Plugging a Leaky Task Management Workflow

photo credit: Chaval Brasil via photopin cc

photo credit: Chaval Brasil via photopin cc

I’ve been using Evernote for a while. It is a great general-purpose information repository and provides me with anytime, anywhere, any-device access to all of the important information that orbits my life these days. Its task management capabilities are lacking however. This is not surprising. Afterall Evernote is not a task management system, although it is flexible enough to be configured as such, and, by all accounts, does a fine job of implementing many of the popular methodologies such as GTD. Indeed over the last few months Evernote has added some useful new functionality in the form of a reminders subsystem that goes a long way to bridging its native task management gap.

The problem for me is that if I rely on Evernote for task management then my task management workflow is not, as it should be, a closed loop. It’s leaky. Let me explain.

For me there are 3 basic elements for an effective task management workflow:

  1. Task Collection – this is the place in my workflow where tasks tend to originate. For me this usually starts with email and action-bearing emails are sent to Evernote as a central collection point. This works well and I’ve written before about some neat ways to optimise this.
  2. Task Collation – this is where I assemble my tasks and all of their associated information. Basically all of my tasks are assembled as Evernote notes, with links to supoprting information, and organised/reviewed according to project and priority.
  3. Task Scheduling – this is where tasks are scheduled (and resources are assigned). Evernote goes someway to helping with this in the sense that reminders can now be created for tasks but to schedule tasks I need to manually enter them in my calendar (across all my devices).

Thus there is a leak in my workflow because of the manual and  duplicate work that is required in stage 3: tasks are associated with reminders in Evernote but also need to be manually scheduled in my calendar. To fix this leak I need a way to automatically schedule tasks in my calendar from Evernote so that Evernote becomes the keystone app in my workflow.

Over the last few weeks I have spent some time attempting to plug this leak by looking for companion apps and services that allow be to more tightly integrate Evernote with my calendar. My wish list for this included a number of requirements:

  1. It needed to be free or almost free – I didnt want to end up with yet another subscription to pay for but I could live with a modest app purchase price.
  2. It needed to be simple – my strong preference was not to add any new steps into my workflow and avoiding the need to use a new app would be great. I wanted to continue to use Evernote as my keystone app and didnt really want to change how I used Evernote much, if at all. If a new app was necessary it needed the attraction of great design and usability.
  3. Ideally the solution would allow me to markup a task note by adding relevant scheduling information (date, time, duration, repeats) and this would automatically push the task as a calendar entry. The calendar entry should be labeled with the note title and ideally should retain a link back to the note itself.
  4. Finally, it would be great to have a two-way synch between Evernote and my calendar. If a scheduled task note is deleted then the calendar entry should be deleted, or at least marked as an orphan in someway. And vice-versa if I deleted a calendar entry that corresponded to an Evernote task note. Likewise I should be able to mark a task as complete, either in Evernote or my calendar, and have this reflected back in Evernote and my calendar.

I did a lot of searching and looked at a bunch of different possibilities but most proved to be dead-ends. In the end there were only 2 that provided anything close to the functionality I required. First up is Gneo, a relatively recent addition to Apple’s App Store. Gneo offers some decent integration with Evernote by creating a set of Gneo notebooks in Evernote and using this to manage the synching of tasks as notes. To use Gneo in the right way (at least as I understand it) you really need to adopt the Gneo app, which is a rather beautiful package of task manager, calendar/scheduler, and a fancy task prioritisation features.  That’s all very well but I really didn’t want to have to adapt my workflow to include a new app if at all possible.

In theory you can minimise the need to use the Gneo app because tasks can be created in Evernote (adding an Evernote reminder to a note in one of your Gneo notebooks triggers the note to be synched with Gneo as a new task) and by adding a Gneo calendar to your own calendar app you can see your tasks appear in your regular calendar. But in practice you need to use Gneo to create calendar events from tasks and tasks from calendar events and I found this conceptual coupling of tasks and events to be far from frictionless and sometimes quite confusing. I’m not convinced of the wisdom of having two objects related to the one task instance: a task object with a reminder that is shared between Evernote and Gneo and a calendar object with a date and duration that is shared between Gneo and my calendar. The two loosely coupled objects co-exist as independent entities in Gneo and, in my opinion, it is all too easy to add/delete/change one without adding/deleting/changing the other. So for me Gneo meets requirements 1 and 2 above, but only partially satisfies 3 and 4.

Then I stumbled upon what I think is fair to describe as a beta-service called Event Noted, a 2012 entry in the annual Evernote DevCup competition. Event Noted is free and straightforward, after a little configuration. Basically you create a user account on Event Noted and link it to your Evernote account (similar to Gneo). This gets you a new Event Noted calendar to add to your calendar app but there is n need for any additional app-ware. Now any note that is tagged with the special Event Noted “event” tag (non-configurable for now) is treated as a task to be scheduled. And by adding some time and date information in the note title (using a fairly flexible free-form time and date schema)  Event Noted will be able to add a corresponding event in the Event Noted calendar. The event will appear in your calendar app with a title taken from the note title and a link back to the original Evernote note. That’s it! But, simple as it is, it works quite well, acing requirements 1, 2, and 3.

I have noticed that the sync-ing can be a bit laggy but nothing too problematic. Two-way sync-ing is not there (yet?) so if you delete or move an event in your calendar there is no update back to Evernote, but I think I can live with that. Unfortunately Event Noted does not play well with Evernote’s own reminder functionality – in fact event notes with reminders have their reminders removed – but this may change in the future and, for me at least, is not a deal-breaker.

In the end I am going to stick with Event Noted, at least for now. I hope the developer continues to work on it but of course as with anything of this nature there is a risk that the service will not come to survive in the long-run. But it is a great start and it establishes an simple Evernote-calendar integration pattern that I think should be picked up by others.