August 28, 2014

7 Essential Productivity Tips – and The Tools to Achieve Them

ProductivityEdit

Increasing productivity is important because it can add dollars to your bottom line. Small business owners and the people who work in a small business often feel special pressure  because there are so few hands to go around to do the work.  Trying out new things isn’t high on the list. After all, it takes more time to find productivity tools and to experiment with new ways of doing things.

If you do a lot of work with information, and use a computer, then you may suffer from information overload and not even know where to start.  Let us make it easy on you. Here are 7 simple productivity tips and suggestions for tools to help you achieve them:

1. Create A Place To Take Notes

First, you need a place to take and keep notes.  The key thing is to get your brain uncluttered.  You’ll have more space left over for problem solving, if you don’t have to clutter your mind with remembering lots of details — or worrying that you might forget something.

You’ll be better able to focus on the task at hand.  Do one thing at a time.

There are several options for taking notes including Evernote, Zoho Notebook, and Google Keep. Ideally, when you get a thought or are inspired by something, you should get in the habit of using your phone to capture screen shots or record your voice and post it to one of these cloud-based notebooks.

I use Evernote extensively — especially the audio recording option when I cannot type a note. There is a fee-based transcription app that you can get if you do a lot of recording. Voice2Note, Quicktate, and the Mobile Assistant are three that I have seen.

Remember the Milk

[Image: Remember the Milk]

2. Make A Shorter To-Do List

It may seem counterintuitive, but making a shorter to-do list can help you get more done. I have even heard of a number of experts advocating “To Don’t” lists where you avoid getting sucked into things that don’t make you productive at all.

A long to-do list is anything more than 5 items per day.  When you have a long to-do list, you can get lost in everything you have to do and overwhelmed.  You spend more time thinking about which item you will tick off next or worrying about all the work you have to do, instead of actually working. Once you have five items, stop.

It also helps to list your to-do items in order of importance to further reduce thought time throughout the day. Some good to-do list tools are Toodledo, Teuxdeux, and a fun favorite: Remember The Milk. Who doesn’t love the cow peeking out at you to keep you on task!

3. Learn to Type Faster

Yes, you should learn better typing skills to be more productive.  This may seem a silly tip, but hear me out.  I frequently see business owners and executives who type with two fingers. Not very efficient — or fast!

Everyone who works on a computer (and today that includes most knowledge workers) should take a typing class to improve their speed. Being able to type quickly and effectively without looking at the keyboard is very important and allows you to edit while you go.

Check out Keybr.com if you don’t want to invest in software or typing classes to do better. It features a neat — and free — typing speed test, as well as advice on how to improve your typing skills.  By practicing over and over using Keybr.com, you will gradually improve.

Tickler file for productivity
[Image: Pendaflex tickler file, via Amazon]

4. Use a Tickler File so You Meet Deadlines

Create a tickler file for your projects. A tickler file traditionally contains 43 divisions – one for each of the 31 days of a month (labeled 1 – 31), and 12 for the months of the year. (Never mind that some months have fewer days!)

You take your projects and put a written reminder about them in the file according to when they are due. For the current month, a project goes into the number files for whatever day it is due. When a project or deliverable is due in other months, it goes in one of the month files.

Each day, you pull out the contents of the folder marked for that day’s date and work on the stuff in it.  Then once the next month rolls around, you transfer that month’s reminders into the days, and repeat.

Now, you could take a pile of 43 manilla folders and manually label each one. But it’s easier to keep everything organized neatly if you use a folder created for that purpose.  Here are some physical examples of tickler folders on Amazon (one is pictured above). You could do this digitally in Microsoft Excel, too. Here are instructions for creating tickler due dates in Excel.

5. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel – Find An App Instead

Use the right apps to get the job done. Yes, you could create your own spreadsheet that tracks expenses and receipts, but why spend all that effort and time when there are plenty of options out there to save you that setup time?  For instance, Shoeboxed comes to mind as a good app for receipts.  Or perhaps a hardware based app like Neat Receipts is more to your liking.  Either way, start with a system that makes your business more productive.

After all, this is about being productive and effective — so use every advantage you can.  You don’t get extra points for reinventing the wheel!  On the contrary — if you are reinventing the wheel you’ll be working harder, but not smarter.

So which tasks should you find apps for?  Start by identifying the tasks you and your team hate to do, or the repetitive ones that take several hours each week or month.  Those are candidates for an app to make your business more productive — so that you can accomplish more in less time and with less expense.

