You’re using folders and tags the wrong way round

According to Ian Small, CEO of Evernote, only 5% of Evernote users use tags. Evernote is not the only application that uses tags and folders, and I suspect the picture is similar in other applications. Most users rely on folders alone to categorize their work. I can understand this. Everyone has used paper folders in real life, the folders in applications replicate this experience.

However I think tagging is better, the reason being that although a note can only be in one folder, it can have more than one tag.

Here’s an example. Suppose you have personal notes and work notes. Some of those notes are just regular notes, some notes outline projects. You could tag your notes as follows:

  • Holiday (personal, project)
  • Shopping (personal)
  • User Manual (work, project)
  • Presentation (work)

Tagging like this gives you more flexibility. You can now filter for all of your projects, or filter for work projects only. By adding additional tags for things such as year 2021, 2022 you can then find, for example, all the personal projects you started in 2021.  Tagging gives your searches a granularity you don’t get by using folders.

Does that mean folders are no use? No. Folders are useful when something can only be on one state. A good example is :

  • Todo
  • In Progress
  • Done

You can set up those three folders and move notes between them. This is the opposite of the commonly recommended practice that you tag work with Todos.

Why are folders better? Because notes can only be in one folder at a time. It’s possible to accidentally tag a note as both Todo and Done. There’s also something quite satisfying about dragging a note from the In Progress to the Done folder…

What if you want to separate your work and personal to-dos? There are two ways. You can go to the Todo folder and filter by work or personal tags. Or it might be easier just to have two sets of folders

  • Work Todo
  • Work in Progress

And

  • Personal Todo
  • Personal in progress

Does it matter if you’re using folders and tags the wrong way round? Of course not. If you can find the right note at the right time, your system is fine. My suggestion is that using tags correctly adds flexibility.

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