19 Productivity Tools I Use for Maintaining Sanity in a Tech Startup

I have a bit of an obsession with productivity and using tools to make myself more productive. I can’t really put my finger on when this all started, but if I had to guess…it was probably when I was a freshman in college, back in 2004.

I feel like I’ve read and practiced almost every time management and productivity method out there at some point.

I also think I’ve used just about every single task manager out there as well. I’ve tried Things, 2Do, ToDoist, Twoodo, Omnifocus, Wunderlist, Any.Do, Trello, WorkFlowy, good ol’ pen and paper, Apple Reminders/Notes, Evernote, Remember the Milk, and I’m probably leaving some out. I feel like my computer has become a littered battleground of productivity tools and apps that didn’t quite make the cut.

The tools I use are constantly evolving and changing. Every few weeks I try adding one more tool. I’ll try and make that tool work, and if it makes my life easier then I’ll keep using it. If I later find that it’s not quite what I want or something better comes along I have no reservations ditching the tool.

Some of the tools in this list I’ve been using for almost a decade, and others for only a few weeks. But these are the tools that I currently use.

I’ll be describing each tool and how I use it in general. Then there’s a Growth section that shows how I specifically use this tool for my job at Tutum when it applies.

I also plan on writing an article on the tools I use specifically for analytics and growth, the tools we use in Tutum to ensure it runs smoothly, for reading/writing, tackling my inbox, and the resources I use to create the overlying framework to pull all of these tools together.

So let’s get into it!

1. Firefox vertical tabs

This has been one of my favorite things in the past two weeks. I use Chrome almost exclusively because of the wide range of extensions available to them, and I’d jump back to Chrome in an instant if they had this feature. I’ve tried all of the current vertical tab or tab managing solutions and they don’t offer a solution as simple and elegant as this one for Firefox.

Using the advice of the this blog post (you can also download it and install the add-on from here) http://www.darrinhenein.com/prototyping-side-tabs/ from the creator of the vertical tabs, I’ve found it to be a great remedy for having a million tabs open and not being able to see what the tab is about. Consequently, I tend to keep open less tabs now. At its most basic, I like to put the pages that are a “constant” at the top of the hierarchy, and then I like to group my tabs by context.

Firefox Vertical Tabs

GrowthVertical tabs makes it easy to group my email stuff together, my analytics tools together, tabs for later reading, tabs for sharing through social media, and non-work related tabs. I also have a rule where I keep a window with only work related tabs open. It cuts out a lot of the usual Internet distractions.

Get it here: http://www.darrinhenein.com/prototyping-side-tabs/

Price: Free

2. Skitch

This is a pretty simple tool that doesn’t take too much explanation. It helps when I need to quickly convey instruction or my opinion on something or to give feedback.

Skitch also automatically saves your marked up documents on Evernote. I think this is handy when you have Evernote Premium and have the storage space for it. However, I’d recommend turning off this feature if you only have regular Evernote because it will fill your storage allotment really quickly.

Skitch

Growth: A bunch of us pitch in with ideas and fixes for the UI/UX of the Tutum app, and this is most easily done for me via GitHub and screenshots marked up with Skitch.

Get it here: http://evernote.com/skitch/

Price: Free

3. Evernote

I find Evernote to be amazing for storing reference materials, notes, and just miscellaneous info and reminders that aren’t actionable. If it’s actionable then it belongs in a GTD (getting things done) app like Omnifocus. Omnifocus and Evernote go perfectly together. If you’re familiar with GTD methodology by David Allen, it helps to have an easy way to store all of your articles, receipts, notes, screenshots that you’ll need to reference later when you start a particular task.

The simplest way to do this is using Copy Note Link and pasting that into your Task Note. It would look something like this:

Evernote 1

Now your tasks are complete with all of the information you need to complete them. One caveat here, it can be annoying if every time you click on a note link it opens up Evernote in your web browser when you have the desktop app open. So if you know you’re not going to be sharing this note with anyone else and are using these notes internally you can change this behavior so note links open on your desktop app like it used to:

  1. Right click on the Evernote note you want to link to.
  2. Hold down Option on a Mac or Ctrl on a Windows machine.
  3. You’ll see “Copy Note Link” change to “Copy Classic Note Link.”
  4. Click on that and now when you paste that link, it’ll redirect to your desktop Evernote app.

