Evaluating Outlook, OneNote, Trello and Evernote for a GTD system

I attended a training session recently 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 – common identifiers for tasks based on type, geographical location, relationships with other people, timeliness and energy level. He then described how to implement this system 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
deep concentration for hours without interruption
@Performance review
do these things before the next review
@Home
things I can do from home
@No brain required
easy jobs, like fixing broken links, when energy is low
@Projects
lengthy work I’m responsible for delivering
@Read/Review
University news, reports, blogs, RSS feeds
@Thinking
problem solving, analysing requirements, quoting
@Waiting for
need a response from someone else before I can go ahead

I then added four further tags for timing:

1-Now
Do this now
2-Next
Do these soon; likely to move to 1-Now within a few days
3-Later
Not urgent, just don’t forget them
4-Some day
Wish list

The at symbol and numbers prepended to contexts help 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 lists sorted alphabetically.

Next, I made a list of essential features an app must have for me to use it in a GTD system:

  • Create a task from an email easily
  • Define your own custom tags
  • Filter by custom tags
  • Collaborative – projects or tasks are shareable
  • Consistent experience across Windows 10, Mac OS, Android and iOS – I’m in the Apple world but work in an MS Exchange/Office 365 environment with many Windows/Android users

I’ve shared my notes on how Outlook, OneNote, Trello and Evernote performed, judged against the above five criteria in a Google Spreadsheet. All fared well except OneNote. Too much functionality for collaboration and tagging is missing in both web and Mac OS versions.

At work (the University of Warwick), I’m using:

  • Outlook 2016 for Mac to manage email
  • Outlook 2016 for Mac to keep track of tasks, using my list of custom tags as categories
  • Trello for managing 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, and love how easy it is to capture and retrieve information.

So far, I haven’t made good use of tags though. After defining my custom tags for GTD in Evernote, following instructions on The Secret Weapon, I found the UI a little 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 eye-strain-inducing expanses of white space, truncated note titles even on large screens, hidden functionality and sidebar navigation are a case of minimalist form over function.

Fortunately, you can revert the Evernote web app to the old version which more closely 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. At home, it’s Sunday morning with cake as a reward. The cake is a vital part of the system; without it, all effort is in vain.