Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Evernote: Stop Filing and Start Tagging


New Tools, Old Habits

When people shift to a paperless filing system, they bring their paper-based mindset with them. New users see Evernote’s notebooks and think, “Folders!” And because notebooks are quick and cheap and easy to create, they soon have hundreds of them.

But over time, as the collection of notebooks grows, this system works against you. As the number of notebooks increases, so does the amount of time required to decide where to file a particular note.

Soon, you catch yourself scrolling through your long list of notebooks, asking, “Hmmm … which notebook does *this* note belong in?” Later, you’ll struggle to recall which notebook contains which note. You’ll even catch yourself creating a new notebook to hold a specific note … and realizing, after the fact, that you had already created a very similar notebook during a previous session.

All this scanning, scrolling, debating, manual searching, and backtracking consumes time and energy. Eventually, maintaining the system becomes a job in itself. So much for the advantages of a paperless system!

Fortunately, in Evernote, there’s a better way of getting things done.

Two New Habits

To enjoy the benefits of Evernote’s better way, you’ll have to your paper-based filing habits with two new paperless ones:

1) Start using tags.

2) Stop thinking of notebooks as folders.

Start Using Tags

Tags are, essentially, labels. Many new Evernote users don’t use tags effectively, because they are used to investing so much energy in building elaborate folder-based filing systems.

Why is tagging more efficient? Here’s the key: a note can only go into one notebook, but it can have many tags.

Remember CustomerCo’s unpaid December invoice? If you use a folder-based system, you’ll be forced to decide whether to file in one of at least three possible notebooks: CustomerCo, December 2011, or Unpaid Invoices. Later, instead of depending on search, you’ll be tempted to waste even more time pawing through these notebooks, trying to find the note you need.

But with tagging, you slap a few labels (CustomerCo, December 2011, Unpaid Invoices) onto the note and you’re done. When you need the note again, a search on any of these tags (or a combination of them) will summon exactly what you need, when you need it, in the blink of an eye.

Tagging makes “finding without filing” possible. If you can avoid projecting an outdated, paper-based folder metaphor on this sleek new system, you’ll never have to ask “Where should I file this?” or “Where did I put that?” again.

Stop Thinking of Noteboooks as Folders

In my Evernote application, I have only two permanent notebooks: the Inbox notebook (the landing place for newly captured, untagged notes) and the Archives notebook (where every note, once properly tagged, will be permanently stored). Because I tag every note before archiving it, I can instantly summon a collection of related notes on the fly, as needed — and never worry about filing anything again.

When working on a specific project, I may, for the sake of convenience, create a temporary notebook for notes related to that project. Right now, for example, all the flight information, hotel reservations, and destination ideas for our upcoming cruise to Norway and Sweden go into a notebook called “EuroCruise2011.”

Why? Because while the project is ongoing, giving it prominent placement speeds access. (And, because I have so few notebooks, the filing process remains friction-free.) But as soon as that project is over  — when the cruise is over — I will:

- Tag all the notes inside that notebook with a common tag. In this case, I’ll select all entries and tag them with “EuroCruise2011.”

- Move all those notes into the Archives notebook.

- Delete the EuroCruise notebook.

Next May, when a friend asks about destination ideas for her trip to Norway, I won’t have to spend a single minute scrolling through notebooks or wondering where I filed those notes. Instead, I’ll click the EuroCruise2011 tag (or just search for it), and, like magic, Evernote will locate and present to me a bound copy of all my cruise-related notes in the wink of an eye.

New Tools, New Habits

Why hobble a powerful new tool with archaic old habits? Save time, save effort, and gain efficiency. Set paper metaphors aside. Let Evernote do the filing and finding for you.

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