Getting Back On Task

In my last post, I lamented over the scores of productive tools out there. You can Google productivity and get 67 million of hits. Search for GTD and you’ll get 3.9 million hits. Search the iTunes App Store for GTD and you’ll get 30 Apps! The good news? I found 3 tools that just work; albeit some minor tweaking: Evernote, Remember the Milk, and my iPod Touch! In this post I’ll talk about my system, how I developed it, and why I believe it works.



The short story is that any system I was going to choose had to be easy to use and easy to understand. As one lawyer said to me about one of our litigation tools we offer law firms – if I can’t understand how it works in less than 30 seconds, I’m not interested. I’m of the same mind – so enjoy this post!


1. My Struggle

Managing Tasks
If you’re reading this, you no doubt have at least heard of David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. So I won’t bother with a laborious recapitulation of his book. What is noteworthy is that whether you’re a hardcore follower, someone who has tweaked the system or despise the system, the reality is that there is truth behind GTD. Namely, when it comes to managing tasks.

I need a system that I can access anywhere, that’s easy-to-use, and easy-to-understand. Bound to Microsoft Outlook Exchange server and a company issued BlackBerry that’s completely locked down at work and Gmail for my personal email the question became what I can do to unify all my action items in one central repository. (As a footnote, I had to shelf my lovely Moleskines I purchased — I believe five altogether, each in different sizes, many “hacked” from what I read here and here.)

My second struggle became the GTD contexts. David Allen’s theory rests on the idea that everything is done within a specific context: @home, @work, @calls, @computer, @errands, @agenda, Someday/maybe, Waiting for, Project lists, etcetera. The stuff that must get done you either do it, if it can take less than two minutes, defer it, if it will take longer, or delegate it to someone. In an analog world with Moleskines, this has the potential of working well. However, it’s not as practical for someone like me who lives in Outlook and a locked-down company BlackBerry, travels often and lives and works in e-world.


Many people began adding tags in their electronic systems. The complexity of it all – contexts, tagging, hacking a journal you buy from Barnes & Noble, getting Outlook to work intuitively and the multiple blog posts about programming codes to get GTD to work specific ways – uch! Oh, the audacity of it all! That was the impetus behind my last post. Since then, I took a step back, stared at a picture of the Dalai Lama, and I was ready to do this.


First, I’ve read the blogs and rave reviews on Evernote (see, here, here, here, & here. Oh, don’t forget this one right here. Especially relevant for the law practice.) and I did the same for Remember the Milk (see, here, here, here & here). However, I knew that if I were to be use those systems, I had to get it right first within Outlook. Leveraging the To-Do bar in Outlook 2007, I began using Categories as my GTD contexts for my tasks. So as email came in, I’d send it to Taks and categorize as @calls, @computer, @agenda (for my 1:1 with my manager) and Waiting For.


I finally began feeling like I had a system! Simple and yet effective – for Outlook that is.

Managing Notes
This was perhaps a bigger obstacle than managing tasks because I write notes in three settings: 1) customer meetings where I am typically bound to a leather portfolio for what I do, 2) my office, and 3) on the road when I think of things that come to mind. As David Allen writes, that’s the reason for a UCT or a Ubiquitous Capture Tool for everything. I know. I know. That’s where the Moleskines come in, but like I said, it just wasn’t practical for me.
Plus, I found myself constantly transferring notes and reading my hieroglyphics. Namely, it just became more work to keep 2 task lists, 2 places for notes, and above all else, a journal that just isn’t searchable.

Unlike the To-do bar in Outlook, my challenge was trying to put my notes in one location. Yes, I even tried Microsoft OneNote but that required more work for me and there’s no offline or mobile access. (However, why not just make Outlook and OneNote one application? You’d have a killer app, that’s for sure!) So like the tasks, I took advantage of the Journal within Outlook with tags: meeting notes, product names I’m responsible for overseeing, company names, etcetera. Then for little things that didn’t require formatting of text, I used Notes with categories.

