How to Be More Productive in the Digital Age / by Gavin Lau

Experts from Evernote, General Assembly, and more share tips and tools for staying on top of your work and life.

Staying on top of everything in our busy, digitally-driven lives is a huge challenge for most of us. How do we balance fielding work demands, being attached to our smartphones, and staying on top of wellness, all while trying to excel in our careers?

Last week, I had the pleasure of discussing productivity in the digital age on a panel hosted in partnership with Evernote and General Assembly at GA’s London campus. The aim was to understand how to become more productive in our work and life, and a crowd of 230 self-starters in business came out to learn more.

The panel of experts consisted of:

  • Graham Allcott, author of the global bestseller How to Be a Productivity Ninja, founder of Think Productive, and host of the Beyond Busy podcast
  • Josh Zerkel, director of global customer education and community at Evernote and Certified Professional Organizer®
  • Richie Barter, founder & CEO of machine learning and AI software analytics company AltViz
  • And me! Lora Schellenberg, marketing lead at global tech education company General Assembly, and co-founder of Circle, a community advancing women’s careers in our new world of work

During the discussion, we explored the productivity challenges faced by our panelists representing various backgrounds including marketing and community teams for global brands, running a consultancy, and managing a rapidly scaling startup.

4 Tips for Personal Productivity

Being productive on a personal level comes naturally to some, but for many it must — and can — be learned. Chances are, you’ll notice a difference after incorporating even one of the following tips into your routine.

1. Think about what “mode” you’re in at each point of the day.

Not all hours of the day are created equal. How can we optimise each part of our day to make sure we’re doing the type of work that’s most impactful at that time?

I’m not a morning person, so getting simple emails out of the way is an ideal way for me to spend the beginning of my day. I’m generally in a hyperfocused mode at midday, which is when I’ll find a quieter spot in the office to zone out with no distractions.

You may feel hyperfocused, collaborative, or tired and unmotivated at different points in your day, so think about what type of work that makes the most sense to do during those times.

Zerkel recommended being deliberate with how you’re spending your time. “It’s fine to occasionally enjoy some mindless television, but know that you’ve chosen to do it — it didn’t choose you,” he said.

(For more ways to stay focused, read these tips from one of GA’s product team leaders.)


2. Stop being a slave to your digital devices.

How do we control our ever-increasing dependence on our smartphones, which tend to cause constant disruption? Josh Zerkel suggested not constantly being at the mercy of your mobile. “Turn off notifications for everything and be more deliberate about how you spend your time,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s not an emergency,” especially when it comes to social media.

To reduce the interruption of our phones during times of critical focus, Graham Allcott suggested the app Quality Time to block unnecessary apps on your phone at a predetermined time that you decide. It breaks down the amount of time you spend on certain apps per day, giving you more visibility into which apps you want to spend less time on, like Facebook or Instagram.

Another more straightforward suggestion is to put your phone on airplane mode or turn it off entirely when you’re focusing on a particular task.

3. Break down projects into manageable tasks.

The word “project” is overwhelming, so it’s important to divide your work into smaller tasks, which helps to avoid procrastination. Allcott said, “A project is anything more than two to three tasks. I use a tool called Nozbe to get things done.” It’s a simple task management platform that helps individuals and teams prioritize tasks and get them done quickly and effectively.

I suggested a time-management method called the Pomodoro Technique(which I practice through the TomatoTimer web app), which allows you to focus on an activity for 25 minutes without distractions and makes tasks less overwhelming. Once you complete the first round, you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction and achievement. These emotions trigger endorphins, which, in turn, propel you forward. The technique works best when you plan your small tasks beforehand, allowing you to feel less overwhelmed by the idea that you’ll only need to focus for 25 minutes at a time before getting a short break. You can then feel accomplished after each 25-minute interval is finished and you can check the task off your to-do list.

Zerkel also encouraged attendees to “be careful of the projects you’re committing to, and learn to say ‘no’ early and often.” He went on to share that, “Yes is good for learning, no is good for productivity.” In an age with an astronomical amount of notifications, information, tasks, and so much more competing for our attention, we need to be judicious about our decisions when it comes to which projects we’re choosing.

4. Nurture your business network.

You never know when you might need to call on your network, whether you’re looking for a new job or in need of an introduction. (Need tips for building a community and connecting with executives? We’ve got you covered.) Nurturing and maintaining your network — even when you don’t feel it’s a priority — will take you far in business. One way to do this is to occasionally give without expecting anything back, like introducing a friend from university who’s launching a startup to an investor you know. Having a reputation as a “connector” will get you seen as someone who’s trustworthy and solid to work with.

