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Expert-recommended productivity apps for focus and to-dos

Our experts recommend apps and techniques to help you tune out distractions.
Mature businessman using mobile phone while writing notes at table in office
Experts recommend a holistic approach when it comes to focus and productivity.Morsa Images / Getty Images

Managing your time can help you achieve your goals, no matter the context. Whether you are working at a new job or tackling a big creative project, having a focused workday is essential for productivity. With the endless entertainment of streaming and social media a click away, actually being productive is easier said than done, though.

“If you want to become more productive, you have to shift your mindset,” said Amanda Augustine, a certified professional career coach and resume writer for resume writing service TopResume. “Being productive isn’t just about managing your time more efficiently — it’s about managing yourself differently.”

One of the ways to help manage time and your tasks is through productivity apps. While our experts agreed that apps aren’t a cure-all to all your productivity needs, they can help you stay focused and block out time more effectively.

Expert-recommended productivity apps

The best productivity app for you largely depends on what you are looking to accomplish and what kind of devices you use.

First, it's important to realize that apps will not solve all your productivity problems. Downloading five brand new apps expecting sudden productivity gains is unrealistic. “Specific apps may not be as useful as just knowing how to optimize the apps you’re already using,” said Dr. David Rock, a neuroscientist and CEO at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Below are a few expert and Select staff recommended productivity apps that are cross compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android that should help you get more done:

Focus Keeper

Focus Keeper is one of dozens of apps structured around the Pomodoro Technique. In essence, the Pomodoro technique is a way to organize your workflow. You set a timer through the tool and work for 25 minutes, then take a short five minute break. Repeat this three times, then take a longer, 20 to 30 minute break. Repeat this cycle throughout your workday. Dedicated time for work and rest helps organize your day, and discourage mixing work with downtime.

Augustine recommends Focus Keeper to “help you implement the Pomodoro Technique with ease.” Focus Keeper is available on web browsers as well as via app on iOS and Android.

Freedom

Commerce social editor Sadhana Daruvuri recommends the Freedom app for “blocking all your social media while you’re trying to be productive.” Freedom can block social media, shopping, streaming and other sites of your choosing across all your devices. That way, you can better focus on the task at hand, according to Freedom. You can block sites for a simple, timed duration or through a personalized schedule. As it does not help with task management, we think Freedom is best used in combination with other focus, timer and to-do apps.

Freedom is available on web browsers as well as via app on iOS and Android.

135 List

135 List is a simple to-do list app. “You choose one big thing, three medium things and five small things to accomplish and check them off as you go,” said Augustine. For people who prefer a light touch, without complex systems to learn, 135 List is one of the simplest productivity tools out there.

135 List is available on web browsers across Windows, Mac, Linux, mobile and tablet devices.

Trello

I am a long time user of Trello, a task-management app that has helped me break down workdays, workweeks, workflows, projects and more. Trello is a bit like a corkboard, with cards you can write in, add lists to, attach files onto, deadline and more. You can create multiple boards, and boards sync across all your devices. The simplicity and flexibility of Trello has allowed me to tackle everything, from breaking down large projects to visualizing my workflow.

Trello is available on web browsers as well as via app on iOS and Android.

RescueTime

“RescueTime will help you get an accurate feel for what you're doing with your day,” said Augustine. Compared to our other recommendation, RescueTime is more of a time-tracking tool than a productivity one. It shows you how much time you spend on different sites, breaking down your daily, weekly and monthly browsing time into categories. By seeing where you spend your time online, you can better take control of your time, according to the brand. “RescueTime can also send notifications when you’re spending too much time on specific tasks,” said Augustine.

RescueTime is available on web browsers as well as via app on iOS and Android, but according to most critical and consumer reviews, the web version is preferred.

How to avoid productivity pitfalls

Productivity and time-management are more complicated than just using an app. Our experts recommended a holistic approach to productivity, and told us how to make the most of any workday.

Tackle the biggest challenges first

It may seem appealing to start your day with a bunch of small tasks you can quickly check off your to-do list, but Augustine recommends doing the opposite. “While it may feel like you’re getting a bunch of things done, you’re really procrastinating from handling the harder tasks that require more focus to accomplish,” she said. Instead, Augustine recommends tackling your hardest tasks at the start of your day, when you are “more likely to be most productive.”

Build small breaks into your routine

Taking breaks throughout your workday can help you maintain focus and increase productivity. According to multiple scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of Applied Psychology (published by the American Psychological Association) and Consciousness and Cognition, small breaks in work settings can lead to increased focus, reduced stress and better performance. That’s why you see so many productivity methods incorporate break time into everyday workflow.

For people with back-to-back meetings, this is easier said than done. “One thing I recommend for that is to try speedy meetings that last 25 minutes instead of 30, or 50 minutes instead of an hour,” said Rock. “Having those extra minutes to get up, stretch your legs or take a quick walk can really help you stay focused and fresh.”

Practice mindful downtime

An important part of optimizing your work time is optimizing your downtime. Rock noted that we “often do downtime wrong” through activities like TV and podcasts. “True downtime is having no goal or targeted focus – so wandering down a path or daydreaming,” said Rock. “It’s only when we let our mind wander that we’re really experiencing downtime.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

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