For me, every day is filled with personal and professional tasks that require the use of a computer and/or a smartphone. I have articles to write. I have emails to send. I have research to do. I have a book draft to work on. I have images to edit. I have videos to edit. I have audio to edit.
All of these tasks require software. Some of the software I use rarely (like video and image editing, which I honestly don’t do that often). Other tasks, like writing text documents, happen much more frequently.
Using the usage statistics on my main computer, I’ve come to realize that there are 10 pieces of software (besides default stuff like a web browser) that I use almost every single day.
These pieces of software are mostly multiplatform, which is important because I use both Mac OS and Windows regularly. Many of these pieces of software are free (but not all of them), which is important because I’m cost conscious. Almost all of these have mobile versions, either on the web or as independent applications.
What these software packages all have in common is that they’re really useful for me. Over and over again, they help me with keeping my tasks straight, my lists organized, my calendar organized, my files synchronized, my distractions out of the way, and so on. My daily work day (and personal day) would be much harder without these apps.
So, without further ado…
Todoist is a wonderfully-designed to-do list manager that basically does everything I’ve ever wanted a list manager to do in a straightforward package. I have used Remember the Milk for years and tried out different packages, only to keep going back to RtM; Todoist is the first one I’ve really stuck with.
So, why do I like it so much? The biggest reason is that the design is really streamlined and well thought out. Every time I think about how I want to do something with Toodoist, the option is usually right there where I would expect it to be. It’s also useful that it has a great Windows version, a great Mac version, a great smartphone app version, and a very nice web interface, meaning I can use it almost anywhere to access my to-do lists. That’s really important for this kind of app.
How do I use it? I have an ongoing “master” to-do list which includes all of the “important and urgent” things I have going on. I assign each of these a priority and a location so I can group them accordingly (I group them by location and tackle the ones that are location-appropriate by priority).
I have a “daily” to-do list that reminds me of all of the stuff I want to do each day. This list, whenever I check off an item, automatically populates tomorrow’s “daily” to-do list, so I don’t even have to think about it. It’s an exact replica of my old “laminated” to-do list.
I have a lot of “project” lists and “someday” lists floating around, too.
I look at all of these lists every day. The two main ones are lists that I look at a bunch of times each day. They keep me on task and moving forward, no matter what the day holds for me.
Evernote is a note-taking application that synchronizes your notes so that you can find them from any computer or smartphone. Notes can be practically anything – quick pieces of text, pictures, voice notes, and so on.
I have more than a thousand notes stored in Evernote. Most of them are ideas for Simple Dollar posts. Others are ideas I had for activities with my family. Still others are brainstorms in other areas of my life – an idea for a piece of fiction, for example. A few of them are simply things I want to remember later in the day.
Why do I like Evernote so much? I can find my notes on pretty much any computer known to man due to the web interface, but there’s also an app for pretty much every platform (Mac, Windows, mobile) which makes adding notes really easy. I like that I can add notes in a wide variety of ways – audio notes, image notes, written notes – because different situations make different kinds of notes better.
How do I use Evernote? Whenever I have an idea that I want to remember later, I usually pull out Evernote and record it quickly (sometimes I do use a pocket notebook instead, especially when it’s just text). On my computer that I work on most of the time, I have a keyboard shortcut that pulls up a fresh note for Evernote so that I can immediately add my thought, save it, and move on with my work.
Once or twice a day, I review all of my new notes in Evernote, either filing them away in “idea” folders or taking some action on them.
Paprika is a recipe manager and a grocery-list generator that I absolutely love. It stores most of the recipes we make with any regularity along with hundreds more that I’ve seen that I want to make someday.
Not only do I use it for today’s recipe for the meal we’re having for dinner, I also use it to store any interesting recipes I see anywhere on the web. I can save them into Paprika with just a couple of clicks. Even more important than that, the recipe manager and grocery-list generator have basically solved our meal planning and grocery shopping routine.
