How to Be More Productive with Digital Devices

By Corbin Links

Greetings Productivity Seekers!

Today’s article is the digital counterpoint to my “How to Achieve Mobile Productivity Using Digital Devices” article. If you haven’t yet read the pen and paper article, I highly recommend taking a quick look. Today’s article will build on concepts covered in the “analog” productivity article, so you’ll want to check it out first.

In today’s article, we’ll cover:

  • Background to the “Task Management System” and how I got here
  • What the “Task Management System” is and is not
  • What you’ll need
  • Setup
  • How the digital system works
  • Tuning the system for your own needs
  • Next steps

Ready? Off we go…

Disclaimer

Before we start, I should mention that this system is effective and works well for me. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that you will have the same results. Take the parts that you can use, modify them to suit your needs and preferences, discard the rest. Most importantly, if you have other variations or entirely different systems that work well, then share them! Leave a comment, or link to this post on your blog along with your own thoughts.

Background

I’m a productivity junkie. Since starting in tech-related businesses almost 24 years ago, I’ve tried literally countless “gadget” and paper-based task management systems. Some have worked better than others, but nothing ever felt “quite right.” Then several years ago, I came across a post on the net called “Getting SH-T Done” (G.S.D) which caused me to rethink digital dependencies. In fact, that post coupled with my own experimentation and heavy modification, led to the “Analog Task Management System”. That system served me quite well for a long time. I highly recommend that you also check out Bill Westerman’s excellent article.

Then came the iPad, iPod Touch and Android Phone, and everything changed. Back to gadget land and digital-based systems. Since these devices have entered my life, I haven’t looked back. After years of trying, stopping and trying again to remove paper from my life, I’m finally almost there!

But to be clear, the goal is not to eliminate paper. (Though that is an admirable goal in and of itself.) Rather, our goal is to get as much done as possible, in as little time as reasonably possible. Why “reasonably?” Because honestly, some folks today think that rushing around manically with a quad latte in hand (er…excuse the Freudian slip…) is the key to productivity. It’s not about how your rush around, it’s how you plan, execute, and track. Take the extra time to track and execute correctly, increased efficiency will follow.

What the Digital Task Management System Is

Simply put, it’s a way to keep track of tasks and get things done. Tasks, lists, sub lists, lists of lists, all of that is included.

What the Digital Task Management System is Not

It is not a calendaring or contact management system, though calendaring and reminders play a role in terms of task planning.

Equipment You’ll Need

  • A “smart” phone. For our purposes, that means Android or iOS.
  • An iPad (TM) or other full-featured tablet.
  • A secondary phone-sized device, such as the iPod Touch (TM).

Software and Services You’ll Need

Don’t worry if you don’t yet have an iPad and/or smart phone yet. The Analog Task Management System still works great and is used by many of my colleagues.

Setup

  1. Create your Dropbox, Simplenote, Wunderlist and Google Calendar accounts if you have not already done so. Simplenote and Dropbox have inexpensive premium options, which I highly recommend.

  2. Download and install your desktop copy of Wunderlist. Setup your account.

  3. Install and configure your desktop Dropbox.

  4. In Dropbox, create a synchronized folder called “notes” (without the quotes). This folder will store all of the plain-text notes that you will create and manage with Simplenote.

  5. Download and install your smart phone (iOS or Android) and iPad copies of Simplenote, Dropbox, and Wunderlist.

  6. Sync your iOS (iPad or iPhone) iCal to your Google Calendar.. Do the same with your other device or desktop calendars.

  7. Sync your smart phone (iOS or Android) to your Google Calendar. (See link above. For Android, native Google Calendar functionality is enabled when linking Gmail accounts.) Optionally, you can use the Google Calendar mobile application of your choice to manage it. The calendar management tool you use is not as important as having ALL of your digital desktop and mobile devices synchronizing from a common Google Calendar. Our goal here is all notes and all calendars with us all the time.

  8. IMPORTANT: Set Simplenote (the main website) to use your Dropbox account, and NOT use its own service. (NOTE: A detailed coverage of Simplenote is beyond the scope of this post. However, it is crucial that you follow the Simplenote steps in order, and setup your Simplenote and Dropbox services up correctly before setting up your desktop and mobile Simplenote clients. Trust me on this.)

