For our businesses to flourish, we have to stay focused on the right things. If you’re an indie entrepreneur, you essentially live and die by the projects you complete, the ideas you bring into the world.
We need more than productivity, we need a workflow for focus. So in this article I’m going to talk you through the 7 productivity apps we’ve found to be essential for entrepreneurs to get the right work done.
These are productivity apps we use everyday here at Fizzle, some of which we’ve used for several years, so each comes highly recommended by us.
However, I also include popular alternatives to the apps we use because it’s not about the app — it’s about the way you and your team design a workflow for more focus more often.
What “productivity” means
“Productivity” is defined as “the state or quality of being able to produce something.” In a non business sense it was used to refer to how capable a field or plot of land was at producing crops; almost like fertility.
But in the business world, since the late 1800s, productivity had more to do with the relationship between INPUT and OUTPUT. “Productive” labor could achieve large results with small amounts of time and energy. In this sense, productivity basically means efficiency.
Now, for us entrepreneurs in the 21st century productivity means more than just efficiency. Productivity is your ability to be both EFFICIENT and EFFECTIVE:
This way of looking at it helps us remember our goal with increased productivity can’t just be about efficiency, but must also include awareness of the effectiveness of our efforts.
So, the productivity apps I share with you are not just helping us be more efficient with our time here at Fizzle, but they also help us remain effective, because — as I said above — as bootstrapped, indie entrepreneurs, our business dies if we aren’t effective.
So, let’s get into it.
1. An App for Managing Tasks
Let’s start with what is colloquially called a to-do list. This is the app you use to manage your tasks on a day-to-day basis.
Done poorly, you dread your task management app because the tasks are unclear, out of date and/or confusing. This is a bad place to be.
Done well, this is your daily cockpit, reminding you about what’s happening, convincing you quickly of what matters right now and giving you exactly what you need to focus on the next action.
Here’s what’s important to us about a task management app:
- Peaceful & easy to use: you want your task management app to feel clean and clear so you can quickly identify what’s next and start focusing. You do not want to feel confused or overwhelmed when you log in for to your task manager.
- Contains projects, project-based tasks and one-off tasks: Some tasks pop up without a project. Good task management apps have a place for these one-off tasks. Good task management apps also contain projects and project-based tasks. (A project is really just a collection of tasks with a common end-goal. We’ve got a whole course in Fizzle about how to use projects and tasks effectively.)
- Accessible on the go: wherever you go you want to have access to your task manager. All good task managers sync across devices either via the web or a stand alone app.
- Collaborative: if you don’t have a team, don’t worry about this one. If you do, a task manager that allows for team collaboration can make you more efficient as you make tasks for each other, comment on tasks and manage project progress.
WHAT WE USE: Asana. We’ve been using this as our team task management app for over 2 years and we have no complaints. We work daily out of Asana as well as assign tasks for each other and manage our publishing calendars (for both podcast and blog).
Learn how to write and manage tasks better so you'll get more out of your task manager in the Essentials of Productivity Course. Learn it today with a free two week free trial »
2. An app for project planning & review
Now, this is probably the category that’s made the single biggest impact on our progress over the past 2 years here at Fizzle.
Above we covered the importance of a task management app. In that category we talked about being able to manage both tasks and projects. Here we’re adding an extra layer of project management but it’s worth it because of how efficient and effective it makes planning meetings, strategy sessions and quarterly reviews.
What we noticed is that Asana by itself was a little too in the trees to give us a good view of the forest for our weekly and quarterly meetings. So we started using an additional tool to plan our quarters and review the projects in process every week.
This made (and continues to make) a huge impact on our yearly progress. We plan quarters with more commitment, we work with more clarity and all team members have an accurate feel for what they and other team members are working on.
- High level: the app you use for project management should be really good at the high level view of things. You want to feel like you have an accurate bird’s eye view of your business, both stuff you’re currently working on and stuff coming up.
