A couple months ago I did a 30-Day Digital Declutterand stopped using any non-essential technology for 30 days.
I stopped checking social media, restricted my email use to once per day for essential emails only, unsubscribed from blogs/rss/newsletters, didn’t read the news, stopped listening to podcasts, and generally de-digitalized my life for a month.
Among other things, it had some pretty impressive productivity benefits which I detailed here.
As a part of the experiment, I ruthlessly purged apps from my phone, deleting over two thirds of them in total. Surprisingly, the experiment was so successful that many of those apps that got deleted never made it back onto my phone, including a lot of productivity-focused apps like Things, Mind Node, Due, Forest, and Notability.
After my 30 days ended, I realized I was perfectly fine without these apps. And in fact, I was being far more productive than I ever had with them.
There were only a handful of “productivity apps” that made it back, none of which would be categorized as traditional productivity apps. And maybe it’s because they weren’t designed explicitly to be productivity aids that they end up being so genuinely helpful to my work rather than fiddly and distracting like so many productivity apps out there.
The following 5 apps simply get out of the way and help me do my work better in small but meaningful ways.
This is the app I’d miss the most if I lost because it’s so essential to my writing and work.
If you’re not familiar with Ulysses, it’s meant to be a comprehensive place to do all your writing, from the smallest back of the envelope scribble to full manuscripts and books. And in fact, I have and continue to use it for quick notes, books, blog posts, and everything in between.
It covers all three bases of writing, organization, and publishing, and syncs flawlessly across all your (Apple) devices— iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It’s also built around writing in Markdown, and is designed in a beautifully minimalist and distraction-free style so that it makes the act of putting ideas to words to keyboard as frictionless as possible.
It’s simply a joy to use.
But the reason I find Ulysses so productivity-enhancing for me has to do with the way everything is build around writing in sheets. In Ulysses, a sheet is a basic unit/space for writing. Technically it can contain as much writing as you want, but the fundamental design encourages you to use them like literal sheets of paper, perfect for notes, outlines, brief articles and blog posts, or sections of a book chapter.
Ulysses makes it incredibly easy to just jump into my writing and go.
Sheets are stored within groups, which themselves are stored within projects. All of which are displayed visually in a clever sidebar, so you always know “where you are in your writing. This also makes re-arranging and organizing different parts of your writing super easy and intuitive, especially since everything is drag-and-drop.
In short, Ulysses makes it incredibly easy to just jump into my writing and go. But then, once I’m in it and need to make changes and modifications, I don’t have to go hunting around through weird folder trees and files—everything is right in front of me, easily available at a glance.
If any part of your work involves writing, you really owe it to yourself yo check out Ulysses. It’s 👌
If Ulysses is the most essential app for writing and producing work, Pocket is the most essential for reading and consuming quality information.
True to its name, pocket is the place I store anything interesting or useful that I come across online.
- Interesting article I don’t have time to read now. Pocket it.
- Cool gift idea for my wife’s birthday that’s a few months away. Pocket it.
- Awesome example of a landing page design I could use as inspiration for a future project. Pocket it.
Just like Ulysses massively cuts down on the friction between me and my writing, pocket cuts down on the friction between me and my reading.
Everything interesting I’ve come across online for the past 7 years is Pocket where I can get to it almost instantly.
This is incredibly valuable for me as a writer because I’m always coming across articles, posts, or pieces of research that I know I could use (either now or in the future) as a link or reference on one of my articles. This means that my writing process is much smoother and easier because I don’t have to interrupt my flow very much when I want to include a link or example - I know exactly where it is and can get it out quickly.
Pocket’s first superpower is that it makes it incredibly easy to put something you’ve come across online into the app. On the desktop you can install a little button in your browser that you just click, and it immediately saves that webpage into pocket. On mobile, there’s a super easy share extension that does the same thing.
Pocket’s second superpower is tags. And this is the real key to using Pocket to boost your productivity. Whenever you save an article to pocket, it automatically asks you if you want to add a tag to the article. This means Pocket is always a well-organized and accessible file cabinet rather than a messy junk drawer.
