Myths of Productivity: Finding the Right Tools

This is the fourteenth post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.

I can think of several times in my life where I’ve purchased something because I thought that having it would catalyze behavioral change. We’ve all been there in different ways—a new notebook will make us a more prolific writer, a new camera will make us a better photographer, and so-on.

The results are almost always the same: we find that simply having something new isn’t a sustainable way to change what we do. Merlin Mann says it well2:

My concern is that there’s a big difference between buying new running shoes and actually hitting the road every morning.

Tools and productivity

Productivity tools (task management methodologies, apps, lists, etc.) can be extremely helpful. I use a variety of systems everyday at home and work to stay organized and move work forward. The problem with tools isn’t their potential utility. In fact, there isn’t a problem with the tools at all—it’s us. We often believe the fallacy that an external tool will somehow help us shortcut the time and hard work it takes to do anything well.

Finding the ‘perfect’ task management system won’t make you more productive anymore than a new pair of shoes will get you in shape. Mann calls this phenomenon our tendency to see “tools as panaceas for our productivity and time-management problems.”

Again, know thyself

As we’ve discussed before, everyone is different and has different work3, but most productivity tools are (understandably) built to appeal to the least common denominator among a wide variety of people. That means that it’s unlikely any of us will ever find a system or app that fits every individual need. In other words, the perfect productivity tool simply doesn’t exist—there are only those that get closer to meeting our needs than others.

The key is understanding ourselves, not the features of an application. Asking an app to change my behavior if I’m not carefully considering how I already behave will almost always be a fool’s errand.

The tools you will actually use

The best tools for productivity are the ones you will actually use. Here’s Merlin Mann again:

Ultimately, the tools that we choose for any purpose will only be as useful as our ability to use them effectively and to understand what their improved quality means to the way we approach our work…

For some people, that might be a pen and paper, for others it might be fancy software. Choosing the ‘right system’ can be overwhelming with all of the choices available, but worrying about the right choice isn’t the point. The point is capturing what you need to get done, then, as quickly as possible, moving on and actually doing those things.

Tools should provide utility and then get out of the way so that we can move our work forward.

Choosing tools

Start with one tool and commit to it

Writing down what you need to get done will almost always be time better spent than searching for a new productivity solution. Whether it’s a piece of paper or an app, the key is building the habit of thinking about what you need to work on and capturing it into some sort of system. The mental muscle built by consistency is what brings actual value to any tool you use.

If you need to make a change, think critically about what’s not working and make an educated choice

The flaws you see in a system over time will be helpful guides when the time comes to consider using different tools. Having considered both your own individual characteristics and what didn’t work in whatever system you were using (over a sufficient period of time) gives you valuable data to make decisions with—you can search for solutions with experience, intention and specificity. When you find something you thing will work better than the last tool, commit to it. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Expect change

Our lives and work are dynamic. When things change, updates in the systems we use are often required as well—it’s best to use “the right tool for the job.” Changing isn’t always fun, but we should expect to make adjustments along the way.

As long as you’re constantly seeking to understand yourself and build consistent habits, though, it will matter less which tools you use because you’ll simply be applying foundational knowledge about yourself and how you work to a new system.

1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read Merlin Mann’s article, Because buying new running shoes is more fun than actually running, on You can read the sixth post in this series, First, know thyself, here.

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