Last fall I started working as a content writer for a tech company that specializes in composable commerce. For the uninitiated, the idea behind composable commerce is that brands can build their own commerce platform by choosing the best commerce components (e.g. POS system, search, product and catalog management, promotions, customer experience, etc.) that suit their unique business needs. The opposite of this would be an all-in-one commerce platform like Shopify, which provides everything for you at the expense of customization, flexibility, scalability, etc.
Coming from a non-technical, non-retail background, I was faced with a steep learning curve — but as I got used to the demands of my new role and started to understand the work we do, I started see gaps and form connections in my own life. Like the clients I was writing content for, I wanted to curate my own suite of apps from which I could develop better workflows and build healthier habits. But before I did that, I needed to become aware of my obstacles and needs.
My organizational skills and ability to focus have been inconsistent at best. Professionally, this might manifest as a feeling of anxiety when looking at a blank screen (an occupational hazard for writers) or going down a labyrinthine rabbit hole when conducting research. How I began reading about customer data platforms and ended up reading about how to make my own kombucha I’ll never know. Personally, this often results in me double-booking myself, forgetting to do things, or impulsively taking up new hobbies. Check out my article on ADHD if you want to know more.
A fragmented writing system
It’s never occurred to me to have all of my notes and writing consolidated in one place. I’ve flip-flopped between analog writing (e.g. bullet journaling) and using different apps. I’m all for using a hybrid method of analog and digital writing depending on one’s mood or needs, but I never established a proper workflow that would help me find/retrieve content, facilitate version control, or understand why I wrote a particular note in the first place. The incomplete “Remember to” in my Apple Notes will forever haunt me. REMEMBER WHAT, ADAM?!
Lack of commitment and structure
I’m notorious for scouring Reddit threads and Medium articles to find the “best calendar” or “best budgeting app”. Granted, I know there’s value in seeking out the opinions of others, but it becomes problematic when that behaviour prevents me from taking action.
The idea of just trying something to see if it works for me and trusting my intuition tends to be followed by the unhealthy thought that I might be missing out on something better. But at the end of the day, who the hell cares if I use Google Chrome or Firefox?
Apps are ultimately tools, and it would be inaccurate to think that an app could ease the symptoms of my ADHD or make me more productive. To that end, it was important for me to first identify my needs, goals, and the behavioural changes I would need to make to help me reach those goals. Only then could I choose apps that would facilitate the new habits I was trying to build and fit my lifestyle.
My reflection helped me build a list of ideal capabilities for productivity and writing apps:
✅ Works well in concert with other apps when it makes sense to do so
✅ Content I create can be stored locally and/or exported to a universal format
✅ Can be swapped for a similar app if my needs/preferences change
✅ Can be used across devices (i.e. cloud capabilities)
✅ Can be used offline
✅ A clean UI
With these capabilities in mind, I tried out a ton of apps to figure out what works best for me now, rather than what’s best on the market. That being said, the list below might change over time.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at my tech stack (iOS/MacOS-compatible). I’ll include some alternatives if you’d like to explore some options for yourself.
Task manager → Apple Reminders
I’m not a task manager aficionado, and I don’t have a need to manage large, complex projects. Also, I’m not a very visual person, so I don’t need features like Kanban boards. With the ability to create lists and tags for work and personal tasks, Reminders is both simple and and powerful enough for my needs. And because it’s an Apple product, it works seamlessly across all of my devices. Apple Reminders also doubles as my grocery list.
◼️ Cost: Free
◼️ Alternatives: Todoist, Actions, Things 3, Habitica, Asana, Hive
Calendar → Calendars
While the branding team might have dropped the ball on naming the product, Calendars offers a lot of capability out of the box. Like task managers, I’m not a calendar power user, but I do want a platform where I can consolidate my tasks and multiple calendars (i.e. work, personal, and joint calendar with my partner), as Google Calendars and Apple Calendar doesn’t do that. Calendars provides integration across all Apple devices and offers features like video call integration and event colour-coding.
◼️️ Cost: Free with options for paid subscriptions ($4.99 CAD/month or $25.49 CAD/year) or one-time purchase ($29.99 CAD)
◼️ Alternatives: Fantastical, Calendar 366, Timepage
Personal knowledge management → Obsidian
Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a dynamic process of collecting and connecting information (everything from random thoughts to research) to facilitate the creation and sharing of new knowledge and ideas — and Obsidian is widely touted as the best software for creating your own PKM. I may write another article on my PKM setup, but the TL;DR is that I do most of my writing in Obsidian, from capturing meeting notes to writing articles for work. Because I’ve connected my files and folders to iCloud, everything is accessible across my Apple devices.
◼️️ Cost: Free with paid options for commercial use and feature add-ons like publishing
◼️ Alternatives: Notion, Bear, iA Writer
Personal journal/diary → Day One
Despite it’s minimal UI, Day One is a surprisingly powerful journaling app. Along with obvious text capture, it gives you the ability to add pictures (you can also sync your Instagram account) and soundclips, so you can record your experiences in whatever way you like. With a calendar view and a map view, you can also see where you’ve been and what you’ve done. A small but useful feature for me is the toolbar icon on MacOS. Clicking that quickly opens up a blank note so that I can record any thoughts or feelings that arise before I convince myself that it’s not worth the effort.
◼️️ Cost: Paid subscription ($5.49 CAD/month or $42.99 CAD/year)
◼️ Alternatives: Bear, Diario, Journey
Quick notes → Drafts
The slogan for Drafts is “Where Text Starts”, and that’s how I use it. Drafts isn’t designed to be used for long-term storage of notes and long-form writing. It’s meant to be a platform where you quickly capture thoughts, ideas, and tasks to then be transferred to another app. Drafts automatically creates a new note each time you open the app, so it’s always ready to record something . If I’m driving or on a walk and I’m struck with a new thought that I don’t want to forget, I’ll dictate to Drafts on my Apple Watch and then export that note to either Reminders or Obsidian.
◼️️ Cost: Paid subscription ($2.49 CAD/month or $24.49 CAD/year)
◼️ Alternatives: Apple Notes
Read-it-later → Instapaper
While this isn’t necessarily a writing app, it’s become an indispensable part of my writing workflow. Like many people, I often come across an article that seems interesting, but I won’t have time to read it in that moment. Or I might be conducting research for an article, and I’ll want to save all possibly useful sources in one place. With a browser plug-in, Instapaper lets me save these articles in the app in a similar way I might add a website to my bookmarks. The difference is that I can highlight sections of the text, add my own comments, and tag/categorize articles.
◼️️ Cost: Free with paid subscription option ($38.63 CAD/year)
◼️ Alternatives: Pocket, Matter
Apart from productivity and writing apps, I’ve also been exploring apps that can bring value to other areas of my life. These are some of the other apps I’m using at the moment, and maybe they can bring value to you, too.
- Budgeting and expense tracking → You Need a Budget (YNAB)
- Managing shared expenses → Splitwise
- Buying/selling crypto (BTC and ETH) → Shakepay
👨🏻💻 Internet and security
🧘🏻♂️ Health and wellness
- Physical/mental health insights and habit tracker → Bearable
- Customizable yoga practice → Down Dog
- Meditation timer → Insight Timer and Headspace
- Trail guides and maps for hiking → All Trails
Are there any apps that you don’t think you could live without? Feel free to share!