Evernote GTD How To

Evernote GTD How To

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
  • Someday/Maybe
  • 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.

Evernote GTD with Saved Searches@ MIT

Most Important Tasks[1][2]

Mind the [space] between the @ and MIT: this is so it sorts to the top of the list, before the other @ contexts.

Search: 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.[3]

@ Projects

Again, a [space] after the @ to have this sort to the top of the list.

Search: todo:false tag:@project -tag:sd

@ Waiting For

[space] after the @ to have this on top.

Search: todo:false tag:@wf

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.

Search: 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 -tag:@yourcontext.[4]

Projects are negated as in this setup, they too can have contexts (more later).

@context

These are your context lists. One search per context.

Search: 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.

__Someday

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.

Search: todo:false tag:sd

__What Was Done

I like checking off things, I love using the checkboxes in Evernote — and so I don’t delete completed items.

Search: todo:true

Time Lists

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.

Search: 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.

Untagged Notes

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.

Search: -tag:*

Important: if you don’t tag your notes in general, the above obviously wouldn’t be useful. In that case, change it to:

Search: todo:false -tag:*

Untimed Actions

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.

Search: 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.

Evernote GTD: toggling Someday
Now you can simply check or uncheck the someday tag to instantly move all your selected items to or from the someday 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 sd tag.

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.

How Do You Handle Start/Due Data Actions?

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.

Start/Due Dates in Google Calendar for Evernote GTDI 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.

How Do You Handle Recurrence

Recurrence in Evernote GTDRecurrence 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.

12 Month + Some People Tickler File

Template or Reusable Entry for Recurrence in EvernoteOther 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.

How Do You Use Projects?

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…)

How I Use Projects in Evernote (and tie them back to actions)

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 :)

My @ List Doesn’t Sort Correct!

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?
Oh :)

Wellll….

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.

but…

Somebody is wrong on the internet
xkcd

What now?

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  1. See Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT). I usually have 2-3 MIT’s that I picked the night before []
  2. Yeah, I know his might not be pure GTD. So? []
  3. I use sd as a shorthand tag for someday to make manual tag entry faster. The system needs to be as frictionless as possible []
  4. 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 []

179 Replies to “Evernote GTD How To”

  1. Great write up, Ruud. There are so many different variations on how to use Evernote, it can be a bit overwhelming when beginning – so I appreciate the detailed breakdown.

    Now my question – how do you deal with single action items not related to a project? I believe all of your searches include the “todo:false” criteria, which won’t include a note unless it has a checkbox.

    For example: I want to set up an note to remind me to change the oil in my car. That’s it. Normally, I would tag this with @home and I have a saved search for “tag:@* -tag:done” to grab all of my action items that are not tagged done.

    Another example would be how to deal with a list of unrelated items that I need to get done for work.

    Thoughts on how to bring in single action notes?

    much thanks!

  2. Thank you for the kind words and for the question, Justin.

    The saved searches in essence generate GTD style @context Next Action lists. NA’s appear there whether part of a project or not.

    Your oil change example would indeed by tagged @home (the context or place or category to group action items) and it would contain a [] checkbox to make it a next action. Your @home saved search will then automatically show it.

    If on the other hand you don’t want to do this but be reminded of it,then your next action list isn’t the right place. In that case I either put a reminder on my Google Calendar (I have the alerts emailed to me) and/or add a note to my (physical) tickler file. We *have* to change winter/summer tires here and that is what I do: note in the right month folder, when that folder comes up process its notes.

  3. Hi Ruud, could you please describe how you are tagging projects in your GTD setup? How do you tag the individual project note (which goes to the project list) and how do you tag the project-related next action notes, so that these next action notes are connected to their projects?

  4. Have a look at “How Do You Use Projects?” under the FAQ, Andreas. I have 3 different types of project notes but all are just tagged as @Project so they appear on the project list.

    As via the GTD standard, I don’t use mechanisms to connect items with their projects. So if the project is “Organize mom’s birthday” then the next action would be “Call restaurant for reservations for mom’s birthday”. That — clear, descriptive NA’s — and regular reviews keep things connected.

    If you need or want a connection I would tag with “project:projectname”. You can then add saved searches as you want. I don’t recommend the setup though; it’s more work (friction) than it’s worth

  5. Ruud,

    Thanks for what looks like an excellent system. I must be missing something fundamental since I cannot figure out how to tag individual to-do items. I can tag the note, but not to-do’s inside notes.

    Thanks!

  6. Support material (digital files mainly) go in Dropbox. I’m not comfortable with moving files out of the file system and into a database (see also: Creating & Keeping Persistent Digital Memories).

    Reference is usually present in one specific email which outlines the project at hand. Its information has been moved to my project note.

