How I Organize Evernote: A Peek Inside My Personal System

I often refer to Evernote as my digital brain. It has replaced my physical filing cabinet, allowing me to go completely digital. It is where I store anything I need to reference later.

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Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Devonyu

But Evernote can quickly become unwieldly if you don’t have a system for using it. It doesn’t have to be complex, but it does have to be intentional. My own strategy has evolved over time.

When I started with Evernote, I organized everything with Notebooks. In addition, I used Stacks to create a hierarchy of Notebooks. I documented my structure in a post called, “How to Organize Evernote for Maximum Efficiency.” But since that time, I have radically re-worked my system.

If you are just getting started with Evernote, I suggest that you buy Brett Kelly’s remarkably practical e-book, Evernote Essentials, 4.0. It will save you HOURS of learning Evernote on your own.

The Limitations of Notebooks

After years of use, I discovered three limitations of Notebooks:

  • Notebooks are limited to 250 per personal account. This may sound like plenty, but it wasn’t for me. I bumped up against the limits. (You can have 5,000 notebooks in a business account, but that wasn’t availabe when I reworked my system. Even if it was, I think my current system is better.)

  • A Note can only exist in one Notebook at a time. It’s a one-to-many relationship. The problem comes when you want to include a Note in two or more notebooks. That’s a many-to-many relationship, and it isn’t supported. You have to duplicate the note and put a copy in each notebook. This ends up being more work than it’s worth.

  • Notebooks can be stacked but not nested. In essence, this means you can only create a hierarchy that is one level deep: a stack with a group of Notebooks. My life is more complex than that. I wanted to be able to organize things in multiple levels.

The Advantages of Tags

I discovered I was using the wrong entity. Instead of Notebooks, I should have been using Tags. They are much more flexible. The advantages are the mirror image of the limitations:

  • Tags are virtually unlimited. You can have up to 100,000 per account. This will satisfy the needs of 99.9% of users, including me.

  • Notes can have multiple Tags. The practical value of this is that a note can exist in multiple containers without duplication. For example, if I meet with Megan about Platform University and my upcoming Get Noticed! Theme launch, I can Tag it with “meeting notes,” “platform university,” and “get noticed! theme.” In this way, I can see this same Note, regardless of the Tag I am using.

  • Tags can be nested into multiple hierarchies. This allows me to organize my Tags in a way that makes sense for me. I am not constrained by the limitations of the software.

How I Organize My Notes

I use two Notebooks and a Stack. If I select View | Notebooks (⌥⌘-2 on the Mac), I see this:

Evernote Screenshot 01

Figure 1: My Evernote Notebooks

Here’s how I use each:

  • Inbox—this is where I put Notes I need to process later. It corresponds to a physical inbox.

  •  Cabinet —this is where I put Notes I have processed and want to keep. It corresponds to a filing cabinet.

  •  Shared —this is a Stack or collection of Notebooks. This is where I keep Notebooks that others have shared with me.

  •  Trash —this is where Notes go when you delete them. Until you “empty the trash,” you can restore them to another Notebook.

This is dramatically more simple than what I used to use.

Next, I nest my Tags to create a hierarchy that reflects how I think about my life and business. Notice that all my Tags are lowercase. This isn’t a big deal, but I like the consistency.

If I select View | Tags (⌥⌘-3 on the Mac), I see this:

evernote-screenshot-02

Figure 2: My Top Level Evernote Tags

These top levels are all collections. They function similar to Stacks. Notice that I begin each tag collection with a special character—a period, a carat, or a tilde.

I never actually use these as Tags in my Notes. I simply use them to organize my real Tags. The cool thing is that you can nest these Tag collections as deep as you want to go.

By the way, you nest Tags by dragging the ”Child” Tag onto the “Parent” Tag. When you do that, the Child appears under the Parent.

For example, under my .what Tag, I have nested four additional collections. Under .work , I have four collections. Under .products , I have a set of collection Tags for each of my main product categories.

