Organizational tips from top tech CEOs

Tim Cook (Apple CEO), Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder and CEO) are some of the biggest names in business. It’s likely that their products touch your life every day. With such a tremendous amount of responsibility, how do these titans stay organized and on top of everything they need to do?

Late last year, TIME magazine published a look at how high-profile tech CEOs stay organized. I love articles like this since a peek at such high-level organization and productivity is rare…and often surprisingly simple. The following are my favorite insights from the article.

Jack Dorsey gives each day a theme. Mondays are for management tasks, Tuesdays for focusing on products, and so on. I’ve set aside a day for administration type work, but never thought of giving each weekday a theme and, therefore, a focus.

Meanwhile, Marissa Mayer (president and CEO of Yahoo) looks to the impromptu moments that happen between meetings and scheduled get-togethers to spark meaningful ideas. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” she wrote to her employees in 2013.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg embraces the power of creating goals for himself. In 2010, for example, he set out to learn Mandarin Chinese. Just four years later, he stunned an audience at China’s Tsinghua University by conducting a 30-minute interview entirely in their native language.

Finally, Wendy Lea, CEO of Get Satisfaction, makes a point to empty her mind and spend time on reflection. “I take 15 minutes every morning for contemplation and to empty my mind. I take a bag full of thoughts I need cleared and each morning I pick one out, read it, and send it down the river near my house.”

I love this one as it seems we spend less and less time in quiet reflection, processing the day’s activities, lessons and challenges. It’s so easy to succumb to the temptation to fill every quiet moment with a smartphone or an app that there’s no time to let your mind work on what needs attention. I’m going to adopt this practice and intentionally make myself stop, reflect, and process each day.

Simple, powerful organizing advice

Last week, I came across a helpful article from 2007 on Zen Habits about 27 simple organizing habits. Twenty-seven is a lot of habits, but one of them (a three-parter) really struck me as being essential for an uncluttered life. If you’re looking for straightforward and easy advice to follow, consider adding Leo’s #21 as basic habits to your every day routines:

  1. Write things down
  2. Execute
  3. Tidy up along the way

Write things down

The act of writing things down helps you remember details. Think of the notes you took in college or the shopping list you can “see” in you head. Today more and more people are producing digital notes, but research suggests that’s not the best method as far as recall is concerned.

In 2014, the Association for Psychological Science conducted a study on note-taking and recall. A group of students were told to take notes on a lecture. Half of the subjects used a laptop while the others used pen and paper. While both groups memorized the same number of facts, the pen-and-paper group outperformed their counterparts in tests on the material. Why? It could be because writing is slower.

A recent study by Scientific American suggests that, in a note-taking scenario, we can’t possibly write everything down verbatim. Instead, we must listen closely and record key words or concepts that represent what’s being said in a meaningful way. Conversely, speedy typing lets us “drone out” and record everything, as if simply taking dictation.

Execute

Procrastination is a vile, seductive monster. While beneficial procrastination is possible, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Stop procrastinating and take time to do what must be done and simply do it. I start each day with my three MITs, or Most Important Tasks. When they’re complete, everything else I tackle that day is a bonus.

Tidy up along the way

I recently revealed here on Unclutterer that the tidy life doesn’t come easy for me. As such, I really dislike the idea of an entire Saturday spent cleaning. That’s why I’ve adopted the habit of tidying up along the way. It requires almost no additional effort and is immensely helpful.

Walking upstairs? Grab that book that goes on the upstairs bookshelf. Going outside? Put the recycling on the curb. All of these tiny tasks add almost no time to what you’re already doing, are super simple, and have a huge impact on the state of things in your home and office.

Big thanks to Leo at Zen Habits for inspiring this post. Three simple ideas — write it down, execute, and tidy up — can have a massive improvement on your surroundings and your day. If you make them a part of your routine, you’ll enjoy the results.

Organize your email inbox with SaneBox

For many, dealing with email can be a full-time job. New messages arrive before you’ve attended to the old. What’s worse is that messages can be lost, misdirected, or marked as spam and unintentionally end up in the trash, and finding the important emails among so many duds is a real time-waster. In my constant pursuit to get email under control, I’ve found a fantastic service that I’ve been using for months now that is helping me to effectively deal with my email woes, and it is called SaneBox.

