Apps should make you more productive. Not make you feel guilty. Not distract you. They should help you do more than you would have done if you didn’t have it. I’ve picked my most epic productivity apps and given you tips for how these apps truly make me more productive. Share your epic apps and ask questions in the comments. Thank you for reading.
How do you define productivity?
Productivity is not working at 100%. If you look at the Interstate system, they highways start significantly slowing down somewhere after 60%. Working all the time isn’t healthy, sustainable, or practical and yet, we have to make the most use of the time we have.
For me, productivity is
“The ability to get important things accomplished in a way that honors commitments in an excellent way, respects my own time and that of others, and allows my body and psyche to focus and sustain the best mental state possible for emotional, professional, and personal well being and enjoyment.”
Write your definition of productivity. Remember this — productivity often means taking things OFF your list and saying no. Saying “yes” to excessive demands that you can’t physically do will paralyze you and make you unproductive.
Intentionally decide what you’ll put on your homescreen and which apps you’ll use. (See how to Pareto your Homescreen) I’m constantly deleting apps that I don’t have time to use or that make me feel bad because I had great intentions but they just don’t fit with my life. I try to keep my ipad and iphone no more than 60% full so I have room for new stuff. I always keep 1-2 slots on my home screen OPEN – somehow it helps me feel like I have margin.
What makes a good productivity app?
When looking for true “productivity apps,” My criteria are:
- Must save time or steps from a task I need to do frequently.
- It must be multi-platform or sync with a tool that is multi platform.
- I have to use this app daily or multiple times per week.
- It should improve my life in some way.
According to these criteria, I have 18 apps that “make the cut.” Here they are in no specific order.
My 18 Epic Productivity Apps
Evernote is my electronic notebook. I think everyone needs one. The New York Times just recommended it as a must download. (In my new book Reinventing Writing, I dedicate a whole chapter to electronic notetaking and how to make it more efficient.)
Productivity Tips for Evernote:
- Create notebooks by the major topics of your life and add the most important ones as a shortcut. (See above.) The less notebooks the better. Use tags to organize.
- If you don’t get Evernote, go through the quick video Series: The Secret Weapon for great organizing tips and how to use tags and notebooks.
- Make templates for your most frequently used notes (I do this for my weekly lesson plans) or use an app like Kustom Note to make the template more attractive.
- Add reminders when you need to review a topic or look at an important list. (Great for review for that test or exam.)
- You can now record AND take notes at the same time. While not as useful as a LiveScribe pen, it is still incredibly helpful when reviewing for tests, for important meetings, or for notes to yourself.
- When I’m in the car driving and listening to a book on Audible and the book asks me a question, I’ll pause Audible and launch a quick audio note and record the answer in Evernote to insert as part of my notes for that book instead of the handwritten notes I usually type.
- If you have the pro version, set up the Post it Notes feature. If I have an urgent item that needs a reminder, all I have to do is take a picture of a pink sticky note where I’ve written the note and the reminder is set up automatically for me. (I had to configure this.)
- Go to ifttt.com and set it up that when you star a Gmail message that it sends it to Evernote. (Use this recipe.)
- Use hyperlinks to other notecards by generating a note link or add important files and routines. (See my blog post See Checklists in Evernote to Save Time and Figure 2 above.)
- Export notes from books you read into Evernote (See instructions for Kindle and iBook)
- If you’re a blogger you should use Skitch and link with Evernote. All of the cute pink arrows and text in this post were added in Skitch. Awesome app.
vJournal is the free version but has a paid version called Journal in the app store. Journaling (about what you’re thankful for) has been shown to improve your mood more than winning the lottery. This app sends my journal to a special notebook in Evernote along with a time stamp. I like it because each day is one note and I sometimes use it to record important issues throughout my day. It is only on my iPad but I use it every morning and it syncs with Evernote.
Productivity App Tips for vJournal
- Set a daily time to journal. If you get lost in writing, then set a timer.
