Need to shake up your work routine? Try a productivity app

. 9 min read

The best personal productivity apps help you stay on task without feeling like a chore. From time-tracking apps to website blockers, here are our picks.

There is, put simply, a ton of crap to get done. Keeping track of all of it can be a real nightmare, which is why you may want to set your sights on a productivity app.

Increasing your productivity means something different to everyone. Maybe you often feel overwhelmed by the tasks in front of you and want a way to sort them into categories. Maybe you want a to-do list that's better than a Google Doc. Maybe you want to split tasks into smaller, more manageable goals: a method that makes big projects seem less daunting and can also keep you away from distractions. Speaking of distractions, maybe you want to decrease the time you spend scrolling through social media during the workday and increase the time you spend working.

Whatever your needs, there's likely a productivity app that'll give you a little boost — or at least some insights into your current behavior.

What is a productivity app?

For the purposes of this list, we're defining productivity apps as tools to help individuals spend their time according to their own priorities, whether those are work-related, hobby-related, or just a general decrease in social media use or screen time. There are also productivity apps available for business use — even versions of some of the tools on this list! — but we focus on personal productivity options here.

SEE ALSO: 9 of the best online fitness apps and digital coaches

Most of the options on this list are available for iOS, Android, and desktop. Only one — Stayfocusd — is a browser extension; the rest are downloadable apps. Our top productivity tool, Todoist, is cloud-based, which means it syncs across multiple devices. If you work across several operating systems or expect to switch frequently between a desktop app and a mobile app, this might be a good option for you.

Free versions vs. premium versions

While the "21 days to form a habit" thing is largely a myth, it does take time to get used to new practices — and to figure out what actually works and what you're just honeymooning with.

With that in mind, we generally recommend starting with the free version of your tool of choice for a month or so, then moving up to the premium version if it has features that you feel would improve your experience.

Some tools on this list, like the list-making tool Do!, require a one-time purchase to get rid of ads. That's generally worth it. Ads are extremely annoying (and not good, we surmise, for productivity).

It's important to note that even the best productivity apps are not an instant panacea for all your work-related problems. Even the tools you'll end up liking will probably require troubleshooting and tweaks along the way as you figure out your ideal workflow. Give it time. And don't forget to take breaks, hydrate, and prioritize sleep — you can't app your way out of basic needs.

Here are our picks for the best productivity apps.

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1. TodoistTodoist is the mother of all to-do list apps, with plenty of features to play with in the premium version.

  • Free version: Yes
  • Premium version (paid monthly): $4 per month
  • Premium version (paid annually): $3 per monthSee DetailsTodoist is a task management powerhouse. It requires a bit more effort than list app Do! (also featured on this list), but will reward you with an efficient, streamlined way to organize all your tasks — and far fewer excuses to waste time.
    Reviewers praise the productivity app for its clean look and ease of use, as well as its ability to sync between devices and apps. "It’s easy to navigate and use and the fact that it works on all my devices and syncs the creation and completion of the tasks is one of the things that helps make it a must have app!" writes one App Store reviewer. "I have been using it for a few weeks and find myself appreciating the native features that makes entering tasks a breeze."
    The first tier of Todoist is free, but a premium account costs $36 per year (billed annually) or $48 per year (billed monthly). In the premium version, users can invite other users to collaborate on tasks, set reminders, and write comments, among other things. If you're new to the tool, we recommend using the free version for a while, then bumping yourself up a level if you love it. For the number of features you get, it seems to be a pretty good value.
    Plenty of people use Todoist in conjunction with Getting Things Done, a book and task management system by consultant David Allen. If you're struggling to make sense of the tool, consider approaching it from that angle.
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2. StayfocusdPerusing r/relationships instead of working? Stayfocusd will help you stay off distracting social media and on top of your actual tasks.

  • Free version: Yes$0 from Chrome Web StoreIf your main barriers to productivity are social media doom-scrolling and Wikipedia holes, you may want to block your access to those activities entirely. The classic option for this is the Chrome extension Stayfocusd, which limits the amount of time you can spend on distracting websites. After the time limit you set is it up, you won't be able to access the websites on your list. Don't want to block all of YouTube? You can also block more focused destinations, like channels, subdomains, and individual webpages.
    What sets Stayfocusd apart is its "Nuclear Option" feature, which lets you block a website for a certain amount of time regardless of the hours you've selected for unobstructed browsing. It's called the Nuclear Option because it's irreversible — once Twitter is blocked for 24 hours, it's blocked. There's no getting around it.
    Otherwise, Stayfocusd's major downside is that it's easily overridden. It only works in Chrome, so if you really want to give into distractions, all you have to do is open another browser. But you'd never do that. We have faith in you.
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3. ForestThis productivity app grows virtual "trees" when you refrain from picking up your phone.

