If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a week or two, you’ll know that I’m always on the lookout for ways of getting things done – specifically, software that helps me achieve more with less effort – or at least in a way that makes it feel like less effort.

I like doing lots of interesting things and I like being very organised, but at the same time I’m an extraordinarily lazy and disorganised person by nature – and I don’t like to be stressed or overwhelmed with too many tasks.

So the things that I do manage to accomplish come as a result of cheats and shortcuts, basically. Tricks that I play on myself and the outside world that make it feel like I’m getting ahead with less input on my part. That the tools are doing the work for me.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but I enjoy trying new things out. It’s a bit of a hobby. And I’ve started using a bunch of new ones recently… so I thought others who share my interest in such things (and I know of at least two) might be interested to check out the current toolkit.

What’s on the Mac?

1) Mendeley Desktop manages my PDF library of academic journal articles – making them easy to find and easy to reference. It also suggests and directs me to others that I might find useful – sort of like a Last.fm of knowledge. Very helpful. I use this in conjunction with EndNote. It hasn’t completely nailed the Cite-While-You-Write thing – but it’s vastly superior to EndNote in every other respect.

2) Scrivener is what I’m using to do most of my writing in. Particularly good for long pieces – it lets you break things down into manageable chunks, move them around and structure in pieces.

3) Dragon Dictate is really useful for getting lots of words down. I talk and the words appear on the screen. I don’t use it all the time, but I use it for certain projects. In particular, the Music in the Digital Age book, which is aimed at a general readership in a conversational tone. I find that it’s easier to talk than to type in that mode – and besides, I speak at around 4-5 times the speed I type.

4) Whitenoise makes a consistent sound that blocks out all distractions. Essentially, it’s a focus aid. It comes with a lot of different sounds that you can mix together and place in different parts of the stereo spectrum so that you’re both aurally blocked out from the outside world, and cocooned in comforting noises. I’m currently writing with a mix of ‘brown noise’ (white noise with harsh frequencies removed), a ticking grandfather clock, a cat’s purr, a heartbeat and a babbling brook. You’d be surprised how well your brain zeroes in on the task at hand when surrounded by consistent (rather than intermittent) sounds.

5) iReadFast does what it sounds like. You copy and paste text into it, tell it how many words per minute you’d like to read it at, and away it goes. It shows you just a few words at a time, but relentlessly and at speed. I’ve been working on reading faster for several years now, and depending on the type of text, the system works very well. Just push yourself a little bit faster each time, and you’ll be surprised how your brain keeps up. 300 words per minute is comfortable, but still quite a bit faster than off the printed page. 800 words per minute is a blur – but if you’re just skimming for clues, it can be very handy. Yes I also read more slowly sometimes, but no, it doesn’t help me retain more.

6) MarsEdit is what I use for writing blog posts. In fact, everything you see of mine on the web (including this) was created in MarsEdit. Much simpler (and more powerful) than using the editing window in WordPress.

7) Bloodrop is an easy way to share files with people in your public Dropbox folder. Drag and drop to the Bloodrop icon, and it copies the file to your public Dropbox folder, and puts the link in your clipboard so you can paste it into an email (or whatever). Only cuts out a couple of steps – but it just makes the general workflow seem more effortless.

8) Notational Velocity on the Mac (coupled with PlainText on the iPhone/iPad) is what I use to make and sync plain text notes (again, via Dropbox). Anything I write on one is automatically and instantly on the others – so I can just pick up where I left off at any point – and I always have a note-taking device to hand.

9) 1Password is an absolute godsend. Hyper-secure web passwords that I don’t have to remember. I have hundreds of logins and passwords on different sites all over the internet. They all look something like this: fM*q1HBh~cm`ye+]pk1N – and yet all I have to do is type a single shortcut key on my laptop, and it will put the appropriate username and password in the appropriate place on whatever site I happen to be visiting. Of course, the software on my laptop that keeps these passwords is triple secure as well. Much safer than using one password for my email, bank, Amazon, Paypal, web hosting and so on – and far better than writing them all in a notebook and sticking them in a drawer.

10) Things is how it all works together. This is the master-list. Every day, I’m ticking off to-do items, reviewing projects, making sure that there are no loose ends. I have this on my phone, on my iPad and on my laptop – and I’m convinced it’s the only reason I get anything done at all. Coupled with my daily list (a series of every day tasks that I keep on my phone that get ticked off each day), this project management system pretty much runs my life for me so I don’t have to think. All of this stuff happens on autopilot, every single task getting only as much attention as it deserves, I don’t think about it until it needs doing, and when it’s done, it’s ticked off and I don’t have to think about it again.

This – and the zero inbox strategy (a really simple approach that I’ll share soon) – is the key to me not being completely overwhelmed with the three books that I’m writing, the MA course that I’m teaching, the marking that I’m doing, the research projects and all the other fun bits and pieces that I like doing (including blogging about stuff like this that most people won’t really find of much interest).

Sometimes these systems makes me feel all very clever and in control – but if I’m honest, mostly I’m just the servo-mechanism that keeps them all ticking over and running. And actually, I’m okay with that. They’re far more successful at running my life than I ever was.