Trying to find new ways to be productive? Reviewing how you work on a day-to-day basis to find better ways to do things? I’ve tried to find effective ways to be productive and organized using digital tools, and most systems I found over time revolved around paper, note taking, and organizing folders and files.
I can remember when it wasn’t that common for people to have e-mail, and the majority of calendaring and organization was still done over the phone and with day planners. Over the last 10 years as digital records and tools for organization have become more pervasive, and it feels like trying to get organized is a constantly evolving and changing endeavor. I essentially live all day in e-mail, web, and digital content. What’s challenging for me is that I typically deal with small pieces of information that are associated to each other in some way yet I don’t manage “documents” in the traditional sense as much any more. I also get hit with a lot of information and ideas at all times and places.
Several years ago I started using Evernote, and I also use Dropbox frequently. Recently I started feeling how I was using my tools was creating more work for me than problems they solved. I ran across some articles about using Evernote, Dropbox, and the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology to be more productive. Below is a summary of how I was working and what I’ve changed to try to be more productive. And this is a summary of what works for me. It may be flawed, it might not work for you, at least not all of it, but it’s an improvement and I think that’s what’s significant.
Before I get into digital tools, I have to say one of the best tools I found to try to stay organized and sane is still paper and pen. I have a small 3 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch notebook that I carry with me everywhere. There’s a rubber band wrapped around the front the help mark my page and help tuck items into. I also found small gel pens that are 4 1/2 inches long, same as the notepad, and they clip onto the cover or rubber band. This is my fail-safe. Anything and everything can get written into here. To-do items are written with a check box in front of them, and anything else is just written as notes. At one point I saved the last two pages of the notebooks for books and things that I would like to read or learn about.
I’ve tried to use an e-mail client for everything, but it never worked. When using Outlook at work it seemed like a good idea to try to use tasks and notes and calendar items and reminders, but it never really seemed to be effective. I don’t know if it was a usability issue, that I didn’t like the tools that I had at the time, or that there was one system for work and another for personal.
The GTD System
If you’re familiar with GTD you can skip to the next section. So far I’ve read the Getting Things done book by David Allen, and I’ve done some research online. My basic understanding of the methodology is that it provides a framework to consistently collect, filter and prioritize, and act on “things.” The intent is to reduce stress and help clear your mind by providing a way to deal with information overload and all the things you have to deal with on a daily basis. By not worrying about having to keep track of everything and how you’re going to get things done, you free yourself up to actually doing things and producing results.
The high-level aspects of the workflow include
Collection is exactly what it sounds like: pulling in everything that comes at you and putting it in one place, the container if you will. Once it’s been collected you don’t have to worry about trying to remember it all the time. Processes is the act of taking things out of the container and evaluating it. Can you act on it? Can you do anything with it? This is the do it, delegate it, or defer it aspect of the methodology. Organization is kind of like the destination for things in the container: reference, someday, trash, projects and plans, waiting, calendar, to-do. Review is seeing the big picture “of your life and work” and evaluating and reviewing actions and options. Do is making action choices. This involves actions in the moment, evaluating daily work, in reviewing your own work at different levels of detail and perspective.
For the visual learner, you can take a look at this workflow graphic by Xplane to try to get a better understanding of the GTD process and methodology. I actually discovered this before I had read the book, and found it helpful.
After reading the GTD book, I did feel I learned a few things that I could apply. I didn’t agree with everything, but it did make me consider what I was doing that probably could be done better, and how to organize what I was collecting in a more effective manner. There’s also more about selecting actions and prioritizing that I don’t discuss in this article.
What I was Doing That Wasn’t Working
Some of what I had been doing had been working, but I started running into problems. It started becoming more work to manage all the information in some cases than it was to actually do the work. And I started getting stressed about trying to be organized so I wasn’t so stressed. I realized I was having most problems with the Collection phase of things. For example:
- Using my e-mail inbox to try to collect everything. I ended up with an overwhelming inbox, junk hanging around, and trouble focusing on what was priority.
- I do a lot of research and reading using Google Reader and RSS feeds. When I would find articles or content I wanted to revisit or learn more about, I would typically star items so I could find them and check them later. This worked because I was typically reading feeds on different devices at different times; phone, iPad, computer. The problem was I had to remember to go back and check the feeds, and then find a way to store them someplace else to do the research anyway.
- Collecting everything in one place in Evernote was helpful but without accurate tagging, organization, or meaningful prioritization everything started to become noise.
- Trying to maintain and organize information that wasn’t really important was a waste of time.
- Using a strictly folder-based production to trying to organize information in Evernote became unwieldy and limiting.
What I’m Doing Now
The cleanup process I’ve been using has some basic parts: the input and output, and in between there is the filter, prioritization, and accessibility needs. Accessibility means making it easy to use the system with the tools I have whenever I need to. With the exception of my phone and iPad, the tools I’m currently using are all free, and include:
- Rally (http://www.rallydev.com/)
- iPhone and iPad, various iOS Apps
- Dropbox and Evernote
If you’re wondering if there’s a place for both Dropbox and Evernote, I think each one serves a different purpose. While there is some overlap, they have their different strengths. I use Dropbox as a container for documents, files, and things that may need to be archived or accessible to others. I use Evernote for workflow and collecting data, content, and information. It’s also possible to use folder actions in the Windows version of Evernote to automatically import items placed in a Dropbox folder. This can be useful if you have access to Dropbox and not Evernote, or you want to be able to provide others a way to get content to you without granting them access to your Evernote folders, your Evernote email account, or your regular email account. This places the information directly into your workflow without have to go through a different tool first. You can also use a forwarding email address to protect your actual Evernote email account.
