Using Evernote as the foundation of your GTD system

EvernoteI use Evernote as the basis of my GTD system and it seems like many others are doing the same.  It is interesting to see how people use it is different ways.  The most obvious is the use of Tags or Notebooks as the primary way to implement their system.  Here is a great example of a tag-based system that leverages Evernote’s Saved Searches feature.

My system is notebook-based and I have separate Evernote Notebooks for each of the analogous folders in my system.  I initially, started with a Tag-based system but abandoned it in the name of simplicity.  I view this as a “less is more” type of thing and have optimized my system for data capture and processing.

Initially, I started out using tags and got carried away with them to the point where they were distracting me. It took too long for me to figure out which tag or tags to assign to a note. This is similar to having an elaborate system of folders in email and filing them in the appropriate folder.

For email I only have one folder called “Archive.” My inbox represents unprocessed emails and then as I process them I 1) delete them, 2) use the 2-minute rule, 3) send them to Evernote. Then if I think I may want the original email for some reason like CYA or to reply to the original or whatever I put it in my Archive folder. Then I use the email program’s search capability to find things. All actionable items are sitting in my “- Unprocessed” folder in Evernote waiting to be processed.

I used to try to assign tags at that time and it really bogged me down. Similarly to capturing ideas or “stuff” on the go. Now I just click on FastEver type the stuff in and click on save and it end up in my “- Unprocessed” notebook. No tagging, no thinking, just the minimal effort to capture the “stuff” into my trusted system.  Then, when I am processing I clarify the item to define what done looks like and just switch the notebook from “- Unprocessed” to the appropriate notebook.  That is as simple as I can make my system.

I do have a few tags and saved searches that I use for special situations but have really tried to minimize their use. I suppose each of us needs to use trial and error to see what works best for how we work and implement GTD.

Check out Evernote’s Blog on GTD for a great discussion of how people use Evernote to implement GTD.

Getting started – the “Initial Capture”

Now that you have set up your trusted system and have your capture devices, the first thing you must do to get started with GTD is to capture all your “stuff.”  Stuff is literally anything and everything that you need to do something about.  It may not be something you are going to do soon.  You may not even be sure if it something you actually will commit to doing now but you might want to do it at a future time. If so, you must capture it.  Capturing all your stuff is extremely important because once you do you will feel a great sense of relief once you get it out of your head and into your trusted system.

If you are just getting started with GTD, you will have to do a onetime initial capture of all your stuff.  After this initial capture you will only need to capture the new stuff that has come into your life since the initial capture.  Please resist the temptation to get right to it and skip this initial capture.

For your initial capture I recommend taking your smartphone and literally walk around your home and office to capture everything.  Say you start in your garage and you see something that needs to be dealt with like organize garden tools or inventory your tool chest or wash the car.  You need to capture all of these things. Don’t worry about making judgments about the stuff or what list it needs to go on.  Your goal is to just capture it at this point.  You will process it into the appropriate category and decide exactly what to do about the stuff later.

Walk around your home from room to room, front yard to back yard and capture everything that has your attention.  Then go to your office and capture everything there.  Go to each physical place you spend time and capture everything.  There are three easy ways to do this with Evernote and your smartphone.

  1. Select Snapshot and take a picture of the stuff
  2. Select Voice and record a voice note about the stuff
  3. Select the Untitled Note field and type in the description of the stuff

For an even simpler way to capture into Evernote using an iPhone, try FastEver and FastEver Snap.  These apps are designed to capture text and photos into Evernote with the minimal amount of clicks.  I highly recommend spending the $1.99 for each of these applications.

I cannot emphasize how important it is to resist the urge to make judgments about your stuff during this initial capture.  All you are trying to do is to capture everything into your trusted system.  You will process your stuff later.  This initial capture will not take as long as you think it will and the payoff is huge so get started.  You will be amazed the sense of relief you will experience just by capturing everything.

The “initial capture” is a critical part of a successful GTD practice

You must have your “Capture Device” with you at all times

It is critical that you equip yourself with tools that support you whether you are; at home, the office, the gym, the car or on-the-go.  We all spend at least some part of our work day “out and about” and you need a way to keep your GTD lists and related information with you so that you can work from your lists, and manage your work no matter where you are.  This is a critical point.  You need to be able to capture “stuff” wherever you are so it is important to make it easy to capture your “stuff” at the moment it comes to you.  This can be a pad of paper, index cards or just about anything as long as you have it with you at all times.

I used to use Outlook Tasks to capture my “stuff” but now I have found Evernote to be the perfect place to capture and process my “stuff” because it is available on all the devices I use (iPhone, iPad, Mac and PC) and it automatically syncs to all my devices.

Since we all carry our mobile phones with us at all times, your phone is the logical capture device when you pair it with Evernote.  Whenever you have an idea or make a commitment, it’s easy to capture it in Evernote on your phone.  If you reduce the friction you experience when capturing ideas, actions items and commitments, you’ll naturally capture more of them.

I use my iPhone as my capture device

Setting up Evernote to create your Trusted System

Now that you have created your Evernote account, you need to set it up to be your trusted system.  The first thing you need to do is to set up 11 notebooks in Evernote which will be the basis for your trusted system.  In Evernote create the following notebooks:

  1.  – Unprocessed – the default folder where unprocessed items will go (make sure to add the – )
  2. Agendas – lists of things to discuss with individuals
  3. Areas of Focus – lists of big picture items that are your “North Star” to guide you
  4. Calls – list of the calls you need to make
  5. Errands – list of next actions you need to do outside of your home or office
  6. Home – list of next actions you have to physically do at home
  7. Next Actions – list of the next action you need to do in order to drive your projects towards “done”
  8. Projects – list of desired outcomes that require more than one action to complete
  9. Reference – list of items that you want to keep for future reference
  10. Someday/Maybe – list of ideas that you’d like to work on someday, but not committing to right now
  11. Waiting For – list of items that you have delegated or are waiting for someone else to do

The combination of my Calendar, Contacts and Evernote  make up my trusted system.


One of the raging debates in the GTD community is what “tools” should you use?  There are people who swear by analog tools like pen, paper, folders and a physical inbox.  Others swear by digital tools and each has their own preferred software tools.  Some people use a hybrid approach.

I love being a CIO because it requires me to be good at several roles.  I must be a great manager, leader, strategic thinker and technologist.  I must embrace fast innovation, understand what is next, and be out in front of waves of change in order to lead everyone into the future.

We are now entering the post-PC world and the consumer is fully driving the cloud and IT.  This reality drives my set of tools I use in my implementation of GTD.

I use the cloud-based consumer services Evernote and Dropbox as the foundation of my implementation.  These services are free and are available on multiple devices.  I can use them on a Blackberry, iPhone or Android-based smartphone.  I can use them from a Mac or a PC.  I can use them from an iPad or Android-based tablet.  This allows me complete flexibility to switch devices at a moments notice and not miss a beat.