Moving from Evernote to OneNote – Part 2. The Process

I’m moving from Evernote to OneNote. To learn why, read this.

I’ve been using Evernote for about 10 years.  During that time, I’ve gone back and forth between staying organized with multiple notebooks and tags and the “chuck it all in one bucket and search” approach.

While I agree with the dump-and-search approach in theory, I haven’t found it to be very effective in Evernote.  Combined with filters that do a rough organizational triage (receipts, shipping notices, etc), this sort of approach works great  in gmail.  This is partially because google search is excellent, and partly because email is naturally threaded.  So, instead of a search producing 100 emails, it tends to produce 10 threads of 10 emails each.

None of this applies in Evernote, and I doubt it will apply to OneNote.  So, I decided to go back to “organized” mode.  Also, the structure of OneNote seems to encourage this.  My plan is to organize once, then maintain the organization by dumping all new notes into a “yet to be sorted” notebook and clean this up occasionally.  We’ll see…  At worst, I’ll end up doing the dump and sort, and just doing the search across all notebooks.

I went back and forth on where to do the organizational work.  In the end, I decided to do it on the EN side, for two reasons.  First, I intend to leave some of the notes and notebooks behind (on EN), and, while the transfer from EN to ON is reportedly quite good, the reverse may not be true.  Second, organizing on the EN side is easier – you can see all your notebooks on the left side, and just drag-and-drop into them. [Update: I discovered that drag-and-drop between notebooks DOES work in Onenote – Onenote 2016, that is.  I had only tried it in OnW10, where it does not work.]

I learned some things along the way that might be of value to others:

  • Tags in EN transfer as notebook sections when going to ON (if you check that box on the transfer page).  I think I’m going to find sections more useful than tags.  While less powerful than tags (you can’t apply multiple sections to a single note, at least AFAIK), it does seem to be more natural to use.  Things are sorted by section (tag) by default.  So, I intend to add a lot of tags as well as splitting things into more notebooks.
  • You can add a tag in EN by just clicking on the “Add tag…” below the note name.  Start to type, and you’ll be presented with matching tags.  Pretty quick, but it does require you to take your hand off the mouse/touchpad, go to the keyboard, and go back.  So, I created temporary notebooks for common tags.  When the process was done, I just went into these notebooks, did ctl-A to select all, then added the appropriate tag and dragged them into their final notebook.
  • The process ended up being somewhat iterative.  Some notebooks that I created on the first pass turned out to need further sorting.
  • It took about 6 hours to sort around 2400 notes – average rate 400/hr.  Slower at the beginning; faster towards the end.  Another 2 hours were spent on a second sort.  If you count this, it’s down to about 300 notes/hr.  YMMV, but it’s a datapoint if you’re considering doing this.

Now I was all set up to do the transfer.  I knew there’d be some work on the other side to translate my new 4-level hierarchy (NB Stack, NB, tag, page) into OneNote, but at least the organization legwork was done.

I used the automatic transfer tool provided by Microsoft.  It’s too bad the tool isn’t just a bit smarter about hierarchy.  OneNote can, essentially, do unlimited hierarchy:  Notebook, Section Group, Section Group,… Section, Page.  They could easily translate the EN structure using an algorithm as follows:

  • Top level of the EN hierarchy, whatever it is (NB or Stack) is a Notebook
  • Bottom level of EN hierarchy, “note”, is a page.
  • Next level up from the bottom is a Section
  • Everything in between is a Section Group.

Unfortunately, MS’s tool just tosses the Notebook Stack information entirely, translates Notebooks to Notebooks, Tags to Sections, and Notes to Pages.  It would be so easy to do it right…

Anyway, I ran the translation on a Windows 10 laptop.  It took a while, but this is a one-time operation.  I translated 40+ notebooks. [note: this was a mistake.  I should have limited it to 20 or less – see below]  It said it was done, and that it might take a little while before all the notebook showed up.

This is where things began to fall apart.  There are 2 active versions of OneNote- the Windows 10 version and the OneNote 2016 version.  Windows 10 is the long-term tool (further development has stopped on ON2016), but it only runs on, you guessed it, Windows 10.   My main desktop machine is Windows 7; my main laptop is Windows 10.

Unfortunately, you have to “open” the notebooks on each machine before you can access them.  On ONW10, you can get a list of notebooks and check which ones you want to have open on that machine.  On ON2016, you have to open them one-at-a-tedious-time.  To make matters worse, each time you click the “more notebooks” link, it shows you (after some delay) ALL your notebooks, including the open ones.  You’d think it would have occurred to the person coding it that you probably wanted to see the notebooks you don’t already have open.  If you have a lot of notebooks, this gets slow. Very slow.  Go to the notebook at the top.  Click the down button.  Scroll to the bottom to select “more notebooks”.  Wait while it loads the notebooks…  Scroll down to the first non-open notebook and select it.  Wait while it “opens” (probably downloads) the notebook – a while if it’s a big notebook.  Repeat 39 more times…

I did some of these on the W7 desktop, but got frustrated and put it aside for later.  I figured I’d go work on it on the laptop.

