For our businesses to flourish, we have to stay focused on the right things. If you’re an indie entrepreneur, you essentially live and die by the projects you complete, the ideas you bring into the world.
We need more than productivity, we need a workflow for focus. So in this article I’m going to talk you through the 7 productivity apps we’ve found to be essential for entrepreneurs to get the right work done.
These are productivity apps we use everyday here at Fizzle, some of which we’ve used for several years, so each comes highly recommended by us.
However, I also include popular alternatives to the apps we use because it’s not about the app — it’s about the way you and your team design a workflow for more focus more often.
“Productivity” is defined as “the state or quality of being able to produce something.” In a non business sense it was used to refer to how capable a field or plot of land was at producing crops; almost like fertility.
But in the business world, since the late 1800s, productivity had more to do with the relationship between INPUT and OUTPUT. “Productive” labor could achieve large results with small amounts of time and energy. In this sense, productivity basically means efficiency.
Now, for us entrepreneurs in the 21st century productivity means more than just efficiency. Productivity is your ability to be both EFFICIENT and EFFECTIVE:
This way of looking at it helps us remember our goal with increased productivity can’t just be about efficiency, but must also include awareness of the effectiveness of our efforts.
So, the productivity apps I share with you are not just helping us be more efficient with our time here at Fizzle, but they also help us remain effective, because — as I said above — as bootstrapped, indie entrepreneurs, our business dies if we aren’t effective.
So, let’s get into it.
Let’s start with what is colloquially called a to-do list. This is the app you use to manage your tasks on a day-to-day basis.
Done poorly, you dread your task management app because the tasks are unclear, out of date and/or confusing. This is a bad place to be.
Done well, this is your daily cockpit, reminding you about what’s happening, convincing you quickly of what matters right now and giving you exactly what you need to focus on the next action.
Here’s what’s important to us about a task management app:
WHAT WE USE: Asana. We’ve been using this as our team task management app for over 2 years and we have no complaints. We work daily out of Asana as well as assign tasks for each other and manage our publishing calendars (for both podcast and blog).
Learn how to write and manage tasks better so you'll get more out of your task manager in the Essentials of Productivity Course. Learn it today with a free two week free trial »
Now, this is probably the category that’s made the single biggest impact on our progress over the past 2 years here at Fizzle.
Above we covered the importance of a task management app. In that category we talked about being able to manage both tasks and projects. Here we’re adding an extra layer of project management but it’s worth it because of how efficient and effective it makes planning meetings, strategy sessions and quarterly reviews.
What we noticed is that Asana by itself was a little too in the trees to give us a good view of the forest for our weekly and quarterly meetings. So we started using an additional tool to plan our quarters and review the projects in process every week.
This made (and continues to make) a huge impact on our yearly progress. We plan quarters with more commitment, we work with more clarity and all team members have an accurate feel for what they and other team members are working on.
WHAT WE USE: Trello. For the past couple years we’ve been using Trello to plan our quarters, review our progress weekly and review our company progress twice a year. This app (but more importantly, the review and planning process we use) is responsible for so much of our company’s progress.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Sticky notes on the wall like this (this actually works exceptionally well), Google Spreadsheets, general project management apps. Again, it’s the review and planning process that makes this work so well.
Here’s an image of our current Trello board for Fizzle projects this year:
THE GIST: Find some way you like to manage your projects from a bird’s eye view, something you can clearly see what you’ve finished, what you’re committed to right now, and what’s coming up. We talk about it deeper in this podcast, but we’ve found it to work really well to plan the projects every quarter and review progress every week.
Listen, I already know you don’t want to do daily reviews, but I’m going try to get you to do them so please listen up, turkeys!
The best two things about the daily reviews we use is this: they’re fast and they make you better (over time).
They’re fast: our personal daily reviews can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. That’s it. All we do is write down what we did that day and then the two most important things to do tomorrow. I do it as I lay down in bed each night; open the app, scribble, done.
They make you better (over time): doing a review of your work (and personal life!) daily gives you greater awareness of the tasks, projects and goals that make for real progress. Think about it, knowing more about that is kind of the trick to the whole game.
Here’s what you want out of a personal daily review app:
WHAT WE USE: Day One. It’s all of the above, baby.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: a physical notebook, plain text files and other apps on this list.
If you’re completely new to productivity journaling, we have an article and podcast to teach you how: 2 Experts Share Exactly How to Use a Productivity Journal (& Increase Productivity by 23%)
You know so much about email already, but let me chance a little mindset dust-off about email for you real quick.
Your email inbox is where the world makes demands of you. Everyone in the world has (or can get) your email address, and everyone in the world seems to want something from you.
But YOU get to decide which demands you let affect you. This is why managing email is an essential tool still today.
And managing email is going to remain a necessary skill for a while yet. Being thoughtful about email takes a little work, but getting just a little faster and just a little more comfortable with your email tool is its own reward.
