I teach a PhD course at Southwestern Seminary in research and writing, and the first thing we discuss on the first day of class is productivity. I am convinced that organization and productivity are essential in order to succeed as a PhD student, a scholar, a pastor, even a parent or spouse.
After discussing principles, I walk the class through my own productivity system. I’ll admit it: I geek out on productivity stuff. I was the kid who in Junior High School bought my first Franklin Day Planner, graduated to Palm Pilot in college, and regularly surfs the Google Play store for the latest in productivity apps. I’ve tried them all, from Todoist, Astrid, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, and many, many more. But about four years ago I finally found my perfect system, and I show the students that system that helps me organize my life, research, writing, family, church, school responsibilities—everything.
After the first class last semester, I tweeted:
I don't often bring students to tears in class, but I did today as I explained to PhD students how to organize their life with Google Inbox + Evernote! (They were tears of joy, by the way!)
— Scott Aniol (@ScottAniol) August 28, 2018
Immediately, I received several replies on Twitter, as well as texts, emails, and even a comment on LinkeIn, requesting that I write up a blog post explaining what I explained to the students. So here it is.
I generally follow the productivity principles set forth in David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I don’t follow all of his system (mainly because I want as simple a process as possible), but I have adopted the core principles, including the following:
- Capture everything. You need one place—one inbox—where you can quickly and easily capture ideas, tasks, etc.
- Schedule and forget. At regular intervals, you completely clear your inbox. Either complete the task or schedule it for another time. This keeps your mind free of clutter (as well as your inbox!).
- Information storage. Finally, you need some place where you can store information, whether it be articles, receipts, archived email exchanges, etc. This is especially important for the scholar, but it’s important for everyone at some point.
In order operate this system, then, you basically need three tools:
- Task management tool
- Scheduling tool
- Information tool
If your task management tool can also schedule, then you can cut this to two tools, which is exactly what I have done.
As I said above, I’ve tried just about every task management app out there. Over the years, I’ve found that I require a couple things of my task management software:
- Must be cross-platform: Computer, phone, tablet, web
- It has to be able to create recurring tasks.
- It has to be able to schedule tasks.
One more necessity that I never was able to figure out until a few years ago: If you think about it, emails are just a kind of task. You’ve got your task list with things you need to get done, but you also have emails you need to take care of. For the longest time, then, I really had two task lists, my list of todos and my email. And if you can’t deal with emails as they come in, they end up piling up; I tried things like creating a task with a link to emails that I needed to answer and other methods, but each of them was impossibly complicated.
Until… I discovered a way to combine Google Calendar and Gmail (you do have Gmail, right? Tell me you’re not still using Juno or AOL or Hotmail or Yahoo???) into the perfect task management tool. Here are the steps to follow in order to set this up yourself:
1. Create a separate “ToDo” Calendar.
Google Calendar allows you to create multiple calendars that layer on each other. I have one for my personal calendar, one for seminary related appointments, one for our family, etc. You can also share calendars with others, so Becky and I have shared our calendars with each other so everything related to our family is layered in one color-coded calendar. A nice feature is you can toggle calendars on and off if you only want to see select ones at any given time.
I created an additional calendar called “ToDo” for my task list (don’t confuse this with the “Tasks” calendar already built in; it’s worthless! Also, don’t confuse this with the “Reminders” function, either. That’s potentially useful, but different from what I’m trying to accomplish).
2. Set Notifications for your ToDo Calendar.
Now, there’s one additional step you’ll want to set up in order to have only one Inbox for both your emails and your tasks: Set default notifications for the ToDo Calendar.
First, choose “Settings” for your Todo Calendar:
Then, scroll down until you see “Event notifications.”
Set two reminders for Event notifications:
“Notification 0 minutes” before the event
“Email 0 minutes” before the event
The nice thing about setting it up this way is that you will both receive a popup on your phone and have the task appear in your email Inbox at the appointed time.
For “All-day Event Notifications,” set it as “Email 0 days before at 6:00am” or whatever time you’d like.
Now, whenever you add a task to your ToDo Calendar, these notifications will automatically be added. You can always change those notifications for specific tasks if they warrant something different.
3. Add Tasks to your ToDo Calendar.
That’s it; you’re all set to start adding tasks.
To create new tasks, I just have to add an event to that calendar. You can choose a specific time for the task or just make it an “all day” task. For specific times, I usually choose the same time for both the “Start Time” and “End Time.” You can also create repeating tasks; the options are rather robust.
One really nice thing about using Calendar for your tasks is that you can get a quick look at upcoming tasks or even a whole month’s worth.
When your assigned task is due, it will automatically appear in your Inbox and pop up on your phone.
And it all—the tasks and emails—appears in one inbox. (My seminary email even allows me to automatically forward all emails to my Gmail account, and I have even set it up so that I can send emails from Google Inbox using my seminary account. So I literally have one Inbox for two separate email accounts and my task list.)
You’ll notice in the above screenshot that I’ve also used Gmail’s label and filtering features to automatically label my tasks as *T (any email that’s from me, to me, automatically get’s labeled that way), and anything coming from my Seminary account gets labeled, too. The options with filters and labels are endless.