To use SaneBox, simply create an account by entering the email address you wish to tame. Right away, SaneBox begins analyzing your email history, noticing the addresses you respond to, and those you don’t.

Right here I want to address the security questions that some of you probably have. When I started researching this software, my first question was, “Wait, they’re accessing my email?” Well, no. First, email never leaves your server. SaneBox does not take possession of your messages. Also, they only look at the email headers, which are composed of the sender, receipt, and subject. They look at the patterns in your email behavior (messages you’ve opened, responded to, etc.). In other words, they’re not reading or downloading your email. Phew.

Back to the service. When the setup process is finished, SaneBox creates a new folder in your email software for you called @SaneLater. The messages flagged as “unimportant” during that initial analysis are moved there. The rest, or the “important” messages, are left right in your main inbox as usual. The result: you only see the messages that mean the most when you glance at your inbox. This has saved me huge amounts of time.

Messages moved to @SaneLater aren’t deleted, so don’t worry. They’re simply in a new folder. While SaneBox is learning, it might place a message in @SaneLater that you consider important. In that case, simply move that message to your Inbox and future messages from that sender will stay in your Inbox. After a few days of training, I just let it go with my full trust. I’ve gone from around 40 messages per day to six or seven.

There are other options beyond the @SaneLater folder, all of which are optional. @SaneBlackhole ensures you never see future messages from a certain sender. @SaneReplies is my favorite folder. It stores messages I’ve sent that haven’t yet elicited a response. @SaneTomorrow and @SaneNextWeek let you defer messages that aren’t important today, but will be.

What’s nice is that SaneLater doesn’t care if you’re using Mac OS X, Windows, iOS or Android. It also sends you a digest (at a frequency you determine) of how messages have been sorted, in case you want to make any adjustments.

SaneBox offers a 14-day free trial. After that, there are several pricing tiers, available on a monthly, yearly or bi-yearly schedule.

Build a time buffer into your schedule

Under-scheduling your day — even by just 30 minutes — can be an effective method for keeping to your schedule all day.

I’ve been working from home, in one capacity or another, since 2009. Six years’ experience has allowed me to come up with many great organizational and productivity tricks, and one of the most effective strategies is essentially accounting for the unpredictable.

I’m a big fan of routine and scheduling. I know when I’m going to work on a given project or area of focus. Before I go to bed at night, I review what must be done the next day. That’s a great way to eliminate the dreaded “what should I work on first/now?” questions. By the time you sit at your desk, you should be ready to go.

But that’s not my favorite trick. I schedule nothing — not a single task — for the last hour of the day. This “time buffer” is handy in so many ways. A last-second appointment come up? No problem. Kids need to be picked up from school? Got it. Even if nothing comes up, you’ve now got to time to process email, work up your schedule for tomorrow, maybe even relax a bit and decompress for the day.

It’s easy to schedule every minute of the day, and even over-schedule. Try building in a time buffer each day for a week to see if it’s beneficial to your effectiveness and productivity. I suspect it will be.

Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Get your keys under control with Key Smart

Every now and then I come across a product that’s so cool and so in line with an uncluttered and organized lifestyle, I think, “I can’t wait to share this with the Unclutterer readers!” Today, that product is the Key Smart. Starting at $38.98), this device is a tidy, effective way to neatly store all of your keys. It’s made of aircraft aluminum, looks great, and easily swaps keys in and out.

I’ve managed to trim the number of keys I carry around to two, but a few years ago I looked like an old-time jailer with my house keys, shed key, various work keys, and keys for the car all in one obnoxious, noisy, and inefficient key ring. Finding what I needed meant a minute of standing and fiddling.

Now, I look at the Key Smart and wish I had had it back then. To attach a key, simply remove the two screws, place your key inside and then replace the screws and aluminum cover. When assembled, the Key Smart looks and operates much like a pocket knife (which I also love). Fold out the key you want, open your lock, and then fold it back into place. The whole unit slips into a pocket without becoming a jangle-y mess.

The manufacturers even sell add-on accessories, like a USB flash drive (by the way, if you have extra USB flash drives, consider ideas for what to do with them) and a quick-release clip if you like to keep your keys on your hip.

The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

Timer
I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Printer
Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

The power in 15 minutes

Uncluttering is a lifelong endeavor. Perfection is not the goal, especially in a working home, and time is often a rare commodity in a busy home. Recently, I’ve been working to see how much I can get done in a small amount of time, and how good I can feel about the results. I’ve found that 15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to be productive and not feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment.

