20 Apps and Services that Made Me More Productive in 2014

I am often asked about the apps and services I use to get my work done. Last February I listed many of those apps and services in the How I Work interview I did with Lifehacker. With 2014 now in the books, I put together a list of the apps and services that I felt made me more productive throughout the year. They are listed below alphabetically. I’ve included the general functional area of the app or service in parentheses after the app name.

1. Alfred (Automation)

Alfred is a productivity application for Macs (sorry Windows and Linux users) that makes it easy to automate routine tasks and provides shortcuts and tools for all kinds of functions. I use it dozens of times a day in small ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as performing a quick calculation. All I do is active Alfred (Option-Space) and start typing my calculation.

Alfred

All I have to do is press ENTER to copy the result to the clipboard. No opening another app, no waiting. The windows pops up in whatever app I am working in and disappears when I’m done. I can do a lot of other things with it Alfred, from quickly starting applications, to carrying out complex automations. But for me, it is the small things that Alfred really helps speed up: Looking up contacts, searching iTunes for song, looking up the spelling of a word, etc.

2. Audible (Multitasking)

Audible is the Amazon-owned audiobook service for which I have a platinum membership, which gets me 2 audiobook credits per month. How, you might ask, does Audible find its way onto a list of apps that have made me more productive?

These days, when I am asked (with increasing frequency) for my best time-saving tip, I tell people that for me, it is audiobooks. With Audible, I can multitask in ways that I was never able to do before. For example:

With limited time in the day, I get my chief exercise by walking. During the week, I walk 3 times a day, a short 2 mile walk at 10 am, a 3-4 mile walk during my lunch hour, and another 2 mile walk around 3 pm. I do this regardless of weather. This gets me about 7 miles of walking in each day, which is pretty good.

And while I walk, I listen to audiobooks.

Since I started listening to audiobooks in February 2013, I’ve been able to get through more books than I thought possible with my workload, and domestic responsibilities. I’ve also come to enjoy many of the narrators I’ve encountered, and that had led to me to try books that I might not otherwise have attempted.

I can also listen to books at times when I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to read a book:

  • While doing chores around the house
  • While driving. During our drive to- and from- Florida last month, I listened to a grand total of about 30 hours of audiobooks. That’s just during the drive.

The multitasking effect of listening to audiobooks has probably been my single biggest time-saver in 2014.

3. Boomerang (Email)

Boomerang is a plug-in service to Gmail that allows you to “boomerang” email messages. That is, get them out of your inbox and have them returned after a specific amount of time or condition.

For example:

  • If I have an email that I don’t need to take action on until next week, I’ll boomerang the message until next week. It will disappear from my Inbox, and then reappear (with a boomerang tag) next week.
  • If I send an email to someone, I can have boomerang remind me of the email if the person has not replied within a set time period. It acts as an automated tickler file.
  • I can schedule emails to be sent a later date.

Here’s an example of what Boomerang looks like in action, integrated with Gmail:

Boomerang

There are plenty of options for me to choose from, and I can create custom options as well. I typically use the “Tomorrow morning” and “In 1 week” options.

Boomerang also has a nice feature where it will suggest a time based on a date it finds it the email message. For example, if I received an email inviting me to a podcast and asking me to reply by a certain date, Boomerang will detect that date in the message and automatically provide a suggested time to Boomerang the message:

Boomerang invites

All of this works seamlessly from within Gmail. It is my key application for keeping my Inbox at or near zero.

4. Buffer (Social Media)

Buffer is a service that allows you to schedule your social media updates and send them out through multiple channels. I’ve been using Buffer for well over a year. It is my primary method for posting to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. It allows me to easily schedule posts throughout the day, so I can multitask. If I find an interesting link reading my news feeds early in the morning, I can Buffer the link so that it gets sent to all of my social media outlets later in the afternoon. I might be in a meeting or heads-down writing code, or something else, but because the posts has been scheduled ahead of time, I don’t need to take any action. Buffer does it all for me.buffer

Here’s an example of what my Buffer queue looks like this morning:

Buffer example

You can see the times the posts are scheduled for in the red boxes.

Buffer makes it easy for me to keep my social media updated, and to schedule things throughout the day so that I can focus on other work.

5. CrashPlan (Backups)

CrashPlan is a cloud-based backup system. It backs up all of our computers to the cloud and does so in real time so that once it is installed, we never have to think about it. There is no limit to the amount you can back up. We currently have over 500 GB of data backed up in the cloud.

