This post is part of a 6 article series about productivity.
If you’re confused right now about reading this in the blog of a VFX artist, I’d recommend that you start from the introduction. Otherwise, here’s all the articles in order, in case you’d like to jump to any specific part once they’re all available. I hope you enjoy!
In the previous part I talked about the digital apps that are the most central to my personal productivity ecosystem (as of the date of writing this article!!)… my Weapons of Choice for taking notes and managing tasks, or ToDos. That’s the section where most of the heavy-lifting happens, so it came out pretty detailed.
However, there’s another suite of tools that are a core part of my personal “operating system” and are equally important, while falling outside the notes and tasks: those for time scheduling, automations, or just peace of mind.
Let’s dive into my favourites!
Why I use it:
I feel Google Calendar is a fantastic option for managing multiple calendars, and the iPhone app is able to show me the company’s calendar, my personal ones and even the university calendar (which is based on Microsoft Outlook) in the same view, with different colours, and seamlessly create and modify events for all of them.
It’s probably not an app for everyone, as people with teams that manage their times or with clients that can chip in and schedule meetings at any time might benefit from alternative calendars with more automations.
However, as you see I’m generally in control of my own schedule and normally don’t allow for many external inputs outside the designated time slots, so Google Cal just works fine for me.
How I use it:
My main work’s calendar tends to take priority over everything else (except health and family), so I organise my day around that one.
I use Google Calendar on my internet browser to see my work meetings and events, and on the iPhone app I also have it show my personal calendars overlapping. Won’t cover too much about this.
A few extras related to the calendar which are worth mentioning:
- Meet: If you use Meet for video conferencing, then Google Calendar will be your best ally, as they’re as integrated as they can be and new calendar events will also create a corresponding Meet conference.
- Cron: It’s an app that integrates with your Google Calendar and has some cool features. It’s been acquired by Notion and is currently free to use. I don’t use it much as of today, but there’s two points specifically that I’m finding really useful: the iPhone widgets, and the Notion integration (in case you want a new meeting to also correspond to a new Notion database page).
- No-code automation: There’s some platforms that let you automate workflows between apps without needing to code (such as Zapier or Make), and they can be useful for any tasks you find yourself manually repeating many times. The main use I currently make of these ones is to link Notion databases to the creation of events on my calendar, and there’s so much more you can do with them. Although for my specific calendar use case, I have the feeling that the native Notion automations will go in that direction soon, as they acquired automate.io last year (was an alternative to Zapier) and since then Notion is heavily pushing in the automation area.
Although I manage my events in Google Calendar, I still hold a very special place for my Apple Calendar app. It’s where I set up all my time blocking. I’ve tried specialised apps for that and nothing beats how I enjoy the smooth workflow between Apple Calendar and Things.
Why I use it:
Whilst being very simple by design, Apple Calendar is another pleasant-experience-machine like Apple apps generally try to be. If you’re already in their ecosystem and just need something simple, it’s a no-brainer… free and already installed on your devices.
How I use it:
In the Apple Calendar, I don’t want to see all my meetings. I just want some aesthetic colored blocks to tell me what I’ve decided to do at each part of the day. Here’s how I achieve it:
- My iCloud account is added to the Apple Calendar. And within this account, I created different calendars, each with a different color and each corresponding to a distinct area of my life. There’s one for my main job, for my personal projects, for university, for health, and social events, etc. These are the calendars I use for time blocking and nothing else. So, they’re not actual events for me, but just a nice assortment of coloured boxes.
- I have my work calendars (the same ones I manage with Google Calendar) also added, so that while planning the day I can quickly toggle their visibility on anytime I need, and check when exactly my meetings for the day are. This informs the time blocks I create in my iCloud calendars, and then I can toggle their visibility off again to just see my time blocks.
There’s one neat trick I learned from a YouTuber that is the final piece of the time blocking puzzle.
When planning my day, I’ll have a split screen of Things and Apple Calendar, and it goes as follows:
- I start by checking my work meetings and set a “Communication” time block on my corresponding iCloud calendar encompassing them.
- Then I look at my tasks for the day in Things and setup time blocks as appropriate.
- Any specific tasks on Things that require long focused work, I just drag it over the Apple Calendar, and it’ll create a time box with the same name!! This is super cool. And what’s even cooler is that Things will then, in turn, show you the time blocks from your Apple Calendar, with the same colours, at the top.
Here’s a screenshot of my actual process, where you can see all I just mentioned:
There’s many apps for time blocking, and I don’t have much experience with these as Apple Calendar proves just enough for my needs, but if you want to explore the terrain you might want to take a look at apps like Ticktick, Clockwise, Hourstack or Fantastical. Or even Todoist, as an all-in-one task manager and time blocker.
