However, last year following a period of illness I’ve reconsidered the tools I use. In this post I explain why I switched from Todoist+Evernote to only using Evernote, and why I later decided to go back to my trusted system.
Downsides of Todoist
My main problem with Todoist is that it is too easy add tasks.
That might sound a bit weird. Of course the adding tasks functionality of Todoist widgets is great, and it is easy to capture all the little things you need to do. But since all tasks have the same “weight” (even if you give them different priority), your overall task list becomes too focused on not-always-important, little tasks. Although I was regularly organizing my list, just having all the other tasks there was kind of weighing on me.
A related problem is that when you add a task, you don’t see what tasks you already have scheduled. So you can be too optimistic when adding a task for “tomorrow” when you already have various meetings and other tasks scheduled.
Finally, Todoist has a desktop app, but it doesn’t work if you start it when you are offline.
Evernote as your todo-list
Evernote is not a specific todo-list app, but it is possible to use it as such. You can see notes as individual todos, and then organize them via notebooks or tags, or you can create a checklist in a single note. I decided to go with the checklist approach, and created two notes – “Current” and “Maybe”. “Current” was for anything that was coming up, and “Maybe” for projects that I might or might not do.
Most of the time I worked with the “Current” list, where I made a table with one row for each week, and columns for different types of tasks. I started with “work” and “home”, but later split these up into more categories, based on priority.
This system had several advantages that I missed with Todoist. When adding a task, I had to add it to a specific row, so I would already see what other tasks I had planned for then. Also, I became more aware of the weight of the different tasks, and I feel that overall my todo list became more balanced.
This way my todo list was also accessible offline, and it was in the same app as my other project-related notes.
Downsides of Evernote
Unfortunately, there were a few disadvantages as well, that made me miss Todoist.
The main thing I missed was the integration with Google Calendar – in Todoist I would enter a date and time, and an event would show up on my calendar. Now I had to create a separate “Planning” calendar, and add tasks manually – which I didn’t do consistently.
Another problem was recurrent tasks, which I did once a week or once a month. In Todoist this is basic functionality, but Evernote does not have this feature – you can set a reminder for a note, but when it’s time, you have to reset the reminder yourself.
After 2-3 months of using Evernote only, it felt good to create a list in Todoist again. I’m more mindful of the downsides and am trying to manage them better, for example by using filters for my tasks and scheduling tasks for next week on the calendar. It’s not yet the ideal system I wish I would have, but I think using it consistently does help in the long run.
Do you have any tips of how to create a better todo-list / calendar system? Let me know in the comments!
As I get more responsibilities and work on more projects, I find myself increasingly using checklists. Especially with things that do not occur too frequently, I have to think “how did that go again, what should I not forget?”. After reading The Checklist Manifesto, where Atul Gawande discusses checklists in airplanes and in surgery – where you really don’t want to forget anything, I decided to try it out for myself. So far I’ve made myself checklists for the following:
Student starting a project
Planning a conference trip
Giving a talk
Having a paper accepted
I keep the checklists as templates in Todoist. I’ve broken down each of these into different stages (for example, before the trip and after the trip), with various one-off tasks I need to do, such as booking travel, or filling in reimbursement forms. Sometimes I add links to the tasks, which will take me to the website or Evernote note I need to complete the task.
Then as soon as one of these events comes up, I copy the template to a new project, and fill in dates for each task which are suitable (this could be automated somewhat, but I prefer to have control over this). This way I will never forget all the details that need to get done.
I like this approach and would like to apply it to more things I do in my job. For example, I’m thinking about making teaching each class into a template. Although my materials are prepared from the year before, I still need to go over the materials, post all the details on the learning environment, grade exams etc. Since I already know all these things are coming up, I might just as well add them to my todo list (and reserve time for them!) with a few clicks. As I’m trying to improve estimating the time I need for a task, I can become more and more specific with this.
It would be great to have such a checklist for every new project. I can imagine such a checklist would contain, for example, creating a directory structure for the code. These tasks are of course much easier to estimate than actually working on the project, but perhaps some day I will get there as well.
