As a solutions architect I constantly have a huge list of tasks that need to be completed. For the longest time I have used Microsoft Outlook to manage my tasks which worked okay at first, but over time it turned into huge list of red (overdue) tasks. I discovered that “date” driven tasks don’t work well for me. I was constantly rescheduling tasks and always feeling behind.
I then discovered GTD (Getting Things Done) by David Allen, which introduces the concept of Next Actions to manage tasks. Rather than assigning a date to the tasks, you add it to a Next Actions list and simply work off of that list. There is a lot more to it then that, but I’ll spare the details here.
Why Evernote? I’m a Microsoft guy overall and I love OneNote. I still use OneNote every day for shared project notes and other things. However, I find that using OneNote to organize content gets to be cumbersome and messy. In Evernote, I can simply tag a note and not worry about which notebook and section it is in. Evernote allows me easily cross-reference notes using tags and search, which I love. It also feels more like a database than a notebook. I suppose the developer in me likes that aspect of it. I can build my daily workflow in Evernote, while in OneNote I spend more time organizing and searching.
So let’s get on with it.
My default notebook is called Inbox. This is the dumping ground for everything I want to process in Evernote. This includes ideas, tasks, emails I want to review, documents I want to edit, articles I want to read. Inspiration from the web. The purpose of the Inbox is to hold any content that may need further action.
The Cabinet notebook stores everything else in Evernote. I keep it simple by keeping all of my processed notes in this one notebook and use tags to organize the content within it.
Next Action Tags
My Next Action tags are very simple. Rather than using the “Context” as described by David Allen for GTD, I organize my next actions around the mode that I’m working in. I picked up this idea from Mike Vardy. The difference is that a “Context”, as described by David Allen, is more about where you are, while a “Mode” is about what you feel like doing at that moment.
By working on tasks that are in the same mode I can jump from one to the next without switching gears and losing focus. All of my Next Action tags start with an @. This makes them easy to find when typing into Evernote search and when tagging items.
Here are some examples of my Next Action tags.
- @agenda – Items I need to discuss with others.
- @chores – Chores I need to do when I’m at home.
- @development – Tasks that require me to write code.
- @documentation – Tasks that require me to write documentation or technical design.
- @errands – Tasks that need to be done while I’m not at home or work.
- @planning – Tasks that involve planning. I like to do these tasks together while I’m in the zone.
- @read-review – Items I want to read or watch later.
- @waiting for – Tasks that are being worked on by others that I need to follow-up on. (I like to keep this one full.)
- @writing – Blog posts that I’m writing and ideas for future blog posts.
Horizons of Focus Tags
In addition to Next Action tags I also tag content based on the project or topic it belongs to. I find that organizing the tags in a hierarchical outline helps me think of other projects that I may want to work on. I also keep active projects separate from inactive projects. Here is a snippet of how my project tags are organized. Notice that the actual project tags start with a . (dot). Again, this is to make them easy to find when tagging new items or searching across Evernote.
I use tags for other things as well. But I don’t spend time organizing them. I just put them in an “Other” bucket and generally use them when searching in Evernote.
Reminders and Calendar
While I generally do not to assign a due date to my tasks, I do use Evernote Reminders to remind me to review things on certain days. This could be a reminder to send a weekly status report, or just to change the air filters in my house every six months.
If I do have tasks that should be completed on or before a specific day I block off time on my calendar to work on that project. By utilizing my calendar to block off time I get a better sense of how my week looks and how busy I am with important tasks. It also lets others, who want to book meetings, see that I’m busy working on things.
Putting it all together
- Capture – Any ideas I have, tasks I need to process, articles to read, email to review, or anything else that I need to work on will go into the inbox.
- Process – I go through each item in the inbox and either do it (if it takes less than 2 minutes), or tag it appropriately and move it to the cabinet. I don’t actually do any of the work from the inbox (unless it takes less than a couple of minutes).
- Organize – About once a week (usually Sunday night) I’ll review my tags and make sure everything is up to date.
- Execute – If I have time blocked off on my calendar for a specific project or task, I’ll work on that. If not, I’ll pick a Next Action tag that makes the most sense based on where I am and the energy I have. I then start working on those tasks.
- Complete – When a task is complete I simply remove the Next Action tag. The note is always available as reference but no longer appears in my Next Actions list. Since each task is also tagged with a project, I can quickly see everything for that project in one list of notes by selecting that project tag.
While my process is always changing over time, this is how I work today. I find it interesting to see how others organize the work they need to get done. I hope sharing my approach is helpful to others who are trying to get work done using Evernote.