7 productivity apps that changed my life.
Finding productivity advice online is like finding the perfect diet – there’s too much to read about it, everyone claims to have the perfect solution, and in the end you become overwhelmed and end up not changing anything.
I prefer a humbler approach: this is what’s working for me, and I hope it can be useful for you too. So here’s 7 productivity apps that have significantly improved my life!
Task management is a vast but still mostly unexplored world: despite the billion apps that try to solve every aspect of it, I still feel like there’s room for more task management tool that solve specific problems that have not been addressed yet.
My main issue is speed of usage: I want the tools I use to get out of the way and just let me do the thing I’m trying to do. Which sounds something fairly simple in theory, but it’s often overlooked by app developers, mainly in a quest to show you that new function or that cheap premium subscription on sale.
We recently had a good example of it, when Snapchat CEO’s leaked memo admitted making this mistake:
The biggest mistake we made with our redesign was compromising our core product value of being the fastest way to communicate. [source]
So here comes Todoist: the service lets you add a task in the simplest possible way: in one line. Date, assignee, project: everything is described in one quick string, either with special characters (#, @) or automatically recognised by the app. Another killer feature is the two-way Google Calendar synchronisation, that allows you to add events to your calendar from Todoist and Todoist tasks from your calendar.
It’s also completely cross-platform: it doesn’t just work on different operative systems – it’s got dedicated apps for all of them.
I’ve been using Todoist as my task management app for about 3 years, and I recommend it to everyone.
I’ve considered Evernote my digital brain for a long time, and despite all the new apps that see the light every year, it keeps filling this role.
At its core, Evernote allows you to easily jot down and organise notes. This is the only feature I use it for, and I find it to be the best tool available online for the purpose. On that aspect, I’ve not found anything that compares:
- Notion is great but it doesn’t give me that immediacy that I want: just show me a blank screen and a cursor and I’ll take care of things later
- OneNote’s free-flowing structure confuses me, to me it looks like a whiteboard that I can fill with post-it notes. Can be useful but not my cup of tea
- Google Keep / Apple Notes are either too bare minimum or too OS specific
- a physical notebook can work too but it’s not always in my pocket
Sometimes I feel like the people at Evernote’s HQ forget this – I never wanted Work Chat, I don’t care about AI-suggested content, I just need to write down ideas, meeting notes, phone numbers and life plans. So when the font in my note changes size for no apparent reason, or the app jumps abruptly after I assign a note a notebook, I’m not the happiest user ever: how can you not figure out a seamless experience while using your core feature?
That said, the free account is generous enough (60MB monthly upload limit, max 25MB per note), and I have too many notes on it, so even if there was a perfect substitute, I don’t think I would switch just for the switching costs.
I’ve been regularly monitoring my phone usage since I read Hooked and The Shallows and I can see a clear direct correlation between the hours spent on my phone and my productivity.
Our phone is a black hole of procrastination, and it’s not only social media; when we pick it up to perform a specific task, we end up doing something completely unrelated, and often 30 minutes are gone before we even remember what we were meant to do.
QualityTime allows you to set alerts to notify you after you’ve spent too much time (you set the limit) on your phone, or on a specific app.
I’ve set my limit to 1h a day – which sounds already like too much time if you think about it, but compared to the the world average, which seems to be around 4 hours, I think it’s acceptable.
It also gives you nice stats about your days and weeks, and seeing the “hours spent on the phone” graph going down is always a good feeling.
In case you want to just track unproductive phone time, QualityTime allows you to whitelist some apps – I’ve whitelisted Skype and few other single-purpose apps (like Spotify or my guitar tuner) – but beware of abusing this function, otherwise you’re going to defeat the app’s purpose.
Even if you don’t take active measures to limit your phone usage, having QualityTime remind you every day about how long you’ve spent looking at that screen will make you more conscious, which is the first step towards improving.
RescueTime is the kind of time tracking I didn’t know was possible until I found it: smart, automatic, in the background.
It divides your time spent on your computer by productivity level: from extremely distracting (YouTube, social media, etc) to extremely productive (IDE, Google Sheets, etc).
It can track both apps opened and websites, so your Chrome time is not entirely lumped into one category, but it’s split into different sections. Most of the apps / websites are already in their database so you don’t have to tag them as “productive” or not, but you’ll need to teach it in other cases, for example by tagging your client’s website as “work“.
