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

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

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stacks of boards leaning against every wall; it’s a great way to track big team projects, and fits well with today’s agile software development methods. And as it turns out, there’s a increasingly popular system called Kanban—originally born at Toyota as a way to coordinate just-in-time manufacturing—that relies on the same idea of putting notes or cards on a board.

The typical Kanban board has three columns, for Ready, Doing, and Done, and the idea is to move the notes from left to right across the columns as you work. I have friends who use their office or cubicle walls as their Kanban boards. Others use whiteboards, or they stick cards on their refrigerator doors with magnets.

There’s a Web and mobile app called Trello, from Fog Creek Software, that lets you do Kanban with digital cards. I haven’t used Trello yet, but I’m interested in the way the cards have a “front,” bearing the task name and key details like due dates and categories, and a “back” where you can add comments, checklists, attachments, and more. It’s a little like Evernote, except that every note/card represents a task rather than a document.

Post-it "digital replicas" in Evernote.

Post-it “digital replicas” in Evernote.

But while the idea of digital Kanban is intriguing, I think it’s important to acknowledge the psychological resonance of physical actions like crumpling up an old sticky-note. My friend Robin Seaman is director of content at a non-profit called Benetech that, among many other things, helps people with disabilities get easier access to e-books and audio books. Robin’s job involves managing relationships with hundreds of publishers, and at one point she says she wound up with more than 1,000 items on her old, linear to-do list (she used an app called Toodledo).

“It became impossible for me to figure out what was a priority,” Robin says. “The list had become such a monster that I was almost ceasing to look at it.” In the world of personal productivity tools, that’s a big fail.

Then an engineer friend tipped her off about Kanban. With Kanban boards, she says, “you can survey your world and somehow it just feels more real. You have an engagement and you write it down with a pen, then you move the stickies. Ripping the sticky off and slapping it down in the next column; tearing it off and slapping it down on the next column once it’s been completed—it was all so incredibly satisfying that I just embraced it hook, line, and sinker. I felt like I had gotten my world out of my computer and in front of me, where I can relate to it viscerally.”

That’s also why I like my own Post-it boards. But I wouldn’t want to do without the digital copy inside Evernote, which makes my whole system portable. (In fact, the blending of the physical and digital worlds that the Post-it camera enables is an emerging theme at Evernote, as I explained in a 2012 piece about the company’s collaboration with Moleskine.)

If you like the sound of my system, or of Kanban, give one of them a try. I’ve used many to-do list apps and task management systems over the years, and I’m sure my current one won’t be the last. The key thing, for anyone who wants to be more effective in their work, is to have a process that feels comfortable—and that, ideally, adds a little aesthetic pleasure to your life. That way, work will feel a little more like play. And you might even have some time afterward to give yourself over to random provocations.

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The Author

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com.

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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.