How I use Evernote to be more productive

How I use Evernote to be productive

For the last few months I’ve been using Evernote as my primary tool for keeping projects and tasks organized. If you’re still searching for an effective, easy way to stay organized and productive, you might want to try this.

Why EvernoteEvernote logo

My criteria for a to-do list and personal project management system are straightforward:

  1. If it’s electronic (which I prefer) it has to be available on all my devices (Macbook, iPad and iPhone) with automatic syncing. A web version (also synced) is a plus.
  2. It must have a way to organize tasks into projects.
  3. It must allow me to ‘tag’ tasks to group them.
  4. It has to have the capability to store notes and details about a particular task (ex. phone numbers and notes to myself about why I need to call someone).
  5. It has to be easy to use, and must NOT be time consuming.

Evernote meets all these requirements. I’ve experimented with other apps (Remember the Milk and Todoist are pretty good), but Evernote’s robust desktop app beat out the more web-centric applications for my purposes. In addition, Evernote is free. There is a premium paid version, but so far I haven’t needed it. If I did, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay for it.

How I use Evernote

There are lots of ways to use Evernote for productivity. The Secret Weapon lays out an extensive system that applies GTD to Evernote. I used that method a while, but found it more complex than necessary. So I created my own Evernote-based system (The Secret Weapon was an inspiration, though).

If you’ve not used Evernote before and want to try it, I recommend the Getting Started Guide for a quick overview.

1. Setting up Evernote for easy productivity

Screenshot of basic Evernote set-up

In Evernote, I set up several basic notebooks and one notebook stack. I named them as follows:

@Inbox

@Read/Review

@Projects (the notebook stack)

@Reference

@Someday/Maybe

@Projects is actually what Evernote calls a “stack” of notebooks. It functions like a folder, with multiple notebooks inside. The rest of them are notebooks. In each notebook are ‘notes,’ which you can think of as the Evernote equivalent of a file. A note has a title/name, and you can put text, various attachments (PDFs, Word documents, image files, etc.) into it. You can also ‘tag’ notes, which gives you another way to organize notes into groups across multiple notebooks.

I use the @ symbol to ensure these notebooks and stacks are always at the top of my Evernote notebook list (sorted alphabetically). That means I can still have other notebooks in Evernote without my productivity system getting lost among them.

2. The Daily Work Flow

Once all those notebooks are set-up, it’s time to start populating them with tasks. I use a GTD-like process for this.

New items go into @Inbox. I can also send emails to Evernote, and it’s configured to dump those emails into @Inbox by default. It’s easy to forward, say, a request from someone to Evernote, or to send a quick email from my phone when I’m on the run to make sure I remember a task.

I go through @Inbox and process each note, moving it to the appropriate notebook and adding any other necessary information.

@Projects is where all of my individual projects, goals and priority areas go. For me this includes some catch-all notebooks (Personal, Family, Work) to hold tasks that don’t fit into discreet projects (filling out an expense report or getting a haircut, for example). I have notebooks for key clients at work, freelance clients, personal projects (like this blog), volunteer work and so forth.

Fitting everything into individual project notebooks is the key to my system. I can review a particular project notebook and see whether I’ve stalled on that project or priority. There may be tasks I haven’t done or it could be I’ve failed to identify next actions for a project. Project notebooks give me an overview of my commitments across all parts of my life.

I also have a notebook within @Projects called @Recurring where I put regular daily or weekly tasks (such as updating my voicemail message, finalizing weekly client status reports or shopping for groceries).

@Read/Review is where I put content — email newsletters, blog posts, videos and so forth — that I want to look at later. I try to clean this out once a week so stuff doesn’t pile up in there. I recommend you put time on your calendar to go through this folder, otherwise it’s easy to forget.

@Reference is where I put information I want to save for later use. This is good for all those bits and pieces of information that I know I need to keep, but which aren’t actionable now. Gift ideas for loved ones, for example, which I might not use for months, go in here.

@Someday/Maybe is where I put all those things that I think I might like to buy/do/visit at some point in my life, but which are not priorities right now. I go through this periodically and clean it out, but the act of writing ideas down and storing them clear my mind.

