#33: The Ultimate Productivity System for Knowledge Workers: 2023 Edition
Get the best process and app recommendations for discovering, reading, processing, and sharing information in one place. Compiled over six long months!
This is the longest article I’ve written to date. 5000+ words to build a single source of information on all categories of apps you would need. I would suggest you read this article on the website/app if you’re not doing that already. Here is a summary:
Philipp (@creativerly) and I met on Twitter, geeking out over products. It took us 6 months to research and publish this piece. So, if you find it helpful, I would request you to share it with at least one other person 🙌
Now, let’s get to it…
Alice is a FAANG product manager. But she goes through What-App-Can-I-Try syndrome.
Now, what’s that?
At work, she is shaping a product that will impact the lives of millions of small businesses. Outside of it, she spends time mentoring hundreds of professionals and students. She is a self-proclaimed bookworm, amateur artist, and curious traveler. Her Mac and iPhone are inundated with apps she relies on to make her life more comfortable.
Not just Uber and DoorDash, but 10s of productivity apps. All the way from Calendly and Todoist to Notion and Figma. And she is always on Twitter and Product Hunt, on the lookout for the next best thing.
If you’re anything like Alice, you are an ‘innovator’. You want access to the best tools – before anyone else. Or you could be like Nathan, Alice’s colleague, who is happy to wait for a bit before getting on the bandwagon. That makes you an ‘early adopter’.
If you’re reading this article, you’re almost certainly one of these two.
One common problem both of these groups face today is the lack of curation of tools across their user journey. There is no single place that curates the best resources they would need during an average week. Moreover, users are dealing with:
🧰 An overstocked toolbox: The last few years have seen an explosion in productivity tools – making work more complicated. Zoom calls now frequently involve users just switching screens from Notion to PowerPoint to Figma to some form of a spreadsheet. And this has accelerated during the pandemic.
😫 Apps that don’t play well together: Yes, you can embed a Miro board in Notion, but the experience is subpar. It seems like an afterthought and not a core experience.
💸 Piling costs: An Okta report found that the average customer in 2018 had 80 installed work apps, an increase from 50 apps in 2015. Of Okta’s Office 365 customers, 76% had one or more apps that are duplicative of a Microsoft app. While the Google/Microsoft suite is priced at $10-15/user/month, a stack comprised of Notion, Airtable, Figma (including Figjam), Slack can cost $40+/user/month on top.
We decided to change that.
Philipp (@creativerly)and I have been product geeks for a long time. And we often get asked about our favorite apps. In this article, we will be breaking down the entire journey of a knowledge worker to understand the needs and the flow and recommend a handful of apps that you’d require in an average week 🤌.
We will keep the jargon to a minimum and make the entire piece skimmable so that you can read any section below without additional references and by skipping the previous sections 🪴
Discussing workflows with numerous knowledge workers, we’ve arrived at this six-step journey:
Each has its own dedicated section and apps below:
📱 Casual Browsing/ Passive research: Passively scrolling through your favorite feeds and articles to find inspiration (and with no intent to search for specific data)
✅ Setting a plan and managing tasks: Deciding an objective, breaking down the plan into smaller tasks, and setting the timeline (aka your friendly neighborhood PM)
🔍 Conducting active research: Setting up a hypothesis and working to prove/disprove various items in the list basis desk research, user research, and connecting with experts in the field
🗃️ Organizing research: Saving the hypothesis and corresponding research in a format that is easy to read, refer to, and search
🎉 Sharing with the world: Sharing the research findings with the larger team or the entire internet
🤝 Connecting with others and getting feedback: Once the research findings are published, connecting with the readers and field experts to improve on the ideas and build relationships
A sample user journey for Alice would look like this:
Alice comes across a thread about NFTs on Twitter and decides to publish an in-depth starter pack for anyone who wants to learn about Web3. She starts reading more on Substack, on Twitter, and connects with blockchain experts. Next, she curates the best resources by theme in a Notion doc and makes it public to share her research and get feedback. Plenty of folks DM her on Twitter offering help and opportunities in the sector.
Who thought scroll sessions would be useful?
