We may earn money from the companies or products mentioned in this post, as there may be affiliate links included below. For more information, see our disclosure policy.
Using digital tools to help with productivity isn’t a new concept, of course, as there are dozens if not hundreds of websites and apps designed for this specific purpose. [Many pins on this topic can be found here.] Because there are so many options out there, though, it can be hard to know which ones are even worth trying out to see if they work well with your particular ways of planning projects, building habits, and/or going through the writing process. In this post, I describe my top productivity apps, a few of which I rarely hear mentioned among my peers, friends, and family. While most of the apps listed are made to be completely customized by the individual using it, Trello’s collaborative nature inspired me to create templates of the Fall 2018 semester to share with any teachers or students reading this post. Keep in mind that I use Apple products, so some of these apps might not work with non-Apple devices.
Disclaimer: I bought all these apps via the Apple Store and only use them on my iPad or iPhone (with the exception of Trello). Other than GoodNotes 4, I only use the free versions of these apps. I’m not sure what differences can be found in the desktop versions of these apps, the non-Apple versions, or the paid versions.
Four Free Apps + One Worth the Money
This website/app is fantastic as a project planner, as its design allows for multiple lists to appear side by side on your screen. You can change the order of the lists and of the tasks on each list by dragging them around the screen, and you can also move one task from list to list by dragging it around, as well. So, if you are a list maker but hate having to cross out tasks or cut and paste them from one list to another, this app is for you. You can color code the tasks, add checklists, images, notes, reminders, etc. Each board can have its own unique background and you can share it with other users if you are working on a collaborative project (boards can also be private or public).
I also love that you can create a board for one project (let’s say a board all about a dissertation chapter), and then you can add that board as a task in another board (for example, a summer productivity board). Rather than a whole board’s worth of tasks appearing in another, broader board, you can simple click on the board-as-task and it will take you to the full, separate board attached to that task. This might sound confusing now, but it’s very intuitive once you start playing around on the site/app.
Here’s a video tutorial I created that shows you the basics of Trello.
I just started using this app this summer, on the recommendation of Cathy Mazak. I took Dr. Mazak’s Academic Women’s Writing Roadmap course last summer, and I continue to watch her free webinars whenever a new topic is brought up (I’m also a member of her [purposely] ironically titled Facebook group, I Should Be Writing). This summer, I attended a webinar about using Trello as a project planner for teaching, researching, studying, living life, etc. I highly recommend checking out her webinars and courses for yourself, especially the one on Trello. Cathy offered a free Trello template in her webinar, as the collaborative nature of this app/website allows you to create public boards that can be copied by other users.
Inspired by this webinar, I have created two templates of my own to share in this post: one for college instructors (K-12 teachers can just do some revising/editing) and one for college students. They are designed for the fall semester, but can easily be adapted for future semesters and summer sessions, as well. I’ve included color-coded labels and example tasks, to help you get started. They are easy to edit/delete, though, if they don’t work for you. To add these boards to your own list of boards, just click “…Show Menu” on the top right of your screen and then “Copy Board” from the menu provided.I have created two trello templates of my own to share in this post: one for college instructors (K-12 teachers can just do some revising/editing) and one for college students. Click To Tweet
If the usual productivity apps don’t work for you, Swipes might be the answer you’re looking for. Rather than appearing in calendar form (Google Calendar) or as different lists side by side (Trello), this app’s home screen organizes your tasks in one long to-do list. You can add sub-tasks to each of your tasks and they will only appear if you click on the umbrella task. You also create tags for each of your tasks so that you can filter by category if you prefer that view. So, you might enter all your home, work, school, and social tasks/events into the app and they will appear on one list. But, if you want to only see the home tasks, just filter by your “home” tag. You can assign a task to appear on your list on a certain day, though that’s not required. If you complete a task, swipe right and the task disappears off the screen. Don’t complete the task on that day? Swipe left on the task and you can move it to appear on your screen at another time (3 hours later, that evening, the next day, the weekend, next week, etc.).
