With smartphones came the addiction to readily-accessible technology and, by extension, to the quest for tech-enabled productivity.
In researching the effects and usage of productivity apps, hundreds of lists with titles like “50 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone” or “Here Are The Best Apps For People With Too Much To Do” came up. There’s little information, however, on whether these apps actually lead to an increase in productivity or merely give you the illusion of it.
Are the hundreds of apps touting life-changing results actually helping users be truly productive, or are they merely helping users stay busy?
App Use Is At An All Time High–Even If Productivity Isn’t
According to a New York Times analysis of the US GDP in correlation with the number of hours Americans worked each year, there has been little-to-no change in output over the years. In other words,“Despite constant advances in software, equipment and management practices to try to make corporate America more efficient, actual economic output is merely moving in lockstep with the number of hours people put in, rather than rising as it has throughout modern history.”
Undeterred by this lack of increase in output, the use of productivity-specific apps has skyrocketed. A 2014 study on mobile usage found a 121% increase in use of apps that fall into the “Utilities and Productivity” category, second only to those categorized as “Lifestyle and Shopping.”
So there appears to be a rise in productivity apps without a rise in productivity. What gives?
Use Technology, Don’t Let It Use You
In terms of app development, there is an increasing trend towards enhancing the user experience by taking psychological elements into account. This practice, called Positive Computing, is defined as the research and development of technology that supports psychological well being and human potential.
Dr. Rafael Calvo, professor at the University of Sydney and director of the Positive Computing lab, classifies technology into four groups:
- Technology that does not take into account the psychological well being of users.
- Preventative integration: Obstacles to well being are treated as errors in the app. For example, a social media site doing a redesign of their platform to prevent trolling or conflict within their app, such as instituting moderators or an easier way for users to flag offensive content.
- Active integration: Technology that actively supports well being in an app, but whose purpose or goal is not directly correlated to psychological well being. For example, blog hosting platform Wordpress has a “do not disturb” setting that allows users to enter a full screen of draft mode. According to Dr. Calvo, this feature encourages the psychological practice of flow state.
- Dedicated integration: Technology that is purpose-built for well being, like a mindfulness or fitness app.
When assessing productivity apps, think about what they can do for you. You want to aim for apps that claim to solve your pain point, but that also fall under the “active integration” approach. Think of it as a killing-two-birds-with-one-stone approach to finding the right app.
For example, let’s say you want to improve your time management, so you download a time tracker app. You should look for one that helps determine patterns for how much time you’re spending on each task and also helps you tap into the aforementioned flow state of concentration.
The important point here is to be more distinguishing about which apps you are choosing. Choosing the wrong ones won’t solve your problems, and selecting too many may be even worse...
Red Flags: Knowing When To Dial Back
Take a few moments to count the number of apps on your phone. Remember that more does not necessarily mean better. Larger quantities of these apps on your phones and laptop are not-so-subtly suggesting one thing: that you always need to be on.
There are messenger services, alarm reminders, and social channels all toggled to a device you likely have within inches of your person at all times (even when you’re in the bathroom). Studies have demonstrated that the average person checks their phone approximately 150 times a day. Yes, you read that correctly.
As New York Times bestselling author and productivity whiz Charles Duhigg explains in his latest book, Smarter, Better, Faster, “We've been staring at the tools of productivity - the gadgets and apps and complicated filing systems - rather than the lessons those technologies are trying to teach us."
According to studies on productivity and context switching, disrupting a task to check an app notification can mean you will take an additional 25 minutes to get back to the focus point you were at before you did that “quick check.” So you need to ask yourself, are your apps helping or hurting your productivity? Pro tip: Get those 25 minutes back by using the Pomodoro technique.
New initiatives are popping up to help remind you that more is not better. The Bored and Brilliant Project asserts that constant phone checking is actually stifling your ability to be creative. They even offer a seven day challenge around detaching from apps and getting out in the world. One day you don’t check your phone, one day you don’t take any pictures, and one day you (gasp!) delete an app you frequently peruse in your free time.
So, while productivity apps can be great ways to stay organized, you need to be careful to make sure they’re not just simply another distraction.
Do We Even Need All These Apps?
In short, it depends.
Most of the time, you don’t need more apps, but to better use the tools you already have. Here are some solutions for specific productivity problems you may be running up against:
Problem: Let’s say your problem is around answering email: you procrastinate endlessly, then fire off a bunch of messages to your team in the middle of the night. This could be a major faux pas if your team feels obligated to answer immediately.
Solution: In Gmail, you can schedule when emails are sent. So, if you work better in the evening but don’t want your team to feel like they need to respond right away, this is the feature for you. Or, you can add to your email signature the time of day you’ve allotted for emails, which let’s someone know why you are not responding at lightning speed.
Time TrackingProblem: You spend too much time on one task, and then run out of time with 10 other tasks still on your plate.
Solution: Utilize a time tracking app, like Harvest, to break up your day. Every time you switch to a new task, start the timer. Do this for a few days and you will begin to see patterns as to which tasks are taking up too much focus.
Getting In “The Zone”
Problem: You should be finishing a draft but you keep getting sidetracked by clicking on email, scrolling Facebook, or checking chat notifications.
Solution: Chat apps have the ability to set your status to “Do Not Disturb.” A red circle will appear next to your name, and if someone does still send you a message you won’t receive a notification for it until you open up the app again. This way, no pesky pop-ups can distract you from being in the zone.
Keeping Everything Together
Problem: All of these tools are in disparate places and different people on your team are using different apps to do work.
Solution: Leverage Trello Power-Ups on your desktop to connect tools you use the most to a central Trello board. Having a visual overview of everything you’ve got going on by integrating your apps helps to eliminate context switching, which is a common side effect of jumping from tool to tool checking various notifications.
The key for all of these practices is to understand your pain points before downloading an app. Getting in the zone might not be a problem for you, but perhaps prioritizing tasks is.
Remember to take inventory of all of your productivity apps and ask yourself, “What has [app name] done for me lately?” If the answer is “not much,” then you know what to do.