Number 3 Reason GTDers Don’t Use Evernote … after installing Evernote


TLDR: Why people set up and then don’t use Evernote

  1. The first reason is that implementing GTD changes too many things at once.
    So, Evernote, even if it is installed and working, won’t be used. Evernote is a sub-casualty of the 83% failure rate of GTD implementations.
  2. The second reason is because we blow off the GTD weekly reviews, infecting our GTD system with guilt that comes into focus (like a magnifying glass starting a fire) when we sit down to use Evernote. End result is we stop sitting down to our computers and stop using Evernote. *Note* This is also why people stop using Outlook, Omni-Focus, etc. for GTD.
  3. The third reason why GTD people don’t use Evernote after implementing it, that Evernote can be implemented in too many ways. And, … no two ways to implement Evernote agree. Too many choices to an overwhelmed brain = no choice. So, stop web surfing about Evernote, and start experimenting with your own work.

If you too have abandoned Evernote while trying to implement GTD, please share why?

Done! Good! Now go buy something to organize with, on Amazon! Invest in organization.


Why GTD people stop using Evernote is a surprisingly popular topic. So, I’m going to identify a couple more of the big reasons that GTD people stop using Evernote. This post is about reason 3, how the many alternative ways of implementing Evernote, stop people from using Evernote.


Source: .com

The perfect illustration of a GTD user implementing Evernote is not just a deer in headlights. The perfect illustration is a deer in a dozen of the spot lights used in police helicopters to run down fugitives.

User: “I think I’ll try using Evernote”

  • {event} Client installation on an iPad happens
    (10% of users who attempt to install quit here)

    • Wait, what? Why aren’t people installing Evernote on their PCs first? Seems that the PC is passing in influence. See RestartGTD’s Browser De Jure page for GTD viewership. GTD like it or not is becoming an iPad thing.
  • {event} Account setup happens
    (50% of potential users quit here)
  • {event does not happen} Opening Evernote for the first time on iPad
    (25% of potential users quit here)
  • {event} User opens Evernote for the first time

Even if we give Evernote 100% of the loyal users who open Evernote on their iPad for the first time, Evernote has still lost 85% of its users by the time a user opens Evernote for the first time.

Worse success rate than a David Allen GTD seminar!

Of course, I could be wrong about the percentages above. Still … Evernote is computer (desktop or laptop) first. With its new users swarming in from iPad and iPhone land, there are going to be a lot of wasteful problems (from the perspective of GTD).

For example,

  • once the person who has followed the steps above sees their Evernote account, what will they see? None of their existing information. = #EvernoteProblem
  • how can we fix this?
    • By installing Evernote Web Clipper and Clearly for a week or 10 days, so the user has some web-browsing history built up, that s/he will recognize when Evernote first opens. = #EvernoteProblem
    • By *distracting* the user to next import their paper with a scanner (scroll down to the file cabinet picture) before they open Evernote. Oh, crap, this requires Evernote to be installed on a PC with a scanner. Oops. = #EvernoteProblem
    • By scanning directly from scanner to Evernote on iPad or phone.
    • Without something drastic, can we fix this?


= #EvernoteProblem * #GTD Problem = .15 *.17 = Success Rate of Evernote & GTD

.15*.17=.03 Or, 3%


How can trying to implement Evernote with GTD be a good idea if it kills off an additional 14% of successful GTD users beyond what David Allen’s Company experiences?

  1. Once a GTD user puts their information into Evernote, it becomes easier to do reference filing correctly, than to not do reference filing. Reference filing is a keystone GTD skill. This helps *a lot* with people staying with GTD!
  2. Those 14% of GTD users were going to fade anyway. I *think* this because I talk to people who are “formerly known as GTD users” and they say “I use about 50% of GTD. I was really into it at first, but then it became too much to keep up with.”
    • Why? When I ask, “Do you use Evernote web clipper?” they invariably say “What is Evernote Web Clipper?”
    • Hypothesis: 14% of GTD users would be saved if they tried Evernote for their reference filing.
  3. Evernote is a platform, not a well-known, habitually used product. So what?
    • So … the marketeers at Evernote are clueless at how to help people who have a dozen police helicopter spot lights in their eyes. Platforms give markets new-to-the-world-capabilities, marketing people are trained to more efficiently sell old-to-the-world-capabilities.
    • So … in GTD terms, a new platform allows us to experiment with new degrees of freedom in organizing. The way our brains work with new platforms is trial and error. Our brains will try using the electronic tools, then pull back and compost on how the new platform *feels*. Then, confidence in a new way to use the tool appears from nowhere, and we implement the tool. And iterate improvements from there.


Don’t web surf to figure out how to use Evernote. Experiment with your own next actions, projects, reference filing, and inboxing. See what pleases you and run with that. When you feel *hindered* by Evernote, stop doing that. 

You can start with paper, that worked for me! See GTD Time Lapse for my 5 year history of GTD evolution.

You can go all digital. That did not work for me. I went back to paper + Evernote.

The trick is to start. Don’t think “I can’t start without the perfect system.” Think, what can I improve the most, with the least effort. Or, better, what would be fun to really focus on and improve? After 200+ MBA students, I think getting a ScanSnap and Evernote going as your reference filing system can’t be beat.