Figure 3: Evernote .what Tag Collection

Figure 3: Evernote .what Tag Collection

Notice that under .conferences I have the actual tags that I use with my Notes. These are my actual conferences. In some cases, I might have multiple products with the same name, so I distinguish between conferences, books, speeches, etc.

By the way, you can nest these as deep as you want, though I would be careful not to make your system too complex. This is often a matter of trial and error.

My .when collection is particularly useful. I use this for information related to past or future events. It might include speaking or consulting engagements, phone appointments, one-on-one meetings, etc. They provide a convenient way to collect all the materials related to that event.

Figure 4: Evernote .when Tage Collection

Figure 4: Evernote .when Tag Collection

When the event is passed, I drag the Tag to the past events collection.

In the .who collection, I have a Tag for each of my teammates.

Figure 5: Evernote .who Tag Collection

Figure 5: Evernote .who Tag Collection

I begin each Tag with a caret character. That way, when I am tagging a note, I can simply enter the caret and the names are all displayed, like this:

Figure 6: Selecting a Teammate, Using the Caret Character

Figure 6: Selecting a Teammate, Using the Caret Character

Finally, the ^reference collection contains the kinds of Tags you would include in any filing cabinet. I don’t include them here because some are confidential. By the way, I start with the caret, because it sorts after the collections with periods.

In the miscellaneous collection I have three tags:

  • !templates—this is where I keep reusable Note templates. For example, I have templates for Pre-Event Calls with Event Sponsors, Book Net Outs (where I summarize the books I read), Packing Lists, just to name a few.

  • .shared—this is where I store Tags from shared Notebooks. Since I can’t always control the Tags that others use, I simply segregate them here, so they don’t “pollute” my system.

  • read later—rather than use an application like Read Later or Instapaper, I clip blog posts and articles that I want to save for later reading. I can get to all these by simply searching for this Tag.

My system is not perfect, but it works for me. It took some work to set up, but now I rarely think about it. I simply add the appropriate Tag to my Notes.

I’m sure my system will continue to evolve over time. Hopefully, this gives you a few ideas of how you can design your system. The key is to design a structure that frees your mind from distraction and allows you to focus on what matters most.

Question: How is your Evernote system organized? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • cmac2020

    I use aNOTE (Awesome note) for iPad and link it to my Evernote app.

    The synergy is powerful;simple in design and execution.

    Together they’re better! That’s all I need to keep my daily data flow under control.

  • fredcastagnac

    Great tips. I’ve been using Evernote for more than 3 years now and I never reached the 250 notebooks limitations…! I even didn’t know about it.

    I really use Evernote as my external brain, I clip websites, I take notes, I upload picture, I also love my Evernote Moleskine to save my notes on the go. I don’t really use the notebooks nor the tags, thanks to the search bar I find everything I’m looking for in my Evernote.

    Afterwards I share my content with my team on Azendoo (integrated to Evernote) to manage all the actions with have to do with my team (http://appcenter.evernote.com/apps). I create tasks and add my notes to those tasks. I post comments in dedicated subject and attached my notes to share my ideas. It’s the best way to get organized!

  • Fedja

    Wow, this is so neat that I might actually have to give a new shot.

  • Deb

    Any tips/tricks on getting from one system to the other? You mentioned it took some work…was it just simply figuring out your tags and applying them or did you have to do some additional steps?

  • DB Cherry

    Where do you keep your ‘To Do List’ or Next Action Items list?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I use Nozbe.

