Apps/habits that helped me become measurably more productive in 2019
TL;DR Here are the apps.
Here’s the thing.
It’s insanely easy to write an article about productivity tools and apps, IMO. I am not adding reader value to Medium by writing an article about how great Gmail is for sending and receiving messages, or how great meditation apps are.
They’re broad generalizations, and don’t drill into specifics or how to measure productivity. And right now, the only reputation I have is “the guy who hasn’t proven that he can write a good article on productivity tools yet.”
I think it helps to quantify the productivity boots in the context of goals for each tool. And that requires data.
So, what I do have is data.
In 2018, I took two classes outside of work that sort of forced me to be productive. Show up, do the homework, study, discuss, etc. It was for a grade. 2019 wasn’t for a grade.
I have data that the tools I use below help me become more productive.
I’ll cut to the chase.
Bear — Notetaking
Goal: One central location for all of my notes.
This is sort of a must for me. I need a place to:
- Take notes, and store them in subsequent folders
- Make lists / checklists
- Store photos with notes
- Have all of this sync to the cloud on all of my devices
This solution needs to be colorblind accessible as well.
Bear checks all the boxes. I’ve used this app since Evernote became…less cool about private data, and I haven’t looked back.
Basic usage is free, I pay $15 a year for the extra features (sync, themes, exports.) I highly recommend it, or at least something like it to keep track of longer-form items. It’s more lightweight than GDocs and I like having it separate from the Apple notes app.
Measurement: This and the next one are sort of my base for productivity. I don’t have metrics for these. Stay tuned.
Google Tasks — Broad checklists
Goal: Put tasks in a concrete place instead of floating in my head.
I bounce around a lot of “Reminder / Task” apps. I was an OG user of Clear, the classic iPhone app for checklists and tasks, and then I switched to Google Keep. Not being satisfied, I tried Apple’s Reminders, and finally settled on Google Tasks.
Why did I keep switching?
Clear became a bit too gimmicky, and I never quite how it felt spatially, if that makes sense.
Google Keep tried to do too many things at once for me, and I separated its capabilities into Bear and now Google Tasks.
Reminders became a notification I dismissed because I was too used to an Apple-esque notification. I found I needed it to be unique for me to really find it meaningful.
I landed on Google Tasks because it was simple, allowed me to split task lists, and integrates well with my email client, Gmail.
Measurement: I would have at most 2 tasks in my task client, and now with finally landing on one, I keep track of 4–5 per day in Google Tasks.
Google Calendar — Weekly (non-work) schedule
Goal: Fewer events missed, and more time carved out for writing.
In 2018, I was forgetting and missing events left and right. I was basically sprinting my way through the week, hoping I would remember everything. It made it feel like I had a lot less time than I actually had.
“Just put everything in your calendar” is like saying “just be better.” Without a habit to stick to it, there was no point in me trying.
What finally clicked for me was sitting down once I re-downloaded the app and taking a half hour to write down every single event I could remember that was coming up. Parties, birthdays, vacations, everything. Once I attached that data to the application, I put a recurring half-hour event every Sunday to update my calendar. Wherever I am, I figure out what I need to add for the week.
Measure: On average, in 2018, I forgot about 1–2 events per week. This number has dropped down to 0–1 events per month.
Medium / Safari — blazing through articles
Goal: Fewer articles piling up.
In 2018, I’d basically get the dopamine hit of reading the article from just skimming the headline and adding it to my Safari tabs on my iPhone. “Wow, I should read this” I’d think as I banished the well-written and informative article to the literary shadow realm.
What changed for me this year was two things.
- Doing away with an article if it had sat there for a while. No mercy, just forget it. It’s taking up valuable space.
- Carving out 15–30 minutes in the morning for articles. I typically do this before my team’s standup. I enjoy starting the day this way.
Measure: At the beginning of this year, I was pushing mid-triple digits between my Safari tabs and Medium bookmarks. My Safari tabs consistently hover around 4–6, and my Medium bookmarks are in the low-30s.
Inbox Zero — reduce clutter
Goal: Zero total items in inbox.
I have to say, this is a lot easier as a software engineer, but I started the habit when I was a PM, I swear!
I will probably write a separate article on this topic, but it’s the holy grail of email. Basically, as soon as an email comes in, I file it as something I can delete, something I need to work on (and keep unread until I have time to) or something I can file into a folder.
Measure: In 2018, I probably had 1k-2k emails sitting in my inbox. As of today, at the end of every day, there are at most 2.
Audible — finish books on commute
Goal: Finish more books in 2019 than in 2018.
I hate to say it, but I don’t carve out enough time in my day to read. I have a loooooong list of books to get to, and my after-work time is usually packed. To mitigate this, I downloaded Audible and replaced my commute home of music with an audiobook.
It sounds simple, and this might fall under the “just be better” category, but replacing that music with a book was incredibly easy to do.
Measure: In 2018, I finished about 5 books. This year to date, I have finished 12, mostly through Audible’s help.
Apple Screen Time — cut down on “junk food apps”
Goal: Spend the mornings digesting more meaningful content (news, etc)
Those are real, embarrassing numbers up there. And while yes, I am getting better at devoting more of the screen time to “productive” content, a good chunk is still junk food. LinkedIn browsing, Instagram, Reddit, etc.
Using this feature is pretty simple. Settings -> Screen Time to view the stats, and Settings -> Screen Time -> App Limits to set limits. I have all the social apps on there. It’s tempting to set their limits low, but be realistic.
Ideally, apps like Downcast, Medium, Safari (articles), and Audible are creeping up to the top of the list.
Measure: At the beginning of the year, Safari and Medium were not cracking the top 20 of my most used apps. Today, they’re #4 and #6, respectively. Still a long way to go.
If you have any productivity apps that you swear by, I would love to hear about them. I am always looking to try new apps.