productivity tools image of postit notes on bulletinboard
CC image by Flickr user Dennis Hamilton

Ustart.org (“you start”) is my dashboard for life, work and personal.

That might sound crazy because, after all, how many people even know of ustart.org? For the record, it’s a free and customizable open-source start page for your browser, where you can organize and display your personalized news feeds, emails, social accounts, local weather report, RSS feeds, and more.

Update: Take a look at this add-on for the Firefox browser, called Momentum, a personal dashboard something like my ustart page which also has a moment of calm and an inspirational thought for the day. Also, just after I published my tips, this article on “10 of the Best Time-Saving Apps for Busy Content Marketers” appeared in my news feed. A couple of these apps involve tie-ins between Trello and Evernote and Google Calendar, providing even further organizational benefits and time and energy savings.

Google once offered a personalized start screen but only briefly and then abruptly abandoned it, as so often happens. They assume you need nothing more than that big white screen with the single search box. But before I jump right into any kind of search, I like an overview; so, having a personalized portal page helps me start my day in the best way.

On my page, high on the list of “My Links” is NPR Morning Edition. I miss my drive time with this program since I no longer go in to an office every day. Now, most days, I get to my computer, click this link, click “Listen to Full Show” and, wah-lah! I often get interrupted without hearing the entire show, but, I can see what I’ve missed and go back to it if I like, and, no matter how much of a dose I get, I feel smarter and more current as I attack my To Do list, making ustart one of my key productivity tools.

Organization

Ah, To-Do lists… That’s been the target of much of my research and experimentation with productivity tools these last few years. I’ve used and moved on from a bunch, including Todoist and more recently Wunderlist. They’re great but I can’t get in the habit of looking on my phone for my To Do’s. Also, I can never quite abandon paper lists. The satisfaction of crossing things off is really irreplaceable. But the limitations are obvious, starting with paper’s propensity for wearing out in a pocket or just getting lost.

These days (and for the past couple of years) I am using Trello for To-Do lists and so much more. Trello is a web-based project management application. When I discovered it, I was reading about how lots of small design firms and advertising agencies were using it to manage projects. It works like a virtual version of a bulletinboard with Post-It notes. You create a “Board” per project (or category, if you’re not using it strictly for project management) and add details or steps in “Lists” and individual “Cards” below. It’s an extremely flexible system. As your projects change or get completed, you move or archive the Cards. I use Trello for everything from planning website content for my business to managing home maintenance needs and information, month-by-month or season-by-season. I also use it for curating important related reference information: for example, lists and contact info for vendors and service companies; pictures of hard-to-find product labels or serial numbers; copies of important documents such as warranties or organizational bylaws. From a collaboration standpoint, you can share and assign duties, and set deadlines with alerts.

Curation

I was (and still am, to some degree) a power user of the physical 3-ring binder. Staples loves me! I have color-coded tomes of carefully researched, copied and collated pages on topics including Email Marketing, Digital Marketing, Competitive Intelligence, and so much more. But binders get heavy and take up lots of space. They can become cumbersome to handle and are not so easy or practical to “weed” and update.

So, I was thrilled when something called del.icio.us came along in the early 2000s to help store, discover and share web “bookmarks.” (Face it, if you’re at all a curious creature, you quickly overload the bookmark tool in your web browser.) I became a devoted del.icio.us user and was, like many, devastated when Yahoo bought it, fearing they’d abandon it when at some point it wasn’t a priority or a moneymaker for the company.

I began migrating my bookmarks to Evernote, which I continue to use as my primary curation tool for research, again, both professional and personal. Evernote’s slogan is “Get organized. Work smarter. Remember everything.” It’s an app designed for note taking, organizing, list-making and archiving. I use it for all of those tasks and, in a big way (big enough to power up to a paid account), for archiving. As a productivity tool, it has a robust search function and can “clip” web pages as well as store links with tags. You can also share—by sharing notes or “notebooks” of information or by using the “Work Chat” function. I have more than 50 notebooks currently, with at least 700 Notes, and about 650 tags. I keep holiday shopping lists here (including related photos, descriptions, retail URLs), as well as notes about beers and wines I like, and “must-have” work resources, from social media cheat sheets to storyboarding templates.

