July 31, 2020

There is no productivity software.

A better to-do list or notes app won’t make you more productive. Only better tools for your core work will.

by @maguay

Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Frm. founding editor @racket and @capiche, senior writer @zapier, Mac and Web editor @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
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Project Management

300,000 people are on Superhuman’s waitlist, while 95,000 requested a Hey invite before it launched—both in pursuit of a more productive email experience. Enough people paid Roam Research from $15/month to $500 for 5 years that they hit $1 million in ARR only 6 weeks after launching paid plans.

Give people a new productivity tool, and they’ll show up in droves. And woe betides if you take it away. There were more Hacker News comments about Microsoft shutting down Wunderlist than about any other thing the to-do list app had ever done.

Something entices us about productivity software. Not that most of us directly measure our productivity enough to know whether something actually makes us more productive. But with ever-growing to-do lists and inboxes nowhere close to zero, attaining peak productive tantalizes the imagination. Surely that new app will be the one to make us productive.

If only.

“Capital cannot be substituted for labor. Nor will new technology by itself generate higher productivity,” wrote management consultant Peter Drucker in 1991. Time hasn’t proven him wrong.

In pursuit of productivity.

When we say we want to be more productive, enough to switch tools and workflows, we’re wanting to get more done, feel more accomplished at the end of the day.

“Efficiency is about doing the same with less,” wrote Bain partner Michael Mankins. “Productivity is about doing more with the same.”

More on its own, though, isn’t enough.

A better notes app might help you write more notes. A better to-do list app might get you to list more stuff. A better email app might help you hit inbox zero, and email everyone you’ve met.

“To really improve productivity, you first have to … understand what work actually drives value,” wrote Ryan Fuller in HBR. Former Y Combinator president Sam Altman agrees: “Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity.”

Quality tempering quantity.

It’s not in answering every email, or checking off the most tasks. Its in answering the emails that need replies, focusing your to-do list on the tasks that really need done. And no software can do that for you.

“There's Productivity in its true, perfect form. It's an elusive ideal to strive for, one that involves both quantity and quality,” wrote @osbennn in a recent Capiche discussion about productivity. “And then there's #productivity, the over-obsession that people and organizational structures often have with measurable output.”

And #productivity is far easier to focus on than Productivity.

The real job to be done.

When Drucker analyzed productivity nearly 3 decades ago, “splintered attention is more and more the norm” he wrote even then. It was the tasks we assign today to #productivity software that he saw as the enemy of true productivity.

Nurses spent only half their time doing the tasks they were trained to do—and the remainder doing administrative tasks. Salespeople spent more time entering data in computers than talking to potential customers. Professors spend time in committees and meetings rather than lecturing and researching.

“It is job impoverishment,” lamented Durker. “It destroys productivity.”

A better to-do list for nurses’ administrative tasks, or a better notes app for professors’ meetings would be a best a minuscular boost to their productivity, at worst make them spend more time doing work about work instead of actual work.

“The cure is fairly easy,” he prescribed: “Concentrate the work on the task.”

The true productivity software are the tools for your job.

And that is where technology and software can help, albeit perhaps not the software typically called productivity software.

Better productivity software won’t make one a more productive photographer, for instance. A camera that leads to fewer missed shots might, though, as would photo processing software that works faster.

Better code editing software that catches missing brackets and commas, or better continuous integration and testing tools, might make a developer more productive. A new list of issues likely won’t.

Better research tools, notes apps that help make deeper connections and simplify organization, would likely make a writer more productive. Saving everything you come across online likely won't.

A better email app might make a salesperson or support team member faster at landing and helping customers. Text expanders might make replying faster, better documentation tools might cut down on emails in the first place. For everyone else, inbox zero might be a pursuit of merely #productivity.

The real productivity software is better tools for your core work.

When you spend hours a day on the thing you trained to do, better tools should help you do more in the same amount of time. That’s real productivity—not #productivity.

“Productivity isn't a goal, it's a byproduct,” said @qthdh in the Capiche discussion about productivity. “And the more you think about it the less you are actually living it.”

Software to remove the busywork.

That’s the genius of Google Docs, Figma, GitHub, and other modern creative software—and even better notes and email apps, the Roam and Superhumans of the world, for those who need them most. They gave the software we use to create things superpowers, turned them into positional software we’d want to use. By building a better version of software we use to write and design, then adding collaborative features, they save time and help us get more done. They reduced the amount of time we spend working about work—copying and pasting, emailing files back and forth for revisions, and merging final copies—and let us instead focus on our core job. That’s how modern SaaS has brought the most productivity gains, by freeing us from the additional tasks that computers so often add.

Perhaps we have the software classification backwards. It’s tools like these—the best versions of the software that help us do our jobs each day—that are the real productivity software. And when we’re looking for productivity gains, we’d likely find the most gains in better tools for our core work rather than in #productivity software.

The to-do lists and notes apps and everything else classified as #productivity tools can still help, if you use them to prioritize, and if their core features are crucial to your actual work. But the tasks and notes aren’t the work—and better tools to manage them will, at best, help your busywork.

