I still remember the day a colleague came into the office with an iPhone for the first time and started telling us about these things called ‘apps’ she was downloading. It was one of those moments when you immediately sensed that the old way of doing things was about to change forever.
Although some of those early apps were pretty gimmicky, or would at least seem pretty primitive by today’s standards, we knew that the very fact that the handheld slab of plastic, glass and microchips we were all carrying around with us could now do far more than simply send a voice or data signal to another one wasn’t just another small step in the perennial cycle of consumer tech upgrades, but a giant leap for mankind.
It was’t just that our colleague had acquired a ’Smart Phone’, it was that in so doing she had rendered all the rest of our phones ‘dumb’ in comparison.
Fast forward more than a decade and it’s hard to remember how we ever lived without them. Certainly many everyday activities seem like they were so much more complicated. If we’re going somewhere new, or find ourselves in a foreign city, we take for granted that thanks to Google Maps we’ll be able to find our way to our destination in the fastest and even the most cost effective way. No getting lost, waiting ages for a bus, or getting ripped off by taxi drivers.
In fact, we can hail a taxi to come and pick us up exactly where we’re standing rather than standing on the pavement hoping to catch one passing by. Or apps like Lyst or Skyscanner that save us so much time by finding the best possible price for our fashion or flights – saving us hours of shopping around for the best deal.
Of course, there are definitely good arguments that the relentless drive to greater efficiency in every aspect of our lives isn’t a good thing. That we could all benefit from slowing down a bit. And it would be irresponsible of me to not at least mention smartphone addiction and acknowledge the fact that there are many apps that are smartly designed by neuroscientists to keep us compulsively using them, stealing our valuable time and attention so that their overlords can make advertising revenue, or sales (Facebook, Amazon & co. I’m looking at you).
But happily there are plenty of apps that can be much more helpful than damaging and that can play key roles in supporting a positive, healthy lifestyle and growth mindset.
Over the years the apps on my phone screen have come and gone, they’ve grown in number, then shrunk again. These days I try to be much more conscious of the reasons why I am using one. Am I really opening this right now because I have a functional need? Or is it maybe a compulsion? If it is a compulsion, is it pulling me out of the present moment here where I’m with friends, family or colleagues, or am I actually just alone on a bus and decidedly choosing to use the time to catch up with what my friends are up to?
I try to keep my app usage intentional and functional. To make my apps work for me, not me for them. It’s important to bear in mind that so many apps are ‘free’ or at least very cheap because they can make their money by using our data. Is that a trade-off you’re willing to make? Therefore, I try to mostly use apps where I am comfortable with the real benefit I am deriving from the interaction.
So with that all in mind, here are the apps I use regularly and fully recommend because of how much they increase the quality of my life:
Headspace (for meditation)
All the talk about meditation these days isn’t just hype. It really does have very positive impacts on the mind, as the absolute tidal wave of neurological research and anecdotal evidence supports. (I will write on another occasion about the many benefits it has brought to my life.)
And I fully credit Headspace with gradually introducing me to meditation’s different forms and in developing it into a regular habit. For starters it’s fantastically user friendly. Cute and very well thought out animations (like this one) introduce newcomers to new techniques and concepts, and the many tailored ‘packs’ allow you to find a technique or practice well suited to your current challenges or state of mind. Managing Anxiety, Letting Go of Stress, or Finding Focus for example.
An addition in the past year have been audioguides you can use in any number of scenarios, such as Commuting to Work, Walking in the City, or Housework, meaning that if you don’t think you can find 10 minutes for yourself to sit still and just be, then you can still benefit from some of the principles in other ways.
I’ve tried a number of meditation apps, including Waking Up, Calm, and 10% Happier, as well as experienced guided meditations in person many times, but Headspace is the one I always keep coming back to.
Try the free Basics series to get a feel before subscribing. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/headspace-guided-meditation-and-mindfulness/id493145008
Evernote (for information storage and organisation)
My second brain.
The day I discovered Evernote was a similar monumental ‘the world will never be the same again’ type moment to the one described above when I first encountered a smartphone. “This is going to change my life,” I knew instantly.
