Proven productivity tools: advice straight from 300 entrepreneurs
This is not one of those articles on productivity without any proof that the advice is effective. You know the articles I mean. They have clickbait titles like “10 Incredibly Easy Ways To Improve Your Productivity” and they infuriate and disappoint me. Here’s why:
- They are marketing for marketers by marketers. Those articles often talk about tools for marketers: growth hacking, email marketing, social network management… Yet they have a big bias: people who write those articles do it because it’s part of their job, a marketing job. Hey, I also love Mailchimp and Hootsuite, but what % of the population really need them?
- Hype not advice. Those articles often talk about the latest productivity tools, though latest rarely means best. Who really needs this brand new revolutionary “to do list” app? We should trust tools that have been around for at least a few years. Tools are like Broadway shows or sushi restaurants: on average, the longer they have survived, the more they have demonstrated their robustness, the longer they will likely survive (more on the Lindy effect here).
- Me, myself and I were thinking that… Those articles reflect the opinion of only one person, the writer. But we all work very differently.
My two co-authors and I wrote a book: The 25th Hour. We asked 300 entrepreneurs based all over the world about their favorite productivity tools, and the most widely-cited made it to the book. These are the tools we want to tell you about today:
- Tools that have withstood the test of time. Entrepreneurs are not journalists — they don’t care about the latest “miraculous” tools, they go for the most effective. If you’re already familiar with these tools, you probably won’t get any breakthroughs from this article, but I hope you find it a useful refresher.
- Tools that are useful for everybody, not only marketers. Entrepreneurs don’t only do marketing, they also do operations, HR, IT, logistics, etc.
- Tools that reflect the opinions of hundreds of people, not just one individual. These are the tools most likely to be useful to most readers. Ever dreamt of a TripAdvisor for productivity tools where you could filter for only 5-star reviews from power users? This is the closest you can get. We know that some of the tools below will not be the best for all of you, but they should be the best for most people. They are the ones most frequently cited or emphatically recommended by a few entrepreneurs as mind-blowingly effective. If you have others to add, please share your favourite tools in the comments:)
When we’re at our desks, most of us spend our time on three main activities: navigating (looking for a file, opening an app, closing a tab… ), writing (drafting an email, filling in a form, writing code…) and reading (emails, articles, documents, ads, etc.). With the right tools, you can save a huge amount of time on these three tasks.
Navigating on your desktop: Alfred App
Until recently, the best way to organize anything was to arrange it so it would be easy to find: i.e. sort it. Vinyl record collections the world over are sorted either alphabetically or by genre, or both. In today’s digital world, however, sorting no longer makes sense. Modern search functions are so powerful that you can find any file you need in under a second: shorter even than trying to remember how you filed something in the first place.
So forget trying to manually find things in Finder for Mac or Explorer for Windows. The fastest way of finding the file you’re looking for is to use an instant search system. You’ll only have to type in the first two or three letters, and it’ll pull up exactly what you need.
Alfred App (Mac only) is the best tool, better than the pre-installed Spotlight because results are prioritized according to how often you’ve opened them — both of which can be opened with the ⌘ + spacebar shortcut. On Windows, use the Cortana search function via the Windows + S shortcut, or try Wox if you’re looking for something a little more customizable. Of course, this doesn’t work if your files are stored only online. So if you use Google Drive for example, you should use Google Back up & Sync to also have them on your desktop.
The Alfred App also has a sweet bonus feature: “web custom searches”. For example, in order to find a copy of The 25th Hour on Amazon, you’d usually follow four steps: 1. Open your web browser 2. Open a new tab 3. Go to Amazon.com 4. Search for The 25th Hour. With Alfred App, you can search any site directly from its search bar (⌘ + spacebar). Then, if you’ve set ‘a’ as a keyboard shortcut for Amazon, you can reduce the whole process to one simple step: type ‘a The 25th Hour’ into Alfred’s search bar. This works with every searchable website, from Wikipedia to Rotten Tomatoes :)
Navigating on Gmail: Mixmax
Mixmax is like Gmail on steroids. Because it unleashes Gmail’s full potential, it was cited as a game changer by many of the entrepreneurs we spoke with. Here are a few of its main features:
- Send later. You can set Mixmax to send an email at the date and time of your choice (for example if it’s the end of the day, and you don’t want to irritate your coworkers).
- Set Reminders. Mixmax can send you a reminder if you haven’t received a response to an email after a specified number of days, removing the burden of remembering to follow-up yourself.
- Share Availability. With one click, you can make availabilities in your schedule visible to someone and then create an invite in both your calendars. This is an invaluable resource when it comes to scheduling meetings and preventing pointless, back-and-forth emailing. And if you want to plan a group event with three people or more, there’s a doodle-like poll function.
- Sequences. Mixmax allows you to bulk email hundreds of your contacts at the same time and then, if they haven’t responded within an allotted time, Mixmax can follow up with a personalized, automated message. For example, “Hey ______, I noticed you haven’t replied to my email yet and wondered whether you needed any more information.”
- Tracking. Mixmax lets you know if and when someone has read your email (of course without telling them you have asked for a read receipt). Handy if you want to know whether to chase the person up or not — or are just curious.
Navigating on Chrome: OneTab
OneTab does a very basic task: whenever you find yourself with too many tabs, it closes all of them with one click and converts them into a single vertical list. Why is that so cool? Because having fewer open tabs speeds up your computer dramatically and helps you stay focused on your current task. And OneTab helps you do that without fearing of losing any urls. It’s like a tool that can organize all your scraps of paper into one neat pile, with an index on the top.
Navigating on Google: Resulter and Autopagerize
As a bonus, a handful of entrepreneurs told us about two super useful tools for navigating on Google:
- Resulter, which might become one of your most-used digital tools — without you even noticing it. Instead of clicking on google search results with your mouse, Resulter lets you use the arrows on your keyboard to scroll through results and select the site of your choice. The time saved is roughly one second multiplied by the number of searches you do each day. We’ll let you do the math.
- If you find yourself wasting time clicking ‘next’ while browsing Google or Amazon results, AutoPagerize solves your problem by transforming a site with lots of pages into a single scrollable page.
Form filling: Lastpass (and Dashlane)
We’ve all been there a hundred times over: spending ten minutes filling in personal details only to have the site crash; trying five different passwords before finally clicking ‘Forgot Password’; or having to go credit card-hunting just to buy something… Online forms are a scourge upon the web.
All is not lost. There are some fantastic digital tools that fill in your details automatically, and even improve security. Lastpass (and Dashlane in Europe) were most recommended by the entrepreneurs we spoke with. The only thing you’ll have to remember with these tools is your master password — the “open sesame” for all your accounts on the web.
Writing emails: Auto Text Expander
When you write an email, you’ll find yourself repeating certain phrases a hundred times, e.g. “our offices are located on 248 George Avenue, Westchester, New York.” Chrome’s Auto Text Expander extension is the best way to bash that out faster than a hacker from Anonymous. You just assign pre-written sentences or phrases to shortcuts, such as ‘:addr’ for your work address, and… hey presto.
You can add as many shortcuts as you want: your professional and personal address; niceties to open and finish emails; your phone number; or any other phrase you find yourself repeating when making a business proposal, sending an invoice, turning down an internship request, etc.
Note: if you already have Alfred App, no need to install Auto Text Expander. This function is already built-in.
Copying-pasting anything: Paste
Paste is a clipboard management tool. It keeps track of everything you’ve ever copied and lets you use your clipboard history whenever you need it. This is one of those features you don’t really imagine will change your life but, believe us, the second you start using it you’ll never go back. For example, imagine that you go to paste something and realize you’ve copied something else to the clipboard in the meantime. You can just type in a shortcut like ⌘ + Shift + V and pull up every text you’ve copy-pasted in the past week. Problem solved in half a second.
Note: if you already have Alfred App, no need to install Paste. This function is already built-in. Again.
(not) writing an explanation: CloudApp
An image is worth a thousand words, right? Illustrating your point using images, graphs, and videos can be both faster and more effective than long-winded explanations, and most short-winded ones too. With one click, CloudApp takes screenshots of whatever you like (static images, gifs, videos, etc.) that you can then annotate if you like. You can share access to these images via a copy-pastable URL. In this case, the free version does pretty much everything you need (we actually used it for most of the screencasts in this medium article).
Texting: use your computer!
