Best Practices Guide to Using Tags to Get Things Done 8

My recent post on how I get things done using Evernote & Springpad generated thousands of hits and almost 100 comments from around the world. What surprised me more than that alone was that we all have the same issue – we’re hungry for a solution.

We live in a fast paced society where everything is at our fingertips, and so naturally, we want our productivity system to be there as well.  So many who commented either directly on the blog, through Twitter, or in my inbox have all experienced the challenge of getting things done in a predictable, efficient, and understandable way.  I was delighted in some measure to know that I was not the only one that has played and tweaked with almost every single GTD tool out there to help me.  That leads me to the purpose behind this post – using tags efficiently.

First, what are tags, for those who may be unfamiliar?  In the legal practice, the utilization of tags is much like using sticky notes.  We use tags to help us identify important information that we need to go back to in helping to either prove or defend our case.  Those tags can get incredibly unwieldy unless there is a definitive call made in advance as to what method will be used.  The same goes for Springpad, Evernote, Nozbe, Vitalist, Toodledo, Remember the Milk, Producteev, NirvanaHQ … and I’m sure I’m missing one … as they all use tags (or categories and contexts) to help retrieve vital information very quickly.

Moleskine with tabs from

The key in utilizing tags is developing your own plan on how you will use them. That helps create predictability … and may also cause you mayhem if you have created a new tag for every single note or task you’ve ever made!  The easiest way to create this plan is to think of doing this in the “analog” world.  For example, let’s say you just had a trust Moleskine notebook and pen and you had to quickly retrieve information from the notebook.  How would you do it?  Implementing David Allen’s, “Getting Things Done” methodology, the first way you would want to do it is by dividing up the notebook by contexts of where you need to get things done.  For example, divide the notebook up for all your action lists.  So, you would put a sticky note by the first page and call it @contacts.  Next, you have a list just for things you can do at the computer.  Great, now put a sticky note by that page and call it @computer.  You continue to do the same for @errands, someday/maybe, and things you are waiting for.  Obviously, you’ll want to have an “inbox” in this notebook where you jot everything that comes to your mind that you’ll sort out later and a list of all of those items from each of your lists that you will accomplish today.  We’ll call that “Next Actions.”  Great!  You now have a very predictable set of “tags”.

Scoot down to another half of your notebook and create a “Projects” list and put another sticky note there.  You can index on that paper all of your current, deferred and not started projects with a page number to go to in your notebook that will describe this project in more detail.  And, you guessed it, the ensuing pages will describe your projects, action items you’ve thought about (with maybe a page number in the notebook where that action item went to), goals, milestones, resources, people, etc  that you need to remember in order to successfully complete this project.  You can put another sticky note by that page as well for each project.

Notice what we’ve done?  We’ve simplified the process of understanding digital tags by figuring out how it would most make sense in the analog world. (It kind of makes you want to just use a Moleskine, doesn’t it??)  In any one of the programs that you may use (I’m being platform agnostic right now), let’s develop a predictable set of tags.  Whether you use a program’s contexts or only use tags, it really doesn’t matter.  For now, I’m going to simply call everything a tag for simplicity sake.  The goal here is getting it so a system that you will remember.  Create tags for each context like I noted above (@contact, @computer, etc.).  If your program has a Next Action landing site, then you know that once you’ve decided what needs to get done today, simply drag & drop it into that bin.  Some programs have a “star”, and some may require you to create a “Next Action” tag.  Whichever it is, be sure that you’ve taken those tasks that you know you can accomplish today into a “Next Action” location.  As a footnote, if you have to create a tag called “Next Action” and you complete that task, simply delete the tag after its accomplished.

What about projects in the digital world? Just like above, you can create a tag for your master project list and then tag each of your projects.  The good news is that with programs like Evernote, Springpad and others you can tag reference notes, e-mails, contacts, appointments, and action items by this project tag as well to help keep everything organized.  If you use Nozbe, the good news is that for every action item that you also tag with a project tag, the notes from Evernote will automatically populate in Nozbe.  I know a lot of people are fans of Nozbe & Evernote, so this unified integration of tasks and reference materials is essential. In each of my tasks, I’ve got two tags – the context and the project.  For example, let’s say my project is to buy a New Lawnmower.  Well, the action item could be “Research lawnmowers” and my tags would be “@computer, new lawnmower.”  No more and no less.  Keeping it simple allows for you to best manage your system.  Naturally, any research you pull up online can easily be added to your Springpad or Evernote systems through the use of the bookmarklets.

