The best productivity apps for students

David Murphy

Setting yourself up with a suite of productivity apps that covers all of your bases is one of the best things you can do as a student, whether you're nervously awaiting the first day of your freshman classes or you just need a little extra boost to make it through a final year of projects. Don't waste precious studying (or relaxing) time scouring the web for these apps. We've got a great list of basics that you can check out to make sure you're making the absolute most of your student life.

And, yes, that includes backing up your work (and backing up again), because nobody wants to have to rewrite a lost term paper last-minute. Right?

Google Backup and Sync

Odds are good that your school has some kind of integration with Google services. If so, great! Use the ever-handy Google Backup and Sync app to ensure that your files are always synchronized between your laptop (or desktop) and the cloud. That's a great way to ensure your critical documents always get backed up—and it lets you work on the latest version of whatever you're doing from wherever you are.

As PCMag wrote back in 2020:

"In the past, syncing services that let you specify any folder or file on your system—the way Microsoft's earlier Mesh product did—created confusion, because you have to map that folder to a folder on the other synced computers, which could get complicated if you have several computers. Then there's the issue of having a file open at the same time in both locations—which version edits should be saved? And where do you locate all this on a mobile client? Google Drive cleverly sidesteps these issues by keeping separate folders for each machine, all accessible from the browser."

Anki

When you're trying to cram for the test—or study according to a more reasonable schedule, if you're lucky—having a batch of flashcards that you can run through during your downtime is a great way to stick critical facts and figures in your brain. Don't waste hours scribbling these out, though. Just grab Anki, which makes the process of creating and retrieving digital notecards a snap.

As Marcel Iseli writes over at Linguablog:

"Not only is this one of the most useful, effective, and versatile ways of boosting your learning (not just for languages either), it has a great community of users out there and—drum-roll—it’s free!"

Pomodor

Don't wreck your focus time by spending too much time looking for amazing timer apps that you can use to enhance your productivity. Instead, fire up Pomodor, a free, web-based Pomodoro app that will help you concentrate on tasks. A Pomodoro timer is only as good as your willpower, though, so really try to use that isolated block of time to get some focused work done on a task. That means no tab-switching to other websites, no social media, no games, and no other distractions. You can do it.

Zapier's Harry Guinness recommends Pomodor as one of his must-have apps for productivity:

"There are lots of timer websites out there, but Pomodor stands out from the mediocre masses for a couple of reasons. You can customize the length of the work and break periods as well as the number of Pomodoros you do before a long break, so you can fit it into how you like to work. Just go to Settings in the left sidebar to customize it all.

Also, you can set up a free account, which then allows you to track how much work you get done on any given day. Click Add Label on the timer to list what you're working on for each Pomodoro, so it's all categorized properly. "

Todoist

There are a million different techniques you can use to keep track of all the things you have to get done. But sticky notes and scribbles in a notebook only go so far. Join Todoist in the digital era, and you'll be able to keep track of all your tasks across every device you use, regardless of platform. It's that easy—even if you don't want to pay a dime for the service.

As PCMag's Jill Duffy writes:

"If you're looking for the best to-do list app, one that works on all your devices, tracks your productivity, and lets you geek out on organizing and analyzing your life, Todoist is it. Todoist makes apps for all major devices and platforms, and it couldn't be easier to use. There's a free version, which is very good, though the Premium level is absolutely the way to go. If you need an app to organize your tasks, either by yourself or in collaboration with others, Todoist will keep you happy and productive. It's an Editors' Choice winner."

Magical

Drop the Magical extension into your browser, and you'll be able to super-charge your online research. With Magical, you can flag parts of a website that you want to import to another web-based application—like, say, getting the titles, authors, and synopses of research papers into a Google Sheets spreadsheet. Don't manually copy and paste everything, which will take forever; use Magical, and you can import data from your open tabs in the blink of an eye. Once you've tried Magical, you'll never go back to the old-school method.

According to Eric Griffith over at PC Mag: "Don't type so much. This add-on lets you write little snippets that expand into full, frequently used text, from one word up to full paragraphs. Never type that annoying email out again—just write it once and then type "@jerks" whenever you want to use it (for an example that can't possibly come from my real life). Sign in with your Google account and all your shortcuts get saved auto-magically.."

Notion

If you need an app that lets you take more comprehensive notes, organize thoughts, create integrated to-do lists, and link all your content together in an incredibly organized manner, then you'll want to check out Notion. It's free for personal use, and you'll find it to be an incredibly comprehensive organizational tool for your thoughts, data, and tasks. The UI takes a little getting used to if you're very used to a conventional word processor, but you'll get the hang of it—and the keyboard shortcuts—in no time.