Let’s make an obvious point that lots of people seem to forget: at work, the only advantage your phone has over your computer is that you can use it easily as you move around. In everything else, your computer has the advantage. It’s faster, more powerful, has a bigger screen and a better keyboard. In short, when you’re at work, leave your phone in your jacket pocket and don’t use it, except for making or receiving a call!
There are plenty of well-designed websites or desktop apps that allow you to access your phone from your computer, including Whatsapp for web, Android Messages, or Messages (the Mac desktop app that lets you access your iPhone).
Writing anywhere: Noisli
Ambient sound can really help create an atmosphere that’s conducive to work. According to a study from the University of Chicago, a light distraction in your ambient environment actually benefits the creative process. Maybe that’s why I have my best ideas while showering, brushing my teeth or mowing the lawn…
But music doesn’t always cut it. It generally requires too much of your attention. Simple music, preferably without lyrics (classical, not Classic Hits; relaxing jazz, not Jazzy Jeff; ambient, not Adele). The entrepreneurs we interviewed recommend the excellent website (and Google Chrome extension) Noisli. It provides dozens of background soundscapes that can help you concentrate, from quiet riverbanks, to cafés, to a cabin during a thunderstorm.
And now, for my pièce de resistance, let me share the ultimate technique to treble your reading speed in a matter of minutes.
Er… actually… sorry to disappoint, but most of those supposed “fast reading” techniques, such as stopping at fewer points per line, are bullshit. Contemporary research suggests that there is in fact no magic formula. If we speed up our reading, our ability to remember and to understand is diminished as a result.
What we’re going to share instead is how to avoid reading useless stuff.
Avoiding reading Facebook: Newsfeed Eradicator
You know the drill: you go on Facebook to send a message to a friend, and you become sucked into the newsfeed, one clickbait after another. Here’s the solution: install Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook — it replaces your entire newsfeed with an inspiring quote. Anyway, wouldn’t you prefer reading a Gandhi quote instead of “she forgot to switch off her webcam on and here’s what happened”?
Avoiding reading news articles at work: Pocket
Our first instinct when someone sends us a video or article is to open it immediately. To avoid the temptation, it’s important to have an efficient way of filing them away for later. For that, you should use a bookmarking or “parking” app. Entrepreneurs recommend Pocket, an excellent extension for Chrome, that lets you save articles and videos with one click, which you can pull up later on any device.
Avoiding reading emails all day long: Inbox when Ready
To help you resist the temptation to check emails as they arrive, we recommend using Gmail’s Inbox when Ready extension, which hides your inbox by default. The result: you get to write emails and get on with your work without being disturbed each time a new message arrives. The only way you can view your inbox is by clicking on ‘Show Inbox’.
Avoiding reading useless websites: Freedom
If you’ve heard of Tristan Harris and the “time well spent” movement, you now understand that most social networks and media outlets were constructed with one main objective: to hold onto your attention for as long as possible. The longer you spend on their platform, the more money they make. So the best solution is to protect yourself from…yourself. If you find it impossible not to polish off that jar of Nutella, the best thing to do is to not buy it in the first place. The same principle applies to tempting work distractions: cut off access to the distractions themselves.
“Blocking apps” prevent you from accessing particular websites or apps for a specific amount of time: Freedom was the most frequently mentioned tool. It’s slightly disconcerting at first, but after four or five days you’ll feel a newfound sense of freedom :)
When you install a new tool, the gains may seem insignificant at first. If the tool makes you 1% faster and saves you about thirty minutes over the course of a fifty-hour week, it will be hardly noticeable to you (or anyone around you, for that matter). But the snowball effect of these small improvements will eventually make the difference. If you can make one new change every week and each of them saves thirty minutes then, by the end of the year, you will save 52*30 minutes = 26 hours saved in total in your last week of the year! . This means your 50-hour workweek will be divided by two.
To stay motivated, remind yourself that the greater your initial investments, the greater the future payoff. And there you have the fundamental secret to supercharged productivity: implement a series of gradual improvements, that eventually add up to an enormous difference.
That said, if you really want to get insanely productive, there’s only so much you can achieve with tools like these. What matters most is your ability to get organized and concentrate better. The 300 entrepreneurs we interviewed had plenty of extremely useful tips to share. Download the first chapter of the 25th hour for free here. And if you want to see all the tools listed in the book, click here.