Published by Serge Stuart,
In this post I wanted to share with you my productivity and information management system. This system is a hybrid in two ways: it uses both hi-tech and lo-tech tools, and it is based on features from two productivity philosophies. I hope you find it useful for your application. Also, FYI: the links in this post are non-affiliate. I just included them for reference, in case you'd like to check out the stuff I use. OK, let's dive in.
Having a well-tuned productivity and information management system allows to be productive, creative, and maintain a clear and focused mind.
I have been refining my system for about 10 years and I think it’s working great now. In methodology it’s based primarily on David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" (GTD) with a sprinkle of The Secret Weapon (TSW) and Michael Hyatt’s method.
At the heart of my system, the hi-tech component, and what ties everything together, is Evernote software (which I have been using for 8+ years). This is supplemented by an analog Field Notes notebook. That’s the lo-tech component. I have tried a digital-only system, however it did not work for me; I needed to have an analog component in order for the system to be effective and efficient. Sometimes you just have to write stuff down. However, Evernote is the driver behind my total system, because even my analog notes get OCR-digitized and filed into it.
Methodology: "Mind Like Water"
First, let’s talk about the methodology behind my system. Back in 2010 I got introduced to David Allen’s "Getting Things Done" principles outlined in his book and think it is a great way to manage information. The basic premise of his system is that you should not clutter your head with information but rather get information out of your head into a system that you trust. This frees up your brain to be more creative, clear, and functioning efficiently. Another point is that the system has to be simple. It should not be cumbersome. David came up with 5 steps to managing information in our lives: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage.
With this model in mind, lets look at the components of my system.
I have 3 "inboxes" in order to capture information I encounter.
My main inbox is a folder in Evernote (I run it via my phone primarily). It serves as my digital inbox for important notes, tasks, reference materials, reminders, some scheduling, bookmarks, and web clips; important emails go here as well.
My second inbox is my Field Notes notebook. That’s where all my analog notes go. It is small enough that, just like my phone (which runs Evernote), it’s with me all the time everywhere. I use a leather cover for it for durability and carry it in my rear pants pocket. As I fill out this notebook, I in-process it in Evernote once a week during the Weekly Review. More on that later.
The third inbox is a folder in my physical filing cabinet where all other physical pieces of information go, such as physical mail. This inbox gets in-processed into Evernote as needed or at least once a week during the Weekly Review.
Since Evernote is at the heart of my system, let me talk a little bit about how I've set it up.
I rely on the tags feature for the operation of my system. Some people prefer using notebooks primarily, but I found that since a piece of information (a note) can be tagged with multiple tags, it can live in two or more virtual places at the same time. For example, a note about making a store run lives in TASKS folder but tagged "@errand" and tagged "Home Depot" also, and I can access it via my tag shortcuts or from tags page; that's super convenient and efficient.
Notebooks = basic structure
As far as notebooks in Evernote, I have the "Inbox", "Tasks", and "Filing Cabinet" folders, as well as a "Projects" stack. I keep the folders list to a minimum, since I rely on tags to organize my information most of the time. The notebook structure is basic and doesn’t need to be complicated or cumbersome.
Tags = refined structure and context
When setting up my tags I went with a mix of GTD, TSW, and Michael Hyatt methodology; I have several GTD tags like "Action", "Someday/maybe", "Completed" as well as context tags from TSW for people, places, and other things, basically what, where, when, and who. This allows me maximum flexibility to file and find information when I need it.
Some of my other tags that I commonly use are: "Reference", Read/watch later", "Weekly Review", and "Wishlist". One of the cool tags I created is "1 Year Ago". It pulls up notes that I filed well... 1 year ago. It gives me an opportunity to browse through those notes to see what was happening in the system a year ago.
Finally, I have several very specific compound tags created, such as "2019 taxes" tag. This tags gives me all of the notes that I have tagged "2019" and "taxes". Very cool when its time to file my tax returns.
Here’s what my shortcuts look like utilizing tags and saved searches feature.
A "Weekly Review" tag pulls up all of the notes created within a week, so I can conduct Step 2-4 of GTD methodology: clarify, organize, and reflect. That's when I process my Evernote inbox by deciding what action to take next for a particular piece of information in my inbox. I can action it with "Action" tag, any applicable context tag, and move it to Tasks folder, I can delete it if the piece of information is no longer relevant or needed, I can file it as a future reference, tagging it with a "Reference" tag, and/or I can move it to one of my Projects folders under the Projects stack.
Other features in Evernote
A few other features I'd like to mention that I use all the time. Evernote has an awesome ability to clip websites. Its a wonderful feature that works really well.
Another feature I use often is Email to Evernote. Email clients/programs are not good as a productivity manager. Instead, I take any email in my Gmail and email it to my Evernote inbox, where I can process it as any other piece of information. I do this with emails that I need to take action on or file for safekeeping.
Interesting feature I have been using for some time now is Evernote’s functionality to publish to your website/blog. The article you are reading has been created and published via Evernote, and this native integration makes publishing a website right from your Evernote notebook a breeze.
Another awesome feature is Evernote's ability to integrate with other services. I have my reminders in Evernote linked to my Google Calendar via Cronofy. This way, if I create a note with a date reminder, the event will be added to my Google Calendar. Very cool integration that lets me manage my calendar using Google Calendar but is still tied to my Evernote ecosystem. I also utilize IFTTT for some automation like automatically creating and filing a note in Evernote when I post a photo to Facebook, or like a video on YouTube.
Next, lets talk about my physical notebook. Back in the day I was inspired by the Hipster PDA (hPDA). Remember those? Simple and effective system. Very well suited for GTD. However, not very elegant. Over the years I tried several notebooks of various sizes, and have settled on a small Field Notes notebook, which i carry in a Pocket Traveler's leather cover with a clear zip pocket inside for small paper items, a few business cards, and some index cards.
After writing down some information in a notebook, when going though GTD Steps 2-3, I decide if I need to keep what I wrote, and if so, I will create a photo note in Evernote, which becomes OCR searchable, then tag it and file it appropriately.
Not a super important detail to me, but may be of interest to some - I use the Fisher bullet space pen as my writing instrument.
With this system, I am able to manage information effectively and efficiently: I can find information needed in seconds, and I can keep track of things I need to keep track of. My mind is free to be creative, because it’s not cluttered with information. And that’s the goal and purpose of this system.
I have spent 10 years refining my productivity and information management workflow, and I am at the point where I don’t need to make any more refinements; I have found a solution that works for me.
I hope you found this post informative and useful. If you have any questions about my system, drop a comment below.