However, there are other things I do in my job that I can plan in advance. For example, this year I have also been documenting how long I needed to prepare for lectures and to grade assignments. I can use this information to create a checklist for each course, and just repeat the checklist every year. For activities that do not take place on fixed dates, for example reviewing papers or giving talks, I could already budget hours, and move them around as needed. This would probably also help with saying no to more things.
Do you use any checklists? Or is this an overkill? Let me know by commenting below or on Twitter!
As an academic I get to travel to different places for conferences or to give talks. It’s a great part of this job, but it can also be stressful sometimes. In this post I explain how I simplify the travel process and plan my conference trips with Todoist and Evernote.
Create a project
The first thing that helps me stay on top of everything, is to see a trip as a project. Each time I decide I’m going somewhere, I create a project in Todoist and a notebook in Evernote. The Todoist project is for actions I need to take, and Evernote is for information.
As soon as I know I am going, I already have a few tasks I can add to Todoist, such as:
Register for conference
Book flight or train
Submit reimbursement forms
Although I usually add these tasks by hand each time, I now decided I can automate the process a bit more. I created a Todoist template! Here’s what I started with:
Now I can import this template anytime I’m going to travel! If you are a Todoist user and want the full template, I will be sharing it through my newsletter – sign up here if you don’t want to miss it! (Mailchimp, no spam, you can always unsubscribe).
Preparing the trip
The next part happens in Evernote. When I book my flight or hotel (I use booking.com, which for the same hotel, can still be cheaper than the “special rate” via the conference website) etc, I email the confirmations to my Evernote, so I have all the documents in one place.
I also use the notebook to write an outline for my talk and store other information I might need for my trip.
Just before the trip
A few days before the trip, I always do the following:
Make the Evernote notebook available offline, so I can access all the information without using internet
Print the most important documents*
Share the notebook with my partner in case of an emergency
*At one point I decided to stop doing this and save trees, but then my phone died completely just as I got off the plane… I didn’t get lost thanks to skills such as “following the people with the poster tubes”, but it would be more relaxing to just have the directions printed out.
If I’m going away for longer than a few nights, I might also create a packing list in Evernote – of course for travel with a carry-on.
During the trip
I use the Evernote notebook to make notes about the talks, or to add business cards I receive.
If you need to provide receipts for food etc to receive reimbursement, you could also take pictures of the receipts and store them here.
After the trip
Once I am home again and I want to submit my reimbursement form, all the documents are already there in my Evernote, so this has become a painless process, rather than searching for everything in my email.
The final thing is to archive the Todoist project and “archive” the Evernote notebook. Evernote doesn’t have such a function, so what I do is:
Tag all the notes with a name that describes the trip, like “London 2018”
Move notes to a general “Archive” notebook
Delete the original notebook
I’m curious to hear how you plan for travel – is it different each time or do you have a process? Let me know in the comments below.
It can easily seem that there is overlap between the two. For example, if you want to run 10K, you could schedule a recurring task “go for a run” in Todoist, or you could add “go for a run” as a habit in Habitica. Or you could try to do both, and sync the two apps by hand – the horror! In this post I describe a few alternatives I have tried to use Todoist and Habitica together, and the system that I currently use.
1. Daily Most Important Tasks
My first attempt at using the apps together was a Habitica daily, “Add 3 MITs (most important tasks) to Habitica”. These are three tasks that advance your important projects, and, if these tasks are the only things you get done, you would be satisfied with the day. So every morning, I would go through Todoist, decide my MITs, add them to Habitica, and (hopefully) complete them by the end of that day.
I think I abandoned this system because I tried to add “actions”, like “Start working on task A”, to Habitica, since I knew that “Task A” was not feasible within a day. Breaking down tasks is something I need to improve in general, so while it didn’t work for me at the time, I think it is a good way to use Todoist and Habitica together.
