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.

Cross platform GTD in Evernote

I got a request on Twitter recently (hi, @girvo!) to update how I use GTD now that I’ve switched platforms. It’s pretty simple, and if you’ve been reading my stuff recently, it should come as no surprise that I’m doing it almost entirely in Evernote.

I have everything in one big notebook now in Evernote, using tags and saved searches to find things (a la Gmail). For things in my GTD system, I have two tags to use: “!GTD” (the intial bang sorts it at the top of the tag list and distinguishes it from the tag “gtd” which I use for notes about GTD) and “Context”. If I bring up notes with the !GTD tag, I see at least eight notes, sometimes more:

.Projects

This is a list of projects, outcomes I want to achieve that consist of more than one action. For example:

Write Titanus first draft

Write Revelation first draft

Post to JeffKirvin.net at least once a week

Paint bathroom

.Someday/Maybe

This is a list of things that have been on my mind, but I have no commitment to accomplish them in the foreseeable future:

Stream media from PC to TV

Use Wii Fit for workouts

.Waiting For

This is a list of things I have on hold until someone else gets back to me. I consult this once a week to see if I need to ping people.

All of the lists that begin with an at sign are contexts, and tagged as such so that I can have a saved search called “Task Lists” that shows only those notes.

@Computer

This is for next actions that require some kind of computer/internet access, but no specific resources (like my iTunes library on my home desktop or the ticketing system we use at work). Basically this is stuff I can do with my iPhone if necessary.

@Home

Both housecleaning and computing tasks that require a computer at my house (iTunes and gaming stuff, mostly) go on this list.

@Work

This is for stuff I have to do at the office.

@Out

This is mostly for errands or things involving my car.

@Phone

And lastly, a list for phone calls I have to make. This is usually a pretty sparse list as I avoid voice calls as much as possible, preferring less intrusive and time asynchronous SMS and email.

I currently also have a couple projects I’ve removed from the .Projects list so I can do “back of the envelope” planning. For example, I have a note called “Fix Neon” consisting of:

Get engine diagnostic

Check heat issue

Replace windshield

Replace taillights

Fix dashboard short

Replace driver door

Replace passenger mirror

Replace steering column

(yes, there’s a reason my friends refer to my car as the Millennium Falcon)

Next actions in Google Calendar For things that are time-sensitive, I schedule the next actions on my Google calendar. For things that have to be done at a specific time, I put them at that time, but for most things that have to be done just on a certain day, I schedule them as free, all-day events.

For collection, I can have any number of notes, all tagged with “Inbox”. These can be pictures, voice notes, text notes, even clipped web pages. Every so often, I go through my Inbox saved search and process these, adding new projects or next actions to my core lists as necessary.

When I’m on the go and looking for something to do, I’ll bring up my Task Lists saved search in Evernote and open the appropriate context. When I’m done with a task, I simply delete that row. Evernote supports adding checkboxes to notes, but doing so means I can’t edit those notes on my iPhone, something that’s vital to my system. So I keep it simple, my notes in Evernote not all that different from the paper note cards so many GTDers use.

To me, the real advantage of this system is that it will work anywhere. Windows PC, Mac, Linux (through Evernote.com), iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile or just about anything else that can use either the full or mobile versions of the Evernote website. As long as I have an internet connection, I have GTD. And even when I don’t have an internet connection, I have the cached versions of my lists that I’ve marked as favorites on my iPhone, so I at least have older versions to work with.

How are you using GTD?

GTD for storytellers

Part of the problem creative types have with David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is that we tend to be “big picture” type people and GTD focuses on the little things. Even if we’re methodical in setting up our GTD system, we’re never quite sure we’re focusing on the right little things. Remember, the difference between efficiency and effectiveness is that while efficiency is doing things right, effectiveness is doing the right things.

This has become more and more apparent to me recently. I’m at something of a crossroads in my life, a reboot where I have the opportunity to re-invent myself and build my life the way I want it. But what do I want? This is where I’ve always run aground with GTD. I’ll do a “core dump”, writing down all my open loops, but still have no idea if closing all of those open loops will get me to where I want to go.

So in addition to all that “in the trenches” stuff, I decided to see if I could determine what my goals (master projects) should be by doing what I do best: telling a story.

