For many years I fell victim to productivity porn. I was convinced that if I only had the right tool, the right app, the right software, my productivity would skyrocket. I would continously ask myself: What are the best apps for productivity?
All I needed was that tool to bring everything together, and I would be set off on my trajectory of greatness.
But after years of waffling about and trying to be more productive, I have come to realize that the vast majority of these tools are just fluff.
Yes, they are great tools that contain some impressive functionality. But that does not mean that they are necessary to thrive. Increased functionality also means increased complexity and increased maintenance costs.
I will share three examples. Three examples of where I abandoned a sophisticated productivity app for something more rudimentary.
The Quest for the Ultimate Note-Taking App
I am the type of person, that always has a bunch of things racing in my head. I run two businesses, and my mornings can get quite hectic. I was on a quest for a system to capture and digitize all the information and tasks coming my way. I was convinced that a sophisticated note-taking app was the solution.
I remember a few years ago when Evernote was all the hype. I bought a premium Evernote account and tried using it, but I never really got into it.
I remember how productivity gurus would brag how they kept all their important documents in Evernote. So I went ahead and uploaded all my official docs, like my IDs, passport, business registration, tax registration, etc., in an Evernote folder.
Every time I needed one of those docs, accessing it via Evernote became one big clunky mess. I would wait a few seconds for Evernote to load and try searching via tags. The tagging system never seemed to work when you needed it.
I soon realized that there was no need to keep copies of my essential documents on Evernote. Storing them on Google Drive or Dropbox is far more efficient! The files are easier to access and also easier to attach to an email.
Today Notion is the new Evernote. Everyone is boasting about how they have their entire life organized on Notion.
I opened a Notion account, and I was pretty impressed (actually overwhelmed) by all the features. They seem to have a template for organizing every aspect of your life. But I quickly realized that most of these features would only add additional complexity.
I mean, why do you need to sync your travel itinerary to your Notion account? Can you imagine the nightmare of being stuck in a remote airport and trying to find the folder in Notion where your travel plans are stored?
The best app to store your travel information is Email! I make sure that my flight, hotel, and car rental reservations are stored in my (fairly tidy) inbox on the day that I travel. I can access this information immediately when I need it.
Spreadsheets are still the best Business Analytics Software.
Another example I see is the software used to create financial reports and analyze business numbers.
I run a construction goods business, and an important aspect for me is to keep track of what I owe my suppliers. On the last day of the month, I create a report that charts my accounts payable.
Like most businesses, I use accounting software that issues invoices and tracks my expenses. But no matter how fantastic and sophisticated your tool is, nothing gives me a better overview than a basic excel sheet, where my main 15 suppliers are listed in the rows, and I have a column for every month.
The same goes for tracking the performance of all my ad campaigns. At the end of each month, I fill in a spreadsheet where I track the cost of each ad campaign.
I then group the campaigns by product categories to compare actual product sales vs. product ad spend. Plenty of tools claim they can calculate your ROAS (return on ad spend), but nothing beats doing the work manually in a spreadsheet.
When you do the work manually, you feel the pain if an ad campaign is not performing every time you type in the number. But you also feel the joy when a particular marketing move is paying dividends.
I could build sophisticated reports using Facebook’s export tool or get Zapier to send data over to some business intelligence software. But I feel that such automation would miss the point. Spending two hours each month going through these numbers is the single best thing you can do to grow your business.
One of the latest tools that are all the rave is Airtable. Airtable is part database part spreadsheet that can pull information from many different sources and help you organize your workflow.
The application comes with a bunch of built-in templates. One of these templates was a social media calendar. I opened an account and tried it out.
The tool looked really neat, but I stopped using it when I realized I did not have a proper system in place for scheduling my social media.
I realized that if I want a social media calendar, I need to start by doing all my planning on an excel or a Google Sheet first. I need to build a habit of maintaining that calendar and first understand what my real needs are before committing to a high-end tool.
Each tool comes with sophisticated functionality. But we seem to put the horse in front of the cart. First, we need to determine what functionality we need, and then pick the appropriate tool.
You cannot leapfrog productivity. Productivity is about building basic systems from scratch and expanding these systems on top of the basics
So What are the Best Apps for Productivity?
Productivity gurus make money from the commissions they collect when someone subscribes to a productivity app. It makes sense that they will recommend you complicated apps and try to convince you that it will make your life easier.
But I want to close this article by telling you about the best apps for productivity. Please don’t ask me whether it’s available both on Android and iOS.
Because the best productivity app of all time is Pen and Paper.
Pen and paper are the best way to empty your mind and capture your thoughts. Pen and paper cannot connect to the internet. This means you can write without being interrupted.
How many times did you open the task app on your phone, only to realize that you were scrolling Instagram 10 minutes later?
Pen and paper will keep you focused. Pen and paper lets you write down the things you need to get done every day and lets you plan how much time you need for each task. Pen and paper lets you draw diagrams, arrows, and flowcharts.
Never underestimate the power of pen and paper.
Instead of buying another subscription, invest in a nice pen and a nice notebook to keep track of everything in your life.