Up your keyboard shortcut game with TextExpander

A few years ago on Unclutterer, we made a couple suggestions for increasing your computing productivity with keyboard shortcuts. I’m a huge fan of this practice and suggest everyone spend less time with the mouse and more time learning the keyboard-based equivalents of the tasks you perform most often. But, if you’re really ready to ramp up your keyboard wizardry, look no further than a program called TextExpander ($49.95).

TextExpander is a Mac utility that lets you replace one string of text with another. And do not fret, Windows users, I have not left you users out in the cold. PhraseExpress (starting at $49.95) is fully compatible with TextExpander, and syncs shortcuts between the two.

Also, I shouldn’t have to state this outright, but I’m going to: I pay for this utility myself, it’s what I use, and I’m not being compensated in anyway to write this product recommendation. Phew, now that’s out of the way …

Why would you want to use a utility like TextExpander? The short answer is that it saves you a lot of typing. Let’s say you own a small business and must produce a boilerplate email to customers who write requesting certain information. The response is just three short paragraphs long, but the time spent writing it over and over adds up. TextExpander lets you define a brief string of text, say “.response”. We’ll call that the trigger snippet. When you type .response, it’s immediately replaced with the three-paragraph email.

Or, let’s say you’re a developer who must use the same bits of code over and over. You can create a trigger snippet that’s replaced with the code in question, saving you time and reducing the likelihood of a typing error. As you use TextEpander you begin to realize its magic simplicity.

Today, I use TextExpander to:

  • Replace commonly misspelled words
  • Replace the surnames I often get wrong
  • Add a lengthy URL when I need to
  • Reduce the potential for human error when pasting complex code

TextExpander offers advanced features that make it even more useful. For example, you can opt to have it place your cursor at any point in the replacement text, which is great for those times when just one part will change. You can also turn it on or off in specific programs, so you don’t have to use it.

Struggling with keeping a journal

Two things I constantly fail at are keeping a journal and coffee.

I don’t like coffee. I simply dislike the taste. Oh, I’ll drink a cappa-frappa-pumpkin whatever with whipped cream and more calories than a bacon cheeseburger, but that’s not coffee. That’s a dessert masquerading as coffee. It’s the hot water filtered through ground beans that I just don’t like.

As someone who’s coffee-averse, I often feel like I’m missing out on a major social activity. People enjoy spending time together over a cup of coffee. Every few years I’ll try it again, hoping my tastes have changed, and every year the results are the same: I can’t finish one cup.

I have the same relationship with journaling.

I’ve read many articles and had several conversations with people, colleagues and those who’ve built careers around productivity and personal organization. They all say the same thing: It’s hugely beneficial to keep a journal. They’re not wrong, either.

A Huffington Post article earlier this year outlined 10 benefits of keeping a journal, including:

  1. Promotes progress toward goals
  2. Boosts memory and comprehension
  3. Strengthens one’s self-discipline

Academics agree, too. The University of Rochester Mental Health Center published an article on the practice of journaling and mental health, citing additional benefits. And writing down what you eat in your journal can even help you lose weight (if that’s something you want to do).

I believe in the benefits, yet there’s a disconnect. Each time I try to maintain a journal in earnest, I fizzle out.

Thinking the issue might be the tools, I’ve purchased very nice paper journals and top-rated software. I even got a special pen and designated a time of day for sitting down to record a journal entry. Despite these best efforts, a few things happened.

  1. I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say. “Drove the kids to ballet and soccer practice” is boring and, as far as I’m concerned, hardly worth putting in writing.
  2. I felt self-conscious, like a teenager keeping a diary.
  3. I decided to skip it because of either reason number one or two. Then I skipped another day, and another and soon enough I’m failing at journaling.

In many ways, a to-do list and calendar can be similar to a journal. They certainly record what I’m doing and my commitment levels. But it’s not the same. In fact, keeping a journal feels like one more thing cluttering up my to-do list.

