My 5 must-have productivity apps

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They may not seem like much at the time, but some of the little things you have to do day-in, day-out on your computer can add up, time-wise. Whether it’s digging through folders for that one file, or trying to remember where you kept that one scrap of paper, or resetting that forgotten password, or clicking through all the buttons required to send just a single e-mail, computers sure do take a lot of our time. How can we get that time back? Here are five tools I rely on daily to be more productive whenever I sit down at my laptop.

1. Dropbox

I’ve sung the praises of Dropbox here quite a bit this year. It syncs important files between computers (and mobile devices). It’s the easiest way I’ve found to share files with collaborators or send large files without clogging up recipients’ inboxes with attachments. It’s got a very generous free plan. If you’re a fan of this blog (or even if you’re not) you should be using Dropbox. I use it to co-author documents and to quickly get PDFs and other materials onto my iPad. I also use it to sync settings files for important software like my password manager (more on that in a minute), so my settings and preferences are consistent between my work computer and my personal computer.

2. Keyboard navigation

People around the office will tell you: I don’t like using a mouse. Don’t get me wrong–mice have their place, like when I’m doing some image editing in Photoshop, but for locating files, searching the web, and other functions that are tied more to typing than clicking, keyboard navigation is the way to go. I use a Mac-only utility called Alfred–it makes it simple to quickly find find files on my computer, send e-mail, search my favorite websites (or the whole web, with Google); all with minimal use of my mouse. You can do quite a bit with Alfred’s free version–search Google or your own favorite websites, perform basic system commands like putting your computer in sleep mode, do quick calculations, look up words in the dictionary. The Power Pack add-on gives some very handy additional features, like enhanced clipboard access and the aforementioned file system searching and easy e-mail support.

Some of these functions are also available using Spotlight, Apple’s built-in technology. Press command-space on your keyboard or click the magnifying glass in the upper-right corner and start typing–you might be surprised at what you find.

Another option is Launchy–it’s free (open source) and works on Windows, Macs, and Linux computers.

3. Evernote

Do you like having constant access to your files through Dropbox? What if you could have similar access to your clippings and notes that you collect? Check out Evernote, another free service that can make you more productive by making it easy to stow things away for future reference. Like Dropbox, Evernote lets you keep your stuff synced for easy access from multiple computers, mobile devices, and the web. I don’t use Evernote all the time, but I find myself using it more–especially when I’m clipping things from websites or typing up quick notes while watching a podcast that I can pause or rewind as necessary.

4. Livescribe Desktop (and pen)

In addition to Evernote, I also use a Livescribe pen on a regular basis. This is useful for me in situations where I can write faster than I can type (or when having a laptop open appears gauche; some folks still think that an open laptop is too much of an invitation to goof off) or when sketches play a part in my notes. This one’s not free–you need a Livescribe smartpen. These pens start at around $90 and go up from there, depending on the model and storage space. Once configured with your computer, though, the Livescribe Desktop software makes it easy to capture what you’ve written to paper, convert it to PDF for sharing, or send it to Evernote for storage along with your other notes.

5. Password manager

How much time per day do you spend trying to remember all your usernames and passwords? (Hopefully, you’re not using the same login credentials for all of your accounts–that could really take a toll on your productivity if one of them ever got breached.) There are several options out there now that help you create and manage tough-to-guess passwords for each of your accounts with ease. I use 1Password, a cross-platform solution that keeps your passwords for individual websites and accounts locked away. You never even have to look at them if you don’t want–you just need to know your master password to access your various online services. 1Password also works with iPhones and iPads, though I haven’t tried these options. There are several other password management options available, though. KeePass is a popular, free option that works on a variety of computers and mobile devices.

Do you have a favorite application or utility on your computer (or mobile) that helps you get things done a little more quickly? Share your tips in the comments below. Have a great weekend!

Photo: Kenneth Gaerlan on Flickr

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Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.