8 Recommended Tools and Services for Streamlining Your Workflow

(I sincerely apologize for that cliched title, by the way. The only other options were far, far worse. You can leave me suggestions for a better one in the comments if you want.)


I really enjoy testing applications and services. I like seeing if they make a difference in my workflow, if they improved my life in some meaningful way. And I really like to see if they solve problems I didn’t know I had.

But, it’s selfish to keep all these goodies to myself, so I’ll show you some of my favorites as well as my recent additions to the line-up.

Focus At Will

Focus @ WillIf you try nothing else on this list, you must try this service. I’ve been a beta tester for the last few months, and they just opened to the public on April 25th.

Basically, the idea is that you’re more productive if your brain is in a relaxed and alert state. But most music is meant to arouse. So the smarty-pants’ at Focus at Will have researched, remastered, and developed hundreds of tracks that help your brain get in that flow state and stay there.

I say this as a person who hates music and listening to music, especially when I’m working. But the music, meant to be played low and quietly, relaxes you slightly without making you drowsy, and never intrudes (in fact, if you notice it, you should click skip on the program, and it will learn that that piece is not quite right for you).

They say that this technology works on two out of three people. So maybe it won’t work for you. But all I know is I can’t bear to be without it.


EvernoteI was first introduced to Evernote three or four years ago. It’s been on my radar a while. But when I tried it way back when, it wasn’t nearly as robust as it is now. I don’t remember a desktop application, for starters. And at the time I only had dial-up and apparently I was dealing with a lot less information (it seems hard to believe, now) because I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it.

Now, however, I’ve run my business almost wholly online for more than two years (since my last truly meat-space business got shuttered)— and most of that work is done in a web browser. I never use MS Office, having found love in the integrated Google universe. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that I was telling Ethan that I didn’t even use my desktop at all.

But at a recent Mastermind discussion of business systems, I realized that I needed a business dashboard. I needed to be able to have project plans, research, documents and notes all in one place. Google Documents didn’t work for that. For a time I used folders of bookmarks, but that still didn’t quite work– it was clunky and slow and hard to update.

So, I wrote out my needs for a dashboard and looked at my options, and it turned out the ubiquitous Evernote was perfect. And when I grow, I can easily upgrade to Evernote Business and share SOPs and checklists with my XO.

As I also mentioned, Evernote is a great place for my journaling. In fact, I start each day with two notes: “Todo [DATE]” and “Morning Pages [DATE]”. The ToDo contains the top project or two I’m working on and a handful of other little tasks I don’t want to forget. The morning pages note gets jottings put in it all day so that I don’t have to open the project files I’m not working on, and then at the end of the day or week, I sort all those jottings where they belong.

If this sounds like something you’d like to implement  I recommend Evernote Essentials by Brett Kelly. It’s worth the $30 bucks to get up to speed on what all Evernote can do rather than spend your time figuring it out. If you want to spend your time messing with things, mess with the specific integrations to services you already use. I spent about 4 or 5 days getting things set up. (I still have a big backlog of things to organize, but you really can’t go at this haphazardly. You’ll just waste your time.)


ExpensifyOne of the Evernote integrations  I mentioned, Expensify is a nifty little service. I wound up not using it, but it has merits that should not be overlooked.

At the core, Expensify is an expense tracking service. You know, where you take a picture of your receipt for a business lunch and it automatically files it for you, so you can find it when you go to do your bookkeeping. It links to Evernote as well as various invoicing softwares, so you could conceivably link up all your business books (or even your household books) to it.

But the cool thing about it is that for 20 cents each, Expensify has a “SmartScan” function where it reads the receipts and enters all the information into a spreadsheet for you. There’s no flat fee, just 20 cents (after the first ten, which are free.) Now, if you want to enter it all manually, Expensify is free. FREE. And I would assume that’s where they get you— after a few months, you can’t imagine why you’re wasting time doing it by hand, and you start using the SmartScan feature.

Like I said, I would up not using it because my bookkeeping is already so streamlined and automated, and it’s not worth the trouble to switch, but if you’ve been wanting to keep better track of receipts and expenses and you haven’t been able to, you might want to look into Expensify.


Instapaper vs. Pocket



I liked Instapaper. I really did. I’ve used it for the last year or so. But it didn’t integrate with The Old Reader (below) and Pocket did. I was still a little torn, but then I realized The Old Reader didn’t have an Android app, and Instapaper had an Android app, but it was paid, and Pocket had a free Android app. So that’s what tipped the balance for me. (I don’t mind paying for what I use, but my phone already costs me $55/month, which is excessive for the 4-5 days a month I really need it.)

