It’s impossible not to notice that the productivity app space has exploded over the past few years.
Yet, just like emails, Friday afternoon meetings, and food from the mall, more isn’t better when it comes to the apps you use.
The best productivity apps are all about increasing your ROTI—Return On Time Invested. When you use the right productivity apps, you get a compound return on your time. An hour suddenly gives you 2 hours worth of work in return. But not every app lives up to this promise.
So what makes the best productivity apps truly special?
We’ve seen a lot of productivity apps come and go since the first version of RescueTime was launched over ten years ago.
As one of the pioneers in the productivity tools space, we’ve tried pretty much every different method, strategy, tool, and insane hack for getting more done. Some have been great (and we still use). While others… well, let’s just say some apps inject more distraction than focus into your day.
With over a decade of experience, we decided it’s time we shared the best productivity apps we use to protect our focus—from calendars to to-do lists to timers and trackers.
The 15 best productivity apps for protecting your focus
- OmniFocus / Things 3
- iA Writer
What makes the best productivity apps stand out?
Before we get into the list, let’s make absolutely clear what we mean when we call a tool one of the best productivity apps out there.
It’s impossible to say a productivity app will work for everyone. We all have different productivity cycles, levels of focus, and susceptibility to distraction. What works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else.
That said, however, the productivity apps that are more likely to work for the majority of people all share a few qualities:
- Designed for focus: Productivity apps should be an invisible hand, guiding you through the day. Not a forceful shove or in-the-face engagement tactics.
- Intuitive design: Productivity apps should feel natural and easy to use. When a tool starts taking up more time than it gives back, it’s not doing its job.
- A catalyst for behavior change: The best productivity apps inspire you to change your habits (for the better). Rather than force you down a specific path, they optimize and enhance your current working style.
While many productivity apps and tools miss the mark on these criteria, there are plenty that hit a home run. Here’s our take on the best productivity apps for protecting your focus each day.
From email to ICQ to options from Microsoft and Facebook, there have never been so many apps dedicated to keeping your team in touch. And for good reason. With up to 80% of our day spent on collaborative activities, a powerful, intuitive, and adaptable team communication tool can be a major productivity boost.
Our pick at RescueTime is Slack. (We love it so much we even wrote a massive guide on How to Setup Slack for Focus). As a fully remote team, Slack keeps our communication and files all in one place, while integrating with our other key apps and tools.
If you want to make the most out of Slack on your team, try our new RescueTime for Slack integration that automatically updates your status based on what you’re currently focused on.
Speaking of communication, with more and more of our workday spent writing in emails, chat, docs, and other tools, having a powerful real-time editor can save you hours of time.
For us, Grammarly is one of the best options for editing not only spelling and grammar but style and tone as well. All on the fly.
What makes Grammarly one of the best productivity apps isn’t just its accuracy and intuitive nature. It’s also due to it being an “invisible hand” for behavior change. Grammarly works everywhere you need accurate writing—from emails to Slack, Google docs, Jira, and even Twitter and Facebook—meaning you can easily use it while maintaining your usual workflows.
As RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell explains,
“Grammarly helps me obsess less over whether or not I sound like an idiot in emails 🙂”
Meetings can be a headache, but setting them is even worse. The hours spent on endless back-and-forths trying to find a time that works for everyone is a massive time suck. Instead, we use Calendly to automate setting up meetings internally and with interviews, customers, and clients.
With Calendly, you can set predetermined times where you’re available for meetings that other recipients can select from. You also get total control over when and how meetings are scheduled such as setting daily limits, adding buffers between meetings, and a minimum scheduling notice for any changes.
While the experience is slightly impersonal, it’s worth it for the time it saves (for everyone).
When it came to picking the best to-do list for our selection of the best productivity apps, our team was split. Both OmniFocus and Things 3 are powerful enough to organize all aspects of your work and life while remaining minimal and intuitive.
Unlike other to-do list and note organizing tools, both these apps save you hours of time each week by keeping your most important tasks front and center (and still giving you easy access to future responsibilities).
Online security and privacy have never been more important. Yet keeping track of complex passwords and getting access to them across devices can be a hassle.
While not normally considered a productivity app, 1Password ticks all of our boxes. It gives you quick access to all of your passwords in one place. Is intuitive across devices. And changes your behavior when it comes to logging in and out of all your other apps and tools.
As RescueTime iOS developer Keli Fancher explains:
“Not usually considered a productivity application, but 1Password makes my life so much easier by not having to worry about remembering complex passwords. It saves me a ton of time every single day.”
Productivity is all about doing more in less time. And nothing gives you more insight into how you’re spending your time each day than RescueTime. (You didn’t expect us to put together a list of the best productivity apps and not include our own tool, did you?)
While many of these other productivity tools are designed to help improve certain facets of your productivity, RescueTime acts as a health check and coach for your overall focus, time management, and productivity.
Once you’ve installed RescueTime on your devices, it accurately and invisibly tracks how you spend your time and organizes it by category and productivity level.
Not only does this give you deep insight into how you actually spend your time, but you can set Goals and Alerts to change your behavior, automatically block distracting websites, and log your daily highlights and offline time.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. RescueTime has helped users double their productive time in a matter of months, drastically reduce their time on social media, and optimize their daily schedule for focus and flow.
As RescueTime user Mihai Chiorean told us:
“RescueTime has helped me discover distracting habits, change them, achieve more in less time spent at work and implicitly regain time to rejuvenate and have a life outside of work.”
There are so many options out there for a basic project management tool. Yet, we chose Trello for our list of best productivity apps for a number of reasons.
