Productivity Self Improvement

How to Be Productive When Productivity Apps Don’t Work for You

Dann Albright 18-02-2015

If you like reading about technology online, you should have noticed that the past few years have been about an obsession with productivity. E-mail apps, note-taking apps, task management apps, automated solutions like Google Keep, and browser extensions for productivity How To Turn Google Chrome Into A Productivity Beast The Internet has made us more productive than ever before, and the browser is the gateway to all that productivity. Chrome's many extensions and apps can help you turn it into a productivity beast. Read More  keep getting everyone excited.


But what if productivity apps don’t do it for you? Then what do you do?

You’re Not Alone

First of all, it’s important to realize that just because Wunderlist, Todoist, or Vesper isn’t your thing doesn’t mean that you’re a productivity failure. Plenty of people don’t find these sorts of apps helpful, and they still find ways to get just as much done as anyone else.

Some people thrive on productivity apps because the apps help them stay focused and give them direction. Others just like trying the latest thing.

But for many people, simplicity is the most important factor in a productive life. Using a system of apps can make things unnecessarily complex, and that leaves many people feeling less productive. And that’s fine. We like to say that there’s a productivity app for everyone, but that’s not true: some people just don’t need them.

Stop Wasting Time on “Planning” Productivity

One thing that turns a lot of people off from productivity apps is that they take time to use. You need to install them, set them up, transfer your existing task management system into the new one, and then get used to using it. That can take a lot of time that would be better spent doing things Stop Organizing, Start Working: 3 Simple To-Do Apps To Speed Up Your Workflow Are you a list lover? Stop using your to-do list as yet another excuse to procrastinate. Switch to a minimal task management system and focus on getting things done. Read More .


Similarly, some people start each week and day with a review of their task management system; this can add up to hours of preparation over the course of a month that could have instead been spent on working. These can be valuable hours if they help you work more efficiently, but not everyone finds them helpful.

If productivity apps and systems don’t work for you, go for simplicity.

Don’t spend time planning your productivity, just spend time being productive. This is true if you have problems remembering or prioritizing your tasks The 3-Strike System: How To Prioritize Your To-Do List Are you not getting through your to-do list? The problem might not be your productivity, it might just be your priorities. Let's learn how to prioritise the to-do list, and get things done. Read More , the two things that apps are really helpful for. Just sit down and get to work.

When you do, take note of what strategies you use to remember, prioritize, and delegate tasks.


Do you jot things down on a desk calendar? Do you send yourself e-mails? Do you write things in pen on the back of your hand? If productivity apps aren’t your thing, you probably have another strategy that works; take some time to think about what best motivates and keeps you organized.

Choose a Simple Tool (and Stick with It)

Once you have an idea of what you already use, choose a simple tool to keep going. Choosing a single, simple to-do app and sticking with it will save you a lot of time — you won’t have to look at the newest productivity apps every time a new one comes out.

Todoist, Wunderlist, and are all favorites around MakeUseOf. You can use them without their advanced features. Type in a task and go.

You can also use other types of apps. For example, if you like to jot notes, make lists, and write quick reminders, you could keep a text file open on your desktop in which you keep all your scribblings. It doesn’t even have to be something like Evernote — just a plain text file will work. Apple’s Notes app and Google Keep both work well for this, too, and make it easy to sync between devices.


Mihir wrote an excellent article on using Google Keep to its full potential 4 Google Keep Tips And Tricks For Better Notes, Lists And To-Dos Read More  that could help, too.


Use Siri or Google Now to manage your tasks. Take one step out of the process — just pick up your phone, tell your chosen program to remember something for you, and it’ll show up in your Reminders or Keep app. You can even use IFTTT to move it from there to your chosen to-do app. It might seem like a lot of effort, but once you’ve set it up, you can just say “Siri, remind me to buy milk on the way home.” Simple.

Of course, the ultimate simple tool is pen and paper 6 Simple Reasons Why Paper Can Still Be Your Killer Productivity App Paper can be a more potent tool for productivity than a computer or a touch device, and shouldn't immediately be dismissed. Not convinced? Here are six reasons why paper is still relevant. Read More . Maybe, it’s a reporter-sized Moleskine notebook 3 Paper Notebooks Worth Shelling Out For We do a lot of writing about high-tech ways to keep track of things and manage your life. But sometimes a plain old notebook is the best thing you can use. Read More that you can keep in your bag, a larger desk notebook, or Post-It notes that you can stick around your office. There’s nothing wrong with using the simplest of methods.


In fact, I think there’s great value in putting pen to paper, even if just for a few sentences each day 7 Ways to Keep a Personal Journal Journaling is an exercise for the mind and it has several proven benefits, but it can also seem difficult to do. This is primarily due to the overwhelming feeling of having to journal – it... Read More — there’s something about it that just can’t be replaced by typing, and it can lead to inspiration.

