The biggest reason so many people fail to maintain a robust, workable productivity system is their desire for complexity. This desire seems to be human nature. We begin simply enough, but then we add more and more levels of complexity until eventually, we have a system that takes far too long to maintain.
First the analogue world
When I began building my own productivity systems years ago it was simple. I had a list of things I needed to do that day and I carried a diary where I wrote my appointments. Notes and ideas were put in a little notebook or in my diary. It was simple. Each item had its place and there were no grey areas.
Then the digital world.
Then along came the digital world. It began with a calendar app on my computer which then became a calendar app on my phone and a to-do list and a notes app. Then app stores opened up a world of business to software developers and we soon got deluged with productivity apps. These wonderful developers devised fantastic features to add to our apps so they could differentiate themselves from the competition. Some of these apps succeeded — OmniFocus, Todoist and Trello. Others failed. Unfortunately, for us consumers, this has given us far too much choice, which has led to constant switching and trying out new apps, which destroys our productivity.
Find a problem and solve it is not great entrepreneurial advice.
I understand why so many apps have become feature bloated. The generic advice for all aspiring entrepreneurs is to find a problem that needs solving and solve it. In the productivity world, that means trying to find a way for an app to do the work for us. Of course, this is not going to happen, so the next best idea is to add features.
A classic example of this is a feature called “start dates”. Start dates as far as I can tell is a feature unique to OmniFocus. What it does is allows the user to add a start date to a project or task so it ‘disappears’ until the start date. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. The problem here is now we have “start dates” and “due dates”. So when we are processing the things we have collected, we have two dates to think about. If I added a start date and a due date to a task or project, and I got the start date wrong (something I often did) even though I had a due date added, if the start date was after the due date, I would end up not seeing the task. The start date overrode the due date. Fortunately, I saw the ridiculousness of this feature and stopped using start dates. I went back to keeping everything as simple as possible. I dated projects and tasks for when they needed doing and made sure I did a full weekly review every Sunday. No more missed deadlines.
Even email apps are not immune.
We are now seeing this with email apps. Each new email app has so many features it has become almost impossible to keep up. We have “snoozing”, scheduled sending, read/receipts, smart mailboxes and so on. But if you stop and think for a moment, email should be simple. A person sends you an email, you see it, you make a decision about what to do with it (reply, file or delete) and move on to the next one. Operating at this simple level makes email easy, stress-free and manageable. When we add in snoozing, smart filtering, VIPs and all the other stuff that’s now added to our email apps, we end up with far too many decisions to make and that just slows us down.
What we need is different to what we think we want
What we need are apps that focus on simplicity, not features. To-do lists need to be built around collecting, organising and doing. We collect stuff throughout the day, we organise that stuff into projects and then we get on and do the stuff. When we are doing, the app should disappear. Email apps should make it very easy to reply, file or delete emails without having us to make decisions about whether we want to snooze an email, or flag it or schedule a response. Notes apps should be making it easy for us to capture notes and then find them again when we need them. None of this is difficult. Simplicity and speed. That’s what is needed.
The secret to success is simplicity.
I’m not a developer, I’m a consumer. One of the reasons I moved away from OmniFocus to Todoist was a need to return to simplicity. OmniFocus is great! It has so many features, but I realised those features, designed to make my life easier, were actually making me less productive. My move to the simpler Todoist gave me a huge boost in productivity and that was down to Todoist’s focus on simplicity. I’ve used one note taking app for nine years now, Evernote. Evernote comes in for a lot of criticism because they are not adding new features. The truth is, one of the reasons Evernote has endured for over ten years is because it has not been adding more and more features. There are just enough features for power users, but it has remained simple enough for anyone to use.
The majority of consumers do not need, nor want, all this complexity. What consumers want is a product that is fast, simple to use and works without crashing, freezing or causing confusion by having so many choices.
If you want to boost your productivity, if you want to get more amazing work done and if you want an easier, stress-free life, then go back to basics. Focus on simplicity and use apps that have fewer features. Apps with fewer features are less likely to go wrong, have a much easier learning curve and will allow you to spend more time doing your work. And that is what being productive is all about.
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