  • Free version: Yes, for Android (see below)$1.99 from Apple App StoreForest is a bit quirkier than most productivity tools, but that's to its benefit. The app, which is designed to help you spend time away from your phone, adds a guilt-trippy element to the equation with virtual trees, which grow or die based on how successfully you stay away from your device. The more you succeed, the more tree species you unlock, and the bigger and prettier your virtual forest will grow. (You can see the trees you've killed in there, too, which is a real motivator.)
    And if you keep up your progress, Forest will eventually plant an actual tree for your efforts: It partners with the nonprofit Trees for the Future.
    Mashable culture reporter Nicole Gallucci, who reviewed the app, found that this gamification actually worked:
While the death of a digital tree is obviously very low-stakes, and there are no real consequences if you let it bite the dust, over the course of a week using the app I learned that just knowing a few measly minutes away from your phone is all it takes to save a life — even that of a fake tree — is a surprisingly successful motivational tactic.Forest is ideal for the user who wants to decrease their use of their entire phone, not just specific sites or social media platforms. If you need your phone or social media for work, this might not be your best option.
The iOS version of the app costs $1.99, but a free version for Android devices is available here.
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4. RescueTimeRescueTime will give you insights on how you're *actually* spending your workday, so you can make changes (or not) as necessary.

  • Free version: Yes
  • Premium version: $78 per yearSee DetailsRescueTime, which has been around for over 10 years, is a time-honored way to see which projects and tasks take up the most of your energy — and, potentially, make some changes. On the app, you're able to set your work hours, then rate each app you might use during those hours on a five-point scale from "very unproductive" to "very productive" (if you use Twitter or YouTube for both work and pleasure, good luck with this one), then set goals about your ideal split.
    The app's reports are genuinely informative, delivering insights about where you spend your time, during which times of day you're most productive, and how "productive" your average day is according to the parameters you've set. The app's premium version features a website blocker called FocusTime, which allows you to limit how long you spend on "unproductive" pages.
    A few negatives: Some reviewers report that the iOS version of RescueTime drains their phone battery quickly. This appears to be because the app uses GPS to track how many times a user picks up their phone during the day. The premium version is also pricey — it'll set you back $78 annually.
    RescueTime is available for iOS, Android, and desktop. You can read a comparative list of features here.
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5. Do!If you want to make a to-do list on your phone, but don't care about additional bells and whistles, Do! is a solid option.

  • Free version: Yes
  • Premium version: $3.99See DetailsThe best thing about making to-do lists? Marking items as complete. (We know you've written down something you've already done just so you can cross it off.) This satisfying step is often lost if you use an app instead of pen and paper, but the list app Do! preserves it successfully.
    Do! is a simple list-making app — like, the only things you can do on it are make, sort, and complete to-do lists — but reviewers find it aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. Perhaps best of all, it plays very realistic sound effects for "taking notes" and "flipping pages," mimicking the experience of using an actual notebook. Why not just use an actual notebook, then? Well, then you'd have to carry it around.
    There's also an ad-free premium version available for $3.99.
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6. Microsoft OneNoteMicrosoft OneNote is a great tool for people looking to organize their thoughts digitally.

  • Free version: Yes
  • Premium version: $6.99/month, for the full Microsoft 365 Personal software suiteSee DetailsMicrosoft OneNote is a note-taking tool available for free on iOS, Android, and desktop. It's designed to manage — you guessed it — your notes, from meeting records to birthday lists to those weird (but really good) ideas you come up with at three in the morning. It basically functions as a set of virtual "notebooks," which you can theme, sort, and annotate as you like.
    The free version of OneNote, which includes audio, video, and "inking" components (great for doodling), among other features, is available for anyone with an Office 365 account (just the account, not a paid subscription). If you opt for the premium version, which comes along with the whole suite of Microsoft 365 Personal (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.), you'll get more perks, including Ink Replay, which allows for step-by-step illustration; Math Assistant, and more.
    OneNote's biggest competitor is Evernote, another note-taking app. As PCMag points out in its OneNote review, though, you have to pay for Evernote to really make the most of it, whereas the free version of OneNote is enough for most folks. For us, that's enough to push Evernote off our list and OneNote into its spot.
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7. Otter Voice Meeting NotesIf you find yourself wasting time transcribing meetings and calls, this voice transcription app may lighten your load a bit.

  • Free version: Yes
  • Premium (paid monthly): $9.99 per month
  • Premium (paid annually): $8.33 per monthSee DetailsTranscribing recordings of calls, meetings, or interviews can be an enormous chore — plus, you have to listen to the sound of your own voice. A voice transcription app allows you to skip that step.
    Otter, which comes in both free and premium versions, will take live notes during meetings as well as transcribe uploaded audio into searchable text documents. Reviewers report that they received transcripts of uploaded audio files fairly quickly and — though it's important to note that no AI transcription from an app will be perfect — that they're quite accurate.
    "I only need to go back into [the app] and edit a few words which it gets wrong, but basically this will end up saving me hours of the transcription process," writes one reviewer on the iOS App Store.
    A basic account comes with 600 free minutes of transcription per month. Otter Premium, which includes 6,000 minutes of transcription (as well as a few extra features, like the ability to export files in certain formats), costs $9.99 per month billed monthly and $99.99 per year (or $8.33 per month) billed annually.