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.

The joy of ubiquitous data

In the process of going about my life, doing my thing—and starting a new job—something has been slowly sinking in on me. I didn’t notice it all at first. But stepping back and looking at my day to day workflow, I’ve noticed something.

My data is ubiquitous.

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, everything I need is already there. On my desktop at work, on my phone when I’m on the go, on my desktop at home, sitting and relaxing in my house, it’s all the same. My data is everywhere, so I can be anywhere. It’s a subtle thing, but kind of amazing in what it means for how I live my life.

Let’s start with the basics. I keep my “organizer” data in Google. Gmail for email, of course, but also Google Calendar, Google Tasks, Google Contacts. Basically the stuff that used to live in my Palm Pilot, back in the 90s, lives in Google now. Obviously, this is all available via any web browser, but that’s far from all.

At the office I access my personal stuff in Chrome, but my office data, which is in Google Apps, syncs to Outlook. I tend to use Chrome at home, too, but there I have Gmail and Google Calendar/Tasks broken out into their own self-contained web apps, pinned to my Windows 7 taskbar.

On my phone, I’ve become fond of a $6 app called CalenGoo. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to the late, great Palm OS app DateBk4 on iOS. Seriously, if you want options, you have options. You can configure this to look and act just about any way you want. But it somehow manages to be this without sacrificing the simple usability of Google (desktop-grade) web apps. You can drag and drop appointments, drag to promote/demote tasks, just about anything you’re used to on the web. This is the first dayplanner app I’ve seen for iOS that feels as fast as my desktop, doesn’t slow me down. And when you’re trying to keep track of a hectic life, that’s important.

My documents are .docx and .xlsx files. I use Office 2007 (haven’t really seen the need to upgrade to 2010) at home and at the office, and Documents To Go on my iPhone. But the key to this part of the system is Dropbox. I have both my PCs and my iPhone tied into my Dropbox, so if I save a file on my desktop at the office, I can open it—within seconds—on my phone and keep working. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even think about this anymore. It’s assumed. And that’s really the magic of what I’m talking about here. Google and Dropbox are so reliable that I just depend on them being there and having all my data ready for me to use it, whenever and wherever.

Dropbox isn’t just for my documents, either. I prefer to read ebooks in Stanza on my phone, as this gives me as much control as I’d need over my typography. Now that Fictionwise seems to be left by their new owners Barnes & Noble to slowly circle the drain, I buy all my books from Amazon’s Kindle store. You’d think that Stanza, being made by Lexcycle, which is in turn owned by Amazon, would support the Kindle format, but it doesn’t. So how to get my books into it?

I use a Python app called Unswindle (no, I’m not going to link to it; the Google knows all) to open my Kindle books in the Windows Kindle app and then save them as unprotected .mobi files (the Kindle .azw format is just encrypted .mobi). I import these into Calibre, a free ebook library system, and convert the .mobi files to .epub. Calibre has its library stored inside my Dropbox folder. So once the .epub file is there, I can use the Dropbox app on my iPhone to open the file and pass it off to Stanza, which opens it as though I’d downloaded it directly. I know this sounds complicated, but it’s less than a five minute process.

And even better, I don’t even need to be at my desktop at home, where Calibre is installed, to do it. I have the free version of LogMeIn installed on my home desktop, meaning I can remote into my home system anytime from my desktop at work, or even from the LogMeIn app on my iPhone. Yes, I’ve gone through the entire above process on my iPhone away from home. I bought the book in the Amazon app on my phone, remoted into the home system to crack it and import it into my library, then sent it from Dropbox to Stanza on my phone. Even on my iPhone, this process takes under five minutes.

In addition to ebooks, I remain an audiobook junkie. I have a 5 books for $30 per month subscription with Audible.com that they don’t offer anymore, and I use it. Thankfully, now I can download those directly to my phone over WiFi and listen to them anytime, anywhere. I also have the same books downloaded to my PC, where I can listen to them in iTunes if I want to use bigger speakers at home.

