This article is a guide for people who spend a lot of time in front of a screen and are open to optimize the way they interact with digital information.

 

Step 1: Be organized

The first step to increase your productivity is to think about your digital organization. Without being organized, you can’t reach a high level of productivity. Here are some time-consuming consequences of disorganization:

  • Searching the chat history to find an address, a contact detail, a link, etc.
  • Searching a crowded desktop for a file
  • Searching the internet for a funny video that wasn’t saved

Good organization can take a bit of effort in the short term, but will help you to find important information fast and easy in the medium- and long-term.

The time you save by being organized far exceeds the time to get organized.

So with that philosophy in mind, let me show you some of the most important tips to improve your organization in daily life.

Bookmarks

Google does an amazing job at bringing every piece of information on the internet right at your fingertips. However, with the help of bookmarks you will retrieve a link a lot faster than remembering the search process that you used last time to discover the link. While a lot of people already use bookmarks, many have all of them saved in one list, the infamous “bookmarks bar”. Let me show you my bookmarks bar, and explain why I think it is highly beneficial like this:

bookmarks_bar

As you can see, I have a folder for every topic of interest that I frequently get in touch with on the internet. In order to see all the folders with a normal screen, I chose to name the main folders as short as possible and use subfolders whenever necessary.

Maybe you wonder what are the first six folders in my bookmarks bar. They are even more important than just saving important links: they are the backbone of my daily business.

  • Folder 1 contains all the programs I need open all the time.
  • Folder 2 contains links that I need to look at once a day (emails, accounting, etc).
  • Folder 3 contains every software that is important to my business, but that doesn’t need to be opened regularly.
  • A specific folder for every client (C), employee (E) and freelancer (F) helps to keep track of important things they share with me.

Did you know that a middle click with your mouse on a bookmark folder opens all bookmarks it contains? This is a powerful combination, because it allows me to make one click in the morning which opens all my important web programs and I am ready to start working.

The extra mile:
If you use Google Chrome, I can highly recommend to login with your Google account as it allows Google to automatically synchronize your bookmarks to every other device.

Todo Lists

I had traditional digital todo lists since I started to use computers. With this I mean software where everything is in 1 big list, which requires you to read over all todos to figure out their priority and urgency. Since usually only a small fraction of all todos are of high priority, skipping regularly over all is a big waste of time.

Nowadays I use a web program called Trello that lets me enter my todos in multiple lists.

Trello

This way I can make a list for unimportant things that I check once a week, for medium priority things that I check once every few days, and for highly important things that I check at least twice a day. With Trello I have cut the time I spend with todo lists by half at least.

Clean Desktop

desktop

How a clean desktop increases productivity:

  • Searching time for files and programs is minimal because everything is organized.
  • New files on the left can act as dynamic todo list –> Put all static files and programs to the right to have a clear focus on currently important files on the left. (Reversed for Mac).

The extra mile:
A consistent place for your current files, in combination with reducing the width of your browser to 90% of the screen width, allows you to always have access to the current files. This is very useful to drag + drop files into the browser, e.g. Google Docs.

Clean Email

A clean email inbox has the same positive effect on your productivity as a clean desktop: it allows you to immediately focus on the important pending tasks. If you check your emails more than twice per day, because you wonder if you missed an important email between a pile of other emails, you are wasting valuable time. In the end, a clean inbox doesn’t require too much discipline, you just need to follow a few simple rules:

  • Can the email be deleted or archived immediately? Then do so immediately.
  • Can the email be dealt with in 2 minutes or less? Then do so immediately.
  • For every other email, leave it unread or make a reminder, and answer it within 24h (“dynamic todo list”)
Calendar

A calendar is the fundamental component of being organized. But using it the right way is another story. There are a lot of tips and tricks for calendars, but I want to focus on one especially useful option: dividing your life into the present and future, with the purpose of reducing the pending topics and reminders in your head. This can be achieved with two functionalities:

  • Recurring calendar events:
    For example, I get reminded 10 days before every important birthday to allow me enough time to order a present (if I don’t have one yet).
  • One-time reminders:
    For example, if a product gives me a 1-month trial period with auto-renewal, I put a calendar reminder a few days before so I can decide at this point in time whether I want to continue using the product.