As Peter Drucker already wrote in his book The Landmarks of Tomorrow, knowledge workers spend a serious amount of time developing products and services while using their theoretical and analytical knowledge. Developing these products and services involves certain kinds of steps. Thinking of a complete process of going from idea to research to development to sharing and ultimately getting feedback on the finished product or service, the first step that leads to this process is Casual Browsing or Passive Search.
There is no doubt that the internet has revolutionized the way we live and work. One of the most popular ways to use the internet is through a passive web search, which allows users to find information without actively seeking it out.
The web is a vast and ever-growing resource for information. However, it can be difficult to find the right information without knowing how to search for it effectively. For professionals, learning how to browse the web casually and how to search it passively can be extremely helpful in finding the appropriate information quickly and efficiently.
Passive Search or Casual Browsing can lead to some struggles.
💀 Doom-scrolling: This is the situation you will find yourself in when you have been scrolling through the web, Twitter, Facebook, or any other social network for minutes or even hours, not knowing what you have been searching for in the first place.
📚 Information Overload: Because we're not actively seeking information, we may not be aware of all the relevant sources available to us.
🤐 Losing Scope: Additionally because we're not directing our search in any specific way, it can be more difficult to find what we're looking for.
🏴☠️ Irrelevant Results: Finally, passively searching often means that we'll end up with numerous irrelevant results cluttering up our search engine results pages.
All of these factors together can make passive searching less efficient and effective than active searching.
Moreover, with so much information available online, it can be hard to determine which sources are reliable and which ones aren't. Additionally, ads can typically be distracting and intrusive, making it difficult to focus on the content we're trying to read.
Therefore, there is a need to bypass the struggles of passively searching or casually browsing the web, so knowledge workers can focus on their work instead of wasting time online.
There are a few different ways how knowledge workers can passively search or casually browse through the web. There are three things we can optimize for:
The places we look at (The Sources): Before we can develop the ideal flow of passive search or casual browsing, we need to find good sources of information first. The first step is to find general sources that cover a wide range of topics. From there, you can drill down into more specific areas based on your needs. It's also important to find reputable, topic-specific sources (writers, newsletters, Twitter accounts, creators) and make sure that the information is up-to-date. Or you can use generic websites like Wikipedia, social networks like Twitter or Reddit, or news sites like Hacker News to find information on specific topics.
Our window to the world (The Browser): Recently, we experienced a browser revolution. Over the last couple of years, Browsers became incredibly powerful, but most of them did not adapt to the new possibilities of how we could interact with the web and the internet. One of them is Arc by The Browser Company, which became one of the most popular alternatives to standard browsers like Google Chrome, Safari, or Firefox. Arc is not only a browser, it is your own creative space. Arc gives you the possibility to set up spaces for different kinds of projects and work. Within those spaces, you can pin tabs which you need daily. To keep a consistent performance while working in Arc, it suspends tabs (which are not pinned) after 24 hours automatically and moves them to an archive. Additionally, Arc has built-in whiteboard and note-taking capabilities, thanks to a feature called Easel. It’s a place to save everything you find online, but also a great way to brainstorm, mood-board, collect inspiration or even write stories. You can keep them private, collaborate with friends, or share them with the world. Besides Arc, there are also tools like SigmaOS, Stack, and Vivaldi which are all following new approaches and turning the browser into a creative space.
How we experience and remember those places (The Apps): These could be apps like Readwise Reader, Pocket, and MyMind that help you save articles for reading later and ‘scribbling’ on or Bionic readers that help you consume the content better.
It does look like you would have a plan
Time and task management is important for all professionals, but it’s especially critical for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers need to be able to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously and efficiently in order to get the most out of their day. Time management skills allow knowledge workers to prioritize their work, stay on track, and avoid distractions. Additionally, good task management skills can help knowledge workers manage their time more effectively so that they can complete more tasks in a shorter amount of time.
Knowledge workers are constantly managing their time and tasks in order to be productive and efficient. However, there are a few common problems that they face.
✖️ Multiple/Different Tasks: This can lead to feelings of overwhelm and stress, as well as a loss of focus. Additionally, it can be hard to know where to start when there are so many things on your plate.
