Thursday, May 31, 2012

Evernote - goldilocks uses notebooks AND tags!

Evernote - goldilocks uses notebooks AND tags!

Do you get confused in Evernote about whether to use notebooks or tags? I've found using both notebooks *and* tags gives me the best of both worlds. Here's why:


I signed up for Evernote in the fall of 2009, and began using it heavily in 2010.  I currently have about 3,600 notes in my Evernote account, spread across various areas of my life: day job, hobbies, blogging, family files (cars, medical, insurance, etc.), kids' stuff, and more. And I've gone through a few iterations of how to organize my notes/thoughts over the years.


I started out using Evernote as if it's a digital version of a paper filing system, where each note can be filed into one, and only one, place. This works great, until it doesn't.

Benefits Drawbacks
Mirrors paper filing system; each note has a place Can only nest one level deep
Easy to move notes from one notebook to another Must be consistent in where to file different "types" of notes (ie: does auto insurance get filed under auto, or insurance?)
Can group notebooks from similar subjects together into "notebook stacks" No keyboard shortcut to move/select notebooks. (not yet, at least.)
Selecting a notebook stack shows all notes in all notebooks within that stack
For those old enough to have worked with paper files, notebooks feel more natural

Once I wanted my notebook filing tree to resemble a file-tree in Windows, I was sunk; notebooks just don't offer this level of nesting. So I began moving everything "into" tags. Another problem was being consistent in filing - did a hotel receipt go under vacations, or receipts? How about my auto insurance policy - insurance, or auto?


Next I created one big notebook to store all my notes, and I replicated my notebook structure with tags. Then I started modifying and adding new tags. Tags allowed me to nest my filing system several levels deep. They also allowed me to add multiple tags to each note, which is the mind-blowing equivalent of storing a single piece of paper in multiple folders at the same time!

For example, I could have a high-level tag for Household, then a sub tag for Insurance, then more sub tags below that for Auto Insurance, Life Insurance, Health Insurance, etc.

Another example, I could scan a receipt from an oil change on my wife's car, and I could label (tag) that note with Auto, Accord, Cheryl, and Receipt. I would then be able to find that note by perusing any of those 4 tags.

This was like seeing the light for the very first time, and I began multi-tagging most of my notes.

Benefits Drawbacks
Can use multiple tags for each note, effectively "filing" a single note in multiple locations Tags don't always appear in nested, file-tree order. In some places they are alphabetized
Able to nest tags several levels deep Tendency to over-tag, both on a per-note basis, and by using tags at a very granular level
Keyboard shortcut (Ctrl + Alt + t) allows selection of single or multiple tags without leaving the keyboard Cumbersome to "move" from one tag to another - lots of keystrokes involved to add one and remove the other
Selecting a parent tag does *not* show all notes from all of the children tags

9 months and 1,200 notes later, and I started having panic attacks about my notes - too many tags in too many places with too many choices. Ick. Information overload! I longed for the simplicity of notebooks. I also realized I was spending more time thinking about what tags to assign a note, and where I should look to find a note, than I used to do when I used notebooks. I decided tags were making my use of Evernote less efficient.

Notebooks AND Tags working together

I have since moved back to using notebooks as my primary filing tool. I use notebook stacks to group notebooks around their various themes, and I spend a second or two thinking about where to file each note.

I have an Inbox Notebook which is where everything is captured, without thought. Then, each day or two, I review & file my inbox items.

I also use several higher-level tags. I have a tag for each member of my family, for example. This allows me to use broader notebooks, and combine them with tags. For instance, I used to have notebooks for Medical-Collin, Medical-Jason, Medical-Cheryl, Medical-Chris, etc. Now I have a notebook called Medical, and all medical-related notes are dumped into it. I also have similar notebooks for School, and for Auto. I can then tag those notes with Collin, Jason, Receipt, or Accord.

This combined system has left me with fewer overall choices, and I feel like I'm processing my information faster and easier - both for storage and retrieval. My guess is this is what Evernote's developers had in mind all along... It's like they wrote the program specifically for Goldilocks!

How do you use notebooks and tags in your evernote?

-Chris Butterworth