My favourite productivity tips, tools and strategies

On Tuesday, January 20, 2015, fellow freelancer Jane Langille and I will deliver a panel discussion on Enhancing Productivity: Tips, Tools, and Strategies to the Toronto chapter of the Editors Association of Canada.

To prepare for my portion of this event, I drew up a quick mind map to order my thoughts on productivity tools. I’ve already blogged on several of these topics, so now seems to be a good time to tie previous blog posts into my presentation notes to create this blog post. Here’s what that presentation will look like.

Processes, not tools

There’s no point in arguing for or against specific tools. The last thing I’d want is to get enmeshed in a Mac-vs.-PC, iPhone-vs.-Android or similar debate. Such debates are pointless.

What matters is not what tool one uses, but whether one can execute the processes of productivity. Here are the elements of productivity I’ll focus on during the January 20 talk:

  1. creating time for focus
  2. fighting writer’s block
  3. the nature of interruptions
  4. handling email interruptions
  5. handling other types of interruptions
  6. thoughts on paper
  7. tools I personally use

Creating time for focus

Whether you edit, write or engage in other creative activities, you need time to get into the flow of those activities. So try this: work for 25 straight minutes on one activity, take a five-minute break, then repeat. This is the basis of what’s widely known as the Pomodoro technique. (I now do 50-minute focus sessions and 20-minute breaks.)

Fighting writer’s block

Writing tips abound on the Internet, so I’ll only share my favourite. It’s the tip that made writer’s block a thing of the past for me: mind-mapping.

Here’s the basic logic: when you have to write an article on a topic, ideas for that topic will arrive in any order they please. They probably will not arrive in an order that makes sense when read by other people, so you need to create that order. This requirement can stall some people in their writing efforts.

They key when starting to write is to capture the individual ideas as quickly as you can and worry about the order later.

Here’s an analog way to do this using a stack of cue cards (you can google mind map software to find computer-based tools later). Put one individual idea on one cue card. Repeat with the next idea, and the next, until you have all your ideas on cue cards. Then put your cue cards on a table, or tack them to a notice board, in the order that makes most sense. As you order your cards, you can add new ideas, edit, rearrange or remove existing ones and otherwise rework the cards until you get your ideas in the order you want. From that point, you can write from the first cue card to the last – and there you have your first draft.

There’s a lot more to writing well, but getting that first draft done can be the toughest part of the process. Remember, focus on ideas first and work on the order of those ideas later.

The nature of interruptions

Many people handle interruptions more times than they need to.

That’s a confusing statement on the surface, so to go deeper let’s consider the surface of a pond. That surface is still as glass when suddenly, a pebble hits it. The pond reacts to the pebble by “emitting” ripples to absorb its energy. When the energy has been absorbed, the pond’s surface grows still once more.

When an email hits your empty inbox, you can deal with it then and there. Unlike the pond, you can also scan the email, then turn your attention to something else. Then you go back to the email later. That’s like a pebble hitting a pond’s surface only once, yet the pond sends out ripples twice.

You’re more likely to handle interruptions efficiently if you embrace this notion of “mind like water,” an idea I picked up from my much-stickied copy of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.

I suspect it was a David Allen devotee who came up with the concept of inbox zero, if not Allen himself. The basic idea: handle each message you receive only once, make sure you’ve taken (or planned, or delegated) the next step, and move the message out of your inbox. If you subscribe to this concept, you should have NO emails in your inbox at the end of your workday.

The same concept applies to phone and other types of messages, but since email is arguably the greatest source of distraction for most people, I’ll tackle it in the following section.

Handling email interruptions

Email is unrelenting. It can grow to massive volumes. The most you can hope to do is stem the tide, to make it more manageable. Consider these tips to help you do just that.

  1. Turn off all email alerts. There’s no sense in losing focus just because a message arrives. While you’re working, turn off your email software if you don’t need it.
  2. Check emails only at set times. Again, if you check too frequently, any focus time you plan for goes out the window.
  3. If a message demands a short time (e.g. 2 minutes) to deal with, do it right away.
  4. When you receive spam or unwanted marketing messages, mark them as spam or unsubscribe, as the situation demands. (Check your spam filters every day, just in case they flag a “false positive” that is not spam and that matters to you.)
  5. If the message contains an appointment, put it in your calendar. Save the text of the email in the Notes field so you have context available. Invite other meeting attendees to the appointment if necessary. (This doesn’t always work, so follow up with an email.) Then file or delete the message.
  6. If the message contains a task, put it in your task list. Save the text of the email in the Notes field so you have context available. Then file or delete the message.
  7. If the message contains contact information (e.g. an email signature) that you might need in the future, put it in your contact application. Save the text of the email in the Notes field so you have context available. Consider whether this person would be a good LinkedIn connection. Then file or delete the message.
  8. If you need to keep emails, file them in appropriate folders. Consider using top-level folders the way I do in this example.
  9. Automate filing by creating email rules. For instance, if the subject line contains XYZ project, have a rule file that message in the XYZ project folder.
  10. Regularly check your Sent items folder for things you need to file or delete. Hint: you can manually run rules on your sent items folder.

