Free or Low Cost Productivity Apps You’ll Love
Get more done in less time
Being an entrepreneur from an early age, my high productivity truly grew out of laziness. I hated wasting time on mundane work tasks, especially when I would rather do more fun things. Today we call this a better work/life balance. If you would like to work better, smarter, and faster, here are some of the best free tools to get there.
For many of us, tracked time translates into billable hours. Time tracking apps can help get the job done, but it has to be simple enough so you will actually use it. What I like about Toggl Track is that it takes little effort to start timing a task, it reminds me to take breaks and has a generous free version.
With other tracking apps, you must set up a project and provide details, then go into the project and sub details (like the phase you are working on) to start tracking time. Toggl Track takes less than a minute to set up an account—no credit card required. To start tracking, just give a project a name and start the timer—that’s it. You can look at time entries later in a grid or calendar format, add information or edit the time. It also detects when your computer is idle in case you forget to stop timing.
The free version works across Android, iOS, Windows, macOS and Linux. When using Toggl Track with a web browser like Chrome or Firefox, the timing button will appear to remind you to start timing.
Toggl Track also integrates with Google docs, Google Calendar and many other calendars and apps for free, allowing you to see how you spent your day and week to improve productivity planning.
This year, I am endeavoring to break up the time I spend glued to a computer with short bursts of high intensity exercise. Toggl Track has a Pomodoro Technique setting, where an interval timer reminds the user to take a short break. Toggl Track is my new favorite productivity app for 2022.
A calendar for more than appointments
Most people know Google Calendar lets you set up multiple calendars, schedule meetings and invite participants, even if they don’t use G-mail. You can also monitor who has RSVP’d, connect to meeting apps like Zoom, or even transfer ownership of an event or a whole calendar to another person. Even if you are actively using Google Calendar, it’s good to explore everything else it can do for you.
Did you know Google Calendar has a whole set of keyboard shortcuts available? To access the shortcuts, first enable them in settings. Click the gear in the upper right corner of your calendar, hit Settings, then select “Keyboard shortcuts.” After you turn on keyboard shortcuts, you can see all the shortcuts you can use by typing a question mark.
Google Calendar can create an agenda from your daily appointments and events. To set this up, go to Settings and choose the calendar that you want the agenda to generate from under “Settings for my calendars.” Under the “Other notifications” section change the “Daily agenda” option from “None” to “Email.”
Another cool hack is using the “Find a time” feature when creating an event. After selecting this option, the system will show you the schedules of each participant on a given day, as long as they also use Google Calendar.
However, there is one annoying feature in Google Calendar, but I’ll tell you how to disable it. For each new calendar entry, Google tries to insert a Google Meet link—their version of Zoom. This can be very confusing for invitees when you are not using Google Meet.
To turn this function off if you’re using a gmail.com domain:
- Navigate to your Google Calendar.
- Click on the cog symbol in the top, right and choose Settings.
- Scroll down to Event Settings.
- Uncheck the “Automatically add Google Meet video conferences to events I create” box.
If using G Suites, Google Workspace, or Google Calendar with a custom domain:
- Login to your administrative console at https://admin.google.com/.
- Click Apps > G Suite > Calendar.
- Click Sharing settings.
- Under Video Calls, uncheck Automatically add video calls to events created by a user.
A better To Do list
We all have lists of things we need to do—at work and in the rest of our lives. If the only place you are storing that information is in your mind, you’re likely to forget something important. Writing everything down is not only good for planning, it relieves the anxiety of overlooking something.
We are not talking about project management software here—those have a place for organizing big work projects. An app like ToDoList provides a place to simply and easily jot down life’s daily notes and lists, and categorize them by subject. The free version allows five active projects, 5 Mb file uploads and a one-week activity history. You can also have up to 5 collaborators on a project and can access ToDoList on multiple devices, or upgrade if you need more features.
The free version also integrates with Google Calendar, and you can pick and choose which projects to send to your calendar.
Updated note taking
Maybe it was ok to bring a paper notepad and pen to a meeting when we were gathering face to face. But since pushing the world into the digital realm during Covid, your note taking should evolve too.
I always have the free Windows Notepad app open while I am working and during meetings (TextEdit is essentially the Mac equivalent to Windows Notepad). It’s also great to strip off text formatting when copying something from a webpage. But there is one big downfall to this free and easy app- it doesn’t save hyperlinks or attachments.
For research, and more often now just for regular note taking, I switched to Evernote. This app not only fills the bill for quickly writing things down for use later, it can also store files related to a particular project.
You can organize notes in various ways, including using folders, tags or notebooks. If you are a copious note taker like I am, you’ll love the powerful search feature. You can look up topics from the contents of PDFs or other files attached to your notes. The free version is limited to two devices and doesn’t link to Google Calendar, but that’s what your ToDoList is for.
Making explainer videos using screen recordings
There are numerous reasons why you might want to record your screen. A couple that occur frequently for me are documenting a complicated problem in web development to submit a ticket to tech support. The other is to create quick training videos on how to do something at work. It is a huge timesaver to keep training recordings on file, and not have to repeat the lesson with new contractors or employees.
Loom has a user-friendly interface that works on all major platforms. Don’t like what you recorded? You can edit right in the app and record again. You can insert your face in a “bubble” on recordings making it more personal. The free version limits the recording length to 5 minutes and the number of recordings to 25, but it is a good way to try out the app to see if it will be useful to you. Zappy is a similarly easy tool for Mac users.
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You can also create screen recordings on Windows 10 using built in X-Box tools. Though I’m sure this was intended for gamers, it works just fine for recording and narrating screen activity for other purposes. There is a built-in screen recorder on Mac too. Open QuickTime Player from your Applications folder, then choose File > New Screen Recording from the menu bar, and select your microphone.
Zapier recommends these screen recording apps for other purposes:
- Screencast-O-Matic for mobile screen recording
- Camtasia for advanced video editing
- OBS for advanced recording tools and live streaming
- Movavi Screen Recorder for screen capture when you’re away from your desk
Improved document editing
The spelling and grammar check in MS Word is okay, but it won’t make you a better writer.
I started using ProWritingAid to help me get over a tendency to write in “passive voice.” It is far superior to Grammarly, because it actually helps me evolve and improve. Besides mistakes and style suggestions I can adopt or ignore, advanced analytics show things like overused words or sentences that are too long. I use one of the paid versions, which starts at $20 per month.
I love ProWritingAid so much, I ask contractors that work for me to use it before they submit any final documents on a project. They can check work in 500 word segments with the free web version using a Chrome extension. When collaboratively preparing reports or project summaries, it saves a tremendous amount of time if I don’t have to correct or rewrite someone else’s work.
Productivity apps won’t solve every problem you have at work, but if you have a specific need, there likely is an app that will help.