Like so many things in life, keeping a journal requires motivation. So, if you maintain a journal, what keeps you motivated? Have any of you struggled to do the same, perhaps for similar reasons? Last, is it simply that journaling is not for me, and I should move on?

Perhaps we can discuss it over coffee.

A clean-slate office

Having recently started a new job, I’ve come into a real treat: a brand new workspace. A complete blank slate. It’s a rarity and a treat.

My first thought, of course, was to populate it with the tech and tools that I’ll need to get my work done. I started making a list when it dawned on me to stop, throw the list away and take an altogether different approach. Let experience dictate what I add. It’s been quite an eye-opening experience.

I started with the bare minimum: pens, some index cards, and a calendar. Big items like a computer and printer were supplied by my employer. Everything else I’ve added only when I’ve needed something.

First, I realized I needed my smartphone and a charging cable for it. Rather than schlep a charging cable back and forth every day between my home and office, I bought a cable to live at my desk. Next, once I knew for certain that wearing headphones was acceptable when working, I added a set of earbuds go my supplies. Nothing says, “Can’t talk, I’m working,” like a pair of headphones. Plus, I’m more productive and happy when listening to music.

(More on keeping wired earbuds under control.)

Next, I added software I wanted as I needed it. Unfortunately, there are strict policies on getting software approved for a corporate computer, so this process wasn’t instantaneous. Eventually, I received approval to to get all of the software I depend on, and they’re all browser-based cloud services. Namely:

Not only can I get to work with my preferred tools, all of my documents, preferences, etc. are in place.

It’s nice to start new and not have any software or equipment cluttering up my work. Instead of assuming I’ll need something, waiting until I actually need it has kept things to an appreciated minimum.

Of course, you don’t have to accept a new job to approach your office or workspace with a clean slate. Take a week or two and notice what you use and what you don’t. Write down what you need but don’t have, and finally observe what you have but never use. Then make adjustments. You just might end up with a tidier, more efficient and more productive work space.

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.

Turn your brain off and get to sleep

Unclutterer reader Jade recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

But my biggest issue is getting to bed earlier. I know sleep is important, and when I get enough I am amazingly productive. The problem is getting enough. Not easy to go to bed early when you are a natural night owl waking up at 5 am for work … No, I’m not getting a new job, I love it too much to do that. But the sleep deprivation is killing me.

I get home and I’m too exhausted to do anything, until bedtime, and then by brain won’t shut off!

Meanwhile, Lynn shared a similar concern:

Also I’m also a night owl and don’t get enough sleep which causes me to feel tired and not want to tidy up.

Here’s a problem with having a brain in your skull: human minds are like motors. A motor that loves to run and run and resists shutting down. My wife and I have both dealt with this problem of our minds wanting to go, go, go. We’re in bed, trying to fall asleep, but the motor keeps running and trying to process the week’s school activities, bills, work, and so on. It can be very aggravating.

My first piece of advice is to build some wind-down time into your evening. I’m a night owl (it’s 9:00 p.m. as I type this) and as such I feel productive and energetic after the sun sets. I know this means if I don’t take steps to help me get to sleep, I’ll be up until at least 11:00 p.m., if not later. Knowing my personality, I start my wind-down routine around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. I’ll read a bit or do another task that requires little thought. This gives me time to slow down.

I also have a nighttime routine. I started this after remembering back when my kids were babies. We got them ready for bed the same way every night: bath, stories, bed. This gave them time to wind down and the process itself helped their bodies and minds shift into sleep mode. I do the same with myself and it works: get changed, brush teeth, find clothes for the morning, and read by my little reading lamp. Same thing, every night if possible.

A few years ago I adopted a productivity routine that had a nice side effect of helping me get to sleep. Namely, before I leave my desk at the end of the day, I write down the things I must accomplish the next day. I like the organization, and my brain likes knowing that these important things have been parked where I’ll see them in the morning.

Lastly, here’s a trick I learned while studying as a college student: your bed isn’t the place for work. When I was in the dorm, space was at a premium and I’d often end up doing homework on my bed. That wasn’t a good idea, as I started to associate that area with work, when the bed is for sleep. Sit on the couch with your laptop, not your bed, if you want to be comfortable.

