Using Evernote or OneNote for your GTD Software System? Reconsider!

Posted 07/11/14 by James and filed under:

Are you using Evernote or OneNote as your GTD Software?

I often see people write blog posts or even sell ebooks explaining  how to set-up either of these tools to use for their GTD software needs.   I admit, I see the allure.  I understand why they do it.  The idea of using just one tool for all your data capture and task management needs is alluring!  David Allen even preaches that having fewer inboxes is best.  But in my experience, the idea is much better than the actual implementation when it comes to both Evernote and OneNote.  In this post, I’ll explain why.

How much is your time worth?

GTD web appAn important aspect of any GTD system is speed. You need to be able to create tasks and add the correct information to your task quickly. In this area, I find that GTD systems based on either Evernote or OneNote really come up short.  It just takes too long to manually add all the information to each task you create in either OneNote or Evernote.  A good task list manger like GTDNext does much of this for you automatically.

I did some testing, and for me, it takes approximately 21 seconds to apply 4 tags in Evernote. One each for the “What”, “When”, Where”, and “Who” that a popular Evernote GTD system suggests you apply to each action.  All told, it took me 29 seconds on average to create a note (task) in Evernote.

In contrast, it took me (on average) only 11 seconds in GTDNext to create a new task and assign a context.  GTDNext automatically puts it on the active list, and I didn’t need to select what project the task was part of because I just clicked into the correct project before typing. Something you can’t do in Evernote.

Task List Automation

The biggest problem I find with using Evernote or OneNote for your task management app is the lack of list automation.  What do I mean by this?  Well, in GTDNext, when you look at your next action list, you are seeing a list of all your next actions.  One action from each project you have. This keeps your list of actions small and manageable.

Consider someone with 20 projects, each with 5 tasks and another 5 single actions.  In Evernote and OneNote, you would need to look at a list of 105 actions to determine what you wanted to do next.  With GTDNext, you are only looking at 25 tasks.

That is a big difference!  105 tasks seem overwhelming, where as 25 is much more manageable.  Furthermore, in GTDNext, it’s likely that you might apply a filter to your next action list by “Area”, further restricting your list down to a more manageable size.  It’s this kind of automation of your task list that makes GTDNext a much better choice for your GTD system.

Overcoming this problem in either OneNote or Evernote requires extra steps that, again, just slow you down.  You end up with two bad choices.  1) Just look at a huge list of actions, with no filtering or 2) Review your actions more frequently and manually apply a “next” tag to filter your list.  Both are unnecessary and bad choices in my opinion.

The One (Less) Inbox and Easy Note Access Issue

Fans of using Evernote or OneNote as a GTD system will always mention that having one app for both notes and actions is a huge advantage.  But is it really?  There are two primary advantages, so let’s look at each one individually.

Advantage 1:  Tasks created in Evernote or OneNote can have reference materials easily attached to the task.  This is really a great advantage for sure.  However, take a quick look at your task list. How many of your tasks actually have any reference materials attached?  Or any notes at all?  I just did a quick look at my next action list.  Of the 69 items currently on my next action list, only 9 tasks had any kind of reference information in the notes section, or about 13%.  Your mileage may vary, but to me, the extra time it takes to setup my tasks in Evernote or OneNote for just 13% of my tasks that could benefit, just isn’t worth it.  In addition, when I do need to reference information in Evernote or OneNote, I just use the link feature (TAB+L) in GTDNext to link directly to the note in OneNote or Evernote.  This gives me quick access back to the content and works for any web URL link.


Advantage 2:  The single app advantage.  Proponents of Evernote and OneNote will always mention that having one tool for all your productivity needs is the best way to go.  Using two apps is really just too much.

Really?  I guess the first thing I would point out is that the idea that using Evernote or OneNote makes you have just one app is kind of ridiculous.  People have way more collection points and apps that are part of their productivity solution than they might think!  How about work email?  Home Email?  Work calendar?  Family Calendar?  Mind mapping software, audio notes, voicemail.

The list goes on and on.  Yes, having fewer collection points and systems is nice, but the idea that you can have just ONE by using OneNote or Evernote is really a fallacy when you think about it.

I contend that since you already use multiple systems, you should really use a system that specializes in the task you are doing and that does it quickly and well.


While this post comes off a bit as if I don’t like Evernote or OneNote, that is actually not true at all.  I love both programs and use both of them daily.  Surprised?   Click here to read my answer on Quora to see why I use both daily.

They are both great programs. I just don’t see the reason to slow my personal GTD system down by minutes a day, or hours a month just so I can have the occasional easy access to my reference notes!

What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree with me?  Why?  Did I miss any of the advantages or disadvantages?   Please add your comments below.

