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Big Ideas

Desktop Arsenal: 10 Tools We Can’t Live Without

Marshall McLuhan famously said, "We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." A look at the gadgets & apps that are shaping our workflow at 99U.

In his excellent book The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda writes, “Aichaku is the Japanese term for the sense of attachment one can feel for an artifact. When written by its two kanji characters, you can see that the first character means ‘love’ and the second one means ‘fit.’ ‘Love-fit’ describes a deeper kind of emotional attachment that a person can feel for an object.”This intriguing concept of object “love-fit” floated back into my mind recently as I mourned the loss of my iPhone to a pickpocket. Recognizing my attachment to the device got me thinking about the gadgets and apps that have become indispensable to my workflow, and why.
Below, find the top ten items in my desktop arsenal. (Please share your own in the comments.)bose_550

Bose QuietComfort Headphones

I cannot overstate the utility of these Bose noise-canceling headphones if you work in an open-plan office. Even without playing any music, they block out about 75% of the background noise around you. They also sit lightly on the head so it’s not uncomfortable to wear them for long periods of time (or with glasses).Note: These headphones are very expensive. In fact, I couldn’t believe I bought them. But they were totally worth it.


Braun Digital Alarm Clock

My personal belief is that sleeping with your phone next to your head is unhealthy, and also a little bit sad. Yet most traditional alarm clocks are ugly, clunky, and unintuitive. What to do? Enter the new Braun digital travel alarm clock. It’s incredibly tiny (2.25″ square) and incredibly intuitive. The reverse LCD display doesn’t blare the time, and the dual clockface simultaneously shows the current time and the alarm time – which is perfect if you’re a little OCD about waking up.


13″ Macbook Air

I might be the only person in the universe who bought an iPad and returned it. I later learned that the Macbook Air was the iPad I had always wanted. The Air gives you full computer power while remaining slim enough to get accidentally lost in a stack of magazines. My favorite thing is that the multi-touch trackpad allows you to easily swipe between full-screen apps, which is awesome for staying focused and productive.


Griffin Elevator

This laptop stand changed my life. I am a natural huncher and working on a laptop for long stretches only encourages this destructive, neck-crunching posture. The Elevator brings your laptop up to eye level, which is ergonomically optimal. It’s true you then require an additional keyboard and mouse to work, but it’s totally worth it if the laptop is your primary workstation. The Elevator also makes for a much nicer movie or TV-watching experience if you use your laptop for that.



Available for Mac, iPhone and iPad, Reeder is a simple RSS reader with a gorgeous, uncluttered UI. It’s a breeze to navigate, presents articles crisply, and allows you to efficiently copy links without clicking through to the source website. This last is really nice if you’re constantly pulling things from your RSS reader to tweet or blog.



Evernote is the perfect tool for idea dumping. For me, speed and accessibility are key: When I have an article idea, I want to get it down immediately and be able to find it later. Evernote, which automatically syncs your documents across devices, accommodates both of these requirements and offers many additional layers of organization (e.g. tagging, voice memos, attached references, etc). What makes it far superior to, say, Google Docs is that you can easily group notes by project. For instance, I have a 99U Conference 2013 project, which holds separate docs where I jot down ideas for speakers, programming, venue notes, and so forth.



If you use Apple products, you know that iCal kind of sucks. Agenda for iPhone is far superior in my opinion. It has the look of a minimalist paper calendar but it syncs seamlessly with your Google calendar. I particularly like the continuous scroll functionality and that you can swipe between different views – single day view to weekly to monthly to yearly. The new version also has improved “status taps” to message meeting attendees if you’re running late, map appointment locations, etc.



I am an advocate of analog lists. That said, sometimes it’s impossible to track both daily to-dos and tasks that will need to be done far in the future on paper. So I use a combination of ActionMethod on paper and online. (Full disclosure: These are Behance products!) For paper, I use an Action Runner, rewriting my tasks for the day each morning. For any tasks I’m not doing today or that need to be delegated, I input them into ActionMethod Online, which I check throughout the week. See more on using AMO from Scott Belsky.



We have a server at work, but I now keep all of the files I need to access on a daily basis on Dropbox. If you never know when you’ll be working from the office, from home, or from the road, it’s a no-brainer. Yes, there are other cloud solutions (iCloud, Google Drive, etc), but for me Dropbox feels the most intuitive and seamless.


Kaweko Sport Rollerball

A classic pen that’s tiny enough to fit in your pocket, will never leak, and writes well. Enough said.

What Do You Use?

What are the gadgets, tools, and apps that you can’t live without? Please share your essentials in the comments!


More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (58)
  • Bryan

    1. My dumbphone
    2. Google calendar
    3. Google chrome Web browser
    4. A pen
    5. A notepad
    6. An umbrella
    7. A flashlight

  • Cosette Paneque

    I love Evernote and use that for to-do lists as well. My list also includes HootSuite, which I use not only for Twitter, but also Facebook, and LinkedIn.