Whatever you do, keep evolving your GTD. GTD is like a bicycle. When you stop moving, you fall over.

bill meade

Evernote Two Factor Authentication: Part 2 Step-by-Step

Photo Library - 16569


This is the 2nd post in a 2-part series on Evernote 2 factor authentication.  The first post (here) explains what 2 factor authentication is and why it is good.  And then this post points you to a Rick Broida eight step set-up procedure for Evernote’s 2 factor authentication at PC World, and then … adds a few instructions where I *suspect* people might experience confusion.

Step 1:

Hardest part of any step by step is the first step. Rick’s first step is to sign into your Evernote account. If you do not yet have an Evernote account, you will need to go to Evernote and sign up, before you can turn on 2 factor authentication.  Click here to do so.

Also, you will need some way to read a QR code on your phone. So if you have an Android phone go here and pick a free QR Code reader and install it on your phone. If you have an iPhone click here.

Step 6:

Rick’s step-by-step flows smoothly until he gets to step 6 where account verification rear’s its head.

Account verification is simply using the 2nd factor in 2 factor authentication. Evernote has set up two ways to verify your identity when you open Evernote in a fresh computing environment (new computer, new phone, web-surfing-in-from internet cafe, etc.). Either authentication method you choose, you will begin the authentication process by opening Evernote and seeing this:


  • Way1: text messaging.
    If you choose text messaging to obtain your 2nd factor, when you attempt to log into Evernote, you’ll see the above screen, and then wait with your phone in hand, to receive the 6 digit code.
  • Way2: using Google’s app for authentication (for Android, iOS, and Blackberry).
    If you choose to obtain your 2nd factor via a Google app (which I showed in the previous post) you will need to pick up your phone, start the Authenticator App, and then copy the 6 digit number for Evernote from the phone into the dialog box on the screen above. Here is what I see (because I use 2 factor authentication on Gmail as well as on Evernote):


Both ways produce the same 6 digit code, no big deal. Only difference is how you receive the code.


Day to day, using Google authenticator on your phone is the best way to go because:

  1. Google’s app is *instant* while text messages takes extra time
  2. Text messages have a likelihood of disappearing in direct proportion to the urgency with which you need to access your information.
    • So, the more urgent it is for you to get into Evernote, the more likely your text authentication code will be lost.
  3. Authenticator apps are clean, you open them and look at your code. Text apps are spaghetti monsters.


Evernote has positioned text messaging as a premium service. Wait, what? Perhaps texting is the premium service because if you use text messages you will not have to install Google Authenticator on your phone? I don’t know. My advice is to set up Google Authenticator on your phone.  How?

Setting Up Google Authenticator for Evernote:

Step 1: ON YOUR COMPUTER Go to Google’s Authenticator install page and read the step-by-step for installing Google Authenticator on your phone (Android, iOS, Blackberry).


Step 2: ON YOUR COMPUTER Log into Evernote via web browser, go to account settings, security summary …

Step 3: Click on Google Authenticator and you will see this dialog box:


then click on the appropriate operating system for your phone. Here is what I see when I click on Android:

Security_Summary2Now, take a picture of the QR code (*Note* This QR Code will not work for you, each QR code is specific to one Evernote account). And your Evernote 2nd factor authentication key will be added to your Google Authenticator account. 


OK, I *think* I’ve got all the confusions to setting up 2 factor authentication in Evernote, covered. If not, email me ( and let me know what I missed!

bill meade






Evernote Two Factor Authentication: Think (again) like an Evernote programmer!! Part 1

Photo Library - 16569Source: Bill Meade taken in Boise ID


The efficiency/security tradeoff has changed! Well for me at least. Until now I’ve deliberately risked using Evernote as my reference filing system, knowing that if someone guessed my password I would be hosed. The “Evernote deal” seemed to be capturing the value of increased efficiency now, at the price of possibly getting hacked later.

This “Everyone has been hacked. Now what?” attitude is calculated. Our IT infrastructure is what it is. I may be hacked and not know it. As long as I can use Evernote to keep track of my stuff, do I really care? If I start obsessing about my net-connected infrastructure too much, the profit of using computers will quickly become a loss. I mean it is pretty clear why all my computers have been so slow all these years: the NSA! Hacking! Botnetting!

Locks were invented to keep honest people honest. Determined criminals find ways in.

So I’m excited to start trying out Evernote’s two-factor authentication: A padlock for Evernote.

What is it?

Two factor authentication is one step up in security, from using username+password protection. In two factor authentication your password is used same as normal (the username+password is factor 1 of 2) and then a second special password is used in addition (the special password is factor 2 of 2).

The idea is that while a criminal can easily guess your username from defaults (Unix “admin” or Windows “Administrator” or your email address), and then either steal or “break” your password. A criminal will need to go to a whole new level of effort in order to get your phone. What makes stealing the phone essential is that the special password changes every few seconds on the phone. But I am digressing into the next question about 2 factor authentication: How does it work?

How does it work?

The special password generated on your smart phone is dynamic. It changes every  60 seconds. To find your dynamic password, you use the Google Authenticator app on a smart phone.  Here is what Google authenticator looks like on my smart phone:


So when you need to authenticate into Evernote, you start Google Authenticator, and then you see your password of the current moment. Here is what I see on my Google Authenticator:


The red arrows point to countdown timers showing you how much longer the 6 digit passwords will work to authenticate you into Evernote/Google.

