Going paperless: tips for organizing your digital file cabinet

I get a lot of questions about how I organize my notes in Evernote so I thought I would use this week’s post to describe my taxonomy and provide tips for creating your own taxonomy. One caveat that I should point out from the start: a taxonomy–how we organize information–tends to be a very personal thing. But there are a few common elements to developing a taxonomy. Today’s post offers some tips for doing that, while describing my own taxonomy in some detail.

Tip #1: Define your requirements before your taxonomy

When I began using Evernote to go paperless, I had some very specific ideas in mind about how I wanted to use it. I did not want it to be just a place to store documents online. I wanted it to be a living, breathing tool that allowed me to get through my day without the need for paper. I also took Evernote’s slogan of “remember everything” seriously and wanted it to be a place that I could go to find out when something happened. So before I ever created a single notebook, I listed out a set of requirements:

  1. I wanted to be able to store anything that was in paper form electronically.
  2. I wanted to be able to jot notes in the tool instead of having to grab a scrap of paper
  3. I wanted a taxonomy that would be unambiguous; that is, I never wanted to pause, wondering if I should tag a note as X or as Y; the taxonomy should be simple enough to make such decisions obvious
  4. I did not want to spend more than 5 seconds applying my taxonomy to a note
  5. I wanted to be able to find anything I was looking for in less than 5 seconds

It might seem silly to specify such a short time space (5 seconds to tag a note; 5 seconds to search for any note) but what I was trying to do was force myself to develop a taxonomy that minimized the time I’d spent applying tags and other attributes and still make searching fast. Based on these requirements, I decided to organize my notebooks to correspond to the major areas of my life. I identified 3 major areas:

  1. Home Life. This includes my “paperless filing cabinet” which replaced my physical filing cabinet. It also includes things like school art projects that my kids produce, electronic copies of magazines, recipes and other miscellaneous items.
  2. Work Life. This includes everything related to my day job. Meeting notes, code snippets, software architectural sketches, important e-mail messages, whatever is related to my day job.
  3. Writing Life. This includes anything related to my life as a science fiction writer and blogger. Contracts, copies of checks for payments I’ve received, notes for stories and blog posts, galleys, story critiques from my writing group, guest posts and articles I’ve written. It all goes here.

I make use of Evernote’s notebook “stacks” to collect all of this information into the three stacks listed above. Within each of those stacks (Home Life, Work Life, and Writing Life) are one or more notebooks. I try to keep the notebooks to a minimum because I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to remember where to put something. I only create notebooks where there are clear boundaries.

That seemed like a good start but there was something missing. Evernote prides itself on its ability to help you “remember everything” and I took that seriously. That kind of thing is important to me. For instance, I’ve kept a diary in one form or another since I was 23 years old. I like the fact that I can go back to any date and see what I was doing on that day. How could I replicate this within Evernote?

I decided I needed another notebook stack, one that I called “Diary”. Within that stack I added three notebooks:

  1. Reading
  2. Social Networking
  3. Timeline

Anything I read, a book, a story, whatever, gets a note that is tossed into the Reading notebook. I have a list of everything I’ve read since January 1, 1996 and it is all there in Evernote. Sometimes, it’s just a note containing the title, author, and a tag to tell me if it is a novel, short story, nonfiction, etc. Sometimes, I’ve written a review of what I read right there in the note. Sometimes, I’ve just made a few remarks.

The Social Networking notebook is a repository for a lot of my online activity. I use a service (IFTTT.com) to automatically send all of my tweets to Evernote, for example. I do the same for Foursquare check-ins. I never have to think about capturing this stuff. It just flows automatically into this notebook as the updates are made. I will discuss this in more detail in next week’s post.

The Timeline notebook is the most important of all of these. It is here that the real power of Evernote’s “remember everything” slogan takes shape. Anything I want to remember goes in here in discrete notes. My kid gets a haircut, I’ll make a note, “Kid got haircut” and toss it onto the timeline. Maybe I’ll add a photo to it. My baby daughter says, “Da-da” for the first time, and I’ll add a quick note to the timeline. Go to the movies? Find out I sold a story. It all goes onto the timeline. How I use the timeline to “remember everything” is what next week’s post is all about.

