The flywheel effect is an amazing thing. You know how when you ride a bicycle, the first few pumps of the pedal are always the hardest? Then it gets easier, as your inertia builds up and the energy from your previous hard work combines to let you casually pedal around.
Productivity apps and software can bring the same compounding results. Other tools—often, the writing, programming, and designing apps you rely on for your core work—will always take hard work, creativity, and mental effort. Meanwhile, productivity apps are the extras you use alongside (like extra gears on your bike) to help you type faster, save notes for easy access, work paperlessly, and plan your work projects. The best productivity software works everywhere— on any desktop, laptop, or phone you use—to level up your performance no matter where you work.
Here are 10 of our favourites, tools we’ve relied on for years to work faster and more efficiently.
1. Evernote (Web, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac)
To save anything as a note
Evernote is the notebook app for everything. Write your ideas and format them with rich text, with checklists for quick to-do lists and reminders for more essential notes you need to remember. Drag in files or use the built-in camera tool to scan documents and keep track of tickets, receipts, forms, and more. Then organize everything with notebooks and tags to build a custom productivity system—or rely on its search tool that recognizes text inside images and scans.
Find things online you want to save? The Evernote Web Clipper can clip articles, recipes, and online references to your notebooks. Or use Evernote’s mobile apps’ camera tools to pull data out of business cards, turn paper post-it notes into digital notes, and tag notes with their location to retrace your thoughts and steps.
Evernote Price: Free for core features with 60MB uploads per month; from $7.99/month Premium for 10GB uploads, offline notebooks, text search in PDFs, and business card scanning tools.
2. Google Keep (Web, Chrome, Android, iOS)
To jot ideas down on virtual sticky notes
Do you remind yourself of important tasks and motivational quotes with sticky notes on your desktop monitor? Or maybe you’ve replaced those with Stickies on your Mac, or Windows 10’s Sticky Notes. Google Keep is your next best alternative to keep those notes on all your devices. It’s a sticky note app that works everywhere, with digital copies of the standard sticky note colors.
Add its extension to Chrome, then whenever you come across a website you want to remember—or have an idea you don’t want to forget—you can add it to Google Keep. List tasks and shopping lists with bullet points, or add reminders to the most important things so you don’t forget them. If you want to use the notes in your work, the Google Keep sidebar in Google Docs lets you drag notes into your documents to pull research and ideas together into a finished piece.
Google Keep Price: Free
3. Pocket (Web, Chrome, Android, iOS, Mac)
To save anything online for later
Bookmarks are broken. They started as a way to save your favorite websites—and over time, we favorited so many sites, it got tough to find stuff in our bloated bookmarks menus. It’s almost easier to Google things each time than to search for their bookmark.
So put your essential sites in the favorites menu, or let your browser decide and show the sites you visit most. Then add the rest to Pocket. It’s a to-do list for websites, a place to save the articles you want to read and videos you want to watch. Tap the Pocket button in your browser to file something away. Then when you have time, you’ll always have something to read or watch without searching for a nearly-hidden bookmark.
Pocket Price: Free for core features; $4.99/month for no ads, permanent website archive, advanced search, and suggested tags
4. MindMeister (Web, Android, iOS)
To mind map your ideas
You have ideas, but you can’t quite figure out how to put them all together. MindMeister’s mind maps make that easier. Double-click anywhere on its canvas to add a new idea. List everything in your mind. Get your team to help, adding as many solutions to a problem as they can.
Then group similar ideas together, link related concepts to each other, and before long you’ll have a detailed map that traces everything back to a central thesis. Mind maps are a great way to sketch your ideas and figure things out on paper, and with MindMeister, you can take your ideas anywhere, collaborate on them with your team, and turn your finished ideas into action plans with its companion MeisterTask project tool.
MindMeister Price: Free for 3 mind maps; from $4.99/month Personal plan for unlimited mind maps
5. Google Drive (Web, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac)
To sync files and OCR scanned documents
You need somewhere to store all your files and make sure they’re everywhere you need them. Google Drive is one of the best options especially if you rely on web apps for work. It’s integrated with many of the most popular web apps so you can open diagrams in LucidChart or sign documents in DocuSign directly from Google Drive, for example. And it comes with Google’s own G Suite apps with Docs, Sheets, and Slides to handle your office needs.
The important thing is that it’s great at managing files. Drag-and-drop files between folders, open your most recently viewed files in a click, and search through all of your files and Google Docs documents together. It works great with teams, with shared folders and Team Drives for collaborative files. It can also recognize text in scanned PDF documents and images with its included OCR tool so you can search through their text or edit it in Google Docs.
