Evernote Tagging

This is a much more detailed look at this topic than my previous blog post Paperless re-visited. (http://www.uprun.com/blog/2014/12/27/paperless-re-visited-part-four)


I mentioned casually in that article that I was using Evernote quite badly. Lots of people have said this and blogged about it, although not about me personally. I got into a rat hole about using Evernote as a GTD (getting things done) system rather than a records management system. And of course you can use Evernote as both if you wish. It’s a very versatile product and can be many things. Anyway, I wasted about 2 months on that issue so I thought I should mention it here. This article is all about using Evernote as a records management system (digital filing system), I promise.


Things to consider (if you didn’t read any of my previous blog posts on Evernote)

A Note is the minimum amount of data saved to Evernote. It’s the simplest, single unit of measure.

A Note can have multiple documents attached to it and they can be of any type. (pdf, jpg, doc etc)

A group of Notes is called a Notebook.

A group of Notebooks is called a Stack.

You can’t stack Stacks. The levels of depth stop there.

A tag is a descriptive label you can attach to a note.

Any number of Tags can be attached to a Note to describe it.

The Tags section in Evernote is like a search page.

You can also save search terms for re-use later.

Metadata is descriptive information about the Note, used to categorise the data so it can be searched more easily.

Searches can be based on Tags, metadata or the content of Notes or their attachments, pretty much everything.

Events are Notes that represent a point in time

Milestones are a special class of Events


If you want the definitive guide to Evernote, get Brett Kelly’s Evernote Essentials (https://brettkelly.org/evernote-essentials/


There are two main ways to organise the filing of your data in Evernote; you can file notes into notebooks and you can attach tags to notes. The exact best way to file data in Evernote has yet to be established and when it is, the skies will open and four horses will circle the moon. Or so it is said. But seriously, everyone is searching for the best system and the simple truth is there isn't one. Whatever works for you is best.


So why use tags instead of Notebooks?

The general thrust of the argument is that tags are better than notebooks for organising and finding things in Evernote. You should have only a few notebooks (oh crap, I have hundreds) and use tags to find everything. Notebooks can only be stacked one level deep, whereas tags can go several layers. So tags are more flexible than notebooks. It's about being able to find your data by searching for it rather than knowing where you put the data. These are two very different mindsets; Hunters vs Gatherers. The Gatherers file their data away in specific Notebooks and know that everything related to a particular topic is in that Notebook. The Hunters go looking for their data every time they need it. They use search to find what they want. The Hunters come un-stuck if their data isn’t searchable. The Gatherers problem is when one piece of data fits in two Notebooks.


There is nothing stopping you from using both tags and notebooks to organise your data. The tag purists would have you live with no more than 6 notebooks and I'm sure that works form them and they have nice enjoyable lives. But for me, I need a bet each way. I have notebooks and stacks where I group notes based on what they are about and I also tag everything as much as possible to make searching easier. 



Tagging System

I discovered that I am naturally a gatherer. But I want to change. People will tell you that you need a tagging system that is consistent, simple and easy. But none of them actually tell you what to do. I got very frustrated by this because I could quickly see why they were saying it, but they didn’t give an actual solution. Some gave brief examples of their system but never enough detail that you could actually use their system and get something meaningful out of it. So I got all obsessive and invented a system based on all the good bits. Steal like an artist they say, but first you need some rules.



Tags can’t use #, ! or @ as these are reserved symbols, Evernote uses them so you can not.


Use hyphens not spaces (e.g. “to-do”) When you use a space, it becomes two words and gets confusing.


Tags should be singular not plural (e.g. “tax” not “taxes”)


Descriptive tag folders or containers (of tags) need to start with a dot. (e.g. ".descriptors”) You don’t actually use the container as a tag itself, you use the tags contained in the container. It’s like a folder for tags. This is the whole thrust of the tags vs Notebooks argument I mentioned before, the ability to have multiple layers of tags. This is the meat in my article. The fact that you can make multiple layers of tags, like folders within folders. The only gottcha is that you have to use the desktop version of Evernote to do that. You create the tag folder just like a tag and then you drag them on top of one another. Once you have created your tags and nested them using the desktop  application, you are then free to use these tags in any Evernote version; web, IPad, iPhone, etc. It's just the initial creation of the nested tags that can only be done on the desktop (Mac or Windows)


Tags need to be lower case except for proper names in the .entities folder. (e.g. “tax", “^John”) Use of a starting or leading character (e.g. "^") allows you to jump to the set of tags (names in this case) easily by typing the lead character.


Names start with a carat “^” (e.g. “^John”) It helps if you pronounce ^ as “name"


Projects start with a “%” (e.g. “%deck”) It helps if you pronounce % as “project"




Metadata means “data about data” or descriptive information about your data.

There is a metadata page for each Note in Evernote. Just hit the “i” with a circle around it;



In order to correctly tag or categorise a Note, you need to answer the 6 W’s; What, Where, When, Why, Who, How (Ok that last one doesn’t start with W, get over it)


What, Why, How, Who

The sentence you need to complete when tagging is;


"This is a  [.what] about [.why] for/by [^who] about [%project]."



This is a tax invoice for ^Beatties about %digitising

This is a dental invoice for ^John

This is a tax receipt for ^Katrena about %deck


So the yellow bits indicate the tags you would use. For that last bit, you don’t need to specify a project if you don’t want to; it’s an optional extra. The ^who is the person or thing that the Note relates to.