  • Frank Degenaar

    Hi Michael, I’ve been tinkering around with your ideas the last couple of days… there are some fantastic advantages to nesting tags… obviously. I’m just having difficulty deciding where to nest many tags that have notes associated with them AND other tags too. Do you have any examples of notes that have multiple tags associated and where you might nest each tag? I’m talking about notes with tags that don’t necessarily fit into the same nested branch of the tree, if that makes any sense. Is your setup mostly to give structure/ hierarchy to note categories that have one tag associated with them, or does it lend itself to the idea of a sort of spontaneous organic tagging for some notes?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I’m not sure I follow you, Frank. I try to use as many tags as is necessary but no more than I have to.
      For example, I had a call with my trademark attorney last week, I attached the following tags to the note I created: “meeting notes,” ”^lannie (his name),” “get noticed! theme,” “platform university,” “life plan manifesto.”
      The “meeting notes” tag is nested under my “.reference” tag collection. The ”^lannie” tag is nested under the “.who” collection. The last three are nested under “.what => .work => .products” and then the type of product.
      This all takes a hundred times longer to explain that to do, but hope that helps.

      • Frank Degenaar

        Perfect example, thanks! So the various tags you used for that specific note may be arranged in different branches (sections) of your nested tags hierarchy… Not necessarily all under one “lineage” so to speak… And in using multiple tags you are able to find it in multiple contexts. That makes sense. I thought that maybe you were leveraging tags to sort of achieve a notebooks within notebooks within notebooks structure… But you are also taking advantage of the inherent power tags have… That of multiple contexts. I think this example will be useful to others here too. Thanks for fleshing this out!

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          You are welcome, Frank.

  • Daniel Hedrick

    This is a great post, Michael. I currently have everything set up in notebooks and stacks, lightly peppered with tags. Like you, I prefer the many-to-many relationships, but with 11,000 notes currently organized in stacks and notebooks, the thought of converting to a tag system is overwhelming. How long did the process of moving from notebooks to tags take you?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      It only took a couple of weeks. I explain how I did it in the comments above.

      • Daniel Hedrick

        My apologies–I did find the comment where you explain how you transitioned. Thanks!

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          No problem. Glad you found it.

  • Bill Baumgart

    So I’m tracking with how you’re using tags to create the nesting hierarchy (truly brilliant Michael!) Allowing you to see any note, anywhere it correlates to any category. To what extent are you now using additional descriptive tags beyond these organizational ones? Definers that help you further search your actual content later based on other criteria? Or do you just rely on the organic search capability within Evernote? Not necessarily relevant for something straight ahead like an event, but perhaps research content that is rich with alternate use potential for varied applications.

    BLESSINGS! Bill

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I don’t really use any additional tags, Bill. If there are words that I think I might use later in searching that aren’t in the article, I just insert those in the first line of the note. Then I rely on Evernote’s organic search ability. Thanks.

      • Bill Baumgart

        Makes total sense on search. So I’m midstream migrating to this system. One concept I am still hazy on “Tags can be nested into multiple hierarchies”. I can’t seem to make this happen as only able to nest a single tag somewhere within one hierarchy. Can you elaborate?

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          Just drag the child tag onto the parent tag. It should then nest underneath.

          • Bill Baumgart

            Yes it does, but then physically moves it from one hierarchy to the other. How do you nest one tag in more than one hierarchy? So that the same tag appears both in a “.what” hierarchy and a “.who” hierarchy?

          • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

            Ah, got it. You can’t do that.

      • Noel Ward

        Good question Bill. Michael, am I correct in thinking that you use only one tag per note? If yes does this present you with any problems when searching back through past years/events etc.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          No, I use as many tags as I need in a given situation. For example, if I am in a meeting taking notes, and we discuss three projects, I will add the tag for each project. Thanks.

  • jonnymatthew

    Brilliant post, Michael, as always; thank you! Are you aware that the photo doesn’t have the photographer’s name in the credit line?… Cheers, Jonny.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Good catch! I have added his name. Thanks.

      • jonnymatthew

        No worries – itching to get my hands on GetNoticed now! :-) Cheers, J.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          That’s music to my ears! It won’t be long.