The files can be restored from anywhere, and the restores are easy. I’ve used CrashPlan once to do a disaster recovery, where a disk died and I needed to restore everything. And I’ve used it countless times to restore a file here or there.

Mostly, CrashPlan, like insurance, gives a peace of mind that if my hard disk blows up, my data is secure.

6. Dropbox (Data Storage)

I use Dropbox for storing small documents that are frequently accessed from multiple locations. Dropbox, for instance, is at the center of my to-do list system, which is entirely based on plain text files. The todo list files are stored in Dropbox and can be accessed and updated from anywhere I happen to be.

7. Evernote (Digital Brain)

Evernote, of course, is the hub of my digital brain. I use it for hundreds of things. No need to repeat that all here. If you are interested in specifics, check out my Going Paperless posts for real-world examples of how I use Evernote.

8. GitHub (Coding)

GitHub is a social code-sharing service. It allows you to store and maintain revision control over code you write, access code that others have made available, and work collaboratively on coding projects with others. I’ve grown to really like the functionality and ease-of-use of GitHub. In addition, GitHub is designed with a good workflow in mind, and that makes it easier to write and publish more manageable code.

My Google Docs Writing Scripts, which automate all of my writing stats, are stored and made freely available via GitHub, and I’ve used it for many other small coding projects in the last year.

You can find me on GitHub here.

9. Google Docs (Writing)

Google Docs is my primary tool for writing. It is, in my opinion, the best writing tool for me that I’ve come across. I’ve written in detail about how and why I use Google Docs, but the main reasons are threefold:

  1. Simplicity. It is simple, easy-to-use, and not overburdened with functions that I will never use.
  2. Accessibility. I can use it anywhere, on my iMac, my Macbook, my work machine, from an iPad or iPhone. Everything is stored in the cloud and is therefore almost always accessible. (When it isn’t, I can work offline.) And I don’t have to remember to copy files around from this machine to that one.
  3. Automation. I can automate Google Docs to do things for me, much like what I have done with my Google Docs Writing Tracker mentioned above.

I wrote more than 310,000 words in 2014, all through Google Docs.

10. LastPass (Security)

LastPass is a password manager. It allows me to generate a unique, strong password for every app and service that I use, and it integrates with my browsers to make logging into those apps and services easy. I’ve been using LastPass for well over a year. While it took a little time to setup, it has saved me far more time interacting with my apps and services.

More importantly, it ensures better online security practices. It generates a strong, random password for each service I use. If, someone, my Facebook account is hacked, that password will only work for Facebook and my other services will be safe. When there is a wide security breach, LastPass lets me know what passwords I should change, and automates the process of changing them. I can’t begin to estimate the time it has saved me over the last year and a half or so, all while improving my security.

11. Mailbox (Email)

Mailbox is an iPhone app that acts as a mail client for Gmail. It is simple, easy to use, and has many of the same features as Boomerang, so that I can manage my inbox from my phone. I mostly use Mailbox for its simplicity and ease-of-use, but those Boomerang-like features come in handy. If I want to get a message out my inbox until next week, I just left-swipe it, and then select Next Week from the options:

Mailbox

12. Pocket (Social Media)

Pocket is a save-for-later service that allows you to send articles you read on the web to be stored for later reading, online or offline. It formats the articles in a clean, simple format that makes it easy to read on any device. I’ve written about how I use Pocket to help keep Evernote clutter-free. I use it frequently to catch-up on articles I’ve saved for later, especially when standing on line somewhere.

13. RescueTime (Productivity)

RescueTime tracks how much time you spend using applications, documents, and web sites, and provides useful metrics based on that data. I use RescueTime on all of my computers and the aggregate data it supplies provides me with a baseline for my productivity.

RescueTime

The Productivity Pulse gives me a measure of how productive I am from day-to-day, and the data I have from nearly a year’s use lets me know what range I should fall into on a given day. Using RescueTime to establish a productivity baseline has been vital to improving my productivity over the last year.

I also use the data from RescueTime to automatically track how much time I spend writing. I never have to “clock-in” or “clock-out.” I just write and filter the data to those applications and documents which pertained to my writing. The data is automatically rendered on my open writing data page for anyone to see.

14. Skitch (Screen Captures)

Skitch is an Evernote product that allows you to easily capture and annotate screenshots and other images. I use it almost exclusively for capturing screenshots. Every screen capture you see on this blog was done via Skitch. When I write technical documentation at the day job and require screenshots, I use Skitch as well. Skitch makes it easy to capture all or part of a screen, annotate the capture, and stores it automatically in Evernote. I use it constantly, and it has saved me an enormous amount of time.