So, because the passwords are constantly changing, a casual criminal will have to obtain your phone, and then break into it (you do have your cell phone password protected don’t you :-) to log into your account.

QUESTION: Do I have to authenticate every time that I start Evernote on my computer?

We now come to the how does it work … hands and knees perspective.  In a wonderful BYTE magazine article in 1989 Peter C. Olsen articulated a theory of how to hire programmers: send them to Africa and tell them to hunt elephants, and then watch the algorithm they use.


*Note* that assembly language programmers execute the basic algorithm … on their hands and knees. So in the rest of this article I’m going to emulate an assembly language programmer in trying to go slow, be very careful, to take each step one at a time.

What were we taking about?  Oh yes, authentication. You will have to authenticate to Evernote when:

  • Case 1: Logging into Evernote from the web. Here is the log-in screen you’ll see using evernote web:
    Menubar_and_Enter_CodeNote that you can check the box and not have to re-authenticate for a month on the computers you use to access Evernote web. But, if you log into Evernote from friends computers, you will have to have your phone available from now on.
  • Case 2: Setting up Evernote on a computer for the first time (duh). Here is what the dialogs look like on a Mac:First, the normal dialog asking for factor 1 (Username+Password)
    Blank_Skitch_Document_2Next, a pop up dialog asking for the factor 2 (from Google Authenticator on my phone):
    Edit_Post_‹_RestartGTD_—_WordPress_and_AndroidNote that the new dialog asking for the number gives you a hit with a phone icon with Google Authenticator’s thumbnail graphic. You type your 6 digit number in here and then you enter Evernote as usual.
  • Case 3: After you log out of your Evernote account on your computer. *Note* I had never logged out of my Evernote account before playing with Evernote two factor authentication. So this will likely be no big deal. After enabling two-factor authentication I tried to trick Evernote into annoying me by asking for authentication. I quit Evernote, restarted, re-booted, etc. and Evernote did not ask me to authenticate. *Note* two factor authentication is smart but not paranoid.
  • Case 4: After you log out of Evernote on your spouse’s computer. *Note* anything that can go wrong will. If you turn on two factor authentication and share your evernote account with someone, you will have to authenticate for them on their computer, or they will be locked out of Evernote at the most inconvenient time. Plan on it.

This is all the cases I can see where Evernote users will have to authenticate. Note, if I have missed a case, email and let me know, I’ll add your case to this list.

What is the strategy?

2013 was the year of security on the internet. We are all red queens now, our security skills and infrastructure are going to have to run, in order to keep us in a place where computers remain profitable to use. The strategy of introducing two factor authentication is a step in the direction towards keeping computing profitable for its users. rqueen01

Will computing ever be secure? Probably not. There are too many evil geniuses. In a way the deal of using computers will always be a bet on the value of using technology today, against the eventuality of being hacked. Should this deter us from using two factor authentication? No. We are stupid not to use very slick, very simple tools that at the least, will shift bad hackers to softer targets.

What are the objections?

Objection: “I will have to authenticate every time I use Evernote!”

The reality is no. You will have to authenticate to Evernote every time you change the computing environment where you are using Evernote.

  • When you get a new computer.
  • When you log in to Evernote from a coffee shop or a friend’s computer.
  • Or when you give another person access to your Evernote data store.
  • Or when it has been 30 days since you last authenticated via the web.

*Note* I personally think that Evernote’s marketing communications on this two factor authentication objection, are confusing. If I were Evernote I would have said:

  • “Evernote’s 2 factor authentication works just like Google’s 2 factor authentication.”
  • The average user will authenticate about once a month during the first year they use 2 factor authentication.

Signalling that people can re-use what they learned getting Google authentication working, and that we are all marching into a common, reasonable, computer security future.

Objection: “Evernote two factor authentication is too hard for a normal person to set up!”

Probably false. Two factor authentication is a new use model for end users to learn. But, it is not if we end users will need to learn to set up two factor authentication. It is a when.

My next blog post will be a step-by-step on setting up Evernote two factor authentication on Macintoshes with Android phones (A totally recessive combination I admit!). Take a peek at that next week and see what you think. I’m a marketer, I set up 2 factor authentication. As any enginerd will tell you “If a marketeer can set it up, any user can!”

Objection: Anyone who steals my phone will have access to my Evernote account.

True … if you do not have your phone password set. :-) But, this is true even without two-factor authentication today! If your phone is wide open, and you have logged into evernote before you lose the phone, whoever has your phone has access to everything in Evernote.

Personally, I find Evernote on my Android to be about .6 of the way to a 1.0 that is compelling to use. My short term security plan with Evernote is to take Evernote off my phone.

Then, if someone steals my phone, they will have access to my special password (authentication factor 2), but will still have to guess/break my Username+Password. My theory is that when I notice my phone is gone (God’s way of telling you to get a new Android phone! :-) I’ll log into Evernote on my computer, change the password, and then log into my remote wipe on Android and zap the phone. Safe! Or at least, safe enough.

