While researching for this post, I pinged a colleague on Slack and asked what his favorite productivity app was.
His reply: “get to the office before other people come so nobody bothers you on Slack while working.”
Hmm. Let’s try a different colleague: “i find anything that is supposed to help focus on productivity just takes more time.”
Well, that focus group wasn’t very helpful. But it was insightful.
These replies highlight the paradox of productivity apps: Some people are still skeptical that apps – the most ruthlessly efficient time-waster in the history of mankind – can all of a sudden morph from a procrastination engine into a productivity tool.
This post will show you (and my colleagues) the wide variety of productivity apps that help users stay organized, stay focused, and get smarter. And we’re not just talking about calendars and checklists. There are productivity apps that help with everything from reading faster to workplace collaboration, and we’ll hit on some really cool ones.
We’ll wrap up with a few tips that will change the way we interact with our most anti-productivity apps. Not that Words With Friends and Instagram will suddenly help you get more done, just that their pull might be a little less forceful. At least during working hours.
1. Freedom and StayFocusd
Freedom and StayFocusd are productivity apps that form, in their words, “the ultimate productivity duo.”
StayFocusd is a browser extension, Freedom is an app. They both have the same goal: saving you from yourself.
Users configure these tools to block websites that they know are killing their productivity. There is a certain self-help vibe to Freedom and StayFocusd – “Experience the freedom to do what matters most.” – but these days, everyone can relate to apps and websites becoming downright addictive.
So if you find yourself constantly checking your social media notifications throughout the day, you can set a timer that’ll block your social networks. You can also block the websites on other devices so you don’t cheat.
According to Freedom, users gain an average of 2.5 hours of “productive time” every day, helping them “reclaim 10,000,000 hours in the past year.” You can get a lot done in 10 million hours.
Price (for Freedom; StayFocusd is free)
- $7 per month
- $29 per year
- $129 forever
Wunderlist brings professional productivity app functionalities to your personal life.
Wunderlist lets multiple users collaborate on the same list of to-dos, reminders, and notes.
As they tell it:
Wunderlist is the easiest way to get stuff done. Whether you’re planning a holiday, sharing a shopping list with a partner or managing multiple work projects…
You can assign tasks to people, set due dates, and more. Clearly you’ll need to tread lightly when you assign things to your significant other (mopping is annoying enough without a deadline notification from that special someone), but the option is there.
- Free (with limited functionality)
- $4.99 per month (per user)
- Microsoft To-Do
- Habit Tracker
- Calendars by Readdle
Like lots of productivity apps, Trello can be used as a quick-and-dirty tool to solve basic problems, or as a high-powered solution for multiple people (or even multiple teams) to collaborate on massive projects.
At its most watered down, Trello is a simple to-do board. I’m looking at my Trello board right now: Tasks and reminders are lumped under different projects, which are displayed in vertical columns, called “Lists” in Trello-speak.
So the “Post ideas” list has cards with blog post topics. The “Actually doing” list is full of stuff that needs to happen, you know, now-ish. And so on.
That’s enough for me. But I’m only scratching the surface of what this powerhouse productivity app is capable of.
Those columns could be adapted to represent different teams, for example, so that an interdepartmental project could move from one group to the next. The columns could also act as benchmarks as you watch projects hop toward the end goal. You can tag people inside of tasks to create assignments, and set due dates.
When used to the fullest, Trello is an interactive, living collaboration portal that is more than capable of handling anything your department has cooking.
- Free (limited)
- $9.99 per month (with app integrations, team overviews)
- $20.83 per month (with personalization, security, customization, and other shiny stuff)
- Microsoft To-Do
The process of retrieving a password can take a few different forms. The best-case scenario is you click on “Forgot password,” click on an email link, navigate to a change password page, cook up a new password, and then hope you remember it.
Sometimes there are annoying quirks sprinkled in, like you used this new password previously and can’t use it again. Or maybe there’s a maximum attempt threshold, and you actually get locked out of your account. Time to call up customer support.
