D'you know what I love? Inbox zero. / by Neil Alexander

Organisation is everything right? Well I’ve certainly found that over the years in business. And I know that I am not the most organised of individuals. There are times when the volume of incoming correspondence and information can feel overwhelming. An impromptu survey amongst friends revealed that many had inboxes with hundreds, if not thousands of emails! I couldn’t cope with that. It would be too much. Through a desire to try new things and streamline as much as possible, I’ve armed myself with a battery of tools to fend off that sickening feeling that it’s all getting out of control. 

I was put onto many of these by a rather inspirational chap called Ari Meisel who did an online course called “The Art of Doing Less”.  It was a real eye-opener and whilst I was already doing many of the things on here, Ari gave me fresh ideas, a new perspective on the tools I was using and reaffirmed my believe that consciously trying to implement time-saving tips and boost productivity is a skill that is becoming more and more a requirement of the current age. Check out his Creative Live workshop here.

So here’s a brief overview of the tools I use to streamline my processes and boy do they save me time. Some cost. Fair dos. I expect to be paid for my time. It’s by no means a definitive list. There are plenty other tools out there that do the same things and more. But this setup works for me.

Gmail - mail.google.com - For me, everything starts with Gmail. I have a Google apps account for my business and so a standard 15GB mailbox. I use Chrome to read and action my email mainly. I’ve tried Apple’s Mail program, but hate it. Similarly Outlook (yuk, don’t even go there). Mailplane and Airmail are nice, but cost and don’t offer the functionality I can get in Chrome. The extensions that I use consist of Wisestamp (which is great for creating dynamic email footers - mine have my last blog post as a link along with a random photography quote), Streak (which is a CRM system that I’m just getting my head around) and Followup.CC (which is a very handy little reminder system - sending an email and want to get a reminder if there’s no reply? Easy).
I used to have more mailboxes than you could shake a stick at. It was ridiculous. So I now only have two. Personal and business and they all go into the one Gmail inbox but I can reply as either. 
But isn’t that like having all your eggs in one basket? Yes, rather. I used to use Outlook and stored all my mail offline, but Outlook for the Mac is awful and it’s predecessor Entourage quite simply not worthy of the disc it is burned onto. So Backupify runs a nightly job to backup all my email, calendars and contacts for a pittance every month and stores it securely for me.
Keyboard shortcuts - with Gmail in Chrome there are a veritable plethora of keyboard shortcuts available, covering everything from replying, forwarding, archiving, labelling, trashing. As you may have guessed already, I’m all for shortcutting things. All those fractions of seconds spent going from mouse to keyboard and back again mount up over time. (Incidentally Cheat Sheet for the Mac is ace). 

Nozbe - www.nozbe.com - In an effort to organise myself, I have become anal about lists. Nozbe is a Get Things Done application or GTD. It’s my go to organisation tool and I use it many times a day. Mostly because I have the memory of a chicken but also because I am a list man and live to tick boxes. Within Nozbe, I have many projects; Print Sales, Marketing, Competitions, Blog Posts, Photography Projects, Photography Ideas, Shoots, Family, Home and Personal. And within these I can add tasks with a due date, how long it will take me, how often does it repeat and all manner of other information. It links into my Evernote and Dropbox accounts and magically pulls in the relevant information from the two. There’s iOS and Android apps and the ability to email tasks straight from my inbox.  So if an email comes in that requires my action and I can’t do it immediately, I simply forward it to Nozbe and archive it from my inbox.

Evernote - www.evernote.com - Where would I be without Evernote? It stores everything. I have Gigabytes worth of useful information stored in there. Everything from blog post ideas, photography ideas, inpisration, invoices, expenses, technical how-tos, trip ideas, location scouting information, the list goes on. Here’s some examples:

