I have spent many hours trying to figure out the best tools for getting things done. It all started with Getting Things Done by David Allen for me, as I’m sure is the case for so many people. The book changed my life, eventually, for the better. I’ve always tended to be an eternal optimizer. Even before I had heard the term GTD, I was constantly evaluating how I did things, looking for ways to be more efficient. Figuring out a system that works best takes a lot of time in and of itself, or at least it has for me. The benefits of having spent as much time as I have thinking, tinkering and optmizing is that I really know what works and what doesn’t work for me. While some stuff is going to be different for people, there’s an underlying foundation that’s common for anyone that needs to get things done on a daily basis. I’m not going to go into how one gets things done here. I want to talk about the tools.
When I initially started using Evernote I used it for everything – notes, PDFs, JPGs, etc. I really liked the fact that everything was in one place and the OCR and search capabilities were awesome. Over time, I stopped taking notes Evernote and started using either paper and pen or Text Edit. I just wanted to take notes without worrying about anything else. I didn’t want options of any kind. That’s where iA Writer comes in. I am prone to distraction and iA Writer is meant to be simple and distraction-free, especially in full-screen mode. I even learned basic markdown syntax and now use it when I take notes. I use iA Writer on my Mac and iOS devices, all of which sync quickly and easily via iCloud or Dropbox.
I keep pretty much everything in Evernote. In addition to syncing with Evernote’s server, I also keep all of the scans in Dropbox for redundant backup just in case. The ability to have separate notebooks for various projects or silos of my life, the ability to share notebooks with other people like my wife is awesome. The other person needs to be using Evernote, but since it’s free there’s no reason to not use it. There isn’t anything better and I’ve looked. It’s worth paying for Evernote (the do have a free version) for the PDF search and OCR capabilities alone. Combine it with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M and you will be in productivity heaven.
You can buy a crappy scanner/copier/fax/printer or you can get a really great scanner and spend around $100 on a decent monochrome laser printer. You just don’t need anything else at this point. There are less expensive scanners out there, but there is nothing better or faster than this scanner. You can scan documents, bills, receipts, photos, ticket stubs or whatever. I could write a love poem about it. I like it that much. I can even connect it to my Airport Extreme and make it available to any computer on my home network.
When Mountain Lion came out, I started using Reminders on my iPhone and Mac. I had been using Omnifocus on my Mac and iPhone for years. It has served me well, but I had this urge to simplify, so I started using Reminders and I haven’t gone back. The location-aware reminders work well and I loved the simplicity. I do miss looking at my tasks with context as well as by project, but for now I’m embracing the constraints.
When it comes to paper, I had been using Moleskine notebooks for many years, but I always wanted something smaller with fewer pages and a little less rigid. By the time I filled up a Moleskine, there was inevitably tape on the spine because the cover would just tear away. Field Notes are small, hold up really well, come in all kinds of colors and you can get a subscription to receive these amazing notebooks on a regular basis. I recommend using the graph paper instead regular lined pages. It comes in handy when you need to draw things and you can fit more text on a page if you write small like I do.
Anyone who knows me knows that I abhor pencils. They’re for people that are afraid to commit. They smudge, break easily and the noise of pencil on paper is just under nails on a chalkboard. Black pens are the only way to write. Period. I don’t change pens often and there are three that I love. Japanese people understand what makes an excellent, extra-fine-tipped pen. My favorite pens are made for the Japanese market and thus these aren’t going to be found at your local office supply store. You’re going to pay a little extra, but these are the best pens known to humankind. There’s the Uni-ball Signo (DX) UM-151 Gel Ink Pen (0.28 mm). My handwriting is small and there is no finer-tipped pen worth using. If you’re not writing on good paper, it can tear the paper because it’s so fine. That is why I find myself using a Uni-ball Signo (DX) UM-151 Gel Ink Pen (0.38 mm) more often. I also really like the Zebra Sarasa Push Clip Gel Ink Pen (0.3 mm)
There are a couple of other tools I use at Topspin that are exclusively work-related tools. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to implement Basecamp unsuccessfully at a company. Thankfully, at Topspin, it finally stuck after a false start or two. Managing projects across a company is hard, even when you’re in a big open office like we are. Toss in outside companies and it’s even more difficult. People tend to either love or hate 37 Signals products and I most definitely love them. I love that they’re somewhat constrained and function beautifully. I just really enjoy using their software, which is incredibly important if you’re going to be using an application all day, every day. Topspin primarily uses Basecamp between the operations team, which includes customer support, and the creative services team, which is essentially our internal creative agency. Our communication and collaboration wouldn’t be the same without it.
Parker and I converse passionately about task applications for teams and Flow is what we ended up settled on. Actually, Parker settled on it and I kicked and screamed a little bit about. We had been using Basecamp almost exclusively, but the task/to-do functionality wasn’t robust enough for us so we needed to add another layer. I’ve really grown to love Flow and if you work on a team, you should give it it a try. The ability to delegate tasks, have multiple lists and even conversations around a task are all features that have mattered the most. To be clear, Flow is an app I use at Topspin only. It’s overkill for individuals and the only reason I would consider using it for my individual tasks and to-dos is because I already use it for work. For now, I don’t mind using Reminders for my own stuff.
Systems are personal and the tools aren’t as important as you desire to get things done. None of these tools will get anything done for you. You still have to do the work, but these tools can make the work easier.