Since I went freelance in 2011 I’ve worked on a range of projects, each of which brought its own challenges. Over the past nine years, the technology and software landscape has changed dramatically, with an ever-expanding array of apps at the fingertips of anyone willing to get lost in their phone’s native app store.
I’m always finding what appear to be new and exciting apps, but so often they turn out to be useless or limited without a costly subscription to a premium service – understandably, mind, as putting out an app is not a cheap business and no-one likes in-app adverts getting in your way when you’re trying to be productive.
Here I share my personal top 7 productivity apps. All except one are available without an ongoing commitment. These are all tried and tested and used in my everyday business. Some have been particularly useful during lockdown, but I was using most of them prior to the pandemic too.
I should probably add that I use an Android phone, but I would be very surprised if these apps weren’t available on Apple products too.
Transparency note: Clicking on some of these links may result in me getting a free month of a premium service here and there.
Let’s get the paid service out of the way first. Tailwind is a post scheduling service for Instagram and Pinterest, but it is much more than that. There is a free trial available, which I strongly recommend. The free trial is limited to 31 posts, but there is no time limit on using those posts, so you have plenty of time to have a play and get used to the interface.
I’ve spent the past few months studying various social media scheduling apps to find the one that best meets my needs. In doing so I realised that the function that I most value is the hashtag finder for Instagram. Finding relevant hashtags is the key to success on Instagram, and Tailwind’s service is the most intelligent I have found.
Firstly, it offers suggestions as you type the caption for your image. These are colour-coded, letting you know which hashtags are the most-used, least-used, and the most suitable for obtaining the best reach. Contrast this with the service from other schedulers, which simply list “related hashtags” that you can find just as easily by searching on Instagram, and you realise just how powerful it is.
Secondly it intelligently suggests the best times for posting, along with providing ideas for the different types of post that you might want to publish, using the categories of Connect, Inspire, Promote, Relate, Educate, or Repurpose. Tailwind also offers pre-built caption templates and prompts to help personalise them.
Thirdly, it offers performance analytics for your Instagram profile, though I have to be honest and say that I haven’t yet fully explored this side of the app.
If you’re only managing one Instagram account, Tailwind is relatively good value for money at $15 US per month or $120 US per year for the Plus account. For me, the intelligent hashtag service is worth the money alone. It starts to get expensive as you add more accounts though – as the pricing is offered per account until you reach the needs of the Professional – which is charged at a whopping $1200 US per month.
Alternatives that I know of: Later.com (pros: free for a limited number of post per month, usable interface, good analytics, links with other social networks / cons: hashtag finder isn’t very powerful), Hootsuite (pros: free for up to three accounts and 30 scheduled posts at any one time, links with other social networks / cons: no hashtag features at all)
Otter is an app that I stumbled across when I was looking for a reliable sound recording program, and boy was I happy that I gave it a try! Otter is a voice transcription service that includes 600 minutes (that’s 10 hours!) of free dictation each month.
This is an app that I use primarily for getting ideas down for videos, for scripts, for writing my comedy material, or for fine-tuning the wording of blog posts or documents. 600 minutes per month is more than enough for me – I rarely use more than 30 minutes unless I’m in the middle of writing an entirely new show – and the accuracy of the transcription is unbelievable. The premium service is only £8.99 per month and if I was a working virtual assistant or admin freelancer I’d consider it an invaluable investment.
If, like me, you first used dictation apps around 15 years ago, and you found that you spent more time correcting the errors than you would have done typing the document from scratch, then I will completely understand any scepticism you may have. However, I promise you that Otter will blow you away. I’ve only ever had to make minor changes, even when I’ve been ranting incoherently into my phone in a rush!
Another great thing about Otter is that it records the audio alongside the text, so you can listen back to it and make changes in real time.
Alternatives that I know of: Err… none. Although I also use an app that’s simply called Sound Recorder for pure voice recording.
3. Adobe Capture
Another one that snuck under the radar for a long time. This is invaluable to me whenever I’m doing any graphic design work, but if you do anything remotely creative you may well find this app productive. You’ll get the most out of it if you have an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, but I believe it is free for anyone to download and use.
Adobe Capture has several features, but there are two that I use more than most.
The main feature I use is the font finder. Use your phone camera to scan any line of text and the app will find the closest matching font in the Adobe Font suite. If you’re using Adobe Creative Cloud you can then locate the font and add it to your library in your other Adobe apps. It saves so much time searching through dozens of font websites, and as all the Adobe fonts are pre-licensed, you know you’re not going to run into any trouble with using them commercially. Even if you struggle to find a close match to the font you require, you can always use the information to google “alternatives to…”.
The other feature that I love is the colour scanner. In its most basic form, this is a great way to scan and find a very specific colour that you want to use (be sure you’re in natural light when using it for this), and in its more advanced form you can obtain a whole colour scheme. I scanned in a pair of boxer shorts the other day because I wanted to use the range of purples on them! The image below shows how easily you can lift the precise colours from almost anything.
There are so many more features – you can capture shapes, patterns and materials, and you can also create custom Photoshop brushes – all of which can be saved directly to your Creative Cloud. It’s particularly good for creating vector shapes from simple objects.
Given that I only discovered the app a couple of months ago, it’s amazing how integral Adobe Capture has become to my workflow.
Alternatives that I know of: Err… none… again… let me know if you know of any!
Running out of free space on Dropbox? pCloud offers you up to 10GB of free space, and the product is arguably more user-friendly. The only drawback is the premium product doesn’t offer a monthly payment option (EDIT: yes it does, I found it hidden in a corner of the mobile app. It’s a very reasonable £8.99 per month for 2TB) although at just under £100 a year for 2TB it’s still very competitive, and there is currently a lifetime offer of just £350 for the same 2TB service.