2. Use Zapier
Zapier is a service that connects different apps together. It waits for a trigger in one app – for example, a new task in Todoist, and then performs an action in another app – for example, creating a new task in Habitica. This process is called a “zap”, and with a free account, you can have five free different zaps. Another zap could be, that if you complete a task in Habitica, Zapier checks off the corresponding task in Todoist. You can read more about setting this up on the Habitica Wiki.
There are a few options available, for example only syncing a single project. This is what I did, since I have 100+ tasks in Todoist, and I didn’t want to see all of them in Habitica. I chose an important, but not urgent personal project, and for a while, it was working great. But then I made a mistake – I added sub-tasks to one of the tasks in Todoist, which all showed up as individual tasks in Habitica. I disabled the zap shortly afterwards – way too overwhelming.
Another option is not to have a one-to-one correspondence between Todoist and Habitica. For example, when you complete a task in Todoist, you could increment a “Completed Todoist task” habit in Habitica. This is something I might try net.
3. Use Todoist for “will do”, Habitica for “should (not) do”
Todoist is great for keeping track of what I need to do when. I use it for both one-time (writing a paragraph for a paper) and recurrent (cleaning the kitchen) tasks. I will probably procrastinate on these tasks, but I will do them eventually. Another way to see these tasks is that they are more outcome-oriented, i.e. in the end they add up to a written paper or a clean house.
Habitica helps me finish the “will do” tasks more effectively, for example, by rewarding me when I write for 1 pomodoro (What is this?), or by cleaning the dishes right after dinner. These things are also a bit less outcome oriented – there are obvious benefits to them, but the reward (a paper or a clean house) is further away.
Habitica also helps me to NOT do things, such as checking email the first thing in the morning. Again, not checking email in the morning has benefits – see this post for some examples – but it’s not a really a task, and simply not checking email will not add up to a finished project.
This system means that I end up never using the todos. But, the todo feature is very motivating, so I came up with a way to use it anyway!
I use the todo feature to keep track of difficult habits that I want to do at least X times within a period of time. Let’s take reading as an example. “Read 10 pages” is a habit for me, but I don’t do it often enough. If I start reading, I never read just 10 pages by the way – but these bursts of reading should happen more often, if I want to develop the habit of “reading more”.
Habitica does have counters for habits, but these do not REALLY remind me I should do the “read 10 pages” habit more often. Instead, I create a multi-part todo “Read next book”, which I split up into five parts, based on the number of pages. Then each time I’m reading, I get a small reward for the “read 10 pages” habit, but I also have an overview of my how much I should still read. Over time, the “read next book” todo becomes red, motivating me to hurry up with the habit and get the much larger reward for the entire thing. I’m actually starting on a fresh book today:
4. Use Todoist for work, Habitica for personal
Perhaps another way to divide tasks between Todoist and Habitica is to split up work and personal projects. It is not the system I use, since there is overlap. For example, I’m reading a book that is helpful for my job, and interesting to me personally.
However, as you might have noticed from my posts, my Habitica is biased towards self-care. Not that that’s strictly “personal” – I need to be healthy & sane to be able to do my job well. But the types of habits I’m trying to build up, such as exercise, tend to be put on the back-burner a lot, especially when things are stressful at work. Adding these “should do” habits to Habitica helps me to prioritize them in a way that I wouldn’t be able to achieve with a task manager alone.
Do you use a task manager and/or habit tracker? I would love to hear about your reasons to use only one or the other, and your approach if you are using both!
This is the second post about how I get things done (GTD) with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar. Now that everything is safely captured in Todoist and Evernote, what do I do? It’s time for the organize step – sorting through everything you captured and getting the important things into your agenda – Google Calendar in my case.
I do this during a weekly review, usually on Friday (at work) or Saturday (at home). I am quite strict with not doing personal projects at work and not working during the weekend, but the weekly review – which covers both types of projects – is something I can’t get around. Since my inboxes (Todoist and Evernote) are combined, it’s not logical to go through the process I describe below twice.
