Quick and Visual GTD with Actions and The Secret Weapon

This article is heavily focused on the MAC platform

Evernote, Actions and The Secret Weapon for GTD
There’s no shortage of examples of enterprising users leveraging an apps features to do something other than initially intended. One such case is that of The Secret Weapon (TSW). I’ll let you learn more about what TSW is from their website, but in essence, it uses Evernote as a GTD system. As wild and improbable as this may sound, users swear by it and getting to grips with the workflow is a trivial matter.

TSW uses tags to break tasks up into a couple main contexts: When, What, Who and Where and Notebooks to differentiate between Pending Actions and Completed Actions.

If you haven’t already purchased Flows, then do so now since you’ll need it (I’ll wait while while you do that). Now let’s start off by creating a new set for our GTD workflow using Evernote as the magnet application. I called mine TSW but feel free to get creative.

Unfortunately, given that Evernote for Windows relies rather heavily on the mouse, lacking most of the shortcuts needed for the Flows that follow, this will be a Mac only article. That however doesn’t mean you can’t follow along and maybe gleen a few ideas along the way.

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Tags

Tags are the cornerstone of TSW, but before going any further there is an important caveat that I should point out since this will have an impact on how you add tags and also setup your pads.

The When context tends to change often – a task may start out with a context of 2-Next and when it’s time to start the task you’ll need to change it to 1-Now. Unfortunately there is no easy or direct way to achieve this using Actions alone. While you could use AppleScript triggered by another app to change the tags I won’t cover that this time around. Instead, I’ll present you with two workarounds that mitigate this limitation. For now however, let’s create our first pads.

Tap on the pencil in the top right corner to enter edit mode, then tap on Create to add your first pad. Call this pad 1-Now, choose a color and icon if you so desire and then tap on Flows. You’re now going to add 4 actions to this Flow:

  1. Start by adding shortcut action with the + (focuses the tag field);
  2. Next add another shortcut, this time choose only the right arrow key (moves the cursor to the right, deselecting any current tag so as not to overwrite that tag);
  3. Now add a snippet action and type in 1-Now follow by a carriage return (adding a carriage return to the snippet simulates a return key, thus needing one less action);
  4. Finally add another shortcut action, this time with just a return key (moves focus away from the tag field back to the title).

Tap away from you flow to close and save it and your first tag pad is complete. Now while still in edit mode, tap and hold with two fingers to duplicate the pad you just created. Do this for 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday and 6-Waiting. Edit each new pad to change it’s name and the snippet action to reflect this new When context. Finally, create a subset named When and drag each pad into it.

Notice where the cursor is. The carriage return is both important as it is useful.

Notice where the cursor is. The carriage return is both important as it is useful.

Repeat this process for the remaining contexts, adding as many tags as you feel you may need for What, Who and Where. When you’re done, you should have 4 subsets each with their own groups of tag pads.

As you can see, tagging tasks is now trivial, fast and very visual. Changing a tag however, not so much. I did however mention there were 2 possible workarounds.

Option 1: Delete and Redo

This option, deletes every tag a selected task has allowing you to re-tag as needed. While extreme, it does come in handy at times and also allows you to maintain the naming convention advised by TSW.

Simply create a new pad, call it Remove all tags and add the following actions to the Flow:

  1. Shortcut action with ⌘+’;
  2. Shortcut action with backspace or delete;
  3. Shortcut action with return.

This will remove every tag and place focus back on the title field. Now you can(must) go through the process of re-tagging.

Option 2: Tag Placement

Although it takes a little longer to setup, this is my preferred option. Here I’ve opted to alter the naming convention of my When tags. Given that Evernote will sort tags alphabetically, rather than naming a tag 1-Now, I’ve changed that to !1-Now, !2-Now and so on. This assures me that the When tag will always be the first tag in the list allowing for easy substitution.

Open the When subset and enter edit mode. First change the existing tag from 1-Now to !1-Now. Then, duplicate and rename it to Swith With !1-Now. Finally, change the the flow actions in the following manner:

  1. Shortcut action with ⌘+’;
  2. Shortcut with left arrow;
  3. Shortcut with Del (forward delete);
  4. Don’t change the snippet action;
  5. Shortcut action with return

Repeat this process for every When tag you have setup. Now, when a task is tagged with !2-Next and you want to change it to !1-Now, simply tap the Switch with !1-Now pad.

Switching Tags should look like this when completed.

Switching Tags should look like this when completed.

Templates

You can also leverage the flexibility of Flows to create tag templates. Imagine you’ve got recurring tasks about a Secret Project at Work with your Boss — why not add every tag in one fell swoop?

To do so, create a new pad and replicate the steps used to create a tag pad, but this time in the snippet action add the following:

Boss  
Secret Project  
@Work  

Take note that each tag line is followed by a carriage.

