A week ago I was fortunate enough to attend Podcamp Halifax as one of their speakers, and I was blown away by the response I received! For those who couldn’t make it, I prepared a talk called Happy Hustle: Get SMART about your goals to increase productivity and avoid creative burnout. During my presentation, I talked about causes of creative burnout, the process of setting up SMART goals and also covered five apps to help you be more productive while keeping you from feeling burnt out.

The reason I chose to do this talk was because I believe in diversifying your income. I think that as creative people we are in this precarious position of not always having a guaranteed full-time job, so setting yourself up with a side hustle leaves you with more security when the time comes that you might need it. As someone who has had a side hustle for over two years now, I’m aware of how quickly you can get burnt out by working outside your 9 – 5 grind. So I wanted to review in-depth those apps covered in my talk that keep me from burning out or losing track of my projects.

The best free apps to avoid creative burnout and increase productivity

Something to keep in mind is that project management apps are NOT always productivity apps. I personally find that there are so many features available in project management apps like Asana that you end up wasting time figuring out how to use them and keep them up-to-date.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I enjoy project management apps. I am the queen of Basecamp! I love spending time setting up projects in an app and checking off tasks as I complete them. The problem with a project management app being used as a productivity app is that you can’t really set up long term goals and projects without risking burnout from a rigid predetermined schedule. I always had a problem with setting up my Basecamp when I was in a real go-getter mood, but when the time came to get the work done, it was overwhelming. I had spent so much energy listing out all the to-do items but wasn’t conscientious of the amount of time those tasks would take.

A productivity app, on the other hand, is there to help keep you focused on a task, avoid creative burnout and help you get more done.

These apps should follow the criteria below:

  • Easy to use.
  • Intuitive user experience.
  • You’re likely to open a few times a day.
  • Keeps your tasks simplified.
  • You can see all your tasks in order of priority.
  • Free. (But this one might be a personal preference)

I use a set of 5 apps to keep myself on track for achieving my SMART goals. This may seem like a lot, but each of the 5 apps hit all of the requirements above, and together form an easy-to-use productivity environment.

Google Calendar as a Productivity app to avoid creative burnout

Google Calendar as a productivity app

Many people become overwhelmed by their workload because they haven’t given themselves adequate time to work on projects/goals they set for themselves. I like to work out my bigger goals and projects on paper before ever using an app. When I go to put my finalized projects into any kind of tracking software, I always ‘block out’ the time each project and task will take.

For big projects, I like to see how long the Project will be on my calendar for, so I use the “All day” event option in Google Calendar. Doing this allows me to see at-a-glance what my current objectives and overhead projects are because they show up at the top of my calendar.

Once I have the overhead projects on my calendar, I figure out what tasks need to be completed and instead of writing them down somewhere in an app or notebook, I ‘block out’ the time to work on them into my calendar right away.

Because I’m pre-blocking my working time, I know exactly when an unexpected meeting is going to push a project, or when I need to shuffle tasks to make room for dinner at my parent’s place. Knowing what your schedule looks like a couple weeks to a couple months in advance helps you schedule new projects without causing yourself to be overwhelmed by the amount of work coming in.

Google Keep to avoid creative burnout

Some people will not enjoy using Google Keep because there is a little more analog work involved in using this program. In project management apps, you can set projects with tasks, and those tasks have subtasks, and those subtasks have deadlines, and you don’t have to think about it anymore once it’s all set up. This automation works well when you are working with a team of more than one person, or if you absolutely need this kind of system to get anything done.

Personally, I believe that this sort of system leads to creative burnout. It takes away the ability to check in with yourself and make sure you are still passionate about the tasks in front of you. It also allows you to fall into rabbit holes of scheduling tasks without realizing how many obligations you’ve actually set for yourself.

For me, I keep all my projects and their associated tasks in Google Calendar. When I sit down each morning, I can check my calendar to see what tasks I’ll be working on so I have a clear idea of how much time is needed for each of them. This is when Google Keep comes in.

