Productivity with an Android Device [Guest Post]

This is a guest post from Benjamin Wright. Ben’s a OnePlus One user. Ben’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, and practices in appellate and contract law, with civil and criminal trial experience. You can visit Ben’s blog, or connect with him on LinkedIn. But most importantly, Ben loves Android and is willing to share his insight.

Android has come a long way on productivity. Though composition is best left to something with a keyboard, mobile apps are great at handling information. Android apps increase my productivity by capturing and managing the data I need to work.1

Screenshot Home Screen

Here are the five Android productivity apps I use every day, and why I find their alternatives lacking.

Google Now

Screenshot Google Now

Google Now is probably the most underused app on every Android phone (it’s integrated into the Google search app). It doesn’t work like most apps – instead of opening the app to perform a discreet task, Google Now works in the background to give you the right information at the right time. The whole point is that you don’t have to think about it.

What’s Great About It

What isn’t? Here are just a few examples of what Google Now does for me:

  • It gives me an agenda for the day from my calendar.
  • It gives me directions to my appointments, calculates the travel time, and tells me when it’s time to leave.
  • If I recently performed a Google search on my computer to look up a new place or business, it will give me directions and more information. This is especially handy when, for instance, I need to meet a client for the first time; I know directions are just a tap away if I need them.
  • It lets me set reminders quickly. When I need to remember to do a small task, I can just type “remind me to…” in the search bar. Or better yet, I set it with a voice command. I can tell it to remind me at a certain time or place, and I can do this either from my phone or my Chrome browser.
  • It prompts me with information from my Gmail. For instance, if I get an email receipt for a plane ticket, it will show me information about the plane and whether it’s on time. Another example: while writing this I emailed a family member about getting lunch at 11:30. Google Now then asked me if I wanted to keep track of the event, and with one tap I had an appointment ready to add to my calendar.
  • It lets me use my voice to send a text.
  • It will recognize when I visit a location regularly and give me travel time.
  • It will sometimes suggest additional topics on something I’ve searched for. I have found these suggestions to be both highly relevant and things I hadn’t found on my own.

As you can see, Google Now is a powerful app. I use it because it gives me the information I need, when I need it, without having to think about it. It makes Gmail and Google Calendar even better and increases my efficiency.

Why Not the Alternatives?

There are a few on Android (including one by Nuance, the makers of PowerPDF and Dragon dictation software). Of course, Apple and Microsoft have digital assistants for their own devices – Siri and Cortana, respectively. Cortana may even come to Android eventually.

I have not tried the competition because I am happy with Google Now. It integrates well with Android and my Google accounts. It recognizes speech accurately. It works.

How to Get the Most Out of It

To be worth using, you need to go all in with Google Now. You need to feed it information by using your Google account.2 It is also more useful if you use Chrome, or at least use Google services like Gmail, Calendar, and Maps on your PC while signed in to your Google account.

The easiest way to make Google Now accessible is to use the Google Now launcher on your phone. It puts the Google Now cards just one swipe to the left of your home screen. Just try it for a while, and you’ll see how useful it can be. I’ve tried other launchers, and though I like their look or features better, none is quite so undeniably useful.

Ed. note: check out my posts on Google Now. Also, don’t forget that voice commands are one of the best features of Google Now.

Get this app on Google Play

Gmail

Screenshot Gmail

Email is a simple service, and the app for it doesn’t have to be complicated. Still, there are plenty to choose from.

What’s Great About It

Like all Google apps, Gmail is simple, looks great, and performs smoothly. You don’t need tons of features in an email program, but Gmail has the ones you need:

  • It’s fast and smooth. This is something I appreciate about all Google apps – they run well even on older devices. And with something you check as often as email, it makes a difference to be able to open the app quickly and take action immediately.
  • It supports multiple accounts. Of course, it’s easy to add multiple Google accounts, and version 5.0 added Microsoft Exchange support. If you have email, you can use the Gmail app to manage it.
  • It has great search. We all have to find old emails on occasion – usually when the information is important and time is pressing. I’ve never been let down by Google’s in-app search.