My “reboot” concept will take a little under two years, after which both myself and my parents will be financially secure and independent. So I decided to visualize a normal, typical day for myself two years in the future. If I get to where I want to be, what would that look like?

Here’s the start of that day.

The alarm on my Palm Pre goes off, waking me up. Shooing the cats off the futon, I sit up and glance around my Spartan bedroom. The walls have framed posters from favorite movies, and there’s a TV stand in the corner with my 24″ tube TV and a small DVD player. I get up, pull my Pre off the Touchstone inductive charger, pick up my clothes from the night before and walk into the living room.

The living room is also a wide open space with little in it. There’s a large cat tree in the far right corner, a futon immediately to my right, against the wall the borders the bedroom, and a large flatscreen TV mounted to the opposite wall. Under the TV is a metal strip running to the carpet, which both holds three glass shelves and conceals the cables from the shelf contents. The first shelf holds my Nintendo Wii and various controllers, the second holds my Xbox 360 and the third my combination DVD player/VCR. On the carpet at the bottom is my Wii Fit balance board.

I walk past the living room and make a right into the laundry room. Immediately to my left is the automated cat box, which doesn’t need changing yet. I drop yesterday’s clothes into the stainless steel washing machine, which also isn’t full enough to run a load yet, and ignore the boxes of CDs and other media stored in the corner.

As I walk back to the living room I go past the kitchen and look into the “dining room”. I have a L-shaped glass and steel computer desk in the corner, holding my home server/gaming PC, a multifunction inkjet and paper filing system. I then walk into the kitchen, start a batch of rice steaming and pour myself some hot tea from the timed coffee maker.

It’s hardly a riveting bestseller, but there’s a lot of useful information there. Going back over that section, I can pull out factual, declarative statements that have to be true for this vision of my future to be true.

  • I have my own apartment.
  • I have a Palm Pre and a Touchstone charger.
  • I have a futon for the bedroom.
  • I have a futon for the living room.
  • I have a large cat tree.
  • I have a flatscreen TV with a wallmount.
  • I have a wall mounted, glass shelf entertainment system.
  • I have a Nintendo Wii and a Wii Fit.
  • I have an Xbox 360.
  • I have a stainless steel washer/dryer set.
  • I have all my CDs and DVDs ripped to a home server (since the media is in storage).
  • I have a home server.
  • I have an L-shaped glass and steel computer desk.
  • I have a multifunction inkjet printer.
  • I have a paper GTD system.

Now, admittedly a lot of this is going to turn out to be shopping list. But as I go on writing about my day, it turns out I use the Wii Fit every morning for aerobics, strength training, yoga and meditation. I stream all my TV through my Xbox 360. So I go over my list of statements and see some obvious groupings, which in turn imply other goals. All the shopping list stuff goes under “My apartment is furnished to my tastes.” but that implies “I can afford to furnish my apartment to my tastes.” The bit about the paper GTD system ended up morphing to using a scanner to scan all my paper data into OneNote, where it can be managed by Outlook. The home server/media center thing eventually led to planning on buying a few 1TB USB drives to hold video content.

When I’m done with this consolidation, I have the following top-level goals for two years from now.

  • I’m as close to 100% digital as possible.
  • My living space is clean and organized.
  • I take good care of myself.
  • I have my own apartment.

Under each of these I have sub-goals (both “I drive a Honda Civic hybrid” and “I play LOTRO with my friends regularly” go under “I take good care of myself”) and each of those in turn has projects and next actions under it. But in the process of doing this little exercise, I’m convinced I have the “big rocks” covered and I’m on track to achieve the important things in my life.

Fast GTD in Windows Mobile

(This was originally posted on the old version of JK.net with pictures, but this is all I could salvage out of the Google cache.)

I’ve been a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done time management methodology for years. And while I had it down to a science on my various Palms and Treos, a really good GTD implementation has eluded me on Windows Mobile until just recently. There are lots of different ways to do it, of course, and a few dedicated applications designed to guide you through the GTD workflow on Windows Mobile.

The problem I have with those is that they’re all too bulky. They either don’t sync with my Exchange server or they don’t do it well. It’s too much effort to set up the system, and too cumbersome to use it in the moment. One of the hallmarks of GTD on paper is that it’s fast. Fast enough to be usable. Fast enough to become a "I don’t even think about it anymore" habit. Every second, every fraction of a second, that you add to that process makes it less likely you’ll actually stick with it.

"Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler."
– Albert Einstein

So I set out to create a GTD implementation that used as little outside software or structure as possible. I wanted it to sync, mostly, via Exchange, which meant limiting myself to Contacts, Tasks and Calendar (with one exception). I wanted it to be fast to use on the device, just as glanceable as the paper version, but with even less overhead due to the digital nature of the data. It should be easy to collect, process, decide and do. And I think I pulled it off.

As you might expect, the system is based around tasks. According to Allen, you should not prioritize your task lists, and for the most part I agree. This freed me up to use the high/normal/low priority system in Outlook/Exchange for something else: defining your lists.

Three kinds of things go on task lists in GTD. Next Actions (things you can actually do something about), Projects (lists of Next Actions relating to the same goal) and Someday/Maybes (things you might do at some point but have no commitment towards). In my system, Next Actions are all set to High importance, Projects are Normal importance and Someday/Maybes are Low importance. When sorting your task list by priority, this shows all your Next Actions grouped at the top of the list, then your projects. Running out of Next Actions is a good sign to look at your Projects and create more Next Actions to move things along.

In each Project (normal importance task), I use the note field to jot down potential Next Actions. Allen cautions against doing too much or too detailed hierarchical planning on the theory that it will almost certainly change once you actually get into it.

"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
– General George Patton

Allen instead recommends "back of the envelope" planning, just jotting down a simple list of things you know the project will require. This gives you the flexibility to do things in whatever order makes sense in the moment and still be sure you hit the major points. When necessary I copy each line to a new Next Action (High Importance task) so it shows up on the main list, and the next time I have the Project open I put an X in front of the ones I know I’ve done. When all of the actions are done and I can’t think of any more, the Project itself gets marked as complete.

When viewing the list as a whole, I can either look at all my Next Actions or I can filter the list by context. A curious side-effect I’ve noticed of using mobile technology is that I tend to need far fewer contexts than most people. I don’t need an "@phone" context, for example, since my smartphone is always with me. Nor do I need @internet, etc. I only have four contexts that are meaningful for me:

  • @Computer, for things that require a desktop PC
  • @Home, for things to do inside or around my apartment
  • @Out, for things I can do pretty much anywhere, or things to do on the go
  • @Work, for things to do at my office

That’s it. Individual tasks can be assigned to any or all of those categories, and I can filter the list to show just the Next Actions I can actually do in any particular context. This filtering is a built in feature of the Windows Mobile tasks application, as is filtering to show only Active Tasks (not complete, with a start date either null or before today). I assign Projects to the !Project context, so they don’t show up in my normal context lists (Projects will usually span multiple contexts anyway) and so I can catch things I forgot to categorize by using the built in "No Categories" filter.

The nice thing about this system is that it’s all in Tasks (so far), which means it all syncs automatically to Exchange and thus is all available to me anytime, anywhere, no matter if I’m using Outlook at home, my smartphone or Outlook Web Access at the office. But tasks will only take you so far. I still need to capture ideas about stuff to do in the first place.

I talked about this recently. I have a simple plain text file called Notebook.txt on my device set to sync to my desktop, and I have shortcuts in my desktop and handheld Start Menus to open this file quickly and easily. When a thought occurs to me, no matter what it is, I open this file and jot it down. Every so often, usually once a day, but sometimes more frequently and sometimes less, I open up that file and cut and paste from it into new tasks, appointments, other documents, whatever is appropriate. Notice that I said cut. Once it’s processed, it’s gone from my notebook. I like to keep the notebook as clean as possible. If I’m doing my job and processing new ideas regularly, that text file should be 0 bytes big more often than not. I use PHM Notepad for this just because opening the file is nearly instantaneous, but Word Mobile works nearly as well if you don’t want to install extra software. It takes a second or two to open the file, but I’m looking for speed. (This is also why I keep my notebook in a plain text file instead of a Word document; I want it to open instantly on the phone and the desktop.)

And that’s the whole system. It’s quick, simple and all but one text file syncs via Exchange. The only part that doesn’t sync doesn’t strictly have to, if you don’t mind having separate "collection buckets" on different computers. And it catches the basics of GTD without unnecessary overhead. Give it a try, and let me know how it works for you in the comments.