My top productivity tools and tricks for managing my daily workflow

Do you have too many items on your todo list or in your email inbox? If so, you might want to learn some of the insider techniques and tools our own David Gewirtz has put into practice to keep his very busy schedule under control.

This article was originally published in October, 2014. It has been updated.

Remember the old productivity and office suites we all used to use? I don't know about you, but my mix of productivity tools has certainly changed over the years. What I use today is vastly different from my daily productivity "suite" of years past.

Before I take you through both the tools and my "process," let me point out that this stuff is different for everyone. My work these days consists far more of educating and communicating, and far less time spent living in spreadsheets than back in the days when I ran startups.

Today, I coordinate with teams, rather than manage them. I have students rather than employees. I research projects rather than launch products. My daily productivity flow reflects the changes in career as I've evolved from founder to advisor, manager to professor, and publisher to columnist.

I use a tremendous number of tools for my projects, and they often change from project to project. But what I'm going to discuss here are the tools I use on a daily basis to manage my "flow".

What do I mean by my flow?

I divide my work day into two main chunks of time: communications and knowledge gathering time, and project time. Every day has pretty much the same communications and knowledge gathering activities, which follows a relatively consistent pattern that has proven to be highly productive for me. These are the daily productivity activities I've been talking about.

In my case, morning to mid-afternoon is that daily productivity time. That's when I connect with and follow-up with all my constituents, students, editors, producers, etc., when I do my daily reading to keep up with both news and new technology, and when I manage my schedule, schedule my tasks, make calls, and write and respond to email.

That whole process is my flow. Over my many various iterations, I've managed to optimize this process so I'm able to get a tremendous amount done in a relatively short amount of time.

I no longer have thousands of unruly items filling my inbox.

The other half of my day is project time. This is when I work on everything from academic papers to the presentations, white papers, and webcasts I do for CBSi to developing code to most of the projects I write about for DIY-IT. I tend to work on projects in the late afternoon and the late evening, with a break in the early evening for family time and lunch or dinner.

Tools for my daily flow

Now that you understand how I structure my work day, let's discuss the tools I use in my daily flow. It all starts with Gmail...

First morning Gmail

It's been about ten months since I made the switch from Outlook to Gmail and I have to tell you, my productivity has improved tremendously and even after almost a year of use, I don't regret the move one bit. Having the exact same email interface on all my machines, with tight integration into my Android phone and Chromebook, has made all the difference.

I no longer have thousands of unruly items filling my inbox. In fact, that's a big part of what this daily productivity process is all about.

My day starts with my alarm going off. From under the covers, I usually reach over to my phone, painfully crack one eye open, tap the Gmail app, and scan to see if there's anything on fire. If there's nothing urgent, I hit the snooze button. After repeating this ritual two or three times, I get up, do my morning necessaries, and zombie-walk to the coffee maker.

Once I have coffee in hand, I navigate the puppy's tower defense strategy for the morning, trying not to get my toes bit, spill my coffee, or step on the critter. Eventually, I reach the couch, flip on my couch-side monitor, and once again check my mail.

At this point, I tend to take note of what's in my inbox, but I neither process it, nor respond to it. I want to let the coffee take hold.

I also take a quick look at my calendar and my to-do list to make sure I know what's on deck for the day.

Daily must-reads with Pocket

Next up, I hit my daily most-reads. Of course, this starts with ZDNet, then usually Drudge and Techmeme. I do a quick headline scan and anything that seems worth reading, I right-click and save to Pocket.

Before I used Pocket, I used to open all the interesting headlines as new tabs. My browser was often overwhelmed with browser tabs, sometimes to the point of crashing. If I switched computers, I had to try to figure out what tabs I had open, and otherwise somehow coordinate 10-50 open tabs. It was a mess.

Now, I just save everything into Pocket, for later review. I actually do this in two phases. I use ZDNet, Drudge, and Techmeme as a quick way to find out what the big news of the day is. Later in the morning, I'll open up Feedly, and tackle as many sites as I feel I have time for, from my big list of feeds. Or, I might dig into a story that's interesting and trending, and look for more content, which I'll also save into Pocket.

The nice part about this is I can easily do this while drinking coffee. I can get a feel for the day from the headlines, but I don't need to have all my brain cells online quite so early.

By this point, I'm somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes into my day, I've had one or two cups of coffee, and I have a pretty solid feel for both what's going on in my own various domains as well as what's going on in the rest of the world. It's a very good, very quick way to come up to speed while waking up.

Depending on the importance and urgency of the messages in my Gmail inbox, I'll either go straight into my morning email cycle or begin my morning reading. I prefer to do morning reading before email, so I'll discuss that next.