There is a difference between the type of Note (the what) and the why of the data and the who it relates to or was written by. You might need to study my examples in the list below to really understand this. It isn’t obvious or easy, I’m sorry.


My tags;


As you can see, I have what, document types, who and projects with a number of tags under each one. The numbers next to each tag indicate how many times you have used that particular tag. You can use that number to thin down your tags if you have too many.



You're going to need some dates;

Reminder - you can set Reminders in Evernote, this causes an alert which can even by emailed to you. Use the alarm clock icon on the Note;


Created - date the note was created. could be the date it was scanned. See metadata above.

Updated - last date the note was updated or modified. See metadata above.

Event or effective - the date the attachment refers to, such as the invoice date. See the metadata above and you will notice it does not exist - bugger! I would suggest the only way to handle the Event or effective date, is to change the Creation date on the Note info page. There isn’t a spare field to store this, you can’t add fields and the other date field (Updated) is liable to change at any time. Really this will only be a problem for invoices and other scanned financial documents that were not scanned on the day they were printed. (99% of them are like this, sorry) But it’s easy to change the Creation date to more accurately reflect the creation date of the original attached document and not that of the Note containing the scanned version of it. You need to remember the Note is the container for the attachments. If that makes sense?


Location - where the device (that created the Note) was when the Note was created. You can change this, to make it more useful. See metadata above.

URL - the web address for the source of the Note. Again, you can change this. See metadata above.

My system in action

Once you've got all your Notes stored away with tags and metadata, the payback begins. Actually finding what you need. This is where the search function in Evernote comes into play. Basically you can type a few words into the search box like you would with Google. That works well, but you can kick your search up a notch by using keywords to help with the search process. Tell the search engine more about what you want and it'll give you better answers. (see Brett Kelly: Evernote Essentials)

If you just type a few words in the search box, you will get Notes that contain ALL of the words you specified;

pink green yellow

Will give you notes that contain ALL of those words.

But you wont get Notes that only have pink without also having green and yellow. This is an AND type of search. You get only Notes that have pink AND green AND yellow; all or nothing. The other type of search is an OR type search. Evernote calls this an ANY search;

any: pink green yellow

This gives you Notes with ANY of those three words.

There is also "-" (minus) which gives you the opposite, or what we boolean lovers call NOT;


This gives you only Notes that do NOT contain the word green.

The wildcard ("*") option lets you be half right. So "right *" for example would match to "right now" "right on" and "right wing", useful if you only know the first half of the answer. You can only use the wildcard at the end of a word.

Once you have the wildcard, AND, OR and NOT, you have the basics of logic. Combine those with keywords and you get search super powers;

Notes created in the last week;


Notes created on your mobile devices;


Tagged red but not blue;

tag:red -tag:blue

Not tagged at all;


The full search grammar is explained here (https://dev.evernote.com/doc/articles/search_grammar.php).

Saved searches

Once you have found a neat way to search for something in particular, you can save the search term and use it again later. Think about creating saved searches for "Created this week", "Has action items" or "To read".

Linking Notes

I just discovered that you can link to a Note from within another Note, just like web pages. Right click on a Note, hit "Copy Note Link" and paste this link into the other Note. This gives you a web style link to the other Note. Kind of cool if you're needing to reference an older Note in a new Note you are writing. You can use this to create a "table of contents" Note at the top of each Notebook. This table of contents can link to all the other Notes in that Notebook and you can arrange the links however makes sense to you.

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 5.53.20 pm.png



Note Templates

And while I'm giving other misc Evernote tips, you can create a Notebook called "Templates" and save blank template Notes for re-use. The often talked about example is the meeting agenda template. But you could have phone call template, fax cover sheet template or whatever other templates for Note types you create often. To use the template, right click and copy it to where ever you want the new blank form to be.


Smart Work flow

By default, things go into the Inbox in Evernote, you should move them into other Notebooks, only after they are tagged correctly. That’s your manual work flow; you being disciplined enough to tag before you move. To process your inbox.


Evernote has a few extra ways to get information into Evernote. These can be automated to Tag and file Notes for you. Makes life easier. There are stickers you can put onto paper pages in your Moleskine notebook, photograph them with the camera in Evernote for IOS and they automatically file themselves away according to the Camera section in Evernote settings for IOS (see the 3 screens below). There are rules about the work flow according to the colour of a Post-It note. Again, the Camera settings page is your friend. You can make blue coloured Post-It’s do one thing and Yellow coloured ones do something else. And business cards have their own work flow. Some things go in automatically. Like emails go into the Inbox. Travel tagged things go into Travel. To-do and Reminders. All of these need the tagging and move rules to be set up.



I have borrowed (or artistically stolen) a lot of raw material from many Evernote champions. The Hunters vs Gatherers is from Katie Floyd for example. "My" tagging system has its roots in several articles that have appeared on Lifehacker, Jamie Rubin, Michael Hyatt, Medium and many other good sites. They freely gave this information to the world and I freely stole it and made my own kind of sense of it all. I wouldn't want you to think this was all my own work, because it's not. And to develop your own tagging system you are free to steal as many of my ideas as you see fit.


I have no relationship with Evernote except that I pay them money for the Premium service and use their product.