GTD, Evernote and a very stripped down Secret Weapon

A few weeks back, productivity sites on the interwebs were atwitter (ahem) about a new method of combining David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology with Evernote called “The Secret Weapon”. I tried it for a while, and it’s an improvement over my previous attempts to do GTD with Evernote. However, I found it was also overkill for what I tend to do. So here’s my condensed version.

In addition to whatever folder structure you have already in Evernote, you need two new notebooks: Action and Hold. Action is set as my default folder, so new notes appear there unless otherwise specified. TSW recommends a whole big hierarchy of tags. I use just a few, for mostly for context.

My GTD system in Evernote is deceptively simple. Everything takes place in my default folder, and 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. Here’s how the workflow works. Or flows. Or whatever it is that workflows do.


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 using the iPhone camera to scan 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.

(This is, btw, probably the biggest thing I miss about Android after moving to iOS as my daily driver. Android’s system-wide share-to feature makes getting new stuff into Evernote much, much easier. On iOS, I have to settle for emailing a link rather than the whole clip if the app I’m using doesn’t happen to support Evernote directly. Come on, Apple! You copied Android’s notification system; copy this too!)

Process/Organize

I have a saved search in Evernote called Inbox. This search is defined as -tag:* in my Action notebook. This shows me every untagged note that still needs to be dealt with. I go down the list, starting at the top, and ask, “What is this? Is it actionable?”

If it’s not, it gets moved from the Action folder to whatever folder makes sense for reference and I move on. To keep things simple, I only have three reference folders: Professional, Personal, and Writing. A lot of time, I don’t bother to tag the note at all. 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.

This applies to my reading list, too. Articles I’ve clipped but haven’t read yet stay in the Action folder with a @reading tag, and I have a saved search called Reading List that displays them. When I’m done reading them, I just move them to the appropriate reference folder.

My Hold notebook is for stuff that isn’t complete, but can’t be done right now. Maybe I’m waiting for someone else to complete something, maybe it’s a blue sky someday/maybe idea. These get moved out of Action to Hold and reviewed regularly to see if they need to get moved back to Action and worked on.

Review

I have a lot of saved searches to help the review process. I’ve already discussed my Inbox saved search. The next one up is Planning, defined as all notes in the Action folder not tagged with @reading. This shows me all my open loops and active projects. I go over these every morning, trying to determine what’s really important for me to do that day. Those notes get tagged with @big rocks, a trick I’m borrowing from Stephen Covey’s First Things First.

I have a saved search called Focus defined as notes in the Action notebook tagged with @big rocks. This gives me a tight, focused list on the most important things I have to do. I come back to this list many times throughout the day to make sure these tasks get the attention they need.

For the rest of the day, I have saved searches that show notes in the Action notebook by context. These are:

  • @anywhere stuff that can be done on my phone, which is always with me
  • @computer stuff that requires my laptop
  • @home stuff that has to be done in or around my apartment, like household chores
  • @office day job stuff that needs to be done in my office

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 moved out of the Action notebook or deleted entirely.

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 gets moved out of the Action notebook and fades into the searchable deep.


That’s it. 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. It 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.

3 thoughts on “GTD, Evernote and a very stripped down Secret Weapon”

  1. This is really great. Thank you. I’ve been struggling to find a GTD-esque org method and have found most to be way to complex or granular. Your program seems like something I could get in the habit of.

    It also seems like something that will dovetail with my 20 or 30 existing notebooks like consulting clients, blog ideas, business strategy, business ideas, tattoo ideas, etc etc.

    Thanks for a great post.

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