10 Tools, Apps, and Low-Tech Tricks to Increase Your Productivity

by Briana Morgaine 8 Minutes

Image via Unsplash.

As someone who works from home, I live my life according to my own ability to successfully plan and budget my time.

After all, I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder, or an office full of coworkers. In terms of my day to day, there isn’t the usual accountability factor that an office setting can provide.

So, it falls on me to motivate myself to get things done and be productive. I’m generally successful on my own; after all, I’ve figured out my own personal “user manual,” and I’m pretty good at being productive from a home office.

But, there are some days when I really need that extra push.

At times like this, having a toolkit of apps and techniques to fall back on can be a great way to “force” productivity. If I’m having a hard time avoiding a certain website, I can block it entirely (see suggestion #3). If I can feel my concentration waning, I’ll set up Tomato Timer (see suggestion #7).

Here are my personal favorite tools, apps, and little tricks for increasing productivity, when my best laid plans start to falter. Do you personally use any of these techniques? What works for you, and what doesn’t? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Tools and apps to increase your productivity

1. Get a clear sense of how you spend your time

How many times have you thought, “I’ll just take a short break and browse Facebook,” and the next thing you know, you’ve lost an hour of your morning?

I am definitely guilty of this; unless I keep a close eye on the time I allow myself to take a break from working (perhaps with a timer—we’ll get to that later on), I can easily fall down an Internet rabbit hole and end up wasting valuable chunks of time without even realizing it.

There’s a lot to be said for forcing yourself to clearly assess how you’re spending your hours during the day, and using a tool to help you see how much time you spend on certain tasks and sites can help you determine where your day is really going.

If you’d like to get a sense of how long it takes you to complete certain projects, a tool like Toggl might be worth a try. You can easily create a “project” and track how long you spend on it throughout the day, week, or longer.

For even more insight, couple Toggl with RescueTime, an app that runs in the background and tracks the amount of time you spend on certain websites. You can even set goals and keep track of your historical data, so that you know exactly how much time you’re spending on certain sites and projects (and maybe cut down on the time you spend on, say, Facebook).

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2. Streamline your note-taking process

I’m a big fan of note taking, but I’m also very guilty of not having a great organizational process. I end up with sticky notes posted above my computer, pen-and-paper lists in a notebook, and digital lists in the Notes app on my Macbook.

At the end of the day, it’s a waste of time to comb through all these small reminders, lists, and to-do items I’ve scattered across various tools and formats. I lose time searching for a specific to-do item I’d made a note of earlier in the week, or rewriting a task list that I’d forgotten I already wrote. Plus, there’s the time wasted trying to actually find a specific list, as they end up all around my office.

Enter a solution like Evernote, which allows you to synthesize your note-taking across your devices and organize your notes in one convenient place. If you’re familiar with Evernote but don’t think it’s for you (let’s face it—it’s pretty well-known and probably the most popular note-taking tool around), a simpler tool like Notebook might be more your speed.

3. Block distracting websites

One of the downsides of having access to an endless supply of entertaining content at our fingertips is, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that it’s easy to get distracted. You lose 10 minutes here, half an hour there—and before you know it, lunch time has arrived and you haven’t accomplished nearly as much as you’d planned.

Sometimes, I find myself opening up a new tab and heading over to Pinterest without even thinking about it; I’ll be knee-deep in cookie recipes and decorating tips before I know what happened.

So, in addition to tracking how much time you spend on certain sites, you might find it helpful to simply block out distracting websites for a designated amount of time. There are plenty of extensions you can install to block certain websites, from SelfControl (which ruthlessly blocks sites for entire day increments) to the milder FocusBooster, which blocks sites for 25 minute increments. For a longer list of website blocking options, check out this Huffington Post article.

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4. Try a meditation app

A few minutes of guided meditation has been shown to increase focus and mental clarity throughout the day. While the benefits increase with regular, prolonged practice, consider working the use of meditation apps into your daily routine to start. Many apps have guided meditation sessions that are as short as five minutes, and so can easily be worked into the most hectic workday.

I’m personally a big fan of the Headspace app, which lets you start with 10 days of 10-minute guided meditation sessions for free. The Buddify app is also hugely popular, and this app ups the ante by letting you select your current mental or physical state (with options like “going to sleep,” “feeling stressed,” or “going to work”), and tailors your meditation accordingly. There are tons of meditation apps to choose from, with plenty of options to suit a variety of needs. (Or, if you’d rather go old-school, consider checking out a book on meditation and cultivating your own practice.)