    If I need to collate reference material I do so in OneNote

  7. Hi Ruud,

    I’d like to add my appreciation for your very clearly expressed guide. This led me to jump in with Evernote at a time when I was looking at RTM, Nosbe and other bespoke GTD software. I loved the flexibility of EN compared to these solutions and 18 months later can’t imagine life without it. Thanks Ruud!

    Best wishes, Rob

    ps. Like Andreas above I wondered about how to keep projects and next actions together. In case it is useful to anyone, my solution has been to always give nas and projects the same title. Then at review time a saved search lists all uncompleted projects and actions nicely matched up.

  8. Ruud:

    This is great! Thank you.

    I am (was?) using gqueues but needed something more than todo lists and I like having everything in one place. To kick this poor dead horse, I am concerned (how lucky I am to have such trivial concerns!) that if I list next actions in my projects I will loose them somehow, or that I will neglect moving them to NAs later on. Does that make sense? I’m going to experiment with having project task that is an overview of the project to help steer NAs, and then tagging the NA’s with the project with a naming convention something like Project ProjectName. For example, I’m moving to Denver, so the Project note lists the hospitals I’d like to work at, areas to live, licensing requirements, but I’d like to have the NAs, like “call Suzy Q in HR at Denver General” as their own notes from the start.

    I’m getting a bit tangled up and should perhaps reread GTD.

    Thanks again.

  9. Wow!!! Finally a simple, no frills, working GTD setup. I’ve read tons of articles on GTD with Evernote and nothing came close to this in terms of utility and simplicity. Thanks you and thank you again.

  10. Hi Ruud,

    I just came across your excellent post. It was a pleasure to read and your setup instructions were crystal clear. I’ve been using Evernote for storing my reference items for a long time, but had struggled to come up with a ‘frictionless’ way to make GTD work inside Evernote. You have done it for me. It works well with the desktop application and with my Android app, too. Thanks!

    I did come up with one tweak to your system that I thought you might like, if you haven’t considered it before. My professional life is split into multiple portions of effort that I need to keep track of. So, when I create a new note, I add a tag for Area of Responsibility in addition to the context and time tags. I precede my area tags with a #. I have saved searches for each area so that I can get a quick view of all the NAs for each portion of effort.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your ideas about GTD in Evernote. Really valuable.

  11. Hi Ruud,

    Came across your GTD Evernote setup and it looks great. It’s just what I was looking for.

    We’re now on Evernote 4.5 I’m not seeing any counts with my saved searches. Do you know if that feature is disabled?

    Do you know of any workaround? The count is extremely useful.

    Cheers & all the best,
    Rob R

  12. Dear rudd. This looks absolutely fantastic. Have just reread Gtd and am very excited about converting my Evernote into a Gtd tool. Your instuctions are incredibly clear. But crucial for me is being able to read and add tasks not only on my pc but also on the move with my android htc mobile.
    I have downloaded the Evernote android app but can’t see a way to create or read the shortcuts you suggest. Any ideas from rudd or other members of the community? Thanks so much emily

  13. Ruud: Great article! I’m working through the setup now.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that my Saved Searches list doesn’t display the number of notes found in that search. In your first screenshot I see

    @ MIT (2)
    @ Projects (3)

    Is there a secret to getting evernote to display the number of notes found in the search?

    Thanks again!

    Marc

  14. Rudd, thanks so much for the description. I’m new to Evernote and while it seems well suited for GTD implementation, I have been surprised to find very few tutorials/descriptions that seem to use GTD to its full extent.

    BTW, I am switching to Evernote from Producteev because Producteev lacks global tags. I’m excited to see how straightforward the GTD implementation appears to be with Evernote.

  15. This was terrific. I have made modifications, using a time based method. I title task or project related notes as next action and time involved: NA 5 or NA 10 or NA 15. I then have saved searches that are: intitle:”na 5″ intitle:”na 10″ “intitle:15”. So eg the note might read: NA 10 Call Robert about the meeting (might have meeting information in the note itself). This allows me to crunch through all my 5 minute items really fast. Longer activities/projects are broken down into NAs that are 10 to 15, such that this is a procrastination buster. I still use @context for calls, errands etc.

  16. Love this setup. I’ve tried it out for a week now and like someone else in the comments said, don’t know how I lived without it.

    Quite disappointed in Evernote not supporting the counts on Saved Searches. Why would they remove this feature? It would be very useful.

