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).


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.


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 :)


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.


Somebody is wrong on the internet

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. Okay, I’m new to EN and a little experienced with GTD.

    I thought I must be some kind of moron because yesterday I was editing search syntax on EN on my iMac (runs Snow Leopard – OSX 10.6 – not sure what version of EN), then today on my MacBook Pro (OSX 10.7 Lion, running EN Version 3.0.5 (209933)) I can’t edit the syntax in the search bar.

    Also weird behavior – I saved a search with just “projects” (no tag, just the word “project”) because my “@ projects” search was returning 0 and I could see notes tagged “@ project”!!

    Then I found this thread on EN Support: http://bit.ly/xzvSm6

    Too bad, looks like Evernote have decided to REMOVE search editing from the Mac client already and the Win client soon.

    Does this mean your set-up can no longer be set up by new users Ruud? Are we back to using tags only?

  2. At the worst it would mean that instead of editing a search you have to do a new one and save it. Simply perform the search you would like to save, then click on the button that takes that search and saves it as a Saved Search.

  3. Hi Ruud. I love this post. Well thought out.

    I’m a Mac and I can’t figure out how to list all of the tags from the note screen like you do in Windows with Ctrl-Shift-T. I couldn’t find an answer in the forums. Do you know?

    I know the tags are listed on the left hand side, but this feature is cumbersome on the Mac version and I’d love to be able to get to a list in the tag entering box. I can do it with my Safari EN clipper, as the tags come up as I type.

    Thanks so much! :)

  4. I’m not sure Annie. I don’t see a similar key listed here. It does however say “You can redefine these shortcuts in the Preferences > Shortcuts tab”. Not sure that will be of any help but maybe you can have a look?

  5. Thanks Ruud. You’re right, it’s not listed on that link, but there are lots of other helpful shortcuts there.

    In the Mac EN preferences panel, it allows you to set shortcuts for 5 of their choices: (1) New Note, (2) Paste to EN, (3) clip rectangular window, (4) clip full screen, and (5) search in EN. As far as I can see, there’s no option on how to add any more.

    I’m beginning to suspect that this option is not even available in the Mac version. If I could find it on the EN menu, I could write an AppleScript and then assign that to a keyboard shortcut.

    I’ll put a question on the EN for Mac forum, and if I get a helpful answer, I’ll post it here for you. While I wait for that answer, I’ll most likely be setting up my EN to reflect this article. ;) p.s. I found you through Daniel Gold’s excellent book.

  6. @Annie. With the MAC it is very simple to assign tags to your notes. You don’t need the tags list. Just make a selection of notes you want to tag -> drag and drop the tags from the left of the screen to the notes and you are done. With OSX most of the functions are drag and drop.

  7. Ruud, beautiful set up. I am very excited about it. I am new to using Evernote, but am a long time GTD user. So from looking at some example tasks you have in the original article I see that the task title is the same as the context in the note minus the check box. Are you having to enter that information twice or does the note title populate (when left blank) with the information from the context? If so, how do you do that. I am a Mac user.

    Thx. Bill.

  8. Hi Ruud, thanks for impressive and easy to follow setup instruction. For sure will help me a lot.

    The printscreen of your morning routine made me laugh out loud. I could totally picture you, after sweeping the floor, changing the wallpaper in the living room everyday :o)
    Was a bit disappoimted when, after a second, I got what you really meant. Would be so cool to have a redecorated home every day…

    Thanks again, think your instruction will be a life-changer for me.

    Kind regards, Babs

  9. On Windows the first line of the note automatically becomes the title *unless* you specifically set a title. So yes, I write that line only once.

  10. Hi Ruud,

    This is a good setup which I am trying to implement.

    I have a question. I don’t see here a placeholder like “Inbox”. When you initially collect stuff where is it going in this setup?

    What you presented here seems to be already “Processed” with the appropriate tags assigned to each item/note.


  11. After realising my Evernote notes were all over the place, I decided to try implementing a GTD system within it. A Google search led me to the Evernote forums, which led me to your article, Ruud. I’ve spent about half an hour setting it up then another hour or two migrating my notes into it.

    So far, I’m finding it a lot more friendly than my last attempt at implementing GTD using Task Coach. Plus I’ve learned how Evernote Saved Searches work!

