How I became more productive with Getting Things Done (GTD) and Evernote

27. March 2013 03:00 by Calvin Yu in Productivity  //  Tags: , ,   //   Comments (0)

One of my secrets of running a successful business is staying organized. When I started my printer supply business,, I quickly realized that I needed a process and set of tools to help me stay organized; otherwise, I would have been completely overwhelmed. Being a technology geek, the solution that worked best for me was the Getting Things Done ® (GTD®) methodology by David Allen integrated with the cloud service Evernote®. Using this system, I was able to keep my inbox clean; capture all my actionable and non-actionable items into a one centralized bucket; file away important reference documents such as receipts; and systematically get all my daily tasks done.

In this blog post, I’ll share with you what this system is and I’ll offer some ways that I personally use GTD and Evernote to increase my productivity as a business owner. However, if you want to cut to the chase, you can learn the system that I use over at The Secret Weapon website.

GTD plus Evernote

What is GTD?

GTD is a task management methodology developed by productivity expert and best-selling author David Allen. It’s designed to reduce stress and improve clarity on actionable outcomes. One of the benefits of GTD is that it’s not dependent on any particular type of day planner or software program, but instead focuses on the workflow model of capturing and processing tasks in a systematic way. GTD can be equally effectively whether you prefer low-tech or hi-tech planning tools. As I said before, I’m a technology geek, so I prefer high-tech paperless planning tools. For this reason, I’ve found Evernote to be a match made in heaven for implementing GTD.

GTD Concepts In A Nutshell

I’ll only cover the essential concepts of GTD here in this blog post. If you want to fully understand the GTD system, then I highly recommend reading David Allen’s book. The GTD system follows a set of core principles:

Purge your brain and get all your “stuff” captured into a trusted system.

The brain is a wonderful machine, but unfortunately, it’s not the best tool for keeping track of all the tasks, projects, due dates and other bits of “stuff” that flow into your mind throughout the day. Trying to manage all this stuff in our mental RAM is a key cause of stress because your brain is not a trusted system for capturing and managing all of your incoming information. I use Evernote as my capturing tool because I’m comfortable with technology and Evernote enables me to capture my thoughts, email, website clippings, audio and pretty much anything else wherever I am.

Putting your stuff in the right buckets.

Once you’ve captured all the stuff that has come your way, it becomes necessary to clearly identify what each item actually is, and more importantly, where it should go. There are six “buckets” that your collected stuff can go:

  • The next action bucket: These are the tasks that can be acted on and that have concrete outcomes once completed. Next actions are what drives productivity and are at the heart of the GTD system.
  • The project bucket: These are a series of multiple next actions that, when completed, achieve an intended outcome. Projects themselves are not actionable until they are broken down to their granular level of next actions.
  • The reminder bucket: These are items that may or may not be actionable, but they do have concrete edges defined by solid dates and/or times. Appointments, birthdays and plane flights would fall in this bucket. These items get placed on a calendar and/or a tickler file.
  • The reference bucket: These are items that are not actionable, but are used as support material for a next action or project.
  • The waiting bucket: These are tasks that have been delegated to other people to complete and that need to be checked-up on so that they don’t fall victim to the delegation “black hole.”
  • The trash bucket: These are items that are neither actionable, nor worth saving as future reference and can be thrown away.

Productivity hinges on focusing and clarifying “next actions.”

One of the core concepts of the GTD method is distilling all your tasks into next actions. A next action is basically the indivisible unit of activity that can be completed in one session and that has a concrete outcome once completed. Next actions can either be stand alone, or they can be the building blocks to a larger project. GTD stresses clarifying next actions with specific action verbs and context on the basis that specificity breeds productivity. There should not be any confusion on what to do when reading a next action. Typically when there’s confusion about how to perform a next action, it’s because that next action either wasn’t properly clarified, or it’s actually a project and needs to be broken down into even more granular action steps.

Contextualize your next actions.