“I’ve learned that I can’t be very productive working on things I don’t care about or don’t like,” wrote Altman. No one likes feeling behind, enjoys the dread of missed deadlines and overdue replies. So perhaps it’s that fear of facing those things we enjoy least, the work about work, that make us seek out #productivity tools to replace email apps and to-do lists we’re tired of reminding us we’re behind. What we actually need to do is prioritize and focus on the work we set out to do.

Inbox zero might only matter if there’s nothing more important to do.

Image Credit:Header photo via Unsplash.

mercurialsolo's avatar
@mercurialsolo (replying to maguay )
2 years ago

One thing i found really useful is to start running personal productivity like a growth experiment - what habits accelerate, what habits impede and what do I do different to improve.

Once the basics of these are in place I am able to tackle it at a weekly or a daily level. Sometime it involves learning new tools, tweaking and improving existing tools or just reframing and trying new experiments - like more detailed memos on the things that need my attention before I hop onto that Zoom call.

Was watching The Social dilemma in Netflix today and that definitely sparked a line of thought which I discussed with the team at large - of building healthier applications - that make better us - rather than mine us.

Good software brings meaning to our discussions, to our connections, to our work and helps us grow - Often times that's reducing and dropping the barrier on unwanted tasks like moving data b/w incompatible formats or applications.

3 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @mercurialsolo )
2 years ago

That's a fascinating idea, thanks for sharing! Have you read Atomic Habits? I've been reading it lately and its core insights is to pair habits—so, say, you already brush your teeth every morning, so tell yourself to also do 10 pushups before brushing your teeth so you build a habit alongside an existing one. That's already felt like the most helpful way I've found yet to build new habits.

Interesting to think about that in relation to tools and software. The things you open when you first sit down to work, or when you feel the slightest tinge of boredom, are habits too.

1 point
harriskenny's avatar
@harriskenny (replying to maguay )
2 years ago

This concept of "positional" software has been highly influential in my thinking. Because of products (and the people who make them) that stick out to me. In the past I used words like "opinionated" but I really think positional best captures what's happening in this space. Thanks!

2 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @harriskenny )
2 years ago

Really glad to hear that—thank you!

1 point
Thirstylizard's avatar
@Thirstylizard (replying to maguay )
2 years ago

Some semi random thoughts on this broad subject. The followings are not much of any app recommendation but some narrative on my personal view on improving productivity

  • my personal view on productivity tool is one that enhance our productivity or the bottom line. This depends what line of businesses we are in. It could be increasing the number of widgets we produce everyday, or providing service to help improving customer service.

  • the usefulness of the productivity tool needs to be measurable, either qualitatively or quantitively, such as increase in percentage of output, improvement in spare time for personal use, etc

  • I think the tool can help us to improve efficiency but better still enable us to improve effectiveness, that is, not only doing things better and faster, but choosing what are the right things to do. This often results in better improvement in the bottom line

  • Whilst it is not a tool, I believe the Pareto Principle helps us in getting better understanding and enhancing the effectiveness. For example, there is little point in investing time learning a new software that does not produce the return on improving bottom line.

  • I believe we need to strike the right balance between finding and using the right tool. It is easy to say than done. To this end, I am guilty of falling into this trap myself. I think I am changing app or software too often and not spending enough time to really learn them help the end result is not as desirable. I always try to look for a better tool and not taking the effort to become a seasoned user. Choosing note-taking app and to-do app are some of my constant struggle.

Interested to hear from others, especially if there are different views so that I can learn from others

2 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @Thirstylizard )
2 years ago

This sounds right to me. It's easy to think a shiny new tool—and both the price of admission and the time to figure it out—are worthwhile, when we'd often get more benefit from learning better ways to optimize our core work tools.

Choosing the right things is the hardest. That's the worst thing about email: Somehow things feel more urgent when they're in our inbox.

1 point
nimrodpriell's avatar
@nimrodpriell (replying to maguay )
2 years ago

I love this and shared with our entire team. Captures our mission at Radical very well.

1 point
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @nimrodpriell )
2 years ago

Thank you! Radical looks fascinating—adding comments and chat into any work app at least keeps the conversation where the work happens, while still centralizing it. One problem I've long had is that, when you have comments spread say between Google Docs, Notion, GitHub, and Figma, it can be easy to see a comment then forget about it if you don't centralize them.

1 point
anartam's avatar
@anartam (replying to maguay )
2 years ago

Great post! I wrote something similar in a comment: there’s no tool for achieving our goals because it requires our personal effort. We can choose a productivity system and try our best to implement it.
I’m trying to mix GTD, Eat that frog, and Eisenhower Matrix principle.
GTD is great for collecting everything you need to do and see your next action tasks. I use Todoist for collecting all my tasks, Pocket for saving web-references, and Bear for writing brief notes. For extended notes and academic writing, I like Obsidian.
Eat that frog is particularly helpful for focusing on the most challenging tasks you need to accomplish on a daily basis (it can be the most critical task or the task you hate doing it, but that needs to be done).
As Frank Covey taught us, the Eisenhower matrix is great for knowing what exactly you are accomplishing: urgent and non-important tasks are a waste of time.

1 point
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @anartam )
2 years ago

The Eat the frog concept is great—vivid name that makes it easy to remember, and the concept of not putting off a task you don't want to do is a great way to start out the day energized.

If a to-do list could highlight the tasks that don't need your focus, then they might actually be more productive apps!

1 point
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