The Pocket-post-Evernote cycle

I read. A lot. I need to keep up to date on a tremendous amount of information, both breaking news related and deep technical or academic information. As a result, a good percentage of my morning is spent reading.

Because I've already selected the articles from my top sources, I can open up Pocket and start reading. I like this a lot, because I now have all my content in one location.

What's particularly nice about Pocket is that it runs on not only my couch-side Web browser and on Chrome, but there are versions of Pocket for iOS and Android. As a result, I can read articles anywhere -- even in the necessarium on the Nexus 7 dedicated to that particular room or when I'm out and about.

While I usually do my daily productivity cycle, using these tools means I can also grab a tablet or a Chromebook and do the same work from a local coffee shop, if the mood so strikes me.

Part of my morning flow is posting to the social networks. Whenever I find an article that's interesting in my Pocket collection, I tap the Share icon in Pocket and then select Buffer. Buffer takes the current article, schedules it, and posts it to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Two clicks and I've shared something interesting.

Another aspect of my morning reading is saving off articles that would serve me for either projects I'm working on or general research resources. While I have the premium version of Pocket, which stores away articles you check off, I use Evernote to organize all my research.

Rather than sharing to Evernote from Pocket, I just use the Evernote Web Clipper to grab the current article and drop it into Evernote.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

I'm relatively holistic about my morning reading process. I do it until I'm bored or hungry, or feel like switching gears and moving on to managing my email and schedule.

Throughout the day, I'll come back to Pocket and do some reading. This works great if I need a break from something else, or I'm stuck waiting (like if I've ordered at a restaurant and I'm waiting on food or I'm at a doctor's office or waiting for an Apple keynote to begin).

The key point to all of this is that ever since I moved to this Pocket-post-Evernote cycle for my daily reading, my productivity and flexibility has gone up tremendously. I'm getting more done, and the quality of the process is far more pleasant. I'm no longer tied to my desktop browser, because all of these tools work on all my devices.

Connecting and scheduling

Assuming there's nothing on fire that I've had to handle first thing, at some point during the morning, I'll switch from reading to communicating. I'll switch out of Pocket and into Gmail and work my way through my email.

Gmail does a great job of filtering out spam, but I'll go through the Updates and Promotions tabs and delete or mark-as-spam anything that's not necessary. This is usually a pretty fast cleanup.

Sometimes, there's something in my Updates section that indicates there's an action item. For example, if one of my Web sites has pushed out a security warning, depending on the severity I'll either go right to work fixing the problem or sending the email to Todoist as a to-do item.

This is where the integration of Todoist and Gmail is so nice. All I need to do is tap the Todoist icon, and I can turn the email message into a to-do item, complete with a link back to the original email message. Once I've scheduled it as a to-do item (either for that day or a later date), I can then archive the message and it's out of my inbox.

I use the same process for the rest of my email. If I can reply immediately to a query from someone mailing me, I do. If not (for example, if it will require additional research or it's really an action item disguised as an email message), I'll send it over to Todoist as a to-do item and clear it out of my inbox.

I do the same with calendar-related items. For example, I'm on the Information Systems and Management Certificate Advisory Board at the UC Berkeley extension and when I get an email that there's a scheduled meeting, I can right-click on the date right in the middle of the email message and schedule it to the calendar. Once again, the original email is available as a link, so I can remove it from my inbox and archive it.

In this way, I can power through my inbox, responding, assigning to to-do items, or to calendar. Within a very short time, I have my inbox cleared.

Now, to be fair, I have a slight email fetish, so I do check back in to my inbox, once or twice (or 20 or 30 times) a day. But now that my inbox is generally clean and empty, that practice doesn't have much to grab onto, and it's only a waste of a second or two.

In fact, now that I have email notifications integrated into my phone, I'm finding I'm actually breaking myself of the habit, because unless I hear the notification tone, I don't have any important emails coming in. I have actually gone a few hours without checking my email inbox, which is something of a record for me.

Managing my daily teaching opportunities

One of my responsibilities is teaching object-oriented programming students at UC Berkeley. Since Berkeley is in California and I'm here in central Florida, I do all my teaching online. Berkeley uses the Angel learning management system which either through lack of feature set or FERPA compliance does not talk to the outside world through any sort of automated or feed activity.

To make sure I remember to check on student questions, I've set a repeating Todoist to-do item that reminds me to check into Angel. When students have questions or there are assignments to grade, I'll pop open my virtual grading machine (no, I'm not loading computer science student projects on my main machine with out a LOT of protection) and test and grade their work.

As it turns out, supporting users is a lot like teaching online students.

A few months back, I adopted a bunch of WordPress plugins as a side-project that helps me keep my coding skills sharp. One of the (unexpected) side-effects of that is that I now have users to support. Yep, even free plugins require some amount of support time.

