Today's workplace can be overwhelming, particularly if you are still tied to old-school ways of getting work done. You try to keep up by making a zillion jottings on sticky notes and pads, responding to hundreds of emails as they hit your in-box and reading useful articles as you come across them. Still, you feel like you never get ahead. But there are ways to master information overload, rather than be a slave to it, thanks to new tools that help you increase your productivity and stay competitive with younger workers.
Chaos rules over your work email in-box, with unimportant messages from marketers popping up as frequently as work emails or important messages from family members.
"We constantly need to think about what we let have our attention. That has become an important part of adult life," says Merlin Mann, a San Francisco–based writer and podcaster focusing on creativity and productivity. Here's how to rein in the chaos.
Unroll. Me, a free tool, automatically sends the mass emails you receive from retailers and other marketers into a single daily email. SaneBox, a paid service that starts at $7 a month, similarly lets you prioritize email based on who sent it, so you can focus on just your important messages.
Or, for a more do-it-yourself approach, take a tip from Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project. He has one email address that he shares with members of the public, mass emailers and other lower-priority sources. He generally checks that account only once a day, at 3 p.m. Bailey uses a separate email address, one he calls top secret, for the important people in his life, including his girlfriend and assistant.
You read articles as you come across them online or from various Facebook feeds or email links.
Instapaper, an app as well as a browser add-on, makes it easy to save online articles to read later. "You can time-shift what you need to do, just like using TiVo on your TV to watch programs when you want. It's the same with reading," Mann says. The Pocket app offers a similar service. Both tools make it possible to save videos and text from web pages or apps, and you can view them when you are off-line or on. You can share what you're reading with others or keep it private. Pocket also functions as a curated destination, allowing you to browse other people's selections.
Your many handwritten notes to yourself get lost or forgotten.
The app Wunderlist permits you to carry to-do lists with you wherever you go. Paula Rizzo, a productivity expert and the author of Listful Thinking, uses Wunderlist to store and track her various to-do lists. You can sync it with your phone, computer or tablet and share lists with others. "I do regular list making by hand and use digital tools to augment and help me," she says.
A similar app, Evernote, can also work in conjunction with written notes or print articles: Each digital notebook allows you to add notes in the form of text, a photo or even an audio file. When Pam Margolis, 49, a blogger and a sales manager for a radio program, wakes up at night with an idea, she types it into the Evernote app on her phone. Then, when she's at her desk the next day, she can pull up that note in the same file on her computer. "Before that, I had scrap paper everywhere," says Margolis, of Philadelphia.
You send emails to coordinate progress with others, followed by phone calls and meetings.
Asana, a web and mobile app—it's free for teams of up to 15 people—makes it easy to stay on top of professional and personal goals by reducing the need to talk or email about who is doing what work. The task-tracking tool helps you break up goals into subtasks, which you can check off when complete. Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, uses Asana to track her financial tasks and work projects. "If I get overwhelmed with something, I add it to the tasks," she says. Plus, you can share projects with team members and assign tasks to others.
To arrange meetings, you send multiple emails.
Calendly lets people select a free time on your schedule, then automatically adds it to your Google Calendar or Office 365 calendar. "It eliminates 10 or more emails, whether you're planning dinner or a meeting," Blake says. The basic version is free. ScheduleOnce offers a similar service, starting at $5 per month. Outlook Calendar is also a useful tool, compatible with Outlook and other email systems.
You lose large chunks of the day to Facebook and other online distractions.
RescueTime software tracks how you are spending time on your computer and mobile devices, then provides a report. You can also set alerts to remind you how much time you've spent on sites or to block certain sites, so you can focus. If excessive phone time is your concern, consider the Moment app, which tracks phone usage. "Often we're not aware of how much time we spend using our phones," says Bailey. He sets a limit of 21/2 hours a day and receives alerts when he gets close to that, so he can redirect his attention to more important tasks.
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