Evernote and GTD on an iPad

Update 2017-09-27: Here’s a more recent article which compares Evernote, OneNote and Google Keep. It also compares well with my article, being much more complete and professional. Yet another excellent article by the people at Cloudwards.

Here’s an article by John Mayson on how he uses Evernote with GTD.  Below, I’ve added comments on how I use it with specific reference to the iPad2, which is mostly where I play with Evernote these days.

This is going to be a long-assed blog post, so if you’re in hurry, here’s a summary:

  1. I use Evernote for all my notetakeing, referencing and for GTD (Getting Things Done)
  2. I’m not a power GTD user; still getting used to it.
  3. Evernote uses Notebooks and tags to identify/locate your notes. I use just 2 notebooks: GTD (all actionable items) and Reference (everything not actionable)
  4. John Mayson uses tags sparingly: only 1/3 of his notes have tags. He relies on Evernote’s excellent search function to find things. I tag everything, but limit my tags to just one or two (plus I have a trillion tags I’ve used only once and which mostly duplicate words in the body of the note; every time I open Evernote, I trash a couple of tags and/or notebooks. Simplify, simplify.)
  5. Evernote Premium offers “offline notebooks”. I make my Evernote “GTD” notebook offline, so I can access note contents when I’m not connected to the Internet (which is most of the time).
  6. I’m going paperless, using this excellent guide, but I also keep paper notes for the sake of redundancy, mostly on index cards a system called PoIC (Pile of Index Cards) developed by a Japanese engineer. I used B6-size index cards because 5×8 card is not available in Japan. I prefer using in portrait, not landscape, mode. The width is then almost the same as 3×5 cards.
  7. Reference:
    1. John Mayson’s 3 articles on Evernote and GTD (see also here).
      1. Setting up Evernote as Your GTD Dashboard
      2. Paper and Evernote
      3. It’s All Been Tagged
    2. Michael Hyatt’s blog post  on how he handles paper with Evernote.
    3. Brett Kelly’s invaluable 95-page e-book “Evernote Essentials” (2nd ed.), available now as a PDF download, definitely worth the $25 whether you’re new to Evernote or been using it for more than a year (like me). Click here to view more details (Affilirate disclosure).
    4. on going paperless: I recommend Brooks Duncan’s excellent advice on DocumentSnap – if you’re serious about paperless, do consider getting his Paperless Document Organization Guide (I don’t get anything for plugging this, I think it’s a wonderful resource, I refer to it again and again, especially the workflow videos)
    5. Getting started with GTD Collection (and a couple more links at the end of this blog post)
    6. Ruud Hein’s 15-minute guide to setting up Evernote for GTD (no notebooks, only tags). This is somewhat cryptic unless you are already familiar with both GTD and Evernote, but it’s an interesting setup, and emphasises using Saved Searches.
    7. Click here to download Dan Gold’s “Unofficial Guide to capturing everything and GTD” now. Just $5, but I’ve referred to it over and over when re-building my Evernote structure. It has been a great help.Click here to visit dangoldesq.com. (Affiliate disclosure.)
    8. Update: just found The Secret Weapon, a series of free intro videos on setting up Evernote for GTD; merge notes? Changing a note’s “create” date for future tasks? Cool tips. Also, how to setup Outlook for integrating with Evernote.

That’s the summary. Here’s the loooonnnnggggzzzzz version. First, an extract from John Mayson:

If you found this page you probably were searching for Evernote and GTD. In case you don’t know, Evernote is a multi-platform note taking and archival suite. GTD is short for Getting Things Done, a productivity methodology created by David Allen. My article assumes a certain level of knowledge about both. I am going to jump right to how I’m using Evernote.

Tags not Notebooks
The fact is I have used Evernote both ways and have decided using tags over notebooks is the way to go.

If you’re a visual person you might prefer to use notebooks.

I also use mainly tags these days, and using notebooks was really a holdover from Windows Explorer experience. The key is how are you going to find this note again when you need it? With notebooks, as with folders, this quickly degenerates into a boring game of “which @*+-ing notebook/folder did I put it in?” Even tagging is probably a holdover from a previous age. When searching for particular notes, I use a combination of using particular tags as a filter (frequent searches are everything tagged with “!!Today” and “!Next”) and searching for particular text.

For instance, I have a list of movies to watch, which I bring up every time I go to the video rental store (yes, I still actually go to a video rental store – mainly for the exercise, not that I can’t figure out how to get VOD or anything). I don’t have a tag for this item (“list” would be an obvious choice, wouldn’t it? But I don’t have a category of lists yet in Evernote), so I just find it by searching for “movies to watch”.

While a hierarchy of folders in real life can be a great organizational boon, it doesn’t work well in Evernote because Evernote only allows 2 levels of nesting notebooks, and they’re not ACTUALLY nested (see below).