Organization is key with using Evernote. Since you can end up creating so many notes throughout the day, you need to have a way to look them up quickly. I use a similar setup as GTD methodology and have a notebook called “!Collection Box”

I have the exclamation point in there so it remains at the beginning whenever I see my notebooks alphabetically. I also set this to be the default notebook where all of my notes go. Later I’ll go through this Collection Box and file away all of the notes in their respective notebooks.

Their iPhone app is pretty good, and with Premium you’re able to have all of your notes available to you while offline.

Evernote 2

Growth: Another helpful feature that’s only available in Premium, is having a shared notebook. This helps building a collaborative reference binder. If the two of you are working on putting together a new advertising campaign on Facebook, it might be helpful to have a shared notebook where everyone can put screenshots of good examples they come across in one place.

You can also use this to quickly present ideas in a nice looking format. When we have a group meetings with Tutum you can easily share your screen with the rest of the group, throw up Evernote and go into presentation mode.

It’s also really valuable for building up your own database to call upon later on. I have a note that where I save screenshots of all of the great Google Adwords ads, Twitter ads, Facebook Ads, Display ads, and even landing pages I come across. This way you can always visit this notebook for a little inspiration.

I also keep a notebook of all of the A/B tests I run with my hypothesis, the related analytics, results, and my conclusion.

Another big help when you’re striving for product/market fit is keeping close track of all of your customers feedback. I try and capture every correspondence with every customer and categorize it as positive/neutral/negative. This also makes the exact wording of our customers immediately available to me, which is really helpful for creating copy.

Get it here: http://www.evernote.com

Price: Free, Premium: $5/mo or $45 per year

4. Omnifocus

Omnifocus is the ultimate GTD app. After trying most every app out there, I’ve settled on Omnifocus. If you need a robust task manager, use GTD, and have mostly mac devices it’s the best option out there.

Once you get things set up it’s amazing, but it doesn’t come ready out of the box (unless you just need something very basic). There are great tutorials and articles out there that help you get setup in Omnifocus: http://computers.tutsplus.com/tutorials/the-ultimate-guide-to-omnifocus-2–cms-20913 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWyjNTb8gMo&list=UUGJ9wYLCECkKL6oTemT_tsQ.

Growth: Here’s how I set up my projects specifically for my job at Tutum:

Omnifocus

I’ve borrowed from GTD methodology some, but I’ve also decided it was easier for me to keep track of various projects by grouping them into folders named after the pirate metrics, AARRR. So I have a folder for acquisition, activation, retention, referral, and revenue with the correlating projects going into each.

This helps me stay organized since there seems to be about a million things you can be doing at any moment. It’s also great that there is an iOS and iPad app as well, so you can have your tasks updated wherever you are.

Get it here: https://www.omnigroup.com/omnifocus/

Price: Free 14 day trial, $39.99 for basic $79.99 for Pro and $19.99 for the iOS app.

5. Momentum

This is my second favorite extension for browsers. My first being the vertical tabs, which is why I miss this since switching to Firefox. Even with a robust task manager like Omnifocus, I prefer to have two to three major goals/projects/tasks I want to accomplish for the day listed in Momentum.

I like it because it keeps me from getting sucked into the small tasks like email and lets me get some altitude for my day. It’s also a good reminder system since I open new tabs so often. A nice nudge to get you back on track of your main goals.

Oh yeah, it’s also beautiful. I feel better just looking at their daily photos.

Momentum

Growth: I’ve also made a little divider called “completed,” and when I finish tasks instead of clicking their check box, I move them under the completed line.

At Tutum we have daily 10am meetings where we share what we accomplished the previous day and what we’ll be working on today. It’s nice to have a quick overview of the big things I worked on instead of looking through a list of small tasks. After the meeting I’ll check off the completed items so they dissappear.

Get it here: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/momentum/laookkfknpbbblfpciffpaejjkokdgca

Price: Free

6. Pomodoro

I think if you just had to use one productivity tool out of all of them, this is the simplest and most effective. The execution of the pomodoro technique only takes three steps.

  1. Start a timer to go off in 25 minutes. Do just one task/project. You’re not allowed any distractions.
  2. After the timer is up, take a 5 minute break doing whatever you want. Distractions are the name of the game.
  3. After your fourth pomodoro take a longer 15 minute break. Repeat from step 1.

I find it both easier to get started, and more productive than telling myself I’m just going to hunker down and go at something for 2 hours straight.

