Tools I Use to Stay Organized

by | Feb 12, 2010

Things for the iPhoneLet’s face it: book publishing can be a complex business. No matter what part of publishing you’re in, if you deal with books there are editorial schedules, publication dates, production timelines and details, details, details to keep track of. Staying organized is really crucial if you want to keep your sanity.

Everyone has their own workflow and ways of doing things. There’s a column that runs periodically in the New York Times Magazine in which some celebrity is interviewed about what they have in their house, their favorite artifacts, what’s in the refrigerator, what kind of car they drive.

I find these fascinating and irresistable. It’s almost like guilt-free snooping into someone else’s business, sneaking a peak at their diary, or rummaging through their drawers while they are taking out the trash.

But the tools we use in our work life often make a huge difference to how productive we are. When you find something that works for you, it’s like you’ve struck gold.

Visiting the App Store

For instance, I’ve looked at scads of iPhone apps for tracking to do lists, action items, whichever metaphor you want to use for a pretty mundane but necessary task. Since I’m rarely very far from my iPhone, it makes sense to use its abilities to help out.

The trouble is, most of these apps are next to worthless, little more than a glorified notepad. But then I stumbled on Things, an award-winning piece of software that not only packs tremendous functionality, it does it in an elegant and intuitive interface.

I quickly bought both the iPhone version and the desktop version, because they sync with each other over our network. Pretty neat.

This is the tool I use to track my projects and their associated tasks. Books can be complicated projects, and the ability to keep these projects together and tag various elements of the project are really helpful. Things also allows me to dump entire email messages right into individual tasks, or notes, clips from websites, any text or photo links I might need for that task later. A great time saver.

Persistence of the Past, or Life off the Grid

MoleskineHere’s another one of my favorite tools: the Moleskine notebook. Countless times this book has saved me. There are a lot of events where it’s quite normal, even laudatory to whip this little black book out of my pocket, with it’s flexible leather cover, and start taking notes. Events where people would be booing and hissing if you took out a phone and used it for the same thing.

Here’s what’s strange: people assume that you’re writing about the event, but is it really true? The Moleskine protects your privacy, and if you want to practice 1 minute associative writing while others are discussing 5-year plans, who’s to know? This is a great and valuable tool.

Apple’s iCal, the Calendar with its Head in the Cloud

Apple iCalLet me share something with you that you might not know: the older you get, the worse your memory. Especially your short-term memory, which is the first to go. Things like remembering you promised to pick up the medication for the cat. Or that your son is waiting for you outside his guitar lesson, that kind of thing.

The humble Apple iCal, which comes with all Macs, is my savior. It has two crucial functions on which I depend:

  1. You can set alerts that go off at a predetermined time before the event, and
  2. It’s linked to Apple’s Mobile Me cloud—a fancy way of saying it syncronizes the copy of iCal on the iPhone with the copy on my iMac automatically, wirelessly, invisibly.

It’s pretty close to magic, in fact, the stuff we used to read about in “Tales from the Future” when we were kids. When I enter something I really ought to remember, I know my phone will alert me in plenty of time. Now that’s handy.

The Big Time Suck: Blog Reading

readerBlogging for me means reading other blogs. Although I don’t have time to read that many blogs, I try to keep up with news in the publishing field, with friends who are bloggers, and with people who have something to teach that I need to learn.

The best tool I’ve found so far to keep this organized and efficient is Google’s Reader service, which allows you to subscribe to a blog’s RSS feed and group, scan, read and manipulate the feed from many blogs at once. Here you can see I’m catching up with Hamish MacDonald’s blog from Scotland.

(You can also see just how far behind I am in my reading. But never mind that.)

The Reader software almost makes it fun, and if you want to visit the blog location itself, it’s just a click away.

The Biggest Time Suck: Email

gmail-logoI can’t say I’ve really gotten control of my email situation. I’ve split my accounts between Apple Mail and Google Gmail, and I plan to move more of my work over to Gmail as the year goes on. Although I’ve relied on Apple Mail’s smart mailboxes for some time to filter incoming mail, there’s a huge amount of functionality in Gmail I’d like to explore.

