Going Paperless: How I Simplified My Tag Organization in Evernote (Part 2)

Last time, I talked about how and why I simplified my notebook organization in Evernote. Today, I’ll discuss how I’ve simplified my tag organization. Both are still works in progress, but the tags more so than the notebooks.

To start, let me say that I’ve never been much of a tagger. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Evernote has a powerful search engine that usually allows me to find whatever I’m looking for in just a few seconds.
  2. With such a good search engine, adding tags is usually counterproductive for me, since it takes time to add them to a note, but I can find the note just as easily without them.
  3. Tags have a tendency to grow like weeds. I’d end up with a huge number, and when I look at them, I find that more than half my tags have less than 10 notes associated with them.
  4. With lots of tags, there is a tendency to forget how I’ve tagged something. In some places, it gets tagged “project” in others “projects.” This actually make searching by tags worse. If I search for everything tagged “projects” I don’t get the notes tagged “project” for instance.

That said, I do find value in tagging notes under certain circumstances. Regular readers will recall this diagram:

Evernote Search

I find tags very hand for describing the “who” part of a note. I assign family member names as tags to notes to denote who that note is related to. Tags can sometimes be helpful with the “what” as well, but in all cases, a solid taxonomy is important for preventing uncontrolled tag growth. I’ll talk about that in a moment. First, let me show you what my tags used to look like.

My old tagging system

Old Tags

My old tagging system had 147 tags. Notes with tags are a little tricky because some notes have multiple tags and that obscures the actual count. However, a better measure in my opinion is how many tags were associated with 10 notes or less. In the old system 83 tags had 10 notes or less. Put another way, 56% of my tags had 10 notes or less.

10 notes is somewhat arbitrary, but it works for me. Of course, tags have to start somewhere, but generally speaking, these tags never really got used beyond their initial creation.

The system was flawed in other ways. There were inconsistent uses of the tags, and no real taxonomy with which to guide their usage. In my new tag organization, I’ve tried to fix that.

My new tax taxonomy

When I decided to simplify my tasks, the first thing I did was sketch out a taxonomy for the tags that would ensure that they did not grow accidentally. I also wanted to taxonomy to be a useful guide for what I used tags for. This taxonomy can be broken into two parts, the tag grammar, and the tag usage.

My tag grammar

The grammar is pretty simple. There are 3 rules:

  1. Tags will be lowercase.
  2. Tags will use hyphens instead of spaces.
  3. Tags will always be singular.

Let me explain each of these.

Lowercase just is more for uniformity of the look-and-feel, and to avoid unnecessary decision-making. Whether the tag is some thing, like bill, or a proper noun, it will always be rendered in lowercase.

Using hyphens instead of spaces actually makes searching a little easier. If I have a tag called “kitchen remodel”, I need to use quotes around my tag when I am searching. In other words, my search would look like this:

tag:"kitchen remodel"

However, if I use a hyphen instead of the space, I don’t need the the quotes around my search:

tag:kitchen-remodel

It might not sound like much, but it saves some frustration (plus 2 characters for every search). It also helps to ensure I don’t get weird search results by typing something like this:

tag:kitchen remodel

which actually looks for notes tagged “kitchen” that have the word “remodel” somewhere in the note.

As far as the tag always being singular, this helps avoid confusion. Should I call it “project” or “projects”? I no longer need to worry about that decision. It is always singular. I like singular because in the context of a single note, it makes sense. A note tagged “project” is clearly part of a project. “Projects” just sounds awkward to me.

This, of course, is personal preference, but having these three rules of grammar at the outset made it much easier to consolidate and simplify my tags.

My tag usage

Having established a basic grammar, I wanted to define how and when I’d use tags so that it was clear for any given note that I created. Actually, I already had a basic framework which I defined in a post back in January 2013. I tend to see my notes falling into one of four general categories:

  1. Documents. Notes with attachments like PDFs, Word files, images, etc.
  2. Events. These are notes that represent some event on a timeline. They could be notes from a meeting, or, more often than not, something that gets into Evernote through some automation I’ve set up, like a Foursquare checkin via IFTTT.
  3. Milestones. This is a special class of events that represent some achievement that I want to identify specifically. The day the Little Man graduated from pre-school, or the day the Little Miss said her first word.
  4. Information. These tend to be just plain vanilla notes. Maybe a shopping list, maybe an address that I jotted down, maybe something I clipped from the web.

Each of these general categories has its own usage, and so I tried to come up with a clear usage definition for each one. For instance, here is my usage for Documents:

This is a [___________] ______________ for _________________
           Category     Document Type      Entity

When I am tagging a document, say one that I’ve scanned in, I use the above template to tag it properly. I say to myself that the thing that I just scanned is a tax form for Jamie. Or, if you want to see it in the template:

This is a [_tax_______] _form_________ for _Jamie___________
           Category     Document Type      Entity

Note how neatly this model fits with my grammar? Three tags will get added to the note. All 3 are singular. All will be lowercase when I add them to the note, and use hyphens instead of spaces.

The brackets around Category mean that it is optional. I use it where appropriate, and don’t use it where it doesn’t make sense.

The category is a fairly broad classification, with a set number of tags that I try to keep as narrow as possible. It includes things like tax, medical, dental, retirement, school, insurance.

The document type is more narrow in scope, focusing primarily on the type of document: form, paystub, receipt, statement, and contract are among the most common ones that I use.

An entity is the person, company, project or organization to which the form is related. And yes, there can be more than one entity tag for a given document. So a medical form for the Little Man’s school might look something like this:

This is a [_medical___] _form_________ for _little-man, school_
           Category     Document Type      Entity

The note gets 4 tags: medical, form, little-man, and school. If I search for all documents tagged little-man, this will show up. If I search for all documents tagged “medical” and “form” this will show up. You get the idea.

For notes that represent events and milestones, if they get tagged at all, the generally get entity tags. In other words, who or what is this tag related to?

What does my new tag organization look like?

While my tags are still more of work-in-progress than my notebooks, I have really made an effort to clean them up and bring them inline with my grammar and usage. Here is what my tag structure looks like today:

My new tags

I’ve gone from 147 tags to 76–I’ve nearly cut my total tags in half. 29 of my 76 tags have 10 notes or fewer associated with them. That’s still a fairly high percentage (38%) but in this case, I know that most of these will increase over time as more notes are brought into this framework.

And you’ve probably noticed there are still a few problems:

  • There is a “benefits” tag, which should be renamed “benefit”
  • And there is the awkward “Disney.2012” tag which is really there as a placeholder that will eventually go away. Part of the process of simplifying my tags has involved building a temporary scaffolding that eventually gets taken down when all of the work is done.

Some tips for simplifying your own tags

As I went through this process, I gained a few insights that might be useful to others who plan on doing the same. These are not taxonomy specific, more process-specific on how you go about simplifying your structure.

  1. Export all of your notes with tags before you get started, so that you have a backup if you really screw things ups.
  2. Grab a snapshot of your Tags page before you get started so you have a baseline to work from. I grabbed mine with Skitch and stored it right in Evernote.
  3. Write down your taxonomy before you get started. This may seem tedious, but I can’t emphasize enough how much it helped me to have a clear, unambiguous taxonomy to work from.
  4. Tackle the low-hanging fruit first: if you are just renaming a tag, all you need to do is right-click on the tag in your tag page and click Rename…
  5. Be sure to sync Evernote after your updates so your changes propagate to all of your devices.

