Evernote, GTD and the Projects folder

I got a ton of feedback on my Simple GTD with Evernote post, but by far the biggest question I got about it was “What’s the Projects notebook for?” Most people assumed I was tagging actions with their related project, so it seemed weird to have a notebook too.

The tags I add to actions that aren’t contexts (@phone, etc.) are for areas of focus, what David Allen refers to as the “20,000 foot view.” These are bigger than a single project, and typically aren’t ever “done.” I have a tag for Taledancer, the publishing services company I own with my fiancee. I have a tag for my blog. I have a tag for the company where I work my day job.

But those aren’t projects. Projects are a stake in the ground to remind you of something you’re committed to changing from what it is now. By definition, projects end. If I had a tag for each project, my tags list would quickly grow out of control and be completely unmanageable.

So let’s look at the process again from the beginning. I create a note in my !nbox notebook. Later, I look at that note and decide what it is and what to do with it.

  • If it’s not actionable, I either trash it or tag it appropriately and move it to the Reference notebook.
  • If it is actionable I decide what the next action is. If there’s only one action to accomplish it, I tag it with appropriate contexts and move it to Actions, Waiting or Someday.
  • If it’s actionable and will take more than one step to accomplish, I move it to the Projects folder. I also rename it to a sentence describing what a successful outcome would look like.

Let’s look at an example. I have a note in my inbox right now titled “Set up Facebook page for Taledancer.” This is something I need to do.

So I move the note to Projects and rename it “Taledancer has a Facebook page we can use to market our services there.” This tells me both the purpose behind what I’m doing and what success looks like: how I know when I’m done.

I’ll tag the note with Taledancer, and maybe create a new tag for Facebook. (I’m not a heavy Facebook user personally.) In the body of the note can go several things:

  • A quick list of actions if I want to do some “back of the envelope” planning
  • A link to Facebook’s instructions for setting up business pages
  • Anything else, frankly, that would fall under “project support materials” as David Allen puts it

It’s worth noting here that David Allen specifically advises against this in Getting Things Done. The reason I can get away with storing project support materials directly attached to the project reminder is that in Evernote, it’s all digital. So even with dozens of PDF or Word attachments, photos, outlines and whatever else I add, the note itself is still as agile in my projects list as if it were just a single sheet of paper.

While I could, I typically don’t link next actions to projects via Evernote’s note links. If I’ve done a rough outline of the project in the project note I’ll check each action off during review, but actions should really stand on their own. When I’m going through one of my context lists I don’t want to worry about what project each action refers to; I just want to crank though as many actions as I can. And if I really only have one action to worry about per project, the next action, it’s pretty obvious when I’m reviewing the project list if there’s a new action to create or not. One of the reasons I switched to Evernote for GTD from OmniFocus is that I actually prefer to keep actions and projects as separate lists, as David Allen described in the book, rather than a complex hierarchy.

Simple GTD with Evernote

I finally have a GTD (© DavidCo 2001) system that works. And all I’m using is Evernote.

I’ve seen lots of implementations of GTD on Evernote over the years, but they all seemed too fiddly, including the official one from David Allen. Most of them required complicated hierarchies of tags and notebooks, and I felt like I’d be spending far more time implementing the system than actually, you know, doing stuff.

Over time, I bounced from iCloud Reminders to Todoist, to OmniFocus and back. I was on OmniFocus and actually enjoying it when I returned to Evernote from OneNote for my note taking (long story) and I saw this article about the right way to use Evernote. Basically, it describes an Evernote database with only three notebooks and a hierarchy of tags. In my wandering through the Evernote-free wilderness, I’d liked the simplicity of tags in Simplenote and Vesper, so I thought, “Maybe this will work.” I created tags for all my existing notebooks, tagged the notes in those notebooks appropriately, and moved all my notes into a single notebook called Archive. This, along with my Inbox and Trash notebooks, comprised my entire Evernote database.