I’ve tried a bunch of different versions of this app, and I like this one specifically because it’s very barebones and lives in the system menu bar. It means it’s out of the way, yet always visible and ready.

Pomodoro

Growth: When I really absolutely must get something done and when there’s a deadline involved, I always use pomodoros. It’s much easier for my mind to stay focused for a set 25 minute period when I’ve deliberately set 5 minutes aside afterward. I can check texts, random websites, or non-work related email without feeling guilty.

Get it here: http://mac.softpedia.com/get/Business/Pomodoro.shtml

Price: Free

7. Dropbox

I’m sure most of you already have Dropbox and use it regularly. I use it quite a bit and use it mostly to share things with myself, friends, family, and with Tutum.

Dropbox

Growth: One feature of Dropbox that I use regularly that is super helpful for me is automatically saving screenshots to Dropbox. This is a nice and easy way to share the screenshots I take. This also means I can access the latest screenshot through the Dropbox system menu bar instead of digging through the finder.

We also have a Tutum shared dropbox folder between everyone on the team. This holds mostly business type documentation and often shared graphics like logos.

Get it here: http://www.dropbox.com

Price: Free for 2GB+ space, Pro: $9.99/mo for 100GB+ space.

8. Infinit

Infinit is quickly replacing a lot of the funcitonality I was using Dropbox for. It’s quick, easy, and enjoyable to use. You can send files of unlimited size and it’s around 3x faster than Dropbox transfers. Not to mention they were a fellow Techstars startup in our NYC class.

Screenshot 2014-07-22 12.47.48

Growth: When it comes to sharing and sending files, I use this almost exclusively. We use it internally at Tutum to share files between us. The drag and drop ease of it plus the confirmation recipient makes it a no brainer.

Get it here: http://www.infinit.io

Price: Free

9. Google Drive

I find Google Drive to be okay. I don’t particularly like using web applications, and much prefer to use desktop ones. I end up using this mostly to save files when other people share google documents with me.

Get it here: drive.google.com

Price: Free

10. Sunrise

I think Sunrise is a pretty decent calendar app. It has a very clean looking interface and is pretty easy to use. I mostly use it because I refuse to use iCal. It’s also available for your iPhone and on the web.

I don’t use Sunrise to input calendar events, instead just using it to edit current calendar events and to review what I have coming up. For making appointments I typically use Fantastical.

Sunrise

Get it here: https://calendar.sunrise.am/

Price: Free

11. Fantastical

I looooove this app. A few of the other members of Tutum installed it after they saw me using it. I love useful apps that are constrained to the system menu bar. It makes them extremely accessible, yet unobstrusive and doesn’t take up any screen real estate.

Fantastical allows you to write in plain english all of your appointments. You can say, “Meeting with John from XCompany next Thursday from 4pm to 4:30pm at 1407 Broadway, New York” and it looks like this:

Fantastical

It also syncs with your other calendars. Best calendar app out there.

Get it here: http://flexibits.com/fantastical

Price: Free for 14 days, $9.99 for full version.

12. Flycut

This simply extends your clipboard to 40 items. So if you need to copy and paste a lot of information over, instead of going back and forth between two documents over again, you can just do a mass copy and then paste the pieces where they need to go.

I find myself using this rather rarely. But I like having it around, because when I need it, it does come in handy. I’m sure there are more capable versions of this, but as I said earlier, I like simple apps that live in the system menu bar.

It becomes even more useful when you use its shortcut. Shift + Command + V opens up a bezel of your last 40 copies. From there as long as you hold on to the Shift or Command key, the bezel will stay up and you can use the arrow keys to find the exact snippet you want to paste then let go of the Shift/Command keys.

FlyCut

Growth: I use this when I want to save a lot of links or blocks of text in a row and transfer them over to another application. I find myself doing this a lot when creating our newsletter for example.

Get it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/flycut-clipboard-manager/id442160987?mt=12

Price: Free

13. Awesome Screenshot

This is a browser extension that’s really helpful. Have you ever wanted to take a screenshot of an entire Landing Page, but you had to scroll to see the rest of it? Instead of piecing together three or four different screenshots of the same page while you scroll, Awesome Screenshot lets you capture the page in its entireity in one long image, which is awesome…as its name suggests.