And it turns out I like Pocket’s colorful interface better than Instapaper’s. The previews make it a lot easier to decide what to read. The various integrations are a little bit hard to manage— there’s no search function, you just have to scroll until you find what you’re looking for— but once you get things set up, it’s a breeze to use.


The Old Reader

I know many of you are looking for a replacement for Google Reader, and I want to recommend my pick The Old Reader. It’s basically a clone of the old Google Reader interface. No learning curve, no fancy doodads or interface. Just all your feeds in one place.  Some parts of it, like their “Add New Feeds” function, is even easier to manage than Google Reader was.


It’s one of those garage-based start-ups, they’re only a year old, but they’re very responsive and run on donations. That’s not to say they’ll always be free, but I’m all right with that. Google’s got us spoiled that everything should be free, but you know what they say: If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. I hope they have an Android app soon, though.

Because they’re so small, they don’t refresh the feeds lightning fast– I’d say there’s a 6-10 hour lag for some feeds. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s just fine. If I needed these posts the second they were posted, they’d be coming to my inbox. And speaking of inbox management…


unroll.me logoThis is a great service I heard about from Erin. I can’t quite bring myself to unsubscribe from a lot of stuff, but I have Inbox Zero OCD, which means that even when emails land in my mailing list folder, I still must mark them as read. It’s a sickness, I’m telling you.

So what unroll.me does is scoop them up, mark them as read and give them back to you in a list view at one point in the day (morning, afternoon, or evening, your pick).

I’m not a fan of the interface, and the fact that when you open the individual emails, it opens them on the unroll.me site but I do like that I can unsub with ONE CLICK. Somehow, not getting redirected to a bunch of different screens reduces my regret quotient, so hopefully I will whittle down my mailing lists subscriptions to the ones that I actually read… at which point I won’t need unroll.me anymore. Because ugh. The interface is way too… what’s the word… tablet-y for me. You know? Like suddenly now that we have touch screen we HAVE to have tiles and sliders and you can’t tab around things, you have to use your mouse. What is this, Web 3.0 now? Whatever it is, I don’t like it.


This is a great app if you have to load media or news sites and the page crashes because of the ads. It’s not an ad-blocker, it just prevents Flash from running on a site unless you specifically allow it. Since I never watch embedded videos, this has increased page load times immensely. You can whitelist certain pages (like Focus@Will!) and all media is available to you with a single click, so it’s very unobtrusive, unlike this next extension.


stay focusd logoI don’t use this all the time, but the StayFocusd extension for Chrome is a good way to train myself out of surfing websites. (You can also try Leechblock for Firefox and Self Control for OSX. IE users, you appear to be SOL.) Typically I’ll use it for a few weeks, then disable it, then enable it again when I notice myself backslide.

It’s super customizable, with whitelists, blacklists, a “Nuclear” feature, which blocks everything but the whitelist for a given period of time, and even a feature where you can spend a limited amount of time on unproductive sites (like for breaks and things.)

Your Turn

I’m noticing a big trend amongst start-ups for tracking and responding to even random blog posts about their services (You might have seen the LiveFyre liaison in the comments from time to time!) so if that’s you, welcome!

But tell me, what services or apps have made your life easier or more manageable? I’m always looking for new stuff to test!


22 thoughts on “8 Recommended Tools and Services for Streamlining Your Workflow”

  1. I’ve been enjoying Feedly as my RSS reader a lot. Beautiful layout with a much better experience from google reader. I highly recommend it.
    I’m wondering how you manage your Do List with your Calendar. I just lost my best tool for managing my calendar and Do Lists all together in one view. iCal and Google Calendar aren’t very good at that. Do you have a way of viewing them together? Do you have any wishes that have yet to be granted on that front?

    1. @PilotFire I have two separate systems for Todos. For stuff that I have systemized, and that happens on a regularly occurring schedule, those tasks I have in Remember the Milk, and RTM syncs to my calendar, so all those tasks (which are typically pretty brain-dead tasks, the trick is just remembering to do them) I just review at the beginning of the day, and added to the Evernote list. 
      Evernote has little ticky boxes, and I like to write down even the tiniest tasks as I do them, (because otherwise I forget what it is I did, and why) and the Todo note functions as a sort of record of the day.
      So that’s how I do it. I highly recommend the GCal and RTM combo, though. It works well.

    2. @PilotFire I totally agree! I really appreciate @feedly’s multiple views. And the fact that it saves the view you last used in each category or feed. It already feels like an old pair of shoes that fits just right.

