Three tips and apps that have improved my productivity

As an independent worker, I’m learning to be the manager, technician, and boss of “Dave, Inc.” I’m also a devotee of productivity tools (read: junkie) and I’ve tried most of the major systems, techniques, and software. By far, the most effective strategy I’ve adopted is also the simplest, and possibly the oldest: write things down. Not only does it reduce the stress of possibly forgetting something important, it also helps answer the question, “What should I work on now?”

I write things down all day, from capturing ideas to outlining articles and ideas. However, the most important list is the one I make right before bed.

Every night, I review what I’ve accomplished and what’s outstanding. Next, I write down the three most important tasks that I must complete the next day. This practice has two main benefits. First, it shuts off my brain. Tell me if this sounds familiar: your body is ready to go to sleep but your brain decides it’s party time! So it starts to review everything that needs to be done. Good times! When I’ve got those things out of my brain and committed to a list that I’ll see in the morning, the plug gets pulled on that party.

Second, it lets me avoid the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to begin. Many of us have 10, 20, or more outstanding projects. It can be hard to know where to start when you have so many. Deciding before I sit down helps alleviate that feeling and provide direction.

Conversely, approaching the workday without a list of observable, clearly-defined actions creates one of two scenarios. Either you’ll attend to every distraction that pops into your mind and make insignificant progress on many projects, or you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time on a project that’s less critical than others.

Every night between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., I review my project lists and pick the three mission-critical tasks that MUST be completed the following day. Then, I gather 5–6 other tasks that can wait a day but would be the icing on the cake if completed within the next 24 hours.

I then take a pen and a notebook and write them down. This simple practice reduces my anxiety tremendously, lets me sleep, and gives me direction in the morning. When it’s noon and I’ve completed all three critical tasks, I feel fantastic.

There are a huge number of tools available for creating such a list of actions. I use David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner. It lets me create a list, track how much time I actually spend on each (instead of my estimate), and gather incoming “stuff” as it shows up. It’s super useful.

Of course, most computers come with a quick note-type app. If you’re happy with just a bullet list, give it a try.

I’ve also started exploring these other programs:

The Pomodoro Technique. I use a modified implementation of this method. At its heart, it’s a way to alternate timed work sessions with break sessions. I work for 25 minutes straight and then take a 5-minute break. When the break’s over, I start again with another 25-minute work session. After three rotations, the break extends to 15 minutes, the I go back to 25 on, 5 off.

Mac users who want to try it out will love BreakTime. This unobtrusive utility lives in my Menu Bar and times your work/break sessions all on its own. Others should consider Focus Booster, a free, browser-based timer that looks great and works well.

Boomerang for Gmail. I usually check email at 9:00 a.m., noon and then 2:00 p.m. I, like so many others, had become a slave to the inbox and I don’t want to do that anymore. I use Gmail for a lot of work-related email, and Boomerang lets me schedule when I interact with it. I can determine when messages will be sent, but even better, select when I want to see certain messages. During my morning sweep, I can use Boomerang to remind me of certain messages while I’m processing email again at noon.

Like many of you, I’m still struggling with the best way to manage all of this. These practices and apps have helped quite a bit. If you’re doing something similar (or completely different), let me know.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been completing my three mandatory tasks by 3:00. It feels great.

6 Comments for “Three tips and apps that have improved my productivity”

  1. posted by Cathy Severson on

    I love systems and am right struggling to get some in place that are workable for me. You provide some great suggestions. I’m going to spend some time going over them to see how I can incorporate them. I’ll let you know.

  2. posted by Dan Erickson on

    I mostly work out of my brain, but then I may not have the same amount of responsibility as some as I’m just a college instructor and a writer. I’ve heard a lot about Evernote but have not tried it.

  3. posted by GingerGrapefruit on

    I use which incorporates Pomidoro. Kanban Flow basic is free and all I need for my needs.
    The only thing w/ Kanban is that the sound is only at beginning and end of the Pomidoro timer , so I run my desktop Focus Booster if I need to hear continuous ticking.

  4. posted by Downsizer Sandy on

    Night plans don’t work for me. They change over night. First in the morning is best for me. I find that this MORNING listing works for me:I rotate between:
    1. 15 minutes: what I NEED to get done for others and $ reviews
    2. non timed: “file and walk” two items, respond to one mail.
    3. 15 minutes: what I WANT to get done: ebay listing and my two blogs postings and reading my fav blogs like this one
    As you can see retirees still need timing!Since I don’t like my techy things telling me WHEN to do things I use and carry around a kitchen timer and can hear it anywhere I am.

  5. posted by Roberta on

    I already use Focus Booster (though in my head I call it Focus Buster). I don’t like cont. ticking so only use it when it starts and at my break time. I LOVE Boomerang; need to use it more to better deal with my inbox – in fact, need to UNSUBSCRIBE from a lot (but not Unclutterer!). Thanks for the tips.

  6. posted by Jeffrey Allen on

    I recently found 2 great iPhone apps which have greatly improved my productivity and reduced my stress.

    Mailbox is a great iPhone app for scheduling when you read email. It lets you snooze emails until later today, tonight, tomorrow, this weekend, next week, in a month, and someday… They disappear form your inbox until then, at which point they reappear. The idea is to easily get to “inbox zero” by scheduling the emails that you don’t want to handle right now. I love it. Things never get lost in the bottom of my inbox anymore, and I feel like I’m ahead instead of behind. is a great iPhone app for scheduling tasks. It’s easy to add things and give them general deadlines. It promots you to organize your day in the morning, and you quickly push all your tasks into time slots or push them to tomorrow, next week, etc. It’s so light weight and easy. For me, it’s realistic scheduling which keeps me focused on the important tasks. I can put off tasks as long as I want, easily and guilt free.

    Both apps are free. 🙂

Comments are closed.