Thanks to all your readily available mountains of information, we can't just DO things anymore. We have to figure out the BEST way to do things. Buying a chair? Research the BEST chair for hours upon hours. Need a writing app? Sort through hundreds of reviews for the BEST writing app. Looking for a coffee shop? What's the BEST coffee shop?
Hell, even before you research the best of something, you can waste endless time doing research on the best way to do research!
In one sense, this is awesome. But it can also be utterly paralyzing if you let it get to you. And -- Spoiler Alert -- I let it get to me.
But I'm not alone. (Well, I'm alone right now as I write this. So I guess literally, I am alone. But figuratively, I'm not alone. And life is best lived figuratively in my experience.)
So, this is a post about apps and workflow -- maybe even the BEST apps and workflow, who knows? This is how, in the face of a crippling paralysis and insane overflow of information straight to my brain, I'm able to make progress, stay organized, and function like a normal person. (Okay so the first two are actually in play. On the "normal person" verdict, the jury's still out-slash-sprinting to their cars.)
I'm sharing in the hopes that you'll reply with your own, but I'm also answering a question from my friend Sam, a former Google colleague who posed this question on Facebook.
So, grab a drink, hide behind a pillow, rock slowly, and tell yourself you'll get through this. Because it's time to dive into the inner-workings of my brain.
I am so truly sorry...
Where and how I organize daily work and ideas I'd like to execute.
Every morning post-coffee, I check email. I know everyone loves to say, "Do the most important task first," but I can't get to the most important task if I'm stressed about my email. So I remove as many as I can in about 30 minutes.
This is where I'd normally tell you how smart I am about organizing my inbox. The truth is, the only two things I potentially do well to stay organized are these:
- Priority Inbox in Gmail. I've used this since my days at Google, when they gave us early access, so I'm just stuck in my ways. Priority Inbox separates emails into three categories, stacked vertically: Important and Unread, Starred, and Everything Else. It's similar to Gmail tabs, just presented in one single inbox. (I tried their new Inbox product but moved slower through that then my personal setup so I switched back.)
- Google Alerts: I have these set up for my name, my blog's name, the three partners at NextView, and every startup in which we've invested. This helps me stay informed but also delivers portfolio company news right to my inbox every day to include in NextView's Twitter feed, since I run that handle but have limited time to spend on it.
Next, I open Evernote, which is where I spend tons of time. Evernote is my brain, outsourced. If you had to map my mind, it would be ordered like this:
I basically break things up with two notebook stacks, bookmarked on the left rail of my Evernote as shown above. These stacks are NextView and Stuff I'm Creating. (We'll get to the latter in the next section of this post.)
Under NextView, my go-to notebook is TO DO LIST. In that notebook, there's one note containing my weekly agenda for the project meeting I lead with the partners of the firm on Mondays. I also create one note per major project currently underway, which gets stashed under TO DO LIST. So that notebook probably contains 5-6 notes at any given time.
The other NextView notebooks shown above are just idea pipelines, categorized by the various initiatives for which I'm responsible as Director of Platform and Community (content, events, etc.).
Lastly, I also mentioned bookmarks in Chrome above as a way I stay organized. Generally, after I visit the NextView TO DO LIST and determine what to tackle that day, I'll open relevant docs that have been bookmarked in a folder titled "Priorities." I have other folders just for saving stuff too: a generic NextView for various docs and another called NV Blog, which contains the log-in to The View From Seed and the Trello board the partners use to organize their blog topics. (Our Trello is just one long list of ideas and then one list named for each partner, where we'll drag ideas over from the larger pipeline to assign them. I manage that list about once a week.)
(Chrome bookmarks are useful in another way which I'll discuss later.)
Where and how I write.
Evernote again comes into play here. All my writing and content creation in general starts in Evernote, under the Stuff I'm Creating notebook stack. My home base there is really the Drafts notebook, which typically contains 2-3 notes. These contain short blurbs, working headlines, research, and other links or inspiration for whatever I'm writing at the moment. That usually spans three or more blogs: Sorry for Marketing, View From Seed (NextView's blog), and a guest contribution like Content Marketing Institute (where I try to blog monthly).
My Ideas notebook is just a huge list of notes, each containing one idea. Most are just headlines, but some contain links or other blurbs I've written on the fly. I open that up when it's time to write something new and drag the note to Drafts. (The "Posted" is then where completed drafts are saved. It's pretty useless but the act of dragging a draft to that notebook is pretty satisfying.)
Anyways, once an idea is in Drafts, I will jump into Byword, a $10 app I use to write. It's a nice, clean markdown editor. Drafting something there looks like this:
While Byword is beautiful and relatively distraction-free, my real secret to productivity while writing is an app called Self Control. This is a brilliant program that lets you create a "black list" of URLs. Once the list is saved, you can set a timer, enter a password, and BOOM -- you're locked out of those sites until the timer is up. (My black list includes Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, LinkedIn, ESPN, and Grantland)
As an aside, the Self Control app causes you to recognize your own website addictions. It's both funny and depressing at the same time. When I first switched on Self Control, for instance, I found myself mindlessly typing in "twitter.com." When it failed to load, I'd wonder if Twitter was down. I'd do the same with Facebook, et al, before TRYING TWITTER AGAIN. Then I'd realize, sheepishly despite being alone in this adventure, that it was Self Control ... and that I had none.