3. Tags and note titles

The third part of my system is use tags and note titles to further optimize the system.

First tags.

Each morning I review all of my notes (tasks) on a project-by-project basis. I decide which I want or need to do that day, and I tag them with “Today.” That allows me to do a search for all notes within @Projects tagged with “Today” and get an at-a-glance view of my daily to-do list. I use a “saved search” so I can just click to get this list whenever I want it (here’s how to set that up on a Mac or a Windows machine).

The second thing I do is modify my note titles with keywords to help remind me when, where or how I should do something.

I typically use a word such as “CALL” (for phone calls) or “ERRAND” (for something I need to do while out), in all caps before the note title itself. I’ll also use “WAITING” in front of notes to indicate actions that I’m waiting on someone else for (a phone call to be returned or some work task that I’ve delegated, for example).

Since I can sort my “Today” note list alphabetically by title, I can then get all of my daily action items clustered into appropriate groups — all the errands or phone calls, for example, grouped together.

Other keywords I regularly use include “HOME” (for things I need to do at home), “WRITE” (for writing tasks, so I can carve out dedicated time to them), “EMAIL,” etc. I also use dates (ex. “SEPT 29”) as keywords for tasks that need to be done on a certain date.

For @Recurring tasks, I usually have a key word such as “WEEKLY,” “DAILY,” or “MONDAY” (or other day of the week) to remind myself when to do them.

You could use additional tags instead of my keyword system, but I find the keyword system is faster and simpler. It also allows me to see all my daily tasks or all of the tasks in a project while still providing information about context, status, due date, etc.

4. Updating Tasks

One of the things I like about this system is how simple it is to update a particular task with further information. Here’s an example.

Let’s say I meet someone at a conference. We have a discussion and the person asks me to follow-up with them via phone call. I send an email to Evernote with the subject line “Call Joe Smith at (XXX) 555-1212 next week.” That email lands in @Inbox.

When I review my @Inbox notes (usually the next morning, but it could be sooner), I’ll add a few further comments to the note “Joe and I talked about the possibility of partnering on ABC project and he’d like to hear more about what I have in mind. I need to give him more details about Phase 1 and 2 of the project, as well as our ultimate goals and vision.” 

I could also put those notes in my original email, if I was worried about forgetting them and wanted to take an extra couple of minutes to do it right then.

Then I’ll add the appropriate keywords to the note title and move it to the right notebook in @Projects.

If I call Joe the next week and get his voicemail, I leave him a quick message. “Hi Joe, this is Mark. As we discussed last week at the conference, I’m calling to discuss Project ABC with you. Please call me back at (XXX) 555-1212 at your earliest convenience.”

Then I add another bullet point to the top of my note that I called Joe on that date and left a voice mail asking him to call me back. I’ll add the keyword WAITING to my note title and remove it from my daily to-do list by removing the “Today” tag.

In the next few days either Joe will call me back, or I’ll see that phone call each day as I go through my commitments. If it’s appropriate, I can follow-up with him again if he doesn’t call me.

What Do You Think?

If the lengthy description above sounds complicated, it’s not. Once you install Evernote, set up the system and start using it, it’s simple, quick and remarkably flexible.

I’d love to hear what you think about how I use Evernote for personal productivity. If you have questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been using Evernote with TSW methods, and I’ve found it really useful thus far. I’ve tweaked it a bit for my purposes, but there’s been ONE piece missing and I see it now: the @Projects notebook stack. I do a lot of writing and need a ‘place’ to contain all those works-in-process, notes, etc., that aren’t yet tasks but also need to stay accessible. Thanks for sharing your methods here.

    • says

      Yes – agree absolutely, Annie. I think GTD approaches in general do a great job of managing all the little tasks, but not so great a job of keeping projects clear and organized. I’ve modified my approach a bit since this post – mostly to avoid duplicate entries in Evernote (for personal stuff and the work I need to do today) and Basecamp, which we use to manage most of our work projects. But having a really clear list of projects and a place to put project “stuff” is essential for me. Glad you liked the post.

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