Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

The GTD Way: Managing Your Tasks and Information With Evernote

“Busyness” should not be an excuse for why you don’t get things done.

The logic goes: We are busy, so we suck.

Remove “busy” from your vocabulary of excuses. We are all busy. Presidents, CEOs and exceptional people all have busier lives than you do. These overachievers can manage many projects, habits, family commitments with dexterity and without worry.

Busy is the norm. We all have too many emails, texts, chats, social updates, too much information to learn, study, read, and, of course, too much to do. Some people can handle it and thrive in the age of “too much.” Others drown.

We can improve at completing our most important projects and responsibilities. We only need the right mindset and right systems to handle all of life’s information and tasks.

How do busy people handle everything? Everyone I meet who handles “too much” well tell me the same thing: “I have a system” or “I handle my tasks with [fill in the blank].” Productive people depend on systems and well-defined processes.

Whatever your system is, you need a way to capture what you are doing, prioritize where to put your time and energy, and then DO it.

Effective task and information management is the cornerstone of productive work and life. Once you got the information and tasks in an external, out-of-your-brain system, you work.

There are a lot of articles, books, and systems on productivity. I’ve read lots of them. The one book and process I return to and use is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

“Getting Things Done” (GTD) proposes principles and steps to handling information overload. We can all information and tasks we encounter and make them manageable and actionable. GTD has a lot of proponents, though how you use and incorporate is up to you.

There is no lack of tools out there for handling our information, tasks and projects. I’ve tried lots of them like Asana, Wunderlist, TODOist, OmniFocus and many others. I recently started using Habitica which has a unique social gamification twist on managing habits and tasks with a group.

These tools are great, but my primary tool for handling information and tasks remains Evernote. Evernote is old and is like a swiss army knife for capturing and handling digital information.

For me I have combined GTD with Evernote. It’s my philosophy of productivity with a method of handling all the inputs. I use Evernote as my primary task and project management tool with the principles of Getting Things Done.

In this post, I want to share what is “GTD” and Evernote. I’ll then dig into how I use Evernote to manage my tasks, projects and information. This overall system has been huge in helping me.

What is Getting Things Done or “GTD”?

“Getting Things Done” or “GTD” to its adherants is two things. It’s a book written by David Allen and its a method for the overload.

We live in overload mode and world. It’s difficult to handle life and tasks in today’s age of information. We deal with too much information, too much email and ultimately too much to do. We get stressed. Systems fail and we fail to meet our goals and expectations.

In his book, “Getting Things Done,” Allen proposes a method of basic principles and processes to handle everything life throws at us. The GTD method lets you organize your TODOs, priorities and schedule so that everything becomes manageable.

Through a mastery of systems and self, we can reach a state of “Zen” where everything is captured and we can act with confidence. In this state, we can better choose what to work on next. We gain a work-life balance of productivity and meaning.

The 5 core principles or “pillars” of GTD are this:

  1. Capture Everything: All information needs get out of your head and into paper or a digital collection system.
  2. Clarify the thing you have to do: All tasks need to have a defined next step.
  3. Organize: all information should be categorized and put it into a system. Essentially everything from random information you want to keep to things you throw away needs to have a “place” in your system.
  4. Reflect: Whether its daily or periodically, you need to take time to reflect on tasks, goals and processes. The Weekly Review is recommended method.
  5. Engage and get to work: Once you have strong systems and processes, you focus on the work.

GTD provides steps for you to take life’s data and put them into the appropriate “buckets.” My initial takeaway from GTD several years ago when I started was grouping information and tasks in their appropriate places. I was less stressed by forgetting and empowered knowing things were there if and when I needed them.

By capturing everything and organizing it, I had a better sense of what I had and what I was doing. Organized information in a system gave me mental space to do focused work.

Life Hacker has a great summary on GTD that I recommend.

Beyond capturing everything via Evernote (which I will get into below), the core aspects of GTD that I have incorporated is two fold:

First, all actionable tasks need to have a defined next step or action. This is called “Outcome Thinking.” It means that we give everything we work on a clear, defined next action. It’s a simple but effective process. For all tasks we know and have acknowledge what we need to do to take the work forward.

Second, to work effectively on your most important project and task, you have to be organized. This means you must prioritize all of your tasks.

With many other task management tools I’d get to a state of overload. I’d have added all of my tasks into the system, but it wasn’t clear. I didn’t know what was most important. I didn’t provide contexts and clusters for tackling them in groups. Task lists reverted to clutter.

For those that haven’t read the “Getting Things Done,” I recommend you start by reading the first few chapters. No need to read the whole book the first time. The first few chapters provide the core tenant. After you can start implementing in your way. After a few weeks or months, go back and finish the book. And continue to tweak your system.

What is Evernote? The Swiss Army Knife of Information Management

Evernote is a piece of software that lets you store information. You can use it for storing contacts, study notes, recipes or anything you want.

The type of information Evernote can collect is diverse. It could be text, audio, pictures or any other type of document like PDF, powerpoint and more. It’s primarily about text.

It’s not a document storage system like Dropbox or Drive, but it can serve many of the same functions. It’s cloud-based and multi-platform. This means you can store and access your information across different devices and systems. You can use it on your phone, web or computer.

The power of Evernote is its flexiblity. You get to decide how to store and what to store.

The full range of capacities that Evernote has is beyond this post. For now, the key features and organizational principles are this:

  • A Note is a piece of information. It could be text, image, a document or anything you want.
  • Notebooks are where information is grouped. You might have a notebook of writings, recipes or another grouping.
  • Tags are a flexible system that lets you categorize any note or piece of information. Like notebooks, you can use tags on notes to group information together.

Pro Tip: It’s recommended to not have too many notebooks. Instead, use Tags as your main way to organize info.

So how do I use Evernote with GTD? To summarize: the key features of Evernote are notes, notebooks and tags. For GTD and Evernote, you use notebooks for your main buckets — unprocessed, actionables and cabinet.

You capture everything you can in Evernote. You use tags to classify, organize and rank information and tasks. In turn, you use those tags for prioritization and context. This lets you choose what’s the best thing to work on next.

I have been using Evernote with GTD for handling my tasks for several years. GTD like any effective system should help you: 1. to capture everything, 2. to put things in their place (i.e. categorize and prioritize, and then, 3. to help you to choose the best thing to do.

Let’s take a look at some of the steps in how I use Evernote in my GTD-inspired task management system.

1. The basis setup for my GTD-inspired system with Evernote

The flexibility of Evernote and GTD means there are various approaches to setup your system.

I use four notebooks: Action Pending, Cabinet, Completed and Unprocessed. For task management, I use 6 tags: 1-Now, 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday-Maybe, 6-Waiting. I’ll go into the details in the sections below.

The important thing with GTD and Evernote is to embrace its flexibility and find what works best for you.

2. Capturing Everything with Evernote:

As a tool, Evernote is ideal for helping you capture nearly all information in your life.

You can manually create notes of any information as well as use it to create “task” and “project” notes. I use the email option to forward emails to Evernote and create notes. This helps me get to inbox zero. Evernote also has great mobile integration which lets me capture information from my phone and from tools like Pocket. It’s web clipper for Chrome and other browsers is awesome and lets me grab web info seamlessly too.

For GTD, if you don’t capture everything, you waste mental space remembering and thinking about it. You doubt yourself. Get it out of your head and onto paper or digital. By using systems like Evernote, your calendar or other things, you can free up your mental space to work without worry. For example, all date specific events and meetings should go in your calendar.

3. Top-Level Organization via Notebooks

Here are the four notebooks I use for Getting Thing Done:

  • Action Pending: This is where all my tasks and projects go. I use tags to handle priority and organize all actionables. Cabinet: This is where I store and organize information I might want to use later.
  • Completed: This is where I put tasks I have completed. I mostly delete minor tasks that I finish and don’t want to keep a record. For longer term tasks and projects, I tag and move them to the Cabinet.
  • Unprocessed: As the name suggests, this for my initial clutter. This is for things that need to triaged into actionable, cabinet or the trash bin.

Some Evernote Pro’s suggest keeping everything in a single notebook and using tags. I’ve found that these four folders make sense. as separate things. It’s a good mental divider as well.

Let’s take a look at my process of capture, triage and task and information management.

3. GTD Process: Sorting from UNPROCESSED into Actionables and Cabinet

“Unprocessed” is what a lot of our information and tasks are. Whether it’s in Evernote or scattered across different physical and digital spaces, most of our life is “clutter.” We don’t know what it is, where it should go and if there there is a next action to be taken.

This clutter and related uncertainty about whether you are doing the right thing right now causes us a lot of anxiety. Compounded by information overload, email, etc., we get stressed. David Allen challenges us to take this clutter and get into a system.

In my GTD-inspirted Evernote system, all new tasks, notes and information starts in Unprocessed. This is where I put my initial clutter. Forwarded emails and web clipped information all starts here. When I jot a note or new task, it starts here. I don’t think about classifying, prioritizing or anything else, I merely put it in here.

Several times a week I go into “sort” mode. I sort my tasks and UNPROCESSED notebook according to where it should be. This is where the other notebooks and tags fit in.

The logic of sorting is simple:

  • If it’s information I want to keep for later, it goes into the cabinet. I might add an additional tag or two.
  • If it’s a task or project, that I need to work on, then I move it to ACTIONABLE notebook. I add a priority tag. This is also the stage where you can clarify next actions. I put my next action at the top of each note or in the title.
  • If the information or task is no longer relevant, then I delete it.

With GTD, it’s recommended to handle any tasks that can be done in less than a few minutes immediately. Otherwise continue sorting and tagging. This is not the time to start working.

After sorting, you should have everything in its proper place. Ideally you’ve set it with an established next action.

Tasks are hard to manage when we haven’t defined them. Simply by setting the priority and visualizing the next action, we gain mastery. When you start that task or project, you know what to do.

4. GTD Processing: Prioritizing Actionables

For managing tasks, I’ve settled on 6 tags: 1-Now, 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday-Maybe, 6-Waiting.

Inherently we all of tasks that are more important and more immediate. Some of them we should do right now. That’s 1-Now. I rarely have things here. When I do, I know it’s very important that work on those tasks.

At the other extreme are 6-Waiting and 5-Someday-Maybe. Some tasks we are waiting on others. There are also various “someday maybe” things. We are all dreamers and long-term planners. It could be a trip, goal or anything else that you hope to accomplish one day but don’t have a set agenda. It’s there for someday.

The core prioritizing tags I use are: 2-Next, 3-Soon, and 4-Later. It’s difficult to explain how best to prioritize your tasks. You need to make teh gut call.

We each have a select number of items that we need to do next. That’s 2-Next. These tasks have a close deadline or really are important. I generally have 5-10 items in this group. I also will sometimes add a reminder if the task has a deadline.

After that, 3-Soon are less important, not immediate. They are not even the next thing you should be doing. Like the title, it’s something you should do soon. It’s typically the list that I look at from time to time and then move to 2-NEXT. I generally have 20-40 tasks in 3-Soon at any one time.

Finally there is 4-Later which equates to things I’d like to eventually. This are posteriorities (not priorities). I want to get to it but ultimately if I don’t do anytime soon, it’s ok. I don’t look at this list very often, though I try to do a quarterly or monthly check. We need to ensure if it should be sorted elsewhere. This grouping has ballooned in the past to hundreds of items, though recently I trimmed it down to a mere 50 or so.

As I’ve said already, there is no set requirements for how you prioritize. Create your own but have guidelines. I’ve found these tags (1-Now, 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday-Maybe, 6-Waiting) and the logic behind them to do a good job. I can get everything in system and it provides a clear listing of tasks.

Ultimately I ended up with a system like the attached image.

GTD and “Context” Tags:

“Getting Things Done” talks about context and task management. For example, you aren’t going to work on or think about home repair when you are the office. You work on certain tasks in certain contexts.

Using Evernote, you can use different @tags to signify relevant contexts for those tasks. This might be @home, @office, @mobile, @computer, etc. By filtering down the context-specific tasks and projects, you can focus and work on things that make sense when and where you are.

Since I mostly work from my computer (excluding calls and in-person meetings and events), I rarely use context tagging. That said, it’s a good way of filtering to relevant areas.

I do use project tagging. By creating project and area specific tagging, I’m able to create task clusters and work on those. For example, I might work only on tasks related to a certain client, project or activity.

GTD Cabinet: Using Evernote to Store Your Information

GTD method recommends having a system (like a file cabinet) for storing any information you might want later. For many of the original executives David Allen was coaching, he recommended developing a physical filing system. This “cabinent” system should allow you to easily find and retrieve past information.

Fortunately Evernote is an excellent solution. Just move information to your cabinet and tag if you like. Search will solve most retrieval challenges.

Doing Stuff:

GTD recommends segmenting your time. You shouldn’t be doing tasks (unless it takes less than a few minutes) while you are sorting and organizing. Once you have sorted your tasks and information, you have gained mastery. You have a system that has captured your information and classified your tasks. David Allen calls this “Zen.”

