Productivity

Tech Tools and Tricks That Boost Productivity


The official measurements tell us that worker productivity is growing at its fastest pace in years. Anyone not living in a cave for the past two years can tell you why: Having slashed payroll, companies—and their employees—are doing more with less. That's why productivity jumped 6.9% in the fourth quarter of 2009 to a level not seen since 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We're obsessed with finding ways to be more productive during the workday—longer hours, doing more with fewer resources, and using technology to do it. You see the effects anywhere there's a concentration of professional people: a widespread obsession with the Blackberry (RIMM) or iPhone (AAPL). There's a laptop bag on every shoulder at the airport or packed into the car on vacation, following lengthy discussions over whether or not to take it.

If the above sounds familiar, you're not alone. The perceived need to "work whenever and wherever you are" is showing up in all kinds of market data tracked by market research firm IDC: Smartphone sales surged 40% year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2009; PC sales picked up unexpectedly in the same quarter, sparked mostly by sales of small and light notebooks called netbooks. By the end of this year, IDC estimates, there will be 1 billion mobile employees worldwide who work outside the office at least part of the time.

Ask workers what they use to stay productive and they point overwhelmingly to notebook PCs and smartphones. In a survey conducted for Bloomberg BusinessWeek by the professional social networking site LinkedIn, 63% of respondents cited their notebook PC as the most effective tool that helps them do their job, vs. 22% who identified their smartphone. When traveling, 49% credited smartphones with keeping them connected to the office, while 35% said laptops boosted their productivity.

Naturally, technology brings its own set of productivity-sapping distractions, some old, some new. In the same survey, LinkedIn asked people to name the "biggest drain" on workplace productivity. Some 41% cited "unwanted e-mail;" 19% said unexpected phone calls; and 14% mentioned "nonbusiness social media," such as Twitter and Facebook.

turn productivity drains into gains

Clearly there's an easily crossed line past which helpful technologies become distracting. Where is that line? Companies have long struggled over giving employees open access to the Internet at the risk that they will spend time playing Solitaire or managing fantasy baseball teams. As much as e-mail speeds up certain kinds of communication, it has drawbacks, especially when messages pile up or spam clogs your inbox.

We reached out to some productivity experts to help find the proper balance by suggesting tools and tricks you can try out for free to help turn your productivity drains into gains.

Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, says the key to being productive lies not in trying to do everything but in choosing what not to do. "It's easier to focus on a not-to-do list than a to-do list," he says. "To get big things done, you need to minimize self-interruption."

One easy trick is to cut down on time spent on e-mail. If you use Microsoft Outlook (MSFT), Ferriss suggests an add-on program called Xobni, which is "in box" spelled backward. The program adds an extra layer of information about the mail you send and receive. Best known for making it easy to search your inbox for contacts and lost attachments, Xobni also analyzes when your inbox is busiest. Ferriss says Xobni can tell you when your e-mail "hotspots" occur—the times when you should check for e-mail from your most important contacts and when you can ignore e-mail altogether without fear of missing something important. Xobni, which operates on PCs that run Windows, is free; an advanced version called Xobni Plus is available for $29.95.

Doodle can schedule your meetings

Ferriss suggests using a program called RescueTime, which tracks how you spend time on your computer and lets you block access to sites that tend to distract you when you need to focus. "Most people are severely unaware of how they spend their time," Ferriss says. RescueTime runs on Windows and Mac OS X, and comes in both a "lite" version that is free and A Pro version that costs from $6 to $9 a month per user.

Another time-killer? Booking meetings. How many times has an endless stream of back-and-forth e-mails focused solely on when to schedule a meeting? Ferriss suggests a Web service called Doodle, which lets all participants vote on a time, then schedules the meeting according to the voting results. There's a free version and a premium version that costs $28 a year.

How we define productivity may underlie the problem of thinking we're not productive enough. So argues Douglas C. Merrill, the former chief information officer of search giant Google (GOOG) and author of the new book Getting Organized In The Google Era. Trying to accomplish several things at once is not productivity, he says. "Over the last few years we've come to associate multitasking with productivity and I think it's exactly the opposite."

Switching back and forth between tasks is something people are not very good at, especially when we do it quickly, says Merrill. The upshot, he contends, is that you end up being less effective on all the tasks than if you were to focus on one at a time. "The way we think of multitasking makes us less productive," he says.

Merrill suggests a few simple tools to help streamline your work processes. He suggests centralizing all your e-mail accounts on GMail, Google's free e-mail service. GMail has a feature that will check other accounts for you at regular intervals and it allows you to answer e-mail as though you're using any of your other accounts. "You should have only one place for e-mail, no matter how many accounts you've had in the past," he says. Other Web mail services such as Yahoo! Mail (YHOO) have the ability to work with outside accounts, but GMail's primary strength is its ability to make the contents of your inbox as easily searchable as Google.

share your Google Calendar?

Merrill also suggests getting important computer files off your laptop computer and into the cloud, where you can reach them whenever you need them. His favorite storage service, Dropbox, is free for up to 2 gigabytes and then costs $9.99 a month for 50 GB and $19.99 a month for 100 GB. "People have this idea that their files are safe when they're stored on their laptop," he says. "That is, until their laptop is stolen."

Next try a shared calendar service such as Google Calendar. Give selected colleagues and family members access to the online service so they can know when you're busy and where you are.

Finally, don't let technology overwhelm you. William Powers, a former writer for The Washington Post (WPO) says in his forthcoming book, Hamlet's Blackberry, due out in June, that modern workers need to strike a balance in their overconnected lives by disconnecting regularly and by resisting what he calls "digital maximalism." Adding more technology doesn't always improve productivity, although we often assume it will. Powers uses examples from some of history's most prolific figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Plato, and Shakespeare (hence the reference to Hamlet in the title) to make his points.

"All these devices that we use do wonderful things by making our lives more enjoyable and enhancing our creativity," he says. "But if you don't take some time to open up some distance between yourself and your screens, you end up shuttling between small things and never doing the big things that lead to the best kind of productivity." His suggestion? A regular walk, with the smartphone left safely in a desk drawer. "Nothing bad will happen," Powers says. "And something good just might."

Arik_hesseldahl
Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com
With Carlos Bergfeld in Silicon Valley

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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