Pretty much every notes, journal, to-do app and writing app has a tagging system now. With it, you’re supposed to be able to easily organise everything so you can find it instantly, but tags are a bit of an ambiguous idea that are hard to really use well. I did it wrong for years, but I’ve finally come up with a system I like.
To be clear here: I’m not talking Twitter hashtags, blog tags or anything else tied to the internet at large. Just tags for files. Tags exist to help you find what you’re looking for quickly or browse through similar items. Basically, it’s a way to put digital stuff into several places at once. For example, let’s say you’re tracking your receipts with Evernote. You could put all your receipts in a notebook, and then tag them with something like like, “tax deductible”, or “work reimbursement”, or whatever else. This way, you can easily filter out similar items to find what you’re looking for. Tags are great for tracking things like receipts throughout the year, but they’re also handy for organising notes at school, journal entries and plenty more. Tags make it so you can create your own system where items are connected, curated and sorted.
Tags have been around for a while, but I’ve never really latched on to using them. For years, I’ve just haphazardly tagged things on a whim, and subsequently, I have a mess of files, tags and various systems that don’t make any sense or organise my ideas at all. I always thought I was doing it wrong, and only recently have I realised that there isn’t a wrong way to do it. Finally, tags clicked in my head, and I’ve started using them to actually organise my mess of ideas.
Create a System Before You Start and Stick to It
To get myself to actually use tags I needed to settle on my own system. I’m the type who needs a little bit of order, and my willy-nilly tagging methods meant I’d use too many synonyms, shift between plural and singular, and forget to tag items that needed it entirely. Now, I use tags in just a few apps: Simplenote, Day One and Mavericks. I keep my system simple, with three basic tiers: Context, Topic and Location. If I’m going to tag a note or file, I try to add all three.
- Context: I use contexts to separate by the type of project. This is basically my first tier of organisation and includes words like: Lifehacker, Fiction, Interview Prep or Public Speaking. The goal for these tags is to provide the place where these ideas, notes or whatever will one day end up, not micromanage by project (such as “Lifehacker Post About Tags” or whatever). I try to use as few contexts as possible, so within something like “Public Speaking” are notes about telling a story publicly and a copy of a best man speech.
- Topic: If contexts are my broad stroke of organisation, topics are my micromanagement. This is where I’ll get a little more precise with my tagging, but still keep it broad it enough that it’s applicable across several entries. For Lifehacker, I’ll also add tags like, “feature”, “how to”, “psychology” or “tests”. The main goal here is to make it so I can cross reference across contexts and see trends in what I’m writing and thinking about over time, so I’m typically pretty loose with what I’ll add here, but I only bother to add a topic tag if it’ll actually get used in other places.
- Location: My memory is tied to location in a very extreme way. If I’m trying to remember something, I usually need to put myself back at the place where I initially thought of it. It’s a little weird, but it’s how my brain tends to work, so I try to use it to my advantage. For notes, ideas and anything else where I’m jotting something down quickly, I add the location — whether that’s my desk, the car, the cafe or the shower, so I can use that as a means to help me remember a bit more about the initial inspiration.
Of course, I also use tags in simple, descriptive ways when applicable. I’ll label a subset of items, “tax deductible” when it makes sense, but it’s incredibly rare that I need to organise in that way because I don’t have that kind of data to organise. The main question you need to ask yourself before setting up your system is: “What will I need to remember this for in the future?”
How you tag is really up to you, but it will be easier if you lay down the rules for your system before you start. When I was setting mine up, I came across a few others I really like, including Science Fiction author Jamie Rubin’s tagging system for writing and research, assistant professor Allan Johnson’s tagging system for school notes, and Day One’s suggestions for Tag Groups. I’ve basically taken a few bits from each of theirs and modified them to work for me.
Remember That You Don’t Need to Tag Everything
Here’s the thing that took me a long time realise: you don’t need to tag everything you do. Some files, notes, journal entries and to-dos don’t need them. If spend your time tagging everything you’ll never get anything done.
So, what can you skip tagging? That’s up to you, of course, but for me it’s files that I know are temporary, items that are already organised by project, journal entries that don’t have a lot of purpose, or notes that have already descriptive headlines. Basically, if a tag can’t be used more than once or won’t connect a thought to another, I don’t bother.
Everyone’s system of tagging is a bit different, but if you’ve shrugged it off for years, or worried that you’d spend too much time catching up, it’s worth a look again. While I’ll probably never go through the effort of tagging old files and notes, I’ll at least have some semblance of organisation moving forward. Or at least as long as I stick to one piece of software.