Although I’ve found several task planning apps I liked, it always bothered me that I had my todo items in my task planner, and then had to look for the information related to it in other apps, like Email, Word, and Evernote. Here I’ll introduce you to using Evernote to collect everything task-related in one place. It’s pure bliss.
All in one place
Do you often have to look for the stuff you need to actually execute a task?
Maybe you’ve gotten a long email from a collaborator. You don’t have the time to reply to it now. Instead, you write on your todo list: reply to Colin’s email. When you finally get around to it three days later, you start searching for that email. Did you leave it in the inbox, archive it, or move it to some folder?
This is just one of many situations where the reminder is separate from the material you need. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if your materials had their reminder attached to them?
Putting todos where they belong
I’ll introduce the steps to set up a full-fledged todo system in Evernote. Because I’ve found Getting Things Done a great way to organize myself, I’ll detail how you can set up a GTD workflow as your todo system in Evernote.
The GTD ideas I’ll implement are:
- Capturing things to do in the Inbox
- Clarifying captured stuff into actions and projects, defining next actions, and using contexts
- Touching things only once to get them into your trusted system
- Reflecting on your lists and weekly review
- Extracting a list from which to engage
- The waiting for context
- Organizing everything that requires 2 or more steps as a project
- Writing down all related information about a project
Now, that’s a lot of stuff. So it’ll be a long post. Get yourself a cup of tea. Or coffee.
Note: this post will probably make a lot more sense if you know GTD. If you haven’t read the book, it’s something to consider…
Setup Part 1: Basics
I start with some basic setup steps that we’ll use later.
- Create a notebook named Inbox in your Personal Evernote account and make it the default notebook for new information. Almost everything that goes into Evernote goes through the Inbox.
- Create a notebook in your Personal account, named !Todo. Because Evernote filters folders as you type, the ! will find your todo folder immediately if it is the only folder that starts like this.
- If you use a keyboard shortcut app like TextExpander, then you can create a shortcut that types the name of your todo notebook. I use ^1.
- Set up your Evernote Webclipper in the browser to select Inbox as the default notebook to save clipped info, and turn off auto-filing and auto-tagging. Click on the Webclipper icon in your browser, then on the Settings cogwheel on the bottom of the Clipper window. In the options window that comes up, choose always start in, and select Inbox as notebook. This way, everything you clip goes into your Inbox, and you can sort later within Evernote. It’s faster, and you batch sorting with all your other task sorting.
- Designate a start character for your todo tags. If several people in your team want to implement GTD in Evernote, each one needs their own initial character (or character sequence). You can use initials, but it’s nice to have something that’s fast to type. I use two dots. So my tags are named ..email, ..read etc. When I enter two dots in the tag field of a note, all my todo tags are listed in a dropdown menu, so I can choose one.
- If you haven’t read my post on handling email and Inbox Zero with Evernote, now is the time.
GTD Step 1: Capturing and saving everything to Inbox
With this setup, you can already capture everything to your Inbox.
There is a simple rule: Everything you save goes into Evernote’s Inbox notebook. The GTD Inbox eliminates the question of where stuff should go when you think of it or find it. You just collect it in the Inbox. Done.
If you’ve implemented the basic setup, then web clips and email already go into the Inbox. When any kind of todo comes to mind, create a new note in the Evernote Inbox, write that thought or todo in the title of the note, and done. Read the Evernote Hacks IV post for more ways to get stuff into the Inbox.
If you try to get your email inbox to Zero, then save any email that contains information you need to store, and any email that requires some action, into Evernote using EverMail.
When you write an email for which you expect a response, save that sent email to Evernote, too. You can send a bcc to your Evernote email address. However, then you do not get a link back to your original email. If you go into the thread in which you wrote the email, or into your sent folder, you can save the email with EverMail. Later, you can click on that link in Evernote, the Email will open again in Mail.app, and you can re-send to ask why you haven’t heard.
GTD Step 2: Clarifying by tagging and creating projects
Regularly, you go through your Evernote Inbox. GTD suggests that you touch every item in your Inbox only a single time. This means: for every note you find in your Inbox, you decide a number of things (refer to the book or website for details, I’ll list the most common things here):
- If it’s something you can do in 2 minutes, do it now. Else, …
- If you realize you saved it but don’t really need it, delete it. Else, …
- If it’s information you need to store, file it. Move it to the appropriate folder in Evernote. Examples: Your flight schedule for the next conference goes into the event notebook for that conference. For stuff I know I will need only for a short time, I tag it with ..material and move it to the !Todo notebook. Example: the agenda for next week’s faculty meeting.
- If it’s an actionable task, make sure it’s written up as one: GTD suggests action words. If you’ve saved emails, you’ll probably need to change the note title. Then, tag the note with the appropriate context(s). Depending on what contexts you use with your system, you can use places, energy levels, people, etc. These are not mutually exclusive. You can tag ‘Call Emily’ with ..phone, ..lowEnergy, and ..emily. With these tags, we’ll find the todo later, so you can put it into any notebook you like. I put a lot of todos into the respective project notebooks (see the Evernote Hacks post on setting up the folder structure). Anything not worth filing just goes into the !Todo notebook. So the !Todo notebook is simply a place to collect all things that aren’t worth sorting, or are not associated with a project.
