How Do You Know Which Apps Will Make You More Productive?


How Do You Know Which Apps Will Make You More Productive?

Tools alone won’t make a better builder, and apps alone won’t improve productivity. Understand yourself to identify the apps you need

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Imagine your boss shows you huge piles of sand, cement, wood and bricks, and asked you to build a house. Without expertise, would buying a hammer, a saw and a trowel empower you to do it? What if the tools each had five star reviews? Would that help? No? 

Sounds dumb, but that's the approach many take with productivity apps. I’m guilty.

  • I’m being overwhelmed with jobs, so I try to find a good to-do app.
  • A stack of reports towers over me. That new note-taking app will sort me out.
  • The department website needs relaunched by end month, but how do I get everyone on the same page? I load up my planning app 

You know what? That rarely helps. Why? 

  • I waste time trying to find apps.
  • The apps I already have don’t exactly meet my needs.
  • In the meantime, my boss wonders why I’m not doing real work.

It’s not just that I don’t have the right apps. or that I’m unfamiliar with the apps that I do have. The kicker is that even if I could use them perfectly, they may not be appropriate. Maybe I don’t need them at all, and they’re a distraction. I know, blasphemy!

It could be that:

  • I need to prioritise my work, not create an elaborate to-do hierarchy.
  • I should read the reports, and summarise them while they’re still fresh in my mind.
  • I should make sure my team’s on the same page and trust their expertise.

I’m not saying that apps are never useful to anyone, but you need some level of self-awareness to know which tools you need to deal with what’s in front of you. Improving your productivity is not about getting a better hammer or to-do app, at least not at the start. It’s about:

  • Understanding how you work and think.
  • Identifying where you need to improve.

I’m going to use learning theory to discover how to do that, and then I’m going to show you how to apply that new knowledge. 

Learning about learning

How do we learn? If we understand that, then we can figure how and what to improve. Paul Stevens-Fulbrook, Head of key stage 3 Science at a large school in England, describes three broad categories of learning theory.

-Behaviourism, or how our environment shapes our responses.

-Cognitivism, or how our world view affects our choices.

-Constructivism, or how the construction of that worldview drives us.

Behaviourism - things you just do.

Behaviourism is rather unflattering. People start with a blank mind (Latin: tabular rasa), and over time we learn to respond to external triggers (stimuli). You don’t think about how you’re responding, you just do. 

Remember Pavlov's dog? Pavlov taught the dog to salivate each time a bell rang. First he rang the bell when the dog was fed, and the dog salivated because of the presence of food. After a while, however, all Pavlov had to do was ring the bell.

The PsychologyHub explores it in detail here:

How is this relevant to improving productivity? Surely that can’t apply to humans? We're smart. Aren’t we? We are if we engage our mind, but that takes a lot of effort, so behaviourism matters more than you’d think.

Have a read at this article on Operand Behaviourism, or how stimuli are used to manipulate gamblers.

Casino profits prove that your physical and social environments affect what you do. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, so there is a case for believing that your productivity is affected by external stimuli without you realising. 

Actually, it happens all the time:

  • How often are you on Facebook/Twitter without a conscious reason?
  • Do you really need 10 cups of coffee every day? Or do you have a caffeine addition?

Takeaway: If we want to improve, we need to identify and evaluate our automatic responses. 

Cognitivism - it’s how I build my worldview

Cognitivism goes beyond a conditioned response to one or more triggers. If Pavlov’s dog had cognition, it would have a much more complete picture of the world, based on:

  • Past experiences.
  • Problems it had solved
  • Memories. 

These would not exist separately. These would be the ingredients the mind would use to bake an understanding of what the world is like, or schema

  • The sum is more than just the sum of the parts. 
  • The cake is more than just its ingredients. 
  • Your capabilities are more than just your skills and your tools. 

The fancy word for this is gestalt, and it gives us another clue as to how to grow and learn. Catherine Flippen of the University of Florida has written a very accessible introduction to cognitivism if you want learn more.

There are downsides to cognition. What happens if your schema isn’t up to handling the world you live in? Past experience tells you that your favourite to-do list app will get the work done, but maybe, for example, what’s in front of you needs a management consultant to sort out. You need to realise that. 

Takeaway: humans create an understanding of the world over time, which may need to be expanded or updated.


Catherine Flippen also offers great insights into constructivism, which is built on cognitivism. The idea is that each learner has their own way of constructing their schema. Not only can you modify the scheme, you can modify how the schema is built. This construction process can be driven by the individual working alone or as part of a group. 

Construction implies the existence of tools, and we meet one of our favourite productivity tools here: the mind-map. It’s one of the tools used to help learners develop their understanding and knowledge. It’s useful, because it models the way the mind creates its schema.

Takeaway: Tools can improve the way we construct our schema or belief system, which is unique to each person.

Put theory into practice 

We now have a framework with which to understand how we learn, and where it might go wrong. Now it’s time to put in place a process to exploit this. I’m going to join the chorus of voices nagging you to keep a journal. 