And it actually worked okay. So much so that I started wondering what else I could do with these notes that could suddenly be so many places at once thanks to tagging.

The official Evernote GTD system from the David Allen Company is a good start, but unnecessarily complex, #turnsout. I did have to add notebooks, but not as many as they suggested. When I was done, my notebook listing looked like this:

  • !nbox (default notebook)
  • Actions
  • Archive
  • Projects
  • Someday
  • Waiting
  • Trash

Seven notebooks instead of three, but still much simpler than my old setup. But that’s only part of the story. This setup is also heavily reliant on tags, which I was already using.

Under tags, I have a tag called Contexts, which the following sub-tags:

  • @errands
  • @home
  • @Kathleen (my fiancé)
  • @laptop
  • @phone
  • @tablet
  • @work

And I also have the following top level tags (at the same level as Contexts). Many of them have subtags of their own, which I’m not listing.

  • Finance
  • Gaming
  • Health
  • Journal
  • Maximum Geek
  • People
  • Professional
  • Reading Material
  • Reference
  • Taledancer
  • Writing

A mixed bag, but they cover all the major topics and areas of focus in my life. With those and their subtags, I can tag every note with whatever it’s related to. But in a lot of cases, this is done for me.

When I favorite a tweet on Twitter, an IFTTT recipe kicks in that creates a new note in Evernote, in the Archive notebook and tagged with “Reading Material.” This is my poor man’s Pinboard, except that when I’m done reading an article I think might be useful for a story down the road, say, I can tag it with “Idea Box,” remove “Reading Material” and it’s filed. I scan through the “Idea Box” tag often, looking for two disparate ideas that click together in interesting ways.

If I want to make really sure I read something, I’ll tag it with @phone and move it from the Archive notebook to Actions.

What really makes this system works are saved searches. I have a saved search called @work that is pinned to my Shortcuts in Evernote. The syntax for this is:

 notebook:Actions any: tag:@phone tag:@work

So this shows me only notes that are in the Actions notebooks and are tagged with either @phone or @work. Something tagged @phone in the Waiting notebook isn’t in this list. Nor is a note in the Actions notebook tagged with @home, but not either @phone or @work. I have a handful of these sorts of searches in Shortcuts, and they effortlessly pare down my notes to just actionable things I can do with specific resources available.

When a task is done, I either delete it (if there’s really no historical value, like doing a household chore) or change the notebook from Actions to Archive. I’ll leave the tags intact, because having a note tagged @phone doesn’t clutter up my list if it’s in the Archive notebook. And for some kinds of tasks, like reading a book, I’ll use the note to write down my thoughts or takeaways for later reference. This has made a huge difference in book reading, giving me the opportunity to do a little book report for each book I read and thereby sticking the book more firmly into my memory.

If a task can’t be done right away, what you would use a Defer To date for in OmniFocus, I move it to the Waiting notebook. Here I mark is as an Evernote reminder and set the date for whenever that task becomes relevant. On that day, I’ll get a push notification on my various devices about that note, at which point I’ll clear the reminder and move it to the Actions notebook.

If current actions actually have due dates, I’ll also use the Evernote reminders feature in the Actions notebook, but I try to avoid this whenever possible to stave off “overdue fatigue.” A lot of people set due dates on tasks for when they’d like to do them, but not when they’re actually due or nevermind. When those tasks, which really don’t have to be done that day, inevitably slip past the due dates, you end up with a sea of red that doesn’t mean anything.

And for notes that are actionable, but I don’t want to deal with them right now, and don’t know for sure when I will, I move them to the Someday notebook. I go through this every few days or so looking for things to promote to either Waiting or Actions, or if I decide not to do them, Archive.

Making this a lot simpler are several Evernote actions I’ve created in Drafts 4 on my iPhone and iPad. From there, with a single tap of my finger I can easily convert a draft to a Project, or an Action tagged @phone or just a note in Archive tagged Taledancer, my side business. This makes getting thoughts into the system nearly frictionless, and once they’re captured, well, there’s only so many places they can be.

