The all-new Evernote.

Using Evernote (the right way)

hi, i'm thomas.
Dec 3, 2014 · 6 min read

I believe that the best insights are made possible when they’re built from the best knowledge available. Discovering that information gets easier and easier every single day. Medium has become my go-to resource for war stories from the startup community. Twitter, of course, is my source of quality real-time news. Quora is my first move when I need a complex question answered.

But I’ve always struggled to hold on to that knowledge once I’ve found it. My brain stores thoughts about as well as my hands hold water, and it took me years to finally find a tool which was up to the task. That tool, of course, is Evernote.

It was hardly love at first sight. I had Evernote installed for two years without ever saving a single note. In January of this year, I saved my first note in a desperate attempt to begin getting my parking tickets in order (I live in Los Angeles). I spent the next few months with just a couple of tickets and to-do lists saved in Evernote, wondering why people loved it so much. But it 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?

Essentially, I learned the right way to use Evernote. Here’s what I learned:

The key: Tags, not notebooks.

When I first started using Evernote, I used it the way I’ve always used physical notebooks: a note goes in a notebook.

Of course!

So I created a bunch of notebooks. One notebook for a school class. One notebook for my parking tickets. One notebook for reminiscing about coffee. Unfortunately, this is a fine way to miss out on perhaps the most powerful way to use Evernote: the tagging system. I discovered this system through a wonderful Michael Hyatt post. He noticed that tags are essentially the same thing as notebooks, except with a lot more power (and a lot less visual reinforcement). Here’s how to use them.

Note: You can only create tag hierarchies on the desktop Evernote client. On iOS or web, you won’t be able to make hierarchies, but using tags in your notes will work just the same. It’s not as pretty visually, but it’s just as powerful.

Step 1. Create Notebooks

Before you get deep into tags, you’ll still have to have some kind of notebook to save your notes in. But instead of a complex notebook system, you can keep it extremely simple! I organize my hundreds of notes into just five notebooks:

  1. Inbox All notes start out in the Inbox. The Inbox is for all the notes you haven’t dealt with yet. Notes stay in the Inbox until I’m ready to tag and move to the right notebook.
  2. Cabinet The first notebook is called the Cabinet. Almost all of my notes will be sent here. It holds useful articles, book summaries, working documents from my projects, and other information.
  3. Memories The second notebook is simply called Memories. It’s exactly what it sounds like: it’s designed to hold photos, audio recordings, videos, writing, and other important memories from my life. They don’t quite make sense in the work-oriented Cabinet notebook, so I’ve created a separate notebook for memories.
  4. Reference The third notebook is also my most-hated notebook. Reference holds all the lunch receipts and parking tickets and product serial numbers and other miscellaneous chunks of random information I don’t want to deal with, but have to. I separate them all out into the Reference notebook, where I rarely enter.
  5. Trash This one’s pretty self-explanatory.

And that’s it — an incredibly simple and easily-organized set of notebooks is all you need.

Step 2. Create Tags

Instead of placing a note into a specific notebook, create a tag and assign that tag to the note. For example, instead of a notebook called “Skydiving” create a tag of that name and assign it to all of the notes. The advantage is that you can add other tags as well, like “Receipts” if the note is a receipt, and “YOLO” if you feel like it. Instead of only being able to find the note by navigating to the correct notebook, instead you can simply search tag:“Skydiving”, or any of the other tags.

Step 3. Organize Tags

Here’s the real beauty: unlike notebooks, which can only be grouped together into a stack, tags can be nested into hierarchies according to whatever makes sense for you. Keep in mind that they will display alphabetically, so you can use symbols like periods, hashtags, or numbers to force your tags into the order you want. I broadly organize my tags into three groupings. Here’s what that looks like:

The first is called .Descriptors and contains all the tags I use to describe what sort of note I’ve saved. For example, I’ll use conversation to tag short summaries of conversations I’ve had. Since you can nest tags in a hierarchy, I group descriptors according to what they reference. Common People contains the names of people I interact with often; Common Sources contains common blogs, websites, and news sources I save excerpts from, and Misc has random descriptors which don’t fit anywhere else. Using these tags lets me use Evernote’s search to instantly find conversations I’ve had with my roommate about whether or not ghosts are real.

The second is called .Knowledge and contains tags associated with different fields. While descriptors describe what kind of information is in the note, knowledge tags describe the topic of the note, if there is one. For example, I have a group of seventeen tags inside .Knowledge, each referring to a different sort of marketing (content marketing, SEO, dancing around with a sign on a street corner, and so on). When I find a particularly compelling Quora answer about SEO, I save it to Evernote with the SEO tag from .Knowledge, and the Quora tag from .Descriptors. The next time I work on an SEO project, 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’m the co-founder of an online music collaboration platform called FindMySong, so I have a tag, FindMySong, which I associate with all tags about the business. I’m also a current student at the University of Southern California, so of course each of my classes have their own tag. Whether it’s the course syllabus, a writing assignment, my notes, or assigned readings for the class, I can find them all easily by simply searching the tag. Or, if I have just wrapped up a meeting with a new potential business partner, I can tag it with conversation, their name, and FindMySong. Now, there are multiple ways I can find the note — and if I simply want to see all the important conversations I had at the company, I can do it with a simple search. Magic.

That’s it!

My hope is that you’ve learned a few tricks from this article which will help you use Evernote to its full potential. Setting up Evernote this way can seem daunting at first, and it will take you a few hours to get your tags all set up. It’s so worth it.

Good luck!

    hi, i'm thomas.

    Written by

    PureScript engineer at Conde Nast. Artificial Intelligence MS student at GA Tech. Cognitive Science BS from USC. Find me online: http://thomashoneyman.com