I have tried many of the time management systems out there over the years. I gave up on all of them, usually because I was finding it took me too long to learn them and to maintain them.
What I want a time management system to do easily is:
- Maintain a list of all my tasks, and would-be tasks
- Prioritise them without having to score them, rewrite them, etc
- Maintain a list of all my projects, and where I am with them
- Start off my day knowing exactly where I am with my appointments, tasks, and projects
- Know at a glance what I have to do now, and next.
- Not miss anything or forget anything
The system I am about to tell you about allows me to do all this – and easily.
I use a simple combination of the Getting Things Done method of David Allen together with Evernote. You can do it for free, though the paid version of Evernote gives you a little more functionality.
Since I started using this method – I’ll call it “GTD+EN” for short – I have never looked back. I have found it effective in practice and exceedingly easy to implement. (Being a user of both GTD and Evernote for years helps.)
Getting Things Done…
David Allen’s time management principles are admirable; but his book cannot be considered a simple, instructional guide. It is rather complex. Or at least convoluted. This is not surprising as he is trying to help everyone from the one man band right up to the highflying executive types who he consults with.
He leaves it so open as to the tools you might use that you can end up not being sure where to start.
That was me, anyway.
Then, years later, I found Daniel Gold’s book on applying GTD by using Evernote. Many of you will have heard of it.
Well, this approach was clearer, but I still found myself reading and rereading to try to get to the essence of how he organised his tasks and his projects. Again, a little complex; indeed, it was designed for his lawyer practice which was overkill for me, and maybe for you. I still didn’t get it.
Then I saw the light – what made GTD+EN fall into place for me was The Secret Weapon by braintoniq. This described a simple system, combining GTD and Evernote, which is suitable for the small business person.
It has its deficiencies; you do need to be familiar with GTD, and the video series completely misses out how to deal with projects. (And you can probably miss out the video on getting Outlook Exchange to work for you in IMAP mode….)
But the coverage on setting up and prioritising your tasks really fell exactly into place for me. (I just had to work out how to deal with projects )
In case you are not familiar with or clear about GTD, here are a few fundamentals.
The basic idea with Getting Things Done is that you get all of your tasks, or to-dos, out of your head, intray and inbox, and written down in a trusted system. So you clear all your clutter, maintaining a:
- clear desk
- empty intray
- empty email inbox, and a
- minimalist diary (only put in what you have to) …
- …and have all your tasks and projects at your fingertips.
Secondly, with GTD, you only write down specific actions on your task list (which is in Evernote).
So, rather than: “buy a new computer”, which involves several steps, you would just write the first action down, perhaps: “decide on the specification I want for a new computer”.
In this case, “buy a new computer” itself is written down on a separate: “Active projects” list so you don’t lose track of it. Of course, this is a small project: but it still has to be tracked along with the other small projects – and large projects – you may have. Maintaining a list of them which you can review regularly is essential if you are to keep track.
Evernote allows you to add notes into “notebooks”, and tag your notes. A note can only be in one notebook. A note can have as many tags as you like. (Fewer is better – you don’t need many tags because Evernote’s search facility is so good.)
My GTD-EN System
Here are the key points of my own GTD + EN system, which takes the bits which are the best for me from Daniel Gold, David Allen, braintoniq, and the other systems I mention in the post and then I add my own slant.
I use three Evernote notebooks – To-do, Filing, and Completed.
To manage your tasks in GTD+EN you need fewer than 20 tags +1 for each active project you have going on.
Aside from that, I have only around 50 tags – e.g. I have a parent tag Travel with child tags currently being Lake District, Peru, Turkey, Travel ideas and Weekends away. Then I have a parent tag Dining, with child tags Brighton dining, London dining, and Sussex dining.
For these topics I find those tags useful: but, whenever I can, I try to get by without tagging notes, even if that means adding an extra word or two, or acronym, when I create a note.
