Four apps that changed my messy life for the better

07 Jun 2013

There’s plenty of app reviews on the net. Productivity this, getting things done that. But those focus on the features primarily, and not on the long-term impact on one’s life. Nothing like longitudinal case studies that my inner nerd loves. So I’d like to list here some apps that I’ve been using for a while, and managed to change my life for the better while doing so.

The first app, and that’s probably the most important of all, is the Promodoro app. Seriously, if I could leave only one app on my phone, that’d be the one. If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro technique, check it out, and then - I urge you, no, I double-urge you - try it for at least a solid day. It has been truly a life-changing discovery for me (thanks HN!).

Somehow a timer that ticks silently in the background magically transforms the entire subjective perception of time. It’s not that it rushes you in any way, it just says: “Here’s you, and here’s time. Use it or lose it”. And somehow (I honestly don’t know how or why it works) it helps me to focus on whatever task at hand and to keep distractions away for these 25 minutes.

Those short intervals transport me into an awesome state of concentration and acute consciousness. It is almost as if this app dissolves the distractions - whenever something like an impulse to check email/twitter/whatever pops up, some greater awareness in me just lets it fade away. Sometimes I’d write those urges down quickly, if they are worth it - things like a forgotten electricity bill, an long-overdue email or phone call to a friend/family member.

I cannot stress this enough - this technique changed my life. I get lots more stuff done now, and when I look at the past, where short periods of productive work were far and apart, separated by aimless and jumpy interwebs browsing and rss reading, I just want to punch my former self in the stomach.

Be careful with this technique though - it won’t help to force yourself to do any kind of boring work. It won’t help if you hate your job, yet deadlines are looming and your boss is breathing down your neck. As Neil Fiore suggests in his The Now Habit book, procrastination is more than justified in situations like that - in fact it’s one of the best coping mechanisms your brain can deploy.

My second favourite, absolutely beloved, dearest darling is the Evernote’s Elephant. Nothing is closer to getting a second brain to store all the stuff that you don’t need right now but will need later than Evernote. I use it for everything - taking meeting notes, planning holidays, tracking personal productivity (writing/reading speed) and health, all sorts of planning, big and small, TODO lists. Most of the time I take notes using the desktop client, but the iPhone version is handy for voice memos and some occasional note taking/retrieval.

To my utter delight I managed to hook my wife on it, and now we have a couple of notebooks shared, such as recipes and various children-related stuff. Admittedly I am a cheapskate and I use the free version - but even with the free version you get a TON of features. Probably the most useful paid feature is the note history - on several occasions I did cut some text out and didn’t notice it till much later. Now it’s fixed with a clipboard history tracker, so again - no reason to pay.

The third app is for the night time. You don’t actively use it, in a strict sense - just set an approximate wake-up time and chuck it under a pillow or a blanket, so it can track your movements during the sleep (which is done via built-in accelerometers). It will then attempt to wake you up exactly when I you’re not super-grumpy - that is during the REM (rapid eyes movement) sleep, which generally tends to correlate with involuntary body movements.

The app is called Sleep Cycle and it’s truly awesome. Most of the time it wakes me up during those moments of half-sleep/half-wake, so it’s much easier to wake up to its call than to an arbitrary unforgiving alarm bell.

Let me go off on a tangent here a bit. Did you notice how smartphones with specialised apps (sometimes aided by a tiny piece of custom-build hardware, such as Thermodo or Square) have taken the niche previously occupied by chunky, heavy, energy-hungry, buggy and expensive gadgets?

Take a look at OneVoice for example - the app that allows people with speech disabilities to “talk”. Before the iPads came, one of not-too-many choices was a portable voice synthesiser, that cost several thousand dollars and was heavy and bulky. Compare that to $200 app, that runs on a $500 iPad.

I think we’re yet to see some wonderful things happening in this space. I am particularly hopeful that various bio-feedback devices, such as Muse will take off. Or how about a freaking helicopter, controlled by thought?

The last one is a bit self-helpy, but it seems to work for me. Lift is an app for installing new, useful habits into your daily routine. Those things you know that you should do, but just somehow never manage to stick to doing them. Flossing and tooth brushing comes to mind. (I know, right! There are people out there who don’t brush! Blasphemy!). For example, some of the most popular habits of Lift’s users are “Call mom/dad”, “No alcohol”, “Sleep By Midnight”, “Drink more Water”. I use this app to track morning/night meditations and daily writing sprints, amongst some other things.