The Error Of The App Mentality

From Matt Alexander:

OmniFocus, Things, Calendar, and broad swathes of productivity software on the market all claim to improve the human experience. To allow us to reclaim control over our lives. And yet, in many respects, such purported elements of productivity often become deep pits of wasted time and effort.

As someone who spends a fair amount of time using, experimenting with and advocating for exactly these kinds of apps (well, not Things, but I digress), I think it’s important to examine this question from Matt’s recent interview with Patrick Rhone. I’ve been turning this exact question around in my head for some time now and keep noticing that several of my favorite writers who touch on productivity are as well.

So, to answer a question that was asked to someone else, why do these apps “become deep pits of wasted time and effort”? The answer is actually in Matt’s question. It’s because we let ourselves believe that they can “allow us to reclaim control over our lives.” As Patrick answers, only we can do that:

Well, nothing can control us or give us control. Only we can control our own actions. What we have, instead, is choice. The choice to follow one path versus following another. The choice to set that path or let that path be set for us.

I feel that this is the reason why so many of the productivity apps you mention fail. Instead of working on and building the systems and habits one needs to set for themselves — based on what works for them — they make the choice to be led by the technology born of tools and systems that work for others. […]

I think, in the end, what we are searching for in technology is no different than what humans have been searching for since the dawn of Man. Tools coupled with systems that will make our existence on this planet a bit easier […] If these can be coupled with increasingly effortless systems then the tools can become that much more powerful and the resulting technology that much more useful.

We will never benefit if all we do is download the latest, and buy the most popular applications or purchase the newest devices (no matter how much I enjoy doing just that). We can benefit by doing both of these things, but only they are combined with the upfront thought, discovery and understanding to determine how they best fit in to the way we do our best work.

What’s Right For You?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by productivity minded sites like this. We tend to use and try a lot of tools. We also like to share them with the hope that they might help you. Some will, most won’t. You have to be selective, you have to know yourself and the way that you work. You have to develop a filter for what’s worth trying, because it’s equally essential to identify and eliminate the tools that will not be a fit. The faster you can do this, the easier you can avoid avoid those deep pits that Matt mentioned in his interview. As Brett Terpstra put it:

I create a lot of tools, and I share a lot of links to other people’s work. I don’t expect anyone to use them all; even I don’t. I try to fill gaps where I see them and fix problems I spot. I do use a lot of tools overall, and I imagine my workflows would baffle anyone not intimately familiar with all of them. They work seamlessly for me, though; if they don’t, I leave them behind.

By knowing where the holes are, you’ll know what to look for. If you’re not happy with what you have, look. But if you have a solution that’s working, don’t allow any shiny objects to cause you to stray.

It’s Not About The App

Now even with what he eliminates, it may seem that someone like Brett goes overboard with applications (as well as the and the array of tools, scripts, services and other various bits of magic that he uses that I cannot begin to explain or understand). But that’s where I think our understanding of productivity fails. It’s not that Brett uses a lot of apps, it’s that he has one system, a single workflow that empowers him to do amazing things. For you, that workflow may require less, it may not even require any apps at all. For guys like Brett and me, the right tool can go a long way when integrated into our respective approaches to our work.

Don’t Use Apps, Learn Them

The right applications can help you mitigate several of your own shortcomings or enhance your strengths, but their potential will only ever be realized if they are coupled with the right systems and methodologies. Sadly, finding the right tools is a process that takes time and often includes several wrong turns, but when the endgame is a unified workflow, I believe that any time wasted is time well spent.

This time also allows you to master your tools or at least master the areas needed to achieve your own personal breed of magic. This desire to master can get you in trouble, it can lead to excessive fiddling, but as Gabe Weatherhead at Macdrifter points out, fiddling can be important:

I fiddle with my software tools a lot. I examine the preferences in detail. I read the manuals and learn the tricks.

[…]

Each one has its strengths and domains that serve my needs. I had to discover how they fit me. That’s where I find fiddling important. It’s not just about learning what’s available in the preference panes or reading a step-by-step blog post about how someone else uses an app. It’s about learning how I can use my applications to do better work more consistently. It’s the exploration that pays dividends, not just reading the manual. Knowing what an application can do is not the same thing as knowing what I can do with it.

It’s only through this learning process that applications have any hope of living up to that initial promise of helping us to “reclaim control over our lives”.

The App Mentality

Frankly, the whole app-driven mentality is flawed. When you think of these things in terms of what apps to use, you do it more from the standpoint of how are you going to best spend your money rather than how are you going to best accomplish your best work. Sites like this are probably partly to blame, but let me see if I can try to help clarify things a bit…

For those of you who read our sites (or any site that touches on productivity for that matter) and get caught up in the newest tricks and the latest app, try to take a step back from what we’re talking about in the minute and really look at what we’re trying to accomplish for ourselves in aggregate. We may talk about things one thing at a time, but that’s only because creating your own ideal workflow is overwhelming. The best sites and the brightest minds that I see writing about productivity today aren’t trying to steer you towards a new app. They aren’t advocating an app-driven approach to better work, they’re creating and sharing their workflow.

Brett, Gabe, Patrick and hopefully myself, are sharing what we discover, what interests us and what works for us with the hope that some of it will be useful in your own search. We’re hoping that by sharing our experiences, it becomes easier for you to find the tools worth trying and the systems worth considering. But no matter what we share, you’ll still have to go through much of the same pain we had to in order to find a workflow of your own. No matter how badly we may want to point you in the right direction, no one is going to be able to find the right workflow for you, except you. But hopefully, we can help along the way.

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