“Change Your Life” productivity apps & how to use them
So much information comes at us all day, every day, that it’s a wonder we ever get anything done. Here is a collection of apps, products, and services to help you manage the torrent.
By Brad Berens
Recently, in Distraction Audits & Why to Do One, I discussed how information and attention are inversely proportional. Or, as the great 20th Century polymath Herbert Simon put it, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The earlier issue was about throttling back distractions. This week’s issue is about managing the super-soaker of information squirting at your face all day, every day.
(Note: I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water in 2012, then updated it in 2015, but so much has changed that it’s time for an update.)
Here are my “Change Your Life” productivity apps and how I use them.
This is a long piece, but, unlike my usual, it’s skimmable. I’ve divvied up the apps into sections, alphabetized within each section:
(because not all productivity apps are digital)
Artefact Cards: My friend John V. Willshire of Smithery invented these. These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other. Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration, and collaboration. The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part. When John and I met for coffee in London a few years ago, he brought me a couple boxes. When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast. The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose—to “dump and clump” as my friend Bill Sanders says. Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive. John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.
Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote discussion, below). The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style. But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these. Piles of these are always on my desk, in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids still both love to draw, although these days they’re older and just play on their phones when bored).
Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner: Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates nicely with Evernote. Using it, I can shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote. If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a few minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did. More importantly, if you get distracted and forget, then it’s a drag when things pile up. When I’m running multiple teams across multiple projects, having all my notes scanned and tagged is priceless.
Pocket Notebooks, like these from Moleskine. You can also find less pricey versions at Muji (go to the store if you can because the website is hard to navigate) and at your local Kinokuniya bookstore. I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times. It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard slow. Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying. The Moleskine version has detachable sheets at the back, which make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.
Scannable: Although the Fujitsu scanner is my go-to device, Evernote’s handy smartphone app turns your phone into a pretty good scanner, perfect for on-the-go capture of that receipt you just can’t lose. Or, if a new acquaintance is low on business card, you can scan the last one and leave the hard copy behind.
Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter. Ux-wise, Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky). Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for any of us to update, and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed. The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month. Wayne Yamamoto, the co-founder of Jakobia, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.
Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web. It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video. (Apple’s iCloud is a weird hybrid of GDrive and Dropbox that I don’t yet understand.)
Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me this” productivity services. Evernote isn’t an app: it’s a movement. It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable. The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $100 per year for Professional because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices—rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.
Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).
My two wishes for Evernote: 1. Create notebooks within notebooks or folders within folders… that would help me organize things a lot. 2. Give up on your crappy to-do list and simply acquire ToodleDo. (See below.)
Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.
Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired a million years ago. Call me, and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work). I pick up the closet one. Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily, which helps with the infinite robo-calls hitting me daily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number. During my time in Norway, I only wished that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it went to the Vonage VOIP number that was virtually in the USA. Voice is part of Workspace (see next entry), but it’s too important to my productivity not to have its own entry.
Google Workspace: A combination of Google Docs, Google Calendar, G-Suite and more. This is the second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me this” productivity services. While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody. For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the integration with Gmail make this a must-have. Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.
Instapaper: The other “insta.” A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing. Often, I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption. If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are musts. I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.
The best thing you can do to make your use of email more productive is to be thoughtful about sending and replying-to email in the first place. I’ve written about this elsewhere. Email is a more pernicious distraction than social media because for most people if you turn social media off you don’t worry that you’re being irresponsible. Not so with email. Email is the ultimate FOMO, but instead of Fear of Missing Out, it’s FOSU: Fear of Screwing Up.
Boomerang for Gmail is a fantastic browser plugin that does many things, only one of which is important to me: “Pause Inbox.” OMFG do I love this function. Sure, I can just turn email off if I need to concentrate, but what if I need to catch up on email or consult something in my inbox while I’m working? Inbox Pause lets me have access to what’s already there while I keep the rest at bay. This should be a common feature across all email programs and services. With Apple’s Mac Mail, you have to go through a laborious process of taking an account offline and then later back online.
Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea. When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder, and it will send you a message at that time. So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “[email protected]” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back. You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera. The free version is robust, and at $5 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need. From my friend Adam Boettiger.
Braintoss: The most recent addition to my suite of productivity apps, recommended by my friend Bob Gilbreath. This is a low-friction, “shoot, I have to remember to do this, but I’m on-the-go” app. On the smartphone, you open the app then press one button to type, one to dictate, or another to snap a picture. Hit send, and it goes to your inbox. There’s also an Apple Watch app that is dictate-only but very useful. If I could only figure out how to have a recording device handy when I swim laps, this would be perfect.
Since I already use ToodleDo (see below) as a to-do manager, using Braintoss forced me to upgrade my ToodleDo in order to have the things I toss go directly into my list, but so far it’s worth the extra $.
ToodleDo: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me independently by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman. Don’t let the stupid name and ugly interface fool you: this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization. The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t neglect to get the smart phone and tablet apps. Fans of GTD will love this. Equivalent services include Todoist and Remember the Milk, but I find ToodleDo the most versatile.
As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy ToodleDo and integrate it.
Trello: Another from Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work. It’s a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished. Atlassian bought Trello a few years back but doesn’t seem to have done much with it.
So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Write to me with your suggestions.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
See all columns from the Center.
May 11, 2022