How to Organize Your Life with Evernote: Notebooks & Tags

You tried out Evernote and really wanted it to work, but ended up not using it.

I took the same journey, and realized that I wasn’t finding Evernote helpful because I was doing it wrong. So I tweaked the way I use Evernote and now it’s essential to keeping my life organized and productive.

How I Used to Organize Evernote Before

There are the obvious benefits of Evernote – You store all your notes in one place, add multimedia notes like photos and webclips, search across all your notes, and sync them on multiple devices. But how you organize it makes or breaks the usefulness.

I started creating my basic notebooks as categories for my life, such as School, Work, Church & Personal. Then I started adding more notebooks, like splitting my freelance work into individual notebooks for each client. I also created notebooks for other areas that came up, such as Journal, Music, Shopping Lists, To-Do-Lists, Travel, Recipes, etc…

Eventually I ended up with around 30-40 notebooks. Some of them only had one note in them. Often times I would forget which folder I placed a note in.

With tags, I started off by not using any tags. Then I tagged notes with everything I could think of. Then I stopped using tags again.

In the end, tags just became something I did if I felt like it, but they weren’t really beneficial to my organization.

I soon ran into two major problems with my Evernote organization system.

The Problems with My Evernote Organization System

First, I would write things down to remember them, but wouldn’t remember to go back to them. As I added new notes, that note got pushed down the list. Out of sight, out of mind.

Second, I would have trouble finding my notes. My notebook structure got so complex with notebooks and stacks of notebooks it was impossible to remember the organization logic behind it. It also resulted in me creating similar notes over and over again, because I either forgot I already started one, or I just couldn’t find it.

So after trying it out and getting frustrated, I just gradually stopped using it.

Why My Evernote Organization Didn’t Work

Evernote is an incredibly flexible system, which is great, but that’s also the downfall for many people who don’t organize it correctly. Here’s where I went wrong.

Evernote notebooks are mutually exclusive, meaning a note can only be in one notebook. I created too many notebooks, which meant a note could actually fit in multiple notebooks, and I had to just pick one. Of course, I then would forget and think I put it in a different notebook instead.

The other mistake was using tags flippantly. I tried to tag a note with every possible description I could think of. But without an intentional system, sometimes I would tag more, other times I would tag less. Sometimes I would use variations of a tag on different notes, such as recipe, recipes, food, dinner recipe, etc. Of course that’s not helpful when you’re trying to look through your recipes and don’t know which tag to search for.

Notebooks vs Tags: How to Use Evernote the Right Way

Getting the most out of Evernote requires using notebooks and tags appropriately. I did a lot of research and adapted the methods used by Michael Hyatt, Jamie Rubin, and Thomas Honeyman.

It also requires creating a system and sticking to it every time you add a note. It’s really easy to get lazy and just add notes, but that’s how they get lost. Consistently using the right notebooks and tags on each note will help you stay organized and easily find it later.

How I Use Notebooks

One way of using notebooks is for different areas of your life, and I used to organize by this method. Jamie Rubin describes in his post how he went from 45 notebooks down to 5: Personal, Professional, Reference, Shared and Self Improvement. This is a good way to organize, as long as you keep the notebooks to a minimum and make sure the notebooks are different enough that they don’t overlap in topic.

I currently use a method I’ve adopted from Michael Hyatt and Thomas Honeyman where I organize notebooks similar to the way organize my email – by steps in a process. My notebooks are: Inbox, Active, Revisit, and Archive.

Inbox

This is where my notes start, and is the default notebook when I create a new note. I try to move notes out of my inbox and keep it to a minimum. Notes are in my inbox because I haven’t had time to tag them or place them into another notebook, so it’s a reminder that I need to do something with those notes. I look at my inbox regularly and try to move notes out of it.

Active

These are the notes I’m currently using or working on. They’ve already been tagged, and I know I’ll be writing in them or viewing them again soon, usually in the next few days. Examples of these can be:

  • Drafts of blog posts I’m writing
  • Itinerary for an upcoming trip
  • Notes on a client project I’m working on

Notes in my Active notebook should also stay low. I shouldn’t be working on a million things at once. If I’m done with the note, it moves out of my Active notebook.

Revisit

This is the solution to all my notes getting lost. Sometimes I have ideas for things I want to do in the future, possibly weeks or months later. But of course, I’m not going to remember it then. This folder is like a reminder folder for notes I’m not currently working on, but will eventually want to take a look at again someday. They might include:

  • Ideas of a new project that I’ll start later
  • Ideas for a vacation farther in the future
  • A list of books to read

When I occasionally go to my Revisit notebook, I take a look at each note and decide whether I want to move it into the Active notebook to keep working on it, leave it in the Revisit folder a little longer, or get rid of it. I usually do an inventory of my Revisit folder at the beginning of each month.

Archive

This notebook is for the rest of my notes. Once I finish something and will not go back to it in the near future, I put it into Archive. It’s still there if I need it in the future, but it’s out of the way.

Sometimes I put notes in the archive folder that I reference quite often. This could be email templates, snippets of web code I reuse, quick recipes, or shopping lists. When I need them, I just search for them. But they’re not in the Active folder because they are not projects that I need to work on and finish.

How I Use Evernote Tags

If I use notebooks for different phases of something, how do I organize my different projects or areas of my life? That’s where tags come in.

The wrong way to use tags is to just describe your note with any word that comes to mind. There’s no need for that, because when you type words into the search, Evernote will search the contents of your notes and find what you’re looking for.

Tags are most useful and most powerful for grouping notes together that you want to browse. The reason you do this in tags instead of notebooks is that a note can have multiple tags.

For example, if I read a book on productivity and takes notes, that could be categorized under business, personal development, and blog article if I intend to write about it.

Tags can be grouped together to create hierarchies. For example, you could have a tag for media, and then within that have tags for text, image, audio, and video.

Michael Hyatt uses the top level tags of what, when and who, and has descriptor tags under that. Thomas Honeyman uses descriptors, knowledge, and projects as his top level tags. However you decide to organize your tags, keep it simple and make sure it makes sense to you.

Here’s how I use my evernote tags.

My Evernote Tag System

I have 4 top level tags: context, topic, format, and projects.

Under context, I describe when and how I took that note. I have tags like phone callmeeting, or presentation.

Under topic, I describe what the notes primarily about. These include tags like marketing, personal development, or vacation.

Under format, I describe what kind of note it is. I have tags like code for all the code snippets I use, article for any blog articles I write, and template for pieces of content I use over and over again, like emails.

Under project, I use tags for each of the projects I work on such as sparkflow for my design business, intrinsic for my social good project, and stevenma for anything related my personal blog.

So every time I create a new note, I just have to think through these 4 categories and tag the note appropriately.

This is useful when you need to browse through multiple notes of the same kind, but aren’t sure what you’re looking for. For example, I may browse notes tagged under format > template for the different email templates I have trying to find the right one, or I may look through notes tagged with project > client-x to reference a specific project I’m working on.

Other uses for tags can be to group all the different notes you have for a trip you’re taking, or various notes for a home decor project. However you create and group your tags, think about the situations in which you would like to browse through multiple notes of the same type.

How to Be Successful With Evernote

I hope my system of notebooks and tags has been helpful and inspired you to take a second look at Evernote. But this is just what works for me. To make Evernote work for you, you’ll need to remember these things.

Keep it simple. Don’t make too many notebooks or tags to where it becomes useless. Start with fewer categories, then add more if you find you need them.

Stick with your system. It’s only helpful if you use it, and you’ll need to intentionally develop that habit before it becomes second nature.

Make it make sense for you. After all, you’re the one using it.

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