When you read some of the claims made by many of the productivity apps out there, it is easy to think that these productivity apps will do all the work for you so you can spend all your time fiddling around with their settings and functions in the hope you will be able to get it to do more of your work faster and with less effort. This is obviously not true, yet I see many people thinking that the ‘perfect’ productivity app is the next app they download. It won’t be. No matter how brilliant your system is, no matter how feature rich your todo list app is, nothing is going to do your work for you. Only you can do that.
A good productivity system is designed to show you what you need to do next. It collects all the things you have to do and shows you the big picture so you can make an informed decision about what to work on. The better the system is, the better decisions you make. A disorganised system that does not have all your tasks, commitments and obligations within it, is not going to give you an accurate picture of what needs to be done. Having no system at all, is going to mean you forget to do stuff that is important, sometimes vital, and you are going to be stressed.
In the 25 years I have been interested in productivity and organisation, I have learnt that it is not the system you use that makes you productive, but the decisions you make about what to do now. Now is the important time. Not tomorrow, or the day after or next week or year. Now is what matters and what you are doing right now is what is important. Being able to make decisions quickly and efficiently means you are always working on or doing what matters right now, instead of looking around and trying to remember what it is you are supposed to be doing, which is what happens when you do not have an effective system or you are constantly fiddling with the latest and greatest new productivity tool.
Imagine you have a very important presentation to do next week. The presentation is next week. Right now you need to put your slides together and to make sure your presentation is coherent and tells the story you want it to tell. There’s no point in making sure you have the right cables with you today. That will be important next week. What is important right now is you create the slides. Your productivity system needs to tell you that you should be creating the slides today. It should not be telling you to make sure you have the right cables with you today.
Equally, if your dog is sick and needs to see a vet. That is what is important right now. You need to call the vet, make the appointment and take you dog. Your productivity system needs to be flexible enough to be able to cope with emergencies like that. I often see people who plan out every hour of every day, not allowing any wiggle room for emergencies or for when things go wrong. Things do go wrong, emergencies happen and you are not going to get everything you want to do done every day and that’s perfectly normal and it’s okay.
This is why I use David Allen’s GTD system (Getting Things Done). It allows me to be super flexible and my lists only show me what is important right now. When I look at my list of things to do today, I know the things on the list are important today. All my other tasks are not important right now, or I am not going to be able to do them today, so there is no point in worrying about them. If you have your GTD set up right, then you have the confidence knowing nothing is missing, everything is there and if you need to take a quick look at the big picture, you have the system in place to do just that. This is why you will notice people who really get GTD and really understand it’s fundamentals, are super relaxed, feel and look comfortable in doing whatever it is they are doing at that moment in time.
No application is going to suddenly make you a productivity monster. It really doesn’t matter what application you use. All applications can do is help you to see the big picture. You have to make the decisions on what to work on. I know there are efforts to create a productivity app that will make those decisions for you, but frankly, I’m not sure that will ever work. As I wrote last week, trusting your system is an important key to a productivity system and I am not comfortable trusting a machine to know what mood I am in, what is important to me right now and what I need to be working on today so that in next week’s directors meeting I am fully briefed and on top of all the important issues.
So if you are searching around looking for the ‘perfect’ productivity app, you will be disappointed. It does not exist. The real ‘perfect’ productivity app is inside your head. It’s called your brain and it makes all the decisions you need to make and you need to get the best use out of it. Don’t crowd it out trying to remember dates, commitments and phone numbers. Get all your ideas, commitments, appointments and tasks out of your head and into an external place you can trust. Then allow your brain to do what it is best at: making decisions based on your environment, mood, energy level and situation. That is the basis of a perfect system and one we all have the power to utilise and shape so that we are always on top of what needs to be done at this present moment in time.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century