One final note: If this becomes a persistent problem, talk to your doctor or perhaps a specialist in behavioral sleep medicine. The above advice is obviously for the common human motor of a brain.

Struggles with GTD and possible solutions

Unclutterer reader MrsMack recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My … struggle is with the GTD method. I’ve read the book and I think it could work really well for me, but the required cleared-schedule, back-to-back two days to get started is so intimidating and too overwhelming. I don’t have the liberty to turn my life off for two days to work without interruption. How can I ease into this?

I first discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity when I was an IT Director at a residential school. That was a crazy job, as I was supporting about 80 computers, a network and more, including heading up the help desk for there school’s 100 employees. It was easy to feel overwhelmed and I often did. Fortunately, I discovered David Allen’s method.

Adopting it in earnest took a lot of work, not just in my own behavior but in the materials I was using. I felt it was worth the effort, but I also realized how much effort was involved. Processing everything in my work life to get “clean and clear” took days. Personally, I recommend taking time off and completing the work as he suggests. I found it saved me time and frustration over the longterm. However, I know this isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you genuinely don’t have two days to dedicate to this process, the following are the alternatives I suggest:

Pick the area that’s most in need of attention and focus on it for as long as you can (two hours? four?). You might have enough time to get your desk/work area and your work projects “clean and clear.” Then simply “GTD” (if I may use it as a verb) that aspect of your life. This will reduce the overwhelmed feeling and get you comfortable with the system, so that when you’re ready to tackle the next area, like that pesky garage, you’ll be an experienced machine.

I do believe in David Allen’s method, especially in the very real feeling of being on top of everything that comes from getting “clean and clear.” I also realize that GTD is not the best fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are several alternative methods you might find interesting or appealing.

Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done system. Leo created his Zen method specifically to address what he sees as “…the five problems many people have with GTD,” namely:

  1. GTD is a big change of habits
  2. GTD doesn’t focus enough on doing
  3. GTD is too unstructured for many people
  4. GTD tries to do too much
  5. GTD doesn’t focus enough on goals

If any of those five issues are ones you’re having with GTD, maybe Zen to Done is an alternative that could work for you.

Another program is Asian Efficiency’s Agile Results. I’m not super familiar with this method, but it’s been popping up on my radar off and on for a while now. Like Leo’s Zen to Done, Agile Results is more goal-focused than process focused.

While working on this article, I reached out to my buddy Mike Vardy of the website Productivityist. His “theming” method is quite compelling. To begin, look at what he calls the certainties in your week. For example, on Sunday, there will be no interruptions and the family will be home. On Monday through Friday, the kids are away, and on Saturday, the family is home. With those certainties identified, he creates themes based on the results:

Sunday: No interruptions, family-home
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Kids at daycare, wife at work
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Kids at daycare, wife home
Saturday: No interruptions, family-home

The final step is to “lock down,” as Mike puts it, the remaining days. His final themed schedule looks like this:

Sunday: Creative Day (Writing)
Monday: Administrative Work
Tuesday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Wednesday: Daddy Duty
Thursday: Meetings/Offsite Work
Friday: Creative Day (Writing/Recording)
Saturday: Family Day

It’s clever, and a part of a larger method of his Now Year formula. His alternate method might work for you.

Getting on top of everything can be a chore, but it’s well worth the effort irrespective of what method you ultimately decide to adopt.

Using batch processing for your professional social media accounts

Years ago, I learned a lesson from ProBlogger that has helped me effectively and efficiently use Twitter for my work. The lesson is part productivity, part organization, and perfect for Unclutterer: working in batches.

Way back in 2008, blogger Darren Rowse wrote about the benefits of organizing your outstanding tasks into similar batches, and then addressing each batch individually:

In my understanding of the term ‘batch processing’ it was always used to describe systems (usually computerized ones) where data was collected together for a period of time before it was processed. Instead of doing every small ‘job’ as it arrived jobs were ‘queued’ or collected until the computer was ready to process them all at once. This meant that the computer could do these ‘batches’ of jobs all at once when it would otherwise be idle.

