The Apps I Use Every Day to Help Me Focus

If you need your phone, keep things as simple as possible.

Joseph Mavericks
Feb 27 · 9 min read

The only way to make technology work with productivity is to keep things dead simple. In a time where we are constantly bombarded with notifications and screens are always screaming for our attention, sticking to more than a few apps to use daily on your phone is a recipe for getting lost, losing your focus, and forgetting what you were going to do when you opened your phone.

I try to use my phone as little as possible. It’s always on silent, I keep it in my backpack, even at home, when I don’t use it. A lot of the apps I’m going to talk about are synced with my laptop, which is actually where I use them the most because that’s where I get 90% of my work done.

Of the 6 apps I’m about to present, there are 2 I couldn’t do without Notion, and TickTick. Everything else is replaceable and I would encourage you to test out other apps you think will help you.

TickTick

TickTick is a todo app that comes with a great built-in calendar function, which is the only reason I chose it over the competition.

The calendar

The calendar is amazing. This is what it looks like in the weekly view:

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For me, it’s crucial to have an overview of my week any day, any time. I can shuffle things around and see what things I’m behind on.

I also love to be able to see everything I have accomplished so far this week, with the “Show completed” option.

You do have the option to choose the length of the tasks you put in Ticktick, but I use it as a list app, so I rarely change the duration of an event. The only times I do are when something is very important, I want it to at least visually take up a bigger part of the day.

The calendar also has a day view and a monthly view. I never use the day view, and use the monthly view once a month, for monthly planning.

The inbox

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Yes I’m being on a lot of things. It’s been a tough month.

In the inbox, you can quickly add a task, with or without a date attached to it. The Natural Language Processing is not as amazing as in Todoist, but it’s still really good. If you type in “go get bread @5pm next Sunday”, it will add the corresponding reminder automatically.

Your overdue tasks show up first, then the ones for today, then tomorrow, then this week, and then the ones without a date.

Arrange tasks

This is another amazing option from TickTick. When you enter a task without a specific due date in your inbox, you can later switch to calendar view, click on “Arrange tasks”, and drag and drop them into the calendar.

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I often jot down tasks throughout the day, and take 5 mins in the evening to arrange the tasks on my calendar. This option is super convenient.

Lists

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I do use one list, called Important. The only reason I have this list is that when a task belongs to this list, it shows up in red on the calendar. Other than that, I don’t have any list.

Tags, smart lists and Kanban views

This is where the tool gets too complex for my own personal use. I will only skim over those features.

Tags
As I said before, I use one list for important things, and one list for everything else. Therefore, I don’t feel the need for tags. I used to use tags with Todoist, and in my experience, you end up creating tags for everything and getting lost in them.

Smart lists
This is where you can use conditional logic to filter items in a very specific way. Extremely powerful, but again, too complicated for my personal use.

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Kanban views
That’s right, you can have Trello boards inside the app. It’s great to have everything in one place, but I don’t use Kanban views for my tasks.

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Notion

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Notion is a very powerful all-in-one workspace for notes, tasks, wikis. It is extremely broad with probably over 100 features, so I will not go over all of them here. I use something like 5% of the app, as I like to keep it simple. I use Notion to structure all my ideas, not for writing anything concrete.

Structure

I structure my content with only pages, which is the most common way in Notion. You can link pages together, have sub-pages, you can even have an index with all your content displaying on one page… I don’t do any of that. I just do pages.

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As you can see you’re able to add an emoji as a little icon for each page. It helps to structure everything even more.

Shortcuts

This is the number one advantage Notion has over the competition. When writing and formatting, you don’t need your mouse. All you have to do is hit the “/“ key, and choose what you want to insert: a heading, a numbered list, a todo list…

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It’s extremely powerful because it doesn’t stop at formatting. You can also embed videos, google drive files, databases…

Templates

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There’s a whole community around Notion that continuously creates new awesome templates. I love to check out what comes out in Bullet Journaling and Productivity Planners. Here is the Eisenhower matrix featured in Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

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Eisenhower Notion

Becoming a beast

Notion is an amazing tool that keeps getting bigger. As many options as you will find in there, people still ask for new features every day on Twitter, and the small Notion team prioritizes the ones they see as most relevant.

