The following 15 minute setup enables you to use Evernote as a frictionless GTD list application. Easy entry, no multiple notebooks required. Works with you, not against you.
The setup features:
- notebook independent setup: enter and use to do notes anywhere, anytime
- Project List
- list aggregating all next actions
- @ context lists
- Waiting For
- 5 “time required” levels & lists
- done/audit list
- toggle checkbox (/tag) to move items on/off the Someday/Maybe list
The description is for an old Windows desktop client, Evernote 3.1, but works anywhere Evernote does. Current versions of Evernote have no counts shown next to the saved searches: Evernote 3.1 gives a clear at-a-glance view of where you have how many open items.
How It Works
You tag Evernote To Do items — those are the ones where you insert a checkbox — with your context(s) and (optional) a time estimate (5, 15, 30,45 or 60 minutes).
Saved Searches make these items show up on your @ context list(s), on your Project list when tagged with @project, on Someday/Maybe when tagged with
sd — and on one of your time lists if you added that info as a tag.
Saved Searches without items are automatically greyed out. Lists that do have items show how many items are on them: you can see your runway at a glance.
Thanks to Evernote’s multi-tagging, one or more items can be moved from NA to Someday/Maybe simply by checking or unchecked a tag’s checkbox.
Setting Up Your Saved Searches
Evernote’s Saved Searches are the heart of the system: they are what generates our various lists for us. Here is my list but you can do this any which way you need it.
Mind the [space] between the @ and MIT: this is so it sorts to the top of the list, before the other @ contexts.
todo:false tag:@mit -tag:sd
We’re looking for to do items that haven’t been checked off (todo:false), which include the tag for this context but do not have the someday tag.
Again, a [space] after the @ to have this sort to the top of the list.
todo:false tag:@project -tag:sd
@ Waiting For
[space] after the @ to have this on top.
No need to negate someday items as @Waiting For’s never are, right?
Like someday the tag is shorthanded to @wf for waiting for.
@All Next Actions
To have a complete list for your perusal.
todo:false tag:@* -tag:sd -tag:@project -tag:@wf
Get all @ context items unless they’re someday items, projects or waiting for.
You might have other @ contexts you don’t want to see on your list of NA’s. Simply add each one as
Projects are negated as in this setup, they too can have contexts (more later).
These are your context lists. One search per context.
todo:false tag:@context -tag:sd -tag:@project
In general your @ tag will match your @ search — but it doesn’t have to. Examples in my setup: @Waiting For (search) aggregates @wf tag; @Computer (search) aggregates @pc tag. Why? Faster, easier to type.
Two underscores to have this sort immediately after the @ lists but before the _ lists (1 underscore) that I use for some dedicated projects.
I prefer to drop the Maybe in GTD’s base Someday/Maybe list.
__What Was Done
I like checking off things, I love using the checkboxes in Evernote — and so I don’t delete completed items.
I use 5 broad time levels for next actions: 5, 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes. Each has a list.
I’ll give the search for the 5 minute items; for the other times you simply recreate this search but change the time tag.
todo:false tag:5 -tag:sd
No need to negate projects as those aren’t actionable items and thus don’t have a time required tag assigned to them.
In general my notes have at least one tag but especially for distinguishing between braindump items and processed projects, next actions, etc. it’s important our items have their tags.
Important: if you don’t tag your notes in general, the above obviously wouldn’t be useful. In that case, change it to:
Being able to pick actions based on time/energy level is not just handy: it helps tremendously at determining how booked you are.
For this to work, each NA needs a time tag, obviously, so here we check if a note misses that.
todo:false tag:@* -tag:@project -tag:@wf -tag:5 -tag:15 -tag:30 -tag:45 -tag:60
Using Evernote for GTD
You get an item on your desk or think of something. CTRL + ALT + N brings up a new note in Evernote. CTRL + SHIFT + C to get the checkbox. Add your item.
[F2] [TAB] [TAB] to get to the line where you can enter your contexts. Let’s say this a 5 minute email for work:
@work, @email, 5. Done.
Don’t want to do this item soon enough? Then it’s a someday in GTD so tag it as such:
sd. With one tag, the
sd, the item is taken off all the action lists and moved to someday.
When the time comes to review your lists you might want to take a whole bunch of NA’s off the table; maybe it’s a long weekend or vacation is coming up. Or maybe you want to move a bunch of someday‘s back to the Next Action lists, right?
Select the items, CTRL + SHIFT + T to bring up the tag list box. Click the column with the checkboxes to have all assigned tags sort to the top of the list.
