While Evernote’s reminder feature might look like something you could use for doing GTD, it has a couple of shortcomings that simply made it not work for me all that well during the two months I’ve tested it in.
GTD (or my own little version of it) is really important for me. It helped me get my master thesis done nearly five years ago while working on dozens of other things and it continued doing so ever since, balancing my spare-time and work-related projects.
My tool of choice back then was Omnifocus simply because it (1) offered a good distinction between projects and contexts and (2) the synchronization between iPad, iPhone and Mac simply worked.
So why even try something else?
As much as I love Omnifocus it has one big shortcoming: It is Apple-only. A couple of years ago I moved from an iPhone to Google’s Nexus phone series and so I lost the ability to work on my various project lists on the go.
Since then I’ve tried quite a lot of different tools with Android support. Probably the one I used for the longest time was Gina Trapani’s todo.txt which offers everything I need while using an open and extensible format. Sadly, it also opened the doors for more tinkering than is good for me and I had some real problems with the synchronization for some reason.
Then Evernote announced they would finally implement a feature requested for ages by the community: Reminders. Reminders add a new meta-field to each note where you can say that this should be done by a certain time (with the time itself being optional). Once a note has this field it is added to a reminder-list available for every notebook or search result.
What is missing?
These lists are dependent on the content you are listing your notes. Basically every search result provides a reminder list that is then filled by all matching notes that have a reminder attached. Grouping of these reminders is only possible by notebook which means that notebooks represent projects.
So, basically you end up with one note for each task of your project. If this task needs no further information, the note is basically empty except for the header which just looks weird :-/
A great feature of Omnifocus is also that you can mark tasks are being made available only after a certain date/time. Say, you want to talk to someone but know he is only available starting next week. In this case it doesn’t make sense to have this task hanging around in your context-listing while you can’t actually resolve it. Evernote doesn’t have something like that.
Same goes for context which you’d have to remodel with tags. In fact you’d probably also want to implement projects using tags since they are much more flexible then notebooks. Again: You end up doing quite a lot of work and tinkering with a system that should actually help you stay focused.
Pre-Reminder GTD in Evernote
Before Evernote added reminders quite a few people thought long and hard about how to make GTD work in Evernote by itself. One of these approaches is The Secret Weapon which relies heavily on custom searches, tags and only a small set of notebooks.
The problem with notebooks is that you can’t attach any metadata to such a notebook. In Omnifocus one of the most time-saving features is that you can set a default context and a due date for the whole notebook. The same naturally applies to tags in Evernote. So whatever you do, you end up with having either tons of tinkering to do in Evernote or with lots of manual work, which also keeps you more in the system than just using the system.
So what is Evernote good for then?
Don’t get me wrong: Evernote is great for what it was innitially created for: storing knowledge. With every task I work on that requires some kind of reference material, I store or at least reference that in Evernote. Sadly, you can’t attach a note to a whole project in Omnifocus but if you name your note appropriately that shouldn’t be an issue.
So what this all boils down to is that you should use the right tool for the job. Want GTD? Use a tool that was made for that. I used Omnifocus here but I’m sure Things and others are just as good at this so it’s just a matter of what you like best. Yes, you can do GTD with Evernote but it’s definitely not as convenient as with a domain-specific tool and you might end up working more on the tool than with the tool.