Yesterday, when I started researching this post, I received a link from a colleague of mine to a research study which concluded that looking at pictures of cute dogs, kittens, baby pandas, and other bundles of happiness can actually improve your productivity.
I love you, internet.
However, these images can only help with your productivity so much. If you don't know how to utilize your time and resources well, chances are pretty high you're not getting much work done (sorry to break it to you).
For a lot of people, checking email is almost as common and frequent as breathing. It can be a hard habit to break. Having email constantly in the back of our minds, though, can erode concentration like no other factor.
There are a lot of different techniques for minimizing email's drain on your focus, but I'd like to call your attention to one of them: Don't check your email in the morning.
Seriously. Don't do it. Studies show that the most productive time of the day is the few hours after you first wake up. Your energy is at an all-day high. Your creativity is soaring. And most of us waste that precious time drudging through our inboxes.
So, if you only do one thing after reading this post, try email-free mornings for a week. If you can't pull it off, scan your email for two minutes to look for genuinely urgent notes and then close it for the remainder of the morning in favor of some more creative or productive work.
In addition to developing this new routine, these two tools can help you tame the email beast.
So, the marketing world isn't exactly a fan of Gmail's new tabbing system for its inbox, but if you're a Gmail user, it's not a bad way to quickly sort and move through your messages.
To set up tabs so you can separate personal emails from promotional ones, click on the settings gear in the right corner of your inbox, go to Settings, and then select the tab delineations you'd like.
Part of the wasted time in email is in checking to see if someone has gotten back to you. Signals is a free Chrome add-on by HubSpot that gives you real-time notifications when someone has opened an important email you've sent.
Signals gives you peace of mind, but it also saves you from having to write unnecessary follow-up emails. You know the sort: "Just checking to see if you got my last email!" Those follow-ups take time and, arguably, irritate the recipient.
If you use Microsoft Outlook or Gmail, you can turn on Signals to determine when contacts open and interact with your email, then tailor your timing and responses to match.
From the Pomodoro technique to timeboxing, there are numerous strategies to help you get focused and complete tasks quickly. Most of these techniques involve short bursts of highly concentrated productivity followed by a reasonable break. And because the internet isn't entirely confident in the cute-puppy study either, it has brought forth a number of tools to help you make the most of your timeboxed periods of focus.
White Noise Generators
White noise is a powerful thing. It puts infants to sleep. It calms nerves. And for many, it can promote focus. This soft, non-descript background noise helps to dampen other noises and keep your brain focused on the task at hand. There are several free white-noise generators out there, including White Noise Lite, which can be downloaded on iPhones and Androids.
For those of you who aren't messing around with this productivity thing (and don't trust your own willpower enough), there are free browser add-ons that may assist in your quest to get stuff done.
These tools will allow you to block access to certain highly distracting websites during periods of time when you need to focus. Make no mistake about it, this is the cold-turkey method of forcing productivity -- and it's quite effective.
Most browsers have ad-blocker apps that will help you to reduce the number of web banners clamoring for your attention every day (yet another reason a content-rich inbound marketing strategy is a good idea). These apps are incredibly popular. For instance, more than 10 million people use AdBlock.
While AdBlock helps you declutter as you're browsing the internet, other tools, like feedly, can bring your favorite content right to you in a nice, minimally cluttered interface.
You can't speed up inspiration, but you can get better at chasing it. Whenever you sit down to write content, you should dedicate a concrete block of time for researching articles, images, and data to support and enhance your narrative. Since this is a productivity article, and the internet can be a wormhole, make sure you underscore the "concrete block of time" part of that sentence.
Decide what kind of research your content needs and block off the appropriate amount of time to complete it. Setting aside the time is not the hard part. The hard part is stopping.
You can spend all day trying to find the perfect image or sourcing a stat to support your argument. When you go to research your content, give yourself a hard stop -- after 40 minutes, for example. If you haven't found the perfect fact you need by then, move on without it.
