How I Learned to Stay Organized with Evernote, Post-its, and Foamcore

How I Learned to Stay Organized with Evernote, Post-its & Foamcore

I like to think I’m a fairly organized person. I have to be. I’ve got stories to edit and events to plan. I write 5,000 to 10,000 words a week. Some 200 to 300 new e-mail messages hit my inbox every day, all requiring some kind of action. And I have a lot of cool friends that I like to keep up with. So until I’m ready to go off the grid and move to a cabin in Alaska or Wyoming, some kind of time- and task-management system is an absolute requirement.

I’ve got a system right now that feels efficient and comfortable, and I thought I’d share it as a way to help Xperience readers think about how they manage their own work lives. It’s a hybrid paper-and-digital procedure—built on a combination of Post-it notes and mobile apps—that helps me keep track of everything I need to do, while freeing me to focus on what I’m actually doing. I’ve recently learned that my process is extremely similar to a popular system called Personal Kanban, though any resemblance to marketed time-management systems is purely coincidental.

But before I talk about the details, a couple of caveats. Personal productivity is one of the areas where technology can be a big help, so I write about the subject several times a year. But it’s important not to fetishize the tools themselves. What matters is getting your work done so that you can move on. If you’re spending a lot of time tending or optimizing your to-do list apps, you probably aren’t finishing many of your actual tasks.

And in the same vein, it’s worth remembering that your tasks are not your life. The real point of being more efficient is to get through your to-do lists, so that you have some time left for more important things—like, say, doing nothing at all.

Last week a friend pointed me to a wonderful 1876 essay called “An Apology for Idlers,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island fame. It’s worth quoting a few sentences:

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation…They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake…It is no good speaking to such folk; they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill…Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.

Stevenson would probably have wondered whether our modern scramble to Get Things Done masks a kind of spiritual barrenness—a fear of being idle even for a second. Why face the emptiness when Facebook, Fruit Ninja, and SMS are always just a tap away?

But that’s really a column for another day; on to task management. I adopted my current task-tracking system back in September, after Evernote introduced a nifty new feature called the Post-it Camera.

Evernote, for those unfamiliar, is a desktop and mobile application that lets you store any document online—text notes, images, Web pages, audio files, PDFs, recipes, business cards, and the like—and organize them into notebooks, which you can then publish or share with others or keep private. It’s completely up to you. I’ve been reporting on Evernote in these pages for years, and I’m also a power user, with more than 6,000 notes stored since 2008.

The Post-it Camera is a feature of Evernote’s iOS app (iPhone and iPad only so far) that accesses the device’s camera and helps you take a clear, evenly aligned picture of any Post-it note. It then creates a digital replica of the note—basically, it sharpens up whatever wording is on the note and cleans up the background color. What’s cool is that you can set Evernote to store these digitized notes in specific notebooks according to their color. It’s best at recognizing green, blue, pink, and yellow. (And yes, you’d better believe that this is all a big co-marketing operation: 3M sells Evernote-branded Post-it notes in the correct colors.)

So here’s my system. I’ve got two huge foamcore boards leaning against the wall in my office. (They’re posters from past Xconomy events and I’m using the blank back sides. I hoard foamcore—I’ve got a huge stack of old posters, if you want some.) One board is covered with yellow Post-its—that’s the one I use to track stories-in-progress for Xconomy. The other board holds pink Post-its for work-related tasks and blue Post-its for personal tasks.

My foamcore Post-it boards, in situ

My foamcore Post-it boards, in situ

Whenever I have a new story or task to add to my agenda, I make a physical Post-it note using a big black Sharpie pen. I take a picture of it using the Post-it Camera. The pictures get automatically assigned to the proper notebook on Evernote—Work, Personal, or Stories In Progress—and I stick the original note on the proper board.

This way I’ve got a physical copy of every note, stored in a form that’s easily glanceable. I like that; to see the two noteboards, all I have to do is turn around in my chair. It gives me a kind of ambient sense of how much work is on my plate, and helps me figure out what to work on next. And I confess that I relish the feeling, when a task is done, of ripping the appropriate Post-it off the board, crumpling it up, and throwing it away.

But I’ve also got the Evernote copies of each note, which I can access from my computer, my iPhone, or my iPad wherever I may be. (If I need to add a task or story while I’m out and about, I just make a temporary note in the proper folder on Evernote, then make a physical note when I get back to the office.) When a task is finished, I move the digital note into a separate folder called Completed, which acts as an archive of past accomplishments.