- Set up a notebook in your Evernote for the year and link vJournal to it. (Each year, you have to go in settings and re-set it up with a notebook for a new year. I’ll make a 2014 notebook and link it on January 1.)
- Once or twice a week, I look in current photos and write about some I’ve taken – this is a prompt to talk about what my children are doing.
- Use hotkeys in iOS to set up an intro to your daily Journal post. (see next tip – Hat tip to Michaell Hyatt from his podcast on journaling.)
3. Use built in Hotkeys for snippets on your iPhone / iPad / Computer
Save time with hotkeys. These are built in on some devices and require an app on others. On the iPad go to:
Settings > General Settings > Keyboard Settings
Scroll down and click “add new shortcut.” The one drawback is that it does not include new paragraphs on the ipad/ iphone. To do that you’ll need Text Expander, but because Text Expander isn’t supported in every app, I just use this. So, for example, at the top of every Journal Entry I like to have:
Productivity Tips for Text Expanders
- Consider using Phrase Express for your PC (I wrote about this recently) or Text Expander for your Mac to capture and use things you type over and over. Sync it in Dropbox so that all of your computers (if you have more than one) will sync the phrases. Text Expander for Mac can also sync with iOS and be used in some (not all) apps.
- If you don’t like the idea of a text expander, at least use Canned Responses in gmail for repetitious emails. (Thunderbird has an equivalent too called Quicktext.)
- I keep a copy of my phrases and standard emails etc. in Evernote in case they need to be reedited and set up again. I tag it “template” I have templates for all of my work with Every Classroom Matters, for example and just replace the text I use over and over.
Mailbox is my default mail manager and is owned by Dropbox. You get free space if you link Mailbox to Dropbox as well. The thing I love about Mailbox is how you can set it to come back to you this evening, tomorrow, next week – or- make lists of the items. While I don’t use the list feature, this one app has helped me get to Inbox Zero every day for the past 3 weeks. It clears my mind and helps me be productive. [See my post The best mail for the iPad or iPhone: Mailbox
For example, I do all of my responses for my blog in the evening, so I can swipe to the left and ask for the mail to come back that evening. It is still there, if I go on gmail online, I can just look in the Mailbox folders, so nothing is lost. This is a take on the app Boomerang for gmail but the interface is slick and very fast. I LOVE MAILBOX.
Productivity Tips for the Mailbox App
- Set a quick routine for checking the app at least twice a day.
- Set times you'll respond to certain kinds of messages. (I respond to my blog stuff in the evening, school items I want to reappear first thing the next morning or when I'm back from break.)
- Remember your master list- if something belongs on the master list, note it in your planner even if you put it to remind you in the future.
- I first check my email in Mailbox NOT in gmail, otherwise, I find myself wanting these features in Gmail.
- Make lists in Mailbox such as "Receipts" and put a task on your weekly calendar to file or handle these.
5. Calendar 5
Calendar 5 has replaced my calendar app on my iphone and iPad. I can type in things like
“podcast recording with Alfred Thompson tomorrow at 8 pm”
and it uses natural language to create the calendar appointment. It syncs with Google calendar and is much faster than any other calendar service I’ve used before. I find the current calendar system on iphone almost impossible to read without my reading glasses. (They didn’t think about the 40 something when making those font types so skinny and hard to read.) I also use the task feature although there are MUCH MORE POWERFUL apps out there like Appigo Todo 7 and Nozbe two task apps that I like and recommend if you want a full fledged app to do it all.
I use Tasks in Calendar 5 as my master list but I still use a paper planner because as a teacher, I am up and around and rarely look at my ipad or iphone during the day – a list in my face open on my desk is more likely to get done than one hidden in my phone uselessly buzzing and reminding me from the netherworld of my pocketbook. I do look at my calendar every morning so having the list pop up on the screen is useful.
