Do productivity apps make you more productive?

We all want to Get Things Done (TM), but do we have the right tools? I am one of those people who easily falls down a rabbit hole of new apps when trying to bolster my ineffectual productivity system. And I’ve done it again. Last night, after a couple of months of firmly re-committing to using Todoist, I downloaded TickTick. I was reading an article that mentioned it and realized that it actually did all the things I am trying to cobble together.

So now I get the fun of setting up a new tool, integrating calendars, re-thinking projects, deciding whether to combine work and personal tasks, and just…starting over.

Maybe that’s the appeal of a new app. You get a clean slate, a fresh start. There’s a learning curve, so you might feel a bit challenged. It feels like you’re doing something, and that’s what productivity is all about, right?

You don’t need an app

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Here’s a secret: no one needs a productivity app in order to lead a happy, creative, productive life. You can get everything you need to do done, without so much as a to-do list. I know this is possible because that’s how my husband operates. He just does the thing that needs doing in the moment. At the end of the day, this works fine for him. He gets his work done. Bills get paid. He calls his mom. He just does it without writing it down.

Of course, he could be doing more if he wanted to. He could have audacious goals with lots of small tasks that need to go into a trusted system. But he doesn’t. And that’s fine.

The key to living life without a to-do list or productivity app is to simplify. If you don’t have more to do than your brain can manage, then there is no problem to solve. Go forth and do all the things on your own time in your own way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I suspect that people who don’t feel the need for productivity systems may be more relaxed than the rest of us.

The new app trap

Those of us who are on the productivity bandwagon tend to get a bit obsessive about it. If a new task management app comes out, we will try it out even if our current productivity system works just fine. We’ll get caught up in YouTube and podcast wormholes and download new tools for note taking and time blocking.

It can be a bit of a distraction. We all know that the point of all of these productivity tools is to allow us to get into a Zen state of flow and block out distractions…but that’s hard to do when you are trying to cram your whole life into a new app.

I have to admit that I find a lot of joy in the process of setting up a new tool for personal productivity or project management. I’ve done it many times in both personal and work contexts, and every time it feels like the future is bright and the goals are within reach, if I can just tick off these little tasks on schedule, all will be right with the world.

Of course, all is never right with the world and things get in the way of checking those little boxes. There are tasks I avoid, tasks that need input from others, and things that I do and then forget to check. The apps get messy and I start avoiding them, because it feels like a project just to catch up with checking the boxes.

It doesn’t matter what app you use, you will fall into the same trap. The problem is not you, and it’s not the app. The problem is human nature. We have the capacity to make complex plans, but our behavior is largely driven by the other part of our brain. In the moment, we can’t deliver on our own promises to ourselves.

And that’s OK. To be alive means to be a little dysfunctional.

Do less to develop self-trust

The answer to this conundrum is not a new app. It is to only make promises to yourself that you can keep. How do you know if you can keep a promise to yourself? Start with whatever feels so easy you would feel silly not doing it.

If you’ve read Atomic Habits you know the principle. You need to build the habit of doing the habit before you make the habit itself challenging. To apply this principle to your task management system, start by only allowing the things you know you actually will do. This might be a much short list of things than you are used to putting on a to-do list. Like two per day. Or maybe one.

That means you may need to say no to a few things while you build up the self-trust habit, or defer them until later. Try adopting “less is more” as your productivity strategy, and develop the habit of clearing your list every day (and celebrating a little when you do check off that one thing!)

It takes time to develop the habit of self-trust. It really does mean you have to keep every promise you make to yourself, and that may mean promising yourself less than what you wish you could deliver. Your app or notebook or whiteboard can help with this, because before you trust yourself you can trust the system.

When you add something to your inbox or your someday-maybe list, you are not yet making a commitment to doing the thing. The point of the collection process is to put all of your ideas and plans in a single place where you can remember and plan to do them at a later date. You trust the app or system enough to hold onto things for you, but can you trust yourself to come back later and do something about them.

