Going Paperless: A Framework for Searching in Evernote

One of the most frequently-asked questions I get in my capacity as Evernote’s Ambassador for Paperless Lifestyle is how I organize my notebooks and tags in Evernote. Back in January, I wrote in some detail about how I organize my notes. I also provided an annotation of my tags and notebook structure. The short answer to the question is pretty simple:

I try to use the fewest tags and notebooks I can get away with. Instead, I depend upon Evernote’s substantial search capabilities.

There are several reasons I work this way:

  1. Tagging and filing notes takes time. I want to get the note into Evernote as quickly as I can and be able to find it equally fast.
  2. An elaborate tagging and notebook structure has to be maintained. Tags can grow like weeds, and like any garden, the weeds must be pulled–and that takes time.
  3. Too many tags and notebook can lead to ambiguities. Do I file this in my Filing Cabinet notebook or my Business notebook? Do I tag this note as “confirmation” or “receipt” (or both)? Too many ambiguities make it hard to file notes, as well as hard to find them.
  4. Evernote has very powerful search capabilities that make an elaborate tagging and notebook structure unnecessary for me.

I’ve covered some of this territory before, so I thought I’d use today’s post to describe how I think about searching in Evernote, and how that informs how I tag and organize my notes.

All of my searches fall into 4 categories

When I look at the searches I do in Evernote, I find that they fall into 4 familiar categories:

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. When?
  4. Where?

This can be better illustrated as follows:

Evernote Search

When searching for something in Evernote I almost always think in terms of Who, What, When, and Where.  These don’t refer to the form of the question but how I go about doing the search. “What” means that I have an idea of what I am searching for (“DMV registration notice”). “When” means I have an idea of the time frame I want to search (last month, in February 2012). “Where” means I have an idea of where the note was created (“Castine, Maine”). “Who” means I have an idea who the note is related to.

Note that in the above diagram, almost all of these questions can be answered by attributes of a note that already exists. For instance, when I’m searching for the “what” (e.g. “DMV Registration Renewal Notice”) I can search the note title, or within an attachment in the note.

In searching for “when?” I can use the note date attributes. I can search by note creation date, updated date, or even reminder date. For documents that I scan into Evernote, I set the note creation date to the date on the document so that I get more accurate search results. (If the bank statement is dated September 30, 2013, I change the note create date to 9/30/20131 once the statement has been scanned in.)

If I am searching by location (“Where did I park the car in airport parking garage?”) I can use the Location features in Evernote to locate the note. For instance, I can open the Atlas and look for any notes created in a certain region.

Searching for “who?” is the trickiest, and this is where I will use tags (sparingly). If a note or document is specific to a person (usually a family member) I will tag the note with the person’s name. This allows me to find notes for me, or Kelly or the kids.

The search categories can work in combination

Of course, I often have to search in more than one category to find what I am looking for. The four categories can overlap in 13 ways that look something like this:

Combination Search

One nice thing about this diagram is that is just happens to represent the relative frequency that the more complex searches occur.  Searches labeled 1-4 are not complex at all. I am searching just one element, and given the size of these, they are the most common searches that I do.

Searches labeled 5-8 are more complex. They involve an intersection of two searches: What and Who, or Who and Where, or What and When. For instance, rather than searching for the “DMV registration renewal” I might want a specific renewal, so I might search for Jamie’s DMV registration renewal (using a tag for my name and a text search for the rest).

Searches 9-12 involve three elements and I almost never need to search at this level of complexity. And search 13 involves all four elements, Who, What, When, and Where. I don’t think I’ve ever needed a search this complex.

Virtually all of these searches, simple or complex, use existing attributes of the note. The only time tags come in really handy is when I am looking for the “who” since I tag my notes with family members names. Tags also come in handy when searching for lists of related notes.

With this search methodology I can usually find what I am looking for, without elaborate tagging, using the built-in attributes of a note. And I can usually find it within a few seconds. Because of this, I have no need for an elaborate tag or notebook framework. It adds overhead that I don’t need and wouldn’t make use of if I had it.

I understand that not everyone works this way, but I thought I’d share how I think about searching because it informs how I use Evernote in my efforts to go paperless.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Quick Tip: Capturing Meme Quiz Results in Evernote

  1. There was a typo here earlier, where I’d put “9/20/2013.” Thanks to Joe for pointing it out.


  1. Great post.
    As most of my scanned receipts, documents and photos are in Hebrew, I need to compensate for EN lack of ocr capabilities by adding metadata…
    I try to think what would be the phrases or words I’ll be looking for when I’ll search for the note, and add them to the note body or name.
    For instance if I store the receipt for my new grill – I’ll write something like: Receipt for grill bbq barbeque [brand name] etc.

  2. Hi Jamie! I love your Going Paperless posts so much that just created an IFTTT recipe to save them to Evernote itself, in a notebook ironically called Evernote where I store everything related to how to use it. It’s kind of a meta thing in some way.

    Here’s the recipe


    Greeetings from Argentina!

  3. Jamie,

    This is an excellent post detailing your methodology. I especially like how you break down the intersecting plains who, what, when & where and how often they truly intersect in your searches. It certainly opens my mind to a new approach and how I can improve /add a new perspective to my contextual approach to my Evernote environment.

    I do have a question for you though: How do you deal with situations where you do not recall what you are looking for? You know you have entered the note into Evernote but not sure what it was. A bit off topic maybe… I suspect you have more than a few thousand notes. How do you track it down with this system?

    1. Jason, I have to say that situation hasn’t really come up. If I am looking for something, I usually know what it is. About the closest might be something like, “I know my kids school sent up a letter about the parent’s night, now where is it?” In a case like that, I’ll usually try a systematized approach, like:

      1. Search for recent notes (in the last month or two) that contain my kids’ school’s name.
      2. Search for notes I’ve tagged with my kids’ names
      3. If those fail, I’ll try narrowing a timeframe by asking myself, “about when did I get it?” Maybe it was around the same time I signed that contract with Analog. In that case, I’ll search for the contract, and then scan the notes in the days surrounded that.

      Usually it never gets that far. I have almost 10,000 notes in Evernote and there is rarely a time when it takes me more than 10 seconds to find what I am looking for.

  4. Well Jamie, that is pretty amazing that you never forget what you have saved, pretty awesome memory!

    I have over 5,000 notes myself on this Evernote account, and occasionally I will recall I saved something important, and I need a visual jumpstart to recall what it was. I find tags are helpful in accomplishing this. Easier to search a bunch of tags vs thousands of notes to jog ones memories.

    I think there are some strengths to tags in searching multiple tags as well. But that would start a different conversation all together…

    1. I suppose it’s less about my memory and more about my commitment to use Evernote to “remember everything.” If it is in Evernote and I have a vague idea of what I am looking for, I can find it quickly. It does give me an idea: in those rare instances when it takes me longer, it might be interesting to look at the note and its meta-data and try to understand why I had trouble finding it. It might lead to further insights into how to tag and otherwise label notes.

      I am, by no means, opposed to tagging and I’ve written about how I use them, although this evolves over time. I just try to strike a balance between overhead (the time it takes to tag and properly categorize a note) and the time it would take me to find the note without such a framework.

  5. Hi Jamie!

    It’s amazing to have a great and a simple framework at the same time. To maintain it over time is even more amazing. I guess it’s consequential. If it’s simple, it’s easier to maintain.

    I have always been wondering if there is a way to search within a stack. I don’t seem to find any syntax for that. This feature would really help me in my searches as my way of organizing notes in Evernote involves structured stacks due to the nature of my work.

    Your help in this regard will be greatly appreciated.


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