22. February 2020Comments are off for this post.

Apps and tools I use to boost my productivity & creativity

Although I rely on a pen and notebook, there are still a few digital tools that I use in my everyday workflow. In the following blog post, I give insights into which tools they are and how I use them in my daily life.

I've been looking for the "perfect" productivity app for a long time and I'm still not sure if I found it. I was an Evernote power user until 2018. The app accompanied me on all my devices for a good seven years. But over time it seemed to me that the app would not develop any further. At the same time, however, countless note-taking and productivity apps sprang up. After trying a few things, I finally switched completely from Evernote to Notion in 2018. However, I quickly realized that Notion is not meant for writing notes. Rather, it is an incredible tool for organizing, structuring, planning, etc.

Why I love Notion as my productivity powerhouse

Each of my projects starts in Notion. I create a new page and start to structure my thoughts. Since Notion is based on various content blocks, a structured page can be created quite fast. In my case, the page contains some headings, dividers, paragraphs, links, images, and so on. In most cases, I fill a new notion page with all the information I have about a project. As soon as a project is further developed, I also adapt my notion page. If there are specific to do's, I simply create a kanban board within this notion page. I can then adjust the individual boards according to my preferences. Personally, I always create a backlog. There, the To Do's get collected as long as they do not get the "In Progress" status.

When I work on a certain task, it goes one step further, as already mentioned, to the "In Progress" board. After the task is done, I drag it onto the "Done" board and I know that I no longer have to worry about this task. In addition to my Kanban board, I also have the option to insert a calendar, a list or a gallery. On top of that, Notion also works with various integrations. For example, you can integrate an entire InVision Project embedded into a notion page. If you want to see what is possible within Notion, then get yourself some inspiration in the Notion Template Gallery.

Notion is a great alternative to some Google products

For me, Notion was more of a tool that I would compare with Google Docs, Google Sheets and databases in general. So it did a lot better than Evernote in terms of organizing. I recently started writing all my blog posts in Notion. I've only been doing this since I've been a premium user and have unlimited blocks available. Because as a free user, your content blocks are limited (1,000 blocks). If you now write blog posts and make paragraphs, Notion uses a new block for each paragraph. So with a free account, you are somewhat limited if you write a lot of blog posts. However, since I use Notion not only for my blog posts but generally for my entire projects, I didn't have to think long and therefore upgraded to the Personal Plan ($ 4 per month, billed annually).

Quick-notes in Notion? Not that easy

However, I was still missing one of the most important features as part of my workflow. Namely the possibility to write notes quickly and easily. In my eyes, Notion is a productivity powerhouse. However, there are performance issues for both desktop and mobile apps. The loading times of the mobile apps are overwhelming. "Quick notes" is therefore not possible in my eyes. However, the functions of Notion convinced me enough to additionally search for a pure notes app.

What was important to me when searching? Since I use both a Macbook, an Android smartphone, and an iPhone, the app had to be cross-platform. One of the first apps I discovered was Simplenote. As the name may suggest, this is a very simple note-taking app with no frills. In certain situations, however, the app is too simple for me. You only have the option of sorting the individual notes using tags. With many different notes, however, this can become very confusing. The individual tags that were used are listed in a kind of sidebar, but better and clearer solutions exist. Still, I gave Simplenote a chance. I used the app on all platforms for a couple of months. At the same time, I also tested other apps and it quickly turned out that Simplenote was too simple for me.

Testing THE writing app

Next, I tested iA Writer. Knowing well that iA Writer is not described as a classic notes app, but rather as THE writing app. However, since I also write blog posts, this app could be a win-win situation. The iA Writer website features testimonials from The New York Times and The Guardian. If people who write an incredible amount of words every day recommend this app, it must be the only true writing program.

It turned out that iA Writer is more suitable for people who either write professionally or hobby bloggers who want to enjoy an incredibly brilliant app. iA Writer is a markdown editor. Editing text is quick and easy. This does not disturb the flow of writing. Because the main goal of iA Writer is that the user can fully concentrate on his written words. The user can synchronize the texts or blog posts with all devices via clouds. From now on I briefly considered writing my blog posts in iA Writer. However, I would have one more app on my devices. Besides that, I can just as well write my blog posts in Notion.