  • Ron Kastens

    Hi Michael,

    I’m grateful for the coaching your provide regarding Evernote (and other things). I wish there was a very easy way to “save” posts like this one into Evernote for future reference. I know there is “Clip to Evernote,” but I wish there was an icon at the top of the post – like the ones to share on Facebook or Twitter, print, or email – that we could click on and automatically save the content of the post into Evernote. Perhaps there is already something like this or perhaps I’m just nuts. :-)

    Thanks again for the great ideas,
    Ron

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yes, there is. I used it for a while, but it rarely got used. It just wasn’t worth the real estate.
      I would encourage you to use the web clipper. I use it numerous times a day. Then you can use it, not only on my site but every site.
      Thanks.

  • Joshua Sheats

    This is really useful. I was looking at the older version of this article and didn’t find it very useful. This is much better!

  • D. Matthew Facer

    Thank you for this article! I have been using Evernote, but knew that I was heading down a path that was going to leave me with a mess on my hands. One issue I’ve had since trying to implement this system is with tags from our Business account. I cannot drag them under another tag to create a “.shared” collection. Is there a solution for this, or will these just have to be listed individually under Tags?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Hmm. I am not sure about that. You might check the Evernote forum.

  • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

    Thanks for sharing, Michael. I use nested tags, too. It appears there is no concept of “rollup” with them… I would naturally expect that if you click on a top level tag, all notes from all child tags under it would show.

    Do you know if there is a setting to make that happen?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, I am afraid not. They aren’t functional in that sense. They are simply a way to organize your own thinking. (Not that I would be opposed to what you are suggesting!)

  • SooBrett

    Michael I could hug you! Thank you so much for spelling out a workable solution. I’m still at the multiple notebooks with nesting stage. I use multiple tags too, but had not figured out that I could nest them. Can’t wait to put your ideas into practice. Now I just need a similar solution for my emailing and bookmarking messes and I’m sorted!

  • Stephen Gordon

    Just wanted to say thanks so much for this super helpful post! I use Evernote for everything but it had gotten out of hand! I took your organization suggestions and made a mind map. Just finished re-structuring! Thanks for taking the time to write out such detailed suggestions!

  • Brendan Sullivan

    This was really helpful. I have been using evernote for years, but not seriously. The move of contact scanning from CardMunch to Evernote forced me to take it a lot more seriously, and I was just getting into the nested notebook issue. The tagging scheme is great.

  • The Math Magazine

    You seem to be very knowledgeable about Evernote. I am fairly new to it. I noticed that when I share a notebook via “send by email” that I am losing my original formatting. For example, I may have created the note in a 12 pt font but when the note arrives to the designated email, it is in a 7pt font. So now I have to go in and “fix” which takes away from the efficiency of using the program. Any suggestions?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I am not sure. I just send a public link to the note.

  • Lee Radford

    Thanks for this post. I just reorganized my Evernote around these principles. Have you written a post about how you use Dropbox? Now that my Evernote is organized I am realizing that my Dropbox needs an overhaul.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, I am afraid I haven’t. Thanks.

  • Workislove

    Thanks a lot for this post. I’ve been struggling with yet another re-arrangement of my notebooks. I’d thought about using tags, but didn’t know where to get started – this gives me some good ideas on how to make my own oragnization system.

  • Sinan Serdar

    Thank you Micheal, excellent article!

    I think using labels as we do actually reveals how better the software could be.

    I use a similar organization. Just wondering your thoughts about those potential evolutions.

    What if it was:

    - possible to create CATEGORIES of labels (instead of using caret character)
    - possible to use those CATEGORIES for all notebooks or specific ones only
    (Wouldn’t you then use more than two notebooks? I am currently using 2 too)

    - a distinction between labels CATEGORIZED vs “ON-THE-GO”
    ( have been designed and +/- fixed ) vs (that may be created randomly once in a while)

    - possible to visualize/organize the labels CATEGORIZED differently.
    (i don’t like the display when i want a big picture of all my labels, sorting alphabetically only is a bit weak)
    - an INTUITIVE AND PERSONAL SCREEN to TAG the notes
    (displaying all the concerned labels as we designed it, through a mind map or a presentation for instance)

    - a way to archive/delete/PURGE notes automatically based on our knowledge when creating it
    (ex: i may want to recall about wallpaper until the room of my son is finished, then do not need them in my cabinet. Today i know in 6 months the room will be finished, so i select a lifetime of 6 months, doesn’t have to be precise)

    Thanks,
    Sinan

    • Sinan Serdar

      also a remark thinking about notes shared within a team.

      it is i think REALLY HARD to use this method in that case. Because you have to remember well how the TEAM is thinking the tagging.