Back to Evernote for a second just to explain the rest of the Stuff I'm Creating notebook stack:
- "Podcast" contains ideas for guests, show segments, equipment settings, and links to free music sources. This was previously for my podcast #TechItFwd, but I amicably parted ways with the nonprofit for which I produced the show. I plan to launch a new one in 2015.
- "Talks & SlideShares" contains the most half-baked notes of all -- typically one-liners about presentations I'd like to give at conferences or create as playful SlideShares.
- I'll explain "Cartoons" last since I use it least: For some posts, like this one, I sketch little illustrations. I just bought a sketch pad and pencils, and I used to take art lessons because I love to draw, so we'll see if I add more to my blog posts.
Where and how I create content requiring more than just copy.
I often create other projects outside of just blog posts, many of which require some kind of graphic design or typography. I'm a ridiculously hackish designer and proud of it -- almost all my design work commits the cardinal sin of using PowerPoint, the Comic Sans of graphic design. (Designers will appreciate that one.) But I'm pretty good and now fly through the process.
I also use and love Canva, either to design various graphics or to search for inspiration for my PowerPoint hacking. Occasionally, neither Canva nor PowerPoint is powerful enough, at which point I use Pixlr, which is like PhotoShop in the cloud.
Other apps or sites I use multiple times per week include Unsplash (free, do-whatever-you-want-to photos), Dafont (free fonts), and a pretty basic but supremely helpful HTML color code picker. With the latter, I can upload an image and get the color code of an image I'm using, then apply that in Canva to surrounding design flourishes to maintain consistency.
Lastly, once I have a completed graphic, I use Compressor.io to shrink the file size without hurting quality prior to uploading it.
Where, how, and what I consume for emotional or intellectual growth.
Twitter list (private)
iTunes podcast player (mobile)
I'm weird about consuming content. I'm not unique in this, but I'm constantly overwhelmed with all the content out there (which reminds me -- holy hell, THANK YOU for reading this blog out of all the stuff available to you).
So to compensate for all the noise, I allow myself 10-12 Feedly RSS subscriptions and no more. If I want to add a site, I need to drop one. Them's the rules! (Revisiting the "Jay is a normal person" verdict again: Not guilty.)
In Feedly, I categorize subscriptions into two folders:
- "Creative and Quality" features Wait But Why, The Oatmeal, Tyger Cove, Smashing Magazine, and my friend Meghan Anderson's personal blog, since she is a ridiculously great writer and thinker in my opinion.
- "Content Marketing" features Buffer's blog, CMI, Copyblogger, Orbit Media (to catch Andy Crestodina's work, since he's both thoughtful and writes more advanced content marketing advice), and my own blog, just so I can preview the formatting of my images and adjust accordingly.
Here's the weird part -- Feedly isn't actually where I read. It's where I curate. I periodically dive in and save links I like to Pocket, which is where I DO read. Why? Pocket lets me save links I find from anywhere -- Feedly, Twitter, Facebook, email, et al -- right to one place. I think of this curating as "farming." I then "harvest" by reading in Pocket. (They recently sent me an email saying I was one of the top 5% of Pocket readers, so there's proof positive that I'm maniacal and bizarre about all of this!)
(Again. Not guilty. Very, very not guilty. I likely need help.)
Speaking of reading and pithy quips, I don't ever read my Twitter feed. It's noisy, and I did a terrible job curating who I followed. It's too far gone. Instead, I built a private list called People I Learn From that I read each day. I don't make this public because I don't want to offend anyone. (If you're reading this, go ahead and assume you're on there because I freaking love you.)
Next, as I listed above, Chrome bookmarks are useful for this bucket too. I have a bookmark folder of which I'm particularly fond called Great Talks. This is basically full of inspirational videos, both short and long, for moments when I'm feeling lazy or just need a kick in the ass to get going. It includes various TED Talks, a personal favorite talk from Kevin Spacey about creativity, the cliche but amazing Any Given Sunday speech, and a couple motivational commercials from Nike and Gatorade featuring one of my all-time favorite athletes, Derek Jeter. (Judge me. I don't care.)
Lastly, I use the iTunes podcast player on my iPhone. I am obsessed with podcasts lately. Here's my list of shows:
I'm pretty straightforward: Top NPR storytellers, startups, marketing, and sports.
Oh, and of course, my emotional and intellectual stimulation wouldn't be complete without one more essential "app" -- bourbon. Mix all this madness with a little Basil Hayden, and you've got yourself a full day.