You’ll also notice how I can see my calendar in the right side widget, including my tasks for the day (in Gray).
Gmail has also added the ability to schedule (“Snooze”) any email in the inbox, including tasks:
So, I schedule everything in my life, create tasks that appear weekly, monthly, even yearly, depending on what it is, and they appear in my inbox at the appropriate time.
And I treat emails exactly the same way. When emails appear in my Inbox, I either answer them right away (if I have time and/or if it is the time in my day I have planned to answer emails) or I “Snooze” the email for a time when I can take care of it. Emails are just tasks like every other task in my list.
Goal: Inbox Zero
The goal: Inbox Zero by the end of every day.
By the end of the work day, I have either completed every task (including answering emails) that has appeared in my Inbox for that day, or I have Snoozed tasks (and emails) for another day.
I also have the app on my phone of course, which allows me to view, complete, or Snooze tasks/emails or add new tasks to my calendar.
For storage and organization of information—articles, business cards, dissertations and theses, lecture notes, etc., etc., etc.—nothing is better than Evernote.
Evernote is a free note taking and information storage program. (The basic account is free, although some more advanced features require a Premium account, which is well worth the money.)
Here’s how I use it.
The two ways notes are organized is with Notebooks and Tags. The important thing to remember is that every note can be assigned to only one Notebook but multiple Tags. This affects how I use the program.
First, I have a notebook called “Inbox” (I prefixed the Notebook name with “1.” so that it always appears at the top of the list. As the name indicates, everything starts here; the Inbox is where I “dump” stuff to deal with later. Then once a week (Scheduled as a weekly task in Google Inbox), I go through my Evernote Inbox, filing things where they need to go.
I can capture things in the Inbox in a number of ways:
- Simple create a New Note. You can do this on the computer or phone/tablet app. If you have a phone or tablet with a stylus, Evernote allows you to take handwritten notes, and all the handwritten text is fully searchable.
- Take a picture with my phone and easily share to the Evernote app. I do this with business cards, receipts, quotes from books I want to use (more on this later), and just about anything I need to remember later.
- Use the Browser Web Clipper (available for every major browser). When I am online and I come across an article that I want to save, I simply click the web clipper:
This opens a dialog that easily captures the article. It can even strip everything away except the text of the article itself:
From that dialog, I usually just send the article to the Inbox (you can set the default Notebook in Settings), but I could also Tag the article here and move it to another Notebook (more on Tagging below).
If I’m viewing a PDF online, the web clipper will also actually download the PDF and import it right into Evernote. (You can also simply drag PDFs from a folder on your hard drive into Evernote.) Full text of every PDF in Evernote is fully searchable within the app.
I can send articles I’m reading on my phone to the Evernote phone app.
Once I’ve captured something in my Evernote Inbox, I decide where to file it. For this, I use Tags. Everything gets at least one tag, and once something is tagged, I place it in the “Reference” Notebook. The Inbox and Reference Notebooks are basically the only Notebooks I use.
I use Tags, however, liberally. The nice thing about Tags is that they can be nested (simply by dragging one Tag onto another), and you can assign multiple tags to one note if you need to. Here is a view of my Tag list expanded out some:
I use Evernote Tags to organize everything. Here are a couple ways I do so:
For every book or article I read, I take pictures with my phone of every quote I want to capture and then create a Tag for the book or article. The best thing about this: Images of text are fully searchable within the app!
Research for Articles or Books
I use this to organize all the research I do. In fact, I wrote my dissertation, a book, and every article for the past 8 years or so using this organization. The screenshot below shows the Tagging for my dissertation. I created a separate tag for every section and subsection of my dissertation, and then filed notes, book images, etc. where they belonged within the dissertation outline. Then when I was writing, I simply opened the Tag for the section I was currently writing, and I had all the necessary material.
I’ve used this for sermon prep as well.
I also use Evernote to organize my classes, including lectures, discussions, book notes, and annotated readings. All of what I prepare automatically syncs to the cloud, so I can just take my tablet to class and access lecture notes and discussion notes from the Evernote app on the tablet.
Here is a screenshot of the Tags for current classes I’m teaching:
The nice feature here, too, is that whenever I open a PDF from within Evernote, whatever highlights or notes I make on that PDF in Adobe Acrobat are saved within the version housed in Evernote for later reference.
Finally, I also tag just about everything with general “Topic” Tags for easy reference later (although again, the search functionality of Evernote is pretty robust).
Connecting Gmail with Evernote
A powerful way to connect Gmail with Evernote (Premium account only) is that your Evernote account comes with a unique email address; anything you email to that address is added to your Inbox. This is useful for saving emails with important information you want to reference later.
You can find that email address in Account Information:
Using Google Calendar and Gmail together with Evernote is a powerful way to organize your life in a simple, intuitive way. I am convinced that an organized life makes an organized mind more possible, and an organized mind allows you to accomplish the tasks necessary in the vocation to which God has called you.