Awesome Screenshot

Growth: I use this for saving entire pages of web pages I like, such as their landing page. It’s also useful for saving Tutum’s pages that I’m A/B testing, with a before/after comparison screenshot.

Get it here: http://awesomescreenshot.com/

Price: Free

14. f.lux

This app lives in the system menu bar and will automatically toggle on and off throughout the day. It changes the color of your screen to match the sunrise/sunset. It makes your display warm at night and like sunlight during the day. If you find your computer screen to be a little bright or harsh when you’re on it in the evening, you might enjoy trying out f.lux.

Flux

Get it here: https://justgetflux.com/

Price: Free

15. Caffeine

This app has been on every one of my computers for the past 8 years. Every time I wipe my computer or get a new one, this is one of the first applications that I install. I’ve also installed it for my entire family, and a bunch of friends.

It’s just a little espresso cup that lives in the system menu bar. It’s extremely simple, it’s either toggled on or off. When it’s on the cup fills with coffee and your computer/display doesn’t go to sleep.

I find this most useful when I’m on battery but don’t care about saving battery life and don’t want to have to go through system preferences and change all of my display/computer sleep settings. Instead, I just click on the little coffee cup. It’s also really useful when I’m reading on my computer or watching videos and I don’t want the display to sleep.

Caffeine

Get it here: http://lightheadsw.com/caffeine/

Price: Free

16. Moom

This app has become indispensable for me. I’ve always been frustrated by Mac OS and their green bubble. It’s almost always useless, and the behavior always seems to change. Moom makes it super easy to make any window full screen using the green bubble. You can also make the window take up the top/bottom half of the screen or left/right half of your display. And even divide your screen into quarters and make the window snap to any location you want, on either display.

Moom

Get it here: http://manytricks.com/moom/

Price: Free trial of 100 uses, then $10.

17. Alfred

To be honest I haven’t tried this one out much yet. It’s one of the new apps I’m using on a trial basis, and I’ll decide whether to keep it in a couple of weeks. All I know is that the plain vanilla Mac search using Spotlight is pretty awful.

It’s gotten a ton of rave reviews, so I’m hopeful it’ll take place of spotlight.

Alfred

Get it here: http://www.alfredapp.com/

Price: Free

18. Bartender

So far I’m sure you’ve noticed the huge number of apps I like to keep running in my system menu bar. The only way I could have all of these at the same time and still be able to find and use them properly is with Bartender.

Bartender lets you customize where every icon sits in your system menu bar, and also lets you hide any number of them nested in the Bartender (…) icon.

You can see what my menu bar ends up looking like with all of these apps:

Bartender

Get it here: http://www.macbartender.com/

Price: Free for 4 weeks, then $15.

19. Headspace

This is a newer app/website/service that I’ve been using for close to a month. One of the best productivity hacks out there is meditating. Headspace combines calming and insight meditation, which are extremely useful for developing your ability to remain calm and focused. I’ve been meditating off and on for about 5 years and I’ve found that it really requires a commitment to build the habit.

A frequent loop I’ll find myself in is meditating for 20 minutes every day for a week or two, and then I’ll feel so good and unstoppable that I think, “Wow, why did I ever need meditation? I feel amazing without it.” Then a week will pass and I’ll find myself slightly more agitated, more impatient, and less focused. However, I will say that extended periods of meditation will shift your baseline.

In a very simplified example, say your focus and calm are at 30 out of 100 before meditating. They might go up to 70 after meditating for four weeks, and it may drop back to 40 when you stop.

Headspace is a pretty simple app that isn’t without its little bugs here and there, and they only offer ten 10 minute sessions on their free version. But they have a pretty enormous library of over 600 hours of guided and silent meditation that starts with foundational courses, and moves into specific courses for health, relationships, performance, etc.

I wasn’t a fan of guided meditation at first, but I think Andy, the creator of Headspace does a great job of chiming in and providing enough direction to help without being distracting. As you move through their program they progressively introduce more and more silence. Also having something that keeps track of each of my sessions is really helpful and makes me want to keep my streak alive.

Since I’ve started, I’ve meditated every day for 21 days now. I also just bought a 1 year subscription to get a little leverage on myself to keep up the habit without stopping.

Here’s a list of successful people who meditate regularly: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/05/business-meditation-executives-meditate_n_3528731.html

Of note, they left out: Steve Jobs and Phil Jackson. I read both of their biographies and it was interesting to see how meditation played a role in their lives. I found it to be a pretty interesting story that Phil Jackson had the Chicago Bulls with Jordan meditate before games together. Another notable is Sam Harris who talks a lot about insight meditation.

