If you want to conquer unproductivity, here’s where you need to start.
I tapped into the expertise of Han-Gwon Lung, who covers productivity for Entrepreneur.
Basically, I told him to imagine he was in a room full of self-made millionaires and Fortune 500 CEOs.
His mission? Help me break down the 25 best productivity apps. Here we go:
Part 1: Ranking the top 25 productivity apps of 2016
Most notepad apps are awful. They’re descended from Notepad and Word and have bad interfaces, complicated buttons. Half the time you’re not entirely sure where your notes got saved.
These notepad apps just aren’t very friendly. And let’s be honest—sometimes you don’t want all the bells and whistles. Sometimes you just need a simple, clean, easy-to-use notepad app. Is that too much to ask for?
With its natural hand gestures, beautiful interface, and iCloud syncing software, it should be an out-of-the-box download on every new phone you buy.
No matter how productive your team is, they’re going to play mobile games on the job (and you probably will, too). In fact, the average worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes in an 8-hour workday (4). So instead of frying your brain cells on Pokemon Go or Candy Crush, you should invest in Lumosity.
Lumosity has developed over 50 games that make the gamer smarter. Some boost cognition, others build memory. All of the results go to actual scientists who use the pooled data to understand our brains better.
In short, use Lumosity to help your workers be productive even when they’re being unproductive. It’s also a great way to distinguish intellectually rigorous employees who are also achievers.
Raise your hand if this sounds familiar. You’re reading the same page from the same report for the fifth time and suddenly you realize you just spent 30 minutes staring at your monitor until your eyes are straining. By the time you realize this, you’re already opening up YouTube.
We’re all humans, and we all need breaks, for both physical health and mental stability. According to U.S. Army research, the “ultradian” rhythm is a unit of productivity that clocks in at around 90 minutes (5). According to Desktime, which surveyed 40,000 of their users, you should take a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work (6).
That’s where EyeLeo comes in. It organizes your breaks for you so that you don’t lose track of time. It can organize quick little pick-me-ups and longer, more substantial outings (based on your customized settings). When it’s time for a break, it dulls your phone or computer screen, forcing you to take a mindful step away from your computer, only to come back more productive than ever (7).
22. White Noise App
If you want your workers to reach their peak potential without getting distracted, the White Noise App is for them. Studies have shown that white noise can increase memory and intensify focus (8). And there’s a lot of variety to white noise. The app’s selections include the ever-popular “ocean waves”, “rain on windshield”, and even “obnoxiously loud hairdryer” (9).
Pros: It’s free and, while not the most interesting thing to listen to, will help you and your employees better focus.
Cons: Not all white noise is created equal. And when you do pick a good background noise, it’s often so soothing that you may feel tired after a couple hours.
21. Epic Win
One of the better-known gamified productivity apps, Epic Win was designed to reward people who accomplish real tasks in real life. At first glance it may seem a bit tacky and far-fetched, but in practice it’s highly addicting. Incentives and achievements are both powerful things (10).
I rank Epic Win above Lumosity because instead of encouraging you to step away from work, it gives you RPG-like incentives so that you feel compelled to accomplish tasks at work. It’s useful for solopreneurs and startup teams alike. Also, Epic Win’s tagline (“Level-up your life”) is just fantastic.
Due differentiates itself from the pack with a robust reminder system. It helps ensure that you don’t forget to feed your co-worker’s cat (again). It also allows you to set and prioritize one-time and recurring events. This helps you focus on the things that are truly important without worrying about daily minutiae.
Whatever you priority, Due will keep you in line. Whether it’s managing your French Press or realizing you must push back your client call by an hour, Due establishes a steady stream of reminders for your goals. And, if you’re a traveler, it even manages your reminders within time zones.
Yes, I’m covering quite a few “to-do list” apps, but Things really stuck out to me. Its interface is solid but not revolutionary, but its smart features library is a game-changer.
Let’s say I’m reading an email and I want to make a note of it. With Things, all it takes is two mouse clicks on any highlighted text, and voila—you’ve saved a note. If you’re in a rush, the “quick entry” feature is clutch.
Personally, the most useful feature for me is the daily recap that I receive at end of day, reminding me of all that stuff I forgot to do.
18. Big Stretch
I already explained how EyeLeo can keep you from straining your eyes, but what about the rest of your body? That’s why there’s Big Stretch. This reminders app gives you a much-needed break from being an office chair potato and protects your body from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).
