Manage Your Notes

We have to deal with a lot of incoming information every day. Some of them are important. Some of them are insignificant. We should choose to digest and save the essential information that contributes to our growth, happiness, and welfare.

Distraction is everywhere. This mind is distracted all the time. Close your eyes and try to picture a clear bowl filled with water. Keep that bowl in your mind. It won’t last a minute. The bowl changes shape. You’re thinking about something else. Back to the bowl. Back to something else. Back and forth. That’s how an untrained mind behaves.

What does that have to do with managing notes?

The notes you choose to save is the reflection of your priorities in life. If you store notes that inspire, motivate, and teach you the meaning of life, you can prevent this mind from being distracted by useless information. This guide is for those who want build and manage notes that matter.

Remember Everything in Evernote

Now, create an Evernote account, download the apps on your desktop and mobile. Although the guide I explain here is applicable for other type of notes taking services, I’m going to recommend Evernote for storing notes.

Here is a quick rundown why Evernote is much better than the rest of note taking services.

  • Evernote is designed for long term notes storage. There is no storage limit policy, but it has monthly upload quota.
  • Evernote is built with an organization system that is suitable for simple notes storage and complex GTD routine.
  • Evernote is available everywhere, from the basic email forwarding to the popular IFTTT channels that works as bridge between your online activities. You can create and turn anything into notes.

I think the main reason I recommend Evernote is because you can store everything here. The notes are rich text, but when we’re talking about notes, it’s no longer just about text. Photos, videos, and sound recordings are also notes. Sometimes you use plain text for notes in folders, but consider embrace rich text for long term storage.

Recording Online Activities: I shared the importance of keeping track of your activities. While writing this, I have about 1,855 notes created from my online activities, and the tags counts reflect how much attention I’ve spent in each network.

The Control Flow System

The essence of control flow system is to separate the creation and organization state. When you’re writing a note, you shouldn’t be bothered with where and how the note is stored. Focus in your creation. Note down everything you find important. Like pouring water out of the unlimited magic pocket, you shouldn’t stop and label the bucket, or shift from your position. You’re in the flow. Keep it flowing.

Evernote Tips for Beginner: In this short guide I share a few tips for beginners to to avoid mistakes that cause the messy notebooks structure.

Evernote account comes with a default notebook. It’s where the new notes are stored if you don’t specify the notes location. This is the first bucket you need to separate the water from the well. Name it Inbox or anything you want to call. This is where you’re pouring all your initial ideas.

Once a week, or every night, you should organize the notes you created during the day. Review the notes and tag them properly. Move them into their own notebooks. Use Evernote list view to tag selected notes all at once.

Create a new notebook called Archives or Notes to store all the notes you’ve reviewed in Inbox. The size of this notebook will grow tremendously. Eventually the only way for you to find the notes you need is by using the search feature.

We like to group things together because it helps us to break information into chunks, thus ease the process of memorizing them. But it rarely helps to preserve long-term memory. When we try to remember a specific piece of memory, the brain will fire a signal to explore the complex brain cells and activate the neuron storing your memories.

Despite that the notes are all stored in one notebook, if you can fire a correct signal — in this case the related search query and filter — you can find the information you need in a minute.

The Secret of Naming Notes Title

Notes fall into these two categories: event and non-event.

Event related notes treats created date as an important meta-data for identification. They’re the type of notes where date plays a significant role to help you differentiate between notes, and most of time, you create these notes. A few example of these notes are the meeting notes you’ve written, the summary of the tasks you’ve done, and the documents you’ve scanned.

Naming these notes always start with a created date. Having the date visible in note title can help you figure out when the event occurs regardless of the Evernote view (the cards view doesn’t show created date). It also ensures the exported notes can be sorted by filename and still maintain the ordered timeline view.

For example, you can create a note titled 2014-08-15 Learned how to write in Markdown which contains all the resources, lessons, notes while learning Markdown.

Guide to Naming Documents: David Sparks wrote a file naming guide on Macworld where you can pick up a few tips to speed up the naming process with TextExpander.