Don’t want to tag your items as they come in? No problem: don’t. Simply come back later, click your untagged items search and do it then.
Evernote GTD FAQ
Why Do Someday Items Have Contexts?
In a previous version someday was made up of all todo items that had no tags. So, to move NA’s back to someday I had to remove all tags. Then add them again when moving them back to NA. Big waste of time.
In the current setup items can be moved back and forth based simply on the
Meanwhile I’ve found the presence of tags to be very helpful during review. I can select the someday list and search for all @project’s or for @work related items.
Nowadays, when going through untagged GTD items, I take a moment and assign the proper contexts and time as I would when setting them as NA.
Why Can Projects Have Contexts?
Again, during review it’s handy to be able to look at home projects or all work projects. By having (already) set tags on them I can zoom in on very specific areas.
Date-specific actions go on the calendar. Not just because that’s how GTD defines it (dated items are on your “hard landscape”) but because it’s practical.
I use Google Calendar (setup with multiple colored calendars for ease of use; holidays, daughter stuff, my stuff, work stuff, etc.).
Depending on what’s sane to do, details are in the calendar item (“Call Joe re. coffee @ 1234″) or in the note in Evernote.
Example of a calendar item? Some of my @wf’s are for specific dates: by this or that date I should nudge the person. That @wf is in my system (
[ ] Joe re. if he ordered coffee -- call by this or that date) and to make sure I don’t see that item only when I review that list, it’s on the calendar with a reminder.
Recurrence is essentially a repetitive hard landscape item, so most of my regularly recurring items go on my calendar. Often with one or more reminders/heads-up’s.
Less specific recurrence or reminders may go into my 12 months (+ some people specific) tickler file; the 43 folders thing is overkill for me.
Other items might just be ones that I need over and over again. Reusable items, essentially. The note on the left is an example of such a reusable item. As I was changing my morning routine I used this checklist to keep on track.
As I prepare my next day every evening, I would simply uncheck the items and … use it again the next day :) But I can just as easily keep it in the “someday” list and copy & paste a new note from it: whatever works best for you.
At the base an
@project note is simply a stake in the ground to remind me; oh yeah, I have a project going on. From there it is as the need prescribes.
Here are 3 typical project notes (data is made up, largely, so…)
In the first case I map out several NA’s. Usually when the time comes to put one or all of them on an Next Actions list, I copy & paste the to do line in a new note. Clean look at my NA’s and I have the track record in the project note.
How do I tie those next actions back to the project? Well, sometimes I just wing it and claim that “I know”. But usually I will write out the action so as a standalone note — it still makes perfect sense. In GTD it’s never “check finances”, it’s “check the finances of client XYZ”
Second note has no next actions but is a good example of the project note acting as a placeholder for project related info. Who is the account manager I need to contact for this? How many hours are assigned to the project? What’s the deadline? That deadline upon writing it there would immediately be added to my Google Calendar — with 2-3 reminders. See: How Do You Handle Start/Due Data Actions.
There’s a PDF in there too. Some files like that get added and most are removed when I’m done with the project. I use PersonalBrain to link and map files to clients and projects. Google Desktop or Copernic or any other desktop search works well too.
The last example is a project with just some bulletpoints; stuff I’m tossing around. The project doesn’t show on my project list though: it has the
sd tag :)
When you create/rename a saved search it doesn’t get sorted at the right place. Exit the application, start it again and the list is sorted.
This Seems a Little Complex
The description is 1200+ words. Like describing how to make coffee step by step, it all come across as very daunting and involved… but really isn’t :)
XYZ Isn’t “Pure” GTD?
The geek in me wants to point you to GTD coach Keylly Forrister’s It’s not about the lists:
There’s a comfort zone I found works for me and my lists where I have as few lists as I can get by with, but as many as I think I need to slice and dice my stuff in a way that makes it manageable. And, they change from time to time, if for no other reason than to just change the look to get me excited about them again. […]
An easy way to figure out which context lists you need is to look at the people, places and tools you need to do your work, personally and professionally. That will serve as a good starting point.
If you liked this article:
- See Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT). I usually have 2-3 MIT’s that I picked the night before [↩]
- Yeah, I know his might not be pure GTD. So? [↩]
- I use sd as a shorthand tag for someday to make manual tag entry faster. The system needs to be as frictionless as possible [↩]
- For example, I don’t want to see my @read’s mixed in with my general NA’s, so my @All Next Actions search looks like
todo:false tag:@* -tag:sd -tag:@project -tag:@wf -tag:@read[↩]