How I Migrated from Evernote to OneNote

Thursday, July 28, 2016 10:35 AM
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A while back, about 2.5 years ago in January 2014, I switched my personal & professional note-taking app from Microsoft's OneNote to Evernote (I Jumped on the Evernote Bandwagon). Over time I adopted a great workflow for keeping track of todo's and taking notes with Evernote that worked great for me (GTD - Get Organized and be More Productive using The Secret Weapon & Evernote).

However, over the last year or so I became frustrated with Evernote's lack of an API, integration with third parties (see: lack of an API) and the downward trend of the company with numerous reports of layoffs. I was also frustrated with the lack of good sketching capabilities. As someone who's on MacOS & iOS, the pen support on an iPad just stinks outside of the iPad Pro. Late in 2015, I picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 thanks to a surprise windfall of cash as a better alternative to running Windows in a virtual machine. This got me to play with OneNote a bit more, specifically the sketching capabilities.

It took a long time, but I finally decided it was in my best interest to switch back from Evernote to OneNote. But this is easier said than done as anyone who's made this change knows all too well.

Challenges in Switching Between Evernote & OneNote

Evernote & OneNote take two very different approaches to note-taking. OneNote is more of a digital version of a real notebook, complete with notebooks, sections (and section groups), notes & sub notes. Evernote, on the other hand, takes the approach of a single notebook filled with notes and organized with tags. I much prefer the Evernote option.

Migrating from OneNote to Evernote is pretty easy. You can import one notebook at a time, select a ton of notes and add tags. However going the other way, from Evernote to OneNote, is quite hard. Not only do you have to figure out how you want to organize things in notebooks, sections collections of pages with subpages, but you have to deal with the lack of tagging in OneNote.

I did it… it took a few tests to figure out how to deal with it, but I fashioned out a simple process that worked for me.

How I Migrated from Evernote to OneNote

I did this migration about 3 months ago & canceled my Evernote Pro subscription. Since then I've been pleased with the results and enjoy using OneNote again. It's not perfect for me… the lack of tagging is still frustrating, but it works.

Microsoft released a tool in March 2016 to help you migrate. You can read about the announcement in their blog post: Make the move from Evernote to OneNote Today. When I saw this, I was pumped thinking it would solve my challenge. However, you quickly realize that it's only marginally better than an open source tool that was already out there: Evernote2OneNote. Read the comments on the post and you'll see I'm not alone… they aren't even holding to their promises. For instance, they said the Windows-only tool would be available on OSX in a few months… that was 5 months ago…

There are only two differences between Microsoft's tool and this other option:

  1. Microsoft's is built & supported by Microsoft (not really important as they haven't improved on it since releasing it)
  2. Microsoft's tool adds the tags from Evernote notes to the body of the page… this works ok as you can search for tags by prefixing it with a hash symbol in OneNote

I tried to provide feedback to the OneNote team but they were a dead end, pointing me to UserVoice. There's no category for the migration tool & when I asked on where to submit my feedback, I was met with no response… just the stock answer from the Office team: go to UserVoice.

The migration tool works like this: it takes an Evernote notebook and pulls all the notes into a new OneNote notebook. Each Evernote note maps to a new OneNote page. You can elect to have tags created as sections, but if you organize your Evernote tags in hierarchies, this makes it a nightmare. Plus, if you are a heavy user of tags in Evernote (as I was), you get an absurd number of sections making it hard to browse your notes.

In Evernote I had just a few notebooks:

  • me: All my personal & professional notes for each project I was working on and other stuff.
  • project: When I needed to share notes about a project with someone, I kept them in one notebook and shared that notebook with the other person. This is how Chris Johnson & I shared notes for our podcast, Microsoft Cloud Show.
  • reference: This is where I'd keep articles / documents for different technologies I worked with, or PDFs of manuals for things we owned.

Unfortunately, this model wouldn't work in OneNote… so here's what I did.

Be forewarned - there's a lot of manual work in this process. It sucks, but I couldn't find a better solution. I was going to build something, but I'm not investing that time for a single-use solution.

Step 1 - Figure out Your OneNote Notebook Structure

OneNote is suited for more notebooks rather than a few containing everything. Therefore, the first step was to look at my notes and figure out how I wanted it sorted. What I came up with was a notebook for each project, then one for things like notes from an event / presentation, a catch-all for small projects, and a few others as you can see here:

The blurred out notes are client projects.

Each of these was created as a new notebook in Evernote, prefixed with an underscore.

Step 2 - Prepare your Notes in Evernote

It's significantly easier to work with lots of notes in Evernote than in OneNote. So what I did was create matching notebooks in Evernote for what I'd want in OneNote. I then went through every tag and did the following:

  • reclassified the tags on the note (again, Evernote lets you do a hierarchy of tags but OneNote doesn't know tags… so I flatten stuff down)… many times this step wasn't necessary
  • move the notes to a new OneNote-named notebook

Once all notes were out of my original Evernote notebooks, I was ready for the move.

Step 3 - Use the Tool to Migrated

The tool came in handy here. For each notebook, I ran the tool and had it create a new notebook in OneNote. It had the option to organize notes into sections by tags, but I didn't use that. Instead, let the tool add the tags for each note into the new OneNote generated page.

And now you wait… because the tool is damn slow…

Once all the notes were migrated I renamed the notebook in Evernote to indicate that I had processed this notebook… so I would use the notes in OneNote, not Evernote. Why? This process took quite some time… like multiple days. For me, migrating all my notes took about 2 hours per day over 7 days. I did this when I was at my son's swim practice so it was slow going. I did one notebook at a time.

Step 4 - Post-process OneNote Notes

Now that the notes were all in OneNote, they weren't in an ideal state. Everything was in a single section within the notebook and were all flat (no page-subpage relationships). I renamed this section to _drop… this would be a temp solution and the goal would be to move all notes out of this section into other sections / notebooks.

And now for the really tedious part…

I went through each note and looked for a category of stuff. For example, let's look at the notes from my Evernote notebook Reference. The first note had a tag AAD for Azure Active Directory. Using OneNote's search, I found all notes with #AAD as those were notes tagged AAD in OneNote. I created a new section in the Reference notebook called AAD and moved the notes to that. In this case, I had also created an Azure section group and moved the AAD section into it.

Then I repeated this process for each note until there were no more notes in the _drop section. At this point, this notebook has been fully migrated.

Conclusion & Recommendations

If you're looking to do this same migration from Evernote to OneNote, if you've made it this far you're likely disappointed thinking I had some magic button that did it for you. Sorry to say but that's clearly not the case. Instead, as you see from this post, it's a manual process, nothing easy about it. Just good old fashioned brute force.

I do have a few recommendations for this process though:

  • do one notebook at a time
  • don't do it in one setting - take your time but commit to getting it done in a timebox
  • learn the OneNote keyboard shortcuts - this saves a ton of time, especially when moving notes between sections
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