Why Not the Alternatives?

Here’s why I use Gmail instead of:

  • Inbox. Inbox (also by Google) is a great app that got me excited at first. It encourages an “inbox zero” approach to productivity. I abandoned it because I found Gmail simpler to use. Inbox lets you do many useful things with an email (snooze it, pin it, archive it, set a reminder), but it’s too much. I don’t want to make all those decisions; I just want to delete junk and archive anything I’m done with. Inbox also doesn’t work with Google Apps for Work accounts (yet)Ed. note: yes it does.
  • Accompli/Outlook. I checked out Accompli before Microsoft acquired it and changed the brand to Outlook. The app features some good ideas: snoozing an email for a period of time, filtering important emails, making calendar scheduling easy. But again, it’s all a little too complicated, and I find it hard to take information in at a glance.
  • Mailbox. While writing this I tried the Mailbox app for a couple days, and I liked it. Its approach is similar to Inbox; it lets you easily archive, delete, or snooze emails. It also lets you send an email to custom lists (such as “to do”). It’s missing one thing, though: automatic email filtering. This means that every email creates a notification. By contrast, Gmail recognizes emails that are less important (like listserv messages), puts them into a separate inbox tab, and doesn’t interrupt my day.
  • The phone’s stock email app. Because Google apps are almost always simpler, faster, and easier to use than stock apps.

How To Get The Most Out of It

Set it as your default email app, make sure you add all your accounts to it, and just use it. Make sure the filtering options are enabled, too. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

If you want to be more organized, practice Inbox Zero. You can also use custom labels to categorize.

Ed. note: check out my posts on Gmail; and Gmail recently added an “All inboxes” option to easily see all your new messages in one convenient place.

calendar all inboxes

Get this app on Google Play

Google Calendar

Screenshot Google Calendar

Calendar applications are much the same story as email. They exist for a simple purpose, so I like them to be simple and fast. I’ve tried popular calendars such as Sunrise, but I keep coming back to Google.

What’s Great About It

Here’s what I especially like about Google Calendar:

  • It’s fast. Like all Google apps, it’s designed to operate fast and smooth on Android phones. No matter how powerful your phone is, you can encounter lag if the app was poorly made. I never have to worry about that with Google apps.
  • It’s simple and easy to use. Open the app and bam, you’ve got your agenda, and it’s easy to read.
  • It has useful calendar views. You can choose from agenda, day, 3 day, or week for default views when you open the app. I like to keep it on agenda (which keeps things easy to read and colorful). Handy tip: whatever your default view is set to, just tip the phone into landscape mode and it’ll switch to a week view automatically, making use of the extra horizontal space.
  • It’s easy to add an appointment. The button is right at the bottom of the app, easy to reach à la material design. And instead of tediously tapping on fields, I can just type “11:30am lunch with Dad at Tom’s Bistro” and Google will figure out what goes where.
  • It integrates well with other Google apps. For instance, even if you only type the name of a local restaurant in the location field, Calendar will play nice with Maps and figure out the address. And of course you’re just a tap away from viewing it in Maps.

Why Not the Alternatives?

I’ve used Sunrise before, as I mentioned. I went back to Google Calendar because I liked the look of the mobile app better. In function, though, Sunrise and Google Calendar are virtually identical.

How to Get the Most Out of It

Use it with Google Now and other Google services. Add the widget to one of your home screens. Get used to adding appointments using your voice (just tap the microphone on the Google search bar and say “add appointment”).

Ed. note: Google Calendar updated with the month view option.

Get this app on Google Play

Todoist

Screenshot Todoist

Todoist is my checklist app of choice. I primarily use the web app on my computer to keep me on task throughout the day, but it’s handy to have the mobile app so you can add something to your list if you’re out and about.

What’s Great About It

I like Todoist because it puts all the features you need for task management into a minimal, intuitive app.