Evernote Inbox Zero
The first thing I do is sort through everything in the Evernote inbox, where all notes were captured. The whole structure of my notebooks looks roughly like this:
Inbox – notebook where everything goes by default and which will get emptied out in this section
Ideas – “maybe/later” notebook
Work – notebook stack
Blog – notebook stack
Personal – notebook stack
Snooze – notebook stack
Inbox and Ideas are single notebooks, while all others are are notebook stacks, containing several notebooks related to a context or area of responsibility. In Work, I have notebooks for papers and classes I’m teaching (current projects), but also a reference notebook with checklists and templates. In Blog, I have the notebooks “Drafts”, “Published posts” and “Shared content”. The “Drafts” is the only notebook where I actively create notes. The other two are reference notebooks, where I drag and drop other notes to, and which I review if I’m searching for something.
In Work, I have notebooks for papers and classes I’m teaching (current projects), but also a reference notebook with checklists and templates. In Blog, I have the notebooks “Drafts”, “Published posts” and “Shared content”. The “Drafts” is the only notebook where I actually create notes. The other two are reference notebooks, where I drag and drop other notes to, and which I review if I’m searching for something. In Personal, I have a “Mean plan” notebook and notebooks for different types of recipes, with drag-and-drop in between.
The Snooze stack if for notebooks that I don’t use very often. For example long-term projects, such as assembling a portfolio for my teaching qualification. This is something I need to pay attention to, but not every week. I also have a true Reference notebook, with things like manuals for appliances.
All other notes (“maybe”) go into the giant Ideas notebook. Since this is a single notebook, I add as many tags as possible, to maximize the chance of finding the note when I might need it. A recent revelation was that I shouldn’t use only topics (academia, health, AI) but also the type of note (article, Twitter thread, website) and what I would use it for (advice to share on Twitter, example to use as inspiration). I fail to do this consistently, but I try not to think about it too much, and use too many tags rather than too few. Over time, patterns in which tags I’m using more are starting to emerge, so I can merge and delete tags as needed.
What this accomplishes is that the things I might want to, but don’t have to do, are out of sight in the Ideas notebook, and I can focus my attention on current projects. But these ideas are not lost forever! For example, if for a blog post I’m looking for content to include, I will search through the Ideas notebook, and process the relevant notes, which I will afterwards move to “Blog: shared content”.
I’ve reorganized my Evernote structure a couple of times now and am still not entirely happy with it. Here are a few other ones I tried and why I changed things again:
An identical structure to Todoist. But an Incubator stack in Evernote became too complicated because I wanted to already categorize all notes I might need one day. And of course, a Reference project doesn’t really make sense in Todoist.
Single notebook for area of responsibility (for example just “Blog”) and using tags more. But, I quite like seeing at a glance how many posts I still want to write vs how any posts I’ve written. Also, it is faster to drag and drop posts between notebooks, rather than updating a tag from “draft” to “published”.
Organizing my notebook stacks into “Current” (where the drafts go) and “Reference” (where the published posts go), but this wasn’t as convenient for my drag-and-drop process. I also found myself too distracted by all the other, not-blog-related, current projects.
But, I have also decided I have already spent too much time on this, which is not productive. The idea is to use this structure, and update it as I go.
Todoist Inbox Zero
Next I move on to the Todoist inbox. Here the structure looks like this:
Incubator (Work and Personal)
Current (Work and Personal)
Snooze (Work and Personal)
The inbox is a single task list, and all others have task lists related to different projects. Since I tried to capture only actions that fit into my projects, achieving inbox zero should be simple. For each todo, I first review whether that is indeed the case, and if not, the todo goes to Evernote. For all remaining todos, I do the following:
Use an action verb if it doesn’t already have one (to be a better collaborator to my future self)
Move it to a project in Incubator, Current or Snooze
Add an (approximate) date
(Optional) Add labels
In GTD the idea of labels is to provide context, for example, where you need to be, who you need to talk to, or how much energy you need. Then you can batch tasks from different projects by context, such as doing all low energy tasks at the end of the day. I don’t use this feature a lot, probably because I don’t have a lot of different contexts, but I’m planning to experiment with this more. The label I do use is “waiting for”, since it involves sending reminders, which lends itself well to batch processing.