⚖️ Balancing: It can be tough trying to balance work with personal life demands, especially when you have tight deadlines or a lot of work piled up. And if you're not good at managing your time effectively, it's easy for important tasks to fall through the cracks altogether.
Losing focus on priorities: Time management is key to keeping ourselves on track, but even with the best intentions, we can sometimes get sidetracked. It's essential to recognize when this happens and take steps to get back on track as soon as possible. Otherwise, we run the risk of letting critical things fall by the wayside in favor of less essential tasks.
On any given day, a knowledge worker may be juggling multiple tasks, emails, phone calls, and meetings. It can be hard to manage it all and stay productive. Here are some tips on how to manage your time and tasks and stick to a dedicated workflow:
Create a schedule and stick to it. This will help you better plan out your day and ensure that you are getting the most influential things done.
Set priorities for each task. Some tasks may be more urgent than others, so make sure you are focusing on the most important items first.
Use tools that make task management easier. There are many task management tools available online, so find one that works best for you and use it religiously! This will help keep you organized and ensure that all of your tasks are accounted for.
Take breaks periodically throughout the day. This will help refresh your mind and allow you to work more effectively later on.
If you are looking for tools to create to-do lists, track deadlines, manage your time, and schedule appointments, you will find yourself in a variety of apps that will give you the possibility to manage large and complex projects or multiple tasks simultaneously.
Tools like Todoist, Asana, Things, and Trello all do a phenomenal job of giving users the possibility to keep track of their tasks and manage projects of all sizes. While Todoist is a classical to-do list app, Asana has a strong focus on project management, and Trello is the Kanban pioneer, another great task and time management tool is Sorted, which has a dedicated focus on delivering you the best time-blocking experience ever.
Within the field of task and time management tools, there is one specific area that has gained incredible popularity over the last couple of years, and that area is occupied by apps that combine calendar functionalities with task management. Keeping track of your tasks within your calendar gives you the possibility to schedule them, see them in context with all your calendar events, and perform time blocking easily. Tools like Amie, Sunsama, Morgen*, and Akiflow have all attracted a huge user base within a short amount of time. Akiflow particularly stands out in this space ✨
Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference whether you would like to keep track of your tasks and manage your time with a dedicated task manager, or if you would like to see your tasks in context with your events right inside your calendar.
Traditional task managers like Todoist allow you to set up projects, structure your tasks within a list or a kanban board, add tags and descriptions for more context, and schedule tasks for specific days. New-age apps like Akiflow and Amie take managing your tasks, events, and time to another level. They give you the possibility to use your calendar as your to-do list. Additionally, with just a few clicks you can share your availability with your colleagues or anyone else, so they can book you for a meeting.
If you do not want to wait to get access to Amie, you can immediately sign up to Morgen, another app that combines managing your time, events, and tasks in one centralized view. Morgen is a great tool to consolidate calendars, schedule meetings, and block time for work that matters. It is already available for macOS, Windows, Linux, and the iOS and Android versions are currently in beta. If you ever asked yourself how to make the most out of your time, make sure to give Morgen a try.
🍦 The sweet foundation of everything rosy
Compared to the process of passive search, in which we are not actively seeking information, conducting active research is the process of seeking out and evaluating information to answer a specific question or solve a problem. It's an essential skill for knowledge workers, who need to be able to find accurate, reliable information quickly and efficiently.
The goal of conducting active research is to gather the most relevant and up-to-date information possible in order to make informed decisions. This can include anything from finding scholarly articles on a specific topic to researching competing products or services.
We discovered three main problems, knowledge workers often face during the process of conducting active research:
👀 Distraction: One common problem is staying focused and on task. It can be easy to get sidetracked when researching online, especially with so much information at our fingertips.
🛣️ Keeping Track: Another challenge is keeping track of all the sources we find, both online and offline. We can easily lose track of where we found a particular piece of information or how to access it again later.