Darren started to batch outstanding tasks — writing, processing email, social bookmarking and so on — and found that getting these done in a burst of energy freed up time for other, more taxing activities later. Today, I use that advice to great effect while tweeting for Apple World Today.

I’m in charge of the Twitter account at Apple World Today (among other things). To provide an interesting experience for our followers, I’ve created a list of daily themed tweets, as well as a schedule for when they’ll be published. Over the weekend, I sit down and write what will be our tweets for the week. Getting this done ahead of time frees me up to concentrate on the myriad other things I have to do and, I’ll be honest, it feels so good knowing this task is done.

The following is the theme schedule I follow:

  • Monday: Funny stuff to start the week off right. Amusing photos, videos, etc.
  • Tuesday: Behind the scenes. A look at what my colleagues and I are working on, like articles in progress.
  • Wednesday: Informative or surprising tweets. Quickie how-to tweets or tips that are 140 characters long, or little tips that people can use right away. People love these, and they take the most thought from me.
  • Thursday: Retweet interesting content from followers and share relevant industry news.
  • Friday: A look at our work culture. Unlike on Wednesdays, Friday posts focus on my colleagues and I as people. You’ll see us with our dogs (or cats), at the cafe and so on.

Even if you don’t tweet as part of your job, batch processing tasks can be an extremely effective way to organize your tasks. However, those of us with “Twitter” on our job descriptions will certainly benefit from devising a formal schedule and “batching” time to sit and write the week’s tweets. You’ll get time to formally sit and consider how you’re using social media, you’ll free up time for other tasks during the week, and you can practice your organizing skills, too. As Michael Scott would say, that’s a win/win/win situation.

Sleep and productivity

Yesterday, Jacki Hollywood Brown’s article explored the relationship between music and productivity. Today, I want to continue with another productivity booster, which has been called the “third pillar of health,” sleep.

The relationship between sleep and productivity seems obvious: adequate sleep means you’ll have enough energy and focus for the coming day. While that’s true, there is much more to it than that.

A 1999 study discussed at 2013’s Corporate Sleep Health Summit demonstrates that a lack of sleep can affect not only productivity, but innovation. After losing just one night’s sleep, subjects experienced “…particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information.” While most people don’t regularly lose an entire night’s sleep, consider that many driven business people and entrepreneurs wear their four and five hours of sleep like a badge of honor.

Meanwhile, a BBC study suggests that deep sleep “makes room” in your brain for the next day. “One of the main things the brain is doing [during deep sleep] is moving memories from short-term storage into long-term storage,” the study claims, “allowing us more short-term memory space for the next day. If you don’t get adequate deep sleep then these memories will be lost.” Ever forget some crucial information for that big meeting? An extra hour of sleep could be the remedy.

Now that I’ve described just some of the benefits of a restful night’s sleep, I want to point out some technology that will help you hit the hay.

Sleepy Fan ($1.99, iPhone). When I was a kid, I spent summer nights falling asleep to the sound of a large box fan, not unlike this one. I fell in love with is steady hum, and today I use the Sleepy Fan app in its place. It offers three fan types to choose from, and even lets you adjust the sound itself.

The FitBit has a feature that lets you track your sleep. When paired with a smartphone app, it lets you view data on your previous night’s rest, including restful moments and when you were fidgeting.

The Philips Wake-up Light is a nice alternative for those who dislike being jarred awake by a screeching alarm. Over a period of 30 minutes, the Wake-up Light gradually brightens itself from dark to a custom illumination level (up to 250 lux) and provides pleasant audio.

You can get a good night’s sleep, listen to music appropriate to your task at hand, and enjoy a satisfyingly productive day.

