There’s an App for That
There are apps, devices and websites for everything. You can expand your knowledge with The Great Courses Plus, MasterClass, Udemy and Khan Academy, among many others. To deal with post-Covid Brain Fog, I signed up for three courses from The Great Courses Plus: Italian 101, The History of the Celts and The Quantum Enigma. I was thrilled that I got through eight sessions of each course- until I realized I’d just taken the first session of each course eight times! I was clearly delirious. But I can greet the Celts arriving in northern Italy with a hearty “Buongiorno” and hope they don’t get quantumly entangled with the locals.
My organizational approach has traditionally been a mishmash of paper and technology. I’ve tried many apps- some I still use, and others are just taking up space on my tablet. I keep 4-inch pads and pens everywhere so I can jot done a reminder word, lest I forget my brainstorm before I get to my office. Lately I’ve been using Alexa more and more as a reminder tool, because it’s easier, quicker, and the paper doesn’t get lost.
Here are two of my new favorites. One is an enhancement; the other is brand new.
My Alexa use was primarily to play music, and ask the occasional weird question, like “Hey, Alexa, did you train with Siri?” But Alexa can do so much more. She can add items to your to-do list, make shopping lists, coordinate with your calendar, remind you of anything. Calendars from Gmail, Outlook, Office 365 and Apple iCloud can all be logged into with Alexa. Set up is through the app. If you drive to work, she can make sure you’re up on time, and give you info on what your commute looks like. The shopping lists are an improvement over the list on the fridge that you sometimes forget to snapshot before you head out.
If you use Alexa for reminders, be sure to specify what she’s reminding you to do. After I’d set up several reminders, my perplexed husband yelled to either me or Alexa: “Are we supposed to breathe, go to sleep, or pre-heat the oven?!”
You can link other apps, including Evernote, Gmail, Spotify and more. If the integration is not supported natively, you can use an app named IFTTT, which stands for “If this, then that,” which simplifies interactions between different services and apps. With these links, you can use your favorite app and add new tasks via Alexa. You can use IFTTT to get Alexa to email you your to-do lists.
My personal favorite is still music, but now I’ve linked Alexa to Spotify and my playlists, including music to help you focus. You can find out more uses at www.smarthome.news. Of course, there are other good smart speaker options as well, including Google Nest, Apple HomePod and Sonos One (which supports all three ecosystems).
Focusmate is my new best friend, and I know it’s going to be a long-term relationship. In fact, I am on Focusmate right now, writing this article. In the upper-right corner of my screen a nice woman named Erin from Virginia is working “alongside” me on a new college course she’s designing. We started working together about 38 minutes ago. In about 12 more minutes, we’ll check in on each other’s progress and sign off. Hopefully, we’ll both have completed drafts of our projects. We may or may not ever see each other again.
It’s a little difficult to explain Focusmate, and even more difficult to explain why it works. The process itself couldn’t be easier. You pick a time for a session- a new one starts every 15 minutes and lasts 50 minutes. Focusmate pairs you up with a work partner. At the start, you introduce yourselves, where you’re located, and what your goal is for the session. And off you go. Some people prefer the mic off and just the screen on. Others, like me, prefer mic on. I work alone from home, and I like the normal sounds of another human being. No jack hammers, but coughing, shifting, sipping coffee, even friendly dogs are welcome background noise. A chime notifies you when the session ends, at which point you check in with each other and share your progress. The common theme at this point is almost universally “I got the ball rolling.” It’s the more tactful version of “I took the first bite of the elephant!” (You know the riddle- how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The elephant being that insurmountable mountain/project/unpleasant task/email or phone call you just can’t seem to address.)
So far, I’ve used Focusmate primarily for two purposes. One is for projects that require undivided attention. Like writing this article! I usually start with a few key words and a vague idea. It’s the next step that’s tough. Staring at those few words and trying to figure out how to turn them into a coherent whole is tough. Since I am easily distracted, I find myself checking emails, making phone calls or, when it’s particularly hard to summon my muse, reorganizing my office. That’s where Focusmate comes in. By scheduling and committing to a set period and sharing what I’m supposed to be working on with someone else, I make myself more accountable. And it works. I have been more focused and productive in two weeks than, well, I hate to say!
Many people choose to use it to kick-start their day, focusing on prioritizing, scheduling, and organizing the work of the day. Other partners from the UK, Italy, Germany, Ukraine, and Canada have been working on such diverse things as theses, solving programming problems, job applications and architectural designs. I even had one partner from the US!
How does it work? If you use time blocking, you’re already familiar with the overall process. Focusmate is a significant step up, giving you a more objective accountability partner than your easily distracted self. Focusmate explains the science behind the app on their website. They use 5 behavioral triggers to achieve a flow state: pre-commitment, implementation intentions, social pressure, accountability, and specificity in task definition. These triggers stimulate the release of chemical compounds in the brain. My trigger is much simpler: guilt. I feel guilty if I forget a session and leave my partner hanging, guilty if I don’t accomplish my goal, guilty if I let myself get distracted instead of working on my goal. I must have a guilt chemical in my brain. Whatever your triggers, Focusmate straight up works.
I am trying out some other apps or programs, including Amazing Marvin, a task manager/to-do list plus project manager on steroids, Cold Turkey, an app that helps you block distractions, and G-Calize, a Google Calendar extension that allows you to change fonts and color-code days of the week, because who doesn’t like more visual triggers?
And then there’s Clubhouse, which is something of an anti-Zoom. The company describes itself as “a new type of social product based on voice that allows people everywhere to talk, tell stories, develop ideas, deepen friendships and meet interesting new people around the world.”
It’s like a moderated podcast that lets users join the conversation. I’m too new at any of these to be able to offer an informed opinion.
What are some tools that are working for you? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your recommendations.