Why do I like it so much? Once you build up a decent-sized collection of recipes that you actually like and are interested in, it becomes an incredible resource for planning meals. I have somewhere around 400 recipes stored in Paprika which I can search by ingredient, so when I see what ingredient is on sale at the store, I can just search Paprika and find all recipes that match that ingredient – and I know that since they’re in my database, my family either likes them or I’m really interested in trying it out.
How do I use Paprika? Well, as you saw above, I use it when planning meals for the week. When I’m thinking of heading to the store, I pull out the grocery flyer and Paprika and start searching for ingredients. For example, broccoli might be on sale, so I’ll search “broccoli” and find all recipes that use broccoli. I can then just add these recipes to my meal plan for the week with just a click, and add all ingredients to my grocery list (also stored in the app) with just a click. I can do all of this on my computer, but then the grocery list is available on my phone, too.
During the week, I add any interesting recipes I find directly to Paprika – it only takes a click or two to do that, too. I can tell which recipes are new and which ones we’ve tried before because I add a rating to any recipes we try as a family – one with a lot of stars is a family hit.
Sublime Text is a text editor that works on a lot of platforms. Think of it as a souped-up version of Notepad.
I like text editors that manage to include features that are useful to both writers and programmers, and that’s what Sublime Text is.
Why do I like it so much? Like any good text editor, it has a lot of little features that you simply have to learn – usually keyboard shortcuts – but once you get used to those shortcuts, the software becomes incredibly powerful. I really like the search tools that Sublime Text has, as I have tons and tons of text documents stored and this editor makes it easy to search through all of them quickly.
How do I use it? I’m using it right now to write this very article you’re reading. I use it to draft and edit every article I write for Money360 and for every other place where I submit articles (like U.S. News and World Report). The only thing I don’t use it for is book-length writing (I usually use Word or Scrivener for that).
Why not just use Evernote for this? Sublime Text makes things like search-and-replace really easy, something that Evernote just doesn’t do nearly as well. (Search-and-replace means that I search for a word or a phrase and immediately replace it with something different, a feature that’s insanely useful at times.)
Dropbox is a software package that enables you to synchronize files between computers and also share them with others.
The way it works is that Dropbox creates a folder on your computer (named “Dropbox”… how imaginative!). Any documents you save in that folder will show up in the Dropbox folder of any other computer that you use, automatically.
So, let’s say I’m writing a document at home in my office and I save it to my Dropbox folder. Later that day, I leave home and, in the evening, I’m visiting a friend. I decide to work for a little bit while my friend runs to the grocery store. I open up my laptop and that document is magically on my laptop, too. No extra effort required.
Another feature that’s really useful is that I can share any item in my Dropbox folder with anyone. I can just right click on that item to get a unique URL which I can then email to that person. They can just click on that URL to download the item. I’ve used this to share large files with people instead of attaching a big file to email.
I use Dropbox to synchronize and share work documents, photos, podcast files, novel fragments, and countless other things. It just works effortlessly.
Fantastical / Google Calendar
I have used Google Calendar for years to manage my schedule. I have all of the birthdays and anniversaries and scheduled events and many other things stored away in there and I constantly check my calendar to see what’s happening and what’s coming in the near future.
So why Fantastical? For one, it’s always hanging out on my computer with a backup copy of my calendar stored on it. If I don’t happen to have internet access, it’s not a problem – I can still see my calendar just fine.
I also like the way the calendar is visually represented. It provides a really good quick view of the month.
My favorite feature, though, is how easy it is to add new events to the calendar. You can type in just about anything and it will interpret it correctly and add it to the calendar. “Dinner at 7 next Saturday at Jim’s” goes into the calendar perfectly. “Cleanup at town park next two Saturdays” goes in perfectly, too.
It all syncs with Google Calendar, too, which means I can see my calendar from everywhere. It all just works for me.
I usually try to get “in the zone” about once a day, where I lose track of time and just get into the flow of my tasks. I love being in that state because I feel so incredibly productive.