The reality is as much as this system was starting to work for me, I realized it was far from perfect or ideal.


Enter Evernote, Remeber the Milk, and my iPod Touch!

2. Getting Back on Task
Knowing that I could manage a GTD’esque system in Outlook of all places, it was time to take on Evernote and RTM again with renewed vigor and enthusaism for wanting to get things done effectively & efficiently.

Remember the Milk


Truly, I can’t say enough about how cool – and EASY – this is. The best part? IT’S EVERYWHERE! Seriously. You can email tasks, bulk email tasks, Twitter tasks, send the feed to Outlook so that it’s in your Exchange Calendar (Yes!!), setup a gadget in Gmail, use it as an SSB (site specific browser) and with a Pro account for $25 you can have the app on your iPod Touch or iPhone. You can get SMS reminders on multiple mobile phones (personal and work), and emails to different accounts. I mean, really? How is this not the ultimate GTD tool??

The RTM Blog is full of posts on how to use it for GTD. Here’s what I’ve done:
Lists
– Inbox

– Personal
– Work
– Projects
Tags
– @agenda
– @calls
– @computer
– @errands
– Waiting for
– Someday/Maybe

I then created Smart Lists for some of these tags as a quick dashboard for what I need to do. Plus, once you go Pro, the App is outstanding!! I can quickly see a dashboard for either everything today, tomorrow, next week, or based on my lists. What’s more is that adding tasks on the iPhone App is a dream! You can easily input tags, location, lists, etc.

What is even better is that I can always see what needs to get done for both work and personal on my iPod touch since it never leaves my side. (I think before the iPhone and iPod Touch were invented we were all the equivalent of electronic nomadic wanderers.)

As a footnote, tags are great – but if they are not managed successfully – they can be an unwieldy burden – which is what happened to me during the first go-around. Tags need to be structured with some uniformity. I oversee world-class document review platforms for the legal community and know the perils of not having a good structure.

Evernote


That bring me to Evernote. Let me just start off by saying that I am currently typing this blog on my Evernote app for my iPod touch en route to LAX from CLT. So cool!!

Second, all the hype about Evernote is pretty much true. So why did I give up on Evernote? For those who haven’t used it yet, you’ll find a wealth of tips, tricks, GTD’ers, you name it. And now of course there’s me. I inputted way too many tags, only one notebook, then two, then three and I just couldn’t get my arms around it.

The solution? Well, just like RTM, Evernote is EVERYWHERE! You can email notes to Evernote with tags and which notebook it should go in, type notes offline in the App (like I am right now), download the thick app for the desktop (which although I like the think apps, I find it easier to manage notes in the desktop app over the web app), and there’s the bookmarklet I use in Chrome. You can pay for a Premium account for Evernote as well, but for now the 40MB is plenty for me.

First I’ll explain my setup as it exists right now and then explain how I use it for both work and personal. My Notebook setup is pretty straightforward:
– Inbox
– Personal
– Work

– Projects

Look familiar? The Notebooks and tags are intentionally similar as that guarantees a much more seamlessly integrated workflow between my action items and my notes – or you can say between RTM and Evernote.


Plus, if I make a note that requires an action, all I need to do is email the note from Evernote TO RTM with the notes in the body of the task AND the list and tag to associate it with … It’s RIDICOUSLY easy!!

As an example, let’s say I have a conference call with a collague about a customer and there are several action items from the call. I’d simply email RTM with @waitingfor, @call, or @computer depending on the task and assign dates if need be be.

To make it all easier, I can manage this whole process from my iPod Touch!! Emails that are relevant to a specific project get sent to Evernote. Travel itineraries get sent to Evernote. Recipes get sent to Evernote. My blog drafts (obviously) get sent to Evernote. It’s seriously the easies tool – when managed correctly – that you can use to organize your tasks and notes.


I would like to experiment with integrating this workflow with both Dial2Do and Jott so that I can add tasks and notes while I’m traveling in the car or in the airport and don’t feel like walking and texting at the same time.