      Defining rules and making everybody in the team understand the tags architecture and categories logic would be the only way this TAGGING-SORTING could work..? But even then i am sure some people in the team would be frustrated as others are not tagging how they would have done.

      Because notes are in a single notebook with potentially infinite tags does not mean tag is always the solution. this add complexity in a way.

      But of course i am absolutely convinced about the power of tags

      • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

        In my experience, you just have to train people how you want it done. It is really no different from a physical filing system in that regard.

        • Sinan Serdar

          Thank you. Yes i agree with that!

          What about the categories/group of labels that u could manage at a notebook level? Do you think that would help you?

  • http://greghickman.me Greg Hickman

    I implemented this a few days ago and searching for things is soooooo much easier! Loving this method and pumped to have adopted it. I’m going to tweak it a bit for some of my own little style but this is a great foundation.

    Thanks Michael!

  • Alex Wilson

    Michael,
    The idea for using tags was a game changer for me – almost. I hit a snag and was wondering if you have this issue and how you work around it. I set up cascaded tags like you did. Works great on my Mac and Windows clients. However it fails on the iPad and iPhone, both of which I use pretty heavily with Evernote. The tags do not show up on theose platforms in a cascaded format. They are lumped together in alphabetical order, so all my special tags like – or * or ! end up at the top, with the others falling in order after that. They are not cascaded at all.

    In order to find documents with a particular tag, I have to recall the spelling of the tag so I can search for them. Not the fastest way to go about it. Evernote support did not offer much help… any thoughts?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Unfortunately, that is a snag. I don’t use Evernote much on those devices, so it doesn’t bother me. Supposedly, Evernote on Android does show cascading tags, so I am hoping Evernote brings it to other mobile devices. Sorry about that.

      • Alex Wilson

        I will hope for that level of support on the iPhone and iPad soon! In the meantime, I will limp along because the tag idea is much more useful than my stacked note books and carries over to Evernote Business much easier.
        One of the limits I found with Business was that you could not easily move notes into it via email or applets in the browser because it looks to your personal folders, not the business folders. At least with tags, you won’t have that problem. I hope!

  • Guy G.

    Thank you for this great and very useful article. Based on this I stared to clean up my system and wanted to move all tags from shared Notebooks into a parent tag (same as you’re “.shared”-tag). However, I can’t move “external” tags at all – can you share how you did it?! I’m working with EN on Windows 7. Thank you.

  • Jason Haas

    Michael

    Great information. This is very helpful, and probably like many others, quite opposite of how I have my Evernote organized. However, much of what you said makes sense, especially if it allows me to index/search my notes quicker. I will definitely look into implementing a structure similar to this. Thanks for sharing! I’ve already saved your post to “evernote.” :)

  • Grant Wesley Parks

    I have a question about the tag hierarchies. If I had ^john under .who, wouldn’t I have to tag a note about him with both tags to get anything useful in the “container” tag, .who? It looks like my Evernote doesn’t attach the “implied” parent tag. Which would be an awesome semantic feature.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I never use the parent tag in notes. I just use them as a way of organizing my tags. Thanks.

  • Dick Butter

    Hi, Michael.
    Very helpful hint. But is there a way to include all child-tags when searching for the top level tag?
    Let’s say „cooking“ is the top level with „meat“, „soup“ „vegetables“ etc as second level tags. When I search for tag:cooking I will find nothing but would like to find all the entries with „meat“, „soup“ …

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      No, I’m afraid not. The hierarchy is strictly visual for purposes of organizing. You could, however, search for notes that have any of those tags and then save the search. Thanks.