  • So I’ve just booked flights for a trip to Iceland in September. I’ve emailed the booking confirmation from my Gmail straight to the Trips notebook in Evernote. Now that it’s in Evernote, I simply set a reminder on the note to do the online check-in before I fly and it’ll appear in my Nozbe and prompt me at the appropriate time. I can simply forget about it now. 
  • I’ve just picked up a replacement Go Outdoors discount card and rather than squeeze the new card into my wallet, I’ve taken a photograph of both sides of the card and saved them to Evernote. Card shredded and the cashier can scan the barcode straight from the screen on my phone. 
  • A client has emailed me over a bunch of ideas for a project they’d like to collaborate on. Instead of having to trawl through my inbox looking for them all, I simply keep emailing them over to Evernote when they arrive, putting them in a Photography Ideas notebook with the same hashtag each time. It’s then two clicks in Evernote to pull them all up.
  • I can even save the data for specific notebooks to be available offline on my iPhone and iPad. Location scouting information is a great example. I’ve amassed tons of location info for the Lake District for example. This is all on my phone, searchable even when I’ve absolutely no phone reception. I can search half way up a hillside in the middle of nowhere and make an informed decision as to where I should go next. 

Fancy Hands - www.fancyhands.com - is a virtual assistant service. 
There are some things that I am good at, others just plain not. I know my weaknesses and I also value my time. So for example, as part of my marketing I was picking an image a day from my archive to tweet about and publish to my Facebook page etc, but it seemed to take me forever to do; I couldn’t decide which images to use, what to say about them and it proved a real fag. Now I get Fancy Hands to do it for me. I have an IFTTT action that sends an email request to Fancy Hands every Thursday afternoon asking them to pick another 10 images and write the tweet / status message to accompany the image. They’ll email me back within 24 hours with the completed task and I simply drop them all into Buffer ready for it to fire them out. 
I’ve used them a lot for personal stuff too. I needed to book pitches at a campsite in the Lake District. This particular campsite, whilst we absolutely love it, is notoriously hard to get hold of anyone to make a booking. I think Fancy Hands must have made half a dozen phone calls for me to book the latest trip. 
I’ve also used them to source awkward gifts, find a plumber, order a last minute entertainer for a kids party, the list goes on. All stuff that I could have done myself, but would have distracted me from my primary task - to make money.

So with every email that comes in, I try and action as quickly as possible and this is the workflow I use: 

  1. Can I action it right now? Then do it.
  2. Am I going to have to come back to this? Then email it to Nozbe
  3. Is it something that I can get someone else to do? Then send it to Fancy Hands with instructions.
  4. Is it just for information and worth keeping? Then email it to Evernote.
  5. Otherwise it needs to be marked as spam or simply archived. 

The goal is always the same, Inbox Zero.

There are two other tools that I have to mention that also save me considerable amounts of time. 

Dropbox - www.dropbox.com - is a simple online storage service that allows me to make documents accessible from just about anywhere.  I use it for the storage of business documents, iPhone camera uploads,  images to share with clients, Lightroom catalogs, and essentially anything that’s not easily storable within Evernote. It’s so easy to drop stuff in there and within minutes I’ve replicated copies anywhere I could need it. One of my main uses is for my primary Lightroom catalog. I can work on images in Lightroom on my iMac once I’ve down an initial download, set it to create smart previews, and then within a few minutes I’ve the same catalog replicated to my Macbook and I can further the editing process from my lap. Likewise if I want to do any heavy lifting, I can highlight the images that I want to work on whilst I’m using my laptop. Make a brew and then walk straight into editing the chosen images on my 27” iMac. I wrote a blog post on exactly this topic last year.

Free Agent - www.freeagent.com - Accounting heaven, if there is such a thing. For years I’ve done my accounts in Excel. Keep it simple is my moto and whilst it worked, it became increasingly complicated and time consuming. It lost it’s simplicity factor. I’d only have to edit a formula in one cell incorrectly and an entire years worth of numbers wouldn’t add up. Now with my business bank feed pulled straight into FreeAgent and an accompanying app on my phone for recording expenses, doing my books is almost a pleasure. I can even set it up to automatically email out recurring invoices and remittance notes. 

So there you go. There are so many more little tools I use to make life that little bit easier, Blotter, Cheat Sheet,  IFTTT, Buffer, MailTab for Gmail  that I could be here all day, but the six above are right now, where I spend most of my time outside of actual image creation and editing. 

That's my lot. Have I missed any?