Why Efficiency Apps are Destroying Your Efficiency, and What to Do About It

Image Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin via Unsplash

I love a quick fix. From that vitamin pill that promised instant weight loss and a six pack, to the seminar that was going to show me the three secrets to getting rich, I figured they were all worth a shot. So when personal effectiveness applications started telling me that to be more focused, efficient and effective all I needed to do was download something to my phone or laptop, I couldn’t part with my $1.59 fast enough. 
The thing is, after a few months of focus, I realised that I haven’t experienced any increase in productivity, and still possessed the focus of a goldfish who has lots on his mind and problems at home with his goldfish spouse.
 I thought it was just me; perhaps I was using the apps incorrectly, or maybe I was just beyond saving. Then, I tweeted something about the irony of being distracted by personal efficiency apps and found out I was not alone. It ends up there are several reasons why many of these seemingly simple solutions are not only ineffective but detrimental to the user.

1. Apps That Promise Focus by Removing Distractions, Make You Focus on the Distraction that has Been Removed

I had to rewrite that sentence five times, so I hope you appreciate it. The problem is that applications that stop you from gaining access to Facebook, news sites and other traditional distractions, don’t treat the actual problem, and as a result they make it much worse.
The reason we are spending too much time on social media or refreshing our email to see if we have another offer from the daily deals company isn’t because the technology is available, it’s just the most convenient distraction. Humans have struggled with focus for millennia, in fact I assume that Neanderthals grunted to each other about how hard it was to focus on hunting when they would much rather be staring at the clouds or climbing trees. The problem isn’t that there is a distraction available, it’s that we want to be distracted. As a result, applications that take away the distractions we are aware of force us to look elsewhere for another distraction, and often make us think more about the distraction that’s been taken from us…we wonder what we’re missing out on. It solves a percieved problem — not the actual problem.

2. Finding the Apps is a Distraction

If you’re like me, you become aware that you are not focused, efficient or productive. Then, you Google something like, “how to be more efficient,” and end up in a Wikipedia vortex full of cognitive psychology and various philosophies all explaining why increasing serotonin and reducing adrenaline, or taking more vitamin B, or whatever it is a good solution. In other words, by the time you found the app that will magically remove distractions and increase efficiencies, you have wasted hours. Additionally, as alluded to above — it doesn’t work.

3. Adding Complications is the Opposite of Increasing Focus

If you are distracted, then it’s your inherent psychology that is the problem. In other words, the last person you want to ask for advice on how to become more focused, is you.
 Instead of reaching out to experts or trying to learn how to become more efficient, we inevitably reach for the quick fix and add something else to our already substantial stack of productivity tools.

– The to-do list
– That other to-do list
– The noise cancelling headphones
– The virtual assistant
– There’s another to-do list, admit it.
– The productivity book that you haven’t started reading yet
But don’t worry, because we figure that this time things will be different and the spiral into complexity continues.

So what do we do?

The problem isn’t the system, how you work or the way your desk is positioned — it’s you. This isn’t a bad thing, it means that once you realise that the issue lies in your head, you can change it. I reached out to a productivity expert who sat down with me for a day and pointed out that every time I became distracted it was with good intention. In other words, there was always a reasonable explanation as to why I got three-quarters the way through a job and then stopped.
She asked me, “Why did you just check your emails?”
“Just in case someone emailed me.”
“Do you consider emails a distraction?”
 “They’re a necessary distraction.”
 There were numerous examples of me explaining my rationale when engaging in completely unproductive practices. The problem, she pointed out, was that I was categorising unproductive activities as necessary, or productive. As a result, I could continue the behaviour without guilt or awareness.
I wrote down all the things I do on a day, from getting a coffee to writing a blog, checking Facebook, to checking client analytics. Then, beside every single thing I was told to put an, “N” or a “D” for necessary, or distraction. The result was eye-opening to say the least.
My problem wasn’t that I was spending too much time on obvious distractions, it was that I was spending almost all my time on things that I deemed to be productive and weren’t.
The takeaway for me was a simple and powerful one; awareness. Now — and this is still a work in progress — I pay attention to my activity during the day, including flicking between screens and standing up to “do something.” I mentally refer to my list and am honest with myself as to whether what I’m about to do is necessary or a distraction. The results have been brilliant, not only from an efficiency point of view but also in that I feel more relaxed at the end of the day. I guess I know that I have done everything I could do, and can now give myself permission to relax.
So switch off those apps, and look honestly at your daily habits. I promise you; it will be worth the effort.

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