How I use Evernote to run my life (part 2)

Evernote LogoA few weeks ago I outlined how I set up Evernote to be the basis of my Trusted System that I use to run my life.  Now, I am going to share how I use this system in my daily life.

The beauty of Evernote is it’s friction-free ability to get “stuff” into Evernote so you can process it later and ensure you never forget anything that is actionable.  This is critical to having a Trusted System and the stress-free productivity that goes with it.  Almost every morning during the week I go to the gym and alternate between Pilates, cardio  and strength training workouts.

On the cardio days, I use the elliptical trainer and my iPad to read while listening to a up-beat playlist to motivate me to keep my heart rate up.  I start out reading the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and LA Times to catch up on what is going on in the world.  If I find an article that I want to keep, I use the “share” function to email it and I send it to my Evernote email address.

Keeping up with information

RSSThen I go on to process my RSS Feeds via Feedly. I love Feedly as my replacement for Google Reader and Feedler Pro. It works across the web on Mac or PC, iOS and Android so no matter what device I am using, I can process my feeds and it will sync across devices.

Sharing information with the world

BufferIf I find an article that I want to share with the world, I use Buffer to tweet it and post it to LinkedIn.  I highly recommend Buffer because it allows you to schedule your tweets and posts so they don’t all come at the same time. This allows your followers to consume your tweets and posts easier.

Leveraging audio content

PodcastsOn strength training  days, I listen to podcasts on my iPhone with the Apple Podcasts player. I use Fast Ever to add the location of the bookmarks that I place in the podcasts to follow-up on them later in Evernote.

Processing email to zero

When I am processing email and I come across an action that is more than two minutes, I forward it to Evernote and drag the email to my Archived folder in case I ever need to original email.

  Processing web sites

web clipperIf I am on the web or I click thru to a web site and see something actionable or a reference item I want to save for future use, I use the Evernote Web Clipper to clip the article to Evernote.

Processing physical paper

scansnapIf I have a physical piece of paper that needs to get into my trusted system I use my ScanSnap to scan it to Evernote. One button is all it takes!

Capturing ideas or actionable items on the go

Fast EverIf I come up with an idea or someone tells me something actionable, I use Fast Ever to input it via text or use Sound Ever to record it as a voice memo.

Capturing ideas or actionable items while driving

Siri

Similarly, If I am driving, I use Siri to do a voice to text conversion to send it to Evernote.  Try it. It works surprisingly well.

All of these processes end up with new actionable items waiting for me in my -Unprocessed folder in Evernote ready to process into the appropriate action and context for that item.  I can’t think of a better way to have a friction-free way to getting stuff into my trusted system than using Evernote.  And for this reason, Evernote has become the most important application I have on all my devices.

How I use Evernote to run my life

Evernote LogoEvernote serves as the foundation for my trusted system.  It is always available and I can easily access it from whatever device I am using. It syncs across all my devices so it doesn’t matter if I am on my laptop, my smartphone or my tablet because I can easily get information in and out of Evernote.

This is how my trusted system is set up.

Notebooks

I have 16 “Notebooks” which are the collections of individual notes. I also have two “Stacks” (Next Actions and Reference) which are collections of Notebooks.

  1. -Unprocessed
  2. Agendas
  3. Areas of Focus
  4. Next Actions:  Anywhere, Errands, Home, Office
  5. Projects
  6. Reference:  Bay Area, Education, GTD, Information Technology, Receipts, Reference
  7. Waiting For
  8. Someday/Maybe

Tags

I use “Tags” sparingly and really only use two tags – Today and Weekend. Tags are attributes that you can apply to any individual note. You can then view all notes with a specific tag, regardless of which notebook it resides in. This provides for the ultimate in filing flexibility and many people prefer to use tags as the basis for their system instead of notebooks.

Evernote email address

Each Evernote account is assigned a unique email address. You can find this in the desktop version of Evernote under Evernote – Account Info. Your email address will look like this “username.c12345@m.evernote.com” and you should add this address to your contacts. I created a new contact called, “Evernote” and assigned this email address to it. Now when I want to send a message to Evernote, I simply send it to my new Evernote contact.

Default Notebook

Set your default notebook in Evernote so when you email something to Evernote, it is automatically filed in your default notebook. Mine goes to a notebook named “-Unprocessed.” (I start it with a dash, so that it appears at the top of the sorted list of notebooks.) However, you can set this to anything you want. You can do this in the desktop version of Evernote under Preferences – Clipping.

