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Getting Things Done (GTD) in Evernote with Only One Notebook

Bobby Travis

Getting Things Done in Evernote with One Notebook A while back, I was working a job that required much more effort and responsibility than was reflected in my pay grade — familiar story? Well, combined with multiple side-projects, keeping up with my wife, newborn daughter, two dogs and a plethora of other things that required my time and energy, I was drowning. I started researching ways to get things done more efficiently. That’s how I first came across the cultural phenomena (some would just say cult…) that is GTD. A friend of mine who was “in the know” about such things was nice enough to lend me an audio version of a GTD seminar by David Allen. After about 2 weeks of listening (on the train, before bed, whenever I could), and an attempted implementation, I realized that I needed a system that was less file cabinets and paper and more suited to my digital life.

Enter Evernote

Photo by whatleydude

Update: If GTD isn’t your thing, check out our post on Action Method Online.

For a different look at Evernote and GTD, check out Dan Gold’s book, Evernote, the Unofficial guide to capturing everything and getting things done. The second edition is out now. If you follow the link to make your purchase, 40Tech gets a small cut. You can also check out our review of the book, which was written before we became an affiliate.

A Bit About GTD and Evernote

In the course of the seminar, I learned a lot about the Inbox. The Inbox is the basis of your GTD system. It provides you with a place to dump all of your thoughts, tasks and ideas as they come upon you; to be processed and organized into their proper place in the flow of things at a later (and regularly scheduled) time. This frees your mind to continue with what it is you are supposed to be doing at that moment, keeping you focused and saving you from the long, slow spiral into chaos that leads to spinning wheels, a nervous breakdown, or, if you are like me, overwhelm that can only be dealt with by marathons of violent and immersive video games. There are essentially five elements to your GTD system:

  1. Collect (this is the Inbox(es) part)
  2. Process
  3. Organize
  4. Review
  5. Do

Evernote provides with you one place to do it all, and particularly makes the organizing part easy to handle. More on this later. First…

Evernote is the Mother of All Inboxes

A good GTD system, one that works with your entire life, will require multiple Inboxes. Or, if you use Evernote, your system will have multiple Inboxes that all lead to one big pit of highly organized, bottomless stuff. That’s what Evernote is – a magic bag that you can just keep throwing things into; a magic bag that allows you to easily keep track of where each item is, when you put it in the bag, and what other items in the bag it relates to. Yes, I’m perfectly aware I said magic bag. Yes, I know I am a nerd. Moving on.

Before you can get started in the virtual world that is Evernote, you will need to do a few things in the real world. First, set up some real world inbox trays in the places you tend to frequent. Let other people know that the Inboxes are there, and that they are to use them rather than bother you when you’re busy. Set up your email in much the same way – there is a good article over at Lifehacker about using Gmail for a GTD system.

IMPORTANT: Do NOT check those emails or messages unless there is a blazing fire attached to them! Resist the urge!! DON’T DO IT!!! Just schedule yourself a time to sort through all of your Inboxes (first thing in the morning is usually best) and start the planning process from there.

Aside from Inboxes, you will need a file/folder structure to action all of your Inbox items into. I’ll go into more detail on the different files and folders later, but the basic set up is as follows:

  • A File for your goals for easy reference, helping you to define them and stay on track
  • Your Inbox(es)
  • Next Action Files
  • Tickler File
  • Lists (Project Lists, etc)
  • A Someday/Maybe File
  • A Reference & Support Materials File

Evernote is a means to take quick notes from any computer that has the desktop client installed and/or internet access, but it’s more than just one more Inbox. Evernote can be your definitive inbox – and, more importantly, it’s the place where your file system will live.

How to Use Your Inboxes

Every morning, and whenever you have a bit of time available to you, you need to sort through the items in your collective Inbox. Collect every hastily scribbled note from your various real world trays, open up your email and your Evernote client, and go through each item, one by one. Don’t be overwhelmed… this is where things get good! The first thing you need to do is to decide if each item is actionable or not. If it isn’t, then you have four choices:

  1. Put it in your Tickler file to take a look at it at a later date.
  2. Put it in your Someday/Maybe file if it is something that you might want to do, sometime.
  3. Put it in Reference so you can look at it if you ever need to.
  4. Trash it.

Trashing it can be the highlight of your day, really. There is nothing quite like realizing that something is useless and doesn’t apply to you, and then simply getting rid of it! If the item you’re looking at is actionable, decide right then whether it is a standalone task or a project.

