10 May 2017

How To Actually Organize the Million Notes You Have

The best under-10-second note retrieval & organization system that's worked for me so far.

This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all 5 parts in The Only Productivity Guide You’ll Ever Need.

The Productivity Guide:

In May I realized I had ~800 discrete notes without an overall structure or basis for organization. That basically meant I had 800 notes lying around, never to be seen again.

If that was the end result of my notes, what was the point of taking those notes in the first place?

That got me thinking about various platforms I could formalize a structure with. Throughout June, I cultivated the system described below. This is by no means is the best way to organize one’s notes but it’s the best under-10-second retrieval system that’s worked for me so far.

What is a “good” note organization system?

1. Scalability

A.k.a, the ability to seamlessly handle upwards of 5,000 notes without losing the essential features listed below.

This is the point at which cataloging becomes as important a feature as note-taking. It’s also where most note-taking apps fall short — because they maximize the note-taking experience without building the infrastructure for hardcore note cataloging.

2. Great search function & ease of note retrieval

With upwards of 5,000 notes, a good note organization system should quickly find the information one needs.

3. Ability to convert to other platforms

I hate being exclusively reliant on one platform. What happens if they get bought and no longer remain supported? Or if they have a major change in policy?

A perfect example is Evernote’s recent update preventing free users from using Evernote on more than two devices. This, along with other recent decisions, marked Evernote’s trend of pushing users to purchase a Premium or Plus plan — which I was not on board for.

Hence the need to be able to easily and efficiently export your data to another platform if needed.

Before fully committing to any application, I always look into the ability to convert the format of the given application to other forms – in the case of note-taking, to be able to convert individual notes to text, Word, or PDF formats.

4. General app popularity

The more popular the app, the more likely you are to get:

  • A strong team of developers who continue to produce updates, bug fixes, and new features.
  • A far lower risk of the app being discontinued.
  • A number of add-ons, plugins, or compatible apps/features, as developers make handy side-applications to support the main application.
  • A number of help forums that come with insight on more advanced features.

5. The ability to have multiple levels of organization

This refers to the ability to categorize notes in notebooks, tags, sections, etc. At a scale of 100 notes, multiple levels of organization are overkill. At a scale of 1,000+ notes, multiple levels of organization are essential.

6. Support across multiple devices, cloud synchronization, and offline use

Particularly, ease of access and syncing capabilities across devices and the ability to use the app offline.

7. Seamless syncing and support across all forms of notetaking

This includes quick-and-dirty notetaking, on-the-go notetaking, mobile note-taking, and long-form note-taking.

8. A decent user interface

Clean and intuitive.

9. Other Cool Features

For example, version control/page history, the ability to handle formats like images, PDFs, voice recordings, etc.


An Overview of My Note-taking System

My system involves 3 core elements:

I. Microsoft OneNote

As my central hub for notes. (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)

II. Google Keep & iOS Stickies

For quick & dirty note-taking. (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)

III. Day One

As my personal diary. (iOS, Mac)

Let’s dive deeper into the niche each of these tools fills.

I. Microsoft OneNote | The Central Hub

OneNote has pretty much all of the features described above.

Scalability - ONENOTE SCALABILITY IS SO FREAKING GOOD OMG.

It easily handles scalability with 4 levels of organization — notebooks, sections, pages, and optional subpages. This means even a scale of 2,000 notes can be searched incredibly effectively and easily, assuming a constant distribution of notes across organization sub-levels. Search functions at this scale are still great. Unlike 95% of existing note-taking apps, it has the ability to both catalog and note-take.

Great Export Options - If you ever want to ditch OneNote, it has a bunch of export options which allow you to export individual pages, sections, or notebooks to pretty much any format you’d want — Word, PDF, XPS, text, etc.

Decent User Interface / Cloud Synchronization / Offline Use - Their user interface is good — easy to figure out and with pretty extensive coverage across different interfaces. Their syncing system & offline use could be better, but I mostly rely on Google Keep for those functions so they make little difference to this system. Of course, the UI isn’t great but it serves the purpose of cataloguing.

