GTD using OneNote my way

[OneNote] is flexible enough to let you work using the GTD methodology in the way you want.Bob Flisser

After deciding on OneNote as my GTD organizer, it took me a while to come up with a solution that satisfied my needs. As you may know already if you follow this blog, I didn’t find much inspiration on how to set up OneNote for GTD. As for the official Setup Guide, it was nothing but a big disappointment. I therefore improvised from my understanding of David Allen’s book. While not so bad (as in attractive), my initial 1 system was however far from suitable in terms of time management. Let me describe this rough draft anyway.

A single 2 GTD notebook

As opposed to what I have seen on YouTube, I opted to have all my GTD material in a single Notebook.

GTD notebook sections
Sections in my GTD Notebook
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As you can see from the screenshot above, I do not have “Notes”, “Calendar”, “Agendas”, “Project Support”, or “Contacts”. Indeed, I ended up with these nine sections:

  • Methodology
  • Horizons of Focus
  • IN
  • Projects
  • Next Actions
  • Waiting For
  • Tickler
  • Someday _ Maybe
  • Reference

The names are self-explanatory – for whoever knows about Getting Things Done – except maybe for the “Methodology” section, which is simply where I gather all my notes about the GTD method. Not much else to say about this section, so let me move to the other ones …

IN

As opposed to the INBOX of the GTD printable inserts that you may have encountered in online tutorials (see OneNote as my GTD organizer), my IN does not come with checkboxes (on the right of each listed item) to decide first whether it is actionable or not actionable, and second whether it belongs to Calendar, Next Action, Waiting On, or Project for the former, or Someday | Maybe, or Reference for the latter. It is just a list of “stuffs” with the date they were added (i.e., stuff name or description _ dd/mm/yyyy) under the heading:

Capturing _ “Get It All Out of Your Head”

Of course, I have other INs (see My implementation of the GTD method – my INs) and to remind me to check them as well, I have a post-it-like note next to the aforementioned list with each of “My other capturing tools and locations.”

I have only one other page in this section called “Mind sweep trigger lists” in which I have copied the Incompletion Trigger List described in Chapter 5 of the book.

Projects

And this section goes far beyond what I could see anywhere else. For instance, in the GTD organizer, it is nothing but a page with 2 fields (i.e., column): project and due date. This could be satisfactory for the so-called project list, but the blank worksheet dedicated to “Project Support” would have never done it for me.

Project index

This page is where I list all my projects with “no particular order, by size, or by priority; it’s just a comprehensive index” as suggested in the book. However, as opposed to just two columns (see above), I ended up with this table:

  IDNameOutcomeProjects list (while active)DateDeadlineStatus

Each project comes with a specific ID (i.e., a reference number), a Name, a description of the Outcome (i.e., what “done” means), a link to a Project list where I could find more info about the project while active (see below), the Date it was added to this table, the due date or Deadline (if any), and its current Status (i.e., Active or Completed).

Project lists

It doesn’t matter how many different lists of projects you have, so long as you look at the contents of all of them as often as you need to.

I was not comfortable with a single list (i.e., index) for all my projects no matter whether they were work-related or personal. Therefore, I created lists (and sub-lists) for each of these two main areas (professional and personal) and ended up with seven lists – all nested under the aforementioned Project index page. Each, on separate pages (and sub-pages), consists in this table:

 NameIDOutcomeDateDeadlineProject Plan & SupportNext ActionWaiting forCalendar

In addition to the info already reported in the previous table (on the Project index page), this one informs whether the project has a Project Plan & Support page (with a link to this page; see below), and reports the number of Next Action, Waiting for, and Calendar items that each project has. This way, I can see whether a project needs to be reviewed (i.e., to ensure that it has action steps defined).

Project Plans & Support

According to David Allen, anything with more than one step is a project. I have to acknowledge that I do not report these micro projects (e.g., call a dentist, go for dinner, etc.) in my OneNote GTD system. What I am dealing with (in OneNote) are only big and very complex projects, which often end up with sub-projects (that could also have sub-projects on their own). Accordingly, they all need to go through the Natural Planning Model.

Each project (or sub-project) has therefore a Project Plans & Support page which is derived from the aforementioned model (see Getting Things Done – the book – part 3). As I have already mentioned, this section, or more specifically these Project Plans & Support pages are the core of my GTD system. They all have the same design (inspired by this template):

Natural Planning Model (GTD)
Project Plans & Support page
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While the first two components – Purpose & Principles and Vision / Outcome – are relatively easy to fill and small in terms of content size, the next three are constantly evolving and growing beyond the limit of what a paper or even digital organizer like the GTD one could have allowed me. The Brainstorming part is indeed a wonderful place to keep all my thoughts and ideas (on that project) other than on hundreds of paper notes (all over the place). The Organizing part becomes my roadmap with all the main points I have to do (and have accomplished). As for the Next Actions, this is where I park all the Next Actions for that project, the ones already completed (with this font), the ones added to my Next Actions lists (see below; with this font), and the ones for the future (i.e., not activated yet; with this font). As you can see from the screenshot above, each project comes ready with the same Next Action: Go through the natural planning, which means filling this page!

Again, I could not emphasize enough how this page has improved my productivity. If I had to keep one thing from the GTD method, which comes close to an impossible decision given the many useful tips and improvements I found in the book, it would be this Project Plans & Support page.