Office RSI is widespread, and quite frankly none of us do enough to protect ourselves because we don’t take it seriously (11). If that sounds like you, Big Stretch will encourage you to move around at intervals, just like your middle school gym teacher.
Doable incentivises in the same way Lumosity and Epic Win do, but then it takes your productivity to the next level by factoring time spent into the equation.
By encouraging players to prioritize the tasks they have left based on the remaining hours, minutes, and seconds before EOD, it prevents a lot of wasted time. It also keeps stats as to how realistic or effective your goals are (e.g,. How accurately did you scope out a specific part of a kickoff project?), so that you know better for next time. In other words, Doable is the best approximation of an automated project manager I could ask for.
A lot of us have a bad habit of being too optimistic, and pushing off deadlines until it’s too late. Fortunately, Doable knows me better than I know myself, and that’s exactly the kind of insight I need to stay productive.
Not everyone would enjoy an app that constantly reminds them of the time they’re wasting. But when you’re a millionaire or on your way there, that’s exactly the kind of tough love you appreciate most.
Which is why Harvest is such an effective way of keeping yourself accountable. When you’re your own boss, seeing unpaid work hours stack up is incredibly aggravating. It’s a very effective motivator. It can also help you discover productivity pitfalls and enormous timesucks that can save you and your business truckloads of money (12).
Swype is the original swipe-based typing app. If you haven’t seen it in action, check out this video (13). Swype doesn’t save you a ton of time on writing a single text or email. But when you’re sending out a hundred or more each day, that adds up to a lot of inefficiency.
It’s no real surprise that Swype was developed by the same guy who invented T9 predictive texting back in the dark ages of 3×4 numeric keypads. While that was revolutionary back then, Swype has all but replaced traditional typing for on-the-go entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Mastering it will ultimately save you a lot of time and leave your off hand free for other tasks (14).
Multitasking not only slows down your productivity, it can temporarily lower your IQ by 15 points (15). Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up. Granted, this is all according to the people over at Trello, some team-based task management platform.
If you haven’t already used it, Trello allows you to communicate with fellow workers (or anyone else) on shared tasks and complete them in a clean, highly transparent way.
Trello is so effective that articles have been written about how you could feasibly cram your entire life into the app. Everything from your bathroom renovation to that 100-page SEO audit you have to wade through with Susan (16).
Printers (and the scanners that are often built into them) are janky at best. They don’t work half the time, and the other half of the time your intern can’t remember the settings you want. Fortunately for all of us, PDF cell phone scanners are quickly replacing the need for traditional printers.
The best one I’ve seen is Scanbot. It offers the best image quality, edge detection, page alignment, and is nicely organized and cloud-based. Its OCR (Optical Character Recognition) functionality is fantastic. All you have to do is scan print text (or even a photo of screen text) to be able to turn it into searchable text (17).
Swype’s biggest competitor SwiftKey is the new kid in town. And as much as I like the original, SwiftKey has effectively improved on Swype’s design in a number of significant ways.
It offers better suggestions, better finger movement detection, and most importantly the ability to switch between traditional typing and swiping on the go. Ultimately, it’s just more customizable (with options like split-screen), so it gets the nod over its predecessor (18).
11. When I Work
Creating schedules used to be the full-time job of a project manager. But in most tech companies and smaller operations in general, the need for a traditional project manager is dying out because there are apps like When I Work.
Not only does it keep track of your overall schedule, it also acts as a Gantt chart-style calendar on which employees can “clock-in” to record their hours. That way there’s never any confusion about how much money they’re owed (or what they’re doing). It should come as no surprise that When I Work has secured over $24 million in funding in less than three years (19).
The brains behind Focus@Will claim they can up your productivity by 400% using cognitive neuroscience mixed with music (20). However, this isn’t just any playlist. They hand selected stations to bring you the right focus depending on your personality and mood.
They cover the entire music and sound spectrum. Are you a white noise guy? A Top 40 girl? Do you want to listen to Beethoven or The Beatles? Guitar or zitar? Whatever your pleasure, Focus@Will probably has the right soundtrack to keep you productive. It worked wonders for me, personally.
Basecamp has been around since 1999, and is by far the oldest of the big team management apps (21). That being said, it’s been reimagined for the modern Millennial user countless times, and is still as useful today as it was over 15 years ago.