Next 7 days
Now I look at what Todoist has scheduled for me in the next 7 days. I use this to decide what really needs to be done next week, and what I could postpone. The meetings I already have in Google Calendar, also influence this. I don’t want to divide my attention between too many different projects, so identify clusters / projects of focus for next week, and postpone other todos.
In Todoist, for the projects of focus (usually Current – Work projects), I go through their individual task lists and break up the tasks that I want to work on into smaller, actionable tasks. I then give these smaller tasks a specific day and hour. I usually schedule high energy tasks like writing in the morning, and everything else in the afternoon.
With the recent two-way integration between Todoist and Google Calendar these tasks now appear as 1-hour events on my calendar. Now I can change the length of the tasks, drag and drop the tasks between days, etc, as I would with calendar events. Tasks which only have a day, but not an hour in Todoist, appear as all-day events in Google Calendar. I try to convert these into scheduled-by-hour tasks as much as possible, as this helps me to get a better overview of how much time I spend and how many things I actually work on.
The integration is very recent, and it’s missing a couple of features I think would be very helpful. Ideally I would like to sync events based on the projects and tags they have. Scheduling a 5-minute task isn’t logical either as an all-day event, or as an hour-event, so I would prefer to have a label (@5min) which is excluded from syncing.
Another functionality I’m missing is the amount of information provided in the task when synced to Calendar. For example, I have a project for a class I’m teaching with high-level tasks for each lecture, like “Lecture Segmentation”, and actionable subtasks like “Outline lecture”. Google Calendar right now only shows “Outline lecture”, which could get confusing if you are responsible for several courses. It would also be helpful to be able to click on the calendar event, and directly go to the corresponding project in Todoist.
Get things done!
If I did all the steps above properly, my next week is already planned. On Monday I can just go to the office, and start on the tasks I’ve queued up for myself, without spending energy on making decisions. And now, it is time for the weekend!
If you have any examples how you or other people set up their organization system, please share below!
I’ve talked about the planning system I’ve recently adopted in a few of my progress reports, but I realized there wasn’t a single place I could refer people to if I wanted to explain it to somebody. Since the system is still evolving, I thought it would be helpful for myself to summarize it, as a way of figuring out where I might still need to tweak things. A lot of these ideas are based on Getting Things Done (if you haven’t read the book, see a short explanation by LifeHacker) with additional inspiration from podcasts, blog posts and conversations with others like Felienne and Noeska.
The goals of the system are to
keep me focused on important projects, but not forget everything else
give me insight into how much I’ve already done
not overschedule my time / say no more often
not get overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done
eliminate decisions on what to do next
Ultimately, get more important things done in less time and with less stress! A rather ambitious goal, and the system is definitely not doing all of these things for me yet, but it’s a start. Rather than the five steps of GTD, I see my system as just two steps: capture and organize. As I was writing this post I realized it’s a bit more information than I thought, so today I present only step one: capture everything!
I have never really had problems with forgetting to do something I promised, failing to start a project on time, or missing a deadline. So when I read GTD, the “capture everything” idea seemed a bit unnecessary. But it has been a life changer!
My rule is: as soon as I think of something I (might) need or want to do in the future, no matter how vague it is, I have to capture it in Todoist or Evernote immediately. I tend to use Todoist for actions I’m quite sure I will do, like:
send a reminder to a collaborator
upload my recent paper to arXiV
buy printer paper
Evernote, on the other hand, is for ideas and “maybe” actions:
idea for a project around the house
an article I want to read
a piece of advice I want to remember
The most important thing, however, is to just choose one of the two and not spend too long thinking about it. The capturing must happen as soon as possible, so I tend to only add a keyword or two, and then organize later (this is what part 2 of this post is about). The capturing happens in several ways below.
Quick access widgets on my phone
Both Todoist and Evernote have awesome widgets for your phone (Android in my case, but I’m sure there are other versions too). When I drag the top bar which houses all the tiny icons like battery downwards, I see the following:
So within two clicks (dragging the bar downwards and then tapping the “Add task” or “Add note” widgets), I can start capturing!