Since not every task originates from Email, you can take templates a step further, by creating a new task with tags pre-populated:

Create a new pad with the following actions:

  1. Shortcut action with ⌘+J (Triggers Jump to Notebook);
  2. Snippet with Actions Pending followed by a carriage return (Type the name of the notebook. This ensures that the new task is always created in the correct notebook);
  3. Shortcut with ⌘+N (Creates a new note in the current notebook);
  4. Shortcut with ⌘+’ (Sets focus on the tag field);
  5. Snippet with any tag you may wish to add, each on a separate line followed by a carriage return;
  6. Shortcut with return (Moves focus to title of note/task).

As you can see, creating similar tasks can now be greatly sped up, so you no longer have an excuse to not capture important tasks right away.

Templates are quick and easy to setup.

Templates are quick and easy to setup.

Review & Search

There’s utterly no point in capturing your tasks if you never look at them again. That of course is where review and search come into play and with TSW and Actions, that too is quite trivial.

Since TSW relies on tags within the Actions Pending notebook, the review process is nothing more than a simple search. I’ve opted to create a review for my !Daily tasks as well as one for each When context. Furthermore, I’ve created a separate subset with common searches, such as errands I need to run for my wife in town.

First, create a new pad and call it Review !Daily. Next, tap on flows and add the following actions:

  1. Shortcut with ⌘+⌥+F (trigger the search field);
  2. Snippet with Notebook:”Actions Pending tag:!Daily, once again followed by a carriage return. (Search for tasks tagged !Daily in the Actions Pending notebook, thus not showing already completed tasks).

Once more, repeat this process for every When context and add them to a new subset. For the other subset with saved searches, the process is similar, just remember that you can search for multiple tags, so using my example, the snippet would be: Notebook:“Actions Pending” tag:wife tag:@town tag:@errand

The Review process, visual and quick

The Review process, visual and quick

General Utilities

Now there are just a few more pads that we need to have our set complete.

Merge Notes

An important tip for TSW is to merge related notes thereby minimising clutter and improving focus. Easily done, just create a new pad called Merge Task with a shortcut ⇧+⌘+M. Now select two or more related notes and tap the pad… voilá.

Redirect Email

Given that so many of the tasks that will undoubtedly make their way into Evernote come from email, it only makes sense you have a pad to aid you with that too. First, find out what you Evernote email is. Open Evernote and then click on File>Account Info and near the bottom you’ll see the email with the option to add it to Address Book, do so now if you haven’t already and then copy the email address to you clipboard.

Now that’s out of the way, create a new pad called Send to Evernote and add the following actions:

  1. Shortcut with ⇧+⌘+E (Will redirect the selected email);
  2. Wait action with 1 or 2 seconds depending on how fast you computer is. This will allow time for the window with the email to open;
  3. Snippet with your Evernote email. Since you previously copied you email, you can now just tap on the down arrow to paste the clipboard content into the snippet field. Don’t forget the carriage return once again;
  4. Shortcut with ⇧+⌘+D (Will send the email).

Depending on how you have you Mail.app setup, you could add a few extra shortcut actions with the tab key, moving focus to the subject line, another shortcut action moving to the end of the subject line and then a snippet with @Actions Pending, thus effectively sending the email directly to the Actions Pending Notebook.

Mark As Done

I’ve saved the best for last. We convince ourselves that we use lists and task managers and GTD systems so we can be more productive, but the truth is that we simply like marking things done! There is an inherent sense of accomplishment when we finish something, so obviously we couldn’t in good mind finish this article without a pad for marking tasks done.

In TSW, when you’ve finished a task, you simply move it to the completed notebook. Once again, a flow with a few actions accomplishes this with great ease. Simply create a new pad with:

  1. Shortcut action with ⌘+^+M (Trigger the move to notebook dialog);
  2. Snippet with Completed followed by a return.

That’s it, nothing more to it. Now just select a completed task, tap the pad and see it vanish.

The final outcome.

The final outcome.

Now, armed with Actions and TSW, you can wrangle an unwieldy list of tasks into some semblance of order. I also hope by now you can see just how useful and versatile Flows can be.

Pedro Lobo

A System Administrator by day and freelance technology writer by night. I put words together to express my opinionated views on software, hardware or anything that strikes my fancy. Said words can be found in a variety of places, among which my blog. When not spending time with my family and taking photographs, I can be found on app.net or Twitter
  • Great use of the Flows and terrific job coming up with this solution and documenting it. I stopped using Evernote almost two years ago so it’s crazy to me the long wait it has come — integrating this level of tweaks on the platform is really cool

    • Thanks appfreak. Flows are indeed powerful and flexible allowing for some rather interesting workflows. I agree that using Evernote as a GTD tool isn’t for everybody, but knowing it’s possible and seeing just how easy it can be with the aid of Actions is truly great!