- Visual and/or tactile: so much of our work is purely digital, purely text, purely 1’s and 0’s on a computer screen. I think we do ourselves a favor when we can make our project management visual, special and tactile in any way so we can better sense the progress we’re making on these projects. It’s a little thing, but this has been huge for us because of how natural it is to use.
WHAT WE USE: Trello. For the past couple years we’ve been using Trello to plan our quarters, review our progress weekly and review our company progress twice a year. This app (but more importantly, the review and planning process we use) is responsible for so much of our company’s progress.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Sticky notes on the wall like this (this actually works exceptionally well), Google Spreadsheets, general project management apps. Again, it’s the review and planning process that makes this work so well.
Here’s an image of our current Trello board for Fizzle projects this year:
THE GIST: Find some way you like to manage your projects from a bird’s eye view, something you can clearly see what you’ve finished, what you’re committed to right now, and what’s coming up. We talk about it deeper in this podcast, but we’ve found it to work really well to plan the projects every quarter and review progress every week.
3. An app for personal daily reviews
Listen, I already know you don’t want to do daily reviews, but I’m going try to get you to do them so please listen up, turkeys!
The best two things about the daily reviews we use is this: they’re fast and they make you better (over time).
They’re fast: our personal daily reviews can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. That’s it. All we do is write down what we did that day and then the two most important things to do tomorrow. I do it as I lay down in bed each night; open the app, scribble, done.
They make you better (over time): doing a review of your work (and personal life!) daily gives you greater awareness of the tasks, projects and goals that make for real progress. Think about it, knowing more about that is kind of the trick to the whole game.
Here’s what you want out of a personal daily review app:
- Quick and easy: you want to be able to open this sucker up and get straight down to business. Nothing fancy needed.
- A little delightful: boy it sure does help when an app like this is at least pretty. If it can feel like fun, or maybe even a little meaningful, then you’ve got it made.
- Zero BS: ”What did you do? What are you gonna do?” That’s all you need to answer. You don’t need prompts for additional thoughts unless you want ‘em.
- Don’t do too much: the danger here is to bite off too much — to think you need to do more. This can make the process cumbersome and make you more likely to quit, which undermines the whole thing because the value of this thing is it’s impact over time.
- Don’t expect quick miracles: this is a systematic investment in yourself, your personal life and your business. It might not feel like much when you’re squirting these little journal entries out, but a few months of this can create a completely new scaffolding for your planning and growth. So, let it take some time.
WHAT WE USE: Day One. It’s all of the above, baby.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: a physical notebook, plain text files and other apps on this list.
If you’re completely new to productivity journaling, we have an article and podcast to teach you how: 2 Experts Share Exactly How to Use a Productivity Journal (& Increase Productivity by 23%)
4. An app for email
You know so much about email already, but let me chance a little mindset dust-off about email for you real quick.
Your email inbox is where the world makes demands of you. Everyone in the world has (or can get) your email address, and everyone in the world seems to want something from you.
But YOU get to decide which demands you let affect you. This is why managing email is an essential tool still today.
And managing email is going to remain a necessary skill for a while yet. Being thoughtful about email takes a little work, but getting just a little faster and just a little more comfortable with your email tool is its own reward.
Here’s what we want out of an email app:
- Fast: with email we need a way to quickly scan and act on the bullshit. If you’re not using keyboard shortcuts, you’re leaving money on the table here.
- Clean: some of you are still rockin Entourage and feeling fine with it. More power to you. For the rest of us, it’s sure nice for our inbox, even when it’s full of confusing messages, to feel like a sandbox we don’t mind playing in.
- The danger: it’s easy to let your inbox get as cluttered and funky as a week old cheese board. Emails are challenging because relationships with people are challenging. But you know that already.
WHAT WE USE: Cloudmagic and Gmail Inbox. Corbett uses and loves Cloudmagic for changing between multiple inboxes. I use Gmail because once I learned the Gmail keyboard shortcuts I never needed anything else.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Airmail, Outlook and anything on this list.
Bonus: Best iPhone Game
Don’t even think about it. Wrong list, pal.
