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The Teaching Space Podcast

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May 16, 2019

Episode 56 of The Teaching Space Podcast discusses some tools for productivity in an interview with Francesco D’Alessio.


Hello and welcome to the Teaching Space Podcast. It's Martine here. Thank you so much for joining me.

Martine: Today I am thrilled to bring you an interview with productivity expert Francesco D'Alessio. Francesco, welcome to the show.

Francesco: Hello, Martine. Yeah, good to be here. I'm very excited.

Martine: Not as excited as me. I'm a bit of a fan girl. I can't lie. I've been listening to your show for a while and following you on YouTube and things like that so it's a real pleasure to have you here. Could I ask you to introduce yourself to the Teaching Space listeners?

Francesco: Yeah, I know that, it's great you've been following for a while and obviously I've seen you in the community so much helping others, which is amazing.

Martine: Doing my best.

Francesco: Definitely. Yeah, no, for the viewers out there, my name's Francesco. I run a YouTube channel called Keep Productive which is essentially helping people to find the right tools for their needs, whether that's work or life. It's a very fun pursuit and very recent pursuit of mine.

Martine: Excellent. Productivity is your thing, really, isn't it?

Francesco: Yeah, apps and software.

Martine: Apps and software. How did this interest in productivity start?

Francesco: It's probably quite a weird thing for a 24-year-old to be this interested in, right?

Martine: No, definitely, no I think it's great. You're never too young to be into productivity.

Francesco: That's it. Yeah, I think my sort of passion came ... I was in school. I think I was about 15 or 16. It was just before year, I think I was in year 12 and I had sadly failed all of my grades that year, minus Italian, but I'm figuring by the name I should have passed that one right?

My AS levels were sort out the door which was a bit of a shame. Then I had the opportunity, like many year 12 students do, is to repeat the year which I was a bit annoyed about but after speaking with my mum she was like, "You need to get organised this summer and really got on it." I ended up reading a book that I'll probably end up mentioning a couple of times called Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Martine: One of my favourites.

Francesco: It's a classic, isn't it?

Martine: Definitely.

Francesco: I read that one and obviously with that book came all of the other useful software like Evernote and a couple more at the time. I came back to school and I started doing well in my grades and all in this sort of outside world of that. I ended up weirdly teaching some of my teachers about the productivity apps.

Martine: Amazing.

Francesco: I felt like I had a knack for teaching other people about how to use software. It sort of spiralled form there, I'd say. We've been working on the channel for about four, five years now and it's been growing ever since. Our goal really is to review as many softwares as we can and make sure we cover them in the most honest way, I guess, to help people find the best one that meets their needs.

Martine: Have you always been into technology in a kind of a general sense? Are you quite a tech-y sort of a guy?

Francesco: Oh, yeah, 100%. I follow all the tech stuff up so obviously that's probably where we clashed on Notion right?

Martine: Yeah, totally. Totally. I'm an early adopter of many many tools and apps and things like that. So, yeah, I can totally understand that.

It all started in school for you. That's super interesting. I love the idea of you teaching your teachers how to do certain productivity things. There's nothing like instilling confidence in a learner by getting them to teach you something. That's fab.

Francesco: Yeah, and obviously they found a lot of benefit from those apps as well so it was really good to see.

Martine: As you know, my listeners tend to be teachers or trainers. We face some quite unique productivity challenges. For example, often we end up trying to do administrative type work, in other words, the work that we're not doing in the classroom during short bursts of time between sessions. The main part of the job is being in front of the class and teaching but then we've got these little gaps in which to do our non-teaching work, so from a productivity point of view…that's really tricky.

We've also got constant interruptions, too many meetings. Oh my goodness. I've never worked in an environment where meetings are so loved.

These are just a few of the challenges that my listeners will be facing as teachers and trainers. We just wondered, bearing in mind that kind of set up, whether you have any tips or tools or anything that you recommend to busy teachers and trainers out there?

Francesco: Yeah, sure. I've got a few notes in front of me that I'd like to cover. Some of them are some useful methodologies I think would work and also some recommended tools.

Yeah, and as you said, teachers are… When I was in school and at least after school with a lot of my friends going into teaching they always seem to be quite timed for teachers. It's sad to see but obviously it's such an immersive job and it's such a passionate job that everyone wants to get very emotionally involved because they want to help the children so very much. It's a very noble pursuit definitely.

I think methods are probably the backbone of productivity in general although I don't know all the methods and I tend to bring in experts to talk about that. I normally recommend a lot of good stuff that's helped myself and other people. I would say the first process that I recommend is going back to the Getting Things Done bye David Allen.

Martine: Yes, definitely.