1Password is an app that will help you avoid these headaches and, as a result, boost productivity. It also allows your team to run more efficiently, as anyone at your company can access passwords on shared software and platforms.
Here’s how it works. You create a master password for 1Password. Then, 1Password remembers the passwords you use for your favorite websites and apps.
Over time, your master password for 1Password is the only password you’ll need, turning this anti-annoyance app into a full-scale productivity app. 1Passwords also has a browser extension.
- $2.99 per month (personal use)
- $5.50 per month (family)
- $3.49 per month (team)
- $7.50 per month (bigger team)
- Dashland Password
Reading might seem like something that doesn’t aid productivity. It is, after all, hard to #crushit when you’re curled up on the couch with a book.
But then again, we always hear about successful people reading insane amounts of books. Bill Gates reads 50 per year. Elon Musk was “raised by books. Books, and then my parents.” Barack Obama, meanwhile, said that books were how he survived the presidency.
As Mark Twain put it: “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”
This is what Blinkist thinks, anyway.
Blinkist synthesizes the most famous nonfiction titles into bundles that can be consumed in roughly 15 minutes.
Blinks – the preferred name for these bite-sized books – are divided into 19 categories, including Small Business, Biography & History, Politics & Society, Technology & the Future, Mindfulness & Happiness, and Money & Investments.
In other words, you can take down all of The 4-Hour Workweek – or at least take down its main ideas – on the way to work. Blinkist also has similarly quick audiobooks.
It doesn’t matter whether you read self-help books or something within your field of expertise. By reading more, you’ll draw inspiration from a wider range of ideas allowing you to make faster connections that a non-reader might not make on his or her own.
You can test out Blinkist for free for 24 hours. After that:
- $15 per month
- $93 per year
Totally fair if you’re thinking, “An app that advocates sitting still and doing nothing for extended periods can’t be good for productivity.”
It is, though!
Anyone who has meditated can vouch for the Headspace tagline: Brilliant things happen in calm minds.
Headspace may have been founded by a former Buddhist monk with a degree in Circus Arts. Even so, this productivity app isn’t about mystical exploration.
Headspace proudly uses science and data, declaring, “We recognize that the only way to know if we are achieving our goal of improving the health and happiness of the world is to measure it. That’s where the research comes in.”
And that research is directly linked to productivity. Hence the Headspace podcast episode called “Productivity,” the blog post titled “The real way to be more productive,” or the section of the website called, simply, “Productivity.”
A meditation app doubling as a productivity app is not as far-flung as it might seem at first glance. Some key drivers for productivity are energy, mental alertness, focus, and getting control over distractions. Headspace specializes in all of these.
- $12.99 per month
- $94.99 per year
- $399.99 “forever”
- The Mindfulness App
- Simple Habit
Sure, it’s a productivity app. Just hear me out.
While Blinkist may slash the reading time required to absorb life-changing ideas, there is one big drawback: Reading still requires, well, reading. You can’t read while you bike, you can’t read while you exercise, you can’t read while you shave.
You can listen, though.
Enter Audible, the industry leader in audiobooks. You get access to an unprecedented collection of audio content, including some great options to turbocharge how you get smarter.
You can “clip” content, for example, which is basically highlighting it for later reference. You can also set the speed at which the book is read. 1x is normal speed, then there’s 1.25x, 1.5x, 2x, 2.5x, and even 3x. 3x is getting a bit absurd, but ticking it up to, say, 1.5 lets you take down a six-hour book in four hours. That adds up.
Plus, the book recommendations are good. Like, Amazon-good.
I experienced Audible’s productivity app credentials when I had an itch to learn about Buddhism. Audible’s bottomless well of content – coupled with the endless listening opportunities I had while commuting, shopping, traveling, etc. – allowed me to carry out a pretty hardcore study of Buddhism without sacrificing a single minute of time that was already earmarked for work work:
One drawback to Audible is the price – they sure aren’t giving it away. It’s $14.95 per month, and that only gets you one credit (each book costs a credit). On the bright side, subscribers do get other benefits, like access to exclusive, made-for-Audible content, such as a piece by uber-bestselling author Michael Lewis.
