Updated: Aug 1, 2019
There are so many terrible apps out there. Everyone and their mother wants to build a productivity app right now because that’s the trendy thing to do. Many of these apps are trying to get too specific and box you into one way of doing things, or are trying to do too many things at once, and most of the time, the result is an app that’s bloated and useless.
In my experience, the best apps are those that do one thing well and give you the flexibility to use it in a way that works for you without boxing you into how someone else thinks you should organize your life. I also appreciate simplicity and intuitiveness.
Apps should supplement the steps that you’re already taking to change your life, not try to hijack the whole process. So, given my high standards for what is allowed to take up space on my phone, and my desire to be a generally productive person, here are my favorite apps that make my life better.
(Just a note: I’m pretty sure all of these apps have a free version, though some of them also have a paid version. I have paid subscriptions to any marked with a ** though the free version is enough to take it for a spin and see if you like it. None of these apps are paying me to write this post.)
I think I mention the Calm app pretty much any time I mention meditation. This app taught me how to meditate. It contains quite a few beginner courses of meditations for things like anxiety, sleep, self-esteem, focus, and gratitude. There’s Calm Body, which leads you through stretches, meditations for kids, and meditations for mindful eating. There are also tons of meditations for sleep, and sleep stories, which are like bedtime stories for adults.
I highly recommend Calm and have been using it for almost two years. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the Daily Calms, which are ten minute meditations on a variety of topics with a new one each day. I was an evening meditator for a long time, but for the last several weeks, I’ve been meditating as part of my morning routine. If you’ve never meditated before, I highly recommend giving it a shot. Meditation is life-changing.
Both of these are language learning apps so I’m pairing them together. However, they serve different purposes.
In my experience, Duolingo is a more casual, gamified app. It’s easy to use for a few minutes at a time and good if you aren’t super serious about learning a language and just want to do it for a few minutes in your spare time. It can be difficult to learn grammar and sentence structures from Duolingo, but it’s good for vocabulary.
On the other hand, Memrise is great if you’re a bit more serious about learning a language. Obviously, it’s not going to quite stack up to taking classes or traveling to a place where people speak that language, but since many of us don’t have the time or money, Memrise is great, especially if you’re willing to splurge for a subscription. Memrise even allows you to listen to native speakers of the language.
At the moment, I’m using both Duolingo and Memrise in tandem. I wanted to see how each one teaches different concepts and allow them to supplement each other in the hopes of coming out with a more well-rounded understanding. Languages are nuanced, and I want to make sure as many gaps are filled as possible.
Admittedly, even though I’ve picked up the basics of a number of different languages throughout my life (Spanish, Latin, Russian, Korean), I’ve never stuck with one for very long. So far, though, I’ve found Korean pretty interesting and exciting, so I intend to keep going.
I’ve talked about this one a few times before as well because I loooove Libby! Libby is an app that connects to your library card and allows you to check out audiobooks from your local library. Did I mention it’s free? It’s free!
I have been on a bit more of a physical-book kick lately because there’s nothing quite like curling up with a book and a snack and disappearing to a different world for a while. Right now I’m reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.
In general, though, I love audiobooks because they’re easy to listen to when you’re doing something else like driving, cooking, or cleaning. They allow you to learn when you otherwise wouldn’t have been engaging your brain all that much.
If you’re looking to get back into reading or always on the hunt for new books, here are my recommendations for books that supplement what I talk about on the blog, and here is my Goodreads, where you can see what I’m reading, what I want to read, what I’ve read, and my general recommendations for all kinds of books.
Welp, since I just mentioned it, I might as well quickly talk about Goodreads.
Reading is a great hobby. It can serve as a replacement for all of those bad habits that you want to break, like aimlessly scrolling around the internet and watching too many YouTube videos. There’s something out there for everyone, and you get to learn and expand your worldview when you read.
Goodreads helps me keep it all organized. It lets you create lists of books that you want to read, that you recommend, that you have read, whatever. It’s an app for making lists of books.
Goodreads also allows people to review books, set reading challenges, and see others’ reviews and recommendations. It’s great for both avid readers—gotta keep track of that ever-growing to-read list—and for people who haven’t touched a book since high school and need help finding something that they actually like.
