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Reclaiming our time in 2015 - my best digital productivity tips

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 7, 2015
Most of us are in a constant struggle to protect and claim "high value" time - but it's getting harder and harder to pull that off. Here's my best digital productivity tips for 2015.

Most of us are in a constant struggle to protect and claim "high value" time. That might be family time, health and fitness time, or, my favorite, "differentiating work" time. That's the time we spend on deeper work that advances our prospects in the world through immersive acts of creation.

But it's getting harder and harder to do that. As Phil Fersht warned: 2015:Time to salvage yourself from your digital wreckage of a work-life, our digital work lives are burying us in pings and alerts and shares of dubious value - not to mention the email inbox that was supposed to go away, but never has.

It's time for a new definition of productivity: how much high-value time did I protect and use this week, for myself/my family/my company. 

Alas, working against the pursuit of "value productivity" are all the time sucks - necessary or not - that pull us from the high value time. Showering and shaving counts as necessary time, but does email? That's where we're all trying to chip away, by diminishing the time spent on maintenance chores - and now that includes digital maintenance chores as well.

We do our best to convince ourselves that technology helps us be more productive rather than infringing our high value time via a steady string of (mostly) mundane notifications. But is that really the case? Is productivity tech an enabler, or part of the problem? As I commented on Fersht's post, digital tech can be part of the solution, giving us invaluable feedback and a new kind of social context - but only if we use those tools to effectively filter and prioritize.

With that kind of fun in mind, I present to you my favorite productivity and curation tools and tips of 2014.

Why do I include curation? Because most of us in the enterprisey space need to track important stories that can change the course of our daily/weekly priorities. But we need to accomplish that monitoring task efficiently also. That way we have more high value time to spend browsing dog pictures on Facebook. (In fairness, Facebook can become a surprisingly acceptable breaking news tracker with some configuration and practice - read on).

My criteria for this list is pretty simple:

  • Which items had the highest impact on my productivity this year?
  • Items that required unreasonable setup time and sophisticated maintenance were disqualified
  • Preference was given to tools that have easy backup systems and/or data exports in non-proprietary formats
  • For "busy people only" - tools that required extensive hacking for good results were excluded, even if they work for me
  • Outside-the-box preferred: who needs another bland time management tips list? I tried to come up with unexpected tips that will provoke experimentation

1. Chrome bookmarks: before you can take advantage of the wonderful power of Chrome bookmarks, it's important to distinguish them between two other kinds of Google bookmarks Chrome bookmarks are the bookmarks which are tied to your Google ID when you are logged into a Chrome browser. You can manage your chrome bookmarks here.

Why are these bookmarks freaking cool? Because when you sign into another Chrome browser on another device, they are instantly replicated. I can access my Chrome bookmarks easily across my Mac and Wintel laptops, as well as my Android phone and tablet (sorry, haven't tested them in iPhones or iPads). They effectively update across devices as well!

Great for: bookmarking preferred sites, such as travel and airline log ins, as well as frequently visited destinations with annoyingly long URLs. (I have shortcuts in my Chrome browser to my diginomica log-in pages, local takeout menus, weather, Google custom search engines, and so on)
Not great for: organizing hundreds of news articles that will fade in interest over time. You need a tagging system for articles - Chrome Bookmarks is not a tagging system.
Tip: make sure to go into "Chrome bookmark manager" periodically (right-click/control-click on the bookmarks toolbar in the browser) and export your bookmarks as HTML.

2. Google Chromebook: Once you are working off the Chrome browser and bookmarks, you're one step closer to effectively using a Chromebook. Chromebooks are a terrific backup machine for knowledge workers who need still need keyboards to get things done. As a cheap backup, it's perfect to have a Chromebook with a super long battery life (way longer than my Macbook Air) lying around for a productive trip to a cafe. And if your laptop has an incident while traveling, Chromebooks are cheap enough that you can even consider buying one for the duration of your trip. Chromebooks are not a good heavy duty machine but in conjunction with Google Drive for document and email management, they are terrific for content creation on the go.

Great for: quick, lightweight work sessions with robust battery life (assuming a good keyboard is essential for you). I love grabbing my Chromebook for a few hours away from the office. Also great for backup when another machine goes down.
Not great for: not ideal as a primary work machine, for several reasons, including offline sync.
Tip: offline syncing can be a pain, especially if there is no Internet connection nearby for an update. Refresh your Chromebook on your home/airport/hotel wifi to update all document syncing before you go somewhere where you may find yourself offline or with sketchy Internet.

3. Digg Deeper: I have mentioned Digg Deeper before, but it has really proved itself to me as a tool for monitoring the most important enterprise news stories of the day. You can configure Digg Deeper for email notifications if you want. I have Digg Deeper set on "high" notifications, which in my case generates about three email notifications a day of the key stories those I follow are sharing (and I can see who shared the story in question). This is especially handy when I'm on a hectic conference or meeting schedule and therefore unable to track my Newsblur RSS feeds closely.

You can also see Digg Deeper on the Digg home page and mobile apps (though I haven't tried it on the mobile apps yet, I prefer my Newsblur app on my mobile). Get Digg Deeper going via the Digg home page. (Also: here's a link to a short Digg Deeper piece I put up on Google+ that includes a comment thread with the Digg team participating.)

