Five Productivity Apps
Bermuda Triangle of Productivity

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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February 24, 2016

Bermuda Triangle of Productivity

Since I shared some distraction apps a few weeks ago, I thought it would be only fair to also share some apps that I use to help my productivity, minimize distractions, and help me develop good workflows.


Habitica Text Logo

Habitica AvatarHabitica is an online to do list and habit builder–it gamifies the whole thing, so you have a cute little pixelated avatar that you level up and buy gear for and if you don’t do one of your daily tasks or if you do a negative habit, you take damage. You can also join guilds–some are around certain subjects, others are more general groups–and one party. When you’re in a party, you have the opportunity to do quests which give you things like pets and mounts–but also expose you to greater damage. It’s fun and flexible and it’s really helped me build some good habits in my day to day life.

Habitica is free to play, but if you want to give them money for the ability to buy gems, you can. It’s $5 a month and, in my opinion, well worth it.  It’s available in a web browser, on iOS, and Android.




Forest is an app that basically forces you to put down your phone and do something else for a pre-determined period of time, from ten minutes to two hours. Basically, you’re growing trees. If you leave the app for more than about 5 seconds at a time, your tree dies (I know this because once I needed to authenticate a login while Forest was running–that was fun). The longer you set the timer, the more and fancier trees you get.  As you plant trees, you earn coins which let you buy different types of virtual trees–you can also spend the virtual currency on a donation to organizations that plant real trees. That takes a lot of virtual coins, though.

It looks like there are browser extensions as well as iOS and Android apps and I may need to investigate those–social media is a time killer for me sometimes and having a way to cut myself off from it every so often may be a good thing. I like to work in one hour chunks of time–I’ve tried various pomodoro apps but they don’t work as well for me as Forest does.

Forest costs 99-cents in the App Store and I expect the pricing is about the same for other devices. Well worth it.



I use Noisli in conjunction with Forest. I’ve tried a lot of white noise generator apps–I fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly with it–and this is my current favorite for its simplicity and the fact that it’s not just for sleeping (i.e., it doesn’t have all sorts of extra bells and whistles).  You can configure it to play different combinations of sounds at different volumes, I like the rain and thunderstorm sounds with a little wind once in a while.  But there are a lot of different sounds and you can combine them as needed–and there’s a time function as well.

If you create a login, you can save your combinations for use across devices, but it’s not required.  I also like that I can use this in my browser as well as with my phone–that means if I forget to turn it on before I turn on Forest, I’m not completely hosed for background noise. This is, distressingly, entirely too common in my life.

Noisli is free to use on the web, however, the phone app runs $1.99 in the App Store.



I’ve been using Trello to manage my workflow for this site–one of the things I’ve done this year is set up an editorial calendar, and by using the calendar function in Trello (located in the “power ups” section), I can easily add post ideas to an evergreen list as well as queue up and prioritize and schedule those posts.  I’m still feeling my way around the workflow and trying to make ways for it to be more sustainable and not too overly complicated.  I’m one of those people who likes to build systems and structures and I have a tendency to want to over-complicate things at times.

Trello is free to use, both on the web and as a phone app. There is a paid version, but I’m not sure what the pricing is and if it’s feasible for someone not part of an organization with an organizational budget.



Slack is basically a fancy IRC channel. It’s great for group conversations and coordinating shenanigans. If you have more than one person working on a project, it’s fantastic. It’s free to use, but as it’s intended for use by organizations with budgets, there is a paid version that allows for extra functionality the more you’re willing to pay. For my purposes, the free versions are ideal.

They have phone apps as well as desktop and web applications.

Analog Productivity

Bullet Journal

I have been keeping. up with my bullet journal and it’s really working out well for me. I’m getting work tasks done and I’ve been quite productive in other areas of my life as well.  It’s been interesting to see how my usage has evolved, but more on that in a few weeks. I’m planning a post on how I use my bullet journal to manage my day job as well as my other work. Most of the bullet journal blog posts I see are by people who appear to be self-employed, so I thought it would be useful for me to break down how I manage work stuff in it without being too precious about the stickers and washi tape and all that jazz. Not that I eschew those things, but it’s definitely a working tool and not a scrapbook for me.

Something else that helps my productivity is doing my best to stick to a schedule: I get up between 5:30 and 6 am on work mornings and I don’t leave for work until 7:15 or so–this gives me time to wake up, have breakfast, and do some of my daily rituals. It’s a nice way to start the day. I’m less disciplined about my evenings and that’s something I’m working on.  However, I don’t want to be one of those people with no flexibility in their days ever, so I try not to hold too tightly to my schedule–that also leads to loss of productivity.

The final thing I do is pick one day each month to take a break from the internet. I only allow myself Netflix, all other connectivity is prohibited. This really helps me to reset and make good progress on projects that don’t involve being online.

That’s about it for me: how about you? I’m always messing around with my routines and structures. I know there are apps out there that will allow you to block yourself from certain websites or the entire internet for periods of time, but I don’t feel the need to use those, at least not yet.

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  1. Sunita

    I don’t use apps much anymore, so the only app I can think of (and I use a web version) is a Pomodoro timer. I use it when I’m working on stuff I don’t like to do; I use the standard 25m setting or a shorter time, e.g. I’ll schedule 15m worth of email cleanup.

    My main productivity tools are my daily To Do list, my Weekly Review/Week to Come, and time logging. I log the time spent on work, goals, social stuff (not social media but social interactions), and Too Much Internet. I also do morning pages for a brain dump, and I’ve gone back to for free writing related to my academic writing.

    I agree that having a routine is helpful. In the past I often found a routine constraining, but I’ve developed one that works for me and it usually makes me feel like I have more time, not less.

  2. Jan

    I still haven’t recovered from the article on distraction apps and I now play 2 Dots while listening to the news. I just listened to the Noisli app. The one on thunderstorms brought tears. I so miss thunderstorms. Need to get that one. Never written before, but want to say I love your site. Thank you.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Thanks for reading, Jan! Sorry about the Two Dots thing… 🙂 We’re having a thunderstorm right now on the East Coast and it’s seriously weird: it’s February! Why is there lightning?

  3. Anya

    I freaking love Slack. My PhD lab started using it about six months ago and since I live 2 hours from campus, it is my version of walking over to whoever is around to ask a question. It has helped our group projects so much and makes working with people all over the country easy. I need to look into bullet journals still, don’t understand them ;). Thanks for recommending Forest! Looks like it’s 1.99 for iOS, but it sounds perfect for me ha.


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