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


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?

GTD’s 6 Horizons of Focus

David Allen uses the altitudes metaphor for describing the different levels of defining what your “work” really is. Even if we have some of the lower levels in control, there are often incomplete and unclear issues at higher levels that need to be addressed to really get it all under control and experience “mind like water.” He categorized “work” into six levels, or horizons of focus:


This is the ground floor – the huge volume of actions and information you currently have to do and to organize, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, stuff to file, things to talk to staff about, etc. This is where you break down each project and decide what is the next action and make that your runway.

10,000 level (Next Actions):

This is the inventory of your projects – all the things that you have commitments to finish, that take more than one action step to complete. These “open loops” are what create most of your actions. These projects include anything from “look into having a birthday party for Susan” to “buy Acme Brick Co.” Most people have between 30 and 100 of these. If you were to fully and accurately define this list, it would undoubtedly generate many more and different actions than you currently have identified.

20,000 level (Projects):

What’s your job? Driving the creation of a lot of your projects are the four to seven major areas of responsibility that you at least implicitly are going to be held accountable to have done well, at the end of some time period, by yourself if not by someone else (e.g. boss.) With a clear and current evaluation of what those areas or responsibility are, and what you are (and are not) doing about them, there are likely new projects to be created, and old ones to be eliminated.

30,000 level (Goals and Objectives):

Where is your job going? What will the role you’re in right now be looking like 12-18 months from now, based on your goals and on the directions of the changes at that level? We’ve met very few people who are doing only what they were hired to do. These days, job descriptions are moving targets. You may be personally changing what you’re doing, given personal goals; and the job itself may need to look different, given the shifting nature of the work at the departmental or divisional level. Getting this level clear always creates some new projects and actions.

40,000 level (Areas of Focus):

The goals and direction of the larger entity within which you operate heavily influence your job and your professional direction. Where is your company going to be, one to three years from now? How will that be affecting the scope and scale of your job, your department, and your division? What external factors (like technology) are influencing the changes? How is the definition and relationship with your customers going to be changing, etc.? Thinking at this level invariably surfaces some projects that need to be defined, and new action steps to move them forward.

50,000 level (Purpose/Vision):

What is the work you are here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate bigger picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your real values, etc.? From an organizational perspective, this is the Purpose and Vision discussion. Why does it exist? No matter how organized you may get, if you are not spending enough time with your family, your health, your spiritual life, etc., you will still have “incompletes” to deal with, make decisions about, and have projects and actions about, to get completely clear.

To be honest, it took me a few years to fully appreciate the 30K, 40K and 50K levels but once I did it really gave balance and context to my overall system.  Th is especially true when I am doing my Weekly Review – it is okay to not review my 30-50K Areas of Focus every week.  How have you incorporated the Areas of Focus into your Trusted System?

Evolution of My Trusted System from To-Do Lists to GTD

This is the second guest post on GTD for CIO’s from my friend, co-worker and fellow GTD enthusiast André Vargas.

As a junior solutions developer straight out of the University of Copenhagen, my company took its new recruits to an HR seminar where the topics included items like Work-Life Balance and Productivity Tips & Tricks. While all lectures provided useful insights, my takeaway “nugget of gold” was found during Tips & Tricks.

See, I’m one of those people who tend to bring work home. If unchecked, I stuff all the stresses of a project’s not quite finished or not yet begun business into a very heavy “mental briefcase”.  That’s why, when the Tips & Tricks speaker brought up “The Tomorrow To-Do List,” he immediately had my attention.

His simple, yet genius suggestion was to end each workday with an action list for tomorrow; a well-thought out way to hit the ground running for the yet to come. I put this suggestion to use the next day and I was empowered.

A simple ‘mental download’ at the end of the day, although technically extra work, allowed me to let go. It was a way to power-down the “hard drive of my mind” and it was a gift. We all need to recharge our batteries and have well-rounded lives.

Andres Red BookMy “Tomorrow To-Do Listing” started as reminders scribbled on small pieces of paper, or entered into Outlook. While this more scattered approach proved helpful, inspired by a colleague and mentor, I eventually moved on to a journal (I chose a bound book with graph paper so I could put little squares by each task which I would fill in with a color as I progressed).

Each day would add more pages, and regularly, perhaps once a week, I would go back, cancel out no longer relevant responsibilities and move forward uncompleted tasks to a new page for the upcoming week.

Andres BookThen I started adding notes from meetings, design diagrams, colleague and client business cards, and personal reminders. My notes and the supporting material were not only helpful in the short term to help clear my mental cache, but they became a narrative of my work; a bible if you will of whatever project I was working on. I have maintained this book for 6 years and still have it today as a reminder of my trusted system.