This app’s design allows for that “inbox-zero” feeling to be achieved every day, an accomplishment I’ve never achieved but always hope to eventually. You can also add notes to each task, in case you need to input more information than what’s included in the task title.
Note: The app also syncs with Evernote, but I’ve never used that function.
This app is quite different from the others, but it works well alongside them. It’s a habit-building and goal tracking app intended to help you stay on track when building healthy and/or productive routines. For example, you can track how often you write by adding “Write My Novel” as a habit in the app. You can set how many times a day/week/month you should be doing the task, what time you want a reminder about doing the task, if you have a certain goal in mind for it (like a 30 day streak), etc. On the home screen, all your habits/goals are listed. You swipe right on the task title to signal completing it and swipe left to signal not completing the task. So, if the goal is to drink 8 cups of water a day, then you swipe each time you drink a cup of water and the app keeps track and lets you know once you complete your daily goal (the line tracking the habit goes from red to green).
In addition to habits (have you created atomic habits yet?), you can also create goals like losing weight or cooking a healthy meal. When you swipe right in these cases, you enter in information (like your weight or how many meals you created), and there is also a notes section if you want to add in even more information. The app tracks tons of information related to your habits/goals, and you can see your monthly histories for each task by clicking on its title.
Note: The free version only allows you to track 7 tasks at a time. If you want to add more tasks, you’d need to pay $4.99/month or $39.99/year. I don’t think it’s worth paying for the upgrade, but that’s for you to decide.
This app is intended for creative writers, and its simplicity is what makes it so appealing. The app has four types of notes built into its design: outline, notes, character, chapter. The note types are color coded, so on the home screen, you can easily differentiate between the note types without having to read any of the titles. You can type out your notes, but you can also dictate them as an audio recording and/or add pictures, as well. So, for example, you can type out information about a character’s personality, add a picture of an actor/actress that you think has the look of your character, and you can record yourself or someone else speaking in an accent that you want the character to have.
All of these types of information can be included in one note, rather than needing to create a different note for each type. You can also add a reminder to a specific note, so you can be sent a notification to look at that note later on. While you might have a more complex outlining and drafting software on your computer/tablet, for on-the-go ideas, this app is a great one to have on your phone.
To start, this app costs $7.99 and can only be used on an iPad or iPhone. There is a desktop option, but you’d have to pay for it separately, I believe. I only use it for my iPad, and it is well worth the money (and this opinion is from someone who basically never buys an app that costs any money at all). It’s a great PDF annotator app, which is mainly what I use it for. However, you can also create your own digital notebooks with the tap of a coupon buttons, and the app comes with blank, lined, and graph paper templates for each notebook creation. You can also organize all your PDFs, notebooks, and images into different categories, so you don’t have to worry about them being all being in a disorganized home screen.
The Apple Pencil only works with the newest iPads, so you’d need to find another stylus to use if you have an older version. Of course, you can just type your notes using the textbook function, if you don’t have a stylus to work with. If you have the 2018 iPad or an iPad Pro, then this app is definitely for you if you want to use digital notebooks for classes you take or teach, or if you are working on projects that involve a lot of PDFs and note-taking. It’s also a great app to use for PDF planner pages, like the ones in this grad student collection.
Note: This app is the one that has the biggest learning curve, in my opinion. I have a blog post with some basic information, which you can check out here.
There are definitely the usual apps you hear about when talking about project planning or writing: Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Google Calendar to name a few. I definitely recommend all of these apps, as well, since I use them almost every day myself. I’m interested to learn more, however, about more uncommon productivity apps that are fantastic and need to be talked about more.
Comment Below: What’s your favorite under-appreciated productivity app and why?
>>If you found these tips helpful and want to make sure you don’t miss any future content on my blog, here’s the link to subscribe to my blog’s email list. As a subscriber, you’ll receive access to my resources library, which includes all my blog-related PDFs.<<