I started this experiment by cleaning the closet for half an hour without pause. I went about this logically, as I wanted measurable results. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and got to it.

It went well, but two things happened. First, my interest started to wane around the 20 minute mark. Other tasks — tidying the kitchen or the laundry room — took less than the 30 minutes I set aside, so I either ended early or started a second project that put me over my 30-minute limit.

Next, I dropped it down to 20-minute intervals with a smilier effect. Ultimately, I dropped down to 15 minutes, and it has been exactly what I needed.

I’ve stuck with this number for a few reasons. First, it’s quite easy to work for 15 minutes without getting distracted by something else. Second, I’ve been amazed at how many tasks only take about 15 minutes. I’ve been able to completely organize my desk reducing visual clutter, get laundry folded and put away, organize the kids’ stuff for the next day, and so on.

I also found that 15 minutes is perfect for doing one of my favorite things: a mind dump. I take a pen, a piece of paper, and the time to simply write down everything that’s on my mind — it is so liberating and productive. Even an overwhelming list of to-do items can seem manageable when you’ve got it written down. There’s a sense of being “on top of it” that comes with performing a mind dump, all in 15 minutes.

Find a timer and discover what length of time is good for your for completing most projects. You might find that 10 minutes works for you, or 20. The point is that when you say, “I’m going to work on this and only this for [x] minutes,” you’ll be surprised at what you can get done.

Organizing now to save time in the future

I recently heard a podcast where a former high school teacher was talking about how he prepared his lessons. He spent a lot of time preparing PowerPoint slides (with speaker notes) and practicing his delivery so he knew it worked well and fit the time he had. He said other teachers thought he was a bit odd for doing this much work, but his reply was that he’d much rather spend the time up front to save the time later. Once the lesson materials were created, he could pick up the same materials the next day or the next year and be ready to go.

As I listened to this, I thought about how so much organizing involves just this: doing some up-front work so things work smoothly in the future.

  • You create filing systems so you can find the papers (or computer files) you want when you need them.
  • You organize your books on bookshelves so you can find the book you want without too much trouble.
  • You organize your first aid supplies and create disaster preparation plans so you know you’re set for any future emergency.
  • You create to-do lists and checklists so you won’t forget critical things at some future time. For example, a packing list created once saves time on all future trips. It also prevents the trouble you’d have if you forgot your passport, some critical medications, the charger for your cell phone, etc.

Thinking about investing time now to save time in the future helps when trying to decide just how organized is “organized enough.” It makes sense for a teacher to invest extra time in lesson preparation when he knows he’ll be teaching the same lesson many times in the future.

Similarly, sometimes it’s worth spending more time on a filing system than other times. Some papers get accessed frequently, and others (such as insurance policies) are not needed that often — but when you do need them, the situation is critical. With those items it makes sense to spend time creating a well thought out filing system that lets you put your hands on the right papers almost immediately.

But other papers might be much less critical. For example, you may need to keep certain papers for legal reasons, but you don’t expect to ever have to access them — and if you do, the need won’t be all that time-sensitive. In that situation, you may want a much less detailed filing system, because it’s not worth the time to do anything elaborate. For example, a big collection of related papers (such as receipts for a given year) could just go into a Bankers Box. As long as the box was properly labeled, you could always find any papers you might need, in the off chance you do have to find any of them.

And consider your books — how organized do they need to be? My books are arranged by category (history, art, mysteries, science fiction, etc.). I’ll usually keep books by the same author together in a category, but I don’t do any further organizing within a category because I can find a book pretty quickly with just the system I have. If it gives you great pleasure to organize your books quite precisely, that’s fine — organize to your heart’s delight! But the rest of us can choose to be less structured.

As you’re creating each of your organizing systems, stop and think: Are you making a good trade-off between the time you’ll save in the future and the time you’re spending up front?

What to do with old USB flash drives

I’ve got an army of old flash-based thumb drives in a drawer and it’s time to put them to work. The following are ideas for what to do with these drives if you’re like me and now rely mostly on transferring files through the cloud (via Dropbox or similar).