Google Drive Price: Free for 15GB storage; from $1.99/month for 100GB
6. HelloSign (Web, Android, iOS)
To digitally sign documents
Need to sign a document—or dozens of them? Don’t print them out, pull out a pen, then scan the signed documents. Instead, HelloSign helps you sign every page that needs your signature in a few clicks. Draw your signature on HelloSign’s mobile apps, or type your name and let HelloSign generate a signature if you’d prefer, then click each signature field to add it. You can make template documents in HelloSign, too, so you don’t waste time in Word making new contracts and agreements every time you need someone to sign something.
HelloSign works great with your other web apps, too. It’s integrated with Google Drive so you can send documents to get signed as soon as you make them. Add its Gmail extension to sign documents from your inbox. If you need to fax the signed files, don’t pull out an old fax machine—HelloSign’s companion HelloFax app can fax the signed document free for up to 5 pages a month.
HelloSign Price: Free for 3 signed documents per month; from $15/month Pro plan for unlimited documents and 1 template.
7. Foxit (Web, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux)
To view and edit PDF files
PDF files are the digital equivalent to paper, the most common way to share legal documents, forms, briefs, design drafts, and formatted eBooks. You can open PDFs on most devices, and Chrome includes a PDF viewer for online files. If you need additional features, Foxit’s core apps let you work with PDFs from any device.
You can view or edit PDF files in Foxit Online’s editor, convert existing files to PDF format, or sign PDF forms without downloading Acrobat. If you need to fix something in an existing PDF, you can edit it online or in Foxit’s desktop and mobile apps, with a variety of PDF-powered apps for different business needs. They’re a handy way to do more with PDF files from anywhere.
Foxit Price: Free Foxit Online or Foxit Reader for desktop to read and sign PDFs, or convert Word and Excel files to PDF; from $7.99/month for core online editing features
8. Scanbot (Android, iOS)
To scan and fax documents from your phone or tablet
Scanbot‘s not a universal app. It doesn’t work in your browser, or on a desktop or laptop. But those aren’t best for scanning documents anyhow—your phone’s a far better choice. And there, it’s a great scanning tool.
Open Scanbot, point your camera at a document, and it’ll snap a clean scan even if your phone isn’t perfectly level. You can then save the file to Google Drive for free OCR—or use its in-app purchases to recognize text, annotate the scanned document, and even fax it directly from your phone. It’s a great companion to the other productivity apps that do work great on your computer.
Scanbot Price: Free for core scanning tools; $4.99 in-app purchase for OCR and search; $6.99 in-app purchase for Scanbot Pro with full features including annotation and signatures.
9. Pixlr (Web, Android, iOS)
To edit images
Photoshop’s still king at photo editing on Macs and PCs, but often it’s overkill. Need to crop or brighten a photo? Want to remove a small dot, blur out text, or add annotations to tell a story with the image? Pixlr’s your best call. It’s a suite of photo editing apps for web and mobile.
Pixlr Express is the easiest to use. It come with core adjustment tools to crop, resize, rotate, sharpen, blur, heal, and otherwise fix images—with Instagram-style effects, borders, stickers, and text to make fun graphics from your photos. For professional editing, Pixlr Editor and Pixlr Pro include layers, editing history, Photoshop-style tools, smart healing tools, and other advanced editing options. The Pro version can even import Photoshop and Sketch apps to edit from your browser.
Pixlr Price: Free for core editor and express tools; $5/month Pixlr Pro for advanced templates and editing tools.
10. Lucidchart (Web, Android, iOS)
To make charts and diagrams
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a chart or mockup could be the best way to present your idea. Lucidchart makes that easy with its comprehensive library of templates and standard graphic elements. Need to build a flowchart to make sure you don’t miss anything in a workflow? Drag the item you want from the left sidebar, type in text to customize it, then click the red dot to connect that element to others with arrows.
Want to mock up an app idea? Open a device template for web, mobile, or tablet apps, then drag in pre-made buttons and menus to build a fake app—and duplicate that design to show other parts of the app. Lucidchart can even turn your data into a chart automatically to map your Salesforce relationships or AWS infrastructure, or to build a mockup from your mindmaps.
Lucidchart Price: Free for documents 3 active documents with up to 60 objects; from $11.95/month Pro plan for larger documents, templates, and Visio import.
The most fun apps might be ones built specifically for your device, that integrate Windows Hello or use the MacBook Touchbar or include iPad Pencil support. But the best apps for productivity are often the ones that work everywhere. Whether you’re in the office or on your phone, you’ll know you can get work done with universal apps that work everywhere.