When I need to have a very productive day, I tell myself it's going to be easy.
I'll just wake up early, grab a big cup of coffee, and then begin powering through my to-do list. Maybe I'll break for a meal, or a stretch, or a quick conversation with a coworker. But I'll truck on, energy unwavering until bedtime, where I'll promptly fall asleep for eight, wonderful, uninterrupted hours of sleep.
Cool fantasy, self. Real life rarely (if ever) is that picture-perfect. Our bodies aren't designed to operate at a constant 100% efficiency level.
So if you want to be more productive throughout the day, you're better off relegating certain activities to certain times, and devoting yourself to doing those activities at those times.
And to make sure you get the right things done at the right times of day, you can lean on a plethora of different free or relatively cheap apps and tools. (After all, some things are better together.)
Below, I've collected some of the highest-rated and often-recommended productivity apps for each part of the day. Check 'em out, and find your "and."
12 Tools That'll Keep You Productive Morning, Noon & Night
Price: Free, with subscriptions available on iPhone, Android, Web
Starting your day off with a quick meditation session can be a great way to gear up for the day -- even scientists say so. According to a 2012 study, people who mediated "stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative feedback after task performance."
Sold ... but not sure how to get started? I'd highly recommend downloading Headspace. It gives you 10 free guided meditation sessions, and if you end up getting hooked, you can sign up for a monthly subscription.
Price: Prompts is $2.99 on iPhone; Writing Challenge is $1.89 on Android
You may have heard about the benefits of writing something -- anything -- in the morning. But actually making morning freewriting a reality can be a challenge. How do you actually find something to write about when you've barely had time to make your coffee?
Why, by downloading a writing prompts app, of course. Prompts and Writing Challenge are both great options. They give you a jumping-off point for a piece, and then let you dive right into writing. Prompts is especially cool for folks who like to track their habits to stay motivated because it offers some basic analytics for you to analyze your writing habit progress.
Price: Free, with premium subscriptions available on iPhone, Android, Web
You don't have to actually write your to-do lists in the morning, but you should definitely take a look at them before you dive into your work. And if your to-do list is cluttered and confusing, you'll end up losing precious time to reorganizing and reprioritizing it.
To prevent that from happening, I'd highly suggest a tool like Todoist. My teammate Lindsay Kolowich recently introduced me to it, and it's completely transformed the way I keep track of what I need to accomplish. It allows you to add deadlines and labels to each list item, and then automatically sorts your whole to-do list by what you have to accomplish that day. This helps you keep you on top of what you need to accomplish in a given day, and prevents you from getting sidetracked by down-the-road projects.
Price: Free, with premium subscriptions available on iPhone, Android, Web
After you set your own to-do list, chances are, you'll need to check in with your teammates about what's on their plate for the day. One super easy way to do this -- especially when you have a remote team -- is by using an app called Jell.
Instead of calling a 30-minute meeting to debrief on what everyone's doing, you simply fill out a form in Jell and it gets sent to the rest of your team. (If you're using Slack, it has a handy integration to have these messages posted in there, too.)
Price: $10/month on iPhone and Web; Android coming soon
Fast-forward a few hours, and chances are, you'll have a block of meetings on your plate. (That is, after all, the best time of day to have them.) But if you're going to take time out of your day for meetings, they'd better be productive. There's nothing worse than wasting a bunch of people's time on something that could be handled over email.
Yep, a tool can help you with that too. Do can help you keep yours more organized and actionable -- that way, no one's wasting time sitting in unnecessary meetings. If you're looking for a free option, Solid (available on Web only) is a great choice.
Price: Free, with premium subscriptions available on Web
When your attention starts to wane, it can be hard to get things done. For many people, that tends to happen in the afternoon.
Turns out, this can be a good thing: When you're less focused, you have more room to be creative. So the afternoon is a great time for brainstorming, collaboration, and breaking through cognitive barriers.
If you and your team are feeling particularly creative one afternoon, a great tool to consider using is Stormboard. It allows everyone to easily brainstorm and collaborate -- even if they aren't in the same room. Then, you can prioritize the best ideas to be put in action at a later date.
But what if you're not focused or feeling creative? You've got to get work done, but you're feeling ... stuck.
Unstuck can help. It's an app that acts like an in-the-moment personal coach. It'll ask you a series of questions to unearth what exactly is blocking you, and then give you steps to get through that block. Having this "outside" perspective can be a game-changer to breaking through some seriously inhibiting time-sucks.
Price: Quartz is free on iPhone; Inside is free on iPhone, Android, Web
When you've been in the weeds all day getting important projects done, it can be tempting to take some time to catch up on what you missed in the news.
The trouble is, those reading breaks can sometimes get unruly. That 15 minutes you thought would be enough turns into 45 minutes of reading, and you're suddenly late for your train home.
To feel in-the-know about the day without breaking your productivity streak, try catching up via your favorite news summary app. Mine is from Quartz: It's a chat-themed news summary app that's quickly become a staple of my phone's home screen. A few quick clicks, and I'm on my way to catching a ride home.
Everyone has their favorite time of day to work out, but science says that your lung function peaks around 5 p.m. So if you want to squeeze in a quick workout sometime in your day, right before dinner might be the trick.
If you don't have a regular routine or are just trying to do something fast, I'd recommend checking out J&J's 7 Minute Workout app. You can pick from their programs or design one of your own, and all can be done in less than 30 minutes.
Price: Podcasts is free on iPhone; Stitcher is free on iPhone, Android, Web
Chances are, you'll have spent most of your day looking at things. Reading on the computer. Watching slides on the projector. Scanning news on your phone. So when you leave work, you should strengthen one of your other senses, such as your listening comprehension. It's an underdeveloped skill -- especially in adults -- but it can have huge a huge on our professional and personal lives.
If you want to strengthen your listening skills, try playing a few podcast episodes on your phone on your commute home. If you have an iPhone, you have a Podcasts app already built in. Otherwise, you can access them through Stitcher.
If you don't love the idea of actually penning your ideas and experiences to paper, you can use Grid Diary or Journey. Both allow you to not only capture written recaps of your day, but also add photos to your entries. Plus, they both have built-in prompts -- so even on the most hectic of days, you can distill some insights for your future self.
Price: $4.99 on iPhone; Free with in-app purchases on Android
Finally. You've made it through the day and kept yourself productive all the way through. You take a moment to celebrate ... but then realize that tomorrow's to-do list is already jam-packed. You need a good night's sleep, and you need it now.
Sleep Genius might be the cure. The app has built-in relaxation techniques and gentle alarms to wake you up at a natural moment in your sleep cycle, helping make sure you feel rested come morning.
After all, if you're feeling sluggish the next day, even the best apps might not be effective. (But that cup of coffee might do the trick.)
What are your favorite productivity tools for different times of day? Share with us in the comments.