See you then!

bill meade

“Just a small fire on the motherboard”


Well, it has been my computer boot camp week for the year.  Every year, another boot camp.  This year it started last Tuesday June 11th when I noticed that my 27″ iMac was off and could not be turned on.  Great! 

So, I made an appointment to go to the Apple store at the end of I205 around Portland and met up with TJ the Genius.  When I talked to TJ, I had a good idea of that either the power supply or the motherboard or both, were fried.  So, I left the Mac with him over night and pre-approved him fixing both power supply ($67) and the motherboard ($540 which was about what used motherboards are on ebay for this machine).  Net result was that “a small fire on the motherboard” had fried both the power supply and the motherboard.  :-( 

But …

Before I could get my iMac to the Genius bar, I had to reverse the installation of the VESA adapter.  Which took a good 90 minutes in order to go slow and avoid any SPAZ (I am a hopelessly absent minded SPAZ) PHD (and yes, I’m a PhD so I’m licensed to be this absent minded) damage to the computer.  Slow and steady. 

I hate VESA adapters!

But, when I brought my repaired iMac home, I decided not to re-install the VESA adapter because I wanted to try a new way to mount my 27″ iMac since the newest generation of iMacs can only have their VESA adapters installed if you have a custom built unit.  That, and at 53 I’m tired of messing with anything but the most essential productivity areas of computers.  So, here is the picture of a direct mounted 75 MM bracket to my iMac’s stand:

D3M 6001

Now, here is a closer shot: 

D3M 6003

Ok, yeah, this is unorthodox.  But I was able to make it work because of the flexibility in the “neck” of the monitor stand, and the amazing flexibility of my Innovative Designs Giant Mamun (Henderson the rain king allusion) Monitor Arm.  So here is what the “dark side” of my GTD desk force looks like: 

D3M 5996

D3M 6000

See how the monitor stand is tipped at almost a 45 degree angle so the base is out of the way?  This is the secret to being able to mount your monitor arm directly to your iMac’s stand. *Note* that I’ve elected to use drywall screws to force the monitor to stay tilted out at the bottom (no *flames* please).  

The holes in the monitor arm that the drywall screws are penetrating are there due to my efforts to repurpose the iMac stand in order to hold my most excellent Fujitsu Scanner above my desk.  Here’s a refresher link and picture: 


With a closeup to the vertical holes on the upside down iMac stand:


So, what does the iMac look like to work with?  Great question! Here it is: 

D3M 5991

D3M 5992

D3M 5993

D3M 5995

Anyone with a new iMac 27″ that wants to use the Innovative 7500-HD stand, drop me an email ( and I’ll be happy to converse with you and share.  

Bill Meade 




GTD Anchor #1: Reference Filing



What do I mean by “reference filing?”

Glad you asked!  There are two components to my reference filing system: Evernote, and the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500.


Evernote is document storage and synchronization infrastructure.  Pay $50 a year for a premium account, then install Evernote’s client software on as many Macs or PCs as you want, and all the documents in Evernote will be synchronized across all your computers without you having to take any actions.  Evernote could be described as a means of providing “working backup” where your Evernote store is used on each of your computers, so you are testing your backups whenever you switch machines.

Key features of Evernote in decreasing priority value are:

  1. Full text search.  Pictures, Word files, plain PDF files, and even some hand-written scans, are processed once a day so that the documents become full text searchable.  Once you start using full text search, you tend to do much less organizing of documents into notebooks, because documents become so easy to find via keyword search and tagging.
  2. Friction-free capture of (advertising-free) web pages.  <== Turns Evernote into short term memory for me.
  3. Keyword searching.
  4. Tagging.
  5. Friction-free synchronization.
  6. Cross computer availability of all mission-critical documents.
  7. Remote access to documents.  Evernote has a cloud component, so you can be at an internet cafe, decide you want to print a document, and then log in to your Evernote account, download the file and print it.

Some people have their entire GTD system in Evernote.  Not me.  When I first started doing GTD I put my entire life into OmniFocus, and my brain hated the one-electronic-system-to-rule-them-all solution.  I could not sit down at my desk and use OmniFocus after I had entered every open loop.  Welcome to my first “off the GTD wagon” experience. Since then, I’ve been iteratively refining my GTD trusted system, keeping it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

I use Evernote purely for reference filing (purple region 3 in the following figure).  Evernote has several nagging weaknesses: (1) it does not search within all file types, (2) It does not have a simple highlighting function.  Lack of a highlighting function causes me to read documents in PDF form, highlighting them in PDF, and then emailing them to Evernote, and using Evernote just to recall documents and original source web pages.

EvernoteReferrence 1

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500

I can’t say enough about this little machine.  It enabled paperless reference filing, via Evernote.  It folds up into a very small package.  It scans fast enough that a 150 pages scan, in under five minutes.  I strongly encourage you to at least go to Amazon and look.

