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Expert-recommended productivity and focus apps

These apps and techniques can 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

We all have a million tasks we want to accomplish but not enough time to complete them. Whether you’re at home, in the office or anywhere else, drifting focus and distracting notifications can make any errand or job seem endless.

SKIP AHEAD The best productivity apps for 2024 | How to avoid productivity pitfalls

Becoming more productive isn’t just about managing your time more efficiently — it’s about managing yourself differently, says Amanda Augustine, a certified professional career coach and resume writer for TopResume. “If you want to boost your productivity, you’ll need to shift your mindset,” says Augustine.

Something that can help you manage your time and tasks more effectively is a productivity app. While our experts agree that apps aren’t a cure-all for your productivity needs, they can help you stay focused and schedule your time more effectively.

Selected.Our top picks

How we picked the best productivity apps

The best productivity app for you largely depends on what you are looking to accomplish and 

what kind of devices you use. We spoke with experts to better understand focus and productivity, and how apps can help. 

Using their guidance as inspiration, we included expert-recommended and staff-favorite apps that are available on internet browsers as well as iPhone and Android phones. Everyone thinks, focuses and organizes their tasks differently — we selected timer, focus, to-do and organizational apps that fulfill different needs.

The best productivity apps for 2024

Below are expert and staff-recommended productivity apps that are available on browsers, iPhone and Android devices. All of the apps are free to use or offer a free trial to start.

Best productivity timer: Focus Keeper

Augustine recommends Focus Keeper to help you implement the Pomodoro Technique, a method of structuring your work hours based on timers. The technique is 25 minutes of work, then a five minute break, repeated three times. After three cycles, you take a longer, 20 to 30 minute break. You can repeat this cycle throughout your workday. 

Dedicated time for work and time for rest is highly recommended by our experts. It helps to organize your workday and discourages mixing work and downtime. Focus Keeper is available on web browsers as well as via app on iPhone and Android.

For blocking apps and distractions: Freedom

Commerce social editor Sadhana Daruvuri uses the Freedom app to block social media apps while she is focusing. Freedom can also block shopping, streaming and other sites of your choosing across all your devices. You can block sites for a timed duration or based on a personalized schedule. 

Freedom is not a task management or to-do app — we recommend using it in combination with another productivity app. It is available on web browsers as well as an iPhone and Android app.

Best simple to-do list: Rocket 135

Augustine recommends Rocket 135 for people who prefer a simple tool that follows the 1-3-5 rule. On any given day, limit your to-dos to one big thing, three medium things and five small things. “This forces you to narrow down your to-do list to nine things to maximize your focus and productivity,” says Augustine. The app keeps track of your progress and lets you organize to-dos into categories. It’s available on browsers as well as via app on iPhone and Android

Best for staying organized: Trello

I’ve used Trello for years to organize my workday, workweek and workflow — it helps me keep track of dozens of assignments and projects all at once. The home screen looks like cards pinned to a corkboard, with each card able to hold documents, notes, to-dos, due dates, links and more. You can create multiple boards and boards sync across all your devices. Trello is available on browsers as well as via app on iPhone and Android.

For time management: RescueTime

RescueTime can help you get an accurate feel for what you’re doing with your day, says Augustine. It is a time-tracking tool that shows you how long you’ve spent on different sites, breaking down your daily, weekly and monthly browsing time into categories. It can send you notifications when you’re spending too much time on a specific site or tasks, says Augustine, and you can set it to block distracting websites and apps of your choosing.

A free 14 day trial of RescueTime is available on web browsers as well as via app on iPhone and Android, but according to most critical and consumer reviews, the web version is best. If you want a similar function on your phone, try the Screen Time setting in iPhone or the Digital Wellbeing setting in Android 

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 challenge 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, says Augustine.

Tackle the most critical tasks on your list — however unpleasant or challenging they may be — at a time when you are likely to have the most energy and be most focused. Save the smaller, simpler tasks for later when your concentration is waning, says Augustine

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 and Consciousness and Cognition, small breaks in work settings can lead to increased focus, reduced stress and better performance.

This is easier said than done, especially for people with meetings all day long. If that sounds like you, try speedy meetings that last 25 minutes instead of 30. You should use those extra minutes to get up, stretch your legs or take a quick walk to stay focused and fresh, says Dr. David Rock, a neuroscientist and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Practice mindful downtime

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

Apps aren’t everything

Downloading five brand new productivity apps expecting sudden productivity gains might be unrealistic. A new app may not be as important as knowing how to optimize the apps you’re already using, says Rock. 

Becoming more productive is a personal journey. Experiment with different strategies and tools until you find what best suits your work style and preferences, says Augustine.

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

Why trust NBC Select?

Harry Rabinowitz is a reporter at NBC Select who covers technology including recent stories on fitness trackers, tablets, keyboards and more. To better understand focus and productivity tools, he spoke with experts like career coaches and doctors, and got their recommendations. He also spoke with the NBC Select team to find their favorite productivity apps. 

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