  • The app opens quickly and immediately shows a list of tasks for today.
  • It’s easy to add a task.
  • You can organize tasks by project, use color labels, and add sub-tasks.
  • You can use natural language for the due date. So, for example, you could type “next week,” or “tomorrow.” You can even set the task to recur by typing something like “every Monday.”
  • Everything syncs with a cloud-based browser app. In fact, Todoist has apps for every platform imaginable, including Gmail and Outlook plugins.
  • If you’re willing to pay a subscription fee, you gain access to labels, notes, and reminders for each individual task.

Why Not the Alternatives?

There are other apps that perform the same function, such as Google Keep, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, and Any.do. I haven’t tested each, but Todoist is so full-featured and flexible that I don’t feel a need to. It is, simply, everything that I could need or want in a task management app.

That said, this is an area open to personal preference. Most of the competing apps have the same free features, so you can’t go wrong.

How to Get the Most Out of It

You can, of course, pay for access to premium features, but I haven’t found them necessary. Just use it, both on Android and on your computer, to keep track of tasks.

Get this app on Google Play

Evernote

Screenshot Evernote

Evernote is designed to be a “digital file cabinet.” Use it to store and organize all the information you need to collect for a project.

What’s Great About It

Evernote lets you capture and organize just about any kind of information. It’s like having a physical notebook, except you can also add audio recordings, attach files, take pictures from your camera, and set reminders. It all syncs with desktop and web applications.

Simply put, Evernote does two things:

  1. It captures information. Any piece of information you want to hold onto – in whatever form – can go into this personal database.
  2. It organizes information. Each piece of information is a “note,” and related notes can be collected into “notebooks.” You can also tag your notes to allow even more organization.

Why Not the Alternatives?

The main alternative is Microsoft’s OneNote, which I only recently discovered. A comparison of the two is far beyond the scope of this post.

Suffice it to say that the OneNote Android app (as opposed to its Windows or iOS counterparts) is far behind the competition. That may change before long, but for now Evernote is the only way to go on Android.

How to Get the Most Out of It

Evernote gets better the more you use it. It’s a repository for information, so the more information you put into it the better.

One of the easiest and most useful ways to do this is with the web clipper. This is an extension you install in Google Chrome, and it lets you “clip” any webpage and save it in Evernote.

You can see how it all comes together by thinking about a real project – say, writing a motion for summary judgment. You would first create a notebook for the project. Then you could write an outline for your argument in an Evernote note. As you research the law online, you can clip, highlight, and tag each case right from your browser. All of this goes inside your “Summary Judgment Motion” notebook. Then, when you go to write the motion, all the information you need will be in Evernote, and you can reference it easily as needed.

Get this app on Google Play

Conclusion: Apps are Only Half the Equation

As you can see, productivity isn’t complicated on Android. It’s all about handling information quickly and efficiently. For that purpose, these five apps cover everything you really need.

None of them will do the work for you, though. Even Google Now requires setup, and gets far better when you train yourself to use its voice commands. These apps require you to learn their features and form the habit of using them.

That’s why the most important factor for productivity on Android is: do you enjoy using the app? If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t use it.

So check out my suggestions, and look at the alternatives too. Comment if you find any of these apps a joy to use – or if any causes you utter horror at how useless it is.


  1. One note: I own a smartphone, not a tablet. Android tablets have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to productivity.
  2. Note that Google Now takes information from your Google account, not Google apps. So, for instance, if Google provides your email account, but you use Outlook to look at your email, Google Now should be unaffected.

One Response to Productivity with an Android Device [Guest Post]

  1. Great roundup of Android apps here! I’ve got to say ever since I found EverNote, I can’t imagine life without it. It’s so useful! I’ll have to try a couple of these other ones out too. Thanks for sharing!

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Benjamin Wright

Benjamin Wright is a solo Wisconsin lawyer and long-time Android user. You can learn more about him at his website, blog, or LinkedIn.