I'm writing this post because some of my work colleagues have asked me to show them how I use my mobile devices to get things done.
They've noticed that I've got something interesting going on. It's true, I've got a system that works really well for me.
Since I'm writing it all up I thought, why not share it?
Today’s mobile devices are amazing. On some benchmarks, the latest iPhone 7 performs as well as a MacBook Pro and given that you can have a whopping 256GB of storage on your phone, these devices have become true handheld computers.
The iPad Pro is another super effective device and I would recommend you get the 9.5-inch version as it’s easier to work with and very light. I no longer use a laptop at work as I find the iPad does the job do well and it’s much lighter to carry around. I’ve bought an Apple Bluetooth keyboard which I can use whenever I’ve got a lot of typing to do
By the way, it’s really easy to create the ideal mobile workstation and there are some simple steps you can take to make working on your iPad massively efficient. Take a look at this blog post showing Mat Gemmell’s iPhone and iPad set up. The Sweet Setup where this post is featured is a great resource.
I use the following apps on my iPhone and iPad every day.
These six apps are the foundation blocks of my personal digital workflow. For Android users please note that there is an app called Drafts, but it is not the same as the iOS app.
Each of these apps has powerful functionality on their own. In my opinion, they are best of breed for the job they are designed to do. The better news is that by combining them together you can create a powerful system that amplifies the individual capabilities of these applications.
They’re not all free – but I think good software developers should be supported. I’m happy to pay for each of these apps because they repay my investment many times over.
If you want to jump straight to the instructions about how to set the apps up, you’ll find them here.
When you’re setting up the apps, I think it’s a good idea to switch off all notifications on your desktop and mobile devices. Once you have your digital workflow set up and working as you want it to (not as Apple or Microsoft think you should do) then, by all means, use notifications to make your system work.
Being distracted by little red flags, or by notifications on your screen will drain your concentration and prevent you from focusing your time and energy effectively. Turn them off.
All of these apps will work straight out of the box. However, three of them have considerable capabilities which may take some time to master. Here are my recommended reading materials if you want to dig a bit deeper.
There are four recommendations for this app.
The Asian Efficiency Team have lots to offer in the personal productivity space. Don’t let the name ‘Asian Efficiency’ put you off. They produce information that is well written and provide very clear and actionable advice. If you want a shortcut to optimising your OmniFocus setup this is as good a place as I know to start.
If you’d prefer to consume your advice in video form, have a look at Joe Buhlig’s website. He originally wrote an eBook with the same title, which I still refer to from time to time. I like Joe’s approach to productivity and his videos are a very accessible way of deepening your OmniFocus implementation.
Kourosh Dini is a psychiatrist with a keen interest in productivity systems. This very comprehensive book covers everything you are ever likely to need to know about OmniFocus. He also offers a video course called Zen and the Art of Work.
This one is written by the OmniGroup, the people behind OmniFocus as well as OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner and OmniPlan. This is a good place to start and is also free.
Evernote is at one level a very simple app. You just open it and start saving things like documents, receipts and so on. This is just scratching the surface however and Brett Kelly has written the best guide to getting the most out of this app. The Evernote team were so impressed they hired him to write their user documentation.
Lots of people sign up for a Dropbox account and then throw stuff into the online folder without too much thought. I confess, I was one of them, that is until I read Jeffery Abbott’s The Ultimate Unofficial Dropbox Guide. My advice is to get hold of a copy of this guide and implement it to the letter.
It’s not essential that you read these guides, but f you’re interested in mastering what each app has to offer then I think it’s worth investing the time (and a little cash) to become more familiar with them.
It should take you no more than half a day to run through each one and decide which you’d like to spend some more time on.
Why Organising Your Time Could Be A Game Changer
Each app on its own does a great job but you can take things to the next level by joining them up. The way I do this is to create workflows – routines – which I use every day.
Let me introduce you to the idea of a Time-Box. A Time-Box is a time when you will undertake a specific task or group of tasks. It might be the time when you flog through your emails. Or it might be the process you follow at the start or at the end of each day. The idea of a Time-Box is a really important element in handling your digital world.
In the beautifully drawn diagram, the big squiggly mess represents all the digital inflows you will encounter each day. Each coloured line represents your email, social media streams, calendar events, to-do lists and so on.
If you don’t have a way of organising these flows, you will continually be presented with whichever one of them either beeps loudest – if you have notifications switched on (turn them off!) – or catches your eye.
The trouble with this approach is that what you are basically saying to the world is:
You can send me anything at any time and I will deal with it at any time.
Without any kind of system in place, there are a number of inevitable consequences.
Missing Something Important
It is almost inevitable that you will, without a system in place sooner or later miss something important. This could be a deadline, an important piece of information critical to a project, interesting news, an appointment with your significant other or anything else. In the diagram above you will notice that on the left-hand side, not all of the squiggles emerge from the nest-mess.
That’s what will happen without a process in place. Not everything has an immediate consequence and sometimes it will days or even weeks or months later that you realise you should have picked something up.
Draining Your Brain’s Battery
The second impact is more subtle and insidious. In fact, you may not even realise it’s a problem most of the time.
Our brains can only hold a maximum of between 5 and 7 items in its short-term memory. If you rely on your brain to remember everything that needs to be remembered you are basically doomed to failure.
