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Oh, the promises of the productivity industry: “Use this one system…”, “With our simple app…”, “This crazy trick…”.

Or believe you’ll be able to sit down at your computer, know exactly what work you need to do, and, most amazingly of all, just do it.

When you’re sitting there, staring at a blank document wracking your brains for words that just won’t come, your mind naturally starts to wander.

What if I was at Inbox Zero Buried In Emails? Shrink Your Massive Inbox To Zero With Mailstrom Buried In Emails? Shrink Your Massive Inbox To Zero With Mailstrom We've offered a number of solutions through the years to manage your Gmail account and to clean up a cluttered inbox. Nothing is more convenient than a central online solution like Mailstrom. Read More ? Or just not getting emailed as much 5 Action Steps For Curing Your Inbox Zero Email Frenzy 5 Action Steps For Curing Your Inbox Zero Email Frenzy Inbox Zero is one of the most popular buzz words. To truly solve your email issues you need to go beyond Inbox Zero and address the underlying problems. Read More ? Maybe, if I was using Getting Things Done Organise 2015: Learn The Martial Art Of Getting Things Done [Stuff to Watch] Organise 2015: Learn The Martial Art Of Getting Things Done [Stuff to Watch] Ever wonder why the successful, over-achievers always seem to keep a cool head? Read More ? Then I’d be able to sit down and just be productive.

What tools you use (or don’t use) is rarely the problem though. Normally, the issue lies within.

The Never Ending Quest for a Magic Button

Every year or two there’s a new hot productivity app that everyone is raving about.

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At the moment, the to-do app de jour, at least in the OS X community, seems to be 2Do (which we’ve covered before Take Control of Tasks & To-Dos With the Powerful 2Do for Mac & iOS Take Control of Tasks & To-Dos With the Powerful 2Do for Mac & iOS A powerful take management application is the best way to stay on top of your to-dos and projects, and 2Do is one of the most robust cross-platform organisers for Mac, iOS and Android. Read More ). Before 2Do it was Things and before Things it was OmniFocus (which we also looked at Getting Things Done, Better: The Redesigned OmniFocus 2 for Mac Getting Things Done, Better: The Redesigned OmniFocus 2 for Mac A few years back, I gave up on the original OmniFocus because it felt too complicated for what I needed – step in the redesigned and cleaner Omnifocus 2. Read More ).

All three apps promise to do the same thing — keep track of your ever growing task list. They all take their inspiration, to a greater or lesser degree, from GTD but in core functionality, they’re pretty much the same. You add tasks, group them by projects or context, give them due dates, and tick them off when they’re done. It’s a slightly updated version of the paper planners that have been popular for decades Why Paper Planners Are Relevant in the Age of Smartphone Calendar Apps Why Paper Planners Are Relevant in the Age of Smartphone Calendar Apps Smartphones are great, but maybe planners are one thing they shouldn't have replaced. Read More .

The crazy thing is that some people, in the quest to be productive, switch between these apps hoping to find a magic solution to productivity. Yes, there are times when it makes sense to switch Why Brand Loyalty is the Enemy of Productivity Why Brand Loyalty is the Enemy of Productivity You can't gain knowledge of something you're not willing to explore. Can you break through your prejudices and try out new things? Try. Productivity could be just outside your comfort zone. Read More .  Sometimes, there are differences between them that matter to a small number of people. But for the majority, if you can’t use OmniFocus to manage your tasks, then you’re not going to do any better with 2Do or Things.

You don’t just see this with to-do apps, it’s the same with other productivity systems, notes apps, and other, unrelated things, like diets or New Year’s resolutions. Someone tries one tool that promises the world and, when they don’t get the world, they blame the tool and try another one believing it will fix things.

If the tool isn’t working for you, the chances are that no tool will, the issue is your bad habits and other cracks in your productivity processes. For example, GTD is based on the assumption that you will put everything — and I mean everything into your Inbox. If you don’t do that, the whole system falls apart.

Takeaway: Change your behavior. Switching to the shiny new app won’t fix anything unless you actually stick to the system.

The Boring Truth of Productivity

The boring truth of productivity is that the tool is rarely the problem.

With very few exceptions, switching apps or trying a new system isn’t going to have any big effect on your productivity. That’s because productivity is ultimately about you.

When it comes down to it, productivity is a combination of energy, focus, and time management. If you arrange your life (time management) so you can get an hour to focus all your attention (energy) on just one task (focus), there’s a very good chance you’ll get some serious work done on it. A task management app or productivity strategy may make one or two of these steps a little easier, but they can’t do it for you.

For example, I use OmniFocus to keep track of the articles I have to write. This means that when I sit down to work I don’t have to think about what to do, I just look at the list and grab the article I feel most interested in writing. I also use the Pomodoro technique Achieve Your Resolutions With Persevy and the Pomodoro Method Achieve Your Resolutions With Persevy and the Pomodoro Method One of the most popular productivity methods, the Pomodoro technique, is ideal to achieve your goals. And new web app Persevy makes it easier than ever to track your progress. Read More to help me keep my attention on just one task.

omnifocussetup

Even with all that in place, I still have to actually do the work. If I feel like watching one of Netflix’s new shows 13 New Netflix Originals You'll Be Watching in 2016 13 New Netflix Originals You'll Be Watching in 2016 Netflix has released a lot of original content -- including House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Narcos, and Master of None -- but 2016 is slated to be Netflix's most exciting year yet. Read More instead, it doesn’t matter what’s next on my to-do list or how many 25 minute sessions I originally planned on doing, the odds are not a single word will be written.

If I keep watching Netflix instead of working, then the problem isn’t with my task management app or my productivity system, it’s with me. I need to address why I’ve no motivation to write, or do whatever else I should be doing. Switching apps or trying a new magic button just isn’t going to fix things.

