In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpMarie Kondo introduced the idea of only keeping physical objects that “spark joy.” I’m not a full Kondo-ite who thinks this advice should be taken to its literal and extreme end but I do think that is a mostly useful and interesting piece of advice that aligns with my minimalist tendencies. It’s a high bar and when applied to the vast majority of the items around you leaves you with a much smaller and curated collection that actually feels good to own. It’s a little hard to explain if you’ve never had a chance to experience it but opening a closet or looking around a room and only seeing items that spark joy is a pretty cool feeling.
While Kondo focuses on the physical world, I decided to take a look at my digital world with the same spark-of-joy-trained eye. As a knowledge worker who spends the vast majority of his day in front of some kind of electronic device (usually an Apple device of some kind) my suite of tools is decidedly non-physical (other than the devices themselves, obviously). Regardless of their ephemerality, I think it’s reasonable to expect to feel some spark of joy with your digital tools, too. If you have any autonomy over deciding what you use to get your work done then noticing which apps and services spark joy for you isn’t a bad way to make some decisions about what goes in your proverbial toolbox.
What follows are the tools I use that spark joy and a few words about the joy they spark.
Note: You’ll notice that I didn’t even try to define what “spark joy” even means. For me, I think it’s some combination of obviously thoughtful design, minimal aesthetics, and a high degree of functionality with regards to how I like to work. Your definition will undoubtedly be different — which is okay!
Overcast is an iOS podcast app developed by independent app developer, Marco Arment.
Overcast is one of those apps that you can tell was crafted with a ton of care. Marco is an opinionated guy and it shows up in the design and functionality of this app. He’s a total audio nut and obsesses over how to make listening to podcasts ever better. The Smart Speed feature is incredible. It imperceptibly takes out silences in the podcasts you listen to without adjusting the pitch of the audio. It also keeps track of how much time you’ve saved by using Smart Speed — so far I’m up to 299 hours. The other marquee feature that Marco pioneered is something he calls Voice Boost. When you have it turned on it somehow adjusts the audio playback so that it sounds better/louder through your phone’s speakers. It isn’t a straight volume boost — he’s actually doing something more sophisticated (that I don’t understand) to make spoken word sound clearer and louder through the phone’s speakers. Like I said, he’s a huge audio nerd.
Instapaper is a read-it-later service originally developed by Marco Arment but currently under new management. It allows you to save and read articles you want to read later from anywhere. I like to separate modalities when I’m working and most of the time when I find an article that looks interesting it doesn’t mean I actually want to stop what I’m doing in the moment and read it. Instapaper allows me to easily save those interesting articles for a better time.
Honestly, I think there’s a nostalgia component to why I love this app. I’ve had it on my home screen ever since my first iPhone back in the 3GS days. I understand if that’s not reason enough for you to also enjoy the app. Luckily, it has some other things going for it. It has a lot of great typography options which is kind of what you want from an app where the whole point is to read things easily.
It has a really simple and clean UI that gets out of the way and lets you do the main thing you’re there to do, read the articles you’ve saved. It makes it really easy to save things into it with browser extensions for your computer and sharing extensions on iOS. It has a simple structure (your list of unread items, your archived items, and items you’ve “liked”) that can grow in complexity (by creating folders) if you need it.
I think this app helped me realize that just because I found something interesting to read doesn’t mean I need to read it immediately. It allowed me to recognize the two different modes related to reading and learning — finding new material and actually sitting down to read that material. They require different ways of thinking and benefit from being separate from each other. I don’t think I realized that until I started using this app.
Fantastical is an iOS and macOS calendar app. I use it instead of the default Apple Calendar app on all my devices.
Fantastical’s main selling point is how good it is at parsing natural language (“Lunch with Emily from 12–1 PM at Panera”) into actual calendar events with all the information filled out. Most other calendar apps have a pretty tedious process for filling in all the information for a typical event. Fantastical lets you do the vast majority of it by simply typing something out the way you would say it to another person.
