Wouldn’t it be nice to have a personal assistant who could take care of all of those pesky details that take time from your day? The sad reality, however, is that it probably isn’t realistic to hire someone. If you’ve got a smartphone, though—and 81% of Americans do—you can find some apps that are a decent substitute.
This year, I’ve been slowly transitioning my analog methods to digital tools, researching and testing apps that can help boost productivity. Here are six tasks a personal assistant might do, and the free highly rated apps that can handle them for you instead:
1. Sorting through messages
The average professional spends 28% of their day on email, and some of that time is no doubt deleting unnecessary correspondence. Let technology help. If you use Gmail, like me, take advantage of its categories that sort email into groups, including primary, social, and promotion. This simple change helps me stick to Inbox Zero by curating the emails that are more important and allowing me to process less vital categories, such as newsletters or social notifications, later.
Another option is Edison Mail. This free app works with your email client and categorizes messages so you can tackle important emails first. It has a bulk unsubscribe feature to quickly remove you from those lists you wish you hadn’t signed up for. And it backs up messages so you don’t have to worry about deleting something you may need later. Edison has a 4.6 star rating on the Apple store.
Or try Superhuman, an AI-powered email triage system. While the reviews aren’t as stellar as those for Edison, it automatically categorizes and flags important emails for you—like a spam filter in reverse. This helps you make the most of the time you spend in your inbox. Superhuman also lets you snooze a conversation if you’re waiting for more information, and it reminds you to follow up on others.
2. Managing your schedule
Part of the hassle with scheduling meetings and appointments is finding a time that works for both parties. Calendly is a popular app that allows people to book a time with you based on when you’re free. You set your availability as well as add buffers so you aren’t booked back to back. And you can integrate Calendly with Google, Outlook, Office 365, or iCloud calendars to avoid double bookings. I love when my interview sources use Calendly because it shows their entire schedule, so I can choose the best time for me instead of the first time thrown out.
You can also try Clockwise. This app not only manages your calendar, it can automatically move meetings to times that work better for everyone. You can protect space for focused work, lunch, travel time, or personal meetings. Clockwise resolves meeting conflicts, adjusts for time zones, and takes into account your preferences, such as holding meetings during afternoons. This app may be better suited for teams that have to coordinate multiple schedules. The company shares some impressive testimonials and tweets from tech companies, like Asana, Lyft, and Coursera.
3. Organizing your next trip
Recently, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for a conference, and I was surprised at how much the price of the flight and hotel fluctuated in a matter of a few days. Do I grab the higher price or see if it would go down? The answer was to use Hopper, an app that can help you save money by predicting the best time to book a flight or hotel room. Just tell it where you’re going, and it will monitor the trip for you, then book it when you’re ready. The price of the hotel decreased by nearly half simply by waiting.
Organizing your trip information can be confusing, keeping up with flight, hotel, and transportation confirmation numbers and details. TripIt is an app that creates a master itinerary. It makes information about dates and times, location, and confirmation codes easily accessible. And if you’ve ever worried how long the security checkpoint line is going to be, MyTSA will tell you. It offers historical times as well as crowd-sourced real-time reports. This can be helpful for booking a ride to the airport, as it gives you a better sense of how much time you’ll need to get to the gate.
4. Reminding you of important dates or tasks
Even if your calendar app has automatic reminders, you might need a heads-up in advance or for things that aren’t on a schedule. There are plenty of options for apps here, but my favorite is 24me. It’s a calendar, to-do list, and note app all in one, and it tells you what you need to do and when. For example, it will remind you to run an errand on your lunch hour, pay your phone bill, and pick up a card for your colleague’s birthday next week. And it lets you complete some of the tasks from within the app, such as making a call, booking an airline ticket, or sending an email.
I recently changed over from a paper calendar and to-do list to this app, and 24me has been helpful in making the transition, keeping all of the information in one spot. The notes feature is also helping me keep all of the details of our bathroom renovation handy. And you get traffic alerts before meetings, so you know when to leave.
Several other apps will provide reminders, too. Todoist will manage your to-do list and remind you when things are due. You can prioritize tasks, collaborate with others on projects, and even delegate items to others. And TickTick includes a built-in Pomodoro timer to help you focus on the task you need to get done.
Of course, you can leverage the apps you probably already have. You can ask Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Assistant to remind you of something. For example, get a reminder to turn in your expense report by the monthly deadline, gather information for your boss by a set time, or book the conference room for the meeting next month.
5. Taking dictation
Whether you just want to make a quick note or draft a letter, you can use a dictation app that will translate your spoken words into text. I love using a dictation app for recording interview notes.
You’ve got several options, but these three are free and have high user ratings. Otter.AI, the one I use, will record and take meeting notes in real time. Speechy Lite is another real-time solution that uses AI for speech recognition for iPhones or iPads. And Dictation.io is web-based option that can help you dictate emails and documents using Google Chrome.
6. Researching information
If you need help with research, you can always ask Siri, Cortana, Alexa, or Google Assistant. Each will do quick web searches for you via voice command.
If you want to drill down further instead of being referred to a website, though, try Hound. The virtual voice assistant will find the information you need, such as the weather, an address, or stock quote. What I love about Hound is that you can get more details on your queries. For example, if you do a quick search for a restaurant in a certain neighborhood for a lunch meeting, you can ask Hound to go through the list of results and identify which offers free parking or has outdoor seating.