How about all of your other “stuff” you’ve got piled into your digital repository such as Evernote or Springpad? Or, what if you have a task that’s not associated with a project but it does reference a client of yours?  Keeping it simple again helps maximize your “doing” and less time “fidgeting” with your system.  In my case, I have one tag for the context and another for the client.  For example, “@contact, ABC Inc”.  Admittedly, though I spoke glowingly of my love for Springpad, Evernote does make it easier to then search for something you need by tag.  If you ever want to see the penultimate way of searching for things in Evernote, see Ruud Hein’s amazing setup.  It’s a little too much for me, but I have implemented many of his ideas for saved searches.  It’s a must have bookmark, in my opinion.  An additional benefit of tagging those things that you’ve completed by project is that it allows you to also pull up what has been accomplished, helping you keep track of milestones you’ve accomplished along the way.

What about other “stuff” that’s not even associated with an action item? How would you tag those items?  Remember, the goal here is predictability and efficiency.  If it’s a client, it gets a client tag.  There are occasions, candidly, where I may have multiple tags.  Let’s say I’m on the phone with my direct report.  She and I review 10 of my clients.  I’ll actually give that one note while I’m on the phone 10 different client tags.  Why?  Because when I want to search by that tag, it takes me to every note, even phone conversations where that client has been mentioned.  There may also be instances where a specific issue at hand must be searched for as well.  In that case, I’ll give the note another tag.  For example, let’s say I want to search for any notes or reference material that involves my client and the issue involving a specific project.  It will then get both tags.  Using Ruud Hein’s system, retrieving the information is very easy.

If there’s any lessons I have learned from my post on getting things done using Springpad and Evernote is that I’m not alone in striving for that perfect system and for also, on occasion, getting “perfect system overload”!  Everyone’s comments have helped me continually refine my system and I will continue to update and keep you all posted.  I do hope this best practices guide on using tags has helped you “do” more and “fidget” with your system less.

About Daniel Gold

Daniel Gold is a productivity coach, keynote speaker, author, and podcaster. He is most well known for his eBooks, Evernote: The Unofficial Guide to Capturing Everything and Getting Things Done, Simplify your Life with Springpad, and Make it Happen: How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your eBook. Daniel is also the co-host of the GTD® Virtual Study Group podcast.

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  • Tim Morrison

    Clarifying GTD with an organizational tool, like Springpad is so helpful.
    I’ve been using notebooks for two funtions
    2.General repositories of information…(pretty much like the category headings on Springpad).
    in addition I have been using one Notebook for “Today”…ie: next actions.

    Does this Notebook use strike you as OK from your simplification standpoint?

    Now my tags are already MANY!
    So this tag article really helps with its pending overhaul! My office IS my computer,as I’m mobile most the day as my client meetings dictate, with Starbucks usually the Office duJour!
    My Tags will be few in number I guess, used as contexts!
    Thanks again for being the Springpad GTD voice!

  • Niniau Simmons

    Thanks again, Dan, for helping to simplify the tagging process! I’m in between Evernote and Springpad – sort of frozen in place with the want of keeping the tags simple but getting scared to tag things because it will become too unwieldy. I’ll try your suggestions and see how I progress!

  • E Ward

    Thanks, Dan, for sharing your insights and practices with both Evernote and Springpad. I am in the process of switching from Evernote to Springpad for many reasons, including how I like to implement GTD. I look forward to learning more about how you and others implement GTD and your best practices of work efficiency.

  • […] this before in some of my comments on Evernote & Springpad posts (oh, and here, here, here, and here) and it’s worth repeating here – when it comes to productivity, you need the right tool […]

  • […] just getting started in GTD – a primer if you will.  We’ve talked before about some best practices using tags and I even affirmed my love for the almighty Moleskine notebook.  But reading an article on the […]

  • […] issues lately in the sheer number of tags I’ve accumulated over the years  (notwithstanding my own post on best practices in handling […]