An Evernote Productivity System for Self-Employed Creatives

Jessie Kwak
Writers on Writing
Published in
8 min readJun 29, 2016

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When I worked in office, every morning I would check in with my boss and find out what my the priorities were for the day. Now that I work for myself, I don’t have the luxury of someone else telling me what needs to happen.

Now I have to set those high-level priorities myself.

I love that freedom — and you may, too! But stop me if this sounds familiar:

You have all the plans in the world to be highly productive today. Your metaphorical pencils are sharpened, your knuckles are cracked, and then you open up your inbox to find a barrage of emails tugging at your priorities.

Almost instantly, you start to second guess yourself. “Should I really be working on this today? What about this other thing that’s due sooner? Can I say yes to this new client project? Shouldn’t I be spending time marketing my business? Or working on my novel?”

Pretty soon it’s 6pm and your brain feels like it’s melting — and you’re still not sure you actually accomplished anything useful.

The problem? It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the priorities in your to-do list if you don’t have a system.

Ground Control to Future Me….

The way to combat getting overwhelmed by priorities in the moment is to take time while your head is clear to give your future self marching orders.

I do this in all sorts of ways, like by leaving Post-it’s on the computer screen saying “Use standing desk 2–4pm” or “No new projects until August.”

But by far the most productive system is a series of Evernote notes I use to organize my to-do list and plan for my week.

Because of this system, I know exactly what needs to happen every day of the week — which makes me more likely to do it even if I don’t feel like it.

It also makes it easy for me to say yes or no to a client’s project or a friend’s invitation. I never have to guess if I’ll be too busy — instead, if a client asks if I have time for a quick turnaround project by Friday, I can instantly see what my priorities are for the next few days and realistically tell whether or not I have time to take it on.

It’s also helped me drastically cut down on the number of days when I commit myself to too many deadlines.

My productivity system gives me a visual way to see if I’m about to overbook myself.

Best of all, it’s been a crucial tool in helping me integrate my freelancing business with my fiction writing business. I add fiction deadlines and writing dates into my schedule, which makes me more disciplined about sticking to it.

Here’s what it looks like:

Wanna learn how it works? Read on, friend.

Who is this productivity system for?

This system works well for people who have a lot of different projects going on and need help making sure they all get done. I’ve heard from both entrepreneurs and full-time employees that they’ve found it to be helpful.

It requires a lot of consistency to really work well, and the specific way I use it may not work for you.

I’ve tried a dozen different ways of managing my to-do list and deadlines over the years — everything from jotting lists on scraps of papers to using complicated to-do list apps. This way works best for me, but you may require some tweaking to get it to work with your personality and tendencies.

If you do use it, I’d love for you to let me know how it goes, and what modifications made it work for you!

The Principles of Getting Things Done

If you’re familiar at all with David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, you’ll quickly see that mine has its roots there. GTD is pretty popular, but in case you haven’t heard of it here’s a quick recap:

Basically, GTD teaches you to stop trying to hold everything that needs done in your short term memory, and write it down instead. From there, you break everything into actionable tasks and sort those tasksinto a time-based system.

Allen advocates regular planning sessions to review all parts of the system, in order to keep it healthy and so that you can trust it to remind you of what you need to do, when.

Both of these concepts are crucial to my productivity system. Unless you use it for everything and review it regularly, it won’t work reliably for you.

(This is pretty much true of every system, of course.)

OK! OK! Here’s the system

To swipe this productivity system, head to this Evernote folder: Jessie’s Productivity System.

Here you can view how I have my Evernote notebook set up.

Unfortunately, it seems like Evernote has turned off the functionality of being able to save these notes into your own personal account—which is how I used to share this system with people. Grr! Instead, you’ll have to recreate each note in your own Evernote account.

  • Create a new folder titled “Productivity” or “Priorities” or whatever you like.
  • Create notes titled Brain Dump, This Week, Next Week, Yearly and Someday.
  • In Yearly, list the months of the year.
  • In This Week, copy and paste the chart from this public Evernote note into your own note.

