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Using Your Smartphone & Tablet Together

Photographers have a way of ending arguments about which camera is best: “The best camera…is the one you have with you.” It doesn’t matter how good your gear is if you leave it at home.


It’s the same way with our productivity tools: The best tool is the one you have with you.

No one is a bigger “iPad for administrators” guy than me, but I often find that my iPhone is even more indispensable. Why? Because it’s always with me, even when I can’t carry my iPad.

Even better than always having a single device with you, though, is always having your data with you, regardless of which device you’re using. Fortunately, your tablet and smartphone can work well together if you’re using the right apps.

I tend to use my iPhone and iPad for many of the same things, but the iPad really shines for:

  • Taking notes in classrooms or meetings (it’s faster and it looks more professional than fiddling with your phone)
  • Reading – the screen size makes a big difference
  • Planning – I much prefer mind-mapping and writing out detailed notes on the bigger screen
  • Email – especially if I have my Bluetooth external keyboard

On the other hand, the iPhone is great for more frequent message-checking and for quickly jotting down tasks.

Since I use both, it’s important that they talk together and share data seamlessly, so here are some recommendations for making that happen.

1. Use “Universal” Apps

A lot of apps work on both the iPhone and the iPad. If you’re not sure if your apps will run on both, fire up the App Store and go to the “Purchased” tab, then select “Not on This iPhone/iPad” to find apps you’ve bought but haven’t installed. Many of these will be apps you bought for iPhone that also happen to work on iPad, or vice-versa.

2. Use iCloud

iCloud allows your Apple products’ apps to sync data and settings. Make sure you’re signed into the same Apple ID on both devices so your data stays in sync.

In the Settings app, go to iCloud to enter your Apple ID email address and password:
Icloudsettings 1

3. Use Dropbox

For apps that allow you to create files, documents, or data, iCloud doesn’t always do the trick.

Try Dropbox sync whenever it’s an option in an app – Dropbox will hold and sync the data for the app, so it’s accessible and always up-to-date on all your devices.

4. Use Built-In Sync Services

Some apps have their own synchronization service, so dig into the “settings” section (look for a gear icon) and see if you can share data across different devices. Evernote, Remember the Milk (a to-do list), and Buy Me a Pie (a shopping list) are among the apps that have their own sync service.

Most of the above will apply to Android phones and tablets too.

How do you get the most from your smartphone and tablet?

Keyboard Shortcuts That Will Save You 10 Hours a Year

When it comes to technology, I’ve found that principals fall into two camps: enthusiasts and pragmatists. Enthusiasts can’t wait to try every new tool that comes along and figure out every secret, whereas pragmatists wait for the evidence to roll in that a new tool will make a difference.

Most among us are pragmatists, and need to know that a new technology or technique will be worth the investment of time and effort. (I’m in the enthusiast camp, and part of my job is to evaluate that return-on-investment and help you master the most helpful tools and strategies quickly.)

Of all the investments you could make in becoming more proficient with technology, a handful of simple keyboard shortcuts rise to the top of my list. I believe they can save you a good ten hours a year.

Keyboard lightbulb

Why are keyboard shortcuts so powerful?

  • You don’t need to take your hands off the keyboard to use them. Moving over to the mouse slows you down.
  • They’re often the same in every app, unlike menu or toolbar buttons
  • With practice, you don’t need to wait for visual feedback. I can copy a URL to my clipboard, switch to my browser, and paste it in the address bar without looking (Cmd+l will jump you to the address bar in Chrome and Firefox on Mac).

1. Cut/Copy/Paste
How many times a day do you need to move text around? From web page to email. From email to newsletter. From email to email. When you’re doing work, text is moving around, so these are essential tools.

These shortcuts even work on the iPad if you’re using a Bluetooth keyboard.

On Windows:
Cut: Ctrl+x
Copy: Ctrl+c
Paste: Ctrl+v

On Mac (and iPad + Bluetooth keyboard):
Cut: Cmd+x
Copy: Cmd+c
Paste: Cmd+v

2. Switch Between Apps
Millions, perhaps billions, of smart computer-using people don’t know that you can hold the Alt (Windows) or Command (Mac) key and hit tab repeatedly to select another open window to switch to, then release to be taken to that window.

Learn this shortcut, and you’ll spend far less time rearranging windows and more time jumping directly between the windows you need.

On Windows: Alt+Tab

On Mac: Cmd+Tab

3. New Message, Send Email, and Next/Previous Message
OK, this one has some homework: Figure out the keyboard shortcuts in your email program for “create new message” and “send message.” You’ll thank yourself when you can blast through your inbox without looking at it. Leave a comment below and let me know what you find, and maybe you’ll help someone else using the same program.

