In the past I’ve posted a few entries on being more productive, such as how I leverage visual assistants. In this post I’m going to continue on that line of “getting things done” type thinking. It’s a long post, so let me start with the standard “too long, didn’t read” section to provide a quick rundown
I have a problem staying on top of my task list. I forget things, I have things I need to remember scattered across multiple sources like email, on the file system, in notes, etc. Deliverables get lost at times. Emails I need to follow up on get dropped. Seeing a list of todo’s distracts me from what I’m working on. My email inbox turns into a lot of noise that I tune out.
Things are kept in so many different locations and nothing brought them all under one roof like I needed them so search could find stuff I needed. I tried all these different techniques such as Tasks in Outlook / Exchange, entires in OneNote / Evernote, lists in Trello. However recently I found something that a friend recommended called The Secret Weapon and for me, it’s nailed it.
For the last two months I’ve been using a modified version of this practice and I’m more productive, have a less cluttered mind, not lost things or had to scramble to get things done at the last minute and overall, had a reduction in stress related to work. I explain it in a lot more detail below but here’s the gist: Evernote acts as MY DATABASE for everything… everything flows into it including notes, tasks, email, reminders and projects. Things are cleverly organized in a tagging process that works FOR ME. I simply have to remember to do two things every morning: check my !daily tag and the tag for the current day of the week, such as !3-Tuesday. That tells me what to do and what to focus on today.
Do you have to use Evernote? No… you could use OneNote, but there are some specifics on how Evernote handles / presents things that differs quite a bit from OneNote that are important for me. Specifically, Evernote uses tags on each note. These are nothing like OneNote’s tags which are more decorations to things within notes. You can’t tag a whole note, or page, in OneNote. Plus the UX of Evernote hides everything that isn’t tagged with the selected tag… that isn’t possible to do in OneNote so the noise is still present. However you could probably use OneNote if you wanted to…
Understanding the Problem
There are just too many things to keep track of today. From projects to clients to emails to meetings to personal stuff to things you want to follow up on… there’s just too much stuff! A challenge I had was that this information is not only scattered across different repositories, but it’s mixed in with other stuff.
A classic example is a project. I have emails in my inbox from the client and colleagues. Then there’s a statement of work (SOW) and purchase order (PO) that I need to keep track of because it’s got the PO number and tasks… those are documents on the file system… maybe they were sent / came across as emails. Next there were surely a few meetings where I took notes or maybe a phone call / video call. Notice how stuff is all over the place.
Another frustration I had is how easily I can get distracted / tune stuff out. I know, sounds conflicting but hear me out. I’d leave things in my inbox if I needed to deal with them. I’d have this task list that would have tasks for different projects. When I’d look at my inbox, I’d either get distracted seeing something else, or I’d start to tune out the things I should be working on because they were always sitting there in my inbox - you know those emails that have said in your inbox for 2 weeks that you need to deal with.
I tried keeping all my tasks in Outlook / Exchange thinking that reminders, flags to mark things high/low priority, categories to group them from personal to work to specific clients. Also if I didn’t do a priority 1 (P1) item today, it would fall into tomorrow’s bucket which already had some P1’s. Does the day matter? Maybe… maybe not… demanded on the task. I found most tasks didn’t relate to a specific day, they were more about priorities and Outlook tasks are all about the day / calendar.
I also tried using Trello, creating a board for each topic (personal / major clients / misc work) and a list for P1, P2, P3, etc. That didn’t work because there was no hierarchy of tasks, the reminders aren’t terribly effective, the tagging was less than ideal and it wasn’t easy to assign something to different buckets. Plus, I couldn’t see a rollup of everything that was a P1 or a P2… I had to look in a few different places.
So what did I do to resolve it?
I Found Productivity and Mind Clutter Reduction Utopia
At the turn of the year I migrated all my OneNote notebooks to Evernote and quickly found I loved their tagging system. Around the same time a friend found this site called The Secret Weapon and started using it. It gave me the idea to move everything into Evernote… all my tasks, reminders, notes, reference stuff… when I say everything I mean everything. I then took that I saw from The Secret Weapon and customized it a bit for my usage. After a few days, I was amazed how much more productive I became, how much less cluttered my mind became and, surprisingly how much the stress level went down.
Setting It Up - Create Hierarchy of Tags
The first step is to create your own hierarchy of tags you’ll use for organization. What you do will be based on what your life looks like, but today, mine is a mix between various projects & presenting at conferences so I created these top level tags (I’ve included abbreviated screenshots of my actual tags below this list):
- .event: This contains tags for each event, like the SharePoint Conference tag is 2014-04-SPC.
- .what: This has two inner level tags: .active-project & .inactive-project. Projects I’m working on are tagged within them.
- .when: This is the most important one as you’ll see in a moment. For this, I create a tag for each day of the week like !1-Sunday, !2-Monday, then a set for priorities like 1-now, 2-next, 3-soon and one special one for stuff I have to do every single day: !daily.
- .where: This tag is for locations (like a city where you have the subway map or favorite restaurants, etc) or conferences (yes I know I have another tag for this, but these are for the conference where the ones under the .event tag are for specific instances of the conference).
- .who: This is for clients, specific people (like I have one for me, one for my wife, one for each of my kids, even one for each of our dogs) or vendors (in the case where I keep a manual).
Then you have tags for everything you can think of, but they aren’t the special tags that start with a period or exclamation point. Be liberal with these… create as many as you like and even nest them within other tags.
