Going Paperless: How I Simplified My Notebook Organization in Evernote (Part 1)

Over a year and a half ago, I wrote about how I organize my notes in Evernote. To this day, it is one of the most frequently-asked questions that I get about using Evernote and going paperless. It is also a very personal decision. The way we organize is often tailored to the way we work. In this respect, one size does not fit all.

That said, how I work evolves over time, and eventually, the way I organize my notes in Evernote needs to evolve to keep in sync with my working style. Recently, I’ve gone through the process of changing how I organize my notes in Evernote. I thought I’d share the process with you, covering why I reorganized my notes, and how I did it. Rather than try to pack this all into a single post, I’ve broken down into a couple of posts. This week’s post will discuss how I’ve simplified my notebook organization in Evernote. Next week’s post will discuss my evolving use of tags in Evernote.

Why simplify?

I have nearly 8,500 notes in Evernote. These notes were spread over 45 notebooks. Two things made me want to simplify things.

First, I found over time that I used only a handful of the notebooks regularly. More than 80% of my notes were contained in just 8 notebooks.

Notebook Chart

That meant that less than 20% of my notes were spread over nearly 40 other notebooks. If I was spending most of my time in 8 notebooks, maybe I could simplify things and get rid of some of those other notebooks.

Second, my use of tagging had gradually increased, but it did so in the traditional manner, without any kind of clear structure or taxonomy forming a logical basis. I found that it was taking too much time to tag things and that there were an increasing number of duplicate tags which made searching more difficult. So I decided to tackle the tagging as well by putting in place a formal, but simple, taxonomy. I’ll discuss the tagging next week.

Now that I’ve explained why I decided to simplify my notebook structure, let me remind you of what my old structure looked like. I had 8 notebook stacks centered around areas of my life. Most of the notebooks were contained in those stacks. Here is what the old structure looked like:

Old Notebooks

Step 1: Create a new framework

I like the notion of organizing notebooks around the areas of my life and I wanted to retain that. But I also wanted to simplify the notebooks. The easiest way I could think of for doing this was to create a better abstraction of those areas.  That took a little bit of thinking on my part, but I tend to be pretty good at organizing information. In the old system, here are the areas of my life under which notebooks were organized:

  • Home: anything related to my home life.
  • Work: anything related to my day job
  • Freelance writing: anything related to freelance writing

In addition to those areas, I had a few “utility” categories that evolved into notebook stacks:

  • Diary: mostly, but not entirely, automatically generated notes, also known as “life logging.” Includes my “timeline” notebook.
  • Reference: clippings, skitch drawings, how-tos, etc.
  • Scrapbooks: kids’ artwork, my bibliography, more clippings
  • Shared: shared notebooks
  • Special Projects: miscellaneous projects, often self-improvement related.

There was definitely some overlapping here, but it also seemed to be a little less abstract than what I needed at the notebook stack level.  The first thing I did was come up with a new, slightly more abstract framework. I redefined the areas of my life as:

  • Personal
  • Professional

That’s pretty abstract, but also pretty simple. I went with personal as opposed to “home” because it is a little more inclusive than just home life. I went with “professional” because it combines my entire professional life into one area.

Of course, there are still a few utility categories that I needed, but I tried to better definte those as well:

  • Reference
  • Shared
  • Self-Improvement

Reference and Shared are self-explanatory, and virtually no different than the old model. Self-Improvement is a new area, but one I thought worth adding because I am always trying to improve myself. It didn’t rightly fall under either personal or professional because it applies to all areas of my life. Here is what the overall mapping looked like:

Stack Structure

Once I made that change, it was pretty easy to come up with the fewest number of notebooks I needed, based on the notebooks I used most frequently, and organize them under this framework. While it is still something of a work-in-progress, here is what my notebook and stack structure looks like today:

New-Notebooks

You’ll note that the abstraction works pretty well. Under PERSONAL are things like my Timeline, Filing Cabinet, notes for my house, and my commonplace notebooks.

Professional consolidates all parts of my professional life, from my day job to my freelancing writing, to my speaking, and my website. (You’ll note the website notebook has no notes yet. As I said, this is still a work-in-progress.)

Self-improvement contains notebooks related to things that help me improve myself, like my writing group, or workshops I’ve attended.

Reference consolidates lots of notebooks. The Clippings notebook not only contains clippings, but also all of my skitch drawings, for instance.

I sketched all of this out before I made any changes. Here are the steps I went through to create the new structure:

  1. Backed up all of my notes by exporting them to a ENEX file.
  2. Added any new notebooks. All new notebooks had the word “New” in parentheses to avoid conflicting with any similarly named existing notebook. So, for instance, when I first created the “Commonplace” notebook, I called it “Commonplace (New)”.
  3. Created the new notebook stacks, also using “New” in the titles.
  4. Moved the notes, or renamed existing notebooks as necessary. I have more to say about this below.
  5. When everything was done, I cleaned up by removing all of the “New” references from notebooks and notebook stacks.
  6. Deleted old notebooks.

I did it this way so that I could better see both structures simultaneously.