If you feel overwhelmed by the number of productivity apps out there, just choose one and go with it. Don’t worry about switching to the latest and greatest or establishing a complicated life management system like Getting Things Done (GTD). Some people find these absolutely indispensable—but they’re not for everyone.

Develop a Routine

Once you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t need a complicated app ecosystem, it’s time to develop a routine 8 Daily Rituals You Can Create To Boost Your Geeky Productivity Habits are hard to hack. Daily rituals are way easier. You keep at something (good or bad) for several days in a row and it turns into a habit. Read More . One of the best things productivity apps do for us are helping us create routines — check Todoist in the morning, at lunch, and before you leave work; open up Evernote on Sunday night to prioritize the coming week; look at your GTD folders to remind you of what you’re working towards.


But you don’t need these apps and systems to create a routine. If you have a habit of looking at your notes from yesterday and using them to prioritize today’s tasks, and that works for you, stick with it. If putting up a Post-It note with every task you need to complete by the end of the week keeps you on track, keep it up. Writing everything down is a really popular strategy (it’s one of the most important principles in GTD, in fact), and that can be done with just about any app or notebook.

And using the Siri / Google Now method I mentioned above makes developing a routine very easy — whenever you want to remember to do something, just tell your phone. Done.

Do What Works for You

The most important part of being productive, regardless of the strategy you use, is to do what works for you. Using a combination of Evernote, Pocket, and Wunderlist works really well for me, but I occasionally scrap Wunderlist and just use a notebook. Apple’s Reminders and a few Chrome extensions 10 Most Productive New Tab Extensions For Google Chrome When you start a new tab in a browser, are you looking to go somewhere or are you looking for information to come to you? Google Chrome has many extensions to make it productive. Read More might work for you. Someone else will use GTD with Evernote, Todoist, IFTTT, Google Now, Post-Its, and file folders. The complexity of the system doesn’t matter — what’s important is that it helps you finish what you need to do.

What do you use to help you stay productive? Do you try out all the latest apps? Or do you stick with just one? What’s the best system you’ve come across? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credits: Close-up of businesswoman sitting in office, Young beautiful brunette lady, Silhouette of man writing business diary via Shutterstock.

Related topics: GTD, Time Management, To-Do List.

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  1. Anonymous
    August 9, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    I've tried all the apps. In the end, for me, the apps became the center of my attention, not the stuff I needed to do. Here's what works for me --- (1) I have a journal I use for everything and I write down page numbers as I go. (2) I maintain a simple table of contents on excel which I update periodically. If I ever need to see my notes from a meeting last year, it's easy to find. (3) Each day on a new page I create a simple to-do list. Next to each item I put down the page number if there are corresponding notes to that item so I can easily/quickly flip to the page if I need to. (4) I have a separate larger notebook with projects or initiatives. Each project has it's own tab. There I will update my progress on each item. Also get to insert pages or things I need regarding each item.

    It's refreshing to NOT be looking at a screen or device 24/7. It's sort of calming flipping through my journal to keep my head wrapped around things, same with my project folder.

    I found with the apps I forgot about stuff. I didn't go back to my previous notes or items that often. Also, when you're in a meeting or whatever, it seems a lot less rude looking through your journal and writing stuff down versus tinkering with the app. Half the time people probably think you're on Twitter.

    Lastly --- there are quite a few studies regarding the benefit of writing things down. As someone who was very forgetful, I seem to remember a LOT more detail and things now, it's incredible. On a scale of 1 to 10, I used to be like a 4 or 5 in remembering things. Now i feel I'm an 8 or 9.

    • Dann Albright
      August 10, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      That's an interesting system you've developed—one that I would imagine would be far too complex for many people, but if it works for you, it's the best one! I've always been a strong proponent of writing as many things as possible on paper, not only for increased recall, but also for taking advantage of embodied cognition and boosting creativity. It makes a big difference, and not looking at a screen all the time is also nice.

      Thanks for sharing your system! Hopefully it inspires others to develop their own as well.

  2. LM
    March 23, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    I love "Buy Me A Pie" for any kind of list. It is very simple - just lists - and easy to use. When I remember something to do (ex "do taxes"), I add it to the corresponding list (ex "Money"). I have a small handful of lists for major life areas (Money, Friends/Family, Personal, Health, etc).

    So when I'm ready to do a pomodoro (or whatever) for a category I can easily see what is the most important for that category. It is immensely helpful in not getting overwhelmed by the large number of "to do"s there are collectively.

    I love it because of its simplicity, multiple lists, and syncing across platforms; after a lot wasted time with productivity apps that do a million things, "Buy Me A Pie" actually helps me get things done.

    (It was made for grocery lists, but I do that by hand.)

    • Dann Albright
      April 1, 2015 at 7:24 am

      That sounds like a good system! I've never thought about using a grocery list for keeping track of to-do items, but it sounds like the way you've found works really well. I'll have to check out Buy Me a Pie. Thanks for posting!

