Why I use Evernote for my Trusted System

Evernote LogoMany people (either consciously or unconsciously) try to keep track of everything they need to do in their mind, which is a big mistake. Our brains are optimized for fast decision-making, not storage.  Trying to juggle too many things in your head at the same time is a major reason we get stressed out when there’s a lot of stuff going on.

The best way to stop mentally stressing and start being productive is to get all your “stuff” into your trusted system. 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) So, when we have stuff in our heads, it causes untold stress and anxiety. Once the information is out of your head, it’s far easier to figure out what to do with it.

I recently ran across an old friend who uses OmniFocus as the basis of his trusted system and he wanted to know why I used Evernote instead of OmniFocus. Choosing a tool for your trusted system is a personal decision and analog, digital and hybrid systems can work. Many people who are Mac-centric use OmniFocus and are extremely pleased with how it works for them and since it is designed with GTD in mind it makes it easy to follow GTD methodology.

So, what exactly is a trusted system?

We all use trusted systems today and probably don’t know it. Your calendar is a trusted system. Once you put a meeting or appointment into your calendar your brain “lets go of it” and no longer keeps it in your subconscious. Why does your brain “forget” that meeting or birthday?  The reason is your brain “trusts” your “system” (calendar) to remember it for you. Same thing goes for todays Contacts Apps for your names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc.

Calendar and Contact apps are specialized trusted systems for specific uses. In GTD you also need a general-purpose trusted system for all the other “stuff” in your life. My trusted system must be 1) easy to use 2) with me at all times 3) on all my devices. It must be able to provide friction-free capture of the incoming stuff that comes to me. It must be able to retrieve the relevant information I need at a moments notice. It must be able to handle digital and analog inputs depending on contexts. And most important, when building a trusted system, simplicity is the key – less is more – and that is why I use Evernote.

Evernote serves as the foundation for my trusted system because of its friction-free input and output of data. 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 home computer, my smartphone or my tablet because I can easily get information in and out of Evernote.

Evernote’s ecosystem of applications allows me to fine-tune how I use it for capture. I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner to scan all physical paper directly into Evernote. I use Fast Ever to capture text-based stuff in a friction-free manner. I also use the Evernote Web Clipper to clip web pages into Evernote with one-click ease.

This is how my trusted system is set up.


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

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

Some GTD Evernote practitioners use tags extensively to organize their system. I only use tags sparingly and really only use two tags – “Today” for the next actions I am planning on doing today and “Weekend” for next actions I plan on accomplishing over the 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. I do not use tags because of the extra steps (clicks or touches) it takes to tag the item introduces friction into the capture and processing processes.

Do not distinguish between work and personal

I don’t distinguish between work stuff and personal stuff for the same reason I do not use tags – I do not want additional clicks or touches when capturing or processing my stuff. Don’t confuse a context like @home where the next physical action can only be done at home with “personal” as in separating work stuff with personal stuff. In GTD, there is no distinction between business and personal – it is all “stuff” you need to do and it needs to get into your trusted system.

Use Evernote’s email address to easily get email stuff into your trusted system

In today’s world a significant amount tasks, action items, projects and other stuff are going to come to you via email. Fortunately, Evernote has a friction-free way to handle this. 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 something like this “username.c12345@m.evernote.com” and you should add this address to your contacts. I created a new contact called, “Inbox” and assigned this email address to it. Now when I want to send a message to Evernote, I simply forward it to my Inbox contact.

Set your 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.”

Capturing all your stuff

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.

Capturing email

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.

Capturing web sites

If 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.

Capturing RSS Feeds

If I see an actionable item when reading RSS feeds in Feedly, I just click on the send to Evernote icon.

Capturing physical paper

If 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

If I come up with an idea or someone tells me something actionable, I use Fast Ever to input it via text.

All of these way to capture stuff end up with new actionable items waiting for me in my Unprocessed folder 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.

That’s it. My Trusted System that runs my entire life is in this simple yet powerful tool called Evernote.


About Michael Keithley
Digital Transformation CIO and Public Speaker. Previously, CIO at Creative Artists Agency

6 Responses to Why I use Evernote for my Trusted System

  1. david_h says:

    Reblogged this on Getting Things Done accountant and commented:
    Personally I use OneNote – but that’s because work doesn’t allow web based software and I can’t load the Windows client. But Evernote is very powerful and I like the process defined here.

  2. brianbaute says:

    I used the “Secret Weapon” Evernote GTD methodology for about a year but found it to have lots of friction in assigning tags, etc. I’m now using a dedicated task manager (Nozbe) and then Evernote for everything else, similar to Bill.

  3. Bill Meade says:

    Nice post Michael. I’ve pointed to your blog from RestartGTD. I can’t bring myself to do projects in Evernote, but for those who can, this is a great, succinct, starting place. – bill

    • Thanks Bill! Many people love OmniFocus and i totally get it. What is your preference?

      • Bill Meade says:

        I do reference filing religiously in Evernote. But I do my project planning with a mix of 3×5 cards and OneNote. 3×5 cards are unbeatable for boot-up time, work away from the office, and most importantly for “rough organizing”.

        Rough organizing I think, is the most powerful kind of organizing I do. When I rough organize I write one idea, one 3×5 card, spread all the cards out on a table, and then move the cards into groups which I organize in columns on the table.

        This kind of rough organizing for me, substitutes writing multiple drafts of reports. By rough organizing ideas into groups, I can SEE the critical issues and how they relate to one another. And once I have the ideas in a column, I can begin the project without having to experiment to find how critical ideas relate to one another.

        Scrivener, for example, is a writing program based on 3×5 cards, which allows drafts to be reshaped and restructured on the fly, by re-arranging the 3×5 cards. I find that rough organizing allows me to proceed directly. And I don’t miss the time re-writing to find focus.

        The other tools I use is OneNote. I work a lot with Microsoft people who think OneNote is a competitor of Evernote. Obviously, they have not drunk the Evernote (or GTD) Kool Aid. To me, they are not remotely alike.

        OneNote excels at taking a project, and processing it down into next actions. It is a work space specifically designed for decomposing projects.

        My style is very different from your “all in Evernote” style. But remember, I once had 100% of my GTD system in OmniFocus. But it damaged my brain. Omnifocus made it unpleasant to sit down and do at the computer. So I’ve retreated to 3×5 cards to capture ideas, OneNote for processing projects into next actions. And, Evernote for reference filing.

        Hope this helps!

        bill meade

  4. Pingback: Great Post on Evernote as Trusted System | Get (back) on the GTD band wagon!

%d bloggers like this: