Going Paperless 2.0: Searching in Evernote, Part 2 of 4: “What?”

In last week’s post, I described how I search Evernote for things related to a particular person. I demonstrated how I answer the “who”? question. In this week’s post I am going to address the “what?” question, how I find a particular thing in Evernote based on what it is.

Types of notes in Evernote

Searching for things in Evernote over the years, I have found that I often know what type of thing I am looking for. Kelly might ask, “Do you have a copy of Zach’s school health enrollment form?” Or I might want to know where that recent letter from the Gas Company is. Experience has taught me that knowing the class of note I am looking for can really help speed up the search. I tend to focus on two broad classes of notes:

  1. Documents.
  2. Media.

Evernote has some nice built-in search capabilities for searching for multimedia documents. Using the “resource” keyword in a search makes it easy to find documents containing various multimedia. For instance, if I was searching for a note with an image file, I could type the following into the search bar:


This would return notes with any kind of image file. If I wanted a specific image type, I could search for:


This would return notes with PNG images. I could then combine this with other search terms. If I wanted to find notes containing pictures and related to me, I could search for:

resource:image/* tag:jamie

The resource can be any MIME-type, which allows you to find notes for things like sound files and movies, as well.

Identifying documents in Evernote

I think of documents as notes containing attachments that might once have found their way into a filing cabinet. Documents can be things I’ve scanned into Evernote, or things that a service like FileThis has automatically added to Evernote. I’ve found over time that documents fall into 11 categories:

  1. Artwork. My kids’ artwork from school.
  2. Bills. Various bills for things that aren’t paid automatically.
  3. Contracts. Mostly these pertain to my writing, but they can be contracts for anything.
  4. Documents. Legal documents and miscellaneous documents that aren’t captured by other categories.
  5. Forms. Things that have to be filled out.
  6. Invoices. I’ve considered consolidating Invoices and Bills into a single category, but have yet to get around to it.
  7. Letters. Personal letters as well as official correspondence.
  8. Manuals. Instructions and manuals for various things we own.
  9. Payments. Pay stubs and checks.
  10. Receipts. Receipts for things we’ve bought and paid for.
  11. Statements. Bank statements, utility statements, medical statements, etc.

To quickly find these types of documents, I’ve created a tag for each one of them. To make it easier to illustrate, I’ve moved all 11 of these tags into a tag called “.documents” so you can more readily see what they look like in Evernote:

EN document tags

Whenever I add a new document to Evernote, I quickly determine its type, and assign that tag (and possibly some others, like who it is for) to the note. For documents that I scan, I do this tagging as soon as I scan the document so that I don’t forget. If a document doesn’t fit one of the categories, it gets tagged as “document” which is my short hand for miscellaneous documents.

Searching for things in Evernote

Tagging notes with a document type makes it much easier for me to find what I am looking for. If I need to find the recall letter we received for the Kia, I’d do the following:

tag:letter tag:kia

That search is saying, “Show me all letters related to the Kia.”

Kia letter search

Note that I only got 2 results. The fact that the result list was so short is part of the beauty. While a less specific search might have resulted in more notes to wade through, this simple, but specific search resulted in an almost exact match on the first try.

I could have made the search even more specific by searching for:

tag:letter tag:kia recall

Adding the word “recall” eliminates one of the two resulting documents, and I now have an exact match.

Thinking about what the document that I am searching for is helps to narrow things down quite a bit. Compare the above search to a search for the tag “kia”:


Tag Kia

This search returns 40 notes. That is a lot of notes to wade through. Knowing that I was searching for a letter made it that much faster and more accurate.

Combining “what” searches with “who” searches

By combining search tactics, I can improve things even further. I use a “school” tag for school-related documents. So instead of just searching for forms, I can easily search for school-related forms. The same is true for taxes. I uses a “taxes” tag for anything tax-related. If I need to search for a tag form (as opposed to, say, a receipt) I can combine my tag search to include forms and taxes.

But sometimes that isn’t enough. Take school for example. If we go back to that example question I gave at the beginning, where Kelly asked, “Do you have a copy of Zach’s school health enrollment form?” I can run a quick search as follows:

tag:form tag:school tag:zach health

That search returns exactly one match (out of more than 12,000 notes), and it is the exact form that I was asked for. This really happened. Kelly asked if I had the form. I took about three seconds to type the above search into Evernote, get the match, and forward the resulting document to her.

“Yes, I’ve got it,” I said.

“Can you send it me?” Kelly asked.

“It’s already in your inbox,” I replied.

Not everyone uses the same tag structure, but I think that some form of tagging that allows you to capture the type of document you are putting into Evernote can help in the long run. In my experience, most “what” questions come down to what the document is in the first place: are you searching for a bill? A form? A letter? An invoice? Knowing what it eliminates a lot of other documents from the mix.

Knowing who, and what I am searching for are useful, but sometimes it helps to know when I got the thing. How many times have you been on a call when the person on the line says, “It is in the statement dated February 14, 2016.” Or, “I know we bought that TV in December, but I can’t find the receipt?”

Next week, in Part 3, I’ll discuss how I use Evernote’s dates and date searching capabilities to quickly answer the “when” questions.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. 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: Searching in Evernote, Part 1 of 2: “Who?”

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  1. A very helpful post! Do you also tag articles that you clip into Evernote? It seems that these are not included in one of the 11 categories.

    1. Chris, things that I clip into Evernote go into a Clippings notebook by default, but unless they fall into one of the 11 categories I listed, then they I usually don’t tag them. For example, if I clip a receipt from, say Amazon, I’ll tag that as “receipt.”

      Over the years, I’ve gotten much better about what I clip into Evernote and what I don’t. I try not to clutter Evernote by filtering stuff through Pocket first.

  2. Jamie, I have trouble searching for this scenario: say I have a notebook named “Pets” and a tag “Animals”. Now I want to return all notes that are contained in this “Pets” notebook OR are tagged “Animals”. I tried the below search criteria:

    any: notebook:Pets tag:Animals

    Yes the search return all the desired notes. However it also gives me notes that are not are in the “Pets” notebook but have the literal word “Pets” inside them. What should be the correct search criteria?


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