I have a lot of thoughts and ideas, you see. And often at inopportune moments. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at remembering them. For years I strategically placed small notebooks in the pockets of coats and bags so that I would be ready to capture inspiration when it struck. But then I had the problem of having lots of unstructured thoughts distributed across many different places. And realistically I never went back to review my notes, or curate them altogether.
So the day Evernote came along it was the answer to all of these problems. I could start a note (with text, image, or voice) anywhere, anytime, as long as I had either my phone, laptop, or iPad, save it in a Notebook, and then be able to search for it and add to it at any point again in the future. It was like I was suddenly able to free up an enormous part of my brain capacity. I no longer had to remember so many things. As the wise looking green elephant in their logo suggests, Evernote would do it for me.
As with a number of the apps I use there are an array of Evernote functionalities that I rarely use – such as sharing notes with others, setting reminders, handwriting notes direct on the screen – which I’m sure are fantastically useful, but the core functionalities are all I need to make it an essential tool in my life. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/evernote/id281796108
Duolingo (for language learning)
True fact, language learning can be fun. Even if you think you really don’t enjoy learning languages.
Duolingo gamifies the whole experience, with a kind of interactive trivia quiz type of experience that progresses you from the very basics of a language (‘An apple’, ‘a boy’, ‘the mother’ etc) through grammar, tenses and lots more besides, giving you XP (experience points) and badges as you progress.
By keeping things quick, interactive and fun (sometimes Duo throws in sentences like “My uncles are bears”) Duolingo keeps you coming back day after day in order to maintain your ’streak’ for as long as you can. And whilst I realise that in the intro to this article I pointed a finger at apps that use questionable psychological techniques to hook people into coming back time and again, for me it’s much more acceptable when the goal is to coax people into learning something they want to.
One caveat however is that in my experience Duolingo will not make you fluent on its own. The majority of the interactions are translating text, which will really help you build your vocabulary and fast track how quickly you are able to understand written language, and to an extent spoken language too as a lot of the sentences are read to you.
However, I’ve found that to make holistic progress with a language you’ll definitely need to augment Duolingo with some spoken tutelage – such as with a tutor, a language exchange, with native speaker friends etc.
Although Duolingo does have a ‘Duolingo Live’ feature that provides 1on1 lessons with native speakers, which I have yet to try.https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/evernote/id281796108
Google Translate (for getting by in foreign lands)
Living in a foreign country with little more than a basic conversational grasp of the language, I couldn’t live without Google Translate. The kind of app that seems like sorcery the first time you see it.
It’s the camera functionality that is the most magical. Gone are the days when, ordering in a foreign restaurant we need to point blindly at the menu and hope for the best – now we can hover our phone over the menu and see the words morph into our native language on the screen before our very eyes eyes!
And it isn’t just basic travel phrase translations where it comes in handy. Every time I get a letter through the post from my German insurance company or energy provider, out comes Google Translate to help me understand what they want from me.
One summer we were staying at an agriturimso farm in Emilio Romagna with a charming host who was warmly insistent on giving us all of his local recommendations for things to see and do, but unfortunately he spoke not a word of English. But so determined was he to ensure we both fully understood each other, he turned to the audio translate functionality and insisted we carry out the full exchange via this medium.
He spoke, Google translated to us, we replied, Google translate back into Italian, and so on for 30 minutes. And we had a great day out exploring some beautiful local spots as a result. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/google-translate/id414706506?mt=8
8Fit (for fitness and nutrition)
The world of Fitness Apps is saturated. Everybody has their favourite, and many apps have their strengths for different purposes. In fact, I also use Runtastic for tracking my runs, cycles and hikes, and have experimented with many others over the years as my fitness goals have changed.
But 8Fit is the one that gets called out here because I find it is the most useful and flexible to fit around my lifestyle, as well as being the most effective in driving results.
At its core, 8Fit offers guided bodyweight workouts that you can do pretty much anywhere, anytime. Many of them are short HIIT style workouts, which means that you can burn 400+ calories and give yourself an all over body workout in less than 15 minutes.
