8 ways to turn Android into a productivity powerhouse

With just a handful of easy adjustments, your Android phone can become a lean, mean productivity machine.

Android now accounts for the vast majority of commercial smartphone shipments, according to market intelligence firm IDC, with more than two-thirds of all global enterprise-oriented purchases in the first quarter of 2017. Out of the box, though, a typical Android phone is anything but optimized for productivity.

Power up most popular phones, and you'll find ineffective home screens, mediocre keyboards and all sorts of untapped potential. But all it takes is a little tweaking to go from unrefined gizmo to finely tuned work companion.

Follow these eight steps, and your Android phone will be primed for productivity and ready for business.

1. Optimize your home screen

One of the simplest and most impactful ways to improve your phone's effectiveness is to focus on its foundation: the home screen. Your home screen is the first thing you see when you unlock your device, and it's the launching point for practically everything you do. Yet for most people, it's a cluttered and inefficient mess — and that, suffice it to say, is counterproductive.

It helps to think of your home screen as a toolbox. If you were preparing to perform a home repair job, you'd want to be able to find the tools you use the most with a minimal amount of thought and effort. Were your toolbox a disorganized mess, you'd waste valuable time digging around every time you opened it.

Your home screen is no different. And unlike iOS, Android doesn't limit you to a static grid of square icons. You can lay things out in any way that works best for you, employing a mix of app shortcuts, widgets and — critically — blank space.

Start by thinking carefully about what apps you actually open on a near-daily basis. Ideally, your main home screen panel should contain these items and only these items — things like the Phone app, any relevant messaging apps, your email app, your calendar app and your web browser. (Some if not all of those would probably make sense in the dock at the bottom of the screen.)

Android productivity tips - optimized home screen JR Raphael / IDG

A properly optimized home screen makes it faster and easier to find the things you need.

You might also want to include any note-taking apps, music apps, home control apps or photo apps you open regularly. As for everything else, make this your mantra: If you don't open it almost every day, get it out of your way. Having a ton of app shortcuts on your home screen actually makes it more difficult to find what you want; you'll be much better served by narrowing it down to a small handful of icons (10 to 15 at most) and then relying on your phone's alphabetically organized and easily scrollable app drawer when you need anything else.

That'll keep the tools you use the most at your fingertips and make them easy to locate without any visual scanning. You'll likely even develop muscle memory and start touching the appropriate areas of the screen for different functions without thinking.

For types of info that are useful to see at a glance — like weather, for instance — consider a well-placed widget that'll make that data always available without the need for any additional taps. Just remember: Less is more. If your home screen reaches the point of being jam-packed with superfluous info, it ends up being an ineffective toolbox for your mobile productivity needs.

2. Let Gboard speed up your typing

It's hard to feel productive on your phone when every sentence you type takes 10 minutes and requires a professional gibberish-translator to decipher. Smartphone typing doesn't have to be a source of frustration, though — if you find and install the right keyboard and learn how to take advantage of its strengths.

For most people, I'd recommend installing Google's own Gboard app. (It comes preinstalled as the default keyboard on some devices, but many manufacturers — including Samsung — opt to provide their own inferior alternatives instead.) There are certainly other commendable keyboards out there, but Gboard has grown into the most polished, well-rounded and easy-to-use option, and it comes with some pretty compelling perks.

First are the keyboard's time-saving shortcuts. For instance, you can quickly type a number or special character by holding your finger on the ?123 key in Gboard's bottom-left corner and then sliding it upward; that'll cause a selection of symbols to appear, and you can then simply move your finger to whichever one you want.

When you need to reposition your cursor, meanwhile, slide your finger along the spacebar — or, for even finer control, tap the menu symbol (>) in Gboard's upper-left corner and then tap the I that appears in the center of the top bar. That'll bring up a control panel with buttons for precisely positioning the cursor as well as for selecting text.

Android productivity tips - Gboard keyboard app JR Raphael / IDG

Gboard lets you quickly access special characters as well as conduct advanced searches right from your keyboard.

And speaking of that top-bar menu, that's where you'll find some of Gboard's more advanced features: a search icon, which allows you to search Google right from the keyboard and then share items like news, weather and location info directly to any text field; a Google Translate icon, which lets you translate into another language on the fly; and a settings icon, which lets you customize numerous facets of the keyboard — including its height, its visual style and the presence of a dedicated number row.

Gboard can also make it less awkward to type on a large-screened device: Just press and hold the comma key and then select the icon that looks like a hand holding a phone. That'll put the keyboard into a sized-down single-handed mode; you can then position it toward the left or right of the screen or float it manually to any area you like.

3. Remember to use reminders

Your Android device has impressive memory, and I'm not talking about its RAM. Google maintains a spectacular cross-platform reminder system that's integrated directly into your phone, and it can be an invaluable productivity tool — if, that is, you remember to use it.