After that you’ll be able to modify the notes however you like, and everything you write there will be in your own private folder.

Now here’s how to use it.

Step one: Dump your brain

Whenever I come across a new task, project, idea, whatever, I dump it in the “Brain Dump” note. (Unless, of course, it’s something that needs to happen this week. Then I automatically enter the deadline or to-do into the “This Week” note.)

If I find myself getting overwhelmed by life, I’ll often sit down and have a brainstorming session, siphoning everything out into the “Brain Dump” note.

Normally, this will help me get a handle on my priorities, and help me realize that most of what’s stressing me out are things like “sweep the floor” — tasks which which are neither urgent nor important.

Repeat after me: Once an item is in “Brain Dump,” it’s out of mind. You’ll deal with it later.

Step two: Weekly planning

I set aside a weekly planning session of about 30 minutes either Friday afternoon or Sunday evening to set up my “This Week” note. Here’s what happens then:

  • Delete all of the old appointments, deadlines, and to-dos from the note.
  • Go through your calendar and add any appointments for the week under Meetings for each day.
  • Add in any deadlines for each day under Deadlines. (My deadlines are normally noted on my Google calendar.)
  • Work backward from every deadline and schedule related tasks like “research article” or “draft article” in the To Do section of previous days.
  • Go through your email inbox to see if there’s anything that needs to be scheduled into Deadlines or To Dos. Things like to follow up with someone, go to an event, whatever.
  • Add any other to-do items that need to happen on a specific day, like “do laundry in preparation for AirBnB guest,” or “call mom to say happy birthday.”
  • Fill in non day-specific to-do items on days that look light.

Step 3: Purge your “Brain Dump”

Now’s the time to go through the brain dump note and purge its contents. Here’s my version of David Allen’s system:

  • If it can be done in under two minutes, I do it.
  • If it needs to be done at a specific time next week, I schedule it on the “This Week” note.
  • If it needs to be done this month but I don’t need to think about it now, I schedule it into “Next Week”.
  • If it needs to be done at a later date, I put it on the correct month in the “Yearly” note.
  • If it doesn’t have a timeline, I schedule it on to “someday.”
  • If it’s no longer important, I delete it.

Step 4: Check in with future projects

During this time, I also take a quick glance at my yearly and someday notes to see if there are any items that should be moved into higher priority from there.

Using the system day-to-day

The last part of my system is creating a daily schedule. At the end of every workday, I sit down and look at the next day’s Deadlines and To Dos. (And I transfer any from today that didn’t get done to tomorrow.)

Then I write myself up a schedule for the whole next day. This includes any phone calls meetings or appointments, as well as when I intend to work on any projects or do other things such as run errands or make phone calls.

For me, an optimal daily schedule includes a morning spent on fiction and administrative tasks, and an afternoon spent working on client work. That ratio shifts depending my client workload, or fiction deadlines.

I write this daily schedule on one of the approximately 50 little spiral-bound notepads I have left over from waiting tables, and I set this beside my computer on my desk so that I can keep see what I should be doing at any given time of the day. This helps keep me on track and make sure everything gets done.

Go forth and be productive

Like I said, this system may not work for everyone — it’s been my go-to for years, but everyone has a unique personality.

If it sparks your interest, though, give it a shot. And if it works does for you — either as is, or with modification — I’d love to hear about it.

Shoot me an email at jessie@jessiekwak.com and let me know how it went.

Cheers!

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this article please click the heart icon below. If you want to see more from me, please consider following me on Twitter, @JKwak, and checking out my personal blog at www.jessiekwak.com. You can also sign up there to get a free copy of my newest gangster sci-fi novella, STARFALL.

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Jessie Kwak
Writers on Writing

Freelance B2B copywriter, ghostwriter, and novelist. You can find my fiction at jessiekwak.com, and my business copywriting portfolio at basslineeditorial.com