Should We Always Use Productivity Tools and Apps?

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Would it surprise you to learn that we spend more than 4 hours per day on apps? Perhaps not.

The profusion of productivity tech now available to us means it’s possible to track everything from our parcels to our to-do lists. But is it wise to do so?

Let’s answer the question.

It depends. Technology, when used well, can be invaluable. But, just like humans, it has weaknesses. One thing Covid-19 has shown us is that we should exercise more careful use of our own judgment if we don’t want to become overwhelmed — by choice and information overload — and thereby damage our productivity. Perhaps only by using our innate judgement to offset the drawbacks of productivity tools and apps can we truly work smarter and maximise our productivity.

It’s time to find out more about the ritualisation of productivity.

Has the idea of being efficient become a habit?

There’s no doubt, at least in my mind, that productivity has become ritualised. My sister, for example,  wakes up and immediately looks at her smartwatch to see how well she’s slept. I myself have an unhealthy obsession with the clock when I’ve allocated myself a certain (usually short) period in which to complete a task and find myself continually glancing at my phone to check the time.

There’s no lack of productivity tools out there.  We can use them to fuel our seemingly collective obsession. In the past, we might have jotted our to-do list down on paper, or starred emails to prioritise tasks. But the boom in apps promising to help us manage our time and maximise our productivity seen in the last few years has changed all that. Everything now seems trackable, and ideas about time management that took root in workplaces have now crossed the boundary into our personal lives. This crossover has been so complete that using these tools can seem irresistible. After all, what possible harm could using productivity apps and tools do to our efficiency?

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The drawbacks of productivity apps

The technology we use to get the most out of our days can also start to control them. But how? Here are 3 issues I’ve found.

  • There’s too much choice. How can you decide between them? Most of them perform exactly the same functions. But which is the best fit for you?  You don’t want to waste time and risk becoming overwhelmed by spending loads of time sifting through numerous apps, after all.
  • Learning how to use apps takes time. They may still be confusing if you’re not wholly  comfortable using technology, even when you do find the perfect app to suit you and your work.  In consequence,  you may be attracted to it, but you may actually find yourself spending more time learning how to use it rather than getting stuff done.
  • Sometimes you’ll need to download replacement apps. If developers disappear without a trace and stop working to improve and add new features, an app you use regularly might not get further support. Even if this doesn’t happen to you, it may be worth considering how much time you spend learning to use new features, as the app is developed and updated. Is that time well spent?      

In the light of these limitations and with the advent of Covid it might be time to reconsider whether tracking, logging or even importing lists of tasks into different apps is a viable route to success. We may even discover that the more old-fashioned ways of gauging how much you accomplished in a day had some merit after all.  Later, we’ll look at whether a reassessment of how we use productivity tools has already begun to take place. For now though, let’s explore the question of why productivity boomed.  

Why did productivity explode?

Wanting a way to keep on top of your tasks is nothing new. After all, even Leonardo Da Vinci wrote down what he wanted to get done in his notebooks, and Benjamin Franklin tried his hand at composing a to-do list with an element of time management in it back in 1791 — as I pointed out in an article touching upon the history of productivity. Soon enough, publishers started to print early examples of diary’s and planners as people from industrialising nations became interested in finding ways to make more money.   

Our preoccupation with personal efficiency is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It has developed as some societies became increasingly digitalised and using time-saving technology became a kind of fixation. In the 1990s and 2000s, technology we now use every day was promoted as a great way to save time, making it easier to set up meetings and find information. This apparent opportunity to get more done at the same time as doing less work led many to embrace a lifestyle which seeks to increase productivity through optimisation. Added to all this, there is another reason maximising your productivity is desirable: the lure of success. Individuals with a high profile began to get noticed for the personal routines they devised to maximise their own productivity. The routines of high achievers soon became lauded and the productivity industry took flight. Indeed, it flew right into our workplaces and homes.

It’s now estimated that worldwide sales of wearable tech which tracks users’ daily activity and allow them to receive notifications while they’re on the move are likely to reach £730 ($1bn) by 2022. Businesses continue to innovate to ensure that this industry continues to thrive.

Next, let’s find out more about what makes us want to use this technology.

What’s the attraction of productivity apps?

