Today, I’m going to talk about how I’ve revised my Evernote task management system slightly because of the overwhelming amount of information that needs to go into it.
One of the tenets of my Evernote use is to separate task planning and task execution. The system I profiled a few months ago is great for capturing and grouping sets of related information that become tasks, but I was still getting overwhelmed looking at the entire list of P1 tasks. By committing myself to grouping items using tags and implementing a daily task list, I’ve been able to maintain that separation of planning and execution and have increased my productivity.
Before jumping in to the changes, let’s review the tenets of the system I use to keep myself organized:
- Inbox Zero and keeping everything in one place.
- The concept that all inputs (email, notes, voicemail, etc.) go into a system where they are tracked and reviewed regularly, ensuring they only rarely get lost. (Of course, I’d like to say, “…so that nothing gets lost.,” but, hey, no one’s perfect!)
- Separation of planning and execution
- At least in my experience, there are two brainspaces that I live in during the day. The first is organizing and prioritizing work, and the second is actually doing the work. Switching between the two is draining and distracting, and negatively impacts productivity. My goal is to stay in the second as much and as consistently as possible.
- (There’s a third, automation, but it doesn’t really apply to this post…)
The Problem with my Evernote Task Management System
When I wrote previously, I described a system that captures information and assigns it one of three different priority levels: P1, P2 and P3 (the P3 really ends up being a backlog).
I found three problems with that which were causing conflict with the second tenet, separation of planning and execution:
- First, and this won’t be a surprise for anyone, but there are a lot of P1s. Because of the extra overhead and time involved, keeping the set of P1s to a daily task list turned into a futile effort.
- Second, most of my tasks reference multiple bits of information in separate notes, so my P1 list is a little deceiving because there are many notes relating to the same P1 task in that list.
- Third, not everything related to a particular task is a P1. I know, there’s a gray area here as it relates to projects vs tasks, but the fact is that not all aspects of a particular effort need to be executed at one time.
When looking at my set of P1 tasks (supposedly for that day), I was still having to parse what was most important or urgent, what tasks made sense to execute together and exactly how I needed to approach each one (your mindset when doing website updates is going to be very different than your mindset when planning the agenda for a 12-person meeting).
Especially when wrapping up a task and moving to the next one, this decision-making was significantly slowing me down. I needed something to glance at that would tell me what would be next on my list.
Grouping by Like Tasks in Evernote
I found that a prerequisite to making this system work is a commitment to grouping your various tasks with tags. This is true for both recurring groups of tasks (administrative functions, like doing your expenses) and one-off efforts (executing a large website usability study for example).
Here is where you might say, reasonably and with the proper understanding of semantics and perspective, “but your one-off efforts sound a heck of a lot like projects!”
You would be right! By the strict definitions of the GTD systems and totally chill project managers everywhere, a project is just more than one related task. Pragmatically, I run into two problems with that strict definition:
- In an environment of changing priorities and shifting business needs, maintaining momentum simply requires a bit more fluidity than that. This is, frankly, the whole reason agile project management has become a thing; I’m just customizing a personal implementation of it.
- It’s not the way my colleagues think. As an example, they see the overall website project as a…project, and the UX research is simply part of it. Recognizing they’re not adhering to the strictest definition of what a project is, I simply don’t feel the need to win hearts and minds on this one.
In any case, semantics aside, by tagging groups of related Evernote tasks with the same tag, I can use the “anytag search” I’ve talked about previously to quickly call up all of those notes.
Implementation of a “Weekly Notes” File
This used to be my weekly objectives. The weekly objectives were great–the idea was to outline priorities for the week and let that guide my day-to-day decision making. It just wasn’t quite enough.
Today, I prepare a weekly note on the same day I’m doing my weekly review. I add headings for all the days of the week using my date format (MMDDYY). As I’m going through all my P1, P2 and P3 tasks across the different areas of my life, I quickly add bullet lists in my weekly notes about what needs to get tackled when.
