The Best Productivity Tool Is The One You Actually Use

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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? Or just not getting emailed as much? Maybe, if I was using Getting Things Done? 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). Before 2Do it was Things and before Things it was OmniFocus (which we also looked at).

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.

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.  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 to help me keep my attention on just one task.


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 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.


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, 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 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. 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.

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