Here is my sales pitch on selling you on buying a scanner:

  • In under a week, you can be paperless via Evernote and the ScanSnap S1500.  I started with 94,000 pages in December 2010 and in 4 days, I had recycled the entire 94,000 pages.
    • Once you are paperless in Evernote, you will discover that you can “find” documents you never would have bothered to look for, while the document was in paper.  I’ve found old newspaper articles that were handed out to me as a student, and then forwarded them to my students.
    • When was the last time you could find any document that you knew you had?  You can be there again with Evernote and a ScanSnap.
  • There are four tricks to guaranteed scanner success:
    • First, go through all your papers and sort them into boxes labeled “Recycle” and “Scan.”  When in doubt, put the paper into your “Scan” box.  Once you pre-sort, you will know which scanner to buy.
    • Second, buy the right scanner for the amount of paper you need to scan.  If you have less than 500 pages you can buy the slightly cheaper ScanSnap S1300.  I did this at first when implementing Evernote.  I found that the S1300 with its 12 page paper bin, and slow speed, was just too clunky to get it done with my piles of paper.  If you have 400 pages to scan and a doubt about buying a slower unit, or, if you have 501 pages to scan, then you are crazy not to buy the ScanSnap iX500.
    • Third, as soon as the scanner arrives, take it out of the box and put it on your desk.
    • Fourth, once the scanner is on your desk, call your friend “Bill” the gadget guy and tell him what is on your desk.
  • Remember “Meade’s Law” which is “Buy the best, only cry once.”
    • I was lucky and a friend offered to buy my ScanSnap S1300, I warned him that he’d be happier with the iX500 but he insisted.  By the way, “Thank you Steve!”
    • For most people with a bureaucratic residue of disorganization, the Fujitsu iX500 is going to be the happiest, highest-utility long run solution.
  • If you’ve read this far, ask yourself, “How long have I been thinking that a scanner ‘might be useful’?  If you have been thinking about this for longer than a month, the time is now to GET YOURS. You won’t regret it.

What happens next?

One you have a reference filing system, you have an anchor set solidly into improved organization.  Whenever your fall off the wagon with GTD, no matter what, your reference filing system will be in ever increasing order.  Evernote and the ScanSnap make it easier to be organized, than to be disorganized.  Once you have an anchor in improving your organization, you have a home base to work out from as you refactor your life to incorporate more effectiveness and more efficiency.

If anyone has had great experiences with other scanners, please post what scanner you have (make and model), how long you’ve used it, what the one best thing about it is, in the comments to this post?

Thank you!

bill meade

Abomination of Deskolation … Redeemed!

First the before pictures:

Ladies and gentlemen, 28 years in the making, RestartGTD brings you THE ABOMINATION OF DESKOLATION!

IMG 0977

Figure 1: The Abomination of Deskolation!

IMG 0979

Figure 2: The Accompanying Office

Now the after pictures:

IMG 1106 JPG

Figure 3: The wait, … what?

IMG 1102

Figure 4: Wow, just wow!

IMG 1106annotated

Figure 5: How It was accomplished

The Story:

This is John Niebergall’s desk.  John is an engineering teacher at Sherwood High School in South Portland.  As I’ve gotten to know John (i.e., seen his desk and had him over to my office to see my desk), I encouraged him to read GETTING THINGS DONE.  Over the holidays John listened to GTD three or four times via Audible, and then wanted help translating the ideas in GTD to his work processes.  I believe the specific words were “I’m a visual learner, I don’t do well reading books.  I need to see it.”

John is the target blog reader that I started RestartGTD to serve.  I’ve traveled to John’s office, carrying my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (I use portable Macs), had John take down one of the three ring binders against the back wall of his office, and we scanned it into PDF.   Done!  Four minutes, and now the paper and the binder both can go in the recycle bin.   It was hard to let that first binder go.  But the liberation grows on you rapidly.  It gets easier the more space you free up in your office.

Seeing scanning is believing.  John ordered his own Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (PC) and I made another trip down to his office to take the scanner out of the box.  Maybe I should do a poll of how many GTDers have purchased scanners and never taken them out of the box? You know who you are! De-boxing is the key next action in getting a scanner up and contributing to your mind-like-water.

In addition to the visible things on and around John’s desk, I believe there is a second USB hub that is hidden inside the typing elevator drawer space.  And also, that there is a power adapter in that space to feed the label printer and scanner.

Reflections on Abomination’s Redemption:

Note in Figure 1, that John had a trackball on his desk when he started GTD.  This desk makeover has shifted him to a small travel mouse. There are wireless trackballs from Logitech and Kensington, but they cost $30 more than the Logitech M305.

John chose to keep his legacy desk with leg stalls.  That is this style of desk is like a horse stall, only for your legs.  I prefer sliding side to side so that I can start parallel projects on different parts of my desk during the day as interruptions happen.  My advice to John was to cut the surface off this desk and then mount it on IKEA legs. Ikea’s desks have inexpensive cable management options, and they are simple to work with.

The glass on the desk feels disruptive to me.  Glass is cold when you put your hands and forearms on it.  I think I’d prefer to remove the glass, and then I’d probably resurface this desk with white-board-contact-paper.  White lightens the room (always welcome in Portland where we get 5.5 inches of rain per month), and gives you a place to jot notes with white board pens, so you can save paper.

John is a public school teacher who has been in Sherwood High School for 28 years.  And he is digging his way out via GTD.  Teachers, you CAN DO THIS!   If I can shift to GTD, anyone can.  The key is to start.  Don’t start big or small.  Don’t give yourself the chance to over think this.  Just start.  John got the scanner, Evernote, and then beautifully reconfigured his desk (putting the scanner on the old typewriter elevator is genius!:-) to support his workflow.