Productivity Tips for Calendar 5 App
- The ONLY thing I missed about the native Calendar app is the date. You can go into the settings of calendar 5 and have it show the date on the icon of the app. Do this FIRST. While at first you think it is alerting you to how many events you have, eventually you get used to the fact that it is the date.
- Practice adding a few events in natural language and you’ll be able to add them in a snap when you’re rushed.
- Use the task manager in Calendar 5 because it is right there and doesn’t require flipping between services. I use this for my task manager now.
Youmail has been my voicemail service for three or four years at least. When someone calls my voice mail and leaves a message, YouMail transcribes it for me and sends it as a text message. I can listen to the voice mail in the app if I need to. As a teacher who is always teaching, this helps me spend that quick moment calling people back instead of listening to voice mail. Great service and worth the $3.99 price tag each month if you get a lot of messages. It saves me so much time that I’m glad to pay for the service. The transcription is pretty good except with names but that is OK.
Productivity Tips for YouMail
- Link it with your address book and it will put the name with the person and even show you a photo.
- Set YouMail up to TEXT you transcriptions – it will get there before the app notifies you.
- Install and use the app to listen to voice mails only if you have to.
- You can save old voicemails if they are important in the archive. If I need to document something, it is right there.
7. Launch Center Pro (iPhone)
Launch Center Pro saves time on starting all the tasks you do a lot on the iphone. I have 8 family members that I text quite a bit. To get to them and text them, it takes quite a few taps (at least 5-6 for most.) Launch lets me take my most common tasks and put them into the app. (This uses a new feature apple has enabled to let you launch tasks within other apps. It is very cool. Note that I didn’t show that screen on launch center because it has all of the pictures of my family on it.)
So, instead of clicking into the folder and then clicking Twitter, I click launch and press “social media” and slide up to Twitter. This app costs $4.99 and if you don’t want to tinker with it, don’t buy it. But if you love productivity hacks and saving time, this is a great app for you that will take one of the bottom 4 slots on your iPhone. It relies on muscle memory and once you practice it, you can operate your phone and open apps without looking. I dock this on my bar at the bottom of my ipad screen in one of the big 4 spots.
Launch App Productivity Tips
- Use pictures for your family to speed editing
- Put launch on the bottom dash on iPhone to get to it quickly
- Think about what you do most often and put it on your homescreen.
- Once you have muscle memory for something Don’t move it!
8. The 30/30 app
My routines are in this app. I have morning routines, a routine for starting school and a Saturday Routine that I call “Pareto Saturday.” (See 3 little Tricks to Smooth out your day for how I use this app.)
30/30 App productivity Tips
- Set up routines for when you arrive at certain places. I have a morning routine at home, an “arrive at school routine,” a routine for cleaning my room when I need to do it in a dash. I add the routine to my “to do list” for the day to keep from putting tons of small things on your list.
- I’ve found routines over 15 minutes don’t get done.
- Make a game out of it and speed through it.
- You may find that once you have done a routine enough that it becomes permanent and you can do it faster than ever without the app.
- While it is hard to make individual tasks part of your life, I’ve found that routines make it easier to start integrating several habits at once into my life.
- You may find that your habits become automatic and you no longer need the timer after you use the app a while – that is great. I can now clean my classroom in a quick 7 minute trip because I know what needs to be done. When I started it was a 15 minute routine. It is automatic now and is a habit and I don’t even have to put it on my list any more! My room stays pretty clean at school and I love that.
FOR MORE ADVANCED PRODUCTIVITY LIFEHACKERS ONLY: If you’re a beginner, skip this one. I’m not kidding.
