Best productivity apps 2023: Work smarter, not harder

We all head back to school with the best of intentions. This year is going to be the year when we really knuckle down and work more efficiently, instead of saving it all until the last minute. Sadly, those good intentions can quickly go astray.


If you really want to be more productive, then there’s an app for that. In fact, there’s a whole genre of them. So many, in fact, that you could easily lose hours deciding which productivity apps you should use, instead of actually being productive. Luckily, we’ve taken one for the team, and done the procrastination for you. These are some of the best productivity apps you can use to work smarter, not harder.


Todoist

Do you find that you can’t get anything done until you’ve made a to-do list, with ‘make list’ being the first entry? If so, then a to-do app is essential. Todoist takes your to-do lists to the next level, by allowing you to group tasks by project such as Home, Work, and That Novel I’m Definitely Going to Write. It means that when you’re writing a document you don’t have ‘do laundry’ popping up in your list of tasks; you can focus purely on the matter at hand. You can even share to-do lists with other people, assuming you can find someone willing to share the load.

The free version of Todoist allows you to create up to five different projects which is plenty to get you started, and is available on iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and Linux. A Pro plan allows unlimited projects, collaboration with up to 25 people, and task reminders.

Download Todoist for iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and Linux

Google Calendargoogle calendar screenshots on an iphone

A calendar is essential for keeping track of upcoming tasks and appointments. Google Calendar is a powerful app that does just about everything you could need. By linking to your Gmail account, Google Calendar can suggest meetings or appointments based on your email messages and can send you reminders for events.

Google Calendar is completely free to use; like all Google apps, the price you pay is being willing to share your data with the company, to do with as it sees fit. If you’re okay with that, however, then Google Calendar integrates perfectly with your other Google apps, as well as many popular third-party apps.

Download Google Calendar for iOS and Android

Notion

notion screenshots on an iphone

For many years, Evernote was the king of note-taking apps. However, in recent years, there have been several new apps that offer things that Evernote can’t. One of those apps is Notion. The app has a wide range of paid features focused at small businesses and enterprises, such as project planning, Kanban boards, and wikis, but the app is free for personal users and offers powerful note-taking tools.

You can take rich notes, create to-do lists, build a board of tasks to be completed, or even write a journal. When you’re writing, you can opt for a blank page to completely remove distractions. The app is available on most platforms, although there’s no official Linux support.

Download Notion for iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS

Focus To-Do

focus to do screenshots on an iphone

One of the biggest enemies of productivity is distraction. You get a notification on your phone, pick it up, and before you know an hour has been lost to scrolling through social media. If you want to maximise your productivity, then you’ll need something to help you focus. The Pomodoro method is one of the most popular ways to do so; it breaks your work down into 25-minute sessions of focus, followed by five-minute breaks, repeated as many times as you wish.

Focus To-Do is a free Pomodoro app for iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows that allows you to create projects and sub-tasks and work your way through them in 25-minute bursts. You can set how many sessions you think the task will take, or just leave it running until you’re done. You can even use Strict mode, in which you have to put your phone face down; if you pick it up for longer than 10 seconds, the session cancels. There is a paid subscription that allows you to sync across devices and add unlimited projects, but for most users, the free version has everything you’ll need.

Download Focus To-Do for iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows

Forestforest screenshots on an iphone

One problem with Pomodoro apps is that there’s no real incentive to focus, other than your own desire to be more productive. Your phone doesn’t know if you’ve drifted off into a daydream for twenty minutes during your ‘focus’ session. Forest tries to fix that by giving you something else to work for.

When you start a focus session, you also plant a tree. If you make it to the end of the full 25 minutes, the tree gets added to your garden. The real magic is when you turn on Deep Focus mode. In this mode, most of the apps on your phone are blocked during a focus session. If you try to open one, you’ll be sent back to Forest. The only way to access the apps is to finish your focus session early, which means instead of a healthy tree, a withered tree gets planted in your garden. It’s surprising how motivating it can be to try to keep your trees alive.

Download Forest for iOS and Android

Habiticahabitica screenshots on an iphone

Another great way to incentivise yourself to be more productive is through gamification. Habitica takes the traditional to-do list tasks and turns them into a way to earn XP so that you can level up your avatar, or unlock pets, skills, and quests. You’ll also earn gold which you can use to buy equipment and items, or cash in for rewards.

You can choose from the set rewards, but it’s also possible to create your own custom rewards. For example, you might set yourself a target of earning 100 gold before you can buy those headphones you’ve got your eye on. Once you’ve earned the coins, you can buy them guilt-free. You can set up daily tasks that you want to complete, as well as To Do tasks that you complete once or a handful of times. You can also set targets for habits that you want to form. By turning your productivity into a game, you can find yourself much more motivated than you would be otherwise.

Download Habitica on iOS and Android

Toggl Tracktoggl track screenshots on an iphone

An excellent way to be more productive is to track the time that you spend on different tasks. If you do it accurately, over time you can build up a picture of the tasks that are taking up more of your time, and even keep track of how much time you waste being idle when you should be beavering away. Toggl Track provides a simple way to keep track of a wide range of different tasks and get insights into your time habits.

You can track individual tasks and connect them to different projects through the use of tags. There are automatically generated reports that give you insight into how long you’re spending on different projects. There’s also a Pomodoro timer included in the app. Toggl Track is available for mobile, Windows, and macOS, and there’s also a web app if your OS isn’t supported.

Download Toggl Track on iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows

How I chose the best productivity apps

There are so many productivity apps out there that it can be tricky to know which ones to choose. I’ve aimed to pick one app for some of the key sub-genre of productivity; to-do lists, calendar apps, note-taking, Pomodoro timers, distraction blockers, and time tracking. There are some very good apps from these sub-genres that didn’t make the list, but if the list was too long, you’d never stop reading and start being productive. I’ve tried to include apps that are available across a range of platforms too; there are some great apps that are only available on one platform, and so didn’t make the cut. I’ve also aimed to include apps that are free to use to some extent.

How to choose a productivity app

With so many productivity apps to choose from, there are some key questions that can help you to narrow down your choice.

What type of productivity app should I choose?

This is really a matter of personal preference but also comes down to the type of work you’re going to be doing. If you’re doing open-ended tasks then time tracking might not be that critical, but a Pomodoro timer could help you to focus more when you are working. You should also think about what’s stopping you from being productive currently. If it’s scrolling through Threads, then a distraction blocker like Forest might be just the thing.

Does the Pomodoro technique really work?

Yes and no. Many people swear by it and it’s a very simple habit to pick up. It’s also nice to be able to reward yourself with a break where you can legitimately post a few GIFs on Threads having completed some focused work. Not everybody finds it useful, however; the technique alone won’t stop you from getting distracted by other things.

Is it worth paying for a productivity app?

Many of the apps on the list are free to use but offer a premium subscription that adds additional features. Some of the features can make you more productive, such as the task reminders on Todoist, but you may find that you don’t need the paid features to get all you need from the app. The best advice is to try the free version and upgrade if there are features you really need.

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