One of the things that I find extremely helpful when dealing with a new technological gadget is comparing it to an existing one or a settled habit. This line of thought has, for example, helped me understanding some basics of email and netiquette. Now, I’d like to trace a parallel between using Evernote and the way we keep track of notes and sketches in real life and see if we can learn something useful.
Let’s begin by listing out the physical supports that I use for taking notes and remembering things (Ok ok, stop bugging me: as a physicist I know that even digital information in a device is “physically supported”! Let’s pretend for now that the digital domain is something immaterial and concentrate on technology not much more advanced than papyrus and stylus.):
- Various notebooks (one mainly for work, one with musical notations, a sketchbook, a couple of small-sized ones for other topics, some loose-leaf in bag and car)
- Post-it notes
- Backs of envelopes
- The other side of sheets printed by mistake
- Business cards
- Sidenotes in books
It seems a lot of stuff in a lot of different places, right? In fact, one of the good things about Evernote is that it stores everything in just one place if you allow it to become your first basket for digital information. However, a big basket can still look like a complete mess if you don’t put some order into it. So, one could be led into asking “Is there something equivalent to a notebook inside Evernote?”. The answer is yes: you can create notebooks inside Evernote, and assign each note to one or (exclusive or) another. Thus, notebooks are a way to separate notes in a rigid system: you can again have you Work notebook, which does not contain anything related to your Recipes notebook, nor do both have anything in common with your business card holder. This reasoning seems very logical and “organised”, whatever this word is supposed to mean.
Now let’s question this division and have some fun: what if your boss asks you to cook something for an impromptu meeting with a client, and hands you the business card of a good grocery store where to buy ingredients? Do you plan the lunch on your work notebook, then skim for a good recipe on another notebook, and then plan your car trip looking at the address in your card holder? Life is complicated and well-defined borders are seldom the case. You’d like to find a way to tie the grocery store to your work since your boss loves it. You want to record that that recipe is well suited to be cooked at work since it is light and the small office kitchen can handle it. Many things that happen at work can relate to aspects of our lives that you would never have imagined.
There is a very practical solution for the cases when you don’t want to be rigid about your categorisation system: use tags. A tag is pretty much what you can imagine: a label that you apply to a note. You can have multiple tags on a note: following the above example, you may want to tag a note as “Work”, “Recipe” and “Contact”. Let’s have a look at the following picture, which is my Evernote work-in-progress for this post.
You’ll notice, in the upper part of the note, the light blue tags “Blogging”, “Blogpost”, “Evernote”, “ToDevelop”. I chose this set because the note is something related to my blogging, it’s clearly a blog post, it is connected to Evernote and, finally, is something I’m working on and want to develop. The very cool thing about tags is that you can customize their use in an entirely free-form way, and you can find a note using them as search parameters.
I am now assuming that you know how to perform a basic search in Evernote: to make it very short, you just start typing in the search box and notes containing that string begin to appear. If you want to restrict the search to a given tag you need to write something using the “tag:” operator, like “tag:MyTag”. Adding more will result in an “and” search, where all the tags must be present. In my case, writing: “tag:blogpost” will find all my blog posts, while “tag:Evernote” will find all the notes about Evernote. Instead, going for “tag:blogpost tag:Evernote” will search for all blog posts related to Evernote, thus a more restricted set of notes. If, on the contrary, you want to have notes with either the tag Blogpost or the tag Evernote, you can write “any:” before your search, in this way: “any: tag:blogpost tag:Evernote”. The “any” stands for “any of the following conditions”.
Another thing you may want to try is searching for a note which does not have a tag: for this, it is sufficient to put a minus sign before the operator. Example: “Which are my blog posts not related to Evernote?” translates, in search jargon, to “tag:blogpost -tag:Evernote”.
A couple more technical points before moving on:
- searches are not case-sensitive with tag names if you define a tag with some spaces in its name, like “blog post”, you need to write it between two ” signs: “tag “blog post””
- you can use the DOS-style “*” jolly character to substitute for “any string of characters. So, “tag:To*” would find all your notes tagged ToDo, ToRead, ToWatch, Tomorrow, Toronto and so on.
- An elegant trick that I like to use now and then is to search for untagged notes using the search “-tag:*”, so I can catch up with them and act accordingly (delete or tag as fit).
Another convenient thing is to use a “Current” tag to define which note, in a series of seemingly identical ones, is the one which is now valid or active. I find very convenient to have a note listing my to-dos for almost every day, tagged something like “Work” and “ToDo”, and the active one, and only it, is tagged “Current” as well. This way I can refer to a saved search looking for “tag:ToDo tag:Work tag:Current” to see what I need to do right now. If I need to know how I get there, I can always take a look at just “tag:ToDo tag:Work” (without Current) to see how things progressed in the past. To keep this system in good order you need to remember to delete the Current tag in the old note and to put it in the newest one of the thread. You can get into this habit very naturally if you do your planning every evening for the next day, which is a lovely habit regardless of the tool you are using. You are in fact telling your mind what to do next day in advance, so you don’t need to spend the first and most productive hours of the day finding out what to do: you can perform productive actions right after waking up.
You may want to ask why to use notebooks instead of tags, if notes can be found the same way with both categorizations and tags are more flexible? I can think of three reasons:
- If you are using a paid version of Evernote, you can save notes on mobile devices on a per-notebook basis. So, you may want to have some crucial or often accessed information always with you, and others left to be retrieved online to save space on the device
- You can share notes on a per-notebook basis: you may want to share office knowledge with colleagues while keeping their eyes away from your private stuff
- Some applications complementing Evernote require having a dedicated notebook or, at least, an existing notebook to default to when adding notes to your archive (for example, Carbo and Penultimate).
Moreover, I’d like to mention that the consensus, and my personal experience, gravitates towards using, at least, two notebooks in your Evernote. The purpose of one is to serve as an Inbox, the temporary entry point into your filing/organising/reference system, where to put all the new stuff. The second is a “General” notebook, for all the notes that were processed (e.g. tagged, refined, enriched…) from your Inbox.
I promise you to come up, I hope very soon, with a post describing my notebook and tag system. I will try not to impose my way to you, but to underline some principles of notes organization and processing.
Something I’m very excited about these days is getting acquainted with the “Getting things done”, or GTD, methodology, and the discovery that Evernote is probably the best tool to implement it digitally, thanks to tags and powerful search options. More on this to follow, stay tuned!
One last thing: I’m thinking about migrating from Moleskine to Midori notebooks for my paper notes (in the opening image, you can see two Moleskine encircling a Midori Traveler’s). Any thought, opinion or suggestion?
If you have anything worth noting, say it in the comment below.
Until next time, enjoy your life!