3 Secret Weapons for Amazing Productivity

School started last week, along with all it's attendant scheduling chaos.

Any parent with children in school knows what that means. If you are homeschooling, your life just became ultra-structured, and every day feels like a race (or a marathon!) to accomplish that day's goals so your students don't fall behind.

If your children are traditionally schooled, you are now juggling multiple permission slips, school event notices, extra-curricular activity startups, and more. The landslide of paper seems to grow every day, not decrease.

Or maybe you are the student, and now besides handling life's daily adulting requirements, you also have a full course load and homework schedule. When are you going to find time to pay bills or, I dunno, do laundry?

Whether or not you are involved in school in any way, life always has multiple requirements that we need to keep track of. If you are self-employed, as I am, you also have activities that go along with running a business that, if neglected, will soon leave your income in decline.

So, how do you stay on top of all the STUFF you need to do (besides imbibing copious amounts of caffeine?)

I have been and/or am in all of these positions. I have done them well, and I've done them poorly. And I have found that the secret to doing any of these activities well is planning and organization.

This article is not about how to plan the activities required for running a household or a career. I will tackle this in a future post. What I'm writing about here are the tools that I have found most helpful to keep track of your plan, and to stay on top of things as they change.

This post is a bit long, but I didn't want to break it into separate posts because it all ties together. If you only have time to scan for the key points, you'll still be able to get some good tips. Reading the full post gives you some great application ideas, though.

Onward.

The Basic Tools

At it's root, the organizational tools I have always used boil down to three ingredients:

  1. Calendar
  2. Lists
  3. Notes

Whether you use paper and pen, desktop or mobile apps, or scratch symbols on rocks and mark events by the moon, getting in the habit of using these tools efficiently will prevent those accidental double-bookings or forgotten appointments. (And your doctor's receptionist will appreciate so much that you remembered.)

Paper, Digital, or Both?

You need to use a system that works for you. This will require experimentation.

I have used all paper, a blend of paper and technology, and most recently have moved to using apps almost exclusively as my tools.

Apps work for me, because they have distinct advantages over paper. No matter how many paper notes I take, I can't set an alarm to remind me to do anything about them, and they only work as long as I go back through them. With apps, my favourite feature is the ability to set a due date and a reminder. Then, I don't have to remember to review the item, because the app won't let me forget. This ability has been one of the single biggest boosts to my productivity in the last 2 years.

They say a goal without a deadline is just a wish. The same can be said for any plan you make--unless you have a deadline for when you will take a certain step, you may never do it.

I am going to focus on how to use apps to stay as organized as possible. While the principles for using a paper system are essentially the same, there are some key features to digital that paper simply can't offer and which I believe are key to staying organized in the modern world. Besides the reminders and notifications feature, I love being able to access the same information from any of my electronic devices--phone, computer, tablet. I also love the change in decor--I no longer have slips of paper strewn around my house like falling leaves.

Which apps For What?

  1. Calendar - I'm sure there are probably about 8,000 calendar and scheduling apps available, since this was one of the original reasons for even having a smartphone. I use Google Calendar, because it integrates well with all of my systems--my email and business services are Google-based, and I have Android devices. Google Calendar is free with a Gmail address and I believe you can use their app on an iPhone, too. In the app, you can create multiple "calendars" for different purposes--say, one for school assignments, one for business activities, and one for personal stuff. You can choose whether those "calendars" will be public or private, which is helpful if you need to have a public work-based calendar. For the most part, I've always just used one for everything.
  2. Lists - Google Tasks, which is part of the Calendar app. On my mobile devices, I manage this with an app called GTasks, which adds key functionality like setting reminders to do a task and the option to repeat a task for many different time frames. A similar app is TickTick, which also lets you assign tasks to others (which would be helpful for a team). I did try it once, and the two apps share many of the same features. However, I prefer GTasks for my needs. This is probably the tool I use the most for Getting Stuff Done.
  3. Notes - Microsoft OneNote. I have also researched Evernote for this purpose when I was looking to digitize all of the recipe clippings I had laying around, and it seems like a solid app that many people recommend, with many of the same functions and purposes. However, since I was already firmly established in OneNote, and there didn't seem to be an advantage to switching, that's what I use. If you are trying to decide on a note-taking app, decide what your most important needs are, then search for "OneNote vs Evernote" and read other people's excellent and detailed reviews.

Whether you use apps, like me, or decide to stick with ye olde pen and paper methods, the most important part of increasing productivity is this:

When you think of something that needs to be done or get an idea to explore later, record it right away!

Anything paper can do, digital can do better. :-) Image copyright ra2studio / 123RF Stock Photo.

