Going Paperless: Spring cleaning, or archiving your paperless data

I had a number of people suggest that I talk about my process for archiving my paperless data and since we are rapidly approaching the end of spring, I thought I’d do it as a kind of spring cleaning post. But first a confession:

I don’t archive my paperless data.

At least, not yet. I’ve been using Evernote to go paperless for about a year and a half now and have had no need to archive. The thousands of notes that I have in Evernote don’t “get in the way” the way piles of paper at home might. That said, archiving is more than just paring down the data you store, it’s making sure that data is still accessible if you need to access it later, and in that sense, I archive all of my data regularly.

That said, here are some tips I would use for archiving if I wanted to keep down the clutter in my various virtual notebooks.

Have a process for archiving your data

There are many ways in which to archive paperless data. I list several of them below. By now, regular followers of these posts should know that I’m a process-oriented person. Having a process helps to ensure that archiving data happens in a consistent manner, which is important for retrieving it. The process does not have to be complex and you might incorporate it as part of other things you do on a fairly regular basis. I’d suggest something like the following:

  1. Determine how frequently you’d like to review your paperless data for archiving
  2. Determine the scope of your review (are you going to review all of your documents or just a subset of them)
  3. Determine a method for archiving your paperless data (see below).
  4. Add the archiving task as a regular event on your calendar so you don’t forget to do it.

I said I don’t archive my paperless data in the sense that I pick and choose notes to clean out. I do, however, perform regular backups of all of my paperless data and this (as I describe below) is perhaps one of the most important forms of archiving. Here is what my process looks like based on the steps above:

  1. Frequency: monthly
  2. Scope: all of my data
  3. Method: XML export to external disk
  4. Added as a recurring event on the last day of each month on my Google calendar

The method you choose to archive your paperless data will vary depending on your needs. Some methods allow you to maintain your data’s structure. Other’s allow for faster review and export. Below, I list four methods but I am sure there are others.

1. Use an archiving notebook

This method allows you to collect everything you want to archive in a single notebook, which you can then archive and purge at whatever frequency is desired. Create a notebook called “Archive”. You could make it a local notebook, but if you made it a standard notebook, you’d be able to archive things from no matter where you were doing your work, which I think is much more useful. Here is how this method works:

  1. When you come across a note you want to archive, you simply move it into this notebook.
  2. At whatever frequency you determined when figuring out your process, you can export the contents of this notebook to an Evernote archive file.
  3. Once you’ve archived the data to an archive file, you can delete the notes in the archive note book.

This method is useful if you don’t care much about maintaining your previous structure. That is, if it doesn’t matter what notebook the notes were originally in, this method will probably work best for you because restoring notes from your archive will simply bring them back into your archive notebook. Here is what it looks like when I use this method:

Paperless Archiving 1.jpg
Click to enlarge

Note that in #1, I’ve moved the notes to my Archive notebook. I then selected all the notes in that Notebook and clicked File… Export to get to the Export notes screen. In #2, I gave the archive file a title I would easily recognize and in #3, I chose the Evernote XML format for the notes.

Once I’ve exported the notes, I can safely delete them from my archive notebook.

2. Use an archiving tag

Using an archiving tag is similar to using a notebook, but gives you a little more flexibility and speed in doing your archiving. When I use an Archiving notebook, I have to move each note I want to archive into that notebook. When I use a tag, I simply add the tag to any note that I want to archive. It gives you more flexibility because, by not moving it into a separate archiving notebook, you retain the metadata of where the note was originally stored so that it can later be restored into the same notebook from which it was exported. Using this method, I would do the following:

  1. Tag any note that I want to archive with an “Archive” tag.
  2. Search for all notes that are tagged “Archive”
  3. Select all those notes
  4. Export the notes to an archive file, similar to what I did above.

3. Use a saved search for archiving data

Another method you can use for archiving is creating a saved-search for data you want to archive. For instance, suppose you want to archive all notes that have not been updated in more than a year. You could use the following search:


This search will find all notes that have NOT been updated in the last year. You could then select the resulting notes and export them to an archive file. This is a pretty cool feature because it lets you create a saved search that can be reused for your archiving. But I sometimes wish that in addition to a create and late updated date, Evernote also included a “last accessed” date. It would be pretty cool to be able to say, “find all notes that I have not accessed in the last six months.”

