graphic of tiles spelling out "productivity"Liz Homan is a PhD candidate in English and Education at The University of Michigan. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital. Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

As classes resume session, and as graduate coursework ramps up (or settles down), you might be finding yourself in the midst of a new schedule, new routines, trying to make sense of where you need to be and when, and what work needs to be done before your next teaching day or class meeting. It always took me (Liz) at least three weeks of a new semester to settle into a “groove” of sorts—to know what was happening when, and to establish blocks of time for various tasks throughout the week. And for me (Emily), the first year of graduate school was about learning to work, read, and write more efficiently, and to break massive tasks into manageable pieces. The second year has been about trying to put those lessons into practice.

But we need not go it alone! There are a number of apps out there to help you stay on-task and get your work done this semester. Here, we’re teaming up to bring you a few of our favorite apps for productivity in the new year.

Liz’s Apps:

  1. The Clockwork Tomato. (Android: Free) Maybe you have heard of the Pomodoro Technique, but if you haven’t, GradHackers have written about it as a way to learn quickly and stay productive. The idea behind Pomodoro is to spend 25 focused minutes on a task (and only that task), followed by a 5 minute break. This app acts as a Pomodoro Technique timer and keeps track of how many “pomodoros” you have completed, thereby providing you with a log of your productivity. You can set goals and dedicate “pomodoros” to certain tasks.
  2. Remember the Milk. (Web, Android, or Mac: Free, or upgrade for ~$20)This app helps you manage your checklists strategically, and even lets you share your lists with others. Why would you want to share your lists with others, you might ask? Well, my partner and I find this very helpful for keeping track of grocery lists and household to-do lists. But you can also use it to develop to-do lists for projects or for yourself. My favorite thing about this app: it allows you to prioritize items on your to-do lists, separate lists, and remind yourself via email when something is due.
  3. Trello. (Web, Android, or Mac: Free) We’ve mentioned this one already this month on GradHacker, when Justin noted the value of Trello for maintaining (or developing) organization in the new year. This website and its corresponding app is one I am still learning about and with. This app allows you to set up “boards” within a single project and share boards with other project members. You can send messages to group members and move things from “to do” to “doing” to “done.” It’s a great way to keep track of projects that have many collaborators working on separate tasks.

Emily’s Apps:

  1. focus booster (Windows or Mac, web version currently unavailable: Free). This is another variation on the Pomodoro Technique, and its clock interface is small enough not to prove distracting while you are working. The app allows you to decide on the duration for each timed session, and also allows you to play or mute a ticking sound. I like to use it to break long days of reading into manageable sessions.
  2. Things (Mac or iOS: $9.99 – $19.99). For more intricate task management, I tried a few free apps before deciding to splurge on Things (for my iPad). I like its simple interface, and I also appreciate that it lets me easily prioritize tasks, so that I can quickly glance at my to-do list and decide which items to conquer now, and which to relegate until later. But my favorite feature in this app is the ability to design detailed, multi-step projects. Like all grad students, I find myself confronting several enormous projects that can feel overwhelming (the dissertation, each of my qualifying exams, individual seminar papers, and so on). I use Things to break apart each of these larger projects into small, manageable tasks. I then assign each of these individual tasks a finite deadline. And the built-in daily review helps me to survey what I’ve accomplished.
  3. Brainscape (Web or iOS: Free). As a second-year PhD student, I’m beginning the long, fraught journey of preparing for my qualifying exams. While I take very thorough notes for each book on my list, I’ve found that I have a hard time paring down to the most important takeaways for each project. Making one flashcard for each text forces me to be selective about what I want to remember the most. Brainscape is a handy flashcard app which syncs across all devices for easy access. It also asks you to score yourself on how well you know each answer. Then, the app redisplays each card with a frequency based on your performance, until you know each answer perfectly. It also tracks your mastery through a handy pie chart.
  4. RescueTime (Mac, Windows, Android, or Linux: Free or up to $9/month or $72/year). If your goal is to work more efficiently, start by tracking the amount of time you spend each day on individual tasks and projects. RescueTime, available as a free lite version or a full premium version ($9/month, $72/year) allows you to track how much time you spend on specific websites or applications. It also allows you to set productivity goals, and generates a score report each week to let you know how you’ve stacked up against your initial plans. The premium version has more features, including the ability to block distracting websites and to track time spent away from the computer.

These apps have helped me (Liz) at different times in my graduate career. Clockwork Tomato helps me regain focus when I’m hopelessly struggling to maintain it, Trello has been a helpful collaboration tool, and Remember the Milk helps me… well… remember the milk. And for me (Emily), knowing that I am using my time as efficiently as possible keeps me motivated on those days when I’m feeling worn down about not getting everything done. All of my go-to apps help me to feel a bit more in control of my workload.

Which apps do you rely on to stay productive? Share your tips in the comments below.

[Image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee used under creative commons licensing.]

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