Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Seven productivity tools and resources I recommend

This November I am speaking at the AVSM annual conference where I have volunteered to run a workshop on time management and productivity for Volunteer Managers. It’s a theme I’ve wanted to train on for a while and the AVSM conference gives me a chance to finally develop and trial a workshop which I intend to add to my list of available training topics.

Coincidentally American colleague Liza Dyer and I have been discussing productivity recently via a Slack group for leaders and managers of volunteers. That led me to this brilliant video on TED where Yves Morieux draws some great parallels between 4x400m relay racing and the culture organisations create around productivity (it’s about 17mins long but well worth your time to watch in full).

My interest in productivity came as a result of starting up Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd five years ago. I realised that I would need to adapt my work practices as I was now running my own business rather than working in a large team. No longer did I have IT or Communications or Finance support, it was all my job now. I was also becoming frustrated with suggested time management practices like blocking your diary out to work on projects. Such approaches didn’t seem to reflect the variable and fast paced nature of changing requirements and schedules, leading to time being wasted re-scheduling rather than doing work.

So for this blog I thought I’d outline seven of the resources and tools I really rate (and use!) to aid me with my own productivity. There are others of course - I only briefly mention my calendar tool of choice and I don’t mention at all some key resources like Evernote. This is because I have chosen to focus on the resources and tools that I think have made or the biggest positive difference to the way I work (or have the potential too).

NB - Please note that a Mac, iPhone and iPad user I therefore use these tools on those platforms and devices.

How To Be a Productivity Ninja Written by Graham Allcott, a former colleague when he was CEO of Student Volunteering England, this excellent and readable book gives sound theory and very practical advice on becoming more productive. Sharing many similarities with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, yet presented in a more accessible format, Graham advocates steps like adopting a ‘second brain’ to store all those tasks we try and keep in our heads. He also challenges our tendencies to procrastination and distraction. I particularly found helpful the steps to identify when my attention levels were highest during a day and then schedule the most complex work accordingly.

Things This is my ‘second brain’ system. Almost every task I have to do, personally or professionally, goes into Things. Tasks are sorted by project and can be allocated to specifics dates but, as per the GTD and Productivity Ninja approaches, this isn’t encouraged. Why? Because if you schedule that task for Monday then something comes up on Monday which takes priority then you have to spend (waste) time re-scheduling the task. Instead Things allows me to have a due date and then specify how many days in advance of that I want to be reminded the task needs to be done. I can even tag tasks for specfic contexts such as an errand to run or something I have to do in the office or when online or at my computer etc.. Then, every morning, I have a list of tasks to choose from which I can allocate to that day, defer to decide upon later depending on what else comes across my desk, my attention and energy levels etc.. With Things synchronising seamlessly between all my devices and having powerful search and sorting features this is an essential productivity tool for me.

Due One feature Things doesn’t support is the need for some tasks to be allocated to particular times, for example a reminder that it’s my job to pick the kids up from school today. That’s where Due comes in. I can quickly and easily schedule a task for a specific date and time, create recurring tasks and defer items if I have to postpone them. Critically Due never lets me forget that task needs doing. Whereas other reminder systems just remind me once at the set time, Due keeps reminding me over and over again (at a frequency I can specify) until I do the task. Sync isn’t quite as seamless as Things but it works fine and between the two systems I always have a list of what needs doing.

Airmail 3 As a Mac user I try and avoid Microsoft software and have not once missed using Outlook in the last five years. Instead I have relied on the standard Mac and iOs mail software. Until recently, when I switched to Airmail 3, a product that’s all about efficiency and getting that inbox to zero. Processing email is now a breeze. I can far more easily move messages between all my different accounts and folders, allocate messages to be actioned later or (in the case of newsletters and the like) to be read later. If something comes in that needs a task creating or requires a diary entry then with just a couple of clicks I can add that to Things or Fantastical (my calendar app of choice largely down to it’s natural text features and time zone management). Airmail 3 is also super fast to set up and syncs beautifully between all my devices.