Mayson succinctly summarises the issue:

The power of tags over notebooks is a single note can have multiple tags. It cannot be stored in multiple notebooks. Sure you can copy a note so it sits in multiple notebooks. But now you have multiple copies of the same information. What happens when you update one? Do you update them all?

Mayson’s early experience probably mirrors many Evernote users’:

Evernote quickly grew on me and I turned it into a messy digital junk drawer rendering it almost useless … None of my information was indexed meaning it was very difficult to go find anything. My software had search capability, but it was awful. And my data was isolated to my computer.
All of this changed with a Doxie portable document scanner, Evernote, and a book by David Allen.

Finding things easily is the main reason to tag rather than use notebooks (which are like folders).

I drew heavily from Bobby Travis’ excellent post about Evernote tags.

Tags Like Hens’ Teeth
Don’t tag everything. It’s as simple as that.  Evernote’s search function works very well. If a word appears in your note, tagging the note with the same word is superfluous. I tag ideas, fuzzy concepts that link notes together, but probably don’t appear in the note.

I still tag everything, but now try and tag with just one or two key tags. I’m deleting all the tags that replicate words used (or probably used) in the body of the note (except where the “note” is a photo or PDF). I tag using key words that refer to projects or matters that I often refer to. For instance, I will tag an article on GTD or on a related, personal-organization matter as “gtd”, regardless of whether it actually refers to David Allen’s system or not. I may clip the entire article or just an excerpt. Regardless of whether the article contains the word “GTD” or not, I will tag it “gtd”. I don’t want to re-read every clip or excerpt just out of a desire to avoid superfluous tags.

  1. Clip it
  2. Tag it
  3. Close it.

At this point, let me mention that I also still use notebooks, and here’s why. I use Evernote for GTD, but not only for that. Most of my Evernotes were created before I started using Evernote for GTD. So I basically have two notebooks (or will soon; clearing up my Evernote notebooks and tags is one of those tasks I attack a little at a time, when I’m using Evernote, usually when I’m on a train with my iPad and have nothing else to do):

  1. ToDo, and
  2. Everything else, which I call “Reference”. That includes projects.

I used to have separate notebooks for separate projects, but then I dithered over which notebook to bung a note into: should the clip about the rubber duck go into the “Shopping” notebook, or the “Presents” notebook, or the “Someday/Maybe” notebook?

I prefer this leaner, meaner, system. It’s either an actionable item ->ToDo, or it ain’t -> Reference.

There’s another, iPad, reason for these two notebooks. I was happily creating tons of Evernotes, syncing my iPad, then carrying my wifi (but not 3G-enabled) iPad into meetings, onto trains, into classrooms. Instead of reading the hardcopy of the meeting agenda (Ha! I’m Paperless Wonderboy! You dudes are so 20th century!), I’d just fire up my iPad, tap the Evernote app and…. stare at all those blank grey squares which say “Evernote cannot open this note because you are not connected to the Internet.”


That’s right. To actually show the content of a note, the iPad has to be connected to the Internet. It doesn’t actually store the entire content on the iPad, unlike a laptop or desktop. I shut down iPad and casually sauntered to the table where all the copies of the agenda were stacked. Might as well take one of these, for the road, ya know, just in case.

But then I bought Daniel Gold’s Unofficial Guide howto Evernote and GTD (or something: he keeps changing the title!), and discovered you can create offline notebooks which will allow me to see the content even offline. This is available only to Premium users, however. (The Elephant Channel pointed out you can “go Premium” for just 1 month at a time, if you’re really such a cheapskate and balk at springing for the yearly version, like me.)

So now, “ToDo”, is an offline notebook. Reference isn’t. You can also turn these on and off, or change your selected offline notebooks, at any time from within Evernote, and the changes will be synced the next time you’re connected to the Internet.

Another reason, I stopped, or greatly reduced, using Notebooks was that at first when I started using Evernote for GTD, I nested my GTD notebooks. One meta notebook was GTD, and inside that I had “ToDo”, “Someday/Maybe”, “Wating For”, etc. Then I made the “GTD” notebook offline, expecting that all the other notebooks nested inside it would also be available to me offline.

They weren’t.

It LOOKS like a hierarchy, but it ain’t. Those notebooks aren’t actually nested inside the other. You have to make each notebook offline separately. Then what’s the point of making all those separate notebooks?

There isn’t any. Just make one mega notebook for GTD, and one for everything else. The GTD categories of “@(context)”, “Read/Review”, “Waiting For”, etc, have now all become tags instead of notebooks. I’ve also borrowed Ruud Heins’ tip of simplifying the names of these categories, e.g. “Read/Review” becomes simply “read”. For one thing, typing the slash on an iPad takes a couple more keystrokes (the “/” isn’t shown on the top keyboard). “Someday/Maybe” becomes the super-slim tag “sd”, etc.