Francesco: It's a fantastic book. What I quite like about it is it will teach you a way of processing anything new and that's quite beneficial for all types of work. Whether it's admin work or ad hoc work it actually can be scaled to any situation. What I recommend doing is grabbing a copy of GTD or listening to it at least on apps like Audible because it will give you a framework that then you can then apply to the admin side of stuff.

Martine: I totally endorse that recommendation I must admit. One of the best things I took away from David Allen's book was the idea of just having one trusted place to keep everything. The idea that you don't have things all over the place in different apps and different locations in your office and things. That one trusted place thing for me was a massive takeaway.

Francesco: Yeah, 100%. I can imagine that you kept quite strict with it and once you've kept that sort of rigidity to GTD I think it can be so beneficial like not storing things in different places and making sure to capture things in a specific way, organising it and then clarifying it. It can really help, really help.

Then I would say like you mentioned those short bursts of times that sometimes can be interrupted or sometimes can actually be uninterrupted but more likely interrupted. The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo, is a really fantastic one and that's a very simple method of 25 minute timers and then a five minute break and having that cycle repeat itself. [Check out Episode 12 for more on this]

The goal behind this is you're wiring into that 25 minutes work without being distracted by other stuff. You've got one task or two tasks in hand that you'll be doing back to back and it's a real point, an opportunity for you focus. There's some great Pomodoro timer apps out there but you could just start by using your timer on your iPhone or Android phone. I highly recommend it to, from teachers to professionals to students because they all seem to find a lot of value from it.

Martine: I think it's a great point about using it with students. I use it personally when I'm marking because I do have a tendency to get a bit distracted when I'm marking and having that enforced time block helps me zone right into what I'm supposed to be doing and I get into a state of flow a lot more easily and a lot more quickly. I think for marking it's brilliant but I love the idea of encouraging students to use it. Generally, they've all got a phone in their back pocket so they've got that timer available. You can encourage them to put headphones in to get themselves really sort of zoning in on their work and I just think that's a really good tool for students. So a top tip there for sure.

Francesco: Yeah, definitely. The app that I would recommend for students as well is an app called Forest.

Martine: Oh, I love Forest. It's one of my favourites.

Francesco: It's so good isn't it?

Martine: Yeah, really good. Do you want to explain a little bit about what Forest is because I love it.

Francesco: It's such a friendly application. Any of the students can download it for IOS and Android, I believe. The concept is you set a timer. It can be 25 minutes, 40 minutes, however long you want your students to focus. At that time, it starts planting a tree over those 25 minutes. If the student decides, "I'm going to go over to SnapChat or Instagram," the tree dies if you don't get back to it within, it's a couple of seconds. The goal is they've got to create a tree and over time build a forest. I think it's a really healthy way to stop using your phone. Obviously you can set a timer and then forget about the timer and jump on your phone or go on your laptop or something and that's quite a nice way in making sure you're focusing.

Martine: The gamification of focus. I absolutely love it.

Francesco: Yes.

Martine: One of the things that's really helped me with Forest, because I am a competitive sort. I can't lie. I've got a group of people that I follow and who follow me on Forest and we kind of compete to see who can have the best forest.

Francesco: Oh I love it, yeah.

Martine: This is what I do in my time.

Francesco: It's a great app.

Martine: Yeah it really is. I highly recommend it. I will make sure that I link to it in the show notes so people can refer to any of the apps that you mention.

Francesco: I'll tell you my final sort of methodology or book is a book called, How to be a Productivity Ninja, by Graham Allcott. The reason I recommend this is it's actually a really beneficial for e-mail and admin. Although GTD's a very good framework this has like, it's packed full. It's a fairly meaty book and it's packed full of how to process e-mail, how to reduce stress when you're doing admin tasks. It's got a lot of good advice that can be used across the board. I can't recommend that book enough.

Martine: Fantastic. Again, I'll make sure there's a link to that in the show notes. Those are your top methodologies or approaches to productivity. What about specific tools? Have you got any of those that you'd like to recommend?

Francesco: Yeah, sure. I typically recommend three types of apps and I try to say that people should have these core apps at least and that's a to do list app, a calendar App and a note taking app. A to do list app really for your upcoming tasks, actionable stuff you need to get done. A calendar for obviously meetings and events and things like that. Then a note taker for all of that information that you're gathering. Of course it depends on, you know, you can't obviously store information so you'll have to check with your department's, what access you have of course.

The to do list app site to start with, I always recommend two ones that I think are really strong. That's Todoist and TickTick.

Martine: Okay. Todoist I use actually and I can definitely say it's a great app. Personally with that one I like that it integrates with Google Calender.

What's TickTick, did you say? I've not come across that one before.

Francesco: It's all one word, TickTick. It's very similar to Todoist in a sense but what people like slightly more than Todoist in some ways, is it has a calendar ability inside it so if you wanted to plot all of your stuff in a calendar you can do it. That's something that Todoist doesn't have just yet.