Tyme 2 This is a new one for me. As a freelancer I sometimes need to record the time I spend on projects and bill this to clients. As someone keen on productivity I also want the ability to keep track of the time I spend on tasks and projects. Am I spending too much time processing email? What is the balance of my time between marketing and client delivery work? That kind of thing. My old time-tracking system no longer syncs between devices so I opted for Tyme 2 as a replacement. It’s still early days but it’s working well so far, although it did need some time to set up at first, as many of these systems do, and wasn’t instantly intuitive. I am quickly and easily recording the time I spend on different work tasks and projects and starting to gain insights into my working patterns and habits. Time will tell how truly effective this tool will be - I will be using it for my first ‘on the clock’ client next month - but early signs are very promising.

Pocket I’ve had Pocket for ages now and I love it. I couldn’t be without it. If you aren’t familiar with Pocket, it’s a tool to collect and store all those articles you want to read, sort (tag) them into categories and then read offline at a later date and time. Anything I come across that I think would be worth reading for work or for personal interests gets ‘clipped’ from my web browser into Pocket. Then when I’m on a train or just have a few minutes spare I can open Pocket on any of my devices and get reading. If I think it’s something worth sharing or keeping, I can quickly and easily share to social media and / or Evernote. I also love that once a year they send me an email saying how many words I’ve read in the last twelve months and what my favourite topics have been etc.. Best of all Pocket is entirely free and, whilst there is a paid for option, I have never felt like I’ve needed it.

Buffer If you post to social media, especially to multiple accounts (and in particular to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Google+) then you need Buffer in your life. I use the free version (paid options provide more in-depth analytics and access to other social networks) and Buffer enables me to quickly share articles and items of interest to my professional social networks without having to post separately on each site. I can even automatically schedule posts for each network to the times my followers are most likely to engage with my content, essential if (like me) you have followers and clients around the world and don’t fa cry being up in the middle of the night to post something in their local timezone. Buffer also produce a superb and very helpful blog packed with tips, ideas and through provoking posts about using social media and online marketing.
So there you have it, my top seven productivity tools and resources.

What are your top tools and resources for enhancing productivity? What could you not be without?

Also, to help shape my workshop, what issues would you love to see covered in training on productivity and time management for Volunteer Managers? I’d really value your input.
Over to you.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Are we youth obsessed?

In May the UK government published new draft policy directions for the Big Lottery Fund and opened a consultation[1] on their proposals.

Michael Birtwistle at NCVO has provided a good analysis of the proposals and what they mean that is worth spending a few minutes reading.

As Michael outlines, one of the draft priorities is, “engaging young people in volunteering and supporting youth sector infrastructure”. This is what I said in response to his article:

“Sigh. Why is engaging young people in volunteering a priority? Everybody is doing this. NCS has £1.2billion to do this. vinspired had £millions for this under Labour. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem encouraging young people to volunteer. But they are a small proportion of our population. What about the huge numbers of baby boomers? What about Generation X? Where is the funding to engage them more in giving time as volunteers? Perhaps the assumption is that they’ll give just like their parents did? In which case a brief read of the final report from the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing is worth a read. For once it would be nice to see a major funder or a high profile combine breaking away from our national youth obsession and realising that there are millions of others who do and could give time that would welcome more support.”

I make this point frequently when I speak on volunteering. Ever since the demise in 2003 of the failed Experience Corps initiative, little attention has been given and almost no funding provided on any significant scale to engage our huge baby boomer population in volunteering. Schemes like Volunteer Matters’ Retrired and Senior Volunteer Programme continue to do excellent work but the majority of effort and funding is directed at people under 30.

The aforementioned Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing issued it’s final report fifteen months ago and little seems to have happened since.

So, I want to ask, what do you think?

Have we become youth obsessed when it comes to volunteering in the UK?

What should we be doing to engage with a wider demographic of people in volunteering? What are you doing right now?

How should funding and support be directed best to help organisations engage baby boomers and Generation X in volunteering?

Over to you.