Thank you John for sharing your before after.  Anyone else interested in sharing?  Before/afters are fantastic motivators.  Email me if you have pics you are willing to share.




In this post, I’d like to dissect what I like about my current GETTING THINGS DONE desk, how it makes me feel, how it helps flow/mind-like-water, and how somehow, it magically helps me get a ton of work done.  See the previous Before/After post to get a fuller visual on my complete trusted system.

Desk 3.0 [*Note* Desk 4.0 has its own post and can be seen here]

OK, here is a picture of my 3rd generation GTD desk which includes the legs.  The rest of this post is a discussion of the elements of the perfect GTD desk.


  • Element #1: Clear desk surface

The longer I do GTD, the more I find that I need to spread paper out on the surface of my desk to organize it.  I keep parallel project folders: in atoms making up manilla folders, and in bits in Omnifocus projects.  I write one idea, one piece of paper into either atoms or bits, and I organize the pieces of paper on the surface of my desk.  It is just invaluable for me to put my ideas across the desk surface and then ask myself what the individual ideas are trying to tell me.

In addition, a clear desk surface lets you take a nice butcher block sized piece of paper to mind-map when you are kicking off a natural project management event.

Requirements for a clear desk are:

  1. Get the monitor on an arm that clears your desk (I use the Innovative 7500-hd-1500 arm because I’m holding 24 and 27 pound iMacs up.  I attempted to link to for this product but the links are not working, I bought my most recent arm from as it was $65 to $110 cheaper than Amazon.  The three models at SeaBoom do not have pictures, but I figured out their colors and have a guide herethat you can use to pick your color.).
    1. Consider switching to a 27″ all-in-one computer (Mac, PC), makes a clean desk easy
    2. If you can’t swing an all-in-one, think hard about why your brain is not worth having a high resolution 27″ in monitor (Mac, PC). Do you cut from one window and paste into another for a living?  27″ monitors double efficiency!
  2. Get a wireless mouse, and
  3. Wireless keyboard (Mac, PC) so you can move keyboard and mouse off the desk and using the surface for your brain’s organizing pleasure.
  4. Resurface the desk, early and often.  I’ve had original veneer, maple veneer, and currently, a $45 sheet of Formica (works great as a whiteboard!) on the surface of my desk.  On my too-dark, too-depressing desk at home, I’ve resurfaced with whiteboard contact paper. Amazon has a veritable zoo of contact papers (easy on, easy off if you don’t like them) which allow your brain to employ whimsy to please itself as you work.  Experiment and enjoy!

I look forward to the day when I can remove the telephone from my desk!  I currently do about 90% of my phone calling with Skype and a wireless headset.  I’ve thought about suspending the computer from the ceiling or from a cart that can be driven away from the desk to leave the desk space 100% analogue, but these are not currently practical given all the cables that have to be run.

  • Element #2: Big desk surface

The best data I’ve seen on the surface area needed for information workers comes from Demarco and Lister’s book Peopleware.

Before drawing the plans for its new Santa Teresa facility, IBM violated all industry standards by carefully studying the work habits of those who would occupy the space. The study was designed by the architect Gerald McCue with the assistance of IBM area managers. Researchers observed the work processes in action in current workspaces and in mock-ups of proposed workspaces. They watched programmers, engineers, quality control workers, and managers go about their normal activities. From their studies, they concluded that a minimum accommodation for the mix of people slated to occupy the new space would be the following: 100 square feet of dedicated space per worker 30 square feet of work surface per person

DeMarco, Tom; Lister, Timothy R. (2010-04-15). Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Kindle Locations 812-818). Dorset House Publishing. Kindle Edition.

30 square feet of work surface is H-U-G-E.  My desk is 34″ deep, so to have 30 square feet of work area, my desk would need to be 10.5′ long! As my desk is merely 6′ long, I’m coming up short with a 17 square foot desk.  I forecast that GTD will be adding some desk space to my office before too long.  But for now, I’m squeaking by with a single work surface and living 13 square feet below my potential.  :-)

Another interesting aside is how many of my students are trying to live on tiny desks.  Here’s Paulina Menchaka’s before and after desks (Paulina has kindly granted me permission to share these pictures).  See if these pictures feel the same or different when you think about sitting down to work at these desks?

My friend s Messy Desk 089Photo

Here is what my desk looks like today.  The mouse and keyboard can be moved out of the way, and the monitor can be pushed back to free up desk surface.

D3M 2950

Summary, you need elbow room to think.  You need to work with your entire brain, that means spreading things out in front of it, moving things around, giving the brain time to compost, and then listening as your subconscious bubbles up ideas.  No substitute for lots of work surface and unrestricted access to that surface.

  • Element #3: Slide-to-side room

I think it is required that you have the ability to roll your chair to slide sideways across your desk.  This is required first, because it gives you a sense of freedom not having your knees crowded from both sides (John Niebergall, you know who you are!).  Second, as projects are underway, new projects have a way of finding their way on to your desk.  With a clear surface and sideways sliding room, you can be practically opportunistic in sliding sideways and setting up a 2nd (and sometimes a 3rd) project that you have to run in parallel with your starting project.  I just get a sense of release when I look at a desk that is flexible allowing side to side sitting.  Open-ness side to side also lets you invite people to work beside you at your desk.  For example, I often have my students put their laptops on the right hand end of my desk so they can step through an Excel exercise on their own computer as I step through it on my computer.