  9. Download and install your desktop Simplenote client (Mac or Windows). Vitally Important: When setting up your desktop or mobile Simplenote client, be ABSOLUTELY SURE to set the “Storage” options to use your Dropboxnotes folder, and plain text files. DO NOT use the Simplenote service, or store your files as a single database. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. Key to this system working correctly is to have Simplenote using Dropbox sync, and all of your devices synchronizing to that same Dropbox account and “notes” folder. If you don’t follow these steps and instead mix and match Simplenote’s synchronization service with Dropbox’s service, bad, bad, bad things will happen to your notes files.(yes – I speak from experience…)

Ok, I probably should explain further. The Simplenote sync service in and of itself works great! It really does. Nothing problems at all. The reason we’re favoring Dropbox here is due to its universality and the ability to store individual plain text files, vs. a single large database-blob approach such as native Simplenote, “Together (Mac)” or Evernote do. (That’s a whole other topic, but I wanted to take a moment and defend Simplenote’s service after my previous statements.) To clarify, our desktop and device Simplenote clients will be set up to:

  • Use Dropbox for sync
  • Use plain text files for storage
  • Not use the “database” storage option offered by many (maybe all) Simplenote clients
  1. Create a test list and list item entry in your Wunderlist – on any connected device. Synchronize the other devices and you should see the task and list start showing up on all desktops and devices. Beautiful! Be sure this is working before moving on to Step #11. If it’s not working, stop, troubleshoot, fix, continue.

  2. Now, repeat the same steps for your Simplenote note collection system. Create a note on any of your connected desktop or mobile devices (assuming of course that you’re using the same Dropbox and Simplenote accounts on all) and presto! The note you just created should appear on all other connected devices.

CHECKPOINT: How is this working so far? At this point you should have:

  • Google Calendar synchronizing with desktop(s) and all connected devices
  • Simplenote notes synchronizing between all desktop and device clients
  • Wunderlist tasks synchronizing between all desktop and device clients

Does this match your configuration? If so, you’re doing great! Almost there…

  1. Now, learn to use Markdown with your Simplenote clients. This is not strictly a requirement, but it will make your life significantly easier with this system. Take a quick break and learn it now. It’s really easy to use and implement. In fact, this very blog post is composed entirely in Markdown. New to Markdown? I was too just a few short months ago. It really changed my productivity life forever. I’ll cover Markdown in greater depth in an upcoming blog post or video.

You are now setup and ready to use the system.

Using the System

The main point of this system is to be something that is easy use, easy-to-follow, ubiquitous, and maintainable. From here on out, the system works like this:

  1. Use tasking and categorization from the “analog system.

  2. Keep all of your notes written in markdown, all within Simplenote. I use the naming convention “10-27-2011 – Main Topic – Sub Topic” to name my notes. Preceding your notes with your country’s date convention will make them much easier to find later on. And Simplenote text notes are blazingly fast to search!

  3. Reminders are entered into your Google Calendar and synchronized across devices and desktops. Remember the golden reminder rule: any task that takes more than 10 minutes to do should be scheduled. Anything less only needs to be on your Wunderlist task list. I recommend reminder-oriented tasks to be entered both places – Google Calendar and Wunderlist. Wunderlist also provides a “day of” reminder feature, but does not support the granularity of a Google Calendar.

  4. Create, move, prioritize, complete, and list your tasks in Wunderlist just as you did in the analog system. Wunderlist and tools like it bring a new dimension to GSD/GTD by allowing you to move tasks up and down the list. Personally, I much prefer this to the old “1 2 3” prioritization system. Task priorities have a funny way of shifting a lot over the course of the day or week. Visually sliding them up and down to reorder them makes it much easier. Wunderlist also provides a “favorite” type feature, where tasks can be marked with stars and catapulted on top of all the other tasks. Starred tasks can also be reordered at will.

  5. All general notes, task notes, meeting notes and any other kind of basic notes are stored in your Simplenote. (Your Simplenote clients will store each note as an individual text file on your hard disk or device.)

The rest of the system including Google Calendaring will pretty much work the same as it does in the analog/hybrid system.

Tuning the System for Your Own Needs

I’ve covered a lot of steps and tools in this article. It may seem daunting at first, but when it’s setup and working correctly, the system requires very little maintenance. Once you are familair with the tools and how to use them within the system, start tuning the system to your own needs and preferences.

Next Steps

You are now ready to take the plunge into the “Digital Task Management System”. Suggested next steps:

  1. Sign up for the Real World IT Consulting Newsletter so you can receive more articles (and list-member bonus files).
  2. Setup and implement the system.
  3. Ask questions (please comment on to the blog post using the inline Disqus comment system).
  4. Share your own systems, or creative ways you have modified this one.

Thanks for reading!

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About the Author

Corbin Links -- Health Nut, Nutritionist, Tech Warrior, Business IT Strategist and Consultant, Author, Podcaster, Blogger, and Other Duties as Required.

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