I was using iTunes for podcasts, but have found that I prefer Podcaster on my iPhone. I have it set to download new podcasts automatically several times a day, so I always have something to listen to. The biggest advantage to using Podcaster is that I’m not dependent on syncing my iPhone to my desktop at home to get new content.

For music, I have a three-headed solution. I have my favorite music synced from my home desktop via iTunes and can listen to that even if I don’t have any internet connectivity at all (which is rare and getting rarer). For the stuff I want to listen to out of my own collection but didn’t sync to my phone, I have ZumoCast, a free service that allows me to stream media from my home PC. And for the rest, I have Pandora, which is what I generally listen to on my phone on the go and on my desktop at work.

Movies and TV work the same way. I don’t actually watch TV on a TV anymore. I subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, which gives me most of the content I watch, and I can watch it anywhere. In fact, between my iPhone and my Plantronics Backbeat 903 stereo Bluetooth headphones, I can (and do) watch TV in a restaurant over lunch without disturbing the other patrons in any way. And while it would take me years to exhaust all the stuff on Hulu and Netflix that I’d like to watch, I also have ZumoCast for the TV and movies I’ve ripped to my PC at home if I’m in the mood for old favorites.

And there’s one last piece to the “my data, everywhere” puzzle, the one place for stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Evernote. This is my “auxiliary brain”, the place to put anything and everything that occurs to me. Some things end up migrating from Evernote to Documents To Go or to Google Tasks. Interesting tweets or links end up in a “Reading Material” folder I’ve come to use instead of Instapaper. And of course this is where all of the research and support materials for my articles and fiction ends up.

As I pointed out before, none of these components are excessively noteworthy in and of themselves. But the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. The end result is that I no longer have to be any particular place to do any particular thing. I can even remote into my workplace network over VPN and use remote desktop to control and even reboot servers from my iPhone. My life has become almost completely untethered from location, and the ramifications of that are mind-blowing. Give it a shot, and you might feel the same.

Living in the cloud, but not the browser

I have an iPhone, a netbook and a multi-monitor desktop. And for most tasks, it really doesn’t matter which one I use because can get to all the same data from all three.

I tried doing the web-app thing. I really did. Given that my netbook is a pre-Atom HP 2133 with a VIA CPU that I think is actually powered by hamsters, I tried living in the browser, turning Chrome into a poor man’s Google ChromeOS. I even went as far as to create “app” shortcuts for Google Calendar, Gmail, etc. so I could launch them directly from my taskbar. It just didn’t work. I didn’t fully grok why it didn’t work for me until I read Ben Ward’s treatise on what the “web” really means:

If you reach the point of building a browser-based application that you depend on so many proprietary enhancements that your users can only access it using Google Chrome, I think you’ve picked the wrong platform. If you want to built the most amazing user interface, you will need to use native platforms. A single vendor’s benevolent curation of their framework will always outpace the collaborative, interoperable developments of the web, whether it’s locked in a standards process or not. When they do a good job (like Apple have with CocoaTouch) their platform will succeed. But the web will always be the canonical source of information and relationships. That’s what it was built for. Blogging at length about how much the device APIs suck won’t ever undo that, nor change the fact that turning HTML in a rich application dialect is still a very new idea.

So how does a Windows user (in my case, but you’ll see that most of the tools I outline below are cross-platform and should work just as well for Mac/Linux people) use native desktop apps to get the superior user interface and still keep the “I’ll use whatever computer I happen to have on hand, thanks” freedom of web apps? It’s actually not all that hard. My programs may reside on my various computers, but my data, that lives in the cloud.

Files, you needs them

Dropbox The first key to the solution is Dropbox. This is where all my discrete files live. All of my documents, spreadsheets, images, and I’m thinking about even music. For free, you get 2GB of storage on the web. Any file or folder you put in your special "My Dropbox" folder gets synced automatically every time it is changed It’s password protected, and only stuff you deliberately put in the “Public” folder is visible to others unless you explicitly share it with someone, and then only they can see it.

What makes Dropbox better than Live Mesh, Box.net or any of the other cloud storage solutions out there? In short, it just works. You install the Dropbox client, it runs silently in the background and syncs files to and from the cloud quickly and reliably. It only syncs the parts of files that have changed, so even syncing big files is quick and painless.

