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The 3 productivity apps that work for me

6 Feb
reinventionAs January begins, so bookshops and app stores alike throw self-help books and productivity apps at you like they are going out of fashion. All promise instant results, and a swift route to a new effective, productive you  – and a successful 2015. I won’t dwell too long on the many self-help books, which are largely a waste of time unless you believe in empty quotes and chakras. Oliver Burkeman is the man who can help you wade through, and pick out the nuggets – I heartily recommend his The Antidote and Help! (How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done), which are funny and insightful in equal measure.

As for the apps, well there are enough to-do list apps now to confuse even the most technophile of lifehackers. I used Remember The Milk for to-do lists for a while, but found that it was too divorced from everything else (although this may be down to my own lack of investigation) and didn’t work with what else I used, so I dropped it. Then I became an Evernote devotee (app no. 1) – I can’t speak highly enough about Evernote: I genuinely wish I was on commission, because I recommend it to everyone, including my team. It’s just extremely intuitive, reliable and easy to use, as well as on phone, tablet, desktop and laptop. I’ve set up an IFTTT to send useful docs + links from twitter straight to Evernote when I use a particular hashtag too, so it becomes a searchable receptacle of reading.

So I no longer have a notebook for day-to-day use, but capture everything on Evernote – and this is starting to change how I work with the organisation’s systems. I have shared notebooks with other team members for particular areas of work, and am trialling syncing notes straight to Salesforce accounts. The latter, if it was a bit smoother, could be great – I could be meeting a social enterprise member, or a new business lead, and sync the notes straight to their Salesforce account, providing a trail of activity that doesn’t require me to log into the Salesforce platform and replicate what I’ve just done….

There are decisions ahead, I think, about spreading this throughout the team and investing in the technology; we’ve already moved to cloud-based 365, and I can foresee more decentralisation / cloud-based sharing ahead. Already, I use Dropbox as much as I use the organisational shared drive (Dropbox is app number 2), and I can see the whole thing moving soon. I know there are other cloud-based server systems, but I haven’t found any that work as well as Dropbox for either group or individual work. Again – intuitive, reliable, easy to use and seamless on every device.

The 3rd app is a new one which is my Remember the Milk-replacement, the new to-do list app….and I’ve plumped for Wunderlist. Again, good syncing across platforms, simple interface, easy to upload tasks (by email or directly by app / desktop), easy to share lists, and easy to prioritise. Ultimately, I find I need a long list of to-dos (emptying the brain of everything I know needs doing), and a shorter list of prioritised to-dos (to keep focused on the important, not the urgent). Wunderlist makes this easy. But it also works with Evernote – to do lists haven’t really worked for me in Evernote (I tend to end up with actions at the end of different notes, and I can’t make Reminders work for me in a way that makes sense), but now I can just add a task box next to an action, tag the note with TaskClone (which syncs between the two apps via another IFTTT) and it appears in my Wunderlist to-do list.

The key for me is that apps like this work with the way I already work, so that it’s seamless and doesn’t involve inventing a whole new set of habits and behaviours. For me, that means across devices, integrating + syncing between them, but being relatively simple – notes, to-dos, access to files. And when I think back to writing notes in a book, drafting + re-drafting a to-do list (on paper, naturally) and saving files onto a USB for transport, I can almost feel the time being saved. My only area left now is email – I’ve resisted all the various email apps so far, although I’m looking hard at SaneBox

Would love to hear which apps work for you. What have I missed? Do they pass the simple, seamless, sensible test? Do they genuinely free up time, rather than absorb it in ‘productivity procrastination’? For now, I’m sticking with Evernote, Dropbox and Wunderlist and (hopefully) going to have a productive year.

