Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How I'm So Damned Productive

This could prove to be an epic blog post so if it's a TLDR I understand, but if you've ever wondered what tools other people use to keep organized then this is the post for you!


This post is about all the tools I use to crush tons of data and keep productive without losing my mind.

Tool #1 - Google Calendar:

Everyone needs a calendar and I've been using Google's offering since it's beta. There are a number of reasons I've stuck with it over the years.
  1. Shared calendar's: I share my calendar with my wife and daughter, and they share theirs with me. Since we all use Android phones it makes it much easier to keep everyone in sync with such busy schedules.
  2. "Interesting Calendars": There are curated calendars that can be added allowing me to automatically keep up with holidays and sports teams. I love this feature and I never miss a Bronco game as a result.
  3. Inviting People to Events: I've used this for years to organize podcast schedules to make sure everyone is there to podcast at the right time.
  4. Integration with Other Google Services: I love "Google Now" and if it's in my Google Calendar it's in Google Now giving me reminders and if I've included and address it let's me pull up one handed navigation. Also, when adding addresses it integrates with Google Maps make setting appointments up to specific places much easier. The other handy integration is with contacts, if the contact has a birthday entry it shows up on the calendar.
  5. Like any other cloud service, being able to edit my calendar on any device I have in my hot little hands means I actually use it and keep it up to date.
Tips for getting the most out of a calendar:
  1.  Calendars aren't just for future events. Put important events on the calendar after they've happened so you can find it later with a simple search.
  2. Put reminders to do maintenance type items so you get a simple reminder to winterize the lawn mower, clean out the gutters, change the oil in your car, etc. This saves a lot of headache and is a simple way to make sure you do your less regular chores.
  3. Want to eat out less? Make a weekly meals calendar so you can keep track of what meals you planned for what day and you have a record of previous meals you've eaten to keep everyone from getting bored. With multiple people cooking in the house with crazy schedules this helps make sure everyone is eating healthy inexpensive meals instead of fast food on busy nights.

Tool #2 - Google Keep:

This is the most recent addition to my organizational repertoire and I've been making full use of it. It's basically Google's answer to Evernote, something I've never personally used. If some of these other tools are howitzers this tool is more of a scalpel. I use it as a staging area for things that need to be filed into other tools. It's main usefulness is for quick notes, check lists and lists like virtual sticky notes. Also, since it's a Google product it's synced with all my devices all the time helping make better use of my other organizational tools. I mostly use it like you would a note pad to jot quick notes down. Don't overuse it for detailed info or it gets overwhelming quick.

Tips of getting the most out of Keep:
  1. Great for meeting notes to jot down things you need to follow up on.
  2. You can set reminders on the desktop that will pop up on your phone or tablet.
  3. It's great for check lists.
  4. Archive done items so you can search them later but they don't show up in the main view.
  5. You can attach pictures to things to help remind you of what it is you need.

Tool #3 -  Theoldreader.com and Greader:

I do tons of research from a large variety of web sources and keeping track of everything requires a powerful tool.....RSS. I was in the private beta on Google Reader and was heart broken when it closed down. Theoldreader.com offered importing of the OML file from Google Reader and it strived to emulate the original Google Reader interface. It looked a little touch and go for a while whether it was going to stick around but it seems to have stabilized and now offers premium memberships, $3 a month that I happily pay, that ensure it's long term success.

What is an RSS reader? It's a place that checks for updates to some of your favorite sites on the net and puts them all into one nice interface. Blogs, podcasts (although I use another tool for those), Craigslist searches, the list goes on and on and you can keep up to date on things by just adding the RSS feed URL into the Reader client and read it, archive it, tag it and share it all at your leisure, it's what the web promised to be. There seems to be waning interest in RSS but I assure you, if you invest a very small amount of time into it, it's a very rewarding experience. I won't provide a step by step guide to RSS but you can Google it and find plenty of great info on how to make use of it.

Also, TOR includes integration with another of my favorite tools "Pocket", see below. That makes it easier to save things you are going to want later.

Greader is the Android client that I use to actually read on. It is a pretty nice way to read my favorite sites all in a nice dark theme that lets me read after dark without making the wife too angry at me.

Tips for getting the most out of Theoldreader:
  1. If you visit a site more than once a year, find it's RSS feed and get it into the RSS Reader.
  2. Follow news sites, but use the "Mark Items Older Than a Week" or the "Older than a Day" tools to keep from getting overwhelmed by old news.
  3. Find funny things to follow to give you a relief from the stress of being so darn organized.
  4. In Greader use the Text to Speach(TTS) to turn long articles into books on tape.
  5. Learn to let old items go, if you haven't got to them in a month or two, mark it as read, move on and breath easier.

Tool #4 - Pocket(formerly Read It Later):

I've been a heavy user of bookmarks over the years and they fall short in a number of ways. The biggest is that they are managed in the old folder structure paradigm and that creates a problem for finding things that may have made sense to live in multiple locations. Also, links break over time and the data is lost with just a bookmark, unless of course you can find it on Archive.org. Pocket bests bookmarks for single web items. First it compliments TOR/Greader for sites you don't want all their stuff just a specific article but would like a nice easy to read layout with a dark theme. It has a nice browser plugin that gives a single place to click to add it to pocket for later consumption. It also includes a TTS engine for making long articles digestible on the go. Pocket has it's own Android App that is very robust and easy to use.

Tips for getting the most out of Pocket:
  1. Archive articles when you are done reading them.
  2. Use TTS on long articles.
  3. Use tags to sort items and make them easier to find later.
  4. Again, use a dark theme to keep the wife happy with late night reading.
  5. Consider Pocket premium, a bit pricey but worth it if you are crushing large amounts of research, for a permanent archive of important info and sources.

Tool #5 - Gmail:

 O.K., this isn't an organizational tool by itself, in fact I'd bet your inbox is a nightmare, but using some advanced tools inside Gmail it can be a way of keeping organized. I won't go into a ton of detail on these, you can Google if any catch your eye, but I'll list my tips for crushing the deluge of Email.

Tips for getting the most out of Gmail:
  1. Make heavy use of labels, they are a powerful tool.
  2. Use the "Filter Messages Like This" feature to automatically put labels on e-mails from sources.
  3. Archive things that have labels on them.
  4. Delete advertisements older than a day.
  5. Turn on all the "Tabs" in "Configure Inbox" and drag items in the wrong folder to the right one to teach Google where they go. This will help you divide an conquer e-mail.
  6. Turn on two factor authentication to make your email safer. Remember almost all your passwords can be reset with access to your email account. Keep it safe people!

Tool #6 -  BeyondPod:

 If you aren't listening to Podcasts then you are seriously missing out. Podcasts are to talk radio what .MP3s where to music. There is a podcast out there to meet any taste and more likely 1000s for every taste. I listen to massive amounts of podcasts, in fact I listen to them at 3x speed. Why? it helps me get through the huge amount of great shows I want to listen to. How? Beyondpod. It's a fantastic app and worth paying the nominal fee for the pro version. I've used it for years now, everyday, all day, and I can honestly say it's my favorite app.

Tips for getting the most out of Beyondpod:

  1. Organize your podcast from the start, the better organized the easier to find what you want.
  2. Setup an update schedule to download new Podcasts when on wifi at home. This saves your data and keeps you stocked up. I set mine to download while I sleep.
  3. Lock episodes you want to re-listen to so they don't get deleted.
  4. Crank up the speed to get more listening in, seriously there is so much great content out there.
  5. Have video Podcasts you don't really need to watch to enjoy? Use the "Play Video as Audio" feature to just listen to the audio track.
  6. Use a bluetooth headset so you can pause it on the headset instead of digging in a pocket for your phone. Also great for activities like running and riding a bike so your device can stay in a nice safe place instead of in your hand.
  7. Make your fist subscription my Podcast Alpha Geeks!

Tool #7 - Keypass:

There are scores of reasons to use a password keeper not least of which is security, but it also helps you be more productive. Instead of reusing insecure passwords that put you at risk of losing data, time and money, let the password keeper do the work so you don't have to. It will create a safe and secure password and store it with top notch encrypted security. Stop forgetting what crappy half effort password you used on a site by storing it somewhere safe and sound. It's very handy for seldom used but important accounts. Stop putting yourself at risk and wasting time resetting accounts because you can't remember a password that was insecure in the first place. Also, this is a free and open source tool!

Tips for getting the most out of Keypass:

  1. Use the Android App to keep your passwords with you everywhere you go.
  2. Use one great password to secure you database and let it be the only tough one you have to remember.
  3. Sync it with Dropbox (see below) to always have an up to date database.
  4. Don't be tempted to skip using it and throwing a crappy password at it, the more you use it the less of a pain it is, the safer you data is.
  5. Store credit card info in the database so you have the numbers in case your card gets stolen.
  6. Save you bike lock and combo locks in it so you don't forget it when you are taking a break from the gym.
  7. Save your code to a security system with instructions in the notes so the three or four times a year you go into work when no else is there you don't look like an idiot or a thief.