Calendar

Your calendar is where you record appointments, events or goals that will happen on specific dates and times.

If you're using paper and pen, you will probably want an agenda that has three different types of pages: month-in-view for general daily commitments, week-in-view for more detailed appointments, and page-a-day layouts. (These last ones work well as "to-do" lists, or when your whole day is very tightly scheduled.) You will need to record scheduled events on all three layouts for that date. Rescheduling something also leaves a mess.

In Google Calendar, you can view your agenda any way you want, so you only need to enter an appointment once. If you need to change the time or date of an appointment, it's a matter of a few clicks (or taps) to do so.

Set up default reminders that work for you. In my case, I get reminders emailed to me both one week and one day before an event. If it is something I think I might forget, or just want to be sure I am prepared for in time, I also add a "last-minute" notification that will alert me on my phone. I set the time frame early enough that if I have forgotten, I have time to get ready to go and to travel there. (In my case, usually about 90 minutes.) You can adjust notifications each time you create an appointment, so just set your defaults to what you are likely to use the most often.

One more awesome thing about using a digital scheduling app like Google Calendar is how easy it is to keep your family (or team) on the same page. My husband also uses Google Calendar, and my oldest son is just learning how, also. When I create an event that affects others, I simply share it with them. (For example, I shared School Picture Day with my husband and the affected children, because my husband is the one who gets them to school in the morning and would need to make sure they were dressed appropriately.) All they need to do to add it to their calendar is click "accept." You can do the same with friends, too.

This really eliminates a lot of excuses that sound like "I forgot". And that means less stress and more harmony in your relationships, believe me. :-)

Key Points:

  • As soon as you are aware of an event, put it in your calendar!
  • For apps, set up default reminders so you don't have to add these every time.
  • Once the information has been transferred to your calendar, you can discard the piece of paper (less clutter! Yay!)
  • Share the event with others affected.
  • Review your schedule at the beginning of each month, week, and each evening for the next day. Schedule any tasks you need to do in preparation for events (see Lists, below.)

Lists can be for broad goals, but your daily to-dos need to be for specific steps.

Lists

Lists are where you keep track of all the small things you do each day that move you closer to your goals.

When you are creating your lists, you need to be as specific as possible.

While you need to have a list of what those broad goals are, your daily to-do list is not the place to put "clean house" or "launch my book." You need to break those goals down to their most basic steps, and put those on your daily to-do lists at the appropriate times.

So, for instance, your housekeeping tasks for the day may look like this:

  • tidy living room
  • seasonal sort through kid's clothes
  • clean bathroom
  • wash windows

If you are running a business, your daily list may include any number of things ranging from posting on social media to marketing to networking to product creation to checking emails, depending on how many hats you wear.

Just remember to break these tasks down to their smallest steps to put on your list. Why? If the task is too broad, you will get easily overwhelmed and it will never get done.

Ask me how I know. :-)

Just like you need to record appointments as soon as you are aware of them, you also need to get in the habit of putting things on your list as soon as they occur to you. Remember to put a deadline/due date on it. (And a reminder, too, if it is time-sensitive. For instance, I have a reminder to post to Instagram set for every afternoon at 2:00, because this is something I would easily forget about, but have chosen to integrate as a key part of my marketing platform.)

In my Google Tasks/GTasks apps, I have separate lists for each business, craft projects I want to tackle, and more. Then I have a daily "Default" list, which is where I put all those daily tasks with an attached deadline.

Carve out a dedicated time to plan your upcoming daily lists. Some people like Sunday night. For me, I like to think about any necessary preparatory tasks when I schedule an event, and try to add them as soon as possible onto the appropriate day. I also add things as they occur to me, which is often while I'm cooking supper or driving. (Yes, I wash my hands or stop the vehicle before handling my phone!)

I also review my upcoming tasks at the beginning of the week, and every morning. This works for me because of my lifestyle--if a kid is sick or forgot their lunch, the activities that I can fit into my day may suddenly alter dramatically. You need to find times that work for you, but remember to review your lists on a regular basis.

Make sure you tackle your daily list in order from highest to lowest priority. That way, if not everything gets done, you know that what remains unfinished wasn't crucial. Simply reschedule it for the next available day.

Note: I use a separate app for grocery lists, because it is better suited and makes it very easy to share and sync the list between my husband's phone and mine. In other words, I can add items to the shopping list at home and my husband can go pick them up on the way home from work. I don't have to text him a list, he just has to check his own device. We tested several apps, and the one we settled on is OurGroceries. Love it.

