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These 14 apps will make 2020 your most productive year ever

These mostly free tools make it easy to save time and spend it wisely—allowing you to get work done quicker and enjoy more free time.

These 14 apps will make 2020 your most productive year ever
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]
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Thanks to leap year, you get an extra day in 2020. But even 366 days can go by quickly—and get nibbled away by the time you waste on repetitive tasks, distractions, daydreaming, or just the lack of a clear plan to get things done. There’s no shortage of apps promising to save your time or manage it better. But beware: Some are so involved that they may end up being time killers themselves.

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These apps and services can help you avoid the perils of under- or over-managing your time—and many of them are free. Some automate tasks, saving you from chores like sorting emails or filing in forms. Others provide smart to-do lists that keep you on track for work or life goals. Yet others encourage healthy habits, from reining in unbridled smartphone checking to making sure you exercise and drink enough water. But enough chit-chat: on with the list.

Planning: Microsoft To Do
List-making will be your easiest to-do item on this free, streamlined app that synchronizes through the cloud across your devices. Just click to make lists of tasks, under categories like “Work” or “Personal,” set due dates and reminders, and break large items into smaller steps. You can also collaborate in online groups, assigning tasks to different members. Fans of soon-to-be-discontinued app Wunderlist, which Microsoft bought, will find this all familiar—and can easily migrate from their Wunderlist setup. (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, web)

Planning: Any.Do
Resembling Microsoft To Do, this freemiuim app adds some nifty power features. Chief among them: it integrates with your phone’s calendar to create a single interface showing both appointments and to do items. Any.Do offers subscription plans, beginning at $60 per year, with capabilities such as recurring reminders, location-based reminders (like “pick up milk” when you go by the store), productivity reports, and integration with business apps. (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, web, smart watches, Alexa, Google Home, Slack)

Habit tracking: Productive
This app for Apple devices is a to-do list for the good things in life. It helps you get started with preconfigured to-do items such as “Eat fruits and veggies,” “Write in my journal,” and the elusive “Inbox zero.” You can configure any other good habits you like and set timeframes for each of them: daily, weekly, monthly, etc. A paid subscription (staring at $30 per year) adds nice-to-have bonuses, such as an unlimited number of habits and location-based reminders. (iOS, iPadOS, WatchOS)

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Time tracking: Rescue time
Use Rescue Time, and you’ll get a good overview of how well you’re managing your waking hours. The free app tracks both the programs you use and the sites you visit on your computer or smartphone—assigning them to categories such as Design & Composition (for instance, time spent in Microsoft Word and Photoshop) or Social Networking (time spent on Twitter or Facebook). The mobile app also tracks how many times you pick up your phone. A paid version ($72 per year) offers a few extras, such as alerts after you’ve spent a set amount of time in one app. (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome, Firefox)

Focusing: Forest
This $2 app makes avoiding distraction into a game. Activate the timer, and a virtual tree starts growing onscreen. If you make it through the time period you set without fiddling with your phone (the default is 10 minutes), a full tree emerges. Give into temptation, and dead wood appears instead. Use Forest to set aside focused work slots or phone-free time when with friends. A free Chrome extension provides the same benefits on your computer and can be set to block certain web sites like Facebook while the timer is running. (Android, iOS, Chrome)

Project managing: Trello
Track multiphase projects—for yourself or a small team—with this freemium service. You can create boards with columns for different stages of projects, such as “Brainstorm,” “Consolidate Input,” and “Signoff,” then create cards for individual projects or parts of projects, such as “Develop marketing plan.” As work progresses, you can drag items from column to column and assign team members to various parts of the projects. Trello’s free tier offers plenty for individuals and small teams. Paid plans start at $10 per user per month. (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, web)


Related: Here’s how to tame browser-tab madness in Chrome and Firefox


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Scheduling: Doodle
Spare the long email chains when setting up a meeting. This freemium service lets you post an online calendar with possible meeting times and allow everyone who receives the link to check off what works for them. Upgrading to a paid account (starting at $48 per year) adds handy features such as syncing doodles to your online calendar and automatically emailing calendar invites to participants. Paying also eliminates the onslaught of advertising on the site. (Android, iOS, web)

Email sorting: Edison Mail
This free app (formerly called EasilyDo Mail) sorts your inbox into categories such as Travel, Bills & Receipts, Entertainment, and Subscriptions. Each box extracts relevant information—displaying upcoming and past flight and hotel reservations, for instance, or providing unsubscribe buttons for newsletters. Edison supports webmail like Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo, as well as Exchange and IMAP email from your business domain. Note: Edison collects anonymized data to support its online trends data service, and formerly allowed human staffers to read user emails in order to train its machine learning. (Android, iOS, MacOS)

Researching: Pocket
It’s easy to find information on the web. And Mozilla’s free bookmarking service, which is integrated into the Firefox browser and available as an extension for Chrome, makes it easy to keep track of it until you have time to give it your full attention. Just click the icon to save a copy of any page to your online account. You can also add tags to organize the saved pages by topics. The mobile app allows you to browse from your phone and save pages from your mobile browser. (Android, iOS, web, Firefox, Chrome)

Researching: Google Alerts
Rather than skimming through the news or running manual searches, let Google compile research and automatically send an email digest. Just visit the search engine’s Alerts page, sign in with your free Google account, and enter search terms for the topics you want to follow. You can include multiple terms (such as names of companies) for each alert, configure as many alerts as you want, and refine alerts based on features such as regions or languages to include. (Web)

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Networking: LinkedIn QR codes
Forget business cards (which you probably have already done anyway), and make connections instead through the QR code scanner in LinkedIn’s mobile app. Just tap the icon on the right end of the search bar to display your personal code for people to scan and to capture the code displayed on their screen. Invites to connect go out automatically from there. (Android, iOS)


Related: Here’s how to wrangle your passwords without going crazy


Accessing Google: Google Assistant
The font of all knowledge is a constant companion for many of us. This voice-activated app provides the quickest way to access many of Google’s services, especially if you are on your phone or your hands are full (or you’re driving). Beyond web searches, you can ask Assistant to do things like check the weather, find movie times, provide driving directions, set reminders, and translate text or audio. You can also access utilities like timers or alarms, a calculator, or smart home controls. (Android, iOS, Google Home speakers, Wear OS)

Form filling: LastPass
Password managers are an essential tool to create, store, and auto-fill strong passwords for website logins. They also save time with lots of other online form filling, such as entering your address for deliveries or your credit card information for payments. The free LastPass app allows you to create profiles for this and other categories of information that you can enter with one click of its browser plugin button. The app itself is locked down with a main password, and all data you store in it is encrypted. Paid upgrade features for LastPass ($36 per year) are minimal, such as ability to share access with other people. (Android, iOS, MacOS, web, browser plug-ins)

Scanning: TurboScan
Sometimes the best way to file papers is to convert them into files. This $6 Android and iOS app uses your phone’s camera to create color or black-and-white PDF files of any documents you photograph, even something like a white board. It stores searchable copies on your phone and also allows easy sharing via email, AirDrop, or cloud services like Dropbox and Evernote. (Android, iOS)

About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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