That’s it. My Trusted System that runs my entire life is in this simple yet powerful tool called Evernote. Next, I show how I use this system to manage everything.

Why you should get stuff out of your head

Get stuff out of your headOne of the key tenants of GTD is getting stuff out of your head.

Many people do not understand why this is so important.

The reason is our minds are not built to remember all of the little “commitments” we make every day. Our subconscious knows we have some kind of commitment and it “worries” in the background or subconsciously that we will forget something important. This leads to stress.

So, the way out of this is to put the “stuff” (appointments, numbers, tasks, ideas, notes, worries, promises, deadlines, reminders, projects, maybes, etc.) in a Trusted System.

Think about life before electronic “contacts” applications.

You had to memorize things like people’s address and phone numbers. How well did that work out?  Sure, some people could memorize lots of phone numbers and were very proud of this fact. But, most people had no way of memorizing lots of phone numbers and needed a way to “get them out of their head” and into a Trusted System.

Initially, people used pencil and paper to store people’s addresses and phone numbers. Then the trusted system was a physical “Rolodex” or some kind of a journal with all your contact info. Then, as technology advanced, for most people it was “Contacts” in Outlook that served as our trusted system. Finally, the concept of contacts became universal and today our mobile devices make our contacts available to us anytime, anywhere on earth.  What a great trusted system! Calendars followed a similar path.

When we trust a system to store our “stuff” our brain let’s go of that little background task that is worried you will forget about the commitment.  If there is one thing that technology is great at, it’s remembering things. The biggest instant benefit of capturing your “stuff” is that once you capture it, you feel relief instantly. The is because once you have captured your “stuff” you can forget about it. You know where to find it if/when you need it.  And this reduces stress.

Don’t store things in your head. Put them in a trusted system. You will be rewarded with relief and increased mental capacity. You will almost immediately feel better.  By capturing your “stuff”, you will increase your mental capacity. It’s like an upgrade for your brain.

Once you start doing this, you might be shocked how clearly you can think and how efficiently you can function. It’s almost like magic.

Tell me about your trusted system.

Evernote adds reminders!

Evernote LogoAwesome update to Evernote for Mac and iOS with the ability to “tag” things with a reminder time and receive an email to remind you. The update also creates a “checklist” with all the reminders for the day that can be checked off. Significant enhancement for my  use of Evernote for GTD.

I have been waiting for reminders in Evernote to close the loop on many items of my GTD system. This is especially true for the “Waiting For” and the “Projects Delegated” Notebooks.

Thank you Evernote!

How to reduce stress in your life

StuffI received a lot of positive feedback on a previous post The Basics of GTD, so here is a slightly different overview of GTD and why it relieves stress.

It all starts with “stuff”…

We all have “stuff” in our heads and it shouldn’t be there. David Allan defines “stuff” as: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step.” (page 17 of Getting Things Done) and when we have stuff in our heads, it causes untold stress and anxiety.

Stuff has no “home” and, consequently, no place to go, so it just keeps rattling around in your head causing subconscious stress. David calls this stuff “open loops” and we are all too neurotic to stop thinking about it, and we certainly don’t have time to actually do everything we keep in our heads.

So we sprint from fire to fire, reacting to the “latest and loudest” praying we haven’t forgotten anything, sapped of our creativity and the flexibility to adapt our own schedule to the needs of our friends, family or ourselves. In this situation our “stuff” has taken over our brain like a virus, dragging down every process it touches and rendering us spent and virtually useless.

Here is an overview of how GTD addresses all the stuff in your head. The process is – Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do.

  1. Capture all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place. (open loops)
  2. Eliminate all the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now.
  3. Create a “Trusted System” that supports your working style and values.
  4. Put your stuff in your Trusted System to get it out of your head.
  5. Review your system periodically to ensure you have everything.
  6. Do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment.
  7. Iterate and refactor in a continuous improvement cycle.

So, basically, you make your stuff into next actionable items that you can complete. Everything you keep has a clear reason for being in your life at any given moment—both now and well into the future. This gives you an amazing kind of confidence that nothing gets lost and you always understand what’s on/off your plate.

Also built-in to the system are an ongoing series of reviews, in which you periodically re-examine your now-organized stuff from various levels of granularity to make sure your vertical focus (individual projects and their tasks) is working in concert with your horizontal focus.

Really not that complicated and I guaranty it works. How do you manage your stuff?

It’s Not The Tool, It’s How You Use It – The Evernote Instant Agenda (Part 1)

Another excellent guest post by David Freedman whom I consider a GTD Black Belt.

