Evernote Tags vs. Notebooks: Which Are Better for Organization? [Reader Feedback]

evernote notebooks vs tagsA recent article on Lifehacker has me wondering if I’m using Evernote all wrong. I only have two main notebooks in Evernote: Work, and Personal. There are a few other random ones that are automatically created by apps, such as the notebook that Scanner Pro, an iOS app, creates. I also have an “Inbox” notebook where notes reside until they are moved into one of the other notebooks. But by and large, all of my notes go into my two main notebooks. Am I in the minority with how I use Evernote notebooks?

In a recent post on Lifehacker, Whitson Gordon noted as follows:

I found that most of my ‘notes’ should have, in fact, been ‘notebooks,’ allowing me to store larger volumes of information with better organization.”

Well then. That’s not how I use Evernote. I use tags as my main organizational feature.


Why I Tag

I find tags to be superior than having many notebooks for two reasons:

1. A note can have multiple tags. I find that too many of my notes are pertinent to multiple subject areas, and would be hard to categorize into one Notebook.

2. Speed and efficiency. I don’t have to give thought to both my selection of tags, and selection of a notebok. The latter is obvious, so all I really need to think about is picking tags.

In fact, I often slack off with tagging notes, given Evernote’s search functionality. When I create a note, it by default goes into my Inbox notebook, with the hope that I will immediately tag it, and file it into a Notebook. I say “with the hope” because I currently have 358 notes in my Inbox. My Inbox has been in a similar state for a couple of years, and I have yet to run into a problem with it.

(To see how you can use just one notebook with a GTD system, check out Bobby Travis’ post on Getting Things Done (GTD) in Evernote with Only One Notebook ).

The Lifehacker article has caused me to think about how I use Evernote, however. There are some areas where I wouldn’t have a problem shoehorning notes into just one notebook, and where extra notebooks might be useful. For example, a notebook for all my photography-related notes could help with organization, as could a dedicated notebook whenever I plan a vacation. In the end, I see notebooks more as an aesthetic tool than anything.

How about you? Are you a notebook person, or a tag person? How many notebooks do you use? How about tags?

Evan Kline

Hello, I'm Evan. I write about tech from my perspective – that of the average 40-something tech geek. You can also find me on Twitter and at my real-life job as a lawyer.    MORE ABOUT ME.


  1. While I have used about 8 notebooks to organize my notes, with tags as well to further organize, I too have ran into the dilemma of having to think to much about what notebook to assign some notes to that could be in multiple notebooks.

    One reason I would see to keep notebooks in a separate notebook would be to share notes with another Evernote user although my notes are mostly Home related and I’m the only Evernote user in the Home at this point.

    A second reason that I would personally find more useful would be the fact that I can mark a notebook for offline access on my Android phone. I could see the value a separate notebook for a particular vacation, to keep those notes handy.

  2. I use both – though I rely more on notebooks. I have a Work stack, and within that have notebooks set up for each client. As a graphic designer, I also have a notebook where I collect design references, and here I heavily use tags so I can search the reference notebook for illustration, or web design, or color combinations, whatever. In my Personal stack, I have notebooks like Recipes or Working Out, and within those I’ll use tags.

  3. I use Notebooks primarily though have recently tried to do more tagging. Photography related NB’s? Ugh. You should see the mess I’ve created. I really need to get in there and clean it out.

    For me the NB’s are a natural way to organize all this crap. Adding that I now use Pocket to grab stuff from the web that I want to read later and I’ve cut down on my use of Evernote significantly.

    Does any of this make sense? It’s 6AM here and I’m not used to being up this early.

    • Believe it or not, I’m probably more like you than you think. I use Evernote, Instapaper, and Pocket. The plan with Pocket was that I would just put photographer related articles in there for later review and archiving, but they really ended up getting sprinkled about everywhere. I really need a good housecleaning myself.

  4. I used to have a ton of notebooks, but, as you mentioned, too many notes fit in too many notebooks. However, since reading/viewing “The Secret Weapon,” that has all changed. Everything a person thinks s/he needs in a notebook can be made into a tag instead. And tags can be nested more easily than stacks. I’m sold. I have my GTD system set up (Actions Pending and Completed), and then I have an Inbox and a Cabinet for the elephant. Everything else is tagged. Pretty simple. I’ve also recently discovered saved searches, and that simplifies things even more.