We have tons of tasks and different things we work on everyday. Only by managing the tasks and projects effectively and within a good system can we gain peace of mind and a state of zen. Everything is in a system we trust.

Once you have reached this kind of setup, it’s time to get to work.

GTD doesn’t dive deeply into how you decide on what you should work on next. It’s largely intuitive. Once you’ve captured and organized, you work on what you feel is the most valuable and important according to the context you are in. You look at your system and do stuff.

As you finish tasks, you cross them off your list. I remove their priority tag and either move them to “Completed,” delete the note or move it to Cabinet.

Reflecting and Optimizing: Weekly Reviews

One of the other parts of GTD that I have incorporated into my life are Weekly Reviews.

Once a week I give myself about 30 minutes to reflect on the my projects, habits and time. I make sure to log various life events and statistics. I think about what’s working and what isn’t from the previous week.

I do my best during this time to cleanup inbox and UNPROCESSED items. I close down my previous week and prioritize for the week to come.

Like GTD itself, the Weekly Review is something you need to find what fits your life and work. Hopefully by the end, you’ll have highlighted things needing followup, a list of tasks and priorities for the week to come, and peace of mind.

Other Uses of Evernote for Task, Goal, Life Management

Over time, I’ve added and adopted other tagging conventions into Evernote, like daily habits, what I’m reading, larger projects, my writing process, life goals and my studies. The details of these additional sub-systems are outside this post’s scope.

The important thing to I’ve learned is to use different tags to clarify a stage in the process. So, I have different tags for handling my writing from ideas to drafts to publications. I can then select appropriately tagged content and select what I want to focus and work on.

Evernote is a flexible system so it’s easily adapted (like my GTD task management system) to other information management. I use it for storing relevant articles for work and study. I also use it for holding my Contacts and as my personal CRM.

While the power of the tool is in its flexibility, the impact on productivity is in creating reliable processes for managing workflows.

Other GTD Tools: The Calendar, Email and Team Project Management This post focused on Evernote as my main tool for information and task management. We’ve looked at how it can be adopted to handle the madness of the modern, digital worker. That said, there are areas where Evernote isn’t a great fit.

Evernote isn’t ideal for dates and meetings. With GTD, date-specific activities should go in your calendar. I’m a fan of Google Calendars and using Sunrise Calendar apps.

Email is also an area where overload is acutely felt. I’ve found “InboxZero” to a good goal. Past apps like Mailbox were helpful towards this goal. Google’s Inbox revision of Gmail is a strong move towards better inbox handling. For me, Emails don’t stay long in the inbox. If it’s an email that is a task, I push it to the relevant system.

Personal tasks and projects go into Evernote. Team and project management go into those systems.

Evernote is not an ideal tool for collaborate project management. This is where tools like Asana, Basecamp, Trello and others fit in. I highly encourage collaborate projects to setup one of these tools. Personally I’ve been using Redmine for years. It’s simple, flexible and obvious.

Conclusion: Give All Your Tasks and Projects a Next Action

Fact #1: Everyone is busy.

Fact #2: Not everyone is overwhelmed by their busyness. Some people thrive in it.

We often use our “busyness” as excuse for our failings. We have so many tasks, responsibilities and things to manage that we do miss things, get behind on projects and fail to hit our goals. We consider ourselves betrayed by the modern age. These is just too much information and too many things on our plate.

The reality is that we are rarely as busy as we think. We are overwhelmed by our lack of systemization. The book “Organized Mind” is a more in-depth look at the failing of our biology and evolution in todays’ world. We often fail to capture the information in our lives on paper or digitally. We depend on brains that are forgetful and can be easily distracted. By not having a system for prioritizing our tasks and projects, we freak out.

In this post, we’ve gone through what is the philosophy of “Getting Things Done” and looked at how to use Evernote to implement a GTD-inspired information and task management system. Hopefully it inspires you to be more productive and find more sanity and process in our information age.

I encourage you to read the book and check out some great posts on Getting Things Done. Try some of the apps and tools using GTD.

Ultimately I encourage you to take one single step and incorporate it into your productivity processes. With all of your tasks and projects make sure you clarify, visualize and write down the next action you need to take.

By telling yourself what you should do next, your mind will be clearer and you’ll become more productive.