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.

Collect

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.

Process/Organize

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.

Review

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.

Do

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.

19 thoughts on “Evernote for GTD, simplified”

  1. I really like your approach here. I originally started out like you did, using a single note for each project and using the next action for the title. I ended up having two problems with that, the first being that it wasn’t always clear what project the action was associated with. And second, some of my projects required additional support notes that got to be too cumbersome in a single note.

    Of course your answer to that is the search feature. This is something I’ve never given enough of a chance. I’m a little OCD about organization, so I rely on more tags and rarely use the search function. You say it works. I’m going to commit to giving it a shot. I still like my implementation of projects. At the least it gives you an easy way to review all your projects weekly. Check out how I do it here:

    http://examinehealth.com/personal-productivity/69-gtd-and-evernote.html

    I also follow your intuitive cherry picking from to do lists, although I’ve implemented a system to bring my most important tasks to the top. It’s helpful when there’s something that really NEEDS to get done.

    I’m really curious about sorting context by energy levels or time. I’ve felt there could be improvements to the original context implementation. Have you tried this yet? How did it work for you?

  2. How do you manage recurring tasks? And to clarify, you uses search for organizing items by tag
    . = project tag
    @ = context tag
    ! = reference tag

    What notebook to you put tasks in? Or does everything stay in inbox?

    What do you do with completed task and projects? delete them or save them?

    Who do you track status? Hold, Next, WaitingOn,Completed etc

    A task might be in Someday status, but needs a computer, so it would be @someday and @computer tags?

  3. So what do you do with things that aren’t actionable at the moment but will be at a later date. Leave them tagless and put them in Reference?

    then search for tagless notes?

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