This is just a rough outline, and reflects when I think I’ll have time to handle these things, as well as some reminders. It’s actually pretty close to the weekly objectives I used to put together.
This note gets dramatically more detailed as the week goes on, and I pretty much live and die by it. In the office on Monday, I keep the note open as I’m clearing my inboxes and filing notes, and during that process, I actually come up with my gameplan for that day. Here’s how:
First, I go ahead and move the entry for that day to the top.
The note stays open and accessible while I process my inboxes, and I write out the projects that need to get tackled that particular day.
Once I’m done filing and prioritizing all of the notes from my inboxes, I go back and take a look at my P1 tasks, and add in the action items. I even add checkboxes to them!
The trick in this step is balance. There’s enough information in here for me to quickly understand what needs to be done, but not so much that it takes more than ten minutes for me to create the entire day’s gameplan.
All of the details to execute these tasks–the invoice number for Client X, the timelines for the mobile sites, etc.–are in notes that are filed with “client invoices” or “mobile timeline planning” tags, and can be quickly recalled with the “anytag” search trick.
On days I’m feeling particularly pressured, I take 30 more seconds and highlight the items that need to be done first. These are usually items I’m behind on completing (oops!), or where someone is waiting on information from me to keep a project moving forward.
Tuesday morning rolls around, and I’m back at it. The process is exactly the same, except that I move the Tuesday entry to the top, and also move any items that didn’t get completed the day before into Tuesday (if necessary).
From there, I start filling in the additional tasks for the day based on what’s come into my inbox in the last twenty-four hours, and a quick scan of my P1 tasks already in my system.
The result is that I have a list of prioritized tasks for the day that I can quickly refer to between completing one and starting a new one, and that can help me recover much more quickly from the standard interruptions of a workday. Creating the Weekly Note costs me about an additional ten minutes a day, and easily saves much more than that.
Drawbacks to this Evernote Task Management System
The biggest drawback I’ve found to the revised Evernote task management system is naming conventions for tags. My tag list is like the Wild West of my Evernote frontier, with hundreds of discarded and minimally used tags. This can sometimes lead to confusion, but more often, it’s a matter of “what did I name this group of tasks yesterday” that slows me down.
While I’m not too worried about it now, I am experimenting with a tagging system from Michael Hyatt, that is likely to add some order, but I’m also sensitive to adding one more planning step in my day.
I will say the lack of hierarchical system of notes in Evernote makes conceptualizing this a lot harder. It seems odd to me that I can organize tags in a hierarchy, but that the notes won’t follow.
The Evolution of my Evernote Task Management System
- While I consistently succeed in my goal of “Inbox Zero,” and prioritize all the information, the volume and sources of my tasks meant that I was still being forced to parse and prioritize throughout the day.
- Completing one task and then figuring out the scope and requirements of the next one violates the tenets of separating planning from execution…and it really slows you down.
- Instead, I now spend time at the beginning of the day grouping, scoping and clarifying what needs to happen for each set of tasks to be executed as efficiently as possible. At the end of this, I have a gameplan for the day.
- To support this change, I now ensure almost all my tasks have a grouping tag–a tag that reflects the project or subproject and the priority, groups of which can be easily recalled using custom searches.
- As the day goes on, I check off the items on my weekly notes planning document, and keep it open all day, where I can store reminders for further in the week.
Filing and Retrieving Information in Evernote
Evernote makes recording information super easy, but it’s the retreiving the right information at the right time that is the hard part.
My goal here is to create a system where you can do most of the thinking upfront, and then stay in execution mode throughout the day.
Depending on your role, you might not need the additional overhead of creating the daily gameplan, even if you’re using Evernote for personal task management. In environments where there are many interruptions, stakeholders and priorities, though, I think having a daily set of tasks that is pulled from your weekly reviews and daily inbox clearing can maintain momentum and consistency across projects.
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