  5. It occurs to me (and this goes for other kinds of organizing too) that notebooks are for people and tags are for computers. In other words: notebooks allow a person, at a glance, to get to the right area, which is useful if you have only a modest number of notebooks and, perhaps, a modest number of notes. Tagging is somewhat more powerful, because it harnesses the power of search. In other words, notebooks enable search by your eyeballs, whereas tags enable search by your computer, an indispensable feature as you accumulate lots of notes.

    • Great point. I never thought of it that way. It almost comes down to the number of tags and notebooks that you have. With many notebooks, you would need a computer to search, while just a few tags could be searched with eyeballs.

  6. Thank you for a great post. I, too, struggled with the notebook vs. tags decision. When I first started with Evernote, I went the notebook route, but quickly discovered that it became so unwieldy that I soon stopped using Evernote altogether. Like Iosephus, I came across “The Secret Weapon” and using that format of tags over notebooks, Evernote has not become one of the most valuable and indispensable tools I have in my GTD arsenal. Now, I only use a few notebooks. Even though the idea of over 100 tags may seem daunting, I have found it far easier to sort and classify notes with tags rather than notebooks. For those still struggling to discover a system that works for them, I would highly recommend checking out “The Secret Weapon.” It literally changed my life and the way I use Evernote.

  7. Thank you for posting this; I too was bothered by the Lifehacker article. I have just one notebook, with 1300+ notes, and can’t see any benefit for me in having more because I don’t share any notes, I tag everything, and all my tags are organised hierarchically; I get the benefits of both tags and folders.

    In my tag hierarchy I have 4 notebook equivalents, eg. “work” and “personal”, and then sub-tags under those. I’ve thought about moving everything tagged with “work” (and sub-tags) into a “work” notebook, but it seems like I wouldn’t end up with anything different to what I have now. Some notes have multiple tags, and would span multiple notebooks, so it wouldn’t make sense to drop them into any particular notebook.

    I didn’t set out to have the system I have; am I “doing it right”?

    • I guess there is really no right or wrong way – whatever works for each person. I’m like you, though – with some exceptions, I just see tags being able to do everything that notebooks can, with added benefits.

  8. I just cleaned up my Evernote notebooks, going from a notebooks for each company I’m involved with, plus notebooks for Skitch screenshots, files, etc., to having just two: “Inbox” and “Notes.”

    The only reason I’d have more, is to share or collaborate; however, I’ll mostly be using Evernote for Business to do that, so that will offer some separation.

    Another notebooks you may want to have if you do GTD or similar, is a ”Projects” or “To Do” notebook—but I’m integrating all my todo’s into actual notes in the single “Notes” notebook. Have not yet documented my new system (which I call the Triple-M, or “Mental Model Method” system), but it involves smart use of Evernote search to make things as simple as possible, and mimic how your individual mind already naturally organizes information—something that’s very subjective.

    (For example: you can view any notes that contain unchecked checkboxes by searching for “todo:false”. Very nice, and makes Evernote extremely flexible.)

  9. Two points not have been mentioned:

    1. (Re)tagging leads to a change in the updated time, but reassigning a note to some other notebook does not. This is very important for the sorting habit by updated and created time. That’s why I am a little concerned for using tags.

    2. Selecting parent tags does not show all the notes with child tags, but selecting parent notebooks does. However, from the favorites bar, one can choose any tags, but not parent notebooks. Interesting, hah?

  10. I really like the idea of tags, but have largely abandoned tags since Evernote 5 took away the ability to see what “active” tags there are for a particular notebook or search in the sidebar.

    I used to have high level categories with tags that began with the symbol “/”, and then when I clicked on one of those tags the list of tags in the side bar would only show the remaining tags for results in that search… this really let you organize your notes in one big notebook and drill down to what you were looking for or see what was in the search results.

    However, I have been unable to figure out how to get this back in Evernote 5, other than clicking on the tag icon to get the list of available tags to appear…. this was a really bad “improvement” they made in 5, which has basically caused me to increase my notebooks from a handful to close to 100.

    I now equate each notebook with a manilla folder in my old hard copy filing system… when a “file” is closed or no longer active, I either merge all the notes or tag them all with the same thing and move them to an archive notebook.

    This works for now, but I will likely switch back if Evernote reintroduces the remaining tags in the sidebar.

  11. I’m am tag person…only one notebook and a a lot of tag to organize.
    This work very well for me.
    Notebook INBOX for me is saved search “-tag*”.

    • I assume that returns all untagged notes? Very interesting. Although I do have more than 1 notebook, I like that saved search.

