Do you ever feel overwhelmed by everything that needs addressing in your life, day after day?
If your answer is a resounding YES, then let me tell you – I empathise!
Between work commitments, money managing, keeping your health in order and an ever-demanding social calendar, it can be difficult to achieve some sense of balance. Or prioritise the things you actually want to do with your time… such as learn a new language.
I often feel like technology is more of a hindrance than a help. For many months, I’d been growing more and more resentful of my mobile phone. Since I had moved overseas from my native country of Australia, I had become to rely on it more and more, as it provides instant access to almost everyone from back home. I disliked how much of my attention it took up.
So, instead of being a slave to tech, I decided to make tech my slave. No longer will I answer to my mobile phone (although, I will answer it if it rings – unless I know it’s a telemarketer on the other end!).
I took it upon myself to do some research and find some phone apps that would help me get myself more organised, and in turn, boost my productivity. Less time spent on frivolous tasks would mean more time for language learning. Yippee!
That First Step: Determine Which Areas of Your Life Need Attention
First things first – I took a (mental) step back and looked at the areas of my life that were causing me the most grief.
I was still relying on a paper diary, which I often forgot to bring with me. As a consequence, I was constantly forgetting start times for work, blanking on social events and having appointments skip my mind. As a result, I was a scatter-brained mess.
I wrote my to-do lists on scraps of paper that I’d then misplace, or tried to simply rely on my memory… ha! It wasn’t an effective method by any means.
My finances were a mess. I had been travelling a lot and spend, spend, spending as a consequence. I needed to devote more time to keeping tabs on my expenses and actually start paying attention to my ever-growing student debt.
“A healthy mind promotes a healthy body”, as the adage goes. It’s not wrong – all the disorganisation that was going on upstairs was wreaking havoc on my health. I wasn’t eating properly, hadn’t exercised in months and had issues sleeping through the night.
With all this in mind, I began my search.
Here are the final results – a list of productivity apps, how I used them to revolutionise my life, so that you in turn can do the same.
Before we jump in, a note – I have an iPhone, so all the apps I used were for iOS. Don’t worry, Android users, I haven’t forgotten about you. Most of the apps mentioned work on either platform and there is usually a substitute available, in any case.
Sleep – The Be All, End All of Productivity
I decided to start by addressing my woeful sleeping patterns. Lack of sleep can lead to multiple health problems, including memory loss and mood swings. These are definitely traits anyone wanting to pick up a new skill should look to avoid.
Being an extremely light sleeper, I’ve always been interested in the science of sleep. I wanted to get a better idea of my own sleeping patterns – the hours in which I was more prone to experience a deeper sleep, so I could arrange my bedtime accordingly.
After downloading Sleep Cycle, you place the iPhone on your bed before you nod off for the night. The app tracks your sleeping patterns via the movements you make as you dream. It knows when you’re sleeping lightly (because you move a lot), and when you’re in a deep sleep (as you tend to stay still). You can also set an alarm that will wake you up at the best possible time within your cycle, in order to leave you feeling refreshed and energised.
Sleep As Android does pretty much the same thing. It aims to wake you up at the best possible time in the morning and will warn you if you’re not meeting your sleep requirements.
As an iPhone user, I went with Sleep Cycle. I was shocked to find out how much I tossed and turned throughout the night. I began setting the alarm for the rough time I wished to be awake by morning. I found this process to be much less jarring than a standard alarm at 8AM. The app would gently rouse me from my slumber, leaving me feeling far better equipped to handle my day.
Boost Your Concentration Levels with Meditation
Meditation is one of those things in life that you know you should be doing – however, it’s easy enough to find any and every excuse under the sun to not devote any amount of your time to it.
Keep in mind that there are many reasons to spend even as little as ten minutes of your day meditating. It improves your concentration, helps with stress and enhances your creativity.
I started by downloading Headspace, which can be used on both iOS and Android. You can create an account and subscribe – but there is also a free ten day trial that you can keep using until the end of time, if you wish.
I didn’t want the paid service, so from there I moved on to using Insight Timer. It has a plethora of free meditation tracks, which are available in different languages (this is an app that could perhaps moonlight as a language learning tool!). You can also set a timer that will signify the end of your meditation.
It’s up to you, but personally – I believe meditation is something that you don’t need to pay for. These apps work as a wonderful introduction to the world of meditation and from there, there are plenty of guides available on the internet for those who want to go at it alone.
Over time, I dispensed with the apps entirely – although I still use my phone to meditate. I set a timer on it, sit back, close my mind and try my best to empty it.
It sounds easier than it is. Yet, like anything, meditation improves with practice. After only a few months, I can feel myself becoming a calmer, more collected person (and my sleep has improved dramatically). Rather than procrastinating all the time, I’m throwing myself at my work with enthusiasm. In short, I feel like I have a bit more command over my mind, something that I can anticipate will only improve over time.
The Knock-On Effect
After a few weeks of concentrating solely on the health of my mind, my body began to follow suit. I joined a gym for the first time in over a year, went back to yoga and started working towards refining my diet. Feeling refreshed and energised, I knew it was time to turn my attention to that which was next on my list…
Managing Finances – No More Money Woes
I was a bit sick of opening up my bank account a few days after pay day and wondering where on earth all my money had gone. I needed to find an app with which I could track my daily spending, to ensure I was keeping myself within my budget and subsequently had enough money to feed myself.
I decided to go with HomeBudget. I could divide my money into separate accounts – such as access, savings and money that was to be set aside for tax. From there, I could allocate how much money I was spending on things such as food and holidays and where that money was coming from (it did tell me what I already knew to some degree: that that was a lot!).
I’ve heard that Mint is also quite a good app for keeping across your expenditures. It’s said to be great for goal tracking in particular, such as saving up for an item or paying off your student debt.
HomeBudget turned out to be an invaluable addition. Once I got over the shock and horror of how much I’d been carelessly spending, I was able to turn my money to more worthwhile sources – such as my savings account.
Keeping on Schedule
No more running late to work every day, missing appointments and leaving friends hanging. It was time to lose my hard copy diary and… gulp! Go digital.
I started scheduling all my various tasks for the week ahead into my Google Calendar. I dug the fact that as a Gmail user, a lot of what I’d booked online (such as flights and accommodation for travel) showed up in my calendar of their own accord. I also liked how I could set reminders for myself, via email or pop-ups on my mobile phone screen.
On my iPhone itself, I use the Sunrise Calendar app. The interface is both user-friendly and straightforward. It’ll show you what’s coming up over the course of your day and, if you’re British, provide you with the local weather. It’s compatible with Google Calendar, includes Facebook birthdays and invites and allows you to add events vocally. It also gives you the option of incorporating various other calendars, such as the moon cycle and the national public holidays in your country of residence.
For Android users, SoCalendar wins the award of having the trendiest name on this list. It works in much the same manner, but also uses gestures to navigate, which sounds like a fairly fun feature. For example, swiping your fingers different ways across your touch screen will provide you with alternate views of your schedule.
It’s amazing the difference it made to have my calendar directly at my fingertips. I now knew where I was due to be and what I would be doing at any given time. Those unscheduled hours could now be put to good use – tackling my never-ending to-do list.
Searching for an App that Would Allow Me to Tackle my Never-Ending List of Chores
What I wanted was simple. A place to put items on my ‘To-Do’ list, with some sort of reminder that would encourage me to get them done. A reward-based system wouldn’t hurt either. We all like to be patted on the back when we get something hard or icky out of the way.
Fortunately, I stumbled across Carrot, which is the Jekyll and Hyde of the iOS world. As long as you keep on top of your list, Carrot will shower you in compliments and well-wishes. Abandon her and feel her wrath, like a more aggressive version of Siri.
Ticking tasks off the list gives you points, which will eventually allow you to “level up”. As you do so, you unlock more features, such as the ability to be reminded of chores on your home screen and being able to rename them on your list. Other fun features await, but I’m not going to spoil them for you!
Oh, Android users. I looked so hard for an abusive equivalent – alas there doesn’t seem to be one in existence. However, you can revel in the fact that Google’s version of a ‘To-Do’ List – Google Keep has been designed for you and you alone! It has time- and location-based reminders, which you can colour-code. Plus, the app on your phone will sync seamlessly with your Google account on the web.
I also really liked the look of HabitRPG (iPhone and Android), which turns your boring list of “To Dos” into a video game set in a fantasy world of wizards, unicorns and dragons. How delightfully nerdy! As you cross things off your list, you earn points that you can use to upgrade your character with items and pets. Fail to complete tasks, and your character’s health will suffer, plus you may lose points in the game.
When I think about Carrot, I often wonder where she’s been all my life. There’s something about having your “must-dos” there, staring you in the face, that encourages you to do your best to get them done. I’ve shocked myself by how productive I’ve been in ticking off all the icky tasks I’d normally leave forever. And all to keep a little AI program on my phone happy. Well. At least it’s working in my favour.
There was one area however, in which this kind of ‘to do’ list wasn’t doing much by way of assistance. There may be a small collection of activities you wish to fulfil daily, in the view of making them become a habit. From drinking two glasses of water over 24 hours, to ensuring you’re meditating every morning… or doing a spot of language study!
I knew Carrot wasn’t going to help so much in this regard. So, I looked elsewhere for other apps that were fit to do the job.
As we live in the digital age, with a couple of clicks of my mouse I found exactly the app I had been envisioning.
Making a Habit Stick
Habit List stepped in and saved the day. It’s superbly simple to use. You make a note of an activity that you wish to turn into a habit, select a frequency reminder (i.e. whether you want to be reminded every day or odd days and at what time), and that’s it. It’ll pop up at the time you’ve programmed it to, reminding you to fulfil the task. I’ve set it to remind me to do a little bit of language study every single day and feel endlessly irritated if I end up breaking my “streak” (my longest at the time of writing is 8 days!).
Rewire for Android works in much the same regard, although there were a couple of other features I liked the sound of. You can keep a mini-journal going in the app, to make notes on your progress and daily achievements. You can also introduce a little bit of flexibility into your schedule. For example, you may not want to go running every single day, instead aiming to visit the gym four days of the week. Rewire will reflect this in its scheduling.
We all have our own little rituals for making habits stick, and this one has certainly proved to be effective for me.
Putting It All Together
I was surprised by the overall difference I was seeing in both my level of productivity and general well-being, after only a few weeks of using these apps. I now waste less time and feel more in control of the direction my life is heading in. It’s quite empowering!
Best of all, I have time now to dedicate to the activities I actually want to be doing… like learning a language.
Is there a mobile phone app you use that helps you stay on task in some way? Or have you had a similar experience to what I went through? I would love to hear about it in the comments.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.