The low down on productivity hacks, tools & processes; best practices and the tools I rely on in my life & business.

This was originally posted on The Ask newsletter

Practically… how do we do our work?

I will explore this theme from the perspective of a human first, business owner second. What I mean by this is that regardless of the work I do, I need certain tools to help me thrive in the modern world as a human being, and so do you.

So let’s get into it…

i) Productivity, hacks, tools & processes.

Allow me to introduce the concepts as I see them.

The act of doing things in an efficient manner. This is about using time in a smart way. Productivity is not about squeezing an 18 hour day into 12 hours or forgoing sleep, but rather about managing your routine & workload in a way that maximises what you are able to achieve.

Anything external to you that helps you to do things. From pen & paper, a piece of software, to an alarm clock.

Various actions put together in a specific way for an intended outcome. Eg. the process of getting dressed is putting on clothes in order (underwear before outerwear) with the intention to look decent for the outside world. In this context, a process is anything you do repeatedly with the intention of getting work done.

A hack is a type of process that has been thought about and iterated in order to achieve maximum efficiency. To continue the dressing analogy; you could get dressed by trying different combinations of all the clothes you own before deciding what to wear but a hack would be to decide what to wear the night before and lay it out ready. Or the Steve Jobs hack of wearing the same thing every day to remove the element of decision altogether.

Not all hacks are made equally and not all processes make sense. What I see a lot of people get wrong is creating processes for processes sake without considering the ‘why’ behind it. You also cannot create a process from scratch until you have done something multiple times over. Then once you’ve nailed the process can you later ‘hack’ it. Once again, a productivity hack is only as meaningful as the outcome it helps you achieve. Don’t try and hack your life and create complicated systems that don’t actually fit into your day to day as you’ll only overcomplicate things or start buying tools you never end up never using.

I once bought a habit journal as I felt it would help me stick to habits. What I was forgetting in this process of writing down my actions each day is that I didn’t have a clear ‘why’ and so my incentives were not aligned and the £30 journal went unused. Its better to start with low-tech tools as you learn the processes and invest in higher-tech as and when you will definitely make use of it.

ii) Best practices and rules to follow (with some hacks along the way)

This is a bit of a brain dump of some of my best pieces of advice around productivity, routines and planning. Some of it may be new information and many you’ll know. If you’re not currently doing one of these things my encouragement is to pick one or two to start testing out. (Then let me know how you get on).

