If you are not sure where to start when it comes to tools like note-taking apps and task managers–or if you keep jumping from one tool to another–continue reading.
Below, I will take you through (mainly digital) tools that I use to get my work done ranging from Things, my task manager, all the way to my waterproof notebook that I use to jot down thoughts in the shower when necessary.
As you read through, keep two things in mind, though:
- There is no single “right tool” for any given task as there are many tools that do the exact same thing but offer slightly different functionality and user interface
- What matters as much as or more than the tools you use are the underlying processes and systems that you set for yourself and your team
Anyways, let’s jump into the list.
Unlike other people, I have no strong preference when it comes to communication tools. For client communication, I default to whatever the client’s preferred method is. To communicate with freelancers I hire to do work on my blogs, I use email and Upwork.
One communication-related thing that I have been implementing fairly successfully recently, though, is making sure that my email inboxes are cleaned at least once a week. I believe the success is largely attributable to having the layers of tools I talk about below – and the underlying processes – set up well.
Before continuing, I’ll name just two tools that you likely know already anyways – Gmail and Slack. Those would be the ones I’d recommend if you are looking for an email service provider and a chat tool for your company respectively.
Task, Project & Knowledge Management Tools
When it comes to task, project, and knowledge management, my time is essentially split between four tools. While I was originally thinking of listing them out in three separate categories, I decided to put them under one heading as there is a considerable amount of overlap among them.
Throughout the years, I tried several task managers including Todoist and Asana. While with Todoist, I simply wasn’t a big fan of the user interface, I enjoyed Asana at first. However, over time, my list of tasks in the tool got too complex and out of control with many overdue tasks.
Things, on the other hand, allows me to set two types of due dates for each task. I can either set a “non-binding” date that I want to start working on a task or a “deadline” by which a task needs to get done. I only use the latter sparsely for things like client deliverables and bills to be paid.
Besides that, the app also has a very useful quick capture functionality and good organization capabilities. While the former allows me to open a pop-up input box with a simple keyboard shortcut no matter what app I am in at any given time, the latter allows me to organize tasks into different areas of focus and projects.
While Things is not free, rather than being subscription-based, it is sold on a one-time payment basis. The app is only available in the Apple ecosystem and costs $49.99 for Mac, $9.99 for iPhone, and $19.99 for iPad.
If there is one tool in this list that I recommend checking out – and having some patience with – it’s Notion. Being an extremely flexible tool, it is hard to throw it into any single category. While some people use it to store their entire work-life or life in general, some use it as a company wiki, some as a task and project managers, and some even to create a Pokedex.
Personally, I tried to go with the all-my-life-in-Notion approach at first. However, over time, I started to learn what the tool’s advantages and disadvantages are through daily use. With that, I moved some of the things I tried doing in Notion for a while into back into tools like Evernote.
That said, Notion still remains – and will remain for the foreseeable future – an important part of my set-up. Among other things, I still use it daily to:
- Keep a daily visual journal (i.e. saving a photo a day) and track habits
- Manage content production for my blogs
- Organize and work on larger projects
- Organize business cards, contact information, and meeting notes
If you are wondering what the things that I moved out of Notion are, below are three examples:
- Saving useful articles and other content (Evernote)
- Saving random notes and thoughts (Evernote)
- Managing daily tasks (Things)
You can get started with Notion for free, so I definitely recommend checking it out. If you sign-up using my link you will get $10 in credit that you can use towards their paid plans (which are very reasonably priced). On a separate note, should you do so, I will get $5 in credit, so thanks!
Without a doubt, Evernote is the “grandfather of modern-day note-taking apps.” In one way or another, I have been using it for more than half a decade now.
While it has its drawbacks too, overall, it’s an excellent tool for saving quick notes and reference information. What I like about Evernote the most is that it’s fast on both desktop and mobile, that it allows one to quickly scan through a large number of notes, and that it integrates very well with many other services including LINER which I will talk about in the next section.
In the past, I approached Evernote the same way as I, mistakenly, approached Notion not so long ago. I tried to store and organize each and every piece of my life in the note-taking app. I would use it to store my flight confirmations, jot down meeting notes, and write blog post drafts.
Nowadays, I mainly use it for storing articles and other online content (and notes related to those) as well as random thoughts I want to note down during the day that I later use in the content and client deliverables that I create.
Besides that, I also use it to store temporary “reference” materials (like a rough monthly budget) that I don’t want to clutter my Notion workspace with.
In addition to paid subscriptions, Evernote offers a free plan which is more than sufficient for many purposes. As such, I definitely recommend giving it a shot if you are looking for a good note-taking app.
