Cracking the Tech Workflow

I’ve been thinking about writing this one for a while now, as I finally feel I’ve got to a place with my tech use where it is becoming helpful in most areas rather than a complication or hindrance. This is something I’ve been chasing for a good length of time, and I’ve tried various different apps and solutions to keeping files, notes and my time accessible, shareable and productive. Some of the apps are paid and Apple-specific, but I feel I’m getting my monies worth in terms of my productivity. Still, there are definitely free options out there. So here it goes:

The Setup

I run a MacBook Pro for all of my work; it’s my link between home and school. I use my Office365 One Drive account for moving files between this machine and the school network, where necessary.

At school, I have an external monitor, and I use the MacBook as a second screen. I never used to do this, but the extra screen space is so valuable for working on multiple documents at a time. I’d seriously recommend a second screen, even if you’re already working at a desktop (I haven’t tried it, but mounting it portrait is supposed to be a winner too). 

I then have an iPhone, which helps a lot being in the Apple ecosystem. Things such as the universal clipboard (copying text on the phone and being able to paste it on the computer) make a big difference as does the file sharing and iCloud features that help keep the two devices absolutely synced and in line. 

Time and Task Management

A calendar app is the place to start. For a long time, I kept time and task management as two separate things, using the stock Apple calendar and reminders app. After listening to some podcasts and rooting around I ended up plumping for Fantastical (https://flexibits.com/fantastical). This is one of the pricier apps I use (there is a free trial available as well). What drew me to this was the fact it combined task management and calendar in one place as it will keep track of both at the same time. My day starts with populating my to-do list for the day, and I set them as all-day events, meaning they pop up at the top of my calendar ticker, so they are always on display, all of the time as a constant reminder of things I need to work through. They display as simple tick boxes so easy to mark off, and they are retained in a log as well. 

I have been much more deliberate about my time management recently. I used to only put meetings and places to be in my calendar so that I wouldn’t forget, but for the last month or so, I’ve been deliberately blocking time for specific jobs during the day rather than leaving it clear in the calendar. For example – assigning an hour to work on a data task or 90 minutes to prep the next week’s staff meeting. Obviously, these blocks are moveable should something come up, but dedicating focussed time to tasks where I don’t do anything else has made me more time-efficient and more productive. It means the to-do list items that are bigger and seem to linger get done as I’ve set aside set time to do it. It seems really obvious now, but I didn’t think it would make as big a difference as it has.

A couple of other things I like about Fantastical in particular:

  • It runs multiple calendars, as you would expect
  • When adding events/task, you use natural language e.g. ‘Meet Joe at 12pm tomorrow for 20minutes’, and it will take that and add it into a calendar event giving you the option to add an invitee as well. Same with tasks, just type ‘task’ before you start typing
  • The menu bar icon gives you a ‘time until…’ your next event. 
  • When sending a calendar invite, you can propose multiple times for the recipient to choose the one that suits them best/the ones they can do. If it goes to multiple recipients, when they all chose a mutual date, it confirms it and adds it as an entry in the calendar. In the meantime, it grey’s out all options in your calendar, so you don’t potentially double book. 
  • iOS app is available as well. 

I did try a few other apps, in particular, Things 3, which I stuck with for a while. This is great if you just want a to-do list.

Email

Again, I had been hunting around for alternatives to the Apple stock app. I started with Airmail, but I’ve now settled on Spark (https://sparkmailapp.com, free). This gives me the capability to schedule emails (which Apple wouldn’t let me do), has a nicer user interface and also lets you create a link to a specific email. This has been useful because when I have been writing notes about tasks I have done, I can use this link to go to the specific email that is relevant, and it displays as a webpage rather than an email in a separate app. You can also share that link with others, meaning they can see just that email rather than a whole trail or have to go fishing through their inbox to find it when needed. 

Project Management

For bigger projects with more steps, I’ve only just started using Trello (https://trello.com/en-GB). It is a free app and browser tool available across all platforms. This lets you create boards of tasks and lists of jobs to do that you can share with others. This has been really helpful for breaking down big projects, so my general day to day to-do list doesn’t;t become overwhelming. I have used this to write separate boards for prepping for governor meetings, checking off the data analysis for each year group as we pass through the data deadline and a few other things. The next step is sharing the board, as anyone can move the list cards around once they have it shared with them, so it becomes collaborative.

Notes

This is the one area I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve finally settled in Obsidian (https://obsidian.md, free Windows and macOS). This lets me create really quick and short notes about a whole range of things and keep them all in one place. It syncs with my One Drive, so I have access to the notes on multiple devices at once as well. I have been using this to keep a daily note page of everything I have done during the day – conversations I’ve had, things I’ve asked people to do, messages I’ve sent. This record alone has made me feel much more productive. 

But, what I really like about this is the linking you can do. In a document, you can add something called a backlink, but putting someone’s name in brackets. This creates their own page in your list of notes. When you click on their name, it takes you to their page. It’s a bit like a wiki, but the links work two ways, and that is the clever bit. It’s a bit tricky to get your head around at first, but here’s an example: 

‘Spoke to [[Jane]] and asked her to update the Year R teacher on the plans for assessment.’

Now, when I click on the link for Jane, it takes me to her page. I could populate this with info as well, such as email address, or if it is a consultant, who there work for, where I met them first, how I got the contact etc. The clever bit is that when I link to Jane’s page, I can see all the times I have referenced her name. Clicking on one of those references takes me immediately back to that note/part of the text where I wrote her name, meaning I can see all the times I have noted a conversation with her, the task’s we’ve done and find them all easily as well. 

I use it to keep notes from training sessions as well and then I can link to other people or documents that are relevant too. You can add email links (using the Spark linking I mentioned earlier) so when you look back over a note, and you want to go directly to the email it was about, click on the link and hey presto, you are there. It also supports # for tagging important words. 

Obsidian has been a game-changer for me in terms of keeping tabs on what I’ve done when I’ve done it and what I’ve asked people to do as well. It’s also turned into a ‘done’ list, so I feel more productive too. 

Some other honourable mentions are Drafts (https://getdrafts.com), a really simple note-taking app that lets you perform actions on your note, e.g. send it to Google Drive, send to email, send to Twitter etc. 

Craft (https://www.craft.do) is another one I have tried as well, which is like Drafts but allows more multimedia to be added. 

One of the other advantages of these apps is that they are clean places to write. There is little to no text editing facility, so it is all about the text. Whenever I write a letter, newsletter or longer document, I start in one of these as it is clean, and I am able to focus on what I am writing rather than getting distracted by other things I can do with the document. Again, this is more time-efficient and has improved my productivity. 

So, I know some of this is a bit geeky, but I really feel, for the first time, like all of these things are working together for me to keep track of my tasks, my time and my responsibilities in a way that makes it all much more manageable therefore saving me time and making me less likely to forget something important. As always, more than happy to chat about any of this or answer any more questions you might have! 

Published by @secretHT1

Primary HT. Using this as a space to write honestly and freely about the state of education currently.

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