Sunday, July 12, 2009

Much ado about Todo's

or Using Evernote to Manage your Tasks

There are a lot of programs out there that will list tasks, their due dates, priorities etc. and give you this information in an attractive format and on various platforms.

Some of the many I've looked at : Toodledo, GMail Tasks, Remember the Milk, and more.

Unfortunately, they all lack the other part I want, the information I need to do the task. I have tried many, but went on back to using and further developing my own little PHP app. I've been writing my own app to handle tasks and store information since 1980. As a hobbyist programmer, I was never compelled to finish it. I'd just use it as a learning exercise when a new platform came out that interested me. I've had it running on a Radio Shack Model 1, Model 100, on a PC starting with Dbase III, Toolbook, Visual Basic, Perl and most recently PHP (Ajax for my PC, and straight PHP for my phone version). I'll blog about that bizarre, 30 year trip another time.

I’d get the program to where it was useful for me, and be content until I was ready to re-write it again in a new language I wanted to learn.

That is, until I re-discovered Evernote.

For the first two months I used Evernote I was just using it to store information. I was still using my PHP app. I have tried Google Calendars new task capability. It allowed me to drag tasks around, but again, failed at the other need—keeping the other information I’d like to associate with tasks.

I decided to explore using Evernote as a task manager.

Now, there are a lot of ways to manage tasks. As I wrote my Apps over the years, I've thought about this a great deal. It was interesting how fast I was able to emulate the abilities of my PHP app in Evernote. My PHP App, the Ajax version anyway, let me drag tasks from job jars to Today, or from Past Due to today etc. That was easy to emulate using Evernote’s Notebooks.

The last few years, the Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen has been all the rage. Wired Magazine called it "A new cult for the info age" . My system is not quite as formalized as Allen's. If I had to name it, I'd call it WW4U, or Whatever Works For You.

Here's what works for me:

A task is a separate note; one task=one note. That way, I have lots of room to have information I need about the task, and to log notes of progress on the task including notes and timestamps of conversations I had concerning the task.

I created a small collection of Notebooks. Tags won't work here. In fact, I don't use tags for my tasks, except if I want them related to other notes I have. Tags are not necessary for my task system.

I number the Notebooks so they stay in the order I want them.

Here's are the Notebooks I have. There is some overlap with GTD because thinking about the same problem, can lead to similar solutions. I didn't realize how much until today and I took a closer look at GTD then I ever had before.

Remember, you can create your own setup. That's the beauty of WW4U.

When I create a new task, I just move it to the Day of the Week I want to do it. If it isn’t that important, it goes to “Current Job Jar” or “Ideas”. Ideas are really pie in the sky ideas I might want to do one day.

Each morning, I look at the tasks for that day of the week. I then prioritize them. Ones that need to be done today go to “Today-High”. The work day is not over until that notebook is empty.

When I finish that day’s high priority tasks, I can then start on the “Today-Medium” ones. “Today-Low” tend to have tasks needing done further out, or little five minutes tasks I can grab and do when I have a few minutes before a scheduled call.

When I finish a task, I make whatever notes I want about the execution of the task in the Note, and then drag the note to the “Completed Today” notebook.

At the end of the day, it is very gratifying to see a list of what I managed to accomplish that day. Some days, it feels like all you did was put out fires and dodge falling bricks. Seeing that list of completed items is good for the soul.

That was another failing of task programs—they want you to delete completed tasks. By storing them, I can document later that I did do something, and when I did it.

My last task of the day, is to move items from “Completed Today”. They either go to “Completed Tasks” or to the day they next need to be done. For example, I am forever forgetting to take my allergy pill, so I have a task called “Daily Pill”. When I do it, it goes to “Completed Today”, and then at the end of the day, to the Notebook for the next day.

Uncompleted Items form the three Today notebooks go to the Day of the Week folder for tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, I take them, prioritize them and start anew.

Current Job Jar is for me, my honey-do list. The things my wife wants me to do in my spare time. Since Evernote links between my home & work PC, I manage both work & personal tasks with one system.

