My Productivity Cheat Sheet

I’ve experimented with dozens of tools and tricks to stay productive. Some work great and others… not so much.

Here are nine game-changing tools I use to stay productive.

 

My Inbox

There are two types of lunatics in this world: those who keep their inbox clean and those who always have 12,000 emails. Whatever camp you’re in, the other camp is insane. I’m on team “clean inbox” because I use my inbox as a to-do list.

I typically have between 3-10 emails in my inbox any given time. If an email is in my inbox, it means I have to action it. If I keep seeing the same email for a week or two, I know I’m slacking.

A real screenshot of my inbox. Bragging? Slightly…

 

My strategy is to groom my inbox a few times a day to make sure only actionable items remain in the inbox. For everything else, I do one of two things:

  1. Archive it. This removes the email from my inbox and, more importantly, my focus. I can always search for the email if I ever need to find it again.
  2. Sling it over to FollowUpThen…

 

FollowUpThen

I use FollowUpThen for emails that I know I’ll eventually need to action but just not right now. Simply put, it’s a service that allows you to schedule an email reminder. There are a bunch of similar services that all essentially do the same thing but FollowUpThen works best for me. I’m still on their free version (up to 100 monthly reminders) and they allow you to link multiple email addresses to the same account (which I use for my personal and work email accounts).

It’s pretty simple to use. Just include [date or time]@followupthen.com in the To, CC, or bcc fields, and the email will reappear in your inbox at that time.

This email will come back to me, and only me, in one week. It’s a nudge to remind me to send the document to John.

 

Some game changing ways I use FollowUpThen:

  • If I get an email invite with an RSVP deadline in two weeks, I forward the email to 2weeks@followupthen.com. The email comes back to my inbox in 2 weeks so I remember to RSVP.
  • I send myself daily motivational reminders. Just draft these daily notes in an email and send it to daily9am@followupthen.com and it pops into my inbox every day at 9 AM

And the biggest game changer of them all?

Lots of work related emails require follow ups at a certain time. Whenever I need to follow up in 3 days or next Monday, I just bcc 3days@followupthen.com or monday@followupthen.com and I know I won’t forget. This one is huge. It helps keep my projects on track and keeps my team and clients accountable. Since the follow up is in the bcc, the people on the email don’t see your little trick.

You’d be surprised how often this little trick impresses people. They think you have magical powers simply because you follow up when you say you will.

 

G Suite

G Suite (formerly Google Apps) have really stepped their game up the past few years. When Google Docs and Sheets first came out in 2006, their usefulness was very limited. Word and Excel were still light years ahead of them. That’s all changed over the past few years. I can’t point to a specific feature that’s put them over the hump…it’s just an overall level of product completeness.

These Google Apps meet 95% of my document editing needs.

 

I pay $5 per month for G Suite, which gets me an email address for my business domain (sangora.co), 30 gb of storage, and access to all the G Suite products (e.g. Docs, Sheets, Slides Drawings). 

If you run a small business, it’s 100% worth it to pay 5 bucks monthly just for the custom email domain. When you’re talking to prospects and clients, it is much more professional to communicate from yourname@yourcompany.com as opposed to yourname+yourcompany@gmail.com. You’ll look like a legitimate business and not just someone pretending to run a business. 

 

Insightly CRM

When I started my own business in 2015, I quickly realized I needed a better way to manage my business relationships and opportunities. I struggled for a year using Gmail contacts, but their features are geared towards personal email communication.

 

What I needed was a lightweight CRM (customer relationship management) system to keep all of my contacts and potential deals in one place. Salesforce is the CRM industry standard but it’s a bit pricey and overly complex for small businesses.

After some research on affordable and lightweight options, I landed on Insightly. I’m on the free version which gives you up to 2 users and 2,500 records. I’ve been using it for over 2 years and I’m still only at 32% of my max record count. It’s nothing fancy but it lets me track my potential deals and contact information for business related contacts. Exactly what I need.

 

Siri Reminders

If I’m not at my computer or don’t feel like sending an email from my phone, I’ll ask Siri to remind me. This is really helpful for things that pop into my head while I’m walking around or in transit. (it’s funny how your best ideas pop into your head when you’re not actually working)

Thanks Siri!

 

Activate Siri and tell her “remind me to email Jeff next Tuesday” or “remind me to run the pipeline report tonight at 5pm” or “remind me to buy some eggs tomorrow”. That will create reminder in your phone and a notification pops up to keep you on track.

 

Scanner Pro

I’m not a big fan of paper and I like to keep my workspace clean. So when paper comes into my life (e.g. bills, receipts, whiteboard drawings) I open up the Scanner Pro app and convert it digitally. Taking a picture with your phone’s’ camera will work too, but Scanner Pro is a cleaner experience.

