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.

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