You have probably already heard about Evernote. It’s a great tool for taking notes of all kinds. Be it a text, image, sound, web page, PDF document, you can send almost anything to your Evernote account to have it stored there as a digital copy forever.
When I started with Evernote in 2011, I installed it on my Mac and iPhone. I played with it for a while and created a few notes, but I didn’t find it very practical for my needs, so I abandoned it for almost half a year. I tried different solutions instead, but I was never happy with anything. So I got back to Evernote and gave it another look.
I realized that the freedom Evernote offers could be the biggest obstacle. Evernote doesn’t force you to any workflow. It’s totally up to you how you use it.
In this article, I would like to show you how I use Evernote after six years of finding the best practices and why I consider it the best solution for your digital stuff. I am a frequent user of OneNote as well, but this won’t be a comparison between those two platforms. I think they are not comparable as they serve different purposes.
Notebooks versus Tags
The freedom Evernote offers can lead you to the wrong practices when it comes to notebooks and tags.
When I started with Evernote, I created a notebook for each of my projects. It seemed to be a perfect solution. When I added a new note, I just needed to decide to which project it belongs. But soon something unexpected happened. I had to deal with the situation when one note belonged to two projects at the same time.
I didn’t want to make a copy of that note so I could insert it both notebooks. This experience forced me to take a look at tags. Tags are one of the greatest features of Evernote, mainly thanks to its capability of sorting the notes based on the tags assigned.
Let’s say you are looking for a contract signed with your business partner X which deals with specific terms of your project Y. If you use notebooks for projects, you will open the notebook created for project Y. Here, you will go through all the notes until you find the contract.
If you use tags, all you need to do is to search for three tags. One tag is for contracts; one tag is for a business partner, and the last one is for a project.
Any information system is only as good as it’s searching capabilities. After all, that’s why you use any kind of digital cabinet, to be able to quickly find the information you need.
When I discovered the searching power of tags, I realized they are the proper way of sorting my notes. So I have created a particular workflow inspired by the GTD approach.
Meet my Evernote system
Evernote allows you to set the default notebook where it will save anything you will send to it. It can be a photo you take on your iPhone, it can be a contract you scan to your Mac, it can be a voice message you dictate to your Apple Watch.
My notebook for an initial saving of stuff I will sort later is called SORT. This is where everything ends up after it is sent to Evernote.
Beside SORT I have five more notebooks. These are:
The workflow I use is pretty straightforward. The only thing I need for it to work is consistency. It’s critical to go through everything I managed to collect in SORT notebook and decide what to do with it next.
Notes in SORT notebook can be divided into two types of content:
For reference notes I try to answer three questions:
- What type of document is it? Is it a contract, an invoice, a table, a schema?
- Does it belong to some projects?
3. Is it connected with some business partner or some person?
Based on answers to these questions I will assign each note a particular tag.
To be able to search through tags quickly, I have created a system that will immediately show me only those tags relevant to what I am searching for.
For example, each type of document tag starts with a leading d. When searching for tags, I will get only document tags while typing d.
It looks like this:
Analogically, I have a leading k. for people and business partners and p. for projects.
Once all the tags are assigned I will move the note from SORT notebook to ARCHIVE notebook where I store all reference materials.
When the note is a task, I will decide first, if it’s connected to WORK (like meetings) or HOME (like visiting the doctor). Based on this I will move the note to w.active notebook where w. stands for WORK or h.active notebook, you guessed it, h. stands for HOME.
Also if the task needs a cooperation or is delegated to someone else, I will tag it with the leading -> followed by the name of the person. This is especially handy when I have a meeting with a specific person, and I can immediately search for every note I need to discuss with that person.
Some tasks can have a specific date of completion assigned. In that case, I will create a reminder for such a task.
When the task is completed, I will remove -> tags and move it to w.completed or h.completed for later use.
I don’t move completed tasks to ARCHIVE notebook because I might need to reactivate some completed tasks later and I can find them easier in their dedicated notebooks.
Note link is a great feature. Thanks to a note link, you can refer from one note to another one. It works the same way as a regular link on the website leading to another website. I use this frequently in my tasks where I can create a link to saved reference materials without inserting the material itself to the note.
While quick and straightforward task doesn’t need any particular structure, for long-term or non-trivial tasks with a lot of steps, I have found it very practical to be able to create a template I can just copy and paste.
I created a template consisting of two parts. The upper part is an overview where I can see the most important information while the lower part is a list of steps taken in this tasks so far.
This way I can refer to any subtask of information I got during the long-term tasks.
Here’s an example of my template:
And here’s the link where you can download this template and import it to your Evernote: https://zavrel.net/evernote/task-template.enex
If you search for something frequently, it might be a good idea to save your search for later use. This way you can quickly find all the notes meeting specific criteria.
Saved searches are something like views. If you have an experience with SharePoint, you might know that views are filtered records based on the parameters you chose.
Saved searches work similarly as views. You select only those notes that are tagged with specified tags and save the result for later use. You can, for example, save a search containing only contracts signed with a specific partner and belonging to a specific project. Later, when a new contract is signed with the same partner, it will automatically appear in such a saved search provided it belongs to the same project.
Don’t overcomplicate it
Remember that you won’t probably use the workflow which is too complicated. With tags, it’s very easy to end up with a lot of them suddenly.
I have currently almost 700 tags, and I know it’s too much, especially if a specific tag has only a few appearances. In my case, most tags are for business partners and documents types.
Evernote has a pretty good searching engine, it indexes everything, it can look into the content of your documents, including images. Use tags only to the extent so that they will help you, don’t try to tag every document with 20 tags, sooner or later you will get lost in it and stop using it altogether.