My Tools for Writing Workflow

Productivity help when working from home.

We’ve talked before on this column about both structuring writing time and working from home, and how both of those things can take trial and error to find what works for you. And I feel like both of those things are really at heightened relevance right now.

So I’m going to take a moment to talk about the tools I use that have massively improved my daily workflow—not because I think they’ll work for everybody, but because seeing the way someone else does things is often helpful in sparking ideas for things you can try for yourself. Right now, during our current global situation plus being in the middle of a book release month, I think I’d be drowning without this technological help.

Here are the tools I use daily that have immeasurably improved my workflow, process, concentration, and general productivity:

1. Sanebox

Oh my gosh. I don’t know how I managed anything before I started using Sanebox.

Sanebox is a trainable email organizer, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. For someone like me, who was both trying to use my email as an inefficient to-do list but was also hopeless at organizing that email, Sanebox has been a godsend.

You can use Sanebox all manner of different ways, depending on what helps you most. I use the “snooze” folders the most, and I lean on them very heavily. My snooze folders boomerang emails back to me in three days, a week, or a month, depending on what I have to do with them. Though I still run into a little trouble when I snooze an email too many times and run late with it, this system has drastically improved both my response timelines and my focus when I’m figuring out what in my inbox actually has to be addressed now.

I also love that my nonessential emails come in a daily digest. So if an email is from, say, my agent, it still comes straight to my inbox and is allowed to interrupt my workday, but all the newsletters and confirmation emails and bank statements and “Let us tell you what we’re doing about COVID-19” notices are now funneled together so I deal with them all at once, once a day. It’s saving me hours per week.

You can check out Sanebox here (referral link with a $25-off coupon). There are different pricing plans depending on the features you want, and there’s a 14-day free trial.

2. Workflowy

I’ve mentioned Workflowy on this newsletter before. It’s deceptively simple, but it’s cleaned up my brain—and life—so much.

Workflowy is, at its heart, a bulleted to-do list. It lacks many of the bells and whistles of many other to-do apps. But that’s what makes it work for me, because those always quickly got too overwhelming. Workflowy has just enough extra functionality over something like a Word document to make it really click into exactly what I need from it—it’s brilliantly seamless and smooth for everything I need it to do. And it’s simple enough that I can stay focused on the contents of the list.

My Workflowy setup took some experimentation, too—now I have it divided roughly by priority, with a list of large deadlines, a list of small deadlines hashtagged by due date and week, and a few other lists for items of various priority that I want to keep track of. Then I have my daily to-do list, which I keep to a very limited number of items and ignore everything else. Basically, Workflowy works to hack my brain.

If you’d like to try it, you can sign up for free here (referral link with 250 free bullet points). The free version is totally functional; it just gives you a limited number of 100 bullet points per month—if you upgrade to Pro, you get unlimited bullet points and a few other features.

But the real thing to take away here, I think, is that if your current to-do system isn’t working for you, keep trying other things, and try to keep edging toward the pieces of things you know do work for you. It took me an unbelievable amount of crashing and burning on other to-do list apps—and declaring amnesty far too many times on graveyards of undone aspirations—for me to figure out the system that fits with my brain. If you’re struggling to make an app work for you, it might not be because you’re doing anything wrong or aren’t organized enough! It could very easily just be the wrong app for you.

3. Internet blockers

There are a whole variety of website blockers out there so we can shut ourselves off from the most time-sucking websites. I used to use StayFocused, which is a very popular blocker that is quite draconian in not letting you through once you set the rules. Unfortunately it started playing badly with my version of Chrome and blocking sites I hadn’t told it to, and I had to uninstall it, but it worked very well for me for a while.

For now, I’ve switched to Mindful Browsing, which is very non-draconian and allows you to click through. It might be a little too gentle for my weak willpower, but it does at least make me more mindful of my internet use, so I’m not just clicking without thinking about it.

But there are a plethora of website blockers out there, so you can try a few out to see which ones might help you shut down the distractions effectively.

4. A second computer

Speaking of distractions, one of the best pieces of my current workflow right now is one I feel guiltily decadent about: having two computers. I usually wait until my old computer is dead and decaying before I buy a new one, but this time I was lucky enough to have a friend gift me a new computer while my old one was still managing to chug along.

Now I’ve made my old computer my “personal” computer and the new one my “work” computer. Which means I can do stuff like block or completely uninstall distracting programs on my work computer. For instance, I recently nuked Slack on that computer, and I have a lot of websites blocked that are perfectly allowable on my personal computer. I keep the work computer in my office most of the time, and it helps divide out my work life much more clearly in my work-from-home flow, especially since I don’t work set hours.

My personal computer is quite a few years old at this point and is slooooowly dying in bits—but the dual computers has improved my workflow so much that I hate to think what’ll happen when it finally gives up the ghost. It’s so helpful to my work division that I might break down and see if I can get a super cheap machine to replace it.

5. Dropbox

Both my computers are synced to a paid Dropbox account where all my important files live, so accessing anything from anywhere is seamless. Dropbox also functions as my backup system. If I had to set up a new computer at this point, it would take me five minutes to sync up to my Dropbox and have all my files at my fingertips.

Losing data is one of my worst nightmares. I draft in Google Docs, but once I’ve switched to Word documents with my publisher, I feel a lot better knowing they’re all in the cloud.

There are, of course, lots of ways to do something like this, just as there are for any of the other pieces of this newsletter! The point is, finding the things that make your setup smooth for you can help improve work life astronomically. Also, speaking as an extremely frugal person who hates to buy something nice for myself unless it’s totally necessary and I’ve justified it six ways from tomorrow—I’ve found it to be massively worth it to pay for certain apps (like Sanebox) that improve my quality of life and decrease my stress in such drastic ways. And I didn’t find what would do that for me until I started poking around and testing things out to solve the pieces of my workflow that were overwhelming me.

To sum up: If you have a rough time with any parts of your workflow, there might be an app for that. Experiment until you find the ones that help you live your best—or at least, less stressful—life.