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The fundamental role of technology in productivity: An interview with Tim Stringer

In this interview we talk to Tim Stringer about productivity practices that help you make the most of technology.

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7 minutes

    By Tiffany

    Tiffany studied Language and Economics, and now likes to write about business topics and conduct interviews with interesting people. She spends her free time looking after her plants and with her dog.

    During his experiences in the corporate world, Tim Stringer became aware of the challenges that people face in different roles within a company. That’s why he set up Technically Simple to provide productivity coaching, consulting, and training to both individuals and organizations. Today he shares with Mailbutler those productivity practices that help you make the most of technology!

    Hi Tim! Thank you so much for giving us the chance to have an interview with you. We want to learn more about you and your job. How did you decide to found Technically Simple?

    I founded Technically Simple in 2003 after working in the corporate world for 13 years. I learned a great deal from my corporate experience and decided it was time to venture out on my own. One of the attractions was having more control over the projects that I work on. And I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.

    And what are the main services you offer there?

    I provide productivity coaching, consulting, and training to both individuals and organizations.

    For individuals, much of my work revolves around the OmniFocus personal task manager for Mac, iPhone, iPad, and the Web. I have a membership-based website called Learn OmniFocus that serves as the hub for this work.

    I also lead productivity courses to organizations and help them develop collaborative workflows using a selection of carefully chosen apps/services, including Asana.

    Sounds really helpful! But you studied for a Bachelor of Engineering. Why did you decide then to become a productivity coach?

    I graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in 1990, which created a solid foundation for my corporate work as a software engineer, development manager, and project manager.

    My corporate experience gave me the opportunity to work with people across the entire company, including legal, sales, documentation, public relations, and quality assurance. The insights that came from witnessing the challenges that people in a variety of roles faced helped spark an interest in productivity coaching and left me well-equipped to relate to their distinct needs.

    The major life change that focused my attention on productivity coaching came in 2008 when I was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. I was very sick and wasn’t even sure if I would live to see Christmas that year.

    I developed an approach called Holistic Productivity based on insights gained from this experience. I also applied David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) approach as part of my healing process and was interviewed by David Allen himself after writing an article for the GTD blog.

    The recognition that I received from this and some other high-profile exposure led to the very fulfilling work that I’m doing today!

    Oh, what a story! Now that you mention the Holistic Productivity approach that you developed, could you tell us what it is about?

    Holistic Productivity acknowledges that we humans are multi-faceted by nature and that a positive shift in one area of life typically results in a positive shift in other areas of life. Additionally, the area that seems to need the most attention is not necessarily the best area to focus on. For example, if you were struggling to be more productive at work, the tendency would be to focus more time and attention on work. But, a much more powerful shift may be possible by focusing on another area of life (e.g. improving health and getting more sleep at night).

    That is very true! You also offer people the best available options in relation to the best technologies. What are those options that you recommend?

    Before recommending specific technologies, it’s important to note that there’s often a strong temptation to dive into using technology without a clear sense of purpose or direction. I strongly emphasize productivity practices that are essentially core life skills. They would have been useful life skills to have 100 years ago and will be equally relevant 100 years from now.

    In terms of technology, I’m (not surprisingly) a big fan of OmniFocus. This is an app that I’ve been using since 2010 that helps me manage my commitment level and supports me in determining what to focus my attention on next.

    A calendar is also a core element of any productivity system. I’m particularly fond of Fantastical. I have a fairly complex schedule to keep track of and appreciate the thoughtful design of this app and the clarity and convenience that it brings.

    Email can consume a lot of time and energy. I’ve tried a lot of third-party email apps, but keep coming back to Apple’s Mail app. I’m a long-time Mailbutler user and appreciate the way that Mailbutler enhances Mail. It feels like a very natural extension to the functionality that Apple provides.

    On the collaborative side of things, all of our internal projects are managed using Asana. I’ve been using Asana for many years and find that it’s a great way to keep teams on the same page and to track progress on projects. Much of my internal communication happens through Asana, which takes a lot of load off of email.

    I could go on for pages if you’d like to hear about some other apps.

    Thank you for sharing these options. Could you tell us what are those productivity practices you emphasize?

    GTD and my own Holistic Productivity approach are the two that I tend to emphasize most. I’m also a big fan of James Clear’s work. I’ve been reading his blog for years and his book Atomic Habits is stellar.

    I’m very much a student of productivity and enjoy learning about different perspectives on this topic and how they contribute to a practice that can be honed over time.

    And is there anything almost all your clients do wrong in terms of technology and productivity? What is it and how can they improve?

    I tend not to phrase practices as right or wrong. Instead, I think it’s more useful to look at which daily activities contribute to goals and aspirations, and which take people down a less productive path.

    When working with clients for the first time, I typically guide them in creating a mind map of their “Areas of Focus” (in GTD terms), typically using MindNode, another one of my favorite apps. Once they have a sense of what they’re responsible for and what’s important in their life and work they’re much better equipped to make productive use of technology.

    Beyond that, email and meetings tend to take much more time than they need to.

    I emphasize the value in reducing the number of incoming emails (e.g. by unsubscribing from lists and using an app/service like Asana to reduce the dependency on email). This is another area where Mailbutler shines. It adds features to Mail that make my time spent in email more efficient and accurate, which ultimately leads to spending less time on email.

    On the meeting front, I encourage people to keep meetings as short as possible (many one-hour meetings could easily be accomplished in 30 minutes or less) and to have a clear intention for meetings and, equally importantly, a clear outcome. Generally speaking, I recommend keeping meetings to 3-5 people. If they get any larger than that they tend to get needlessly long or turn into presentations.

    One more thing to add. It’s important to minimize notifications. My friend, David Sparks compares a notification to a tap on the shoulder. How can you expect to get any real work done if you’re being tapped on the shoulder every minute or two? Notifications, when not used appropriately, make it difficult to enter into a focused state and ultimately diminish productivity.

    Very useful tips! And how has Mailbutler helped you to improve your productivity?

    There are a few features that are real gems for me.

    I’ve really come to appreciate the Undo Send feature (now offered as a standalone plugin rather than as a part of Mailbutler's core feature set). I give myself ten seconds to cancel sending, which gives me enough of a buffer to realize something that I forgot to include (e.g. perhaps I forgot to cc someone). It’s much easier, both for me and the recipient(s), to cancel the send and make the change/correction than to send a follow-up email.

    I also find it very helpful to schedule emails. I typically only respond to emails during working hours, but sometimes spend a bit of time in the evening or weekend to queue up responses. I also sometimes schedule emails for a time that works well for the recipient (e.g. a day after they return from vacation) and use the schedule feature to queue up reminders for upcoming events.

    Mailbutler has many other great features and I appreciate how well Mailbutler is integrated into Mail. The Mailbutler features feel like they’re an integral part of the Mail app.

    I am glad that you enjoy Mailbutler that way. It has been a great pleasure to talk to you today, thank you so much! I wish you all the best, Tim!


    Have you already checked out our interview with Fabien Guerin? In our interview "Fishing The Perfect Talents For Your Business" the founder of Talent Fishers chats with us about the most important HR questions every company should consider.

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