Social enterprise listening…

2 Mar

listenLast week I was getting the rail miles in – Cardiff, Manchester, Exeter and Cambridge planning, discussing, representing and speaking about social enterprise. Apart from giving me an in-depth knowledge on the exciting topic of “which railway company’s wi-fi is worst?” and checking out which parts of the country are still underwater, it also meant I had the chance to listen to some podcasts I’ve been storing up for a while or which I haven’t got to on the commute. There’s a lot out there (they’ll let anyone have a go these days – see here). So here’s some recommendations from recent listens:

Peter Day‘s programmes are always worth listening to; one recent one on ‘disability in the workplace’ featured John Charles of social enterprise Catering2Order >> download here

– The magazine Monocle has always struck me as the paper equivalent of a Hoxton hipster with an asymmetric haircut, but it’s actually a decent read with interesting content. I recently discovered their Entrepreneurs podcast. Episode 73 (they are now on 124) was on social entrepreneurship, and featured the House of St Barnabas >> download here

– Analysis is always worth a listen, though requires a bit more concentration than some of the frothier radio out there. A recent episode that was more interesting than I thought it might be was ‘The Philosophy of Russell Brand’, looking at the philosophers and thinkers behind the Occupy movement and more >> download here

– While we’re still on Radio 4, the Bottom Line is still a winning format: 3 CEOs / leaders discussing a particular industry or area of business, hosted by Dragon’s Den / Today maestro Evan Davies. It remains an aspiration to get an episode renamed ‘The Triple Bottom Line’, but until that happens, I’ll have to enjoy episodes like the recent one on MBAs or something that I remain unmoved by and sceptical of, the ‘Sharing Economy’ >> download here


– I enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and I enjoy the podcast too – it’s still a bit superficial and I still occasionally find myself ranting at it, but it’s well-produced, takes different approaches to subjects, and gets me thinking. And that’ll do me. Recent episodes have looked the Pope dissing the free-market economy and a conversation about how to Fight Poverty with real evidence >> download here


– Social Good is a podcast from the Chronicle of Philanthropy which looks at social media for the social sector (broadly). It’s not bad, if completely US-focused, for a UK audience – still some good tips + nuggets of practical advice to take away in amongst the mutual congratulation. And occasional stand-out episodes like the recent one on big data >> download here

– Finally, of course, you have the ubiquitous TED talks. To be honest, these vary substantially in quality and level of insight, particularly with the rise of TedX. And I think there is something to recent critiques of boiling everything down to neat soundbites. Arguably you know something has reached peak hype when it gets a talk (for example…). But there’s some gold in them there hills too – recent highlights have included a talk on ‘how to make companies productive in an increasingly complex world‘ (ignore the fact that TED felt the need to add subtitles because the guy has a French accent speaking English!). You should also check out Michael Porter (on business / shared value) and Michael Sandel (on morals / markets) – Sandel wins, IMHO. But I’m a sucker for self-deprecation and unassuming big achievements, so here’s Paul Pholeros on, well, fixing homes to make people healthy:


Transparency and value

29 Sep

 lotsandlotsofworkI’ve neglected this blog (and its select band of followers / readers) for a few months – for which apologies; as I wrote a while back, when things start to get squeezed, it is the ‘nice-to-haves’ that go first, and this personal blog falls under that title.

So I thought I’d share a few bits of writing  elsewhere to fill the void that might be of interest:

– My Third Sector column on social investment ventured into the field of transparency this month, and why it’s important across the sector:

“August is traditionally the quiet month for news, but this can be an opportunity for charities and social enterprises: in the summer months it’s possible to get coverage for topics that might never happen when the political and football (and political football) seasons kick back into action. This summer, however, the sector has been in the media not at its own behest, but because of stories about executive pay and zero-hours contracts.

What struck me about the resulting conversations from this coverage was not so much the strength of views on different sides of the debates but that both sides were concerned with the internal operations of organisations, rather than the external outcomes or impact of their activities. This is something that Social Enterprise UK has always been interested in. We believe a social enterprise should be able to say “we are transparent about how we operate and the impact that we have”>> READ ON HERE


– In preparation for our Bristol event on Social Value, I wrote a piece in the Guardian about where we have got to in the 6 or 7 months since the Social Value Act became law:

