By Clare McDermott published February 12, 2018

16 Apps and Tools to Keep You Productive and Sane

apps-tools-productive-sane

A few months ago, I committed to evaluating my personal tech stack (yeah, I know that’s an odd collection of words, but you’ll see what I mean). My workload felt out of control. My goal was to be more intentional about finding worthwhile shortcuts and work-arounds, as well as trying to make life simpler – an undertaking I jokingly call Clare 2.0.

How do super-creative and productive people get through the daily grind of meetings, deadlines, and emails, yet still manage to preserve their creative energy? They, in part, optimize technology. This post focuses on the tools I’ve tested on my journey toward a more productive life.

Work-related apps and tools

AirTable

AirTable has proved amazingly useful for editorial calendar planning, mostly because it’s an insanely elegant combination of spreadsheet and database. While on the surface it seems like a spreadsheet, you can program columns/cells to hold pre-defined tags, checklists, and even files. (Free and paid versions; I use free)

airtable-editorial-calendar-example

Mixmax

Mixmax is a Gmail extension that automates many of the tasks I did manually. For example, I can send a dozen possible meeting times to someone via email, and when the recipient chooses one of the times presented, it automatically sends us both an invitation. I also use Mixmax to set up email triggers, embed surveys and polls into an email, and write editorial due date reminders to be sent in the future. (Free and paid versions; I use paid)

 

FollowUp.CC

FollowUp.CC is a Chrome extension in the same category of tools as Mixmax, but with a singular focus: setting reminders. Use it to set a reminder-bookmark on a webpage you want to revisit over the weekend, to remind yourself to follow up on an email, or even to snooze an email in your inbox for hours or days.

send-later@2x

The FollowUp.CC app sits in a pane at the right of your screen, always ready to record reminders, and even using artificial intelligence to guess when an email merits a reminder. It’s a useful tool but given the decent amount of overlap with Mixmax features (e.g., email tracking & scheduling), I’m not sure I’ll stick with it. (Paid version only)

Asana

Asana helps me manage tasks and deadlines across projects and teams – my single source of truth for what I need to do on any given day. (Paid version only)

.@asana helps me manage tasks & deadlines across projects & teams, says @clare_mcd Click To Tweet

asana-example

Evernote

Evernote is an oldie but goodie. On a tip from journalist-turned-marketer, Cameron Conaway, I’ve started using it to keep track of articles and links useful for upcoming content or projects. Setting up a reasonable folder system is essential to make Evernote work well. (Free and paid; I use paid)

Emergent Task Planner

Emergent Task Planner is my favorite low-tech tool from the suite put together by my friend Dave Seah that I absolutely love and cannot live without. I order the ETP pads, which are made with a nice, thick paper and custom inks, from Amazon and use one page per day to organize myself when I arrive at my desk. The ETP forces you to think clearly about what is realistically possible in one day and to map out how you plan to accomplish each task. (The ETP isn’t a new tool for me. I’ve been using it for years.) (Free and paid; I use paid.)

I use @daveseah's Emergent Task Planner to organize myself when I arrive at my desk. @clare_mcd #productivity Click To Tweet

the-emergent-task-planner-template

TIP: Writing my daily plan before I open email helps me focus on what is realistic and necessary. I like to start with a blank sheet of paper (ETP) rather than staring at a cluttered online to-do list. Each day you begin fresh.

Auto Text Expander

Auto Text Expander is one of those tools I never knew I needed until I got into the swing of it. Use it to auto-populate text you write repeatedly. Examples? Typing out dial-in instructions. Writing the company boilerplate. Describing what I’m looking for in a freelance writer. Each blurb of text has a matching abbreviation you choose; type that abbreviation into Gmail and the app auto-populates your pre-packaged text. (For example, when I type “#FCC,” it auto-populates dial-in instructions, and when I type #Yo, it drops in a short paragraph about the details of my business.) (Free)

auto-text-expander

IFTTT

IFTTT or If This Then That helps you align different apps to automate key tasks. For example, I use it to save the receipts received via Gmail into a folder without having to manually tag them. And you don’t have to be a programming whiz to figure it out. Browse the IFTTT library to use applets others have already made. (Free)

iftt_example

Contact Sync for Gmail

Contact Sync for Gmail is a tool with which I have a love-hate relationship. Yes, Contact Sync for Gmail does merge all your contacts across multiple platforms and devices so that you can see them all in G-contacts. The problem is it somehow linked me to a bunch of people on Messenger that I don’t need to connect with. (Paid)

contacts-sync-screenshot

 