      • Yes, Evan, right! Each note has at least one tag, and every tag is auto referential and auto indented. Tag like CAM TOUR ITALY groups every tour I wish to make in Italy with my camper and CAM TOUR FRANCE every tour in France…and so on. I love that system because every note has only ONE tag for project (really fast search e list alphabetically automatic). Others tag works to manage that note (context or todo, for example). I don’t love todo list, don’t work in my case. I prefer to mark todo with context, for example, and decide in the moment what I can do.

  12. Hi there,
    Note is the flexible/dynamic tagging. Tag itself is static.
    My idea is that sometimes you need to make it flexible to change the status of the file or note, such as “do it now” or “later” in this case it is more convenient to use the note system which you can drag and drop to a new place. To use tags it is more cumbersome to remove the tag (such as “do it now”) and add another one (like “later”).

  13. Another example is the notebooks called “inbox” and “archive” which depending on the status of your notes.

  14. Practically anywehere the eye can see there’s Evernote :))
    As for me, I make the most essential notes with a pen.

  15. As a cataloguer (I organize large amounts of data) I can tell you my opinion on this. People who use many notebooks are “browsers” or they prefer to visually see the amount of stuff they have accumulated. It may give them a sense of accomplishment, and in the beginning it will look pretty impressive I am sure. You feel very organized seeing all those nicely labeled notebooks. They may like to give a quick look over the notebooks to see their stuff. This will work fine until you have numerous notebooks, then there will be too many notebooks for a “quick” look at your notebooks. It will take you much longer to do your “browse” you have become so fond of. You will then be forced to use the search function t to find anything. The more efficient way, assuming you expect to have large amounts of data is to have 2 notebooks if needed for work and life or just one if you prefer. I always tag my notes, that’s the organization system I prefer to use. Not having tags will put you at risk of eventually (when your data is much larger) having searches that bring you way too much data to begin to sort through.

  16. To put in more succinctly, if library catalogues fail without subject headings, so will Evernote notebooks, without tags (which are for all intents and purposes subject headings)

  17. @Heather
    Just because a certain approach works for you does not necessarily mean it works for others. You state that the notebook approach will inevitably fail when lots of data. Well the same will happen with tags only because you end up creating so many tags that you will have to search a long time for the right tag if you need to find a note.
    The best approach is probably a combination of both notebooks and tags, both of whch should be sensibly allocated. Notebooks are like Windows Explorer giving a vertical inventory, whereas tags give a horizontal inventory. But, at the end of the day, there is no right or wrong !!

  18. Michael Lee Stills

    I do Genealogy Research. I have a large amount of data. For example. I will create a lot of Notes on John Smith, his father, Robert Smith and his wife, Mary Brown. Right now I am organizing by creating a Stack for Smith’s with Notebooks for Robert and John and a separate Stack for Brown’s, Mary Brown. As I understand Tags, I should tag things like the Marriage Record with Tags John Smith and Mary Brown. will have over 5000 individual with anywhere from 1- 20+ or more Tags. I presume I will be using Tags and Searches to revisit these source documents over time. On top of that I have the rest of my life, WoodWorking Projects, Starting a Small Business, Home Needs, Fun Stuff, etc.

    I was looking for Multi-level Stacks but I see that does not exist. Being over 40 (Just made it to 50), I have been raised on Windows Explorer hierarchies but have moved to Mac in the last 3 years and love it. So…am I missing anything with my Evernote Organization??

    • Hi Michael (great name) – I have started thinking about how to use Evernote for my genealogy research as well. For me, tags are the way to draw a common thread across notebooks as well as across many notes, so that’s how I’m approaching it:
      – First, I’m going to make a notebook for each of my separate research projects. That way, while I’m working on the project, all of the notes I need are close together.
      – Then I’m going to tag things with Surnames (I’m not sure about creating a tag for each individual person), so I can find Surname information across projects
      – I’m also going to create tags for Places, with a separate tag for State, County and City (99% of my stuff is US-based; I’ll probably add Country tags once I go across the pond)
      – Then, when the project is finished (ha! like a genealogy project is ever finished! :), I will create a unique tag for that Project and collapse all of the notes back into my may genealogy notebook

      Like you, I’ve struggled with the knee-jerk reaction for having a hierarchy…but I’m getting more comfortable with the power of tags and their ability to help me pull information together in ways that would normally break a rigid hierarchy.

      That’s what I’m thinking…at least for now. Looks like you wrote your comment several months ago…how has your genealogy tagging strategy shaken out?

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