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.