“Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!

I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water almost three years ago.  In the intervening time things have changed (Smartr/Xobni, for example, has gone away), hence this fresh list.

Here are my 14 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please share yours in the comments.

Artefact Cards: Not all productivity apps are digital.  The Artefact Cards are a new entry on this list, one developed by my friend John V. Willshire of Smithery.  These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other.  Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration and collaboration.  The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part.  When John and I met for coffee in London a few weeks ago, he brought me a couple boxes.  When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast.  The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose.  Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive— I keep a few with me in my pocket Moleskine notebook all the time, and just ordered a Desk Set because I’m almost out!  John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.

(Smithery has created a companion app for scanning and organizing the written-upon cards, but I haven’t used it yet.) 

Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote section, below).  The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style.  But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these.  These are always in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids both love to draw).

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter.  Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky).  Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed.  The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month.  Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web.  It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video.  It’s a better interface and user experience than Google Drive (see below).

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement.  It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable.  The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.

Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).  If I had one wish for Evernote, it would be that it should acquire ToodleDo (see below) and integrate it.

Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

My love for Evernote became even more profound (hard though that was) when I added…

ScanSnap Evernote Edition Scanner (by Fujitsu):  Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates seamlessly with Evernote: I shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote.  If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a couple of minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did.  Evernote released the Scannable app a few months ago for on-the-fly scanning via a smart phone.  It also integrates with the ScanSnap.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea.  When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time.  So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back.  You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera.  The free version is robust, and at $2 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need.  From my friend Adam Boettiger.

Google Drive: Formerly Google Docs, Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody.  For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.  Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.  On the other hand… 

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired.  Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want.  Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.  Google Voice now integrates nicely with Google+ and Gmail.  During my time in Norway, I only wish that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it goes to my Vonage VOIP number, which is virtually in the USA.

Instapaper:  A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing.  Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption.  If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.  I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.

Moleskine Volant Mini:  I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times.  It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process.  Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying.  The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.  Find these in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

Rory’s Story Cubes: These are more of an insight pump than a productivity app.  Nine six-sided dice have pictograms on each side.  Roll the dice and see what combination of icons and images come up.  The dice are handy for changing your perspective on a situation that might have become sclerotic, or help you break through a barrier in your thinking.  Along these lines, just yesterday I saw a real copy of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards, and I may buy a set since the iPhone app I’ve tried is unsatisfying.

The Story Cubes have helped my son in a regular battle with his Daily Journal assignment from school.  He’s a talented writer, but sometimes has trouble coming up with something to write about.  Tossing the cubes and then selecting a few of them helps him get started.

Randomness has its uses.  Way back in college, I stumbled across my friend Karen Schiff throwing Tarot Cards and nearly passed out in judgmental shock.  Karen, serene, then explained that she didn’t think the cards had mystical properties, but that throwing them made her think in directions that she wouldn’t think natively.  It was a powerful moment that stuck with me, so I look for implements of controlled chaos like the Story Cubes.

Toodle Do: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman.  Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization.  The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization.  Fans of GTD will love this.

As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy Toodle Do and integrate it.

Trello:  Another from my friend Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work.  I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!

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2 thoughts on ““Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!”

  1. It looks like Artefact cards are just blank playing cards with a colored back. You can get blank playing cards at a FAR lower cost than 11 pounds (~$16) for 2 decks. This site: http://www.makeplayingcards.com/design/blank-poker-card-deck.html has blank cards for $2.50 a pack (even less expensive if you order in bulk). Other sizes are also available, and if you really want a colored back, you can get that too (along with custom text) for an additional charge. Or you can ’em for $1/deck here: http://www.eaieducation.com/Product/530658/Blank_Playing_Cards_-_Single_Deck.aspx

    1. Hi Pete, thanks ever so for reading the post! Your helpful comment on the Artefact Cards focuses something that wasn’t clear originally (I’ll update the post to reflect it), which is that the Artefact cards are credit card sized: roughly 5cm x 8cm (or 2″ x 3-1/4″) and so fit in a wallet nicely. The blank Bridge cards from makeplayingcards.com are the closest, although the eaieducation.com ones are also close (albeit without the color option). Color, as you once observed to me, is an opportunity not to be squandered, and so the different color backs available for the cards are helpful to keep different ideas connected or disparate– that drives up the comparison price a tad, but not enough to be a wash. Another build is that the Artefact cards come with a Sharpie and some helpful prompts and other instructions for using them to do the work– which is to say that if one is getting started using this sort of card for collaboration or ideation, then the whole package for the set has value. Down the line, though, if I continue to use these then I’ll explore other sellers… particularly once I’m back in the far-cheaper USA from always-pricey Norway. Thanks again!

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