Updated on 12.12.16

Productivity Apps Are No Match for a Simple Timer

There are roughly 17 trillion apps and computer programs that promise to improve your workflow, keep you on task, and help you get things done. As a Type A person who’s always looking to be more productive, I’m the prime target market for these apps. I’ve tried many of them, and the same thing always happens:

  1. A quick burst of dopamine as I dive into something new.
  2. A period of a few days where I devote myself to learning all the ins and outs of the app.
  3. After about a week, I get frustrated or bored with the app, stop using it, and ultimately delete it.

There is one app (looking at you, Evernote) that I’ve spent hours trying to fit into my life on multiple occasions. I’ve downloaded and then deleted it four or five different times. Every time I read a new blogger touting Evernote’s ethereal ability to increase their productivity, I decide to give it another shot. But it never quite meshes with the way I like to operate, and it always ends up in the trash heap. I’m just happy I’ve never splurged on the premium version.

This isn’t to say that these sorts of apps aren’t helpful to many people. I’m sure they are. I just want to put forth the notion that the time I’ve spent researching, downloading, learning, and then dismissing these apps has caused me to be far less productive over the years than if I’d simply disregarded apps all together.

Here are a few reasons why 99.9% of apps are a net negative on my productivity, how even the act of searching for them causes me problems, and how I use simple, timeless methods to stay on task instead.

Paralysis by Analysis

If I go into the iTunes App Store and search for “productivity,” I’m soon faced with a dizzying array of choices. Day planners, calendars, note takers, list makers — it goes on and on. I can spend hours perusing the selection, reading reviews, and wondering why one app has 4.2 stars and the other one has a 4.3 rating

Next thing I know I’ve downloaded two meditation apps and a picture editor, having forgotten about the task I even wanted an app for in the first place.

This, it goes without saying, is not a productive use of my time. It would take a miracle for whatever app I downloaded to save me the time I just wasted in the iTunes Store.

It Didn’t Used to Be Like This

I’m not a Luddite by any means, but I do like to think back on how great, accomplished people from past centuries managed to be so productive with such limited technology.

Any fan of the hit musical “Hamilton” has learned about how Alexander Hamilton wrote almost every single one of the famed Federalist Papers over a one-year period. He pumped out thousands of pages of compelling text, by hand, while also practicing as a lawyer. My lawyer friends of today can barely keep their eyes open after work, let alone think clearly enough to craft papers that would help shape the constitution of a new nation.

How did he do all this, without using Evernote, Scrivener, or Workflowy? He must have at least used the famed “Get Things Done” method, right? Nope. He just set aside time to write and stayed focused. While of course Alexander Hamilton was a singular talent, I think a big part of the equation was that he lived in a time in which entertainment wasn’t as easily accessible and smartphones weren’t ubiquitous.

Now, we live in a world filled with temptation and distraction. Our attention is fragmented among many competing devices, and this has a real effect on our brains. We can look at the effect of merely getting notifications on our phones to prove this point. A 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that getting a notification on your phone while performing a task “significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task.”

The same phone that should in theory be making you more productive and efficient is sabotaging your productivity at the same time. Furthermore, no study is needed to prove that the act of going on your phone to search for an app can easily spiral out of control. I tend to jump on my phone with noble intentions only to find myself, within 15 minutes, watching a YouTube video of a man trying to beat a Kodiak bear in a hot dog eating contest (the bear wins, easily…).

So, how can we start to combat these negative effects, while also becoming less reliant on the next great app to save us from our inefficient ways?

Use Simple Tech That’s Always Been There

One thing that improves my overall workflow is taking small breaks away from the computer to stretch and rest my eyes. Knowing myself, instead of installing an app that tells me when to stand up and stretch, I just set alarms on my phone. Just the act of setting the alarm helps to keep me focused as well, because I know a quick break is coming soon.

I didn’t do 10 hours of research to determine how many minutes constitutes the optimal break time, how many feet into the distance you should look out your window to counteract the negative effects of staring at a screen one foot from your face, or any other such nonsense. I just set a timer, take a three- or four-minute break, move around a bit, and get back to work.

The great thing about this method is its simplicity. No fancy app needed. Just a timer. In the olden days, the same thing was accomplished with a watch, or even an hourglass. Manually setting a timer will never translate into a best-selling app, but it’s just as effective as anything out there.

Create Time and Space for Doing ‘Deep Work’

Tenured professor and prolific author Cal Newport recently wrote a book called “Deep Work,” which I was inspired to read after learning about it on the Simple Dollar. He makes a compelling argument that the only way to be truly productive is to intentionally make time to do work for a prolonged period of time in an undistracted environment.

When I really want to get things done now, I don’t go searching the app store. I go to the library or my bedroom, and I turn my phone on airplane mode. I set a timer for one and a half hours, and I resolve to focus only on one task during that time. I put on noise-cancelling headphones, grab a cup of coffee, and get to work.

This strategy won’t miraculously make me capable of Hamilton-esque work output, but it at least gives me a routine that I know will bring out my best. I usually find that I get more done during these 90-minute bursts than I would have in five hours had I been free to surf the web and chat on my phone while I was supposed to be accomplishing a task.

Summing Up

After much searching, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never find that one perfect app that will make me uber-productive. And that’s okay. I think looking for a magic productivity app is like a dieter looking for a magic weight-loss pill. It’s a lot easier to hope scientists can dream up the perfect drug than it is to buckle down, start eating healthy, and follow an exercise regimen.

Similarly, if you’re putting off a new goal or project because you want to use the best possible new app or program to make it worthwhile, you’re just lying to yourself. Accepting that is the first step toward embracing the inner workhorse that lives within all of us, whether we use fancy new technology or not.

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