Store for 2014, and What You’d Like to See

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One thought on “Going Paperless Rerun: A Closer Look at How I Organize My Notes

  1. Jamie .. not a day goes by that Evernote doesnt play a role in something important for my day. It’s a wonderful product and glad that I am able to have a first person direct relationship with one of their ambassadors.

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