5. A calendar app
I have never known a successful founder or CEO who doesn’t take her/his calendar very seriously.
Now, taking your calendar “seriously” doesn’t mean every moment on the calendar is filled in, but it does mean you bring some thoughtfulness (and probably some rules) to how you run your calendar.
Thoughtfulness because when you’re dealing with your calendar you’re dealing with your TIME, literally the most precious resource. Play with your time unthoughtfully at your own peril.
That’s why we need some rules about our calendar. And the first place to start with rules is this idea from workflow powerhouse David Allen:
“I recommend that you only calendar ‘hard landscape’ stuff — things that have to get done on that day or time. Everything else should be maintained on on-going lists, to get to ‘as soon as you can’ in and around the calendared items.”
Your calendar is not your todo list. It’s only for things you have to do at a certain date and time. I like that rule.
I also like this rule: if you’re setting up an event with someone else, send that person a calendar event as soon as you can. This cleans up time zone mistakes and other issues right from the start. If it feels wonky to send someone you barely know a calendar event, get over it — it feels thoughtful and intentional to anyone who takes their calendar serious (and others can just delete it if they don’t like it).
Calendar apps these days are all pretty similar. Here’s what we’re looking for in a calendar app:
- Notifications: I live and die by my calendar event notifications. It’s like I have an assistant that just reminds me where to be and when. Don’t fool yourself, it’s really really powerful when you can trust your calendar like this.
- Clean and easy:life’s too short for calendars that don’t look nice.
- Easy to send invites: if it’s easy you’ll start doing it. (See the rule in the text above for more info on this one.)
- Has a view you like: monthly, weekly, daily — these are the actionable modes on our calendars. It’s important you like the way your calendar does each of these. I live in week view because it makes the most sense to me visually.
WHAT WE USE: Google Calendar (web app and mobile app). As the popular saying goes, if it ain’t broke…
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Outlook, Fantastical and anything on this list.
6. An app for writing
Just about all of us write in some form or other, whether it’s long form articles, answers to interview questions or business plans. (But you know your business plan should only be one page, right?)
And for just about all of us who write, it’s hard work to put our ass in the chair and make the words come out on the page, so the app we use to write can matter a great deal.
Here’s some of the things we’re looking for in the app we use to write:
- Clean, focused and distraction free: your writing environment effects your mindset which effects your writing, so let’s get rid of all those buttons and options and stick to the keys on our keyboard; that’s what matters in the end anyways.
- Sync options? Can you get your current writing files on your laptop, tablet and mobile devices? You might not need this, but if you’re writing on the go across devices then this is important.
- Nice file management? Some apps don’t do any file management for you beyond opening and saving files. Others have a file browser built into the app so you can jump from file to file without leaving the app or opening a bunch of windows. It doesn’t matter much what you care about on this one, it simply matters that your writing app cares about the same things you do.
- Markdown support? If writing plays any major role in your work, I think you’re crazy if you’re not using Markdown. It makes writing for the web and using that writing on the web a lot easier. However, if you’ve written professionally for a long time, don’t worry about; keep doing what you’re doing.
- Export options? If you write for a blog or publication, you may need your writing to be finalized in HTML or Rich Text Format (RTF). Can your app export into options like these? This is one place where Markdown shines because from one simple plain text file a good Markdown app can export to PDF, RTF, HTML and more.
WHAT WE USE: Ulysses (for Mac) and Google Docs (for collaboration and editing). Ulysses is a little heavy as a writing app, but we’ve been using it for a year or so and the benefits far outweigh the costs. I like, specifically, how it manages files, syncs across devices and that I can customize how the Markdown formatting looks.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Byword, iA Writer and anything else on this list.
7. An app for team communication
Skip this one if you work on your own.
If you’re on a team of any kind, big or small, how you communicate matters.
We’re all used to using email for team communication. And if you’re fine with it, keep using it.
But email can be exceptionally cumbersome over time as you manage reply all threads, different email practices and personal/work inboxes.