No interests in Google or Microsoft products

I spent little time with the note-taking apps from giants like Google (Google Keep) or Microsoft (OneNote). For the reason that I was generally not interested in giving my data to these companies. In another blog post, I give insights into my very personal Google alternatives. Since I've been paying more attention to my data security since 2019, the two apps mentioned above were no options for me.

A great open-source product

By chance, I stumbled across an app called Joplin. Joplin is "an open-source note taking and to-do application with synchronization capabilities" as stated on their website. So this app is free. According to their website, the notes are organized in different notebooks. I already liked this. As I write a lot of notes organizing them can become confusing at certain points. A separate structure through notebooks is a very helpful solution for that.

Besides, the notes can be tagged so that they can be found directly using the built-in search. The notes are written in markdown format, which, as we already know, makes it very easy to edit text. Switching from Evernote, for example, is also made easy for the user. Because notes exported by Evernote can be imported directly into Joplin. Using Nextcloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, the notes can be easily synchronized between devices. A big plus from Joplin, the app is available for Windows, Linus, macOS, Android, and iOS.

One factor that plays a major role for me, however, ultimately failed to convince me at Joplin. Because I could not get used to the user interface design of the app, both for Android and macOS. The user interface just didn't feel good while I was using the apps on different devices. The approach of making an open-source notes app and making it available on all operating systems is great. And to my knowledge, the app is also increasingly gaining users. However, for me, it wasn't the right thing. The strict material design seemed a bit outdated to me. But that's just my impression.

Was it a bad idea to leave Evernote behind?

I slowly started thinking about going back to Evernote because the overall product was just right. Notion still convinced me about the structuring of different projects. And finally, the functions of Notion convinced me so much that I agreed to outsource my notes to another app.

God bless the Bullet/Nodes system

In summer 2019 I found an app that looked very promising from the start. This app is called Workflowy. Why the app appealed to me immediately was the bullet system on which the app is based. I have been writing a Bullet Journal every day since the beginning of 2019. A system that has helped me to be more productive. A bullet journal is kept completely analog using a notebook and pen. Notes are written down particularly briefly and concisely in the form of bullet points. Likewise, to do's and events. The focus is on keeping information as compact as possible.

Workflowy acts similarly. The whole app works on bullet points. On the "home" page of Workflowy, you create different instances. Using those instances, you can create further subordinate bullets. This way, notes can be created and managed extremely quickly. Clicking on a bullet takes you to a separate page of that instance. Bullets can be favored so that they appear in the sidebar for quick access. Workflowy is very intuitive and offers many options. The bullet instances are called nodes. They can either be created via the sidebar or simply using a new bullet.

Texts can be formatted with intelligent shortcuts. This way, even longer texts can be written in Workflowy. By using nodes/bullets, these longer texts can also be conveniently structured and organized.

Cross-platform = Win!

Also, Workflowy is available as a cross-platform. For me, who uses both MacBook and Android smartphone, a very important aspect. Because even if I write most of my notes on my MacBook, I still want to be able to access them at any time.

When I started using Workflowy, my use case number one was always quick notes. Thanks to the nodes system, I was able to immediately organize and structure these notes. For an even better overview, the individual nodes can also be tagged, which gives you faster access. I made notes on various projects, which I then took over in more detail in Notion. I also took notes on blog posts, which I then wrote entirely in Notion.

Using Workflowy as a writing app

Over time, however, I started to partially write blog posts entirely in Workflowy. Through the use of bullets and nodes, as well as the ability to edit text, I was fully equipped with all the necessary tools to prepare and structure my blog posts. Workflowy not only offers the possibility to record thoughts extremely quickly, which you would like to return to later. With Workflowy you also have the possibility to use it as a complete notes / writing app.

The great structure and order is a huge plus. The only big downside to Workflowy, however, is the fact that the app doesn't support markdown. Basically, I was always used to writing my blog posts in Markdown. In Notion I have the most important markdown commands available. However, these are completely missing in Workflowy. This restricted me somewhat in my workflow. Since my blog is on WordPress, I have to copy my written blog posts to WordPress. Due to the many nodes that are accumulated in a blog post using Workflowy, the copying only ensures additional editing. Therefore, I remained loyal to Notion.

Another great competitior...

I recently stumbled across another tool that also looks very interesting. This tool is called Standard Notes. The fact that Standard Notes is open source and fully encrypted makes the app particularly interesting. The app is also available for all operating systems. Nothing stands in the way of synchronization between multiple devices. The saved notes are also completely encrypted. The app can be used free of charge. However, if you want features like markdown, automated backups, 2FA authentication, and access to numerous extensions, you have to switch to a subscription model. The following subscriptions are currently available.

The 1-month plan for $ 9.99, the 1-year plan for $ 4.17 per month (billed annually), and the 5-year plan for $ 2.48 per month (billed annually). So with the free version, you only have a fairly limited notes app. Still, I like Standard Notes' privacy approach. I am increasingly trying to pay attention to my privacy and data protection on the Internet. Therefore, I recently separated from all Google services. I only stick to my Gmail address. In a separate one, I wrote about how I stepped out of the Google Ecosystem step by step.

... but no alternative for Notion.

Standard Notes does not represent an alternative to Notion for me. The functional scope of Notion compared to Standard Notes is significantly larger. However, Standard Notes could be a replacement for Workflowy. Because in my eyes both apps are designed to write notes quickly. However, if you need a little more of the range of functions, you need to buy a subscription. Some offered extensions take the app to a new level. This way you can structure and organize projects within Standard Notes. There is now even a Spreadsheet Editor (but still in beta), which is a very good alternative to Google. Standard Notes is, therefore, an excellent product that is sure to find its place in many workflows of different users.

Oh Superhuman

As you may know from one of my blog posts, the way I handle email is sometimes the absolute productivity killer. Thanks to an email app called Superhuman, this has changed significantly. Superhuman is the fastest email experience. With intuitive shortcuts, the user moves through his inbox super quickly. In this way, all of the unread emails can be easily sorted, structured and processed. I was looking for the best email app for a long time and finally found it with Superhuman. Therefore, Superhuman shouldn't be missing in my workflow and productivity stack.

Update 22.02.2020: Lately, I've been torn about superhuman. The app saves me a lot of time, so I'm willing to pay $ 30 a month for it. However, I do not agree to pay this amount every month if the company makes mistakes regarding the data security and privacy of its users. The past months have shown me, again and again, that life without Google and with increased data security on the Internet is still possible. Now using a tool that more or less forces me to use a Google product (Gmail) makes it a clear spanner in the works. So I decided to cancel my subscription, which makes me no longer a Superhuman user. For me, the product and the company simply no longer fit into my concept of paying more attention to data security and privacy. Here is a good read why Superhuman is still spying on you.

The personal project management tool

I have been using another tool with my girlfriend for a short time. After Basecamp introduced a personal plan in 2019, we decided to use Basecamp for To Do's, File & Documents, and messages that affect our apartment and shared living situation. So if any documents affect our rental agreement, we take the document directly into Basecamp and always have access there. We also record shopping lists and appointments directly in Basecamp. So we can do without another Google service in our life. Basecamp also attaches great importance to privacy. Besides, Basecamp recently announced that they no longer use trackers on Basecamp.com.

I currently love to have four tools that I can always rely on. They also help me increase my productivity and structure of my work and projects. For quick and, above all, easy notes when I'm on the go, Workflowy is always at my hand. With the Bullet/Nodes system, I can also organize my quickly written notes practically. If I wrote down some ideas for a blog post and am ready to start writing, I switch to Notion. All my projects come together in Notion. I also write my blog posts directly in Notion.

