“What’s On My Phone,” or, “without these apps I would ACTUALLY DIE”

School has begun again in earnest, which means I’m suddenly remembering just how much I rely upon my devices for keeping me sane and, more importantly, organized. It’s something I’m apparently rather good at, and I think it’s pretty useful for just about everyone, so I figured I’d share some of the tools I use.1

Calendar (system default)

When you’re taking as many classes as I am,2 plus trying to cram in an extracurricular or two to stay ‘well-rounded,’ it can get a bit hard to remember where you’re supposed to be next. The single best piece of advice I can give you is to figure out how best to use the built-in calendar on your device. Connecting an iCloud or Google account to get it syncing across everything, and you’re golden.34

To-Do List (Things)

Following a well-organized calendar, I’d say the single most important thing to have is a good to-do list. Things is my app of choice for having a to-do list, but there’s a few other options out there – OmniFocus is the powerhouse, but it’s a good bit more expensive than the average college kid is willing to pay. I haven’t really looked into the other ones, but they should all work. The main point here is to have a to-do list. The human brain sucks at remembering things – we all think we’re good at it, and we are horribly wrong. Get into the habit of, when you think of something you have to do, putting it on the list. Doesn’t matter if it’s an app or just a page in your notebook – just get it out of your head and into something permanent.5

Mail (Airmail)

Email!6 It’s a thing, it’s basically mandatory for living in a first-world country, we can’t escape it. May as well make it fairly manageable. Apple’s Mail app is a pretty solid implementation of email, but it’s a bit lacking in integration with third party apps and customizability. Airmail is pretty great at both, and all the settings somehow do iCloud sync better than Apple’s stuff does. And, killer feature? Snoozes. Fairly common in mail apps these days, they make the whole ‘inbox zero’ thing way more manageable.

Writing (Ulysses, Drafts, and Day One)

I do a heck of a lot of writing, and I’ve found that markdown is one of the nicest ways to do it. It’s a very lightweight writing syntax – just type like normal, but if you want to italicize something, wrap it in single-asterisks, and if you want bold, do the same with double-asterisks. It’s got fancier features – links are incredibly easy, footnotes not too difficult, and lists make a lot of sense – but depending on what you’re planning to use it for, those may be all you need. So it makes sense that all the apps in this section are compatible with it.
For the majority of my writing, I use Ulysses. Their library of export themes includes fairly ready-to-use themes that make converting a paper from markdown into ‘ready to submit PDF’ just a couple of clicks, and the library organization makes my heart happy. And, with my writing style,7 the killer feature is footnotes – instead of Markdown’s default footnote syntax, I just type (fn) and it pulls up a nice overlay to write my footnote in. So delightfully easy.
Drafts is for lighter-weight writing – it’s a spin-off of the “don’t try to keep things in your head” system I mentioned under the To-Do List heading above. Not everything that I want to remember is a thing that needs to be done – sometimes it’s a scrap of an idea for a blog post or another piece of writing, or maybe it’s a nonsensical quote for my collection.8 Either way, being able to open up a new note and have it ready to type immediately is nice. That said, there’s very little organization to speak of, so for the sort of stuff I’m doing with Ulysses9 it really wouldn’t work.
Finally, Day One is a journaling app of such high quality that, I kid you not, it was one of the main factors in my deciding to switch to macOS (then OS X) after I graduated from high school. I try to write a summary of every day before I go to bed,10 and it’s nice to be able to flip back through all my old entries and see what I was thinking.11

News (Feedly, Instapaper, and Overcast)

None of my recommendations for news are algorithmically-powered – I have yet to find an algorithm that does a good job of figuring out the sort of news I want to read. So I stick with straight RSS. Feedly is the strong contender for RSS readers ever since the death of Google Reader,12 and while they provide a good API that means there’s a bit of an app ecosystem around them, I’ve found their default app (on iOS, and the web app for macOS) to be perfectly enough.
Now, as you’re reading your RSS feeds, you may come across something you want to read… but not right at this moment. Instapaper is a pretty good service for that – the app is very well-designed, and functions beautifully without internet access, so if you’ve got a cell-service-unfriendly commute, or just a limited data plan, I recommend it as a way to keep a bunch of articles ready to read.
Finally, podcasts seem to be all the rage these days. Apple’s built-in Podcasts app is… there. In case you want something that hasn’t been forgotten by the people who make it, Marco Arment’s Overcast is wonderful. He’s a big proponent of open web technologies, something I’m clearly13 in favor of, and Overcast as an app is the sort of app I’d like to make one day.14 Killer feature? Smart Speed – who has time to listen to a podcast at normal speed when you can crank it up to three times faster than normal? Overcast does that without making everyone sound like chipmunks using what I can only assume is some sort of deep audio wizardry.

Music (iTunes/Cesium)

If you’ve been around on my blog for any length of time, you’ve noticed that I post my playlist every month. As a musician, I’m not a big fan of streaming music – they still aren’t doing a great job of paying the artists, and yadda yadda you’ve heard it all before. I’m just an angry old man, shaking my cane at kids, telling them to get off my lawn with their new-fangled streaming services. I just stick with iTunes and actually buying songs for my music needs.
That said, the people designing the Music app on iOS clearly have no idea that people without Apple Music still exist, and the app is borderline hostile to users who don’t have a subscription. I got fed up with it after the last iOS update and took advantage of the ability to remove the built-in apps to replace it with Cesium, which I’d describe as “what the default Music app would be if Apple hadn’t launched Apple Music after iOS 7.”

I think that’s where I’m going to leave it – I’ve got a few more apps on my phone, obviously, but I think I’ve hit all the really useful ones, at least for the college kid trying to stay organized about the whole “oh god so many classes” thing. Good luck with the coming semester (or the rest of the quarter, if you’re one of Those Schools) and, I suppose, fire me a tweet or a message if you’ve got a suggestion of something else that really needs to be on this list.


  1. I’ll be linking to the iOS apps for most of these, but a couple are web services, and most of them have a macOS app of the same name. 
  2. I’m sitting at ‘1 credit above the 18-credit maximum,’ and working on getting signed up for an online class that’s about a 3-credit equivalent. Free time is something that happens to other people. 
  3. Hint: use the macOS Calendar app to set stuff up, it’s a bit easier to get the ‘custom repeat’ stuff to line up with what the class schedule actually looks like. 
  4. Second hint: BlackBoard Learn and, I assume, the equivalent pieces of software at other schools, have something hidden away in the settings that allows you to export an iCal feed of due dates; set that to import into your calendar for low-effort reminders of when things are due. 
  5. My organizational system is vaguely based on the Getting Things Done system, but it’s inexact because I’ve never actually read the GTD book. With Things, I have Areas set up for Home, Work, School, and Media. Tags within that keep track of what stuff is for what class. Setting the due date of assignments is quite nice, as I can have things sort by that or by class. 
  6. Or E-mail! if you prefer. 
  7. “The bastard child of Terry Pratchett and David Foster Wallace” 
  8. The photo book I put together at the end of my study abroad in Austria captioned all the photos with contextless quotes from my fellow students. 
  9. Notes and papers for classes, all of my blog posts, a manuscript or two… 
  10. Which, to be fair, sometimes consist of “I did a lot of things today, and so now I am very tired. Good night, future self.” 
  11. Plus it’s a great way to vent without spitting out a wall of sub-tweets. Journals are an underappreciated way of dealing with being mad at people. 
  12. Not that I’m still bitter or anything. 
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  14. Not literally a podcast-playing app, because that’s not a competition I want to get into, but the ideals behind the way he builds i- oh whatever, you know what I mean.