working out loud

Tools I Use to Manage a Lot of Work and a Hectic Life

tools_to_manageFor a long time now I’ve been wanting to document and share the tools I use to help me manage communications work at the National Writing Project, and really, life in general. My motives are two-fold: maybe it will help others and maybe I’ll get some good suggestions by putting this out there.

First, some criteria I’ve established for myself:

  1. Whatever the tool is, it must actually make my work easier or more manageable in some way. Just because something is pretty or nifty is not enough of a reason to use it. That being said, I’m shallow. I like pretty if I can have it.
  2. It must have a desktop/web version and a mobile app.
  3. I’d prefer not to pay for stuff, but I do believe in paying for well-crafted tools/services.
  4. It must have collaborative features so I can share work and processes with others, and to that end, it must be available on PCs as well as Macs, iOS as well as Android.


RTM-logoOh, how I love my lists. In my early twenties I would have never imagined myself as a list person. In fact, I often openly scorned list-makers. Not something I’m proud of, but it’s the truth. Once I started working multiple jobs though, then had some kids, my brain was just incapable of holding onto all the information, tasks, and responsibilities in my life. So I went on the quest for a perfect list option and settled on Remember the Milk. You can view all the details on their site, but here’s the lowdown for my use:

  1. Use: As you’ll see, all the tools I use have reminders and some have tasks/list features, but I use each tool for a specific function. RTM is my go-to for long-term (like when annual subscriptions renew or bills are due) and repeated tasks (i.e. send call for bi-monthly newsletter content), or as day-to-day reminders for single tasks (not so much tasks related to projects, that will come later).
  2. Versions: Web, mobile, third-party apps…you name it, they cover it. They use an open API so anyone can develop a product to work with it. I’ve set up my iPhone so I can use Siri to schedule tasks. I’ve synced to-dos from Evernote so I have all my items in one place. You can share lists with others. It’s just plain awesome.
  3. Favorite Features: Multiple lists; advanced search; tags; smart add (i.e. type “send an article for so-and-so to review next week at 2pm” and it just interprets it and adds it); smart lists (i.e. automatically create lists with a certain tag or date or whatever. I use this to create meeting lists from items tagged with a person’s name).
  4. Cost: The free version only syncs with mobile once a day, which obviously sucks, so for me, it’s worth the $25/yr for the pro version.


evernote_logo_200I resisted for a long time—Is that a theme of mine? Maybe.—but I finally got on board with Evernote. After being frustrated with juggling meeting notes with Google Docs and the native notes app on my phone, Evernote has been a life-saver.

  1. Use: Notes (duh). For meetings, yes, but also for documentation of website specs or work processes. I also use it for brainstorming and will attach images/web clips (see below) to a note for later reference/inspiration. It’s basically my 21st century trapper-keeper.
  2. Versions: Pretty much works everywhere and with the premium version you can collaborate on notebooks/notes with others.
  3. Favorite Features: If you’ve been living on another planet, you may not know this, but in Evernote you can create notebooks that hold notes, and they all sync to their servers, your desktop client, and the mobile app. And yes, you can add notes when offline. Notes are descriptively searchable and you can use tags to further define your note content. Oh, and you can put pretty much anything in a note: images, audio, video, PDFs, etc. It’s great for organizing all the assets and related docs for a meeting. I don’t use it for project management (more on that later), though you totally could, and some do. There’s also a spiffy web clipper which is an easy way to save webpages or articles directly to a note/notebook. And of course, I love that I can type some notes on my desktop, walk away from my desk, and have them all auto-magically appear on my phone (and vice versa).
  4. Cost: There is a free version, but I highly recommend the premium version $45/yr or $5/mo.

Project Management

trello-logo_200I used to love Basecamp but then they started charging *$20/mo. I got a recommendation to try Trello and I have never looked back. Their tour gives a nice overview, but here’s what I do with it:

  1. Use: I manage all my work projects with Trello. In Trello there are boards and on each board are lists and on each list are cards. Every card holds comments, lists, members, due dates, to-dos, colored labels (which you can customize), and attachments. You can subscribe to cards or entire boards, which means you’ll be notified when changes are made. No more emails back and forth for what got done and general status updates! I have boards for websites I manage, all our communications content, individual projects, and for personal projects outside of work, too. Boards are private unless you invite people to them. One example is our communications board. It has all our content that’s in process—articles, resources, press releases, newsletters, etc.—and I use lists to organize projects and pieces of work by category. Each piece of content has a card and I attach all the information related to the content using the attachments feature—which can grab files from Google Drive and Dropbox in addition to uploading any file from your computer—as well as the comments section. My team communicates status updates and questions via the comments and we use lists to lay out all the pieces or tasks associated with an item. The colored labels help with being able to see where something’s at in a glance (yellow=in process, orange=in review, red=delayed, etc.).
  2. Versions: Web and mobile.
  3. Favorite Features: I have so many, it’s really hard not to say “everything.” But I really like being able to “fluidly think” by dragging and dropping lists and cards to organize/order them, or move cards or lists between boards (this also works on the mobile app, which I love). It’s also great having the ability to duplicate boards, lists, cards, or to-do lists for repetitive/similar tasks, or to clone items as a basis for similar projects. The collaborative nature of Trello has also proved invaluable. People can be invited to collaborate on a board and each card can have members. It’s a great way to track who’s doing what, and with all Trello’s features, there’s never a question of what’s going on with a particular project. Did I mention how much less email and phone calls are necessary when team members use the comments and to-do lists? Finally, I have to say how much time is saved by attaching all related files to a project via the card. No more searching emails for that PDF or graphic that was supposed to go with the article. So. Awesome.
  4. Cost: Free, though there is a “business class” for $50/mo which I haven’t found necessary at this point.

If you’ve made it this far, first, I commend you. Second, I hope you’ve found some of this useful and I would love to hear about other tools that you find invaluable in managing your work or day-to-day life.

*2/27/14 NOTE: Kevin just informed me there is a free version of Basecamp for teachers.