Now obviously, I’m not the first person to think of tracking tasks using Post-it notes on big boards. I got the foamcore idea from a visit to Ideo, the Silicon Valley product design consultancy, where I saw … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • rolandestrada

    I find it ironic and rather insane that a company built on digital notes introduces the analog Post-It as a revolution in note-taking. It’s a duplication of effort and therefore a waste of time. Evernote is introducing bloatware in an effort to mask a mediocre product. This is why apps like NoteSuite will start to eat away at Evernote’s business with quality versus and endless array of complex add-ons. The emperor has no clothes and people are starting to notice.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Roland – Thanks for your note. I guess there’s some irony in the way Evernote is branching out into physical goods, but on the other hand, the service has always been partly about blending the physical and the digital — e.g. scanning and saving all of your old paper files and business cards in searchable form, or making it easier to preserve pages from your Moleskine notebooks. But while it’s probably fair to accuse the company of trying to do too many things at once over the past year or two — perhaps at the cost of reliability, as the Jason Kincaid kerfuffle illustrated — I strongly disagree with your naked-emperor diagnosis. I see Evernote as a powerful tool that has only gotten more useful over time as it has spread to more platforms, And in the six years I’ve been using it, they’ve never raised the price.

    • jimkimmons

      Anyone who calls Evernote a mediocre product has missed the reasons it’s grown so much and so fast (75+ billion users). Any growing pains they’re having now will be resolved, and I can do pretty much everything NoteSuite indicates in their iPad Features on my Android, Galaxy phone, desktop, and notebook and did them on my iPad and iPhone before I got rid of Apple post-Google Maps debacle.

      I immediately dismissed the Post-It thing because I too think having paper and digital notes is a waste of time and effort. I write them on my Galaxy Note 3 with the SPen. I can see how some people might find it useful though. I don’t have the time to see if NoteSuite can recognize and index text within images or post to blogs out of the application, both of which are very useful to me as a writer. I do know that maybe a few years from now if that application has tens of millions of users and works on Android, I may give it another look.

    • Frank Degenaar

      Also, keep in mind that different people feel comfortable using a variety of ways to track tasks. My wife, for one, is a highly successful blogger with an incredibly efficient way of tracking tasks… In big part through post-it notes. Her organizational structure works for her and dumbfounds me. I immediately tested out a few strategies and passed them on to her the day Evernote rolled out its post-it note feature.

      Let’s face it – Everrnote it not the ideal task-tracking tool… And so people who stick to manual forms of tracking stuff may be one up on someone who only sticks to Evernote without using a separate task-tracking app. The ability to digitally enhance a post-it note then becomes a way to store and search (give broader functionality) a preferred task-tracking method. It enhances an existing method. Each person figures out what it an effective method for themselves personally. It’s not a contest to find who has the smartest method… It’s about enhancing what we prefer to use. Creative people, especially artists find a connection through the written word. It cannot be approached from a purely analytical and technical standpoint. It’s not simply inputting data… It’s feeling a connection to the things around you. It would be a sad sight to see kindergarten students drawing everything on an app that allowed them to integrate to a shared Evernote notebook so as to submit it. But what Evernote does do is give us a way to capture an image of artwork for multiple purposes, if anything for posterity… God forbid – a fire.

    • cvrichard

      > I find it ironic and rather insane that a company built on digital notes introduces the analog Post-It as a revolution in note-taking. <

      That's because you focus on the process of organizing information rather than the generation of ideas. Digital tools are too cumbersome and slow when you have a room fully of people brainstorming. Try having two of your colleagues in you office, have a freewheeling discussion and put the idea together. By moving notes arounds, using different colors, you are actually encoding a lot of information in the relative position and distance between the notes. You can do it digitally, but the flow of idea would be distracted because of the awkwardness of the digital process. You mind ended up focusing on 'operating' the digital pieces and lost focus on the ideas themselves. Some people would even argue that moving your arms and hands help you visualize and think.

      • Frank Degenaar

        Nice point! If, one day, I have people working for me… Or if I work with people… I would do well to incorporate this into my daily workflow. For now, I am a lone wolf. I guess this would facilitate teamwork, especially working in a central spot. I guess personal workflow could look very different to collaborative workflow/ task tracking.

        • cvrichard

          > I guess personal workflow could look very different to collaborative workflow/ task tracking.

          Yes. Also, sometimes it’s simply a user interface issue. If a digital interface is natural to the user and the interface itself does not cause the user the switch mental interface, then it would work. For example, if a task requires user to switch between the mouse and the keyboard constantly, then it can become very annoying.

  • Eve R, freelance translator

    I have used Trello for a year now and it’s a great tool, but, like you, I need the physical action of crumbling a post-it (or in my case, striking out an item from my to-do list). In addition, I find that it’s easy to get distracted when I get online to manage my to-dos (hello, email and Facebook!). Your way seems to combine the best of both worlds. Thank you ;-)

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      You’re welcome, and thanks for the nice tweet!

  • Shelby

    This is fantastic! I switched from Apple to Samsung products so when it is available for Anddroid platform, I will be using this!!!! Thank you for this information!!!

  • Guest

    The physical post it notes is fine if that’s what you like and the Kanban system seems pretty cool, especially for team use in an office.

