Knowledge Worker Productivity

This post was inspired by some mails and discussions I had with colleagues and friends about how I cope with all the information I work with. Especially one colleague is always pushing me to make a presentation and/or blogpost about it. So first, here the blogpost and the presentation and respective slides will follow.

More and more of us are deeply dependent on information for our jobs or just out of interest. Even if we don’t call ourselves information workers or knowledge workers, some might say most of us already are. Even if not really dependent on it we get addicted to information consumption. This goes so far that people treat this addiction like obesity and recommend “information diets” or even “information fasting“. To be clear I’m a total information addict so far that my former advisor and good friend would say “Puja has two brains, one for normal life and one for all the information he consumes”. I have to say I was deeply addicted and most of it was because of RSS and that big bad number next to “unread” (similar to “Notification Badge Anxiety Disorder”). Still, I don’t (want to) believe RSS is dead (just yet). And based on the lack of good discovery and aggregation tools I didn’t want to give up all my feeds. With time, new services, and especially with the purchase of my iPad (with retina display “for better reading”) this has completely changed. Now I use a pletora of apps and tools that make my information consumption a lot lighter and more efficient. It might still be a bit too much for many of you, but then I’m an information freak. This doesn’t mean the tools and methods I use won’t be helpful for your purposes.

In the remainder of this post I’ll go into a bit more detail on the tools and methods I use (and their alternatives) and how I usually use them.

Disclaimer: All of these are my personal preferences and even if I mention alternatives (all of which I tried) the list of tools won’t be exhaustive. It is just a selection that works very good for me (for now and until I find something better). As I work with three Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, Macbook Pro) the selection is biased towards tools that work on these, but most of them should be available on Android, Windows, or at least (mobile) Web, too. Enjoy!

Todo

I know todo lists might not be directly related to information, but for me, they’re an essential part of my professional (and sometimes even personal) life. I note every small todo into my list, even if it’s just something like “mail john about x” or “lookup book y” as soon as it pops into my mind, cause as fast as it pops in, it might fall out, too. This is also why I like to have some more functionality like lists and tags in my todo, so stuff I quickly added on a late night event will still have a context the next day or week. My days are usually very busy and no, I don’t think that’s great, but that’s how it goes when you have to juggle vastly different projects and still want to find time for sports (and my related blog) and friends/private life. My todo list is what keeps me sane.

I have to confess I switched todo apps a lot! I tried very simple and stylish ones like Any.DO and Wunderlist, but too simplistic doesn’t cut it for me. The tool I always get back to is Producteev, they have apps for any platform and lots of functionality, but still keep it simple. At the moment I’m trying out Astrid, which is very nice, but only offers a web version next to the mobile apps. This and some other small annoyances make me want to switch back to Producteev again. Another great feature, which Astrid is trying but hasn’t nailed down like Producteev (and RTM) yet, is what they call “language shortcuts”, which lets you specify tasks quickly right when you add them by using shortcuts for priority, tags, lists, etc.

Tools of choice: producteev, astrid

Alternatives: Any.DO, Wunderlist

Notes

Taking notes and organizing your thoughts or research is essential to a knowledge worker. Be it for taking notes at meetings and events, putting together research for projects or a report, or organizing thoughts and sources for a blog post or article. A good note taking app can help you in many ways. For me it’s especially important that it features a good tagging and search functionality as well as some simple way to structure content. I used to use MS OneNote a lot, but as it didn’t work on my iPhone, I was looking for something else. First I used a combination of Evernote for research and long time notes plus the iPhone notes app for short time on-the-fly notes. Then my iPhone backup got scrambled (that was before iCloud) and I lost some really important notes I had made on the beach in Qingdao, so I switched to Springpad, which is awesome for its live lookup of movies, books, wikipedia, etc. At some point I realized it might be better to just use one tool, so I consolidated everything into Evernote and that’s what I’m happily using for all of the above and even for organizing my business cards. I take pictures of them with my iPhone and tag and organize them afterwards. Evernote then makes them searchable through its OCR engine. The iOS apps still crash from time to time, but as they have a very robust syncing mechanism I don’t remember loosing anything. Evernote is integrated in many other apps and even has a very nice Browser plugin. For everything else there’s the option to email notes in.

