Joshua Zerkel knows how to get things done. As director of global customer education and community at Evernote, Zerkel is one of world's first certified professional organizers. He has spent more than 13 years helping employees and businesses use the latest technology to enhance workflow and boost productivity.
Zerkel began his career at Evernote, an app that allows you to capture, organize and share notes from anywhere, in 2011 as the company's productivity ambassador. Since then, Zerkel's role has grown. Today, Zerkel sets the global strategy and positioning of Evernote's external partner-oriented programs through directing targeted programs. In addition to his role with Evernote, Zerkel is the founder of Custom Living Solutions, which creates productivity and organizing systems and strategies for clients in large and small offices to help employees increase focus, reduce stress and accomplish more of their priorities.
We recently had the chance to ask Zerkel a number of questions on productivity and how to boost it.
Q. How do you know if you're being as productive as you can be?
A. For most people, it starts with a feeling of being overwhelmed. If you ever say to yourself, "I'm not in control of my time/projects/email/etc.," then you’re not being as productive as you can be. The good news is that you can build habits to improve your productivity. To get started, you need to identify the thing that's driving you the most crazy, or an area of your life or work where you know you're unproductive.
For most people, if they sit and reflect, they can figure at least one thing they could be doing more efficiently. That one thing – or a portion of it – is where to start making small, incremental changes. Starting small will help you gain momentum. Once you make small changes, you eventually make the larger changes that feel more dramatic. Ultimately, the difference is feeling empowered over your work. We don't think enough about how being productive makes us feel more empowered.
Q. Why do you think being productive is such a difficult hurdle for many professionals to tackle?
A. Productivity is the type of thing that we're somehow expected to know but are never really taught how to do. Generally speaking, each person's challenges are different, but many of them stem from a lack of centralization. For example, finding files and retrieving them is a problem for many professionals and results in tons of wasted time each day.
That's why it's so important to centralize your files and other forms of information in one place. For instance, Evernote helps you collect all types of content, from clipping web pages, to entering text, to dragging in a spreadsheet. From that one spot, you can easily continue working on information at any time and in any place, which streamlines your work and rids yourself of lost articles, ideas, to-do lists and information.
Q. Is technology helping or hurting productivity?
A. Although technology sometimes causes "information overload" and feelings of being overwhelmed, it can also help us become more productive. The technology at our disposal is a tool that's meant to help support our work, not overwhelm us. If used correctly, technology can act as an extension of your own brain and organize your thoughts and work for easy access later on.
Technologies that organize and collect information, giving people speedy access to everything they need on any device, dramatically increase efficiency, resulting in better time utilization. For example, using Evernote, I can start working on a project draft at my desk and use my otherwise dead time during my train commute to continue adding ideas to my draft in Evernote on my phone. Ideas that may have otherwise been lost are now captured – meaning I don't have to wrack my brain trying to remember those details later.
Q. Why do you think so many people are turning to digital tools to maximize their day?
A. Technology continues to evolve and become more integral in our lives, both at home and at work. They can both be shiny new toys as well as tools to help us do our work more effectively. I'm a big believer in using any tools at your disposal to make your work more effective and enjoyable and, for many knowledge workers, having the right tech can definitely help.
As anyone who has ever lost a paper notebook knows, it's crucial to be able to access your notes and project information no matter where you are or what device you're using, and digital tools like Evernote make that easy and seamless.
Q. What digital tools, besides Evernote, of course, do you recommend to boost productivity?
A. For many people, removing audio distractions is crucial. When I need to find focus, I like to use noise-canceling headphones so I can concentrate better. Evernote provides headphones for any employees who want them.
I sometimes use soundscapes to help me concentrate, like "white noise" apps such as Noisli, or specially designed, lyric-free music tools like Focus@Will and Brain.fm. In terms of actual productivity tools, Todoist is a great task management app that integrates with Evernote, bridging the gap between the knowledge you capture and save and the tasks you need to manage.
Q. Besides digital tools, what steps can you take to make the most of your day?
A. Start the day with a review of your biggest priorities, so you know what you have to focus on. Sit down in the morning and write out the key things you need to achieve. Doing this before you get started on anything will help you get a clear sense of what needs to get done and reduces the distractions.
Also, arrange your workspace so that it is distraction-free. Everyone has their own approach to organization, but if you are going to be focused on a project that requires deep thought, you should clear your area of visual distraction. Clear that pile of papers on your desk and close those extra tabs on your computer browser.
Q. What is the best way to help those who work for you improve their productivity?
A. Model good behavior for them – show them productivity in action. For instance, having a central hub to share team documents and knowledge works really well. When I'm working on ideas with my team, we always start in Evernote, then sometimes use Google Docs for various things, using the Evernote integration.
I also recommend creating a team checklist that lets you measure your collective progress over time. If I'm onboarding a new teammate, I'll turn that onboarding process into a checklist that shows what I need to do, as well as what I need and expect from them, and then we can both check things off as we go.
Q. How do you use Evernote most effectively? Any tips or tricks to share?
A. I always tell people to find ways to get information into Evernote as quickly as possible. The mobile app has so many tools to help, whether you're scanning a business card, taking a picture of a whiteboard or even recording a quick voice note. Once your content is in Evernote, find an organizational system that works for you. Everyone has their own way of organizing their notes, so be as organized as you want to be, whether that means tagging everything with specific terms or just using Evernote’s search functionality to find what you need.
Another one of my favorite features is Evernote's Web Clipper. This is a great timesaver when you are doing deep work. If you need to research for a particular project, the Web Clipper can easily pull in reference information that will help you move your work forward. My favorite pro tip is to use shortcuts as links to your most important items, like to-do lists and resources you need to get your current projects done. Since your shortcuts sync across your devices, all of your key information is one click away.