First, as far as basic project management tools go, few are more intuitive and easier to use than Trello. Following the Kanban principles of cards and lists, Trello allows you to quickly visualize where each task is in your workflow and see progress.
Next, its collaboration features strike a perfect balance between keeping everyone involved and connected on projects and overwhelming you with updates. You can tag individual people on cards, mention them in comments, and assign them tasks or to-dos. As a user, you can also update your notification settings to batch updates periodically throughout the day.
While we use other tools for tracking development projects, Trello is amazing for ongoing or short-term projects like our Content Calendar, Marketing Projects, User Interviews, and Design.
Productivity apps are especially important for remote teams (like us!) When you’re not in a shared office, getting face-to-face time with your teammates becomes increasingly important.
At RescueTime, we’ve been using Zoom for video conferencing for years. We use it for everything from one-on-ones to our weekly all-hands meetings. We’ve never had any video or audio issues and its built-in screen sharing is great for demos and presentations.
However, what makes Zoom stand out as a productivity app is its ease-of-use. Video calls can be annoying to set up. But Zoom’s one-click links make it easy for anyone to join. We have a link to our Zoom meeting room attached to all meeting calendar requests and even keep the link in our #General channel in Slack.
Few things impact your productivity like your mood. So while many people wouldn’t see a meditation app like Headspace as a productivity tool, we do.
Studies have connected mindfulness training to increased focus, better decision-making, lowered stress levels, and an overall sense of happiness. While Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap, credits just 15-20 minute of meditation a day with empowering him to grow and sell multiple companies.
Headspace is our pick for the best meditation app. Its simple UI is incredibly intuitive and designed around focus. While the breadth of different tracks and sessions makes it easy to fit meditation into your workday.
Information overload is a real issue. With more and more content than ever being produced, you need a way to capture, organize, and save articles and information without getting derailed during the workday. That’s why Instapaper made it onto our list of the best productivity apps.
Instapaper is a simple extension that lets you save articles you find on the web or mobile for later. Even better, Instapaper strips out extraneous information, ads, and anything else that gets in the way of a better reading experience so when you want to dig into your saved articles you can give them your full focus.
As iOS developer Keli Fancher explains:
“I use Instapaper to quickly save articles that I come across throughout the day to read later. This way I don’t get distracted from work and can catch up on them later at my convenience (often months later).”
If you’re like most people, communication is a major part of your workday. But how much of that time is spent writing the same things out or sending similar information to different people?
TextExpander allows you to create “snippets” of text that will be automatically expanded in whatever app or writing tool you’re using.
As far as productivity apps go, this is a fantastic example of a tool that works invisibly to help you be more productive and change your behaviors. For example, you can use it to automatically put in today’s date when you write .date or add your contact information with ;em, or pretty much anything else you could imagine.
Meetings can be a drag. But what’s worse than a bad meeting is one where good things happen, but no one can remember what they were!
Otter.ai records and transcribes your meetings in real-time so you quickly search, edit, and share your conversations. By integrating with Zoom, you get a record of your conversations that keeps everyone on the same page. But maybe even better, you can use Otter.ai to record your own thoughts and put them down on paper quickly.
As Robby Macdonell, RescueTime CEO explains:
“I’m a slow typer, and sometimes the best way to get ideas out of my head is to talk them out. Otter.ai helps me quickly get my thoughts down in a format I can share with the rest of my team.”
The productivity app space isn’t the only one to expand over the past years. There are more options for pretty much any tool you could imagine now. Zapier helps you get the most out of whatever tools you use.
By creating “zaps”, Zapier automatically transfers data between apps, triggers workflows, or any other number of use cases.
For example, you could have all email attachments automatically copied to a Dropbox folder. Or have a FocusTime session enabled whenever you start your Pomodoro timer. Or even add new Shopify orders automatically into a Google Sheet.
By working invisibly in the background, Zapier automates so many things that would normally take up hours of your day so you can focus on what matters most.
(You can integrate RescueTime with Zapier to add all sorts of automation to your productivity tools. Check out Zapier’s full list of RescueTime integrations.)
The problem with including a calendar in our list of the best productivity apps is that so many people loathe their time spent in their calendar. A calendar often feels like an overbearing boss telling you what to do and where to go.
With Fantastical (for macOS) however, your calendar becomes more like a personal assistant. Use natural language to create events and reminders, use multiple calendar accounts to separate views, and integrate reminders.
However, one of Fantastical’s best features is the Mini Window—an instant view of your calendar and upcoming events that lives in your menu bar and can be quickly accessed.
As iOS developer Keli Fancher explains:
“I don’t use calendars as intensively as some, but I’m definitely a heavy calendar user. Fantastical (for macOS) is a great application. It lets you create calendar groups so that you can quickly switch between a number of different views so I’m not bombarded with all my calendar events at once (unless I want to be).”
15. iA Writer
Word processors are a necessity in the workplace. But too many of them are loaded full of too many formatting options, menus, and features you never use. Instead, iA Writer is a simple, intuitive and distraction-free Markdown editor that lets you focus on what matters most: writing.
Besides being just distraction-free, iA Writer’s design is made specifically for focus with Focus Mode, specific typography choices, and font grading for specific screen sizes (iA Writer works across Windows, Mac, Android, and iPhone and iPad).
What productivity apps do you use to maintain your focus?
While this is our list of the best productivity apps out there, what you choose to use will come down to your own needs.
We all work differently and have different workflows and features we prefer. So while this is a good starting place for winning back your time each day, it’s best to experiment and see what works for you.
What tools would you include on your own list of the best productivity apps? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.