Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-down 2 arrow-right arrow-right 2 Line Created with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter


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)
  • Marija

    Toggl helps me keep track of the time I spend on tasks. I never had to wonder where all the time went.

  • jkglei

    Will check out the x-minis, Tushar. Thanks!

  • jkglei

    Hey Travis. Glad iCal is working for you! My opinion is just one person’s of course. : )

  • jkglei

    Get one. It’s so worth it!

  • Stacey Mason

    Old school: planner (, Moleskine notebooks, Post-it notes, Sharpie pens
    New school: MacBook Pro, Bose system for XM satellite radio, iPhone, Ap – My Eyes Only
    Diversion: the window, the cat

  • Susan Daniels

    I’ve had my sights on tools and apps so much lately, I though you were talking about desktop apps! Due to recession and being laid off 2 times in the last 3 years, I am living with a friend in a 1 bedroom house (right by a peach orchard and they’re ripe). So, long story short, I don’t have a desk right now – it’s in storage. But, I have my acer netbook, my much larger dell laptop and a tv/computer monitor that I have set up in a corner (my spot). I am determined that nothing is going to stop me from pursuing my dreams. Warmly, Susan

  • Michael

    I’m glad to see a stand alone alarm clock in your list. Yes a phone by your hand is sad, but also risky in my opinion. Perhaps its my need for redundancy but in cases where your phone is on the fritz, a dedicated device is king. Surprised not to see a wristwatch for the same reason.

  • Rupesh Varma

    Macbook pro 15″
    Google Chrome Web Browser
    Xperia Pro Android Phone
    Parker Fountain Pen Limited Edition
    Debit and Credit Card
    Timex Eco-Drive Wrist Watch
    Beat In-Ear Headphones
    USB Perfume Dispenser
    Colourful Sticky Notepad
    Office Communicator

  • Ben Silcock

    Awesome illustrations!

  • Hallvar H. Johnsen

    1. MacBook
    2. Moleskine
    3. 0.2 & 0.5 Fineliner markers
    4. Spotify
    5. Koss Porta Pro
    6. Evernote
    7. Dropbox

    Great article!

  • Asiatic

    750words is dope……I’ve been trying to change the “I hate to write” paradigm

  • Jordan Lundy

    1. Rotring 800 .5 mechanical pencil (perfect weight, won’t break)
    2. Samsung epic (if I could afford an iphone id get it)
    3. Wisewalker strap bag
    4. Moleskine (stripe and sketch)
    5. Sharpie fine line
    6. 1 inch by 2 inch blue slips
    7. Skullcandy headphones.
    Nuff said

  • Jordan Lundy

    Koss porta pros are the shiiiiiiiz. I need to get mine fixed!

  • randalltrini

    Jamal, as a PC user for 14 years that just switched to mac I can tell you – mac OS is so intuitive with baked in features that work seamlessly with your workflow. Some of the features such as window switching and multiple desktops can be gotten on Windows side with a free (in some cases) add-on but these can cause instability.

    The mac’s gesture based control system works with all of these productivity enhancements.

    Also, my last Windows laptop was running windows 7 64-bit with 4G of ram and a 500 hard drive with lots of free space, but a few months after day one, I would get slowdowns and the occasional unresponsive application. With my macbook pro 13″ for the last 5 months – no system or app crashes. In addition, the battery life is so superior, I can get a 5 hours with just surfing and average 3 hours doing intensive number crunching or graphics work.

    One not to you though, I bought my macbook pro on ebay still under applecare from a businessman who didn’t like it – so I did not pay full price. However, I would pay full price now having made the switch.


  • Melinda

    I’m not a fan of iCal either, but you’re right…it does work seamlessly. It’s ugly though. And the way it handles “to do”s is really annoying. Just wish it would let me customize the look or at the very least look a little less like something you’d see on Windows. Yes, that’s shallow 😉

  • wrightaboutit

    I’m a recovering lawyer doing art sales to suport a writing habit. I’m keeping the Windows7 environment but trying to make the business as geography independent as I can. The Wrightaboutit Solopreneur Mobile Productivity Suite (TM) is designed to keep me outside and away from the desk as much as possible. Not to full freedom yet, but have periods of time when I’m 80%+.