  1. The consultation closes on 12 August.  ↩

Monday, 20 June 2016

Influencer marketing and volunteer recruitment

I am a regular reader of the Buffer Blog. Produced by social media scheduling company Buffer, the blog regularly shares practical, inspiring content about social media, a key marketing tool in our 21st century world.

Social media is a topic I train and write on regularly. It’s a subject I find many people who lead and manage volunteers can be uncertain about or even afraid of. Yet, whilst it won’t completely replace more traditional ways to promote volunteering in our organisations, it is an increasingly important way to reach out to people, and not just those under the age of 30 - some of the biggest growth in social networks like Facebook is from those aged 50 and above.

So I want to share with you an excellent recent Buffer blog post by Ash Read on Influencer Marketing.

Ash starts the blog post by arguing that marketing is essentially about the spread of ideas. In volunteering terms this means we want to spread that idea that people should volunteer for a given cause or organisation. This is what Ash says [with some contextualising for volunteering from me]:

“Success in marketing often comes down to one simple concept: getting your ideas [that people should volunteer with you] to spread. Traditionally, mass-media adverting is the go-to way to spread ideas. Here’s how it works (in theory): you buy some ads, put those ads in front of your audience [potential volunteers], and that’s how your idea spreads. The problem with this approach is that we live in a time where choice is abundant and time is sparse. Consumers [potential volunteers] are spoiled for choice when it comes to what to spend their money [time in our context] on and have too little time to consume content and engage with adverts. What this means is that most advertising is just ignored.”

Just read that last line again.

Most advertising is ignored!

That means those recruitment posters and leaflets you lovingly crafted to. It means that swanky new TV or radio campaign your organisation has spent a small fortune on to get people to volunteer or donate money. They aren’t simply dismissed but ignored altogether.

So what do we do instead?

As Ash’s points out, we’re more likely to buy a product if it’s recommended by a friend than pushed at us by an advert. In volunteering parlance that’s word of mouth.

We’ve always known that word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of volunteer recruitment. Simply put, if I have a great volunteering experience then I want to tell others about that. So I share enthusiastically with friends and family and encourage them to get involved so they can enjoy the volunteering experience too.

Social media, as Erik Qualman puts it in his book Socialnomics, is word of mouth on digital steroids. Or, another way he puts it: word of mouth to world of mouth.

Think of it like this: when I share my great volunteering experience with friends and family, that includes posting about it on social media. My friends (all around the world!) see this. Some will like or react to it. Some will share it. Either way word spreads about how great volunteering with that organisation is without the organisation doing anything other than delivering a great experience and perhaps encouraging me to tell my friends.

Now you may be sceptical about the idea that anyone - especially a stranger who might happen across my social media post via a friend who shared it - would respond to my enthusiastic posting by enquiring to volunteer at the same organisation. But why not? As Ash points out in his article, “92% of consumers trust recommendations from other people—even if they don’t know them personally—over promotional content that comes directly from brands.”

Just think for a minute about when you’ve bought something online. You probably read a review online, for example from someone on Amazon or TripAdvisor who also bought that book or CD or booked that hotel or ate at that restaurant. Did their review sway you to go ahead with your purchase or not? The answer is probably yes. Did you personally know them? The answer is probably no. So if our online buying decisions are influenced by someone we don’t know why wouldn’t someone trust my enthusiastic review of volunteering and want to get involved themselves?

Back to Ash’s blog post - what then is influencer marketing? Simply put, it’s word of mouth but focused through someone who will be an influencer to that audience. So if you want to more young people to volunteer with your organisation you find someone who has influence within this group to share your volunteer recruitment message on social media. That doesn’t have to be a member of One Direction but someone who has influence within their peer group, for example another young person. As Ash puts it, “influencers act as a mutual friend connecting your brand with your target consumers”.

Ash’s post goes on to explain more about influencer marketing in his blog post which I encourage you to read and reflect on. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about this topic and how we can apply the concepts of influencer marketing to volunteer management.

Over to you.