But what really makes Dropbox shine is how it integrates with other services. I keep all my writing stuff in Dropbox in Word and Excel formats. Not only do I know these files will be there and up to date whether I’m on my desktop or my netbook, but I also have the ability to edit them in place with Documents To Go (or QuickOffice Connect) on my iPhone—and eventually, my iPad. I know any changes I make will be there and waiting for me the next time I access them in Microsoft Office on my Windows machines.

Bonus Advanced Geekery: Vista and Windows 7 support hardlinks and junctions. These are similar to shortcuts, but embedded deeper into the system. While a shortcut is a pointer to a file, to applications—like Dropbox—a hardlink is the file (junctions are to folders what hardlinks are to files). So you can create hardlinks and junctions to files and folders outside your Dropbox folder and still have them sync to the cloud. See the icons with the chainlink overlays in the screenshot? Those are junctions. You can create these manually from the command line or download this nifty freeware to create them in Windows Explorer like you manage all your other files. I have my documents and pictures folders linked this way, so most of the time I just interact with files in their "normal" locations and kind of forget my Dropbox folder exists. (There is another, simpler way to do this, but it only allows syncing folders to Dropbox, not individual files, so I prefer the first method.)

Dropbox is free if you need anything up to 2GB of storage. Upping that to 50GB is $9.99/month or $99.99/year, and 100GB is $19.99/month or $199.99/year.

As good as Dropbox is, it only protects what you put in it. For everything else on my hard drive, I use Carbonite. This is less cloud storage than cloud backup. Carbonite backs up whatever you tell it to, with no size limit, to a backup store in the cloud. Files are double AES encrypted, and even the admins at Carbonite can’t tell what is in the files you back up. While all my documents are safe in Dropbox if my home 1TB harddrive should fail, my entire iTunes libarary—music, TV shows and movies that Apple won’t let me redownload for free—are safe in Carbonite. $54.95 for a year, and well worth the peace of mind.

There’s more to life than files

A lot of your data doesn’t exist as discrete files. You have email, calendar events, contacts, bookmarks, passwords and all kinds of other “stuff” to keep track of. And in most cases, you can use desktop tools to access these while still keeping the data out on the internets where you can get to it from anywhere.

The first tool for this is Google Chrome. I know I said above that I didn’t use web apps much, but Chrome has some pretty useful features in an of itself. (I should note here that just about all the cool features in Chrome can be replicated on Firefox by using extensions, but I’ve found that Firefox has an “extension event horizon” beyond which the browser is too slow, bloated and crash-prone to use. Chrome does what I want out of the box, and even though it supports extensions too, I haven’t had to install any.) In particular for our purposes here, it can sync bookmarks and passwords between computers. Setting this up is as simple as clicking the Tools menu, then Sync and signing in with your Google account name. That takes care of bookmarks and web passwords.

Next up, email and all that other “Outlook” stuff. I use Mozilla Thunderbird with a couple of extensions. It’s slower than I’d like, but that could be a sign that I need to get a beefier CPU. (The single-core AMD CPU on my desktop dates back to 2005, and my netbook runs on a VIA processor that’s a LOT slower than an Intel Atom.) Thunderbird itself is pretty easy to set up to sync with Gmail’s IMAP protocol, which gives you two-way sync for messages and folders. Add an extension called Zindus, and you can sync your Google contacts as well.

Thunderbird w Lightning But where Thunderbird really shines is when you add an extension called Lightning. This Thunderbird extension is the official successor to Mozilla’s standalone calendar app Sunbird. It’s basically Sunbird integrated into Thunderbird. In addition to the tabs you already have in Thunderbird for mail, you now have calendar and task tabs well, and a calendar sidebar off to the right of your main message pane. Getting this to sync with Google calendar is a little tricky, especially if you have a lot of calendars to sync, but once it’s set up it works pretty well.

Given how much goes into getting Thunderbird/Lightning set up and working properly, you want to use the freeware MozBackup to back up your settings once you get it the way you like it. Put that back up file in your Dropbox, and then after you install Thunderbird on another PC, just “restore” and it will install all the extensions and configure everything for you.