If you’ve been tickled by the idea of using Evernote as a real “everything bucket,” including GTD, give this a try and let me know how it works for you.

Why I’m leaving Twitter

Update: I’m back on Twitter now after realizing that walking away from things like this doesn’t make them better. So I’ll do what I can to raise the level of conversation and stand against things I see as wrong. And for what it’s worth, Twitter did seem to zap the account used to do the worst of the threatening against Wu. So maybe they’re not as culpable as I suspected.


Brianna Wu is the head of a small game development company. They make a cool iOS game called Revolution 60.

Tonight, she started getting death threats on Twitter from a sad little man who feels threatened by her very existence. But in this case, he tweeted her home address and stated that he was coming over with a large knife, intending violence to Brianna and her family.

Twitter did nothing.

When others tried to bring this to Twitter’s attention, those reports were automatically rejected. Brianna called the police and left her home, and I hope she’s safe.

But as long as Twitter allows this kind of assault (and yes, threatening violence is itself a crime, separate from battery) to go on, I can’t be a part of that community. It’s for the same reason that I left Reddit, and I haven’t returned there either. I’ll miss some of the people I got to know on Twitter, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

Will Twitter even notice my lack of participation? Of course not. But all I can do is take my time and attention elsewhere. Your time and attention is all Twitter has, and their entire business depends on keeping it. I’m taking mine away, and if enough people get fed up and do the same, maybe they’ll notice. Maybe they’ll change. Maybe Twitter will become a place where people can feel safe again.

But until that happens, I won’t be there. Anyone who wants to talk to me can do so the old fashioned way, by sending an email to jeff@kirv.in.

How I learned to stop tweetmarking and love the stock Twitter app

Federico Viticci dropped a bombshell on last week’s Connected podcast. He uses the Twitter app from Twitter, not Tweetbot or Twitterrific.

And so do I.

I realize this is sacrilege to many of you. The stock Twitter app is a ruined, sad descendent of Loren Brichter’s legendary Tweetie, you say. It’s chock full of ads, it doesn’t sync timelines, list support is hidden under the gear menu on your profile page. Those things are true. And if you obsessively read every single tweet in your timeline every single day, the default Twitter experience is not for you.

But.

As the boys on Connected pointed out, the ship may have already sailed. “Twitter Fabric” might kill third party Twitter apps as we know them. That would certainly explain why Tapbots still doesn’t have an iOS 7 version of the iPad version of Tweetbot now that we’re on iOS 8. Just not worth putting that much time and effort into a product someone else can kill with a press release.

But for the time being, third party Twitter apps aren’t dead. So why have I abandoned them?

Because life is too short to read every tweet, or every news article for that matter. Yes, I know all about Dunbar’s number, and I’m following less than 200 Twitter accounts. Many of those are news sources like Lifehacker and iMore. And with Twitter’s threaded conversations feature, I feel confident I can start at the top of my feed, read down until I either run out of time or see tweets I’ve already seen, and go about my business. Yes, tweet storms are more annoying this way, and frankly, I’m considering unfollowing a few people that habitually string one idea across several tweets. But for the most part, I keep up.

Anything I want to read later gets favorited, which IFTTT then dumps into Evernote (which has replaced bookmarking or read later services like Pocket and Pinboard for me), but I’ve noticed that with this more casual attitude towards my news, I actually pause and read articles inline much more often than I did with any RSS reader. It’s relaxing.

Am I missing things along the way? Almost certainly. But nothing essential. If a news story is that big, it will show up over and over in my feed (and sometimes even if it’s downright stupid, like “Bendghazi”). I’ve experienced surprisingly little FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and had a lot more time to do things that really matter, like writing or reading in iBooks.

Try it yourself for a week. You might be surprised how much time and anxiety you save.