Definition of a project: If the item will take more than one step to complete, it is a project. Period.

Don’t argue with me about it – that David Allen guy is making a serious living off of this GTD business; helping people who run giant multi-national corporations – guy says it’s a project… it’s a project. Put it on your projects list. You can go through your projects later and assign the first step as a next-action task.

For standalone items, a general rule of thumb is, if the item will take less than two minutes to complete, do it immediately. Get it off your plate and enjoy the feeling of gratification that comes from a job well done. If it will take longer than two minutes, decide what the next action is, and log it in the next-action files – even if that action is just to send an email (that takes longer than two minutes to write) to the person that you are delegating the task to. Move on to the next item. Rinse. Lather. Repeat until your Inbox sits empty before you and you hear the angelic tones on the air that only an empty Inbox brings. It’s a beautiful thing.

Now you’re ready to get to work.

Setting Up Your File System in Evernote

Tags, Tagging & Yes, More Tags

What is all this talk about next-actions and appropriate folders? Well, this is where things get truly organized and Evernote becomes your best friend. David Allen is old school. He likes to work with paper folders and files and a filing cabinet. He will even (at least he would have at the time that the seminar was recorded) print out key emails and place the printed copies in their appropriate folders. In my first attempt at getting set up, I thought I was quite clever and all environmentally friendly and such by organizing my email client with folders and labels that reflected my other filing system. A decent idea, but all of my items were spread out in at least two different systems and were quickly becoming redundant and hard to manage. I needed a way to keep everything in one place that did not require me to kill trees on a daily basis. The light dawned, the birds sang, and the Elephant called. This was an easy thing to do with Evernote.

You can add your emails into your Evernote GTD system for easy reference by forwarding to your Evernote email address; which is provided to you when you sign up, and you can find in the Account Settings area of your Evernote account, online.

At first, when adapting Evernote into my GTD system, I used multiple notebooks. My default notebook was used for my Inbox, and I created several others others for specific GTD folders and separate projects, each with their own category and sub-category tags. It was effective but a bit unwieldy when I needed to find something in a hurry, and I found it difficult to keep my tags in line. I started thinking more about tagging. Then I thought a bit more. Ever so slowly, my overstuffed filing cabinet of a brain realized that multiple notebooks were unnecessary for what I needed Evernote to do! All I needed was one notebook and a highly organized nested-tag structure.

GTD Setup

Who Are You? Where Are You Really Headed? — Broader Focus

I started out with a “Broader Focus” tag. Evernote’s tag lists will sort alphabetically, so I prepended a 0- in front of it and encased it in asterisks to make certain that it will always come at the top – like this: 0 – *Broader Focus*. I then added a list of sub-tags called Goals, Objectives, Values, and Visions. In each of these is a few notes expounding on those ideals so that I can always refer to them to keep my life on track.

One Inbox to Rule Them All

Next, I added “0-Inbox”. I drag everything that goes into Evernote into this tag and move each item out as it is dealt with. This tag is actually redundant, as the default notebook will contain all things untagged and they will be at the bottom of the notebook’s note list if you are diligent about keeping up with things. I like it though. I’m visual, and it helps me immensely to have an actual Inbox that I can look at with just one click.

Random Thoughts

I also use a Random Thoughts tag to keep things that are snippets of ideas that do not really have a home or even a goal attached to them yet. This is a good place to go for inspiration when working on something, or looking for something new to do.

Next Action Tags – Where You Really Get Things Done

Now come the Next Action lists. I use several nested tags to keep me organized in different places and at different times, such as whenever I am at work, or at home, or near a phone or computer.

Next Actions

The reason I have prefaced everything with the words “Next Action” is to make it easier on me when I’m searching for something, as well as to make certain that the tags are unique throughout the entire notebook. This is important, as Evernote will not allow duplicates, and you don’t want to accidentally put in a tag that is too similar to another tag, as that will cause confusion later. Think your naming conventions through before committing them!

As mentioned in the “A bit about GTD” part, above, as you go through your Inboxes, decide on a Next Action for each actionable item and then drag the item into the best place for that action to be completed. For example, if it is something that can only be done on your computer, put that item in the Next Action – At Computer tag. If it can be done on your computer at home or at work, then put it in both the Next Action – At Computer AND the Next Action – At Home tags. That way, when you are in front of a computer, or at home and wondering what is next on your list of things to do, you can click on either one of those tags and find that task waiting for you, thereby ensuring that it gets done in the most efficient manner possible. See? Tagging is fun!

