Two free apps take productivity to the next level

The greatest productivity tool ever invented was a cup of coffee (or four cups, as in the picture here, which is what I got in Istanbul when I ordered "a cappuccino with three shots of expresso.")

Beyond coffee we rely upon some kind of software for optimizing output. But which software? 

I've wasted many dollars over the years after getting inspired by some app or application idea, jumping in with all fours, buying a subscription or paying the app fee, only to later wander away from the tool because it wasn't quite right. 

Too many productivity tools lock you in, and get in your way with too many features or too much interface navigation. 

The thing you rarely hear about productivity tools is that they really do need to "feel" right. "Feel," in fact, is everything. And many of them don't "feel" right. 

My favorite example is Evernote. Theoretically, the service is ideal. You can store anything, search for it later and do all kinds of powerful things. Sadly, there's something about Evernote that bugs me. I can't put my finger on what, exactly — the interface design, colors or something — but it's this irritation that prevents me from using it. 

I install all kinds of tools, try them, use them and usually end up not using them for any number of reasons. 

However, I've recently discovered two free tools that I won't be wandering away from. I love them. They're close to perfect for what I need. They work. They're minimal. They stay out of the way. And most importantly, they're not "smart" (there's no half-baked A.I. wrenching control out of my hands). (Sadly, they're both available only for Apple users. Sorry, Android and Windows fans.)

OK, here they are: 

Effortless

Effortless is a free MacOS app that holds your to do list, and automatically adds a timer function. 

The timer is activated when your to-do item has a number at the end. As in: 

"Get to zero inbox 30"

That means the task is "Get to zero inbox" and the allotted time is 30 minutes. 

If that's the top item on the list, the timer starts instantly and automatically, with the full task appearing on your menu bar. That item also functions as a drop-down menu, where you can "add 5 minutes," pause the task or declare that it's completed. (When complete, the next item on the list begins its own timer.) 

All Effortless functions are launchable with keystrokes. 

When a timer runs out, the task blinks between the task information and a row of dashes, plus a non-annoying and brief alarm sound. The blinking gets your attention. 

I like this way more than Pomodoro type timer apps, which tend to dictate how long your tasks are allowed to be, and also don't show you the whole task or get your attention well enough when the task is done. 

A countdown timer drives you to work faster and stick to your schedule. It also educates you about how much actual time various tasks takes. For example, I allotted 30 minutes to the writing of this post, and it took me an hour. I'll be more realistic next time. 

Effortless is a winner. 

Noto

Noto is a free iPhone app that makes it simple to email yourself. (Additional features cost $1.99)

I embrace aspects of the "Getting Things Done" system, premier among them is the practice of one single collection point for all incoming tasks. I use email for that collection poing. 

So when I'm out and about, and think of something I want to remember to do, I send myself an email. 

Sometimes I want to send my wife a reminder, too — or she's got her hands full and asks me to send her a reminder of something. 

Noto has this covered. 

The unique feature of Noto is the Tinder-like action of swiping. By swiping across the writing surface, you send your note to the email address you add to its settings. 

Swiping left or right can, if you choose, send to two different email addresses. For me, swiping right goes to me and swiping left goes to my wife. (You can add additional addresses by using force-touch gestures.) 

A button on the writing surface lets you take a picture or choose a picture from your photos. This is super helpful as well. For example, lets say I see a poster for a beer festival I'd like to consider going to. By taping on Noto, taping the picture button, snapping a pic then swiping right, I get not only the reminder about the festival in my email inbox, but all the information, too — dates, location, URL, etc. 

My only criticism or request for Noto is that it needs to do a better job dealing with voice notes. Right now, they leave it to the built-in functionality of the keyboard, which is a tiny button and which often requires a second try. I'd like to see a dedicated voice button, because this is a faster way to capture. The email should include both a transcription and a link to the audio. I'd happily pay more for that feature. 

In any event, Noto is awesome and has become the best way I've found for the all-important tasks of sending email to myself.