The Working With… Podcast

How To Choose The Right Productivity Apps . The Definitive Answer.

November 4, 2019

Do you find you are still searching for that ‘perfect’ productivity app? Then this week’s episode is definitely one for you.


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Episode 107

Hello and welcome to episode 107 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

This week we return to that polarising question of what app is right for you and how do you choose the right app or apps. 

But before we get to this week’s question, in case you missed it, my Create Your Own Apple Productivity course has now been updated for 2019. That means there’s a whole new section on the new Reminders app as well as updates for Notes and Calendar. 

If you are already enrolled in the course, this is a free update for you and if you are not, and you are quick, you can pick up this course for just $39.99 on the early-bird programme. But you will need to be quick as this discount will end very soon.

If you don’t want to invest in expensive productivity apps and want to just use the built-in apps that come with your iPhone, iPad and Mac, then this course is perfect for you as it will give you the know-how to build your own system using just the Apple productivity apps including Calendar, Notes, Reminders and iCloud. It’s all there in this course.

There’s a link to the full details of this course in the show notes to this podcast.

Ok, it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Tim. Tim asks: Hi Carl, I've been looking for a really good to-do list manager for years and just cannot find the right one. Do you have any advice on finally finding the right app? 

Hi Tim, thank you for your question. My answer would be “no I don’t” and there’s a very good reason why. 

that's because the tools you use—whether that is a to-do list manager or notes app or calendar—really doesn't matter. What matters is your system or framework. 

You see no app will ever do the work for you. All a productivity app will do is show you what you need to see when you need to see it. Of course, you can add dates, times and tags, labels or contexts to narrow down the lists, but essentially all these tools will ever do is show you what you have to do. Doing the work is completely in your hands and that is not going to change anytime soon. 

So what it all comes down to is how you organise your lists. All you are going to get with different apps are just different ways to list things. You may get some different colours, some may show you your projects and tasks in a Kanban board style, others may show you your lists in a traditional list format but they are all essentially doing the same thing, they are showing you the tasks you inputted into the app. That’s because they are just lists. 

When you base your whole system on an app, if the app updates or, as in the recent case with Todoist, changes some of the features. If that happens, you can find your whole productivity system no longer works and then you are going to have problems.

This is why I preach building a system around COD—this is a stripped-down absolute basic System anyone can adopt—All you need to do is collect everything that has your attention into a trusted place. That could be a piece of paper you carry around with you in your pocket or it could be your phone’s built-in notes app. It really doesn't matter where you are collecting. All that matters is you are collecting and you trust you will look at what you collected every twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Having too many places to collect stuff can be overwhelming as you will have multiple places to look. 

This is why in the GTD world we seek the UCT—the Ubiquitous Collection Tool—that’s a tool you can carry with you everywhere you go. David Allen has his notetaker wallet, Richard Branson and Warren Buffett have their little pocket notebooks. It really doesn’t matter what you use. The only thing that matters is you collect everything into it and you process and organise what you collected every twenty-four to forty-eight hours. 

Organising what you collected does require something a little more structured. You want to be able to find what you collected when you need it quickly. It also needs to be accessible from all your devices these days. Travel itineraries, for example, are best when they are accessible on all your devices. Here again, though, you do not need anything too complex. 

When you organise everything you collected, complexity will be your enemy. Complexity will slow you down. Finding what you want, when you want it and as quickly as possible, that's the key. So a little thought about how you file stuff is important. 

Do you remember things by topic? By the people or team involved? Maybe you would prefer to see things organised by project or areas of focus. What’s vitally important here is that you organise your stuff by the way you naturally think. Not because someone else organises things that way. 

When you organise things by the way someone else does—because it looks cool or efficient—you are going to find yourself with difficulties. What works for one person is not necessarily going to work for you. This is why how you organise your stuff needs a lot of careful thought. 

A few years ago many in the Evernote world jumped on the Michael Hyatt’s way of tagging notes with symbols to indicate: what, when, who, reference and miscellaneous. You could see the beauty of this system very easily, but if you stepped back and thought about it you could also see the complexity involved and the issues you would have if you got a note that was not quite a “what” but also not quite a “who”. 

This system soon received a lot of criticism and eventually disappeared as the latest way to structure your notes. The thing is, this system worked for Michael. It would not necessarily work for anyone else and it didn’t.

Files are another thing too. I organise my files by date and tags. Apple has system-wide tagging which allows me to view my documents by tag. So, I categorise my work by the different businesses I run and my personal stuff. I have three main tags that represent these three areas of my life. It makes it much easier for me to find what I am looking for as well as file my work. But, I know this way of organising my files would not work for everyone else. 

You see there are so many factors involved. The type of work you do, how your brain organises things and what tools you have available. Your company’s security systems may not allow you to have work files on cloud-based servers accessible outside company property. 

Now, I think a lot of this comes down to an individual’s expectations. We see a super cool video on YouTube (and I might be guilty of causing this) and see how another person organises their projects, notes and tasks and think WOW! If I set up my system like that I will get a ton of work done. 

This is never going to be true. You see it doesn’t matter how super cool and organised your stuff is. If you are spending too much time inside your productivity apps reorganising, filing and fiddling with the settings you are not doing work. You’re not being productive at all. You are procrastinating and it’s the worst kind of procrastination because you are convincing yourself you are doing work when you are not doing work at all. You’re fiddling and that is pure procrastination. 

So, Tim, if you want to find the ‘perfect’ app, create the ‘perfect’ system first. The system comes first then the apps. In fact, if you create a great system, that system would work with any app. 

A great way to test your system is to test it out on paper first. If you can create a system and workflow that you can use using a simple notebook and pen, then you have a system that could work with almost any app. 

Fundamentally, you need to make sure you collect everything into a place you trust. This place should be something you have with you at all times. Today, that is usually a mobile phone or wallet. You need to give yourself time each day to process and organise what you collected in a way you can find quickly when you need it and you should be spending at least 90% of your time doing the work. 

When you get those basics right, then you have a system that will reduce your stress, massively increase your productivity and give you a lot more time to do the things you want to do with the people you want to do them with. It will do that because you will not have to spend much time in your apps playing around with settings, colours or anything else your apps allow you to do. 

I hope that has helped, Tim. Remember, get your system right and the apps will take care of themselves. 

Thank you for the question and thank you to all of you for listening. Don’t forget if you are in the Apple ecosystem, check out my Apple Productivity course. It might just be the ‘perfect’ system for you.

It just remains for me to wish you all a very very productive week.