It seems like there’s a new one every week: an app or a gadget that’s supposed to be the “magic bullet” when it comes to getting or staying organized and productive. Maybe you’ve even tried a few of the latest high-tech solutions yourself, only to abandon them when they didn’t deliver the results you expected.
For this article, we spoke to Maura Thomas, a TEDx Speaker, author of two books on productivity, and founder of RegainYourTime.com to find out her productivity secrets. She told us about five tools she loves and recommends to her clients. Her choices surprised us! And, she gave us a pro tip about why we have dozens of apps on our phone that we never use.
Maura started out by asking us, “Have you ever downloaded an app because someone told you it was great? Then you entered a few things into it, but never opened it again? It’s probably not because the app wasn’t useful.”
Then, she used a golf analogy to make her point: If you’re a golfer, you know that buying a fancy new set of clubs won’t suddenly make you a better player. You have to master the fundamentals of the game first: your grip, your stance, your swing. Then, once you’re a solid player, investing in high-quality equipment takes your game to the next level. The same is true for productivity. The first step isn’t choosing your tools. It’s establishing a need. Pay attention to those times when you find yourself saying, “I wish I could do…” or “I need help with…”
Maura pointed out that productivity apps and software aren’t all calendars and to-do lists, although she does think those are critical. Some of her favorites enhance your productivity in surprising ways, and she shared her top five unconventional choices.
You may already be using Google’s mail and calendar to stay productive and organized. But Google has another powerful productivity tool that’s less well known. Google Voice can be a huge help if your work life tends to invade your personal life. With Google Voice, you get a phone number and voicemail account. Using a Google Voice number can keep you from having to share your personal info with a work contact when you’d really prefer not to. You can also use it to transcribe your voicemails and send them to you via email. That gives you more control about how and when your work intrudes on your life outside of business hours. Google Voice is web-based, free, and has apps for both iOS and Android. (Pro tip: Dial work calls from the app on your phone, and your caller ID shows your Google Voice number, not your personal cell phone number.)
We all complain about how email gets in the way of productivity. Throttle helps make your inbox more manageable. With this tool, you never have to give your real email address to a website again. Throttle can also compile your emails into a daily digest that it sends to you at a time you choose. It’s a great solution for wrangling emails you do want (like newsletters or discount offers from your favorite merchants) but that you don’t want to distract or overwhelm you as they fill your inbox throughout the day. Maura also uses another email management tool,SpamDrain, along with Throttle, to deal with senders that already have her email address. Throttle is web-based, $49-$99/year, and has a free iOS app. SpamDrain is $16.99/year per email address and has free apps for both iOS and Android.
Productivity isn’t always about doing, says Maura. It’s also about giving your mind the restorative, regenerative time you need to perform at your best. Mindfulness meditation strengthens your decision-making skills, your relationships, and your creativity. But starting a meditation practice can still seem a little intimidating. You might have trouble finding the time or even a quiet place to meditate. The Buddhify app offers you a choice among meditations tailored to how much time you have and what you’re doing. It helps you squeeze meditation into any pocket of time, and you can use it anywhere, from home, to work, to walking down the street. Buddhify is $2.99-$4.99 and is available for both iOS and Android devices.
Distraction is a big barrier to productivity (in fact Maura thinks that attention management, as opposed to time management, is the new path to productivity). Distraction is an even bigger problem if you work in an office with an open layout or from remote locations like coffee shops. To help control your attention, she recommends the streaming music service [email protected] You may already be familiar with other streaming services, like Spotify, but [email protected] is different in a really important way: Each instrumental piece you’ll hear was chosen and remastered to help you concentrate more deeply. If you’re a leader, making [email protected] subscriptions available to your staff could be a great way to help them do more focused work. [email protected] has a two-week free trial and is then $9.99/month.
Maura shared that there is a hand-brain connection that means we learn better when we hand write things (as opposed to typing them). But many people have switched to typing notes because they don’t want paper to store. The need for less paper makes perfect sense, but Maura thinks that typing everything is not the best solution. Instead, she suggests ScannerPro to scan your handwritten notes, which allows you the opportunity to save the documents directly to Dropbox or another storage service. But, she likes to email the scanned document to herself for “processing” (pulling out any to-dos, calendar dates, phone numbers, etc). Then the document can be saved (if you think you’ll need to refer back to it), or deleted once you’ve pulled from it everything you need. ScannerPro is $3.99 and available for iPhone and iPad. For Android, try CamScanner.
More high-tech productivity tools appear all the time. It can be fun to try the new ones, and Maura suggests you keep this question in mind: “Is there an app for that?” She tells us that she found these apps above by recognizing problems and posing questions to herself to find the solutions:
*When work calls intruded on her personal time, she asked, “How can work contacts reach me on the go, while I still keep my personal cell number private?”
*When she and her clients were drowning in emails that were unrelated to her work day, she researched tools that helped stem the flow.
*With her focus on attention management over time management, she asked, “How can my clients begin to learn to control their attention?”
*When she recognized that her clients were so distracted at work, she wondered if there were tools to help support their focus.
*As storing paper notes got increasingly impractical, she asked, “What’s a quick and easy way to store my handwritten notes electronically?”
Maura’s last piece of advice: While sometimes managing and wrangling technology poses challenges, recognize that technology can also be the solution to your problems.
We hope these productivity secrets help you get a handle on your daily challenges. You might also take a look at the key to having a productive day.
Maura Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity, attention management, and work-life balance for clients such as Dell, Old Navy, and AIG. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of RegainYourTime.com and author of Personal Productivity Secrets and the best-selling Work Without Walls. She is a media favorite on these topics and appears weekly in business outlets such as Fast Company, Inc., and Forbes, and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas.