Search vs structure for organizing your notes

Most note keeping solutions offer multiple methods of organizing your notes within their tools. You’ll find search, tags, labels, folders, outlines, and a variety of other less common structures. Determining what features will work the best for you in locating your notes after you’ve captured them can be a struggle at a minimum and derail your entire system at the worst. How do you know which features work for you and which is the best to implement in your personal productivity solution?

First thing to clear out of your head is you don’t need to choose one method or the other.  Both have strengths and weaknesses so it’s more a matter of determining what feature works when. In comparing your solution to how our brains work our logical starting place is search.

When we remember something, we don’t think to ourselves “well that piece of information is in this place in my head, in this folder, with this label.” No, we just think about the topic and our brain does the best it can at finding all the memories we have stored around that topic. Unfortunately the process is far from efficient and reliable, so when we think about digital searching with personal productivity solutions we need to concentrate on how the computer will search the contents of our notes (memories) to find all the items that match our search topic.

If we are going to rely on search to locate information in our solutions we need to make sure our notes contain the content matching the terms we will be searching with. For example, if you are storing a health insurance summary, you need to think about what you would plug into the search box to locate that document. The content and titling needs to match those terms so in this case if your instinct is to look for “health insurance” remember you will find the summary we mentioned earlier but also every other document with the same terms possibly making it harder to be specific quickly.

The flip side of the search coin is folders, tags, and labels.  These are helpful if you’re a browser rather than a searcher.  If your instinct when looking for materials is to start at a top level category, then drill down further and further until you reach your content. This type of structuring can be powerful if you are comfortable designing the organizational structure and then adhering to that structure for the retention of all your notes.

Setting up a defined folder / tag structure can be a challenge, with experts in the fields of taxonomy and tagsonomy spending months defining systems to organize commercial document management systems. I doubt you have months to bring your solution to a usable state (I know I don’t) so my suggestion is to start small and build up.  Create structures that match how you think and live every day, focusing on where and when you need access to your notes. Keep in mind that in most cases when you need a note or piece of information you typically don’t have a great deal of time to go looking for it through large, complex organizational structures (hence the phrase, “Google it.”)

So which is better? There is no clear winner of one over the other and I’ll readily admit I use both in my personal productivity solution. Creating and maintaining an organizational structure in your tools of choice such as sections in OneNote, notebooks in Evernote, or folders in Google Drive can make the location of content simpler with the downside of increasing the overhead of maintaining the solution. Combine structure with search for locating content quickly and making your note management a trusted part of your solution.