“It has opened some new doors and prompted some new conversations – the act may not be as strong in its language or requirements as some might have hoped for, but its status as legislation has undoubtedly changed the nature of some dialogues and created entirely new ones. Again, not all of these have been about provider-commissioner conversations, but also about social enterprises advising and informing their peers, and those inside public bodies doing likewise. And we have heard plenty of examples at SEUK of frontline social sector organisations using the act as a means of opening (or renewing) conversations with key people inside public bodies” >> READ ON HERE


– Housing Associations play a key role in the regeneration of many of our communities, and some of the most innovative partnerships and practice can be found there. I wrote a bit about how housing associations and social enterprise could work together in Pioneers Post:

“What has become apparent during our increasing work with the housing sector in recent years is not only is there great potential in more joint working between social enterprises and housing associations, but also that there is a really significant alignment of values, missions and objectives – local community regeneration; job readiness and job creation; financial inclusion; environmental behaviour change; and much more besides. And yes, many housing associations consider themselves social enterprises themselves, particularly those with a close and established link to particular communities and geographical areas – pioneers like the Aspire Group in Staffordshire, Bromford Housing also in the Midlands, Shepherds Bush Housing Group in West London” >> READ ON HERE


– At Social Enterprise UK, I’ve also been working / heavily involved in a swathe of research reports + publications. Check out the following, starting with our own state of social enterprise survey report:

>> The People’s Business – SEUK’s own biennial state of the sector report

>> Spin Out, Step Up – a report on the finance and investment needs of the health and social care social enterprises that have spun-out in recent years

>> The Landmarc Difference – a total contribution / triple bottom line report for a private company working at the intersection of social, economic and environmental (done with our friends at CAN)

>> Breaking New Ground – an evaluation of Deloitte’s Social Innovation Pioneers programme, analysing its impact thus far, and recommendations for further improvement



Social enterprise and entrepreneurship links round-up July 2012

20 Jul

As ever, I’ve been struggling to read all the things I would like to….so here’s a snapshot of the various pieces, articles and publications that I’ve been bookmarking and finding of most interest in the last few months. Hopefully, they are of interest to you too…

– Fascinating article by John Lanchester (whose Whoops! book on the financial crisis is highly recommended) on how finance is ‘postmodern’ and the concept of value has become increasingly blancmange-like: Melting Into Air [via Dan G]

– Widely covered but important reading: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on poverty, employment and what the situation might be by 2020 – The Impact of Employment Changes on Poverty in 2020

– I’m always a sucker for anything interesting about China, having worked out there quite a bit in the field of social enterprise, and this is a decent round-up of recent + current activity: Pioneering social innovation in China

– Just an excellent one-page image of what non-profits should know about social media (pdf): Social Media Posting Strategy

– While we’re on the subject of social media, Beth Kanter is the go-to person on social media-meets-social enterprise + non-profits; so, for the geeky end of anyone reading, here’s her post on How to Get Insight from Data Visualisation which is significantly more interesting than the title makes it sound…

– Housing associations are commonly referred to as sleeping giants in the social enterprise world, but plenty of those giants have awakened and are doing some thought-through work in the space; see this article on Housing Associations and Social Investment for example

– Social investment is the most commonly-written about topic at the moment, and one area of interest is how charitable foundations think about utilising their endowment / investment policies to contribute to the growth; Dave Ainsworth from Third Sector magazine gives a good round-up on the subject here: Put the money where the mission is

– Impact investment and social investment require a different take on capital and markets; Panahpur’s video promo for their Return of Capital is a useful 5 minute introduction as to why this take on investment is growing; and has production values uncommon to the third sector to boot…worth a watch (and a read of the book)

– More practical in its focus and aim is the (rather hyperbolically-titled) The Ultimate Guide to Raising Finance for Social Enterprise which, rather prosaically, is a useful primer and introductory article on the subject. But useful nonetheless….

– Ashoka UK have a ‘Changemaker Toolbox‘ which is a list of organisations and websites (admittedly that sounds less exciting than Changemaker Toolbox); it’s a bit confused, with lots of overlap between sections and a little tricky to navigate by the headings, but it makes up for this in its sheer copiousness…

– And if that’s not enough reading for you, NCVO’s Karl Wilding has put together his traditional summer holiday reading list for us social sector types…see What’s on your summer holiday reading list? and add your own in the comments.


