My Workflow Toolbox

Note: What follows is long and thorough. I’ve tried to break it up by hardware, software, paper tools and methodologies/techniques to make things easier for readers. It also includes affiliate links, but I use and love everything here.

Creating a workflow for yourself can be a challenge. One of the best ways I’ve found to get ahead in creating my own is to look at the tools and tactics that others use to approach their work, especially those who have similar struggles. With this in mind, I wanted to provide a comprehensive look at what I’m using to get my work done and offer context as to why I’ve made these choices. The bulk of my personal and professional work revolves around project management, customer service and individual writing projects. Beyond the specific work that I need to accomplish, I’ve also found that there are three main factors that inform the tools and tactics I use:

  • Forgetful – The combination of a terrible memory and lots of to-dos, both large and small, can be toxic. Things fall through the cracks, so a major first step was sealing as many of those cracks as possible. Finding ways to capture and follow up on tasks no matter where I am has been essential.
  • Distractible – Keeping track of everything can be challenging for me; actually managing to get them done is a struggle. So on one side of my workflow I attempt to capture everything, on the other, I need to identify the things that need to happen within the span of a day and eliminate those that attempt to test my limited focus.
  • Simple – This probably falls under distractible, but the more overwrought the tool feels, the less I tend to be able to get out of it. To overcome this, I choose focused tools that do one or two things particularly well. Since the amount of tools used can be just as great a challenge as their complexity, I spend a fair amount of time seeing how the various pieces fit together. This focus on a cohesive workflow over powerful, but isolated tools has made a massive difference. I don’t look for the best tool, I look for the tool that fits best.

Here’s a list of the hardware, software, physical tools and methodologies that make up the essential parts of my workflow. What works for me will not always work for you, but hopefully it will provide a few ideas as to how to create or improve your own, especially if some of your struggles mirror my own.

The Hardware

  • 13″ MacBook Air (Late 2010, 4G Memory, 256 GB SSD) – The best computer I’ve ever owned. It’s fast, portable and I spend way too much time with it.
  • 27″ iMac (Late 2009, 4G Memory, 1 TB HD) – In hindsight, I probably could have gone smaller with the screen, but it comes in handy every now and again. I keep both this and my Air as aligned as possible, so no matter where I work, the workflow is the same.
  • iPhone 5 – (64 GB Black) – I’ve been with the iPhone since it was first released in 2007. I love the new one just as much as I loved my first one. It plays a significant role in writing, reading and communication. I tend to use it the way many use an iPad, as my computer on the go.
  • iPad 2 (64 GB, 3G) – The iPhone serves so many of my needs, so the iPad is a bit of an outcast. I use it for mind mapping, monthly reviews and photo editing images taken on Camera+ on my iPhone, but with a computer at work and at home, it’s rare that it serves a regular purpose that my iPhone cannot.
  • Blue Yeti Mic – I’d like to update to the Rode Podcaster at some point, but the Yeti has been a very solid mic for creating screencasts and my weekly podcast.
  • ScanSnap 1300 and 1100 – I have a scanner at work and at home that help me remove as much paper as possible from my world. I’m a big fan of the 1300 I have at work. It’s powerful and takes up little space on my desk. The 1100 does a nice job and only requires a USB connection (the 1300 needs both USB and power), but it can be slow. At some point I’d like to upgrade to a 1300i.

The Software

All iOS or Multi-platform applications are listed as such. Services and apps that are being used on the Mac only have been left unlabeled.