With this strategy, my future me takes care of these problems and my present me doesn’t have to worry about forgetting an important event ever again.

Password Manager

Another vital component in my productivity belt is a password manager. If you don’t use one yet, please check out this article to learn about the benefits:

Besides the benefits mentioned in the article, I want to mention one trick that allows me to feel more safe regarding highly sensitive information (like bank pin codes etc.). The trick is to use a second layer of protection, such as an AES256 encryption [1]. This way, even if a hacker somehow gets access to your password manager (could happen) and somehow hacks it (should never happen), he just sees random symbols and needs to figure out the right encryption algorithm and extra password to get real access to your sensitive data.

[1] https://encode-decode.com/aes256-encrypt-online/

 

Step 2: Be efficient on your own

Get the best input devices possible

Until Mixed Reality arrives in consumer-friendly products, our everyday interaction with computers is based primarily on keyboard and mouse/touchpad. Getting the most out of these input devices has a direct positive effect on productivity. Especially a good mouse can boost your productivity to new highs. My personal favorite is the Logitech MX Master.

Besides a good battery that last many weeks on one charge, it offers multiple options for buttons and scroll wheel that can be easily adjusted with the MX Master Software. Here is how I have set up my MX Master mouse:

logitech-mx-master

Thumb button (1):

  • Thumb button click simulates mouse middle button, which is useful to scroll websites and open links in a new tab. Also, as I mentioned before, it is very useful in combination with bookmark folders, to open every link in a folder with one click.
  • Thumb button + Drag down minimizes all windows. Together with a clean Desktop this is perfect to have access to the most relevant files all the time.
  • Thumb button + Drag up maximizes a window.
  • Thumb button + Drag left/right puts the windows to the left and right side of my screen. This way I can easily multitask.

Button behind scroll wheel (2):
This small button behind the scroll wheel is very easy to reach so I set it to something I need a dozen times every day: the Windows Snipping Tool that allows me to take a screenshot within seconds. One feature I really like about this snipping tool is that it automatically puts the screenshot into the temporary cache so I can easily “CTRL + V” the screenshot into any chat program.

Scroll wheel (3):
It has a scroll wheel that supports smooth scroll (when scrolling fast) and fixed steps (when scrolling slow) at the same time. The threshold for when the switch occurs can be set in the MX Master Software to perfectly fit your style. Especially as a programmer, scrolling through source code becomes a lot easier with this mouse.

Advanced functionality:
And now for the ultimate productivity tool of this mouse: Being able to easily connect it to multiple computers AND share files between them.
I am using a Windows and Mac laptop next to each other for extra computing power and app development. With this mouse I can control both, and transfer files from one to the other. This is the single most important productivity boost in recent years for me.

Use the right software

Nowadays, brilliant software has reached almost every aspect of our lives. Whatever you do, chances are you could use a newer and better software to solve the task faster.

Never close yourself up to discover new software opportunities.

Some of my favorite software tools are programs called “Sage Lohnabrechnung” for salary payments and “Lexoffice” for accounting. Both programs together cost around 40€ to 50€ a month, but save hundreds of hours of work or equivalent tax advisor fee. These software programs are a lifesaver for young businesses.

Learn shortcuts and tricks for your most-used software

Some of my favorites shortcuts are:

Google Chrome & Firefox:

  • “CTRL+T” to open a new a tab
  • “CTRL+Shift+T” to reopen a tab
  • “CTRL+1-9” Switch to tab number 1 to 9
  • “CTRL+D” to save a bookmark
  • “CTRL+W” to close a tab

Using the last two together is a powerful combination to quickly save multiple open websites in a bookmark folder.
(Note: On Mac “CTRL” changes to “CMD”)

Google Drive:

  • “Z” moves a document
  • “N” renames a document

Slack:
Reminder functionality → you can right click any message and tell Slack to remind you about it in 20 minutes, 1 hour or the next day. Perfect for small todos that would otherwise pile up in your head. (In the next section I will give a small introduction to Slack.)

