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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:
– Inbox

– Personal
– Work
– Projects
– @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.


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 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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