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PRODUCTIVITY

8 Tools to Amp Your Productivity

Because sometimes you just need a new app to add more minutes to your day.

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Think of the satisfaction that comes with getting a lot of work done, knowing your projects are organized and up-to-date and carving out the time and emotional space necessary to strategize and innovate. If only you could have more of that feeling, right?

The good news is in the last few years there's been a shift in how business software is built. The best and most popular new tools focus on ease-of-use and tackling your biggest pain points.

Are the tools you're using at work outdated? Do you struggle with feeling less productive than you could be? These platforms and apps can help.

The problem: Your project communication is haphazard, at best.  

The solution: Evernote is great for keeping track of travel itineraries, photos of receipts or other things you need to remember but it's not particularly collaborative and sometimes your notes need to involve other people. Intellinote is a Web and iOS app that adds to note-taking social collaboration and project management.

Intellinote involves both a private work area and a shared workspace you can use to collaborate with others on projects. Within a project you can drag notes into notebooks as well as add and assign tasks. A dashboard displays the completion level of projects as well as how engaged team members are in them. Currently Intellinote is available for free in beta but at some point in early 2014 the company says it will begin charging for its business-level subscriptions, although a limited-feature free-forever tier for individuals will remain. An Android version of Intellinote is in development.

The problem: You wish your smartphone acted like a smart assistant.

The solution: Android users will love Agent, an unobtrusive virtual gatekeeper because it works in the background to automatically silence your phone during meetings or events it sees on your Google calendar while letting you designate people on your contact list to which the rule doesn't apply. Other novel features include the ability to read text messages aloud when it senses you're driving while sending someone who calls or emails you a text that tells them what you're doing and that you'll get back to them later. It also geotags your car's parking location on a Google Map when you walk away from it and helps conserve your phone's battery by shutting down non-critical functions when your battery depletes to a threshold that you set. Free in Google Play.

The problem: Your to-do list is unmanageable. 

The solution: While there's no shortage of sites that will help you organize your to-do list, there's something particularly gratifying about Trello, a Web-based project management tool that lets you drag and drop cards (tasks) from To Do, Doing, and Done lists organized from left to right. You can use Trello alone to keep track of your work, or add team members or contractors to cards, comment on tasks as well as assign due dates. Trello also lets you color-code tasks with card labels so you can quickly gauge your progress doing work for various clients or stakeholders. Free at Trello.com.

The problem: There's never enough time to give feedback to employees.

The solution: Chuck Longanecker, founder and CEO of Digital Telepathy in San Diego, says 15Five is a "must have" and the best way to keep track of employees. Managers use the Web app to ask employees questions such as "What challenges are you experiencing at work?" or "What are your sales projections for next month?" Once a week employees receive an email with a link that sends them to an online form where they spend no more than 15 minutes answering questions. 15Five is designed so that managers can consume employee feedback in no more than five minutes.

"My favorite thing about 15Five is that it lets managers easily escalate an idea or a concern from an employee's report and include it on their own report by clicking a button next to the response," Longanecker writes. "Then we can have a conversation right on the report, and the manager or employee gets an email notification every time I comment on one of his or her responses."

15Five is $49 a month for the first 10 people and $5 extra a month for every additional person.

The problem: Your payroll processes could use an upgrade.

The solution: The never-ending process of paying employees isn't exactly the sexiest part of running a business. ZenPayroll, which launched a little over a year ago, seeks to make it delightful, both for the employer and employees, many of whom often take little interest when they receive a notification that funds have been direct deposited to their bank accounts. ZenPayroll, which is highly automated and super simple to use, actually aims to use payroll to improve the employer-employee relationship with colorful visualizations that show employees exactly into what buckets their earnings go, as well as attention-grabbing fun facts such as how many pay periods it would take the employee to fill the fuel engine of a Boeing 747 airliner.

ZenPayroll, which recently announced it now integrates with the popular accounting platform, FreshBooks, starts at $25 a month plus $4 a month per employee or contractor, up to the first 10; after that, it's $2 a month extra per employee or contractor.

The problem: Expense reports are painful for everyone involved.

The solution: With a tagline that promises "expense reports that don't suck," Expensify is an online tool and mobile app that simplifies expense tracking as well as the process for creating and submitting expense reports. It lets employees record expenses in real time with their mobile devices, snap photos of receipts, track mileage using GPS as well as how much time they're logging on various projects.

Expensify's Web app automatically syncs with information garnered from the mobile app. It also uses "SmartScan" technology to understand receipt photos and automatically complete certain fields, such as date and amount. Users can also import bank and credit card transactions to generate e-receipts accepted by the IRS, doing away with the need to keep paper receipts.

Expensify is free to manage the expense reports of two employees.  To accept, review, and approve the expense reports of more than two people it's $6 per submitter per month.

The problem: Your inbox is out of control. 

The solution: There's a reason my review of the Sanebox email filtering service was Inc.'s most popular online story in 2013--wading through and responding to email may very well be the biggest pain point people have at work.

It's like Gmail's Priority Inbox feature in that it looks at your messages and prior history engaging with those senders and decides which emails you're likely to deem most important. SaneBox removes less important messages from your inbox completely, moving them to a @SaneLater folder that you can peruse whenever you want. If SaneBox puts an important message into that folder you can move it to your inbox and it remembers the action so the next time you receive a message from that person, it will go to your inbox.

In addition to the @SaneLater folder that stores non-essential messages, you can also enable folders such as @SaneNews for newsletters and @SaneBlackHole for those messages you want to send straight to your Trash. And it also lets you CC or BCC a message to @SaneBox.com to remind you if someone doesn't respond. SaneBox also creates a @SaneRemindMe folder that lets you keep track of all the messages to which you still need replies. Use oneweek@SaneBox.com, June5@SaneBox.com or 5minutes@SaneBox.com; it doesn't matter, SaneBox will figure out the time frame you need.

The service starts at $49 for two years and works with email clients such as Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail, iPhone, and Android and as well most email services like Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo, AOL, and Gmail.

The problem: Too many online passwords, not brain power to remember them.

The solution: Logging into your frequent flier account, a Web service, or any other place where you need to remember a username and password should be a simple thing, but very often it's not. Whether you can't remember your login credentials or you're trying to sign up only to learn you already have an account (who knew? And who knows the password?), logging into things can be a real pain.

That's why every time I have to use LastPass to retrieve the forgotten digital keys to an account I'm so thankful not to have to wait for an email to reset my password. For one thing, I have several email accounts, so sometimes I'm not sure which one I've registered with which service. Second, having to change my password yet again means yet another password I won't remember in a few minutes.

With a LastPass account, however, the password vault adds an extension to your browser and follows you around online looking over your shoulder for any login pages. If LastPass has the right username/password combination for a particular site it lets you add them to the sign-in fields with one click. If it detects you're signing up at a site for the first time it asks if you want to remember the site and the credentials to get in. LastPass will also make a unique alpha-numeric password any time you need one, making sure to keep it on record. LastPass for Windows, Mac, and Linux is free at LastPass.com. LastPass for mobile is $12 a year after a 14-day free trial.

What must-have apps help you stay sane during the day?

IMAGE: Chris Friese/Flickr
Last updated: Jan 23, 2014

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech startup community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.
@salubriousdish




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