A few other sparks of joy this app manages to pull out of me are due to it’s cross-platformness (I use it across all my devices), the ease for switching to different time scales (daily, weekly, monthly views), and the idea of having “calendar sets” (at least on the macOS version — hopefully iOS gets this feature someday, too). A calendar set is a group of calendars that always show up as visible together. Since I have visibility on all my colleagues calendars (for finding mutually available time easier) I like to be able to turn on and off certain sets of them very easily (like, my current project team vs. just me).
Bear is an iOS and macOS note taking/writing app.
Bear fills two important writing jobs for me. On the one hand, it’s the app I’ll quickly open when I need to take some notes in a meeting or any other situation where writing some text-based notes makes sense. On the other hand, Bear is also the app I open when I sit down and work on a longer piece of writing (I’m writing this article in it right now).
It has a really clean and simple design that let’s me use it for both purposes without feeling like I’m pushing against the limits of its functionality. It has a pretty robust library of themes to choose from. I use a dark-ish one that has a gray background and white text.
It also has an interesting tagging system (instead of folders) that I really like. This allows for some interesting ways of organizing and retrieving old notes that a more traditional folder system wouldn’t be able to do.
Finally, like any app that has cross-device functionality, it has an absolutely rock solid syncing engine. Something I write on one device shows up on the other one almost instantaneously. I never have to wonder if the device I’m holding has the most current library of notes. They all do, all the time.
Carrot Weather is a really weird app. It’s default settings involve the app being “hosted” by a malicious AI character that talks to you every time you open the app. It’s funny, but I’ve actually turned off all the whimsy and use it in the “Professional” mode (which basically means it doesn’t talk to me or emit any sound effects). I like it because I think it does a really great job of presenting a lot of information without being overwhelming. It also lets you use Weather Underground as the data source for the weather information so you can get hyper local forecasts, which is neat. Lastly, the latest update has given it a pretty incredible series of maps which you can turn on or off at will and layer them to perfectly suit the information you’re looking for.
You can also choose from lots of different app icon versions so you can find one that matches your own personal aesthetic instead of getting stuck with the default.
Airmail is an email client for iOS and macOS. You may be picking up on a theme here, but apps that are really cleanly designed give me a lot of joy. I really like Airmail’s design (although I’d love to have a dark mode). Where it really sparks joy for me, though, is in the swipe customizations. I only do a couple things with any given email: archive it, trash it, or send it to my task management software (Things). I can map all of these actions to various swipes (short left, long left, etc.) so I can very quickly triage an entire mailbox full of email very quickly. I love the way it integrates with Things so I can easily send an email over there and have it create a new task with the information from the email, including a link back to the original email, in the notes field.
Things is my task management software. Anything I need to do, or think I might want to do someday, is managed through this app.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. I’ve been using it for so long it has become synonymous with productivity for me. First, I love that it’s completely cross-device so I can use it on anything that happens to be nearby me (iMac, MacBook, iPhone, iPad) and know that everything will be synced across all my devices. When you’re putting thoughts, ideas, and reminders of things you need to do you have to trust that things won’t disappear. I don’t think I’ve ever had any data disappear from Things.
A new version was released a few months ago and it is just a beautifully elegant piece of software. Subtle things like the animations that happen as you interact with the app (my current favorite is the little “x” that kind of rolls/cartwheels into position when you swipe on a task to delete it) to large things like the overall organization to the app — it’s all really, really good. In an update a few weeks ago they introduced a much more robust approach to keyboard shortcuts on the iPad app and I’ve only just scratched the surface in learning these. It’s one of those apps that a pro can go really deep on while at the same time retaining a core level of simplicity and approachability where anybody with a spare thirty minutes could learn enough to have it make a huge impact in how they organize their work. It’s just so damn good.
I’m a fan of knowledge workers adopting a craftperson’s mindset to the way they approach their work. A key part of that mindset is giving a shit about the tools you use. Not in a persnickety if-only-my-tools-were-better-I’d-be-better-at-my-job way, but in the way that a master carpenter knows how his or her tools so well they become an extension of their body. These pieces of software are the extensions of my mind and body that allow me to focus on the work at hand while also getting little bursts of joy throughout the day.
That being said, I’m always on the lookout for new apps or tools that might be a better fit for how I work and think. Share the tools that spark joy for you in the responses below!