There’s many little apps that can help you be more productive by 0.1% each, but Snagit also has a special place in my list so I have to mention it.
It’s basically an app (Windows and Mac) that lets you take screenshots and annotate over them, or do quick screen recordings with your voice.
The way this helps me the most is the following: Any thing I need to explain to another person and I can avoid having to schedule a meeting to show it, I’ll try to document it using Snagit instead, and send annotated pics or a quick video where I go over the process with voice. This has some great added benefits:
- We avoid the time and energy cost of organising a meeting. Talking about it, finding a good day/time, then having the time blocked for that meeting and context-switching cost of going in and out of it.
- That person can go back to my pics or video anytime later so they won’t need to make annotations.
- If other people are interested in the same info at any time, they’ll have my express tutorial available so no one will need to explain it again!
When a meeting is more appropriate, though (or unavoidable), I’ll usually try to record it. So if there’s any information that can later be useful to anyone else, then I can simply make a quick edit of the relevant part of the meeting and then make it available to the team.
File Management Tools
This is a huge topic on its own, but since I’m talking about my tools for productivity, the tools I use for managing and storing digital files can’t be overlooked. So I’ll briefly go over the tools and services I use to store all my personal files.
- Synology NAS: Throughout my life, I’ve accumulated a large collection of photos, videos, programs, archived projects, etc., and I was losing track of where I had each thing, with a pile of hard drives bought in different years, some holding duplicate information of each other, or worse, some variation of the same information… and I was losing my mind. So this year, I decided to get a centralised place for all my information. After much research, I opted for a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage), specifically the DiskStation® DS923+, and although it was expensive at first, it’s given me much peace of mind and unexpected side benefits. I won’t go into more detail, but all I’ll say is that I highly recommend this YouTube channel, SpaceRex, if you want to quickly learn about this topic and Synology NAS in particular.
- External SSDs and HDDs: I still keep the SSDs and HDDs around as an additional backup of all my old information. It never hurts. But I’m not using them anymore!
- Macbook SSD: I made sure to buy the Macbook with 1TB storage space, as having all the files corresponding to my active projects* locally on the Mac is very important to me. That way I have a blazing fast access to them while working, which is even more important considering I mostly work with heavy image files, 3D scenes or videos.
Note*: You might know I work on film visual effects, but I’m not talking about confidential project material here — all of that is only securely stored in the studio’s servers. However there’s many things on which I work that need a different level of security: preproduction files that are available online, my courses, tools, Blackmagic videos, etc. For all that, using my Macbook’s SSD directly is great.
- iCloud: I use iCloud storage for several reasons. As I’m all in on Apple, the first one is to store my photos, Bear notes, emails, and the files I want to have always accessible.
However, there’s another big thing I use it for: having the top-tier iCloud storage (which gives 2TB cloud space), I store all my active projects in the cloud as well. That way, if I lose or break my Macbook, I’ll be able to quickly sync everything to a new one. It’s an extra layer of security, and a convenient way to be able to access all that info at any time or location, from the phone too.
My system for working with active files:
Here’s the last piece of the puzzle, which makes my daily work super easy: I have a NAS folder called “Active”, and I have it linked via Synology Drive to my MacBook’s Desktop!
So… how does this work?
Well, all I have to do is work in folders on my Desktop, and without thinking or doing anything else, they will be backed up to my NAS (2-way sync) as soon as I’m on my home network, which is usually the case. AND they’ll be backed up to the cloud too, via iCloud.
I find this extremely convenient: just by working in one place, it makes a local copy and a cloud copy of the same files. And if I delete something important by mistake… well, I have Time Machine of the Mac set up to my NAS, so it’ll let me go back in time.
Additionally, the Active folder in the NAS has an amazing Synology feature active, which is called Snapshot Replication, and that will also let you go back in time, even for some cases of hacking where someone tries to encrypt your files.
With this I feel secure enough for backups of my files, while all is pretty automated. Not an expert at all (and please don’t hack me 🥺) but I hope this helps.
iOS 15 introduced Focus, which lets your switch your device into specific configurations that only show you certain apps, block certain notifications (or all) and only allow calls and messages from specific people.
I use this pretty drastically as well, and I have a focus mode that is on all day by default, which only allows calls and messages from very specific people to notify me. And for the rest, all notifications off, period.