When everything setup, now it’s time to implement the process.
Implementing my modified process is broken down into two different categories. This first is how I get stuff into my notes and the second is my daily routine.
Moving Email, ToDo’s, Notes… Stuff Into Evernote
Throughout the day, when I get an email about something I need to address, I forward it to my personal Evernote email address which will automatically create a note in my default notebook with no tags on the note. I then delete the email or move it into a folder for safe keeping if necessary (for instance if it is about a project, activity or something else that I don’t want to really delete). This keeps my inbox clean and I only see stuff that I need to see today. I’m one of the types that checks email a few times throughout the day, not leaving it up all day long to interrupt me. When I check it, I triage the stuff I want to throw over to “deal with it later” into Evernote using this process and respond to the other emails that are more immediate or that need to be dealt with today.
Maybe you’re driving or doing something where you can’t write a note down. I love being able to open up Evernote on my phone and record a quick reminder. Throughout the day I may come across other stuff I need to deal with, such as taking notes during a meeting or other daily work stuff. All that stuff goes in Evernote… ideally I’ll tag it as I create it, but when recording notes or forwarding email, I leave it untagged. When I had an injury and had to do homework for physical therapy, I scanned in the stretches and routines I was supposed to do and added them as a note tagged !daily along with a few other tags so I’d do it every day. When I was at a recent conference, I created a separate note for each session where I took my notes, added pictures I took of slides… you name it. When I was done, I used Evernote’s ability to share a note (using the Evernote web client) with some friends who were interested but couldn’t attend the conference. It was so cool!
Now, onto getting the value out of this process...
Using The System
At this point Everything should be in Evernote. Repeating the process above every day and making it part of my routine makes things so much easier. But if you don’t employ the rest of the system, you don’t get the value out of it. Every single work day and usually on weekends / vacation days, the very first thing I do, even before I check email or social media, is the following.
First, click on he !daily tag and look at all the notes in there. They tell me the things i need to do each day. I’ve included what it looks like for me today. The key is to keep this short and sweet. Notes can be empty, but they can also have a lot of content.
Now yours will look different depending on what’s important in your life, but two of the notes in the list above are critical.
- The 2nd from the last note says “Process untagged notes in Evernote notebook ‘andrew-connell’”. What I do is filter my view so I see all notes that are untagged. These are notes I sent to Evernote via email the day before, short todo recordings and other stuff. I tag each note accordingly, but I also assign it a priority tag from my .when category. Everything gets a tag… if don’t know what to tag it, I actually have a tag named no-tag that I use so I can find it later.
- Then notice the 5th note in the above picture named “Look at Evernote priority tags for today & process”. Let’s say it’s Tuesday, I click on my !3-Tuesday tag and see anything I’m supposed to do on Tuesdays. I don’t use this that often, but it comes in handy. For instance, on Friday’s I do a tech health check, ensuring backups are working, anti-virus & anti-malware signatures and scans are current, etc. Finally, I look at the other .when tags that are numbered to see what I’m supposed to work on today, and if there are things I should be moving up.
You’ll see from my screenshot above also check my calendar for meetings for the next two days (so thing sneaks up on me) and also check reminders I’ve set in Evernote across all notebooks (each client has their own notebook and I have a notebook for long-running projects like my podcast and startup Kerrb).
I also have no problem deleting old notes. For instance if I got an email about something I needed to respond to but didn’t want to deal with it at the time, I forwarded the email to Evernote. The next day I usually set a reminder and assigned it a priority. When I get around to that task, I go into my email, find the old email I deleted and respond. After responding, I delete the note in Evernote. No need keeping it around… I simply had it in Evernote to (1) declutter my inbox and (2) remind myself to address it later.
Then as the day progresses, I spend time ONLY working from my 1-now tag. That’s what I said I need to be working on now, so that’s what I’ll work on. When it’s cleared, I’ll look at the other priority tags and move things around, maybe from 2-next up to 1-now… whatever makes sense!
A Comment about Evernote vs. OneNote
I get this question from OneNote folks: "can't I do the same thing in OneNote?" In some respects you can, but unfortunately OneNote doesn't do tags like Evernote does. OneNote's tags are morel like text decorations or virtual post-it notes rather than a hierarchical organization system. I guess you could create a page for each priority and make sure you only look at that one page per day. OneNote also has the ability to email notes to it like Evernote has, a nice addition added earlier this year. But for me, Evernote's tagging system just beats OneNote hands down.
Conclusion & Take Aways
Looking at this you might think “damn that sounds like a lot of work” but it really isn’t The ongoing process of sending stuff to Evernote from my inbox or creating notes, that takes no more time than you already spend in your inbox or using your own note taking software. The daily stuff I do, that literally takes less than a half-cup of coffee… maybe 5 minutes.
You have to make the process work for you and one that you’ll stick with. I started this process back in March and after a week, I immediately noticed how much more productive it made me. Over time I came to love how my stress level went down, how much less cluttered my mind felt, how I wasn’t dropping the ball on tasks nearly as much… just how my reliability & productivity improved. t decided to live with it for a few weeks and after sharing it with a few people, I was asked enough to show them that I figured I’d write it up so I can simply point to this post.
If you’re interested, head over to The Secret Weapon and watch some of their videos. Then tweak the process for yourself… feel free to steal a few of the ideas I’ve got here. Maybe this works for you… if so I hope me sharing this helps! Maybe it doesn’t… that’s fine… I just hope you have something that works!