The way I manage this is I've added the RSS feeds from each WordPress support forum for each plugin, and if anyone has posted a request for help, those feeds show up in my daily Feedly.

I just think of those users like more of my students. If any of the RSS feeds show up as active in Feedly, I go into the WordPress support boards and answer questions. I'm not assigning users letter grades, but otherwise the process is pretty much the same.

By the way, this is also a great way to think about users, which I initially was a bit unhappy about adding to my daily workload. But the reframe is this: I'm an educator and these are more people in need of assistance while they're learning to use these plugins. So rather than thinking about providing user support as a added workload, I think of the users as more of my students and their questions as simply more teaching opportunities. It's also a great way to keep up on what people are doing out there, and gives me a much more "on the street" dialog with users, which is invaluable as a tech journalist and thought leader blowhard pontificator.

Here's another little trick I use. I get a lot of feature requests (which I call "cool feature ideas") from the plugin users. I grab those requests either from my email or straight from the support forum post where they originate using Todoist. A quick click assigns them a tag with the plugin name and another with either "bug report" or "cool feature idea" and I now have a bug management system that's integrated with the rest of my work. Very cool, and very fast.

To-doing my to-do list

By this point, I'm usually most of the way through the morning. My email has been processed and actions have been moved to my to-do list and schedule items to my calendar. I've done a considerable amount of reading, and I'm up to speed on the various issues I'm responsible for following. I've graded students and supported users (and added any bugs or key follow-up items to my to-do list).

Now, it's time to tackle the to-do items. Like Pocket, Evernote, and Gmail, Todoist runs on my phone, my tablets, the Chromebook, and on my desktop in a browser window. So I can organize and manage my to-do items from anywhere.

The very first thing I do is go down the list and move items around. Some items are no longer a today priority, while some have increased in priority. I have some repeating tasks (like grading students for each of my sections) that pop up when they need to.

Before I go on to the rest of my day, which is doing my to-do tasks and slowly migrating into project time, I'll tell you my new secret weapon for managing to-do items: Trello.

Trello solves a classic to-do list problem: too many items on the to-do lists. We all suffer from this practice, where anything that might have to be done, even someday items and "I'll get to it when I can" items, future project ideas, and all the rest all wind up on the to-do list as low-priority items that fill the list to the brim.

Some days are spent merely taking all those items that were previously scheduled for the, say, 15th of next month, and moving them to the following month once again.

I gave this problem a lot of thought and realized there are items I need to do, that are actionable in the near term, and items that just need to be on a list somewhere, that have no specific priority.

Trello is a combination whiteboard, list manager, and project manager. You can create boards of certain categories, and inside those boards, you can make lists. Each list item is a card on a board, and you can write notes and interact with other members of a team on the back of each card. It sounds complex, but it's amazingly intuitive.

Trello is also available on Android and iOS as well as Web platforms, so once again, I can work on my work from anywhere.

I've set up a bunch of Trello boards and all the items that "should be on the list" but aren't actionable this week or next go onto a Trello board. I regularly dig into those boards, particularly when I'm working on a corresponding project, and pull items from the board and assign them to Todoist -- but only if I intend to work on them right away, that week.

That, by the way, is the entire key to keeping your to-do list under control. If you actually intend to do an item within a reasonably short period of time, put it on your to-do list. If you expect to do it someday, it's not a to-do list item, not an actionable item, and you should write them on another list somewhere. I use Trello for that.

One cautionary tale about Trello: I recently tried using it for public discussion. That did not work, because participants have to be invited to participate and add Trello "cards". That slowed down the discussion process tremendously. Trello is great, but there are limitations. If you want a public forum for something, use forum software.

Rethinking your flow

Every few years, I rethink my productivity flow, usually when I find myself getting too far behind, or getting that baaaad feeling that I'm letting things slip through the cracks. This latest optimization has been working for almost a year now, and so far it's the most effective flow I've used.

It's also been flexible enough to adapt to my changing requirements. The user support part of my day is new and I was able to add that into my daily workflow without needing additional tools or interrupting my workflow.

As I mentioned earlier, your flow will be different, but I strongly recommend you think about your work processes and optimize your daily activities. You'll find you're more effective and also that your days are more pleasant.

That's pretty much a nice win-win, isn't it?

P.S. Surprisingly enough, there's no Microsoft software in my daily tools, still. Used to be, I lived in Outlook. I still use PowerPoint heavily for presentations, but my daily productivity is now completely non-Microsoft. That wasn't a political decision or statement. I rather like Microsoft. I just looked for and found the best tools for doing my job. If I were at Microsoft, I'd think long and hard about that.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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