For years, I kept hearing how awesome Evernote was. How it could store everything you possibly needed, make it available everywhere, and how scores of people couldn’t live without it.
My brain stores thoughts about as well as my hands hold water, so I decided to give it a try. I created notebooks and saved a few notes here and there, hoping it could serve as an ultimate Commonplace Book.
I used it the way I’ve always used physical notebooks: a note goes in a notebook. I created a bunch of notebooks. One notebook for yoga. One notebook for recipes. One notebook for travel journal entries. Etc.
I hated it. Mostly.
I could capture and access things anywhere, but my notebooks were unorganized. I struggled with where and how to organize my notes. It was a mess. In the end, the only way I could find things was by searching. This works well (but only if you are a good speller – which I’m not).
In the last month, though, Evernote finally clicked, and I promptly avalanched hundreds of notes into the app. It’s now one of the most indispensable tools I have.
What changed? How I organized my notes.
Essentially, I learned the right way to use Evernote. Here’s what I learned.
The key: tags not notebooks
I discovered the power of Evernote tags through a wonderful Lifehacker.com post. They shared an organizational system by Thomas Honeyman, who noticed that tags are essentially the same thing as notebooks, except with a lot more power. Here’s how he (and I) use them:
Step 1: Create Notebooks
Before I can tag notes, I have to have somewhere to put them. Instead of a notebook for every subject, though, I have just six all-purpose notebooks.
The Inbox is my default notebook where all new notes are saved. It corresponds to a physical inbox and is for all notes I haven’t dealt with yet. Notes stay in the Inbox until tagged and moved to the right notebook.
The next notebook is called the Cabinet. Almost all of my notes will be moved here. It holds useful articles, inspirational ideas, book summaries, working documents from my projects, Internet bookmarks, and other information.
The third notebook is a special notebook called Memories. It holds photos, audio recordings, videos, writing, and other important, sentimental memories from my life. From an emotional standpoint, they don’t quite make sense in the work-oriented Cabinet notebook, so they live a separate notebook for memories.
The fourth notebook is for all my important product receipts, instruction manuals, serial numbers, maintenance schedules, and other miscellaneous chunks of random information I might need. I separate them all out into the Reference notebook. I could keep all this stuff in the Cabinet, but since I rarely need access to this information it seemed reasonable to separate it into another notebook.
This is a stack or collection of Notebooks. This is where I keep Notebooks that others have shared with me. (Hat tip to Michael Hyatt for this idea.)
This one’s pretty self-explanatory.
Step 2: Create Tags
Instead of placing a note into a specific notebook, I created tags and assigned those tags to the note. For example, instead of a notebook called “recipes,” I create a tag of that name and assigned it to all of the notes. The advantage is that I can add other tags as well, like “main dishes” and “company-worthy.” Instead of only being able to find the note by navigating to the correct notebook, instead I can simply search the tag “recipes” or any other tag.
Step 3: Nest your tags
The beauty of tags is that they can be grouped in hierarchies according to whatever makes sense. They will display in alphabetical order so use symbols or numbers if you want to organize them differently. I broadly organize my tags into three groups:
The first is called .Descriptors and contains all the tags I use to describe what sort of note I’ve saved. Common People contains the names of people I interact with often; Media Type contains common blogs, websites, and news sources I save excerpts from. Using these tags lets me use Evernote’s search to instantly find a drawing by my niece to welcome my cats to their new home.
The second is called .Knowledge and contains tags associated with the stuff I want to remember. The knowledge tags describe the topic of the note, if there is one. For example, I have a group of 27 tags inside .Knowledge, each referring to a different type of recipe. When I find a soup from my favorite plant-based chef that I want to try, I save it to Evernote with the soup and recipe tags from .Knowledge, and the Chef AJ tag from .Descriptors. The next time I cook a soup for dinner, I’ll have a wealth of interesting knowledge to draw from, all with the quick search of a tag.
The third is called .Projects and contains tags associated with work I am actively doing. These tags are very straightforward. I write for four different blogs, so I have a group of nested tags for with a tag for each blog. I’m also working on remodeling a home that we moved into three months ago, so of course each area of my house has its own tag. Whether it’s a picture of a room I like, a link to a cool product, a how-to on fixing something, or paint swatches, I can find them all easily by simply searching the tag.
The beauty of this tagging system is that it allows me to find notes in multiple ways. For example, if I have just wrapped up a meeting with my editor at GearInstitute.com, I can tag it with conversation, their name, and Gear Institute. Now, there are multiple ways I can find the note.
Hopefully you found this useful. Setting up Evernote this way can seem daunting at first, and it will take you some time to get your tags all set up. It’s so worth it though.