  • Element #4: Conference table legs

My desk was part of a very business-like Jesper office set I bought in Boise in 2002.  I’ve been refining the desk ever since.


When, in January 2011, I was trying to fit the desk and its side skirt supports into my office a Concordia, I realized that there just were not enough degrees of freedom with side skirt legs.  For example, you can’t really have a meeting with someone across a desk that has skirts like this.  What I really wanted was a conference table.  Once I realized this, I went to IKEA, and bought a Galant leg set and table frame (IKEA part number 101.501.69 I can’t find it on their web site) for $80 and make my modified Jesper desk into the conference table style desk.

Meade s Theory of the Perfect GETTING THINGS DONE  GTD Desk

The more I do GTD, the simpler I need my desk to be.  It takes a lot of complexity to make a desk appear simple and purely functional.  Note that I have 2 cable management systems under my desk.  The white box attached to the left two legs is a $10 IKEA cable management solution that confines power strips and extra lengths of cable beautifully.  I don’t care how messy the cables are as long as I can’t see and don’t think about them.  In addition to the cable management system I have a Trip-Lite 12 outlet strip attached underneath the work surface.

Geek readers will detect an external USB hard drive on the top of the cable management unit.  In 2011 I decided to squeeze another 2 years out of my 2008 iMac by replacing the boot disk with a solid state drive and moving the home folder to external USB drive.  Amazing speedup!


The second cable management system is perpendicular to the white box, and consists of the dark felt trays with the light brackets holding them to the underside of the work surface.  IKEA has apparently killed both these cable management systems, but fortunately, they have introduced new systems as well.  So, for $40 you can have all the under-work surface cable management you need.

Cable management above the work surface is a matter of twist ties, cable ties, double-sided-sticky-tape, and corrugated finger-pinching tube.  Here is the behind the scenes cable management story of my desk.  Since this picture was taken, I’ve drilled a 3″ hole at the base of the monitor arm so I could route all the cables directly through the desk to the cable management trays beneath it.  Here is the right hand side of the monitor arm: Note my pen and trusty 3″x5″ cards at the ready behind the iMac monitor.

Red arrows show tools behind the monitor, yellow arrows in the following two pictures show the extensive re/use of double sided sticky tape in desk enginerding.

Cablemanagementabovedesk 1

On the left hand side of the monitor arm you can see two Bose speakers, a 7 port USB hub, a 5 port ethernet switch, and an $11 fluorescent light, all attached with double sided sticky tape. All this is a mess, but I don’t care, since I can’t see the mess. Out of sight means no open loop for my mind.

Abovedeskcablemgmt2 1

Note the white plastic objects in the yellow file folder fingers on the diagonal part of the monitor arm.  These are 3D printed objects that I need to have readily available.  They are clutter unless I need them, so I keep them behind my iMac screen.  I don’t see them and so am not bothered by them while I’m working.

  • Element #6: Killer Cool Paper Trays

The current state of GTD paper tray technology is deplorable!  Even before I discovered GTD, I conducted a frustrated search of the internet to find something that was not boring, something I called “goofy.”  What I found was a multiple tray system designed by Shaunn Fynn and sold by Custom Plastics Inc of Elk Grove Village, Il.  I think that Custom Plastics has given up on selling this multiple paper tray.  You can still find a very similar desk organization system at high end wood product components manufacturers like Doug Mockett but the series is being discontinued.  No matter.  I think the requirement is for some element of whimsy in your paper trays.  By whimsy, I think that GTDers need to go beyond tidy.  We need a dash of not-too-over-organized-and-fun, on our desks without introducing clutter.  Shaun Fynn’s elevated multiple trays, are a perfect entry point a fresh breath of creative desk whimsy!

Story: When I moved to Concordia University last January, I took my original paper tray system that looked like the 3 tray system in the right of this picture:


And then I blatantly sucked up to the awesome physical plant team at CU, and they removed the base of the tray system, and then J-B Welded the paper tray base to the base of my monitor arm.  These paper trays are fun because they can rotate around the axis of the vertical post.  You can line them up one above the other if you are felling left brained, or you can align them asymmetrically if that is what pleases your muse.

I use the top tray for my inbox (please note that since having a week to work undisturbed in my office I’m at INBOX ZERO!), the second tray has my natural project management form (I turned GTD chapter 3’s natural project management process, into a 1 page form.  See Appendix A at the end of this post if you want a copy), and the bottom tray has blank white letter sized paper.

Killercoolpapertrays 1

I started doing GTD in March 2009 (after meeting Ian Watson at COMDEX 2009 at the end of January).  It took Ian a month to get me to promise to read GTD.  The time since then has been a roller coaster journey of increased productivity, decreased stress, then increased stress, decreased productivity.  In the process I’ve refined, refactored, rethought, and redesigned my desk.  When I sit down now at my desk, I feel pleasure at being able to work.  This is true at my office desk and at my home desk (BTW, stay tuned for a blog post on an upgrade to the home desk in January 2012).