  2. Damn you for writing so persuasively that I now have five new tabs open! Damn you, Shanna! 😉
    I am and will probably remain dead-set against music while I work (or even try to do anything else like tie my shoes). But you’ve convinced me to give Focus at Will a shot. In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I type. If this comment comes out all muddled, you’ll know why.
    Other random notes:
    1) Pocket rocks
    2) Evernote rocks, even for people who love spreadsheets and would rather use them
    3) If The Old Reader can replace Google Reader for me (may you R.I.P.), I would be overjoyed! The other RSS reader options I’ve tried – including Feedly – are just too… too… something I don’t like. I’m importing my feeds into The Old Reader now and if it’s as good as you say it is, you are now my new best friend (don’t tell my former best friend please).
    I’m going to save comments about what products and services I use for another time. These new browser tabs need to be tended to and are distracting me. Damn you! 😉

    1. @joeyjoejoe The Old Reader was just *inundated* with Google Reader refugees. It took about a week for my feeds to come online. I know they got another server online since then, so hopefully you won’t have to wait as long. Don’t forget to set up the Pocket integration!

  3. Great resource list! I must try focus@will, thanks! I use pocket and bloglovin for keeping up with articles/blogs. Evernote I just never really took to it. I tried. Todist and workflowy I’ve tried in the past and they’re OK, but because I’m so visual and I like to move around and away from my pc, I actually just prefer a white board and markers for to-do’s.

  4. I have to say, as a music lover and musician, focus at will was more of a distraction for me than a focus booster. The classical station was great, because I love classical music. But I tried the ‘jazz’ station and found some cringe-worthy selections of elevator music, which I had to switch to and skip over. It’s funny- they claim you shouldn’t be familiar with the music you’re listening to for full productivity, but I actually find that music I’m familiar with will more easily slip into the background and induce a flow state. That’s just me though.

    1. @ethanwaldman Yeah. My partner loves music, so we’ve compromised that he has to play classic rock if I’m trying to work. Something that I’ve heard so many times I can safely ignore. Acoustical works pretty well for me, except every now and then they’ll play some celtic music I’d forgotten I knew and I spend the next half-hour on Youtube being nostalgic. 🙂 I think it’s true, though, music I like too much, I pay attention to. Classic rock works for me simply because I *know* it, but don’t *like* it, so it’s essentially white noise. I think they’re correct about that. 
      You’re right, though, the jazz station is *horrible*. Here is a good track someone recommended on reddit. http://youtu.be/6Zl5vpy__dQ It’s very unobstrusive and film-noir-y

      1. @Shanna Mann  Bohren & Der Club Of Gore – the whole album of “Sunset Mission” – all 1:13:xx of it!
        Very film-noir-ish – I’m loving it!
        Thanks, Shanna!

  5. I am just popping in to say that you guys are amazing.  I am scared to death of all of it – oh, except maybe Focus at Will.  We have been writing at home over the past week and not at the coffee shop.  One of our complaints was the music.  Too loud and too familiar.  Thank you, Shanna, for introducing me to a whole new world.

    1. @tammyrenzi Don’t needlessly complicate your life on account of me, Tammy! If you don’t need any of this stuff, don’t use it!
      I’d love to hear what you and CJ think of Focus at Will.

  6. Hey, LiveFyre Liaison ~
    I just noticed that when I try to both “view oldest first” and “enable real time comments”, suddenly, there’s “0 comments” even thought there’s 11 of ’em. What’s up with that? Thanks!

  7. Don’t know when I’ll get to trying out any of these, but I do appreciate your mini-reviews immensely. I’m un-digging my heels about a lot of things, so may be much sooner than later! <3

    1. @Karen J You’re not expected to try them all! 🙂 But I think the cool thing about startups is there’s so many of them, you couldn’t keep up if you tried, so the ones that are doing really nifty things, I want to spread the word!

  8. michaelwroberts

    Wow. I’m really excited to try out Focus at Will. I’ve started listening to a lot of ambient music and music without lyrics in the past year, so that sounds like it’d be right up my alley.
    I’m also an Evernote junkie. I grow more dependent on that service ev every day. Great list, Shanna!

  9. I need to try Focus@Will again. When I tried it before, it seemed to give me weird headaches…but that could have been something else I’ve since resolved. I love the idea, though, and it did seem to work! I’m working on figuring out how to use Evernote effectively, too. It was really ugly when I tried using it a few years back, and I didn’t like it for the kind of info I was trying to store (like recipes, which I prefer on a more visually-based platform like Pinterest).
    Other than that, I do love Google Drive. And Toodledoo. And…there are probably more, but I haven’t used them in a month, so now I forget 🙂

  10. Great apps/extensions! That’s the first time I saw those apps except for some which are already familiar like Evernote and Instapaper. I gotta try the StayFocusd app/extension. I have to train myself to concentrate on my work and stop doing unnecessary browsings.

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