Key Points:

  • Be as specific as possible with your tasks. If they are too broad, they are too easy to postpone.
  • Add tasks to your list as soon as they occur to you
  • Put a deadline and, if necessary, a reminder on it!
  • Set aside time to create your to-do lists
  • Review upcoming tasks on a regular basis
  • Prioritize your list. Begin with the highest priority task and work your way to lowest priority.
  • Reschedule uncompleted tasks.
  • Remember to allow time for relationships and basic stuff like eating while you plan. You don't always want to feel like you're ending the day behind because you still want to have a life.

All the note-taking tools I ever need again. Except the pins and paperclips. But especially the coffee. (A pad of paper is handy sometimes, I guess.) Image copyright garloon / 123RF Stock Photo.

Notes

Your notes are where you record your ideas, plans, brainstorming sessions, details to keep track of, meeting notes, and more.

If you are using paper, you will probably have many, many booklets or notebooks, and if you are even moderately organized, each notebook will be for a specific topic or activity. You will also likely have chits of paper swirling around your desk or stuck to your monitor or walls, especially if you are a firm believer in "out of sight, out of mind."

Let me tell you, I've been there. When you have so much to remember, it is very easy to fear forgetting something that swirls to the bottom of a pile, which is why you want to keep it right in front of your nose. If it slips beneath something, you may not even remember to look for it, let alone find it again, right?

Notes are the tool that I have most recently converted to digital format, and I love it. You could even say that I am an app evangelist now, because my life has become so much easier and more organized since I made this switch. Why? Because a digital app can do EVERYTHING paper can do and a LOT more, but only takes up as much space as my phone, tablet, or PC.

Rather than grabbing the closest piece of paper I can find when I need to take a note, then hoping to St. Peter that I don't lose that paper before I transfer that note to something where I'll be able to find it again? I simply open the app and put it in the right place immediately.

And! My entire library of notes, recipes, ideas, and "sticky notes" goes with me everywhere I go, because it continually syncs between my PC, phone, tablet, and laptop, thanks to the cloud-based storage option.

Can you see why I love it?

Here is how Microsoft OneNote is organized:

  1. Notebooks: You can create as many "Notebooks" as you want. I have separate ones for personal stuff, writing, marketing, household projects, knitting, Winters Distributing, and more.
  2. Sections: Within each notebook, you can create as many "sections" as you want. You can easily change the order of these sections, or even move them to another notebook (which is handy when you decide your current section is actually notebook-worthy on its own.) You can even password-protect sections for added security.
  3. Pages: Within each section, you can add as many "pages" as you want. They can easily be re-ordered or moved to another section or notebook. Pages can be treated like a typical word processing document, with text starting at the top left and continuing down the page as you add more. Or, you can add text anywhere on the page, which is helpful for creating word webs or mind maps when brainstorming. Each separately-placed piece of text is added in its own "text box", which is easily dragged around the page. You can type, draw, write with a stylus, insert photos or audio clips, format text, and more. One cool feature is that any time you copy and paste something onto a page, OneNote automatically creates a hyperlink to the source under it, so you never have to wonder where something came from.
  4. Sticky Notes: Both the desktop and mobile apps give you the option to use Sticky Notes, which is essentially an easy-access "page" that gets saved in your preset folder of choice (or "Unfiled Notes" if you don't have one.) Personally, I prefer to save a note in a logical location right away, so I don't have to repeat work later by looking for it and moving it. But the ease of access of Sticky Notes has been helpful several times.

Here are a few of the ways that I use OneNote:

  • Compiling research for a novel or article
  • Jotting down story or design ideas
  • Creating design notes as I create a new pattern. Later, I simply copy and paste those notes from the app into Word, where I flesh out the pattern.
  • Tracking recipe ideas or clippings (sometimes I just snap a photo of the clipping with my phone and insert it into the appropriate section of my "Recipe" notebook)
  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Tracking project-related expenses (you can create simple tables)
  • Taking meeting notes, either by typing or writing with my stylus
  • Recording formatting choices for website designs
  • Tracking books I've read or want to read
  • Anything else you would usually write down somewhere! The more I use this app, the more uses I find for it. The sky's the limit!

Key Points:

  • When an idea occurs to you, record it right away!
  • Use a digital app to record ALL THE THINGS!
  • Sort your notes by topic to easily find what you need.
  • Access your notes from anywhere. And they all fit into the palm of your hand!

Go Forth and Be Productive!

Now you know what tools to use to increase your productivity. Hopefully, you've gathered a few tips to use them in the most effective way possible. Put these tools and tips into action and you will soon be a lean, mean productivity machine.

I love hearing from you! Did something in this article help? Are you ready to start taming your to-do list? Have I converted you on the benefits of digital tools? Do you feel more organized just reading this? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Now go show your week who is boss!