2013 has seen a lot of activity in the consumer “productivity” space, specifically in note-taking and task management. Shut-downs, big funding announcements, acquisitions and continued growth — all of which I covered recently in detail here. It’s an exciting time to be in the business of “greasing the skids on human progress,” as Mailbox’s CEO Gentry Underwood recently put it.

Yet for all that activity, it’s a space that hasn’t seen many products that truly challenge traditional paradigms. For all its hype, Mailbox is very much still an email client, Evernote is a note-taking app, and Any.do is a task manager. They haven’t changed the way we think about these things. These are the well-regarded ones, too — the space is littered with bloated tools that empower procrastination instead of productivity. As seen in the cover photo, mobile task management in particular is still so fragmented that not a single product has greater than 1% market share. Heading into an upcoming relaunch at Fetchnotes, I wanted to document some hypotheses we have about what’s still wrong with productivity software.

Our “to do lists” are not necessarily to do lists. Lines are fuzzy.

What is a reminder? What is a task? What is a note? Is it a list? Is it really just for me, or are other people involved? Do I want to keep this for myself if I share it, or is it purely delegation? We capture a wide variety of information, but the lines delineating them are often murky.

Most tools present different modes or features to reinforce these lines, or target one type of behavior (notes, tasks, or communication). Here are some examples:

Lifetopix
Evernote
Wunderlist
Springpad
Remember the Milk

Am I seriously going to consider that much granularity when a thought or piece of information hits me on-the-go (which is where most of the bottleneck occurs)? As a consumer, I just want to capture something for some reason later — be it a task, quote, book recommendation or even a dream. The more micro-decisions someone has to make during input, the more likely they are to say, “Screw it, I’m sure I’ll remember.”

We’re human after all — we take shortcuts, develop bad habits, and make excuses. That’s why people still email themselves and use the yellow iPhone Notes app, despite the fact that they know it’s going to be a disorganized mess later. Minimizing cognitive friction is critical because the note you take is infinitely more valuable than the note you never take.* Input is the top of the funnel.

People think about the lines that define their “categories” of life differently, too. We need structure, yet when products provide it top-down we usually find ourselves fighting against it. This paradox is a big reason why I believe the market for note-taking apps (which are more unstructured) is way bigger than the market for task managers. Most people don’t “do task management,” but a ton of people write things down. Facilitating but not imposing structure is a huge design challenge.

Social utility should be layered on top of personal utility, not the inverse.

It’s not just a personal problem, though. So much of what we need to do and remember is linked to the people we live and work with. This issue is often approached “social-first” — either by making collaboration the core focus, or by building around email (Mailbox, Boxer and even Taskforce 3 years ago). It’s predicated on the idea that “what other people put on my plate” is the foundation of our workflow. The “social-first” approach has three major flaws:

1) In the case of email clients reverse-engineered for task management (Mailbox), it’s perpetuating a bad system: using email as a to do list. This puts things that have some sense of permanence (i.e., require action beyond “read this text”) into a place that is inherently temporary (an inbox). Since they require action, they stay in your inbox until you act on them, all the while more things pile in. Inboxes just don’t work when the rate of new items exceeds the rate of completion.

2) If you don’t build around email, it’s out of the user’s natural routine. You have to convince people to use something they would never touch if not for the needs of others, and any project manager will tell you that’s a nightmare.

3) Most importantly, “social-first” cedes control of your workflow to other people. You spend your time recording, thinking about and doing what others think is important, not what drives the most value for you.

Your “plate” may be heavily influenced by what other people put on it — but it still needs to be your plate. This, too, is a really difficult design problem.

Now what?

Even after we solve these nasty, nuanced issues, we still haven’t actually helped anyone do anything. In my experience, more features simply correlate with more ways to procrastinate or bury information through over-organization.

It’s a shame too — the data captured in these applications could do SO much more than empower procrastination. The quotes and ideas that inspire us. What we read, watch and listen to. The projects and hobbies that captivate our interest. Who we call, email and coordinate with. Our day-to-day minutiae of vet appointments, school supplies and grocery shopping. They hold the “map” about how we organize our mental junk drawer, too.

A note is the first instance in which our intentions actually become observable in the world. Let’s leverage that to make what we write down better, not just better organized. As creators, we should give context, find resources, make suggestions, and foster the next step — the possibilities should be bound only by our imaginations.

It’s an awful technical challenge. In order to do that, you usually need context and structured data. At the same time, most people don’t use narrow or highly structured tools naturally. We gravitate toward flexible, structure-agnostic Swiss army knives, as discussed above.

But it’s a challenge worth tackling. The monumental opportunity in productivity is not helping people keep track of information. It’s building a direct pipeline between our intent and our actions.

*Credit for this quote goes to Michael Nicholas, one of our mentors at TechStars