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You’ve been using Evernote for years, with your entire life stored on your account. Everything used to work so well. But that meticulous notebook structure is now nothing more than a blight on your existence.

Trying to find a specific note? You may as well try to find a fart in a windstorm.

But remember, the problem doesn’t rest with Evernote here. Evernote is actually an incredible tool. You’re just organizing your notes in a way that can’t be scaled. There is a solution, though. And it’s a solution that can work for anyone, no matter how many notes you’re trying to keep on top of.

The Problem With Evernote’s Notebooks

Evernote has three layers to its organizational structure. It’s pretty simple, but you need to understand it to get the most out of the app.

evernote brand

First off are notebooks. These are like “folders”, where you save individual notes.

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Next are stacks. These are like parent folders to help better organize your notebooks.

When most people start using Evernote, they fixate on these notebooks and stacks. It’s probably a hangover from organizing your files on Windows in the same way. But Evernote’s notebooks and stacks have two main problems.

  • Notebooks can’t be nested. This means your organizational structure can only be one level deep. In other words, you can have a child folder within a parent folder. But you can’t have a child folder within another child folder.
  • Second (and most frustrating) is that you can only place each note in one Notebook. If you have a note that’s relevant to two notebooks… tough. You can only choose one.

As your library of notes grows, these problems are almost guaranteed to turn your otherwise organized notes into a complete mess.

Luckily, Evernote has a third organizational tool: tags. You can assign descriptive, searchable tags to each note to help granularly organize your notes. You can also nest these tags, and assigned several tags to each note. Problem solved.

Fixing Your Notebook Problem

If you have a complex system of notebooks, your first challenge is to narrow these down to as few as possible.

Before I reorganized my own account, I had over 40 individual notebooks. Now I have five. You, however, might choose to have only two or three. These new notebooks are simply a way to organize everything extremely broadly. The real organization comes later.

Your Collection Box

The most important of your few notebooks should be the initial notebook created for you when you set up your Evernote account. By default, this is named “[Username]’s Notebook”. Rename this to something like “-Inbox” or “-CollectionBox” to make it more descriptive.

Tip: Placing a symbol like “-” before the notebook name keeps the notebook at the top of your notebook list.

evernote collection box

This notebook is where you’ll save pretty much all your new notes by default. When you create a new note through the mobile app, or grab a screenshot with Evernote’s Web Clipper Evernote's New Web Clipper Is The Ultimate Content Saving Tool Evernote's New Web Clipper Is The Ultimate Content Saving Tool Evernote's Web Clipper isn't new. But if you haven't heard, or perhaps didn't like the Evernote clipper in the past, this is the right time to look into it again. Read More , these should all be dumped into your “CollectionBox”. This saves you the hassle of tagging each and every note as soon as you create it.

It’s far more productive to batch process that tagging Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Are you looking for a more efficient way to organise your work-days? Try Time Blocking. This time management tactic can help keep you on track while keeping distractions, procrastination, and unproductive multitasking at bay. Read More every week (or month). Having all these new notes in a single notebook like this makes tagging quick and simple.

A Limited Number of Other Notebooks

You should create any other notebooks sparingly. The more notebooks you create, the longer it will take you to decide where each note belongs. And the harder it’ll be for you to locate notes later on.

Since this new system relies so heavily on tags for organizing notes, notebooks are barely needed. If you take this to the extreme, you could create just one other notebook called “FilingCabinet”.

evernote moving notes

Tip: Avoid placing spaces in your notebook names and tags. This makes searching a lot easier.

After you tag each note in your “CollectionBox”, just move it over to your “Filing Cabinet”. This way, you’ll always know where you’re up to. And if you have a decent tagging system, it’s easy to keep a huge number of notes organized with just two notebooks. More on this later.

I chose to create a few other notebooks, however.

current evernote setup

  • Ideas — Any notes detailing ideas I want to save, including article ideas, places I’m hoping to travel to, etc.
  • Personal — Where I store non-work related notes.
  • Reference — Where saved articles, book notes, screenshots, quotes, PDFs, receipts etc. are stored. Basically, any “knowledge” I might want to find in the future. This is by far my largest notebook.
  • Work — Where I store any work-related notes.

Your own notebook structure will be different to this, for sure. Just be mindful of creating notebooks sparingly. The more notebooks you have, the harder it is to keep everything organized.

Getting Serious With Tagging

As I said, your notebooks should just be the broad foundation of your Evernote structure. The essence of your system should rely on tags.

The unscalable option here is to tag notes with a couple of rough topics, and hope you remember these tags in the future. Good luck with that!

The scalable option (a small sample of my own tags is below) is far more elegant.

evernote tag structure

Essentially, when tagging each note you want to know a few things about it:

  • What area it relates to, broadly speaking; preceded by “1”.
  • What type of content it is; preceded by “2”.
  • What theme(s) it covers, more specifically; preceded by “3”.

The system I’m advocating does just this. When I tag each note using this system, I know I want to tag these three specific things about it. Each note should have at least one tag that relates to each of these three points. This makes it very easy to sort and find notes on a granular level.