Wrapping Up
Having a system that works for you in your busy life is critical – no matter what you do for a living. This new system helps me manage both work and my personal life with ease. Especially when my wife tells to remember the milk! {Grin}


In my next post I’ll talk about how I’ve leveraged Box.net and Dropbox for even more efficiencies in my work life. Until then, feel free to drop some comments!

Clip to Evernote

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About Daniel

Transforming how legal professionals work by creating more effective discovery outcomes and driving value.

Posted on April 19, 2010, in @GTD & productivity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Really enjoyed reading your post. As I am facing almost the same issues I really like that you mentioned Remember The Milk (I am already using) and Evernote (I need to have a look at). Thank you!

    I would like to add just one thing – as I wanted to have my Remember The Milk tasks actually synchronized to Outlook, I created small Outlook synchronization utility for RTM. It is for free and you can download it from http://www.sprinxcrm.com/SprinxCRM%20OutlookSync%20for%20Remember%20The%20Milk .

  2. Hey Daniel!
    I found you on Evernote on Facebook (you will see my comment there). I liked your post, but I have to say, as a person who tried these tools, I gave up shortly after. It’s simply too much work to be organized, and you get lost in the tools themselves. GTD has a few core things that are true, but the system is soooooooo cumbersome. Personally, I just use Evernote and Google Calendar (which came with my Android) and I do fine. To cut down big projects down to manageable tasks I use mindmaps (I draw them, no software I found was good enough), and I find them very helpful, as I’m a visual thinker.

    I would love to talk more about productivity if you wish, so, drop me a line! thanks fro writing 🙂

    • Shay – thanks so much for the thoughtful comments both here and on Facebook. I too love to talk about productivity…and I think you may have spurred my creative juices to right a new blog post on this topic! I think your use of Evernote and Google Calendar are dead on and are quite fundamental to “getting things done”! Personally, I have found the whole process to be cathartic – the process of emptying out everything in my head and getting it into some organized structure has been wonderful. I feel the incredible sense of relief knowing that I have definable action items based upon the environment that I’m in, that I’ve broken down action items into several steps (if need be) into projects, and then monitoring my personal success at the end of each week! Yes, it can be cumbersome, I agree. For some reason though, it just jives with my personality. Combined with Nozbe for my action items, Evernote & Nozbe help me better understand each of my major focus areas: work, home & this blog. Feel free to keep this conversation alive!

  3. I have tried repeatedly to do as you suggest but only the subject arrived in RTM and not the notes, due date, estimated time, etc.

    Can you be more specific in your example?

    • @adjco – Good news! I’ve left RTM! 🙂 Well, maybe that doesn’t exactly help your situation, so I’ll address both points. What I would do is generally forward e-mails that I wanted to convert into a Next Action item to the RTM e-mail address. The subject would become the task and then anything in the body should end up as a note. The same should technically apply even if you’re drafting a new email. I would say you should e-mail customer service — but that is part of the reason I left RTM – an “udder” lack of customer service!

      That said, I moved over to Nozbe, mainly because of the incredible integration is has with Evernote. Now, every note I have in Evernote that’s tagged as a project, is automatically (read:magically) carried over to Nozbe when the project in Nozbe is given the same name. To me, it’s all about ease — good fodder for my next post!

  4. Hi Daniel

    I read ur link on Evernote fb.

    I just bot egrelist and integrated it with Evernote.

    The only problem is it doesn’t have reminder system and also does it integrate with outlook tasks..

  5. Ok I am downloading RTM now upon your recommendation!

    • Whew! Whitney – you’re keeping me busy this morning!! 🙂 LOL! It’s definitely been an evolution here, that’s for sure! In addition to my reply before, if you search for Evernote on the right hand side you’ll see the progression of how we’ve evolved from these other tools! 🙂

  6. oh no I just read the comments and see where you’ve left RTM ! What’s a girl to do?

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