My main reason for preferring pCloud to Dropbox is that your files are stored entirely on the cloud, and only pulled down to your PC when you need them.
There are lots of bells and whistles that – to be quite honest – I haven’t fully explored. This is a great option if you want a few extra GB of cloud storage, and if – like me – you’re looking to use a premium service in the not-to-distant future, it’s also a great chance to try out an alternative to Dropbox before you commit your cash to any one provider.
Alternatives that I know of: Dropbox (pros: market-leader, free service available, monthly payment available for premium / cons: free service is limited), OneDrive (pros: free 1TB with MS Office 365 subscription / cons: clunky product, not the most user-friendly), Sync (never used but will investigate in time)
Asana has probably saved my business during quarantine. On the face of it, it’s a simple to-do list, and there are many alternatives out there. But as well as the vast array of functions on offer, there’s something intangible about Asana that makes it feel different. In fact, it’s my home page on both my desktop and laptop computers.
During lockdown I’ve been creating to-do lists on Asana at the start of every week, and adding to them as and when things come to mind. Asana allows you to break tasks down in lots of different ways. I start Project Boards for top-level subjects: Client Work/Editing, Marketing, Website, Products & Services, Non-Photography Tasks, Life, etc. Within each board I have a number of sections, and my tasks are listed within each section. You can then break each task down into sub-tasks, and set deadlines at both the task and sub-task level.
As you can imagine, this makes tracking progress and meeting self-enforced deadlines a lot easier than some other apps. Not everyone will want this level of detail, but with the range of projects that I work on, and the dynamic nature of my work, I find Asana to be priceless.
I can’t quite explain why I prefer Asana to other to-do apps. I previously used another to-do app called Remember the Milk – which I also recommend – but for some reason I feel more at home in Asana’s user-interface. There’s a very satisfying feeling when you hit the tick box to mark a task as complete and quite literally watch the task fly away.
Asana would be a very powerful piece of software for teams, too. You can create a team within the app, and assign tasks to team members. There are also alternative ways of viewing your tasks – you can have a straight-forward list, a task board, and a calendar in the free version. In the premium product you also have the option of timeline and progress views.
You want more? You can colour-code each project, get email and phone app notifications of deadlines and updates, add links and descriptions of each task, ask questions to colleagues (team version) and add tags to tasks.
Seriously, I can’t recommend this app enough – Asana has undoubtedly been the key to my productivity over the past few months, and although the app is primarily aimed at teams, the free plan features more than enough functionality for most freelancers.
Alternatives that I know of: Remember the Milk (pros: Clean interface, user-friendly, cool app / cons: it’s not Asana), Evernote, Wunderlist (never used either so can’t comment)
If you’re active on social media and you’re not using Canva, you likely don’t know what you’re missing.
Canva has been around for a few years now, and if nothing else, their range of pre-sized templates for almost any given social media platform is a huge time-saver. If you need to create a Facebook Page header, a Twitter header, or an Instagram story, you simply open the app or go online, select the template, then build your image using either the elements included or by uploading your own images and logos.
There are a significant number of templates and elements available for free, and you can upgrade to a paid plan to gain access to more. Personally I find that the selection of freebies is more than enough for my needs.
The user-interface is intuitive and well designed, even the most technologically-challenged user should be able to create a professional-looking image in just a few minutes.
Alternatives that I know of: Adobe Spark Post (pros: backed by Adobe, access to Adobe fonts etc. / cons: not the most user-friendly), Word Swag (pros: simple to use, great for inspirational quotes etc., premium is cheap / cons: not great for graphics, limited designs), numerous free apps on the marketplace (pros: free / cons: usually not as comprehensive as Canva, littered with adverts)
This is one for anyone that posts content on Instagram that doesn’t always fit into the square format.
As a photographer, composition is the backbone of every photo I take. If I’ve chosen to shoot something in a 3:2 or 4:3 ratio, there is a reason for that. Annoyingly, Instagram only supports a limited number of ratios, meaning that within the app, my only option is to crop part of the image out.
Step forward SquareQuick. Though the app is incredibly simple to use, its user-friendly interface belies the range of options available.
Line border on white background
If you want to put a simple black or white border around your image, you can do so at the tap of a button. But if you want to add branding, a bit of colour to the background, or make your image look arty, you can do that too. This has saved me a lot of time when posting to Instagram. If you shoot with your camera phone, you might find that it shoots in a default ratio that doesn’t fit to Instagram’s preferred ratios (unless you shoot from within the Instagram app, of course) and so this would be a great app to help you include all the detail in your shot.
I’ve also seen some people using this app (or similar) to help enforce consistency in their Instagram output.
I liked this app so much that I paid to remove the ads, which I think cost me around £3.
Alternatives that I know of: I tried a handful of the dozens of similar apps on the marketplace a few months ago. This is the only one I liked so I didn’t make a note of any others, sorry!
Two bonus apps
An honourary mention for two of my current favourite apps.
The first is Curator, which allowed me to make this Instagram feed look beautiful on my website. You can add up to three sources for free, curate which posts you want to appear using hashtags or usernames, and there are premium services available. It’s beautifully simple to use and there is a step-by-step tutorial helping you set it up.
The second is Google Keep. It’s available both on your desktop PC and as an app for your phone and for me it’s the simplest and quickest way of moving large amounts of text from my PC to my phone. It’s particularly useful for saving regularly-used hashtag combinations or copying captions from one social media platform to another if you’re not using a scheduler. It’s also where I sketch out my initial ideas for new products, services or writing material.
Anything I’ve missed?
Is there an app you use that you wouldn’t give up? Do you know of a better alternative to one of the apps listed above? I’d love to hear from you if so! Drop me a comment on social media or email me! If I get enough suggestions I’ll investigate them all and write a follow-up post.