 

Step 3: Be efficient in teams

Collaboration

Innovative collaboration tools like Google Drive and Git change the way we work together. Amongst other advantages, they allow multiple team members to work on the same document (Drive) or project (Git) at the same time. If you haven’t used them yet, check out the introduction videos and tutorials to get started. Don’t forget the principle mentioned above: “Never close yourself up to discover new software opportunities”.

https://support.google.com/drive/
https://www.atlassian.com/git/tutorials

The extra mile:
Git is mainly used for software projects at the moment, but it is also very useful for other areas that benefit from a clear version history, such as recipes, music, books, resume, investment record, legal documents, tutorials, and many more.

Learn to communicate effectively (Choose the right tools)

WhatsApp was the first entrant into the smartphone chat messaging market. Unfortunately, through this first mover advantage it is still the most popular chat messenger nowadays, even though there are better alternatives available.

  • You want to use WhatsApp on 2 devices? No chance.
  • You want to use WhatsApp web? Only works if the smartphone is online.
  • You want to have a clean overview of contacts? WhatsApp only has one big list.

Enter Slack, a communication tool that “brings all your team’s communication together, giving everyone a shared workspace where conversations are organized and accessible” (quote from official site).

Slack is the backbone of our business, with clients, employees and friends all chatting in the same workspace. We recommend most clients to join Slack so they can directly communicate with everyone involved in the project and receive instant feedback to their suggestions. If you haven’t tried it yet, and emails or chat messages take up a lot of time in your personal or business life, be sure to check it out at: https://slack.com/

Learn to communicate efficiently (Use the tools optimally)

As a remote worker I use the following tools (ordered in descending priority) to communicate with my team:

  1. Text messages
  2. Text emojis
  3. Screenshots
  4. Calls
  5. Pre-recorded videos
  6. Remote control software (e.g. TeamViewer)
  7. Screen-sharing software (e.g. Google Hangouts)

Choosing the right tool at the right time is vital to communicate efficiently. For example, when a team member needs help with a complex task, I ask for a TeamViewer meeting with remote control to fix the problem and teach at the same time.

Phone calls always take longer than chat, so it is important to limit them. Everything that can be solved by chat, should be taken care of before a call, to save some time. I also rarely go into a phone call without an agenda, because it helps to stay on a mutually agreed path.

The extra mile:
Efficient (professional) communication doesn’t mean to remove the social parts of a conversation 😉

 

Step 4: Be prepared

Things break

In order to be prepared for something that can break, you need to identify which parts in your life pose a risk to your productivity, and why. For example, my job as a programmer is based completely on my computer equipment. Once it breaks, I can’t work. To avoid that risk, I always have at least 2 laptops available.

But still it takes a lot of time to set up a new laptop to be exactly like the old one. So in order to be prepared, I try to have as few software programs as possible on my laptop and as much as possible on the web. Moreover, everything that I really need to install directly on my laptop, like Dropbox, Adobe, Android Studio just to name a few, I put the names on a list that is saved in the cloud, so in case my hard-drive fails I can easily restore my complete digital environment within a few hours.

Sometimes things break. You can’t avoid that, but you can plan with it.

The extra mile:
Portable software is another option to reduce the time to set up a new computer. These are software programs that don’t need to be installed and usually consist of only a few files. My password manager (KeePass) and TeamViewer are 2 examples that I put in the Cloud which allows me to easily use it anywhere and with every computer.

Things get lost

The second unfortunate option that might happen is that something of value gets lost. One common example is to lose a smartphone. Fortunately, most smartphone producers already have considered this with “Find-my-phone”, “Remote-block phone” and lock screens. However, being prepared for losing something like a smartphone, requires to think about all affected components. For example, it has become quite common to have Two-factor-authentication (2FA) available through a smartphone. In case you lose it, you wouldn’t be able to access any of these services anymore, and resetting the 2FA code takes a lot of time and effort. So in order to avoid this problem, I have all 2FA codes saved in my password manager, so I can easily attach a new smartphone to a 2FA service. Once again: this requires just a little bit of planning and organization, but it can help you extremely in case of emergency.

 

Step 5: Be pragmatic

Google Flights

Some people regularly check social media, coupon websites and flight prices, to stay informed about special flight offers. However, this task can be perfectly automated. One of the best, in my opinion, is Google Flights. It automatically keeps track of all airlines, and their flight prices. Also, it allows you to type in a few flight dates and to receive automatic alerts when a price changes. No need to waste time with regular manual checks, just let the offers come to you.