4. The most important archive of all: a regular backup

As I mentioned at the beginning, I generally don’t prune my notes an archive bits and pieces of them. But I do what I consider to be the most important archiving of all: a monthly backup. This backup acts as a kind of insurance policy, a just-in-case. I wrote about this backup in greater detail in my post on protecting and securing your paperless data. But the gist of it is this:

On the last day of each month, I export all of my notes to an Evernote XML archive file. I compress (zip) this file and store it on my external drive. I do this for 3 reasons:

  1. The file can be quite large and my external drive has 1 terrabyte capacity.
  2. The external drive is not on the computer itself so that if my computer disk fails, the external drive is still good.
  3. My external drive is backed up to the cloud using a cloud backup service (IDrive).
I do a complete export like this every month and then I don’t worry about it. In the event of a major disaster: my disk gets wiped, Evernote is unavailable, etc., I can simply recover from my last backup. At the most, I’d lose 1 month worth of data, but I suspect I’d lose a lot less.

An archive is only as good as your ability to retrieve it

Keep in mind that any archive or backup is only as good as your ability to retrieve it. You could diligently archive your Evernote data each and every month. But if something happens to the archive data, or you don’t know how to properly restore it, it is as worthless as if you never backed it up in the first place.

It is for this reason that I suggest a practice run, and here is a good way you can practice archiving and restoring without messing up your existing data. It uses your Evernote trash, which almost everyone has:

  1. Create an Archive notebook.
  2. Move a bunch of notes from your Evernote trash into your Archive notebook.
  3. Export all of the notes in your Archive notebook to an Evernote XML file.
  4. Delete all of the notes in your Archive notebook (or move them back into your trash).
  5. Import the archive file you created in Step 3 back into your Archive notebook
  6. Verify the notes are there.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll feel more confident about your ability to recover archived data.

What data should you archive?

Well, this varies from person to person. I don’t archive, I keep everything. It seems to me that one rule of thumb would be to archive data that you don’t use very frequently–and one way to determine this is searching and sorting by Last Modified Date.

That said, I would be interested to hear suggestions about what data is worth archiving and what data should be kept active in your paperless filing cabinet.


  1. Very interesting article. I did try them out and was very impressed. Although my experience of using Method 2 (on a Windows platform) is different to that suggested as the file exported is a .enex file (Evernote Export) it does not have the metadata for import to a specific notebook, instead it imports all notes into a new notebook called ‘Imported Notes’. Not a showstopper, but to be able to return a note to its original notebook would be useful, but then again maybe returning notes to a single import Notebook is good too as you have all the archived notes in one place – maybe the choice of import location as an option could be considered?

    I wonder if this is an implementation difference between Mac and Windows clients?

    Anyway keep up the good work.

    1. John, after experimenting a bit, it looks like you are right. I assumed that the Notebooks was included in the XML meta-data that gets exported, but when I looked at the contents of a .enex file, the Notebook is not contained in the meta-data. I have to guess this is because the notebook from which is was exported may not exist when the note is re-imported so it uses an “import” notebook to allow you to refile as you see fit. That said, you can do searches from the imported notebook to bulk move notes back to their original notebooks, I suppose. Good catch!

  2. With your great article about taxonomy in mind (goo.gl/mzofh), I am still re-thinking my own structure on Evernote (and on Mail, and OS X … 😉 and also about the quests and questions of archiving. In a comment on your other article I laid out my Evernote structure using stacks including an archive stack. That said, I guess that “archiving” only makes sense if one organizes notes in various different notebooks, and if these are primarily about actual tasks like trips or projects which tend to become outdated by time. But if one uses a kind of a timeline approach – as you do – then the question of archiving is indeed much less relevant. I guess, that’s two different approaches to the whole thing. Right?

    1. Reinhard, I only use “archiving” for emergency backup purposes. I generally don’t purge or archive in the manner described, but I’ve gotten the question enough times to make it worthwhile answering for those who do wish to archive. My timeline approach, indeed, is based on the fact that I don’t really purge my notes. If I want to see what happened on any given day: where I was, what I ate, what writing I did, tweets I made, whatever, I can search for that day and see everything.


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