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Getting Things Done With Evernote

I read Getting Things Done by David Allen about 6 months ago at the suggestion of a coworker and it has been absolutely vital to my daily workflow. I won’t go into details about why GTD is so helpful in increasing productivity; it’s a short book and you should definitely read it if you haven’t already. Instead, I want to focus on how to effectively apply the methodologies using a free application called Evernote.

Why I started using Evernote

After learning that Omnifocus was the de facto application for GTD and being a compulsive buyer, I wasted no time paying $39.99 for a copy from the Mac Appstore (it now costs $79.99). At the time, my work machine was an Apple MacBook Pro, my home/entertainment machine was a Windows 7 desktop, and my mobile device was an Android-powered HTC MyTouch 4G (I currently have a Retina MacBook Pro, a hackintosh tower, and a Galaxy Note II, but that’s besides the point). I quickly became frustrated with Omnifocus; I didn’t have an iPhone so I couldn’t take Omnifocus on the go, I couldn’t use it on my home computer since I was using Windows, and it didn’t make sense for me to pay another fee just to have it on my iPad. I was already using Evernote to store short web clippings so I did a quick google search for “GTD with Evernote” and a particular thread caught my attention. I borrowed some ideas from the discussions and crafted a workflow that worked for me.

What’s so great about Evernote

It’s Free

Well… they have a freemium business model. You can upgrade your account to premium for $5/month or $45/year. Fortunately, larger upload size, work collaboration, note history, and priority support are not necessary for implementing a GTD workflow.

It’s Flexible

Evernote is not a task/todo list manager, it’s a feature-heavy cloud-storage note application. The features I enjoy the most are the ability to add multiple tags to a note, attach images to a note, create audio/video notes, and generate a publicly-accessable html document from a note.

It’s on every platform imaginable

There’s a Windows and a Mac client. There’s even an open-source third party app for linux called Everpad. And of course, you can also download it on the Android Play Store and the iOS AppStore.

It’s completely open!

If you’re a developer and want to write third-party apps, Evernote has an API. There’s a nodejs package, ruby gem, and python package to help you get started on your project. Also, check out Evernote Trunk to see all the cool third-party apps.

What my workflow look like

Start with a GTD notebook

Evernote allows organizing notes based on different notebooks. I personally keep only one notebook and rely heavily on tags. However, this isn’t a strict requirement; If you’re already using Evernote and have existing notebooks, just make a new one and name it “GTD”. Every single thing that needs to be written down no matter how big or small can be worded as getting something done. By this logic, one should only need a single notebook consisting of notes about GTD.

Creating a new item

There is only one thing to keep in mind when creating a new activity; be comfortable with an empty note. Smaller tasks such as calling someone to make an appointment or picking up something from the grocery store should only warrant text in the note’s title. However, the great thing about using a note which comprises of a title and body rather than just a single line of text representing the task or goal is that it’s possible use the body block to store more information about an activity. Utilize this extra field to store information about a long term goals such as learning a new language or an information-heavy task such as refinancing a home. Take advantage of other core features as well. If your task is to call someone or pick up clothes from the cleaners and since Evernote supports photo uploads, it’s much more efficient to take a photo of the business card or receipt than to manually type in the phone number or tracking ID.

Tagging your notes

The minimum required tags are:

  1. !Today
  2. #Next
  3. ~Basket
  4. &Done

Whenever you come up with a task/goal, create a note and add a ~Basket tag to it. Visit notes with this tag often and replace the ~Basket tag with the #Next tag when you plan to tackle it within the next few days. Items you plan to resolve the same day should have the !Today tag. After accomplishing a task, If you like to archive, add the &Done tag to the note, otherwise either delete the note or remove all tags in the above list from it.

I chose these symbols because the old Evernote desktop app would list all the tags in the sidebar in a certain order. These particular symbols would ensure that the four tags will appear at the top of the tag list. Even though the Evernote app now has a customizable “shortcuts” section in the sidebar, having unique symbols for easy tagging is still invaluable. Just type the first character symbol and hit tab, Evernote will automatically select the first/only matching tag.

Keep in mind you can and should have multiple tags outside of the above four, just make sure they don’t have a character precedence clash. I often tag notes with a location or activity context such as @shopping, @home, @phone, @work, etc. I also have a unique first character for tags I use the most such as $Programming (the dollar sign has some history with programming languages) and ?Reading (a question mark seemed appropriate for reading and learning).

Getting things done is a slightly different process for each person, and Evernote gives plenty of room for personal implementation. The someday tag is popular and is suggested in the GTD book, but I prefer tags such as one week out and one month out because it forces me to continually make sure I check my backlog and move tasks along. At the end of the day, you’re successful as long as you’re getting things done efficiently.

Oh and by the way, this blog entry was written in Evernote with the title “write a blog entry about GTD using Evernote”. I can remove the !Today tag now.