Drafts is one of those apps that you have to use a bit to get used to. If you’re a heavy Evernote user, Drafts makes a lot of sense. If you’re always making lists and sharing on social media, it helps too. Drafts lets you quickly send large or small snippets of text to various places and is integrated with many other apps. (See their Action Directory.) For example, I keep a list of books I want to read, books I’ve read, blog post ideas, and more in Evernote. Rather than open Evernote and flip and find those, I just hop in drafts, type the snippet of text and hit the button where I want it to go. If I have a lot of work on a Saturday, I can even go in there and write my list to send to Clear much faster than I could write it in Clear. It will also keep copies of things you’ve written previously. Think of it as a secretary that sends things to lots of places for you. It can even do searches, etc. from the screen.
Productivity Tips for Drafts
- If you use Evernote, make a quick list of the types of lists you want in Evernote, set those up in Evernote first and then set it up in Drafts. I have one for books to read, people to book on my show, ideas, quick notes, etc.
- Drafts has a place for 4 different ways to send – set aside one for Evernote and writing, another for task oriented activities and calendars, etc.
- Test it and take some time on a Saturday to play with this app and it will make you more productivity but expect a bit of a learning curve at first.
- If you are a blogger consider setting up 2 types of quick sends — one for a short one line blog post idea to Evernote and one to make a new full blog post draft with the text you type in (when that one liner turns into 100 lines accidentally. Bloggers and writers know what I mean.)
- This is most useful because it can put the items where you want it to go so it is all in one place when you take time to review. It is also a much faster way to make lists and set up things on the fly. It is a real productivity helper but you must take an hour to tinker. I had to go back to this app several times before I understood what people were raving about.
Dropbox is an essential for me. I like apps that link with Dropbox in every way and it is an essential part of my paperless routine with my students. [See Dropbox Organization Tips for Teachers and the Paperless Classroom. and the video above for how I organize my own Dropbox.]
Productivity Tips for Dropbox
- You don’t have to set up all folders to sync with every computer. For example, I don’t want my personal book writing activities or accounting system syncing with school computers.
- You can earn free space so many ways, by inviting others, even by signing up your class for an Hour of Code (which is a great thing to do anyway.)
- Learn how to move photos from your phone to dropbox but don’t set up automatic photo sync unless you have the pro version of dropbox.
- Create a folder in dropbox (particularly if you’re not a pro user) called z-harddrive. I put a z in front of it to automatically put it at the end of my list. Once a month, I take all the files that are in there and put them on the hard drive and out of dropbox.
- Create a file @junkdrawer where you download everything from the net and set all of your browsers to download to that folder. Then, when you need something you downloaded on one computer, it is there — or if you need space you can quickly clear the downloads folder for all of your machines with one delete. (Based on the file organization methods of Gina Trapani formerly of Lifehacker.)
- I set my ipad to upload to Dropbox. So, as I wrote this post, I snapped a photo, took it into Skitch and saved it to my camera roll. Then, I opened Dropbox and the pic was on the computer where I’m writing this post. I can literally snap a pic, annotate it, and send it to my computer in less than a minute.
- I could go on….
11. Dragon Dictation
I teach my students how to use Dragon Dictation. [See my BYOD lesson plan for Dragon Dictation] If I have to say something that has to end up as text, I use Dragon Dictation on my iphone or ipad and save myself time transcribing my own work (which never seems to happen.) This helpful app, while it will only take a minute or so of recording and you do have to say “new paragraph” and “comma” is very useful when traveling and drafting blog posts.
Dragon Dictation Productivity Tips
- Have a driving folder so all of these items are handy.
- After talking for a bit and getting to a stopping point, you might want to pause to let Dragon translate so you don’t lose anything when the cache is full.
- Practice and show your students this app, it can save time.
Listening to books “on tape” is life changing. My Saturday morning sprint to clean the kitchen, wash the dishes, and do laundry is always accompanied with an audio book (or audio version of Get Abstract.) Audible is now owned by Amazon so you should link the two accounts together.
Audible App Productivity Tips
- Keep a couple of genres of book on your Audible library. I have a book relating to teaching, another to money, another to productivity/motivation, a historical nonfiction book, and a fiction book always on my phone.
