Update: This post is derived from a tech talk given by the authors at Electric House on 23 January 2013
So you want to make some serious changes in the new year with a little help from digital gadgetry. But there’s a caveat. Apps alone won’t actually sort your life out, just like picking up running shoes doesn’t make you a marathon runner. Truly changing a habit is a personal process that you can’t simply download from the app store (though we can recommend some good ebooks or podcasts).
However, apps can be a part of your process to make big or small changes in your life.
Apps can either provide an incentive or trigger, or be an enabler. Some apps can help you to set and track goals by providing insights into your habits so you’re more aware of them. Other apps enable you to do things you couldn’t have done without them. However, like running shoes they’re merely tools, and you’ll still need to do the running yourself.
So here’s our ultimate roundup of awesome, useful and somewhat quirky apps, services, products or techniques we couldn’t live without. While they may work great for us, they may not be right for you. It’s a good idea to take a look at what makes each of these apps great and find something for your unique situation.
Your Body: Apps to help you get off your butt, stop eating so much junk, and be nicer to yourself
Resolution: I will get slimmer, faster, stronger and better looking.
Solution: Wearable computing is likely to become the next big thing in mobile technology and this can be seen in the fitness market with bands like Jawbone Up, FitBit Flex and Nike+ FuelBand. The latter allows you to set a daily target measured by the bands internal accelerometer. You can also compare your progress with your friends via Facebook.
Resolution: I will get more quality sleep so I feel refreshed and less grumpy in the morning.
Solution: When you sleep, you move differently in bed during different sleep phases. Sleep Cycle Alarm clock uses the accelerometer in your iPhone to monitor your movement to determine which sleep phase you’re in. Using this data the app wakes you up in the morning whilst you’re in the lightest sleep phase. It feels like waking without an alarm clock—a natural way to wake up where you feel rested and relaxed.
Resolution: I will get into shape by eating healthier, vegetables even.
Solution: If you find counting calories too tedious but you still want to change your eating habits to be more healthy, Massive Health’s The Eatery could be for you. Use the app to snap photos of your food. Other users rate your food and tell you what they think how healthy it really which can be more helpful than calorie counts.
Similarly Evernote Food is a great way to record what you’re eating. This app helps you remember the food you love and discover new recipes and places to eat. It’s not designed to make you eat healthier but you can utilise it to track your meals, become more conscious of what you’re eating and discover habits you might want to change.
And when all else fails, you can always get yourself a HAPIfork, a smartfork (yes, that’s a thing now) that monitors your eating speed and times and alerts you when you’re eating too fast. Basically it’s a Fuelband for your food.
Top tip: Above all, we believe the killer app for a healthier body in 2013 is analytics. Keep an eye out for anything that helps you track, quantify and analyse your health. The key to a healthier lifestyle is insight and self-reflection.
Your Mind: Apps to help you unclutter your brain, restore your sanity, learn something new and broaden your horizons
Resolution: I will put an end to sitting at home and feeling miserable.
Solution: Foursquare. A lot of people don’t see the value of Foursquare. “Why do I want everyone to know where I am?” But Foursquare is much, much more than that. With over 30 million users around the world and over 3 billion check-ins there is an immense amount of data that can be surfaced to personalize recommendations. For instance you may be in an unfamiliar part of town and in need of a long black coffee. Open Foursquare, hit Explore and straight away you’ve got recommendations based on your friends check-ins or what’s trending right now. Foursquare’s Lists are great too, because the app will nudge you when you’re near a place you’ve saved so no more excuses next time you’re at a loss of things to do or places to go.
Resolution: I will stop using my cats name as a password to protect every single one of my online accounts.
Solution: Let’s be honest, who who uses the same password for more than one account? Quite a few I would imagine (and if not, are you mad?) Coming up with a secure password is hard. It’s even harder to remember them all. You should reserve your mind for more important things than remembering how many capital letters and special characters the “memorable phrase” of your Amazon account has. 1Password remembers all your passwords for you and keeps them secured behind one single Master Password. This means you only need to carry one single password in your head while using a different strong password for every website. It totally restores your sanity, definitely a real lifesaver for me.
Resolution: I will backup my stuff so that I have one less thing to worry about when my harddrive burns or my house gets flooded.
Solution: Keep all your important files, WIP, documents, photos etc. in Dropbox, a dedicated folder on your computer that automatically syncs your files to the cloud. Dropbox not only gives you access to these files from any computer, smartphone or tablet (no more USB keys!) it also keeps them safe from hard drive crashes and meteorite showers.
And if you want complete peace of mind CrashPlan backs up your entire system in the cloud. It uploads a version every time a file is changed on your computer and keeps a version history forever. So in case you survive the next Apocalypse you can just restore your entire computer from the cloud and carry on as if nothing bad has happened. Think of it as an insurance that instead of paying money for damages actually gives you all your stuff back.
Resolution: I will start learning a new skill and keep my grey cells active.
Solution: We all know how useful and rewarding learning a new language is. But let’s face it: it’s damn hard and sometimes really really boring. From the inventor of the CAPTCHA and ReCAPTCHA comes Duolingo, an app that lets you learn Spanish, French, German, Portuguese or Italian while helping to translate the web. It’s effortless learning that not only feels like a game but also like contributing to a greater good. And best of all: it’s completely free.