I love it because I travel a lot so often don’t have the luxury of a well equipped gym, nor indeed do I want to spend my holidays, weekend breaks, or busy work trip schedules in a dark ‘fitness room’ either. I simply pull out my phone in my hotel room, or on a patch of grass outside, and 8Fit gives me a warm-up, an intense blast workout, and then a cool down. You can also tailor the workouts to your fitness level too, from beginner to advanced.
But the reason I decided to extend my subscription this year wasn’t the workouts, it was the Custom Meal Planner functionality. Now again, there are no shortage of meal planner apps out there either, but 8Fit’s integrates with the fitness goals I have told it for my workouts, and shapes a meal plan accordingly. It knows I want to lose a bit of weight so it keeps my daily calorie count below a certain level.
The biggest deal-sealer is that it also knows I’m vegan so it only recommends vegan recipes to me, which makes it pretty unique as far as I’ve found. What is more, once you’ve selected the meals you intend to make during the week it generates a handy shopping list you can take to the store. https://8fit.com/fitness/30-minute-hiit-workout/
MoneyControl (for mindful spending)
I know, it sounds like a faff to record every penny you spend, but MoneyControl’s ease of use and intuitive interface has helped me get a handle on my spending quickly and easily.
I enter my monthly budget and then with just a couple of taps of the screen I can record every transaction I make – both money in and money out. Moneycontrol clearly shows me how I am tracking against my goal – you literally watch the red bar increase with every purchase – meanwhile keeping a record of where my money is going, allowing me to look back periodically and notice any trends I may not be aware of. For example, how much my morning gym shake adds up to over six months, or how much I’m really spending on food over the course of the week when I include breakfasts and lunches at work to the my weekly supermarket shop.
The main benefit has been me becoming more mindful of my spending urges and training me to question every purchase before I make it. For example, impulsive Amazon purchases have taken a sharp decline. http://mobiware.de/en/moneycontrol
Apple Podcasts (for growth and entertainment)
I’ve written before about how listening to podcasts is a cornerstone of my daily routine, a consistent source of new ideas, inspiration and entertainment, so I always want to have new episodes of my favorite shows ready to go wherever I am.
For me, Apple’s in-built Podcasts app works just fine for this job. Yes, there are many podcast apps available with more fancy features, but there is definitely a case in some instances for keeping things simple.
(Apple) Podcasts allows me to search for and subscribe to new shows. It serves the latest episodes to me in my feed and allows me to queue and download them for offline listening if I wish. Read our guide to the best podcasts for supercharging your growth.
Good On You (for ethical shopping)
Once you’ve made a conscious decision to only shop ethically it can initially seem daunting or at least more complicated to find products that match your values. Good On You is here to change that.
The Good On You app is an in-your-pocket tool for checking the ethical credentials of a fashion brand before making a purchase. They research and rate brands by how kind they are to people, the planet and animals, and make it easy to find new brands who are genuinely bothered about doing things better.
You can set notifications to let you know when you are close to a stockist of one of your favourite brands, meanwhile the in-built blog is regularly updated with topical and seasonal content. https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/goodonyou/id1044017998
Other useful apps I use on a daily basis…
It goes without saying that Youtube is a fantastic resource for videos on everything you can think of. On heavy rotation in our house are yoga classes, motivational and educational videos, nutritional advice, and how-to guides.
MyFitnessPal is one I’ve come to very late, but I use it in much the same as I do MoneyControl above, but for tracking my food intake. I enter everything I eat and it tracks the nutritional and calorific content of my food. Again, like MoneyControl it is having the positive effect of making me much more aware of what I’m consuming, helping me think twice before shoveling in another vegan scone.
Udemy provides on-the-go access to online learning courses covering pretty much every subject you could wish to learn, from computer coding, to photography, to financial analysis. If you’ve got an area you want to upskill in, or you just want a good foundational knowledge, give it a try. https://www.udemy.com/
What apps could you not live without? Am I missing anything you think I’d love? Let me know in the comments below.