The Optimal iPhone Settings and Best Apps for Productivity, Focus, and Health

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Install These Apps for Productivity

#17. Use Evernote for all note taking, to-do lists, everything

If you already love your note taking app and to-do list app, then fine, stick with those. This is a recommendation where habits beat tools. Don’t switch if you already have strong habits.

However, if you don’t use a note taking app or to-do list app, or are unhappy with what you do use, let me give you a guiding theory that will lead you to Evernote: go messy and trust search.

Put your to-do list in Evernote, either by creating one long note that you edit every day or a new note for each day. Then put all your other notes in Evernote too. Don’t bother particularly with categorization. Instead, just trust that you’ll be able to find whatever you want later through Evernote’s search.

What you end up with is a messy but long-term functional system. The other approach, constantly switching apps, systems, and categorization schemes always breaks. Always.

One power of a messy to-do list is that not everything has to be a check list item. You can mix in quick drafts and longer notes to yourself. Or, as I’ve recommended in my Interstitial Journaling technique, to live mindfully, you should literally intermix short journal entries and to-do list items.

Here’s an example of mixing todo-lists and journaling. This is called Interstitial Journaling.

The problem with most productivity systems is that they break. As a result, a lot of productivity nuts spend a lot of their time creating new productivity systems over and over again. This, obviously, is not productive.

For that reason, where possible, I suggest that you choose messy systems over rigid systems. The ultimate messy system that I know you’re all familiar with is the paper notebook. A paper notebook gives you incredible flexibility: you can take notes however you want, write drafts, sketch outlines, draw pictures, write to-do lists, etc. A to-do list app just doesn’t allow for that.

The downside to paper notebooks is that it’s impossible (or at least very hard) to find an old note.

All of that is the argument for merging your to-do lists with your notes, and then putting them all into a single cloud-backed note taking system with good search features.

Although Evernote has advanced features that may or (probably) may not be a pleasure to use, the basics work well and reliably. I recommend starting with free and then upgrading ($60/year) if you bump into a limit on bandwidth or offline availability.

#18. The case for Calm as your go to meditation app

I learned to meditate from Headspace. That’s a good option. But guided meditation is something that you’ll graduate from quickly. Most people I know who meditate don’t still need a daily guide.

Once you graduate to meditating on your own, Calm is the much better option because of their built-in timer and tracking. I was an advisor in the early days of Calm specifically because of my experience building habit tracking apps.

  • Install the Calm app.
  • Calm is good enough and important enough to pay for. It’s $59.99/year.
  • Find your way to the Open Ended Meditation in the Meditation section. Select one with a bell playing every few minutes (my setting is for 5 minutes). That way you can sit and meditate for a set period of time while also being confident that your phone hasn’t run out of battery.
  • Also find your way to the Breathe option in the More section. This can be a very effective way to reset your body.
  • I also prefer not having any background noise from my meditation app. In Calm, turn this off in the Calm app by heading to More > Scenes and then adjusting the Background Volume to zero.

Meditation is a productivity and performance practice. The explanation for why is a little long, so I’m mostly just going to point you to longer articles we’ve published in Better Humans. However, here’s the quick pitch for why the Calm app is about performance and not just “calm.”

A lot of people talk about meditation as a relaxing or spiritual practice. That’s fine for them. But you’re reading a productivity article, so I’m focused on what meditation does for your productivity.

The core concept comes from the world of deliberate practice, which is when you identify the components of skills that are important to your success, and then practice those components individually. I want you to approach meditation as a practice session for a skill that you’re going to use to help your productivity.

You should read our full article on Deliberate Practice to get a feel for how to design practice for all important life skills.

With meditation, you’re practicing a two-step process that you will use outside of the meditation. The first step is becoming aware of where your mind wandered, acknowledging the thought and then putting the thought down. Call that Awareness. The second step is bringing your focus back to your point of focus (usually your breath). Call that Focus.

This Awareness-Focus loop is what you are practicing during a meditation session. A lot of people feel bad if their mind wanders during meditation. But you should actually feel good. The more often your mind wanders, the more times you get to practice this Awareness-Focus loop. I tell people what they are doing is mental pushups. The more wandering they do, the more pushups they get in.

Now that you’ve practiced, here’s a way to then apply the Awareness-Focus loop in ways to be more productive by beating procrastination.

#19. Install the right goal tracker for you

There are basically two philosophies for how to use a goal tracker. Both involve picking a set of small goals or habits and marking them off in the app each time you do them.

In the Quantified Self philosophy of goal trackers, you are tracking your goals simply out of curiosity because you want to get more information about yourself. (The word Goal in Goal Tracker doesn’t even come into play.)

The second philosophy is focused on a goal-oriented behavior-change mindset where you are using the goal tracker for motivation and accountability in order to get yourself to adopt a new behavior and become a better person.

I simply do not understand the Quantified Self philosophy — don’t they want to improve? Every time I go to a Quantified Self event, I feel like I’m surrounded by aliens who love data but not growth.

“I got all this data about myself.” > “And then what?” > “Nothing.”

It just doesn’t make sense.

So my goal tracker recommendation is for a goal tracker I built. It is the foundation of the Coach.me community. Most users and most coaches started out by forming habits through this goal tracking app.

Install the Coach.me app and consider tracking a few of the 101 most tracked habits in 2018.

Obviously, I’m talking from my own book here. This article is the product of prior work that started with this goal tracker and then morphed into coaching and personal development publishing. There are many links out there to projects we built at Coach.me or articles we published at Better Humans.

So, with the caveat that I’m deeply biased, my position is that I’ve seen all the other goal trackers and generally they all use similar formulas and then differentiate just a tiny bit on what graphs they show you.

However, we put every ounce of our design effort into something different: your psychology and motivation. That includes how we trigger reminders, how we try to avoid triggering guilt, how we introduce variable rate rewards for your own good, and how we handle when a goal is too challenging for you.

If you’ve read this far in the article, I think you will have picked up on my philosophy, which is that I want to see results.

#20. Store all your passwords in a password manager, probably LastPass

Trying to remember hundreds of passwords is a waste of time. Using the same password for all your accounts is the fast track to getting hacked.

There are a number of good third-party password managers that are much easier to use than Apple’s built in Keychain. If you are already using one, then stick with it. This is a principle (covered also in Appendix A) that habits are more important than tools. The benefits of your habits around your current password manager outweigh the feature benefits of switching to a different manager.

I use 1Password but that’s not what I’m going to recommend to you. I signed up with them a long time ago when they had a pay-once option. But now they’ve moved to a subscription model that’s quite a bit more expensive than other better options.

So, if you are looking to use a password manager for the first time, then install LastPass. It’s the probably best for most people and definitely the least expensive at $24/year.

Download LastPass here. You’re going to need to set it up in three places: as an app on your phone, as an app on your computer, and as an extension in your computer’s web browser.

On your iPhone, you’ll also need to configure LastPass to fill passwords in Safari. Select your password manager from iOS Settings > Passwords & Accounts > Autofill Passwords.

Most people will be happiest with LastPass.

The theory behind the value of a password manager comes down to pragmatic security and reduced cognitive load.

Your parents used to memorize people’s phone numbers. Now nobody does that anymore. It should be the same with passwords — you have better things to remember. That’s a cognitive load reduction.

Plus, password managers can save time. A common trap is to half-way embrace unique passwords for each app or site, but then find yourself constantly forgetting and having to go through a lost-password routine. This is wasted time.

On the security front, most people who don’t use a password manager end up reusing passwords. So when a hacker gets your password to one site, they get it for all sites. Password managers aren’t immune to getting hacked either, but at least if you use a popular one you’re likely to hear about it when the hack happens.

#21. Use Numerical as your default calculator

After accuracy, the must-have feature for calculators is a history. Otherwise you’re going to make a typo and not notice.

Unfortunately, Apple’s calculator does not ship with a history feature. So:

  • Install the lovely Numerical app.
  • Put it on your home screen. This continues the your-phone-is-a-tool-not-a-boss trend for your home screen. When you unlock your phone, you want to feel like you’ve picked up a tool that’s completely under your control, rather than like you’re on a bender and have just walked into a casino. You’re going to love Numerical without obsessively using it.
If the low power % in this screenshot causes you anxiety, we’ll get to meditation apps below.

Notice the second line of numbers at the top? That’s a history. Having that history saves you time and reduces your errors because you can spot when you’ve fat-fingered an entry. Reduce your anxiety and live longer.

Even people displaying minor symptoms of psychological distress were found to have a 20 percent increased risk of dying over the 10-year study period.” (This is the same citation I used in the section about turning off notifications.)

#22. Put the Camera app in your toolbar

Technically, this is quadruply redundant.

You can swipe down to get the camera from your control center, tap the camera on the lock screen, or swipe left from your lock screen.

That last, swipe-left from the lock screen is really convenient. Practice that. But also add the camera to your toolbar.

  • Move the camera app to the toolbar.
  • While you’re at it, go into Settings > Camera and turn on Preserve Settings. This means that the app will remember the last mode you were in, i.e. video or photo.
  • Also in Camera settings, if you have enough storage, max out the resolution on Record Video and Record Slo-mo.
  • Last, in Camera settings, most people’s pictures will be framed better if they turn on grid mode. Do that.