Non-event related notes don’t concern themselves with the date. They’re usually documents or information you save for later references. The contrast between with the documents you’ve scanned and the document in this category is you don’t know when the documents are created — you probably also don’t care the created date.

The articles you saved from the web belongs to this category. The recipes you found in the book belong to this category. Everything you collected belongs to this category.

These notes always come with a title. Leave the title alone. Don’t prepend with date. The only reason to name the notes is when it doesn’t have one.

The Arts of Grouping and Tagging

I encouraged you to start with two notebooks: Inbox and Archive, but it doesn’t mean we must avoid other organization tools. There are times when folders, notebooks, and tags can help you to keep notes more searchable. Now for the question.

When should you use Notebooks? When should you use Tags?

I also had a hard time deciding which to use for all the notes. It seems that the answer to that question is not as complicated as I thought.

You create a new notebook when you believe that you’re going to save a lot of notes in there, and when you browse the notebook, you feel like you’re reading a carefully curated book.

I have a notebook called Highlights consisting of my favorite quotes from books and articles. It’s my inspiration pills. I read this notebook whenever I feel down and lack inspiration. Here is one of wonderful quote from keeping a commonplace book.

Wisdom, not facts. We’re not just looking random pieces of information. What’s the point of that? Your commonplace book, over a lifetime (or even just several years), can accumulate a mass of true wisdom–that you can turn to in times of crisis, opportunity, depression or job.

Ask yourself whether you’ll keep adding notes into the notebook. Treat the curation seriously. It’ll grow massive and change your life one day.

Tags is a powerful feature from Evernote. It lets you add context like what, who, and where to your notes. New Evernote users often abuse this feature and become frustrated with the number of single count tags in the list. You need to be selective when creating new tags.

I don’t tag notes unless it can be automated. For example, I have all my Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos sent to my notebook called Histories with IFTTT. Tags helps me filter the posts from each social network.

Another reason to use tags is when you have a clear purpose for the notes you save. They’re usually notebook candidates, but it’s not something you’re actively curating. I have a Grooming tags to act as notebook for all articles related to grooming. I also have a Fixie tags for all the notes I’ve saved while researching to buy my first fixed gear bike. The notes count for this type of tags are usually around 10–50 notes.

Use tags and notebooks deliberately. Start with tags, and when the number of notes reach considerable size, move them into notebook and delete the tag.

The Power of Evernote Search

We start everything with search. Google is a great example of how our minds work. When you’re wondering how to cook a grand meal, you search. When you have trouble with your Mac, you search. The only difference is Google shows you everyone’s brain.

Treat Evernote as your brain. Store only the information you find useful. Build your own search engine.

Using Evernote’s Advanced Search Syntax: Evernote has a powerful search feature and syntax to help you quickly find the notes you want. Read the official guide here.

Evernote Advanced Search Syntax

You can also use natural language instead of advanced syntax to filter your search results. When you enter the natural language as query, Evernote will suggest advanced search in the drop down list. Here’s a few examples:

  • <notebook or tag title> banana to search for notes containing “banana” inside the specified tags or notebook.
  • last year banana to search the notes containing “banana” created since last year.
  • yesterday, 2 days ago, last week to search for notes created since that specified date.
  • after january 2014 before march 2014 cooking to search for notes created during that time constrain.
  • in jakarta banana to search for notes created in Jakarta containing “banana”.
  • photo in jakarta to show all notes created in Jakarta containing images.

Wrapping Up

This guide is not a rigid structure you must follow. It’s built with a simple structure where you can modify to match your lifestyle and minimum effort spent in organizing. It aims to reduce distraction while helping you to build a knowledge base that can support you when you need them.

This is the basic principle I use for organizing my notes. It works for me, and I hope it also works for you.

This guide is one of the decluttering digital shelf series to help people stay in control with their digital belonging. You can read the rest of the guide here. You can also subscribe and receive more posts like this every week. More Details »