The last piece you need for total desktop/cloud integration is Evernote. I’ve talked at length about Evernote before, so let’s just say it’s where everything that doesn’t fit anywhere else goes. Data lives in the cloud, excellent client apps for Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad.

Other… Stuff

Of course, there are other things you might need to do that are web-oriented, but you’d rather use desktop tools if you can.

For blogging, I use Windows Live Writer. Technically, I could just use Word 2007 on documents in my Dropbox for this, but Writer is designed for blogging and is a bit easier to work with, especially when it comes to tagging posts, delayed publication dates—this article will post at 8am Mountain on a Monday morning, at which time I will likely be out for a walk—and other metablogging stuff. I’ve only used it for WordPress, but it seems to work really well for just about any blog.

Seesmic Twitter. Ah, Twitter. The sad thing about Twitter is that I used to use their website for reading and writing tweets, but they’ve added so much JavaScript crap to it that I now prefer native Twitter clients to their web interface. There are several native Windows clients—not Adobe Air apps—for Twitter, and some of them, like Blu, are gorgeous examples of what the Windows user interface is really capable of. But for day to day twittering—both tweeting and reading tweets—I prefer Seesmic for Windows. Again, this isn’t the Seesmic Air version, it’s the native Windows client. Not only does this give me the fancy schmancy Aero glass effects, but it’s lighter and faster than anything running in a runtime.

For music, the options used to be a lot better than they are now. I used to use LaLa to upload my iTunes library and stream it from anywhere, but Apple bought them and is shutting LaLa down. I used to use Simplify Music 2 to stream music directly from my desktop over the net to anywhere, but that is shutting down too. For now, the best I can do is Pandora. I paid the $36 a year for Pandora One, which gives me higher bitrate music, unlimited listening—versus the 40 hours a month I probably wouldn’t hit anyway—and most importantly, no ads. I’ll probably also install iTunes eventually on my wee netbook for library sharing, but there’s no rush. I’m kinda holing that Apple will integrate LaLa’s streaming into the iTunes 10 they inevitably release along with the iPhone HD in June or the next generation iPods this fall.

When In Doubt, Remote

Sometimes, there is just no substitute for going back to the “mothership”—my desktop PC. While my data is as cloud-based as I can get it and individual computers have been somewhat abstracted out, some things, like managing ebooks in Calibre or my iTunes library, have to be done on the desktop. (Yes, I know I should be able to use Dropbox to manage my Calibre library from multiple locations, but I have not been able to get this to work.) For this, I use two different tools.

When I’m at home on my netbook, I just use Windows Remote Desktop. It’s fast and allows me to use my netbook as though it was my desktop. The experience is so fluid, in fact, that I use a different color for Aero glass on my desktop than I do on my netbook so I can tell at a glance which one I’m using.

When I’m on the go, I use LogMeIn. This gives me the ability to remote into my desktop from any web-enabled PC without paying a monthly fee. When I get my iPad, I’ll go ahead and spring for the $30 to buy LogMeIn Ignition, which will allow me to control my desktop via the XGA touchscreen of the iPad. When you consider how much of my data is automatically and instantly replicated on all of my computing devices, this also overcomes many of the objections to the iPad for not being a “real” computer. When I need a “real” PC, I can just remote into my desktop from the iPad and finish up whatever I need to do, then go back to the iPad.

The plan

A big part of this blog, and Writing On Your Palm before it, has always been to document my journey as a writer and serve as either a cautionary example or inspiration to others. It occurred to me recently that I have a unique opportunity to do so much more.

When I was writing my first novel, one of my idols was Joe Straczynski, the creator and writer of nearly every episode of Babylon 5. I read every word Joe published on the internet during the production of the show, and I learned a lot about both writing in general and how television is made. But there was always more I wanted to know. I wanted to see the scripts. I wanted to sit in on the breakout meetings. I wanted to see the background of the story the way Joe saw it. I never got those things, because Joe is sane and had a business to run.