Scanner Pro auto finds the edges of whatever you’re scanning

Three Scanner Pro features I love:

  1. It automatically uploads to Google Drive or Dropbox. I have a Google Drive folder to store all my receipts and Scanner Pro auto uploads to that folder. No more lost files.
  2. The scans are automatically converted to PDF
  3. The scanning process finds the edges of the document and shrinks the PDF size to match the size of the doc. This isn’t perfect but works about 80% of the time. The end result is a cleaner document scan without a weird background of your desk or floor.

 

Fancy Hands

Fancy Hands is a service that gives you access to a team of remote, United States based, virtual assistants. Just draft up a note with your request details and send it to request@fhands.com (or use their app) and a US based virtual assistant will start working on the task.

I pay $30 / month which gets me up to 5 tasks per month and unused tasks carry over into the next month. Yes, you can definitely find some cheaper options with virtual assistants based overseas. I find it valuable that Fancy Hands’ assistants are all US based for when I need them to make phone calls on my behalf.

Admittedly, I’ve thought about cancelling this service several times…but I’ve held onto it for a couple years. Why? Because when you really need it, it’s totally game changing. The image below is a screenshot of my live dashboard, showing tasks used and time saved.

A few examples of life-changing tasks:

  • Every month an assistant sorts through my receipts (scanned with Scanner Pro) and classifies them based on pre-established rules
  • When I have an issue with an airline (e.g. in-flight wifi or TV didn’t work, broken seat) I have them call the airline on my behalf. It’s not uncommon to get flight credits and airline miles for these types of issues. No waiting on hold or finding the right phone number
  • When traveling to new places, I’ll have them find local gyms that allow drop-ins and rank them by price and proximity to where I’m staying.

In general, it’s really nice to have the option to unload mental stress to someone else without feeling bad about it.

Over 1 day of phone time saved. Huge!

 

HelloSign

HelloSign is a G Suite plugin that lets you convert a Google Doc into a PDF and gather digital signatures. This is a must have when gathering signatures from a client on a new proposal. It adds a level of professionalism and removes friction from the signature process.

I create the document, open up the HelloSign add-on, and process the document for signature. HelloSign will send the document to all parties, collect their signature, and email the finalized copies when all signatures are received.

Quickly initiate HelloSign right from your Google Doc

 

Gather signatures from others or just sign yourself.

 

HelloSign is also useful for when only you need to sign an official document. I’ve had to do this a bunch on NDA’s, leases, and government forms. The process is the same, but instead of sending to other people for signature you can just sign the document yourself. This is a life saver because you no longer need to print out the doc, sign with a pen, and then rescan to send back.

HelloSign gives you up to three free processed documents per month and I rarely need to process more than two documents a month.

 

Asana

I’ve been using Asana to manage complex projects since 2013. It’s a simple tool that keeps everything organized and on-track, without a million emails flying around. It’s similar to other popular project tools like Trello and Basecamp that keep your projects on track.

Asana is intentionally simple and open-ended, which lets it satisfy a number of use cases while still remaining easy-to-use.  

 

Asana screenshot from my PrimoBooks project

 

I most recently used Asana to build a book recommendation website, PrimoBooks. I created high level tasks that corresponded to sections of the stie (e.g. general design, homepage, book page) and sub tasks that tied to specific requirements. Each sub task had a description of the requirement, screenshots, owner, and due date. As tasks were completed by the site developer, they could be assigned back to me for review and I could make comments that formed a thread for centralized communication.

If you’re every struggling to keep work projects on track, give Asana a shot.

They’re pretty generous with their free version (up to 15 team members) so I’ve never had to pay a dime for such a useful tool.

 

What tools and tricks do you use to stay productive?

 

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9 Things I Learned From Leonardo da Vinci

da Vinci Self Portrait

 

“As a well-spent day brings a happy sleep, so a well-employed life brings a happy death.”

-Leonardo Da Vinci

When Leonardo talks about a well-employed life, he doesn’t meant a stable job at a respected company. Instead, his maxim touches on the need to spend your time on things that truly matter. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography Leonardo da Vinci, I’ve put together a list of things I learned from Leonardo da Vinci. Because he certainly led a well-employed life.

 

1. Don’t let things outside of your control impact your potential.

Leonardo da Vinci is universally regarded as one of history’s greatest artists, thinkers, and embodies the term Renaissance Man. But Leonardo didn’t live the charmed upbringing you would assume. He was born “illegitimo”, his parents unmarried and raised by a combination of parents, uncles and family friends. “Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division”, describes Isaacson. He wasn’t allowed to be trained in his father’s profession as a notary because his parents weren’t married.