⌚ Time-consuming: Conducting extensive research can be time-consuming and frustrating, particularly if you do not clearly understand what you are looking for or where to find it.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what the ideal workflow for conducting active research looks like. The reason for that is the fact that the workflow will vary depending on the individual and their specific needs and preferences. However, there are some general tips that can help create an effective workflow for conducting active research.
First, it is important to have a clear idea of what you are looking for and what you need to find out. This can be done by creating a research plan that outlines your goals and objectives, as well as the steps you will take to achieve them.
Once you have a plan in place, it is essential to stay organized and keep track of all your findings so that you can easily reference them later on.
There are many tools and apps that you can use to conduct active research.
One of the most common and obvious ones might be Google, by using its advanced filters to search with intent. Alternative search engines like You.com give you an even more in-depth search layer, since You.com lets you personalize your search with over 150 apps like StackOverflow, Medium, Twitter, and others, and moreover, thanks to its multidimensional interface with horizontal and vertical scrolling, it lets you discover more in less time. You.com summarises the internet for you without ever invading your privacy with any ads. The search engine of You.com is powered by AI, which will help you find the most relevant apps. You are completely in control, and it is up to you to customize these apps and sources. You.com's core mission is to make the world's information useful for you. Their powerful search engine should help users to succeed with every search they perform. To reach its mission, You.com focuses on trust, facts, kindness, and user success. You.com is completely ad-free, so you will never see an ad within your search results, all you see are pure results to find the one thing you are looking for across different sites and apps.
Speaking of discovering more in less time, we also would like to highlight Waldo.fyi, Superhuman for search. It lets you find high-quality information online and cuts the time you spend researching in half, by using the best sources on the web. If you find yourself filtering your Google search results with a specific website like Reddit, Substack, or from some of your favorite blogs, then you’ll love Waldo for its ‘Lens’ capability.
🗃️ Time to put everything in one place
The next part after you’ve done all the research is organizing it. The typical flow for organizing and referencing involves time commitment:
You might have started conducting research to basis a hypothesis, or might have decided to keep it open-ended. In our research, we found three main frictions that users experience in this part of the journey:
🏋️♂️ Too much effort: Users feel the effort that they have to put into organizing information increases exponentially with the depth of research. Some feel that organizing research is harder than the actual process of conducting research – they feel they might miss out on patterns/insights if they don’t devote enough time. A lot of time is also spent going through what they’d researched, too.
😩 Low on collaboration: Users feel that the process of structuring research lacks the tools for discovering insights together and referencing collective knowledge.
🗓️ Short-term repository: Research done for a particular project/task is seldom referenced in future projects, especially when the subject overlap is not obvious, leading to loss of second and third-degree insights
Some ideal tools for this process depend on WHEN you’re organizing research and WHAT you want to optimize it for:
Our pick for structuring research → Notion.
It is versatile, powerful, and has an ever-growing list of integrations with other apps.
Notion has a short learning curve. And the browser extension allows you to structure your research as you are conducting it – no more reading through what you had saved.
Notion has real-time collaboration, and the databases make the process of structuring and referencing information better.
It also has a powerful search that can search across the entire workspace (Although tools like Mem and Roam have better contextual search capability as knowledge grows).
Figjam is a top pick for white-boarding exploratory research and finding new patterns and insights. Other apps like Mem and Roam Research are also helpful in connecting the dots to find new insights (more textual and less visual) but they have a higher learning curve.
There is one specific niche within the space of PKM and TfT tools that gets increasingly popular when it comes to organizing research. I am talking about visual-first tools. Scrintal, Heptabase, Napkin*, are all on the rise, as they give the user the possibility to structure and organize notes or research material visually
The concept is not new of course and has been around for a long time, but the approach has been refined and polished, and the user experience has been greatly improved. The visual-first approach has plenty of advantages.
The first one is that it is straightforward and fast to get started. You don't need to spend a lot of time learning how to use the tool, you can just start using it and see how it goes.
The second advantage is that it is effortless to reorganize your material when you need to. You can just drag and drop things around, and the tool will automatically update everything for you.
And finally, the visual-first approach is really great for collaboration. It is easy to share your work with others and to work together on the same project.