Basecamp is split it up into six different ”camps”: Campfire (casual chat), Message Board (work chat), To-dos, Schedule, Automatic Check-ins, and Docs & Files. While lean Slack enthusiasts may argue that the dashboard is more complicated than it needs to be, Basecamp veterans agree that this kind of straightforward categorization is perfect for productivity and helps first-timers easily navigate the platform and find what they’re looking for.
Think Trello, but more team and project based. Instead of cards, you have bulleted lists with checkboxes. Using the example on their website, if you were a Mars colonization company, you could create a shared list to discuss everything from hiring astronauts to how big an American flag to order for mission launch.
Asana is wonderfully visual and allows you to see your project data in real time. It’s sort of like a combination of a smart to-do list and a bit of Salesforce CRM. Long story short, if you’re a CEO or project manager of a large team or number of teams, Asana should be in your toolbelt (22). For a solo entrepreneur or a new business, Trello may be the better fit.
Toggl is similar to Harvest in that they both shame you for how much time you’re wasting doing useless tasks. However, while Harvest has great flexibility for individual and team use, Toggl gets the nod for its unprecedented levels of integration.
Take a look at the laundry list of apps Toggl can be integrated with: Salesforce, Gmail, Basecamp, Slack, Evernote…the list goes on. This level of integration is astounding, and quite simply not something that the other timekeeping apps can match (23). And its results are real, Toggl saves an average of $12,441 per team per year (24).
Imagine the perfect shared to-do list. You could view it as a calendar, as a Gantt chart, or as a traditional list. And you could share it as easily and intuitively as a Google Sheet. That’s exactly what SmartSheet lets you do.
It’s a project manager’s fantasy made reality. And it’s also one of the most seamless productivity tools I’ve ever used. This all-in-one system gives users a real-time, eagle’s eye perspective understanding of your entire operations (25). SmartSheet is a must-buy for anyone who wants to be more productive.
No surprises here. Slack is about as trendy as office software gets, and if you haven’t used it yet you are missing out. A cross between Twitter, a forum thread, and a chat room, yet more useful than all three. Slack’s disarming interface and simple controls have made it wildly popular for team communication, so much so that people are logging a collective 100 million hours a month on the platform (26).
And while a good chunk of that time includes managers spending hours finding the right GIF to describe their clients’ ineptitudes, Slack’s organizational hierarchy and comfortable, intuitive learning curve really set it apart from the competition (27).
Businesses waste an average of 4.8 hours each week just on scheduling meetings (28). That’s nearly an hour each business day, which is why calendar invites were ripe for disruption.
While there are many contenders, Calendly is simply king in this category. It’s simple, clean, and by putting the ball in the recipient’s court, it allows you to schedule appointments without any back and forth. All you need to do is give someone your Calendly link, and they can find the time that works for them based on your Google Calendar or Outlook availability.
For whatever reason, managers (especially those in the C-suite; you know who you are) don’t like to write down their passwords. So it’s not too surprising that companies lose about $420 per employee per year (29) because A) they waste a ton of time looking for them, and B) they can’t find them and have to reset them (30).
Just in your personal life, think about the embarrassing number of times you’ve had to reset your password for some ridiculous site.
That’s why 1Password is one of my favorite entries on this list. It takes all of your passwords and integrates them all into a single, simple app. So instead of having to remember dozens of usernames and passwords, you only need to remember one. 1Password keeps everything safe, from classified bank logins to your secret novel idea.
2. Google Drive
It amazes me how many people still aren’t using Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Guys—this stuff is lifechanging. Stop using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Sure, Docs isn’t as powerful as Word, but let’s be honest—you don’t use 90% of Word’s features anyway.
Google Drive is everything you actually use in Microsoft Office on caffeine. It’s robust and responsive, and it’s so easy to share and collaborate in real time. Not to mention the mobile app lets you can create real documents and spreadsheets (not just notes) while in a meeting, at dinner, or on an airplane in offline mode. Real-time editing wasn’t even a thing before Google Drive hit the scene.
Best of all, Google Drive is entirely in the cloud, so you don’t have to email yourself attachments when moving between computers anymore. It all syncs right up into what’s arguably the best and most popular cloud: Google itself (31).
Are any of you surprised? Love it or hate it, Evernote has 150 million users (32) and has been called the “one app to rule them all” (33). And for very, very good reason. It’s been around forever, but unlike Word, it keeps getting better and better. It takes everything that my favorite apps on this list do, and marries them.
