My top 3 writing productivity apps

Productivity apps can be an energy suck. You spend so much time getting organized and setting up systems you don’t move on to the “producing stuff” stage. Many apps don’t add enough value to be worth it. Here are my top three low-setup apps. These have genuinely helped me improve how much and how frequently I write, with no learning curve or extensive workflow system development required *cough* OmniFocus *cough*. I’m on Mac, so Your Milage May Vary.

1. Brain FM

BrainFM plays frequency- & amplitude-modulated music. The channel I use sounds like EDM with a weird, trippy bass. I cannot explain why BrainFM works. As far as I know, it’s magic. Kidding. It’s science. All I know is I turn it on and the ADD part of my brain goes all quiet and happy, tucking itself into a corner of my skull and tapping its toes happily, and leaves the rest of me free to write. It’s kind of absurd how well it works for me. I can set it for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, or infinity. There’s a wide choice of music/sound types to pick from, and themes for focus, relaxation. or sleep. Best of all there’s no setup required. Put your earbuds in. Push Focus. Work.

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BrainFM asks you to rate your sessions and then tracks your progress. It costs USD $6.95 a month for a month-by-month account. I love it so much I splashed out in December for a discount $39.00 lifetime sub through BoingBoing: this is still on offer for another 5 days (or 1 year for $19; 2 years for $29). I’ve tried other focus music options like Focus@Will. This is also effective, but not to the same extent. BrainFM is the one for me. I’m hooked.

2. Vitamin R

Vitamin R is a flexible pomodoro app: it times you for the duration of a focused work session. The differences between Vitamin R and a plain Pomodoro timer are:

a) Before you start a focus session the app asks you to define your specific objective for this work session. This helps me stop focusing on “working” and start focusing on “completing X task in this project.” The app remembers your objectives, so when you pick up the next day you can easily see where you got to yesterday.

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b) The app then asks which other apps you’d like to close to minimize your distractions. It will remember your choices, and offer these as the default next time.

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c) Then you define your own session length, from 5 minutes to an hour. The app tells you when your time slice will finish, and also links to your google calendar/iCal to let you know what other appointments/plans are in your day view. When you feel like hell, but have to work anyway, it’s useful to just do a five-minute slice. Achieve progress, no matter how tiny. When it’s your prime creative time and you’re energized and alert, crank it up to an hour.

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d) As you work there’s an intermittent tick-tick sound (you can toggle this off) to remind you to stay on task. The idea might sounds annoying, unless, like me, you’re prone to distraction. Then not only will you understand, you’ll love it. The tick acts like the bell in meditation; it reminds me to get back on task (I can get sidetracked easily, just by the birds outside the window). There’s also popups/voice overs to count down your time slice, e.g. “ten minutes left.” Again, you can toggle these off if you hate them.

e) The app tracks your time slices. Over weeks you get to see more clearly when long slices work, and when you’re fed up and short slices work better. This helps me plan my tasks. My gut tells me I work best in the evening. My stats tell me I’m wrong: if I haven’t done it by 6pm, I’ll struggle.

There’s also a notepad, but it takes two seperate clicks to open it while writing and I find that annoying. Using Notes – or a scrap of paper – works more efficiently for me.

3. Day One

I have a problem with fear. My productivity is low because I’m terrified of being judged for my inexorable imperfection. 2015 was a sucky fucking year for productivity for me. In the months of April to November inclusive I wrote only 26,336 words. In February, June, and October I wrote nothing. On 29 November 2015 I started journaling, inspired by my friend Chris (I do not attempt the arty stuff she does). In December 2015 I wrote 34,976 words. In January 2016 I wrote 61,547. In two months, that’s more than three times the word count achieved in the previous eight.

I have a paper journal too of course, but for my writing productivity, I use Day One. The interface is super-clean and extremely simple. When I sit down to write one of those Vitamin R time slices I feel the fear well up inside me every fucking time. Who the hell am I kidding. I can’t write. My books are terrible and no one wants to read them anyway. I’m a joke. When I try, and inevitably fail, everyone will unfriend me.

Before I start writing, I can click open Day One and write all this shit down. Get it out of me, like carving out envenomated flesh. I tell myself it’s all right to fail. I am nothing special, and that is what’s important. We’re all just flailing around , tiny whirlpools in the great energy of life. I can write because I don’t know what I’m doing, not in spite of it.

I can also write through plot issues, when I’m stuck or not sure what happens, or how it happens, or how a character will react. Here’s where Day One beats a paper journal: if I come up with something good I can just cut and paste it, or tag it to find later. I can easily add photos, drawings, and pics of book covers. The Day One interface on Mac couldn’t be simpler: click the + and write, click Done when finished. You can keep multiple journals if you want, and sync between Mac, iPhone and iPad.

The down side? Day One is crazy expensive: currently USD $49.95 I believe (NZ$59.95 = ouch!). It’s definitely a luxury. If you have Evernote you can use that for digital journaling. You shouldn’t need to double up. I own Evernote. I shouldn’t need Day One. But for me, it works, and it’s worth it.

I’m still working on overcoming my fear. It’s deep-seated and will take time. This is my number one priority for 2017, hand in hand with producing many more books.


So, these apps helped me. If you find any useful, or if you’re aware of cool features I’ve missed, shout out in the comments and let me know. And tell me, what’s your favorite productivity app?


4 thoughts on “My top 3 writing productivity apps

  1. Kimberly

    “I tell myself it’s all right to fail. I am nothing special, and that is what’s important. We’re all just flailing around , tiny whirlpools in the great energy of life. I can write because I don’t know what I’m doing, not in spite of it.”
    That’s stunningly true and beautiful. Acceptance and presence means growth! I find your comment above incredibly inspiring and comforting.

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