EvernoteDid the title get your attention? :)  We all know it’s not entirely true – the tool does matter and so too does your technique.  Evernote 5 is a crowd favorite here on GTDforCIOs.  In a multipart guest post series I will share some of my favorite Evernote tricks that bring to life some practical GTD magic.

I work in a dynamic corporate environment where we value PEOPLE above all.  From a GTD perspective, PEOPLE are my most important context.  In order to build strong relationships, I want to have meaningful conversations with them at every chance encounter.  I want to talk to them about how I enjoyed the restaurant they recommended, tell them that I haven’t forgotten about the email I owe them or ask them what they are doing for their kid’s birthday next week.  Here’s how I use Evernote 5 to make sure I’m good at internal relationships.

1)  When I PROCESS (recall the steps Capture > Process > Organize > Review > Do) my CAPTURED items from my Evernote inbox, I always tag with a person context unless the item pertains to me and nobody else.  If the item pertains to multiple people, I tag the item with multiple people.  If the item pertains to a project, I still tag the item with the most important people on that project…you’ll see why soon.  I thank the curator of this blog (Michael) for encouraging a shift from my previous nomenclature of “f.Michael” meaning “for Michael” to the more contemporary “@Michael.”

DAF12)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I configure my default view to Sort By Notebook as my Notebooks provide important timing, size and status context.

DAF2

3)  In Evernote 5 for Android, I use the new “Shortcuts” feature to save people context searches for those I want to be most prepared for.

DAF3

4)  Prior to scheduled meetings or when I see someone walking down the hall or at any other opportune moment, I click on the shortcut in Evernote 5 for Android pertaining to people I’m about to encounter and VOILA!…I have an instant agenda.  I quick visual scan of the items tagged to that individual along with the notebook they are stored in and I load in my mind something meaningful to talk to them about.

Note that in Step 1, I mentioned that even when project is the central focus of an item, I always tag by related people.  Being that the “Instant Agenda” is one of my most valuable use cases, the project tag does not help fulfill the goal.

How I Use Evernote

With so much feedback about Evernote, I decided to ask David Findlay to write a guest post about how he uses Evernote.

I got my first job when I was 17, filling shelves on Saturday nights in a supermarket. The incompletes in my world were obvious and needed no tracking. Empty shelves here, pallets loaded up with new stock over there — combine the two, fast and neatly enough to appease the over-zealous shift manager.

I’ll turn 30 in a few months as the Business Manager for a not-for-profit group that includes a multi-site church, a crisis-relief charity and a registered training organization working with the long-term unemployed.  I also play drums with a local jazz big band and do life with a wife and two small, energetic kids (pocket rockets). Life is busy. I have more inputs arrive in my world in the average waking hour than I used to receive in a week as a 17-year-old supermarket employee.

Evernote holds my trusted system

Evernote holds my trusted system for practicing GTD — for dealing with all these inputs and converting them from amorphous “stuff” into precise action and follow-up. It works in partnership with my brain — which is not bad at assessing, deciding things and asking questions, but is hopeless at coping with large incoming volumes of disconnected information, storing that information and retrieving it quickly.

I also take my use of Evernote further than many people do by keeping ALL my personal filing in Evernote, as well as health and exercise logs, personal journal, sheet music* and random thoughts that might become something I present to my team at work, something I write about or simply something I come back to and reflect on a month or two later.

How I interface with Evernote

I get stuff IN to Evernote primarily through email and scanned paper. These are my two primary collection buckets, and it’s here that I decide something is worth acting upon, or may be later, and then feed it to Evernote for tracking. Evernote’s Windows app by itself has some value as a collection bucket, and the mobile app is useful when traveling or in meetings, but most of the time they’re all outshone by email and scanned paper, in my mind. Press a button on your scanner or forward to your Evernote email address, and it’s all waiting for you in Evernote.

The Evernote email address is far and away the best feature of Evernote. Because every app, blog, share button, content hosting site, social network, security alarm and internet-enabled doohickey allows you to send at least a link (or in many cases, full content or logs) via email, you have an automatic way to post information directly to Evernote, almost regardless of where it is.

I organize content in Evernote primarily through notebooks for incompletes — one for each horizon of focus, with a notebook stack at the top for next actions, containing one for each context. I also have a single notebook for filing, which is organized by tags. I use note-linking** to link task notes back to projects, and to link projects back to Areas of Focus or 1-2 year Goals. This helps me to retain some sense of purpose and connection up and down the six Horizons of Focus — that deadline I’m working back late to meet or thorny policy issue I’m pushing (to the unified groans of colleagues) may actually have some significance in the context of a 2-year goal I’ve set. This kind of big-picture motivation is sorely underrated.