Writing blog posts in Notion

For this, I have created a Kanban Board, which is divided into "Backlog", "In Progress" and "Published". The individual entries on this board are the actual blog posts, which I can open as a separate page. If a blog post is ready, I can use Notion to export the blog post as a markdown. Which in turn is very practical if you want to export what you have written to WordPress. If I am working on a longer blog post that I would like to edit in advance using Markdown, I still have iA Writer ready. Still, Notion is my entire digital workspace tool. The personal plan that comes to $ 48 a year is perfect for my needs. The price is also absolutely okay, considering which tools Notion replaces for me.

Since I like to separate work and private life, Basecamp's personal plan came in handy. Basecamp is also an incredibly successful tool. My girlfriend and I are thrilled with our shared digital information hub. All our ToDo's, important documents, notes, appointments now land in Basecamp. A big plus is that we both can now always access everything.

Although I have found my favorite tools for quite some time now, I am always interested in new productivity tools and am therefore on the lookout for new apps and tools that I can test.

9. December 2019Comments are off for this post.

My personal Google alternatives – You do not need Google

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking about privacy and data security on the internet. I am not a big fan of Google but much of my work is relying on a lot of their services. Recently I decided to step out of the Google ecosystem and with this blog post I want to show you, that you can do that too. I went on the hunt after some Google alternatives.

Feeding Google with data

Once part of the Google ecosystem, unencrypted plain date hovers over their servers. Several articles in the past have revealed that Google has repeatedly worked with the FBI and the NSA on user data. Although I've been using Google products for a long time (especially Gmail and Drive), that's no reason to completely ignore my privacy on the Internet. Even now, I can still take the first step and tear myself away from the Google ecosystem. In this blog post, I want to show what Google alternatives there are, and how they integrate into my current workflow.

Gmail and its 1.5 billion active users

One of the most well-known and most-used products of Google is (besides their search engine of course) Gmail. The email service has 1.5 billion active users. I started my email adventure with Outlook. More specifically with Hotmail, which integrated into Outlook in 2012. One year later, people got aware that Outlook, like other email providers, reads emails and stores them unencrypted on their servers. Apart from hat Outlook have their headquarters and thus their servers in the US. And they are known to have no strict privacy policies. If you want to have more security regarding emails with Outlook, you have to pay for it (Office 365).

Do not get me wrong, I also like to spend money on it if my data security is more granted to me. But before I give my money to a group like Microsoft, I prefer to look for an alternative that really values my privacy.

Getting rid of Chrome

In my early years, I did not care that my data is not safe in a multi-trillion dollar US corporation. That's why I set up a Gmail address as well. If we anticipate the year 2019, I am not so happy with my decision at the time. I try step by step to get rid of the individual Google products. One page that was and still is very helpful to me is Nomoregoogle. The project by Pieter Levels is an overview of the individual services, with suggestions for Google alternatives.

Through this page, I became aware of Firefox again. I'm a Chrome Poweruser, I use a lot of extensions and add-ons. Chrome always made me feel faster than any other browser. So I did not care about the competition, nor test any new browsers. However, when I downloaded the latest version of Firefox, I was extremely surprised. The user interface was clean and the design looked appealing. I found myself thinking that the UI actually looked better than Chrome's.

Switching to Firefox

However, before I finally got the hang of it, I had to be sure that the individual extensions that I use in Chrome are also available as addons in Firefox. And indeed, I found every single one in the Firefox addon store (but still searching for an Workona alternative). At the time, I felt a bit bad, as I've always believed that Chrome is by far the best browser, and everyone else is miles away in terms of features. In fact, I lived under a rock. Firefox is a great browser that does a lot better than Google Chrome, first and foremost Privacy. It took a few hours with Firefox and it already felt like I had never used another browser. Other alternatives for Google Chrome would include Opera, Brave or Vivaldi.

Can you replace Google Search?

Next up was Google Search on my list. Google tracks every single search query and then also each of your next steps. Within a short time, Google knows in this way, what you were looking for, what search results you clicked on and finally what you did on this page. It's sometimes scary that Google is more likely to know about our user behavior than we think. WIRED wrote an exciting article about how we are getting tracked by Google. There are already some search engines on the market that do not track a single click from you.