Some workday nights, I’ll empty out the Today Notebooks at the end of the workday, and then go through the process again, choosing personal tasks to populate the Today notebooks if I’m gong to spend the night working on personal projects.

I love the whole idea of moving the tasks around from one notebook to another. It is the electronic form of shuffling index cards around.

Here’s the elegance of WW4U. If you don’t like how I’ve set it up, design your own system. Evernote is very flexible.

If you develop your own layout and process, write it down as a note and keep it handy in Evernote so you can have it to remind yourself of your intended workflow. This blog post is my process document.

If you’re out and about, and suddenly remember a task you need to remember, just whip out your cell phone and text in your task.

Most cell phones allow texting to an email address. Your Evernote account has a unique email account. You can find out yours by logging into, and looking on your Settings page.

The incoming task lands in your Default Notebook, which I recommend be called something like “Inbox”. The next time you’re at one of your Evernote clients, move the task from the inbox to the appropriate Notebook.

And of course, since your tasks are in Evernote, you have them available to you on your smartphone either via the mobile website, or a full blown client if you have the Palm Pre, certain Blackberrys, the iPhone and soon, Android and Symbian phones (at least according to Evernote's Podcast #7).

This works well for me for discrete tasks. For events, items that have to happen at a certain time, use a calendar, either paper or online, like Google Calendar.

I've been enjoying using Google Calendars since it lets you send in Events to it via SMS too.


  1. may be even closer to your solving your problem.

    The interface is easier and simpler, and shows more of what I think you are looking for.


  2. Little worrisome when their Features and Pricing pages 404 error on me.

  3. Mark, I found your blog today through an Evernote Google search, and I'm liking it so far. Keep up the great work!

    Quick question regarding WW4U... Why do the numbers of your notebooks skip? Why not just go from 1-18?

  4. Matt,

    I started programming in Basic. There it was common to number lines ten apart, so if you later had to insert a line between 10 and 20, you could and call it line 15. You can't do that if your lines are 1 and 2.

    I guess that's what I was doing here. Allowing the option to add notebooks later and control the order they are in.

    Since notebooks are sorted alphabetically, having them numbered lets me control the order they are in.

  5. Mark,
    Great stuff, I've enjoyed reading your Evernote posts.

    I've been struggling with the best way to use Evernote for tasks and will give your system a whirl (with a few tweaks, WW4U...).

    So how do you use tags? Do you have a catch all notebook for non-task/todo notes and organize with tags?
    Just curious.
    Thanks again.

  6. Matt, In a word, I use tags poorly. Outside of the notebooks I have for Task Management, I have a default notebook, and also specific ones that are published (like my Public Bookmarks).

    I have a bunch of tags that imported when I brought in my Delicious account that are children of the tag Delicious. A lot of new items get tagged with those tags too.

    With over 7000 notes now, many of them just bookmarks, I need to audit my use of tags before it become unmanageable. I know I have duplicates (like 'mobile' and 'cell')

    In the coming months I have have a little utility out that will help when using Evernote as a Task Manager.

  7. Mark,
    For whatever it's worth, your task system is working great so far. Yes, only a day but the beautiful thing about how it's setup is that it allows me to create "saved searches" for each notebook and I can finally access them on my Droid. I've had technical issues accessing and creating tags via mobile.

    I finally feel like things are coming together and getting more organized with my evernote system. I've always thought there has to be a way to keep all of my data organized and usable (Notes/ideas/task/photos/etc) and leverage the cloud/mobile benefits Evernote offers. I'm on my way, thanks again.

    Good luck with your tag organizing audit. Make sure you create that note in "Today HIGH" and stick to it! ;-)


  8. I would really love to use Evernote as my GTD, but for me the fact that doesn't manage due dates and recurring one is a deal maker.
    I use Evernote for everything, from having my book library, incoming mail scanned, to my wines, bookmarks and, so, but no due dates... even using Egretlist or Awesome note is not good enough... as I want to be able to input stuff from Evernote also...

  9. @Dani : Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, said in a recent podcast that Due Dates are coming to Evernote.

  10. Excellent information. Thank you for sharing.
    Yes i just discovered this today, June 14th, 2011