The Working With... Podcast | Episode 23 | choosing the right productivity app for you

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In this week’s episode of The Working With… Podcast I answer a question about choosing the right productivity app for you.

Hello and welcome to episode 23 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

In this week’s show I answer a question on the thorny issue of apps and which app is best for becoming more productive. I am being very brave here as this is something that can generate a lot of emotions and loyal support for one app over another. But, I am brave and if nothing else, at least I can give my view on this topic.

Before we get into the question, though, let me remind you, you can ask me anything about productivity, time management, goal planning or self development. All you have to do is send me a DM on Twitter or Facebook or email me at All the links are in the show notes. 

Okay, now it’s time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Sergey. Sergey asks: Carl, I’ve been following you for a while now and I was wondering if you have any recommendations for the best apps I can use to get myself more productive. 

Thank you Sergey for your question and for putting me in the deep end. 

The advice I always give to people who are starting out of the journey of getting themselves more productive and better at time management is to use the built in apps on the device you have. That means if you are using an iPhone, then I would always recommend you use Apple’s Reminders, Calendar and Notes apps. These apps are built in and are free. They are all supported by iCloud, which you also get for free (to start with) and it allows you time to find out what works best for you. Likewise, if you are in the Android or Windows ecosystem, both Google and Microsoft provide to-do lists, calendars and notes apps for free with their services. 

What you need to focus on is finding out what works for you. Not necessarily the apps, but the framework and system you build. The truth is, being more productive and better at time management is not really about the apps. Getting better at productivity and time management is about the framework you put in place. A great framework or system would work even if you were using s simple pen and paper. That to me has always been the goal. If I lost all my technology tomorrow, could I reproduce my system using a simple spiral-bound notebook and a pen? If the answer is no, then it means my system is too complex. And that really should be where you begin. With pen and paper. 

I put together a free online course designed to help you get started with becoming more productive, and that course will give you the basic framework. If you want to take your productivity and time management to the next level there is also my latest course—Your Digital Life 2.0. A course designed to give the complete framework to a fantastic digital system. Even though I am a huge fan of Todoist, in both those courses I do not recommend any specific app because apps are always a personal choice. Each one of us are looking for something different. I want something that is simple and easy to collect stuff when it occurs to me, I know other people who like apps that are feature rich and offers a lot of options. In this field the choice is yours. 

There are of course a few things you should always be aware of when you are ready to go into the third party productivity apps world. A lot of apps appear, look great and promise a lot of things, but after a few years they go out of business or get bought out by one of the big tech companies (I’m thinking Wunderlist and Sunrise here). When that happens your whole system can be destroyed overnight or just stops working. That really is the danger of seeking out only free apps. Apps that are free are often looking to be bought by a big tech company (what we call their exit strategy) while there is nothing wrong with this business model, it can leave users high and dry if either they do not attract a big tech company or the big tech company absorbs their technology into their own. This is why I have no problem investing money in the best productivity apps because I know I am investing in something that gives me a huge return on that investment. Todoist costs me around $30.00 per year and I know that the fantastic people at Doist, the company that develops Todoist, uses my $30.00 to make sure I have an app that works, is not going to disappear over night and serves me brilliantly. The same goes for Evernote. I pay for the premium version of Evernote which is about $50.00 per year. The cost of that is nothing compared to the value I get out of Evernote every single day. 

Of course, it could be argued that Microsoft’s OneNote and Apple’s Notes are better value because they are free and it is very unlikely they will disappear overnight. I would agree. But I’ve been using Evernote for close to ten years now and I know it intimately and it has never let me down. I should point out that both OneNote and Notes are fantastic apps and if I were starting out from fresh again, I might have chosen one of those apps. 

Another thing you should be very careful of are apps that try and do everything. Apps that have a calendar, notes and to-do list built in for example. I have tried many of these apps over the years and have found they end up compromising features and it can become extremely frustrating. Another thing you should watch out for are feature rich apps. I know they are very tempting because it allows you to play around with settings, colours and layouts and so much more. The problem here is that temptation to play around with the settings means you are not actually doing any work that matters. I recently tried out Notion 2 and it was a joy. There were so many things I could do. I accidentally ended up playing around with it for a whole afternoon. That evening I deleted the app simply because I knew if I used Notion 2 I would NEVER get any work done because there would always been another way to show me what I needed to do and review and that temptation to play would be irresistible. Fortunately, painful past experience has taught me to stay away from apps that have too many features and view options. I play and the temptation to play always beats me. You, of course, may be different. 

In my experience though, the simpler the app, the more likely it is going to work for you. I’ve tried many of the more complicated apps and none of them have helped me get the important work done. One app I loved was Omnifocus. The issue I had with Omnifocus was with the perspectives. This gave me far too much freedom to play around and try and find the ‘perfect’ views. The truth is, there are no ‘perfect’ views. The only view you need to see in your to-do list manager is the view that tells you what you need to work on right now given the place you are in, the tools you have with you and the people or person you are with and any app, with the ability to show you lists based on your context (the place, tool or person you need to complete the task) will do that. 

And that really is the point here. No app is going to be perfect for everyone. What you need to look for, Sergey, is an app that focuses your attention on getting the important work done and disappears into the background when you are doing the focused work. A good to-do list manager does make it easy to collect stuff, but apart from that it needs to be in the background waiting for you to decide you want to do the next piece of work. And this is why so many people still use the trusty pen and paper. Pen and paper does just that. You can move it away when you are doing the important work and you can move it back when you are ready to see what needs doing next. 

Remember, the amount of work you do and the quality of that work is not affected by the to-do list, calendar or notes app you use. Your work and the quality of that work is affected by you, your mood, your energy level and the amount of focus you put in to that work. So my advice is focus more on your system, and when you feel your system works seamlessly, then, and only then, begin your search for apps that will support that system. Your framework and your system comes first, apps are secondary. 

I hope that answers your question Sergey, apologies if I didn’t recommend any specific app. Every one is different and the best apps for me, are not necessarily going to be the best apps for you. 

Thank you very much for listening to this podcast. Don’t forget if you have a question you would like me to answer, get in touch and you too could have your question answered on this show. 

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