Did you know Gmail (including in Google Apps for Education) supports keyboard shortcuts? Try c for create message, j/k for next/previous message, [ and ] for “archive and go to next/previous message,” and tab-enter to send.

# # #

What keyboard shortcuts do you find most helpful?

2 My New Favorite Whiteboard

When I became a principal, the first thing I did to my office was take down the giant whiteboard behind my desk.

I’m an iPad guy, no doubt about it. No one wants school leaders to take advantage of cutting-edge technology more than yours truly.

So you might be surprised to see my Tech Tuesday recommendation: The Noteboard.


As great as the iPad is, it’s not perfect for everything. I have mind-mapping apps, and whiteboard apps, and even then great new Drafts app for when I want to quickly jot down some ideas, then decide where to send them.

But sometimes, you just want to write.

Phone messages.

Notes during phone calls.


Staying focused on what I’m working on right now.

A whiteboard is great for all of this, except…whiteboards are huge. They’re not very portable. And everyone who comes in your office can see what you’ve written.

I have a medium-sized whiteboard that I can pull out for brainstorming, but I don’t like using it because it takes up so much space on my desk. And I’m certainly not going to carry it with me around the building.

Noteboard2x5The Noteboard isn’t much more than a 7 x 5 grid of index cards, laminated together, but it’s amazing how useful it is. I can keep it mostly folded on my desk next to my computer, so only a 2 x 5 grid of cards shows at once.

This gives me plenty of space to write on, and I can easily flip to a different set of cards for more space or to hide something private.

And if I want to take it with me, it folds down to about 1″x3″x5″ and has its own cloth bag, which doubles as an eraser. Not bad for $12 (available from Amazon).

If you’re interested in a bunch of them, you can contact the creator directly for much cheaper bulk purchases. I would recommend this over making your own, even if you have a laminator, because the Noteboard is actually cut from a single large sheet of cardstock, with little “hinges” left between the panels, so it’s very durable.

Noteboard animate

From a productivity standpoint, I like that the Noteboard is big enough to get me through a day of messages and thinking (with a total of 70 3″x5″ spaces to write in), but the fact that I need to erase it periodically keeps me from just accumulating a bunch of stuff that I’m never going to act on. I have a bit of time to let stuff accumulate, but not so much that I fall too far behind on adding things to my electronic to-do list or notes.

What apps or tools do you use to quickly jot notes or brainstorm?

5 How to Work Your To-Do List

A to-do list is only a useful tool if it actually helps you remember and decide what to work on throughout the day.

Too often, I don’t write down what I’m really working on, and I end up working off-list, like an actor going off-script: Sometimes it works out great, but I can’t be Robin Williams every day.


When I start working off-list, I’m like an actor who forgets his lines, not a brilliant improviser.

When something comes up, and I need to work on it today, I shouldn’t set my to-do list aside; I should put the new priority at the top of my list, and keep working my list.

If instead I start working off-list, I’ll suffer two negative consequences:

  1. I’ll stop writing important things on my to-do list, and it will become a collection of stuff I never actually intend to do
  2. I’ll spin my wheels on whatever interruptions and distractions come in, instead of promptly moving on to the next item in my list

Better Than Paper

Electronic to-do list apps like Remember the Milk and OmniFocus are a lifesaver in our line of work, because they let us reprioritize and rearrange our tasks as our day evolves. When something comes up, a few clicks or swipes can update our work plan to match.

With a paper to-do list, there’s no sorting—once you write a task down, it’s stuck there until you cross it off. Your tasks wait for you in no particular order (perhaps just the order in which you wrote them down), and every time you’re ready to move on to something else, you have to scan your entire list to pick something out.

With a well-maintained electronic to-do list, you can simply do whatever’s at the top of your list, rearrange as needed, and plow through it one task at a time, top-to-bottom.

How do you work your list?

Secure, Anonymous Online Voting

Spreadsheets are amazing time-savers if you know when and how to use them. Here’s a great example.

A reader writes:

I need a way to allow students to vote electronically for prom king/queen, but I don’t want anyone to be able to vote more than once. What do you recommend?

We want our solution to be as simple as possible for staff and students, while being reasonably secure and respectful, so we don’t want:

  • An elaborate username/password system that’s going to be a nightmare to manage
  • To prevent more than one student from using the same computer to vote (so allowing only one vote per IP address isn’t going to work)
  • Ballots that take away anonymity by asking for the voter’s name
  • Any method that allows voters to cheat in any way

Here’s a nearly-bulletproof, yet extremely simple, method for secure online voting.

Overview of Voting Process

1. Create a ballot in the form tool of your choice.
I recommend either Wufoo or Google Spreadsheets Forms. Google Spreadsheets is probably a little easier (and free) for this purpose.