To-Do Management

  • OmniFocus (Mac, iPhone and iPad) – This is my nerve center for projects and tasks. The learning curve is steep, but OmniFocus makes it easy to create and organize tasks from just about every possible medium including emails, websites and files.
  • Due (Mac, iPhone and iPad) – Even though I only use this app sparingly, it is essential. It lets me quickly create reminders that will notify me every few minutes once the time comes. I have a tendency to overlook notifications, so this ensures I don’t forget those small seemingly irrelevant things (that are often very relevant to my boss, my kids and my wife).
  • Listary (iPhone) – I haven’t found the perfect application for keeping track of all of my lists (including things I need to buy, want to read, want to watch), but I stick with Listary for a very specific reason. It makes it easy for my wife to text me a shopping list and can parse out each line into its own task. It lets my nerdy side and her luddite side play nice together.
  • Fantastical (Mac,, iPhone and iPad) – I’m terrible at using my calendar. Creating appointments was always annoying and cumbersome and in the past, this friction caused essential appointments to fall through the cracks. Fantastical takes away all of that pain, allowing me to use natural language (i.e. Lunch with Dan Tomorrow at 12:30 at Chipotle) to create appointments. It’s triggered by a universal keyboard command, can add to either my personal or shared calendars and, as an added bonus, has made it so I almost never have to go into the official calendar app.
  • GeekTool – A calendar doesn’t do you much good unless you look at it, GeekTool lets me place two days’ worth of appointments right on my desktop making them impossible to ignore. You can do a lot more with this app, but I like to keep it simple, only showing the day, date and my upcoming appointments.

Reference

  • Dropbox (Mac, iPhone and iPad) – My goal of keeping my devices (both of my Macs, my iPhone and my iPad) in sync and as similar as possible is no easy feat, but Dropbox has done so much to make this manageable. It works as both a universal filing system and is used by many of my applications to store system preferences and data across multiple machines.
  • Evernote (Mac, iPhone and iPad) – I’ve always struggled to keep paper organized. I’ve never been able to make the most out of a filing cabinet. Evernote, along with my ScanSnap has become the filing system I always wanted. While many use Evernote for everything, I only use it for the storage of reference materials.

Writing

  • nvALT – This is my hub for all things plain text. With the exception of larger writing projects (more on this when we talk about Scrivener), everything I write on my Mac begins its life here. I can create and search through my library, it serves as a great scratch pad and is designed to play well with other applications.
  • Notesy – What nvALT is to both my Macs, Notesy is to my iPhone and iPad. While it’s not as feature rich as some iOS text editors, it does a few things very well. It’s fast, it has never failed me on sync and plays well with Markdown, which is the syntax I use for all writing projects.
  • Byword – What nvALT offers in power, it lacks in looks. Byword solves this for me. While a piece will often begin its life in nvALT or Notesy, it always makes its way to Byword, which is a far more appealing environment for writing, editing and is especially good at formatting Markdown.
  • iThoughts HD (for Mac, iPhone and iPad) – More often than not, I just open a text file and get going. When stuck on a piece or planning a larger project, I tend to start with a mind map in iThoughts. It’s a great environment for fleshing just about anything out and allows for powerful export to either a Markdown outline or OPML (more on this in a second).
  • Scrivener – I’ve haven’t found anything that comes close for larger writing projects. Scrivener has amazing tools for outlining, reorganizing and focusing when dealing with massive projects. It also allows for the import of OPML files which makes it possible to take a complicated outline, drop it in to Scrivener and start writing.
  • Marked – I love Markdown, but sometimes you want to remove the syntax and see the piece as it would look on your site. There are also moments where you need someone who has no idea what Markdown is to read your words. Marked makes this possible regardless of my text editor (i.e. nvALT, Byword, Scrivener). It also allows for CSS templates, so I can get a feeling for what a piece would look like on my website as I’m writing it.
  • Day One (Mac, iPhone and iPad) – A well designed journaling program for both the Mac and iOS that makes it pleasurable to capture the thoughts I probably don’t want anyone else to read.