- If it’s something that requires more than one step, make it a project.
- If it’s a big project, create a notebook for it. Into that notebook, place a project note that contains a project description, concrete result or outcome, brain storming about what needs to happen to get it done, and specific action steps that you can pick as next actionable step to move the project forward.
- If it’s a small project, create a project note with the same information, but store it in a notebook ‘small projects’. For example, ‘order new desk’ might require researching desks, getting a quote, and writing an order form. You save the project note so you don’t forget to order a desk. But you create separate actionable todos with appropriate context tags, like research desk with tag ..online and ..lowEnergy.
Setup Part 2: Create tag searches and organize Evernote’s sidebar
Up to now, we’ve created notes with tags. Now we’ll set up Evernote so that you can easily access notes with those tags.
Simple tag searches
Click into the search field. To search for all notes that you’ve tagged with the ..email context, type:
The notes will be listed for you. Go to menu Edit > Find > Save Search. In the window that appears, give the search a useful name. This could be the tag name, or the tag name without the prefix (.. in my examples), or a longer description (‘Work context: Email’). Whatever your style. Save.
Now, click in the search field and press Esc until the field is empty. Click in it again, and a dropdown list will appear that lists your saved searches. Drag your search from the dropdown list to the sidebar. Now you can run the tag search by just clicking on the shortcut in the sidebar.
Repeat for all tag searches you want to use. This can be many. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, it is not possible to group searches under a collective heading (like you can stack notebooks). If you want to display separators between, say, different types of contexts, then save a search with a lot of dashes as name, and place it where you want the separator. Not extremely elegant, but it works.
GTD Part 3: Fancy stuff with Evernote reminders
The waiting for context
Anything I am waiting for gets the tag ..waiting and a reminder with date.
The search for it is a simple tag search, like just described above.
Things for later
Anything I want off my mind, I tag ..scheduled and give it a date.
The search looks a bit complicated:
reminderTime:* -reminderTime:day+1 tag:..*
The first term looks for notes with a reminder. The second term excludes all reminders that are due after today. In other words, I get all reminders due today or earlier. The last part makes sure I see only notes that I have tagged with my own GTD tags (..* stands for all tags that start with ..). If other people in my team use reminders, I won’t see them in my searches.
Things I currently want to work on, e.g. my next actions of the different projects, get a reminder without date.
To set up the search, I look for notes that have a reminder, but no date, and that have my GTD tags. The first part selects all notes with a reminder.
reminderOrder:* -reminderTime:* tag:..*
GTD Part 4: Reflecting and weekly review
Now that you’ve collected all kinds of todos with all kinds of tags, it’s important to keep an overview. David Allen has said in a podcast that the one thing most people do wrong is not to review their lists on a regular basis.
For larger projects with a designated notebook, I have an overview note (briefly described above). For small projects, I only use one note that I keep in the small projects notebook. These project notes gets a few tags:
- a tag ..projects that designates the note as a project note
- ..personal or ..work
- ..active, ..parked, or ..waiting
- tags with the initials of the project members
I have set up searches for:
- active work projects. These are only the projects that I currently work on. Every time I review my todos, I make sure I have at least one next action for each active project.
- work projects I am waiting for. Each time I review, I decide whether I have to ask for a status report, offer help etc. Other than that, these projects don’t require any work from me at the moment.
- parked work projects. These are projects I have decided I won’t work on at the moment. Each time I review, I quickly scan them to decide whether one of them should become an active project again. You can also add the ..scheduled tag and a date to be reminded by your Today search at a later date.
- people. Because my team members all have several running projects, it’s convenient to search by person.
- Depending on how complex your non-work life is, you can have the same structure for personal projects.
Bringing it all together
Now that we’ve set up all this stuff, you can explore why it’s so useful. I’ll give you a few use cases that show how information and todo reminders come together.
- Reviews I get for submitted articles are saved from Email to Evernote and filed in the notebook of the project about which the paper was written. They are tagged with the date at which I want to start writing the replies at the latest. When I start working on the replies, I have everything in one place: the reviews, the dates, and the project information.
For meetings, I prepare a meeting note in one of my meeting folders. Any material I’ll need at the meeting is tagged ..materials. Everything gets the date of the meeting. This way, it will pop up in my Today view on the meeting day. During the meeting, I make notes in the agenda note, so that it serves as minutes.
If you store project overview notes in shared project folders, then all project members can view, edit, and tag this note. That way, it is easy to coordinate and add info everyone needs to see about the project.
For conferences, I collect travel info, poster/slides files, abstract book, related emails etc. in one notebook. I set reminders for travel info and slides. Before the conference, all todos related to it are stored in the same notebook.