Evernote for GTD, simplified

If I’m going to use Evernote for GTD because of how amazing it is as an universal inbox, I need to develop a system that actually exploits Evernote’s strengths, rather than simply translating the paper notebook GTD workflow to it. Evernote is digital, and that gives me a different set of assumptions than a paper notebook. Specifically, the paper time management law of "touch each piece of paper only once" doesn’t apply in the digital world.

My GTD system in Evernote is deceptively simple. Everything takes place in my default folder, and I only have tags for contexts. At the note level, there is no difference between a one-off task and a project. This is not a violation of the GTD method, just a different way of implementing it. Let’s walk through the process to see what I mean.


This is where Evernote really shines. Everything in my life eventually finds its way into Evernote. Interesting links from Google Reader or Twitter get emailed to my Evernote account (I need to start just retweeting cool stuff from Twitter with a @myen tacked on the to the end, which does the same thing, but also shares with my tweeps). I take pictures on my iPhone, and then dump them into the iPhone Evernote client (including anything I get on paper that I want to "file"). Files, emails and memos pertinent to my job get clipped into the Windows Evernote client on my laptop. And of course ideas, tasks, random things I hear… anything interesting at all, it goes in the soup. Evernote is the best "universal capture" inbox I’ve ever seen, and why I keep coming back to it for my GTD process instead of services like Toodledo or Nozbe.


I have a saved search in Evernote called !Inbox. This search is defined as -tag:* in all notebooks. This shows me every untagged note in my entire database. I go down the list, starting at the top, and ask, "What is this? Is it actionable?"

If it’s not, it gets tagged with !Reference and I move on. I used to have dozens, maybe even hundreds of tags, but I finally realized that such granularity was slowing me down. Evernote’s search is so good that I don’t have to define keywords. If the word I’m likely to search for isn’t in the note itself, it’s probably not as relevant as I think it is.

If it is actionable, I do a little more thought on the matter. Is it a project? What’s the next action? If it’s a larger project I might do a little "back of the envelope" planning at the top of the note, pushing down what I’d already clipped, sketching out milestones. Then I determine the next action, and make that the title of the note. I assign one or more @contexts as tags, and then move on to the next item on the list.


I have saved searches for all of my contexts, plus one for Someday/Maybe. Whether I’m at my desk, at home or on the go, I fire up Evernote on whatever device is handy and check out the saved search for the context appropriate at the time. Currently, my contexts are:

  • @Computer (things I can do anywhere I have one of my computers, pretty much anywhere)
  • @Home (things that require me to be in or around my house)
  • @Internet (things that require an unfiltered internet connection, ie things I can’t do on the corporate network because of our strict content filtering like downloading executables)
  • @Office (things that require corporate resources)
  • @Out (things I have to go to, rather than come to me)
  • @Read/Review (reading material, by far the biggest list)
  • @Shopping (things to buy, online or locally)

These are obviously defined by location, or more generally, resources available. Given that some of these (@computer, @read/review, @shopping) can be done anywhere I have my iPhone, which is pretty much everywhere, I’m thinking about adjusting my contexts to be more about resources and energy available. Like having a context for things that can be done in 5 minutes, things that will take an hour, etc.


Once I have the list up for the current context, I go down the list and do whatever feels "right". I bounce around, almost never going down the list in order. I also keep an eye out for things that repeatedly get passed over, and try to figure out if they’re really doable, if I’m skipping them because they have the wrong next action or if it’s something I really have any intention of doing at all. It’s okay to look at some projects and decide, "I’m just not going to do that. I accept the consequences of it not being done." These get re-tagged with !Reference and fall off the lists.

When I actually do something, I edit the note to change the title to the next action after what I just did, and if necessary change the context tag. I repeat as necessary so the project steams along until I run out of actions. Then it’s also tagged with !Reference and fades into the searchable deep.

That’s it. If I’m looking for something to do and nothing appeals to me, I can go into my Someday/Maybe context and promote a few things to active projects by putting them in contexts titled by their next actions (although generally, I’m more likely to take a nap). Once a week I sit down and do a brain dump, just typing whatever pops into my head separated by CTRL-N to put each in a new note. Then I process them as listed above.