  3. Saikat
    February 19, 2015 at 5:26 am

    Another way could be to do micro-experiments with our routines. Let's say, for a week...or even a day. Condensing a process to this short duration often gives me a few clues to my own motivation. Plus, it keeps things simple by not planning too far ahead. And you don't really need an app for that.

    • Dann Albright
      February 19, 2015 at 8:21 am

      That's a really good idea—I love the idea of micro-experiments. Sounds like the micro-habits I wrote an article about a while ago. I think people are warming up the idea of taking very small steps and letting them accumulate over time to develop great systems.

      What have you used micro-experiments for in the past? I'm not really sure how I'd get started on that.

    • Saikat
      February 19, 2015 at 9:30 am

      Yes. Nearly the same thing with the operative word being "micro" and keeping it as simple as possible.

      I am trying to keep the focus on just one micro-habit and NOT more than that. First for a day. Then a week. Finally, a month.

      The one I am trying out right now is waking up before dawn. I worked on going to sleep at the right time with a winding-down ritual and not bothering about the wake-up time. This was for a week. It has succeeded. I timed my morning ritual, and have managed to tweak it to 20 minutes. so, if I am awake by 5:30...I can be at my desk by 6.

      The next one is to write 1000 words a day. No excuses. The idea is to embrace all distractions and write 1000 words anyhow.Plan to keep a list of all interruptions and see which ones I can block/avoid.

      Like all small experiments, these help in three ways:

      - They have a low overhead for starting up.
      - They show me results quickly.
      - They give me the most amount of information with the least amount of time spent.

  4. Jan
    February 19, 2015 at 4:17 am

    As for the title of the article, this could happen if you have chosen the wrong app for productivity. I heard a lot of my friends struggling on how to be at their best while working for different clients (freelance projects). They also tend to lose focus because of distractions and other unwanted things that they really need to go on break instead of working in straight hours. Although there's no software that is perfectly designed for specific people/company. However, we could make a solution (perhaps) to lessen the distraction and maintain productivity.
    In my case, I am using Time Doctor for time tracking. You can Google the app for its "Pros and Cons". I used it to track my time and productivity (been using it since before).

    • Dann Albright
      February 19, 2015 at 8:20 am

      Absolutely—you don't have to have problems with a lot of different apps to find yourself in this situation; it could be a single one that throws you off. And switching between them can be even more problematic, which is something I think a lot of freelancers have to do. Especially when certain platforms (I'm thinking of Elance's Work View) put their own systems in place.

      I've never heard of Time Doctor—I might have to check it out, though. Sounds pretty cool. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Diana
    February 18, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    I think there needs to be a single app to handle a variety of different planning needs. With all the stuff we have to do, it's so easy to get mixed up with all the apps out there that claim to make it easier for us to handle our tasks. Then again different things work for different people. It's not all black and white. I would personally like to see an app that encompasses a variety of different productive management techniques.

    • Dann Albright
      February 19, 2015 at 8:18 am

      That would be great if someone could come up with an app that did it all! Sounds like a pretty tall order to me, especially if it's going to appeal to people with more than one style of organization. I think there's potential there, though. I recently discovered the ideal of personal management apps, which seem to try to be a one-stop shop for organization and productivity things, though I'm not sure how well they do the job.

      There's probably a fortune out there waiting for someone to figure out how to build an app that works for just about everyone.

  6. Processpmp
    February 18, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    I agree that people can get so bogged down trying to be productive that a lot of the most productive times of the day are spent producing proof of productivity rather than actually getting stuff done. I like the author's advice of finding what works for you and simple is often all you need. In my field of consulting we find that highly or overly engineered solutions are subject to failure and maintenance that simple systems are not. If the power goes out or your battery dies, then so does your access to your tools, but a notebook never needs batteries:-) Finding your pen may be an issue, however.

    • Dann Albright
      February 19, 2015 at 8:16 am

      I've found a solution to that problem by being a pen fanatic. I always have one in my pocket, two in my bag, and dozens lying all over the house. :-)

      I like what you say here about highly engineered solutions—sometimes it's just too much, and the amount of effort it takes to keep it going makes it not worth it. Some people thrive with those sorts of systems, though—they have a lot of energy, motivation, and momentum, but they need a lot of structure to focus it.

      For the most part, though, I think you're right—a notebook and pen will work for just about anybody!

  7. James Chanbonpin
    February 18, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    Finding what and doing what works for you is key. I can suggest simply starting and letting yourself subconsciously find your groove/zone (it will happen), and getting a timer or hourglass and do 25 minute sessions. You can add a minute or more when you are really being productive. Again, know yourself and what works instead of taking advice too literally and specifically.

    • Dann Albright
      February 19, 2015 at 8:14 am

      Can you be a little more specific on how you might go about finding your groove / zone? I really like that idea, but I'm not sure how you'd apply it to finding the right productivity system. Do you mean to just sit down and start working without any specific method in mind of recording things, and seeing what happens? I can see how that might work. I'm curious as to what you have in mind, though!