The Apps I use to Stay Productive
Oct 26, 2020
A run through of the apps I use as a Software Engineering Manager and Digital Minimalist to keep myself productive.
As I mentioned in my post on Digital Minimalism, I put a lot of thought into what apps I use on a day to day basis. Some might call me fussy, and thats ok. Maybe I am quite fussy, but apps are there to serve a purpose and if something isn't helping me in the right way and bringing me value, then I don't want to use it anymore.
Therefore, making it into my line up of used apps is probably quite an achievement in itself! To be a good app for me, I want something that will help me solve the problem I have quickly and efficiently whilst being a joy to use.
I am not afraid to commit to one app and then swap it out for another when something I prefer comes along - I see so many people (past myself included) get romantic about an application they have used for ages even if they have gripes with it. Don't be afraid to experiment and don't be afraid to change your mind. You have absolutely no reason to be loyal to any tool!
So in this article, I will look at the handful of apps I use daily that I believe contribute to my level of productivity in some way. I will discuss their strengths and their weaknesses and look at the ways in which I use them.
Grab a coffee, enjoy! ☕️
Tweek is a very new entry into this list, but ultimately has one of the biggest impacts on my productivity out of everything to follow so it deserves it's place at the top of the pile.
For the longest time, I was a "Bullet Journaller". However I very reluctantly made the switch away from this technique and after much trial and tribulation I settled on using Things. Whilst Things was awesome, the interface of the app was simplistic and minimal and it did everything I wanted it to, I missed the simplicity that a Bullet Journal would bring me. It was more of a chore to use the app because I wasn't happy with how it worked now I was adding more tasks and ultimately stopped using it.
I came across Tweek on Twitter. Immediately I was struck on how much it resembled a bullet journal, displaying the whole week in one view so you can anticipate tasks ahead. It is beautifully simplistic, it serves little more functionality that allowing you to create tasks, move them between days, colour code them and tick them off when done, but that is all I need and expect from my To-Do list app.
I use the "Ivy Lee" method, which is short says that you list out no more than 6 tasks you want to do of a day, and work through them, not moving to the next item until you have completed a task. The combination of this app and productivity method have been so effective for me as I am a terrible procrastinator and I tend to flip flop between tasks, feeling busy without ever really achieving anything. It allows me to focus without getting distracted and the sense of accomplishment I get when I finish a day of tasks is awesome.
- Aesthetically beautiful - it looks and feels equally as good on mobile and desktop.
- The week view works really well for me, as discovered from my time Bullet Journalling. You can view all of the tasks for the week in one glance which I like.
- Affordable premium plan (I am paying about £3 a month). This gives you some extras like new highlighting colours (really useful to categorise tasks), the ability to store notes within your To-Do items and importing your Google calendar.
- Has a native mobile app which works really well.
- Tweek is still a young platform which means things are likely to change over time.
- A native desktop app would be really useful for me personally.
- The iOS app doesn't include widgets like Things has - this means you have to open the app to add to-do's. Not a massive issue, but worth mentioning here.
Roam Research is an app I have been using now for a couple of months. It stole the note taking throne for me from Notion, which I had used for about 2 years previously (more on Notion later).
Originally intended as a researching tool, Roam promotes itself as "A note-taking tool for networked thought - As easy to use as a document. As powerful as a graph database." At first glance it seems like a fairly basic note taking tool with a simple interface - but there is lots of hidden depths here.
Roam offers many of the the core benefits that its rivals (Notion, Evernote etc) offer, but it takes away all of the inefficiencies and bloat that these platforms come with.
Its biggest selling point for me is "page/hashtag links" - these are defined simply either by adding double square brackets - [[Page Link]] - or a hashtag - #Hashtag - to anything you want to create as a page when writing. As a default, you write on a daily view, but spin up pages with the above syntax.
I might write something similar to this:
So here, I put brackets around the words I thought were interesting. If they weren't already a page, using the double bracket syntax creates a a page. If there is already a page, that page now displays this instance amongst every other time I have referred to accessibility or corporate site - meaning that I have instant access to everything I have ever written on that subject.
This is extremely powerful - for software engineers you could be writing about a technical subject and spin up a page. All of the notes you ever made are stored forever, out of sight until you want to look it up or until you refer to that topic again. It does it automatically.
For managers, one of the best thing I have found is that you can create pages for your reports - [[James Bedford]] - now when you have a 1:1 with any reports you can pull up all of their notes and glance through. Its been an absolute game changer for me and made me so much more efficient at my job. The comparison for this is having a dedicated Notion 1:1 document, but Roam excels here because even outside of a 1:1 setting, if you write notes about that person it contains it within their page.
There is so much more depth here that I could write about here, but I don't want this to take up the whole article, but I suggest you check out Nat Eliasons fantastic article on Roam to learn even more.
- Lacks the visual customisability of Notion, which is a good thing for me as it stops me procrastinating.
- I love the fact that documents are structured by indentation - For me it feels very similar to writing code and that makes me feel comfortable - it also doesn't allow messy formatting.
- The page link feature is a game changer for me.
- The daily notes structure is really great for journalling and note keeping.
- There is a strong community of passionate users #Roamcult and this is really good for learning more about the tool.
- Oooh damn, you expensive Roam! - It works out about £15 a month or £160 a year 🤑 You can buy a lifetime membership for £500 and there are discounts for students. This is what is going to put most people off as Notion and Evernote are free. Worth mentioning that there is a 30 day trial which should give you enough time to see for yourself if it works for you.
- No native apps - although you can get around this in a fairly hacky way, its not fantastic user experience. I found I didn't use it much on my phone anyways so not a deal breaker for me.
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Tempo is now the only email client I use.
The email client that helps you focus.Email batched and delivered when you want it. Sort through new email in one go. Mark what's important and get rid of the rest. Focus Mode for calm, distraction-free communication.Built with love. Designed with purpose.
I had a negative relationship with email - I found myself constantly checking it throughout the day, replying to emails as I went. Not only was this a distraction, but I found myself at times not replying to important things. "I'll come back to that later" I promised myself, flicking back to the work I was supposed to be doing, and of course I would forget and it would never happen.
Tempo delivers email to you in batches. You can set a batch to be delivered at the same time each day (I do mine at 8.30 in the morning) and then you work through your emails one by one, either archiving/keeping or adding to a To Do pile.
When you complete your sorting and have finished sending any emails on your to-do pile, it stops you from seeing any new emails until the next time you set your batch to be delivered. Of course, you can get around it - either by "peeking" at or "forcing" a batch if you need to address something urgently, but the beauty of Tempo is that it tries to get you to forget about the unnecessary emails that clog up your inbox.
The interface is beautiful and minimalist (as shown above). It makes reading and writing email much more of a pleasure than it ever has been before.
- Encourages digital minimalism and creating a healthier relationship with email.
- Tempo has a beautiful, minimalist interface and aesthetic.
- Handles multiple email addresses, so all of your email is one place
- No phone app, yet!
- Still in BETA - which means that it is currently free, but also that some of the interface can not work as expected. I have had a lot of trouble with their "Unsubscribe" button not working.
Pocket is a handy way of collecting all of the articles that you want to read, but don't have the time to in the moment. When it is installed, either on your phone or in your browser of choice, simply clicking a button when you find an article you want to come back to at some point, Pocket will pull the article into your app meaning you can come back to it later.
This saves me a lot of time - before I collected a reading list in Notion - and therefore deserves its place on my productivity list!
It tells you how long each article will take to read, so you can make an informed choice depending on the time you have to spend. It also allows you to listen to your article as it is transcribed, which is perfect for consuming content on car journeys.
Less important is the fact that you can recommend articles to your followers, which is a neat feature. However for me, I follow a few like minded individuals and get a consistent stream of interesting content delivered to my feed that they have recommended. This saves me time as I don't go looking for articles to read when I have a few spare minutes.
- It saves so much time than if you were manually having to collect a reading list.
- A never ending stream of interesting content and articles that you may not have come across before.
- Generous free tier.
- Has the danger of being a time sink as you go off looking through peoples profiles to find things to read.
- Is not consistent in the way it collects the articles as it relies on the formatting of the article on its original web page - I have had a couple of instances where it has only collected the first paragraphs of an article.
Why I Stopped Using Notion
Ok - so this is an interesting one.
I use Notion now because I have to, rather than wanting to. Both where I work now (Attest) and where I worked before (Monzo) use Notion is their personal intranets. Most of the companies documentation is within this platform.
I used to use Notion heavily before working at these companies. When I joined Monzo (who apparently are Notions biggest customers), I was over the moon that this was the tool I was going to be using. I enjoyed using it, I spent a lot of time and thought creating a system that worked for me.
It started unravelling for me during my time at Monzo however. The platform was so very slow, even on a top of the range MacBook Pro with super-fast internet, it would take at times 20 seconds to load the desired page. This became worse the more notes I would collect (which was a lot). It felt so very bloated.
Another side of Notion for me that ultimately was what made me migrate away was the fact it was so customisable. Sure, that is a good thing on one hand, but on more than one occasion I found myself making a silly choice of formatting that would have been better served as a table or spreadsheet. This lead to me getting sucked into a time sink of making my documents look as nice as possible, which ultimately wasted time. As someone who is a bit of a perfectionist, if formatting wasn't quite right, then it would play on my mind.
The search function is pretty weak as well, as it searches for "blocks" which pages are built up of. This is fine for personal use, but was ultimately unusable at the scale of which Monzo were using the app. I got frustrated with it, and went off in search for a better solution (Roam).
Not to say Notion isn't fantastic - I am a true fan! However for me and my own personal use cases, I found I needed something ultimately simpler, quicker, faster and a little bit more opinionated.
- Customisation - Notion allows you to format your notes and documentation in loads of different ways.
- A fantastic community of power users who offer tips and tricks on how to use the platform to its potential.
- An extremely generous free tier.
- The native apps are really decent and work well.
- It can be slow, depending on how much content you put in to it.
- Customisation - this can lead to procrastination and over-thinking ways of keeping notes.
I hope this has given you some insight into what I use to stay productive. Of course, as with anything, this is what works for me and what works for one person isn't always guaranteed to work for someone else.
I recommend trying these platforms out for as long as you can, working with them on a day to day basis and seeing how they suit you before migrating over to any of them. Everyone has different ways of working, and therefore different applications suit different people.
Please feel free to reach out if you want to talk about how I use these different applications, and I would always be more than happy to offer advice and help should you need it! I am always extremely grateful to hear about other peoples experiences and what keeps people productive.