  • http://socialyze.ca jamiedefined

    Hi Michael, I’ve followed your various workflows for quite some time, and when I read about this new Evernote structure I was floored because I had just recently made the same change myself!

    I had over 2000 notes scattered across 78 notebooks, and I dreaded having to find something! To remedy the situation I started a new account and immediately decided on a minimal notebook structure with a “tagging protocol” that stretched beyond Evernote, into Mavericks, Pocket, etc.

    It looks like this:

    .area of focus

    /subtopic

    :project

    #description

    ^collection

    I then created a shared notebook between the old and new accounts, and I’m slowly adding the relevant notes as needed, and tagging them accordingly.

    I believe this is the ONLY way in which to ensure a long lasting, happy relationship with Evernote, and I’m glad you were able to share it with your audience.

    Thanks, for sharing.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for sharing, Jamie.

  • Annette

    Michael, thanks for this. It’s an interesting and useful structure. I’m having one problem, however. Can you, please, clarify how you put Shared tags under .Shared? They don’t seem to want to move. Thanks.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      You just click and drag them over the parent tag.

      • Annette

        Thanks for getting back to me, but that doesn’t work for me. As soon I drag to the parent tag, I get a “can’t copy here” pointer. It works for every other tag, just not for the shared ones. Any ideas why I might be having problems with it?

  • http://www.kevinbradberry.net/ Kevin Bradberry

    Fairly ingenious system. Makes me want to dig back into Evernote. Thanks.

  • Fernando Diniz

    Michael, thank you. I use Evernote since 2008 (and I really use it since 2011), but I didn’t know it is possible to organize tags in blocks. It’s very useful

  • Jeff Krueger

    I ‘clipped’ this article and just got around to reading it today. After reading I went from 27 notebooks to 2 and cleaned up my Tags. This makes way more sense. I’m using ZenDone with Evernote and this makes processing so much easier. Thank you.

  • http://www.bluehivehost.com bluehivehost

    Thank you so much for sharing your Evernote organization system. I’ve never been a “hard core” Evernote user, but I am trying to get my system for organizing my thoughts and goals established. I started off using Notebooks as well – it just felt natural. However, now that I’ve discovered how you are handling it, it makes sense to not use a bunch of notebooks. Thanks again for the great post!

  • http://www.sundijo.com/ Sundi Jo Graham

    I’d love to learn more about the Book Net Outs.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I wrote an entire post on it. Enjoy!

  • http://johnjustinirvine.com johnjustinirvine

    I spent some time rebuilding my Evernote system into this methodology, and I really enjoy it. It makes recall much better, and endless notebooks weren’t really helping me stay as organized as I wanted to be. I did add one top-level tag category though, “.where,” with sub-tags like “ny-new york” and “il-chicago” to keep location-specific items at the ready, like restaurants I want to try, which BBQ place has the best brisket, photos of landmarks I’ve visited, or notes about which Starbucks has the shortest line in Terminal C. I’ve found the location grouping to be very handy for travelers, both for places I’ve been and places I want to go when I’m in a city.

  • http://levikoenig.com Levi Koenig

    Love this! My Evernote has turned into a big pile of papers…exactly what I was trying to get away from. This system is great, am switching over to it today.

  • leejennatyler

    Hi Michael. I have been with Evernote since it was geeky to know what it was, but I never developed a system as complex (in a good way ;p) as yours. I had notebooks and stacks but several years ago started using tags as the organizational structure and putting all notes into ‘Collections’. This has worked for me and it takes one step away from saving notes (ie: picking a notebook). (I wish I could remember the man that gave me that tip. It was in a YouTube video.)

    I don’t have a business account with Evernote, though I wish I could afford it because the team is so great, but this has worked for me. The autosave function in Evernote often reminds me of tags that I should use for later “search & seizure”.

    Thanks for all that you and your team does. I am ever-grateful.

  • Guest

    Can you elaborate on what you mean by the reference tag?