Anytime you need to remember something, no matter how trivial, tell your phone — either by typing into any search prompt or by speaking aloud (via the microphone icon on your home screen, the "OK Google" voice activation prompt or Google Assistant). Whichever path you take, simply use the format: "Remind me to [whatever]" — followed by the time or place at which you want to be reminded.

Location-based reminders are especially useful. You could instruct your phone to remind you to file a report when you get back to the office, for instance, or to remind you to email your boss when you get to the Chicago airport. As soon as you arrive at the location in question — whether it's later that day or weeks into the future — your phone will deliver the alert. (Google should automatically know any businesses or public locations, and you can set your own custom locations like "home" and "work" by labeling them in Google Maps.)

Android productivity tips - reminders JR Raphael / IDG

Google's cross-platform reminder system lets you set and receive location- and time-based reminders.

And here's the really powerful part: Since the reminder system is connected to your Google account and automatically synced everywhere, you can also set and view reminders from a desktop computer (provided you're signed into the same Google account there, of course). Just type your reminder into the Google search box or directly into the address bar of Chrome, or type "show me my reminders" to see a list of upcoming and past items.

The same system is also present across all platforms in Google Keep, where you can create reminders for notes and lists, and Google Inbox, where you can create reminders for emails and tasks as well as manage all existing reminders.

4. Take control of notifications

Let's face it: Smartphone notifications aren't always so smart. Our phones have devolved into constant sources of interruption — and that isn't exactly conducive to productivity.

Take a few minutes to take control of your notifications, however, and they can become genuinely helpful instead of annoying. The first step is to perform a personal notification audit: Over the next few days, carefully consider every notification that shows up on your phone and whether it's telling you something you need to know immediately — something, in other words, that actually warrants a notification. Odds are, most alerts from social media apps, news apps, shopping apps and other non-essential sources are more distracting than useful, and turning them off will turn your phone into a better business tool.

One by one, look in each overly eager app to see if there's an obvious way to disable or at least scale back its notifications. If you can't find such an option, let Android help: Press and hold the next notification the app sends you. That'll give you options to block the app's notifications entirely or allow them to come through only silently, without any accompanying sounds or vibrations.

Android productivity tips - control notifications JR Raphael / IDG

Android provides a system-level option for silencing or blocking alerts from any app.

Think, too, about basic notifications like email. Do you really need to be notified about every single message that comes into your inbox? If you use Gmail or Inbox, you can configure the apps to notify you only for specific types of high-priority messages, which can go a long way in cutting down on noise and letting you focus on what matters.

Last but not least, learn to fully utilize Android's Do Not Disturb feature. Look in the Sound section of your system settings to set up the parameters for how it'll work, paying close attention to "priority only" mode. That mode allows only the types of alerts you whitelist — such as phone calls, for example, and perhaps messages from high-priority contacts — to notify you when it's activated. You may also want to set up rules to automatically activate Do Not Disturb during specific times or circumstances (a feature available on Android 6.0 and higher).

5. Snap between apps

On the desktop front, power users have long relied on Windows' Alt-Tab hotkey to toggle between apps without wasting time. As of last year's Android 7.0 release, Android has a similar option: Double-tap your device's Overview key (the typically square-shaped icon next to Back and Home), and you'll snap back and forth between your two most recent processes — no additional action required.

6. Split your screen

Sometimes, it's easier to get things accomplished when you can see a pair of complementary items on your screen together — whether it's a chat window and a browser, a document and a web page or any other work-assisting combination.

On devices running Android 7.0 or higher, a native split-screen mode makes this level of multitasking possible: With one app actively open, press and hold the Overview key and then select the second app you want from the list. When you're finished, press and hold the Overview key again to end the split-screen session.

Android productivity tips - split screen JR Raphael / IDG

Android's split-screen function allows you to view two apps at the same time, such as Docs on top and Calendar on the bottom, no matter what size phone you're using.

(Note that some manufacturers, including Samsung, have offered a similar feature for some time and continue to provide their own alternate implementations.)

7. Harness Chrome's cross-platform power

Google's Chrome browser can save you serious time by making your mobile work a natural extension of your in-office efforts. The Android app automatically syncs with its desktop equivalent, so all of your bookmarks are always available — and every page you've opened from your desktop is easily discoverable in Chrome's History section on your phone (so long as you're signed into both places).

You can also see what pages are actively open in Chrome on other devices — if, say, you left something open on your desktop and now want to pull it up on your phone — by tapping the "Recent tabs" function in the Android app's menu. On the desktop side, you can find that same info in the sidebar of the History page.

Chrome for Android has some hidden settings that can make it even more efficient, too. Be sure to take a few minutes to find and activate them.

8. Make Android itself more efficient

Android is unlike other mobile operating systems in that it allows a huge amount of interface customization via third-party apps — and with the right tools, that can create all sorts of opportunities for enhanced productivity.

You can install an app that puts live widgets into your notification drawer, for instance, or snag a utility that creates a universal "taskbar" for easy app access.

I've put together a collection of such efficiency-enhancing options. Take a peek — and, in conjunction with the tips above, watch your mobile productivity soar.

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