Gavin Wray

Evaluating Outlook, OneNote, Trello and Evernote for a Getting Things Done system

I attended training this week on how to organise your work and life based on David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology.

The trainer covered how to define your own contexts or tags. These are common identifiers for tasks based on type, geographical location, relationships with other people, timeliness and energy level. He then described how to set up the tags in Outlook and OneNote.

Thinking about how and where I work, and who with, I made the following tags:

  • @Agenda - manager - things I need to know about or ask for help with next time we meet
  • @Agenda - team - things to share or ask for help with
  • @Write/Make/Launch - tasks that require deep focus for hours without interruption
  • @Performance review - do these things before the next review
  • @Home - things I can do from home
  • @Easy - easy jobs for when my energy is low
  • @Projects - client work I’m responsible for delivering
  • @Read/Review - University news, reports, content blogs, RSS feeds
  • @Thinking - problem solving, analysing requirements, quoting
  • @Waiting - things I’m waiting for a response from someone else about before going ahead

I added four more tags for timing:

  • 1-Now - things to do now
  • 2-Next - upcoming work
  • 3-Later - things that are not urgent but I need to keep track of them
  • 4-Some day - things on the wish list

The @ symbol and numbers at the start of each tag helps to sort tasks in apps such as Outlook (via categories) and Evernote (via tags and shortcuts). Punctuation and numbers force tags to the top of alphabetical lists.

Next, I made a list of app features I consider essential for a GTD system:

  • create a task from an email
  • define your own custom tags
  • filter by custom tags
  • collaborate with others on shared projects or tasks
  • consistent experience across Windows 10, macOS, Android and iOS

I’ve shared my notes on how Outlook, OneNote, Trello and Evernote perform against the above five criteria in a Google Spreadsheet. All perform well except for OneNote. There’s too much functionality missing for collaboration and tagging in both web and macOS versions.

At work I use:

  • Outlook 2016 for Mac to manage email and tasks
  • Trello for projects and collaboration

For personal use, I’m sticking with Evernote to keep track of tasks. I’ve used Evernote since 2010 as a notepad and scrapbook for ideas. I love how easy it is to capture and retrieve information.

I haven’t made good use of tags in Evernote though. After defining my custom tags for GTD, following instructions on The Secret Weapon, I found the UI clunky. Nesting tags is pointless. They’re not exposed usefully in the UI and I’m not a fan of the web version released in August 2015. The expanse of white space, truncated note titles on large screens, hidden functionality and sidebar navigation are a case of form over function.

You can revert the Evernote web app to the old version that resembles the desktop app. Also, by dragging tags to shortcuts menu and using shortcuts as the primary navigation, I found a clear, usable and consistent UI across desktop, web and iOS apps to browse and filter tasks by context, timeliness or both.

An important part of the GTD system is the weekly review - checking what you’ve done, what you’re waiting on and what to do next.

At work, I’ve settled into a routine of reviewing the list on Friday mornings. This gives me enough time during the rest of the day to finish anything I’ve forgotten about or pushed back during the week.

Content © 2008-2019 Gavin Wray
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