Here’s what we want out of an email app:
WHAT WE USE: Cloudmagic and Gmail Inbox. Corbett uses and loves Cloudmagic for changing between multiple inboxes. I use Gmail because once I learned the Gmail keyboard shortcuts I never needed anything else.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Airmail, Outlook and anything on this list.
Don’t even think about it. Wrong list, pal.
I have never known a successful founder or CEO who doesn’t take her/his calendar very seriously.
Now, taking your calendar “seriously” doesn’t mean every moment on the calendar is filled in, but it does mean you bring some thoughtfulness (and probably some rules) to how you run your calendar.
Thoughtfulness because when you’re dealing with your calendar you’re dealing with your TIME, literally the most precious resource. Play with your time unthoughtfully at your own peril.
That’s why we need some rules about our calendar. And the first place to start with rules is this idea from workflow powerhouse David Allen:
“I recommend that you only calendar ‘hard landscape’ stuff — things that have to get done on that day or time. Everything else should be maintained on on-going lists, to get to ‘as soon as you can’ in and around the calendared items.”
Your calendar is not your todo list. It’s only for things you have to do at a certain date and time. I like that rule.
I also like this rule: if you’re setting up an event with someone else, send that person a calendar event as soon as you can. This cleans up time zone mistakes and other issues right from the start. If it feels wonky to send someone you barely know a calendar event, get over it — it feels thoughtful and intentional to anyone who takes their calendar serious (and others can just delete it if they don’t like it).
Calendar apps these days are all pretty similar. Here’s what we’re looking for in a calendar app:
WHAT WE USE: Google Calendar (web app and mobile app). As the popular saying goes, if it ain’t broke…
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Outlook, Fantastical and anything on this list.
Just about all of us write in some form or other, whether it’s long form articles, answers to interview questions or business plans. (But you know your business plan should only be one page, right?)
And for just about all of us who write, it’s hard work to put our ass in the chair and make the words come out on the page, so the app we use to write can matter a great deal.
Here’s some of the things we’re looking for in the app we use to write:
WHAT WE USE: Ulysses (for Mac) and Google Docs (for collaboration and editing). Ulysses is a little heavy as a writing app, but we’ve been using it for a year or so and the benefits far outweigh the costs. I like, specifically, how it manages files, syncs across devices and that I can customize how the Markdown formatting looks.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Byword, iA Writer and anything else on this list.
Skip this one if you work on your own.
If you’re on a team of any kind, big or small, how you communicate matters.
We’re all used to using email for team communication. And if you’re fine with it, keep using it.
But email can be exceptionally cumbersome over time as you manage reply all threads, different email practices and personal/work inboxes.
That cumbersome communication can build up and get in the way of your people having smooth, productive relationships. So, many small companies have moved to a different kind of app for team communication.
Let’s look at what we want from a team communication app:
WHAT WE USE: Slack. We use it religiously, enjoy it and find everything we need in it.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: Email, Hipchat, Yammer and others on this list.
Now, I’m not going to give you a deep dive on customer support apps, I’m just going to say this: supporting your customers is essential to your business, which means it’s something that matters to you, which means you’d do well to be thoughtful about the app you use for customer support.
This article is already too long to do justice to all the different things that matter about a customer support app because we’d have to cover so many different kinds of businesses with different kinds of customer support needs.
So let me just share a few things that are important to our customer support experience at Fizzle:
WHAT WE USE: Intercom. Intercom is actually more of a platform for communicating with your customers. It’s very robust yet pretty damn easy to use and it’s at the heart of our customer support.
POPULAR ALTERNATIVES: ZenDesk, Groove, HelpScout and others on this list.
The list above are what we feel are the essential app categories for modern, web-centric businesses. But here are a few other productivity apps we need to mention because they help us keep focused in some small and meaningful ways.
It’s one of the most common questions we hear from entrepreneurs: how do I get more stuff done? Why do I keep procrastinating!?
We need a system to help us get things done.
BUT not a system so complex that we spend more time working on the system than we do on the work.
We need a simple productivity system that helps us stay motivated and focused without sidetracking our progress.
And, frankly, that means you might benefit from some insights from other entrepreneurs as they share some lessons learned.
Because, no matter how you slice and dice it, as I said above, as indie entrepreneurs we live and die by our ability to get things done.
So, we made a course teaching what we think is the essential productivity system for indie entrepreneurs. You can find fancier or more complex systems out there, but chances are the ideas in this course are at the guts of all those systems. So, why not get the core right and customize he peripherals yourself?
As a reader of the blog here, you can try the course out for free in a 2 week free trial. We hope you’ll like this course enough to stay for our other courses and weekly group calls for entrepreneurs. (We have 40+ other courses and a scheduled group call every Friday.)
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