Encrypted vault of secret files

I’m a big fan of Knox for Mac. It does several cool tricks including reformatting thumb drives to be secure, password-protected volumes. Perhaps you’re traveling for business and don’t want to take any chances with sensitive information. Maybe you’ve got info from multiple clients on a single drive and need to ensure they don’t get mixed up. Or, perhaps you want to pretend you’re an international spy. Whatever the reason, Knox keeps that information very secure indeed. You can even put a copy of the Knox app itself on the drive, so if you’re using it on a Mac without Knox installed, you can still open the volume (and Spotlight on that machine won’t index it, either).

Portable apps

So-called “portable apps” are light versions of software that don’t need to be installed on a host computer to run. By installing them on a thumb drive, you know you’ll be able to run the software you need when you’re away from you main computer. Some examples of portable apps include:

Audio books for the car

Many car stereos now feature a USB port for accessing media via the vehicle’s stereo or in-dash entertainment system. If you like listening to audio books like I do, you know that they can take up a lot of space on your digital audio player. Why not put them on a thumb drive and keep it in the car? That way you’ll have several of your favorite audiobooks available during long trips without taking up space on your smartphone or digital audio player.

Fun gifts

Need a gift for a family member or friend? CNET suggests adding music, photos, videos and other files that someone will find meaningful to a drive and then giving it as a gift. The recipient can even take those files off of the drive, put them somewhere for safe keeping and then have a nice thumb drive to use.

Press kit

I’ve received several press kits on customized thumb drives. They’ve contained a working version of a piece of software, a PDF of a press release, high-resolution graphics to use in a review, and more. Often the drives themselves bear a company logo. It’s a nice way to share such information and, like the gift idea, leaves the recipient with a nice drive to use.

Donate

Check with your local school, scout groups, camps, and other non-profit organizations to see if they need any drives. My kids needed them at school and camp recently. Just be sure to erase them thoroughly before handing them over.

Calendly is fantastic for easy, organized scheduling

I recently wrote about a few tech options for busy summer scheduling. After that article was published, I ran across Calendly, and now I’m wishing I could to back in time and mention that app in that post.

Seeing as time travel is not yet possible, I’ve decided to mention the app independently. I’m loving Calendly because it’s a hands-off, passive solution for scheduling. It lets you share a single link with potential collaborators, and it automatically accounts for what you already have on your schedule.

When you first create an account, you can link Calendly to Google Calendar or Microsoft’s Office 365. Once the accounts are linked, the app’s features are pretty impressive.

Let’s say you’re trying to schedule a time to talk with someone on Skype. All you need to do is send a person your personal Calendly link, and the service looks at your calendar and sees when you’re free. The person you’re trying to get together with can click any day, and Calendly automatically offers your available time slots to that person, based on what’s on your calendar. They click the one that works for them, adding an event to your calendar and sending you a notification.

As you add more calendar events, your availability in Calendly changes in real time. I’ve been using it for a week now and am hooked.

Note that there is both a free and a paid plan. The latter offers features like team scheduling, automated reminders, and an option to remove the Calendly branding, should you be using the service for business.

Shuffling cards: a mindless activity to enhance creativity

Many people have mindless activities they engage in when they need to think. Some shoot hoops, others go for a walk, and I shuffle cards. I keep five decks of cards at my desk for the sole purpose of giving me something mindless to do when I need to formulate a post idea, work through a problem, or figure out whatever it is that has me stuck with my writing. I know I’m not alone in my shuffling (or walking or hoops playing) or really wasting time, because scientists have found that a little mindless activity actually enhances creative work.

However, visual clutter distracts me from my work, and can even get me feeling uneasy. As a result, I must have a tidy work area, free of extraneous stuff. Therefore, I have to keep the cards stored nicely in their packs and in a contained area so they don’t interfere when I need to stay focused on my mindful work. (There are organizers that hold as few as two decks to thousands of cards.)

We’ve talked in the past about filing being a good mindless activity to let you accomplish a to-do item on your work list, while not focusing on mindful work. Scanning, sorting, and shredding are other mindless, yet productive tasks. Shuffling cards doesn’t help me get anything else off my to-do list, but it certainly helps me think and solve my work problems, so I’m not about to give it up. What mindless activities do you do to help you think and enhance your creativity and overall productivity at work? Also, how do you organize any stuff related to your mindless activity? Alternating between mindless and mindful activities is great, so if you don’t do something right now, check out comments from our readers to see if there might be a mindless activity that is perfect for you.