The whole point of GTD+EN is to manage your tasks, or To-dos, efficiently. I create one note for each task.
Projects are a combination of tasks. GTD+EN shares David Allen’s definition of a project as being anything with more than one task. You shouldn’t take this to ridiculous extremes, but it does mean that something like: the “buy a new laptop” item I mentioned earlier will go on your project list and not your task list if it actually consists of;
- determine my laptop budget
- research laptops online
- select laptop run it past IT adviser
- buy laptop
So: “buy a new laptop”, will go on your project list, and: “determine my laptop budget”, and, if you choose: “research laptops online”, will have notes created for them and will become tasks.
I checked out the tagging systems used by all the sources I give in this post, and I found braintoniq’s to be the best. These are the When tag, What tag, Where tag and Who tag.
The When tag
Every task definitely needs one tag – the tag indicating the priority of the task. For convenience this is called the When tag. To repeat, this is the only tag which every task MUST have.
The What tag
Every task must also have a second tag IF it relates to a project. This is called the What tag and consists of your name for the project.
The Where tag and the Who tag
The Where tag is used IF it’s helpful for you to identify the location where a task can be done, or must be done. For example, if you want to be able to view all the tasks that you can do at home then you will have a tag Home or, following the GTD convention, @Home.
The Who tag will be one for each of a number – usually a small number – of significant people in your world where, if having a meeting, on a phone call, or chatting to them it would be useful for you to click on that tag and see all tasks tagged with their name.
When, What, Where, Who in more detail
The When Tag
Remember, that each task in Evernote must have one, and only one, When tag. The when tags are:
- Later, and
The Now tag is where you will spend most of your time. It may well contain 4-6 tasks and, as they get depleted you will add one or two from Next.
Next may contain 10-12 items. Soon – maybe 20. And so on: you just have to tweak it to your own purposes. Have you got fewer than 50 tasks? Then you are lucky LOL – you won’t need “Later”: use what you need and what suits you.
If you are familiar with GTD you will recognise the Someday/Maybe term as a catch-all category either for ideas you are not quite ready to discard yet, or items which are just very low on your current list of priorities.
I am sure it won’t have escaped your notice that, as every single task is written down, and every one also has one of these five “When” tags, you only have to glance at the tasks tagged “Now”, to get an immediate handle on your current commitments.
You will also probably have guessed that altering the priority of one of your tasks is as simple as changing a “Next”, or “Soon” (or Later or Someday/Maybe) tag for a “Now” tag. Very quick, very easy.
And if a new, urgent task comes in which tag does it get? I’ll leave that one with you ;-) ‘Nuff said – I hope you agree this is simple and elegant.
So that is how you deal with “urgency”, or “priority” in GTD-EN.
When, What and Who – The other three main tags
The What tag
What tags are named after your projects. If it helps you, give the main What tag two children: Active Projects and Inactive Projects to help you track what you are working on currently. Optionally, you can also have Completed Projects. The sub What tags within Active Projects will be tags named after each project of yours which is currently active.
Every task relating to a project has that project’s tag. If it relates to two projects then I’ll tag it with both of them.
Any support material for a project which you have filed – I would file it in my Filing notebook – will also have the project’s tag.
Tagging in this way, you can go to Evernote and immediately see the data you want relating to any single project. Click on the relevant notebook, click on the relevant tag (eg the project tag) or multiple tags (by holding Ctrl as you click) to display either:
- All tasks relating to a specific project, or
- All project support material relating to a specific project, or
- Everything in Evernote relating to a specific project.
This is brilliant! (I got carried away with a bit of hyperbole there, but for me this functionality is absolutely blissful.)
The Where tag
The Where tags are all about “context”: where you are, or need to be – at home, at work, in the car, in town, etc – when you do a task.
For many people this tag would be vital. The fact that I hardly use Where tags just shows how flexible this system is.