Scrintal for example combines the power of visual note-taking, with mind mapping and knowledge management. While organizing your research, you can place your notes freely on an infinite canvas. Once you want to bring more structure to your research, you can connect the notes you have placed on the canvas with bi-directional links. This gives you the possibility to see the big picture of your organized research, but at any time you can zoom in on a dedicated note and get a more detailed view.
Napkin* follows a new approach since it shows your notes in a dynamic interface and magically finds connections in all your notes. While setting up your systems in other PKM tools usually needs some know-how beforehand, Napkin wants to make it as easy as possible to get started with collecting and connecting your thoughts. The notes you create and collect within Napkin are not stored or organized within folders as you would expect from traditional note-taking tools. Napkin organizes the content you create completely visually. Notes and thoughts are cards, which are placed on a canvas. The cards are floating on the visual canvas, so you can see how your notes and thoughts are connected. To explore the connections you have made, you can simply click on one card, and Napkin will highlight the relevant information.
What would be the ideal research repository?
Low-effort/Effortless organizing: Similar to MyMind’s no-tags-required bookmarking option. You should be able to save a piece of information (article/snippet/image) from the internet without tagging – but it should also be organized/tagged by default. Re-organizing can be done late by the user.
Real-time collaboration: With an option to switch between spatial positioning (like Figjam, Scrintal, Heptabase) and document-based organization (like Notion)
Quick, long-term, contextual reference: Like Mem. So that you have a universal toolbar, like a Spotlight search, where you can ask questions in natural language and get responses in a jiffy (e.g., When was the last time I spoke with Samuel and what did we chat about?)
🚀 Distribute or it didn’t happen
Organizing research is often followed by sharing the findings with a small set of people, or publicly with everyone on the internet. The typical flow for sharing your knowledge (often) involves converting the research repository into a reading-optimized format:
Time taken in this part of the flow varies a lot depending on the fidelity and feedback involved. Many of the frictions that were common across users involved making the end output worthy of the user’s time:
Structuring the outline: Users do not feel confident about their story-lining and flow. They feel they might not be able to get across the important points hastily.
Making it engaging: Users feel they might not be able to hold the attention of their users through a long piece – be it a tweet or a full-blown article
Making it a living document: The end output frequently seems to have a short shelf life. Users don’t feel that they are encouraged to make frequent updates to the document (Keeping the output up-to-date feels like ‘too much work’)
Owning the relationship with the readers: Users want to own the relationship with their readership – they wish to be able to connect with them across multiple channels and do not want to lose touch because of their tool’s algorithm (looking at you, Twitter)
Some ideal tools for this process depend on the length of the write-up/repository and whether the output is interactive:
Our pick for sharing your knowledge with the world → Twitter (Short form) and Notion (with third-party add-ons; long form)
Notion, in particular, helps you create a modern, personal, living document but lacks its distribution:
Interactive: Users can make the document engaging with third-party add-ons (e.g., Simple Ink) and integrations with tools like (Figjam, Framer, Whimsical, Typeform, etc.)
One-stop solution: Given that Notion is one of the best tools for organizing, referencing, and publishing information, users don’t have to keep switching between tools to provide references or add supporting content
Evergreen: Integrations and the fact that Notion can be a one-stop solution allow it to be a constantly updated document. Users can simply embed their source (Airtable, GitHub, or Figjam) the end output will always be in sync.
🎉 Crossing the Rubicon
Knowledge workers need to connect with others and seek feedback in order to be successful. By connecting with others, they can learn new things, share ideas, and get feedback on their work. Seeking feedback from others helps them improve their work and make sure they are meeting the needs of their customers or clients.
When seeking feedback or connecting with each other, knowledge workers can face many challenges. The main challenges are listed below:
📌 Right Places, Right People: knowledge workers may not know where to find the right people to give them feedback.
🤝 How to connect: They may be unsure of how to connect with these people, or what type of feedback they should seek.
😑 Self-imposed pressure: They may feel pressure to always be productive and not take the time to seek feedback or connect with others. This pressure can lead to feelings of guilt or anxiety if time is spent on networking instead of work tasks.
🥲 Criticism or rejection: The fear of criticism or rejection. This can lead to people being hesitant to share their ideas, seek feedback, or connect with others.