In a typical to-do list, you combine all your tasks onto one master list and work your way down the list. The problem with this approach is that you may not have the adequate resources available or be in the proper location to effectively complete that particular task. Having a list of tasks that you can’t complete is neither productive nor helpful on reducing stress. One defining characteristic of the GTD system is the concept of contextual task lists in which you have multiple tasks lists based on physical location and/or resources available. Common contexts include: @Home, @Office, @Town, @Grocery Store, etc. Placing your next actions into a context makes your task lists more efficient and effective by allowing you to focus in on only the tasks where the present resources and the ability to actually complete those tasks are available.

Reviewing your agenda.

GTD recommends a daily and weekly review to make sure all your actions and projects are moving forward towards completion. Daily reviews are intended to give you a top-down view on your daily work load and projects, while weekly reviews are intended to ensure that your projects are moving forward towards your higher goals and long-term objectives. Since GTD is a bottom-up approach to task management, the daily and weekly reviews are an important part of the methodology to ensure that all those daily actions have a higher purpose.

So What Is Evernote?

Evernote is a popular note-taking software and service that allows you to capture email, notes, pictures, webpages, audio and pretty much everything into its system. Once it's captured, you can tag, annotate and categorize your notes for easy finding and retrieval later on. Evernote has a very powerful search engine that allows your notes to be found very quickly. It also has OCR technology built into it so that you can search for text within PDF and image files.

Since GTD focuses on the premise that ideas flow into your mind organically no matter where you might be, it’s important to have a trusted capturing tool that is able to follow you everywhere as well. That’s one of the benefits of using Evernote with GTD. The software can be accessed by your computer desktop, on the web and on your smartphone, providing you with a very powerful capturing system to be used with GTD.

Another great benefit about using Evernote is that the company gives you a healthy portion of free service to use for as long as you want. I know plenty of people who have all their GTD needs met using the free version of Evernote’s service. Of course, if you really get into using Evernote as your GTD system, eventually you’ll want to get their $5 per month premium service to access more storage space and greater search capabilities. Trust me, the small investment is worth it.

Achieving Inbox Zero

Like most business owners, I get more emails flooding into my inbox than I know what to do with. A major contributor to the problem of email clutter is the tendency to use the inbox as a catch-all list for all of our to-dos, follow-ups, reminders and reference materials. Managing our activities through our email inbox inhibits productivity, causes added stress and slowly spirals out of control. It’s not uncommon for some people to have a 1,000 or more emails sitting in their inbox.

Evernote helps me achieve an "inbox zero" status daily. I set up my Evernote system so that I can forward all my incoming emails to Evernote for archiving and I use subject line tagging to contextually tag actionable and important reference emails appropriately so that I can find them later on. The beauty of this system is that all my emails are archived on Evernote, so I don’t have to keep them sitting in my inbox and any emails that are actionable or that are reminders can be tagged in Evernote so that I can take action on them later. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to leave work with a completely empty email inbox every day.

Keeping Receipts In Order

Running a business means that I need to keep track of all my business receipts. Evernote helps me organize all my receipts digitally, without the hassle of trying to organize bits and pieces of paper everywhere. All my email receipts get forwarded to Evernote and tagged twice with the tag labels: “receipts” and “to enter.” Paper receipts get scanned and uploaded to Evernote with the same tags. This allows me to instantly retrieve all my business receipts and my bookkeeper knows exactly which ones to enter into QuickBooks. Having everything in one place in my Evernote account makes maintaining the books a breeze.

Keeping Track of Follow-Ups

As many of us can attest to, one of the many black holes when it comes to delegated tasks is following up with people and holding them accountable for completing those assigned tasks. Typically, most people use their email inboxes as their reminder system by keeping their latest correspondence as a marker for them to remember to follow up with the person on a future date. Over time though, this system breaks down as more and more emails get piled on top of it. Evernote helps me know which tasks I’m waiting on others for while keeping my inbox squeaky clean. I created a “waiting on” tag for items that I’m waiting on others to complete and I simply apply this tag to emails and notes that reference delegated tasks. When I perform my daily review, I simply review what items under this tag category are pending and when I expect them to be completed. What used to be a black hole for unfinished business is now an air-tight system for me.


I’ve only briefly touched on how I stay productive as a business owner using GTD and Evernote. If you want to learn how to implement this system for yourself, I recommend reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done and then educate yourself on how to integrate it with Evernote by visiting this gem of a website called The Secret Weapon.

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