Get more things done in less time.
That’s what today’s productivity apps promise to their users. And there are a lot of them, with 7.1 billion productivity apps downloaded by Americans alone in 2020.
The desire to organize and manage our time better isn’t a new phenomenon—Leonardo Da Vinci was using to-do lists to remember what he needed to get done as far back as 1490.
But since the early 2000s, time-saving innovations—like digital to-do lists, project management tools, cloud storage systems, and meeting scheduling tools—have grown in popularity, helping us do everything from streamlining daily tasks to sharing information with others.
Despite their prominence, productivity continues to decline in most industrialized nations while burnout is increasing.
There are many reasons why. But here are two that are often less explored: we’re using too many apps, and the tools designed to help us sometimes do the opposite.
Here are five reasons why productivity apps may be secretly failing you:
1. There are too many of them, and they inadvertently spread information everywhere
Picture the common workplace. There are computers. There are people. And those people make up teams trying to work together.
Software often plays the role of the middleman (especially now that so many of us work remotely), facilitating everything from complex tasks to simple interactions. As a result, the average workplace now has more apps than they know what to do with.
A 2021 report from Okta found that the average business uses 88 apps (an increase of 16 business applications from their previous survey in 2016). Meanwhile, Asana found that the average U.S. knowledge worker uses 9-10 apps daily.
The types of apps you use could vary depending on your role. But in a 2021 report with Cornel University’s Ellis Idea Lab, Qatalog discovered that the “maze of tools”—from messaging apps and cloud storage systems to project management software—that people use on a daily basis is a major time-suck, with the average person spending 59 minutes (or roughly five hours a week) looking for information.
And that has a few unintended consequences, namely…
2. They force us to annoy one another
The larger an organization, the more information is dispersed across various apps and departments. And when that information is hard to find, we often rely on Slack and Zoom to touch base with co-workers in the hopes of clarifying directives or finding what we’re looking for, which eats up a huge chunk of our time and mental energy.
According to Qatalog, that’s because 57% of people are unsure what apps other departments are using, don’t know what others are working on (62%), and have to ask at least two co-workers an average of five times a day to find information.
On the flip side, in an attempt to clarify what’s being worked on and where information is located, 53% of people admit to making updates on the status of tasks or where to find things even when they’re not sure it’s entirely necessary.
That’s a lot of noise.
3. Productivity apps unintentionally promote context switching
Reaching a flow state is essential to getting stuff done and being healthy, happy, and creative. But there’s no greater productivity torpedo than switching between apps.
When we can’t find what we’re looking for or figure out what needs to get done, we often find ourselves jumping between apps looking for clarity before inevitably (as mentioned above) bothering someone else for help.
Again, Qatalog has some eye-opening stats on the subject. They state that 43% of people report spending too much time switching between online tools and, once they’re sidetracked, taking nine and a half minutes on average to return to an optimal workflow, derailing their focus.
4. They don’t easily adapt to most team’s workflows
As Wired points out, most productivity apps—and to-do list apps, in particular—are opinionated: how you tackle your tasks is inefficient, and they have the solution.
But according to personal productivity expert Maura Thomas, having the right productivity tool is only half the battle.
In a Harvard Business Review article, she details how most companies roll out new software hoping to improve efficiency with only technical training on how to use it—making employees proficient in how to use the software but not necessarily more productive.
According to Thomas, that’s because—whether it’s as a company or on a personal level—there’s not enough focus on learning the proper workflow.
“[We] go in search of the latest and greatest app or the fancy new software, hoping it will be the magic bullet to solve [our] time management challenges,” she writes. “My clients tell me they install the program, test it out for a day or two, but then never open it again. I know this isn’t because the tool is bad. It’s simply because they didn’t have the framework of a workflow methodology.”
Each organization and individual is different. Recognizing that can help you make the most out of a productivity app while ensuring it’s beneficial and adaptable enough to suit your (or your team’s) needs.
5. They don’t always free your mind to think clearly
Most apps that let you create to-do lists or manage daily tasks don’t go far enough. They help you list out what needs to get done, but not how to get there. And that can harm our mental well-being and ability to think clearly.
In Wired, contributing editor Clive Thompson details the Zeigarnik effect: a “quirk of the human mind” that explains why when a task goes unfinished, we can’t stop thinking about it.
“When we face all that undone stuff—emails to write, calls to return, people to contact, friends to check in on, memos to draft, children to help—it’s like being a waiter serving a hundred tables at once,” he writes. “If you’ve found yourself in bed at 2 am with your brain screaming at you about that thing you didn’t do, that’s a Zeigarnik moment.”
According to Thompson, all creators of to-do apps understand in some way that this is a key challenge their products face.
But, to steal a phrase from productivity expert David Allen, to truly “get things done,” you need to plan, edit, and refine how you’ll accomplish your goals. And basic task management tools like Google Keep don’t necessarily facilitate that.
“It can take hours,” Thompson writes, “but once you’ve done that hard work, you can plow through the tasks, one after another, with the metronomicity of a Chrysler line robot.”
And while no one wants to feel like a robot at work, you must admit: they sure are productive.