Update 2022: I’ve updated my solution to one I’ve implemented on my own – you can read about it in my latest post.

Now you should have a folder of scanned documents, backed up securely. It’s time to meet my new best friend – Evernote.

Evernote is a cloud-based platform for note taking and archiving. Each note can contain attachments, be assigned to a notebook, and be tagged with multiple tags. It can then be searched for and retrieved.
Evernote has excellent support for PDF and image attachments, and has a built-in OCR engine for image attachments.
If you read my post on cloud security, you may ask yourself – “Ahh! but is my data encrypted?”. Unfortunately, Evernote does not encrypt data either on the server or on the client.
It does have a feature of ‘Local Notebook’, which does not reach the server at all, the downside being, of course, that it is not backed-up automatically – you need to take care of this yourself.
Again, unfortunately, Evernote does not store its database in a backup-friendly way, as it stores it in one big file, containing both local and synchronized notebooks, so incremental backups are not possible.
I’m currently using SpiderOak to backup the Evernote database, after using TrueCrypt over Google Drive did not perform very well (Google Drive choked on the big file). The jury is still out on the current method, and chances are I will drop SpiderOak in favor of adding the Evernote to my CrashPlan backup.

Setup Sorting with Evernote

Evernote tagging system is very simple, and does not require any setup in advance – you tag as you go. Simply create a dedicated Notebook for your document archive (make it a local notebook, if you prefer the more safe approach, as I suggested above).
I have two screens for my home computer, a setup I dearly love, and recommend to anyone sitting many hours in front of the computer. This way I can put my Evernote on one screen, and the File Explorer on the other screen, then simply drag documents from one screen to the other.
File Explorer view
Open the File Explorer to where you scanned all your documents, and set the view to ‘Extra Large Icons’. This way you can see a file preview instead of an icon, and know, more or less, what is on each document without actually opening it.
If you scanned to PDF format and you can’t see the preview of the files, you can use the fix suggested here.
Sort your view by name, so documents will be ordered in the same way you scanned them and multi-page documents will have all their pages next to one another.


Now, starting from the top, drag documents one by one into Evernote. If a document consists of more than one file, you can drag them together, and Evernote will create a single note containing all of them. I have found that the order in which the files are ordered within the note is a bit tricky – my trick is to mark the second file up to the last file, and then Ctrl+Click the first file (select the first file last) – and that usually works.
If you finish processing a note and then find that the next file should also be a part of that note, simply create a new note, and then Merge it into the previous one.
Give every  note a title, tag and set its creation date (see below).
After the note is done, delete the files from the File Explorer.
This process is long, and will definitely take more than one sitting. But this is not a big issue, because when you get tired of it, you can simply quit, and pick it up next time exactly where you left off.
I made a habit of processing 10 notes a day, and nowadays I do it to clear my mind, instead of playing Solitaire… 🙂

Note Title

Give each note a succinct title. If you don’t have OCR, you can copy the title from the document itself (if it is self-describing – some of the mail you get has very vague titles…).
Evernote is good at searching by text, so if you try to find this note, the title is where specific anchor words should be.
You can add some text to the body of the note as well, but mostly I don’t bother, as this is mostly for archiving. Don’t do it to add keywords to look by, as that is what Tags are for.

Note Tags

This is where Evernote really shines. You can add as many tags as you want to every note. Tags can be any text you wish, and Evernote will help you re-use existing tags.
Tags can then be used to filter data – clicking on a tag in the Tag View will filter out all notes that do not include that specific tag. You can choose multiple tags to further refine your filter.
For each note, ask yourself – does it belong to a specific person in the house? does it come from a certain vendor? does it belong in a certain category (‘Bills’, ‘Contract’, ‘Warranty’, etc.)?
Each of those is a tag.
I also recommend having specific tags for specific accounts, namely insurance policies, funds, and savings. For each use the account number as the tag, and then you can easily monitor each account over time.