Focus@Will

Focus@Will offers “scientifically engineered music proven to increase focus and reduce distractions.” It’s a tool written about in Chief Content Officer magazine years ago. (I wish I could remember who recommended it.) I stopped paying the monthly subscription about 18 months ago when I thought I had found a few similar channels on Pandora. Not so. In January I re-subscribed after missing the flow state Focus@Will helps me achieve. And I’ve noticed the difference in the intervening time. (Paid)

focus-at-will-example

RescueTime

RescueTime has a lot of features I don’t use because they overlap with other apps I prefer. But the one saving quality of this app is my weekly email that tells me how well I behaved while sitting at my computer. (And it can get ugly.) Look at my screencap and you’ll see that the week in question was much more productive than the one before it. (To be fair, I took some vacation time the week prior.) Even better, you can dive into analytics and see where you’re blowing your time. (I spent nearly 11 hours on email. Wow.) (Paid and free; I use free)

.@rescuetime tells me how well I behaved while sitting at my computer, says @clare_mcd. Click To Tweet

rescuetime-screenshot

TIP: Always add apps one at a time to your toolkit, particularly plug-ins or add-ons designed to function as an appendage to existing apps like Chrome, Google Drive, or Gmail. The reason? Some apps have a way of interfering negatively with existing apps, and if you add more than one at a time, you may not understand which one is giving you the problem. I have found Gmail plug-ins to be the buggiest of all, including those sanctioned by Google and accessible in your Gmail settings menu.

Personal apps and tools

The following apps aren’t exactly professional tools, but they help me to keep my head clear and focused by supporting good habits and keeping the less productive ones at bay.

Insight Timer

Insight Timer is a daily meditation that helps me to focus my energy and let go of stress. I’ve tried a lot of meditation apps, including the wildly popular app called Headspace, but my favorite is Insight Timer. It has a vast collection of guided meditations, as well as meditative music to put you in the zone. (Free + in-app purchases)

insight-timer-example

Stitcher

Stitcher is a great resource for podcasts. Have a mindless task you’re putting off? Plug into a great podcast and crank that dreaded chore out. Listening to podcasts helps me to complete the stuff I hate to do most (paying bills, washing dishes, folding laundry). My recent favorites are: Criminal, Ear Hustle and Endless Thread. (Free or paid)

stitcher-app-example

Alarmed

Alarmed is an app for GPS-based reminders. Set up Alarmed so that your phone reminds you to complete a specific task when you reach a designated location. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that Google Keep does something similar, but I’ve never used it.) Alarmed also has all the basic features of a to-do list and reminder app. (Free and paid)

alarmed-screenshot

Block Site

Block Site forces you to have self-control in ignoring distractions. Perhaps you have a Reddit problem, or you mindlessly check in on Facebook during the day? Block Site lets you block URLs, whether permanently or during certain hours. On busy days I shut down all social media using Block Site. (What you’ll find mildly shocking when you do this is the extent to which your fingers will type a URL — almost as a tic — before your simian brain has registered it.) (Free + in-app purchases)

block-site-example

Apple Watch

Apple Watch has saved me on a number of occasions. I have a problem of hyper-focus. I fall so deep down the hole of concentration that I forget everything around me. (I have on multiple occasions forgotten to pick up my young children from school — a badge of shame.) The watch buzzes my wrist when an important meeting or event is upcoming. And when I lose my phone inside my home/office (not an unusual event), the watch helps me locate it. (Paid)

applewatch-2-siri

Am I really Clare 2.0? Actually, yes, even if modestly so. Some apps and tools offer small improvements, while others are significant. The tools that have made the biggest difference since adoption are: AirTable, Mixmax, Asana, Emergent Task Planner from David Seah, and the Apple Watch.