Focus: and the myth of multitasking

21 Oct

So I’m two and a half weeks into a new job, which is exciting: mostly because the organisation has lots of opportunities to have (more) impact, and has great, committed people to achieve that. Going back into a full-time job in an organisation has got me thinking about my approach / working methods, as well. I think freelancing helped improve my discipline (clarity on objectives, effective meetings, hit deadlines, invoice!), and I don’t want to lose that impetus and focus on delivery.

Such thoughts took me back to a recent visit (thanks to Liam Black and the Wavelength team) to the BBC, at which we heard from Ralph Rivera, who heads up all their online / digital work (Director of BBC Future Media, to be precise). There were plenty of nuggets from Ralph, but one I wrote down during the morning session was:

Focus on a few things / do them well (in the long-term) / get great at them / (kill the rest)

I hasten to add that those were my notes and not exactly Ralph’s words, and that the ‘kill the rest’ was very much tongue in cheek. But the point holds: the BBC could do any number of things in connection to digital, but that would mean distraction, a potential drop in quality, and scattered activity.

Someone else was pointing out to me that this is connected to the “myth of multitasking“; research increasingly shows that multitasking is not productive, that it just spreads activity across the surface of several things, rather than making substantive progress on one at a time. There is even some research that says that multitasking could actually be harmful to mental health, particularly where technology is concerned.

Which meant that this image below, via Kevin Jones, resonated strongly (comes from here). Now I just need to follow it, focus, do stuff well, and do it in the long-term…

Translated, recorded, reported: recent work

16 Jun

I’m in a constant state of “ok, so this freelancing seems to be going OK, but surely at some point it’s going to go quiet….” at the moment, but it’s been full-throttle the last few weeks. Here’s some recent links to some aspects of that work:

– I’m helping UnLtd with their Product Review, which is both inward-facing (can UnLtd add to, amend, improve its services?) and also externally-facing (what do social entrepreneurs need that isn’t currently being provided?). Here’s a write-up of an event that started to answer those questions on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network: Support for social entrepreneurs needs fresh ideas

– I worked with School for Social Entrepreneurs to edit and publish their new impact evaluation report by New Philanthropy Capital (a bit of work I’d commissioned / overseen while I was at SSE); you can check out the exec summary + full report via the SSE website. I’d particularly recommend checking out the additional case studies document, which I think is excellent

– POPse! the pop-up social enterprise think-tank I was a part of has ‘gone dark’, but we are working away on doing an overall publication of some sort; in the meantime, the 100 social enterprise truths I wrote as part of POPse! week continue to gradually make their way round the UK + overseas, featuring most recently in the Society Guardian daily, on the CSI Toronto blog (am a huge fan of what they do) and being translated into French by Simon at Hub Lausanne

– I helped out with the early stages of this introductory guide Social Enterprise Explained (pdf) from the Social Enterprise Coalition, which I think is a really good starting point for anyone.

– Last but by no means least, I was interviewed by the marvellous Nicola Jones at the Social Investment Business as part of their “An Interview With…” podcast series. Here it is:

Social franchising: the what, why, when and how

20 Apr

So one of the things I’ve been working on of late has been a series of pieces of work on social franchising for the Social Enterprise Coalition. I’ve been interested in this method of replication since running the School for Social Entrepreneurs franchise (and helping develop the central systems and processes), going on to design a learning programme for other organisations seeking to use a similar methodology, and directly advising frontline social enterprises.

You can read a couple of my previous pieces on the subject via the Writing section of this site, and recently on the SSE blog.

Today the Coalition launched the social franchising manual and made it available online, along with my audit of all the current research, tools and support available on the subject. You can download the manual, read it in chapters, and read the research in the social franchising section of their website.

I hope it proves a useful addition to the literature on the subject, but that it is primarily useful as a practical introduction; franchising is just one of a spectrum of replication options, and we need more case studies to add to those included in this guide: as ever, in this space, we learn best by doing. And we need more to be doing more of what they do at a greater scale. Whichever methodology and approach they choose.