What’s worse though is that in the background your brain will continue chugging away trying to recall all of the things you are hoping it will remember.
Think about your mobile phone. You know that having a lot of open apps will drain your battery fast. You’re not using the apps, they’re just sitting there in the background. If you close them down, they will still be available when you need them, but in the meantime, they won’t be a drain on your battery.
This is a good analogy for the way our brain will run down its energy store much more quickly when unreasonably you ask it to try and keep an eye on too many things in the background. Stay fresh and maintain a higher level of cognitive capacity by closing down unnecessary processing by placing items not required right now into a trusted system.
Let’s return to our Time-Boxes.
I recommend Time-Boxing your day so that you have dedicated time to deal with key elements of your daily workflow. The illustration below is my suggested way of starting your use of Time-Boxes. They are suggestions and you may find that you need some other labels or you have different needs than me. That’s fine. Let me explain how mine work.
Time-Box 1: Email (Work)
How and when do you process your email while at work? Many of us have a practice which involves having the email software client on all the time and we dip into and out of emails from time to time during the day. Personally, I find there are only three times when I need to look at my emails. These are first thing in the morning, as part of my Work Day Start Routine and again at the end of the day when I do my Work Day Finish Routine.
The other time is when I’m in between other activities and I don’t want to start anything that requires a lot of mental energy. When I’m in this mode I have one rule which is that I will only read emails.
I find that if I don’t use this rule I will get sucked in and before I know where I am I will have spent far longer than I planned. There are methods I use to triage emails when in this mode, which I will come to later, which means that there is something urgent or important I will not forget to do something with it when I’m ready.
Someone once said:
Email is a to-do list that everyone else has access to.
Email is a to-do list that everyone else has access to.
I think that is so true and if you’re not careful you will soon be dancing to someone else’s tune, spending your time, energy and attention on their agenda, not yours. Be disciplined and Time-Box email so that you deal with it at a time and place of your choosing.
Time-Box 2: Email (Personal)
With the right software (see section on Airmail) you can keep all your emails in one place. If you work regular hours like me, I find that it helps to cordon off a little time each day to keep on top of my personal emails. The same principles outlined for work emails (above) hold equally well for personal emails.
A future blog post – Taming Your Email Monster – will provide advice on how to cut down the number of incoming emails you get.
How To Set Up The Apps
Each of the apps you’ve downloaded should work together and sync across different devices/platforms. I’ve set them up like this.
OmniFocus comes with a sync mechanism supplied by the OmniGroup. Sync will ensure that your versions of OmniFocus on your iPad, MacBook or iPad always reflect the latest changes. You can create your own personal cloud sync for OmniFocus by signing up here. It’s very straightforward:
Click on the Omni Sync radio button.
OmniFocus Settings–>Sync Method
Select Omni Sync Server
OmniFocus Mail Drop
You will also have a special email address (referred to as Mail Drop) which you can use to send items directly to OmniFocus via email. I use this all the time, sending emails that I need to take action at a later date into OmniFocus.
To find out what yours is, go to the sign in page you used to set up sync and then scroll down towards the bottom of the page where you will find your Mail Drop email address. Copy the address and paste it into your address book. The next time you have an email you want to take action on, just forward it to this address and it will appear in your OmniFocus inbox.
If you have already downloaded TextExpander on your MacBook your snippets will work directly in OmniFocus.
On iOS you can link to your snippets by opening the app and selecting:
TaskClone is a one trick pony, that does it’s trick fantastically well. If you use Evernote to capture your notes, then TaskClone can capture any actions that you record and place them into OmniFocus.
Once you’ve signed up for this service, each time you make a note in Evernote just tag that note with “taskclone” which is the default tag TaskClone provides. You can change this if you prefer. When taking a note in Evernote tag the note with whatever you have chosen to be the keyword and then any checkbox you’ve made in Evernote will find its way into OmniFocus.
As an additional feature, you can also send Evernote entries into your calendar by using “sch” as the tag.
Evernote is going to be where you make notes. Set up your Evernote ‘BOOKs’ (Groups of Notes) and ‘STACKS’ (Groups of Books) in a way that makes sense to you.
I provide specific guidance about how to organise filing across in the Filing System post. For now, the key point to note is that you should aim to create the same filing approach and naming system in each app.
When you open a new note in Evernote, you’ll see along the bottom some formatting options. Tap the one that looks like a bullet list and you’ll find the checkbox icon. Whenever you need to record an action use this checkbox and TaskClone will hoover it up and put it in OmniFocus for you. Just remember to tag your note with “taskclone” as described above.
Evernote Mail Drop
Like OmniFocus, Evernote also has a facility which enables you to email notes to it. Just log in to the web version of Evernote login and then go to settings and scroll down to ‘Send Email To’ and there you will find your unique email address. Copy it into your address book.
Airmail is your email client, which you can use on every iOS and OSX device. It comes with a lot of features already set for you. The main thing to check is that on each device you make sure the share settings for Evernote, Dropbox and OmniFocus are all switched on.
The next post will show you how to take killer notes – so you’ll never forget anything important ever again. I’ll provide a step by step setup for creating your own note-taking workflow based on my own system. I’ll see you then.