No matter your business or background, everyone wants to be more productive. Increasing responsibilities and daily pressures add to the challenge of optimal task management.
With so many tech solutions for productivity now available, though, we often dismiss the go-to tools that used to serve us well. Sometimes, these basic tools still do a better job, especially when they’ve been upgraded with technology like artificial intelligence.
At a glance: The best apps to boost your productivity
- Best calendar app: Calendar
- Best whiteboard app: Microsoft Whiteboard
- Best to-do list app: Todoist
- Best spreadsheet app: Google Sheets
Overview: What are productivity apps?
A productivity app is a software tool or platform used on a mobile device. Users can access the productivity app via their smartphone, tablet, or wearable device, making it easier and more efficient to complete daily tasks.
There’s a full range of productivity apps to help business owners, teams, and individuals, including categories for note-taking tools, accounting softwares, word processing, time clock tools, cloud storage, email softwares, to-do lists, spreadsheets, project management collaboration, and more.
What to look for in great productivity apps
Before downloading any productivity apps, make sure they align with your job and tasks, provide solutions that boost your efficiency, and automate some of the most time-consuming aspects of your work.
“Since I’m traveling and trying to balance multiple roles, projects, and meetings, as so many of us do, I focus on productivity apps that have a cloud-based feature to access work from anywhere and on any device,” entrepreneur and marketing executive Angela Ruth notes.
“This feature may not be as important to a freelancer who stays put in their office, who may be better served by productivity apps that automate invoices and track time.”
There are a few other things to look for in a productivity app to ensure it delivers the strongest results for you.
Here are three key things to consider when evaluating a productivity app.
When it comes to specific types of productivity apps that mimic tools we may have previously used in some form but haven’t leveraged to their full extent, unique features become important.
Look for features that encourage you to use the app more often. For example, a productivity app should offer something you can’t find in the traditional form of this tool. There should be a gamification or behavior-replicating aspect to the app that draws you in, making it feel both accessible and useful.
The best productivity apps should be relevant now and well into the future.
Even if a productivity app is free, it should still offer long-term value through its ability to save you time or help you work smarter.
A productivity app may not win marks for longevity because it can’t meet all of your needs. However, an app could stay with you for the long haul when you realize you can’t live without it because of the many things it can do.
If you, your team, or your employer have already invested in comprehensive business platforms, it’s important these productivity apps integrate with what you’re already using, such as a CRM suite or a project management platform.
You’ll be able to further your productivity efforts if you leverage the connective power of multiple tools rather than duplicate tasks across several tools that don’t integrate.
The more tools you have to access, the less likely you are to touch them — they’re actually creating more work.
Our picks for the best productivity apps
Our picks focus on four tools we could leverage most often in our daily lives to work smarter. These productivity tools include a calendar, a whiteboard, a spreadsheet, and a to-do list.
These four highly rated productivity apps are based on everyday tools that offer a range of free and paid solutions for productive task management.
1. Best calendar app: Calendar
- Who it’s for: Individuals, small business owners, teams, and enterprises
- Price: Free, plus paid monthly/user plan options that start at $8/month
Available for the web, Android, and iOS, the Calendar app uses machine-learning algorithms to deliver smart scheduling functionality.
This productivity app learns your schedule and interactions so it can take over the process and automate meeting, event, and appointment scheduling, as well as invite others and update your schedule when changes occur.
Manually creating an event takes only a few clicks, and the event then syncs with any connected calendars, such as Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, or Outlook.
Besides integrating with other digital calendars, Calendar brings together many email, project management, sales and marketing, and video conferencing tools.
In addition to its extensive integration capabilities, the productivity app offers an array of unique features, including multiple views, an intuitive dashboard, customization tools, and calendar-sharing options. On the paid versions, you’re also able to access meeting transcriptions and a suite of analytics tools. I personally built this tool so that business owners could be much more productive.
2. Best whiteboard app: Microsoft Whiteboard
- Who it’s for: Small business owners, teams, and enterprises
- Price: Free
This digital canvas app is available as both a PC and an iOS app. It’s an ideal way to create on the go and share with others in a collaborative environment.
Rather than a traditional whiteboard that lives in one place, this cloud-based app allows you to turn ideas into charts or visuals that others on your team can view simultaneously, no matter where they are.
Everyone can see the same visuals and make contributions from their screens or browser windows. Plus, there’s no need to take a picture of the whiteboard because you have the visuals stored and saved in the cloud, where no one can erase them.
Having a digital process for brainstorming and idea-sharing saves considerable time for everyone involved in a project.
If you have a Microsoft account, you can easily access the app and integrate it with other Microsoft software for more convenience, collaboration, and time savings.
Although it’s a work in progress, with Microsoft announcing many planned improvements on the way, the initial value takes everything that’s productive about whiteboards and digitizes the experience.
3. Best to-do list app: Todoist
- Who it’s for: Individuals and small business owners
- Price: Free, plus premium ($36/year) and business ($60/year/user) versions
Todoist offers online and offline access to prioritize tasks and project work across multiple devices and within a collaborative environment. It works on Android, iOS, macOS, Windows, Android Wear, Apple Watch, and the web.
Standout intuitive features include natural language input and productivity reports. This cloud-based productivity app allows you to sync across devices. You’ll always have the most current list of tasks and project work, from client meetings to sending out follow-up emails.
The interface is clean and easy to read with color-coding options, and it’s simple to set up.
Many integration options also set this tool apart. You can turn emails into tasks in Todoist by using a Gmail or Outlook plugin. Browser plugins include Chrome and Firefox, which allow you to turn webpages into tasks.
Todist also integrates with Google Calendar and Outlook Calendar and offers a link to connect many other types of digital calendar apps. Slack can also integrate with Todoist.
You can access many of its features just by setting up a free account, from collaborating with five people on a project to managing up to 80 projects. However, you’ll need to upgrade to get other features like reminders, filters, and comments for files and tasks.
4. Best spreadsheet app: Google Sheets
- Who it’s for: Individuals, small business owners, teams, and enterprises
- Price: Free, plus business accounts for $6/month per user
Available for the web, iOS, and Android, Google Sheets is likely already on your radar if you use Gmail and have a Google account. In terms of integration, it works with all of Google’s products, making it one of the most powerful productivity apps for working with your company’s data.
Google Sheets also integrates with other types of software, including thousands of Zapier apps.
Even better is Google Sheets’ collaboration capability. You can work with team members in real time from the same spreadsheet rather than waste time sending various revised files back and forth to each other.
You can leave comments and follow up directly in the spreadsheet, and the version history feature lets you find and document changes in seconds.
Work smarter with productivity apps
These productivity apps are reminders of why some of the most common business and organizational tools shouldn’t be forgotten.
Thanks to innovative companies, the calendar, whiteboard, to-do list, and spreadsheet are making a comeback as free and low-cost digital productivity apps. Best of all, they’re designed to help you get more done in less time.
Disclaimer: John Rampton is CEO and co-founder of Calendar
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. John Rampton has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple, short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple, and long January 2021 $85 calls on Microsoft. The Motley Fool recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Apple, and Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.