Evernote GTD setup

How I Use Evernote as a GTD System

My Evernote GTD setup is my own spin on The Secret Weapon with inspiration from Chris Mayo’s Evernote Organizing Without Organizing.

I have two “versions” of the same basic system: one for work, one for personal tasks. I’ll go over the work system because it’s the one I use most frequently and is the same basic process. I’ll note whenever something is different in my personal system.

Setup

I have three notebooks for my work system. Normally I prefer minimal notebooks, but I like to separate three different functions without applying filters. The notebooks for the GTD sytem are bold below.

Notebooks

  • *Working Docs — This is for notes I frequently access. It’s saved as an offline notebook on my phone and tablet for constant access. I keep a maximum of about 30 notes in here.
  • 0-Inbox — My default notebook where everything comes in for processing.
  • 1-To Do List — My personal to-do list. Notes here are also saved offline on my devices.
  • 2-Cargo Hold — The giant storage notebook. This is where 95% of my notes go.
  • 3-Offline — A general purpose offline notebook for things I need to access without worrying about connectivity. I can view them anytime, anywhere.
  • 4-Work — all things work-related in my day job: notes, support information, etc.
  • 4-1 Work To-Do List — this is where all my to-dos go. This is the major notebook. It’s also an offline notebook because if I’m in a meeting and just have my phone, I want access to my to-do list. I have sketchy connectivity inside my office building.
  • 4-3 Work Done List — After many months of deleting my to-dos, I started dragging them to this notebook to look over later. It’s helpful for performance review time and seeing how I did a certain project.
  • 9-Portfolio — Everything porfolio or clip-related goes here. It’s in it’s own notebook because when I go to see a client or job interview, I save it as an offline notebook. Although all my clips are stored here, I have a special tag for ones I specifically want to show the client. I’ll create a shortcut with the saved search on my tablet before I go in. Very handy.
  • Scribble – My public notebook

Tags

Create a nested list of tags similar to the screenshot below. The important parts are the beginning of the tags (whether they start with a period, number, etc.) and the top nested levels (e.g., .What, .When). From there you can customize it how you’d like.

Evernote GTD tags

Here’s a link to mindmap of how set up my Evernote notebooks and tags:
Evernote structure and setup

In my usual work system, I don’t use GTD contexts. I know, strange for GTD geeks. They just aren’t helpful for my system.

Notes

This is where my system is unique. It was the very tactical, missing piece that allowed my previous systems to crumble.

When I capture a new to-do, I’ll just create a note, usually using the shortcut keys, and just start typing. I include anything that’s necessary to remember or reference. Then I organize it with these tricks:

  • The default priority for a new to-do is “3-soon.” If I need to do it immediately and it’s extremely important, it will be “1-now,” but I rarely use that tag. “2-next” helps for lining up the next actions from the rest of the notes. I try to use it only when necessary. My early mistake was having too many high priority items because I was afraid if I didn’t give them priority, they’d get left behind. Nope. Prioritizing everything is prioritizing nothing.
  • If the to-do has a deadline or specific date I need to take an action, I begin the note’s title with the date in YYMMDD format. This allows to easily see the order of due dates and what’s coming up when searching by title. This is also how I use a tickler. Creating an entire tickler note structure was too clunky and time-consuming for my taste.
  • If I’m waiting on an action or someone else, at the end of the note title I’ll add a note to myself in [brackets] for easy reference. The note will usually just contain someone’s name or three words max.
  • For to-dos that belong in a similar category or project, I’ll typically precede the note with that CATEGORY in all caps.  The category goes after the due date, if applicable. I used to use tags, but my tag list got too big and I was spending more time on organizing my to-dos than doing them. The tags would also sometimes get in the way of my sorting by tags, which killed a major piece of the system. Anyway, the all-caps categories aren’t super common in my list. Most of the time I’ll just know what goes where. If I have some doubts, though, or notes are scattered around, I’ll do this to help take away the unease.
  • Shy away from having only one action in each note. This trick seemed blasphemous to me after my many iterations of the GTD system. But here’s how and when it makes sense. Some “projects”–which are defined as more than one next action–only have two to five next actions. And these NAs may be closely related. When that happens, I lump them into one note with the a checkbox next to each NA. This is especially helpful when you have the next bullet point to keep in mind:
  • Any additional info or notes that might help with the to-do go at the bottom of the to-do under a NOTES header. If I’m waiting on something and I don’t want to write a paragraph in the note title in brackets, the notes will go here. If I have one of three next actions done, and I learned something that’s necessary to the completion of the final two, it goes in the notes. That’s why I like to group several actions into one note much of the time. I think of it as a mini-project.
  • For mini-projects, title the note the what that project is, then insert a colon and paste the next action afterward. This way you have an identifiable project and can easily see the next action needed without opening the note. The copy-pasting of notes also helps keep it on your mind, similar to the psychology behind the Fanklin-Covey method.
  • Create a project master list titled “! Project List” with no tags. This allows it to filter to the top when sorting by title and tag. In my master list, I have a 2×2 table. The current major projects I’m working on are in the top left. Everyday responsibilities are in the top right. Recurring but inactive projects are in the bottom left. I also have links from the project names to the note where the actions are stored or, if the actions are spread out, to a process/systems list I’ve created to help me know where I am and where I need to go. (I’ll have an upcoming post about the usefulness of documenting processes and systems.)

Process

The setup mostly dictates the process. It seems complicated after writing it out, but it really isn’t. I like the analogy of how complex brewing coffee seems when you write out every tiny detail, but how simple it is in practice. Same for this GTD system.

The process is mostly as laid out by the folks at www.TheSecretWeapon.org. They have videos that show it, and do much better job of explaining it than I could with text. Below are the basics.

Sort notes by title first to see what’s coming up. Then sort by tag so the most important once filter to the top.

Because I’m always filtering, I keep my notes in list view normally. If I need to quickly see the note panel, I’ll just momentarily turn on using  the keyboard shortcut: CTRL-F11 (PC) or the view menu.Evernote GTD - list view

Concerning the order of the columns in list view, it doesn’t really matter, but I have definite preference. I like to order the columns from left to right like this:

  • Created
  • Updated
  • Title
  • Tags
  • Notebook
  • Sync
  • Size

When a to-do is done, I move the note to the 4-3 Work Done notebook. I used to delete them, but when I need to do a performance review or refer back to why I did something, these archived notes have saved my life. Because the notes are in a separate notebook, they don’t clutter my view of what’s going on or get mixed up with my reference material. I also remove the tags from the notes. It seems cleaner to me that way.

Remember when we added helpful notes to the bottom of a mini-project? They continue helping.

Everything that’s not a to-do item or done item goes into the 4-1 Work notebook. It’s a nice storage container that rids your action list of reference material.

In my personal system, I delete old notes instead of archiving them. So far I’ve never needed to refer to them. If they’re full of information, I’ll remove the actions move it to my 2-Cargo Hold notebook, which is a giant personal version of my 4-1 Work notebook.

Review the list regularly.  (That’s important. Here it is again: review the list regularly.) Update the notes sections. Check off items. Archive done actions.

My final tip for those who want to implement this or a similar system is to try not to over-compartmentalize. Keep everything in as large a bucket as you can.

Questions about anything? Additional tips? Let me know in the comments. Or check out my first article on other ways to use Evernote. 

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