So my taxonomy had four notebook stacks: Home Life, Work Life, Writing Life, and Diary. And this worked well for a few days until I realized there was one category that was missing: Reference. Sometimes I’d come across a code snippet that I thought was useful, but it wasn’t clear where it should go. Maybe the code snippet was for Mathematica and I was using it for personal analytics. Work Life didn’t seem right, nor did Writing Life or Home Life. Diary wasn’t a place for something like that. So I created one more stack, called “Reference” to keep this kind of information.

Evernote Stacks.PNG

Tip #2: Have a specific purpose in mind when you do use a tag

Having defined a good set of requirements for how I wanted to use Evernote to go paperless, I decided that I would need to be a tagging minimalist in order to meet my requirements. If you have lots of tags, you have to spend lots of time thinking about which tags to apply to your notes. I didn’t want to do that. I decided that I would only use tags when I wanted to be able to group a set of notes together in a list of some kind. I’d say that 60% of my notes have no tags. Indeed, the place you’ll find the most tags is in my Reading notebook and my Timeline. And the only reason I use tags there is to define some boundaries in the type of data that appears in the timeline or to easily be able to see a list of novellas that I’ve read.

Tip #3: Be consistent in the way you use note attributes

Notes have a number of useful attributes: when it was created, when it was last modified, what type of data it contains, where it came from, etc. By being consistent in how these are used, it makes it much easier for me to find what I am looking for.

For example: because I am interested in when things happened relative to other things (when did that bill come in? When was the last time I took the little boy for a haircut) I use the Created Date field of the note to represent the time of the event in question, not necessarily the time the note was created. Sometimes the two coincide, but not always. After I read a book, I’ll create a note and toss it into my reading folder. If it happens to be the same day that I finished the book, I don’t do anything else. If, however, I finish the book on Friday and don’t add the note until Sunday, then I’ll change the create date of the note to Friday because it represents the time of the event (finishing the book). By doing this, when I search by dates, I know that the dates represented are always the date on which the event took place.

Tip #4: Use Evernote’s native search capabilities to find what you are looking for

Being a tag minimalist allows me to get notes entered quickly, without having to wonder or worry much how to tag them. But what about find the notes that I am looking for?

In part, I decided I didn’t need elaborate tags because Evernote’s search capabilities are good enough to go without them. Remember my requirement for being able to find whatever I am looking for within 5 seconds? I think that I hit that mark 99% of the time, even without tags.

I received a jury summons a few months back. The summons told me I had to call on Sunday evening, April 29, 2012 to see if my group was to report for jury duty the following Monday. I scanned in the summons as part of my regular routine. It went into my “paperless filing cabinet” automatically. I added no tags to it whatsoever. Sunday evening, I found myself at the airport, waiting in the cell phone parking lot. I noted that it was time to check to see if my group needed to report to jury duty. I pulled out my iPhone, opened up Evernote, and in the Search field, I typed “jury.” In less than 5 seconds (even at 3G speeds), the first note in the result list was my Jury Duty summons. I looked up the number and then checked to see my status. (Turns out my group was not called.) Thanks to the fact that Evernote provides search data for scanned in PDFs as part of their premium service, I had no need to tag the document. It saved me time by not tagging it, and yet I was still able to find it and pull it up in under 5 seconds.

But what if I had a lot of notes with similar text? Suppose, for instance, I was trying to remember the name of the Malcolm Jameson story I read earlier in the year. I’ve read half of dozen of his stories this year, so searching for “Malcolm Jameson” might bring up too many results. Well, because I use the attributs consistently, I can take advantage of that to narrow the search. I know I read the story in the last 2 months. I know the author is Malcolm Jameson. So my search might look something like this:

notebook:reading created:month-2 author:jameson*

This would show me any notes in my reading notebooks that were created in the last 2 months where the Author field begins with Jameson.

I find that using the native search features are much faster than messing with tags. They take a little getting used to but they are well worth the effort.

Wrapping up

As I said at the beginning, taxonomies can vary greatly from person-to-person. Part of my goal in going paperless was not to bog myself down with more taxonomy. I wanted to keep things simple. I was not trying to implement a GTD solution or tag and classify my notes the way a librarian might. I was looking for the fasted way to get paper into digital form and the fasted way to find that “digital” paper once it was in the system. Using the tips I listed above, Evernote helped me do just that.

Next week, I’ll talk about how this taxonomy really allowed me to push the boundary of Evernote’s slogan “remember everything.”