I don’t want any external inputs adding noise while my attention is elsewhere (remember we’re single core processors), so I’m really precious about any immediate requests for my attention. I won’t take 90% of calls, as they’re basically muted. If they’re urgent or they’re from family (or people trained to know they shouldn’t call me for non-urgent-and-important things) they will sound, thanks of my filtered list on my focus mode. If they sound and they’re not urgent and important, I will probably get angry and this might indirectly serve as an improvement to the future functioning of the system 😄.
I use the free version of Raycast and it has all of the features I need. It becomes your portal to opening apps, integrating with different services, looking for files, adding text snippets and shortcuts to everything else, etc.
- Text Snippets let you define a short text that anytime you write (in any software!) it will automagically be turned into a longer text you also define. And it can even contain special codes such as the date. @@o will write my work email. @@p my personal email. ;tn will translate into today’s date in numbers. One other useful Snippet I have, for instance, is the meeting template: By writing ;mt it will add all the text to start a meeting, either in Bear or Notion: some headers (To discuss, Discussed, Action items), the date, and placeholders for text, items and attendees, as well as a simple tag #meetings.
- Addons: You can find many plugins available for free on the Raycast Store. They’ll let you perform a variety tasks from finding your IP, pushing to a git repo, all the way to getting dad jokes or chatting with ChatGPT.
Won’t talk more about this now but feel free to look at the tool’s website if you’d like to learn all it can do. Pretty crazy.
I have all sorts of hotkeys setup to make it quick to access my most-used apps and tasks.
While working on my Mac (on any app):
- Cmd+Space will show the Raycast Hotbox.
- Alt+Space will open a quick note in Bear.
- Ctrl+Space will create a new task in Things.
- Hyperkey + B will open Bear.
Also, if there’s any website you like and would like to always have at hand, web browsers such as Google Chrome have a feature to save it as a desktop shortcut. That will save it to your computer as if it were an app. And do you know what you can do with apps in Raycast? Exactly, add a hotkey! So I have hotkeys for Google Mail, ChatGPT and other websites I always want to keep quick to access. And they’ll even load up inside the correct Chrome user profile.
The Apple Shortcuts app is amazing, and the moment you start finding opportunities to use it you’ll enter a world of implementing little personal automations on your life that really add up. Here’s some of the shortcuts I use the most:
- New events: For certain types of events that happen recurrently in my life, such as reviews with my students, a tennis match, or an appointment, I have specific shortcuts created. I’ll click on the “add student review” icon on my iPhone main screen, then it’ll show a little calendar for me to select the date/time (defaults to “tomorrow at 5pm”), and just by clicking OK it’ll create the event on the appropriate calendar and create another event in the work calendar showing “Busy”. This way, each shortcut knows what calendar to write to, how to name the event, the duration, etc. So your input is minimal, and you cut out some seconds here and there… always good to reduce friction.
- Connect to the car: Here’s another quick example. Not so much productivity-related but good to give you ideas: when I hop on my car I just tap on this shortcut, and it connects to it via bluetooth, opens and plays Spotify, and opens my navigation app of choice.
- Location-based reminders! You can easily make an automation so that “when you arrive in this place, do this”. And “this” can be anything from opening an app to adding a task on Things and reminding you about it.
Can’t finish this section without discussing ChatGPT, as I’m using it every single day and for so many tasks.
I had only tried the free version of the LLM chat here and there, and thought I’d just do a 20 US$ investment in a one month subscription to the Plus version, considering it as if I had paid for a class. That way I would assess if I can integrate it into my life. And to my surprise, it literally took less than 2h for me to get way more value out of it than those 20$. It’s now saving me so much time I that I can only try my best to start describing how.
Funny enough, the main thing that it’s barely helping me with is writing — I enjoy forcing myself to explain things in my own words and have my text be a direct reflection of how I think. Even in English, while it isn’t my native language, I want to have a sense of ownership of how phrases are formed, and that’s not something I would want to lose, so at this point in time I’m writing without assistance – while redacting an email, article or anything else, I’ll only ask ChatGPT for help in case I’m stuck with some super simple thing I should know, like synonyms, translations or meaning of a word.
What I'm using ChatGPT for:
There’s some other areas in which ChatGPT has become incredibly valuable for my work and productivity, and they greatly justify the Plus version pricing.
- Summarising YouTube videos: Many times I want to learn about a topic but don’t want to skim through 15 minutes of a YouTube video that seems to explain it. With ChatGPT and a plugin such as VoxScript, I can just give it the YouTube link to the video and ask it to make a summary for me, with some bullet points for the main takeaways.
- Context-aware translation: You can ask ChatGPT to be your personal translator, and give it any background it’ll need in order to be accurate with the type of text and tone you want to keep. Also if there’s any technical jargon, a specific dialect or anything else. Then once it knows what to do, you just give it a text and it’ll do some instant magic translation.