Unfortunately, many do not provide numerous and accurate results that Google often provides. Startpage.com was the best solution in my opinion. The company is based in the Netherlands and has servers in the US as well as in the EU. Startpage will provide you with all search results you would have received with Google. However, with the small and subtle difference that not a single click is getting tracked. Once you do a search through Startpage, Google has no chance to continue to follow you online.

Google alternatives when it comes to search

Probably the best-known alternative to Google in terms of security is DuckDuckGo. Maybe you wonder now why I did not resort to this search. DuckDuckGo gets a lot of media attention and it turns out that they are safer than Google but not really better. Why? DuckDuckGo is based in America, has its servers there and is thus subject to the Patriot Act (as well as Google). In addition, they host on Amazon servers, which is not known to be the best solution for data security. For more information on this, I recommend the following blog post "I found this flaw in DuckDuckGo". So if you want to search Google privately and securely, you should rely on the service of Startpage.

Update 13.2.2020: Back in November 2019 Startpage got bought by System1, a company that focuses on targeted advertising. There hasn't been any statement about whether Startpage will still focus on their privacy-first approach. Therefore I would suggest using services like Qwant or Ecosia, which are both good private search engines.

How I tried to replace Gmail, and somehow succeeded

My email activities happen, as mentioned earlier, in Gmail. Accordingly, I also use a Gmail address. Google has long ago admitted that for advertising purposes, they monitored users' email activity. Since the 2017/18, Google stopped doing this espionage work. Third-party email clients, such as Spark, Edison, Newton, etc. can still read along with your emails. A report by the Wallstreet Journal revealed this fact (App developers sifting through your gmail). One company that was mentioned in the media over and over again was Return Path. It could be confirmed that the employees of this company have read over 8,000 emails of their users. Sadly, with services like Spark, user data is collected and eventually sold.

If you google for named email clients and add "privacy issues" to your search you will be overwhelmed with numerous results. If you want to securely write and manage emails, you should use the stock email apps of the respective operating systems. But what if I do not like the UX? Or do I need functions that many other email clients have implemented? At the time of writing this blog post, there is no real answer. Unless you take certain circumstances to complete.

Is this the safest email service? Introducing ProtonMail

During my search for an alternative for Gmail, I became aware of ProtonMail. ProtonMail is located in Switzerland. A country that has a very strict privacy policy. With ProtonMail all emails are encrypted end-to-end. If the recipient does not use ProtonMail, then you can add the encryption manually. The company was founded in 2013 by Jason Stockman, Andy Yen and Wei Sun. All of them are employees at the CERN research facility. With ProtonMail, you get a completely new email domain. If you want to use a custom domain, you have to pay for a ProtonMail Plus Account. ProtonMail is basically free.

Free but limited

However, the free version of the email provider has certain disadvantages. The memory amounts to 500 MB and 150 emails a day can be sent maximum. The paid subscriptions start at 5 € per month or 48 € per year. But you get 5 GB of memory, 1000 emails a day, 200 folders/labels, 1 custom domain, and normal support.

If you need more storage you can top it up for 1 € per month or 9 € per year per GB. Likewise, if you want to use more custom domains, you can buy them for $ 2 a month or $ 18 a year per domain. A memory of 500 MB is not much and will not be enough for most users. So someone who writes a little more emails than the average a day, already access the paid subscription. 5 GB are available for this. Compared to the 15 GB that everyone gets free at Gmail. In return, ProtonMail offers some security provisions. On the one hand, this includes the already mentioned end-to-end encryption.

Free does not mean free

In addition, ProtonMail has no access to your encrypted user data. The company uses proven and trusted algorithms for these encryptions. The hard drives used by ProtonMail are also fully encrypted and stored in secure data centers. So far so good. ProtonMail offers everything you are looking for when it comes to security in your emails. You realize how often the saying "If the product is free, you are the product" is true. Every time I discover a new email client that advertises, among other things, being free, the alarm bells ring. Because in most cases you pay with your personal data. So if you put a lot of emphasis on data security, you should be ready to pay for it. Because often it is smaller companies that try to fight against corporations like Google and to provide more security on the Internet.