When I fired up ONW10 on the W10 laptop, the very same laptop I’d used to do the translation, it didn’t show all my notebooks!  Ever!  I waited days.  It would show about 15 notebooks, then a link that says, “Not seeing all of your notebooks in this list?  Learn More.”  I clicked, and it just takes you to a link that talks about issues with multiple logins (work and personal).  I only have one login.  And I know the notebooks are there, because I can see them on!  I can see them in the ON2016 version, just not in ONW10.

I got into more confusion when I started tidying up.  I had to move what had been sub-notebooks in a Stack into a Section in ON.  Then, I needed to delete the (now empty) notebook.  Easy, right?  No!  There’s no way to delete the notebook from inside the ON tool – either version!  Googling produces a page from MS that says to go into “OneDrive/Documents/OneNote” and delete them there.  So, I went into File Explorer > OneDrive > Documents – not there.  There are html links to the notebooks, but no OneNote directory or notebooks.  Huh?  To make it more confusing, ON2016 can have local notebooks, which are stored in the user’s Documents directory.  Nothing there, either.

I finally figured out that what they mean by “go into OneDrive” is “go to“.  THERE I can see the notebooks and delete them.  Having found this treasure trove, I also discovered I could use Right-Click > Open in OneNote to “open” the notebook on each machine – a workaround for the ONW10 bug that doesn’t let me see all the notebooks.

Except now, I again have to open them one-at-a-tedious-time, just like on Windows 7.  I used this process to open them on my desktop (home of multiple monitors, and therefore the place to do reorganization work).

In the meantime, I posted to the MS forum asking if there is a better way.  Should I have everything in one monster notebook?  The one-at-a-tedious-time process seems to be on Android as well.  In total, I’ve got 7 devices – 2 W7 desktops, 1 W7 laptop, 2 W10 laptops, an Android phone and an iphone 5, that I’d like to be able to access my notebooks from…  Just opening all the notebooks on all the computers could take longer than the entire re-org process!

The forums were less helpful than I had hoped.  Apparently, people just deal with this nonsense.  It seems crazy to me. Given that they already separate your work and personal notebooks based on login, why on earth would anyone NOT want to see all their notebooks all the time? Why would you want to search if you can’t be sure you’re actually searching ALL your notebooks? OK, maybe on some devices, you might have to limit the notebooks to save space, but, come on, that’s the exception, not the rule. Why default to NOT showing a new notebook? Weird.

And, speaking of search, the search on OneNote on the web is well and truly broken. It searches only the names of your notebooks! Who’s going to have so many notebooks they need to search the titles, when they have to open each notebook one-at-a-tedious-time on each device??

I considered just punting and dumping everything into one notebook, maintaining the hierarchy using Section Groups, but, in the end, I took a middle path.  Using the drag-and-drop capability only available in ON2016, I re-organized again, on the ON side, to get down to about 20 notebooks.  Still tedious to open them all, but half the work it would have been.  This second (really, third) re-org pass took about an hour, for those keeping track.  If I’d known about his limitation up-front, I could have just set a limit of 20 notebooks or less.

I have discovered a couple of other bugaboos with the conversion process that might bother Evernote users.

First, links are not translated automatically. I don’t use a lot of links, so I’ve just manually fixed the handful I use. But if you use links extensively in Evernote, you might want to think twice before converting.

Also, the conversion tool does something annoying with bullet lists. It inserts an extra line feed whenever the list indents a level. Kind of annoying to keep fixing this.

I’ve now switched over entirely to OneNote, and, so far, I’m quite happy with it. The web clipper makes it easy to file the note right when I clip it, so I haven’t really used the “dump and sort later” approach that I’d intended to use.

I’m finding OneNote’s focus on keeping things organized quite useful, and the search works better than it did on OneNote.

I used to be an enthusiastic user of Livescribe, until the OLED display on my Livescribe pen died. The pen is still (marginally) usable, but I’ve been considering replacing it with a new one.

OneNote has obviated the need for that. I have a Surface Pro and pen, and I’ve found I can hand write notes into OneNote and it does a pretty fair job of understanding my handwriting for search purposes. Also, OneNote has the ability to record audio with the note and insert marks to help sync the audio to your handwriting. It’s close enough to Livescribe for me, so I’ve abandoned Livescribe.

And Dark Mode is WONDERFUL!

So far, I’m a happy camper.