I say ‘reminder’ because I have moved on to an even better method: “GTD” (Getting things Done).  It’s a more comprehensive system that addresses what I was trying to do with my handwritten book for years. When I was introduced to GTD, I was like a kid in a candy store; so happy to find the guidelines and structure I had attempted to create on my own for years.

My “Tomorrow’s To-Do list” has become my “Next Action Items list” and it has allowed me even more efficient task-management, enhanced my information processing and prioritization and time perspectives. GTD also introduced me to my new favorite list: the someday maybe list, which I am just starting to work on!

Clearly I’m pretty excited about this, but you don’t have to be as enthusiastic as I to reap tremendous benefits. Just try to find the system that works best for you, and keep it up because the simple task of creating a list allow you to shift the way you viewed tomorrow’s workday from a day filled with tasks still left undone, into a day filled with powerful potential.

As Simple as Possible but No Simpler

David Allen has a saying that your trusted system should be “as simple as possible but no simpler” and while that may seem strange there is real gold in that statement.

When I first started GTD I tried elaborate systems of using folders in email and categories in Outlook  Later on when I migrated to Evernote, I implemented an elaborate system of tags.  These systems tried to capture every possible situation.  I even applied this approach to my calendar and physical folder system.

What I came to understand is that the drag or friction required to process my stuff led to procrastination and ultimately falling off the GTD bandwagon.  Once I reread Getting Things Done and Making it all Work and the concept of making my trusted system as simple as possible but no simpler really sunk in.  Then I was able to simplify my trusted system to a point that capturing, processing, and doing became almost frictionless.  It was like second nature to me.  There was really no need to think when I was capturing or processing.

My advise to people who are getting started with GTD or are trying to get back on the bandwagon is to simplify, simplify, simplify.  Less is more when creating your trusted system.


Accountability is important to me.  It is important to be accountable to myself and GTD is how I hold myself accountable to the commitments I have in all aspects of my life.  Because my trusted system is a closed loop system I know that once I capture something I will not lose track of it.  I may decide to move it to a Someday/Maybe list and not act on it right now but I know I will not lose track of my commitments.

The sense of accountability and responsibility is relevant in all aspects of life.  It is critical with my wife, with my kids, in my social life and in my professional life.  When managing others I believe I have the responsibility to hold people accountable to the commitments they make.  If an employee is responsible for completing a task and they have made an agreement to complete the task, it is their responsibility to complete the task or re-negotiate it.  High performing employees are proactive in this regard.  If they are having trouble completing a task they proactively inform me of the issues they are having so I can help resolve the issue, re-prioritize their work or re-negotiate the commitment.

Lower performing employees are not proactive in surfacing the issues or problems that they encounter in keeping their commitment.  Typically, they wait until they have missed their commitment or until it is too late to meet the commitment before informing me.  This is extremely frustrating – especially if it was something that had they ten proactive they could have met the commitment.  It also leads to excuses and in extreme examples leads to “throwing a colleague under the bus” in an attempt to explain how or why they were unable to meet their commitments.  These individuals would greatly benefit form practicing GTD so they would always have an accurate and up-to-date inventory of all of their commitments.  If you believe you may be one of these individuals I highly recommend you listen to Manager Tools “Owning the Inputs” podcast.

One of the greatest things we can do as human beings is to accept the simple fact that we need to be accountable to ourselves.  Once we accept this, we realize that we can not fool ourselves.  Once we are truly accountable to ourselves, we can be truly accountable to others.  This acceptance allows us to grow immensely and accept reality.

Your most valuable asset – Time

As a CIO  I have access to many resources and one of the main jobs I have is to allocate those resources in an optimal way.  There is one resource that is finite and there os no real way to manage it – Time.  There is only 24 hours in a day and all managers must strive to use each of those hours optimally.  My calendar is the trusted system I use to optimize the use of those hours.  As Peter Drucker said “Your calendar should represent your priorities.”

When I review my calendar in my Weekly Review I first take the “big picture” approach and scan the next couple of months in month view.  This gives me the high-level view of what is ahead in the next few months.  Typically events that are marked as “All Day” events pop out – things like anniversaries, birthdays, vacations, travel, conferences, and holidays.  This sets a context to what time is available to accomplish the stuff you need to do.

Then, I switch to the weekly view to take in the next several weeks in more detail.  As Peter Drucker said the week is the unit of time that connects us to our upcoming work.  At this view, I can see exactly what commitments I already have and how much discretionary time I have available.  This level of review also gives me a sense of if the upcoming week is a “normal” week with “normal” meetings and rhythms or not.

