How to Harness Digital Tools to Focus on Your Goals and Work Smarter

Technology moves at the speed of light. Harness it to help empower your success in the workplace.

From email to LinkedIn, the social web offers a powerful set of tools that can help you achieve your professional goals.

Earlier this week, we spoke with Alexandra Samuel about what it means to work smarter today.

Alexandra is a technology writer, speaker, and researcher. Most recently, she authored “Work Smarter with Social Media: A Guide to Managing Evernote, Twitter, LinkedIn and Your Email” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).

She also writes about technology for publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review, and authors data-driven reports like Vision Critical’s “What Social Media Analytics Can’t Tell You About Your Customers.”

You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter and just about every other social network.

First of all, what does it mean to work smarter today?

Working smarter means harnessing digital tools to focus on the goals and relationships that are most important to you, instead of getting overwhelmed or distracted by digital overload. It’s easy to get caught up in the challenge of keeping up — but we have to recognize that with the volume of information coming at us these days, we just can’t keep up. It’s a lot smarter to think about what you actually want to accomplish and organize your work around that. Otherwise, you become a prisoner of the software and services that are supposed to make life easier.

How important is social media in helping modern knowledge workers?

The social media success stories that I love are the ones about people getting to do their dream work because they’ve been able to invent it themselves, and used social media to find their market. People like Lee and Sachi Lefever of CommonCraft, who’ve built a whole business around offering explanatory videos; Kris Krüg, who reinvented himself as a photographer in the early days of Flickr; and Marnie Webb, who has built Caravan Studios by using the power of social to solve real-world problems. These are the friends who inspire me to think about how social media can let us do the work we’re really meant to do, not just by connecting us with potential clients, but by helping us learn from one another.

How do you recommend people get started with implementing a strategy to work effectively with social media, technology, or tools like Evernote?

There’s a real tendency for us to think tools first: somebody says to you “oh, you have to start using Evernote” or “you have to use Slack,” and then you go and check it out, and if you can’t immediately see why you’d want to use it, then you just go back to your miserable life of endless Word documents and emails. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, partly because I can’t stand the idea that anybody on earth is using a software tool I haven’t personally tried, and also because I tend to look over people’s shoulders when I’m in a coffee shop, and if they haven’t got Evernote in their dock, I find it almost physically painful — I just want to tackle them and say PLEASE let me change your life by showing you this piece of software.

But the truth is, it’s much smarter to start by looking at where your pain points are — or if there aren’t any raging pain points, where you feel like you’re not achieving your goals or fulfilling your potential.

Where do you feel like you get bogged down? Where are you wasting time? What are the most important kinds of work or tasks you want to be doing, but never quite have time for? Let those questions dictate where you start upgrading your toolkit.

If you experience the greatest suffering because of your overflowing inbox, then setting up a good set of mail filters may be the place to start. If you can never find your notes or business cards, or hold onto your great ideas, then start with Evernote.

What is the biggest change you have seen in the past year with regards to how technology has impacted the way we work?

[fab question!]

The big story in the past year is our effort to escape from email. That’s taken a whole bunch of different forms. You’ve got companies who are now declaring email-free hours so that their employees can unplug. You’ve got Slack, and other applications too, that are trying to replace or supplement email with communications tools that more accurately reflect the way people want to work. And then you’ve got the Apple Watch, which doesn’t even let you reply to email, just take a quick look at what’s in your inbox. They’re all symptoms of how dissatisfied we are with the way email has overtaken our work lives (and our personal hours) — and how desperate we are for a better solution.

Social is built on sharing and collaboration. Can you explain the importance of using technology and new tools to collaborate with colleagues?

One of the funny things about the social web apps many people now use routinely — and I’m talking not just about Evernote but also things like DropBox, Google Drive, and even Facebook or Twitter — is how platforms that are designed to be social often turn into primarily personal productivity tools. It is great to know that all your work is backed up to the cloud and accessible on any device, but if that’s all you’re using these platforms for, you’re missing the revolutionary potential. (Not that backing up isn’t already a good enough reason to keep your work in the cloud: my computer crashed the moment I finished typing that sentence, and miraculously, Evernote had it all waiting for me when I returned, so I’m taking that as a sign the underline the value of a backup!)

Now that we all spend so much of our working lives pounding away at our computer keyboards, exchanging emails or tweets instead of going to meetings, and maybe even working remotely, many of us spend a lot more time solo. That’s not only isolating at a personal/psychological level, but also deprives us of the sparks and serendipity that occur when we exchange ideas and collaborate with other people. That’s why it’s so important to find ways of connecting and collaborating online — not just to spare ourselves the nightmare of version tracking but working off a Google Doc, but with more free-form collaboration like sharing ideas, notes and quick thoughts.

Just to give one example — in promoting the new book, I’ve been working with Aaron Pettigrew, who was the first person I ever hired and also one of my favorite people to work with in the whole world. When Aaron and I first worked together ten years ago, he would come into the office every day and we’d actually talk. Now we all have kids and live and work in different parts of the city, so Aaron and I have been mostly working together over Evernote and Slack. He keeps track of what he’s doing in Evernote and I can see how his work is unfolding. I write up all my own ideas in Evernote and then asterisk or highlight the parts I need his help with. And then we use Slack for the chitchat part — the back-and-forth conversations about who is doing what, or the best plots for sci-fi romantic comedy (I swear, that thread was on topic when we got started). Using these tools together lets us balance the social part of working with other people with the nuts-and-bolts of collaboration.