It’s alright to not do the thing

There’s very little in life that is not optional. If you want to stay alive, you have to eat, drink water, sleep, and find shelter from weather and predators. Beyond those basics, we make choices.

You might choose to be the best parent you can be, but there are a lot extracurricular demands on parents that do not necessarily make them better parents. Keeping up with high-involvement parents is not required to have a good relationship with your kids or give them the support they need. Just say no to the PTA.

For me, there are things that I think I SHOULD do because the culture tells me I should do them. Be a good contributor to the economy. Take care of other people (because I’m a woman), and maybe even make a few in my baby factory (no, thank you). Keep my house spotless and organized (because I’m a woman). Be active, fit, and social every day. Maintain a bikini body (because I’m a woman). Get up early. Have a side hustle. Volunteer. Etc. etc.

And then there are the things that I want to do, because I’m me. Write a novel. Plan a trip. Develop a yoga practice. Get a massage. Learn how to make art on my iPad. Learn Portuguese. Go for a hike. Write a blog post. Somehow these optional activities also become “shoulds.”

My mom used to tell me, “don’t should on yourself,” which I think is wise advice. When all of these optional activities start to feel obligatory, we no longer feel free to do them. We feel mandated to do them. And then we resist, procrastinate, rebel, shirk, and eventually give up. Nothing is worth all that stress.

This is somehow even more true of projects and tasks that make their way into a productivity system or app. Seeing that overdue task on your list each day can sap all of the potential joy out of it, before you even do it. It might be better to decide not to do it, or file it away on a someday-maybe list you know you will see in the future.

How I use task managers

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As I foreshadowed at the beginning of this post, I just switched to TickTick for my task and project management. I have previously used:

  • TickTick (current): Combines task manager, habit tracker, and calendar integration. Also features a Pomodoro timer and an Eisenhower grid for prioritization.
  • Todoist: Great all-around task manager with calendar integration.
  • Things: Another great task manager based on GTD principles
  • Hive: Team project management; excellent for small teams
  • Asana: Team project management and personal productivity; flexible enough to suit most any workflow
  • Basecamp: The go-to project management and communication tool for small agencies working with multiple clients
  • Trello: Kan ban can! If you like a nice kan ban board and have multiple projects, Trello is fantastic

To be honest, none of these are without their issues. But they all work if you actually use them. And by “work,” I mean: get your tasks and projects out of your head so you can actually work on them rather than think about them.

I have found that the best way for me to work with these tools is to review projects weekly and enter tasks with dates on them for next actions. This allows me to work mainly in the “today” view and avoid looking at long, intimidating lists. TickTick also has calendar integration, so for larger tasks I can put them on my schedule between meetings. I only schedule things that will take more than 15 minutes to complete. Some tasks may need several hours blocked out, while small tasks never go on the calendar view.

The risk for someone like me who wants to do ALL THE THINGS is that I will overload my tool with aspirational projects and clutter up my daily list with next actions that aren’t going to get done today or in the near future. I am trying to get better at filing those under someday-maybe and reserving my active list for things I really will do today.

I try to keep pretty tight limits on those “should” tasks as well. I don’t really want to clean out my closet, but I should at some point. When I put these things on my list, I make sure to spread them out so that I don’t have more than a few per week, on different days.

In the evening I go through and check off what I’ve done, including habit tracking. Then I look at the next day, add any new tasks (or move undone tasks), and add calendar blocks for anything requiring significant time. I find it does not really work to do this level of planning any earlier than the evening before. Weekends are a bit less structured, so I just add tasks, but no specific time blocks.

Does this make me “more productive”? Maybe. Having a trusted system means I don’t forget to do things. Using time blocks means I carve out time for the projects that matter to me. An app is just a tool, and I could easily use a notebook or index cards to similar effect.

But the goal is not to get more things done in a day. It is to make progress on the things that matter to me. An app can help me track things, but if will never help me do things. Only I can do that.

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