Why I still have to use Gmail

With a new email via ProtonMail, however, I personally face another problem. I currently use Superhuman as my email client. Superhuman currently supports only Gmail and Gsuite accounts. Of course, I could use my new Custom Email from ProtonMail inside Gmail. Because over each Gmail account you can call up and send other emails. That happens, for whatever reason, with the deprecated service POP3. In addition, retrieving and sending emails via POP3 within Gmail does not really work in my favor. It is extremely slow and the emails are also retrieved irregularly. This situation "forced" me into a workflow that I appreciate more and more recently. My main smartphone is an Android Phone. S

Superhuman Mobile is currently only available on iOS. So I am not tempted to constantly look at my emails on my smartphone. I focus much more on my work and know, once I'm at home, I can handle all my emails on my MacBook with Superhuman. Of course, I use Gmail on my Android Phone and still have access to emails in emergencies on my smartphone. My basic plan is currently hosting my private emails via ProtonMail. In order to use my email client, I have to integrate these email addresses into existing Google accounts. As soon as Superhuman stops concentrating on Google and Gsuite accounts, but also offers the possibility to create IMAP accounts, there is no reason for me to use Gmail for my email traffic any more. Which also separates me from this Google service.

Alternatives for Google Docs & Google Sheets

I've never used Google Docs or Google Sheets great. Therefore, it was not difficult for me to find alternatives. If you're a hardcore Google Sheets user looking for an alternative, check out Airtable. Partly spreadsheets and partly databases, Airtable acts as an excellent tool to easily organize anything, with anyone, anywhere. Among other things, I use Airtable as a database for the content that I share in my weekly newsletter, Creativerly. So I always have the opportunity to check if I want to share something which I have posted before. If you want to know about my weekly newsletter you can check out my blog post about it. But now let's get back to some Google alternatives.

As for Google Docs, I prefer Notion. I was a year-long Evernote user. Until I finally switched to Notion a year ago. For me, Notion is an all-in-one workspace where everything comes together. I do not use it primarily as a simple notes app, as well as I've used Evernote. Rather, it serves as a project management tool to give structure to my projects. Of these notes can be a part. For quick and intuitive writing, however, Workflowy is my favorite. At the beginning of 2019, I started Bullet Journaling. Workflowy is based on a bulleting system, which makes it my absolute favorite for quick notes. So for my use-case Airtable and Notion are the perfect Google Alternatives, when it comes to Docs and Sheets.

Moving on to Cloud storage

As a cloud service, I use Dropbox. Google Drive was never my first choice as the Mac app "Backup & Sync" was extremely slow and took up a lot of my RAM. When it comes to privacy and security also Dropbox was already in the criticism. Still, Dropbox cloud storage is one of the safest. Over the past week, I wondered if I should not switch to an even safer option. The reason for this is the fact that I prefer the data and data centers of such services to be located in Europe, or even in my home country. Nextcloud provides an interesting alternative in this respect. Nextcloud provides free software that allows data to be stored on its own server.

It is a perfect alternative to commercial products such as Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive. By installing Nextcloud on a private server or webspace (which, happens at no extra cost), users are always in control of their data. When Frank Karlitschek announced Nextcloud as a fork of ownCloud on June 2, 2016, he aimed to make users independent of service providers on the Internet. We all know that many vendors market their users commercially. A certain privacy or data security is not given. Nextcloud enables completely own data sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Informationstechnikzentrum Bund (Germany), as well as authorities from France, Sweden, and the Netherlands are enthusiastic about this data sovereignty, so they use Nextcloud for the file exchange.


So I found an alternative for every single Google product I have used. Only to Gmail I still hold on. However, I am in good spirits that Superhuman will soon enable the use of other email services as well. As soon as this is possible, I can also turn my back on Gmail.

Just because I no longer use Google services does not mean that my data is protected on the Internet. However, I have made a huge step in the right direction. Let me know which Google alternatives you are using.