The camera is a great tool for happiness and gratitude. I’m not talking about preening in front of the camera all day. I’m talking about capturing the most interesting moments of your day for posterity and to share with others.

Using your camera regularly also helps you develop an eye for detail.

The general theme of this article is to set your phone up to be more present in the world. Looking for pictures to take is one way to be more engaged with your surroundings. Stopping a meal so that you can capture your food, however, is not the path to living in the moment.

If you are wanting to post pictures to Instagram and Facebook, you can consider the placement of the Camera app to be a replacement habit that allows you to schedule your social media usage. Take a picture in the Camera app and then post it later, during your allotted leisure window.

#23. Install a Doppler Radar app

What does 70% chance of rain mean? Sometimes it means there’s a 70% chance of rain over 100% of your area. But it can also mean there is 100% certainty of rain, but only over part of your 70% of your area.

That’s confusing. And so the only sane way to check the weather is to compare it to the Doppler radar. These radars visualize the rain and the direction that the rain is heading. That way you can eyeball for yourself if the rain is actually going to affect you.

Download the NOAA Radar app.

This Doppler shows rain in the NYC area, but nowhere near where I live in Brooklyn.

While you’re setting up weather, you should place this Doppler app on your home screen, and then go to your Today screen and turn on Apple’s Weather widget.

A big part of productivity is planning. You’ve heard a million people complain about how inaccurate weather forecasting is. So here’s the solution: be your own forecaster.

#24. Use this Pomodoro app

The idea behind Pomodoro is to be fully focused for a set period of time, usually twenty-five minutes, and then have a five minute break.

This is a way to train yourself to avoid procrastination. You end up constantly pushing yourself a little bit harder to make it to the end of your work period, knowing that you’ll get a short reward after.

The rules of Pomodoro aren’t complicated, but it’s still nice to have a dedicated app. There are two good ones, but I prefer BeFocused Pro for $2.99 because it can easily categorize your Pomodoros. For example, I’m currently in a Pomodoro that I marked for the Writing category.

When do you use Pomodoro? It’s useful for when you are doing individual work, like checking your email or working on a project. You wouldn’t use this method during a meeting.

This is one of a handful of strategies in this article for beating procrastination. My intention is that you use all of them at once. For example, the Meditation section is mostly focused on meditation as training that allows you to catch and overcome the feelings that lead to procrastination.

Pomodoro comes at procrastination from a different perspective. It makes for a smaller, more achievable goal. A lot of people get down on themselves if they can’t go an entire 8-hour work day without procrastinating. Pomodoro helps you set a more achievable goal, say 25 minutes. And if that’s too long, make your Pomodoro even shorter. You can always start small and build up to your final goal.

(The third main strategy for beating procrastination is next — using Brain.fm for background noise.)

#25. Use Brain.fm for background noise

A lot of people have trained themselves to listen to music while they work. But almost all research says that performance is poorer in the presence of a background sound.

One obvious benefit, though, of music is social. You put on your headphones and people know not to bother you. I often wear headphones with no sound just to indicate to my coworkers that I’m busy.

The research, however, on music as a background noise is that it’s tricky — there are occasional benefits to productivity but also many, many pitfalls. There is another approach: an emerging field of auditory science used to boost focus and reduce mind-wandering.

Brain.fm is the best of these brain music options.

  • Download the Brain.fm app.
  • It’s free for a week and then $49.99 per year.
  • Use their focus music while you work if you’re suffering from lack of focus or procrastination.

Since I come from the world of coaching, I spend most of my time helping people apply behavior changes. As a result, I often end up in a place where I think I see certain advice working, but I don’t necessarily understand or trust the scientific explanation for why that advice works. That’s the case with Brain.fm.

My experience with Brain.fm is that it’s amazing and works exactly as advertised. Sometimes, without sound, my brain will have a tendency to wander. With the Brain.fm focus music, it some how shuts down that wandering during any dead spots in my work (like if I’m waiting for an app to load). As a result, I have more sustained periods of focus.

However, I find their explanation of the science to be inscrutable. It sounds exactly like the type of pop-culture brain science that lots of people spout. This doesn’t bother me, as long as it works.

The music is designed to have effects on neurophysiology via unique acoustic features woven into the music (Brain.fm holds patents for key aspects of this process). Examples include modulations optimized to evoke entrainment of neural oscillations, filtering to exclude distracting sound events, or smooth movement in virtual space to direct attention or avoid habituation.

However, Brain.fm have run studies funded by the National Science Foundation that back up my experience, which is that Brain.fm is better than silence and silence is better than music.

I need to emphasize that this is a corporate-run study that magically ended up with a self-serving result. So, more than the science, I just want you to take my word for it enough to try it out for yourself (remember, there’s a free trial).

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