OneNote as my GTD organizer

In chapter 4 of his book, David Allen provides an inventory of all the basic supplies and equipment that you’ll need, finishing his list with the following question: Do You Need an Organizer? To help you answer it, he asks some more questions:

  • Are you already committed to using something for managing lists and at-hand reference information?
  • How do you want to see your reminders of actions, agendas, and projects?
  • Where and how often do you need to review them?

Before answering with the obvious: Because your head is not the place in which to hold things, you’ll obviously need something to manage your triggers and orient yourself externally. In short, yes, I needed an organizer; but which organizer?

“Should I implement the Getting Things Done process in what I’m currently using, or should I install something new?”
The answer is, do whichever one will actually help you change your behavior so you’ll use the tools appropriately.

A paper-based notebook or planner?

Lists can be managed in a low-tech way, as pieces of paper kept in a file folder […], or they can be arranged in a more mid-tech fashion, in loose-leaf notebooks or planners […]. Or they can be high-tech, digital versions […].David Allen

Although I discovered the GTD method by reading articles from GTD-ready apps’ websites (while looking for time management techniques), my first inquiry about a GTD organizer led me to the “low-tech” end of the spectrum. After watching many videos (about the method in general), I thought indeed that the typical way to implement it was through the use of loose-leaf planners with GTD printable1 inserts like these or those. Of course, they come in different sizes, styles, and prices; still, the 5-step process would look like this:

By squaird plans

In terms of productivity, this would be quite a disaster given the number of projects, not to mention their complexity, that I am dealing with. Get things out of my head – yes – but onto paper – nope.

“Cute, maybe, but not for me.”

The GTD® Organizer

As alluded to in the previous section, there is a big market around GTD and it makes sense that the person who created the methodology receives its share (beyond the sales of his books). Although the sales of physical items have been discontinued, there is still a GTD® shop. From Setup Guides (for pretty much any platform) to a GTD Workflow Map to GTD Methodology Guides, you can find it all there; including the 2023 GTD Organizer. The latter is twice as expensive as the other items, but maybe this elegant, functional, and complete system, built on the GTD methodology was what I was looking for. To get to the bottom of it, that is to determine whether this was a great product and solution for [me] indeed, I watched the promotional video:

By gtd

Granted, it’s a digital – and editable – file (as opposed to the aforementioned printable inserts); still, you cannot2 move the order of pages, extract/export pages, or insert new pages from another document. Moreover, the layout is very limited (and not configurable). And, a notebook – be it digital – isn’t exactly scalable… In short, this is not much more than a digital 350-page notebook with (blank or prelabelled) line paper. It comes with a GTD & Paper Organizers Setup Guide with extensive educational support about how to use your GTD Organizer, though!

Think of a paper planner but as a digital file

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

A GTD app?

Since the original publication of Getting Things Done, scores of software programs have emerged using the core GTD methodology as a basis for their models. Most are simply digital and mobile to-do and task list managers, with a variety of enhancements, connections, and graphic views.David Allen

As illustrated by the many “best GTD App” reviews3, there are now plenty of GTD apps (or software) available (e.g., Nirvana, Todoist, Trello, …). It goes without saying, that no matter which one is the top-ranked, the actual best app for [me] will ultimately depend on [my] specific requirements, budget, and preferences.

When it comes to GTD requirements, the app should be able to support the GTD-specific components such as projects, contexts, and next actions; not a problem for those specifically designed for GTD. It should be able to work on my platform of choice (be it on my laptop or my phone).

As far as budget is concerned, these apps come in different flavors; while some are free, most are either freemium or paid apps. I don’t like either. I cannot afford the latter and freemium comes generally with limited features (and ads).

Concerning my preferences – or my dislikes should I say – I don’t want anything in the clouds4 or that would need an internet (or mobile network) connection to work; I want something that can work fully5 offline.