Handling other types of interruptions

The best way to handle interruptions in general is to prevent them.

Turn off any notification that might tempt you to let go of your focus.

  • Turn off your phone’s ringer.
  • Turn off email notifications. (I suggest you leave this off permanently.)
  • Turn off any other types of notification, like instant messaging or social media alert popups.

You might also spontaneously decide to check your Facebook feed, news or sports websites (a personal weakness of mine) or other things that don’t offer popup alerts. Fortunately, you can search the Internet, the same place that offers a plethora of distractions, for tools you can use to block said distractions.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t read or keep up with email or news. Just keep your reading to set times, like the breaks between work sessions.

Finally, track how well you’re focusing. Before the next day of work, take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle of the page and on the left side, note the things you plan to do that day. Assign times to things like phone calls, meetings and other events that will happen at set times. During the day, note what you’re doing every ½ hour. Your “budget/actual” calendar will soon tell you how you actually spend your time, and your findings will tell you how you can improve your focus.

Thoughts on paper

Paper is (often) the enemy of productivity. I’ll tackle the use of paper on two fronts: calendars and productivity.

Calendars

I once used a big binder to track my calendar, contacts and tasks. Then I began to travel for business and quickly found it inconvenient to pack that binder in my carry-on, and very easy to slip a Palm Pilot in my shirt pocket.

The bulk of paper isn’t the worst thing about paper agendas. This is: if you lose something like a phone, you don’t lose the information. If you lose a paper agenda, losing the information can lead to missed deadlines, loss of clients and other dire consequences.

It’s not the physical object that matters as much as the information it contains, which is why it makes sense to make backup copies of things that hold data. It’s easy to back up digital information and, I’d argue, so difficult to back up paper that nobody does it.

Productivity

Businesses of all kinds have reached the same conclusion: the more a process relies on paper, the more room for improvement that process offers.

Freelance writers and editors frequently find it’s easier to spot mistakes on a printout of their work than on screen, but this may be the only exception to the generalization in a freelancer’s work. Electronic copies of published articles, photos, contacts and other records can be easily searched for and backed up. You can sign and otherwise annotate PDF documents on-screen using free tools like Adobe Reader. The list of tools goes on.

Tools I use

Before I go into the tools I use for various tasks, keep these tips in mind when you select your software.

  • The tools you use ought to work on all your devices and easily synchronize the things you do.
  • The fact that a tool works for somebody else doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to pay for software. If it makes you more efficient, you’ll make that money back in more billable hours once you’re properly organized.

Here are some tools I use.

  1. To maintain focus (50 minutes on, 20-minute breaks), I use TeamViz (formerly called PomodoroApp). I’ve tried egg timers, but they seem too break after a few week, so I use this software version that ticks while I work and helps me track how much time I spend on given tasks. (This is handy when I have to track time spent on projects.)
  2. To block distractions, I subscribe to RescueTime. Read about my initial experiences.
  3. For blog post reading, I use the RSS reader Feedly. From Feedly and my web browsers, I can save articles to read offline using Pocket.
  4. For my calendar, I use the Mac Calendar application (free with every Mac). My calendars are available on my iPod Touch, iPad and any web browser via iCloud (basic account free with every Mac).
  5. To create mind maps, I use mind-mapping software Freemind. (Lately I’ve been exploring Freeplane as a replacement.) I can drag and drop ideas to any part of the mind map and add or delete ideas as I wish. When I’m done ordering my ideas, I copy the “top node” and paste it into a text editor. This pastes all my points as I ordered them in Freemind. Then I write from point to point. There’s still some reorganization to do, but not as much as if I hadn’t mapped my thoughts first.
  6. When phone messages and ideas occur while I work, I record them using my notebook and pen (a fountain pen, if you can believe it). I “empty” the notes I make into my electronic tools once a week at least.
  7. For email, I use Mac Mail (free with every Mac).
  8. For task lists, project and customer relationship management, I use Daylite (Mac only). It quickly provides a view of my day, dashboards on my projects and opportunities and, perhaps most important, it plugs into Mac Mail so I can quickly turn emails in tasks, projects and so forth. Daylite also syncs to my iPod Touch and iPad.
  9. For contact info, I use Mac Contacts (free with every Mac). My contacts are available on my iPod Touch, iPad and any web browser via iCloud (basic account free with every Mac).
  10. For annotating and signing PDFs, I use Mac Preview (free with every Mac). Adobe Reader does this too.
3 Comments
  1. This article was such a gift yesterday. I took the time to actually overhaul my gmail filing, picked up the pomodoro app and even made a cheat sheet of your tips that I posted at my desk. Thanks for this concise, clear and helpful article.

  2. This article is so thorough and clear – thank you for the useful tips!

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