Takeaway: You have to do the work. No app is going to do it for you.

Find Something That Works and Stick with It

The best tools fit seamlessly into your life. They should be simple for you to use. Once you find something that helps you be productive, stick with it. If your task management app can keep track of everything you need it to and you use it, there’s no point ditching it for the shiny new app.

OmniFocus and the Pomodoro method are just two tools that really work for me. They aren’t the only tools that would work, however. Any other decent task management app (or a pen and paper!) could replace OmniFocus.

pomodoro2

There’s nothing magical about the Pomodoro method’s 25 minute increments; I could use 20 or 30 or 45 minute work sessions instead and things would be much the same. The important thing is that they provide me with some framework, the specifics don’t matter that much.

If you have a task management app or another other productivity strategy that works for you How to Be Productive When Productivity Apps Don't Work for You How to Be Productive When Productivity Apps Don't Work for You You should noticed that the past few years have been about an obsession with productivity. But what if productivity apps don't do it for you? Then what do you do? Read More , keep it. Constantly switching to a new app or trying a different strategy is going to get in the way of being actually productive.

As I mentioned above, good productivity is a combination of energy, focus, and time management. If you continually change what apps or strategies you use, they’ll interfere with your ability to focus attention at a task.

We are constantly inundated with countless distractions; to be productive, you need to minimize them. Changing apps introduces new distractions to your workflow. If you have to look for where exactly the button to create a new task is or try and remember what the keyboard shortcut to start a timer is you’re making life harder for yourself. The aim is to use apps to reduce and simplify our workflows, not to complicate them further.

Takeaway: There is an anti-productivity cost to changing your productivity apps.

The Key to Productivity Is In Our Behavior

“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” 
— Leo Babauta

If you’re motivated to do something, then productivity tools can help you better manage your time Simple Time & Project Management Strategies You Can Use at Home Simple Time & Project Management Strategies You Can Use at Home Are you longing to make changes in your life? Whatever it is that you would like to achieve, treat it like a project and complement it with our exercises to increase your chance for success. Read More and focus your energy but they won’t do it for you. If you’re not motivated to do something, no amount of tools or tricks will really help. If that’s the case, then you need to address the underlying issues rather than keep switching apps in the vain hope that it will somehow make you magically care about the work you don’t want to do.

Once you’ve found some combination of productivity tools that works for you, changing things up will only make you less productive.

The keys to productivity are almost entirely internal. The solution is to develop good habits and the ability to focus on a task Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Are you looking for a more efficient way to organise your work-days? Try Time Blocking. This time management tactic can help keep you on track while keeping distractions, procrastination, and unproductive multitasking at bay. Read More . Apps can help but they can’t do it for you.

Are you the kind of person who constantly switches productivity tools looking for the next hot app? Think I’m wrong? Let me know in the comments.

  1. Mat
    May 18, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Humm, I agree with the general sentiment that it really doesn't matter what routine you adapt and then excel to help you stay productive. However, there is a big difference in the limitation sets of these different task managers (even with the pomodoro apps there is).

    I find that trying out different methods or apps sometimes even helps me stay more agile with how I think of the tasks at hand. To state that it "only will make you less productive" is far too limited if you ask me. This actually is only true for uncontrolled planning as a different type of procrastination. If the feature set of the new app enables you to, say, order your list manually, enable you to use tags and priorities instead of contexts and keeps track of started tasks you might be inclined to test 2Do as an option to OmniFocus. Maybe it reduces friction you are not even aware exists?

  2. dreada
    March 1, 2016 at 11:43 am

    I agree. But for some people, changes in the tools or systems is a new chance to have a look from other angle. First steps of following the particular system can be very hard, and cool app can be just another factor of motivation. The good tools are nice to use by themselfs. (For example - my gf presented me a nice electric screwdriver, and what you think? From that time you can hardly find missing screw in my home - i am enjoying the process and proud of results, and i think its great.)
    Be productive and became productive is not the same. I am pretty sure, that one who already productive and got some working system can be productive using almost any app - just some of them will be more comfort to use, some less. And why not to try some tool that give even more comfort and eliminate some routine by new smart features?
    And then you only making your first steps and fail - the system is not working, todo list is full of over due tasks, and only frustrate you, etc. If new tool can motivate you in some way - you must try.
    Yes, tools dont do the work - you do the work. But tools CAN motivate too.

  3. Read and Share
    February 23, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Those people who constantly look for and try out new productivity tools...
    Those people who constantly look for and try out new diet schemes...
    Those people who constantly look for and try out new exercise machines, gyms, ...

    When people know they really need to do something, but don't really want to do the hard work, then shopping around / trying new 'solutions' give them a sense of action and accomplishment. Nothing is solved, but people feel better about themselves, and our economy gets a boost, and new jobs open up. Not all bad, actually.

    • Harry Guinness
      February 25, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      I think that's a pretty limited view. Far better that people are productive and contribute to the economy that way rather than giving cash to snake oil salesmen.

  4. VIMvim
    February 22, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    While this is mostly true I'm sure that for heavy text editing the classic VIM text editor does increase productivity a lot and beats most if not every other solution.
    It's free and open source software and has been in use by many since the 90s so there is no commercial interest to build a hype train.

    • Harry Guinness
      February 25, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      To a point. VIM works for some people but for others a more specialised tool might be more apropriate. Apps that do too much can be a big problem.

  5. Peter Buyze
    February 22, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Good article Harry, you hit the nail on the head. Those people who constantly look for & try out another tool are most likely the most unproductive ones & stay that way because they refuse to accept reality as you outline here.

    • Harry Guinness
      February 25, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks Peter.

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