Do find you are always looking for the best app for your productivity yet never seem to be able to find it? This week, I answer a question that might just help.
Hello and welcome to episode 87 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
This week’s it’s all about productivity apps and how to get the right one and more importantly stick with it once you have made the decision.
But before we get into this week’s question, don’t forget the Time And Life Mastery online course has been updated. It’s a great course that will show you how to develop a plan for your life and then how to create the process for achieving it.
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Okay, onto this week’s question and that means it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice, for this week’s question.
This week’s question comes from Heather. Heather asks: Hi Carl, I’ve been trying to get myself more organised over the last year or so, but I can’t seem to find the right apps. I’ve tried so many, but find I am soon looking for another one. Do you have any tips that will help me to find the right apps? There’s just so many to choose from.
Thank you, Heather, for your question. I’ve written a lot about this over the years because I used to be obsessed with the latest and shiniest new apps. I tried pretty much everything out there, always telling myself that this new app was going to solve all my productivity problems. I think on some weird, deep level I hoped these new apps would do the work for me.
The truth is, no app is ever going to do the work for you and the latest and shiniest app will have the just as many frustrations as the previous app you used.
Let me give you an example. When the new Apple Notes app came out two or three years ago, I thought this is it! This is the perfect app. Built for the Apple ecosystem and with the Apple Pencil in mind. I thought, finally an app that would rival Evernote and give me everything I wanted.
Ha! That didn't happen. Apple Notes is great for taking notes, there’s no question there. But you wait until you have a few hundred notes in there and you want to find a note you made several months earlier. Good luck with that.
So while Apple Notes does look better than Evernote, in my opinion, it doesn't come close to being as good as Evernote when you want to find a specific note.
I had the same issue when Notion came along. I spent a whole afternoon playing around with it. WOW! This app promised to do so much. It could be a place for me to store my goals and plans, be a research tool and be a replacement for Evernote. It appeared to be able to do everything for me. I was particularity drawn to the idea of it being able to act as a dashboard for me. A place where I could see all my open projects, goals and other stuff I wanted to see on a daily basis.
As I played around with it I began to realise that while Notion could do so much, what it could do was not as good as the existing tools I was using. I could see so many frustrations. So the advantage of having everything managed in one app, was negated by the compromises I would have to make and of course, there was the problem with all those settings. When you have an app that allows you to customise almost everything from fonts, background colours and images, you are never satisfied, so you spend a lot of time messing around with them and not doing any work. (Although you convince yourself you are doing work because all these changes to your settings will somehow improve your workflow)
So, you need to choose your apps with care. To do that, the best place to start is with a pen and piece of paper. Ask yourself what do you want your apps to do for you?
Let’s take your to-do list manager for example. Do you prefer to see things in a simple list, or are you more of a visual person? Do you prefer to see things as cards or as lists of projects? Apps like Things, OmniFocus and Todoist will give you your to-dos in a simple list format. Or would you prefer to see things in a more Kanban layout where you see your projects as cards on a board? For that, an app like Trello or Asana would be a good fit.
When it comes to notes, again how you want your notes to be presented to you is important. Google Keep gives a card like layout, Evernote and Apple Notes will give you a more traditional list layout.
Another question for your notes app is how many notes will you want to keep in there? If you are planning on storing all your digital notes in the app, then Evernote or Microsoft OneNote is the way forward. If it is just a few notes, a quick place to capture your ideas, then something like Apple Notes or Google Keep would work well. But, and this is a big but, you need to choose something that works for you.
And that really is the point here, Heather. Find something that you like and works for the way you like to work. I’ve done the “if it works for that organised person then it must work for me” thing in the past. The truth is it will not necessarily work for you. We all work differently, think differently and have different ideas about what looks nice and what doesn’t. Many people don't like the way Evernote looks, that’s okay. I’ve got past that. Many people cannot. There are plenty of functional, aesthetically pleasing apps to choose from out there. Personally, I think Microsoft OneNote looks better than Evernote, but that’s just a personal thing.
Once you have chosen what apps you want to use, then the next stage of the process begins. Learn everything you possibly can about the app. Go to YouTube, find tutorials, read blogs and go through every menu item to see what each one does. Set up a ghost project (a fake project to use for experimentation) in your chosen to do list manager and test out every possible variation you can think of.
That’s really the trick with becoming better organised and more productive. Knowing how to use your apps. Knowing how to quickly add a new item, process that item to its correct place and being able to retrieve it when you need it quickly and effortlessly.
And that brings me to collecting stuff. For me, this is the biggest one. If it is quick and easy to collect my to-dos and notes, I am not going to resist. If it is complicated, involves too many button clicks or I have to think too much, I will resist. Reducing the button pushes and clicks for me is vital. I have what I call “the changing trains” test. Can I easily collect a thought or idea when I am changing trains? I do actually test this. Any new way of collecting must pass that test before I adopt that new approach. If you can collect a task, idea or note while switching trains then it is fast enough. There must be a lot of people in Seoul who think I am very strange taking into my phone or watch to test while switching trains to see how fast collecting is haha.
Another consideration for me is how easy is it to organise my projects? You see, you do not want to be spending too much time inside your productivity tools. You productivity tools are not where your work happens. Your work happens in your email apps, Microsoft Word, Google Docs or PowerPoint or Keynote. The more time I spend inside my writing app, Ulysses, for example, the better. That’s where the work happens. The productivity apps I use must have drag and drop for tasks into projects for example. I can process an inbox of 15 tasks in Todoist to their rightful projects in less than five minutes. That includes adding any necessary dates, priorities or labels. The same with Evernote, I process my Evernote inbox every weekend—usually as part of my weekly review and I can easily process twenty to thirty notes in less than ten minutes.
But processing is not the only thing that needs to be fast. Being able to search and find what you are looking for is also a crucial element. If searching for something is laborious or difficult then the app fails my tests. The app must be easy to search within. Evernote’s search is legendary. I think at the moment that one feature is what is keeping Evernote relevant. Likewise, Todoist search is incredibly fast and the search bar is at the top in every part of Todoist.
So there you go, Heather. To find the right app you do need to do a little testing. Four things need testing:
The first is how fast can you collect your tasks, ideas and notes? Would your app pass the “changing trains” test? If not, then it won’t work for you. Find an app that you can collect your stuff quickly and easily with the minimum of clicks.
The second is, do you actually like using the app? If you don’t like the way it works or you do not like the design, then you are not going to want to use it. So choose an app that appeals to the way you work and your own aesthetic tastes. We are all different here.
Thirdly, how fast can you process the things you collected? You want processing your things to be fast. Remember your productivity apps don’t do the work for you, they only tell you what needs doing and how. So the less time you spend inside your apps, the more work you will get done.
And finally, can you easily find what you are looking for when you need to find it? Searching is a crucial element when you are building your own productivity system. You are going to be throwing a lot of stuff in these apps and if you are not able to find what you put in there, the app fails. So check out the search function. It will be important.
So those are the four tests. And remember, once you have learnt everything you can about these apps, then stick with them for at least a year. You need to give the app time to become part of you and part of your system. If you are constantly switching your apps you will never learn how to user them properly and no app will be good enough for you. Stick with the apps for at least a year and make them work for the way you work.
I hope that answers your question, Heather. Thank you for sending it in.
Thank you to all of you too for listening. Don’t forget, if you have a question about productivity, time management or goal planning, then send me an email—email@example.com—or DM me on Twitter or Facebook. I’ll be very happy to answer your question for you.
It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.