Email is such a crucial function for staying organized and getting work done efficiently, I feel like I have a lot of room to improve there.

In fact, I’d welcome any suggestions about software you use or methods you’ve devloped for dealing with email or any of the other organizing chores we’re confronted with on a daily basis. It’s the actions we repeat over and over again that have the most potential for big time savings and efficiencies.

What’s working for you?

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Joel

    Hamish, thanks for your input. It seems that when I have both the desktop and iPhone versions of Things running, they often sync automatically, but there are times I’ve had to do it manually. Actually, the lack of a lot of “functions” or “features” is one of the things that attracted me to Things. Often these features just get in the way of the pretty simple task I want to accomplish.

    I appreciate your pointing me to The Now Habit, sounds like something that could be useful for me. And yes, the dirty secret is that the locus of control over anything in your life is not in some software or some coach, or some artifact, although all can be useful. It’s in you, it’s the drive or desire to get to the end of the project or task, to reach completion even if it’s only one step at a time.

    Actually I do a lot of writing with pens on paper. I have a daily “free writing” practice, and fill piles of notebooks with those, make copious notes in my Moleskine, and draw page layouts on scraps of paper lying around my desk. This may also have something to do with being trained in writing and graphic arts in the dark ages before “digits” were discovered.

    Thanks again for stopping by, Hamish.

  2. Hamish MacDonald

    I was a dedicated Things user, but I kept being bothered by having to manually sync the mobile and desktop versions over WiFi, so I jumped ship to OmniFocus. It’s much more complicated (or feature-rich, depending on your perspective) and tightly follows a “Getting Things Done” model, but it has a lot of the features I wanted from Things, The Hit List, or other GTD-type apps — including over-the-air synching. It’s lovely being able to add a note in one place and have it show up in another.

    As for keeping myself on track, I recently read “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore, and swear by it. In my own reading and my copywriting work, I’ve come across lots of “life hack” tricks for increasing productivity, and far too many big books that contain one small idea (usually exhausted right in the title), but this one is useful and helpful.

    People think it takes a lot of discipline to be self-employed, but that’s not really it; it’s more about focus. At any moment, you can spend your time doing anything, and as you point out, with RSS feeds and the like, it’s easy to spend a lot of time doing things that are *interesting*, but don’t actually contribute anything valuable toward your bigger goals. “The Now Habit” does a great job of exposing the slopes our attention can slip down and offering an alternative way of being productive that isn’t full of stress or self-punishment. On the contrary, it’s actually a lot of fun to get more of what matters done than to fritter away one’s mortal existence on distractions.

    As for Moleskine’s, they’re lovely books, and (without getting into the whole e-argument!) there is something magical about scribing out thoughts and collecting them between covers. Now whenever I start a new project like a book, I make a blank book specifically for it. It’s not difficult to make a Moleskine-like book, and crafting your own tools just feels special.

    In fact, every once in a while I give up digital planning altogether and do all my thinking and strategising on paper. A good guide to this is Nick Cernis’s “Todoodlist”. (In places it’s trying a bit hard to be funny, but the ideas in it are great.)

    So there are my thoughts on productivity — something I think about too much!

    P.S. Cheers for the highlight in your RSS feed screengrab ;)

  3. Alisha

    I use the task manager in the Blackberry–it gives me a check list of “things to do” and I can set an alarm for each of them to remind me throughout the day.

    I am looking for something on my Blackberry a little more modern–I think a yellow notepad “to do list” is so 1990.

    Until then, I’ll keep using my google calendar. Google is always coming out with some new streamlined widgit, most recently their “Buzz” feature. Think Twitter and Google getting together on Valentine’s night and having a baby.

    There’s Buzz for you.


  4. Joel

    Alisha, thanks. I never used a Blackberry, those little tiny buttons put me off, but I know lots of people love them. When you get used to clean functionality like iCal it’s hard to switch to Google Calendar. What do you find actually helps you keep track of things?

  5. Alisha

    Great post! But…I’m a Blackberry user and I hardly know of any apps that are time savers fro the Blackberry. I try to make use of my Google calendar on GMAIL but it’s too tedioius.

    Any suggestions (or know of any publishing friends who use Blackberry apps)?



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