    The only alteration I’ve made is to set up a separate “Reference” notebook with sub-books for each project I’m working on.

    Thank you for this system!

  12. Lijkt een mooi systeem. Echter, heb ik 2 vragen:

    1.) Ik krijg het volgende niet voor elkaar bij Saved Searches. Ik heb aan een notitie 4 Tags gekoppeld. Namelijk, @ Project, @ NA, @ 60 min, @ Home. In die notitie heb ik ter test 3 checkboxes geplaatst. Nu krijg ik onder Saved Searches de betreffende notitie wel te zijn in de searc opdracht van: Home en NA, maar deze vind ik niet terug in Project en 60 min. Ik kan maar niet achterhalen waar hem dit in zit. Ik heb exact de search queries gebruikt uit je artikel. Enig idee waar hem dit in kan zitten?
    2.) Is het nu de bedoeling dat ik bij iedere notitie, die dient als een uit te voeren taak, een checkbox aanmaak zodra ik het terug wil zien bij mij saved searches in @ context?

    Alvast bedankt!

  13. Great implentation. The issue that I have is when I complete a task. For example, say I have a task that is tag:Next todo:false.
    When I check the todo box, it will then not be triggered by the todo:false search, but it still sits under tag:Next. So I then have to remove this tag and perhaps assign a tag:completed, or delete the task. Either way, I’ve added one or two extra steps.

    So – what is your workflow to deal with completed tasks.

  14. Leon, probeer de search query over te typen ipv te pasten? Verder op in de comments was ook iemand (meen ik) die problemen had met dingen die niet verschijnen.

    En ja, de checkbox is het ding dat iets in een to do veranderd.

  15. Completed tasks should no longer show up in any search that include the “todo:false”.

    todo:false looks for unchecked checkboxes; when you check a checkbox it becomes “true”.

    Modify your “next” context search to include todo:false

  16. Thanks Ruud, but I don’t think I made my point clearly – I understand that todo:false will capture unchecked todos. But once these are checked they will still be tagged “next”. At some point you have to come in a purge these complete next actions from the next tag – am I correct?

  17. Thanks Ruud for this write up. It took me a bit to wrap my brain around the “no notebooks” theory, but now I am loving it. One question though: How do you handle nested projects? In other words, I have a project A that has several todos, but Project A also has several smaller projects which in turn have todos? How do I handle this?

  18. Rudd,

    thanks a lot for this great article. I noticed that you wrote in the contexts setup process -tag:@sd, but all over the setup process you speak from a sd tag (and not @sd). Is this an error, or did I missed somthing ?
    I read all comments without seeing anything about this, so I’m quite surprised.
    (I personaly change everything to @sd).

  19. That’s the beauty of having no notebook restriction: you can handle it any which way you want. You can make a notebook stack or simply use project tags that signify parent-child.

  20. I think the problem with your setup is that because the newer versions of EN don’t show search counts, you can’t actually see what is in each category. Is this correct? Perhaps it doesn’t matter – but I like to know how many tasks I have in the pipeline.

  21. Quite soon after this setup the search count disappeared, yes. Of course when you click on a saved search you still see the number of notes found — and the notes themselves.

    I thought it would be a problem at first but turned out that when I am in a context I check anyway. These days I use OmniFocus (on the iPad) and it too doesn’t show task counts.

  22. OK – thanks. Omnifocus is pretty nice, but I spend most of my day on win7 so its not an option for me.

    My set up uses 4 notebooks (next, later, waiting, someday) and searches to filter by context. But now that I think about it, I can see the total number of tasks per notebook, but of course, I can’t see the number filtered by context (i.e. next and @work) – so it probably doesn’t matter too much.

  23. Hi Ruud, As everyone said great writeup!
    You mentioned using personalbrain (now thebrain). This too has a possible GTD implementation. Have you given it a try as a GTD tool?

  24. Thanks Ron. As for TheBrain; I still use it at times but an encounter with RSI made using TheBrain much less user friendly for me, even with shortcuts enabled. I love the interface and find it a fun thing to use but lean towards limiting my toolkit as much as possible. More goes in Evernote than in TheBrain.

    Back in 2006? 2007? I’ve tried TheBrain as a GTD tool and it’s not for me. Again, fun to use — but it didn’t feel practical.