Erasable & Waterproof Notebooks
Finally, for the times when it is not practical to type notes on an electronic device (i.e. in some meetings and in the shower), as well as for the times when I want to do some outlining or brainstorming the “good old analog way,” I use a set of notebooks.
In the case of meetings and brainstorming, and when I feel like writing by hand rather than typing, I use an erasable notebook.
It is similar to a normal notebook except it has pages that feel a bit more like plastic. That combined with an erasable Frixion pen means the notebook can be erased with wet tissue (or even hairdryer) and reused over and over again.
Besides the arguable environmental benefits, I also take a lot more notes nowadays since I don’t feel like I’m “wasting pages” or that my notes have to be perfect since they are just temporary.
I erase the notebook once a week after scanning and filing the notes that have future value.
For my shower notes, I use a similar notebook but with an oil-based pen. The combination works perfectly even when fully submerged.
Online Research Tools
Google and Wikipedia… Just kidding. Rather than presenting the places where I go to find information, in this section, I’ll introduce two tools that I use to make consuming new information and preparing it for use in projects easier.
While I go to some blogs and sites directly – and find content to read on my social media feeds – I also use Feedly to aggregate some of my favorite blogs. That way, rather than having to go to each one of them individually to check whether they posted something new, I can just open the app and see it all in one place.
Unless you are using Feedly to aggregate hundreds of sources categorized into dozens of feeds, you should be able to get by with the free version. With that, you will be able to subscribe to up to 100 different sources and organize them into three feeds.
Whenever I find something on the web that I want to read, I send it to LINER for two reasons: it allows me to find and read the piece later rather than diverting my focus at the time I find the article and it lets me highlight interesting passages.
LINER works on both on my laptop as a Google Chrome extension and on my iPhone as a standalone app. As such, whenever I have some spare time–whether behind my desk or on a train–I always know where to go to get some reading material.
The tool’s integration with Evernote is a nice function too as it allows me to easily send the highlighted passages as well as the source link of articles that I deem worth saving into the note-taking app.
With unlimited highlights and three folders that you can organize your articles into, you will most likely not need the paid version which is $49.99 per year. In fact, I subscribed to the paid version to be able to create more folders but I am not using the functionality at this point anyways.
Still, considering that it’s an excellent tool, I don’t mind having paid for it.
Other Productivity Tools
Aside from the tools mentioned above, I also use several other tools that don’t fit into any of the categories above. The two that I want to highlight are Google Drive and Timing.
Google Drive and Docs
While there are some things that I don’t have backed-up in the cloud for one reason or another (especially because of too large file size), all of my work documents reside in Google Drive.
Just like with Evernote and other places where I store my information, I base my organization system on Tiago Forte’s P.A.R.A. method which I highly recommend checking out.
As for working on documents, I still use Microsoft Office a lot, especially when working with larger spreadsheets or when creating files that I need to email to someone. However, when it comes to receiving articles for my blogs from writers, I use Google Docs. I also use it when writing drafts of my articles.
Even though I use Dropbox with some of my clients, personally, I am a much bigger fan of Google Drive.
The one thing I wish they improved, though, is the inability to sync multiple accounts to a computer simultaneously. In other words, I wish I could have both my personal as well as my clients’ Google Drives synced to desktop.
Finally, the latest introduction to my “productivity stack,” Timing. While in the past, I wasn’t a big fan of time tracking, working with multiple clients as well as on a number of my own projects, I am starting to understand the value of knowing what I spend the waking hours of my day doing.
Timing helps me with that by both tracking the applications I use on my computer (down to the file path and website URL) in the background as well as allowing me to easily start and stop timing tasks and file them into specific projects and areas.
The tool is also extremely helpful when billing clients hourly rather than on a project basis since it can prepare all the timesheets for you.
It costs between 3.5 EUR and 8 EUR a month depending on which of their subscription tiers you choose. I am using the Professional level which allows me to do both automatic tracking and manual task input for 5.5 EUR a month.
In the End, Tools Only Make So Much Difference…
While I certainly recommend you to try some or even all of the tools I mentioned above, you should also keep in mind that each of us works in a different way. That also means that each of us prefers different tools–whether in terms of functionality or user interface.
As such, you might also want to look at some of the dozens of alternatives to the tools I mentioned. Below are just a few to get you started:
- Things: Todoist, Asana, Reminders (default app on iOS)
- Evernote and Notion: Microsoft OneNote, Roam Research, Bear
- LINER: Instapaper
Regardless of which tool you choose, however, keep in mind that in the end, tools are only as good as their users are. It is much more important to have processes that make sense but are simple enough for you to keep following them consistently in place than it is to choose “the right tool.”
In other words, while tools matter, they only do so if you have made decisions about the higher-level questions like:
- How will I deal with my email?
- How will I organize my files?
- How will I deal with articles I want to read?