But now, I have the opportunity to provide just what I wanted. I can do something no one else has been nuts enough to do. Here’s the plan.

Step 1: Write and edit Unification Chronicles simultaneously

Regular readers know I’ve committed to writing all seven books of the Unification Chronicles series in ten months, to be finished by Labor Day weekend, 2010. But now that I’ve figured out how to write 2,000 words a day and still have time for my normal life, I’ve decided to aim still higher. I’m also going to edit the books in nearly the same span of time. Basically, while I’m writing 2,000 words a day of Book 2, I’ll be editing 5-10 pages of Book 1. This is possible because the 2k-per-day rough draft I’ve been turning out is surprisingly readable, not at all the unreadable crap I was expecting. Turns out you can write well and write fast at the same time (Mike Cane, I’m looking at you).

Step 2: Blog everything

Yes, everything. I’d like to announce The Unification Chronicles Blog, where I’ll be publishing every single thing I use in writing these books, documenting every step in the process. There you will find notes, research, plot outlines, even drafts posted as I write them, and before I revise them. I want aspiring writers to see the whole package. To be able to compare outlines to drafts to the finished product, and see how it all changes. I’ve set up a wiki for most of the structured information that doesn’t work as well on a blog.

Step 3: Sell the finished product cheap or free

Once I’m done with each book, each chapter will be available as a free PDF file or a free podcast (narrated by yours truly, and a straight read, none of this voice cast business). Each book will also be available on eReader.com, Fictionwise.com and Amazon.com as a 99 cent ebook. At the end of the series I’ll also make a 7-book omnibus edition available for $5.

For those that want something to put on a shelf—or don’t take my advice about how to read ebooks comfortably—I’ll also be publishing each book via either Lulu or CreateSpace—haven’t decided which yet—for just a little bit more than it costs to print. I’m not trying to get rich here. But I want to make sure that anyone who wants a printed copy can get one. I likely won’t be doing a printed omnibus edition, however, as it would simply be too expensive.

Step 4: Embrace the Chaos

One of the reasons I’m doing this is to establish a certain setting I plan to come back to again and again throughout my career. This is the Chaos. After the events in Book 5, I basically have kicked over all the anthills and set the galaxy on fire. Everyone is at war with everyone else, humanity is in pretty dire straits, and everything has gone to hell. Book 6 actually takes place during the Chaos, but it’s far from the only thing going on. It will take years, maybe decades of this to get to Book 7, Unification, where the heroes that survived Book 5 get back together and unify the galaxy. In those years are an infinity of tales.

But I’m not going to be the only one writing Tales of the Chaos. At least I hope not. I’m going to open up that setting under Creative Commons so that anyone can write stories set there. There will be a few limitations, like not using actual characters from my books, so the new stories don’t end up contradicting Unification—and even that will be negotiable, I expect to approve a few canonical stories I don’t write—but overall, it’s an open sandbox. Most of the stories will even be hosted on the Unification Chronicles site.

Step 5: The Audition

Once I’m done with Unification Chronicles—aside from Tales of the Chaos—I’ll keep writing, of course. Homeworld (my NaNoWriMo 2006 project) and Titanus (which I developed for Script Frenzy 2009 but decided I’d rather write as a novel) still need to be finished. As does Ghost Ronin, the first in a new adventure series. These, and the works that follow them, will in all likelihood be written with the door closed. I will seek an agent and get these and future works published traditionally. But here, the work I’ve done for Unification Chronicles will give me an advantage. Agents and editors considering my work will be able to see that I can write to a specific length, finish what I start, and tell a good story. They’ll have half a million words of my fiction as a work sample, and they’ll be able to see exactly how I research and write a book. And hopefully, they’ll see you, dear readers, and see that I can build a fan base and get people excited about my work. That’s why I’m giving Unification Chronicles away for free—or as cheap as I’m allowed to make it. Because if I pull it off, and do everything right, then I get to…

Step 6: Quit my day job and write full time

I want to make my living as a novelist. I want my only requirement in life to be continuing to tell the stories that make my life worth living. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been really good at, and with your help, I think I have a way to make this happen. I expect this to take time, but hopefully I’ll be a full time working novelist by the time I’m 45 (I’m 38 now).