(See previous tips)


  1. Love your ‘paperless’ series. Question: how do you decide what to put in Notebk “Work Life” vs Notebk “Writing Life” (since writing is your work)? Do you keep the ‘business stuff’ (i.e. contracts, payments) in “Work Life” and only keep your writing notes, etc in “Writing Life”?
    Just curious, … thanks! Karen

    1. Karen, thanks for the kind words. My “Work Life” notebook pertains strictly to my day job as an application software developer. So only stuff related to that goes into that notebook. Anything that relates to freelance writing goes into the Writing Life notebook. Think of it as vocation and avocation. The Writing Life notebook contains contracts, payments, ideas, electronic versions of published items, etc. The Work Life notebook contains notes from requirements meetings; data flow diagrams, and user interface storyboards.

  2. found your blog via twitter thanks to an evernote feed. I like your ideas for organizing an evernote digital file cabinet. backtracked to see if you had anything on what you do if you don’t have an internet connection. i didn’t find that, but did find that you are a writer of science fiction so picked up In the Cloud for my kindle.

    If your life is filed in evernote, what do you do without a net connection?

    1. Kittent, great question. So far, in more than a year of doing this, it hasn’t been a problem for me. I’ve always managed to have an Internet connection. 🙂 That said, I have a few contingencies. I mentioned one of them a few weeks ago when I discussed securing your digital file cabinet. There, I described how I back up all of my Evernote data regularly. A more immediate thing that I do is to make use of Evernote’s “offline notebook” feature for iOS devices. This is a premium feature that allows you to mark certain notes or notebooks to be available offline. I keep certain of my writing-related notebooks in the “offline” category, as well as a few other frequently-accessed notebooks. That way, should I find myself with no Internet access, I can still get to those notes that I need to work with in the short term. Note that the “offline” notebook is different from a “local” notebook. The latter is available to everyone and the notes are only stored on the local machine. The former is available to premium users; notes are still stored in the cloud, but are also downloaded and synchronized to your local device.

      Hope you enjoy the story!

  3. Fantastic article. My Evernote is such a mess because I started using it without a clear plan. As time has gone on and I’ve started new jobs, taken up new hobbies etc, I’ve piled so much in there it’s almost impossible to find anything. Going to have a good clean up now I’ve read this 😀

  4. Easily the best article on Evernote I have seen yet. Thanks for the in-depth tips. Have you given any thoughts to information that may need encryption?

  5. Forget about organizing things like you do in an analog world. Use the speed of the digital device to find anything. Tag it and throw in the heap!!

  6. Thank you for this great article. You touched quite a number of questions I had asked myself since I started using Evernote. This will certainly change – or at least influence – the way how I use Evernote from now on! Cheers from Germany.

  7. Jamie-Thanks for the offline tip. I have used my offline notebook, but just to note stuff when I didn’t have an internet connection. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that evernote is Not paper. It’s better.

  8. Jamie, thank you for *your* kind words! 😀

    There is one thing about Evernote I keep wondering: What do I do with notes that I want to keep for later reference, but don’t want to have on all mobile devices any more? Like previous travel itinerary notebook “Trip to NYC”, “Trip to Berlin” etc.

    There is no such thing like Evernote Archive, or is it? I tried to change the status of such notebooks from “synced” to “local” on my Mac, but that’s not possible. So I created new local notebooks, named them appropriately, and dragged all those notes from the original notebook into these new ones. As I have multiple of these local notebooks I file them under a stack called Archive.

    Or do you have a more intelligent idea for this question?

    1. Reinhard, I’d probably do what you did: create a local notebook and keep the “archived” notes there. I don’t think there is an Evernote Archive, but there is an export. The data is exported to an XML file that contains embedded/encoded binaries for any files associated with note. Once a month, I do a full export of all of my notes to this format so that I have a local backup. That may be an option for you if you are archiving notes that you won’t need to access from within Evernote.

  9. Great article, Jamie. I need to study up on the advanced search syntax. I’m certainly spending more than 5 seconds on some searches. BTW – this article “evernoted”.

    1. And remember, once you’ve come up with a good search that you want to use again and again, you can simply create a saved search out of it so that you don’t have to remember the syntax the next time.

