Revamping my Evernote. Why?

  • I had too many tags (over 1,000)
  • Too many notebooks (around 60)
  • Too many “todo’s” scattered across 1 ToDo notebook and 1 ToDo tag (what the…?)
  • Notes piling up unattended to in my inbox and ToDo tag and notebook
  • Not doing regular daily, weekly and monthly reviews.
  1. Mission creep was affecting my original purpose for using Evernote.
    1. My original purpose was to use EN as
      1. an archive of ideas for the future, as well as reference materials for present and possible future projects, and
      2. my GTD system.
  2. BUT I was spending too much time collecting notes and clippings, and not enough time reviewing them and/or using them for live projects.
  3. Too many ToDos and ToReads and Someday/Maybes piling up.
    1. Why? Probably because these items do not pop up on my radar screen when they should, or as often as they should.
    2. Why not?
      1. Probably partly because I’m not conducting regular Daily and Weekly Reviews.
  4. Too many clippings.
  5. Too many notebooks, meaning too much time spent deciding which notebook to file a note under.
  6. Too many occasions when I was unable to locate the note I wanted because I could not search across multiple notebooks (but you can search across multiple tags).
  7. Storing too much and not trashing enough, i.e. not reviewing old clippings or other notes and discarding things I no longer need. Being too much of a packrat, in short.
  8. Lost track of my projects: too many items labelled as “projects” which weren’t.
    1. Solution: review David Allen’s definition of “project”, and re-label my “projects” which aren’t really projects (actions that require more than 2 steps).
  9. Lost track of my long-term goals, visions, etc.; my 30-, 40- and 50,000-feet perspectives.
    1. Possible solution: regular reviews (Daily, Weekly, Monthly)
    2. This means that my long-term goals and visions, etc., need to come up on my radar on a regular basis, in one or more of my reviews.
    3. That means organizing my saved searches.

I decided to re-read Ruud Hein’s article on using Evernote to GTD, where he describes in detail his extensive use of saved searches to make sure what needs to come up does actually come up. That is (for me) the biggest lesson of GTD: something important you must take to work the next day, you put it on your shoes or right in front of the front door, so next morning when you’re still bleary and fuzzy despite your coffee, you stumble over this and think, “What the heck? … Oh yeah, I gotta take this to work” and you pick it up and take it.

I also re-read John Mayson’s article on using tags rather than notebooks. I especially liked his idea of  “Broader Focus” tags and incorporating them into a regular Review routine (see John Mayson: It’s All Been Tagged). I also read the Bobby Travis article Mayson said had inspired him. Travis advocates a single notebook, but Mayson sees the value of multiple notebooks, and I agree. Bobby Travis: Getting Things Done (GTD) in Evernote with Only One Notebook

I started out with the intention of putting everything into a single notebook. But that didn’t work because I need an Inbox, a place where everything arrives initially and then gets processed, meaning sent somewhere else. I also have some sensitive information on Evernote and after trying out Evernote’s encryption option and then forgetting my password, I put sensitive info in a local, non-cloud, notebook.

I also trashed my Todo notebook and tag, and instead put a checkbox into all of my todo notes. I plan to use Ruud Hein’s tip on using Evernote to GTD: find my ToDos by using a variety of saved searches, the most basic being


So that’s 3 notebooks. And while wading through my 5,000-odd notes I began to see the advantage of having some clear lines of demarcation, e.g. “Work” and “Home” and “Help” where all my “howto’s” and tutorials and guides go.

So I’m up to 11 notebooks now, including Evernote’s “Conflicting changes” and “Unsynced notes” notebooks (so 9 of my own). Up to? Or should I say down from 59!

Mayson makes a useful definition of a goal and distinguishes it from “vision”. All too often, productivity writers get stuck straight in to “set your goals” or “list your goals”. Here’s a typical example: “In my earlier post on the subject, I suggested that the very first step in note organization was defining your goals.” (From Going Paperless: A Closer Look at How I Organize My Notes In Evernote.)

At best, they suggest sorting goals into categories such as Health, Work, Family, etc. Here’s Mayson:

0-Broader Focus
This is the 50,000 foot view of my life. I long considered this exercise to be rather silly. My goals were simple: earn more money and get kids out of house before I die. But now that I’m on the older side of 40 I’ve decided my life needs a little more meaning. Under this heading I have four subheadings:

* Goals
* Objectives
* Values
* Visions
I view goals as long projects that will benefit me in the future. Finishing this blog post is not a goal. Earning my CCNA certification is.

Objectives help me form my goals. Right now an objective is to be a very well-rounded test engineer. A goal born out of that is earning my CCNA.

Values is a list of things that are important to me. They may or may not support my goals. For instance I have placed rules on myself about Internet activity at work. No one has ever spoken to me about this. But I do see people spending more time than I think it appropriate surfing the net at work. So one set of values is what is acceptable and what can wait until I’m home on my own time….

Visions are where I see myself in 3 to 5 years. I travel periodically to Penang, Malaysia on business. I would like to have a long-term or even an expat assignment there. That’s not actionable on my part. There’s nothing I can go do to make that happen. However I can position myself so if such an opportunity opened, I’d be the natural candidate. I define that under visions. It also reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.

But I haven’t got there yet. I’m still sorting out my notes. And in the process of trashing tons of notebooks, tags and notes, I’ve had several “Failed sync” problems. The usual solution from Evernote to “failed sync” help tickets is something like this:

Unfortunately the log indicates that there is a problem with the note named: “xxxx…”.

This could have happened for many reasons, and we recommend that you:

  1. Copy the information out of the note
  2. Delete the note
  3. Empty your Evernote trash folder
  4. Attempt to resync
  5. Login to your account at [Evernote Web] (
  6. Verify that the note has been removed from your account. If not, delete it from here and empty it from the Evernote Trash Notebook here as well

After a while, being too impatient to wait for the reply from Evernote support, I took a look at the Activity Log myself and scanning through it, found that problem notes seemed to cluster around the place in the log where it said “failed”. By searching for “failed” and identifying a potentially criminal note, I then followed the Evernote protocol cited above, and was able to solve a couple of failed syncs myself.

Next step

The next step will be to decide on an effective daily, weekly and monthly review pattern, and to set them up with checklists of things to look for, in particular saved searches which seem to me to be a huge time-saver.

Some sites I’ve found helpful on this subject: