Is It All About the App?

Why personal productivity turns on behaviors, not tools.

We all wish we were more productive—there’s no debate there. The real question is, what makes us more productive? To be fair, productivity is the sum of many factors, but as I’ve worked with individuals and organizations, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: an over-reliance on tools and apps as the primary source for increased productivity.

Many of the people I’ve worked with ask, “Which app is the BEST one to help me get things done?” or “Which software will make me more productive and a lot less stressed?” Clearly, some tools make us all a lot more productive. On the productivity spectrum, phones and computers are seemingly lightyears ahead of paper and fax machines. But when it comes to individual productivity, if we bet our success on an app, we’re bound to come up short.

Take Maria for example. She’s struggling to stay on top of all her stuff. She’s buried by e-mail, meetings, and the largest pile of sticky notes known to man. She exhausts herself by putting in incredible effort, but leaves the office most days feeling totally unaccomplished. She’s busy, not productive. Does Maria’s story sound familiar?

Fed up, Maria resolves to get more productive, to really get things done. She starts by Googling the best productivity app and searching the app store. She finds a cool new app with more than a thousand reviews and a rating of 4.5 out of 5. According to some of the reviews, it will change her life forever. She downloads the app onto her phone and gets the desktop version, too. She dumps her life into the app, along with all the trust she can muster. She is ready and synced up. A few days pass, and Maria is feeling a little better. She checks her app with regularity and is responsive to the dings and bings coming from its notifications. But as a few weeks pass, the stress and overwhelm return. She just missed another meeting and another deadline…and the worst part: She never even saw it coming.

What happened to Maria is typical. In essence, we assume that about 80 percent of the onus of our productivity is on the tool or app while 20 percent relies on our behaviors related to using the app. We want something to automate our productivity and organization so we can just…WORK!

A New Definition

Our frame of mind around productivity tools needs a shift. Our new definition should be that a productivity tool works not by automating or reducing our tasks, but by changing our relationship with our tasks—not by changing how we perform any individual task, but by changing how we interact with groups of tasks.

In reality, the formula behind true productivity success is more like: 80 percent habits and behaviors and 20 percent tools we use to manage our workload. Some people already have good habits. When they introduce an app, it makes these habits easier and more efficient. Some people have poor habits. When they introduce an app, it turns out they still have poor habits. While productivity may get a slight bump, they eventually fall into old patterns of chaos and stress—app in hand. New app, same old results. Behavior change must come first.

There is no perfect or “right” app. Our latest study reveals that there is very little consensus on the “right” productivity tool—even for people who considered themselves very productive.

  • Of the 180-plus people I surveyed, the respondents used more than 15 different tools and 25 different apps.
  • The average person uses only about half the apps/tools they’ve downloaded to directly help with their productivity.
  • Of the apps/tools people use today, 70 percent say they are no help, or are at best a moderate amount of help, in actually improving their productivity.

In answer to the question: “What’s the right tool?” I iterate what my colleague David Allen, bestselling author of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” said, “The tool you use will not give you stress-free productivity. That is something you create by implementing the right habits.”

Over the least 30 years of working with individuals and organizations, we’ve corroborated what David has found: With the right behaviors, even a simple pen and paper can improve productivity. David himself has been outspoken about the power of a little pad of paper he keeps in his wallet to capture countless inputs—the kind of inputs that have led to three books, including one New York Times bestseller.

4 Right Habits

The solution to increase productivity is to focus first on the right habits, then find a tool to make those habits shine. Here are four key habits that, if paired with a solid and preferred tool, can make anyone’s life more productive and less stressful.

  1. Avoid keeping tasks and to-dos in your mind. Instead, capture them into a few key places you trust you’ll look at later. Apps are often excellent capture tools.
  2. Avoid the habit of “emergency scanning” your e-mails. Instead, take some time each day to decide what each e-mail means to you and the very next action you need to take to move it forward.
  3. Avoid putting all your to-dos and tasks into one big list. Instead, organize them according to the location or resource you need to do the task (@office, @computer, @home, calls etc.).
  4. Avoid a bias toward action at all times. Instead, when it’s time to work, take two minutes to review your calendar and then action lists to make the best decisions about what to do in the moment with the time and energy you have available.

If you want to change your current level of productivity, remember that it’s not about the app. Start with your behavior and choose an app that will make those behaviors easier and more consistent.

Justin Hale is a master trainer and training designer at VitalSmarts—a top 20 leadership training company and home to award-winning training courses Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Getting Things Done Training. Hale has been a lead engineer in designing VitalSmarts’ edition of Getting Things Done Training and has facilitated the course and delivered keynote speeches on the skills and principles of stress-free productivity to clients and audiences across North America.

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