II. Other Amazing Features

  • Intensive formatting (versus a simpler formatting experience on Evernote)
  • Support of more free-form note-taking (versus solely a linear top-to-bottom one)
  • Page version history (showing a history of edits made to a given page)
  • Page templates
  • In built drawing & audio and video recording functions
  • In built scanning & embedded spreadsheet functions
  • Email notes to OneNote
  • Full integration & easy export to Microsoft Word

Why OneNote Over Evernote?

A couple reasons:

I. OneNote’s free software far exceeds the capability of Evernote’s free plan.

Most all of the features described above come free on OneNote whereas the Evernote free plan is far less robust. For example why do I need a paid Evernote subscription for offline access? Those types of things are huge dealbreakers for me.

II. Signs of trouble with the company itself.

As Lifehacker puts it:

“There have been troubling signs with the company too. Evernote co-founder Phil Libin stepped down as CEO last July, the company laid off 13% of its staff two months later, and they also closed three of its global offices. Perhaps Evernote is just transitioning to a leaner, more focused company, but with them shutting down Evernote Food and ending support for Skitch and Clearly, it’s reasonable to be concerned about the future of one of our favorite note-taking apps.”

Recent moves like limiting users to 2 devices and restricting offline access on the free plan are particularly off-putting.

That being said, Evernote is a good platform, particularly if you’re already heavily invested in it and making use of many of its advanced features. At a 1,000+ notes, it’s likely better to simply continue using Evernote and work on cleaning the organization system itself rather than starting from scratch on OneNote.

On the other hand, I personally made the switch from Evernote to OneNote despite having an 800 note system already on Evernote. Suffice to say, it was definitely worth the switch. Plus, it only took 20-30 hours to copy over all of my notes and set up my new system which isn’t too bad of a startup cost for such an integral organization system.

Setting Up the Microsoft OneNote Central Hub

Using OneNote as your central hub means that all permanent notes will eventually be migrated and sorted into OneNote. It’s a holding place for notes. So while I usually first write the note in iOS’ stickies or Google Keep, if it’s worth keeping, it’ll be stored in OneNote.

Each major life topic corresponds to a separate notebook:

Each notebook has a corresponding set of sections, pages, and optional subpages, allowing you to really drill-down and organize each element of a topic. As an example, this is my personal Advice notebook, organized by topic (sections) and insights on those topics (pages). If a topic has multiple advice tidbits, they’re displayed on different pages.

This allows for incredibly easy navigating and search. If I’m looking for a specific chai recipe, for example, I’ll navigate to Food –> Cooking —> Dipti’s Chai Recipe. 😊

Alternatively, if I’m looking for information about my trip to China, I’ll navigate to Travel –> China and check out the individual pages.

You can get more intense with tags and such but I find the above functionality sufficient for my system.

II. Google Keep & Stickies | Quick & Dirty Note-taking

I use Google Keep and iOS Stickies for raw note-taking:

  • Jotting down advice / notes through out the day
  • Temporary notes like shopping lists, reminders, and to-dos
  • Miscellaneous day-to-day note-taking needs

Both Google Keep & Stickies have simple, no nonsense note-taking interfaces conducive to on-the-go note-taking.

On top of that, Google Keep’s mobile app syncs beautifully with the Web platform allowing for easy transferring of cell phone notes to one’s computer and vice versa. The syncing is so good that I’ll often use Google Keep solely for transferring data like addresses, WiFi passwords, etc., from my computer to my phone. Plus, it has great offline, collaboration, and archive options.

iOS Stickies are great for quick and dirty jotting down of ideas while offline or when unable to connect to the web on your Mac.

III. Day One | Personal Journal

Day One by far is the singular best journal app. I challenge you to find one that’s better. It has an incredible ability to sync beautifully across mobile and desktop platforms, incorporate photos, locations, tags, and sorting into entries, while providing different journal views and calendar views.

It’s simply amazing.

I use Day One for strictly personal diary entries – thoughts about my current wins, setbacks, emotions, and daily life. The calendar function allows me to scroll through various months and read entries while the ‘On this Day’ function allows me to see past entries I’ve written on the same day in previous years.

Conclusion

And that’s ultimately it! The system, particularly with a centralized OneNote hub, works beautifully.

What do you use? Do you have a better note organization system? Tell me about it in the comments! Till then, I hope this was of help.


This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all parts together in the Productivity Guide, or see the individual pages below:

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You can also email me at [email protected] - I’m happy to help out in really any way.

– Neha