  • carla

    My notebooks and my Web browser(s) window(s), Instapaper, Evernote, Bean and Clearly.

  • Stephan Kämper

    A Wacom Inking.

  • jkglei

    Nice. We use Sprout Social for social media. Love it!

  • Jamal Nichols

    – Dropbox
    – Moleskine
    – Post its
    – white A4 paper without lines
    – any cheap pen that writes well, because I always lose them
    – a big screen, or two big screens preferably
    – Audio Technica ATH M50 Headphones, or Sennheiser In Ears

    Keep it simple! Tools are only as good as the person that uses them. I’ve never used a Mac in my life, but still have produced world class work for some of the largest companies in the world.

  • Ryan Penn

    iMac, iPad, iPhone, Magic Mouse, Lacie external hard drive, la Colombe Coffee, Incase earbuds, Field Notes Brand notebook, Muji rollerball pen, Berol Turquoise pencil.

  • Claire Scott

    Top 5:
    1) Staedtler Permanent Lumocolour, fine point, black (can’t live without these!)
    2) A5 notebook, spiral bound, with elastic to keep it closed (and hold the king of pens above).
    3) iMac Desktop – I think on the move, but work at a desktop.
    4) Dropbox
    5) Semi-smart phone

  • Ishmael Islam

    ¤ Thanks for listing the Griffin Elevator. I’ve been getting a lot more use out of my laptop as of recent and am too young to be getting in the habit of hunching all the time.

  • Wells Baum

    Love how not using Apple products has become a calling card for many. I think you should buy one just to get a different perspective.

  • Lio

    1. Wacom Tablet, 2. 12 South Book Ark, 3. iPad, 4. Magic Mouse, 5. Mac Pro

  • Bjarte Edvardsen

    My phone

  • Mark Palmer

    Cheapo HP headset. Self Built PC. A folder on the PC called work.

    Thats all I need

  • Simon Hill

    The Braun radio isn’t DAB is it?

  • Deskthoughts On...

    1. MS OneNote + SkyDrive
    2. Two notebooks for quick notes – small and medium-sized
    3. PC – self-built
    4. iPod Touch + Sennheiser CX300II
    5. Windows Phone (LG Optimus 7)
    6. ActionMethod

    I refuse to work without the first two within a range of my hand 🙂

  • Jamal Nichols

    I was not using Apple before it became cool to not use Apple 😉 I just never saw the added value behnd the price premium. Then again, I put together my first PC when I was 12. I can build a much more powerful system from components I buy seperately for the same price that I pay for an Apple. And my system is just as stable as any Apple.

    I have to admit though, that whenever I see a Macbook, I have this urge to caress it. They are sexy.

  • John

    1. Android Smartphone
    2. Trello (a collaborative task management tool, it’s amazing; doubles as a personal agenda)
    3. Google Drive
    3. Google Calendar
    4. Sharp pencil
    5. Notepad

  • Travis Ulrich

    “If you use Apple products, you know that iCal kind of sucks.”

    It does? I do? iCal (now just called ‘Calendar’) is my life! How can an calendar app that works so easily and seamlessly across my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro suck?

    No really, I’m asking. How exactly does a calendar app that does exactly what it needs to “suck”?

  • Alyssa

    13″ Macbook Pro, 22″ monitor display, Apply keyboard, mouse, lamp, post-its, pens, external speakers, scratch paper.

  • Tushar K Motwani

    Below is what helps me manage & move forward:-

    1. Traditional White MAC Book
    2. Colorful card Papers
    3. Colorful ball point Pens
    4. An Idea Book
    5. Action Method
    6. Pocket
    7. Any.Do
    8. X-Mini (cutest & powerful portable speakers)

    You guys, should try X-Mini speakers for your small office parties 🙂 (

  • danielmee

    I’d just add Wunderlist as a good parter to Evernote. If its a short to do, Wunderlist. If it’s a longer project plan, Evernote.
    Wunderlist is great for grouping todos. I have tasks for Work, Family and Personal.

  • Hobbnob

    Sennheiser earphones

  • JB

    DataVault Password Manager
    Google Drive
    Goolgle Cal
    ical – though I’m going to try your suggestion.

  • Ashu Joshi

    I have MBA, the Bose QC, and a premium user of Evernote. Dropbox is used very heavily for file sharing. I complement with Remember the Milk (RTM) – again I’m a premium member. iPad + a Moleskine is always with me. A use Lamy Fountain Pen and/or Blackwing pencils. For the iPad I use teh Wacom stylus.

  • Qeen (시이킨)

    1. iPad
    2. Charge iPad
    3. headphones
    4. mobile phone
    5. sudoku apps
    6. lyrics 2 Legend apps
    7. Languages apps (Korean, Japanese, Mandarin all in my iPad)

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