I use these widgets extensively when I’m walking somewhere, doing things around the house, and in conversations where I wouldn’t normally be taking notes. For example, I’ve started doing this with all sorts of recommendations from others, for example for podcasts. In work meetings I actually tend to use pen and paper because I write faster and I don’t want to use my phone the whole time. Then I transfer everything into Todoist/Evernote as soon as I’m in my office again.
Todoist plugin for Gmail
A trap that’s easy to fall into is to let your email dictate your day. Most emails have some todos associated with them, and it’s tempting to handle these first, before starting “real work”. Not anymore with Todoist plugin for Gmail. This plugin adds a button which lets you create a todo from an email. I do this for two types of emails – emails that will need time to respond to, and emails I need to follow up on.
As an example of emails that need time to respond to, I’m using a reminder email to complete my reviews for a conference (I had returned the reviews already at that point). Since I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do this when I received the email, I would create a todo out of it by clicking the Todoist button (right of the Labels button).
This opens up a Todoist window, which already has the email’s subject (as description) filled in, and possibly dates that might be involved. For example, here is reminder email (I returned my reviews already, but as an example) about returning reviews where I have already pressed the Todoist button:
The subject is automatically used as a description, and July 16th is highlighted, because Todoist extracted this from the email’s subject. Since this date is now in the past, Todoist suggests today – July 22th, instead. From here, you can edit the date and description, add any projects or labels associated with the todo, and click “Add Task”. I tend to only adjust the date to when I intend to do the task, and the description.
This description is quite good already, but I would still probably adjust it to something with an action verb, like “Complete last NIPS review”. Once I add the todo, I archive the email! This way the email is out of my inbox (inbox zero is awesome!) and I don’t have to worry about it until later when Todoist will remind me about it. In the meanwhile, I can focus on important projects. This archiving was scary at first, but this goes away with time.
Another way I use this plugin is for emails I need to follow-up on. These are typically emails where somebody promises to do something I need by a certain date, or emails where I’m asking for something I need first. Then I add it to Todoist with a “Send reminder about X” description, and a date at which the reminder feels appropriate.
This part of the system isn’t as smooth, since it can only be done on existing emails. If you are sending the first email of a thread, you will have to go to “Sent” and add the email to Todoist from there. Another issue is what to do after an unsuccessful reminder. Now I just reschedule the todo, so I can send another reminder later, but it’s not an accurate reflection of what I actually did. Any ideas on how to handle this are welcome!
Email forwarding to Evernote
If an email contains some information I might want to use, but I’m not sure exactly when I will need it, I forward it to Evernote. Some examples:
Procedures on how to do something, e.g. filling in reimbursement forms
Newsletters with great content which I might want to use as inspiration someday
Happy emails, e.g. “thank you” emails or papers getting accepted.
Share to Evernote
Evernote offers more ways to save to it, such as the Evernote Web Clipper for Chrome desktop, and “Share via” option that many Android apps have, and where Evernote comes up as an option if you have it installed. Some examples:
A website I like the layout or structure of and want to use as inspiration
A website of a person I might want to contact
An article I might want to read
An article I already read, but want to share with others
A Twitter thread with good advice or opinions
Opening times of a store I always forget the name of
A picture of an item I might want to buy
A picture of an event poster, that I might want to attend
Perhaps I should mention here that another rule I have for capturing is that I HAVE to use Todoist or Evernote. Not “leave it on the table where I will see it”, “I’ll just write it down over here” or “I’ll just add it to my favorites”. This part isn’t always perfect, but I’m improving, and writing this post actually helped me identify problem areas (leaving things on the table). Thanks! 🙂
Phew! Now all the thoughts that might bother me when I should be writing, are safely stored in Todoist or Evernote. But, it’s all bit messy at the moment – two inboxes full of random todos, ideas, articles and whatnot. In the next post I will about the organizing part of the story, and where Google Calendar finally comes into play.