Martine: That's super interesting, particularly if you like to time block your day, bearing in mind that teachers tend to work to a timetable, then actually that could be really useful.

Francesco: Yes, 100%. I think that's why I tend to recommend it. It's a very beautiful application. The good news is they've only recently added a Pomodoro timer to it so I guess it even adds even more to it, right?

Martine: That sounds like that it's really worth a look actually. I'm thinking to myself, "No, I've committed to Todoist. I can't change yet again."

Francesco: Todoist, I'm still user of that and I love it. I think it's such a good application for determining ... I think it's better at a cleaner interface and making sure that you've got a list in front of you. You can organise stuff based on time which is quite lovely. I think that's a great application all around, so there's no need to switch.

Martine: No, I mustn't, I really mustn't, but I do have a bit of a passion for to do lists apps in particular so I'm going to stay loyal to Todoist for at least the next month or so. One thing I like in particular about Todoist is the ability to kind of look at what the next week looks like, how may tasks that you've got coming up, for me to do a bit of foreword planning I find that particularly helpful. That and the integration with Google Calendar as I mentioned. So two good recommendations there.

Francesco: Of course if you start using that GTD process both of those applications have what's called an inbox and that's essentially your task inbox for dumping all the stuff you haven't processed yet. It's a pretty neat experience.

Obviously calendar apps, I typically recommend people stay with Google Calendar or Apple Calendar, normally because I guess sometimes the calendars either G-suite or it could be Microsoft in some institutions. I guess it's up to that department or that school, right?

Martine: Absolutely. Interestingly, my college where I work, we are a G-suite for education establishment, however, and I don't know the reason why, I really must talk to IT support, we use Outlook for e-mail and calendar. It's really frustrating because we use Google docs and everything else is G-suite. The great thing about Google Calendar is that it talks to every other app in the suite so it almost feels like you're kind of, you don't have that seamless integration when you're doing a bit of Microsoft and a bit of Google. It's something I'm working on changing, put it that way.

Francesco: You're filtering in and working out how to get it changed?

Martine: I'm on it. I am absolutely on it.

You're a Google Calendar or an Apple Calendar or whatever the kind of native calendar to what your use is, that would be a recommendation?

Francesco: Yeah, I use Google Calendar but on my iPhone I have an app called Moleskine Timepage.

Martine: Ooh, interesting.

Francesco: It's a very nice app. It's a paid subscription app so I think it roughly works out at about $11.00 a year or something like this. It's just such a beautiful application. It helps to make everything look very attractive on the go at least. I would say the note taking side, obviously bringing together lots of information is really important. Of course a lot of teachers would be considering OneNote because that's obviously connected with Microsoft services but I would say Evernote is also a very strong option, especially for teachers that are looking to annotate pieces of work and be able to use the web clipper for deep research and just in general use some of the PDF abilities that Evernote has. Of course when it comes to note takers Notion sort of falls into that spectrum and that's obviously where our passions lie at the moment, isn't it?

Martine: Yeah, absolutely. That's certainly how I discovered you, Francesco and what you do is through Notion. I have mentioned Notion a few times on the podcast but I really struggle to actually explain what it is. I tend to say it's like a personal intranet and it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be and it kind of runs on data bases but maybe you can do a better job of describing it than I can.

Francesco: I think that's probably how I describe it. The way that I always say is it's like Lego building blocks. It's almost like that software you can create yourself. It's really weird because it's one of the ... I don't know whether you remember Evernote in its early days when it first launched. People were coming up with so many different uses and that was quite exciting. You had people using it to organise all of their work and even use it as their project manager to some extent.

When I'm getting e-mails about how people are using Notion it's very exciting. There's a chap who e-mailed me the other day saying he uses it to organise all of his heart data so that whenever he visits the doctors he has all of the heart monitoring information that they need to know. When I was with the Notion team last week they said people were using it to organise their bowling society.

Martine: Oh, that's so cool.

Francesco: And all of the scores that they made. Yeah, so all of these use cases are like wild. At the same time it's quite an exciting application for note-taking because they're slowing adding stuff to it that makes it a really strong platform.

Martine: Oh, that's really good to hear. I think probably one of the most creative uses I have for Notion, two of my favourites I think. I use it to manage the podcast, so from planning to writing out the notes, to sharing it with my VA so she does my social. I use it for complete podcast planning, but also for meal planning as well. That's one of my favourites too. I have a data base of recipes and I have a couple weeks set out like on a Kanban board. That really works quite nicely.

Francesco: Yeah, it does. That's, I think, quite an exciting use as well. A lot of people like it for ... it's one of those apps that actually blends work and life and not in like an intense way either. You could be planning your podcast but then jump over to your meal planner within seconds. It doesn't feel disconnected in any way.