My other major productivity tool for curating is Dropbox. Whereas I use Evernote for curating links to important resources, I use Dropbox for PDFs and other stand-alone files. Dropbox is also a helpful tool for transferring large files, whether that might be a video of Fido with your trainer at doggie bootcamp or a graphics-heavy report for a client. You simply create a shared link and copy and paste it into an email, text or chat. The recipient doesn’t even have to have his or her own Dropbox account. You can even update the file once it’s been transferred: Once you save your changes to Dropbox, anyone with your shared link will automatically get the latest version.

Functionally, there is overlap across many of the popular productivity tools. How I differentiate between what goes in Evernote and what goes in Dropbox is discretionary and at times somewhat ambiguous. So, if you’re using these tools with a team, it’s important to discuss potential scenarios and set protocols, communicate those clearly (perhaps writing them down and storing them in a cloud-based, accessible space), and then be as consistent as possible about how you apply those rules.

Workflow

Google Drive is another major productivity tool for users of Google’s G Suite (which mirrors Microsoft Office and its Word, Excel and PowerPoint package), providing file storage, syncing and sharing. G Suite is truly built for collaboration and sharing, as documents, spreadsheets and presentations can be created and edited, collaboratively, in real-time from anywhere. It’s eerie the first time you’re working remotely with a colleague, talking and simultaneously watching edits in real-time crawl across your screen. Honestly, my first experience with Google Docs was a simple and personal one: the family grocery list. We’re still using the same doc, years later, editing and re-editing. As with so much tech stuff, the kids set it up and showed us how to use it!

In terms of workflow, another important tool for me is OneTab, which I use when I’m researching and have a screen full of browser tabs open on a certain topic and want to put them “on hold” so I can find them again later or share them with others. It’s a browser extension, so just by clicking on the OneTab icon in my toolbar, I can compress all of those open screens into a list, which I can share or save. Those tabs can then be restored, individually or all at once. All your saved tab groups live in OneTab. You can always go back to them, name them, star them, or lock them to avoid ever inadvertently deleting a group. Using OneTab also saves up to 95% memory (by collapsing a group of tabs into one vs. proceeding with so many open tabs).

Another browser extension I regularly use is Print Friendly & PDF, which optimizes web pages, stripping out ads and “junk” in order to produce far fewer printed pages or to create PDFs with clickable links for electronic sharing or storage.

Bonus tip: Most of these tools—and so much more in our tech-reliant lives—require passwords. While there are plenty of password management tools, one of the simplest, delightfully “analog” type solutions I’ve ever heard is to save your passwords (and related sensitive data) in an Excel file to which you assign a password you can’t possibly forget. Then, you store that file in the cloud (in Dropbox or Google Drive) to ensure ready but locked-down, secure access, from anywhere, anytime. At the present time, I have too little memory on my phone to use the mobile Dropbox. So, from time to time when I update my password spreadsheet, I email it to myself (using special characters to partially spell out the word “password” in the subject line, for an extra little bit of security).

There are plenty of other productivity tools—for video conferencing and screen sharing (Skype, FaceTime), social media management (Hootsuite, Buffer), managing RSS feeds (Feedly, Digg Reader), or storing articles you come across for reading at a later time (Pocket, EmailThis.me), to name just a few. So, whether you’re a solo entrepreneur or a leader of a small- to medium-size business or nonprofit, think about your pain points and your goals/needs and explore whether you can leverage some technologies like these to enhance your organizing, collaborating, general productivity, archiving and sharing of vital resources. It can make a huge difference!

(Note: I’d like to recognize librarians and their boundless curiosity, resourcefulness and openness for leading me to most of the tools I’ve come to love, beginning with a tip from Rodale’s Lynn Donches about this thing called Google Search back in the late 1990s and, more recently, a social share by medical librarian and New Englander Sally Gore about the PrintFriendly tool. I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career working in the publishing and information service spaces, where I was lucky to rub elbows with librarians, who, besides teachers, may be the most under recognized professionals in our society. Which reminds me, there’s also this fantastic tool for cataloging your personal book collection called LibraryThing. A topic for another day!)

What are your favorite productivity tools, or best tips and practices?

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