From OmniFocus to Evernote

Regular readers will know that I've been a "Getting Things Done" fan for a long time. I've been following GTD since I first picked up the book some time in 2004. I can't honestly say that I'm even today really, really good at it, but I try and it helps me. I'm going to assume here that you are at least familiar with the basics of GTD.

For most of this time, I've been using OmniFocus to manage my projects and to-do lists but I've recently started using Evernote for my entire GTD implementation and I thought I might share some ideas with you.

The Evolution of GTD

There was some chatter on the Internet recently about whether GTD works for creative endeavours. I don't have a particular position on that debate but I did find myself dissatisfied with something in the projects/actions/contexts structure of GTD.

I eventually figured out what it was: with the move to mobile devices, ubiquitous internet and functional data syncing, contexts have disappeared for me.

In the olden days, there were contexts. There was online and offline. There was work and there was home. I used to actually go to these places called shops. These locations and phases of the day were distinct and the affordances of each place were different.

Today, for me, there is no offline. What offline time does happen is considered damage to be routed around. For better or for worse, there is basically no distinction between work and home. We get our groceries delivered and I shop almost exclusively online for anything more than emergency milk and bread rations.

In my GTD system, I would estimate that 95% of all tasks could be done "anywhere": contact someone, send a file, write a thing. The vanishingly few things that can't are not worth planning for. Basically, contexts had lost their relevance in GTD for me. Projects still matter, as do actions, but contexts weren't working.

At the same time as contexts were waning, reference material was becoming more important. It seemed like my projects were becoming deeper and more complex - perhaps just a function of advancing responsibilities in the workplace. At the same time, the work was going mobile and the reference material wasn't coming along easily for the ride.

Reference Material in OmniFocus and Evernote

OmniFocus never really attacked the problem of reference material. On the Mac client, you can link to files and add URLs into the notes field of a task. References to files on my Mac don't sensibly carry over to the iPhone and iPad. Before adopting Evernote, I was using Dropbox to keep my reference materials and OmniFocus to keep the tasks. A slightly clumsy solution on the Mac and a very high-friction solution on iOS: a task system with a reference database hacked onto the side.

Evernote, on the other hand, is all about the reference material. In effect, my Evernote system is a reference database with a task management system hacked onto the side. However, given my change in relative emphasis between reference materials and the doctrinaire GTD project/task/context structure, I thought this was perhaps a trade-off that was worth looking at.

Much credit for turning my mind in this direction is due to The Secret Weapon, a document describing a way of implementing GTD inside Evernote. To be honest, absolutely nothing in their implementation worked for me, but it was a fantastic mind-opener.

How I Run Evernote

David Allen talks about "areas of responsibility" in GTD, those 30,000-ft. areas of life that you want to take care of. In Evernote, I have one notebook stack for each area:

  • Corporate

  • Personal

  • Conferences

  • Consulting

  • Teaching

  • Blogging

Inside each stack are multiple notebooks, each representing either a project or a collection of reference materials. In teaching, for example, there's one notebook for each class, one for general school info and one for reference documents about the courses I teach.

Where, you might ask, are the To-Do items? Each active project has one note in it which is named "To-Do: " and is tagged "TODO". The note contains a list of checkboxes for the tasks relating to that project.

In this way, I can get to all my tasks by selecting the "TODO" tag in Evernote and all the notes so tagged will be assembled for me. I actually just learned today that I don't even need to tag them: if you search "todo:{false|true}" in Evernote, it will return every note with an unchecked (false) or checked (true) checkbox. If you search "todo:*", it returns any note with a checkbox.

What does this get me? Well, I now have all my project reference materials and their related tasks in one place, and I can take the whole system mobile. I can capture into this system from almost anywhere but here are some of the big ways I capture into Evernote.

  • Because so many iOS apps support "send this thing by email", it's easy to get files, images, etc into Evernote from iOS.

  • Reference material or tasks that arrive via email get forwarded to my Evernote email address. I can tag them by adding hashtags to the subject and route them to notebooks using @notebook. I'm using Gmail filters to automatically add some emails to Evernote.

  • I use ifttt.com to archive my Instagram photos into Evernote.

  • I can use Siri to dictate a note by composing an email to my Evernote upload address. Tip: add your Evernote address to your personal address card and give it the label "evernote", then you can tell Siri to "Email evernote".

  • I can tweet to Evernote by sending a DM to @myEN (more info on this here) - this is doubly convenient with "Tap to Tweet" in iOS 6's Notification Center.

  • Although I have switched to Pocket, the web-to-Evernote workflow I documented a while ago is still possible.

This system is working pretty well for me so far. The biggest drawback is that there's no good way to implement recurring or time-based tasks, so I'm using the Reminders app for those.