When you’ve finished with your updates to your tag organization there are a few post-update  tasks to keep in mind:

  1. Test out your new organization to make sure it works the way you expect.
  2. Don’t forget to update any saved searches you have. Change a tag name does not update your saved searches. They need to be updated manually.
  3. Don’t forget to update tags at external integration points. If you have the Web Clipper automatically tag your notes, you’ll need to be sure to update the tags there. If you use IFTTT and include tags in your workflow, you’ll want to update your tags there as well.
  4. If you have email messages set up to automatically send email to Evernote, and include tags in the subject line, you’ll want to make sure to update those tags (in the subject line) as well.

So far, I’m pretty happy with my new, simplified organization of notebooks and tags. It feels leaner, and more agile, and it is definitely easier to use than it was before I cleaned things up.


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

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7 thoughts on “Going Paperless: How I Simplified My Tag Organization in Evernote (Part 2)

  1. Interesting post Jamie, and something I’m struggling with myself. I have a lot of old tags from an ancient filing system in Evernote. I decided to abandon that and go for notebooks. But now I feel I should meet in the middle. I need notebooks, but some tagging is OK. This means a big overhaul of my tags and the individual notes. I have a couple of questions on your process
    – How did you work with non-tagged notes? Are they tagged now?
    – I see in your original structure tags like reading and to-read. I don’t see anything similar in the new list. Are these notes gone or untagged? How did you decide this for yourself? Do you use Evernote strictly as a document reference system? Or also as an archive for reading material etc?

    Thanks!
    Frank

  2. Frank, a little more than half of my notes (about 4,700 of them) are tagged. The rest are not tagged. I only tag notes when I need a structure beyond something I could get out of basic search. For me, it’s mostly speeding up tasks. I have a saved search for all of my tax related documents for a given year, and the tags help make that search fast. One click and I get them all. That would be difficult without tags. Many things that are easy to find because they have a dedicated notebook, or some other search attribute beyond tags, are untagged. I can find them easily, and tagging only takes extra time without any additional benefit. So the answer to your first question is, no, untagged notes are still untagged. There are about 3,300 of them.

    As far as the reading notes go, I found that I wasn’t using them. I’ve had a list of everything I’ve reading since 1996, and I’ve always considered that my master list. Trying to maintain the list didn’t add any value for me, especially since my master list is what ties into other workflow and automation. So I got rid of those notes and tags as part of my cleanup.

    I’d say make a hybrid use of Evernote. It is the main store for documents, but it also serves as a timeline for all areas of my life. Much of what gets into Evernote these day (probably > 70%) is automated.

  3. Great advice! I’m actually in need of a tag “housecleaning” and had already gotten out paper and pencil to rework them, so was happy to see you suggested doing what I was already planning. I actually think I have a lot of redundant tags I am going to be able to delete, but will back up first and work it out on paper before starting over! Thanks.

  4. I’ve been following your Evernote organization posts for a while. While I don’t think I’ve settled on a final solution for my personal situation, I’m finding that the system which makes the most sense seems to have a few top level folders which organize notes into particular life aspects such as Work, Notes, Reference, Records and Timeline with few, if any, sub-folders. (I should also note that your idea of having a timeline was really useful as it helped to clarify the life aspect that I was missing which was resulting in lots of “miscellaneous” notes.)

    I’m struggling with Tags, but your post helps a lot. I particularly appreciate your idea of defining a “grammar” for each item type as it helps to solidify the purpose of tags in my opinion, which is to offer context. However, I’m struggling with number of tags. Do you find that all 76 different tags really adds significance and meaning? I currently have around 10 tags (not including tags for family members), and I’m already finding that they are becoming too vague for real usefulness.

    Thanks again for the good ideas!

  5. Hi,

    Any idea what to do with tags from linked notebook? Unfortunately they appear under tags. There’s no way to find out beforehand which are mine and which are from the linked notebook.

  6. Is it to avoid overcomplicating things that you don’t stack your tags like your notebooks? I’m slowly trying to reorganize my Evernote and I find the idea of a simple hierarchy of tags tempting and probably easier to remember than a flat alphabetical list.

    Thank you so much for all your detailed posts, by the way, I read all your Evernote articles and really appreciate them!

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