Thankfully, though, there are a set of websites and tools to make your research more efficient.
When it comes to finding images that are free to use, republish, or modify, Creative Commons is one of the most broadly known and reliable tools. What's great about Creative Commons is it is crystal clear about how each image can be used and how original credit should be attributed.
Start at Search.CreativeCommons.org and search either Flickr or Google Images. There's also an add-on for some blogs called Related Content that sources related images and links as you type up a post.
If you don't know exactly what you're looking for and just want to start off with a set of general business images, you're in luck too -- HubSpot just released 160 free stock photos you can download.
Finding Facts and Stats
Depending on the sort of data you need, there are a few good tools to help you find what you need to support your content. Factbrowser is a search engine for finding business, marketing, and technology facts (disclaimer: I know the founders). You can find population and socio-economic trends from the U.S. Census Bureau and the UN Statistics Division globally.
Finding Quotes and Other Materials
There are a number of different sites dedicated to indexing quotes by topic: ThinkExist and BrainyQuote are two popular examples. I'll be honest, though: I've never been a big fan of inserting randomly found quotes like fortune cookie statements throughout my content. A better approach might be to track and store quotes as you read articles and blogs.
Meetings, Collaboration, and Brainstorming
We've all been there: the moment at which a meeting goes off the rails and begins a slow drain of your sanity. This can certainly be avoided, though. Meetings can be more productive if we work at improving them.
For starters, as management consultant Steve Tobak notes, "Every meeting has to have a leader, a stated purpose, a start and end time, and a valid reason for each and every person to be there." For the same reason as the email argument above, try to avoid scheduling meetings in the mornings so that time can be put toward more creative work.
Also, note that collaboration and the exchange of ideas doesn't have to take place inside a four-walled room. Many-a-tool exists that can make this kind of open collaboration easier across companies.
Here's a starter list of ones we use regularly.
Part of the challenge in planning meetings is finding a time during which everyone can get together. If you often meet with large groups and don't have a shared internal calendar, Doodle can help you quickly find the optimal time for your gathering.
Google's Speedy Meetings
Within Settings of your Google calendar, on the General tab, there is a checkbox you can use to make meetings "speedy." Doing so will end 30-minute meetings five minutes early and 60-minute meetings 10 minutes early by default -- a feature that can help ensure you get to your next appointment on time.
This tool is a collaboration tool for to-do lists. You can create a Trello board for a team at your company or for a particular cross-departmental project. Typically, Trello includes a backlog of work to be done, a list of projects in progress, and a column of tasks completed. You can easily move tasks across lists and reorder cards to prioritize them.
To say that HubSpot is a power user of the internal chat tool HipChat is an understatement. We live on the thing. In a rapidly growing office that now spans three floors, HipChat is the fastest way to find a colleague. It is also home to some of our best impromptu brainstorms and collaborations.
In HipChat, you can have 1:1 conversations, but you can also join rooms based on certain topics, departments, or challenges, and it is in those chatrooms where the really interesting conversations happen. We've brainstormed blog posts, spread breaking news, and argued (nicely) over the significance of certain channels or trends.
Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive
When you're working collaboratively, it helps to be pulling from the same folders and documents. For companies that don't have a shared drive, these tools can be particularly useful.
Box is best if you are doing a lot of revisions and versions. It helps you ensure that you're not saving over someone else's work or accidentally reverting to a past version.
Meanwhile, Dropbox is an ideal tool due to its simplicity. Saving and sharing folders is incredibly easy and intuitive.
And Google Drive can be optimal for multiple people working on the same document at the same exact time. You can see where someone else is in the document and communicate with comments along the side.
It's a hard battle we fight to maintain our own focus. In a world of a thousand distractions, we need to be intentional about carving out time to think and work. We need to keep sharing ideas and tools to make progress in our goal to be as productive and effective as possible.
What tools, apps, and/or productivity strategies can you not live without? Share them in the comments below!
Adorable puppy source: AMagill