Don’t forget to check out our best small business apps lists here at Small Business Trends for more — everything from presentation tools to mobile apps.

6. Use Keyboard Shortcuts, Browser Tools and “Hacks”

After you practice and get faster at typing, teach yourself some keyboard shortcuts.

A quick and easy way to improve the speed of the work you do is to use Windows shortcuts or Apple shortcuts on the keyboard.

I use all sorts of shortcuts, plus I leverage browser tools if they can help.

Also, look for or figure out “hacks” (i.e., little tricks and techniques) that work right from the browser address bar.  I did that with this popular hack: Post A Tweet Directly From Google Chrome. There are so many useful hacks that it can boost your productivity just to learn a few.

Pocket

[Image: Pocket]

7. Create a Place to Store Inspiration

Use tools to store inspirations for later. When you come across an article that sounds interesting but is not related to the current research you are doing, you can store it for reading later.

Pocket (my current favorite tool) lets you save items for later, offline reading, and also serves as a killer web bookmarking app. The only downside of Pocket is you can’t really add much besides tags. An alternative is Instapaper.

Once you have finished reading your bookmarked articles using one of these tools, you can archive or check them off. Both apps will integrate with your iPhone, browser, and other productivity tools. You keep one master account and can mark pages across all your devices (same with Evernote and other collaborative tools).

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What are your secrets for staying profitable and productive? Share your productivity tips in the comments below, please.

Productivity photo via Shutterstock

23 Comments ▼

TJ McCue - Product Editor


TJ McCue TJ McCue is the Product Editor for Small Business Trends and an entrepreneur who publishes Tech Biz Talk. TJ is a former Wall Street Journal columnist. He also writes for Forbes and American Express OPEN Forum. He loves learning about technology apps and software services - share yours with TJ.

23 Reactions

  1. But sometimes, it is better to do the job with just a few tools so as to avoid tool confusion. Let’s face it. With too many tools, some people just end up spending some time on tools and not on the actual job that they are doing. The key is to use tools to help but not to the extent that you do too much to maintain them.

    • Hi Aira, I see your point, but I’m not proposing to use all of these! :-) Just the tools and the methods that you need to get your work done. Keeping it simple is always the way to go.

      • Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I love the list. You certainly showed me some tools that I don’t know before. But I will be choosing the ones that is compatible with the way I work.

    • Hi Aira, No offense taken. It is easy to spend your day playing with tools and not getting work done. I understand.

  2. Nice article, the tickler file idea is pretty good for a global overview of what needs to be achieved. But like you said, get an app for it! There are options out there that mean you don’t need to use multiple apps to get things done. My company is developing Twoodo which lets you organize personally or with a team with hashtags. It’s super fast and can be used for so much more than assigning tasks. Try it out to see! http://www.twoodo.com

  3. I love keyboard shortcuts. They help me get tasks done much faster.

    As for to-do lists, I use a sticky note and try to limit my list to just 3 items (the small size of the sticky not inherently limits you). If I get them done quickly I make a new note!

  4. TJ,

    Some nice recommendations you have here!

    I just want to add a couple of my most favourite productivity tools: Trello ( http://www.trello.com ) and IFTTT ( https://ifttt.com/ ).

    Trello helps me manage almost everything – ranging from blog post scheduling to contacting the plumber :)

    IFTTT helps me automate things, such as texting/emailing me when an author is publishing on my blog, and so on.

  5. I can type without looking at the keyboard for a couple of seconds. But then I start to second-guess myself so have to look.

    Will look at Keybr. Maybe it’ll help with that.

    Good sleep hygiene is a great productivity enhancer. It’s like the best coffee ever. If only I wasn’t such a night owl though :).

    Thanks for the post.

  6. I love Evernote. It’s been a very helpful application for me. I always use it at the office especially when I’m on meetings or having discussions with colleagues. Thanks for sharing this list. I might try the other apps mentioned here and see if it works for me.

  7. Really nice post. Thank you so much for presenting these tips and useful tools. As everybody else write about their favorite applications, I would like to add mine too. First of all – Evernote. Secondly, I need to mention kanbantool.com . It helps me to plan and organize my tasks (and to-do-lists) and collaborate with my team members wherever they are (also by adding comments and task via email). Very useful thing!

  8. Thank’s a lot for great tips all in one place! I’ve saved some of them in the Pocket .)

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