Google Keep is a storage space for thoughts, to-do lists, projects, inspiration, etc. It uses ‘notes’ to keep track of everything for you, and allows you to use custom tags to keep everything in order. It also allows you to pin items to the top of your stack for easy viewing. I have 4 notes pinned to the top:

Primary Tasks.
1 – 3 top tasks that absolutely must be completed that day.
Secondary Tasks.
This is where I keep notes like meeting friends, cleaning the cat litter, picking up milk. These are tasks that would be nice to get to today, but I’m not going to beat myself up if they aren’t completed.
Unscheduled tasks.
Upcoming tasks. Or items that come up during the day that will need to be scheduled.
A list of projects/ideas/collaborations that I want to get to someday, but they’re not even on the radar yet.

Also, Google Keep has a Chrome extension that allows you to save a website or any part of that site to look at later. You can add a title, a personal note about why you’re saving it and a set of tags to make it easier to find when you need it.

Google Keep as a Productivity app to avoid creative burnout

Any.do to keep on task

Any.do is a very simple to-do app. While it seems like this app would double your work, I use this app as a lynchpin to my master system.

Any.do is optimized for mobile use. It’s quick and easy to take out your phone the second you think of an idea and add it to Any.do. It will allow you to remind yourself about that task ‘today,’ ‘tomorrow,’ ‘later,’ or ‘someday.’

These options will keep your head clear while you’re working because you know you won’t forget to ‘pick up snacks for a potluck’ or whatever else you think of when your brain is desperately grasping around for a distraction.

For people who don’t love Google Keep, this is a simple app that you can use as a to-do list tracker for short term projects.

SelfControl to stay off social media

I could not function without this app. Not sure what it is about me, but the second I open an internet browser, I type in ‘Facebook.’ And once I’m there, every other thing I might have been working on is right out the window—for like an hour—so I try to avoid social media during the day as much as I possibly can.

So I started using SelfControlApp. It has a seriously scary looking logo of a skull in a spade; I can only assume because it means business.

What SelfControl does is it imports a list of websites that you want to block access to (or you can set your own), and then lets you set a time limit for the blocking function. You can pick anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 day. And then you can’t turn it off. If you change your mind, you will have to wait it out or just get back to work.

So I have everything from Social media websites to news sites all shutdown, so I’m not able to be distracted by the constant nagging urge to look at kitten pictures on Reddit or see what my friends are doing on Facebook.

Alinof Timer to provide motivation

This is a simple timer app. You can use any countdown app you like, honestly.

When you are using time ‘blocks’ to set up your work in Google Calendar, it’s really easy to feel like you have all the time in the world to complete a 3 – 4-hour task. It might lead to you checking your phone a bit more or taking more coffee breaks. Because that is such a huge chunk of time, right?

The problem with that line of thinking is that if you have a huge chunk of time to work on a task, it can probably be broken down into a few steps. So to keep myself on track with a block of time, I will break the task down into 25-minute segments of work. I do this on a piece of paper next to my desk, so whenever I look away from my computer, I see it.

The timer is just used to create urgency. Once that timer goes off, I will move onto the next part of the work, whether I’m finished or not.

At the same time, when I am getting task after task completed, it gives me little boosts of good feelings every 25 minutes or so of a work session. Giving yourself that extra confidence boost is a really effective way of keeping your energy up and in the long run will help keep you from feeling creative burnout.

You achieve anything you set out to do

Everyone can reach the goals they set if they work hard and are honest with themselves. While I love project management apps, I don’t use them anymore because I was getting the same feeling of satisfaction just PLANNING my goals. It’s a trap I see a lot of people fall in when they are trying to achieve their biggest, scariest dreams.

Next time you feel like you should try out a new app because it will get you on track, stop yourself. Put your head down and do the work you were going to plan out instead.

By doing the work, you will learn more in half the time. You will make more mistakes, that lead to you to more innovative ideas. If you are making mistakes, you are on your way to becoming the person you need to be to achieve your big scary dreams.

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