Going Paperless: My Paperless Reminder Systems

Once upon a time, the way I used to remind myself of something was to stick a yellow square Post-It note on my computer monitor with the reminder scribbled in ink on the note. These reminders would collect, like moss, on my monitor until it was overrun. They were often lost in the crowd. I’d forget to look at them, so they started spreading insidiously. They’d appear on the refrigerator. The bathroom mirror. The back of the door to the house (“Take out trash!”). The steering wheel of the car (“You forgot to take out the trash, didn’t you?”) I kept at it for a while out of sheer inertia, but the Post-It method of reminders never really worked for me in any reliable way and eventually I gave it up.

By the time I started going paperless, I’d given it up entirely, but I hadn’t come up with a decent replacement. In the years since, however, I’ve evolved a paperless reminder system that works very well for me. Actually, it is really 3 reminder systems, the method varying based on the need, but all of them making use of technology to make sure that I don’t forget things

Let me now state at the outset that Evernote is only an ancillary part of my reminder system. My experience thus far is that while it is about the best tool out there to help me remember everything, there isn’t much it can do to actively remind me of those things that I need to remember. The operative word here is actively remind me. I could certainly used save searches and various tagging schemes to enable Evernote to passively remind me of things. This would mean that I would have to remember to check Evernote for those reminders. That is a nonstarter for me, as far as a reminder system goes.

My requirements for a reminder system

As with most of the “systems” I’ve discussed in this series, I tried to think about my requirements for reminders before I picked the system that was best for me. I came up with roughly the following set of requirements1:

  1. The system should be easy to use and should not, if possible, add to my existing workload.
  2. I should not have to “check” for reminders: I should just be reminded of something when I am supposed to be reminded of it.
  3. The system should distinguish between types of reminders: email, calendar, and project-related.

Ultimately, what I discovered was that there really wasn’t a single system out there that met all of my requirements. But there were systems that met part of them and when you took multiple systems together, all of my requirements were met. I settled over time on 3 reminder systems, each of them centered around the 3 things in the last requirement above: email, calendar and project. Each of the systems I use for these is discussed in more detail below.

Boomerang for email reminders

I get a lot of email. And I still manage to keep up with it all and generally reach Inbox Zero, if not daily, then several times a week. I was unable to do this until I discovered Boomerang, which is an add-in for Gmail. Boomerang allows me to do three things that I couldn’t do before:

1. “Boomerang” a message to a later date. When you “boomerang” a message, it disappears from your inbox until the specified date, at which time it reappears. This is wonderful for messages that require a reply by a later date. If I get an email that indicates a response is required 3 weeks from now, I will simply boomerang the message for 3 weeks and forget about it. Boomerang makes it even easier by detecting dates in messages and suggesting the reminder time based on that date. More often than note, I can boomerang a message in 2 mouse-clicks. It is out of my inbox and I am reminded of it at the appropriate time.

Boomerang for later

2. Ask to be reminded of a message if I haven’t received a reply. Ever send an email where you are waiting for a reply. You can’t really take further action until you get the reply. There are all kinds of methods for dealing with this, but the most common is a “tickler” file. Boomerang makes it easy. When you send a message, you can check a box to be reminded in a certain number of days (weeks, months) if you HAVE NOT received a reply. You’ll only get the reminder if you don’t get a reply. It serves the purpose of a tickler file without ever needing to proactively check a file. I just check the box, and I’m reminded, if needed.

Boomerang if no reply

3. Scheduled email. Sometimes, I need to send an email at a later date, but happen to have time to write it now. With Boomerang, I can write an email and schedule it to be sent later. I don’t have to remember to send them. Boomerang does it for me.

Schedule message

Google Calender for event reminders

Having Boomerang makes it much easier to manage my calendar because I don’t have to put anything on it that I’ll be reminded about by Boomerang later. That means my calendar is strictly for events that I need to keep track of. Lots of stuff goes onto my calendar, but I only setup reminders for those things that I need to be reminded of. I put my meetings on my calendar and setup reminders for those. There are birthdays and other special occasions on my calendar and I get reminders for those as well. The other thing that I put on my calendar that I get reminders for are deadlines. As a freelance writer, I have deadlines for various writing gigs and they are all over the map. I have one deadline at the moment that isn’t until late this year. I have others–like this present Going Paperless post–for which I set a reminder the Sunday before the post goes up (a 2-day reminder).

My Google Calendar

My wife’s calendar is also in Google Calendar and we share calendars. She sometimes puts stuff on the calendar that I need to be aware of as well, but it isn’t easy to setup a reminder because the event is on her calendar. Fortunately, Google Calendar allow you to set up a daily agenda reminder. I get this reminder sent to me each morning and it includes not just my calendars but my wife’s as well. Each morning when I wake up , I have my agenda sitting there in email, all nice and summarized so I have a quick, birds-eye look at my day.

Daily Agenda

Asana for task-based reminders

Some reminders are part of an overall project. As I indicated earlier, I don’t like cluttering my main calendar with stuff about which I can be reminded in other ways. Project-based task reminders fall into this category. That is where Asana comes in. Asana is a simple, elegant, web-based project management tool. You can create projects, assign tasks to team members, set deadlines, and keep track of everything. I use Asana for project-related work and what’s great about it is that I can setup my projects, create tasks, set due dates for my tasks, and Asana will automatically remind me via email when a task is coming due. Of course, if I’ve marked the task as complete, I don’t get the reminder.

