7 Effective Kinds of Evernote Tags

I use Evernote almost exclusively for task and information management.  There are two primary reasons for my loyalty: reminders and tagging functionality.  I’ll cover reminders later.  For now, let’s look at tagging and some ways to use tags that you might not have seen.  I’ll assume that you have a pretty good sense of how to use Evernote.  If you need some Evernote guidance, take a look at Michael Hyatt’s Evernote posts, or the Evernote users guide.

I have over 6500 notes in my Evernote account. They live in two folders, and one of those is a temporary home until they get “filed”. I use tags instead of folders. The two work similarly in Evernote, but while a note can only live in one folder, a note can have as many tags as you want to give it. This gives me a multidimensional filing system that allows me to find my stuff when I need it.

My current tag count is around 750.  That sounds like a lot, but they fall into 7 general categories.  Some categories you will have heard of, others are unique to my system, as far as I know.

  1. “when” tags. This is pretty standard for the most effective Evernote users I am aware of.  There appear to be two general categories: “now”, “soon”, “later”, etc. for prioritizing work, or specific future events tags, that Michael Hyatt recommends.  I have combined the two and have both specific events and the more generic when tags.  I do this because some things I do are not related to a specific future event, but still need time tracking. Several of my priority tags (“soon”, “later”, etc.) are falling into disuse because I am setting more reminders in Evernote (look for a future post).
  2. “who” tags. Another pretty standard set of tags.  I use these primarily so I can remember a piece of information based on who it is about or who gave the information to me.  I can often remember that someone said something that I need to know, but not remember exactly what they told me.  This is a different usage from the “@person” tag I discuss below.
  3. “where” tags.  This is a combination of locations where something happened that I want to remember and locations where something needs to happen.  Usually, my most common locations, such as the library, get a tag of the form “@library” versus “beach” or “campus”, which are more about where something happened.
  4. “project” tags. This is also a reasonably common set of tags.  When we think about projects, many tasks and pieces of information come to mind.  I like to capture them and store them for later brainstorming and planning.  As in The Secret Weapon, I organize my project tags in two “parent” tags – “.Active projects” and “.Inactive projects”.  When a project is finished, I rename its tag, adding a period to the beginning so it stays out of the autofinder (mostly, your mileage may vary).  I schedule time to review my “.Inactive projects” to harvest and tag reference information notes.  I typically delete dated communication record kinds of notes.  Once the tag is empty, I delete it.
  5. “role” tags.  One of my core uses of the Evernote-as-GTD system is to help me surface my roles.  We all have a lot of roles, but they are difficult to identify.  Each of my roles has a specific tag.  Every to-do has a role associated with it.  Each role has a vision statement with its own tag (see below).
  6. “location” tags.  I have two slightly different kinds of location tags – “@place” tags and “@person” tags.  @place tags are straightforward, like the @library tag mentioned above.  @person tags are for a handful of people and give me a way to organize thoughts that I need to share with individuals face-to-face.  I developed the discipline of checking this tag when I am about to see one of the few people important enough to have an @person tag.  If there is something I need to discuss, I have a note.  This has saved me from countless emails and phone calls that weren’t urgent.  It has also saved the people I work with many, many interruptions of the “I just thought of something you need to know” variety.
  7. “organization” tags.  I use organization tags to keep up with my reference information.  I have about 30 different tags.  Some straightforward examples: “expenses”, “pictures”, “quotes”, “receipts”.  Some of the more unusual ones: “refine actions” (in reference to this post from David Allen) is a tag for those things that I need to think about more before proceeding. “vision” gives me a tag for each vision document I have (more on this in a later post).  “gifts” gives me a place to keep gift ideas – they can be cross-tagged with the person’s name (including mine).

So, there you have it.  Seven categories of tags that help me keep my “external brain” in order.

Getting your system right is a skill.  If you practice and experiment, you’ll get better.  Word of warning: don’t overthink this at the beginning.  Instead have a recurring quarterly tag audit.  This will help you find false duplicate tags (e.g. “post” and “posts”) and prune tags that you really aren’t using.  Over time, your tags will begin to mirror your thought processes.

Question: Do you use a kind of tag that we didn’t cover?  Let us know in the comments.

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Summary of “Learning to Learn” (HBR)
July 22, 2016
GTD “trusted” system
September 22, 2015
Ticklers (or how to remember to do stuff)
June 23, 2015

GTD “trusted” system

In a previous post, I tried to relate the GTD (Getting Things Done, David Allen) reasoning for developing and using a trusted system for storing information and tasks, rather than simply trying to remember things.