Well, obviously I like this one because I just wrote an entire post about it. Habitica has quickly become one of my favorite productivity tools. It allows you to create Habits, Dailies, and To Dos, and you’re rewarded with gold for completing them. That gold can be used to buy rewards, either real ones that you’ve set for yourself, or in-game rewards for your character.
Habitica is meant to gamify your productivity. It creates incentives and disincentives to help you work toward your real life goals when their real-life results aren’t enough to motivate you forward.
I love Habitica because it more or less creates my to do list for me every day. Because I do the same things pretty much every day, I’ve added them all as Dailies, and each morning I’m met with a checklist of things that I need to do that day. And checking those boxes is extra satisfying because I get gold in return.
If you want to dive more deeply into Habitica, I recommend reading the full post about it, or just go check it out for yourself!
I’m a sucker for numbers. I love data and tracking things that I do so I can have concrete information that tells me about my life. Half of the time I don’t even do anything with the information. I just find it interesting, and in that sense, it improves my life.
Sleep Cycle is another useful way for me to learn more about my life. I initially got it because I felt like I’d been waking up from a very deep sleep too often which left me groggy in the mornings. Sleep cycle wakes you up when you’re in a lighter phase of sleep so that you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go, rather than feeling like you got hit by a bus.
If you buy the premium version (I paid $15 for a year's subscription), it also analyzes your sleep and gives you those oh-so-fun-to-explore numbers that I love. You can tell it about your day so it can help you figure out what leads to better sleep and what doesn’t.
I haven’t been using sleep cycle for all that long, so it’s hard to say if the insights are accurate because the data set is so small, but as I collect more data and try experimenting intentionally to see how I can improve my sleep, I expect it to help me get even better sleep. As we know, consistently getting good quality sleep is very important to me.
For now, it does seem to be helping me wake up at the right time so that my body is feeling ready to face the world instead of zombified. If you’re struggling to wake up in the morning, sleep cycle might help.
As I mentioned in this post, I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting recently. I’m working on building a more intentional and mindful relationship with food—which you’ll see more of in a challenge that I’ll soon be taking on. :) Make sure you don’t miss out on that blog post by getting on my email list!
Zero is an app that tracks your fasts for you. It has that, “Do one thing and do it well,” thing that I talked about nailed down perfectly. There are only a few interfaces, and it’s not filled with hundreds of options and settings. You choose a fast, start the fast, and when it’s over, Zero lets you know. There’s also the option to add notes about each fast if you’d like to.
Fasting is definitely doable without an app, but if you want a little bit of encouragement and organization, Zero fills that role. It reminds me when to start my fasts because it’s easy to forget since I haven’t built the habit yet, and seeing the countdown to when I can eat again helps me push through the last couple of hours if I’m feeling hungry.
If you’ve been around here for a bit, or read the calendar blocking post, then you know how much I love my calendar. If I had to choose one be-all, end-all app to help you get your life together, a good calendar app would be the one. My calendar of choice is Google Calendar.
Google calendar is simple to use, customizable, and easy to read at a glance. It helps me plan out my days, get everything done without feeling overwhelmed, organize long-term projects, and make the most out of my time. I’d be pretty lost and unproductive without it. If you want all the details about how a properly utilized calendar is life-changing, read the post about calendar blocking.
Google Keep is a note-taking app. It pretty much functions as a bunch of post-it notes, but on your phone. Since it’s also created by Google, it integrates well with Google calendar. I can write reminders and ideas in my notes and then set them to pop on the calendar when I have time to deal with or implement them.
Google Keep functions as something of a brainstorming area for me. It’s not all that organized, if I’m being honest, but it holds all of those important thoughts for me so that I don’t forget them. It also helps me declutter my life a little because I can write important details on a note and then throw away physical papers. And we all know how annoying physical papers are.
I’ve used Google Keep as a system to reward myself for going to the gym, to help track my skincare routine and the products I want to try out, and for all of those ideas for blog posts that pop into my head at inconvenient times. Storing everything in one easy-to-access place is helpful for clearing my mind and staying organized.
There you have it: my favorite productivity apps. I’ve been using many of these for years and I don’t often try out new ones because so many of them are so terrible. If this list ever shifts considerably, I’ll write another post about it, but this set is doing a pretty great job.
What apps do you love? What apps have you tried and disliked? Let me know in a comment! Recommendations from real people are often the best way to find new apps that actually work.