That cumbersome communication can build up and get in the way of your people having smooth, productive relationships. So, many small companies have moved to a different kind of app for team communication.
Let’s look at what we want from a team communication app:
- Fast and light: you just don’t want this app to feel cumbersome. You want to be able to fly through communicating what matters to who it matters to.
- Fun: if your team communication can feel fun then you’re in a good spot. You don’t want your team comm. app to feel like a burden in and of itself — you’ve got plenty of real burdens to bear. This might mean simply opening a team chat room for cat pics… that kind of thing goes a long way for me at least 🙂
- Findable: this is the app you’ll use to plan ideas, schedule meetings, comment on design mockups, etc., so everything needs to be findable when, some months from now, you’re looking for something specific.
- Everything in one place: this app needs to do everything in one place so your team doesn’t have to wonder “where should I ask this question?”
WHAT WE USE: Slack. We use it religiously, enjoy it and find everything we need in it.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Email, Hipchat, Yammer and others on this list.
Bonus: An app for customer support
Now, I’m not going to give you a deep dive on customer support apps, I’m just going to say this: supporting your customers is essential to your business, which means it’s something that matters to you, which means you’d do well to be thoughtful about the app you use for customer support.
This article is already too long to do justice to all the different things that matter about a customer support app because we’d have to cover so many different kinds of businesses with different kinds of customer support needs.
So let me just share a few things that are important to our customer support experience at Fizzle:
- Reliability: if your customer support app craps out on you it’s going to feel to customers like you’ve crapped out on them.
- Speed and ease of use: customer support can be a heavy load, so keyboard shortcuts and thoughtful design can make a big difference to the people who use the app.
- Integration with the customer database: not all customer service apps do this, but it’s nice that as you’re answering someone’s question you can browse through a history of that customer’s interaction with your website and/or product.
- Useable by anyone: we’ve had seasons where everyone on the team has to take on part of the customer support effort, so it’s important that the customer support app is simple enough for anyone on the team to use.
WHAT WE USE: Intercom. Intercom is actually more of a platform for communicating with your customers. It’s very robust yet pretty damn easy to use and it’s at the heart of our customer support.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: ZenDesk, Groove, HelpScout and others on this list.
Other favorite productivity apps
The list above are what we feel are the essential app categories for modern, web-centric businesses. But here are a few other productivity apps we need to mention because they help us keep focused in some small and meaningful ways.
- CloudApp — capture screenshots and files for sharing on Slack, Twitter, email, etc. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t share something quickly using this tiny app on my mac. In fact, here’s the latest thing I shared to Corbett.
- Dropbox — every keynote presentation, photoshop file and blog image is shared to a common repository in Dropbox. We can control who has access to what and even have public folders like this one.
- 1Password — we share a lot of logins, passwords and app credentials across the Fizzle team. 1Password helps us do that securely.
- Text Expander — this little app automatically expands pre-determined text from a short text trigger. I use it religiously in customer communication and simple URL expanding. To date I’ve expanded 15,806 snippets, saving me about 80 hours of writing time.
Try Our Productivity Essentials Course Free
It’s one of the most common questions we hear from entrepreneurs: how do I get more stuff done? Why do I keep procrastinating!?
We need a system to help us get things done.
BUT not a system so complex that we spend more time working on the system than we do on the work.
We need a simple productivity system that helps us stay motivated and focused without sidetracking our progress.
And, frankly, that means you might benefit from some insights from other entrepreneurs as they share some lessons learned.
Because, no matter how you slice and dice it, as I said above, as indie entrepreneurs we live and die by our ability to get things done.
So, we made a course teaching what we think is the essential productivity system for indie entrepreneurs. You can find fancier or more complex systems out there, but chances are the ideas in this course are at the guts of all those systems. So, why not get the core right and customize he peripherals yourself?
As a reader of the blog here, you can try the course out for free in a 2 week free trial. We hope you’ll like this course enough to stay for our other courses and weekly group calls for entrepreneurs. (We have 40+ other courses and a scheduled group call every Friday.)