Filing – Garbage in, garbage out.

The archivist in me always recommends that people take care to make sure their “filing” notes are titled and ordered consistently. Once you start dealing with a large number of notes (say, 2000+) then searching — and even tagging, if done sensibly — might only narrow things down to the nearest 30 to 50 notes. The ability to eyeball a list of six-year-old notes that long and know exactly what’s in each one without having to physically open them is a rare and valuable gift you should give to your future self.

Attachments – Use them for templates

Nearly a year ago I began the adventure of templating many of the repetitive tasks I do. I now keep these templates in Evernote, including partially filled forms that I regularly submit, standard-form contracts, report templates and Outlook email templates for messages I need to send often***. I also use a note template for when I’m starting a new project, which forces me to articulate the scope of the project, the successful outcome and a sequence of next actions — or sub-projects — that need to happen to get it moving.

Time-sensitive reminders

I use email through followupthen.com constantly to remind me of deadlines, and as a tickler file of sorts, to bring back to my attention info that will be useful at a known time down the track, but not now. I often email Evernote links to followupthen.com, knowing that at the set time I’ll be able to click straight to my thoughts or files on the task I need to deal with. One recent example — I used follow-up then to receive a link to the note in which I filed the tickets for the Coldplay concert, purchased nearly a year ago, to pop up in my inbox with a reminder to print them, a few hours before we had to leave for the event.

The rewards of Long-term use of Evernote

The simple act of repeatedly collecting useful information and having it made accessible at a moment’s notice brings significant rewards over time. This immediate, anywhere access is a benefit of Evernote that’s not available through many other formats in which people might hold their trusted system.

I’ve found that I could retrieve the contact details of a mechanic I used years ago (couldn’t remember his name, only the work he did on my car), based on an old service docket I kept. I could remember the words to a song I played years ago because I kept the sheet music for it in Evernote, and I could find it at the time the song was actually stuck in my head on a car ride. I could contribute valuable material in a strategic regional meeting for our movement, because I had taken notes in Evernote during a seminar I attended eighteen months ago in which a high-level administrator had covered exactly the topic being discussed. I could make decisions quickly while filing my tax return, find out what I claimed last year and what documentation I kept for it, then decide if the same thing applies this year, because it’s all in Evernote.

Novel uses for Evernote

Delayed departmental reports

When I have a colleague coming back from annual leave and I want to notify them of any key developments or progress made in their area while they were gone, I’ll write the report up in a note in Evernote. Then I’ll create a public link of the note, and shorten it using clockurl before emailing it to them, so the link won’t become accessible until 8am on the morning of their return. This helps me prepare ahead of time so it’s no longer on my mind, while protecting their serenity for the last few days of their break.

(Not) Health logs

There are a many tracking apps out there for recording your diet and exercise (and in fairness, a few of them are really good), but during periods when I’m tracking these things closely, I’ll write the particulars out in a note. No need to complicate things, or add another app to my phone or another collection bucket. The most viscerally impacting of these are some 4-Hour Body binge day logs from my last weight-loss experiment. Any time I struggle for dietary motivation, I revisit all the tragic lists of garbage I ate on prescribed binge days, complete with their approximate caloric contents. 2,500 calories of custard-crème-filled donuts in one two-hour session? Thank you — I’m going to go and eat an entire head of lettuce right now.

Evernote, in the beginning, was nothing more than a way to practice GTD that appealed to my nerdier side. None of my colleagues used it (which made it so much cooler, somehow). There’s a good reason why it’s become mainstream, and why I’ve stuck with it longer than any other piece of self-management software: it handles with excellence the things my brain doesn’t do at all well. It makes me look better than I really am.

* Sheet music stored in Evernote and read on a tablet is a useful practice tool. Don’t use it on stage, though — the screen glow from your tablet annoys the lighting tech and it’s nigh impossible to reliably flick pages during the more difficult pieces in between strokes with your left hand.

** There’s enough friction in this action that it only gets maintained and updated during a weekly review. Hence, missing or rushing a weekly review always results in lost perspective, not just control.

*** I’d prefer to use mailto: links instead of templates, but sadly Evernote’s Windows app won’t let you add &subject= and &body= arguments to these, so I can’t template a full email using a link. Outlook’s .oft templates are the next best thing, although you have to recreate them any time you want to make changes.

