Apps to boost your work-from-home productivity

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App icons for TickTick toggle outlook and dayone
It only takes a few key tools to make working remotely much more manageable.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

COVID-19 lockdown certainly brought a swift change from the norm for many people. We’re dealing with the added stress of different working situations, the struggle to get groceries, and in many cases, even acting as teachers or child care providers.

All of that can make it really challenging to feel accomplished and productive. Luckily, I finally found my groove in the last week or so, thanks to a couple of really useful apps (and some self-imposed rules).

Organize the chaos with a task manager

One of the biggest struggles I’ve found since this whole thing started is keeping my tasks organized. With changes in responsibilities, other people’s schedules, varying urgency of projects, and added distractions at home, I’ve embraced a task manager for keeping myself on track.

Depending on your needs, you can certainly use the iOS Reminders app — in fact, it actually got way better in iOS 13. But I was looking for something a little more advanced, and I landed on TickTick. Personally, I find it to be a really great task manager, with a couple key features.

One of the big things I like about TickTick is its simple task creation and smart due date parsing. Basically, when you open the app, you hit the text field to add a task, and can simply type the date and time the task is due. With smart date parsing, TickTick will create the task with the proper due date and time. After you create tasks, TickTick automatically sorts them by due date and time, grouped into appropriate lists. The app’s smart lists make it even quicker to see high-priority tasks or things coming up in the next few days.

Another great feature of TickTick lies in the robustness of each task. Within a task, you can have subtasks, notes, tags, durations and alerts. This means I can use TickTick to really plan my tasks and work on things in the most efficient way possible.

TickTick is free to download and use, and syncs across iOS, Mac, Android and Windows. A $3 per month (or $28 per year) subscription unlocks a ton of additional features that make it an even more powerful task- and project-management tool.

Download: TickTick from the App Store

Track your time with Toggl

Another thing I’ve been using during this crazy situation is time tracking. I’m sure if you’re a freelancer or contractor, you’re probably already doing this. But even as a “regular” employee somewhere, it’s good to keep track of the time you’re investing in your work.

For time tracking, I’ve been using Toggl. The service is free to use, and allows you to track different tasks, clients, projects, etc., from your web browser or iOS device. In the past, I’ve tried other time-tracking services. But I find the timer reports in Toggl far better — and they’re included in the free version.

Ultimately, part of my incentive for time tracking here is to make sure I’m maintaining a healthy work-life balance. For that, Toggl’s reports prove especially useful.

Theoretically, when things get back to some version of normalcy, I’ll be able to look back and see how much of my work-from-home time I spent on different projects or tasks, should my employer want to know “where my time went.” It is also great to check out the stats at the end of a day or week and see just how much time you spent being productive. It’s very easy to feel like you didn’t do anything all day when you’re trapped at home, and this will give you some much-needed perspective.

Toggl is free to download, with paid upgrades that include invoicing, billing rates and more.

Download: Toggl from the App Store

Separate your work and personal email

Another thing I’ve been doing since shifting to full-on work-from-home mode is moving my work email to a different mail app than anything personal. I’ve been using the Outlook app, because I find it a more pleasant interface than other mail clients. Plus, it works best with my work Exchange account, but the point is to create work and home separation.

It’s very easy to let work creep into your personal life when the two start happening in the same environment. By creating barriers between work and personal time, you limit the chance for work to cross-contaminate your family time.

If you wanted to take things a step further, you could actually take your work email off your phone and create a forced separation when you walk away from the computer. Obviously, that depends on your job and the type of work you do.

For me, I keep the app on all my devices. I occasionally need to check in on work stuff during “off hours,” so having it separate from my personal email where I’m seeing DoorDash receipts and family Zoom invites helps create a mental separation between “work time” and “personal time.”

Outlook is a free app, and it works with tons of email providers. It is also one of many email apps on the App Store. Feel free to experiment with different apps to find one that works best for how you manage email.

Download: Outlook from the App Store

Capture your thoughts in DayOne

When it comes to your mental health (and helping keep the days from blurring together), one thing to try is keeping a “journal.” I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve started capturing a snippet of each day in journaling app DayOne. This allows me to keep a log of what I’m feeling, what we are doing as a family, or what I’m proud of or struggling with on a day-to-day basis.

DayOne is a great app for journaling, because it offers support for tons of different rich details and media. Plus, it does a really great job of prompting you to create an entry or capture a photo throughout the week.

Just dropping a few quick thoughts, a photo or a voice memo in DayOne frees up a little mental space, which helps me think more clearly and serves as a way to remember those important moments or emotions.

DayOne also proves incredibly useful as a repository for life outside of quarantine. I use it to save photos and videos of my daughter, goals I set for myself, and even to log start and end dates of projects. It’s truly a home for any kind of memory, thought or idea.

DayOne is free to download and use, with a premium subscription option. Premium unlocks unlimited photo/video storage, cloud backup, real-time sync and more.

Download: DayOne from the App Store

Screen Time

The final “app” I’ve been using is actually an iOS feature. Like many of us, I have a slight technology addiction. For me, it’s mostly checking Twitter and reading the news.

In an effort to control the impulse to sit on the couch and surf tweets or scroll through Apple News, I’ve been using Screen Time on my iOS devices to limit my “distraction” time.

The basics are pretty simple: I set a limit of 15 minutes for Instagram, 60 minutes for Twitter and 90 minutes for Apple News. In the past few weeks, I found that to be more than enough for most days, rarely running up against that limit.

On days that I get carried away, the app limit will kick me out of Twitter, News or Instagram if I’ve spent too much time there. This subtle reminder is often enough for me to set down my phone and get back to work.

I also turned on Downtime. However, I adjusted the hours to during the day instead of overnight. This limits what apps I can use during the work day, helping to keep me focused and on task instead of goofing off online.

Using Downtime this way is definitely an overkill solution, since it requires turning on an exception for every app you do need for your work. It’s an even bigger hassle if you’re using Screen Time on your Mac, since you must allow every single app to be used. But it does work pretty effectively at limiting me from getting distracted during the day. Until Apple offers something else, this is what I’ve got.

Other work-from-home apps?

Ultimately, the apps above are simply tools to help me feel more productive and work more effectively. They aren’t necessarily a one-size-fits all solution. The work-from-home apps you need depend greatly on what you do for a living.

That said, if you’ve got some free time, or want to experiment with working more effectively and efficiently, it’s worth giving them a shot.