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Productivity Improvements That Actually Work

The problems with all of the productivity systems that friends recommend, experts sell and self-help guides suggest is that they take so long to understand and implement that by the time you’ve finished putting them all in place, you could have shot a viral video, redesigned your website and written The Great American Novel. They take more time than they save. There are, though, a few little tweaks that you can make to your workday that will save you bags of time and massively boost your productivity.

Streamline Your Gmail

I don’t need to know this right now….

If you’re not using Gmail, you really should be, at least for one of your email addresses. A cloud-based email system lets you collect messages wherever you are and it also provides a form of automated back-up for your archives. Why pay a back-up service a monthly fee to hold on to copies of your old projects when everything you’ve ever sent to a client goes through Gmail and can be dug out of a Sent folder?

A couple of little settings in Gmail can have a big effect on your productivity:

  1. Restrict Your Mail Notifications

David Allen’s advice, echoed by Tim Ferriss, to only check email at set times of the day is nice in theory. In practice, though, it’s hard to ignore the flag at the bottom of the screen notifying you that you’ve got a new message. But Gmail lets you set those notifications so that you’re only interrupted when you receive something important.

Press the cog icon in the top right corner and choose Settings.


Under the General tab, scroll down to “Desktop Notifications.” Set “Chat notifications” to off and “Important mail notifications” to on.

You’ll be leaving it up to Google to decide which of your messages are important but as long as you’re flagging messages and marking emails, its algorithms tend to do a pretty good job. You’ll be less likely to be interrupted by notifications about newsletters or junk.

  1. Filter out the Jokes

Changing your notifications will affect the intrusive popups at the bottom of your screen. But they won’t stop you receiving the kinds of useless emails that friends and family insist on passing around.

And it doesn’t matter how often you ask to be left out, there will always be someone who insists on making you a link in some chain email, sharing a corny joke or showing a picture of a lolcat drinking from a toilet bowl. That’s just more junk to have to open, delete and push out of your mailbox.

But with Gmail you can filter them out at source.

Under Settings, open the Filters tab and click the link marked “Create a new filter” at the bottom of the page.

In the From field, Enter the names of the people who usually send you junk. In the Subject field, write “fw OR fwd.”


Press the “Create filter with this search” link, then mark the checkboxes “Mark as read,” “Never mark as important” and “Apply the label.” If you don’t have a label already in place for joke emails, then create one by choosing “Create new label” from the menu. Finally, press Create Filter.

Forwarded emails from those people won’t turn up in your notifications and they won’t stick out of your inbox, but you’ll still be able to review them to make sure you didn’t miss anything important.


Make the Cloud Work for You

A huge amount has been written about the benefits of storing documents in the cloud and how hard drives are a thing of the past. In practice, it hasn’t quite worked out that way, partly because the Web isn’t always available when you need it and partly because cloud services have a habit of going down.

They also add steps to your workflow, forcing you to save your work in additional folders, and their limitations mean that you either have to shell out cash or scatter your files across multiple services.

  1. Sync Automatically Google Cloud Connect

After outages, the biggest problem with storing documents in the cloud is having to upload them. For a PC user syncing to iCloud, it means opening a browser, surfing to the iCloud website, choosing a folder and manually uploading. But even Dropbox users have to choose a second folder to make their saves.

Users of Google Drive, however, can install Google Cloud Connect as a plugin for their Office suite.

The free plugin installs automatically and adds a bar below the menu ribbon. You can choose to upload every document to your Google Drive account whenever you save it, or you can select manual syncing and upload only those documents you want to keep online by simply pressing a button. It makes saving your documents online a breeze.

  1. Organize Your Cloud Services

Another downside of cloud services is that they’re limited. Dropbox gives you just 2.5 gigabytes for free. iCloud and Google Drive supply 5 gigabytes before they start charging. That means that in theory you have 12.5 gigabytes of free storage on the main services before you have to start thinking about opening your wallet. But when you’re spreading your files among several different online storage options, you risk wasting time checking each of them to find the file you need.

Use Google Drive for documents.

You’ll be able to upload automatically from Word, and if you want to access the files from a mobile device the Google Drive app is well designed and easy to use.

Use iCloud for Images

Download and install the iCloud Control Panel. On your iPhone or iPad, open Settings > iCloud and set Photo Stream to “on.” Once you’ve logged in, the Pictures folder on your PC will contain a folder called “Photo Stream.”

Any pictures taken on your iPhone or iPad and shared with a folder in the Photo Stream will appear automatically in the Pictures folder on your computer.

Use Evernote for Reading

Instead of copying and pasting text from Web pages into document files or favoriting addresses in your browser, download Evernote, then install the Evernote Web Clipper plugin.

You’ll get a small button on the top right corner of the browser that will let you save pages automatically to your Evernote account which will be synced with Evernote across all your devices.

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