Tool #8 - Dropbox:

Stop messing around with thumb drives to get data around. Stop losing family photos when you lose your phone. Stop sending massive attachments in your emails. Using Dropbox will save you from worrying about computer crashes because all your data is synced to the cloud. Just remember to not sync sensitive data to it unless you've used trust no one encryption.

Tips for getting the most out of Dropbox:
  1. Set up accounts for everyone in the family so documents can be shared around. It helps with the older kids homework or if you, like me, only use the printer at work because your kids burn through ink like we used to go through crayons.
  2. Use selective sync to only sync certain folders to certain devices. I only sync my school folders to my school computer.
  3. Use the public folder to host simple static webpages and media for things like lessons plans for classes you teach.
  4. Turn on the automatic photo backup so you never lose those important family memories. Your kids will thank you when they are older.

Tool #9 - Pinterest:

This is my newest tool and I almost hate to say how handy it is. I find lots of interesting things to try and articles to read and it's pretty damn easy to organize it all for later consumption, plus the social part of it is well designed. It's also the easiest tool to share cool things with other people you know even if it's on another social media site. It's to stuff what facebook is to people.

Tips for getting the most out of Pinterest:
  1. It has the ability to pin things to different boards for a reason, use them.
  2. There are tons of keywords that aggregate pretty much anything you could be interested in use them to find cool things that fit your interest.
  3. Recipes might be one of the strongest features. You could learn to cook with just recipes on here. Pin the recipes to boards like, "Things to Cook" and after you've made them move them to "Things I loved" or delete them if you didn't like them. This makes the weekly groceries easier.

Tool #10 - Amazon Wishlists:

I know it sounds strange but if you are like me, don't use credit cards at all, you need to only buy things when funds are available and sometimes its hard to keep track of everything you've heard about and though you wanted to buy at some point. I stick to a strict weekly budget and this helps me find the things I want at a later time, even if I don't buy it on Amazon.

Tips for getting the most out of Amazon Wishlists:
  1. Make different lists for different interests and use them.
  2. Use it as a reading list for books you come across. I'd go broke if I just bought every book I want to read but if they are on my book wishlist I can find them later.
  3. Share the list with friends or family so you can actually get relevant Birthday and Christmas gifts.

Tool #11 - Bookmarks:

I used to use this as my main way of keeping track of things on the internet but as better tools have come along I try to stay away from them if I can, but they still have their place.

Tips for getting the most out of Bookmarks:
  1. Use Google Chrome's or Firefox's sync features to keep them up to date on all your devices and at your fingertips when you need them.
  2. Make heavy use of folders and nested folders.
  3. Do an annual purge, I use this as a staging area for other tools sometimes when I don't have a better place to put things but if I don't purge it gets overwhelming quick.

Tool #12 - Orgmode and Emacs:

This is my last but most useful tool for keeping organized. It's also has the steepest learning curve. It's not intuitive at all and requires some honest investment in learning to be useful. Once you get over the hump with it though it's staggering how powerful a tool it is. It's basically a text editor(emacs) with some tools for organizing things (Orgmode) but that doesn't really do it justice. It has time tracking, todo lists, agendas, calendars, tags, you can do in line spread sheets including calculations. Also, moving things around as things get more complicated is where I fell in love with it. At the start of projects things make sense in one order but as things progress things need shuffled around and the rigidity of other solutions mean that upkeep with the data is more work than it is useful. With Orgmode however, you can move things up and down, tuck them in sub-trees, ad data to them, sort them, mark them done, hide them and crush large amounts of data.

Tips for getting the most out of Orgmode:
  1.  Use Orgmode as the final destination for research so everything is available when you need it.
  2. Track your time on specific tasks to cover your butt or get paid for out of scope work.
  3. Keep record of the time and date of things like emails so you can back things up when needed. 
  4. Keep track of verbal agreements so you can follow them up with emails for backup if things get hairy.
  5. Put notes on projects you are researching, make lists of materials, make todo lists of each step and execute the hell out of things.
  6. Store data on things that give you that competitive edge.
  7. Export notes to html, put them in your Dropbox and share the link with your team to keep everyone's productivity high. I use this a lot and to Great Effect. I even do this with my school assignments for my students.
  8. Learn the markdown language so you can include images in the HTML export.

To wrap things up, productivity tools only work if you use them, and most of the time it just takes practice to actually make use of them. Don't use tools you see zero benefit in off the bat but invest the time to learn them if it can help. Each tool is a stepping stone to getting more done and being less stressed. Trust me.
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