Back to John Mayson:

Bill Gates’ Contribution
…The one thing I like better on a Windows system over anything else is the Windows Explorer. Please note I’m referring to the file manager and not the web browser. I have a nested tag field that I keep open whenever I’m using Evernote and it reminds me of using Windows Explorer. I drag and drop notes in and out of tags as appropriate. Mentally I see them as notes inside a folder, but I know they’re tagged and know my note will always appear in the proper context.

Save the Trees
I am slowly but surely scanning in all of my notebooks and storing the resulting PDF files into Evernote. I bought a Doxie portable document scanner because I frequently travel and need something I can easily carry with me. My notebook collection goes back to the early 1990’s and I was rather proud to display the volumes of my acquired wisdom and knowledge. Unfortunately in order to scan these notebooks I had to tear the pages out one by one. Painful! But now they are safe and sound (and indexed) in my Evernote account.

Like all good GTD nerds I drool over and covet Moleskine notebooks. Yes, they’re nice. But since I’m just going to tear the pages out I prefer to use inexpensive composition notebooks. Of course use whatever you want. But if you’re going to tear out pages make sure the page tear cleanly.

Scanning is good (and let me put in a plug here for Brooks Duncan’s excellent free Guide to Going Paperless), but you don’t need to rip up and throw away your notebooks. Keep them. There’s a lot to be said for redundancy. You could lose all your notebooks in a fire when Godzilla takes his revenge, but you could also lose all your Evernote in a massive electro-magnetic pulse bang thingy from the sun, or some wacko government, whichever invents it first.

So, I echo Mayson’s sentiment here:

I will never completely replace paper. I find paper to be faster, easier to carry, and easier to draw on. But whenever possible I don’t ever generate the paper to begin with.

1. Store everything you can in Evernote, but tag wisely.
2. Use one notebook and many tags, but don’t overdo the tags.
3. Feel free to use paper, but scan those notes in and save them in Evernote.

In a second blog post on Evernote and GTD, Mayson wrote about going paperless, and referred to a a post by Michael Hyatt on integrating paper with Evernote, which is well worth reading.

(In the “related links” at the bottom of Hyatt’s note is a link to a GTD-specific program he uses called Nozbe. I know nothing about it, but here’s the link if you want to check it out. Personally, I prefer to keep as much of my GTD as possible in one place, i.e. Evernote.)

I use notebooks and index cards for when I’m offline or where it’s not convenient or possible to use my iPad. I then transfer these notes to Evernote, usually by taking a photo of the card and importing the photo to Evernote.

In a third, and final post on this topic, Mayson describes his tags in details. In this post he mentions that he incorporates his Tickler File into his Evernote tags, not something I do; I prefer a real-physical calendar or a digital one – I use Google Calendar:

Anyone who has read Getting Things Done is familiar with the concept of 43 folders. David Allen recommends 43 folders representing the 31 days in a month and the next 12 months (12 + 31 = 43). If there’s something that needs my attention on a specific date in the future, I file a note under that date. If it falls beyond 31 days I file it under the appropriate month and as the date gets closer I can assign a specific date to it. Every morning I check this. I move all notes out of the tickler file and into my inbox. I then rename the tag adding a month to it. 2011-09-21 becomes 2001-10-21. Every now and then this results in a date that doesn’t exist such as 2011-11-31, but that just happens. I use YYYY-MM-DD format to keep it sorted correctly.

He also keeps lists in Evernote,  items are tagged “list” and kept in his GTD section, and reviews them: “Books I’ve read. Countries I’ve visited. Beers I’ve enjoyed. They all get their own lists. I also store project lists. This allows me to keep my individual actions that make up a project together. Once I’ve completed a task it disappears from my next action tag, but I keep it tagged here so I know what I have done.”

In one of Hyatt’s posts he mentions that he no longer uses his iPad (he’s switched to a Macbook Air), and that he uses Nozbe, a specialized GTD software program. It looks interesting, and I might try it out if they have a free trial or download (they do, AND there’s an iPad app), but I personally prefer to have my stuff in one place, like Evernote.

To sum up:

  • I use Evernote for listing actionable items and non-actionable items (Reference).
  • I tag everything, but keep the tags to a minimum. I try to avoid tagging with words that occur in the note itself, but I don’t worry too much about duplication, as I consider it a form of redundancy.
  • I use a notebook or index cards for taking notes if I can’t use my iPad or computer. I take photos of the cards and import them to Evernote later. I also use a regular pocket diary calendar and Outlook’s calendar which I recently linked with my Google calendar. I don’t use Evernote for calendar items but John Mayson does.
  • I’m still learning the ropes of GTD, and am now working on my weekly review, making a daily review part of my daily routines, and remembering to write down and review my goals on a daily basis. For this purpose, I’ve found these articles useful (see also the list of links at the top of this blog-post):


via John Mayson – Google+ – Setting up Evernote as Your GTD Dashboard In 2008 I signed….

I recommend the following guides: Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”