    Me, I need everything electronic so it is with me all the time and available from any device. I’m not a fan of EverNote myself, but it was definitely a candidate for meeting my electronic needs. I also have a “touch it once” rule I strive to work from. Manually creating a picture, then taking a picture and tracking two places to edit / remove definitely violates that policy.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      And that’s a good policy, especially for handling email. But if you only create digital reminders or notes, you don’t get the ambient physical reminder, and if you only do paper lists or Post-its, you don’t get the portability and shareability. It may be a case where it’s worth touching it twice.

  • http://makaronzserem.eu Maciej Lasyk

    Wade, thanks for this great post. It’s interesting how you can use both analog and digital notes. Some time ago I found Workflowy to be a great list manager which I use in my GTD process. It took mi some time to connect GTD with Kanban (with use of Jira, Evernote and Workflowy). You can read about in my guest blogpost here: blog.workflowy.com/2014/01/10/the-long-and-winding-road-to-workflowy/

    Cheers

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Maciej, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Great post on Workflowy. Sounds like you have tried just about every system out there — jira, evernote, kanban, gtd, workflowy. What, no asana? ;) It’s always great when people finally find a task or project management system that works for them. I don’t know if my system would work for anyone else, but I haven’t seen it described elsewhere, so I thought I would write it down.

      • http://maciek.lasyk.info/sysop Maciej Lasyk

        Good point with Asana ;)

  • Frank Degenaar

    Wade, although I have another system in place and may not be going the post-it note route any time soon, I really enjoyed the article as a whole… There are some principles to be gleaned here… And it has piqued a mild interest in the Kanban system. I use the Gneo app, which lets me organize tasks according to Importance and Urgency on a 4-quadrant matrix. If it were not for that app (which I started using only relatively recently) I would most likely have dived head-first into your task-tracking method. Linear lists just don’t cut it!

    I must say that regarding the Eisenhower/ Covey matrix, when the post-it note feature came out in Evernote, the thought occurred to me to use each of the 4 colors to denote one of the 4 priority levels… Thereby categorizing them in an Evernote task notebook according to 4 different tags, which of course can be automated in Evernote settings, so that snapshots automatically tag the tasks accordingly.

    Thanks for an awesome post!

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Frank, this sounds like a great way to use the Post-it camera in Evernote. You can assign the colors to any notebook you want. If you end up trying this, come back and let us know how it worked for you.

  • JackBochak

    I agree. Trello + Bitrix24 = the best free productivity combo to ever appear on the face of the Earth.

  • Daniel Root

    I’m working on a book about Trello (http://leanpub.com/trellodojo), and have to throw in in favor of using it over paper post-its. “Physical” movement is nice and all, but I think Trello approximates this pretty well, but adds some niceties that Post-its don’t have. But one take I kind of discuss in the book: that “pain” you feel when things get unwieldy is telling you something. It can be important feedback into your productivity system, indicating where a process is being held up and inciting creative thinking for breaking a log-jam. Joel Spolsky mentions this in one of his blog posts- systems like this can be “self-leveling”. Granted, a physical board can also have this same feature.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Daniel. Looking forward to seeing your book — good luck with it. I think the big hazard with a digital-only system is that it takes a certain amount of discipline just to remember to look at it. With a big board of Post-its, it’s right there.

      • Daniel Root

        That’s a good point, and one I cover in the book too ;) My solution is to show the Trello board on a “big visible screen” where everybody can see it. I’m still experimenting on the best way to do it, but basically hook a big TV up just for showing your company/organization/family status board(s). My company does this and it’s been a nice way to keep up with everybody’s statuses. Of course, that’s a $1000+ solution, so Post-It notes win there ;)

  • Lynette Zilio

    Thank you for sharing your productivity tips, Wade. I enjoyed hearing about EverNotes’s digital Post-it board. I’d like to add SQRES to your list. SQRES is a web-based task management app that helps you manage and keep track of your tasks, thereby keeping your team organized and your customers up to date. It integrates with your Google Apps Account, so tasks created via SQRES automatically appear on your Gmail calendar. SQRES is also accessible via your smartphone or tablet anytime, anywhere.

  • Mike

    Check out Atlassian’s Jira and Greenhopper products. Has Scrum and Kanban projects with virtual boards. Very easy to use. Web based or you can host it. Good for individuals, small teams or large teams.

  • Arlen Mark

    I’d recommend you to give proofhub.com a try. It’s a powerful tool that blends project management and online collaboration software. Features like time tracking, sub tasks, gantt chart, calendar and chat makes it very easy to use. Currently proofhub provides user interface in 3 languages including English, Spanish, French. With simple pricing model without “per user” charges, proofhub is an affordable and attractive tool.

  • http://GTDNext.com GTDNext.com

    That’s a really interesting approach! Does it take a lot of time to take the pictures and organize it that way? I guess that would be me only concern. If it works for you though that is great!

    Recently I’ve been working on GTDNext (http://GTDNext.com) and I’m always very keen to how others organize their work. There is something to be learned from each different system. Thanks for sharing your!