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?

Use Siri to capture your “stuff” while driving

SiriI use Siri on my iPhone to capture any idea that comes to me when I am driving. It is fantastic because I don’t have to unlock my phone, launch an app, or type anything that would distract me from driving. All I have to do is hold down the home button on my iPhone and wait for the familiar beep that is Siri. Then I say “text inbox” and whatever I want added to my trusted system. It is that easy!

Here is what you need to do. Set up a contact called Inbox in the Last Name field of your contacts with your Evernote email address. Once you have this you are ready to go.

The reason you use text instead of email is Siri asks for the subject when you email but not when you text. Now, when you go to your default Evernote folder (Unprocessed for me) you will have a “Mailed In Note” with your “stuff” in the body of the note.

This is a simple way to avoid distracted driving while capturing your “stuff” in the car. For most recent cars that have bluetooth integration you can use the cars built in microphone and speakers to truly make it an integrated experience.

Try it, you will be amazed how well it works.

Consuming Audio Content with Audible and Podcasts

With Apple’s release of a dedicated Podcast application for iOS, it reminded me of how much information I am able to consume via audio sources. The spoken word can be a powerful addition to your information consumption portfolio.  I use Apple’s Podcast app to consume podcasts and Audible’s app to consume “books on tape.”

Listening to content connects with your brain in a different way than reading does.  I can tell you from experience that I can, for example, work out on the Precor elliptical machine at the gym and read RSS feeds while listening to upbeat music at the same time.  But, it is impossible for me to listen to a podcast and read at the same time.  Our brains must process both of these content sources with the same part of the brain and therefore they short circuit each other.

Similarly, I can easily listen to music or a podcast while driving but I could never read and listen to a audio book while driving. And that is not just in the “no texting while driving” context of not keeping you attention on the road, it is true when I am the passenger too.  There are two primary use cases where I consume this the of spoken word content – while I am working out (resistance training and stretching as opposed to cardio) and when I am in the car during my commute.  This practice allows me to be productive in what would otherwise be “dead time” from a continual improvement point of view.

Multitasking has scientifically been proven to be a myth over and over.  What we are actually doing is context switching and it is a sub-optimal way to process information.  How then can I read RSS feeds, listen to music and use the elliptical trainer at the same time?  It sounds like multitasking but it is not.  It is called Layering.

Layering, is simultaneously performing several tasks that require different “channels” of mental functioning such as visual, auditory, mental or language.  The only time multitasking does work efficiently is when you are layering different channels.  This is why you can listen to music while driving a car with no discernible loss of effectiveness but you can not text while driving (even if you are using Siri to dictate your texts) and not lose  effectiveness.

I also find listening to an Audible book that I have read previously enhances my comprehension over just re-reading it.  Once again, this is because of the layering effect that listening to an audio source is process by your brain in a different region than reading does.  So, get a podcast app and Audible’s app on your smartphone and start listening.

Processing Information in Today’s World

How should a busy CIO get information he or she needs in today’s world?

Gone are the days where the newspaper and monthly industry magazines were the best method to get our news. The Internet has made real-time access to large amounts of news fast and the era of tablets is ushering in ease and portability.

Trying to keep current in today’s sea of information is definitely a challenge. This is especially true for the CIO who’s trying to stay on top of technology trends, many of which are changing every week.

Personally I follow about 60 trusted news sources and blogs every day. I’m likely very similar to you, I want as much relevant information as possible in the shortest amount of time Here are some tactics to help you become more efficient with your time and information processing.

Use RSS to keep up with headlines

If you aren’t an RSS user, you should be. It’s an excellent way to become efficient with your time and a good way to get through a bunch of information to find the important stuff quickly. Here is a previous post on how I process RSS feeds. Only subscribe to sites that inform you directly or entertain you. Try to get a cross section of opinion and analysis. Don’t just consume information that is an echo chamber for your point of view!

According to Clay Johnson in his book “The Information Diet”, we should be consuming information that is as close to the source as possible, then researching if it is something that we need to know. This is a good way to approach the RSS feeds that you follow. Using Feedler Pro on my iPad and iPhone allows me access to my Google Reader feeds which allows me easy access to a nice pool of headlines to scan during the day.

Every moring I spend about 30 minutes scanning the new headlines. If I see something I want to follow up on I use the “send to Evernote” feature to see it to my “unprocessed” notebook in Evernote. This allows me to review it later in the course of my normal processing to determine what, if anything, I want to do with that specific piece of information.

Information “overload” is here to stay. There is no stopping it. So, rather than be a luddite and unplug completely, use RSS to keep up with what is important to you and the things that you need to get done in a more efficient way.

Processing RSS Feeds

I have always been a reader.  I subscribe to numerous magazines and newspapers.  I love to read a good book.  But, it has become increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the relevant breaking news.  Surfing the web to try to keep up is not a viable option as it just takes too much time and it is very easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole of non-productiviity.  I have found using RSS feeds is the best way to keep on top of all the news and developments in order to be successful in today’s business and technical world.

By using RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds I can subscribe to a wide variety of sources and quickly scan what is going on in the world.  I consider this a critical part of my overall continual learning experience.  I treat my incoming RSS Feeds just like my email inbox and try to process all my feeds to zero every day. I have tried many RSS readers and have settled on the combination of Google Reader and Feedler Pro on my iPhone and iPad.  I do not use any of the “pretty” feed aggregators that try to make a custom magazine because it is just too inefficient for the volume of feeds I process every day.

With Feedler Pro I can quickly scan the headlines to determine which ones I want to click on to get more information.  Once I click on a particular item I get a short synopsis of the article or post and then if I want to actually read it I click on the link and it takes me to the web site where I can read the original article.  If I want to keep the article to read later or for some kind of follow up, I just select the “Send to Evernote” option to process later.  If the article is something I want to share with others I use the “Send to Twitter” option to tweet it.  I usually process my feeds first thing in the morning when I am at the gym on the Precor elliptical trainer.

I currently subscribe to 80 feeds which result in over 1,000 posts per day and I am able to process them in approximately 30 minutes.  This allows me to keep up on all the news and events from sources I consider relevant to my career and life.  I treat my feeds very darwinian in that if a particular feed is not providing revenant information I delete it.  This results in a very fluid OPML file (OPML files are the list of RSS feeds a reader program uses) that is constantly changing.  Frequently I subscribe to a feed to try it out only to decide it does not make the cut and is delete in a week or so.  I also remove feeds that have dedicated iOS apps like CNet News, Boy Genius Report, Engadget, etc. because I prefer to view that content in the native app due to its optimized formatting.

I pride myself on knowing information before others and daily processing of RSS feeds is the key to this.  It gives me a competitive advantage in work and life.  I am extremely impressed when someone on my staff tells me something relevant that I do not already know about.  If it happens once in a while then it is just luck or timing but if they consistently know relevant information before me it shows me they have an effective system for processing information.