    1. I will admit to being a little recursive here: I have a note in my “Reference” notebook that contains a bunch of searches I’ve done in the past that I can use as examples of syntax for future searches. 🙂 Hmm? Maybe that would be a good idea for a future post!

  10. Reinhard, I will check Evernote support for a doc. Vielen Dank

    Jamie – I think the search syntax and standard operating procedures for make for an awesome post. I am having to really watch how I title my notes if I don’t tag them, cause I’ve certainly had some problems on retrieving the 1 note I might be searching for.

  11. As a long-time Evernote user I find it the most useful application “Ever”! Seriously it’s great and just keeps getting better.

  12. My problem with using stacks in Evernote is that such a stacked organization is not reflected on mobile devices. Using stacks, I find my Evernote notebooks perfectly structured on my iMac, but on iPhone/iPad these notebooks are all shown side by side and clutter my view.

    Or any idea?

  13. HI,

    Like your series. Any comments about handling document security? Seems to me the most you can do in Evernote is 64 bit encryption which is not much these days. Makes me worry about financial information, passwords, SS nos, Passport info etc.



  14. Jamie

    Stupid question, and I probably know the answer if I think it through, but: why do you use a notebook taxonomy at all? You could put all notes into timeline and just use tagging and search to do all your organising for you?

    This kind of gets to the idea missed by so many personal organisers (but grasped by your timeline idea) that life is full of ‘events’, and depending on what you are doing, you just want to see them arranged in different ways (by date, by person, by location, by story, by client etc.) which is what tagging and search do for you. Is it that you are not fully trusting the search engine?



    (This is the way that evernote started out, if I remember rightly)

    1. Mike, not at all a stupid question. Indeed, I’m surprised no one has asked it sooner. I think there are three reasons for the notebook taxonomy:

      1. Momentum! When I started using Evernote, I started using like everyone else, creating all sorts of notebooks and tags without much planning. It was only when I decided to try to go paperless that I starting to consider how best to organize things. But I got used to having the notebooks and thought I eliminated lots of tags, some of the notebooks stuck around.
      2. Partitioning. I’m a big proponent of keeping work life separate from home life. The notebook stacks provided a convenient (if arbitrary) way of allowing me to do this with the notebooks that I already had. If I am writing, I don’t want to see all the notes about work-related stuff. If I am working, I don’t want the writing notes to distract me.
      3. It simplifies automated extraction. This reason is probably less useful to most people, but I make use of the Evernote API to pull data from notes for a variety of reasons. Having the notebooks makes some of the API searches a little easier forme.

      I’m right there with you, though. Most of muy searches are done simply by using the built-in search capabilities in Evernote without worrying about what notebook something is located in, or how it is tagged. The notebooks just help provide some simple structure for the reasons I’ve given.

    2. I know the question is old, but I wanted to share with you one tip, why one would like to use the taxonomy: for example if you store notes in different languages in Evernote, and want to search for something using only one (common) word and not different words for different languages, for example if you store there recipes and want to look for something sweet, you only need to search for a tag “sweet”, and not for words like “słodki” (PL) or “süß” (DE) etc.

      Other reason could be languages, which don’t have one or two forms of a word, but much more cases (like German, but it’s still pretty simple, or Polish, not simple at all). So if you know, a word in a note, could be important, you can just put it in a tag. 🙂

  15. Reply to Reinhard re: stacks on Iphone:

    To get stacks to display on Iphone: Click on the circle with i in it – found on the top left hand corner of the “notebooks” header when you are in notebooks view. The screen rotates and allows you to select sort options, one of which is to sort by stack.

    Voila – it is done!

  16. @ Sandra lewis: Thank you for this piece of information, I didn’t realize that. Great to know.

    However, I don’t quite understand why Evernote App lists “stacks” as a sorting option, beside name and number – but it works, anyway. 😉

  17. Addendum: Unfortunately the sorting option “stacks” will cause confusion to the previous alphabetical order of my notebooks.

    I find it somewhat illogical to have the stacks option built right into the sorting settings. It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? I would expect to find a switch like “stacks on/off”, and then set the sorting options separately.

  18. I’m so glad I found this article. I’ve been using Evernote for a year or two but haven’t found a satisfying way to partition my notes. I’m not a fan of the one-notebook-to-rule-them-all method because I like to browse and if I am flipping though code snippets, I don’t want to see menus that I’ve captured. I think the work / home / reference idea will work well for me.

  19. Addendum 2: Just reorganized my notebooks with stacks on my iMac, then set iPhone App to sort by stacks – and now I find that Evernote for iPad doesn’t support stacks at all. Uh?

    1. Reinhard, I never noticed that the stacks were not available on the iPad. However, what I’ve typically done on my iPad is either just searched for what I was looking for–or made my most common searches into “Saved Searches,” which are accessible from the iPad. So for instance, this weekend at the Nebula Awards Weekend, I’m interviewing a number of my fellow writers. I have a saved search in Evernote for my interview notes, so that I don’t have to look all over for them (or remember the complicated search string).

  20. Thank you, Jamie, for your reply. I guess I still have to get accustomed to this kind of thinking: less folders (say “notebooks”) – more use of intelligent searches. It’s more or less the same with Spotlight on my Mac: it’s there, it’s great, but I still do maintain my taxonomy with quite a number of folders and subfolders. This seems to be what I have been trying to install in Evernote all the time as well. So I read your articles over again during the past days, and I tried to establish a similar concept that suits my needs. Just in case you might ask what this cocept looks like, here it is:

    -> the name says it all.

    -> actual projects that need my ongoing attention

    -> constantly evolving, not red-hot, but not ready to be put to an archive.

    -> manuals, tutorials and such. (Couldn’t explain it better than you did.)

    -> Old and outdated stuff that I want to keep for some reason, like past travels, renovating projects and such.

    These five items are stacks, containing one or more notebooks, the fewer, the better.

    For To-Dos I use Things app, and for diary Momento app. So that’s quite a perfect setup for my demands.

    But first things first: Now I have to get back to plan my NY trip next week – using Evernote, for sure. 🙂

  21. I’m new to the paperless journey, but definitely looking forward to the process. Appreciate the info you’ve presented here — I’ll definitely be better organized as a result. Here’s one filing conundrum I haven’t been able to solve easily, and looking for your take on it.

    What do you do when someone sends you an email that has important text in the body of an email, and file(s) attachment(s) that go with the text? I haven’t found a good way to solve this — save the attachment, and I lose the email context. Save the email with attachment, and then eventually my email store gets too big and prone to crashing.


  22. I’m about 2 weeks into going paperless and am love, love, loving it. I’m curious, do you rename your documents from the default name that your scanner creates? Mine names by date (ScanSnap) and I’m wondering if I’m going to regret not renaming.

  23. I really have to say I think using Notebooks in Evernote is an anti-pattern. Notebooks and Notebook stacks (hierarchy) force you into a specific taxonomy. While tags do no such thing.

    As you say, search over filing is the way to do. I think google revolutionized this idea with Gmail, tag and search vs file and organize.

    The only real reason I think to put stuff in a different notebook is if you want to share it or keep it local. Since that is the level that you can perform those tasks.

  24. Sorry, this is one other reason to possible create notebooks, and that is External apps. There are several apps that work with Evernote… for example, Shoeboxed, Evernote Hello, etc. These things send stuff to evernote. However, generally you can specify a notebook yet you can’t specify tags. I dislike this and wish you could specify tags.

    So reasons for notebooks…

    1. You need to have some type of “tag” for stuff sent from an external app that only allows you to specify a notebook and not a tag.

    2. You need to share the contents of a notebook, since you can share a tag but you can share a notebook.

    3. You need items that stay offline.

    Other than that, it takes no longer to “tag” something than it does to change the notebook it is saved to. As a matter of fact, I would say typing a tag (if you don’t have that many tags) is faster since no mouse required.


  25. Jamie – I just wanted to thank you for all of the tips regarding Evernote and paperless. I have implemented a form of your Evernote organizational structure, and it has really been a benefit.

  26. Jamie,

    Thank you very much for sharing your ‘Going Paperless’ series. I have all the tools and more and was missing the how-to to use these tools efficiently. Thank you for the guidance and inspiration!

    Q on Twitter / 4sq / (Facebook) updates to EN:
    Which IFTTT recipe do you use ?

    Thanks again.

    1. Rakesh, thanks for the kind works. For Twitter->Evernote, I wrote on post on the workaround I created after Twitter triggers were removed from IFTTT. That post includes a link to the recipe. I don’t think I published the recipes for 4Square and Facebook, but they are straight forward enough, I think.


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