2. Add an extra field in your form for “voting code.”
Tell students that votes with no code won’t be counted.

3. Create a list of codes and have teachers distribute them.
You could do this in homeroom or math class or whatever works for your school. Each student gets only one code, and you’ll be able to tell if the code is valid, but not who used it.

Note: The spreadsheet for creating and checking the codes is included below.

4. Have students visit the online form to vote.
You might want to use a URL shortener like bit.ly since Google Spreadsheets URLs are very long.

5. Check the voting codes using the spreadsheet.
When voting is over, look at the Google Spreadsheet and copy the vote codes into the sample spreadsheet (the Checker tab, down at the bottom) to see if any of the codes are invalid or were used more than once. If you see red, something is wrong. More on this below.

6. Tally the valid votes.
Use Excel or Google Spreadsheets to tally the votes after deleting any invalid votes.

The Spreadsheet

Here you go:


Click here to download

Using the Spreadsheet to Generate and Check Voting Codes

1. Enter your number of ballots and two random numbers, respectively, in the three highlighted cells at the top of the “Generator” sheet:

2. Copy and paste as many of the resulting codes as you need from Column A to a new document. Make them bigger, print several columns per page, etc. as needed. (If you know how to do a mail merge, even better!)

3. To check the codes after voting, paste them from your results spreadsheet into the 2nd sheet of this document, the Checker tab:

Any codes that have red in either column should be tossed out – the first column turns red if a code has been used more than once, and the second column turns red if the code is invalid.

Useful Excel Functions

This technique uses several killer Excel functions, including:

  • Advanced Filter – Unique Records only – this ensures that you aren’t giving out the same code to more than one person
  • Conditional formatting – this is what turns the cells red if a code is invalid
  • Random number generation – this is what generates the codes, based on the two numbers you enter in the yellow highlighted cells
  • Fill down – this lets you copy a formula to hundreds or even thousands of rows or columns instantly

I don’t expect the whole world to be as excited about spreadsheets as I am, but I do see it as a tiny slice of my personal mission to help people understand how powerful spreadsheets can be.

How do you use spreadsheets in your work?

4 Reasons to Switch to Google Calendar

I’ve used just about every calendar tool out there over the years, and the time has come for just about everyone to switch to Google Calendar.


Forgive me for being blunt, but I think the benefits are undeniable.

1. It’s Free
That’s right – Google Calendar costs you nothing. If your district is using Exchange/Outlook, they’re paying a license fee for every account, but Google Calendar is free, and you don’t need anyone else’s permission to start using it. Just create an account and get started. If you already have a Gmail account, just go to google.com/calendar and start using the calendar you already have.

2. It Works on Every Device
I’m an iPhone/iPad guy, so I wish I could recommend iCloud’s calendar, which is built into your iPhone. Sadly, I can’t, because the iCloud calendar is terrible at talking to anything that isn’t an Apple device – and this includes other humans who need access to your calendar.

The good news? Your Apple device will work with Google Calendar – in fact, the built-in Calendar app on iOS works perfectly with Google Calendar. Just go to Settings » Mail, Contact, Calendars and enter your Google account details. Turn Calendars to “on” and you’re good to go. Now you can access your calendar in your:

  • Computer’s web browser
  • Mac Calendar app
  • Outlook calendar view (yes, really!)

As well as on your:

  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Android phone
  • Android tablet

So you always have access to your calendar.

3. It’s Powerful
You might assume Outlook has the most powerful calendar features because it’s a desktop application and is used in many professional settings. But Google Calendar is just as powerful, and has a number of tricks up its sleeve. Did you know Google Calendar can do all of this?

  • Send calendar invitations just like Outlook
  • Send you a text message (SMS) appointment reminder whenever you want
  • Create recurring events with complicated patterns, like “every 4th Wednesday of the month”
  • Respond to keyboard shortcuts – my favorites are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 j, and k
  • Show your appointments in daily, weekly, monthly, or list view

4. It’s Shareable
I’ve saved the clincher for last: Your Google Calendar can talk to other calendars in whatever way you want:

  • Share your whole calendar with your secretary or family
  • Share your free/busy info—your availability—but not your specific appointments with anyone you want
  • Designate others who can edit your calendar, e.g. secretary
  • Link your calendar to scheduling tools like ScheduleOnce so it’s easy to set meetings with other people

I wish I got $5 for everyone I convert to Google Calendar, but I don’t. I’ll be satisfied if you get a boost to your productivity by making this effortless and extremely beneficial switch.

Have you switched? How did it go for you? What’s your favorite tip in Google Calendar? Do you miss anything about Outlook or whatever you were using before? Leave a comment and let me know!