Next Actions

In keeping with the GTD methodology, they are organized by context. However, as alluded to in Time management concl’d, I did not pick any of the contexts listed in the book – Calls, At Computer, Errands, At Office (miscellaneous), At Home, Anywhere, Agendas (for people and meetings), and Read/Review – except for “At home”, but used my time blocks instead. I have grouped them by areas (main pages; not specific context) – @ Work, @ CogitActive, @ Home, and @ Special locations/events – and ended up with a total of 12 contexts (or sub-pages). I have also created a top hierarchy page for one extra context: @ Anywhere.

Note that all my Errands are added to my phone (not in OneNote). You may wonder why. First, because I have it with me most of the time (as opposed to my laptop). Granted, OneNote is free on all platforms and I could have it installed (and synced) on my phone as well. However, as alluded to elsewhere, I do not like to install too many apps. More importantly, I do everything offline, or more specifically without logging in to any account. So, no sync! I could also mention security and privacy reasons, but you will not believe me if I tell you that I use Google Keep Note instead!

Again, I ended up creating another table because the available alternatives were too rudimentary. For instance, the GTD organizer comes with only two fields: Next Actions and Due date; the paper-based inserts don’t even come with the due date column (instead you have five contexts to choose from). Rudimentary and limited!

 TaskDateDeadlineEnergyPrioritySupplementary information & ancillary material

The Task name/description is copied from the Project Plans & Support page (where it comes from; see above). The Date is when this task was activated (i.e., added to this table). If there is any Deadline, it is also reported. Importantly, the table contains other useful information such as the Energy required (Low, Medium, High) to complete the task and the Priority (Low, Medium, High) of this task. In the Supplementary information & ancillary material column comes the project ID (linked to the Project list) and anything relevant to that specific task (e.g., the location of a document, the phone number to be called, etc.). As for the Time required to complete the task, I am using these OneNote Tags (added to the Task name) to provide me with this info visually:

OneNote custom tags
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How do you choose what to do? […] There are four criteria you can apply, in this order: context, time available, energy available, and priority.David Allen

I also have my Agendas listed under this section (as separate pages for professional and personal purposes). After all, the people and groups of people with whom we regularly deal with certain issues are just another kind of context. Needless to mention the Agenda in the GTD organizer is just a blank page and I had to come up with something else; the same table as the one described above for my Next Actions actually. The only difference is that I have, on the top of each page, some sort of index (from A to Z) with each person’s name linked to his/her table below. When I add something to a table, I also add an Agenda tag to that name.

Another major benefit of Agendas is that they are respectful of your time and of those you work with. Instead of interrupting someone at work (as well as your own work) every time you feel the need to discuss something with them, what you do is make a list of everything you need to talk about. That way, when the time comes for the meeting, you can complete that whole batch of actions at once.Francisco Sáez

Waiting For

By now, I assume you have figured it out. For that section too, I ended up creating my own design (i.e., the table below). I also have separate pages (and sub-pages) for professional and personal items and/or categories; eight in total.

 DateWhatWhoHowDeadlineReminder(s)Follow-upStatusProject

The headings are self-explanatory: the Date when the item was added to the table, What it is about, to Whom the task was attributed, and How this was done (i.e., via what channel). The table also contains other info such as Deadline (if any), if I had to Remind the person about the task, any Follow-up that could result from this action, and its current Status. Last, there is a link to the Project (i.e., index; with the ID of the project).

Tickler

Here I have only one page with a Table (two actually, on two levels) with 12 columns (one per month). I simply add the info (e.g., birthday, special events, etc.) below the correct month, with or without a specific day (i.e., 14 _ Dad’s birthday or Event that I do not have a specific date yet). I also use a Recurring tag for those items that I should not delete once the date has passed. Now, on this page, I have also a link to my digital Tickler file. I did not come up with this clever idea, but got it from this video:

By QuestBased

Someday _ Maybe

Under this section, I have three main pages (each with the seven sub-pages/categories mentioned earlier for the Waiting For section):

Parked projectsThis is the “parking lot” for projects that would be impossible to move on at present but that [I] don’t want to forget about entirely.

Someday – Projects that I want to do, just not right now.

Maybe – Projects that I am not certain if I want to do at all.

On each page, I have the same table that I described for the Project lists.

My workflow

As alluded to, it all centers around the Project section. Once a new project has been created (from any item in IN or directly) in the Project index table, I have to add this project to the proper Project list and create a new Project Plans & Support page (by using the “Move or Copy…” feature of OneNote). Then, I have to “activate” the already populated Next Action, namely “Go through the natural planning.” This means that I have to copy/paste it into one of the tables (depending on the context) under the Next Action section and add all the extra info there (time, energy, priority). In doing so, I am also striking through that task in the Project Plans & Support page and updating the corresponding table in the Project list by specifying that this project has now 1 Next Action.

Once the task has been completed, I have to remove it from the table in the Next Action section, change the font color (from black to green) of that task in the table on the Project Plans & Support page, and update the corresponding table in the Project list (by removing on count from the Next Action column).

As you can imagine, not only there is a redundant processing of items – a Next Action being processed both into the Project Plans & Support page and the Next Action section – but also the whole procedure requires many extra steps (e.g., to update the many tables manually) that are time-consuming. Of course, there are many other shortcomings; hence my desire to improve this system.

Coming next: GTD in OneNote, my failed attempts


1 Spoiler: I am currently implementing my GTD system 2.0 – a great leap in terms of productivity. ^
2 Although I have all my GTD-specific items in one Notebook labeled Getting Things Done, I am using several Notebooks for organizing some (other) content (e.g., books to read, meeting notes, restaurant reviews, etc.). ^
3 See Getting Things Done – the book – part 6. ^

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