2. Moving notes

Once the complete structure was in place, I moved notes. I selected all of the notes from the source notebook and then selected the new notebook to move them to using the “Move to Notebook” function in the multi-select window.

After the notes were moved and the source notebook was empty, I deleted the source notebook. When the last notebook in a stack is deleted, that stack is automatically deleted, which saved me a step in the process.

I repeated this for all the notebooks until I’d consolidated down to the notebooks I had defined in my framework.

3. Backup the new structure

Once the consolidation was complete, I once again exported all of the data to an ENEX file so that I had a backup both before I started and after I finished.

4. Update saved searches

I updated all of my saved searches to use the new notebook and tag model. I went through each saved search and replaced old notebook references with new ones. I did the same thing for tag references.

5. Update external references

This is a very important step and I did it as soon as I finished the backup. A large majority of my notes are created automatically from external integrations and automation. Often times, notebooks and tags are hardcoded into those integrations, and they needed to be updated with the new notebook and tag structure.

IFTTT

I went through all of my IFTTT recipes and updated references to notebooks and tags to use the new notebook structure and new tag taxonomy I’d developed.

Skitch

I updated the default folder to which my Skitch drawings get sent (from “Skitch” in the old model to “Clippings” in the new model.”

Web clipper

I updated settings in the web clipper to clip to the “Clippings” notebook by default.

Pocket and Feedly

I updated notebook references in Pocket and Feedly to use my Clippings notebooks.

Other automations

I updated references in other integration points, like my Google Writing Scripts, to ensure that the data is sent to the new notebook.


So far, I have been very pleased with the results. Things feel much more streamlined. I can file notes more quickly (because there are fewer choices to make) but I can also find them more quickly because I have a better notebook organization and a clear and useful taxonomy for tagging.

Next week: I’ll discuss that tagging taxonomy in more detail.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. 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: 3 Ways Evernote Helps Me Remember My Vacations.

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15 thoughts on “Going Paperless: How I Simplified My Notebook Organization in Evernote (Part 1)

  1. I recently did a notebook simplification and chose personal and professional, too. My additional notebooks included a stack for my college classes, a notebook for money-related items, and a notebook for assorted news clips from blogs I follow.

    It’s nice to see my decision to use fewer notebooks independently verified by an expert! Thanks for the post, Jamie.

  2. Jamie – Good stuff.

    I’d like to offer a concept about Notebook structure that you or others may find helpful. You have largely applied this concept with your new structure, but it doesn’t leap off the page. So, I am going to try to state it explicitly.

    Your base Stacks are “Personal” and “Professional”. Any other Stack would include Notebooks that could / would apply to both of your base Stacks.

    For example, your “Reference” Stack would include reference information that could / would contribute to the personal and professional aspects of your life.

    In contrast, if there is some reference type of information that only applies to your professional life, then you would place this in a “Reference” Notebook inside your “Professional” Stack. (You may want to give it a slightly difference name for practical reasons.)

    I hope you feel this is helpful.

    1. Jim, this is a very good way about thinking about this, and while I didn’t consciously break things down this way, I think you are right. The other stacks apply across the board.

  3. Thank you for sharing your process in this post. I’ve just been thinking about my mass of notes spread out over 20+ notebooks. But then, I haven’t been diligent about doing a weekly review.

  4. I created a virtual work space with the following Stacks
    1) Inbox
    2) Desk, for works in progress,
    3)Corkboard/Post its (High Profile reminders or someday/maybe) like goals, ideas, things to do and places to visit.
    4) File Cabinet (Reference or Archive).
    -Inside the File cabinet is where some

    I am using tags as a principle tracking and search tool.

    I find this helps me direct my attention within the virtual space.

  5. Do you have a post that talks about specifics on some of your notebooks? For instance, what is “timeline” used for? And what goes in your “diary” notebook?

    1. Derrick, yes. This post has some pretty good describes on what the notebooks are for. Keep in mind that the post is nearly a year-and-a-half old and some stuff has changed, but the basics are still more or less the same.

  6. Interesting article. My criteria for creating notebooks is based on two decisions:
    1) is it a shared notebook or will it be just me
    2) will I need to sync this to a local copy on my iPad or not

    In the first case I want to be able to share notebooks with other people, e.g. my accountant, VA, or project based co-workers. In the second case, well … I don’t want all 12000+ notes on my iPad, so I make a selection of working documents and archive. Altogether this drills down to a working set of 22 Notebooks for 12494 notes (after I bookmark this article 12495).

    Most of me finding the information back is done to search and tags anyway.

  7. Great article Jamie. I’ve followed your advice for quite a while and I am almost completely paperless as well (Love my ScanSnap S1500) and have picked up some great tips and tricks from you. Forty notebooks is a lot, I can see why you trimmed it down!

    I recently wrote a blog post on _not_ using Evernote for GTD – you or your readers might find it helpful. As much as I love Evernote – I don’t feel like it’s the best solution for tasks.

    http://blog.gtdnext.com/evernote-vs-onenote-vs-gtd-software/

  8. Jamie, this is awesome! I followed your personal/professional format and went from 77 disorganized/convoluted notebooks to 17 practical ones. Thanks for sharing this and keep up the great work!

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