Ideally, the workflow of connecting with others or seeking feedback would look something like this:
There are many ways that the workflow of connecting with others can be improved for knowledge workers.
One of the straightforward ways to improve connectivity is through social media platforms like LinkedIn, which allow professionals from all over the world to connect with one another. By using tools like these, knowledge workers can streamline their communication process and maximize their productivity. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, but also Slack or Discord communities are great ways to connect with like-minded professionals. While some platforms explode and grow to millions of users, it is hard to filter through them to actually find the right people to follow, connect with, and ask for feedback. Here is something I wrote earlier this year:
Thankfully, there are startups that rethink and revolutionize the way we connect with like-minded professionals. Polywork and read.cv are both great examples of that. Polywork was built as a place to discover opportunities to collaborate with other professionals. You can partner on side projects, speak on podcasts, beta-test new apps, and a lot more. Making meaningful and purposeful connections with professionals has never been that easy. Networking and connecting with others on Polywork is a lot of fun.
If you are seeking to build up your network, keep track of the connections you have made, and also gather information about those connections, you should look into tools that give you the possibility to create a personal CRM. Powerful solutions to do so include tools like Clay or Folk. Clay automatically builds a collection of the connections you make through your email, calendar, Twitter, LinkedIn, and iMessage. With Clay, you no longer need to manually input information, get lost in tags, and struggle with out-of-date details, since Clay populates photos, bios, education and work history, location, and social profiles automatically, and keeps them updated over time. Folk is another app that gives you powerful tools to build your own, next-generation CRM. Thanks to loads of integrations, Folk sync new contacts, and interactions from all your tools.
🎼 Conduct the orchestra
“We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” This visionary statement from more than 50 years ago has even more meaning today. As we set up multiple apps in our personal stack, we need an interlinking glue to bind them together in order to:
😫 Reduce distraction and context switching
⏳ Save time from repetitive tasks
🗃️ Have one place for all your updates/tasks/news
We need a solution that integrates with our existing stack and makes the end output more than the sum of its parts. Here are our top 3 recommendations for setting up harmony in your toolkit:
Zapier: It’s the first name that comes to mind when automating parts of your life. Be it something as simple as scheduling social media posts or as complicated as connecting your email with your to-do list. See how you can leverage Zapier basis to your role.
Raycast: It is a blazing fast, universal search bar 🕵️♂️. Spotlight on steroids. That integrates with (almost) anything you use. It lets you search in other apps, complete tasks, and act as a central control for your other apps!
Your choice of productivity meta-layer: Get away from the multiple inbox problem for notifications. Get a meta layer on top of the productivity stack that works horizontally across all function workflows. It’s not clear yet what exactly this meta layer would look like, but it might be something similar to what Discord is to gaming. Today, you can use something like Akiflow or Kairn.
No matter if you are an innovator, wanting to get access to the best tools, or if you are an early adopter, waiting a bit to jump on the bandwagon if you found this article you surely are a creative mind seeking to make the most out of your time, build powerful workflows, and learn about tools which help you to be as creative and productive as possible and get your work done.
While this article is not the ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, it gives you insights into how knowledge workers and creative minds go from passive search to active research, to managing their time and tasks, organizing and referencing the research, to ultimately sharing it with the world and connecting with others to seek feedback. We wrote this article to sparkle ideas and thoughts about how you can adapt certain kinds of workflows and tools to complete your very own productivity stack.
For folks who are starting at zero, The Knowledge Worker Productivity Stack is the guiding resource, breaking down the entire journey of a knowledge worker to understand the needs and the workflows. If you are already settled with a dedicated process of gathering information, managing resulting tasks, organizing, and sharing your work, this article can be an inspirational resource to polish your workflows and find out about new and exciting tools.
There is no longer the need to worry about an overstocked toolbox or apps that do not play well together. Make sure to be open and test different tools. While Mem works for me for all kinds of use cases, Philipp loves to use Craft for journaling, note-taking, and project management. All kinds of knowledge workers mean different workflows and different tools.
Any other app you feel we missed out on? 🤔