  17. Hello Rudd…appreciate your sharing your trade secrets with Evernote. I keep debating on which GTD enabling cloud solution to use and I keep coming back to Evernote. Have you updated your setup above for any changes in the latest versions? By the way, I’m a Mac and iPhone user so any insight to that in your setup would be helpful. Thanks! Michael

  18. Michael, I’ve made no real changes. GTD is very portable and every couple of months when my engagement with the system gets stale I just move around. Paper, Mindmanager, Evernote. I’m kind of hooked on Omnifocus for iPad right now though; an app that makes you want to buy a Mac :)

  19. I wonder what could be done with Omnifocus that couldn’t be done with special Evernote GTD setups. Creating task management processes in Evernote is a no-brainer, so why dealing with other tools when this can be done frictionless in Evernote too?

  20. GTD can be done with any tool so in that sense OmniFocus isn’t “special”.

    Honestly, while having heard and read from Omnifocus converts I thought it is basically an overpriced list maker. Their 30 day money back guarantee had me try it and I was “sold” within a day. It just works smoother, at least on the ipad. The contexts + nesting, projects + nesting, folders to place projects in, review settings — very very concise total.

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  22. Great write-up, am certain I would have given up using EN for gtd had I not found this. Just a quick question on the searches, it seems to me that instead of using “todo:false” it might be better to use “-todo:true” so that you get un-checked items, as well as items that don’t have checkboxes on them. Just not sure I will always remember to put the checkboxes on.

  23. I like that idea, Ashley. Reason I did not is that including the checkbox gives me a state: the thing is done or not. Of course if you delete an action once done, then that in itself will give state.

  24. Hi Ruud – I tried to set up Evernote as you describe, but am confused about one thing. Do you set up each task or action as a note by itself? In other words, if a project consists of 5 tasks, would you create 5 notes? If so, it seems one loses the ability to view all tasks belonging to a project grouped together in one list. Are you ignoring Evernote’s ability to organize notes into a notebook and notebooks into a stack in favor of using tags and saved searches? Is there a way to combine the best elements of both approaches or do you consider them mutually exclusive? I’d appreciate any help. Thanks.

  25. @Pavi I’m firmly in the David Allen GTD camp though: if you write your next actions in a clear, specific way and do your weekly review, there is no need to find ways to tie back actions to projects because it is clear what goes where.

    Best answer? See under “How Do You Use Projects?” on this page.

    As for multiple notebooks: too much friction. I came up with the above system because I want to be able to CTRL ALT N a new note/todo as fast as possible without having to switch notebooks

  26. @Pavi exactly what Ruud said, just wanted to also note that when I am defining a project, if i want to map out different next-actions (especially those which depend on others) I’ll do so in the project note.

    Actually one thing I have been experimenting with is creating the project note, then tagging it as @na and changing the description to the next action – that way it’s tagged both as a next action and a project, and shows up in both @na and @project searches. It makes more sense for some projects more so than others, but is one way around having the project linked to the next action. Knowing the project when looking at it’s next action is fairly easy – it’s either obvious or you can include the project name in the description. Horses for Courses, as they say.

  27. Thanks Ruud….

    Question: You say that “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.”

    However, this isn’t the case for me. I am running ver 4.4 and have items that appear in those searches if i run them.

    However, my tags show the number of items in them, but I would prefer that the saved searches show it, as it would give a better ‘runway’ view as you say.

    Am I missing something?

    Brad

  28. i see, too bad, it really gave a runway effect!

    i noticed that your original article was from a couple years ago….have you any new tweeks? Do you still use evernote in the same way as you described in the original article?

  29. When I use EN for GTD this is the setup I keep coming back to. It just works.

    I’m not very OCD on which tool I use for GTD though and love to be here and there. Moleskine & G2 for a while, MindManager, Evernote. Currently I use OmniFocus for iPad — now *that* has been a completely new find and experience for me.

    I use EN as my database of everything, as capture tool, and for project reference. I have two project stacks: personal and work projects. An Evernote notebook can act as a great “binder” to keep emails, files, webpages, etc. all nicely together.

  30. Great suggestions and thank you. I started to set up my Evernote with tags-only per your advice, but discovered that the web version does not support Saved Searches. Do you know anything about this? Has it ever impacted you?

  31. Glenda, I rarely use the web version.

    Evernote says that the ability to create saved searches in the web version will be brought back but doesn’t give a timeline.

    You can access your existing, synced saved searches by clicking on the dropdown in the search box and selecting Add Filters.

  32. @Glenda – it works for me. Perform the search, then when you click in the search box (not the search button) a menu drops down, one of the options is “Save this search”. You’ll notice all of your saved searches should be there as well, whether created in the web version or desktop version.

    That said, lately I’ve just been using the context tags alone – since I don’t tag them as finished and instead remove their context tags (and set a “reference” or “finished” tag).

  33. Ruud and Ashley, Thanks! So many companies these days do not allow user-installed client software on work computers that a complete home and work solution requires web access. Yes, the search box only needs a click. There’s no dropdown showing in Firefox.

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