And if you’re really not into improving productivity, there’s always Boss Detector. It uses a motion detector on your computer camera to automatically minimize all time-wasting activities on your screen when someone walks up behind you and to push your real work to the foreground.

Carry on.

Editor’s note: No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Gain skills and how-to advice to make you more productive – and your content marketing program more successful – at Content Marketing World this September in Cleveland, Ohio. Register today using code BLOG100 to save $100. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Clare McDermott

Clare McDermott is the co-founder and head of strategy at Mantis Research. Follow her @clare_mcd.

Other posts by Clare McDermott

  • https://boylanpoint.com/ JL Faverio

    Thanks for the recommendations, Clare. Both FollowUp and Mixmax look awesome so I’ve just started using those per your rec. Thanks again!

    • ClareMcD

      Whoop! Let me know how it goes. Mixmax is kind of amazing. So many features I find useful. My favorite is email tracking, so I can see whether people are seeing my emails. Mixmax also has the ability to embed GIFs in emails, which isn’t exactly mission-critical, but I do find myself using it when I send people pesky reminder emails. Softens the blow. 🙂

  • https://www.lookeen.com/ Eric Ebert

    Good list Clare! I would recommend https://zenkit.com for project management. RescueTime is also a great tip! (Everyone is allowed some vacation time, don’t feel bad)

    • ClareMcD

      Hi Eric! I will check that tool out! And yes, I totally agree on vacation time! If I don’t get time off my brain starts to get foggy and slow.

      • https://www.lookeen.com/ Eric Ebert

        I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro technique to help clear the fog. Anyways, let me know how you get on with Zenkit and please feel free to email me with any questions/tips: eric (at) zenkit

  • ClareMcD

    Hi Marina! I’ve heard from others about Google Keep but haven’t tried it. Will take a peek. Also: thanks for mentioning Actitime. Adding to my list!

  • Kyrylo Taranenko

    Hi Clare! Thank you for the great roundup. Would you be interested to try the spiritual successor of RescueTime that makes understanding your workflow even more clear and simple?
    At Y-Productive we’ve built the app that structures everything you do at work in a nice simple chart. It takes only two seconds to pick up the whole in-depth productivity feedback!
    I’d be pleased if you visited our site and sent a hello in chat! 😀
    https://www.y-productive.com/

    • ClareMcD

      Hi Kyrylo! I have to admit that after my try-every-tool-phase of December/January, I’m taking a break from trying out others. But since a few people have written to me about trying out tools in the productivity category, I’m making a list to try each one out in the Spring. Just need a break from my productivity tool testing because too much of it is going to make me … unproductive! 🙂 Promise to try this one out in the future though! Thanks!

      • Kyrylo Taranenko

        Hi Clare! Thank you for your asnwer!
        I get your reasons totally – please take your time. Will be glad to see you among our uses at some point 🙂

  • http://www.gyansetu.in Aastha Mehra

    many covered.. some missed.. overall amazing stuff

  • http://businessandlifetips.com JOHN MULINDI

    I never knew most of these, thanks for providing this list.

  • Shoabit Gupta

    Just check out this post. Thanks for writing this article and giving such a detailed list of tools and resources. I want to suggest one more tool and you might enjoy it is indydesk. It’s easy to use and manage all my business tasks flawlessesly. You must check it once.
    Indydesk empowers teams to work together, get tasks delivered on time and become insanely productive. It brings clarity in work allocation. Indydesk helps you in creating task lists with just one click, add tasks, assign them to team members and stay away from the hassle of writing and acknowledging emails.

  • B2B Technology Lists

    Thanks! I’m definitely going to check some of these apps