Schedule time to schedule your time

As a part of my 2014 personal audit, I revamped my daily routine. I scheduled time for everything I’ve got my hands in, both professional and personal. Writing for Unclutterer, writing for TUAW, work on the Home Work podcast and Board Games Weekly, attending to the kids, and other family matters (like leading Cub Scouts, various pick-ups and drop-offs, even evening blocks of time to spend with the family). After all this scheduling you’d think I’m squeaky clean, right? Well, almost. I failed to schedule time to schedule time.

It sounds silly, but it’s crucial. In the course of a day, several things happen. I complete tasks. I gain new ones. “Stuff” comes in that I must attend to, like dates to remember, papers to review, emails … you get the picture. All of it must be dealt with, even if that simply amounts do deciding what’s trash and what must be done with the rest. I built a great system during my personal audit, minus the time to react to the ever-changing demands of modern professional and personal life. The following is how I’m fixing this oversight.


The “what” here is a combination of new information that arrives during the day, as well as progress on existing projects and actions. A regular review of how I’ve organized and categorized my stuff is quite beneficial, too.

I’m not suggesting you obsess over your lists, as that’s counter productive. But regular mini reviews are helpful to determine where you stand.


For me, early in the morning is not the right time to create an updated schedule. It seems tempting to sit down and say, “All right, let’s see what we’ve got today.” I get overwhelmed or distracted in that situation, and the next thing I know it’s 9:00 and I’m still fiddling with what I should be doing instead of working. Instead, I update the schedule for the following day at the end of my work day. For example:


After dinner on weeknights, my wife and I complete the same tasks. Review the kids’ backpacks. Make sure papers are signed/reviewed, etc. Next, we have the kids make snacks for the next day and pick out what they’ll wear to school. Mornings are stressful enough without having to run around the house trying to find clean socks. Again. For the hundredth time. Sigh. So, getting these tasks done in the evening is a huge stress reliever.

The same goes for work. In the evening, I identify and list what I’m going to do the next day. I rest easier and can get right to work in the morning.


I also added “fiddle time” to my schedule around midday. During this time I check off items I completed in the morning (a terrific feeling), review any incoming stuff that arrived since the morning, and finally review how I’ve categorized/organized existing items. It only takes a few minutes and now that I’ve scheduled daily time for it, I get it done and feel much more relaxed going into the afternoon.

Finally, repeat these steps when your work day is almost over and you’re energy reserves are running low. Then, schedule tomorrow.


Because reviewing an organized list of to-do actions and projects can reduce a lot of stress. Even when I feel I’ve got an overwhelming amount of stuff to do, the knowledge that I’ve got it categorized, sorted, and into my trusted system gives me a very real sense of being on top of things.

It’s great to have an effective to-do system that you love — just don’t forget to take the time to attend to it. You’ll be glad you did.

Todoist is a task manager with two cool tricks

We’ve covered some nice productivity software over the years, like TeuxDeux and Due. Today, I want to point out Todoist, not only because it’s nearly ubiquitous, attractive, and effective, but because it has two features I think are really great. The following reasons are why Todoist is the digital project manager that has my attention these days.

It’s everywhere

Okay, so this isn’t one of the cool tricks but it’s something very much worth mentioning. Todoist boasts that it’s available on 13 platforms and devices. I’ve been using it on my Mac and iPhone, but you’ll also find options for Android and Windows, plus extensions for Chrome, Firefox, Outlook, Gmail and more. In my experience, synchronization between my computer and phone is lightning fast.

Import and export

Todoist lets you make color-coded projects and tasks, complete with tags, due dates, repeating events and so much more. It’s great-looking and effective. What’s really cool is its ability to import and export templates.

Here’s how this time-saving feature works:
When you create a new project, it’ll probably have several steps that must be ticked off before the thing can be marked as done. You can be really thorough, like me, and add due dates, contexts, color coding and more. Sometimes there will be a project that you’ll do over and over. A good example is the podcast I run at 5by5. Each week I go through the exact same steps, from scheduling to research and publication. I could add those steps to a project week after week, or I could just use a template.

