Ideas often occur to me at inopportune times, such as while driving down the interstate, cooking dinner, or walking through a store with a heavy shopping basket[1]. In those moments, a pen-and-paper Hipster PDA is not an ideal capture device.

As I don’t have a chipper young assistant following me everywhere, my next best option in these situations is Siri. I recently upgraded to an iPhone 5, and I’ve been enjoying experimenting with voice commands. Though underwhelmed with the overall speech recognition, having the ability to command my iPhone with my voice suits my habits well.

If allowed in your settings, Siri can perform most tasks that don’t require opening an app — even while your phone is locked[2]. For starters, composing emails with your voice opens up many possibilities. This video demonstrates how to create a new Trello card by composing a message to your Emello[3] address with Siri. Evernote, Omnifocus, and many other services allow you to post and save items via email.

GTD capture with Siri

Capturing, in the GTD sense, works best when it’s fast. Really fast. At my desk, that means direct entry into Trello for tasks, and quick scribbles on index cards for more creative notions. In comparison; addressing, composing, confirming, and sending an email with Siri feels like a conversation with a disaffected DMV employee.

Where Siri does shine is taking notes. A phrase like:

Note that I need to call my doctor


New note… What’s the deal with airplane food?
results in Siri immediately saving a new note with your message. She confirms that your note was created, and that’s it. You don’t even have to say thank you.

Notes, Gmail, and syncing

A close look at how iOS stores and syncs notes reveals interesting possibilities. Notes created with your iPhone, including those dictated to Siri, are stored locally on your iPhone. In addition, notes can be synced via iCloud or any connected account that handles notes, including Gmail and Google Apps accounts.

If you sync with Gmail[4], notes get stored as email messages labeled “Notes”. They magically appear in your archived messages, with header information stripped and the body and subject set to the content of the note. Gmail’s filtering system does not seem to consider these notes to be new messages, and I was unable to get Gmail alone to forward new notes. Enter IFTTT.

If this, then that

An IFTTT recipe can forward all messages with the Notes label to a specified email address. Since Trello hosts my core GTD inbox, I would have IFTTT forward Gmail-synced notes to the Emello address associated with my inbox. Here’s what that flow would look like:

  1. Activate Siri
  2. Dictate note to Siri (e.g. New note - get more almond milk)
  3. Siri saves note locally and syncs it to Gmail
  4. New Gmail message with “Notes” label is automatically created
  5. IFTTT recipe based on the “Notes” label forwards the new message" to an email address provided by your web service
  6. Web service creates new object from the email (a card in Trello, a note in Evernote, etc.)

Cool, right? Were I sane, I would stop there, content in the knowledge that I’ve mapped the fastest possible way to capture on my iPhone to the central hub of my GTD system. Instead, high on my initial success, I wanted to see how far I could take it. I started to wonder if I could send notes to different destinations using keywords.

Vocal keywords

My first approach involved a single Gmail account, various labels applied with Gmail filters, and IFTTT recipes. It didn’t work. Some quirk of the way these services talk to each other makes it such that applying additional labels to a new Gmail note removes whatever ability IFTTT had to recognize it as a new message.

The workaround I came up with was to import messages from a second email account over POP3. This ensures all messages are “received” and can therefore trigger IFTTT. For each filter, make certain to include the exclusion operator (-keyword) in front of all your other keywords so messages only get forwarded to one place.

In my current setup, “delta” triggers a chain ending with a dictated note becoming a new file in my /txt Dropbox folder. For example, if I activate Siri and say…

New note delta blog about using Siri and Trello together

…I get a new text file in Dropbox called “delta blog about using Siri and Trello together”. While not perfect, it’s enough to route writing notions to the place I’m most likely to need them (in this case, nvAlt or Notesy).

IFTTT has options for creating new files and appending to existing files within Dropbox. I made a recipe such that saying “scratchpad” appends new notes as time-stamped entries to my scratchpad.txt file.

The upside of this approach is that I can use one button press and one spoken phrase to route notes wherever I like. The downside is that the keywords become part of the note itself. Something like Hazel could probably scrub keywords from the text files, but I’m not that crazy. Not yet, anyway. The modest clutter of keywords prepending my notes feels worth the trade-off of not suffering Siri’s tedious email composition. Additionally, it reminds me how the file got there in the first place.

Now if only Siri could understand more than half of what I say.

  1. Ron Swanson wouldn’t use a cart, and neither should you.  ↩

  2. Settings app → General → Passcode Lock → Allow Access When Locked: → Siri → ON  ↩

  3. I hinted at my excitement in connecting Trello and Siri together with Emello, and the kind gents at Emello offered up the coupon code "ScottRocks" for two free months of Emello. I must shamefully admit that I was only using the Free account before this -- not for trepidation about Emello, but rather from being unsure I was going to stick with Trello as my GTD system. Emello makes GTD much more viable with Trello. And no, they aren't paying me to say that.

  4. Settings → Notes → Default Account → (Choose your Gmail account)  ↩