The best productivity apps are tools.
Tools don’t do all the work for you. Instead, they increase your existing ability to do something or let you do something you wouldn’t be capable of doing by yourself.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of using several fancy apps for each specific thing. But this is fundamentally a bad practice. Why?
- Each app takes time to get familiar with. Setup and maintenance must take less time than the app is going to save you. Work smarter, not harder
- It’s easier to work with 3 apps than 10. Use “Swiss army” apps that can be adapted to different types of work
It’s a classic example of the 80/20 rule: do 80% of your work in 20% of the apps. Use the remaining 80% of apps occasionally or for one-offs, like Anki for repetition learning or LastPass for auto-completing logins.
In this post, I’ll cover my stack of the best productivity apps, but you might prefer to use other tools. Just remember to keep your stack of productivity apps to a minimum. Less is more.
Currently, my main focus areas are writing for my blog, planning and tracking of 5-Bullet Monday newsletter, and creating awesome products. These are the best productivity apps I use daily to complete tasks and get things done.
Evernote is the quintessential note-taking app. And the best part is that the more you use it, the more you get out of it.
It serves as the central location of all my work. It’s the first app I open in the morning and the last to be closed at the end of the day. It has an incredibly powerful search function which lets you find any note in a few seconds.
Here are the tasks I use it for:
- Writing: ideas for projects, blog posts, and personal life; drafting the first outline for a blog post; notes during a meeting or long reports on specific topics
- Reference: save articles and emails — the entire piece or specific parts — for reference or inspiration using the Web Clipper; screenshots of cool features on websites that I can test on the productivity newsletter (use Skitch for annotations); links to spreadsheets or presentations
- Filling: important documents, such as tax and purchase receipts (do this easily with Scannable); flights and hotel reservations; CV’s
- Memories: journaling; saving a great picture with a few thoughts about what was awesome about that particular day
I’ve been using Evernote for 3 years.
I’ve changed the way I organize it a couple of times. It’s easy to try to optimize everything to last bit, but the genius of the app lies in its simplicity.
Here’s my pro tip: only use a few notebooks. Go for broader categories that can aggregate a lot of different types of notes. It makes note filling easier and search within a notebook to find a specific note fast. Aim for 3–5 categories.
Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Spreadsheets are one of the most adaptable tools you can use at work. You can use them to create lists, databases, calculations, budgets, tracking, planning, statistical analysis, etc.
Google Sheets has the essential features I need, it’s in the cloud, easier to collaborate in, and has version history. It beats Microsoft Excel on all counts with the exception of when you need to work with large datasets.
Here are the tasks I use it for:
- OKRs Tracking: I write my personal and business OKRs on one sheet and review progress every Friday on another one
- Metrics Dashboards: Pirate Metrics for One Productivity or personal metrics of OKRs, such as daily weight or words written
- Databases/Lists: SEO keywords for blog posts; Quora threads to answer; ideas for growth hack tests to run
- Habit Tracking: if I am trying to develop a habit according to my personal growth plan, I put an X on the day I do that habit, like exercising or meditating (copy my template here)
- Financial Tracking: I record all my daily expenses and analyze financials every month to see how I am doing in money matters
Keeping track of such a big number of spreadsheets can be a pain in the ass. Here’s a pro tip: link them from a note on Evernote with the same title as the spreadsheet.
This way, instead of searching in the Google Sheets home you use the Evernote search. Trust me, it’s easier that way.
I plan for the upcoming week every Sunday evening. It takes 20–30 minutes but the return on investment is phenomenal. I get a clear picture of what I need to get done and always know where to start every day and what the next activity is.
Here is my 3-step process:
- First, I write down all my tasks on a piece of paper or on Google Sheets
- Then, I prioritize the most critical tasks for the upcoming week
- Finally, I schedule those tasks directly into my calendar
There are literally thousands of Calendar apps but I find that the Google Calendar has everything I need. It’s easy to use, syncs with all devices and has a great user experience.
Again, don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. When you keep things simple, you have more time to do actual work.
Casual Use Productivity Apps
These apps — Evernote, Google Sheets, and Google Calendar — are the trinity of my productivity stack. However, I do perform some tasks that require the use of other tools.
These are the best productivity apps that I use on a semi-regular base for each type of task:
- Communications: I use Gmail for communication and create my own framework of GTD Gmail; learn how to be more productive on email
- Deep Work: to perform tasks requiring a lot of focus and attention, use the Pomodoro Technique to work in chunks; set a timer using this online tool
- Design: I create presentations on Google Slides and use Canva for all other design needs, such as infographics or custom images
- Delegating: recording screencasts is a great way to explain certain tasks when outsourcing work; I use RecordIt which is simple to use
- Music: I like to listen to music while doing certain tasks. Get great noise-canceling headphones, they’ll change your life. I use Spotify or long YouTube music videos of Jazz, Bossa Nova or background noise
Make Your Own Productivity Stack
Don’t blindly adopt other people’s stacks. What might work for me might not work for you. I’ve perfected my own stack of tools over years of work and removed everything that wasn’t essential.
And even working with such a small set of productivity apps, I continuously test ways to make them simpler. Just a few months ago I simplified my Evernote notebooks down to just 3: Work, Personal, and Reference.
A good starting point is to do your tasks without using any tools and then find the apps that let you do them faster and better. This is a good rule of thumb: only adopt a tool if it makes you more effective at a certain task.
Slowly you’ll build your own productivity system that works for you, instead of against you. When that does happen, you’ll feel unstoppable.