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.

20 thoughts on “Simple GTD with Evernote”

  1. love this! I read that same article and dumped notebooks also! I too have bounced from tool to tool, settling recently on Omnifocus, but I’m
    considering a switch 😉

    Can you elaborate on how one uses the project folder? Is it just for project descriptions?

    1. I think Projects is one of my favorite things about this system. On of the things that bugged me about OmniFocus was the insistence on the hierarchical Project/Action system. In vanilla GTD, you can have actions that aren’t “under” any particular project, either because they’re single actions that don’t require a project, or because they relate to two or more projects.

      The notes in my Projects folder are, as David Allen puts it, stakes in the ground to remind me of an outcome I want to make real. As such, they can include notes, articles, checklists or any other kind of “back of the envelope” planning I want to do aside from simply defining the next physical action required. Many of my projects have simple Evernote checkbox lists in them to define a sequence of actions, but not all.

      The important thing, I think, is to make sure the title of the note isn’t a verb, but the outcome you want to achieve. For example, I recently got a call from the car dealership that sold me my car that its 75k mile service is about due. I forwarded that email to my private Evernote address, moved it to Projects and renamed it “Bernadette has her 75,000 mile service completed” (Bernadette is my car’s name). Then I created a new note called “Call dealership to schedule 75,000 mile service”, set it as a reminder with a due date of January 2 (after I can afford it), and moved it to the Waiting notebook.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Really enjoyed this post, and your modification of my tagging system (I’m the author of the post you linked)! Lots of people are using GTD with Evernote, and are reaching out to me asking about using it in a way like you outlined above. Unfortunately, I don’t use the system :/

    I think many people could find it useful to see your post after reading mine on Medium. If you post this on Medium as a response to my article, I’d love to approve it!


      1. If you look at the article on Medium, scroll down to the bottom where it displays the Author. Right underneath my photo & tagline, there’s a button centered on the page which says “Have thoughts to share? Write a response.”

        Click on that and you’re good to go! You can simply import this blog post into Medium’s editor.

        1. The notes in Projects are whatever I need them to be to stay current on each project. These can be web clips, brainstorming, lists of potential actions with checkboxes. Some of them have nothing at all in the note body, just the title.

  3. Interesting….There is a lot of stuff here to consider….I use Pocket Informant on my IPAD to handle the GTD stuff, I like it because it keeps me in one app for all things GTD …. Nice info you present….I see ways to improve my usage on pocket informant based on this info…..

  4. The sub-tags are a little confusing. I should use the @ symbol when creating sub-tags? Are there additional resources about using sub-tags? Thanks in advance.

    1. I use the @ symbol to designate contexts, nothing more. Subtags are just a way to group related tags visually in the tree. You don’t have to use them that way.

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