Why relying on productivity tools can backfire
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The explosion in productivity tech means we can track everything from our steps to our to-do list. But should we?

Every day, Alex Donohue wakes up and checks how well he slept using the smartwatch that his wife brought him as an anniversary present. On work calls, he paces around the car park of his office to make sure that he fits in 10,000 steps a day. He describes tracking his screen time as a “ritual”.

Donohue, a 31-year-old founder of a London-based PR agency, is a self-professed productivity addict. He’s one of a growing number of people who see optimising their time using technology as an increasingly important part of their lives.

And there’s certainly no shortage of tools to help him out. While we once might have scribbled our to-do list down on a Post-it or used email flags to prioritise tasks, the last few years have ushered in a boom in apps promising to help us organise our time better and maximise our output. In a world in which everything seems trackable, and workplace ideas about time-management have comprehensively crossed over into our personal lives, these tools can seem irresistible.

Yet the technologies we use to optimise our days can also start to control them. Since the pandemic hit and time has taken on a new meaning, it may be time to rethink our buy-in, and question whether logging, tracking and uploading tasks into various apps is really the path to success. Despite the raft of productivity products to choose from, perhaps the old methods of assessing what you’d accomplished in a day weren’t really so inadequate after all.

Why productivity boomed

The desire to keep on top of your task list is hardly a new phenomenon. Leonardo da Vinci was writing to-do lists as far back as 1490, while Benjamin Franklin famously created a 13-week plan for self-improvement in the early 1700s. A few decades later, publishers were printing the first examples of daily planners, as people in industrialising nations grew interested in how to make more money.

Alex Donohue is one of many using the latest tools to try and become more productive (Credit: Alex Donohue)

Alex Donohue is one of many using the latest tools to try and become more productive (Credit: Alex Donohue)

But our cultural obsession with personal productivity has been a relatively recent phenomenon as society digitalised and time-saving technology became a modern fixation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, technology that we now take for granted was promoted as a time-saving tool – shared calendars could eliminate complicated discussions to line up meetings, while search engines could save us hours digging up information.

With the opportunity to produce more with potentially less work, it’s no wonder so many embraced a lifestyle that beckons more output through optimisation.

Plus, there’s a template for why maximum productivity is so desirable: success. High-profile individuals – particularly those working for the tech companies that designed some of these tools – began to attract attention for their personal productivity habits. Who could forget Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey’s 16-hour work days (including 0500 hydrotherapy sessions), or Google employee Marissa Mayer’s 130-hour work weeks? With the routines of high-achieving individuals increasingly fetishised, the digital productivity industry boomed, making its way into our offices, our leisure time and our homes.

Now, it’s estimated that global sales of wearable devices that track daily activity and allow users to get notifications on the go will reach $1bn (£730m) by 2022. Companies continue to innovate; apps such as Forest, which encourages users to plant a virtual ‘tree’ that only thrives when the user is doing a focused task, have become increasingly commonplace.

Claire Wu, a neuroscientist, says that part of the attraction for users is the way many of these apps ‘reward’ users. “When you tick off an item on your to-do list, or see your step count or sleep hours go up in an app, it creates a feedback loop where you experience an immediate reward,” she says. “Without these tools, goals can also seem quite faraway and intangible. Productivity and optimisation tools help people to break down goals, and incorporate the same addictive and reward-based elements that you might find in a mobile game or social media app.”

Neuroscientist Claire Wu says some productivity tools use 'rewards' to keep us engaged (Credit: Claire Wu)

Neuroscientist Claire Wu says some productivity tools use 'rewards' to keep us engaged (Credit: Claire Wu)

While ticking off an item on an old-fashioned to-do list might give us some level of satisfaction, technology games our desire to do more and rewards us in more overt ways. “A common theme in many apps is a representation of progress, such as badges or hitting a certain number,” explains Wu. “But these can start to become more important than the outcome itself – for example, a person might do a workout but don’t get the expected badge or points, and feel like the whole effort was a waste of time. But really, the workout is much more important than some arbitrary points.”

Wu, who founded an app that helps people achieve long-term health optimisation goals, believes that some productivity tools can place pressure on users. She thinks that people may use metrics, and by extension their personal productivity, as a measure of how “good or bad they are as a person”.

Working harder, not smarter?

There’s also the question of whether we can really assess how much these apps are contributing to our output. 

“Our lives and work are increasingly digital,” says Almuth McDowall, professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. “But it’s a complex world, and there is an information overload. Good apps, well used, can help us to negotiate this. But there is still a question of whether we’re really interested in becoming more productive, or simply ‘doing more to seem effective’.

Why are we not getting better at managing the quality of our output? - Almuth McDowall

Data certainly suggests that employees are struggling with a software overload. Research conducted in 2018 showed that the average operational support worker switched among 35 different applications more than 1,100 times during their working day. Yet despite the deluge of apps and tools, productivity is in decline in most highly industrialised countries, while burnout is on the rise.

“Evidence shows that working hours and the time that we spend in online meetings is increasing, so it may be that we are working harder, not smarter,” suggests McDowall. “Why are we not getting better at managing the quality of our output?”

A step back, to think

Into this mix, of course, has come Covid-19, disrupting our lives, working patterns and habits – and for some, it’s been an opportunity to recalibrate how they assess performance. 

“I have always worked in a digital environment where utilising the latest tools has been par for the course,” says Rob Weatherhead, a 39-year-old advertising and technology consultant based in Bolton, UK. “Trello, Jira, smart watches, fitness trackers, food trackers. You name it, I’ve tried it.”

Rob Weatherhead says since lockdown he's been using new measures to assess his output - his own instincts (Credit: Rob Weatherhead)

Rob Weatherhead says since lockdown he's been using new measures to assess his output - his own instincts (Credit: Rob Weatherhead)

Yet in the last year, since he’s been responsible for his own remote work efficiency, Weatherhead has found himself discarding most of these technologies and “reverting back to a good old-fashioned task list”, using a pen and paper. “I realised that some of the tools were actually unproductive. I was breaking tasks down into minutiae just so that there were more things to move into the ‘done’ column. I’ve sold my Apple watch and ditched all of my life trackers. I know whether I’ve had an efficient or effective day, and I don’t need technology to tell me.”

Sandra Bond Chapman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dallas, believes that the fundamental shifts caused by the pandemic could permanently change the way people like Weatherhead view productivity.

“Before the pandemic people were 24/7 non-stop on the go,” she says. “People are now stepping back and thinking about the qualitative aspects of being productive over the quantitative... Instead of how many things we have done, we now have an opportunity to shift towards the measures that matter most – was I more innovative? Was I more purpose-driven? Was I more socially-driven?”  

Back to discipline?

Certainly for Weatherhead, a year away from the office has given him the chance to tune back into his instincts, understanding when technology is really helping and where it’s costing more time than it’s saving.

Productivity app enthusiast Donohue, meanwhile, still tracks everything from his calorie intake to his workload – but he says it is important to be realistic about what technology offers. While it can help motivate us to stay organised and on track, he’s aware that productivity also relies on our innate drive and built-in toolkit. Many apps, he reflects, propose what appear to be easy solutions to life problems; they appear helpful initially but sometimes can compound the problem.

“It's easier said than done but perhaps some of the solutions are linked to discipline, efficiency and ability to concentrate – which can be solved without technology,” he says.

For now, he’s started to block out time to work on tasks based on deadlines that he’s set for himself rather than relying only on tools to control his day. Whilst apps and technology can take us so far, it seems that our own judgement could remain one of our most valuable productivity tools.