Each freelance project I work, whether it is an article, a story, or a book review gets it’s own project in Asana. For some projects, like articles, there are usually the same set of tasks so I simply have a “template” project which I use to create a new one. I also have a single “Blogging” project which I use to manage tasks surrounding this blog. The tasks can be anything, from lists of posts to write (and the dates on which to post them) to maintenance tasks, like installing WordPress plug-in updates. Here is what my “Blogging” project looks like in Asana today:

Asana "Blogging" project

 

Reminders from Asana come in email as the task approaches its due date. I do my best to check of completed tasks as I finish them. Sometimes, I reschedule them, but overall, Asana helps me manage the “multiple-task” projects very well. And it provides the reminders I need to keep up-to-date.

Putting it all together

Yes, these are three different reminder systems. But the reminders are much simpler to create with in the context of each system and the reminders themselves ultimately all arrive in the same place–my email inbox. Whether it is a reminder that I need to follow up with someone for whom I’m waiting for an email response, or that I have a blog post I need to write, or that a friend’s birthday is coming up, all I ever have to do is pay attention to my inbox–which, thanks to Boomerang, I keep nice an clean–to know what it is I have to do.

Evernote’s role in my reminder system

At the outset, I said that Evernote was great for remembering things, but did not really have the infrastructure for reminding you about things. Evernote’s role in my reminder system is what it does best–remembering for me. As people who follow this column know, I take Evernote’s slogan, “remember everything” quite literally. Through a variety of automated processes, I can pretty much recreate what I did on any given day by searching for that day in Evernote. While Evernote doesn’t necessarily remind me of things I need to do, it remembers those things that I do manage to get done:

  • Items on my Google Calendar are sent to Evernote via on IFTTT recipe so that I have a record of the meetings I had on any given day.
  • Tasks that I mark as “completed” in Asana are collected and pulled into Evernote each day so that I have a record of the project-related tasks I completed for that day. This is done programmatically using the Asana API and Geeknote.

Thus, when I want to “remember” what it was I did on Sunday, March 10, 2013, I need only search for notes created on that date. In addition to everything else, I’ll find notes for any meetings I attended and a single note listing all of the project-related tasks I completed in Asana.


Thanks go out to Matt H. (@mh0lth3) who suggested this topic for this week’s post. If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, sent it in to feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. And as always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts, is also available on Pinterest.

Notes

  1. These are my requirements and the systems I describe are based on these. Your requirements may differ, but I do think it’s important to consider your requirements first and foremost.

15 thoughts on “Going Paperless: My Paperless Reminder Systems

  1. I have had good luck with @followupthen for reminders. I can take a note in Evernote and “share”. Based on the timing I pick an email appears in my email account on the date with the note.

  2. How do you use the Asana API or GeekNote to automatically have notes sent to Evernote? I would like to use this but don’t know much about programming…

    Ben

    1. Ben, I call Asana’s API via a perl script to identify all the tasks I completed across all projects in a given day. (Check out Asana’s API documentation for some code examples.) I then call Geeknote from perl to create a note that contains the list of tasks I completed for that day. It’s not overly sophisticated but it does require some coding or programming background to make it work.

  3. Wow, I checked out those code examples and found this is over my head. I was hoping to have some kind of code you already had available to use. Maybe I can find out how to code here…

    Ben

  4. So I take it that you have a paid subscription to Boomerang? (Assuming that you use it more than 10x a month)

    At $4.99/month it’s more expensive per year than an Evernote Premium membership. The service does look great though and I’ve started playing with it.

    1. Daniel, yes, I have the paid account. For me, the time it saves me and the peace of mind it gives me (not having to remember all of the things I need to reply to) makes it a worthwhile expense.

  5. Good blog post.
    Using both boomerangs myself. Have to try Asana.
    Though I’ve set up an extra calendar on gcal with a different colour for projects.
    I use powerbot for gmail and gcal which saves/can save everything to Evernote without the way over ifttt.

  6. Any consideration for posting your script here or on github, etc.? I like that your system only saves completed tasks to evernote.

    1. Chris, I have a these scripts, and a bunch of other automation/quantified-self related scripts in a repo in GitHub. I’m working on taking out all of my customizations (oauth keys and stuff) and adding a little documentation. Once that is done, I do plan on sharing the repository.

  7. Jamie, do you ever find yourself wanting an Asana + Evernote integration? In other words, have you ever had a want/need to create an Asana task and have the ability to search and link within Asana an Evernote note?

    I did some preliminary testing with Nozbe and it is possible to associate Evernote notes with Nozbe tasks and I’m wondering if you’ve ever wanted Asana to have similar functionality.

  8. Jamie, one question regarding evernote. Are the local copies of Notebooks scanned through for OCR by Evernote?

  9. Jamie,

    I have used the free version of Boomerang but have found that in order to use it for my Google Apps account it seems too expensive at $14.99/mo. In looking for a good ToDo app for my desktop and smartphone, I found Any.do to be very good and it has a Chrome and Gmail plugin that works great. In fact the Gmail plugin allows me to set a Todo off of any email. So it replaces what Boomerang use to do for me and it’s free. Also when the ToDo comes up that I set from within Gmail you can go directly back to the email that it was set from. I also use Google Calendar and love it.

  10. For implementing GTD you can use this application:

    http://www.Gtdagenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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