If you’re self-employed, look into potential tax write-offs for education. Depending on where you live, you might be able to expense Audible or other educational materials.
- $14.95 per month (gets you one book)
Let’s stick with the audio theme for one more – Noisli.
Noisli offers a soundboard with a wide array of sounds that, according to them, “Improve focus and boost your productivity.”
The idea is that you can create the perfect environment to ramp up productivity. Do you like the buzz of a coffee shop? They have a coffee shop soundtrack that’ll funnel coffee shop into your ears all afternoon.
There are also more conventional sounds like waves, a forest, and birds, along with some quirky ones like trains and fans.
If you loiter on Noisli’s website, they do their best to turn that it a visual focus and relaxation hub: “Noisli also provides a color changing background, bringing to you the healthy benefits of the chromotherapy.”
Noisli was talked up by both Time and The Wall Street Journal. So even if you think it odd to actively seek out the static sound of a busted television, the sounds from a productivity app like Noisli can help you get in the zone while working on important projects.
- Free (the browser version)
- $1.99 (the app)
- Soft murmur (“the perfect productivity app to help you wash away distractions”)
True, when you go to Fitbit’s website, you don’t see young professionals killing it at the office. Instead, you see this:
(If you watch til the very end, there’s a guy in a suit. Maybe he’s going to work.)
Even so, Fitbit is a great addition to your productivity app repertoire.
Fitbit functionality varies by device, but there’s some pretty cool data becoming standard across all wearable watches. Take heart rate, for example. It’s no longer sci-fi to track your heart rate and then pump that info straight into an app.
You can also see how many miles you’ve traveled, how many hours of the day you were moving around, and other basic stuff that will help you understand your body. And you can’t be productive without your body.
- Varies wildly, from about $60 to $300+
App Hacks for Productivity
Alright, so those are some great productivity apps to help streamline your day.
But you know as well as I do that other apps — the ones not designed to boost productivity – are still lingering on your phone. Here are a few simple ways to help reduce the mindshare that apps consume.
Bury and bundle
My productivity ticked up when I created a new screen on my phone that looks like this:
These are some of the apps that I have the hardest time ignoring when I see them lit up with a notification.
Navigating over to the right, clicking on this LinkedIn-Twitter-Instagram bundle, and then opening the app adds just enough annoyance to the whole process to make me access these apps less than I would if they were all sitting there on my homescreen.
There are two good reasons to fire up airplane mode at night. First, electrosmog. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if it’s healthy for a device pumping out electrical signals to be one foot from your head eight hours a night. Airplane mode disables your phone from emitting any weirdness that could contribute to electrosmog.
The other reason: If you wake up during the night and check the time, you’re more likely to get jolted awake if there are a bunch of notifications waiting there for you. People get excited when they receive messages, get retweeted, and so on. Going airplane mode ensures that your phone sleeps during the night, too.
Turn off notifications
Part of the addiction we have to apps comes from the fear of missing something.
Thing is, there is no burning need to know 99% of the stuff we see in our push notifications feed. Like that it’s our move in Scrabble, or that we have a new LinkedIn connection. It’ll still be our move, and we’ll still have that connection, whether we see it now or in an hour.
Conclusions on Productivity Apps
This is by no means a complete list of productivity apps. Heck, Apple’s App Store has an entire app category called “Productivity.”
Hopefully, though, this post has helped you rethink productivity apps.
An app doesn’t have to be a Productivity App to increase productivity. Reading a book summary can be more productive than reading an entire book. And listening to a book can be more productive than reading a summary. And listening to a book at 1.5x speed can be more productive than listening at normal speed.
There is an app for just about anything you can think of. And more than a few of them are distracting.
But for every app that specializes in wasting time, there’s an app that specializes in optimizing time.