Martine: I think that's a really interesting point because up until a good sort of year or so ago I was dead against mixing my day job stuff with my personal stuff when it came to productivity tools. I liked to have things totally separate. The reality is that those two things are very closely interlinked with my life, so now that I tend to look at everything through one lens I find it a lot better. I'm more productive.

Francesco: Yeah, definitely. I think what's quite nice about Notion is it is like that personal intranet you mentioned. It's almost like it's even more so a second brain because you can almost lay out your home page like your brain of all of the different aspects of your life. I use my Notion as a way to track finances, health. I use it with my wife to plan what rooms we're going to have in the house and travel. It's literally like a consortium of information that ... It's like my brain. I'm not sure whether I'd be able to go much further without it.

Martine: I love the idea of it being your external brain. That's a really good way to describe it. I think for me the one thing that I'd really like to see with Notion would be an integration with Todoist because I did try running my task management through Notion and there were just ... It's a brilliant tool but there were just a few too many clicks required for me to do task management in there so if there was an integration on the horizon I would be thrilled.

Francesco: Yeah, yes. I agree. I agree. Notion does 80% of what the majority of apps do but it doesn't do, for example, Todoist amazingly because it's not a task manager. It can do task management. It's a very strange experience but I can imagine they'll be adding to this and hopefully building on it. I'm sure we'll have all our fingers crossed, right?

Martine: Yeah. They're a very young company and from what I can tell they're very responsive to feedback. It's really interesting to see what they've got on the horizon.

Francesco: Yeah. I'm hoping to do ... Well, I was out there last week with the team, actually two weeks ago now, blimey. They are a very fast moving team. They seem to put updates out pretty regularly and it's quite exciting what's happening. I think it's all keep an eye on them.

Martine: Yeah, definitely. It's nice too, I was a reasonably early adopter with Notion. It's kind of exciting to see them developing. So yeah, we'll keep an eye out. Fantastic.

Francesco: Definitely, definitely. In terms of planning projects I think that's a good way as well. Obviously Ever Note and Notion do a good enough job of being able to store the data and manage that but if a teacher was looking for a way to maybe visually plan, I'd recommend checking out either Trello or Asana. They don't necessarily have to use Notion at the same time. They could use like Trello and Ever Note or Asana and Ever Note. They're both really good ways to visually organise because they've got that boards feature that helps you to plan visually.

Yeah, I wouldn't rule those out as a way to keep track of you and your department because if you want to share stuff with other people then you can assign tasks there pretty easily.

Martine: It's definitely a tool that works well for collaboration. I would say the same goes for Trello and Asana, as I've used both of those. If you want to collaborate with a team then all three of those options are good ones, Notion, Trello, Asana. They're great for collaborative work.

Francseco, is there anything else you would like to add to those amazing recommendations?

Francesco: No, the thing is ... What I recommend is just trying to read as many useful pieces and books about the busyness and time and trying to learn as much as you can because there's a lot of good conversations about mindfulness in the workplace blended with the actually busyness and the concept of it. I recommend trying to keep track on Apple News of all of those good articles.

There's another book I'd want to recommend now. Sorry. A good one is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

Martine: I swear we read all the same books and play with all the same apps. We're separated at birth.

Francesco: Yeah, we need to ... We'll just be starting to share now stuff for e-mail. We'll just be like, "Have you read this one? Have you read this one?" There's so many good books out there at the moment. I think it's just about taking in how you can calm down in the workplace. I think more employers are actually understanding that that's a thing as well which is good news.

Martine: It's a big conversation in education at the moment, the work life balance approach and that's very much what I focus on with The Teaching Space. I want to help teachers be as brilliant at their job as they can be without having to take work home at the weekend. I think that Digital Minimalism book recommendation is a good one because it's all about balance. You and I love tech. We love apps. We love all that stuff but actually quiet time, fresh air and just tuning out from all that stuff is also incredibly important and very healthy.

Francesco: Yeah, definitely. The final recommendation is just subscribe to The Teaching Space because it is definitely one of the best podcasts for education.

Martine: Oh, you're very smooth, Francesco, very smooth. Well on that topic what I'd like to do is give you an opportunity to tell The Teaching Space listeners where they can find you on line.

Francesco: Oh, that's very kind. You can just type into YouTube KeepProductive. We've done plenty of Notion videos and we try to help you match up with the best apps. Again, we'll give you recommendations and if you want to pop me an e-mail directly I happily recommend apps, to hear obviously your needs and then we recommend apps so feel free to reach out to me.

Martine: That's very generous of you Francesco. Thank you for being on the show. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Francesco: Thank you for having me. It's been really fun.

Further Listening

Why not check out these episodes for more on productivity tools for teachers and trainers?