Google, I wish I knew how to quit you

A few weeks back, I made a big deal out of ditching Google as much as possible because a number of things they’ve done recently have made me uneasy about where the company’s priorities lie. The idea was to replace all the Google services I used with alternates from other ecosystems, open source and under my direct control if possible.

The results, while not an abject failure, fell well short of what I intended.

My plan was to ditch Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Contacts and Google Tasks for Microsoft’s Exchange 365. This didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped. Part of it really wasn’t Microsoft’s fault (even though it was, really). My day job also uses Exchange 365–where I got the idea–and while Outlook 2010 can normally handle two different Exchange accounts (the first version of Outlook to do so), it can’t do so with Microsoft’s cloud-hosted Exchange. Or, more to the point, every time I tried to load my personal 365 account, Microsoft “helped” by automatically trying to log in for me behind the scenes, with the domain credentials I’d used to log on to my day job laptop. There is no way to make Microsoft less helpful and just use the gorram login credentials I gave it. So the biggest advantage I sought by switching to a Microsoft solution–having my work and personal email and PIM data in the same installation of Outlook–was a non-starter.

And frankly, the rest of the advantages of switching to Exchange weren’t that compelling. Gmail has better spam detection, by far. Gmail has more flexible, sophisticated rules for email filtering. Since I had to use a web app to access my account either way, Google Calendar and Gmail are more polished, more stable web apps (I kept getting errors trying to bring up Outlook Web settings and I couldn’t dismiss the modal dialog to try again, grr). So even though I still don’t trust Google as much as I used to, the benefits I get from them, for now, outweighs their potential skeeviness.

I considered moving my calendar and email data to Apple’s iCloud, but their web interface isn’t ready for prime time. More specifically, it isn’t ready to run on non-Safari browsers. Color me surprised.

I did manage to replace Google Drive/Docs with Evernote and Google Tasks with Remember the Milk, but how I got those two to work together (and why I had to bring in RTM to bolster my Evernote-based GTD system) is a topic for another post.

I ended up going back to Chrome as my browser on my Windows boxen because frankly, Firefox is becoming a second-class web citizen. All of the hot extensions are for Chrome first, Firefox if the devs get time. Web apps are written for the webkit engine in Chrome and Safari, with Firefox’s Gecko engine as an afterthought.

It’s not just the desktop, either. On my Galaxy Nexus, I tried to set it up like a Kindle Fire, using only Amazon’s app store on a build of CyanogenMod 9 without Google apps. This also proved to be unacceptably confining. Or put more simply, it sucked.

I have a lot of apps on the Amazon app store, too. Hundreds, and not all from their free app a day promotion. But there are too many missing titles, and the ones that do exist are far out of date.

Let me give you just two examples. I’ve recently become fond of CoinKeeper on iOS for my budget management. They recently released an Android app. But only on the Play Store. It doesn’t exist on Amazon. So without Google apps, I can’t run this app. (I’d be in the same boat if I owned a Kindle Fire.)

So let’s look at a more established, high profile app: Evernote. They just released version 4 of their Android app, a major rewrite designed for Android 4. Current version on Amazon? 3.61. So again, if I want up to date apps, I need Google’s Play Store for that, too.

My saving grace might be iOS. One of the big changes in upcoming iOS 6 is the further de-Googlification of iOS by ripping out Google Maps and replacing it with Apple’s own map/navigation engine. It’s easy to switch your default search engine to Bing on iOS, and Siri further abstracts Google out of search by directing relevant queries to Wolfram Alpha instead. If I did switch over to iCloud and ditched Google Voice for iMessage, I could, in theory, have a Google-free experience on my iPhone and iPad-to-be-named-later. And all I’d have to do is go all in with Apple.

Which one was the evil empire again?

Text Editing – Dropbox or Evernote?

Never trust anybody over 30 (million).

That’s been my gut feeling recently. Big companies scare the bejeezus out of me, because I don’t think I can trust them to do what’s best for their customers if it ever conflicts with what’s best for their bottom line. In particular, publicly traded companies are required by law to return as much value to their stockholders as possible. And more and more of them do that by squeezing the consumer.

So when I heard Evernote has a valuation of $1,000,000,000 en route to an IPO, I started squinting at them. Yes, they look trustworthy now. In fact, CEO Phil Libin has said on several occasions that he wants Evernote to be a hundred year company, and the only way they can do that is if their users trust them for life. But can they stick to their principles when the shareholders are screaming for more profit?