Let’s get started.

Evernote and the Google problem

We’ve all seen the new Bing commercials showing people suffering from search engine overload. I can identify with those thus afflicted, since I go through that every day. Only it’s not hitting me when I search Google; it’s hitting me when I search Evernote.

Earlier this week I hit 6,000 notes in Evernote. That’s a lot of notes. That’s a huge, thundering herd of notes, the likes of which used to roam horizon to horizon on the Colorado plains. Wait, I think that was buffalo. But even so, my notes were out of control.

This isn’t Evernote’s fault. It does a dandy job of collecting and keeping all my notes. Things, perhaps obviously, go into the system rather easily. Getting the particular stuff I’m looking for back out at any particular time can be a problem.

Like Google’s index of the entire interwebs, once you hit a certain critical mass of notes, any search brings back too many matches. This forces you to browse through the list of matches to your search term when browsing a list and finding what you want with a Mark I eyeball is exactly what you’d hoped to avoid. Evernote provides lots of ways to narrow the search by content, time and place created and all sorts of other metadata, and allows you to save that combination of search criteria if you need them again in the future. But even so, there’s lots and lots of stuff in my Evernote database that doesn’t strictly need to be there. More to the point, there’s lots of stuff in my Evernote database that I’ll never see again. So why lug it around, even digitally?

I think the source of my issue is that Evernote is so free-form that I’m inclined to use it for everything so that I have all of my data in one place, even though other solutions would work better for certain kinds of content. I should keep my image files in Picasa or Flickr instead of Evernote. I should store my to-read-later articles in Instapaper instead of Evernote. I should keep my drafts in Google Docs, Writeroom or on a flash drive rather than in Evernote. I should keep my tasks in ToodleDo instead of Evernote. I think if I put into Evernote only what I knew I planned to keep so I could use it later, the data size would be manageable and it wouldn’t take nearly as long for the iPhone version to finish syncing and let me look up whatever I opened it for.

But before I go and do something rash (I have an inner R2-D2, and I’m not afraid to use it!), I thought I’d ask my readers (at least the ones that use Evernote, and I know there are a few of you). What do you store in Evernote and what do you store elsewhere? Why?

Notebooks or tags with Evernote?

Evernote notebooks and tags

I’ve gotten a few questions about how I use tags and notebooks in Evernote. Now, while I think one of the cool things about Evernote is that you can set it up however makes the most sense to you personally, I realize it helps to see how other people do it, if only to rule out what doesn’t make sense for you. So in that spirit, here’s the system I’ve developed so far.

My primary notebook is creatively named Default, and that’s where all of my notes start out and most of them end up. All but two of my other notebooks (Dish Network for day job stuff and Images for notes consisting entirely of pictures) are named for various writing projects, including a notebook for JeffKirvin.net. As you can see from the item counts, if you factor out the work and image notebooks, none of the project-oriented notebooks come anywhere near the size of the main notebook. They are handy, though, for quickly seeing everything related to a specific project in one place.

Tags are harder to keep organized. I have only six top level tags, and could probably get rid of two of them if I tried. But out of those, I really only use the first two (and their subtags): !GTD and !Reference. They’re prefaced with exclamation points so they sort automatically to the top.

The !GTD tag itself is never actually used at all. But it contains all my GTD contexts, as well as another tag, !Vision, for more Covey-style planning, goals, roles and values stuff.

For the vast majority of stuff in my Evernote database, each note will have either one or more @ tags representing the context in which I need to address the note contents, or it will be tagged simply with !Reference. I used to use a lot of keyword tags, but over time found I couldn’t keep them standardized well enough and that Evernote’s built in content search was more than sufficient to pull up notes I might have forgotten otherwise.

The only other tag worth mentioning is Bookmarks, which is where I put stuff that formerly would have gone into Delicious or Foxmarks (now Xmarks, or so I hear). Though honestly I’ve gotten so accustomed to typing whatever I’m looking for into the search bar on my browser that I hardly use bookmarks at all anymore. Starting to see a pattern here?

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.