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p style=”text-align:center;”>Headspace

Growth: My job becomes much easier and less stressful when I have a calm and clear-thinking mind. It’s also easier to write, to be creative, to have self-discipline, and giving you the thick skin to handle any negative impression of your business (even if they’re misinterpreting it) and respond compassionately.

I’ve found our greatest advocates come from those that are the most skeptical. If you can convince those people of the value you bring, you can convince the ones that are on the fence.

Get it here: http://www.headspace.com

Price: Free for the first 10 sessions. $12.95/mo or $95.88/year.

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Posted in General, Growth, Productivity, Startup
17 comments on “19 Productivity Tools I Use for Maintaining Sanity in a Tech Startup
  1. And what about password managers, do you use some? I found password manager very helpful and it’s saving my time because it automatically fills forms with login and password, creates passwords for me etc. and I don’t have to remember all passwords for each site and focus only on important things. Currently I am using Sticky password manager (http://www.stickypassword.com/) and it has free mobile version.

  2. Bryan Lee says:

    Cool, I’ll check it out. I currently have 1Password, but I have so many different devices and computers that I use that I can’t put 1Password on all of them. So if I used it to create really strong passwords, and I’m using a device without 1Password, I don’t like the idea of having to look up my passwords each time I use it.

    Although I know this isn’t the best solution security wise. I’ll give it a try and see how it works out. Thanks!

  3. kaaist5 says:

    Nice round up of productivity apps! I really like Momentum Dashboard and Headspace. Meditation does wonders for improving productivity and helping me get into a flow state when I’m working.

    • Bryan Lee says:

      Thanks for the comment kaaist! Those are definitely one of my two favorites that I use every day.

      Meditation can seem daunting for someone who has never tried, but I agree that it helps you slip into that flow state much much easier.

      Are there any specific resources you use towards meditation?

  4. Great article, I got a couple of new app ideas from here.

    For those of you that aren’t on a Mac, you may want to check out http://GTDNext.com – We are working hard to make this the best GTD app around, regardless of platform. Picture an outliner (like workflowy) but with built in task management features like repeating tasks, due dates, next actions and focus lists.

  5. […] you read my previous post about the 19 Productivity Tools I Use for Maintaining Sanity in a Tech Startup I mentioned I work in a series of pomodoros. That’s working for 25 minutes on a single task and […]

  6. Martin says:

    Looks like you’re sunning way too much stuff, looks like a lot of overlap and redundancy.

    • Bryan Lee says:

      I really enjoy having an exceptional tool for the exact job, instead of having a few general tools that do multiple functions “pretty well”

      Especially with so many of these services cross-updating with one another, I think you can get away with using multiple calendar programs depending on your device/context and all of your actions will sync up with one another so it will be seamless.

      I would also recommend only implementing maybe one or two tools and seeing how they work for you, as adopting all 19 at the same time may take your productivity to a screeching halt.

  7. mills_jeremiah says:

    Quick question, how did you change the color of the vertical tabs?

    • Bryan Lee says:

      Hey, those are actually the default colors of the vertical tabs. I haven’t changed any of the settings. But in the preferences you can choose whether it shows up on the right or left hand side of your browser.

  8. […] smarter is certainly better than working harder. I previously talked about the 19 Productivity Tools I Use for Maintaining Sanity in a Tech Startup, and some of these can help with the efficiency piece of the […]

  9. George Cook says:

    Great list of tools. But when it comes to productivity, you cannot ignore Proofhub. Offers simplicity, ease and effective management. It boosts productivity with its amazing features like time tracking, to-do’s, gantt chart, proofing, group chat, reports and more. Try it at http://www.proofhub.com

  10. Alberto says:

    This great list. Thank you for publishing. I will check out Pomodoro, but don’t you feel more stressful using it? Does it really work? I use now http://kanbantool.com that offers time tracking, so I track my time and look for the best ways to improve.

  11. Have you considered adding pozzr.com to the list?

  12. mwaas says:

    what do you use for project tracking

    • Bryan Lee says:

      Hi mwaas,

      I use Omnifocus for my own personal projects. When I have to work with others, in our company we use both Trello and Atlassian’s tools Jira and Confluence.

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