Tool of choice: Evernote

Alternatives: Springpad, OneNote

News and Social Media (aggregation & discovery)

Like I said I used to have lots of feeds in my RSS reader, cause I wanted to stay up-to-date on a lot of topics I’m interested in. However, that played out to a waste huge chunk of my time, so I was always looking for alternatives. I tried out many of the new news aggregation apps, but I got stuck on a mixture of three apps in the end. The first app I usually open (after Facebook and Mails) is News360. I used to have this app only for it’s ability to send really important global news (like the death of Kim Jong Il) as push messages really fast. However, with their new version they got a very nice aggregation algorithm that mixes news from various kind of topics and sources (not only tech) and gives the user a nice quick overview of what’s happening. They also got this funny gamification, which gives one to three stars for the amount of news you consume that day. Usually I just go till I get the first star, then I switch to Flipboard. Flipboard is beautiful and has a very nice aggregation algorithm that works awesomely with Social Media and actually anything you throw at it. I follow several of their curated topics, but mainly let Flipboard aggregate my Twitter, Instagram, and Weibo (“Chinese Twitter”) accounts as well as the Hackernews Twitter Account (they stopped having the feed in Flipboard). This gives me quite a lot of really nice reads (mostly through the people I follow on Twitter), which I sometimes read in app, but often export to some reading list (more on that later). I actually also use Facebook (through the iOS app or web) a lot for news discovery. I have a very diverse bunch of friends from all over the world, so my stream tends to bubble up a lot of cool stuff. Last but not least I have to mention Prismatic, which I use only when I have some more time. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad app, actually it’s the best news discovery app on the market in terms of style and “bubble”-algorithm in my opinion. It learns really quickly what you like and gives you awesome suggestions. It even tries to get you out of your filter bubble by randomly (?) mixing in some few outlier suggestions and checking what you do with them. It learns passively from analyzing, which articles you open and/or share, but also actievly by letting you “+” or delete articles in the feed. However, it’s still very tech focussed.

The good thing about using these apps is that they give me a quick or deep overview depending on the time I can spare, but don’t give me any pressure through unread counters.

Tools of choice: News360, Flipboard, Prismatic, Facebook

Alternatives: Zite, Pulse, Thirst, Wavii, News.me, Taptu (friends works there), Twosift (a friend is the founder and I advise sometimes)

News (RSS)

That said, I still keep some (few) blogs I enjoy reading a lot in my RSS reader. For this I use Google Reader in combination with the Reeder app, which you have to buy seperately for each Apple device (iPhone, iPad, Mac), but it’s totally worth it. I’ve never seen a better and more efficient UI for quickly scanning feeds. It even has Readability integration, which makes reading inside of it quite nice by itself. I usually go through the feeds on my iPhone during my short (20-30 min) commute to work. I scan through the feeds and mark interesting articles as starred. Sometimes I even read some directly. Later I go on to read the articles on the iPad or open some on my Macbook (usually only those that have todo with a Mac app or Chrome Plugin or coding). Those that I don’t want to read directly I either leave in the starred list or push over to my reading list app.

Tools of choice: Reeder, Google Reader

Alternatives: Best RSS Newsreaders by Lifehacker, nilter (from the department where I’m working at)

Reading List

For keeping articles to read later I use Instapaper. Like I said I push those articles over from Reeder, Flipboard, Web, or any other place I find them. Instapaper then lets me load them to read offline and in a clean layout on any device I have handy. I read them when I get some free time, which is not often nowadays so the backlog is huge. However, cause I know it might take some time till I get to my Instapaper, I open more interesting articles directly in Safari, which nowadays syncs flawlessly between all Apple devices. I then open and read them in between other tasks on the device I’m currently on.

Tool of choice: Instapaper

Alternatives: Pocket, Readability