5. Cancel out distractions with writing-focus tools

Writing something important like an article for your blog, a speech for an event, or a proposal for a new client? It can sometimes be helpful to shut out the world around you and focus only on the task at hand.

Fortunately, there are several tools that can help you do this. JDarkRoom is a free program that allows you to simply type in an unadorned full-screen text editor; WriteRoom also lets you write without distractions in a similar full-screen writing environment.

6. Pause incoming notifications

If you’re continually distracted by incoming emails, a solution like InboxPause might be right for you. This Chrome extension allows you to (you guessed it) pause your incoming emails until you’re ready for them.

Similarly, while not exactly a “tool,” it’s also worth mentioning here that temporarily going unavailable on Slack, Hipchat, or your other communication system might be a good idea while you’re in the midst of a project (just remember to turn it back on when you’re finished, though!).

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7. Try a timer

By now, you’re likely familiar with the wildly-popular Pomodoro technique, which calls for sessions of 25 minutes of focused work followed by five minutes of rest.

To make the Pomodoro technique easy to work into your routine, consider trying one of the many timers available online, like the incredibly basic Tomato Timer (my personal favorite). Or, if you’re after something more flexible, the Marinara Timer allows for more customization in terms of timed interval length.

Non-tech tricks that make you more productive

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I love collecting a list of helpful apps, websites, and tools to make me more productive. I’m a big fan of a tech solution to most of my problems, and, to quote the famous Apple commercial, I’m always happy to find that there is in fact an “app for that.”

That being said, it’s also a good idea to integrate low tech solutions into your productivity arsenal as well. After all, sometimes the best thing for increased productivity? Stopping your workflow entirely. It sounds counterintuitive, but studies show that small breaks can actually make us more productive.

Not only that, but time away from your screen has huge benefits too. Some suggest that for every 50 to 60 minutes of screen time we get, we should ideally take a 10 to 15 minute break. While this isn’t always realistic (for example, if you’re in the midst of focused work on a project and on a role, you might not want to strictly adhere to this rule), it is a good idea to work in breaks throughout the day that force you to get up, move around, and look somewhere other than at your computer screen.

Ultimately, taking short breaks isn’t just good for you in general—these breaks will also make it easier to return to work feeling refreshed, energized, and more productive than ever.

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8. Have a quick walk

So by now, you may have realized how much I enjoy a short 15-minute walk as a productivity booster. It’s one of my favorite tricks—and it didn’t even start as a means to up my productivity, but rather as a factor of needing to meet my Fitbit step goal.

However, there is a body of research that indicates that short walks do have an impact on increasing your productivity, and also may contribute to heightened creative output.

So, consider blocking out a few 15-minute increments throughout your day, and take a quick walk around the block, to a coffee shop, or to a nearby park. Or, if you’d rather a longer walk, I’m a big fan of putting on a podcast, and walking for the duration of the episode. You’ll come back to work feeling refreshed and inspired, and ready to take on the rest of your tasks with increased enthusiasm.

9. Take a few minutes to stretch

If you’re feeling like you’ve hit a wall and need to clear away the brain fog, consider getting up and stretching for five to 10 minutes.

A study of data entry workers found that those who performed brief stretching exercises during work breaks were able to perform their jobs more efficiently, in addition to experiencing less eye strain and discomfort related to the sedentary nature of their task at hand.

So, if you’re looking to work more efficiently and feel better, take a few minutes to stretch and move around. These stretches can be done quickly and easily from your office, and make use of the furniture you likely already have at your disposal, such as an office chair and desk.

10. Have a cup of green tea

While coffee may be the traditional pick-me-up, research shows that green tea is potentially more effective when it comes to mental stimulus overall.

This is in part because green tea contains less caffeine than coffee; so, while it contains enough caffeine to make you feel more alert, you won’t have to deal with the associated “jitteriness” that coffee can sometimes produce. It also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that, in conjunction with caffeine, can potentially improve brain function.

This isn’t to say that you should give up coffee altogether, but if you’re looking for something to sip on in the afternoon to improve your focus and productivity (and hey, maybe overall brain function as well), reaching for green tea is a solid choice.

Ultimately, there will always be days when reaching that maximum productivity level is difficult. Sometimes, getting through a long list of tasks or a particularly tricky project can feel a bit like pulling teeth. However, with these tricks and tools, it’s easier to turn those days around, and make them work for you, not against you.

Do you have any great apps or tricks to add to this list? I’d love to try them out. Leave me a comment and let me know what your favorites are!

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by Briana Morgaine
Briana is a copy writer, copy editor, and freelance writer, covering the various facets of the small business and entrepreneurship space. She can be found writing for Bplans, and also on Twitter.