Once I have completed this review I sit down with my assistant and we review the calendar together.  We look at the non-negotionable mandatory items starting with my Weekly Review which is critical for me to be in control and totally effective.  Ideally, it would be the first thing I do Monday morning but if that can’t happen for whatever reason, that is okay but it should happen ASAP.  So, if she has to reschedule it because I have been overtaken by events (OBE) then that is fine but she must make it a priority for me to get this done as early in the week as possible.

The next mandatory item is my Daily Review and Sync.  This is the next most critical part of keeping in control.  Each day I need to scan my Next Actions to see what I want or need to accomplish that day.  For those items that I want to accomplish before I go home, I tag them as “Today.”  The Daily Review and Sync consists of scheduling 30 minutes where the first 15 minutes is reserved for reviewing my next actions and the second 15 minutes is reserved for my assistant and I to sync about upcoming calendar items and any associated time necessary for projects next actions.

The next mandatory calendar item is to scheduling Inbox Processing.  Processing my physical Inbox and my email Inbox is critical to my GTD system.  My assistant needs to ensure that I have three 30 minute blocks of time dedicated to processing both my physical inbox on my desk for things like POs, Invoices, Expense Reports, etc. and my email inbox. The timing of these half hour processing blocks is not critical other than they should be spaced out throughout the day so I can respond to important things in a timely manner.  Therefore, they are “moveable” calendar items but they must be rescheduled as my goal is to have both inboxes processed to zero before I leave every day.  When scheduling these processing times it is critical to be aware of the context of the day – do I have a dinner or some evening event that will cause me to leave work at a certain time?  If so, she must work backwards and make sure I have enough time to process to zero before I leave work.

The final mandatory scheduling item is 1:1’s with my direct reports. Weekly 1:1s with my direct reports is critical to keeping in touch with the people who are responsible for executing on my vision for IT.  Therefore, they need to happen every week.  It is important for for my assistant to be proactive with their assistants to reschedule their 1:1 if either they or I am going to be unable to make their 1:1 for whatever reason.

Now that I have all my mandatory items scheduled, I move on to my priorities.  My calendar should reflect my priorities.  We all have bosses or other VIPS who always get priority in meetings and calls.  Beyond those requests, and assuming I have completed my Weekly Review, I will have Next Actions for all my projects and my assistant will need to schedule time to work on these. At CAA we have a corporate culture that requires we return colleagues calls first so all internal calls must be returned first and I have to make time to do that ASAP.

Another priority is moving my projects forward.  I especially want to focus on “big projects” like IT Staff Meeting presentations, Company Staff Meeting presentations, Budget, Vision, etc. where there is a hard deadline.  Together with my asistant, we need to identify the deadline and understand all the work necessary to meet the deadline and schedule appropriately.  Working backwards, with appropriate slack for when OBE happens, we need to set aside appropriate time for me to do the work.

When people ask for my time they need to go thru my assistant and she has the authority to schedule these requests without asking me if they are consistent with my priorities .   If it is not clearly consistent with my priorities then she must gather the information necessary for both of us to determine if the request rises to the level of being added to my calendar.  The default answer will be no to requests and the requester will have to give my assistant the information about the request like the agenda or why they need me and not someone else like their direct supervisor.

Calendar management is critical for executives to be successful in today’s always on world.

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.

Deal with something only once

As a follow up to my last post about processing email, I want to emphasize the importance of dealing with something only once.

Years ago I met a young agent who prided herself with only touching a piece of paper only once. She made a real impact on me because she had a completely clean desk and always seemed to be “on top of her game.” She constantly outperformed her fellow agents. This was in the early days of email and I vividly remember when she had an epiphany about applying her “only touch it once” philosophy to email.  She continues to be an inspiration to me.

Do most of us do this? No. We might read a bunch of emails, and say, “I’ll reply to those later or I’ll decide later” and just leave them in the inbox. This is true of other inputs in our life.  We might see a bill, invoice, expense report or other piece of mail, and put it aside for later.  This philosophy of only dealing with something once applies to other activities like paperwork, phone calls or requests from others.

Try dealing with it immediately. If you open an email, make a decision on it immediately. If the email requires you to take some kind of action the do it right then or apply the two minute rule and put it in your trusted system to deal with later.  Just don’t leave it in your inbox.

Deal with something once. Do it now. Then it’s off your mind and it’s not taking any of your “psychic RAM” and it allows you to fully focus on the next matter.  When we put off small decisions and tasks for later, and they pile up, weighing on us at the back of our minds, pulling on us until we collapse under the weight of “later.”