Observations from a new Mac user

So, a few weeks ago, I bought my first Mac. It’s a 13″ retina MacBook Pro, and it is without a doubt the finest computer I’ve ever owned. But, given that I’m coming from the Windows world — with diversions to Chrome OS and Linux — a lot of things required just a bit of adjustment. Not nearly as much as I’d feared, though. So here are a few things I’ve noticed about switching to the Mac.

  • Retina matters. OMG the screen on this thing. This is the first laptop I’ve ever seen where I can’t see the screen door effect between the pixels. While I’m running at the equivalent zoom of 1280×800 on this 13″ screen, the text and icons are so crisp and clean that it makes going back to my iPad 2 feel like sandpaper on my eyes. I can see replacing the iPad and my iPhone 5S entirely with a larger iPhone 6 and just using that and my MacBook Pro going forward.
  • Thin and light. Speaking of which, the 13″ MacBook Pro is only 8 ounces heavier than the 13″ MacBook Air. And with the all day battery life in Mavericks/Yosemite, I can see taking this laptop with me almost everywhere. And the SSD is not only blisteringly fast, but the no-moving-parts thing means I can tote this around with impunity.
  • See above. Those two factors fundamentally change the way I approach personal computing. With this screen, light weight and no worries about battery life, this is the first laptop that I’ve felt can really be my primary computing device, a role previously filled by smartphones. For the first time I understand people like @ismh for whom the iPhone is a peripheral device secondary to their Mac.
  • ⌘Q is your friend. The biggest problem I’ve had adjusting to the Mac is getting that closing a window doesn’t necessarily close the app. Sometimes it does (Reminders, Calibre) and sometimes it doesn’t (Safari, iTunes), allowing the main app to keep running in the background with no visible windows. I’m having to get int the habit of closing apps with ⌘Q instead of clicking on the red X with my mouse.
  • Yosemite makes more sense to Windows users. The behavior of the green “traffic light” control in Mavericks baffled me. As I understand it, it toggled between the standard, developer-selected window size for a window and the user-selected size, which was often but not always maximized to take up as much of the screen as possible without overlapping the Menu Bar or Dock. That’s a little wishy-washy. In Yosemite, it toggles between full-screen view and windowed, which is not only more consistent, but is also closer to the maximize behavior from Windows, Linux and Chrome OS. And on a 13” screen, a find a lot of benefits to running big applications like Evernote and Omnifocus in full screen.
  • The Menu Bar is a great idea. I wasn’t sure how I’d like having a constantly mutating single menu bar at the top of the screen rather than each window having its own. #Turnsout this does work better, mostly because of Fitts’ Law. That, and the consistency Apple enforces in where certain universal menu items are going to be. “File, Edit, View” is always going to be “File, Edit, View.”
  • Apps are expensive, unless they’re not. A lot of the apps I use on my Mac are the same apps I used on my Windows laptop: Evernote, iTunes, Kindle, Calibre, Lord of the Rings Online, etc. And most of these are free. But when apps do cost money on the Mac, they’re often significantly more expensive than their Windows counterparts. Omnifocus was $40, and I still can’t create custom perspectives (that’s another $40 in-app purchase). Pixelmator was $30, but that’s still a hell of a lot cheaper than Photoshop. Tweetbot for Mac is $20, and doesn’t support many of the features found in the much cheaper iPhone version. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to paying for software I find useful or entertaining. And for-pay Mac software is wonderfully free of the nagware you often find in free Windows programs. But it’s an adjustment.
  • You need less software. Something else to consider is that you typically need less software on a Mac beyond what Apple gives you. I get Pages, Numbers and Keynote out of the box. Yes, I bought Scrivener for $45, but I could have used Pages if I wanted to. I’m still on the fence about Omnifocus versus iCloud reminders and Fantastical. And system utilities are much more rare. The only must-have icons in my Menu Bar are Evernote, BetterSnap Tool (which gives me Aero-like half and half tiling of app windows) and 1Password. Right now I have Alfred and Dropbox as well, but those will go away by the time Yosemite ships, replaced by Spotlight and iCloud Drive.
  • The stock apps are very good. In Mavericks, and even more in Yosemite, the stock Apple apps are pretty awesome if you’re already “all in” with Apple. Mail.app works great for me, but I’m using iCloud mail, not Gmail. Same for iCal, Reminders, Messages and Safari. In fact, I’ve found with the Reading List and synced tabs between my Mac and iOS devices, I don’t need Pocket or Pinboard anymore at all.
  • It just works. I know that’s a cliché, and sometimes it doesn’t just work. But most of the time, yeah, it does. There are so many little details, tiny touches in OS X that just work better than doing the same thing in Windows. Clicking ⌥Notification Center toggles Do Not Disturb. You can get to any special character right from the Edit menu in any app, or by typing ⌃⌘Space. And don’t get me started on Services, which are much better than monkeying with the “Send To” menu in Windows.