For example, when I review the below highlight from Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road, I can see at a glance that I’ve tagged all three points. This is a personal note (meaning it’s not work related), it’s a book note, and it’s on the topic of life and travel.

evernote practical tags example

Your own individual tagging taxonomy will be different to mine. But a relatively similar structure is an extremely scalable way of organizing your notes. It takes some time to get used to this, but it’ll soon become second nature.

Finding Specific Notes

When it comes to finding notes in the future, there are two features that are especially useful: the search bar and saved searches.

When using the search bar, you can search multiple tags to find exactly what you’re looking for. Let’s say you remember saving a note from a conversation you had with a friend about traveling to Brazil. If you tagged this note properly, the following search would pull up that specific conversation.

evernote search tags

This is the real beauty of using this kind of tagging system. Searching for a quote about politics? No problem.

evernote search

Tip: Placing numbers before tags like this helps you to know that you’ve assigned tags for each of the three areas relating to each note. This ensures you cover all angles to help you find the notes in the future.

For searches you find yourself performing routinely, set up a saved search. To do this, set up your search. At the bottom of the search box, you can also add other parameters such as notebooks, tags, keywords, etc.. Below, I’ve set up a saved search for ideas relating to work.

evernote search parameters

When your search is complete, on Windows click File > Save Search, On Mac click Edit > Find > Save Search, and name your search. From now on, when you click the search box, you’ll see a link to that saved search to pull up the results instantly. You can also drag the saved search over to the shortcuts widget for even easier access.

Automate Where Possible

There’s no point spending more time tagging your notes than is necessary. Luckily, you can automate this in a few areas. The main way of doing this is by using the automation platform IFTTT (if this, then that).

You can use IFTTT to connect different services Capture Your Creative Ideas Instantly with the Simplicity of IFTTT Capture Your Creative Ideas Instantly with the Simplicity of IFTTT Setting up a central system to track your ideas is worth the time and effort it requires. Your creativity and productivity will thank you for it. Here is a simple way. Read More to your Evernote account. You can then tell the platform to save certain kinds of notes to certain notebooks. It can even assign specific tags.

I have this set up to save all my Instagram posts to my Reference notebook, and tag these 1personal, 2instagram, 3travel.

I’m also addicted to reading articles on Instapaper Become an Instapaper Power User With These 6 Cool Features Become an Instapaper Power User With These 6 Cool Features Despite an impressive adoption rate, a plethora of Instapaper features often remain unexplored. Let’s take a look at a few of them. Read More , and take a ton of notes on what I read. It therefore makes sense to have another automation set up that saves all of my Instapaper highlights to my CollectionBox notebook, with the tag “2contentnotes”. This saves me some time when it comes to tagging everything in my CollectionBox each week.

evernote automation

To see a more comprehensive list of how else IFTTT can work with Evernote, see here.

Could This Work for You?

This method may not seem quite as simple as just dragging and dropping your notes into vague notebooks. But it is far more scalable. In short:

  • Save pretty much all of your notes to a “CollectionBox” notebook.
  • Routinely tag each of your notes, using a taxonomy that works for you. This should explain:
    1. What the note relates to.
    2. What type of content it is.
    3. What themes it covers.
  • Move the note to one of the few notebooks you’ve set up.
  • Use these tags to find specific notes in the future.

This tagging system (or something like it) can help you locate specific notes in flash. It keeps everything far more organized How to Organize Your Out-of-Control Reading List Right Now How to Organize Your Out-of-Control Reading List Right Now A reading list serves a lot of functions -- from practical to inspirational. But it can also get out of hand. Using these tips to manage your reading hobby can do wonders for your life. Read More than most other systems out there. And it stays organized no matter how many notes you have.

If you decide to go ahead with a system like this, it will take some time to re-organize your Evernote library. But once you’ve got into the routine of tagging your notes like this, you’ll start to realize just how useful Evernote can be.

Is this a system you think could work for you? If not, how come?

Image Credit: Antonio Guillem via Shutterstock.com

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  1. Tony Adams
    May 9, 2017 at 1:10 am

    Thanks Rob,
    I really like the thinking behind your approach. Much neater and infinitely scalable. Nice!
    I've taken a deep breath and spent a few hours reorganising my 32 notebooks down to 4, and also built a system of "nested tags" similar to yours.

    One thing I've added is a fourth level of tagging - "4 Name", which I use to name the company/people specific to the note. So for example, I will have a note with some client meeting minutes that will be tagged with "1 Business", "2 Minutes", "3 StatusUpdate", "4 ClientName", "4JohnSmith".

    Using the "4 Name" tag means that we can quickly build a CRM model - for example, I can call up a person's name and see every meeting, document, phone call etc. that they have been involved with.

    All the best, Tony

    • Tom
      June 6, 2017 at 1:33 am

      Sweet!

    • Tom
      June 6, 2017 at 1:36 am

      Sweet..great article and tips

  2. Marcus
    May 3, 2017 at 5:18 am

    Thanks for such a clearly written article, I am working through my notes at the moment and the benefit of this is I am at the very least ditching a lot of redundant notes.
    Having started I think my top tip is definitely start with the end in mind and work out your 1 & 2 categories carefully first, write them down don't make them up as you are tagging or you can end up, like me, undoing and reworking. I suspect for 3 Tags this is not so vital.

