You can never be too rich, too thin or, these days, too organized. Smartphones, tablets and Web programs have improved our productivity, but there’s a tradeoff. Emails and tweets can eat up an entire day; working on the fly is a great way to lose a memo; and extreme multitasking means nothing ever gets your full attention.
But don’t despair. There’s a universe of digital apps and services out there that can help you reclaim your organizational mojo — or at least free up a few minutes here and there for a sanity-saving meditation break (or another cup of coffee).
Because so many options can be overwhelming, I’ve whittled the list down to just five that I've found to be easy to use and superior to their competitors. A good way to assess buying apps to assess what you consider your weak suit: Are you always running late? Do you have trouble following through with plans? Could you use a gentle reminder to stay focused? Need help getting everything done in the day? Then get the one(s) that promises to help you with that. But if even those doesn’t work, you may need that personal assistant after all.
If you haven’t heard of productivity guru David Allen's Getting Things Done (or “GTD” to its many fans), you’ve probably been too busy running around in circles. Over the past few years, this time management system has taken the business world by storm. GTD motivational books have been translated into 28 languages, and Wired magazine has called it “a cult for the info age.”
The Apple program (Things, now on version 2) is one of the great tools for actually getting things done. It breaks down even the most daunting tasks into achievable, bite-size chunks and brings list-making into the Internet era. To use the program on your phone, iPad or computer, just type in everything you need to do, whether a single chore, like clearing out a closet, or such weekly projects as taking out the recycling. You can put a time limit on when tasks need to be completed and group many individual jobs into larger projects or categories like family and work. Every day, Things presents you with a checklist so you don’t forget anything. (You can print or share this digitally.)
One of the great things about Things is that it automatically syncs lists across all of your Apple devices. You’ll appreciate this when you suddenly remember something while out and about, and you can simply tell Siri to make a note of it. The publisher of the entertainment magazine Source, James Kendall, says of Things: “I think it’s the best organizational app, and having it on my desktop and on my phone is essential. You just have to get into the habit of using it.”
2. Slash digital distractions with RescueTime (Mac/PC; free or $6/month)
You watch your calories, and you keep track of how many miles you walk or run in a week, so why not monitor how you spend your digital days? RescueTime is a program for desktop computers that records how much time you expend on everything from Excel spreadsheets to balancing your bank accounts online to watching surfboarding kittens on YouTube. Every time you switch to a new window, RescueTime resets the clock but keeps a running tally that creates a comprehensive picture of how you use your computer.
The next day, you can call up easy-to-understand tables and graphs that show exactly how you’ve used your time (and where). The program can even highlight your most productive days of the week and times. This much is free. There’s also a paid version that can keep you on-task. This cyber-watchdog can automatically block certain websites for the amount of time you specify to help you focus on things that need to get done.
You can choose how strict you want the blocking (i.e., so it will allow you to check Facebook in a "social emergency”). The theory is that over time, you will become better at resisting temptation and managing your time without the need for a digital nanny.
RealTime can’t access your private information, like passwords, and tracks only the names of applications and websites you use. If even that makes you uncomfortable, you can ask it to record just those websites you find particularly distracting.
(MORE: 7 Steps to Protect Your Online Security)
3. Sync your Android phone and your Google calendar with CalenGoo (Android; $6)
One of the best ways to get a team or family functioning smoothly is to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Google Calendar is a great free service that lets you set up collaborative schedules where all the parties can make entries, as well as private diaries for planning your life in the weeks ahead.
Being able to connect to those calendars on the move makes arranging everything from doctor’s appointments to birthday parties a whole lot easier. This useful app puts a widget on your Android phone’s home screen to let you see what’s coming up, and alerts you via pop-up reminders, emails or text messages. You can set the phone to automatically mute during events, or to prompt you to call friends on their birthdays. There’s a pretty good Google Tasks list manager built in, too.
4. Care for your most precious business asset — time — with Freckle (Web; from $19/month)
If you find you’re spending more time managing your business than actually getting work done, check out Freckle. This Web service isn’t a substitute for an accountant or office manager, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the back of an envelope for analyzing whether or not to take on a job.
On Freckle’s user-friendly website, you enter details of how you (and/or employees) spend workdays. For example, you input which projects you’re working on and for how long. Freckle then creates time and budget breakdowns for each person and job, individual activity graphs plus an accurate summary of billable and unbillable hours.
While it sounds ideal for accountants and Web designers, Freckle is also popular with one-person home workers and family businesses. It can give you an early warning if a project is heading off-track, or highlight when you’ve scheduled 12 hours of work to fit into a 10-hour day. It can even invoice clients automatically when the assignment is done.
Mind-mapping sounds like science fiction, but it’s actually a well-established method of brainstorming fresh ideas and arranging information visually. Instead of another endless vertical list, mind-mapping organizes concepts and tasks in a colorful web that looks a bit like a public transit map.
The theory is that these large, pictorial networks mirror the way our brains work, making it easier to spot connections and insert new ideas. In Mindnode, you start a mind map by writing your overall goal in the middle of a blank screen. You then add connections, make notes and split out smaller things that need to be done.
Don’t worry about running out of room on-screen for exploring the possibilities. Mindnode has a canvas that grows automatically to accommodate even the most ambitious projects, like your daughter’s wedding, and the Mac desktop version lets you embed images and documents alongside your ideas.
Mind maps are automatically shared between the Mac and the iPad apps, and it’s easy to convert them into a Word document or digital image for sharing.
Mark E. Harris is a British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.