Communication

  • Google Apps – There’s no shortage of services to manage your contacts, calendar and email. I chose gmail for a few reasons: it’s dependable; I can’t remember a moment I’ve had downtime or data loss; it’s optimized for the keyboard; and even though other services are catching up, I can still fly through my email. It allowed me to consolidate all of my email accounts into a single account, while keeping everything consistent for those who send me messages. It’s also never let me down on contact or calendar sync.
  • Mailplane – The one pain about Gmail is that to best take advantage of the features, you really need to use their website. Mailplane alleviates this by wrapping the gmail web interface into an application. It also offers so many additional features, including integration with OmniFocus. This makes it easy for me to get things out of my inbox and into my task manager.
  • Skype – While some of my day-to-day exchanges are shifting towards the Messages app, I still depend on Skype to record the podcast and keep in touch with many in my network.
  • Tweetbot (for Mac, iPhone and iPad) – There’s no other Twitter client on either iOS or the Mac worth considering. Tweetbot is feature rich and well designed.

Reading

  • Google Reader – I read a ton of blogs and websites and still find RSS to be the best possible way to read the web. While some have shifted away from this service, I still think Google Reader is the best option available for the average user of the web to bring their favorite websites to them.
  • Reeder 2 (for iPhone and iPad) – If you’re a Google Reader user, there’s no other application worth using. It’s feature rich, well designed and plays well with other applications. It’s astounding how quickly you can pour through the days news in this application.
  • Instapaper (for iPhone and iPad) – While I use Google Reader and Reeder to bring the news to me, I tend to use them as filter, not a place to read. Whenever something appeals, I almost always throw the articles into Instapaper. It’s where I read the web. It’s the best application I use and it has changed the way that I learn. In other words, I’m a fan…
  • Kindle (for iPhone and iPad) – As much as I think Apple has done a wonderful job with iBooks, Kindle is still where I go to read a good book. Amazon is so focused on this aspect of their business and at this point, my library is deeply rooted in this app and their infrastructure.
  • Audible (for iPhone and iPad) – While this may not count as “reading”, I find that more and more of my long form books are read to me. It’s a great service and a decent app.

Publishing

  • WordPress – A Better Mess is run entirely on this free content management system. While I’ve been tempted to make the move to Squarespace (disclosure: they sponsor my podcast, Mikes on Mics), I’m deeply rooted in WordPress and have run my personal site on it for nearly four years now.
  • Tumblr – I run Smarter Than I Am on this free service. While I have some issues with the service (especially their search, which is terrible), I haven’t found anything better for capturing and publishing my favorite quotes.
  • MarsEdit – A great Mac client for publishing to both WordPress, Tumblr and most other popular CMS.

Utilities

  • LaunchBar – This app was created to speed up the launching of applications, however it does so much more. It makes so many small aspects of my day (looking up words, web searches, getting contact details) so much faster.
  • TextExpander – I tend to repeat myself, especially when dealing with customer service emails for work. TextExpander enables me to create snippets from commonly used text (this can be a short as my email address or as long as full-page emails). It also has powerful tools for customizing these messages. In total, typing at 80 words per minute, it has saved me 50 hours of my life.
  • Keyboard Maestro – I’m not a coder, but I like to streamline my workflows where possible. Keyboard Maestro makes it possible for someone who lacks skills (such as myself) to string together repetitive actions. For example, copying the text out of a blog post in Byword and moving it into MarsEdit can be a multiple step process (copy the text, open MarsEdit, create a new document), Keyboard Maestro can turn this into a single step.
  • SuperDuper – I’m a bit of a backup nut, so SuperDuper allows me to clone my Mac or an external drive to another hard drive. This is great for keeping both an onsite and offsite backups of your most important data.
  • CrashPlan – After the recent break-in of my home, I wanted to ensure that my data was truly secure. To make sure our most important family memories were safe, I added in this cloud-based backup service to my regular backup regimen. I hope to never have to use it, but sleep a little better knowing the entirety of our family photos now live in the cloud.
  • CloudApp – I constantly want to share files with friends, family and coworkers. This menubar app lets me drag anything into it and will automatically add a URL to the file to my clipboard. While services like Dropbox offer public folders and shared links, I just find this to be so much faster.
  • Audio Hijack Pro – I use this to record a copy of our Skype calls when recording Mikes on Mics, it’s also possible to use it to record just about anything including streaming audio from the web… or so I’ve heard…
  • RescueTime – Keeps an eye on what I’m doing and gives me a weekly report on how I’m spending/wasting my time. It keeps me honest and lets me identify my time sucks.

