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Getting Things Done with Evernote

by Justin Blake on October 28, 2010

There are many posts about this. Here’s mine.

Getting Things Done with a capital GTD

My concept of Getting Things Done is loosely based on David Allen’s book about Getting Things Done. I say loosely because I never finished it. Seriously that thing should have been about half as long. But here’s what I took from it and have been applying in my own life for MAXIMUM BENEFIT:

Have a system. Trust the system.

You should have a system in place to manage your tasks and you should trust that system completely. Like you’d play the trust game with it where you fall backwards. You’d admit to it that you really like that new Taylor Swift song. Etc.

The whole point is to get all these tasks out of your head so you don’t have to worry about them. You know you’ll get to them because you have a system. If you don’t trust the system you’ll worry.

Have contexts

The system should have a concept of “contexts”. A context is “where” you are when you are peforming tasks. For example, I have a “work” context and a “home” context. I don’t want to think about work tasks while I’m at home, and vice versa.

Have an inbox

The system should have a dumping ground for new tasks. Official GTD dogma calls this dumping ground the inbox. I call it that too because I like things that can be confused with email.

You don’t want to manage tasks in your head. When you think “Oh snap I really need to do X” at a time when you can’t do X, instead of trying to decide when you should do X and what are all the details and where does it fall in your priorities and you better add it to the project wiki and AGH! Just dump your half-thought-out thought into your inbox and forget about it. Get on with what you’re doing right now with a clear head. You know that thought is somewhere safe. You trust your system, remember? You’ll come back to it later.

I just realized "Do X" can be interpreted as a literal task if you do drugs.

Later, when you’re actually ready to Get some Things Done you can review your inbox. Maybe that thing wasn’t really all that important and you can just delete it. Maybe it’s something that can be done in 2 minutes so you just go ahead and take care of it right away. Maybe it’s something you want to do, but not right now. That’s when you file it under a context. Additionally you might flesh out some of the details or prioritize it as part of a project.

Evernote

The system I use for this is Evernote. It’s not explicitely designed for GTD, but I think that’s a good thing. It’s designed to take and organize notes. A note can be a simple text document, an email, a photo, a screenshot, a PDF…

It’s also very easy to take these notes, whether you are in the app or not. This is important. If you have to run to your computer or even just jump to a particular app to dump something out of your head, you’re a lot less likely to do it.

Notes

Some example Evernote notes

For me, a note in Evernote may correspond to a task, it may contain a list of tasks, or it may just be what the app was originally designed for: a note.

Notebooks

My Evenote Notebooks

Every note in Evernote belongs to a notebook. I set up the following:

Inbox: I tell Evernote to put new notes here by default. Pro tip: I name it “!nbox” so it shows up first alphabetically.

TODO: When I go through my inbox (daily at least) and I come across a note that I consider a task but I don’t want to do it right now, I tag it (more on that later) and then file it in the TODO notebook.

Reference: Anything that’s not a task, but still something I want to remember gets tagged and moved to the Reference notebook. I use this for things like server login credentials (Evernote supports encryption!), requirement lists, etc.

Tags

My Evernote Tags

I use tags in Evernote for contexts and projects and priorities. Three things because haven’t you heard? Tags are versatile!

In order to make sense of things, I prepend context tags with @. So I might have tags like @work and @home. Prioritization tags are prepended with an underscore (e.g. _urgent). The rest of the tags represent a project (or just a category, e.g. “receipts”).

The neat thing is that since tags are organized alphabetically, naming them this way makes contexts fall at the top of the list, followed by priorities, then projects/categories. Making it easy to do some cmd-clicks to see all of my @work tasks that are _urgent.

Getting tasks out of your head

Since Evernote has lots of neat extensions and peripherals, I can easily throw something into my inbox from anywhere.

At my computer

Some global Evernote shortcuts

Having Evernote installed gives me some global shortcuts I can use even when I’m not in the Evernote application. I can hit a key combination to enter a quick text note, “clip” all or part of my screen to a new note, or paste the contents of my clipboard to a new note.

Clipping (taking a screenshot) of part of my screen is especially handy for saving receipts of online orders or remembering IM conversations about a task I’ll need to do later.

There are also browser extensions for saving web pages to a new note. You can “clip” the whole page, or simply save the url and add a text note to it. I’ll use this if there’s a web app I want to check out later, an article I want to read later, or a blog post about some sweet new Ruby on Rails feature I want to apply in one of my many and amazing internet web applications.

I said “browser extensions” (plural) but I’m actually only aware of the Chrome one. It’s good. There are probably others. Maybe.

Yes. There are.

Not at my computer (oh no)

When I’m away from my computer I always have my smart telephone with me so I use the Evernote Android app. There’s an iPhone version too if that’s how you roll.

Email

Forwarding an email to Evernote

Evernote gives you a special email address. Anything sent to that address will be added to your inbox. I add that address to my contacts and since I use gmail I can quickly add tasks from anywhere. I mostly use this to forward emails that require action from me. This keeps my email inbox clean. When I review the email later in my Evernote inbox I can complete the task or clean it up and file it under a context to do later.

It even works with attachments.

At a sucky computer

When I’m on a computer where Evernote is not installed (or not supported… Linux) everything is also accessible via the website.

Plus there’s still the browser extensions and email integration. Those work from any computer. Unless that computer isn’t connected to the Internet. But then, is that really a computer?

And it’s all synced!

Prioritization

One (seemingly) bad thing about using a note storage app as a task management app is that you lose fine-grained prioritization of tasks.

So I prioritize with tags.

Using tags for prioritization has actually turned this downside into an upside for me. I only have three tags for this: _urgent, _important, and _billable.

The difference between _urgent and _important is subtle: _urgent tasks have to be addressed RIGHT NOW or the world will end. _important tasks are tasks that don’t have to be addressed right now, but I don’t want them to get burried under all the trivial stuff. “Fix the bug that’s publishing everyone’s social security numbers to Facebook!” would be tagged _urgent. “Pay the bills” would be _important.

_billable should be obvious…

The simplicity keeps me from wasting time micro-managing my todo list. Maybe this isn’t a problem for most people but I tend to obsess over things like that.

It also keeps me from letting the list of tasks get too long. Since I only have these few tags, I don’t want to let the list of _urgent tasks get to the point that I feel like I need a _really_urgent tag to distinguish between them.

Other than that the notes are sorted by the “created on” date, oldest first.

But…! But…!

Example of multiple tasks in one note

But sometimes you have a big long list of things that absolutely have to be completed in a very specific order and that order may not map directly to a note’s “created on” date. Calm down! In those cases I just throw all the tasks into one note. One task does not have to correspond to one note. I never said that. Stop saying that I said that.

Disclaimer

“Start a tech blog” has been one of my tasks for like… a year, and this is the first post. I hope that doesn’t invalidate everything you just read. Maybe just pretend like I didn’t tell you that.

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