In progress: my (Ever)note on getting things done

I’ve been trying to get better control over the projects I work on and the data related to those projects.  So this isn’t me avoiding work; this is me reprocessing by talking about the challenges I felt and then about how I’ve tried to address them.

What I had wanted to do was:

  • Reduce my paper clutter
  • Reduce my digital clutter, which felt nearly as heavy
  • Reclaim my workspace, both physical and virtual
  • Seize more of the potential of electronic notes than I had so far

That sounds like mainly organization and housekeeping, but if you rise above the roadway, it’s managing.  I wanted to do better at managing both work and non-work projects.  I figured if I could accomplish any of those things in the list, and especially more than one at once, I’d be far more likely to get a project done.   Or at least get it moving.

Not dwelling long enough on things can be my Waterloo.

What would matter?

At GE, we talked about CTQs: the critical-to-quality items that represent a customer’s view about what’s most important for a product or service.  My own CTQs for doing better included:

  • Retention–whatever’s in the system is ultimately in my own custody, not solely a wisp in someone else’s cloud bank.
  • Ubiquity–a system that I could use in my office, on a client site, or somewhere else.
  • Dwell time–an increased ability for me to stay with the task at hand.

Was that a wrong note?

For some time, I’ve used Evernote, which modestly says you can capture anything, access it anywhere, and find things fast.  (Optional side trip: Evernote’s 90-second intro: .)

Evernote lets you create individual notes, store them in virtual notebooks, and access them on your own computer, from any computer, or through a smartphone–hey, ubiquity!  The database with your notes is stored not only on their servers (which you don’t own) but also on your PC, with automatic synchronization. You can cloudify if you like, but having a local copy of the database helps satisfy my CTQ for retention.

I’ve used Evernote for more than two years, mainly in that unfocused, plunge-right-in, that’s-kind-of-cool way. (A particular favorite: because I sketch a lot of ideas on flipcharts, I love being able to snap a picture, transfer it to Evernote, and later search for text in the image.)

Seek and ye shall find

Most of the time, though, I was also making multiple notebooks and creating a myriad of tags.  When it comes to tagging, some people believe that enough is enough and too much is plenty, but for me there’s a real problem with diminishing returns.  (We’ll skip over the issue of typos, as well as the pluralization dilemma: Is the tag finance or finances?)

Organization and productivity are connected.I’d been cruising a predictable arc, from an initial everything-fits enthusiasm to a distressing suspicion that I’d reinvented the junk drawer.

To be is to be done?

On a separate track, I’d been reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  I approached this book with hesitation, or more accurately evangeloskepticism, because of the… well, let’s say, the ardor of some GTD adherents.  The people who always say “GTD.” If they were Apple users, they’d be the ones who care about the code name for the next operating system.

Messy and distractable I may be, but I appreciate the advantages of a system, even if I sometimes appreciate it from afar.  Allen’s approach is more about thinking systematically than about particular tools–though you can, if you desire, buy a set of 43 plastic file folders for only $39.95 (plus shipping).  So I’ve been applying elements of that system, and adjusting the way I work with my paper files and with Evernote, and I’m happy with how the results look so far.

Closeup of Notebooks in Evernote's sidebar

Different ways to see your project

Two useful, intertwined concepts: first, a task is something you can complete in a single chunk of time. “Peel the carrots” is a task.  If you’re like me, “do the grocery shopping” is also a task; I may have a big list of items, but I get them in one trip.

At my house, we have a cluster of grocery-related tasks: plan dinner  for the week, check the ingredients we need, build a grocery list, shop (ideally, with the list).  Getting Things Done calls such a cluster a project: “any desired result that requires more than one action step.”

Which leads to the second useful concept: you don’t do a project, you do the next step.  From a manage-your-work perspective, think of the project as the goal you want to achieve (groceries purchased, workshop delivered, kitchen remodeled).  You revisit the project to generate thoughts about what the next steps might be.  When you don’t have any more steps, the project’s done.

So I create what I call a project page, which is a highfalutin name for a note on which I put a short description of the goal of the project, along with a timeframe (however nebulous) and the tag I’ve chose for that project.  I’ll also use the project page to jot notes about ideas related to the project.  That means the project page becomes a kind of greenhouse where idea seedlings can germinate until they turn into action steps.

Action steps (things I can do) become separate notes, each tagged as part of the project.  So do reference items, like email that I forward to Evernote, making the contents of the email more readily searchable.  So do things like PDF documents, which can be dragged into their own note.