My advice is to use Notion for only one thing and not try to set up complicated templates if you don’t need to. In the beginning, I made the mistake to try a lot of different templates, having a ton of sub-pages, and to link everything together. This didn’t work. It’s easy to get lost in the possibilities of Notion. Now I use my own system where I have one page per subject, and that’s all I need.

3. SelfControl

I have written about SelfControl many times before. I use it primarily to block youtube access from my computer. All you have to do is download it, add youtube to the blacklist, set a timer duration, and click on Start. You won’t have access to youtube until the timer expires. Even if you quit the app. Even if you restart your computer.

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I love SelfControl because it just does what it says, and it’s super simple to use. There’s no fancy options, no unnecessary design… It just works.

I sometimes block youtube from my computer and realise halfway through an article that I actually need to watch a video for research. In those cases, I watch the video on my iPad. The annoying interface and the fact that I’m not logged into Youtube on my iPad makes it way less likely that I will fall in a Youtube time-wasting spiral.

SelfControl is not available for Windows. Here is a list of existing alternatives for Windows. I have not tried any of those since I run Mac.

4. Pocket

Pocket is a service that lets you save articles from the internet to read them later. Install the browser add-on, and click on its icon every time you want to save something for later. I consider it a productivity app because reading is part of the work I owe myself, whether for writing or for self-improvement.

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getpocket.com

It’s synced across all your devices, so you can save an article from you laptop and read it on your phone. And that’s the dangerous part.

It’s so easy to get lost on the internet when everything is synced, connected and interacting all the time. If I read an article on my phone or my laptop, I’m extremely likely to get distracted by something else, and to end up spending way too much time browsing. I like to keep one device for one use as much as possible.

  • Laptop for work and emails
  • Phone for texting
  • E-reader to read

Pocket comes by default on Kobo e-readers. It’s a lot easier to stay focused on an e-reader, because it’s not optimized for browsing at all, and it doesn’t have notifications getting in the way. Also, you don’t get content recommendations based on what you read before. You just read your article one time, and when you’re done, you’re done. Lastly, the e-ink screen is a lot easier on the eyes, especially at night and in the morning.

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digitaltrends.com

5. Alarm Clock Xtreme

I use this app to wake up between 6 and 6:30 am every day. It’s really just an alarm clock app, which does the job and doesn’t have ads. The number one reason I chose this is the crescendo option. The ringtone slowly builds up to full volume instead of blasting right away.

You can also choose your own soundtrack for the ringtone, like this relaxing piano music with ocean sounds.

I use this app on an old useless smartphone I have. The sole purpose of this smartphone is to act as an alarm clock. My actual phone is off every night. I also use the old phone for reminders inside the house.

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I also use this app along with a Philips Wake-Up Light.

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This light mimics the sunrise and builds up to full intensity over 30 minutes. It usually wakes me up more “naturally” a few minutes before my actual alarm clock.

6. Standard Notes

Standard Notes is a fully-encrypted note-taking app. I use it to take notes I want to keep private.

Its interface is really simple, much like the Notes app from Apple:

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There are no formatting options available in the default version. If you want to have access to more features, you’ll have to download more editors, for which you need a paid account.

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You also get access to other extensions with the premium plan, which I’ve never tried. Again, I like to keep it simple.

There you have it. Hopefully, this list can inspire you to simplify your use of apps and devices. At the end of the day, it’s not about the apps, it’s about what you make out of them. Quality is better than quantity. There are a million apps out there that do the same one thing, and a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to try them all and decide with 100% certainty which one is best for you.

So stick to your apps once you found the few ones that match your needs for everything you need to get done. Stick to them and get better at them. That’s the way to combine efficiency with technology.

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