This week’s topic was a reader suggestion. Alton Blom emailed me to ask me how I got about titling my notes in Evernote and suggested it might be an interesting topic for a post–and I agree. I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the forums and other places on how people go about titling their notes in Evernote. Just like how you organize your notes, how you title them can vary widely by personal preference. As with most things, however, I try to establish and then follow a set of rules so that there is as much consistency in my note titles as there is in my note organization. This has been something of an organic process for me, but I’ve been able to discern some discrete “rules” I follow for titling my notes.
Tip #1: Determine Your Requirements
Long-time readers will note a theme with me. I’m often urging people to figure out what you want to get out of something (like going paperless, for instance) before you consider how you will do it. This probably comes from my background developing software, in which requirements play a key role.
As I’ve written about before, my key method for finding stuff in Evernote is by using its powerful search capabilities. I don’t like spending a lot of time tagging and organizing notes, especially when I could find them just as quickly without the tagging and organization. (I do tag and organize, but often for purposes other than just making the notes easy to find.) With that in mind, I think I had four requirements when I started thinking about my note titles.
- Keep them as short and simple as possible
- Don’t include information in a title that can be gotten from somewhere else in the note.
- Use consistent titles for given note types
- Don’t worry about duplicate titles when other data makes the notes distinct.
In the subsequent tips, I’ll discuss each of these “rules” in more detail.
Tip #2: Keep note titles as short and simple as possible
Note titles can be pretty elaborate. I’ve seen people attempt to embed so much information into a note title that they become difficult to read and understand. That is not what I wanted. I wanted the simplest possible title for identifying the note in a search result. That last part is important: since I am often doing searches in Evernote to find what I am looking for, I don’t want to have to go into the body of the note to figure out what the note is. I should be able to figure it out from the title.
For example, I keep track of all of my reading in Evernote. I like knowing when I started reading something and when I finished reading something. (I have a whole collection of scripts that pulls interesting analytics from this data.) If I wanted to see the list of things I’ve read by Stephen King, for instance, I could run a simple search that looks like this:
tag:reading created:2013 by stephen king
What my search is asking is to find any notes tagged “reading” that were created after 1/1/2013 and have the words “by stephen king” in the note somewhere. The results of such a search look like this:
One thing you’ll see immediately is that all of the note titles follow the same format. That format is, roughly:
[Action] [Title] by [Author]
Which comes out as:
Started reading Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
The title exactly describes the note. Looking through the results list, I can easily find the particular note I’m looking for without having to ply my way through more complicated titles.
Tip #3: Don’t include information in the title you can get from elsewhere in the note
“But the problem with those titles,” some may say, “is that it makes it hard to tell when you read the book.” Wouldn’t it be better to include the dates in the title? Absolutely not, and for two important reasons:
First, I hate redundant data. Nature abhors a vacuum. Jamie abhors redundant data. The date for when I started or finished reading a book is already captured by the note create date. You see, I tend to create these notes at the same time that I start or finish reading the book. So the create dates accurately reflect the date of the action. And if I happen to forget to create the note for the book I started reading yesterday? Well, when I do create the note, I simply modify the create date to reflect the date I actually started (or finished) reading the book1.
Second, while dates in titles may seem like a good idea, they end up being generally awful because they make the note very hard to search. If my note had been titled something like:
Finished reading Gerald's Game by Stephen King on 2013-03-03
It would be a much more complicated search to find all of the Stephen King books I read in March 2013 than if I had simply left the date out of the title and used the create date instead. With the create date I can do relative searches. I can’t do that with dates embedded in the titles. Put another way, if I use the create date to represent the date of the action, I can do this search:
tag:reading created:20130301 -created:20130401 by stephen king
That search will find any notes tagged “reading”, created on or after 3/1/2013 and before 4/1/2013 containing the words “by stephen king.” I have no idea how I’d manage the same search if I embedded my date in the title. It might be possible, but it would certainly be more complicated.
Indeed, when I scan a document, I set the “create date” of the document to the date listed on the document. In this way, if someone refers to “the letter dated February 25, 2013”, I don’t have to search the text of the notes, I can simply search for any note with a create date of 2/25/2013. Here’s one such example from yesterday’s mail. I received a letter from Wells Fargo, which I scanned in yesterday (March 4):
Note that while the note was actually scanned on March 4, the Created date was changed to match the date on the letter (February 25). The updated date is the date that the letter was actually scanned. (I didn’t have to change that date at all). Moreover, note the title. It is simple and to the point:
Wells Fargo Letter on Home Rebate Credit
It’s possible I have 2 or 3 notes with this exact title, but the dates will help me figure out which one I am looking for.
Tip #4: Use consistent title for a given note type.
In my post on how I organize my notes, I discussed how I thought notes fell into 5 different “types” or “classes”:
While the format of my note titles vary from class to class, they are consistent within a given class. The reading note examples that I gave fall into the “event” category. Most of my “event” notes have similar title formats: [Action] [Event] [Modifier]. This could be “Started reading BOOK by AUTHOR.” It could also be a note representing a phone call or a meeting, in which case the title would look something like: “Called accountant about upcoming tax preparation.”
I try to be consistent within each of the classes and in doing so, it means I really only have to remember four “patterns” or “templates” for note titles. I’ve already given an example from the “Documents” class, “Wells Fargo Letter on Home Rebate Credit.”
Tip #5: Don’t worry about duplicate note titles
I sometimes get the feeling that people think every note has to have a unique title. But why? If I was searching for my “workplace checking” statements, for instance, I could do a simple search like:
tag:statements workplace checking
which would result in the following:
Note that the titles of the resulting notes are identical. But so what? They accurately describe the note, and when coupled with the create date–which matches the date on the statement itself–it is remarkably easy to find the one I’m looking for, which as it turns out is the one from April 2012.
I’ve found that by keeping my note titles simple, and by keeping them consistent, following the rules I outlined above, I save myself a lot of time. I save time coming up with a title, because I only put the minimum amount that accurately describes what’s in the note. And I save time in searching because I can use the full power of Evernote to help me find what I’m looking for. These suggestions might work for you too.
If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, I’d love to hear it. Contact me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. And as always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts, is also available on Pinterest.
- Modifying the create date is only available in the thick clients for Windows and Mac, and not in iOS or the web. But that’s okay, because I am usually in the Mac client at least once a day when I am processing any paper that I’ve received. ↩