Finding productivity and freedom away from the desktop

The productivity movement in full swing, I examine my move to greater productivity and freedom with the use of web based applications.

Every day, I skim an article about dealing with information overload, distraction, and the challenge of accomplishing tasks and goals. The productivity movement boomed around the problem, with everything from process changes (Getting Things Done) to software (Five Best GTD Apps @ Lifehacker) to blogs covering the action (Merlin Mann @ 43 Folders, a favorite).

All these articles made me think: am I doing work wrong? Have I been working inefficiently all these years? I though about this statement, looked back over client work and my personal projects and came to the following conclusion: yes and no. When it comes to client work, I’m deadly efficient: no unnecessary conference calls or meetings, tasks set and updated as needed, no billable time to what I like to call “no win” time. No win time is that time you spend dealing with anything that leads away from a positive end result for the client (meetings with limited or no set agenda…classic no win). Why is no win time bad you say when I could bill that time? Because my goal is to provide knockout results with positive outcome, and that is not accomplished with no win time draws.

I could use improvement on the personal projects aspect. I’ve been approaching it wrong for the most part, too often focusing on things that just didn’t offer me or those around me any particular joy. This is one reason there is a stack of lumber in my garage for the new darkroom, reservations for the honeymoon my wife and I put off, and a draft of a screenplay on my desk; I shifted back to doing what was effortless and enjoyable instead of doing what I should be doing. If there was one thing I took away from reading Tim Ferris' The Four Hour Workweek, don’t wait around to do the things you want to do. Put another way, my folks have always told me that coffins don’t have pockets; enjoy life while you still have it.

I changed the way I though about things over the course of six or so months. Work was hitting me hard and fast, I had a new wife and little girl and a house to fill with memories. It wasn’t that I wanted a new approach, but I needed a new approach to handle the change that was occurring. I took bits and pieces from books and blogs to figure out what worked best for me and came up with my software platform that would organize my life. This is what I came up with:

  • Google Apps Premier became my base of operations. I had used everything under the sun for email; Outlook, Thunderbird, Evolution, Pine (yes, I said Pine…and I still use Pine via SSH from time to time). I have my own hosted email, but decided it was time to use that as a backup system and move mail and calender to Google Apps Premier. Google Mail had come a long way to allowing me to automate with ease what used to be a pain to do either on the client side or on the server. It also allows me to integrate calender, documents, and tasks within a single view. Why pay when it’s free? At only $50 a year per user, I get additional support and space, Postini, and additional services.

  • Remember the Milk became my task manager. Flexible and integrates with Google Mail very nicely; I can create tasks by simply labeling emails. I find the Firefox plugin to be a huge time saver and integrates everything in one view. I can also share my tasks with others (my wife and I use this constantly). It follows me everywhere no matter which cell phone I’m using (either the iPhone app or via SMS with the Treo). Why pay when it’s free? At $25 a year, it’s a small price to pay for priority support and pro-only features like the iPhone app.

  • Twitter became my status update. When Twitter first came out, I shrugged; it didn’t offer me anything that I needed. That was until I turned off email notifications and stopped sending the “I’m working on XYZ” emails. Twitter filled that gap and is a whole lot easier to update folks as to what’s going on on mass. 50% of the time my updates are status related; the rest are social or links to interesting things.

  • Nuevasync keeps me updated. With the ability to sync my calendars and contacts to my iPhone over the air from Google, I no longer even sync my iPhone (a huge plus given the horrible sync software). Even after Google Sync came out, I still prefer Nuevasync.

  • VOIP gives me reach beyond my area code. I’ve been using Vonage since 2004 with great success; using virtual numbers gives me presence in area codes I have clients that I’m not actually presently in. Similarly, I use Grand Central for additional forwarding rules and another number to boot. Toss in Skype and I could pretty much live without my cell phone.

My goal was to use as much web (or cloud if you like…doesn’t everyone love that new buzz word?) software as I could. Over the years I’ve written a number of web applications that sort of did similar types of things, but didn’t integrate well beyond RSS. Why reinvent the wheel when I could move on to doing other more enjoyable things. I setup the web apps and let the new automated portions handle some of the work flow. I generally spend less time answering email and more time getting tasks checked off the list, and I always have a view into the future of what needs to occur. The beauty of it being web based? Any computer, any where. If my laptop dies when I’m on the road, I’m not out of luck; find a spare or buy some time in a web cafe.

When it came down to it, web based software largely helped me automate and get away from my desktop, which let me be mobile, and in turn let me have a lot more freedom. I’m not into the continuous search for magic bullets (I tend to stick with what works for me) but I’m always open to new ideas (I for instance like the inbox zero concept, which isn’t new but I’m still trying out the idea, which I’ve found liberating).

While my new processes are still a work in progress, I’m find the new changes have greatly increased my ability to clear my task lists be it from my desk, or from a hiking trail in the Sierras.