15. Sublime Text (Text editor)

Sublime Text is a text editor. I had been looking for a good text editor for a while, and discovered Sublime Text earlier this year. Since I started using it, I haven’t looked back. IT is cross-platform so I can use it on my Mac and Windows machines. It has a ton of great plug-ins that help to automate a wide range of functionality. It has a clean, but highly customizable interface.

I’ve been using it as my primary editor when I write code. I also use Sublime Text for managing my to-do lists, for keeping my reading list up-to-date, and for all kinds of ephemeral notes here and there. It has been one of my better finds in 2014.

16. Sunrise (Calendar)

Sunrise is a calendar app that allows me to pull a variety of calendar sources together into a single calendar. I use it for my Google Calendars. But it does more than that. I have also integrated Sunrise with my Facebook calendars, my Evernote reminders, and GitHub. I use the Sunrise web app on my Mac and Windows machines, and I use the Sunrise iOS app on my iPhone.

It means I have only one calendar app to go to so see all of my calendar items, regardless of the source. And Sunrise integrates with many more apps and services, including many to-do apps like Asana, Todoist, and more.

17. TextExpander (Automation)

TextExpander is a shortcut utility that allows you to create short cuts that expand to frequently used text, whatever that text may be. I recently wrote about how I use TextExpander to manage my social media profiles. To insert a profile somewhere, I just need to type a few keystrokes. For example, if I type “;;bio50” that will automatically expand into my 50-word bio, saving me 50 words worth of typing.

I use TextExpander for many other expansions: common email addresses, my phone numbers (which I never remember), blog URLs, etc. I also use it for common replies to frequently-asked questions, saving me the time of typing those over and over again. TextExpander has been a great time-saver for me.

18. ThinkUp (Social Media)

ThinkUp is a service that gives interesting insights into your social media behavior. I think that ThinkUp has been one of the most important tool I’ve used to improve my social media behavior. I wrote about this recently. Unlike some tools which focus on how much klout you have on the Internet, ThinkUp focuses on the positive effects you have on other people:

  • How many people you thanked on social media
  • How your retweets help signal boost someone else’s post
  • How many times you talk about yourself (as opposed to about others).

It is a fun, friendly tool, and I think it has made me a better person on social media.

19. VaultPress (Backups)

VaultPress is an automated backup services for my WordPress blog. I’ve been using VaultPress for just about as long as I have been using CrashPlan. It gives me the same piece of mind for this blog that I have for all of my other data. Every time a changes is made on the blog VaultPress captures it in its backups. It does this automatically, without any action on my part.

VaultPress

Earlier this fall, when I moved my blog from one server platform to another, the move was made much easier thanks to VaultPress. All I had to do was install the basic WordPress application, install the VaultPress plug-in, and click the restore button. Within a few minutes, my entire blog, everything, including the databases, the web files, the media, was restored and functioning perfectly.

20. WordPress (Blogging)

Last, but not least, is WordPress, which I use for this very blog. I use a self-installed version of WordPress, and a customized version of the Twenty Thirteen theme (customized via a child-theme for easy maintenance). I’ve been using WordPress for going on six years now, and have never thought about changing.


That concludes the roundup of the 20 apps and services that made me more productive in 2014. Have suggestions or questions? Drop them in the comments.

6 thoughts on “20 Apps and Services that Made Me More Productive in 2014

  1. I am going to have to check out a few of these I am unfamiliar with. Thanks, Jamie!

  2. Best wishes for 2015, Jamie!

    As a careful reader of your blog, I’m surprise not to find any mention of the Chromebook. I know it is not an application, but do you still use it for instance when writing on Google Docs?

  3. Michel, I was thinking mostly of apps as opposed to gadgets. If I had included the latter, I would have mentioned the Chromebook, as well as my FitBit and Automatic Link. I got a Macbook Air earlier in the year and have been using that as my primary computer away from my desk. However, I still have the Chromebook and still use it for writing as a backup laptop when I need it.

  4. Thanks for the round up. You might check out Launchy if you haven’t already. It’s a high-value low-impact favorite of mine.

  5. Hi Jamie,

    Is there a post on how you use WordPress? I am interested if you use Google Docs for blogging too. If yes. How do you get your posts from Google Docs to WordPress which are completely disconnected services.

    Thanks.

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