I recommend using somewhere between 3 and 10 tags total (more than 10 and things start to get a little unruly), with about 7 being pretty optimal for the way I work.
iBooks a productivity app?
Yes, iBooks is a crucial productivity app for me, but probably not in the way you’re imagining.
I don’t use it to read lots of books. In fact, I only use it to read one single book: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Here’s the deal: iBooks is essential for my productivity because iBooks is essential for my sleep.
Every night, like clockwork, I get into bed, cuddle a bit with my wife, kiss her goodnight, roll over, pull out my phone, open iBooks, and pick up wherever I left off in some adventure of Holmes’ (iBooks is great as remembering where you left off, btw).
It’s hard to be productive when you’re sleep deprived. And iBooks is key to making sure that never happens.
Typically I read through two or three pages and fall asleep. Which means it takes me weeks, sometimes, to get through a single story. Which is, in fact, the whole point.
Sure, I enjoy Sherlock Holmes, but for me the real value is reading Sherlock Holmes on my phone in bed is that it has become a well-established psychological cue for sleep. It literally puts me to sleep.
It’s so effective that I quite honestly can’t think of time in the last few years at least when I’ve had a hard time falling asleep.
Of course, there are lots of other things I do to get good sleep (and more importantly, lots of things I don’t do), but reading Sherlock Holmes on my phone in bed is an essential component. (And NO, I don’t worry about Blue Light. 😆)
4. Overcast (podcasts)
Podcasts are a great way to save time doing research because they allow you to quickly and cheaply vet a book or person.
At the moment I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with podcasts.
As I’ve written about recently, drastically reducing when and how much I listen to podcasts has really increased my productivity. But there are a few situations where podcasts are really helpful.
First, I use podcasts as a way to screen new books. I love to read, and do a fair amount of it, but when their are so many potentially good books coming out all the time, you have to con sider opportunity cost: If I buy and spend even just a couple hours reading a book only to find it’s not that great, that’s a significant chink of time (and money) that I’ve wasted.
One trick I’ve found to get a better sense for whether a book with be worth my time is to listen to the author being interviewed about the book on a podcast. Aside from getting a concise summary of the book itself from the author themselves, you also get a look into how the author thinks, which is arguably even more valuable.
One trick I’ve found to get a better sense for whether a book with be worth my time is to listen to the author being interviewed about the book on a podcast.
Second, I use podcasts as a Plan C if I can’t sleep. I rarely have sleep problems in the first place. But on the rare occasions that I do - when, for example, I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall right back asleep - I pull out iBooks on my phone and start reading Sherlock Holmes. 90% of the time, this works perfectly well.
But there are very rare circumstances when even old Sherlock can’t get me back to sleep. In that case, my failsafe is to plug in some earbuds and listen to a podcast. My favorite for this situation is In Our Time. Something about all those droll British accents going on about Augustine’s Confessions or the possibility for Nuclear Fusion just knocks me out. (I don’t mean that in a bad way - I love the podcast! It just happens to be quite sleep-promoting at 2:30am 🙂
BTW: I happen to really like Overcast as a podcast player but really any podcast app will do.
5. Read by QxMD
In both my day job as a psychologist and to some extent as a writer, staying current on the latest research in my field is crucial.
And by far the best way I’ve found to do this these days is a free subscription to a service called Read by QxMD.
It’s essentially a service where you sign up, list your areas off interest (e.g.: insomnia, panic disorder, depression, etc.), and then they send you emails at whatever interval you like (I have mine set to weekly) letting you know of new research that’s been published in your areas of interest.
Not sexy, but super useful if your work at all involves staying abreast of the latest health/medical research.
I’ve found that most productivity apps out there doen’t really make me much more productive. Some are even counterproductive. But there are a few unusual suspects out there that really do make a signficant difference in helping me get my work done. If they fit your needs, check out Ulysses, Pocket, iBooks, Overcast, and Read by QXMD.