A few core ideas and components define a GTD trusted system:

The inbox – there is a single location or entry point for the system. Only one.  Ever. This reinforces the habit of using the system. Further, the inbox should be readily accessible so that when information or an interruption occurs, a note can be put in the inbox quickly, and collected and stored there for later processing. Then you can get back to productive, planned work. Anything, in any form, can go into the inbox. Finally, it is important that you alone control what goes into the inbox, because if others can put things directly into your inbox, it gets cluttered. If it gets too cluttered with junk, it gets difficult to process. If it is too difficult to process, you’ll let stuff collect up – congratulations, you’ve officially fallen off the GTD wagon. This fact alone makes your email inbox a lousy GTD inbox. I’ll cover tips on incorporating email in a later post. Remember – a single, private, inbox that is easily accessible – put everything there.

Processing mentality – process the inbox every few hours, or when there is a natural break in work. There are only three permissible actions: do it, delay it, or delete it. If it can be done (or filed for reference) quickly enough to not break the flow of processing, say 30 seconds, then go ahead and knock it out. If it will take longer to do, then delay it, possibly in a task scheduler or suspension list (more on this in a later post). If it is no longer relevant, just delete it. Remember – decide what it is and get it out of the inbox.

Organized storage – the storage system must be organized so you can find things. What does this organization look like? The answer to this question is not obvious in an age where search has overtaken up-front filing. “Pile and search” is a reasonable choice in the age of Google. For me, search is a valuable tool, but has a complication. I use similar terminology in lots of different ways. If I search my 4500 notes for the word “productivity”, I get back a few hundred notes. This is not particularly helpful.

On the other hand, a hierarchical filing system (such as folders in Outlook) has not proven useful for me. The problem with hierarchical storage is that each item stored can only be about one thing. This constraint means that I am limited on how to find things in the system and have to work too hard to find the “right” place to put things.

I have worked on this for a while and have refined a tag-based organization/filing system that I found on the web. I’ll post details on this topic later, but for a preview, go to The Secret Weapon. The site has a 7-minute overview video. Remember – organization is a key to trusting your system.


  • A single, private, readily-accessible inbox
  • Process often and process to empty
  • Organize your storage so you’ll trust it

GTD has been around for a while and has evolved over time. If you’re interested in more detail, here’s a link http://gettingthingsdone.com/get-started/. I also recommend the book; it is thorough and concise.

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Ticklers (or how to remember to do stuff)

I fiddled with reminders in Evernote for a long time, but couldn’t work them into my workflow. Recently, however, I found a few keys that make this functionality a game-changer for me. The concept of a “tickler” file has been around for years. It was based on paper and folders. I think we can update that idea a little. Here’s how.

In note view, Evernote has a “Reminder” icon (a clock). If you click it, you will see some default choices like “tomorrow.” Selecting “choose date” shows a date/time picker. Select the date on which you want to be reminded about this note and, optionally, a time. When you click away from the date/time picker, the reminder is set, and Evernote shows the date that the reminder is due. Simple. And critically, the reminder does not interfere with any of the other tags or the location of the note.

One feature that makes the tickler system work in Evernote is how it (optionally) reminds me about notes. It sends me an email early in the morning on days when I have reminders due. Any note that has a reminder for that day (regardless of the time) is included in the email. When I see the email, I process the whole set of reminders (I don’t normally have more than 5 or so) and then delete the email.  In order to enable this behavior, go to Tools->Options->Reminders and check the box for “Receive reminder emails”.

The title of each note in the email is actually a link to the note itself in the Evernote web client.  In Windows, the desktop client will also become active and show the note. So processing the email is simply clicking on each note title, waiting for the note to pop up in the app, clearing the reminder, and setting any additional tags.  I normally just put each one in my “Now” tag. I also have a “ticklers” saved search, just to keep things organized.  The search syntax is “reminderorder:*”.

The things I wanted to be reminded about are now my to dos for today.

In order to keep things simple, I do not use the “Mark as Done” feature of tags.  I don’t do anything to track completed work; I tried it and didn’t find it very useful.

I don’t worry about setting the time on the reminder, I just let it default. I don’t let anything on my computer pop up, change an icon, or make a noise, same with the pop up notification that a reminder is due. To stop notifications, go to Tools->Options->Reminders and clear the “Show upcoming reminders” and “Show recently completed reminders” boxes. Since I deal with my ticklers once a day, the time is not important.

And yes, I sometimes just shove the task down the calendar by changing the reminder date.

This usage supports David Allen’s advice in GTD. Your calendar is for things that need to be done on a specific date and at a specific time. Therefore, only appointments (although perhaps only with yourself) go on the calendar. The reminder/tickler is more about project deadlines and things that are convenient to do on a particular day. In addition, if I need to follow up with someone on a task, I can set a reminder for a week from now.

Question: Have you found Evernote reminders useful? How?

Related posts
7 Effective Kinds of Evernote Tags
August 5, 2016
GTD “trusted” system
September 22, 2015