There are countless wonderful, free, online tools out there that help you with productivity, and give you a pretty good way to manage your projects, your small business, and more. But how do you design your workflow, such that you actually make use of the tools consistently, and to their best effect? Let’s set something up.

First, let’s make this a system you can use to manage your projects, personal or otherwise. Second, let’s make it a system that gives you full network communications and collaboration capability. Finally, let’s make it free from start to finish (at least at the base levels of all these products). Here are a few setups:

Web-Based Toolbox

  • Build a Protopage- I went to Protopage and built a START PAGE. The logon is lifehack and the password is demo1. Protopage lets you do all kinds of things. You can have sticky notes. There’s a calendar. There’s widgets to put up photos, to display web pages, and to show RSS feeds.
  • Get a Voo2Do Account- Go to Voo2Do and get an account. This will be your todo list. (or use tadalist, or remember the milk, or toodledo, or a gazillion other great products).
  • Use GMail and Google Calendar- Gmail and Google Calendar are just easy. They’re fairly uncluttered as apps, and both have all kinds of functionality. I’m still not over Gmail not letting me have folders, but otherwise, they’re the best. I forward my domain email accounts to a Gmail account for ease-of-use, and one-stop collection. The Calendar has lots of great features, like group calendar and all kinds of easy drag-drop create feelings.
  • Set up AIM- An IM client puts you in touch with people for quick fast discussions. I actually recommend using a multi-service client, like Meebo (web-based) or Gaim, so that you don’t have to do the “do you use AIM, or Yahoo! or MSN Messenger” conversation.
  • Set up a Campfire- It’s probably easiest to send you to 37Signals itself, and you can pick up Campfire, their group chat app, as well as BaseCamp, their project management software.
  • Get Skype- Skype‘s a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) product, which use can use as either internet-only, or you can combine with SkypeOut service and SkypeIN service to connect it to the greater telephone network. You can by handsets that make it act like a regular phone, or you can just use your microphone and speakers on your computer.
  • Check out Zoho- Zoho makes all kinds of free online office application tools, including a word processor, spreadsheet, a presentation tool, and more.
  • Get a Wiki- A wiki is a web-based data site that allows you to build easily edited webpages where you can store information (see Wikipedia). There are some great free ones. I use PBWiki the most.
  • Use an RSS Reader- No, they’re not just for blogs any more. RSS readers let you track important information, keep abreast of targeted data, and allow for collection and aggregation into a reading platform best suited for your needs. (I use Bloglines- do you have a more favorite web-based client?)
  • Set up a Blog- Internal blogs or external, using a tool to capture information in a journal format with dates is really darned useful, especially when coupled with search tools. If it’s external-facing, then your blog is also your press release engine and your public advertising channel #1. (WordPress for internal or external, WordPress free and hosted, Blogger).

Sample Morning Using our Tools
Once you select all your tools, you’ll need to build a workflow that maps to what you need to get done. Here is a sample flow for a few fictional hours in a workday.

  • Arrive 8:45AM, drink coffee #2. Set digital timer. Pop open Gmail for 15 minutes. REFUSE to check Gmail for 15 minutes.
  • 9:00AM Open Protopage. Check Voo2do list. Projects are showing some next actions involving calls, and some involving editing a nearly-finished proposal. Handle the proposal first, writing it up in Zoho Writer or Writeboard, and share it using BaseCamp with your client. They’ve subscribed to your RSS feed, so you might not have to call or email until later.
  • 9:20AM You finished your proposal, and you uncovered some great points you want to copy and use again later. Post those into the wiki. Get up for a stretch and a walk to the coffee pot.
  • 9:30AM Double-check Gmail. There’s a note from Surya about traffic overheating your server in Ohio. Get on IM, find Surya, and ask him if he’ll cover it. Mark yourself busy when you’re done and post a blog entry marking down what you and Surya did, deciding on a final course of action.
  • 10:05AM Go over some “Friends-only” pictures in Flickr of your prospective new data center in Vietnam, shot by a friend you met on Craigslist who was going that way anyway, and who you paid no more than a case of beer for his involvement in finding the data center and snapping pictures. Tag a few to remind yourself, and make a note in the wiki, linking back. Post about it on the blog, too.
  • 10:42AM Check off 3 things so far in your Voo2Do. Double check them against your BackPack master list of your project, mission and goals, and consider using Zoho’s spreadsheet software to calculate out the savings between what you spec’d the job to cost in hours versus what you saved by flowing so smoothly.

Keys to the Scenario

You can change any of the software options I’ve listed, but the premise is this: hook them all together in a meaningful way and consider the SUM TOTAL of those products the platform. Consider it all related to what you’re doing. Remember that the goal is to accomplish things, to move yourself forward on the goals you have for yourself and your business. It’s not to master a foolproof system that you can never change again.

Check out the demo ProtoPage, if it’s lasted this long. And if it has to come down, build your own. It’s fairly intuitive. Then, try incorporating all those rich, free, easy-to-use online tools, and build a workflow that supports the lifestyle you’ve dreamed up for yourself. Feel free to load the comments up with modules you’d add instead, with defences of why your tool is better than the ones I recommended, and finally, whether using this methodology does something for your productivity.

–Chris Brogan has his own accounts on nearly every one of the web-based software tools out there. He also has accounts for [chrisbrogan.com] , Grasshopper Factory, and Podcamp.org .

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