So far, enjoying the heck out of being a Mac owner, and I’m just getting started. Further updates as events warrant.

Stop the ecosystem, I want to get off

Ecosystems are starting to bug me.

I’m losing track of which of my stuff is where. Remember when apps were apps, and not cogs in some greater ecosystem? When all your data could be in one place? It was nice, wasn’t it? I miss that.

Today, my digital stuff is scattered all over the place. I have some movies and TV in Amazon’s cloud, and others in Apple’s. I have music collections with Apple, Google, Amazon, Rdio and Spotify, and have long lost track of what playlist I created where. I have all my ebooks and audiobooks on Amazon, except for the handful I have with Apple and the now woefully out of date un-DRMed backup in Calibre on Dropbox (or did I move that to Google Drive?). 

Speaking of which, my actual documents are an even bigger mess. I have blizzards of similar but slightly different collections in Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive and Evernote. When I actually need something, I have no idea where to look. Or if the version I find is current.

And it’s not like I can just pick one and stick with it. Thanks to the miracle of cloud storage, everyone wants to silo my data, segregating it where they can control it. My artwork lives in Adobe’s Creative Cloud (unless I didn’t create it in Photoshop). My Word documents have to be on OneDrive, or I can’t edit them on my iPad or my Chromebook (neither the web nor iOS Office apps support keeping your files in Dropbox).

This makes the file format confusion of two decades ago look quaint by comparison. At least .doc files and .jpg files could live in the same folder if they were related to the same project. Now not only are things tied to the app that created them, but they’re physically segregated to the apps, or ecosystems, that own them. Because under this model, you the user damn sure don’t own them. 

Don’t get me wrong. I get a lot more done now with my iPhone than I did 20 years ago with a DayTimer. But I miss knowing where my data was. 

My iPhone 5S is the most powerful computer I own

This kind of threw me for a loop. My A7-powered iPhone is the strongest, fastest computer currently in my possession. It not only easily outclasses my two A5-based iPads (an iPad 2 and first-gen mini), but it’s also more powerful than my Acer Chromebook or Windows laptop based on a 3-year-old AMD E-350 APU.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the decline of the iPad and tablets generally, that they’re not selling the way they used to. While I think this is mostly overblown, I will confess that I do a lot more with my phone than I do my tablets. Not only is the phone always with me, but thanks to the A7 it’s powerful enough to handle a lot of tasks I used to require a PC for, like photo editing (not painting, which still needs a bigger screen, but I don’t know how much bigger; I’d love to try Procreate on a 5.5″ iPhone).

For all intents and purposes, my iPhone is my “primary” computer. The iPads rarely leave the house, and the Chromebook is mostly used as an RDP terminal to remote into my always-powered and headless Windows laptop. They’re all special use computers, though. For most of my work, my iPhone is not only the right tool for the job, it’s the most powerful tool I have.