The Rise of Productivity Apps

So many screens, so little time.

Ximena Vengoechea
May 21, 2013 · 2 min read

Perhaps it’s because we are so constantly connected, we’ve become a bit overwhelmed with always being “on,” and unabashedly obsessed with being more productive. The more connected we become, the more opportunities for procrastination, and the more willing (desperate?) we are to test one productivity app or another. It seems impossible to get there on our own.

There are list-making tools (Clear, Any.DO, Thinglist), collaborative, project-tracking tools (Trello, Asana, Flow), memory-keeping tools (Evernote, Google Keep), link-organizing tools (Sets, Kippt) aspirational, goal-setting apps (Lift, Everest), email management apps (Mailbox, Handle), and plenty of other promises to help us live and work better.

In our quest to become more productive, we’ve inspired the dawn of a new set of apps - productivity apps - where the stakes are high and none yet have been crowned king.

Building a good productivity tool is challenging. Creating a habit-forming app is hard enough, but is particularly difficult for apps focusing on personal and professional habit change, where change can easily feel like a chore. These apps ask the user to start a new habit in order to become more productive, which makes sense in theory, but is difficult in practice. (To be better at controlling your inbox, you will likely have to change how you currently use your inbox. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.) It is hard to unravel the habits we already rely on, no matter how prettily designed and well packaged these new tools are.

But there is a separate category of productivity tools which don’t attempt to re-engineer our habits for productivity’s sake. Instead, they work around us. They cater to us. They become “smart” - not about our habits, but about everything outside of us - our daily work flow, our current surroundings, our meeting-filled, calendar-subscribed lives.

So enter Donna, a personal assistant app that pulls in weather data, contacts, and calendar info to get you where you need to be on time, every time. Donna - and other “smart” calendar apps like Tempo, Cue, and Osito - will remind you to pack an umbrella before your next meeting, leave a few minutes early to avoid a fresh traffic jam on your regular route, or take your time at breakfast before heading to the airport to catch a flight that’s just been delayed.

If our days’ work is tied to the calendar, building a better calendar to manage that workflow shouldn’t seem circuitous, and yet it’s still unclear whether these new “context-aware” calendars and “proactive” personal assistant apps can actually make us more productive. They may make getting to meetings more efficient, but we still have to sit through those meetings and make good use of our time there.

In their current state, smart calendars are not enough. But if our hankering for productivity tools is any indication, they won’t have to be. The demand is there. We need help organizing our lives and cutting through the noise. Forget the next social network. Whoever gets productivity right is going to go a long way.

    Ximena Vengoechea

    Written by

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