- Sometimes when I walk in the afternoons, I listen to a book instead of music. This is important if I find my motivation flagging or if I’m upset. Sometimes Stephen Pressfield’s “The War of Art” is all I need to be boosted.
- I use my Christmas money each year to buy a certain number of credits so I can get books and have them whenever I want. I download new books every few months and always before heading on a long trip where I’m driving by myself.
- If I’m responding to a book, I’ll have an audio note open in Evernote that I can add to.
13. Get Abstract
I admit that I was given a year of Get Abstract after a particularly wonderful Twitter friend told the company that they’d benefit from doing so. I love this service. The written summaries that I download and put into iBooks (my only books in iBooks are from Get Abstract) give me a deep glimpse into some of the best books hitting the shelves. This is perfect when I”m in the throes of my school year and am struggling to get my daily motivation and time for deep reading. Sometimes, I flop down in one of my wonder chairs (bean bag chairs from Walmart) in my room during break and just read one of these. They are well written and deep.
Get Abstract Productivity Tips
- Get your workflow for these. After you read one, take time to record your thoughts in Evernote. (You can put the epub or pdf file attached in Evernote if you want to go back to it.)
- Take time to peruse the online site to get your own book summaries if you don’t like the ones they send via email.
- Take time to read the abstract every week even if it isn’t in field. Some of the best ideas come when you read out of field.
- These are designed to be a 10 minute read so you can fit it in even when you’re busy.
Collections are now in all of the apps. My Kindle is important and my constant companion every where I go. I actually have an affection for my old Kindle – it is cracked but it has been with me around the world and that old white Kindle and I have read many pages together. Yes, I love books.
Kindle App Productivity Tips
- Consider a “dumb” Kindle so you can focus on reading. The biggest problem I have with reading on the Kindle for Ipad is that it is nearly impossible to turn off all notifications and it is hard to read if you’re interrupted. For this reason, my old Kindle is my favorite.
- If you have more than one Kindle app, make sure you sync the older Kindles when you’re done so that you can pick up where you left off on your other device.
- Organize your collections intentionally (see how I do mine here)
- Create one collection called “@ctive” for what you’re reading right now and “On Deck” for what is next. Consider a collection “Stopped Reading” and another for “Finished” as well as “fiction” and “non fiction” and remember that books can go in multiple collections. I strive to only have 5-6 books active and intentionally decide what to do with books that I’m no longer going to read and move them to “Stopped Reading” so I can come back to them if I want to.
iCatcher is my favorite app for downloading and listening to Podcasts. I collect shorter shows to listen to in the morning like my own Every Classroom Matters (yes, I listen to my own show to prep to write about it) and Tales from Lake Wobegon. These shows are both around 10 minutes so when they are done, I know I should be done getting dressed. Learn how to set up this app.
iCatcher Productivity Tips:
- Set up playlists for the length of your drive so you don’t have to click between shows and be distracted. Most shows have a certain length. I put the short ones at the beginning of the playlist so a long one won’t take up the entire time.
- Intentionally decide who you want in your life. Who motivates you? What people encourage you? You become what you think about and who you listen to.
- Have a time you listen to shows or use it when you’re washing dishes or doing chores. If you pick a show with a certain length (my shows are 10-13 minutes each, for example) then, you can fit the chore to the time and use it as a mini timer.
- Pick a few contrarians and people who will challenge your thinking.
Hootsuite is a lot like Tweetdeck and allows you to see twitter streams in columns. It makes tracking hashtags and conversations easier and is perfect for the busy educator. Above, I have a tutorial for how to set up Hootsuite and below are quick tips for setting up a Twitter chat in Hootsuite.
Hootsuite Productivity Tips
- Set up a screen for managing each of your social media accounts.
- You can also add apps like Evernote and Trendspottr to help manage and make Twitter more useful.
- Set up a “dashboard” for every conference I go to (and delete them when I’m done) so everything is together.