  25. Ruud,
    My lists don’t sort correctly – even after exiting app (and toolbar app). I use v 5.0.3 on a Mac.

    Thanks for this article though – it’s a great resource.


  26. Hi Ruud

    Thanks so much for the post – setting this up is just about the best half hour you’ll ever spend in EN (15 minutes to set up and 15 minutes to customise to my own workflow).

    I personally prefer filing notes in various books under two giant stacks: Personal and Work. So instead of the @* context tags, I’ve added stack:Personal and stack:Work to each of the saved searches so I get my home and work GTD lists separately. A tip for anyone who does this: add the stack: search modifier at the beginning of the search string not the end, otherwise it doesn’t work.

    Here’s something that will make your _What Was Done search even more awesome:

    todo:true -todo:false

    This filters out notes which have some check boxes checked and some unchecked (if there a many things to do for example on a note). So only notes which are truly all done appear in the search. I also like checking what things have been done ….

    This post is three years old but still so fresh and relevant. I only discovered it last week but I’ve already cross linked to it from forums. Just a pity that evernote client features seem to have gone backwards since you first authored this (saved search counts, inability to edit saved searches on non-pc clients, weird search interface on android)

  27. Nice system – trying it out and tweaking it as I’m writing this…

    One question: what is the rational for prefixing some tags with a @. I understand that this helps in the case of searches where you’d like to see certain searches sort first. However, why for tags? More particular, why ‘sd’ not ‘@sd’ and why ‘@wf’ not ‘wf’?

  28. Stephan, the @ symbol grew as a context notation in GTD to keep things sorted at the top. I too still like that.

    SD I don’t use as a context tag so that when I do searches it’s not included.

    Waiting For is a “context”, a separate list so to say, so it’s @wf

  29. Stefan the other reason for @ is that it signifies a “context” as opposed to just a general tag for categorising (@ being pronounced commonly as “at” means @phone or @home works intuitively). Contrast this to a tag of say “reference” or “warrantyinfo” etc.

  30. Hi Ruud

    Excellent piece! I have been using GTD (and falling off the wagon) for about 15 years, but I have never found a system as good as this. You enabled me to clear down over a thousand emails and get back to a clean Inbox again. Can’t thank you enough!

    The only (minor) modification that I have (respectfully) added to your system is to add tags for each month to dump future items into. So, for example, if I need to renew my car insurance in April, I tag the note “Apr”. Then, at the end of March, I’ll look at all the items tagged “Apr” and either do them, or tag them with their appropriate context. Of course, this can work for one-off or recurring items as well.

    If you wanted to take it further, it would be possible to add tags for “Tomorrow” and “Next Week”, and review them last thing each day, and at the end of the week respectively. Alternatively even create tags for “D1”, “D2”, “D3″…. “D31” to give them specific dates. (They need a “D” or other modifier to avoid confusion with your timeboxes “5”, “15”, “30”, etc.) But even I’m not that @n@l!

    Many thanks again – Richard

  31. Thank you for this Ruud…I’m new to both gtd and EN and have been trying to organise myself with limited time and significant stress which I’m working to master. This post is the best resource I have found in my quest!

    A few questions:
    1) Projects without NAs
    I have a saved search returning projects without todo’s so I can quickly fix them. Can you suggest a method to return projects without NAs so these can be created?

    2) @wf and todos
    Do you assign a todo to each @wf? When I send an email requiring a response I am bcc’ing EN to create a @wf note. Seems like a bit of a pain to have to edit each email to add a todo.

    3) Reference materials related to projects
    If you create meeting notes related to a project how do you file this and relate it to the project? A project specific tag? Note links from the @Project note? Or just dump everything into the @Project note?

    4) Other Notebooks
    Do you use EN outside of GTD? If so, do you have a GTD notebook for everything discussed here and then separate notebooks for specific topics (Family Tree, Car History, New Products, etc)?

    Thank you again for taking the time to put this together.


  32. Hey Mr Hein,
    Thanks for documenting your very nice implementation. You and Mr Christopher Mayo are my Evernote heroes.

    Changes to saved searches have made them a bit less friendly, but workarounds still allow the job to get done. I hope EN doesnt lose track of their values.

    Good luck with your endeavors ..

    Lee in Sunny St. Petersburg FL, USA

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