The Tickler File – Check it Daily… No Funny Business!

If an item isn’t quite ready to be processed, or doesn’t need to be looked at right away, you can put it in your Tickler File. A Tickler File is something you check into daily to see if there is anything that you need to remind yourself to look at. David Allen uses an entire file cabinet drawer – Evernote can save you some space and is a lot more portable! All you need is a tag that is sub-tagged with each month, and a tag called Days that is sub-tagged from 1-31. You toss the items into the appropriate month, and when that month comes along, you review your tickler items and either set them up in the Next Action lists or drag them to the best corresponding day in the Days sub-tags.

Tickler File

Check the Tickler File’s Days section daily to see what you might need to be tickled on that day (say that five times fast…) and then process it accordingly (Next Action, change day/month, trash, reference, whatever you need to do with it).

Your Project List – Check It Weekly

In your Lists section, you can put all your various lists, i.e.: groceries, DVDs, music you love, and, most importantly for our purposes… your Project List. The Project List is where you put everything that requires more than one step to complete.

Project List

You can further sub-tag by project category, as in the image, and even go further by adding tags for the names of your larger projects, if you want to keep all of your project planning notes in Evernote as well. That’s a whole other post, though. The main thing to remember here is that the Project List needs to be reviewed weekly to make sure you’re on track. With each review, you will doubtless find new things for your Inbox or Next Action lists until the project is complete.

Someday/Maybe, If I had a Million Dollars

For items that are not actionable, or you are not ready to tackle now (but are not important enough to be tickled on) there is the Someday/Maybe list. I broke down my Someday/Maybe items into categories that are important to me for easy reference and reminders.


Reference & Support Materials – Your Personal Encyclopaedia

One of the most important tags in your notebook will be Reference & Support Materials. This is where everything ultimately ends up that you don’t trash. As with everything, organize it in the way that best suits you. Me, I took David Allen’s advice and set up a filing cabinet drawer (albeit a virtual one) with a “folder” for every letter of the alphabet.

Reference and Support Materials

When I file something, I file it under the letter that makes the most sense, whether it is the first letter of the company (e.g. General Motors), the first letter of the word that comes to mind immediately when thinking about it (e.g. Cars), or the first letter of the subject that the item would fall under (e.g. Bankruptcies in 2009). For easy remembering, you can tag it for all three, an advantage that Evernote gives you that a filing cabinet just can’t — at least not without killing a tree or five.

Pros, Cons & Tips

The main thing to remember here is to be disciplined about your review schedules. Everything else actually has some degree of flexibility, but you really do need to make sure you clear your Inbox every morning, check your Tickler File daily, update the Tickler day tags every month, and every week do a review of your Project List to make sure you are on top of things. And don’t forget to update your tags on each note as you move it around the file system. It is as easy as dragging and dropping notes on the tag itself (and you should delete any unneeded tags as well).

Even if you only adopt the rudiments of what is in this article, you will be well on your way to managing your workload better. Not to mention that you will have an entire filing and reference system almost anywhere you are! In fact, the accessibility of Evernote is its most prominent feature. You can access your notes or take new notes on any computer with a web browser and web access. If you have the Evernote mobile client on a supported smart/pda phone (I use an HTC Touch Windows Mobile 6 phone, and it is also available for Blackberry and iPhone, with Android on the way), you can keep your notes in your pocket.

Having the mobile client also eliminates the need for a notepad and pen. You can take notes anywhere, as long as you have battery life. As soon as you connect to the internet your mobile client will synchronize with your account. Watch your data, as data charges from your carrier will apply. Another tip for mobile use is to take pictures of notes that people leave you in your various real world inboxes. These will then upload to your Evernote account and the text will be searchable with Evernote’s built in HCR capability. You can process them at your leisure. Personally, though, I would rather process them as I look at them, as opposed to the additional step of taking a picture — and it would be a good idea to get a premium account if you are going to go the picture route; could be a lot of image uploading involved, and 45mb is smaller than you might think.

The main drawbacks I’ve found to using Evernote as a GTD system, whether you use one notebook or many, is that Evernote does not have a calendar or task monitoring feature. It is basically a pen and paper system online, with easy tag and search options. The API has been out there for a while though… I am still waiting for someone to connect the thing to Google Calendar. How about it? Anyone?


How do you Get Things Done? Do you use Evernote? If so, how?