I know, I really do know, that if you do a search for “best productivity apps” or any variation thereof, you’ll get literally thousands of results, hundreds of which are probably even recent and reasonably well put together. With that in mind, thanks for indulging me in sharing this small handful of recommendations, and I’ll do my best to make it enjoyable. I don’t claim that these are the objective best apps (a criteria I find very difficult to pin down and measure anyway), but these are the ones that I find myself using day in and day out and the first ones that come to mind when a friend or colleague with a new phone inevitably asks “are there any apps you think I should download?” If you’re a list maker, a content absorber, a time tracker, or a cross-platform worker bee like me, I’ll bet you find something to love, too.
free, by 6Wunderkinder
Available on: Web, Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire
As an obsessive list maker, I have spent I could not even tell you how many hours trying an ongoing stream of to-do list apps and utilities of all stripes, and for my money, brain, and workflow, nothing beats Wunderlist. It offers the standard things you’d expect from any to-do list, but also a few key features that are (inexplicably, to my mind) missing in a number of the others I’ve tried: recurring events, separate lists for different tasks/areas of your life, sub-tasks that can be checked off independently, and wireless sync across different platforms. And all of this comes for the low low price of absolutely free, which is a not insignificant bit less expensive than the only app I’ve found that had a similar feature set (Things, covered below). While I wish the recurring events were a bit more customizable (I’d love an “on weekdays only” option) and there have been a few syncing issues recently (that were promptly resolved), nothing has been able to pull me away from Wunderlist.
Wunderlist also offers a Pro upgrade that allows you to assign tasks and discuss them directly within the app with other users and attach files to tasks, as well as a Business package that is easily scalable, letting it cross the work/personal border easily.
free, by Google
Available on: Web, Chrome, Android
Keep is not the most fully featured note or check list app I’ve tried, but it makes up for it by having the features I absolutely need in the simplest, quickest interface I’ve used. I love the ability to have check lists for shopping or packing in the same app I use to take notes, and the tiled layout makes it faster than anything else I’ve used, needing only one tap to see most information (unless I’ve made my shopping list too long again). For someone already pretty entrenched in the Google ecosystem, for better or worse, nothing else is as simple and fast as Keep. (Though I do admit that Evernote is another strong contender.)
free apps, service starts free and is scalable, by Harvest
Available on: Web, Mac, Chrome, iOS, Android (plus others)
If you have to invoice, track time, track project expenses, or nearly any related task, Harvest may be your new best friend. The web interface is clean and easy to navigate, and the tips that show up on pages periodically are legitimately helpful (and easy to dismiss), the apps are similarly easy to use, and everything syncs together seamlessly. The two things that have set Harvest apart from the crowd for me is the ability to customize and send out invoices and the ability to track and edit time wherever and however and assign time to different tasks. Not only can Harvest tell me how many hours I worked today, but it can tell me how many hours were spent on which task or which project, and if I have to go offsite for a meeting or do a task that doesn’t involve being in front of the computer (rare, but it happens!), the Harvest mobile app can track my time seamlessly from my pocket or bag or the kitchen counter or wherever else I happen to be. And because of their open API and easily scalable plans, just about any business could make it work.
free, by Read It Later
Available on: Web, iOS, Android, Mac, Chrome, Safari, Firefox
From the fine folks who brought us what used to be known as Read It Later, Pocket is, as far as I’m concerned, the one app to rule them all when it comes to keeping track of the slew of links that come across my social media feeds and my own searching and browsing every day. The key to Pocket’s usefulness for me is in its interface with existing Twitter and reading apps. I can take five minutes to scroll through my Twitter timeline while I’m waiting for my coffee in the morning or sitting on the train, but typically I don’t want to take the time to read the articles I’m interested in while I’m in the middle of my browsing. Sitting at my desk with my laptop that’s not a problem, I just open the link in a new tab and switch over to it when I’m ready, but a slightly cumbersome but doable workflow on a computer becomes downright impossible (or so awkward as to be functionally so) on a mobile device. Pocket lets me simply long tap on the tweet with the link I want to save, select Pocket from the menu, and know that the link is safe and secure in whatever version of the Pocket reader I want to use to go back to it. While the Pocket reader is really designed to make the actual reading experience more streamlined (taking away all those unnecessary page breaks and distracting sidebars from cluttered websites), it also works perfectly well as a general link aggregator. I’ve used it to save videos and photos and more for myself, and while some of them I couldn’t ultimately view from within Pocket, the link was saved for me all the same, and in a location I remembered to check.
$9.99 – $49.99, by Cultured Code
Available on: iOS, Mac
I include Things here with, admittedly, some reservations. There’s no web interface and no mobile device support for anything other than iOS, so if you have any device that isn’t made by Apple, you’re left out in the cold. It’s also expensive for what it is. To get Things running on a Mac, an iPhone, and an iPad would set you back about $80 which, while not prohibitive for many people, still just feels steep relative to the competition. What Things has going for it, though, is that it just works so beautifully. The ability to group tasks together by area like family or errands or work, and assign priority levels, required energy levels, and required time and then filter by combinations of those criteria allows an amazing ability to wring every last ounce of productive time out of your day. Put dinner in the oven and then filter by half an hour or less, high priority, low energy, and find an important but quick and relatively easy task you can get done before it’s time to eat. Filter by highest energy required as your morning coffee kicks in and tackle the hardest tasks first so you can deal with the less exhausting things as the caffeine wears off late in the afternoon. It’s just a truly fantastic app. Is it fantastic enough to justify the cost? That’s where I’m a little more on the fence, but I do think it’s still worth recommending at least checking out the trial and seeing for yourself.
These five apps probably help keep my obsessive need to list and organize at bay and definitely help me get more done with less time and stress. Check them out and please, share in the comments what your absolute, cannot live without apps are. I bet we haven’t heard of some of them!