Why? Journalling provides a way to step back and do a sanity check on your life. It gives you a place to ask yourself questions that will help you grow.

  • What are my automatic responses? Are they holding me back? Can I add positive ones?
  • How well is my view of the world, my schema, serving me? What needs to change?
  • Is the way I construct my schema taking me in the wrong direction?

Benjamin Hardy, PhD has written two great articles on journalling: One on the benefits of keeping a general journal.

Another is about keeping a journal specifically for personal development.

If you want to do a deep dive into personal development, that second article is a great place to start. I want something simpler, so I’ve lifted some ideas from psychologist, Joaquín Selva’s article on the ABC model of cognitive behavioural therapy. Don’t panic, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds.

The ABC model is intended to help with cognitive distortions, but its review process can be adapted to suit our purposes. 

Long story short, adversity of some description happens and you react to it based on your belief system, which has consequences. Using this model, we can turn adverse incidents in our lives to our advantage. We can use them to find out where we need to make changes.

What’s the best way to keep a journal?

To be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about reviewing how well a project is going or how close you are to achieving a goal. I’m talking about reviewing how you are developing to meet the challenges you face. 

Based on the ABC model, I suggest you use a simple questionnaire to act as a catalyst for that process:

  • What’s happened since I last updated this journal? (Adverse events)
  • Why did I respond as I did? (What were the Beliefs driving myresponse?)
  • What were the Consequences.

When answering such questions, you should be as factual as possible about the adverse event and your response. Avoid opinions. Don’t, for example, describe the adverse event like this:

I’m furious. My ruthless boss ruined my weekend when he dumped a stack of work on me.”

It should be more like:

My boss asked me to start working on a report on Thursday. He had forgotten it’s my partner’s 40th this weekend.

Stay with the facts when you write up your response and your beliefs. Note that you can and should record the fact of having emotional reactions. You are human, and that’s how humans work.

Here’s a template questionnaire that I use in my journalling. 

Describe what happened:

  • X asked me to do Y at the last minute.
  • It was Thursday, and I had a big family event at the weekend.
  • I felt ..."

What were the consequences?

  • I did this....
  • felt that....
  • X did something"

What were your assumptions and beliefs? Why did you think it worked out that way?

  • X never listens to me properly.
  • don’t feel I can challenge what X says."

Why did you make those assumptions?

  • I’m only new to this job, so I feel I need to be careful.
  • X is very career-minded, so X will think I’m making an excusee"

Do you need to rethink anything?

  • I need to think again about ....
  • Maybe I should talk to someone I trust about...
  • Maybe I should learn more about....

So what should you use to journal, and how do you make it a habit? 

Starting and continuing to journal

You probably groaned when you read, journal. Journalling has joined dieting and exercise in the pantheon of activities you should do, but keep putting off. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself:

Do I really want to develop, or do I just want to download apps?

The challenge, of course, is that it’s hard to start good habits. I’d suggest reading Ryan Holiday’s story for ideas.

I piggy-backed my journalling on my morning coffee. I grab my iPad, and I load up Pages. Yes, Pages. Why am I using Pages when I could be using apps such as DayOne or Diary. They’re great. 

I’m been a DayOne user since 2010, and it documents what’s happening in my life at home and at work. It's almost like a newsfeed about me, but what we’re doing here is separate. I want to step away from that newsfeed and take stock.

You can create books with Pages and it’s free, so I’m creating a self-develop review book for each year. I’ve created a template on iCloud. Feel free to adapt it.

Applying the knowledge

Whatever way you go, Pages, DayOne or Diary etc, you will improve your awareness of yourself.

  • You might discover that you are more organise than you thought, so you can forget about endlessly creating to-do lists.
  • You might realise your boss keeps catching you out on detail, so being more methodical about note-taking using an app has value. 
  • You might become aware that stress is an issue, and maybe a meditation app could help.

The difference is that you are finding an app to help meet a real need, and you might even decide that it will take more than an app.

Summing up

Apps can make a huge difference to your productivity, just as good tools make it so much easier for a crafts woman or man to do great work. You have to know when and if to use them, however, or they’ll waste time. 

Improving your productivity depends on understanding yourself, what you believe and what you do. I dipped into learning theory to understand how we tick. It turns out that we create a mental model of the world and use that to make choices. Scarily, we sometimes react unconsciously to people and events. We might need to manage that.

Constructivism tells us that we each have our own way of building and maintaining that mental model. One size does not fit all, so one way in is to keep a journal. It’s a practical way of starting to understand where each person is. 

I didn’t use my favourite diary app, DayOne, because I wanted this self-review process to be separate. Instead, I‘m creating a series of books using Pages, which document my reflections using a simplified version of the ABC model. I talked about how my new self-knowledge could help me find the right tools for the job.

Out of this deeper understanding of yourself, it will be easier to spot where an app can make you more productive, and avoid when it will just waste your life.