- Use the ipad version at conferences or when you need to see what is happening at a glance.
- Hootsuite has a great way to see retweets and keep an eye out for trending content so you can see what is up.
- Remember that although you can link Facebook that the new algorithms on Facebook penalize content posted from outside sources. If you have a fanpage, schedule within Facebook but for this reason it makes sense to post within Facebook or your friends and fans just won’t see it because of the inner machinations of Facebook.
The Bufferapp is what you can use to schedule Twitter posts. While this has many of the same features as Hootsuite, I use buffer for my original posts that I’ve written and I schedule retweets in Hootsuite. Buffer is perfect for a teacher like me because when I’m teaching for at least 5 hours a day, I am, by necessity, completely unavailable. I have some time early morning and late afternoon to check Twitter. So, to try to be helpful throughout the day and to avoid overtweeting (something that will get you unfollowed), I just sit down and schedule my tweets once a day – or, if I’m going out of town, I’ll do it before I go. There are tools like Social Bro that will help you figure out when you should schedule buffer, but I typically try to make it the hours I’m awake and would tweet normally. That way, it takes pressure off me to keep sharing so I can be in the moment with my students or family and not distracted.
- Hack around your school’s firewall and post to your school Facebook and upload pics from on campus (even if it is blocked) by setting up Buffer at home and putting it on your phone as well. While you can’t receive comments, you can post and share during the day.
- Tweak your buffer schedule with an app like Social Bro so you reach out when others are reading that are in your network.
- Take time to write down the kinds of Tweets you want to share. I have on my list, quotes, humorous things, trending items, and helpful articles as a few.
- Install the buffer app extension for Chrome and you can buffer right from Twitter if you use that.
- Check out all the ways you can buffer including some of my favorites Mr. Reader, Feedly, ifttt.com, at the Buffer extras page.
18. Intentionally choose your Homescreens and Desktop Wallpapers
You are what you think and what you put into your mind. I pick a theme of the month and design my lockscreen, homescreen on my mobile devices and my wallpaper on my computer. It helps keep the character trait front and center. Whether it is the word “Forgive” or “Listen” or “Be Friendly” – I like to add pictures and words in a sort of Benjamin Franklin-esque way of helping motivate myself to consider who I want to be. Here’s how I do this:
- Download the Free “Pimp Your Screen” App for iphone or ipad and customize it with a pic and text. Use this on wifi only as the graphics can be slow to load and use up your data.
- Create different screens for your different devices because of the size. Use this as a beginning of month activity.
- While you can add a calendar with dates on your screen, I don’t do this because if I get busy, I get a guilt trip from seeing that I haven’t updated it. Sometimes I’ll keep the same screens for a month or two and other times, I’ll change them.
- Search for “free inspirational desktop wallpaper” or something like that to find great wallpaper. Take it into Picasa or PhotoShop to add the text you want to see. [Inspirational] [[Go to Wallpaper Abyss for more]] While some let you right click and set as wallpaper, others require you to download and then set it up.
- If you have two screens, look for the super cool two screen wallpapers that will stretch across (and freak people out.) [See 70+ beautiful dual screen wallpapers]]
- Clear space and leave margin. I set shortcuts for each of my programs to start so I can get them off my desktop and have a minimalist approach to desktops.
- If you have Windows 8, search for a screensaver app that will motivate you – I have one with stunning Bible verses that go on my screen daily.
Wrapping Up Epic Productivity Apps
So, that wraps it up. I hope that this productivity present has helped you because it has taken me three months to write and probably 20 or more hours. I hope you’ll ask questions and share your epic apps in the comments. Take time to gift what you’ve learned with your PLN and help others learn and grow.
Life is short and time is precious so bring things into your life that help you make better use of it and don’t feel guilty about abandoning and deleting apps and tools that just aren’t working for you. Take time to be present and be the present to those who are around you.