Evernote has become my container for Collection. I’ve seen recommendations for setting up Evernote to mirror the GTD process, but some aren’t effective. A limitation within Evernote is that a note can only live in one folder at a time, so organizing by folders isn’t really effective and inhibits you. This is exactly the problem I was having. Rather than just collecting information I started worrying about what bucket it should be in, and started to become inconsistent when things could be in multiple buckets or how to tag things.
Tags and saved searches are your friends. Tagging items allows you to associate multiple pieces of metadata to note. You still have to figure out how you want to tag things but that’s a more manageable problem. The following is how I setup Evernote based on the GTD methodology:
- 1_MyNotebook for Collection. I don’t like calling in an inbox; it’s confusing with email.
- 5_Someday for hold or review later
- 6_Reference for PDFs, supporting data, content, etc. Essentially something that I may read or use but not modify and/or is unlikely to change frequently
The purpose of context is to help provide triggers as to where or when you might be able to do something. When you’re out running errands you can check the :Errands items to see if there’s something to do you forgot about, or if there’s something that may only take 15 min. and you have some time to spare.
I used a colon rather than an @ sign as that symbol is used by Evernote when parsing email in order to determine what notebook to send an incoming email into.
Information Tags include things like
- Article Idea
- Art Idea
One of the things that I started doing with Evernote that seems to work very well is emailing information directly into it. This gets me out of the bad habit of using my inbox to collect things, and as long as I have email I can send anything into it. When reading articles on the iPad it’s often very easy to e-mail a link to an article that I want to read up on later. I don’t have to worry about starring or saving articles, and can include whatever metadata I want in the subject of the message. Evernote allows you to use an @ plus the notebook name in message subject to determine what notebook the note should go in, and you can use # followed by a tag to automatically add tags to the item as well. And it doesn’t have to be just a link to an item, you can e-mail entire pages of content if needed. I also use the Evernote plugin for browsers to grab web content.
Evernote has the ability to search text within an image. At times I found it a lot easier to take a picture of notes or whiteboard diagrams save and Evernote. With a camera phone this becomes even easier. Another collection tool I found useful is Dragon Dictate on the iPhone. At times I have a long commute, and end up thinking of things when I’m driving. It’s not an option to write a note or to text, but it is fairly easy to dictate. It’s possible to record a voice note in Evernote but the problem is you still have to apply tags and metadata for it to be useful. The better solution I found is to use Dragon Dictate on my phone. I was surprised and how accurate it was. Driving in the car with road noise I really expected it to be more trouble than it was worth, but so far it’s worked very well. It saves the note, and as soon as I’m able can email it into Evernote. Another option is to use Google Voice to leave yourself a voicemail which can then get converted automatically into text, but that seems to be a lot more work and not as accurate.
Once it’s in my default folder, I usually go back and add metadata to it. My small notebook also serves as a collection tool. Things that I’ve written down get entered in Evernote as notes in the default folder as well. At this point I also start filtering and sorting notes. The new process has simplified sorting. Reference and Someday items are self-explanatory. If I feel like I can’t do something about an item but hope to eventually, it goes into the Someday folder. They’re still tagged and easy to find, just not in my way when I’m looking and other items with higher priority.
From here things get turned into actionable items. They may get turned into full-blown projects, small to-do items, or items to delegate to others. You can create saved searches for tags you need frequently, or for the context-specific items to make it easy to find later.
I use Rally for work projects and Agile Project Management, and an item may get added as a user story or task. When developing other tasks and to-do items, I do schedule them on my calendar. While not recommended by some productivity consultants, this does seem to work well for me. Provided you can develop accurate effort estimates and are disciplined about managing your time and sticking to your calendar, I feel it’s a good way plan out your time as well as have a point of reference to look back on how and where you spent your time. The exercise of going through potential actions and putting them on my calendar also helps with the Review and Do aspect.
There are other aspects to what I’m using that are out the scope of this article, such as email rules and filters, separating work time from personal time, and effective communication. I’d recommend taking a look at Inbox Zero content from Merlin Mann about email management as well as Upgrade Your Life from Gina Trapani for email control and other productivity tips.
I think the GTD methodology can only take you so far, and it’s not a magic bullet. You still have to be disciplined, and you still have to be consistent about how you do things. If you aren’t, it won’t matter what system you use, you won’t get the results that you want.
One caveat regarding Evernote, unfortunately I think the Windows version is a little better that than Mac one in some respects (the Mac version seems to be a bit behind in functionality.) I input nearly all of my data via Mac, but find that massive cleanups, tagging, etc. seem to be easier in the Windows version.
With regards to limitations, I don’t know that GTD system really addresses some critical issues beyond the personal level. For example I don’t think it really addresses how to help effectively manage other people’s work and priorities, nor does it address complex evaluations. When you think about decision sciences and challenges such as trying to determine the overall benefit of tasks you could take on optimize results, profitability, and productivity, what’s identified for evaluating items in GTD doesn’t really cut it in my opinion. The prioritization method still feels single threaded and one-dimensional. But to be fair GTD seems to be a methodology more about reducing stress, feeling productive, and making progress in your life, which I hope we’re able to achieve.
Image by Kevulike under CC license.