This is the simplest way of implementing GTD in Evernote I can think of, but no simpler. I hits all the major points, but also is streamlined enough that I’ll actually do it. Everything else I’ve tried has had too many steps involved to maintain the system, meaning I’ll inevitably get tired and wander off. This system looks like it’s easy enough to stick with, but if you have any suggestions on how to improve it, be sure to let me know in the comments.

Story debt and Lost’s first season

Warning: This contains spoilers for the first 28 episodes of the TV series Lost, originally aired on ABC in 2004-2005. If you haven’t seen these episodes already and do not wish to know about them, you have been warned.

Initially, I’d avoided Lost. I knew from past experience that JJ Abrams, the creator and executive producer on the show, was only good for about a season and half before he jumps the shark. But over time, so many of my friends kept telling me this show was different, that weird stuff was supposed to happen on the island, that it was worth it. So when the first four seasons showed up on Netflix to watch online, I decided to give it a shot.

Three episodes into season two, I stopped. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the first season very much, and it sparked some interesting insights on writing, particularly in driving home that every one of your characters is the protagonist of his or her own story, that they should all have baggage in the background. But I stopped watching because of another observation about the show and how it has been written. It became obvious to me that the writers couldn’t pay their debts.

Every time you pose a story question in fiction, you incur a debt to the reader. Eventually, you have to pay that off by answering it in a satisfactory way or the reader, justifiably, feels cheated. The problem I had with Lost as it started up the second season, is that I didn’t like the answers I was getting, didn’t think they paid off all the teasing suspense.


Q: Who are “The Others” Rousseau was so scared of?

A: A bunch of thugs on the other side of the island. This fell well short of the almost magical, invisible, whispering specters we were led to expect.

Q: What is the giant, unseen creature that killed the pilot?

A: A plume of black smoke accompanied by a mechanical, clockwork chattering. This is, again, very disappointing compared to the T-Rex we were all imagining. Hell, even the critter from Abrams’s “Cloverfield” would have been better.

Q: What was under the hatch?

A: A long shaft into an apartment/lab housing an athlete Jack just happened to meet years earlier. This is our introduction to the Dharma Initiative, a group founded 35 years before by a bunch of hippies to do sociological experiments. It’s not only unimpressive, but doesn’t really even have a hint of sinister.

Now, I know from friends that there are a lot more twists and turns in store and that not everything is what it seems. But in a sense, that’s the problem.

Serial storytelling has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. For a long time, TV, comics and other serials were episodic in nature. Episodes were largely self-contained, and it didn’t matter much what order you saw them in. This is because each episode looped back to end where it began. The episode started with a disruption to the status quo, the characters worked to resolve the issue, and the episode—or rare two-parter—ended when the status quo was restored.

In the past two decades here in the US, the trend has been to “novels for television” where we don’t restore the status quo at the end of each episode, but rather follow a longer story arc across an entire season. In some cases, like Babylon 5, the story arc may even span the entire series.

In a lot of cases, this model works just as well. For example, each season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer has a distinctive flavor and tone all its own as each season has a different villain whose ultimate defeat awaits in the season finale. But the catch is this only works if you know where you’re going when you set out.

Lost doesn’t have that. It borrows what little structure it has from a much older form of television: the soap opera. In soaps, produced daily often 52 weeks a year, there isn’t time for the writers to give a lot of thought to how they’re going to pay things off. Instead, they go for whatever plot twists they can get away with to keep people coming back. The lengths the writers inevitably have to go to in order to explain such drastic shifts in the plot while maintaining continuity with the past has become a running gag.

And ultimately, I can see that’s where Lost is headed. Early into its second season, I was already seeing connections between the characters and between the characters and their environment that stretched the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. It was getting out of hand because the writers clearly had no end in sight. They were just writing themselves deeper and deeper into corners they could never possibly find a logical, satisfying way out of. Every time they raise the bar yet higher and posit another plot twist, they are writing a check their story can’t cash.