Your Money: Keep on top of your finances, start saving or just get a better idea of where your money is going and why at the end of the money there’s always so much month left.
Resolution: I will stop “borrowing” money from my friends or “forgetting” to pay them back.
Solution: You know these situations: You’re at the restaurant and it’s time to split the bill. You never carry cash and you promise your friend to pay them back later. With Pingit you can pay them back straight away. It’s free, instant and anyone with a UK bank account can use it. It’s the perfect way to settle IOUs and keep yourself and your friends happy. And if you’re usually on the other end of this situation, you can also nudge people if they owe you by sending them requests and reminders.
As far as actually managing your money goes, there are a number of services popping up that offer personal finance data analysis. If this doesn’t sound very exciting to you, give OnTrees or Moneydashboard a go. Both services use web as well as mobile apps that tap into your bank account, categorise your transactions, and present them in the form of snazzy graphs and data visualisations. So you can see exactly where your money is going and that you definitely need to cut back on your Starbucks habit.
However, we believe that 2013 is the year where we could see further disruption of financial banking behemoths which restrict interesting things you can do with your bank account with services akin to Square or Simple in the US.
Also, take a closer look at what your bank is already offering. Barclays has a pretty good Mobile Banking app that lets you monitor and manage your money on the go. Banks begin to realise that in 2013 a decent mobile offering is important and customers vote with their feet. If your bank makes it difficult to manage your money effectively, switch. It could totally be worth it.
Your Time: There are only 8760 hours in the year. Did you realise that today 6 percent of 2013 is already over? If you haven’t achieved 6% of your goals for the year yet, don’t panic. Here are some apps that can help you with your time management.
If you came to this tech talk hoping we would finally give you an answer to the eternal question, show you the holy grail everyone is looking for: the todo app to end all todo apps … We’re sorry to disappoint you. There are 48,000 todo list apps on the App Store (roughly, I totally made that number up). They come in all colours, sizes and textures under the sun. In fact I find deciding on the right task management app is the most difficult task I could have on my list. There are generally four flavours of todo list apps:
- The shopping list. If you just need an app to jot down things to do and tick them off as you go along, an app like Clear should suffice.
- Context aware reminders. If you have a large number of tasks, you’ll probably find that they’re not always relevant everywhere. An app like Apple’s own Reminders app can be useful to remind you of important tasks when you arrive or leave a certain location or at a certain time. For example every time I leave the house I get a reminder asking me if I’ve got my wallet.
- Make someone else do it. Delegating a task is as good, if not better, as doing it yourself. If you’re working with a team, a task management app like Flow might be the right choice for you.
- Full blown sort-your-entire-life-out productivity superhero. If you’re serious about productivity, a practicing GTD black belt, and location awareness, task dependencies, nested projects, or syncing are absolutely essential for you, you will probably need something like OmniFocus.
Personally I haven’t settled for the right todo list app yet. But there are a number of other things you can do to be more efficient with your time.
One of the best ways to be more productive is eliminating distractions. Concentrate is a useful Mac app that helps you block out all the things on your Mac that might distract you when you’re trying to focus. With the press of a button your Twitter app shuts down, your word processor launches and access to Facebook gets blocked. You can customise exactly what qualifies as a distraction and how long you need to concentrate for.
It works perfectly with productivity techniques like Pomodoro. If you work on your own and have trouble with distractions and procrastination and you don’t know about the Pomodoro Technique, I highly recommend you try it out.
Pocket is a brilliant service that allows you to save articles from your desktop or mobile to consume later. This is useful when you're at work and you come across a lengthy article and don't have the time to read it there and then. Because Pocket works offline too, you can read articles easily whilst commuting.
Alfred app is a nifty little tool that can save you a ton of time. It’s basically a quick launcher for your Mac. The app gives you super quick access to your local apps as well as common web searches like Wikipedia, Google or Maps. Instead of going through folders and menus you just type a few letters and press Enter. Alfred can also perform common tasks really fast, like sending a quick email or to do a sum without opening the calculator app. One of the best features for me is the multiple clipboard. Alfred remembers everything you copied and pasted ever and you can access this clipboard history in a split second. I don’t know how I ever coped without this little helper.
Here’s our last recommendation for today. If you’re really really really keen on saving time and being more efficient, this app might be right for you. Though you might want to take this with a grain of salt.
There are many many more apps that we use on a daily basis to make our lives easier and if you have any other suggestions, we’re happy to hear them too.
Whilst obviously none of the apps we mentioned can do all the work for you and some even seem like a hell of a lot more work than before, this roundup is meant to inspire and encourage you to start and set some goals, as well as track and ultimately achieve them. The two things to look out for:
Apps that give you insights into your own behaviour are great for finding out what you want and can change in the first place.
Other apps are actual tools that help you do a better job at something. These apps need to be either fun to use or become almost invisible to blend in with your daily routine.
Good luck with your quest to finding the best apps to save your life. Do let us know on Twitter or in the comments how you’re getting on.
About the authors
Pascal Raabe is a digital native with a background in graphic design and print. Working as an interaction designer at ustwo™ he's passionate about shaping the future through meaningful design across disciplinary boundaries. He also loves to moan and muse about all things design on Twitter.
Shaun Tollerton is a visual UI designer at ustwo™. Lover of well crafted pixels, technology, travel and fresh electronic music, you can follow him at @tollerton_._