Visuals

  • Pixelmator – I have the design skills of a chimp, but in the rare cases where I need to create a visual, this is my go-to app. It’s easy enough, offers great tutorials and is pretty darn powerful.
  • ScreenFlow – The best application I’ve ever used for creating screencasts.
  • Skitch – While I’m not loving the latest version of this application, it’s still my go-to for creating and annotating screenshots. It was purchased by Evernote, so it also makes allows for a seamless workflow for storing screenshots.
  • Camera+(for iPhone and iPad) – Great application for taking pictures, editing them and saving them to your library. If you have that tendency of taking five shots of the same thing and then going back into your photo library, there’s a better way. Oh, and their new iPad app offers some amazing editing tools that couldn’t fit into the iPhone version.

Misc.

  • Safari – I know that browsers like Chrome and Firefox have a major emphasis on plugins, but I like Safari for its simplicity. The only real “power user” technique I use is setting commonly used bookmarklets (like Send to Instapaper) to the first few spots. This way I can use the built in keyboard shortcuts to trigger each one (for example, CMD–1 triggers the first bookmark, CMD–2 the second, and so on…).
  • Overcast for iPhone and Downcast iPad – I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts (too much actually) and while I use and love Marco Arment’s Overcast, it does not yet have an iPad companion which still keeps me holding on to Downcast (a very solid alternative).

The Rest

Paper

While I have a bit of an adverse relationship with paper, there are a few tools which have gone a long way towards tying everything together and that keep me from digital overload:

  • The Emergent Task Planner (ETP) – Every morning is spent taking one of David Seah’s ETP, using it to identify the most important thing I need to accomplish and plan out my day. It also offers space for capturing small tasks and reminders throughout the day. I love the 4×6″ StickyPad, but you can also get them in a full size, non-sticky pad as well.
  • Frictionless Capture Cards – I always keep a few of Aaron Mahnke’s beautifully designed index cards close at hand for the moments where I’ll need to capture a few thoughts for later.
  • Meeting Notes Form – I hate bringing technology into meetings, but I’m terrible at capturing paper notes. This lightweight format created by Stephen Hackett gives me just enough framework to make the most of my notes, while keeping my distractible little brain focused on what others are saying.

Methodologies/Techniques

  • Getting Things Done (GTD) – It took me a while to get Getting Things Done to be a part of my life, but as I manage to grasp the concepts of David Allen’s framework, I actually manage to get more done.
  • Inbox Zero – Merlin Mann’s well known, but often misunderstood approach to managing email overload was a game changer for me. It’s easy to grasp, made a massive difference in the amount of time I spend in my inbox and gave me a great tangible example that helped me better understand Getting Things Done
  • Merlin Mann’s Mac Power User Workflows – Merlin’s first two episodes of MPU provided so much of the framework that I use for capturing and expanding on my ideas. Much of my writing workflows, including my love for Markdown, stem from these informative episodes.
  • David Sparks’ OmniFocus Videos – As I mentioned, the learning curve on OmniFocus is steep, but these informative videos from David gave me an understanding of how the application works and where it can fit in a workflow. My usage is rooted in the tactics he teaches in these videos. Clocking in at three hours, this may seem like a poor use of time, but watching these videos paid serious dividends to my personal productivity.
  • Zen To Done (ZTD) – While much of how I do my work is rooted in traditional GTD, Leo Babauta’s simplified approach was a great stepping stone when I was first starting to get my act together.
  • Yuvi Zalkow’s Writing When Busy and Scrivener Videos – As I mentioned, most of my writing takes place in the nvALT/Byword combination I picked up from Merlin Mann, but my approach to both long and short form projects has also been shaped by Yuvi Zalkow’s amusing and informative videos on writing a novel when busy and his overview of Scrivener (as well as his failed writer series in general).

