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Alexa’s secret superpower: Making you more productive at work

Put an Echo on your desk, and you can stay focused, remember what matters, make calls, and more.

Alexa’s secret superpower: Making you more productive at work
[Photo: Piotr Cichosz/Unsplash]

While most people install their smart speakers in a common room, bedroom, or kitchen, the best place for a virtual assistant might be in your office.

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I recently installed an Amazon Echo in my home office, and it’s been a surprisingly handy way to save time and stay focused. Assuming your office is private enough that a conversation with Alexa won’t bother anyone, here are some ways you can use the virtual assistant as an office productivity tool.

Set some background noise

Experts differ on whether ambient noise is helpful or harmful to productivity, but I personally find that natural sounds, played quietly, have a way of snapping me into focus. The nice thing about using an Echo for this purpose is that it’s a separate device, so if you need to watch a video or listen for notifications, you don’t have to fiddle with the volume on your computer or hit pause on the noise.

My Alexa noise skill of choice is “Ambient Sounds: Heavy Rain.” To use it, activate the skill, and then say, “Alexa, play heavy rain sounds.” By default, the noise will play for one hour, but you can say “Alexa, loop on” to have it play until you tell Alexa to stop. The same company also makes several other skills with different types of noise. (In the winter, I sometimes use “Ambient Sounds: Fireplace.”)

Make appointments

When I need create a basic calendar appointment, using Alexa is faster than opening a calendar app, and allows me to stay focused on whatever I’m currently doing.

Before you can create any appointments, you must connect Alexa to your calendar. Open the Alexa mobile app, click the menu button, then select “Settings.” Scroll down to the “Alexa Preferences” heading and select “Calendar,” then sign into your calendar service. (Alexa works with Google Calendar, Microsoft’s Outlook and Exchange, and Apple iCloud.) After signing in, you can choose which calendars Alexa should access.

Once you’ve set this up, create appointments by saying, “Alexa, schedule [event name] for [date] at [time].” You can also just say “Alexa, create a calendar appointment,” and the assistant will ask follow-up questions about the date, time, and event title. To read off upcoming calendar events, try saying, “Alexa, what’s on my calendar for [day]?”

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Lose the sticky notes

Instead of setting reminders on your phone, try creating them with Alexa instead. When the reminder time arrives, the Echo will light up and read the reminder out loud, ensuring that you won’t miss any important deadlines. (If you’re out of the office, reminders will also appear on your phone via the Alexa app.) Just say “Alexa, remind me at [time] to [action]” to create a reminder, and “Alexa, clear my reminder” to dismiss the message.

Alexa can also remember things that aren’t tied to a deadline. Say “Alexa, remember [thing].” When you want to recall the information, just ask Alexa in a natural way. As long it recognizes some keywords from the original request, it’ll read back whatever you originally said. This is especially helpful for recalling the location of an item or a set of instructions. (One thing to note: Deleting things from Alexa’s memory is a bit tricky. You must say “Alexa, what did I tell you to remember,” then look up your history in the Alexa mobile app to remove each item.)

Fill your agenda

If you use Any.do, AnyList, Cozi Lists, Picniic, or Todoist as your to-do list provider, Alexa can read or manage those lists for you. Open the Alexa app, go to Settings, and scroll down to Lists. Choose your provider, then follow the login steps to link it to your Amazon account. Once you’ve set this up, you can say “Alexa, add [item] to my [list name] list,” or “Alexa, what’s on my to-do list today?”

Wunderlist users can also install the Wunder Link skill, though you must begin each request with “Ask Wunder Link” for this to work. Once it’s enabled, say “Alexa, ask Wunder Link what’s due today,” or “Alexa, ask Wunder Link to add [item] to my [list name] list.”

Stay on track

Ever find yourself peeking at Twitter or Facebook, only to find that you’ve wasted 20 or 30 minutes chatting or reading through all the links in your timeline? Alexa can promote better habits. Before you take a social media break, ask Alexa to set a timer for five minutes or so. While your Amazon Echo can’t make you get back to work, the sound of an alarm could help pull you out of a distraction vortex.

Fans of the Pomodoro Technique should also check out the Tomato Helper skill, which switches between a 25-minute productivity timer and a 5-minute break timer. Just say, “Alexa, open Tomato Helper,” to get started. (By default, it plays the sound of a ticking clock, but you can disable this by saying, “Alexa, start silent timer,” after opening the skill.)

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Make phone calls and send text messages

Now that Alexa supports voice calling to mobile phones and landlines, you can use an Amazon Echo as a speakerphone. To set this up, open the Alexa app on your phone, press the speech bubble icon, then follow the on-screen instructions. You’ll have to enter your phone number (which will show up for the recipient) and verify it with a code sent via text message.

To make a call, say, “Alexa, call [contact name]” or “Alexa, call [phone number].” Alexa will repeat the name or number and ask for confirmation so you don’t dial the wrong person.

If you have an Android phone, Alexa can also fire off text messages to any mobile number. Say, “Alexa, send a text to [contact name],” followed by the message you’d like to send. Like other voice dictation systems, you can add punctuation while dictating your message by saying things like “comma” and “question mark.” The only downside to texting this way is that Amazon will also send the recipient a link to the actual audio of your message.

More Alexa productivity skills to try

To make even more of your Echo as a productivity tool, check out some of these Alexa skills:

Toggl Timer: Billing by the hour? Toggl’s app lets you log your hours on various projects. The Toggl Alexa skill lets you start and stop timers with a voice command and check how much time you’ve spent on each project.

Get Me Up: For a little extra motivation, try saying “Alexa, Get Me Up.” At a rapid pace, Alexa will begin spewing inspirational platitudes, telling you to get on your feet, and encouraging you not to be lazy. Say “no” or “get me up” again for more, or say “stop” or “that’s enough” to make it stop.

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Email Assistant: Despite the name, Email Assistant does not let you send or read emails from Alexa (and that’s probably for the best). Instead, it scans your inbox for upcoming flights, car rentals, and hotel reservations, so you can quickly check without opening your email.

IFTTT: By connecting Alexa to other services, IFTTT can make your Echo even more useful for work. For example, you can sync to-do list items to Trello or Asana, have your phone ring when the Echo’s alarm goes off, or log the current time to a Google Sheets spreadsheet. Check out some sample recipes to get started.

Retirement Countdown: It might not make you more productive, but the Retirement Countdown skill lets you set a start date for your golden years and ask how many days are left to get there. Say, “Alexa, open retirement countdown,” to get started.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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