  • Your brain is for ideas not storing information
    If you only take one thing away from this whole piece let it be this: do not try and use up your mental capacity remembering things. We have both short and long term memory and certain things you might always know (your favourite song lyrics or childhood memories etc) but for short term memories you do not want to be using your brains finite capacity. Yes finite.
    If you have an idea about something you should write it down. If you have a task you need to do later this evening you should write it down. If you have a piece of feedback for a colleague you can’t share in the moment… you get the picture. Why? We can only absorb and process so much especially in a world of overstimulation and information overload. Think of your brain like RAM (random access memory on a computer)… if it gets too full it slows down. You need the space for creative ideas, problem solving, emotional and intellectual requirements. So free it up by finding somewhere to ‘store’ your thoughts. Get into the discipline of ‘organising’ them; because without this none of the other tools or hacks will make a marked difference.
  • Have clear goals & why
    If you don’t know what the intended outcome is for a particular tool or process, its a moot point. Know the end goal you have in mind for the work you do and work backwards to make it possible. Productivity for productivity’s sake is not productive.
  • Diarise everything
    As per writing things down point, then if its important to you it should be in your calendar so can fit it in and slot other things around it. The act of diarising tasks also helps to enforce deadlines, accountability and work within the boundaries of the time you’ve set for it. We all know the power of a last minute deadline in speeding us up! Create this regularly.
  • Follow your energy
    The 9-5 work day is a thing of the industrial era, ensuring production lines would work to the rhythm of the community. Now we’re an ‘always on’ world but that doesn’t mean we need to be too. If you feel motivated at 6am to do a creative project, do it. If you’re still buzzing past bedtime, it won’t kill you to work then (occasionally). Some people prefer set times for working each day without fail but slowly I’m realising some days I feel like a machine and other days lazy AF. That’s ok. My body knows better than my brain. For women too, the time of the month due to menstrual cycle has has a HUGE impact on their productivity & energy levels whereas men’s energy peaks at the start of the day (hence the breakfast meeting phenomenon) and slows at the end, repeated daily. So *cough* sometimes we should ignore the ‘norms’ of how a partriachal society *cough* has taught us to work.
red brick wall with live, work, create. quote
  • Organise your files
    Your computer or notepads are an extension of your brain. If they are organised and you know where to find everything not only will this save you time but it will help you feel more structured in your thinking and free up that much needed brain space for the important tasks.
  • Journal & meditate
    I’ve lumped these together as they share a similar intention in the context of productivity, which is to clear your brain of information that you don’t need. Journalling helps you clear stressful or negative thoughts by viewing them objectively and meditation helps you gain more awareness of recurring thoughts. The more awareness you have over your mind the more you can use it to your advantage.
  • Theme your days
    If you have control over your days (not everyone will especially in work dictated by managers or meetings) you can design a schedule with similar rhythms. I’m shifting into Mondays for Finance & Admin, Tuesdays for Content, Wednesday for New Business, Thursdays for Learning and Fridays for Connecting & Collaborating. Some things I’ll do every day – like emails and coaching clients -generally this helps me to create a routine and know when is appropriate to do certain tasks and when isn’t. Can you do something similar?
  • Set intentions for each day
    Especially if you’re journalling in the morning. Today I will.. and write the main things you want to achieve or feel. You are much more likely to find ways to make this happen either consciously or unconsciously. Mine the other day: ‘Today i will meet 3 new people at the co-working space’ then it happened. Try it out!
  • Treat Whatsapp like an inbox
    This app can be a productivity killer especially if like me you feel compelled to reply to people quickly. To counter this think of it like your work inbox. Turn the notifications off, remove the last seen function so you have no guilt about not replying, mute groups you don’t need to be notified about, and my biggest trick… archive a message once you’ve replied. That way your ‘inbox’ is only taken up by things that actually need your attention. Each time you look in your messages you’ll have less that need actioning and less mental capacity will be taken up.
  • Keyboard shortcuts
    Not just the Ctrl+Alt ones but you can code your computer to have certain phrases covert to longer ones when you click tab/enter. I have some saved for things I write frequently e.g. ‘here is a link to my diary’.
  • Calendar booking
    If you have a lot of meetings to avoid the back and forth of scheduling get a calendar integration software like Acuity or Calendly (free versions available). Here’s my Calendly link if you’d like to book a discovery call about coaching with me, for example.
  • Automate repetitive tasks
    Similar to the above two, think about any action you do regularly. How can you find a hack to make it repeatable? Are there templates you can create? Codes you can build? Zapier is a no-code software for different platforms to ‘speak’ to each other through an API. If I’ve lost you, just know that some things can connect to one another if they are stored on the cloud. e.g Gmail, Google Sheets, Typeform, Trello can all connect to save you manually doing certain repetitive tasks.
  • Outsource but know what you’re doing
    Outsourcing some of your mundane tasks can be a huge timesaver for example a virtual assistant for a few hours a week can help most people. Also paying people to do chores for you like cleaning and DIY can feel extravagant, but when you view them through the eyes of how much time you have and how much you could be ‘earning’ in that time if you put your mind to it then suddenly the opportunity cost feels different. But with some tasks it is worth considering the level of quality control you lose in the process or the knowledge you would have gained from doing it yourself. For example, if you are never looking into your finances because your accountant does it all you will come unstuck at some point when you need certain information they are not privy to. Or you never manage your own diary and your assistant is sick and you start missing appointments. Consider what information is and isn’t important for you to know – and mastering it yourself first before you hand it over to someone else so you still have control.
  • Passwords
    Save passwords somewhere central (a keychain, digital notepad, password saver etc) or have a standard format for your passwords so they are easy to remember. E.g [First letter of the platform][Memorable letter & number sequence][Last letter of the platform’] so on Amazon it might be A[Memorable thing]N.
  • Eat the Frog
    Here’s the definition of eating the frog as I couldn’t say it better: The frog is that one thing you have on your to-do list that you have absolutely no motivation to do and that you’re most likely to procrastinate on. … Eating the frog means to just do it, otherwise the frog will eat you meaning that you’ll end up procrastinating it the whole day.
  • My hack for feeling overwhelmed
    Oftentimes you’ll be going about your business and random thoughts will enter your brain about things you should do or are stressing you out. When this happens try clearing your desk of technology and taking pen to paper. Write down everything that’s on your mind and keep going until you have nothing left burning. It might take 20 mins depending on how long you’ve not been writing things down for(!). Anything from call your dad, write the proposal, clean the kitchen, call the bank, etc. Then once you’ve finished go through and categorise everything. Common categories: Social, Finance, Home, Side Project, Creative, Health etc. Simply by doing this you’ll feel better mentally but you can then put those important tasks into your diary or Trello etc (see below for more).