Organizing Tags

grouped tags
After using note tagging for your archived documents for awhile, you will start to see a proliferation of tags, which will get less and less helpful.
Here comes a little known feature of Evernote – Tags can be grouped in the tag view!
To achieve that all you have to do is drag tags onto each other, and the dragged tags will become child tags to the tag you dropped them into.
This does not change the tags in any way – neither the group tag nor the grouped tags have any special features – they are all simply tags, but visually it is easier to follow which tags you have.
Suddenly, you will start seeing and understanding things you haven’t before, and archiving will start paying off. For example – that’s how I noticed that my son had two private health insurances!
My tip is to prefix group tags with ‘.’, meaning that if you would like to group all your past employers under one tag, name the parent tag ‘.Employer’. This ensures that group tags will appear first on your tag list, before all the incidental tags.

Note Creation Time

Archived documents have more benefit in their temporal context. You could have a tag for every year and add a ‘2010’ tag to every note containing a document from 2010, but there is a cooler approach.
This approach uses another little known feature of Evernote – note creation time is editable!
This means that for every document you can set its Creation Date to the actual date this document was produced!
Now you can sort all your documents by their creation date, and you can see your paper trail as it happened! How cool is that?
Using this trick might make your document processing less comfortable if you sort your documents by creation time, as every new note is created on top, and then ‘jumps’ to the middle as you change its creation time. For that reason, I suggest you sort you documents by their Update Time instead.

Documents Going Forward

So now all your historical documents are scanned and sorted on your Evernote account. But documents keep on coming by mail every day!
Here we’re back to the mobile phone apps such as Cam Scanner, which allows you to snap pictures of documents and, knowing that it is a picture of a document, apply image processing that is applicable to a document. Then they enable you to send the resulting picture to other software, including straight to Evernote.
Recently, Evernote itself added this feature to their iPhone application.
If you feel really committed, you can opt to buy a dedicated scanner (you don’t need an industrial one anymore – how much mail do you get?) for a couple of hundred dollars.
Scan your mail as soon as you get it and throw it away (or better yet – shred it).
Add it to your archive notebook in Evernote, and tag it. You don’t need to change the creation date anymore – the current date is your creation date!
Now you can forget about it 🙂

Paying the bills

Until now, I’ve payed my bills as soon as I got them, so I will not forget about them. Now I have another trick.

This one I’ve devised as a combination between Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad and David Allen’s ‘Get Things Done‘ as implemented by ‘The Secret Weapon‘ on Evernote.
Kiyosaki suggests in his book that you should pay the bills last. This makes sense – the later you give up the money, the more time you have to invest it, or, on the flip side, the less time you need to be in overdraft…
Allen has a technique he calls a ‘tickle file’, which reminds you of things that need to be done in some future date, as they draw near. In the Evernote implementation this is implemented as having notes’ creation date set to the future.
This means that if I receive a bill on the 3rd of October, to be payed not later than the 29th of October, instead of paying it as soon as I get it, I’ll put it in my Evernote, tag it as ‘Unpaid’, and set its creation date to a couple of days before my deadline, say October 27th.
Every day I’ll check if I have any outstanding bills to pay, using a Saved Search (another feature of Evernote), which will look something like this:

notebook:"Local Archive" tag:Unpaid -created:day

This search will show me all notes in the Local Archive folder that are tagged as ‘Unpaid’, and their creation date is before today. These are the bills I should pay today. After I pay them, I remove the ‘Unpaid’ tag, and they will not appear in future searches.


5 thoughts on “Going paperless – using Evernote

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences in such a detailed manner, I've learnt a lot from your series on going paperless. I was wondering: You said you and your wife are doing this together, but you're creating a “private notebook” for security reasons. So you are not able to share the same notebook? Best regards, Ratnanil (from stackoverflow).


  2. You are right, since it is a private notebook it cannot, by definition, be shared…
    For this to work, we both use the same computer (and the same Evernote user). Evernote is used here more as a handler for the db (it uses SQLite on the client) and not as the host of the data.
    To open the data on another computer, we need to physically copy the Database directory to the other computer before opening Evernote, and direct Evernote to that directory when we login.
    Of course changes made this way will not be copied back to the original location, so if you need to manage the same content from different computers, you'd need to have both computers synchronized (you can look into software which does this, I believe Resilio [previously known as BitTorrent Sync] does this privately and securely – https://www.resilio.com/platforms/desktop/)


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