  • philippe99

    I totally agree with you James and so happy to see such a clear article. EN enthousiast and evangelist at work, OneNote fan, I always thought that a GTD workflow can be better handled by specialized tools than general purposes notes taking software. I tried to setup a GTD workflow in my EN (following the SecretWeapon schema or advices from friends like DanielGold). But in fine, I came back to a dedicated tool, in my case Toodledo. I hope that neither EN, neither OneNote will try to enter the GTD market and that they stay in the area in which they are the best: taking/capturing notes.

  • Hi James

    It’s interesting to read your ideas – I always liked seeing new ideas! I take your point that, adding contexts et cetera to the task can take extra seconds if using Evernote.

    Currently, Evernote suits me extremely well. I am a long term use of Evernote and I discovered The Secret Weapon a year or two ago and have since built on this to get my own system together.

    I am still in favour of me using Evernote. I don’t find it time-consuming to tag to dos as there are that many I tag: and I almost never use “context” tags (I work from home) and rarely use Who tags.

    “Task List Automations”
    I don’t understand from your “task list automation’s” paragraph above why you would need to look at 105 actions to determine what you wanted to do next.

    You simply use Evernote’s filtering. When I want to see what to do next. I click on my “Now” tag, which has five or six items in it. It’s instant.

    If I want to see all the to dos relating to particular project it’s 2 clicks: I click my To do notebook, hold down control, and click the project tag concerned. Two seconds.

    If I find I am creating a more complex filter on a regular basis. Then I create a saved search which I can, again, run in a couple of clicks.

    Saved searches also synchronise to the iPad, which makes it easy to select them when on the move.

    I admire anyone trying to make GTD more accessible so I’ll keep an eye out for GTDNext’s developments. But I’m not tempted yet!

    Best, Malc

  • Tomer

    It’s all great, but until there are mobile apps for ios and android we can’t have our tasks/schedule (hmmm “life”) with us on the go.

    I decided not to waste time on trying GTDnext now (though I joined the beta) and to wait for the mobile solutions to match the lovely web interface.
    Hopefully calendar integration will also be in place.

    Good luck!

  • Andrew Mckay

    For someone like myself using Evernote or OneNote as my GTD is impossible. I tried it and for the exact reasons you mentioned it just did not work for me. Like you I greatly admire and use Evernote but as my digital dumping ground. I am not a big tag person but for me the searching capability is more than adequate. As a free product it is a remarkable product .

  • James –
    Excellent post! I was directed to it after posting a reply to the FastCo site article about EverNote’s plans. My point was – the UI is just to clunky for someone like me who is balancing work for multiple clients around the globe. My conclusion was that I was better served by a simple app (Wunderlist) with links to the occasional supporting material. I was really pleased to read your post, which made the same point much more eloquently, and with much better rationale.
    Well done!

  • Hi James – I guess the answer to:
    “is Evernote/OneNote better for time management, or a dedicated solution such as GTDNext?”, is: “It depends”.

    **”Adding Tags Takes Time”

    For a start, your statement that adding four tags in, say,
    Evernote takes 21 to 29 seconds is disingenuous because there are very few notes which need four tags!

    I use Evernote and the majority of my notes have zero or one
    tag. I use the “4 x W tags” approach, and of my To dos all of them have a When tag, and probably a third of them have a What tag – the project tag.

    I work from home, and I don’t find I need a Where tag at
    all. And probably only around 5% of my notes have a Who tag.

    So it certainly doesn’t take me 20 seconds to tag the
    average note.

    **”Everything” in One Application

    Yes, this is an oft quoted statement of those who use
    Evernote for time management.

    I agree that we all use an email client and a calendar too, but
    the point of saying: “Everything is in Evernote”, is that all your to dos and your electronic filing is in Evernote.

    This means that in one click you can see all your to dos
    plus all your filing related to any one project.

    Or, with a different two clicks you can see *either* all the
    To dos, *or* all the Filing, related to that project. I find that super quick and super powerful.

    **Add Data Anywhere

    The final advantage of using Evernote as distinct from other
    to do apps and methods is that EN is streets ahead in terms of how you can add data, and reference that data.

    For adding data you can:
    – Email anything to your Evernote email address

    – Send it from any web browser with one click

    – Send it from a multitude of smart phone/tablet
    apps with one or two clicks

    – Add it manually to your smart phone or tablet
    Evernote app

    – Add data in one click using FastEver or a
    similar app

    Evernote is the hub of my time management, and my electronic
    data management, processes. I’ve tried all the other commonly available to do managers and none of them come close to Evernote. If I found something better for my work routine I’d changed to it in a flash.


    I like the way you can add a new To do by pressing return,
    and how you can create a Project by tabbing the To do below.

    But for me, I think the biggest challenges would be:

    1. Not having project support material and To dos
    in the same application, which is hugely valuable

    2. Not having smartphone/tablet apps for GTDNext,
    to be able to recall/review or to add data

    I use these features a lot, most days, and not having them
    would reduce markedly the amount of work I can get through in a day.

    Good luck with the progress of GTDNext which has some nice,
    intuitive ideas within it. I look forward to seeing further developments.

    Best wishes, Malc