As it happened, this news hit right about the time I was getting annoyed with Evernote personally. It’s awesome on my Windows laptop. It’s arguably even better on Android. But their iOS client needs a lot of work, and that’s where I’m spending most of my time these days. On any note with more than 1,500-2,000 words or so, the iPhone version of Evernote slows to an unworkable crawl. This is with Markdown-formatted ASCII text, too, not rich formatting. Maybe this was a sign from the universe that I should be moving my writing to a safer, more controllable location. Like my own hard drive, synced to my other devices via Dropbox.

There are lots of Markdown-friendly plain text editors for iOS. Perhaps too many. Like any good former software developer, the first thing I needed to do was nail down my requirements. I needed to have a universal app that worked on both the iPhone and the iPad (I don’t have an iPad yet, but as soon as I can afford one, I’m getting it). Syncing to Dropbox needed to be automatic, not manual via a button. I don’t really care about export as HTML as my blog supports Markdown directly and I’ll be doing my own post processing for fiction, but HTML preview would be really nice. And given the small screen of the iPhone, I’d really like a full screen option; no UI chrome, just my words and the keyboard. Lastly, I need to be able to search for a specific phrase or some other way to navigate round in a large document.

That narrowed down the list to a handful.

Byword almost made the cut, but I couldn’t find a full screen option. Elements also gets honorable mention, but it has no search. And while the others technically met my needs, I discovered after days of testing that each one also had some kind of dealbreaking annoyance I couldn’t live with. Nebulous has a really clunky UI. Writing Kit is cluttered from trying to do too much. Notesy takes too long to refresh/sync every file in a folder as soon as you open the folder, whether or not you had any intention of opening that file. Et cetera.

And frankly, why is Dropbox charging almost five times as much per gigabyte of storage as Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive? Are they really five times better? Am I made of money? Will these damn kids ever get off my lawn?

So I took another look at Evernote, and hit upon a little known Evernote feature that might solve my problem. Note links.

If you right click on a note in Evernote, on of the options on the popup context menu will be “Copy Note Link”. You can then paste that into any note you like. I think you can paste it anywhere that supports hyperlinks, as long as you tell your computer to open Evernote to handle links starting with Evernote://

So here’s how I use note links to make writing fiction in Evernote manageable on my iPhone.

I have a “main” note for the full length work. For Crusade, book 2 of the Unification Chronicles, I’m doing something weird and writing the major plot threads independently of each other, planning to weave them together later. So I’m starting with Daniel’s story, and the main note is called UC2 Daniel.

Now I start cutting and pasting from the outline into separate notes. The first one is called Totally fake first thing in my outline and contains whatever notes or prose I’ve already written for that scene. Then I copy the note link in Evernote, and paste it into UC2 Daniel. Then I skip a line to make it finger-friendly on the iPhone, and do the same thing for the second scene, and so on.

When I’m done, I have a copy of my outline where every line item is linked to a note containing that scene. Want to edit that scene, I just click (or tap) on the link, and I’m taken to that note. When I’m done with that, I hit the back button in Evernote’s toolbar on the desktop, or the back arrow in the upper left of the iOS client, and I’m immediately back to my outline.

I can jump around the whole novel quickly this way, never losing track of where I am. I can reorder the chapters just by cutting and pasting the links within the main note (no renumbering!). And since each note remains around 1,000-1,500 words (I write short, punchy chapters to keep readers turning pages), the notes are never so big that they get clunky to edit.

Since the main note is a note and not just a table of contents, I can also add things to it to help me through the long process of drafting a novel. I put a checkbox in front of each link so I’ll know at a glance which ones are done and which ones I still need to write (like many novelists, I don’t necessarily write a book from beginning to end, but jump around). I can further organize the checklist into three acts, lining up the act breaks where they need to be. I can annotate the outline with notes to tighten this section up, or that something else is moving too fast. I can be as simple or comprehensive as I want, since this note itself won’t be in the final manuscript. (This would also be the ideal place to write the synopsis, since the outline is right here.)

And here’s the really cool part. This integrates cleanly into my Evernote GTD system I detailed on Monday. The links are independent of whatever tag or even notebook the note is in. So I can tag the notes with my GTD context tags (@anywhere, @computer) and move the current one and only the current one from my Writing notebook to my Action notebook so it shows up in my task lists. The links still work!

Of course, as I was writing this, Evernote updated their iOS client with major UI improvements on the iPhone. It’s now much easier to edit, file and tag notes on the iPhone. So maybe if I’d just waited, none of this would have been necessary. I’m glad it was, though, because linked notes are perfect for long-form document organization.

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.

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.

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.