4. Carry an extra pay-per-usage myfi device: I'm fed up with wasting time on pathetic wifi connections on the show floor - or the 22nd floor for that matter. So I carry two wifi hotspots with me - one is my Verizon hotspot tied to my main cell phone package. But my other is a pay-per-use hotspot with no contract, in my case via TruConnect. TruConnect is a Sprint-based network. The device cost me around $100 but now I pay a $5 a month flat fee only. I only pay more on a consumption basis when I use it. Between a Verizon and a Sprint hotspot, I'm rarely stuck on cruddy wifi, and I make a lot of desperate strangers into friends too. Outside the U.S. it's a different story - for longer trips I often rent a TEP hotspot, though it's not cheap.

5. Carry a 12 foot extension chord with you in your carry on (U.S.): I've lost count of the times I've been able to plug in an ailing device thanks to a nice long extension chord. You have to be a little discreet as airports don't appreciate long chords across busy corridors. But even if you are two feet away, if the power outlets are all in use, an extension cord with extra plug-ins is a dandy way to get yourself some power, and also share it with other butt-weary travelers who don't have access or who don't want to sit on the floor. More friends! This chord has saved my bacon at trade shows also.

6. Use Evernote for article tagging across devices: Unless you are a comprehensive tagger like me, I suggest the use of Evernote for tagging articles across devices. Between the mobile apps and browser-based web site (and super fast/excellent search), you're in good shape if you tag one to 20 articles a week (For heavy duty tagging - as in thousands of items - I don't like Evernote because I think it works better as a "best of the best" repository). But for most folks, Evernote is more than robust enough and, as a bonus, Evernote can pull the whole page so you won't lose a vital web page if it is taken offline.

7. Consider a dedicated cloud-based email for newsletters and editorial alerts: Yes, some email programs are getting better at filtering newsletters from personal messages, but I'm a fan of pushing all newsletter content into a separate email address. Inbox sanity is a cause we can all embrace, and getting the newsletter content into a separate email is a great first step. Then you can check that email less frequently, and focus on paring down the newsletters or organizing them into filtered folders. I use gmail for this.

Though I prefer to consume most content in RSS, some content only comes in newsletter form, or else there are breaking news alerts I want to track. Each of those goes into its proper folder based on the filters I setup (I sometimes even set these to "mark as read" if I know it's content I'll refer to later but don't care about in real time). When you do this, you will probably find there is one type of alert you need every day (such as breaking news on a client you are monitoring). In that case, you can route that alert to your main email so it will ping you on your mobile device. Break the newsletter addiction by separating them out, and find a blessed piece of sanity returned to you.

8. Experiment with a custom search engine on Google: If you use search frequently on certain topics, consider creating a custom search engine on Google. Here's a very simple one I made for I also have a much more robust one that allows me to search all the enterprise sites I monitor (contact me if you want access to that one).

So, you may be wondering, "Why would I bother with a custom search engine?" Well, for a couple reasons. First, wouldn't it be cool to restrict your searches to a handful of sites that matter to you? With Google custom search, you can do that. But:  you can do something with Google custom search you simply CAN'T do with regular Google search (or any other web search engine I've seen): you can sort the results by date instead of relevance. That's huge if you are looking for a piece that was published a month or two ago, or anything that is hiding from you in regular search results.

Or: if you are trying to understand the sequential flow of a breaking news story. Sorting by date is a powerful alternative to sorting by relevance. Especially for busy topics like "SaaS consulting". Try that one on a regular Yahoo or Google search and you'll see how ineffective that kind of search is, with old and questionable results dominating the listings.

9. Spend time configuring Facebook and teaching the newsfeed what you like: No, you can't control Facebook's algorithm, and you can't force it to show you the stories you want to see the way you can now do on Google+. But, with some effort organizing friends into different types of groups, "liking" only the content you want to see more of, configuring your group memberships and business pages to show you all their updates (or not), and, perhaps, organizing some topical groups, you will find that Facebook shows you more of what you want and less of what is completely annoying. (See Den Howlett's post, Gaming Facebook for grown ups).

10. Prune and assess your LinkedIn groups: LinkedIn group memberships are still important for building new connections, but most of those groups are spam-filled or low value on a day-in, day out basis. Go into your LinkedIn group settings, and make sure the handful of groups that do have important discussions are set to ping you so you know when new posts come out. Then, make sure the less relevant groups are set to never bother you, or to send you a digest only once a week. Controlling LinkedIn notifications takes some time but it beats the heck out of all the noise LinkedIn will push into your notification stream otherwise. (See my post, 15 semi-useful tips for squeezing value from LinkedIn).

Your productivity tools are likely different than mine, but hopefully a couple of these will inspire you to take yours up a notch or try a different approach. As for conquering the digital worklife dilemmas that Fersht believes are taking us towards a productivity crisis, that's more than just a tools and tips conversation - we'll have to return to that one.

Note: this piece is part of an semi-regular diginomica series I am writing on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise.

Image credit: Business growth @ Minerva Studio -

Disclosure: Phil Fersht is a fellow Enterprise Irregular, as is my diginomica colleague Phil Wainewright. Dignomica pays for the use of Google services, but the Google services I recommended in this post are all free. I still receive modest compensation from Google from AdSense running on, but recommend approaching a productivity investment in Google with caution, just as I would caution with Apple or Microsoft or any other platform.

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