Claire Wu, neuroscientist, and co-founder of Holly Health, says that some of the attraction of using these apps is that they give us an immediate psychological reward. At times, goals can seem ethereal and intangible, and using apps helps us make them seem much more solid and achievable because tasks become easier to break down into smaller steps.  When we tick something off our digital to-do list in our favourite apps, we experience a sense of reward. Crossing off a task on paper may give you some satisfaction but technology plays upon our desire to do more, and rewards us in more obvious ways — with badges representing achievements or progress, for instance. The trouble is, according to Wu, that obtaining the rewards sometimes starts to become more important to people than the outcome they’re working towards.  For example, someone may set themselves a step-target to reach by the end of the working week. If they don’t get the points or badges promised by the app for making a certain amount of progress towards that overall goal each day, they feel the effort they put in has not been worth it at the end of the week. Thus, they may not set themselves a similar target for the next week, despite the fact that the act of taking the steps is far more important than being awarded arbitrary badges.

The issue of ultimately meaningless rewards becoming more important to people than their original goal is one thing. But we should also question our ability to assess precisely how much these apps and tools are increasing our output.

As psychologist Almuth McDowall, at Birkbeck, University of London informed the BBC, our work and personal lives continue to become more and more digital. Alongside this digitalisation comes the danger of information overload if apps are not used well. Is it possible that we‘re more interested in doing more to seem effective than we are in truly maximising our productivity?   

Recent research does suggest that people are struggling with software overload, rather than just a surfeit of information.  In 2018, a study indicated that the average operational worker jumped between using 35 apps in excess of 1000 times during a single working day. Despite the abundance of apps being used, productivity levels are declining and rates of burnout are increasing in most of the world’s highly industrialised countries.

A reassessment of how we use productivity apps?

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Covid-19 has now come into our lives, disrupting our habits and working patterns. It has afforded some an opportunity to consider how they judge performance.

Take the example of Rob Weatherhead, who spoke to the BBC. As an advertising and technology consultant working in Bolton, he said that using the latest tools was the norm in his job. Since the lockdown, however,  he has come to realise that using some of these tools is actually unproductive. He found himself breaking down tasks into minuscule pieces just so he could put more into the done column of his to-do list. While responsible for his own remote work, he did away with most of the tech and started using good old-fashioned pen and paper lists to keep tabs on his work. He says he knows if he’s had a productive, effective day or not. He now relies more on his own judgement and instincts than on technology.

Some, of course, remain productivity app enthusiasts. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to be realistic about what technology can offer. It’s true that it can help keep us motivated and organised, but our efficiency also depends on our built-in drive and toolkit. That’s one reason why some apps designed to offer easy solutions to the challenges of our life and work, can sometimes worsen the problem.

How can you boost your efficiency without apps?

Here’re 5 ways you could try to boost your productivity without using apps.

Remember that we’re all productive at different times of the day.

You don’t have to follow the traditional 9 – 5 schedule. It can actually be counterproductive to follow arbitrary rules that could potentially interrupt your state of flow.

Try working in focused, timed sprints.

This approach will allow you to minimise distractions and help set yourself clear but flexible boundaries.

Work in layers and give yourself chance to pick up more ideas throughout your day.  

This could be a particularly useful approach to take when researching. Instead of dedicating chunks of time to research, try tagging interesting articles you spot, noting interesting things your co-workers say, and picking up snippets of info as you jump between tasks. This might prove invaluable when you come to trudge your brain for ideas or are trying to be creative.

Don’t feel guilty about taking breaks.

Taking breaks in the course of your day can help improve focus and efficiency by allowing your brain a brief rest.

Cross something off your to-do list.

There’s no doubt to-do list can prove invaluable. However, having too much on your plate can increase stress and make it more likely you’ll start feeling overwhelmed. Believing you will finish everything on your lengthy to-do list in one day can be a huge mistake. If you force yourself to work your way through an extensive list of tasks each day, your brain is more likely to focus on the task with the lowest priority first.

In fact, you can help alleviate stress, maximise your efficiency and work smarter if you accept that you won’t complete every task in one day. That way, you’ll feel more comfortable with crossing a few things off your list. That will help free up your mind a little and make it easier for your brain to work out how to prioritise the remaining tasks.  


The ultimate solution to some problems we encounter may lie in the degree of our personal discipline and ability to focus, which can both be improved without using technology. It seems that, whilst tech can help take us some of the way towards improving our productivity, our own individual judgement could still prove to be one of our most reliable, indispensable productivity tools.  Why not try out some of the tips I’ve given? You may find that, when you free yourself from the tyranny of tech, you’ll become more productive than ever!

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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