Disclaimer: Although I do work for Evernote, this is my personal opinion. I believe there is no one true way to use Evernote. What matters is that however you use Evernote, it should work for you.
My love affair with Labels and Tags
When I moved from using Microsoft Outlook to Gmail, my eyes were opened. No longer did I have to think about which one folder I should select to file an email, instead I could use Gmail Labels to file a single email into as many "folders" as I liked.
I feel the same way about Evernote Notebooks and Tags. Why on earth would I organize my notes into Notebooks, when I can use Tags to the same thing, and more? With Tags I can file a note into multiple Tags, and Tags can be organized hierarchically to many levels.
Why would I persist in thinking of Notebooks as being note "containers" and Tags as being "metadata", when they are both virtual concepts - Evernote may well store my notes in physical "notebook" files, but it is just as likely that the note's notebook is just another attribute, similar to tags. To me they are both containers, its just that one kind works well for me.
Tags are so much more powerful than Notebooks that I'm hard-pressed to think of many reasons to prefer Notebooks over Tags. To me Notebooks are clunky, whereas Tags are elegant.
Notebooks are good for just two things for me: grouping content to be shared, and to group content I want to make available offline on mobile devices. For everything else I use Tags.
A step back
But first, a step back. Why would I want to do any organizing at all? Certainly with Gmail my initial enthusiasm for filing my emails quickly dissipated as I got into the habit of simply archiving emails, relying on the coupling of essentially infinite storage with powerful instantaneous search to quickly find old emails. If this works so well for Gmail then why not for Evernote too?
As with Gmail, Evernote places no limit on the size of your Evernote account (although there are monthly upload limits, and individual notes have limits), and its search capabilities are legendary.
So why do I persist in using Tags for Evernote?
Tagging takes time
I definitely don't tag all my notes, maybe 70% of them. And tagging notes costs me time. It takes time to choose the right tag, and apply it. Why would I invest this time?
I get to my notes quicker
One answer is that investing this time upfront saves me time in the future, for certain kinds of notes. When I tag my notes I’m betting that that investment will pay off later. If it didn’t pay off, then I’d stop.
If I'm searching for my June 2013 Amex statement, I have to invest the time to think about how to formulate the search string that will find that one for me, and then spend time scanning through the mixed bag of results and try to find the right one. Can you see it?
Alternatively, I can jump to the Amex tag, and then scan down the list of statements to find the right one:
This makes it much quicker for me to find certain kinds of notes: Notes that I’ve categorized.
There is another benefit, perhaps purely psychological, but a real benefit nonetheless.
At the start of 2012 I went paperless, and replaced binder after binder with Evernote.
The physical binders did have one advantage though – I could pick up a binder and quickly see their contents.
I could quickly see all my water bills, my kids school reports, my 2013 bank statements.
To replicate this in Evernote I use Tags. Here is my “Office” Tag hierarchy, which replicates the set of physical binders and categories within those binders, that I used to have in my office.
Of course with Evernote Tags it is much much better. I can file something in both the “Gardening” tag and the “Household repairs” Tag – something I could never do with physical folders.
In addition any of these notes in my “Office” Tag hierarchy can also be tagged with cross-cutting tags, such as “Tax 2013”. That way I can quickly and easily find all my notes related to my 2013 taxes, no matter where they sit in the “Office” Tag hierarchy.
Tagging works for me
Investing in tagging some of my notes works well for me because it helps me find my notes quickly, and it is comforting to be able to see my notes grouped together in the same way as they used to be grouped in physical files, before I went paperless.
Whether tagging is worth it for you depends to a large extent on what makes you tick. Are willing to throw stuff into Evernote and rely on its search capabilities, or do you want to invest up-front to make searching simpler? Does it bother you to just see a mass of notes, or do you like to see some structure?
There is no one true way – just whatever works for you.