    – The following iPhone apps:

    + Scanbizcards–optical character recognition of business card data, uploads directly to Salesforce, which then syncs to Outlook.
    + Quickbooks
    + mobile credit card processor
    + Analytics pro–best iOS UI for GoogleAnalytics
    + Salesforce CRM mobile app
    + Salesforce contacts viewer
    + Milebug GPS tracking for mileage tax deductions–$.25/mile adds up.
    + Kindle app or doc reader w/writing feature–no wasted time waiting
    + Fake-a-Call–hit panic button or set timed alarm to extract self as needed
    + HoursTracker–synced time tracking with .xls export. Know where your time went, no excuses. Also good for timed billing on side projects.
    + MyFitnessPal–happy body, happy mind
    + Flashlight–no more shin collisions with the coffee table in the dark

    Also use the following:
    + Dropbox, with redundant backup to external HD.
    + Unique cellphone email address for sending messages to desktop–set Outlook rule to route message from my cell phone’s address into the task list.
    + DragonSpeech–a lot of my procrastination comes from wanting to edit while I type. I short circuit by using speech-to-text which I edit after. For pro hacks use a digital voice recorder with USB jack and Dragon processes the imported audio file into text while you watch. Sexiest thing I can do with a computer.
    + Fisher Space Pen of Seinfeld fame–metal 3.5″ pen closed, 5.5″ open,
    hard enough not to blow up or leak in the back pocket of your jeans. At Office Depot.
    + Moleskine 3.5″ X 5.5″ soft cover notebook. Is flexible enough not to break in the back pocket of your jeans.

    I’m looking for an iOS voice GPS navigator, and a slim, sporty, rainproof backpack or messenger bag with padded device sleeve and pockets for papers. Let me know your suggestions!

    “Be regular and orderly in your life … so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert

  • Victor Alagbe

    introducing, InnoVictor: I am a freelance writer from Nigeria and I cannot afford all the fancy gadgets and paid apps that you guys have been listing( I kinda envy you though)
    Nonetheless, I make do and produce quality content with my
    Compaq laptop CQ51
    creative earphones
    Microsoft word 2010
    Huawei Modem
    Nokia X2
    Gtalk and Skype
    Hardcover Notebook
    A ball point pen
    Pomodoro worksheet

  • Christopher Allen Burrows

    1. Motorola Razr 2. Nexus (desktop) 3. Linux Unbuntu 4. Spotify Premium
    5. Firefox 6. Waula

  • berlinoa

    Evernote, Bose, Braun – agree,
    Apple products – as much as I can avoid them for now + future – no.
    The principle ideas shared in the article are great!

  • Robert Cooney

    1. IMac
    2. Macbook Pro on RainDesign mStand
    3. Ipad with Booq booqpad folio (it took me forever to find a paper and ipad combo that works
    4. Evernote
    5. Dropbox
    6. Dragon Dictate
    7. Lunatik Touch Pen
    8. Namiki Vanishing Point Fountain Pen
    9. Levenger Oasis Concept Pad
    10. AKG K240 headphones with Fiio E7 DAC

  • GDesign

    1 – PaperMate blue ink pen Medium. Use it to sketch out graphic design layouts, logo ideas, etc. etc. Writes and feels like a pencil. But permanent, just always been THE pen for me.

    2 – Palm OS 5 device for basic GTD. Yep. I still use one. Tasks is my app.

    3 – $300 plus headphones and $5 earphones. Once you pay more than 300 for headphones you’ll never go back. And if you’re lucky, you may find that $5 earphone that performs as good as a $300+ set of earphones.

    4 – White cheap paper to draw on. Maybe a basic cheap bound sketchbook but Moleskins are just too… too… not for me.

    5 – Large monitor. I just can’t do my work with small monitors unless I absolutely have to.

    6 – A wall CLOCK. I must see time in standard, utilitarian mode 12 hour mode. Placed above my computer station on the wall, no exceptions.

    7 – Water. Good water. Gallons of it, hydration is super important.

    8 – Absolutely comfortable, durable, well fitting, high level performance, RUNNING SHOES that are somewhat high tech looking. I take walks and I want to look sharp, they must look futuristic but not ostentatious nor trendy. Black, grey.

    9 – Logitech M310 mouse. I don’t care about new fancy mice. I need that ring finger button for ‘delete’ and thumb button for ‘enter’ and that middle button for ‘hide all apps’.

    10 – Ergonomic lumbar supporting chair.

  • Mary Kurek

    Nice article. I use skype, dumbphone, cheap pens–lots of them, basic Dell laptop, Dropbox, Echo-sign for contracts, Quickbooks, Google Docs to share and track introductions for clients on an excel sheet, Google Cal for appointments, Paypal for payments, and Efax when needed. Simple girl, but I am thinking about an iPad.

  • tyler

    This is so true.

  • Jonny Lennon
  • Serena Livingston

    having trouble finding Agenda in the App store [too many choices] … who makes it?

    Love my Sharpie pens in colors [not markers, but pens]

1 2
blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Productivity

Illustration by the Project Twins
Female Athlete Gymnastics by Gun Karlsson
Painting Woman By Emily Eldridge
Two figures looking at painting