Recommended Apps and Blogs

This about sums it up…

I obsess over my productivity. Everyone who knows me knows how much I value time, perhaps too much.

Below are the tools that I use to be productive. Over time, I’ll add processes (like how I manage inbound emails) and hacks. While these things work well for me, and I’m continually experimenting, I believe that maximizing productivity depends a LOT on the person, the project, even the time of day.

For those interested in learning more, pmarca’s guide to personal productivity is one of the best posts I’ve read.

#1 App:


It’s fundamentally changed both my business and personal life. Aside from foundational tools like the browser and email, no single app or website today is more important to me. I might have thought Facebook in my college days.

I’d go so far as to say that if I were given a (totally unrealistic) choice of never again using my iPhone or never again using Evernote, I’d give up my 4S in a heartbeat.

Here’s more on how and why I use Evernote.


I’m only including apps that I use weekly, at minimum.

Mac apps

  • Caffeine – does your screensaver pop up when you’re watch a movie? this is the easiest way to keep your screen on when you need it, and revert to normal when you don’t
  • Divvy – create global keyword shortcuts to resize any window into the exact size and position that you want. No more needing to use your mouse to make a window fullscreen. I’ve also setup split screen (left-half, right-half) for work that requires shuttling between 2 separate windows
  • Dropbox – I keep all personal and business files in Dropbox now. I also use Dropbox Encore to manage two synced accounts on the same computer
  • F.lux – adjusts your monitor color depending on time of day (like sunlight during day, warmer and easier on the eyes at night)
  • Minutes – simple dashboard timer, helps me stay focused and try things like the magic dots experiment
  • Sophos Anti-Virus – free and reliable
  • Spotify – always loved books more than music, but Spotify’s made it incredibly easy to listen to songs I love & discover songs I now love

iPhone apps

  • Apple’s Podcasts app – I was a big Stitcher fan, but switched to the Podcasts app a few weeks ago and haven’t looked back. Why? Stitcher wins on style points and news updates, but my primary goal is listening to my favorite shows. Podcasts is much better at auto-downloading, storing, and managing each episode. Stitcher would often have issues downloading new episodes, storing them, and remembering my listening progress. Here’s my list of podcasts
  • Google Chrome – faster and slicker than Safari, it syncs my bookmarks with the desktop app. Sometimes a pain because my iPhone defaults to Safari for links
  • Jotbox – easy way to send quick notes to yourself as an email; I was using Note 2 Self but it stopped working
  • Skritter – the BEST way, bar none, to learn Chinese characters. It makes the process almost fun. Great features including progress charts, customized character lists (I use HSK 1-6), sound effects, and nicely-incorporated audio
  • WeChat – I’ve posted about WeChat. It’s incredibly popular in China and has changed the way I think about mobile messaging and group messaging. Killer app

Interestingly, 2 apps that were on this list (, TripIt) have now been replaced by Evernote. I use Evernote to write a simple daily journal, and I forward travel itineraries to Evernote…


  • BusinessWeek – I don’t know when it happened, but BusinessWeek has become a truly impressive and informative magazine. Probably the only business-specific magazine that I consistently buy
  • The New Yorker – if they feature a topic I care about, I know I won’t find a better-researched, better-written article anywhere else. As of May 2013, this is the only magazine where I’m a paid subscriber


I subscribe to 100+ feeds (using Netvibes) – but I read most posts from the authors below:

  • Chris Dixon – everything startups and investing in them
  • Farnam Street – great curation of “nutritious brain food”
  • HackerNewsletter – Kale’s weekly curation of HackerNews links
  • – curated fun & interesting things from around the interwebs
  • Seth Roberts – created the Shangri-La diet, interesting & articulate posts on various life & health topics, especially enjoy his “Assorted Links” posts
  • Sinocism – I prefer the daily newsletter, and it can be overwhelming at times, but it’s the fastest/smartest way to stay current on China
  • Study Hacks – Cal Newport’s blog on productivity, purpose, and expertise
  • Honorable mentions: Andrew Chen blog (now a newsletter), The Art of Ass-Kicking by Jason Shen (a friend and great lifehacker-blogger), James Fallows (my favorite China writer), My China Kanfa (an expat’s view on China), Wandering Earl (he’s been traveling fulltime since 1999! wow)

What am I missing? What do you love that I should try? @kgao