Six great productivity tools

If you’re like me, doing your work in different locations and at many different times, you know it’s essential to be very organized.

In any given week, I’m likely to be working on a presentation at night at home, consulting with a student or colleague who is across the state or the Atlantic Ocean, developing materials with my grant team, drafting or polishing a scholarly article or review, doing research or attending a conference or event away from my home and workplace, or receiving students’ papers Friday at midnight and grading them during the weekend. And, among all this, I may write a blog post or catch up on news and recently released research.

There are just so many different projects and moving pieces and they’re done in so many different places.

You have your own mix of activities.

I’ve found I rely on six great web-based tools.

Four can be used from any computer and their basic versions are free. I’ve never had to pay a penny for these.

Two are for tablets. (In my case that’s the first ipad made. It doesn’t have a camera or a fancy screen, but it works for what I need.) They are inexpensive, but not free.

Here are the six great productivity tools I use the most:

1. Workflowy

Workflowy is a super way to keep everything organized, with the most basic form: the outline.

You start with big categories and nest subcategories within them.

Teaching is one of my big categories and the next level down includes the classes I’m currently teaching plus the independent study projects I’m overseeing. I can go into those and add notes, such as the reading list for a particular student’s independent study project.

If you use a mobile device, you can update your list off-line and it will then synch when connected.

You can sign up for an account at There are lots of videos to help with more complex tasks but, overall, it is quite intuitive.

2. Dropbox

Dropbox can hold so many things – study guides for exams, essay assignments, drafts of papers I’m writing, pdfs of published articles, even photos.

When I give a presentation, I can open the Powerpoint from my Dropbox.

While it’s easiest to use from a computer with the downloaded Dropbox software, you can also log in to the site from any computer and access your items.  And you can share folders with others to the extent you want. If you want to use this, sign up at

3. Google Drive

Another great way to store and work on documents from any site is with Google Drive.

One advantage over Dropbox is that while Dropbox works with other programs, such as Powerpoint or Word, Google Docs is self-contained. You don’t have to worry about using different word processing programs that may create conflicts. And the old versions of documents created with Google are automatically saved.  It’s also easy to share particular documents or folders.

A disadvantage is that, when it comes to writing, the word processing capabilities are very simple. I prefer using Word when I want to have particular formatting options.

But the ease of use is terrific. Moreover, once you’re set to use Google Docs, it’s easy to use other Google programs, such as their calendar or the photo sharing service, Picasa.

For my book Pathways to Polling, I did research in archives through the northeast. Rather than the slower and more expensive process of photocopying documents from the 1930s and 1949s, I took digital photos and then uploaded them to Picasa. These then became available to me wherever I logged in.

You need a free Google (gmail) account to use Google Drive.

4. Air Sketch

This is an ipad app that is wonderful for presentations, including teaching, if one has prepared a set of slides and saved them in pdf form.

What Airsketch allows you to do is to use a stylus to write on the slides on the ipad and have these notes projected onto the screen.

One slide might have a lot of numbers and, as you talk, you can circle some. Or you can write out an equation, showing how to solve a problem. Or you can ask a question and then write down different responses.  It’s quite flexible.

I typically use it for teaching. Unless you have a wireless projector, you have to have a laptop attached to the projector.  From my ipad, I open a slide for a lecture via my Dropbox app on my ipad, then use an arrow at the top right to open it in Air Sketch.  Then Air Sketch generates a web address (url). From a browser on a laptop, I put in the url and then what is on the ipad appears on the laptop screen, and so is projected for all to see.

Viola! After those steps, you can walk around with these slides, making it easy to interact with the students (or any other audience). Notes can be saved and emailed.

This is not a free app, but it works quite well. I’ve never had it crash on me and it is well worth the five or ten dollars that it cost.

5. Goodreader

Goodreader is one of many apps for reading and marking up pdfs. I use mine for teaching and research.

If I have an assignment for which students submit a draft and then revise before submitting a final draft, Goodreader is great.  Students send their assignments to me electronically. If they are not in pdf format, I save them to pdf in my Dropbox. Then I can open the file in Goodreader, write on it with my stylus or by typing, then save it back to the Dropbox and email it back. This enables one to keep multiple versions, so you can see the extent to which revisions have changed.

I’ve used it for everything from an undergraduate honors thesis that was around a hundred pages to one or two page submissions.

For my research projects or for reading documents related to committee work, I can read these and mark them up, but not have to carry around all that paper. Any of these documents can be printed out if desired.

I paid 99 cents for this app. What a deal!

6. Zotero

Speaking of research, managing sources can be a big pain. If you’re from a (ahem) certain generation, you remember writing sources on index cards, along with some notes.

My replacement, which I’ve used for twenty page papers and two hundred page books, is Zotero.

This is a web-based service that captures all the bibliographic information for an article, book, or report (among other things) and puts it in your own database. In most cases, you click on a symbol in your web browser and all the information goes, swoosh, right into the database.

Then, while you’re writing, you access it to instantly create notes and bibliographies. If you decide you want those in a different format, you can change this with a click or two. In some cases, you can download the full text. You can write notes and you can easily share what you want with one person or a group.

Like Dropbox, Google Docs and Workflowy, your Zotero account is available from any computer that’s connected to the internet. I’ve never needed more than the basic, free service.

For more information, go to

One final word: Make sure you practice good internet security. Don’t use the same password for all your accounts and create strong passwords for your use! Unsure what to do? Read “Creating a strong password is easier than you think.”

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.