iii) My own toolkit

Talking tools now. I couldn’t possibly list all the tools available so I’ll share my top ones with you and how they support me.

  • Google Calendar
    Obviously this isn’t unique but the way I use it seems to surprise people mainly because it looks so busy to the eye.

By scheduling tasks in my diary ahead of time I then don’t have to remember them or constantly decide what I’m doing every hour. I’ll batch content creation, have regular slots with coaching clients, (try) meditate daily and eat lunch at the same time. This is helpful when I use Calendly too as there are only certain times of the week calls can be booked in so as not to disturb other plans I’ve got on.

  • Evernote
    I would describe Evernote as my digital brain with over 2000 individual notes I’ve created in the last three years. I store ideas, articles, lists, goals and content I’m working on as well as ‘to do’ items that I delete once I’ve actioned e.g weekly shopping list.I pay for Premium so I can have it across multiple devices (phone, ipad, laptop) and access it offline. Evernote truly allows me to harness the concept of ‘getting things out of your brain’.A screenshot so you get an idea.

On the left is the menu (I have 53 different notebooks) in the middle are 61 notes from the ‘Content’ notebook which sits under ‘The Ask’ (a stack of notebooks relating to my business) and on the right is the ‘Goals Grid’ note I made in the newsletter about creating meaningful goalsThe bottom right hand side ‘Context’ is a Premium feature showing me similar content I have to that Note.

  • TrelloAs great as Evernote is its more for storing info than it is doing tasks and understanding their status. So Trello is the my project manager. Recently got a little unwieldy but here’s a screenshot so you can see it.

    Soon I’ll be moving away from Trello onto Notion though — see below.

This is new (for me) and I’m going to use it for my business only (for now). So I’ll be transferring all of The Ask related docs from Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox, email and my brain and into Notion.
Why? Many reasons but I’m excited by being able to make certain pages public and share with people (eg tasks for coaching clients); it’s free with plenty of storage; you can use it for word, number, video and image based files and it looks and feels professional.

I were to hire someone this would be much easier for them to navigate my entire business than its current format.

No point showing you mine yet because I’m still transferring it all across. But check out these open-source examples that others have created for ideas on use cases. As you can see below from this example, its like a contents table for your work/life and each links out to different locations.


iv) Appendix

Here’s a few worthwhile reads if you’re still keen to go further into some of these topics.

  1. For all things habits related James Clear is the guru. Check out some articles or buy the book
  2. The Getting Things Done method for processing tasks. My mentee said she was using this system now and its helping her prioritise and feel more on top of everything.
  3. Why timing in the day is everything when it comes to productivity
  4. How to use Evernote – this is a pretty solid description of its functionalities

Please if you get value from these blogs it would mean the world if you shared it with your network. Even one person you think might enjoy it. Thank you to those who have been sharing so far!


  • Ellen Donnelly

    Founder + Chief Coach for people defining their ideal entrepreneurial career

    The Ask®

    As Founder of The Ask® Ellen works with founders, freelancers, and startup communities to empower entrepreneurial people to find the confidence and clarity to launch a business doing what they love. Combining certified mindset coaching with practical tools gained from a decade in the startup industry, Ellen guides founders to get clear on their own version of success, and to design a business around their unique strengths, talents, and passions.