The reasons I don’t need Where tags is that for me, the @Home, @Work, and @Errands – the most commonly used Where tags – roll into one. That is because I work from home, and 50-100 yards from me are all the shops that I need.
For example, if you have to travel a mile to get to any shops, then you might want to use the @Errands tag. (Though internet shopping makes it less essential these days.)
So use the Where tags to suit yourself. Other Where tags people use include @Computer, @Phone and @Car (think “listening to podcasts”, or “making calls from carphone”).
One recommendation, though: use as few tags as you can comfortably get away with. I am really pleased that I am saved the trouble – at least currently – of having to tag every task with a Where tag. But if it does help your work flow, use it.
The Who tag
This tag is to make sure you miss nothing when you are meeting with someone, or talking to someone on the phone. For example, I have a tag for the Operations Manager of my herbal business – @Shelley – so that when we have a meeting I can pull up all the notes – tasks or filed items – I want to bring up. Similarly, I have a business coach and when we are on Skype talking together I want to be able to pull up all the things I wanted to talk to him about. So I have the tag @Coach.
Then I have the tag @Karl, my IT guy, and I save tasks to talk to him about when he comes in for his regular visits. And so on.
Another appropriate use for a Who tag is regular meeting you might hold or attend – for example: @Team meeting. Label random ideas for agenda items with this tag, or tasks you need to do yourself before the next meeting.
So, think about the Who tags which would be useful for you, with the usual warning that “fewer is better, other things being equal”.
The final tag to mention is the Waiting For tag, which is added to any task which you have delegated or where you have an outstanding commitment to you. For example, you have ordered something and you await delivery. This helps you keep a check on people.
You check this tags contents once every day or two, or as often as makes you comfortable.
My GTD+EN Morning Routine
My own morning routine is now:
- Check diary and see what I have in it for today/tomorrow.
- Check email inbox and desk intray and get both down to zero: create to-dos, filed items, delegate, discard, reply as necessary. (Only reply if less than 5 minutes, or if you have time, else create a to-do.)
- Check my Now and Next and maybe Soon and shuffle things around.
- Check Waiting for and chase anything I need to.
- Choose a Now task and get working.
Once a week I check through all my tasks and tweak them, delete them, or move change their tags. I also make any changes of project between active and inactive. I check that every active project has at least one to-do task.
I hope that gives you a flavour of how conveniently Evernote can be combined with GTD. It has been a revelation for me.
I hope that it will entice some of you to consider GTD+EN. Or perhaps some of you, like me, have not found it easy to combine GTD and EN and this has given you fresh hope: I hope so.
If you want to develop your own system for combining GTD and EN I suggest you research all the following, as they all have something to offer, if you like doing research.
The best known independent author on the topic of Evernote is Daniel Gold. He sells a book which is just $5. To get started with GTD+EN you don’t really need it: but it might be useful once you have got going with it and want some extra tips. I think that for many internet marketers his approach may be overkill: but if you want a really thorough approach, but one which takes a little more time, try it.
Here are some other links to free information, software and discussions related to combining GTD and Evernote:
- A discussion at Evernote
- Darren Crawford
- David Ward (another lawyer – as is Daniel Gold :-|)
- Ruud Hein
- Stack Exchange
- Simplicity Bliss
- The Secret Weapon
On HeyMalc I have Top Ten Tips for time management which highlight some additional points which I use together with my use of Evernote and GTD. You might find this helpful.
Go for it – and good luck!
I hope this description is useful and that you follow up on my recommendation of using Evernote plus GTD which is quick to implement, effective in use, and which can give you complete confidence that you are working on the most important thing right now, and that you have overlooked nothing.
I have tried every time management system going over the years and, for me, nothing comes close to the method I have described here. I hope you find it as good as I do, and that it might help you break free of information overload which, I know, plagues many people. Or that in some other way it helps you get better organised.
Please ask me any questions where I have not been clear – and leave comments below.
I’d also appreciate a share using the social sharing buttons. Thanks!