Almost all personal productivity software is unnecessary. Instead of helping you get things done, most gadgets are just middle-men between you and your work. Productivity is about simplicity, so to anyone that has just started, I recommend staying away from any technology more sophisticated than a mechanical pencil.
What’s Wrong With Productivity Software?
Pencil and paper is an almost perfect interface. It’s easy to use, flexible and doesn’t have any features you don’t need. Just using tools invented hundreds (or in the case of paper, thousands) of years ago, you can accomplish just about anything. To-do lists, calendars, day-planners, brainstorming and goal-setting don’t need a gadget.
The problem with most software solutions is that they:
- Take too long to learn.
- Have way too many features.
- Solve problems that most people don’t have.
The beauty of pencil and paper solutions is that they can be incredibly focused while being easy to use. When I write a to-do list on a piece of paper, I only write what needs to be done. If I need prioritization, I can add it. If I need deadlines, I’ll add those too. But if I don’t need these things, my paper stays uncluttered.
Note: I’m focusing on personal productivity software. I’m not going to go after CRM or other enterprise solutions for managing large teams and groups of employees.
Don’t Switch to Software Unless You Have a Long Paper Trail…
I do use two software applications as part of keeping track of my life: Tadalist, a bare-bones to-do list application and Google Calendar, an easy-to-use calendar. Although I do use these two gadgets, I stuck with pencil and paper for a long time before making the switch. The only reason I use these two applications is simply that they can store a much larger amount of information for a process that was already a habit on paper.
Ninety-nine percent of the gadgets end up doing things you don’t need. Low-tech solutions are unbeatable when it comes to discreetly hiding away extra features. But for every additional option or flexibility written into code, software becomes harder to use and less elegant.
How do you find the 1% of software that does do a better job than paper? I believe you won’t know until your productivity system has become a habit. Until you’ve lived with a tool for several months, realizing the features you need and the features you don’t, you won’t be able to make a good pick.
I used a binder to store my daily to-do list for about three years before I switched to Ta-Da list. I also used a paper calendar for about a year before adopting Google’s online fix. Having a lot of experience with a paper tool gives you the experience to know what to look for if you decide to go to a gadget.
Be a Productivity Luddite
The Luddites were a group of textile workers who opposed the introduction of mechanical looms in the 1800’s. Today, it’s a term that refers to anyone who resists technological improvements. I’m not a Luddite in almost any way, but when it comes to keeping things simple and organized – low tech has it’s advantages.
Although you can selectively choose a gadget after months of using a paper tool, often the paper tool will simply work better. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Similarly, when all you have is software design knowledge, every problem looks like it should be solved by a nice application with a GUI.
I fully expect comments from people claiming that “tool x” or “tool y” is a great gadget and I should take back my nasty generalizations. For some people this will be true, that a particular gadget perfectly suits their needs (as I’ve found with my two). But most won’t, and unfortunately most software forces the user to conform to the gadget instead of the other way around.
Start With Paper
If you’ve just started the process of designing your productivity system, stick with paper. By going with a flexible tool that has almost every feature you need and none of the ones you don’t, you remove another barrier to getting started. Flashy doesn’t mean effective, and just because a website gadget is cool, doesn’t mean it is useful.