Why I love Evernote

Evernote Logo

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in BusinessWeek by Rob Walker called As Evernote’s Cult Grows, the Business Market Beckons and it got me thinking about my use of Evernote.

Over time, Evernote has been “stealing” minutes from other productivity applications in my life. The biggest “looser” has been Outlook. I used to use Tasks in Outlook for my “Trusted System” but for the last couple of years I have been using Evernote.

It has also been stealing minutes from Word because I do lots of my rough outlines and “brainstorming” in Evernote too. It just seems like Evernote is so flexible and solves so many of my problems that it continues to gobble up more and more of my time.

As Walker says in the article, “Once you get it, they say, you live and die by Evernote” and sooner or later you get caught up in “The Evernote Lifestyle.” Not only do I rely on it as the foundation for my GTD Trusted System, but I use it for and ever-increasing range of tasks.

It’s logo is an elephant because it is designed to help you “Remember Everything.” Here is a quick example, I’m in the gym and I keep running into the same people in the locker room but forgetting their names. So, I say “I’m sorry I forgot your name” and then when they tell me I put it in Evernote with a little clue to help me remember. Then the next time I see the person I just whip out my phone and I can easily find their name. This has happened countless times.

Getting information in and out of Evernote is the key to its success. You can capture anything - your ideas, things you like, things you hear, and things you see. You can capture and retrieve your “stuff” on any device because Evernote works with nearly every computer, phone and mobile device out there. And you can find you stuff fast by searching by keyword, tag or even printed and handwritten text inside images.

Evernote is exhibit A for what a modern app should be. It is easy to use, fast, free, works on virtually all devices, leverages the cloud to store your information and sync it across all your devices. It leverages the “freemium” model where you can pay for additional functionality.

The people who I have recommended Evernote to generally fall into one of two camps. They either, try it for a little while and quit because they don’t “get it” or it becomes the foundation for their entire organizational structure and they can’t imagine life without Evernote.

Which camp do you fall into and why?

Why “to-do lists” do not work

HBR

I read a great article called “To-Do Lists Don’t Work” in the Harvard Business Review that reminded me of one of the most common mistakes people make about GTD. Often when people get exposed to GTD, they equate to-do lists with Getting Things Done. This is misses the subtlety of David’s system as the only thing they have in common is lists. In the article Daniel Markovitz make several great points.

  1. The Paradox of Choice – “…our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. It’s easier for us to make decisions and act when there are fewer choices from which to choose. Looking at the 58 items on your to-do list will either paralyze you or send you into default mode: checking email for an hour instead of doing real work.”
  2. Heterogeneous complexity – “When your list contains some tasks that are three minutes long and some that are 33 minutes, you’ll invariably focus on the shorter one for the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes from crossing an item off your list.”
  3. Heterogeneous priority - “When your list comprises items of varying priorities, you tend to take care of the “A” priorities and let the “C” priorities lie fallow…until it becomes an “A” priority itself. But would you rather take care of your car maintenance when it’s a “C” priority, or when it’s an “A” priority: when your car breaks down at 3 AM outside the Mojave Desert, 175 miles from home?”
  4. Lack of context – “To-do lists don’t provide sufficient context for the tasks to help you determine what you should work on. How long will each task take? And how much time do you have available? If you can’t answer these questions, you can’t intelligently decide what you should be working on.”

These four things are really David Allen 101. It is critical to do the thinking about your “stuff” before you actually do your stuff. Items need to be broken down into next actions that are parked on lists that are in the right context to be able to be done when you have the time and energy to do them.

Have you ever had a to-do list that worked for you long-term?

The Basics of GTD

BasicsMany people want me to give them the basics of GTD. They want to know what is the gist of GTD? Well, if you want it boiled down to the basics, here’s it is:

1) Create a Trusted System – just like your contacts or calendar, you need to create a Trusted System where your brain will know you can trust to check to see what you have to do in your life so you can get it out of your head.

2) Outcome-Based Thinking – Articulating in the most specific terms possible what specifically a successful outcome looks like for any give use of your time. Another way to think about it is “How will I know when I’m done with this?”

3) Define the Next Action – Knowing that you don’t need to track everything you could conceivable do about a Project but just the next action to move it forward. You just need to know the next physical action that would get you closer to completion.

4) The Weekly Review – Accepting that the heart of the Trusted System that lets you move through a day with a high tolerance for ambiguity is the knowledge that eventually everything you’re doing gets looked at once a week without fail.

That’s it. I can’t boil it down to anything simpler than those four steps.

What is your minimal version of GTD?

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