Trying to be more productive? An explosion in technology aimed at helping people manage their time and tasks may actually be making it harder.
New productivity products “have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. There is way too much out there to make sense of it all,” says Whitson Gordon of Los Angeles, editor in chief of Lifehacker, a website on using technology to be more productive.
Many people choose something that doesn’t fit the way they think and work, or they jump from one tool to another, wasting time and energy. Rather than picking the right app or system on their own, people “let themselves be directed by the latest and loudest,” says David Allen, an Ojai, Calif., productivity expert whose book “Getting Things Done” has sold more than 1.6 million copies in English.
Also, some systems are “so complicated to keep up that 80% of the people fail,” says Laura Stack, a Denver-based speaker, trainer and author on productivity.
It’s a good idea to identify your own weaknesses before committing to a productivity method. Most programs and techniques promise help with one or more of four basic processes: collecting tasks and projects from all your notebooks, calendars and files into one organizing system; deciding on the next steps and desired outcomes for each item; organizing everything into categories, and making a habit of frequently checking and updating your to-dos and plans.
Among the most popular techniques is Mr. Allen’s Getting Things Done method, according to a 2012 Lifehacker survey of 2,032 people. Others include the Pomodoro Technique, which trains users to focus on tasks uninterrupted for 25 minutes; the Action Method, a task- and project-management program by Behance of New York City; and the Kanban approach, which orders tasks for various projects into three categories (to-dos, next up, and just completed).
Mixing up your own hybrid method is a popular solution—but this can become a job in itself. Lisa Hendey relies on Getting Things Done principles, such as breaking projects into action steps, to stay on top of her duties as an author, speaker, editor and founder of a website, CatholicMom.com. She maintains several color-coded Google calendars and uses a program called Evernote for taking and organizing notes. She also is trying out four apps for making to-do lists.
“I’m constantly looking, wondering, what’s the latest app?” says Ms. Hendey, of Fresno, Calif. “Part of the problem is that you can jump into one thing, and another squirrel comes along down the road and you go chasing after that one.”
Trendy digital tools aren’t for everyone. Many people suffer when they try to eliminate all paper, says Ms. Stack; the tactile experience of using pen and paper helps some think clearly. Some “get creative flashes at random times, like at night in their beds,” when powering up a digital device may not be practical, she says. Others say reading on a computer gives them a headache, or their fingers are too fat to type on a smartphone, she says.
Jackson Miller avoids systems that require tagging each email, call or task with a project category. “I don’t like overly complicated programs,” says the Nashville, Tenn., business owner, father and marathon runner. He also avoids Web-based tools, because “when you open up a browser window, there are 35 tabs there staring at you with stuff you need to get done, fighting for your attention,” he says.
Among his favorite tools is a workload-tracking program called RescueTime; it posts an alert on his computer screen if he spends too much work time on Facebook or running blogs. If he strays a second time, RescueTime locks him out of nonwork programs and apps.
Some people enjoy searching out new methods, seeing the process as continual improvement. Daniela Bolzmann, a marketing manager for WeDeliver, a Chicago business-delivery startup, has churned through 40 different apps since graduating from college in 2010. She tossed out one after another because they didn’t synch across all her devices, took too long to figure out, made it too hard to enter tasks—or were just flat-out ugly. “If it’s not beautiful, I won’t use it. It’s got to be sexy,” she says. Her current favorite is a task- and project-management app named Trello.
When picking a new system, remember to make sure it is flexible and easy to update, says Julie Morgenstern, of New York, author of “Time Management from the Inside Out” and a productivity consultant. “You should be checking it several times a day. It’s your guide. It’s your road map. And you have to be able to prioritize and re-prioritize on the fly,” she says.
Put in time with each system, rather than giving up. Mark Musselman, an executive consultant for McGhee Productivity Solutions, in Denver, says one senior executive he coached was so frustrated after trying to learn a new system that “he was ready to throw up his arms and stop doing it” after a month. Mr. Musselman encouraged him to keep trying by likening the process to surfing, when just learning to stand up on your board can take weeks.
Being more productive almost always requires breaking bad habits—such as reacting to email. “Some people… get the twitches because they’re not answering it,” Ms. Stack says. Managers and professionals spend 28% of the workweek on email, says a 2012 McKinsey & Co study.
Robert Brokamp tried and tossed several productivity approaches before cobbling together a recipe using Getting Things Done principles, Evernote, a spreadsheet for logging priorities and the calendar and task-reminder functions of Microsoft Outlook. He has learned to haul himself out of bed at 6 a.m. to make time for reading and planning for his job as a financial planner and writer for the Motley Fool, in Alexandria, Va. He sets a 25-minute timer on his computer to stay focused on tasks. He has even enlisted a mentor at work to wield a carrot and stick. The mentor encourages Mr. Brokamp to take satisfaction in small gains, then fines him $10 every day he fails to finish two-thirds of his to-do list.
All this has helped Mr. Brokamp learn a key lesson, he says: Improving your productivity isn’t about searching for a better app or finding the right software. “Ultimately it comes down to managing yourself.”