I have learned, that if I am feeling pressure from work that there are two causes:

  • First, I have not done my review.  I don’t think weekly is enough for me to get current on everything.  But daily is too often.  I have an annoying meat brain and continue to search for the sweet spot of my meat spot.  :-)
  • Second, I am not organized enough.

My desk is a key component of my trusted system.  Desk is the place where I work on atoms and bits of my next actions.  As I’ve sharpened my desk, my physical filing, electronic filing (Evernote for documents + Kindle for ebooks), I’m becoming more productive and less stressed.  I see this working for my students as well.  I think it can work for you if you have that knot of doubt in your stomach about whether you can ever hear someone say “Your desk is awesome!” (My wife Beth said this 2 days ago about my 2nd-string home office desk, and it made my week!).  If I can implement GTD, anyone can (check out the before/after pics here if you haven’t seen them:

For now, my theory of the perfect GTD desk is to bring together 6 elements (However, I reserve the right to add more elements if needed!):

  1. Clear desk surface
  2. Big (ideally 30 square feet)
  3. Slide to side (open front)
  4. Conference table legs
  5. Cable management
  6. Killer cool paper trays

In addition to my work desk, I have used GTD to redesign my wallet into a pico-desk, my BookBook laptop computer case as a nano-desk, and my Kensington rolling briefcase into a mobile desk.  More on these in later posts.

  • Appendix A: Meade’s Natural Project Management 1-Page Form


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GTD: Before and After

GETTING THINGS DONE (hereafter GTD) has had a big impact on me.  As witness, this post shows as much of the before/after GTD as I can articulate, it will evolve as I refine the post into enough detail to please visual learners (you know who you are John Nieberall!).

Question 1: What is GTD?

To my mind, GTD is a brain hack. GTD may look like a self help book, it may feel like a religious cult.  But, GTD is an approach to organizing that helps you shop around for tools that allow productivity with a peacefulness.

GTD is important because life does not come with an owner’s manual that says “get organized in a sustainable high performance way.”  So people go through school, work, phd programs (I did all three) and never spend a day getting organized beyond coping with the next deadline.

Here is the GTD architecture diagram taken from the PDF accompanying the Audible version of GTD:

TrustedSystem03 pptx 5

Question 2: What did your life/office look like before GTD (circa 2009)?



In the garage, I also had a 5 drawer horizontal filing cabinet with 94,000 pages of journal articles, research data, and miscellaneous documents that were too good to throw out but not good enough to use.  Here is the filing cabinet in the garage next to the Y2K water barrel.

D3M 6097

Question 3: What does your life/desk look like after GTD?


Note that this desk is: (1) large 6′ x 35″, (2) clutter free from the surface up 6″, (3) canted (the front edge is 1″ closer to the floor than the back edge.  I will write more posts on desks and their requirements as taking back my desk was a key stepping stone for implementing GTD.

<<Aside>> the most up to date “after” desk picture is available in the Dungeon Desk post.

Next comes my physical filing system (Target totes) with 5″ book ends in the tote if there are not enough manilla folders to completely fill the tote:

TrustedSystem03 pptx 3 1

D3M 2955

D3M 2956

But, over the years, I’m using fewer and fewer of these totes, and shifting the vast majority of my projects into electronic formats. The reason for this is Evernote. Go buy Evernote. Do it. Do it now!

Nothing has helped me to stay on the GTD wagon more than Evernote. Makes it easier to file documents correctly, than to deal with the clutter, loss, and despair of messy papers.

So while before GTD had the 5 drawer horizontal file cabinet, after GTD I have a modified GTD system:

TrustedSystem03 pptx 1

To get from paper to Evernote I raked through the 94,000 pages of paper in the file cabinet, and ask myself for each document “Will there ever be a next action for this document?” 80% of the documents were instant “No!” and they went straight into recycling.  The 20% that were yes or maybe, were 17,500 pages which I scanned in a week on my Fujitsu ScanSnap.

Here is my annual capture of reference file information.  The median monthly count of documents captured for the first three years of my using Evernote, is 65.  For the most recent 3 years, the median is 164 documents per month.

Many of the documents I capture in evernote are web pages, the Evernote Webclipper and Evernote Clearly browser add ins have become indispensable for me. I’ve capture 3,336 documents via Web Clipper (to see how many you’ve captured type source:web.clip* in Evernote’s search box). The total for Clearly is 1,441 documents captured (source:clearly*). I use Web Clipper whenever I need to assign the notebook the document needs to be placed in.

Here is my cumulative Evernote document count over the 57 months I’ve been doing GTD.  The jumps happen as I have scanned and recycled, as I Evernote has lifted limits on file sizes, as I’ve moved, and often, when I start a new job. I have 48 gigabytes of information in Evernote as of 2014/10/01. But I’ve paid just $45 a year, which has felt like rounding error. Nothing.


My final offering to the visual learner on Before/After GTD is a worksheet that covers more pieces of my system (GTDInfrastructureEvolution01b.xlsx):


Here is a summary view of how I am doing GTD after 3 years:


See also 5 years of subsequent GTD system evolution in GTD Time Lapse.