    • Rob Nightingale
      May 8, 2017 at 10:56 am

      I've found the first and second tag sets are pretty stable, so figuring these out in advance works well. The third set can end up being a pretty long list, though I haven't found this to be problematic :)

  3. Ahmad Dia
    April 9, 2017 at 5:54 am

    Hey, love the concept but had a quick question.

    How are you differentiating between personal/work/reference notebooks and personal/work/reference tags? Don't you end up just tagging everything in personal notebook with personal tag, etc.?

    The only place that becomes non-redundant is under reference, being able to say something is personal or work... but then what dictates that should be in reference notebook vs putting it straight into personal or work notebook anyways?

    Thoughts?

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 25, 2017 at 3:44 pm

      Hi Ahmad! Yes, you're right. Everything in the personal notebook is tagged "1personal". There's not really a specific reason for this, but I thought that if I ever export all of my notes, this will give me more options for how, and what, notes I will export. It's not a particularly great reason, but I didn't want to just jump in and throw EVERYTHING into a single notebook once it had been tagged, though if you wanted to, as mentioned in the article, this would likely work just as well...

  4. cosmin
    April 6, 2017 at 10:45 am

    Rob, Hi!

    I like you tagging system. Nice and simple.
    Where I have difficulties is limiting the number of 3. themes to a manageable list of 20.
    How did you overcome this issue?
    Would you be so kind to share your thoughts.

    Best regards,

    Cosmin

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 25, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      I don't think you really need to limit this. I currently have around 30 "theme" tags. I know this will likely grow as I continue to use this system.

      So you don't get carried away with this though, I'd suggest remembering that Evernote's search feature is fantastic. Although you can search via tags, you can also just search for keywords within the content, which makes finding notes a lot easier, even if you haven't tagged them perfectly.

      Keep the tags broad. For anything more specific, search for specific keywords via the search bar.

  5. Mr Fish
    April 3, 2017 at 11:47 pm

    If my life ever became so complicated that I needed a computer program to manage it, I think suicide would be an option.

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 4, 2017 at 10:13 am

      Sounds a bit extreme.

  6. Andy Reti
    April 3, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    If you title notes carefully you can use the search function.

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 4, 2017 at 10:12 am

      You can to an extent. But if you're say, researching for a paper/book etc. then you may want to categorize 50+ related notes. Relying on titles for this would be pretty cumbersome.

  7. Stephen Silk
    March 31, 2017 at 7:34 am

    I use a very similar system, though one of your ideas solves an ongoing problem I've had.

    There is, however, one huge problem with using tags - you can't sync by them, only by notebooks. So if you only want a subset of your notes on your devices, then you have to break them into notebooks. I archive completed projects, for example, and don't need to store them on my storage-limited devices.

    To me, syncing by tag is a no-brainer, but Evernote haven't seen fit to implement it.

    • Rob
      March 31, 2017 at 2:16 pm

      Actually, yes, this is a problem. Thanks for the heads up. I'm going to try and find a solution!

  8. Nick
    March 28, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    I love this method. I've been using tags as my primary organization for a long time but your set of three required categories makes a lot of sense. I'll give it a try.

    • Rob
      March 31, 2017 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks Nick! I'd love to hear how this goes for you!

  9. Glenn
    March 28, 2017 at 6:11 pm

    I keep wanting to use the nested option, but I use Evernote on the phone and tablet most. There's no nested tag option in the clipper. Having to pull out the laptop at home to tag everything later is an extra step I don't want to waste time on. I put everything in pretty generic notebooks. I have about 20, then I add tags with the clipper. For example I have a stack for technology and have notebooks for hardware, coding, apps, tech notes under there. I assign it with the web clipper than add tags like .net, iOS,Evernote, surface...I can search the notebooks later and filter by tags...no extra organizing later needed.

    • Babs
      March 30, 2017 at 3:50 pm

      Even if you did set up nested tags on your computer, there's still no way to search for them, nested, in the app. So don't waste your time.

      I use the app exclusively because I'm rarely at my computer anymore. When Evernote realizes there are more like us, and decides to bring all the features of the web version to the app, I will be a happy camper.

    • Rob
      March 31, 2017 at 2:18 pm

      The actual method used here doesn't actually use nested tags, that's just an added extra. It's definitely a feature Evernote should add though. Unfortunately, they're pretty damn slow at improving the platform.

  10. Rongovian
    March 28, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    If you want the content of one note in more than one notebook you CAN do this, contrary to your article, in two ways: (1) use the copy note function from the drop down menu and place it in the other notebook(s) or (2) use note links to insert a clickable link to the note in another note in the other notebook(s). You can also use note links to enable a quick link to notes from other locations, such as calendars, to-do lists, emails, etc.

    • Rob
      March 31, 2017 at 2:20 pm

      I guess that's a workaround but for people who take a lot of notes that could add a lot of extra work. I though about creating "table of contents" style notes mysefl, with links to other notes, but it just seemed overly clunky...