Email is a challenge and represents one of the biggest hurdles to being efficient in the office. Do you have any recommendations for how people can tackle their email to boost their productivity?

A big part of my book is about email, including ideas around how to move more stuff out of email and into Evernote. My bedrock tool for managing email, which is what I focus on in the book, is using email rules and filters.

Our inboxes get so cluttered with stuff that we don’t need to see (or see immediately) that we can miss the stuff that’s really important.

So my approach is to use folders and filters to put all the less-important messages in “alternate inboxes” — then your primary inbox just contains the stuff you need to tackle first. When you’ve done that (and done the other work that’s really important), then you can work your way through all the cced messages and newsletters.

But filters are just one piece of the puzzle — most of us need to combine multiple strategies to conquer our email. My latest post for the Harvard Business Review looks at a range of these strategies, and offers advice on how to combine them.

Do you have any examples of workflows that you can describe to our community that would help them improve their productivity?

My favorite new Evernote power-up is the trio of mobile apps recently released from If This Than That — Do Note, Do Button, and Do Camera. Since I can only set up three recipes for each app, Evernote is kind of hogging them, because there are so many useful ways of streamlining my use of Evernote (or more accurately, being more reliable in how I capture things.) For example, I now have a specific Do Camera recipe I use whenever I receive a check: with one click I snap a picture and add it my “receivables” not in Evernote.

I also spent a really disturbing amount of time last year trying to write an AppleScript that would scrape through an Evernote note, look for anything labeled “Task” and add it to Things. That was all very fun (who doesn’t want to spend their Christmas vacation learning AppleScript?) but then someone recently put me onto TaskClone, which can pull tasks from Evernote into just about any of the major task management apps. Genius!

How do you use Evernote in your daily life or for work? Any power tips, features, or workflows you would care to share?

Evernote has played a huge part of my development as a writer because I’ve developed this practice of always putting my key writing notebooks into the shortcuts on my sidebar. It’s hard to overstate the impact of seeing those projects day in and day out: even when I am in a stretch of work that takes me away from writing, I have the title of my next book sitting there, calling for a next draft, as well as the title of my latest book, reminding me to do something to promote it. And on a more practical note, because I am religious about capturing every blog post idea or possible case study in Evernote, I always have something ready for me to write about when I do have time to sit down and write.

I started using Evernote in August 2007, and since then I have used it for just about anything I write that is longer than a tweet but shorter than a book chapter ( I currently have 13,492 notes).

Also, I am the latest in a long line of pack rats, so when I bring something into our house, I can’t really count on ever finding it again. But thanks to Evernote, anything I have put on my computer I can always find — and that still seems like a total miracle. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was conferring with a colleague on a survey we are running that is an updated version of a survey we ran last year, and we were trying to figure out what the interface looked like last year. I had used Skitch to capture a whole bunch of screenshots when I was testing last year’s survey, and it only took me about three minutes to find a screenshot of the exact question we were looking for, just by searching for the name of the community we ran it on. How great is that?

But I have to admit that in the past year, the most exciting part of my life as an Evernote user has been introducing my daughter to Evernote. She’s in grade six, and we recently got her a computer that she uses for all her schoolwork, both at home and at school. I think Evernote was the first piece of software I installed on it, and she uses it for everything from her homework to her diary. We set up a couple of shared notebooks for her homework, so when my husband or I help her with one of her major projects, we don’t have to hover over her shoulder — instead, if we think there is something she should look at, we just clip it and drop it in the shared notebook. And to make sure we know when all her deadlines are, I snap pictures of the assignment sheet and put it in the shared notebook. I realize this all makes me sound like a crazy helicopter mom, but I guess what I’m getting at is, if you’re going to be a helicopter mom, be a digitally-enabled helicopter — it’s less intrusive.

Anything else you would like to add about improving the way we work and using social tools and technology to be better at it?

When you’re a tech or productivity nerd, it’s fun to experiment with software in order to find the absolute latest, best tools to work more effectively. But there are a lot of people who have stuff they like to do on a Friday night other than trying out new productivity apps. (Some of these people are even my friends.) Since productivity and tech sites tend to be written by folks like me, who are really into this stuff, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and to feel like the only way to work smarter is to use Evernote and Slack and Twitter and Basecamp and…the list goes on. And since that feels like a lot to tackle at once, you end up just throwing up your hands and going back to Outlook. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Outlook — I’m kind of in love with the Outlook calendar in particular.)

So just try one thing: one new tool or tactic that can make your life easier. I won’t suggest starting with Evernote, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably already using it. But try TaskClone, or set up your first email rule, or try creating a reminder by dictating it into your phone (probably my most life-transforming productivity hack of the past year). If it saves you even ten minutes a week, it’s worth a five-minute investment. And once you start taking your tech setup into your own hands — instead of just doing whatever your IT team tells you to do — you’re on the road to a much more autonomous and effective online life.

Originally published at on May 29, 2015.