- Reordering data: When I have any sort of data on which I want to do some cleanup or modifications, ChatGPT is pretty good at dealing with it. Even for cleaning up, explaining or reformatting code! And with image recognition, now data can even be a pencil draft on a piece of paper. Pretty crazy.
- Advice on finances, marketing, productivity, etc: “Please act like an expert in X”. Done, you just unlocked a free chat session with a consultant.
- Help choosing a product to purchase: It’s surprisingly good at understanding the market landscape for many products (at least in film and technology, where my interest basically lies), and it’s helped me make informed decisions about which lens would be more useful for me to get, which light, and so on. Especially powerful when it knows about your context (described below).
- Explaining literally any concept or fact you don’t know about: Can you explain this molecule? This scientific discovery? This war? This word? Ah, didn’t quite get it. Can you please explain it in an easier way? Ok now I get it, thanks.
- Help remembering how to perform any action inside any software: I’ll ask it for help almost every day, for tasks I don’t remember how to do with softwares I don’t use that much. How to create a cloth simulation in Blender, how to transcode a video using ffmpeg, etc.
- 🔥 Explaining info inside an image: Advanced image recognition and understanding is probably the most mind-blowing to me, out of all ChatGPT’s features. I’ll upload a jpg thumbnail and ask it for feedback on the layout and colours (acting like a YouTube thumbnail expert of course), a plate full of beans and ask it how many beans it estimates there are in the plate, any hand-written notes for a proper formatting, or any text in a weird language for a summary or translation.
For all this, you can also make sure that ChatGPT starts every conversation already knowing your context (some info about you) as well as how you expect it to answer.
This seems like a minor detail but it’s proving huge for me! Because by knowing my name, location, professional background, interests, hobbies and goals, it’s suddenly able to reply to any single question of mine while making unexpected connections to some points I would’ve never thought would be relevant.
For instance, asking it for recommendations on which rig to purchase for my camera, it makes the recommendation based on my interest for clean and functional things. Or when asking it to translate something to Spanish, it knows it’s meant to be Spanish from Spain. Or… by knowing what my website url is, it can go ahead and look in there for more info when it needs it.
💡 Tip for creating your custom instructions:
You can start by simply writing all the relevant info about yourself that comes to your mind in a regular chat.
Then, ask ChatGPT to tell you if it’d miss anything else in order to be able to help you better. And once it has all info, it can even help you summarise it in order to generate your perfect custom instructions!
Also, in case it’s useful, here’s my current text for “How would you like ChatGPT to respond?”:
For technical queries or direct requests, keep responses concise and to the point, omitting extraneous details unless explicitly asked for.
When discussing subjects like productivity, programming, or technical topics, approach them with expert-level insight, but calibrate your explanations to my existing level of expertise.
Feel free to express informed opinions; I prioritise the pursuit of truth over the avoidance of discomfort in conversations.
If I ask for a correction or translation over my text, please only provide the corrected or translated text and nothing else. And if it contains code tags such as html, please keep them intact.
Important: When I start a message with the letter t, I’ll just want the rest of the conversation to be a translation from English to Spanish or viceversa. And with c, I’ll want correction on grammar and spelling.
There’s even an option to create your own Custom GPTs, making it a huge time saver if you want to create versions of the chat for specific purposes. Your VFX assistant, your personal translator, and so on. This is the next level of custom instructions, and every time we’re getting closer to AI agents that will actually perform actions. Crazy times ahead.
There’s so many other things you can do with ChatGPT (including generating images, searching inside a pdf, looking for scientific references, or searching the internet), and covering them is not the goal of this article, so I’ll leave it to you to keep exploring as needed.
In brief ChatGPT Plus is a productivity powerhouse, so if you haven’t tried to use it or some similar alternative, I can’t encourage you enough to give it a try.
This article has been the collection of some of the main tools that I feel are crucial contributors to my current sense of productivity outside notes and tasks. There’s so many others and I hope to keep learning, while the possibilities available do nothing but improve how we increasingly delegate tasks to technology. This is something, as you can probably tell if you made it this far, that I find super rewarding: when you manage to integrate some little new automation into the digital portion of your brain.
In the next and final part of the series, I’ll be going over the main sources of inspiration that have shaped my thoughts around productivity, and that’ll conclude my little trip around the topic.
If you’d like to know when the other parts are up, read some random thoughts or stay updated on my posts, tools or courses, you can join my (still-upcoming) newsletter. I won’t write often, but when I do I’ll make sure it is condensed and interesting. You can join the newsletter here.