I find Leonardo’s lack of formal education and non-traditional family reassuring. Leonardo didn’t rely on the status of his family or a top notch education to define his potential.  Instead, he fostered an insatiable curiosity to catapult himself to the man he would become.

 

2. Be constantly curious and dig deep into that curiosity.

Leonardo Engineering drawing

Engineering Drawings from Leonardo’s Notebook

Leonardo was a genius. No, not a genius painter, or scientist, or engineer. Sure, he was world-class at all of things. But when you look at why Leonardo was world-class at those things, it’s because to one thing: his curiosity. He had a genius curiosity and made it his life’s work to dig deep into those curiosities.

Isaacson summarizes it well: “His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation.”

Born shortly after the invention of the printing press, da Vinci benefited from the knowledge gained from reading other people’s experiences. But while he appreciated learning from other’s discovery, he valued personal experience above all. “My intention is to consult experience first, and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way.”

“By allowing himself to be driven by pure curiosity, he got to explore more horizons and see more connections than anyone else of his era,” explains Isaacson.

Leonardo’s to-do list gives us a glimpse into his daily pondering and the level of curiosity we’re dealing with. Things like “calculate the measurement of Milan and Suburbs”, “get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock”, and “ask about the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese.”

My gut reaction after witnessing this level of curiosity is to feel embarrassed. It makes my to-do list of “buy paper towels” and “write a blog post about Leonardo da Vinci” feel pretty lame. But pushing aside the direct comparison, Leonardo’s lists is an inspiration. How can I be more curious in everyday life and how can I dig deep into those curiosities.?

 

3. You don’t have to be an expert in just one thing. Learn new skills.

If someone asked you what Leonardo da Vinci “was”, what would you say? 

A painter or artist, right? 

The funny thing is that Leonardo listed painting dead last in his skill set self-evaluation.

When da Vinci turned thirty, he wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan describing his skills. Think of it as da Vinci submitting a resume for a new job. Across the first ten paragraphs he proclaims his ability to “design bridges, waterways, cannons, armored vehicles, and public buildings”. Only as a footnote the eleventh paragraph, Leonardo wrote “likewise, in painting I can do everything possible.”

Throughout his life, da Vinci explored a wide range of studies, including “anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology, water flows, and weaponry.” Isaacson classifies him as the “archetype of the Renaissance Man” and I couldn’t agree more.

How can we put this into practice? If you’re in college, try to study across multiple disciplines. Pair that biology major with a business major. Studying engineering? Why not expand your learnings to the arts. Out of college? Don’t limit your learnings to that in your immediate field. Always be on the lookout for new skills to learn.

Also consider where you live. Does your community have a culture of expertise that spans multiple disciplines? It’s not just a matter of living in a big city. Some big cities focus on a single industry while smaller ones have a wider range of experience.

Consider Florence in da Vinci’s time: it had only 40,000 inhabitants but a unique breadth expertise. Isaacson describes the city and it’s approach to collaboration: “This mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled. Silk makers worked with goldbeaters to create enchanted fashions. Architects and artists developed the science of perspective. Wood-carvers worked with architects to adorn the city’s 108 churches. Shops became studios. Merchants became financiers. Artisans became artists.”

 

4. Learn from everyone.

The people around Leonardo served as both a stoker to the fire of Leonardo’s curiosities and a way to satiate those burning questions. Leonardo maximized his ability to learn by associating with fellow deep-thinkers and finding a way to learn from every encounter.

“Unlike Michelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers. In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas. His closest friendships were intellectual ones,” describes Isaacson.

But da Vinci wasn’t satisfied with learning from only his close friends. “He would grill people from all walks of life, from cobblers to university scholars, to learn their secrets,” says Isaacson.

Always be on the lookout for people you can learn from.

 

5. Don’t be afraid to be your true self

Leonardo wasn’t “normal” by societal standards and he didn’t give a damn.

Leonardo was ”…illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical,” explains Isaacson. You might think someone like this would keep a low profile in the 15th century. Not Leonardo.. He “liked to wear rose-colored tunics that reached only to his knees even though others wore long garments.”

There are two important lessons here.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. I think da Vinci’s comfort with his true self allowed him to unlock his creativity. 
  2. Let other people be themselves. If Leonardo lived in a time or place other than northern Italy during the Renaissance, including many places today, he would have been cast aside as an outcast. Isaacson highlights the importance of letting others be themselves: “Florence flourished in the fifteenth century because it was comfortable with such people.”

So be like Leonardo and be your true self. But just as importantly, let others reach their own potential by expressing their own identity.

 

6. Write it down and share what you write.

Close up of Old anatomy drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci

Drawing from Leonardo’s Notebook

My friend Ethan and I used to say “write this down” whenever someone said something funny or interesting with the hopes of remembering it forever. Guess what? Neither of us wrote much of anything down. The result: fragmented memories of our experiences.

