The Working With... Podcast | Episode 44 | Why Apps Are Not Important To Your Productivity System.

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In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about why apps are not important to your productivity system.

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Hello and welcome to episode 44 of my 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 I have an excellent question about apps and why I feel apps are not important if you want to become better organised and more productive. But, before we get into this weeks question I would just like to remind you all that if you want to learn how to build your own productivity system, my FREE online course, How To Build Your Very Own Productivity System will take you there. It focuses on the basics of COD (Collect, Organise and Do) and shows you how to build a system that works for you. 

Details on how to get yourself enrolled are in the show notes. 

Okay, let’s get into this week’s question, so that means it’s time to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from David. David asks: Hi Carl, can you tell me how I can find the best app to help me get my stuff together and get better at time management?

Thank you, David, for your question. Now, this is a question I am asked frequently on Twitter, Facebook and in the groups, I am in and there really isn’t a simple answer. The truth is, the apps you use are less important than the system you have in place. It’s your productivity system that will help you to become better at time management, not the apps you use. Apps are just tools. But as any carpenter, stone mason or sculptor will tell you, what creates a great piece of furniture, stonework or sculpture is not the tool, but the skill of the person making it. It’s how you use the tools that matter not the tools themselves. So my advice would always be to develop your system and your skill at using your system first before you start considering the apps you would use. 

Recently, I was playing around with Airtable, a great planning app that’s is loosely based on a spreadsheet with a lot of bells and whistles. Now I know if the guys who make Airtable are listening to this they would probably tell me Airtable is so much more than an Excel sheet and I would agree. But at its core, it is just a spreadsheet. Just like at its core Todoist is a database. After playing around with Airtable for a while I realised that what I would use Airtable for could just as easily be created using a Numbers sheet on my computer. The difference for me is that Numbers is free and Airtable is $20.00 per month for the features I want. All I needed to do was create a template in Numbers and I have the planning tool I want. Same function, same information. 

I am pretty sure if you looked at any app, you could recreate its features in a simple spreadsheet or word processor. So really the tools are less important than how you use those tools. 

Let’s get down to the basics and I know I have talked about this before but it’s always worth reminding you. Whatever tools you use, you only need to be doing three things. The first is collecting all your tasks, commitments and ideas into a central place. That doesn’t matter whether that is a simple $2.00 reporters notebook (as Richard Branson and Cheryl Sandberg use) or a more complex app such as OmniFocus. All that matters is you are collecting everything in a place you know you will look at again sometime in the very near future. 

Next is you need to organise all those things you collected. Tasks go onto a task list, appointments go into your calendar and your ideas go into your notes. Now it does not matter whether you are completely digital, paper-based or a hybrid of the two. All that matters is you have a list of the tasks you must complete, a place where you can review your notes and a calendar that will tell you where you need to be and when. 

Finally, you need to do the tasks, attend your appointments and develop your ideas (after all, you don’t know which one is going to be something special unless you take the time to develop it) 

Now, how you organise your tasks, appointments and ideas is entirely up to you. And that is where it all comes down to personal taste. I like simplicity and beautiful design. Others like more complexity. It really is a personal choice. But the key is you get the collecting, organising and doing part solid first. This is why I would always recommend you begin developing your own productivity system on paper first and then try your system out on whatever apps you already have. If you have an Android phone then there’s Google Tasks, Keep and calendar. If you use Apple devices then you have Reminders, Notes and Calendar. If your system works using those free built in apps then your system will work with any kind of app. 

Whatever apps you use in the end, the goal is to make sure your apps blend into the background so you do not notice them. They just do their job. When you do your planning for the next day, you need to be able to quickly see what tasks you have and be able to decide which ones you want to focus on getting done the next day. These choices are made with the full knowledge that your calendar is telling you where you are going to be and what meetings and appointments you have. When your calendar is full of meetings then you can reduce the number of tasks you plan to get done the next day. When your calendar has a lot of free space you can add more tasks for the day because you will have more time to do them. 

Really your productivity apps, your task list manager, notes and calendar need to be boring. You don’t want to notice them or be tempted to play around with settings, colours or how you have things organised. If they are doing their job, then you are focused on what needs doing, where you need to be and developing your ideas. If an app is tempting you to play around with its organisation structures and layout, then your app is not helping you it’s hindering you. 

The only caveat I would add here is whatever apps you do choose, make sure the collecting part is fast and easy. There are a lot of apps on the market that take too long to load because they want to show off their animations, colours and logos and then you have to navigate to the add function using too many clicks. A great productivity app will allow you to collect your stuff with only one or two clicks. Its click to open and click to add. That’s all it should take. Anything more than that and it’s too many clicks and too long. The lower the barrier to add a task, event or idea the better—this why pen and paper still wins here. 

The point here is no matter how feature rich an app is, it is always going to be your responsibility to maintain your system. It’s your responsibility to collect everything, it’s your responsibility to organise what you collected and it is your responsibility to do your work. It’s never going to be the responsibility of the apps you use. The simpler, the faster and the easier it is to collect, organise and do the better you will be at being organised and the more productive you will be. The less time you spend in your productivity apps means you have more time to do your work. That should be your starting point when thinking about creating your productivity system. Fast, simple and easy to use. 

I’ve seen some amazing productivity systems with elaborate structures, tagging and project hierarchies and I’ve seen these same systems fail the person who built them because they take too long to maintain and manage. Great personal productivity systems are always built on a foundation of simplicity and ease of use. 

So, David, my advice is to look for the simplest apps you can find. Ones that have very few features and ones that allow you to collect, organise and do the right things at the right time without having to spend too much time finding that information. 

One more thing before we finish. Once you have settled on a set of apps for your system, take the time necessary to really get to know those apps. Spend time playing and learning. You want those apps to become boring, to disappear into the background and only be front and centre when you need them to be. To do that, you need to learn whatever apps you choose inside out. That was one ‘secret’ I learnt a long time ago. Once you know the apps you use inside out, you get incredibly fast at using them and can fix any problems quickly. 

Thank you very much for listening to this episode and thank you, Davi,d for your question. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.