Once a project is set up exactly how you like it, select “Export template” from within Todoist. It converts all those steps into a simple text file, with all my customization intact. I can store it wherever I want, and opting to import it sets up that project all over again, and all I had to do was click a single command.

There’s a great post on the Todoist blog that features several templates that are ready to import and use, including holiday gift shopping, pre-Christmas organizing, a holiday party plan, and even one for travel. I’m using the Christmas organization one now, and have saved the travel template for the future. This feature saves me so much time.

Karma points

I promised you two tricks, and the second one is something I should not like as much as I do. As you complete tasks, Todoist awards you with “karma points.” The more you use the app, the more points you receive. There are several ranks to earn and a pretty chart. Ignore the app or fail to complete tasks on time, and you’ll start to lose points. Yes, it’s 100 percent gimmicky and silly, but I totally get excited when I see my point total climb.

There are a huge number of project management apps available, and Todoist is only one of them. But I love its clean looks, near ubiquitous access and fantastic templates. You can use Todoist for free as long as you like, or upgrade to the premium version for $29 per year. I’ve found it to be definitely worth the expense.

Organize a mini office for on-the-go productivity

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home. Despite the battles with distraction, it’s a real luxury that I definitely appreciate. I’d wager that those of you who don’t complete your 9–5 at home still have a home office, computer room, command center, or some such other space that you use to attend to professional and personal management tasks.

Although these home work spaces are helpful, it’s inevitable you’ll be ejected from it at some point. Flaky internet, construction right outside your window, your kid who needs to do research for a school project, your neighbor’s dog that just won’t stop barking … these factors can make your sacred space less than amenable to productivity. Fear not! There are many public options available, and early organization and preparation will make it easy to head out the door and get back to work. The following are insights into how I’ve organized a mini, portable office.

First, identify the equipment you’ll need, and then whittle the list down to the most essential. For example, I’d love to bring my laptop, folding stand, Bluetooth keyboard, and Bluetooth mouse to an off-site work session, but all I need to work is the laptop. Sure the trackpad stinks, but not as badly as hauling all of that stuff around. The idea here is to travel light.

I also bring a notebook and a pen, both small. I know myself well enough at this point to understand that I like to scribble and doodle random thoughts and tasks during my work day. Lastly, I grab a charger for the laptop and a charging cable for my iPhone. I put the lot into a bag and I’m good to go as soon as the jackhammer starts pounding out my window.

Or am I?

In addition to the items listed above, these next few items really make it a killer setup. Consider putting these things into your own bag to reach the next level of mobile office work.

  1. A little cash. Many people use a coffee shop or cafe as a backup office. Most proprietors welcome laptop warriors, as long as they buy some things in their shop. Save yourself a trip to the ATM by popping $5 or $10 in your bag now. Yes, the cafe likely accepts debit cards, but cash makes it easier to tip the staff. As a camper, you want to stay on everyone’s good side.
  2. A power strip. These are bulky, but hear me out on my justification for packing one. I like to work from my local library. It has free WiFi, huge tables, and very few power outlets. When I approach a crowded table and plug a six-socket power strip into the wall, I become The Hero of the Library. Try it yourself and bask in the glory of your appreciative peers.
  3. An extra AC adapter for your laptop. This one is a bit pricey but it’s worth it. The adapter I plug my laptop into at home is entwined in an under-desk cord manager and getting it out is a pain. Keeping one in the bag saves time and aggravation.
  4. A charging cable for your phone. You don’t want your phone to die, and you can’t always predict when you’ll be out or for how long. I don’t pack a wall adapter for my phone, as I’ll just connect it to my laptop which has its own USB adapter.
  5. A pair of headphones. This super useful item is the universal signal for, “Leave me alone, I’m busy.” You needn’t even listen to music if you don’t want to (unless the cafe’s radio station is especially awful).

I recommend packing this stuff into a bag right away and just letting it sit. When it’s time to go, prep time will be minimal and you’ll be on the road to productivity (and maybe a latte) in no time.

Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.