If you’ve managed to make it this far you probably think I’m crazy and that this is all too much. And in truth, it very well may be… but it works for me. Since embracing these tools and figuring out how they fit into one cohesive workflow, I’ve managed to get more done. A lot more. While you may need less, or possibly more, to make things happen, find what works for you. Find the best way that you do your best work, even if all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil. While there’s no one right way to work, each of us has an ideal workflow. If you’re struggling, find yours. I can only speak from my own experience, but the time invested in finding mine has changed my life. I believe the time spent identifying your own workflow has the potential to change yours.

What does your workflow look like? Why did you choose it? Has it really made a difference?

34 Responses to My Workflow Toolbox

  1. I want to thank you, very deeply, for inspiring me. When I first found my way here, I was a young, Confused, and distracted thinker who forgot everything. Now, I write every day and feel like I can actually tame my life. You even inspired me to buy my first Apple product, a Mac mini. You, Merlin, Yuvi, David, and Aaron all influenced me by showing a new type of life where creativity and thoughts are valued and worth something more than a brief day dream. Keep up the good work Mike.

  2. Thank you kindly for this post, it inspired me to make a similar post, although mine will be a work in progress as I’m not even shure what software I use for what (very productive). I always love to read your posts, you are always on my “to read” list :-)

  3. You said you do all of your email, etc. with Google. How do you find this syncs with the iPhone? I’ve had issues with how the IMAP Google uses isn’t quite normal. Do you use the Gmail “app” on your iPhone or just Mail?

    • I haven’t had much trouble. I know IMAP tends to create several of those “ghost” emails, but I still find the few headaches worth the savings I get from having it work for multiple email accounts. For now it’s just mail, mostly because of the OS level integration.

  4. Very comprehensive workflow, I need to sift through mine in a similar manner. I didn’t see Launch Center Pro mentioned are you still using it?

    • LCP may be an omission, but it’s right there between essential and something I can live without. I like the speed it offers, but even with it in the dock, can’t seem to get the muscle memory to stick. That may change now that Notesy has URL schemes (although there’s a bug in the first version that kills capitalizations in the title that keeps me from using it).

  5. great thanks so much, as I am stuck in the windows world, do you know anyone who has written something like this but with apps, software for windows? thank youj

    • There are plenty of capable apps on Windows too.

      If you’re interested in plain text approach check ResophNotes (equivalent of nvalt) and WriteMonkey (equivalent of Byword).

      For automation and text expantion look at PhraseExpress. Mindmapping my preference is MindMaple Lite but you can look at FreeMind or Freeplane.

      Lastly many tools like Evernote or Scrivener are on both platforms.

      No need to get Mac.

  6. The same thing that happened to Christopher happened to me (I had been using nvAlt for about two months, tried to sync to dropbox, and thought I lost all of my notes). But I recovered! I followed these steps:

    1) Find the old nvAlt folder. The default location is: Your Home Folder/Library/Application Support/Notational Data 2) Copy and paste that folder into Dropbox 3) Change storage settings in nvAlt to Dropbox (step 2 above) 4) Change storage settings to save notes as text files (step 1 above)

    Worked for me. All of my old notes are there. And now they are synced with drop box and I can search for them with spotlight. nvAlt is my favorite software right now. I find it indispensable. I use it to begin almost every piece of writing (not just notes).

  7. Re: Journaling. Why Day One when you already have nvAlt? Is there something about nvAlt that makes it sufficiently wrong for journaling that an additional tool is worthwhile?

    • I probably could have made it work, but I like keeping these thingsin their own bucket. It’s a nice app, does a great job of reminding me to write in it. When logging my crossfit workouts it lets me capture an image along side it and tags everything with relevant metadata.

      Do I need it… no. Do I enjoy it better than nvALT for what I’m using it for, yes.

      • Thanks. One of the things I’m realizing about this workflow stuff is that even the tiniest amount of “friction” in using an app or method can derail it. Conversely, removal of even the tiniest amount can suddenly see a hitherto not-so-useful app or method become extremely productive. I guess that may well be at work in this case.

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