For each time period selected, RescueTime calculates a productivity score, which is great for giving you a quick overview of how your day/week/month has been. You can also apply time filters, like “every day, 8-6pm” so you can check your working hours score, without worrying about your evening Netflix or YouTube
Personally I aim for a score between 70-80 during working hours, but I recommend leaving the app in the background for a week and classify your good/bad days before checking the score – from there you’ll be able to understand what’s a good score for you and what to aim for.
Time tracking is one thing I should have started 10 years ago. I use Toggl to track my working hours, and if you’re not doing it already, you should. The benefits of time tracking are many, compared to the “hassle” of having to press Record right before every activity (which becomes a habit after a couple weeks):
- you get reports that allow you to review your week / month and make decisions accordingly
- it makes you feel better at the end of the day: sometimes we feel like we accomplished nothing during the whole day, and we tend to overwork to compensate. Seeing the number of hours you worked will put your mind at peace and will allow you to enjoy your evenings, conscious that you gave it all during the day
- on the other side, it keeps you accountable when you’re doing shallow work: this is a problem especially in office environments, where looking busy and replying to all the emails you’ve been cc’d in is more important than actually being productive.
With time tracking you can face the hard truth and realize you’ve spent your day running around without actually doing much. And in case you made your employer happy anyway, it’s probably a good time to start thinking about your next job.
- it makes you better at estimates: you can compare your time estimate to your actual time spent on that task, and if it’s off you’ll keep it in mind for next time. Estimating is very hard, and it’s a problem for everybody so don’t feel bad if you’re always too optimistic with your deadlines. It’s normal, but you can (and you should) fix it.
- and finally, if you’re paid by the hour, time tracking is really the only way you can invoice clients honestly
I’ve tried many (trust me, many) time tracking tools and no other app has the simplicity of Toggl. It always comes back to the core of the app, as it was for Evernote: I want to track time, give me an empty input and a record button.
Toggl does this pretty well, and it also recognises idle time, allowing you to discard it or keep it (I’ve not found any other apps who does this).
If you’re fancy it also has projects and tags, but for the reasons above I want and need simplicity, so for now I use a simple task template:
[project-code] task | subtask
Selecting client / project / tasks from a dropdown, each time I press record, is just too time consuming, and until Toggl implements one-line shortcuts on desktop (they’ve recetly been added to their mobile apps), I’m going to stick to my custom template.
Automation is the reason we use computers. If there’s a way a machine can do the job for you, why should you do it?
Automation is not only about saving time: when you make something easier for yourself, you’re also more prone to doing it. Inertia is often the difference between procrastination and productivity, so anything that helps reducing it should be taken into consideration.
Zapier is the best automation platform I’ve encountered, because it gives you complete control over your “Zaps” (series of automated tasks) with filters, variables and with over 1000 integrations.
How does it work? Zapier makes different apps work together, by creating workflows that trigger actions.
Some examples of Zaps:
- Create a Trello card every time I add a row to this Google Sheet
- Save all my Gmail emails matching certain traits to a Google Spreadsheet
- Subscribe new MailChimp members for emails that match a search on Gmail
If you just need it for personal use, IFTTT might be better suited, since Zapier’s free plan is quite restrictive.
But if you’re ok with a monthly subscription, there’s no comparison between the two tools: I consider Zapier to be the adults version of IFTTT, as it has many more features and feels overall more professional.
Notion is the new shiny tool everybody’s talking about, and I can’t avoid doing it either.
It’s a notes app, a task management tool, a wiki, a CRM, a spreadsheets editor, a quick todo list. It can be anything you make it, and its flexibility is a good solution to the problem I was describing above: all task management apps solve the problem in their own way – we all work in different ways – and Notion seems the first tool to adapt to you, instead of the opposite.
A good use case scenario was something I needed a few months ago: I have many projects on my hands and countless weekly tasks. Deciding what to do first is often tricky, so I wanted to calculate a priority score for each task, based on a few factors. A Google Sheet would have helped, but I needed something extremely quick to access (again) that would integrate with my task management tool.
Then I found Notion, and I almost couldn’t believe it. Tables with formulas, project management, notes: everything I was looking for!
I created an inline table with importancy/urgency/estimated time, I calculated the priority score with a formula, and sorted the table by it. Then I dragged each task on the weekday of choice, and added a list of sub-tasks for the large ones.
What I love about Notion is that any block can turn into something else: a bullet list can become a checklist or an index of pages.
You can also visualize the same data in different ways: table, kanban board, calendar.
The features that would make it a perfect app for me would be an API and recurring tasks – which are both on their way apparently.
I’ll eagerly wait for those to arrive, in the meantime I’m going to make the most of this beautiful new tool.