Many apps allow you to synchronize between computers, tablets, mobile devices, and the web. Wherever you are, you have access to your tasks and have the ability to capture to your trusted system.Brooks Duncan

“Anyway, what are GTD apps doing?”
They’re all just list managers, basically!
“So, what is the best app for GTD? Uh, I meant what is the best list manager for GTD?”
Some of the more popular list managers include Outlook®, Nirvana®, Todoist®, Trello®, OmniFocus®, Wunderlist®, Google Tasks®, iOS Reminders®, Evernote®, OneNote®, and Things®. To see the ones we have extensively tested to know they will work for GTD, check out our official GTD Setup Guides.

My ultimate GTD tool

Not convinced by the idea of having an App – even though I have to acknowledge that I did not review them all thoroughly6 – I chose instead to create and tailor my GTD organizer/app/tool (you name it the way you want) to my unique needs and preferences.

Let’s face it, no task management app you download is ever going to be a perfect fit and solve all your problems. You need to build your own if you want that level of customization.Gregory J. Gaynor

At a GTD summit in 2019, David Allen briefly shared a vision of the ultimate GTD app (that he came up with in 1994) before concluding that It hasn’t happened yet. He kindly provided the pdf of these 19 pages of hand-drawn drafts of the screens he would want to use.

And here is an excerpt from the book that encapsulates the main point:

All you really need to do is manage lists. You’ve got to be able to create a list on the run and review it easily and as regularly as you need to. Once you know what to put on the lists and how to use them, the medium really doesn’t matter. Just go for simplicity, speed, and fun.

One of the best tricks for enhancing your productivity is having organizing tools you love to use.David Allen

Microsoft OneNote

OneNote is a note-taking software, developed by Microsoft, and since 2014 has been free on all platforms. It is designed for free-form information gathering and allows users to create notes that can include: texts, pictures, tables, and drawings. Yes, you can capture anything. Hyperlinks come in handy as well.

One cross-functional notebook for all your notetaking needs.

OneNote saves information in pages organized into sections within notebooks – and notebooks never run out of paper! Moreover, OneNote features a virtually unbounded document window, in which users can click anywhere on the canvas to create a new text box at that location.

OneNote is a digital note-taking app that provides a single place for keeping all of your notes, research, plans, and information — everything you need to remember and manage in your life at home, at work, or at school.Microsoft

Tag allows you to categorize and prioritize notes that need to stand out. You can assign action items for yourself and others, and track your progress. Last, but not least, OneNote puts all of your information at your fingertips with a quick search, no matter where you might have jotted it down.

Onenote has all the flexibility of whatever paper based system you want to implement with a lot more in terms of search, tags, reminders, ties to outlook. […] Onenote is also perfect for organising your reference system.Joseph Plane

OneNote offers (as in free) every feature you could want in a note-taking app and one of the more complete organizational structures on the market. Admittedly, OneNote is not a task manager which means I will need to put in a bit more effort to design an action-oriented system (I will have to do a lot of manual work [i.e., copy/paste] to manage my Next Actions, for instance) but it’s certainly possible.

Coming next: How to Use OneNote for GTD?

1 There are also digital versions, but the principle remains the same. ^
2 You can if you have a paid version of Adobe Reader. Otherwise, you are … screwed? Not really, the Organizer comes with an alternative with segmented sections (as opposed to one complete system in a single PDF) with a load of extra pages within each section (i.e., 10 instead of 2 pages). And, as explained in the video, if this is not enough – i.e., if you are out of pages – you can certainly just start to delete items from these pages. High tech, right? ^
3 Believe it or not, but in one of these reviews, a sheet of paper and a pen – yes, you read that correctly, a simple old-school notebook – was ranked as the top #2 App! ^
4 It’s mainly for security and privacy reasons. Granted, some apps (e.g., Everdo) keep your information on your device with end-to-end encryption; still, … ^
5 As pointed out on the GTD forum, Many apps boast offline support but what they mean is that they gracefully handle network loss so long as they can eventually catch up with the mothership later. Others allow you to access your notes offline, but you have to pay for that (e.g., the free version of Evernote does not). ^
6 For example, Microsoft To-Do could have been a good choice – although not specifically designed for GTD. It’s a free productivity software with seamless integration with other Microsoft products. However, it’s a cloud-based task management system. There are also Free and Open Source GTD systems (e.g., Simpletask), as described in this article. ^

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