During the rest of the day, though, I try not to sit at my desk for endless hours. I want to take a break every so often to get up, walk around, maybe even exercise a little, or just do something that’s not in front of the computer.
That’s what BreakTime achieves. It basically has two timers. One timer is a countdown clock that you can set to basically whatever number you want – I usually use an hour. The other one is a “break” timer that you can also set to anything you want – I usually use 10 minutes.
When the countdown clock reaches zero, your computer basically locks up and the “break” timer starts. Until the break timer ends, you can’t use your computer.
I love this. It forces me to take a break. It’s long enough that I can’t just go to the bathroom and have the “break” be over with. I have to actually get up and do something else for a while.
That break is good for me. It helps keep me at least a little in shape, but even more, it forces me to clear my mind and think about something else for a while. That can make all the difference in the world in terms of being productive at the end of that break.
One challenge I often have when I’m working is that I get distracted by social networking or by discussion boards. I’ll get drawn into an interesting link or fall down a discussion rabbit hole, both of which are terribly bad for my productivity.
Anti-Social solves that problem wonderfully. It blocks a list of websites during the time that you specify so that you can’t access them even if you wanted to.
Want to block yourself from Facebook for the next hour? Anti-Social does it with a click. Want to stop Twitter for the next few hours? Click and it’s done. Want to keep yourself away from a discussion forum for the rest of the day? It’s easy as pie to do.
This is probably the most useful “distraction eliminator” that I have. I can turn off my phone, close my office door, and close my email program, but I need the Internet to do my work tasks. Anti-Social lets me block just the specific sites that distract me and leaves the rest of the internet open.
It’s just what I need.
You Need a Budget
You Need a Budget is my personal finance tool of choice. You might think that it’s just a tool that you use once a month for budgeting, but I actually use it almost every day.
The biggest thing that I do with it is to simply enter expenses. Whenever I spend money, I enter it into You Need a Budget (usually on my phone), adding the amount and category. This makes it really easy to reconcile my credit card and bank statements when they come in. (I keep my actual YNAB files stored on Dropbox so I can access them on my laptop, my desktop, and my phone.)
However, it doesn’t stop there. I constantly find myself poking around in YNAB to see whether I’m sticking to my spending goals or to see how our food spending for the month is going or countless other things like that. It’s incredibly useful for looking at those kinds of things.
I also love to use it to project our financial future and see how things are going to go if we keep on the same path.
It’s just a great tool, one that’s thoroughly integrated into our lives.
I’m a voracious reader. I love to read books, but I also love to read well-written short stories and essays and pieces of long-form journalism. It’s not hard to find lots of good long-form writing online, either, if you poke around looking for it.
The problem is that if I look for it, I tend to find more than I can possibly read. I can easily find dozens of essays and articles and other things that I really want to read, but I simply don’t have time to sit down and read them all.
That’s where Pocket comes in. It’s a tool that lets me save these articles with just a click and then read them later on, no matter where I am (yep, even offline). I can find an article today, click on the “Pocket” button in my web browser, and then read it three days later when I’m sitting in the dentist’s office.
That’s really useful to me. I don’t have to drop everything to read an interesting article when I find it. Instead, they’re all collected in a single place for me to find and read in the future.
Yes, I have lots of articles stored up in Pocket, but that’s not a bad thing. It just means that whenever I want to read, I just have to click on the icon and I’m good to go with lots of interesting things to fill my mind and eye with. It’s helped me to learn countless things and keep myself entertained along the way.
These 10 pieces of software are mostly free, they’re mostly multiplatform, and they’re all really useful in my day to day life. I use them to keep all of my ideas and thoughts managed and all of my time sensibly organized.
Without these tools, I can’t imagine the kind of chaos that would fill my life. I simply wouldn’t be able to keep track of as many things and juggle as many balls as I do, and that would be a very disappointing change in my life.
I hope that you try out some of these tools and find one or two of them to be as useful as I do.