Da Vinci wrote it all down. His thoughts, sketches, and observations were recorded in his now-famous notebooks of which 7,200 pages still survive today. It’s easy to think that since much of what we do today is recorded digitally it will exist indefinitely into the future. Writing Steve Jobs’s biography, Walter Isaacson has a unique perspective on this false assumption:

“The more than 7,200 pages now extant probably represent about one-quarter of what Leonardo actually wrote, but that is a higher percentage after five hundred years than the percentage of Steve Jobs’s emails and digital documents from the 1990’s that he and I were able to retrieve.”

The second part of this lesson is to share what you write. This lesson was learned based on one of da Vinci’s shortcomings. His notebooks contained a trove of discoveries that didn’t make it’s way into the public realm until decades or centuries after their writings. Numerous anatomical, engineering, and artistic discoveries made by da Vinci were not widely known because he was not enthusiastic at publishing his work. It was a catch-22 of his curiosity. He moved onto new topics before his thoughts were organized into writings that could be consumed by the masses.

Isaacson describes Leonardo’s process as, “more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. And even though he was collegial in his life and work, he made little effort to share his findings.” Moreover, “although [Leonardo] would occasionally let visitors glimpse his work, he did not seem to realize or care that the importance of research comes from its dissemination.”

So be curious, but also take the time to share your results with the world.

 

7. Appreciate Nature

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

“Though human ingenuity may make various inventions, it will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, more direct than does Nature; because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.”

-Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci spent most of his life dreaming up incredible feats of human ingenuity: flying machines, armored vehicles, and the ideal city design to name a few. Yet he found true inspiration from nature’s simplicity. In fact, many passages in his notebooks draw parallels between man and nature. “Man is the image of the world”, he wrote.

But simply saying that da Vinci found inspiration is a poor description of how he viewed man and it’s place amongst nature. Leonardo did not simply classify nature and man as separate entities loosely impacting each other – they were deeply intertwined. Nature was the foundation of man.

 

8. Nothing is ever finished. Continually improve upon the old.

Leonardo was notorious for never quite finishing the ideas and artwork began in his notebook. To call him a perfectionist would oversimplify his approach. The early Leonardo biographer Lomazzo explained, “[Leonardo] never finished any of the works he began because, so sublime was his idea of art, he saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles.”

This was extremely frustrating to both the Renaissance patrons who paid for finished pieces da Vinci art and the modern day historians who dream to see his notebook pages come to life. It would be easy to see this as a negative in today’s world of “ship it’ and “don’t let perfect get in the way of good.” Most of the time I agree with these modern principles.

But I also agree with Isaacson’s take on the issue: “[Leonardo believed] there was always more he might learn, new techniques he might master, and further inspirations that might strike him.”

As da Vinci’s curiosities were satiated, he learned new techniques that could be applied to old ideas. It was common for his notebook pages to have scribbles in the margins years later with updated thoughts and modifications.

We know more than we did yesterday. So use that to your advantage and continually build on your earlier work. 

 

9. Don’t worry about what you’ve accomplished so far.

It’s easy to look back 500+ years at da Vinci’s body of work and assume he always had life by the horns. But combing through the details of his life paints a different picture. Isaacson explains:

“As he approached his thirtieth birthday, Leonardo had established his genius but had remarkably little to show for it publicly.”

And yes, if I’m being honest, I may have included this lesson to make my 32 year-old self feel better that Leonardo wasn’t Leonardo until he was well into his thirties. But on a less personal level, da Vinci struggled through most of his life to find patrons to fund his life (translation: he sometimes struggled to pay the bills).

So just because you haven’t reached the height of your envisioned success today doesn’t mean you never will. Because maybe you’re a little more like Leonardo than you think.

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Don’t Wait Until You’re Walking Out the Door

The most meaningful things are said in the doorway as we’re about to leave. In passing. When we’re leaving a long dinner with friends, after a weekend with our parents, or in the hallway after a meeting.

“I really appreciate your support in getting through that tough time”

“Thanks for teaching me good values”

“Good job on that project. It’s your best work.”

Why do we wait until we’re walking out the door to say how we really feel? It’s easier. Our comments have less gravity when we say it in passing. There’s no time for a deep conversation on the topic if we’re about to hop in the car. It comes across as more casual when we say it as we’re putting on our coats.

When we delay saying how we feel, we’re denying a heartfelt conversation and stifling the relationship. So say it now. Tell your friend what you’re thinking during appetizers. Call your parents and say what’s on your mind. Walk over to your coworkers desk and give her feedback. Don’t wait until you’re walking out the door.

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