Now I have a Projects notebook.  I use Evernote’s filtering tools to control what I see when I click the Projects notebook, like this:

Search in just one notebook for a particular tag

Previously, I had more than a dozen project-specific notebooks in that sidebar. And if I create a new notebook for any multi-step effort I have (even small one with long duration, like “get a digital copy of the LP that Mom has no turntable for”), I could easy have three or four dozen.

This works better.  And I can do the same sort of selective display across multiple notebooks.

If it’s not a step, it might be a reference

David Allen suggests putting all your project-support material (things that don’t require an action but that you want to retain) into a reference file.  He leaves the form of that file up to you, though he’s quite the fan of a single, alphabetical-order, paper filing system.  I have those, but I prefer keeping digital (i.e., searchable) copies, which now go into a Reference notebook.

Search all notebooks for items with the _ABC tag

Allen might be less in favor of a separate location for the work-specific diaries that I call project logs, so if you see him, don’t tell him that’s what I have.  I tend to make the logs for large projects; for small ones, I’ll jot ongoing notes on the project page.  Not necessarily consistent, but, oh, well.

Not a close-up of my desktop

More than a third of my Evernote items are in the REFERENCE notebook.  To me, this makes sense.  For active projects, a lot of the relevant material isn’t a trigger for action; it’s project support.  It’s reference material.

If an item appears useful to more than one project, I apply multiple project tags.  That way it’ll show up in project-specific searches.

I also have a Project Archive notebook.  When I complete a project, I select all its items from the Projects notebook and move them to the archive.  Why?  Because that’s what I’ve always done.

In my corporate, cubicle-based days, the bottom of my four-drawer file was labeled Attic. It became a combination of historical record, reference room, and security blanket.  (I’m no hoarder, though;  every year or two, when it got full, I’d weed it back by a third or so.)

The Projects notebook and the Project Archive account for another 20% of my notes, which means that together with Reference, half of what I keep in Evernote is in just three notebooks.

Not that there’s a prize for Fewest Notebooks Used–though if there were, Ruud Hein would be a real contender.  He wrote an Evernote GTD How To that inspired me to experiment and adapt.  (I also like his tone and his pragmatism.)

Speaking of pragmatism, this post is long enough.  I have a follow-up underway with some more examples of what I’ve tried and what results I’ve gotten.

Evernote examples are my own.
CC-licensed images: dwell time by Owen Blacker.
Junk drawer by windsordi / Di Bédard.
Archive of papers by Ben McLeod.

6 thoughts on “In progress: my (Ever)note on getting things done

  1. Hi Dave: Welcome to the “GTD” world! I’ve been on and off the wagon a few times over the last five years or so. Like you i was attracted to the system and it’s “next action” in the moment decision making, but over time (and more than a few GTD apps) I’ve settled on a simplified version of it from the guy who writes the Zen Habits productivity blog. It true to the GTD principles, just simplifies the system a bit. He called his version “Zen to Done” and wrote a short booklet on it which was free for a while but he seems to be selling to now.


  2. Tom, I see similarities in how people use any system, from GTD to Weight Watchers. The approach some people find most efficacious is orthodoxy: do the prescribed steps as they’re prescribed. If the system’s well-designed and based on reality, that orthodoxy can pay off.

    For me, though, the kind of simplification or adjustment you’re talking about is part of taking a system and making it my system. So I have my separate notebook for project logs; I have my project archive; I will never have the official set of 43 plastic folders for a tickler file.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your organizational ideas on this and the reference to the Ruud Hein article. I’ve been wondering how to better make use of Evernote and you’ve given me some food for thought about how to combine it with Goal Enforcer, which I also use for organizing project steps. I feel inspired! :-)

  4. Rachel, I’m glad you found this helpful. I think Ruud’s approach is good: he’s having fun playing with the technology, but he’s also laissez-faire. I like the “notebook” metaphor, and in my head (as well as my office) I have dedicated notebooks, so having several of them suits my inclination.

    At the end of his post, addressing the issue of Getting-Things-Done orthodoxy, he links to Kelly Forrister’s great post, It’s Not About the Lists. It’s worth (re)quoting her here:

    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…

  5. Hi Dave… great to hear of your continuing success in using some of the GTD concepts and guidelines, and in implementing them with Evernote. Good stuff. As you know, I’ve been a long-time GTD’er myself — recommending it sometimes on #lrnchat and elsewhere… one of those passionate “adherents” you referred to in your post. :-)

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