How Evernote came to be my Operating System

and how that works out for me (spoiler: great).

I recently realized something. Not one of those big ‚whoa, wait a second!‘ moments. More like a growing sensation of understanding. A gradual ‘hey, wait a minute!”. I realized that over the years, one application has taken over so many of my daily workflows that I can only consider it to be my Operating System. That application is Evernote.

Reflecting that, here’s what Evernote does for me, and maybe can do for you, too. In case you haven’t heard about Evernote, it is a note taking application. But it actually can be so much more.

A note: I am not affiliated with Evernote except from being a paying customer of theirs.

Evernote is my To-Do list

I’ve started using Evernote as my To-Do list a couple of years ago. Previously, I used the excellent Things app to track my tasks, but I somehow found it lacking. After a short transition period, Evernote completely replaced all other personal task trackers for me.

I keep everything I have to work on in my Evernote account. It is my Single Source of Truth. If a task is not in Evernote, it doesn’t exist.

Evernote is my Getting Things Done

The buzz about David Allens Getting Things Done might have fizzled out a couple years ago (and people now rather rave about slack and bitcoin). I never was able to follow Davids rules religiously, and I doubt that I was the main target audience of his system. I am busy, but I am not one of those super-overworked executives he uses as examples in his books. I also am kinda organized by nature. We’re not talking Marie Kondo-style organized, but still. It counts.

But what stuck with me are a few key ideas David lays out, and they led me to a bastardized GTD that works for me. Here are the rules I use:

  1. I have a Single Source of Truth for all my commitments. Team-wide task tracking notwithstanding, I use one system and only one system for my personal tasks.
  2. I do not schedule my Todos, unless they are time-sensitive. I decide when — in a rough sense — I should do things without scheduling them.
  3. Time-Sensitive Todos do get scheduled.

That’s basically it, and my GTD-Setup in Evernote is ridiculously simple:

First, you need three folders:

Inbox
Action
Archive

Then, you need seven tags:

1-Now
2-Next
3-Soon
4-Later
5-Someday
6-Waiting
7-Timed

Capture all your tasks in your Inbox. Then, go through all tasks, and assign one of the tags listed above to each of them (if you need any help with this concept, do a quick google search or read one of those articles).

I also use contexts to distinguish between work and home tasks. I have a @work and a @home tag. For me, that’s enough. You might want more, less or different ones. When something belongs to a project, I add the project name as a tag, too. If I’m 6-Waiting for someone, I tag their name. If a task is 7-Timed (for example, movie tickets I need to print out or store on my phone), I add a reminder.

After you have tagged all your tasks, move them into your Action folder.

Then, scroll your sidebar to your tags-list (or create shortcuts for them) and select 1-Now. Everything in there is what you’re supposed to do now. Go, pick a task, finish it. Remove the 1-Now tag from it, and move it to Archive. Once you’re done with all of your 1-Now, pick a number of 2-Next that feels comfortable , and make them 1-Now. Continue down the line (make 3-Soon to 2-Next and so on). I usually grab five tasks and move them up, but that depends on how big your tasks are.

To see what I have to do today, I have a saved search for notebook:”Action” reminderTime:* -reminderDoneTime:* -reminderTime:day+1 that shows me all tasks timed for today and tasks that are overdue.

That’s it. That’s all there is. You now have a bastardized GTD-style task tracking app implemented in Evernote. Congratulations!

Evernote is my archive

Every task I complete (or that has somehow outlived its lifespan — in german we call that ‚aussitzen‘) is moved to the archive. I just remove the action tag, everything else stays. So if I want to see all the tasks related to a project, I just search in my Archive for that tag. Easy.

Evernote is the logic controller for my filesystem

Even though the Evernote database seems to be built for some heavy lifting (as I write this, my Evernote folder is 2.8 GB large), I do not plan on testing its boundaries. Therefore, I keep some stuff out of it.

I create a file system folder for every project that needs one. I might even create subfolders if I’m adventurous. But I do not codify tasks into my files or folder names like some people do.

The files are just files. Whatever I have to do with them is defined in Evernote.

Evernote is my EMail-Inbox

A lot of my work involves EMail. Either an incoming email contains a task for me, or I’m sending an email and then wait for a response. In any case, I use the Evernote send-to-email feature to keep track of tasks in Evernote. My mail client is just a triage station for weeding out spam or otherwise non-relevant emails. Everything else gets forwarded to Evernote, and the original mail goes into the ‚archive‘-folder immediately, without a second thought spared on it.

That’s a pretty easy ‚Inbox-Zero‘, but I have to admit that my Evernote-Inbox can get a bit crowded at times.

I habitually BCC my Evernote account on practically all the mails I send. Later, I use the ‘Merge Notes’ feature to stitch multi-message communications back together. A note that covers a conversation osciliates between 1-Now (I need to reply to this) and 6-Waiting (I just sent my reply) for as long as it goes on.

Evernote is my Ersatz-Paper

Paper. Amirite? Evernote’s mobile app does a fantastic job capturing printouts (tickets, bills and other artifacts of the conditio humana), straightening and enhancing them. It’s like using a scanner. I use it all the time to process the aforementioned stuff. Works like a charm, and I don’t have to deal with paper anymore. Need to pay an invoice? Create a note out of it, and process it like a task.

Evernote is my On-the-Go note writing app

Okay, technically, that’s not true. I mostly use Captio to send an email to my Evernote-Account because it starts up so fast and is so easy to use. Basically, every app capable of sending an email can be your note-capturing app.

Evernote is my research tool

This is where Evernote really shines. The Webclipper Browser Extension makes copying information from the web easy, and thanks to PDF and Office Doc indexing the search works with nearly any text document.

I have a folder for each research project where I collect material. If a project is overly complex, I create multiple folders to keep the raw materials a bit more organized. I have not — much to my dismay — found a good way to incoporate Kindle notes into Evernote. Which means I copy/paste them once I’m finished with a Kindle book.

Evernote is my text editor

Surprisingly, writing is one of the weaker spots of Evernote. It works, sure, but it is missing a few crucial pieces to really shine as a text editor. Continuous word and character counts for example, or Markdown support. Still, all my writing at least starts in Evernote. This post is no exception. I write it in Evernote, and then copy it here, where I do the final editing.

I still use Asana (or Trello, or fill in a project management tool of your choice)

Evernote is great for capturing and managing things that I have to do. It is not so good for sharing, or tracking things a group of people should do. It also not good for planning.

For these use cases, other, more specialized tools work better and the line between personal task keeping and project management is a blurry one.

My rule of thumb: If it is something only I can do, and people are interested only in the result, and not on the progress, it goes into Evernote. Otherwise, it goes into the team task management software.

Evernote makes my life easier

When I look back, I don’t know when exactly Evernote took over my life. But it definitely did, and in the process made my life so much easier. I no longer have to worry about different places to look for tasks. I don’t worry about compatibilities or interfaces. I know that Zapier and IFTT exist, but I don’t need them, because everything works together, because everything is in one place.