Solve the problems you have

Long before I had any kind of inkling how deep down the dank rabbit hole of “productivity” I would tumble, I had already bought into a certain promotional feeling, the kind that sells a lot of software and gadgetry.

Here’s the kind of marketing that I’m talking about: A businessman sits at an outdoor café somewhere in Paris drinking an espresso and talking animatedly to his companion, a woman in a power suit. You can tell he is an American primarily by his teeth, also by a measureless bounciness, something buoyant about his power haircut and neatly pressed khakis. On the table, beside an espresso, sits the gadget. He is conducting Important Business, and this thing on the table is enabling him to function at a nearly superhuman level of efficiency.

I remember the first moment I got a real taste of this feeling, and the gadget that inspired it — a gift from my uncle.

That’s a Casio Databank watch — a milestone of wearable technology and impracticality. At age twelve, I wasn’t going to be maxing out its 50 phone number limit, and it took literally minutes to poke out the simplest of sums with a fingernail. It hung from my spindly wrist like an awkward phylactery.

Of course, it was the best thing I’d ever owned.

I’ve experienced the same marketing-triggered release of endorphins many times since then. It was the same with the Psion 3a, my trusty clamshell companion, or the Casio Pocket Viewer (the Palm wannabe) that I had when I was 16. These devices — truly great as they were — were designed to provide solutions to difficulties that I didn’t actually have. In some cases I never came to need those core features that had seemed so attractive: by the time I knew enough phone numbers to require storing them somewhere, cellphones were already capable of doing that without any help. That’s not to say that I wasn’t helped by those gadgets — they made me much more organized than I would have been otherwise — but quite honestly my desire for them was based more on feeling than fact.

This, of course, isn’t a unique revelation. Today, as our world civilization rides the wave of exponential innovation that the past century fostered, we have more buying options than ever, and marketing has evolved to a science. We know — logically, at least — that we are marketed to. Despite that, it works! If we’re honest we admit what a big part of our decisions that plays.

Most marketing has one goal: to convince you that the best tool for the job — whether it be pounding carpenters nails or screwing the legs back on your glasses — is the hammer they’re selling. They accomplish this by creating a particular scene (like the one above) and making it easy for you to imagine yourself the star player — the important, vital center of whatever utopian fantasy they’ve erected for the 30 seconds they have your attention. Then you get out your wallet and give them money.

We are human, after all, and so the net result is that we very often buy into things that solve the problems we would like to have, rather than those we actually have.

I know this because I have done it, a hundred times.

As Pertaining to Productivity

Productivity is a bit of a dirty word now, and I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s evolved into an industry that sells feelings instead of solutions. Quite often “life hacks” are actually impracticable in the extreme, or hack things that don’t really need it. What they do is promulgate an appealing ethos of Macguyverish utility. The same holds true for many of the 26,000+ apps in the “Productivity” category in the app store.

So what happens? You see a cool app, or a nifty way of writing things in a notebook, and you jump in with both feet. It isn’t really rooted in reality, and so after a while you realize that either you’ve stopped using it altogether, or else it’s generating more friction than it’s removing. You are getting less done and feeling more stressed because you are trying to use a shiny screwdriver to put nails in the wall.

Another bizarre side effect is the feeling of betrayal you feel when some internet productivity guru stops using whatever it was that they sold you on 6 months previously. Maybe they over-emphasized how dedicated they were to the Hipster PDA for the purposes of making that blogpost seem more authoritative.

What suits you?

In the past I would have been likely to recommend something like Omnifocus to someone looking to get more organized — because that’s what worked for me. But people’s circumstances are really varied, and not everyone needs that level of functionality. Not only that, I failed to take into account the differences between someone like myself who likes tinkering to create the perfect system… and someone who might be perfectly happy scribbling tasks on the back of old receipts.

Now, instead of preaching the benefits of what works for me, I’d suggest this process instead:

  1. Draw up a list of problem scenarios.

  2. Extrapolate from this list the ideal functionality of your productivity system.

  3. Search for something that maps to this as closely as possible.

For example, here’s some scenarios that you might come up with:

  1. You’re in Home Depot and you need to know what you can buy there — without seeing a giant list of all the items you need to buy everywhere else. You need a system that allows you to organize things by location.

  2. You manage a couple of different areas at work, you do some freelance contracting, and you have tasks to do at home. You need a system that allows you to split tasks up by areas of responsibility.

  3. You manage a number of people to whom you assign tasks. You need a system that allows you to drill down to things you want to talk about with / keep track of relating to that person.

Looking at your needs gathered from the above situations, you’d be likely to find that something like Omnifocus would be an ideal fit. What about another person with a simpler, more focused life:

  1. You need to remember to pay bills at certain times. You need a system that allows tasks to be given due dates.

  2. You need to remember to buy certain things when you go to the store. You need a system that allows you to quickly make note of these things when they occur to you.

If your needs are as simple as this you possibly don’t need a complex behemoth of an app like Omnifocus. Maybe you’d be better off just using the built in Reminders app on your phone. (Or whatever the equivalent is on your platform of choice.)

This is a better way to go about making yourself work more efficiently. Why? Because you’re dealing with the problems you have, not the problems you’d like to have.