Why it can be good to get off-topic

Last week I ran my 15th workshop for the year for the Association of Music Educators in Victoria. It was a Flipped Classroom and Digital Portfolios in Music Education workshop and somehow I ended up talking about some life-changing productivity tools that I could not live without (sometimes it’s good to get off-topic!). Whenever I mention these tools there are a large number of teachers present that didn’t know that such things existed. I often say that if they adopted just one of them, and ignored all the music education related content we’ve covered I’d still be very happy!

Without further ado, here are my top 8 life-changing tools.

Note: unfortunately, there are a few school districts prevent the use of some of these tools (I feel your pain Queenslanders!). I can only hope that they will eventually move into the current century and encourage the safe use

Password manager

Hands up if you use the same password for all those websites that ask you to set up a login because you find it difficult to remember a series of different ones? I was shocked to hear that three- quarters of my workshop group answered yes when I asked that question the other day. Don’t do it people!!

A password manager will store all of your unique usernames and passwords and all you need to do is nominate a single master password that unlocks the information. Just one password to remember.

When I visit a website that requires me to log in, all I do is click on a button on my web browser, enter my master password and the password manager then fills in the username and password for that site in the fields on the page automatically.

The password manager I use is called 1Password which is available for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android devices, but many of my friends use Last Pass.

Cost: Paid – from $34.99


I am currently typing the draft of this blog post in Evernote. Evernote is a “digital filing cabinet”. It’s the place I keep all of my text-based work. I now only use Word or Pages for documents that need to “look pretty”. Evernote is the place I keep lists of things I want to remember, notes from conference presentations, draft documents, video scripts, Christmas present lists (I have these from the past 3 or 4 years. It’s super useful to be able to see what I gave people last year and the year before! I jot things down here when I come across an idea – no matter what month), books I want to read, movies I want to see and so on.

The benefit of keeping this info in Evernote is that it is easily searchable – you can search for a note title, a tag or just some text that’s in the document itself. The other huge benefit is that Evernote is available across all of my devices. I can start my book reading list on my laptop and then open it on my phone when I reach the book shop.

Evernote does a wealth of other things too, such as “clipping” websites so that you can read them offline and allowing you to store images and search any text in the image (think receipts…). Michael Hyatt has written many articles about using Evernote effectively.

Cost: Free. You can upgrade to their premium option which gives you offline access to your notes on a mobile device.


Dropbox (aff. link) has been a life saver for me in many ways. It is a magic folder that lives on my MacBookPro, on my iPad, on my iPhone and on my HP laptop. Whenever I drag something into the Dropbox folder on my MacBookPro, it will appear in the Dropbox folder that lives on all my other devices. It works because all the devices ar connected to the Internet. If one device is offline, the Dropbox contents will sync next time that device is online. I can even log into my Drobox account on the Dropbox website (using the password I have stored in 1password!) and retrieve my files there.

Dropbox has meant that I rarely use use flash drives anymore. I can also place a file in Dropbox and share a link to that file with anyone else I like – even if they do not have a Dropbox account. That’s really useful for sharing large audio and video files.

Because the files in Dropbox live online, it has become a secondary backup system for my most important files – in addition to the backup I do on an external hard drive. When my MBP needs repairs earlier this year, I was able to survive quite easily for a few days because my important files were accessible from any other computer.

Cost: Free for the Basic account which incldues 2GB of storage space. I found it so useful that I have upgraded to their Pro account.

Google Drive/Docs

Another life- changer (seems to be a common theme in this post!), Google Docs allows you to create text documents, spreadsheets, presentations and forms for free. The benefit of using Google Drive is that the documents all live online, making them accessible from any device – laptop, desktop, smartphone, tablet device. The other benefit is that you can share the documents with friends and colleagues and collaborate easily. Picture this: one staff. Member at your school starts a list of suggested end of school year party venues. She emails the list to all the other staff, asking for input and further suggestions.

Or – one of you starts a Google drive document with the list and invites everyone else to collaborate. All the changes are made (in real time) on the central document and no one needs to worry about who has the latest version.

Cost: free for up to 15GB of storage space. You can upgrade for extra space.

Text Expander

Text Expander (Mac only) expands custom shortcuts set up by you into frequently-used words, phrases, paragraphs and even pictures. In Text Expander, I can set up a snippet of text that I write frequently and assign it a shortcut – just a few letters, or a word. When I type my shortcut, the snippet of text will appear. A snippet can be just a few words (“All the best”) or an entire paragraph (instructions on how to download a ZIP file). I have used text expander for emails, software instructions and even for HTML when editing my website. A huge time saver.

PC users can try Breevy or Phrase Express.

Cost: $34.95


Anti Social is software that you install that you use to voluntarily prevent yourself from visiting certain websites that you nominate – namely those that fall into the social media category like Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter. You have compete control over which websites you block yourself from and you also nominate the time length. I like to turn it on in the morning for a couple of hours so that I’m not distracted from my “real” work. You can even prevent your email from coming through if you find that distracting too.

Another option is Rescue Time which will also block sites you nominate. In addition, Rescue Time will track the time you spend in applications and on websites, giving you a clear picture of “where your time went” on any given day. I’m about to try this one out!

Cost: Anti Social is $15. Rescue Time has a Lite (free) option and a paid option which is $9 per month.

Google Maps

As I was driving to a friends new house a couple of days ago I reflected on just how much easier navigation has become. Gone are those days of looking directions up in a street directory, attempting to memorise the journey (or have to pull over regularly to check the route). I love the fact that I can enter my destination, press a button and be directed by the Google Maps voice (even if she tends to mispronounce many place names). Frequently heard by my kids on car trips: “shhh – I’m listening to the lady tell me where to go”.

Cost: free

How about you?

That wraps up my list of favourite time-saving tools. How about you? Do you have others you would add to the list?

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