Never Lose An Idea — Naming Notes to Find Them Later

When writing, the last thing I want to do is waste time searching for a specific fact, anecdote, or quote in a mass of disorganized notes. Through painful experience, I learned to name (title) notes for faster searching and retrieval.


I came to this strategy after diving into the literature on tagging and personal taxonomies. This stuff quickly gets geeky. Save yourself the effort and start with the following suggestions.

Here I’m assuming that you use a digital device (computer, tablet, smart phone) to store your notes in a commonplace book. If you’re using a paper-based system, then check out the relevant websites listed on my links page.

Predict the future you

This is the most important thing: Know your own mind. What key words will you use to search for a note in the future? Put those words in the name of the note. Some examples are:

  • Topic and subtopic
  • Names of clients, customers, contacts, other people, organizations, and publications
  • Author and title of a book, article, or blog post

Ian Beck gives these additional examples:

For instance, when you are filing or searching for a photo, what do you think of? The location of the photo? The subject or people in the photo? The event taking place when you took the photo? Something else entirely? Write out a list of the attributes that you think of when thinking of your target items.

List the attributes that matter to you and put them in the names of notes and documents. Your names might get long and look a little weird, but that’s OK.

Include alternate terms

An issue arises when you think that you might search for a note using alternate names for an attribute. For example, a note about Alcoholics Anonymous could be named AA or Alcoholics Anonymous.

Solution: Use both terms.

Remember what to leave out

If you’re storing notes as individual documents on a digital device, then you don’t have to include words that describe metadata. This is information about files that’s automatically tracked by your computer. Examples include file type (such as .pdf and .docx) and the dates that files are created or edited.

Call out projects

Consider an über-useful idea from Scott Berkun: Everything that you do is a project. I define project as David Allen does in the Getting Things Done (GTD) system — any outcome that requires more than one action step.

You can organize many of your notes by asking one question: Is this my main collection of notes about a specific project? If so, then include the project name in the title of the note.

Add “x” to the first word

For example, name project notes with projectx, as in projectx write a blog post or projectx buy a new car.  Later, when you search with the keyword projectx, you’ll only get a list of your current projects — not a list of all the notes that merely contain the word project.

Other options:

  • Use inx to name a note that functions as an in-box— random thoughts that occur to you on the run.
  • Use actionx to name a list of the next actions you intend to take on your current projects. (If you’re a GTD geek, this is the next action list.)
  • Use waitingx to name a list of tasks that you’ve delegated to other people and waiting for them to complete. (In GTD, this is the waiting for list.)
  • Use maybex for a list of things that you might do in the future but are not committed to as of yet. (In GTD, this is the someday/maybe list.)

Use the “q-trick”

Merlin Mann likes to add the letter q to the names of notes that he frequently searches for on his iPhone. Why q? Because it’s easy to reach on the iPhone keyboard.

Also, if you add two or more q’s, you quickly narrow down your search results: Few words in English include more than one q.

Merlin explains in this post:

If I type “qq,” I whittle down to 15 or so greatest hits. If I type “qqq,” I narrow down to an even more rarefied handful of really important files. And, so on, until “qqqqq” takes me to exactly one “agenda” file where I throw anything I need to capture or do today, but only have a second to grab.

Avoid special characters

Consider using lowercase names. They’re easier to type. Avoid punctuation and hyphenation for the same reason — and because they’re hard to use consistently.

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