I've received quite a bit of feedback about how I use Evernote to organize all the random bits of information in my life. I've previously written about about the types of information I store in Evernote as well as how I use Hazel to automate the task of importing information into Evernote. But I've never talked about my organization structure for filing documents. After receiving more than a few inquires I figured it was time to tackle this topic.
I use Evernote as the information management system for my life. Everything from monthly statements to paint color chips is all categorized and filed in Evernote for easy reference. The beauty of Evernote is this data syncs to my Macs, my work PC and my various iOS devices and is available to me anywhere and anytime. If I'm compiling information for my taxes and need to know what my utility bill was in January 2012, that information is in Evernote. If I'm in the hardware store and need to know the type of irrigation system I use in my backyard, it's in Evernote.
As an Evernote Premium subscriber I have priority access to OCR (optical character recognition) for all my stored documents and can search documents based on content. But OCR isn't perfect and I've found that properly filing and categorizing items is a much better way to quickly retrieve information than blindly searching. Evernote also has the ability to "tag" documents with keywords which I use occasionally, but the practice of tagging never really caught on with me. As a longtime Mac user, I've much more comfortable using a nested files and folders system. Evernote uses the concept of "notebooks" to organize documents. Notebooks function similar to folders in that you can nest notebooks within other notebooks, but presently only one level deep.
Each Evernote account has a default notebook where documents are stored that aren't otherwise categorized. I've named this notebook ".Inbox." I thought the name was appropriate because it is a temporary storage bin to collect everything that is imported into Evernote and not yet sorted. The dot in front of the name makes sure that this notebook appears on the top of my notebook hierarchy since notebooks are sorted by alphabetical order. Over the course of a week I'll dump items into Evernote through various methods such as scanning, using the Print to Evernote function, the web clipper, or forwarding emails to my unique Evernote email address. All these messages end up in my inbox.
At last once a week, usually on a weekend, I make a point to go through my Evernote Inbox and clear it out. At this time I'll either delete items in my Inbox or take the opportunity to properly name them and file them in my various other notebooks. Adopting a uniform naming convention is important to make sure you'll be able to later find your documents. Although Evernote has its own system for organizing documents by date, most of my Evernote notes start with a date string and then a description of the item.
Outside my inbox, I have six major notebooks I use to categorize information. I were able to nest notebooks deeper than one level I'd probably have fewer but these work well for me as they cover the major areas of my life requiring organization:
The Accounting notebook is where I store everything related to personal finances. I have sub-notebooks containing Bank Statements (including credit card statements), a notebook devoted to insurance, one for retirement accounts, a notebook containing all general household statements (cable, electricity, water, phone bill, etc.) and notebooks for my 2012 and 2013 tax receipts.
I was initially weary of the accounting notebook and originally some of my sub-notebooks such as Bank Statements and Retirement were kept as offline notebooks meaning they lived only on my computer and did not sync through the Evernote service to my various devices. Then I realized, just about everything in those notebooks was originally downloaded from the Internet and thus already available online so I gradually converted them to online notebooks. I should note that I do not put my tax returns or any documents that have my social security number or other sensitive information in Evernote. I'm not quite that trusting of the cloud, though we're getting there. I have made a point to lock down Evernote with a very secure password that I change regularly and I use the passcode lock to limit access to Evernote on my iOS devices.
The tax receipts notebooks are where I would throw any receipt that I could potentially deduct from my taxes. I'll tag the receipt with a tax category and include the date of purchase, name of the purchase and amount in the title of the document. At the end of the year, I had all my tax receipts in one single place that could be easily exported to PDF for my accountant. Because my taxes are still in progress I'm hanging on to the 2012 notebook but once that project is completed and my return accepted I'll export all the information in this notebook to store with my tax records and I'll likely delete the notebook. Since we're now in 2013, I've had to create a 2013 notebook to start on receipts for this year.
I have a notebook stack devoted to family where I have sub-notebooks devoted to members of my immediate family. Inside these notebooks I have information related to medical history, various legal documents such as Deeds and Leases, schedules and other bits of information I've picked up over the years. Whenever there's an important document I always make a point to grab it and throw it into Evernote. My family is now so accustomed to hearing this from me they'll sometimes hand over documents and say "Do you wan to put this in Evernote?" as though I've become the records custodian for our family.
The next major notebook stack is Home. I built this house 18 months ago and created a notebook devoted to the construction. Floorplans, decorating choices, landscaping, everything about the construction is contained within that notebook and was invaluable when I was on site overseeing the project. I've created a second notebook called Legal and Warranty for all the deeds, title policies, warranties and related documents associated with my home and my mortgage. A third notebook I keep in this stack is a notebook devoted to household manuals. Some manuals I downloaded off the Internet, others I've scanned but it's nice to have for quick reference. I also have a generic house sub-notebook for everything else related to the house which includes household projects, upgrades, paint colors, and the like.
The next major category is Personal which is a bit of a catchall category. Here I have a notebooks devoted to car maintenance, recipes, education, keepsakes and the dreaded "miscellaneous" notebook for things that otherwise don't quite fit. I hate that miscellaneous notebook, but I'd rather have a digital junk drawer than a real one. One of my new additions to this stack is the Keepsakes category. This past Christmas I started a project of scanning my family's baby books and found things like graduation announcements, awards, memorable letters I wanted to preserve so I scanned them and put them in Evernote. Now one day my kids will be able to read the letter my grandparents wrote me upon my graduation from high school.
The last two categories of notebooks, Tech and Work, are fairly boring and contain general reference information related to my blog, podcast, mac users group and work life. At this point I'm not storing any client information in Evernote but I have herd of some attorneys who are using it extensively. This is where I'll find information about setting up the live stream for 5by5 or resetting my vacation response on my office voicemail.
Evernote allows me to collect and store all these various bits of information for easy access. It's taken me a while to perfect my organization structure with and it's a constantly evolving system. Before Evernote I would use a complex set of files and folders within my documents folder but I didn't keep a fraction of the information I'm able to organize within Evernote. I don't know what I'd do without it.
This article first appeared in the March Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/