Nick Lafferty, a digital marketing consultant with a great productivity-themed blog, says that Notion:

"...beats Monday, Evernote, Trello, ClickUp, and Airtable across the board. Evernote and Trello are very limited apps, good at one specific purpose and terrible at everything else. Airtable is Notion’s closest competitor in the scope of this article, but it still falls short. On pricing alone Notion is half the cost of Airtable, before you factor in all free credit Notion gives you for completing certain tasks.

Give Notion a shot today. The built-in templates are great, and there are tons of other articles on how to setup Notion just the way you want it.

Best of all, Notion doesn’t have an affiliate program. I’m not getting paid to promote Notion. I’m just a guy writing a blog post in a hotel room about his favorite productivity app."

Cold Turkey

The limitless distractions of the World Wide Web are only amplified when you have infinite networks you can use to get brand-new content at a moment's notice. Here's looking at you, Facebook. And Twitter. Reddit. Instagram. TikTok. The list goes on. Keep these sites at bay—along with their pals "distracting apps" and "addicting games"—with Cold Turkey. This simple blocker helps you maintain productivity in the face of temptation, and you can even schedule in little breaks so you're not completely depriving yourself of that sweet, distracting rush.

As Bytedude wrote back in 2018:

"The first few days with Cold Turkey installed were not easy. Whenever I was waiting on code to compile I would get tempted to head over to Hacker News or Reddit and make some thoughtful comments or shitposts (respectively). The problem is that I would start surfing through the interesting articles and unfunny memes (respectively) and that would usually last longer than the compilation cycle itself.

With Cold Turkey installed, this dopamine-seeking, largely automatic behavior was denied to me. It felt pretty bad, and it was the first time I realized, thanks to Cold Turkey, that I had gotten addicted to mindless surfing. But the initial pain period has subsided and I have better habits that are bringing good results and satisfaction."

Habitica

Whether you're crossing simple items off your to-do list or making lots of headway on larger projects, it's possible that a conventional approach toward productivity isn't what's best for you. If you're a bit of a gamer, or you'd like to at least introduce some kind of a rewards mechanism into your life (beyond the natural joy that comes from finishing something), check out Habitica. ****This simple tool turns your life into a role-playing game, and you can even group up with friends to battle your tasks together.

As Emily Fox wrote in 2019:

"I’ve been using Habitica since 2016. At the time I joined, I was struggling to reincorporate structure into my daily routine. I wanted to be more productive and spend less time on distraction behaviors like gaming, television and social media.

I tried lots of different time management methods and apps, but once I found Habitica, there was no looking back. Habitica is unique because it has a built-in system to help keep you motivated. As an avid gamer, this RPG-styled productivity app was a natural draw for me. After three years of almost daily use, Habitica is essentially my desktop landing page; I can’t imagine life without it!"

ClickUp

For the power users among you, ClickUp is an incredible service that combines, well, everything under one project-oriented roof. Unlike a Subway sandwich that's oozing with every ingredient, the end result works out really well if you're looking for one single place to manage everything you do that you'd categorize as "productivity." The app gives you to-do lists, documents and wikis, spreadsheets, event-tracking, and project management, as well as the ability to send and receive email directly from the app. You can track your time on tasks, track your goals, and even capture screenshots and recordings of your very screen. And did we mention that ClickUp is free?

As Fergus O'Sullivan describes for Cloudwards:

"ClickUp’s free offering is its main draw. The limits it does impose are pretty light, meaning you get an almost fully functional piece of project management software for the price of nothing. Unlike many of the other free providers we like, such as Trello or Wrike, there’s no limit in functionality or how many team members you can invite.

If you need a free task management solution, ClickUp should definitely be on the higher reaches of your list."

GoodNotes

For those who need a little more firepower than what's built into the free Apple Notes, GoodNotes is a great alternative for scanning in, marking up, and organizing your many real-world documents. Managing your documents in a lovely looking interface is easy and quick, and you can even create flash cards directly within the app—useful if you want to later quiz yourself on what you're busy marking up. And, to that, you get a ton of pen types and colors to pick from, which can really help you organize your thoughts in a much more efficient fashion than the standard "yellow highlighter" you might find in competing apps. While GoodNotes will set you back around $8 or so, the app is a universal purchase. Buy it once, and you'll have it for every Apple platform.

As Ryan Chatterton writes over at Paperlike:

"The app has some incredible features and, overall, the document creation workflow and user interface feel more complete.

When you’re jotting down your thoughts, creating a sketch, or looking for a dedicated workspace that you can truly call your own, the customization and functionality that GoodNotes offers makes you feel more comfortable and in control."

PCalc

PCalc is, simply put, the best calculator app you'll ever get for iOS or macOS. It's not free, but neither was your expensive graphing calculator back in high school. And if you need more firepower than just the basic operations, you'll be glad you plunked down for PCalc.

As Jason Cross wrote for PCWorld:

"I know what you’re thinking. “TEN DOLLARS for a calculator app?!” Yes, it’s pricey. Yes, there are plenty of perfectly good, less expensive options. But none of them are as good as PCalc.

There’s a reason this one tops the list in a crowded field. You simply won’t find a better combination of features, speed, polish, and interface elegance. Other calculator apps may do well in one or two of those categories, but PCalc nails them all."

Libby

Don't spend your precious student money on books that you can otherwise check out from the library for free. The Libby app allows you to unify all of your various library cards under one roof and check out anything—if it's available—directly through the app. It's free to use and incredibly handy if you don't mind doing a bit of initial legwork to get your hands on some of those precious library cards. Whatever you're reading syncs across your various devices, and you can even download books for offline viewing.

As Mara Leighton wrote for Insider:

"I've found Libby's book selection to be great in both quality and quantity. You can also do most of the things other apps offer, like downloading for offline reading, changing playback speed, adding bookmarks, putting on a sleep timer, and syncing with other devices so you don't lose your spot — all completely for free.

I also loved that you can place up to 10 book reservations at a time. It pretty much guarantees that you'll always have one ready to read.

Lastly, Libby lets you borrow books for 21 days and even request extensions if you run out of time."

Bitwarden

There's no reason why you shouldn't be using a password manager, especially when you can get your hands on an incredible, free app like Bitwarden. The premise is simple. Use Bitwarden to create and remember complex, unique passwords for all of your accounts and services. All you have to do is remember how to log into Bitwarden (which you can keep extra-secure with two-factor authentication and/or the biometric security features already built into your phone, laptop, or desktop). Then, accessing your passwords is as easy as tapping a prompt whenever you go to log into something on whatever device you're on. You'll authenticate into Bitwarden, pull up your impossible-to-guess password, and be on your way. Easy as that.

As Emily Long wrote for Tom's Guide:

"It offers more on its free tier than most competitors do, and its premium plan — with features such as advanced two-factor authentication (2FA) and secure storage — will set you back just $10 per year.

Users simply looking to save an unlimited number of passwords that sync across all their devices and automatically fill in online forms will get that with Bitwarden's free tier.

Bitwarden is not the most intuitive service to navigate, and it has some clunky functionality compared to other password managers. However, it's a great value for anyone on a budget who's willing to figure it out. Bitwarden is our top free choice among the best password managers."

Way of Life

This iOS and Android app is an incredibly helpful tool for teaching yourself a new habit—not the raw mechanics of whatever it is you're trying to do. Rather, Way of Life helps you ingrain whatever it is you're doing, learning, or trying into your regular routine. It helps you create a habit; it's up to you, then, whether you're ultimately successful at your task. But that's the easy part, right? Trying something new and sticking with it is the problem.

As The Sweet Setup's Mike Schmitz writes:

"If you like charts, graphs, and trend lines, Way of Life may be for you. It provides a ridiculous amount of customization when it comes to analyzing your habits. It’s not nearly as pretty as some of the other apps we like, but it does give you a lot of options and the in-app purchase to remove the habit limit is only a one-time cost of $7.99, which is quite a bit less than some apps we looked at."

Forest

The premise of Forest is pretty simple. Launch the app and stay off of your phone. The longer you remain focused and not-distracted by your digital device, the larger your virtual tree will grow. The more you focus, the more trees you'll make over time, giving you a gorgeous, visual representation of how much time you've spent on your tasks. And the more you participate, the more your focus will actually help Forest plant real trees on Earth, thanks to a partnership with Trees for the Future.

As Mashable's Nicole Gallucci wrote:

"In an ideal world, I'd spend less time glued to my iPhone on the weekends. I'd give dining companions my full attention during meals rather than rudely checking incoming push notifications. I'd spend my commute deeply immersed in a book instead of pausing to check social media every ten minutes, and I'd drift off to sleep in the dark without having exposed my retinas to a half hour of blue light beforehand. I downloaded Forest in hopes that it would help turn my unplugged dreams into a reality, and to my great surprise, it did."