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Heard of productivity apps that kill productivity?

A while ago, a friend and I discussed the platforms our workplaces rely on for day-to-day operations. I had no clue how ridiculous my entire work setup sounded until I heard myself talk about it!

Just like every company that takes itself seriously enough, we too rely on Outlook for our email. Now, logic would dictate that the remaining apps from Office 365 would supplement this. Not quite. Pretty much no one uses Word. Product managers and analysts use Excel to sift through data and do quick analyses. Powerpoint is used sparingly based on the creator's whim. The rest of the org that needs spreadsheets only for their organizational feature uses Google Sheets. Yes, we have roped in Google Workspace as well! All specs and documents are on Google Docs, while collaborative decks are on Google Slides. And obviously, our storage of choice is not OneDrive, but it's Google Drive. Thank god we spared Dropbox! 😅

If you've gotten the hang of the funny business so far, strap in for the remainder. 😂

For short-form communication, we use Slack. There's Jira and an internal solution to manage production timelines. For video conferences, Zoom is the app of choice. A customized version of Confluence serves as the company wiki. And I may be completely unaware of a dozen other platforms so let us stop at this.

Why would we not use the Office 365 / Google Workspace offering end-to-end for all of this? Presumably, because it's way more expensive than paying for this assortment of Frankenstein solutions.

Or, Slack and Zoom are cool. You know, that's what all the cool kids in the Bay Area use. 😋

Anyway, this made me ponder about the current state of productivity apps available in the market. While they were conceived to fulfil specific systemic requirements for different use cases, of late, they've evolved into a messy ecosystem that is far from well-oiled.

Spoilt for choice

For every single use case, there are hundreds of options that are as different as day and five minutes later on the same day. Take project management, for instance. You've got the old school Jira, and then the slightly bubblier but almost the same, Asana. Then you've got Trello, who pioneered the board style layout. The newest kid on the block is, with automated workflows on top of fundamental project management as their USP. And these are the ones from the top of my head. If you search for project management apps, I'm sure Google's rank algorithm will have a field day!

P.S. Such is the gamification of Google's search these days that if you try the above search term, you'll find a blog post by every relevant app, 'recommending' the best apps for the use case, the first of which is always their own app! See what I mean? I think companies these days pretty much launch a blog even while the product is in beta! 😅

Jack of all trades

In addition to catering to their original purpose, most apps try to do everything else as well. Case in point - Trello. It started as a board, but now they've got timelines and lists and pretty much everything that Jira has, only toned down. And when apps can't achieve this, they launch sister apps that are supposed to serve the additional use cases.

For instance, most email apps also launch a calendar just because Outlook made it a thing, and then they top it up with a task manager because why not!

I understand that the whole purpose is to build an 'ecosystem' of native apps, but the execution almost feels like a kid went strolling through a grocery store and bought whatever he fancied.

But not all apps want to be everything, and sometimes it's just improbable. Not everyone can be a Microsoft or a Google. So what then? In that case, they need to make sure that their app can 'play nice' with other market leaders. So each app maker has APIs that they share with other apps to create extensions, and this process repeats vice-versa for every two nodes. See the spider webs yet?

Let me paint a picture.

You are in love with a task manager called Things, which is honestly a beautiful app. But it can only connect to the default Apple calendar and mail. Now those are perfectly fine, but Outlook for iOS is so much better! But Outlook on your desktop needs an Office 365 subscription, and you need a consistent experience across devices. So then you change your strategy. You try to use Things as a calendar, but the invites from your mail show up as to-dos that are not interactive. So you keep Things and Outlook and find something like a Spark Mail for the desktop. But now, the experience across devices is broken. Outlook has something called a Focused Inbox, but Spark uses multiple categories to manage your mail. So you open a physical diary and start maintaining your schedule in that, and throw away the phone.

Okay, maybe not throw away the phone, but definitely let a stream of fluent cuss words out of your mouth and continue till the words echo through the entire house as in an opera, with one difference - there's no fat lady in this one.

One app to rule them all

Now, apparently, some people saw this dilemma and decided to think of a ground-up solution. And this gave birth to a new breed of apps such as Notion and Obsidian, also called 'the second brain'.

How are these different? They basically give you an open canvas with pages, databases, relations and views to shape it the way you want it to be! Well, they explain it way better than I did, so why don't you take a look?

So, does this mean all other apps should close shop? 😅

Far from it. Any app that claims to do everything is not great at anything. It's the classic 'jack of all trades, master of none' dilemma. So, if you need a full-blown project management app, these apps won't do the trick. And even if you figure out how to use it as per your requirement, the setup is far more taxing than using a dedicated tool. And what won't come as a surprise - most people don't KNOW what they want! That is basically why so many apps exist in the first place anyway. 😂

So what can you take away from this information overload?

  1. People need to invest a lot more time upfront these days on their productivity tools if they want to avoid migrations later, which are a royal pain in their own right!

  2. Our minds grow numb day after day, thanks to the collection of half-ass apps that have replaced the original blank sheet of paper!

  3. You can be smart and invest in customizing an all-in-one app such as Notion. But you're going to spend days trying to come up with the perfect system that enhances your productivity, to the point where you may never venture out of the sandbox to work!

Sounds bleak, no? Afraid so. 😂

But there's an easy way out. First, decide how much effort do you want to put into becoming more productive? Second, arrive at an amount that you are okay to spend on some of these tools because most good ones don't come free. Third, decide how important is an external stimulus for you to be productive in your own life!

And, if your answer to the third question is 'not at all', then why the hell are you reading this post anyway?

Go, be productive! 🤣

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