Allcott pushed the point that “you shouldn’t beat yourself up about needing to ‘work the room’ during events. It’s way more valuable to have two meaningful conversations than 10 empty chats.”


I went on to suggest that because you may forget many of the specific conversations you have at an industry event, you can use the typical business-card exchange as an opportunity to jot down what you chatted about, and whether you said you’d follow up — directly on the business card, if there’s room. And don’t give in to pressure or a sense of obligation to make connections you’re not actually interested in: You represent your personal brand and your company, so always follow up when you say you’re going to, and if you don’t plan on following up, don’t say you will.

Zerkel took this opportunity to jump into a demo showing Evernote’s feature that allows you to snap a picture of a business card and import it into the app. It automatically digitises the person’s information, creates a profile, and even pulls details from their LinkedIn page. “This makes it incredibly easy to stay in touch,” he said. “You can also create a quick note about what you discussed and how to follow up.”

You can also consider utilising a customer relationship management (CRM) tool, like Trello, to keep track of your contacts, especially one with the capability to auto-remind you to follow up after a certain period without contact. This helps foster your business relationships and keeps you on top of your key contacts. Zerkel suggested that if you’re the person who follows up, “you win, because not many people will do this.”



3 Tips for Productivity at Work

Being productive at work benefits your career — and your company — in a huge way. You get tasks done faster, work smarter, and ultimately prove you’re a valuable asset to your team. Here are our panelists’ best tips for workplace productivity.

1. Prioritise great communication.

Solid communication within your team at work is vital to creating a culture of openness and understanding, and I suggested that it’s a good idea to over-communicate. It can be tough to make this a priority when you’re heads down in your work, but it pays off in the long run in terms of productivity.

This doesn’t mean constantly being touch with your team on Slack, for example, as this can be a distraction or cross the line into annoying. But if you’re collaborating on a project, making sure you take even five minutes to sit down with the individuals involved to make sure they understand the brief and are able to ask any questions will pay off in the long run. After all, certain team members may consider asking questions to be a weakness, so it’s best to get ahead of this and build a culture in which it’s encouraged.

On the culture piece, Allcott mentioned the importance of developing a culture in which your team bonds outside of the office as well. Of course, not everyone is able to make time for a weekly happy hour, but what about a monthly Friday-afternoon team activity? At GA London, we get together for team breakfast at a nice restaurant once a quarter to celebrate our wins. After all, well-developed relationships make communication smoother and ultimately prove beneficial for the business.

2. Be data-driven about performance.

Do you use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) within your role? I suggested utilising them for productivity because they help keep teams stay on track and be aware of where everyone stands. At GA, we set them for ourselves (once a quarter) and agree on them with our manager to make sure we’re on the same page. At the end of the quarter, we review them together to see what we hit and what we missed, and re-evaluate the OKRs for the next quarter. For example, as the marketing lead, one of my OKRs is to get a lead conversion of 13% by the end of the quarter. Being data-driven in my marketing role helps stay on track every day.


Also, collect data in all areas of your business to help you understand which activities produce the best output for the company and iterate on those further. I suggest investing in business intelligence software, such as Tableauor Looker, from the very beginning of launching your company. This helps your various teams, like sales and marketing, have a better idea of where they stand. For example, you can track how many new leads are coming in based on various marketing activities (like driving users from social media to your website) and determine which of them converted into sales. These programs also allow you to visualize the data in graphs, to more powerfully see business trends. Allcott said, “Don’t just chase what looks interesting or promising for the company — make decisions based on the data.”

3. Self-manage yourself as a leader.

As a founder, Richie Barter used to always attend his team’s daily standup meeting. However, he’s become aware of the importance of stepping away from this — though it was challenging to do so — because he found his employees would shape what they said around what they wanted him to hear instead of being honest.

Barter goes on to suggest that from his experience managing teams, he finds it important to be somewhat hands-off and give his team autonomy to innovate and even fail occasionally, with the ability to call on you in times of need. After all, it only helps you be more productive not to be involved in everyone’s business at all times!

Needless to say, I learned so much being part of this panel, especially the various ways to look at productivity whether you’re the founder of a business, a team leader, or an individual employee. The most important point? Productivity is not only accomplished by the “gurus” — it can be achieved by any individual, including you. It’s a matter of simply tweaking certain habits in your daily life, like committing different times of the day to different types of work. Figure out what’s most important to you and what works within your lifestyle — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.