Evernote keeps track of your time and gauges your efficiency. It also works like a Google doc for composing documents. It can take voice notes, organize your existing notes into hierarchies, and quick-scan other documents to steam notes off them, too. And it all syncs to the exact same platform on mobile, tablet, or desktop.
If you could only have one app on this list, it would have to be a toss-up between Google Drive and Evernote. For solopreneurs and small businesses, both are incredibly important. But not every businessperson needs to make spreadsheets or presentations—a lot of you can afford to get other people to do that for you.
However, every businessperson needs to be able to take good notes. And that’s why Evernote is simply unbeatable.
Part 2: Productivity app trends
Now that we’ve downloaded all 25 apps (or at least, some of them), here are some tips on the best ways to implement them into your business and your life.
First pro tip? Don’t download all of them. Please don’t even download half of them. Figure out which ones make the most sense for your operations, then keep reading:
To-Do Lists: Clear, Due, Things, Evernote, Epic Win, Doable
Ramit Sethi once tweeted: “I use to-do lists a lot. I just make sure they’re part of a larger productivity system” (34). That’s smart, because too often we don’t actually follow a to-do list we made ourselves even if it’s right in front of us. We don’t often see the big picture in our heads, and tend to forget a lot of important steps, so personal to-do lists are only so useful.
That’s why enterprise to-do list apps can help. They give you a larger productivity system framework so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Doable, for instance, can train you on the necessity of time management. Clear can reduce your clutter. Evernote can help you see how long your tasks are taking you, and give you clarity to save time going forward. And Epic Win can teach you to celebrate your victories, no matter how small (and that’s always important).
Short Breaks: Big Stretch, EyeLeo
Taking breaks is crucial for your continued productivity, health, and sanity. Neil Patel encourages his readers to take breaks and has a smart timer system for discovering the right frequency and length for breaks, using a simple kitchen timer (35).
You can use Big Stretch and EyeLeo in the same way, but it takes a bit of experimentation. Obviously, most of us prefer extended breaks, but the longer your break the more you become distracted and the harder it is to get back into focus.
So test out different cycles and break lengths on yourself and your employees. Also use the timekeeper apps below to gauge how well you’re performing giving your various types of breaks. Then you can identify the most productive rhythm for each person on your team.
Timekeepers: Toggl, Harvest, Evernote
In a recent examination of the 8-hour workday, studies show that workers spent an exorbitant amount of time doing anything but work (checking Facebook, talking with co-workers, taking walks, etc.) (36). In fact, because of rampant work inefficiencies, most workers only spend a little more than 3 hours a day being productive.
Like I’ve already said, it’s clear we all need more frequent breaks to maximize productivity. Toggl, Harvest, and Evernote all allow you to track your productivity throughout the day in different ways and stay accountable to yourself and your team.
Taking 15 minutes at the end of each week to analyze this information could be a game-changer. It will help you see where you’re wasting time and where time could be better spent. Doing this for analysis face-to-face with each of your team members could also help take their performance to the next level.
Music: Focus@Will, White Noise App
Music makes things more exciting, but not all music makes people more productive. If you find your office tunes distracting in any way (especially because you like it too much), it’s ultimately going to hurt your productivity. (37).
So tune out Spotify and plug in your headphones. I’d recommend trying out the White Noise App if you don’t listen to too much music in general. Focus@Will, on the other hand, is a much better fit for people who like background music.
Keyboards: Swype and SwiftKey
Both Swype and SwiftKey are intimidating at first, but both are easier to learn than most people think. However, if you just take it slow, it will soon become second nature, just like typing on a regular cell phone or keyboard.
While I personally prefer SwiftKey, I know people who still swear by Swype. There really is no right or wrong answer here. It’s a matter of habit more than anything, and how each method of typing makes you feel. If you feel comfortable, just stick with it.
Twenty-five productivity apps is a lot to cover.
Some, like Hubspot CRM (a free version of Salesforce CRM that’s even easier to use), are very specific to B2B businesses, so I didn’t include them. Others, like Shopify, make way more sense for B2C businesses, so I also didn’t include them. You should probably do a deeper dive into B2B vs. B2C applications, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
I wanted to cover the types of apps that independent entrepreneurs and lean business owners like myself would use most, no matter what business venture we’re diving into.