a purple toned man grips his head while people hold out tools around him ; as if viewed through a screen, a mouse clicks on an app beneath him
The demands of modern life are many. So are the software tools purporting to solve them. (Image: The Spinoff)

InternetMay 8, 2024

How many productivity apps do I have to use to become more productive?

a purple toned man grips his head while people hold out tools around him ; as if viewed through a screen, a mouse clicks on an app beneath him
The demands of modern life are many. So are the software tools purporting to solve them. (Image: The Spinoff)

Productivity apps now make up a big chunk of the software market. But do they work? And why do they all have AI integrations?

Despite being firmly on the record as a physical planner fan, I sometimes dream of something better than my pretty diary and its scrawled, ugly, interior pages that keep my life in order. I have lists of ideas for stories in my notes app, periodically decide to colour code things and archive others, and like the idea of having highlighters more than I’ve ever actually used them. Productivity software sells the promise of transformation: maybe if I use this calendar, this app, this task list, this reminder system, I could be a different and more organised version of myself. 

But maybe aspiring to be the kind of person who is more organised, colour-coordinated and highlighter wielding isn’t enough: maybe I need to use productivity software.

For several years, an influencer I like has been praising the powers of Notion, a productivity app with a calendar, to-do lists, reminders and collaboration tools. She says that getting things organised is one of her favourite hobbies, but when she showed her Notion spreadsheet in a video, I was appalled: it looked so complicated, there were so many buttons to click. 

Molly Jones knows that feeling. “If you feel overwhelmed, you’re not the only one.” One of the world’s first certified Notion consultants with her company Notionology, she first learned a love of organising when working as a project manager at Z Energy. She now “lives, breathes, eats and sleeps Notion,” and has turned consulting on people’s Notion set-ups into her fulltime job. With her brimming enthusiasm for the product, it’s not hard to see why. While the system of databases, calendars and to-do lists that characterise Notion can be perplexing to new users, she also thinks that this is what makes the productivity tool powerful. “I just got off the phone with a blacksmithing workshop, who want to use Notion to manage their schedule, their workshop, their vendors, the projects and tasks, and understand staff availability; it basically allows anyone to create bespoke software for their needs, it offers ultimate customisation.”  

a light skinned woman with medium brown curly hair sitting in front of a folding tablet and smiling
Molly Jones, consultant at Notionology, wants to make organising your life through the Notion tool easier

I tried to believe what Jones was saying as I set up Notion, compiling another to-do list for the week and creating a database for several projects. I tried to follow the advice of writer Oliver Burkeman, separating my list into tangible tasks, whether work or life-related: not “finish this article” and “make the most of autumn abundance” but “reply to Tony” and “put away bottled feijoas”. I ran across the typical problem of to-do lists: clarifying the tasks is work in and of itself, although arguably a necessary one. As the list in Notion got longer and more intimidating, I added a few things I’d already done, just so I could check them off, and wondered if I was distracting myself from stuff I still had to do while feeling more productive. 

Jones laughs when I suggest this to her. “It’s so easy to spend more time ‘trying to be productive’ than actually being productive,” she says, with a firm encouragement that I’m sure her clients benefit from too. “But if you’re willing to move past the learning curve, there is a huge amount of possibility.” I browse some of the templates Jones has made online: dotted with emojis, status lists for tasks, calendars nested neatly next to lists of things to remember each day; I can see how, if you get past the initial hassle of setting it up and start to use it regularly, it could be a way to make all the drifting obligations and ideas in your brain visible; even more efficient. 

Notion, with its powerful datasets and endless customisation is just one of the many digitals tools used to make work easier. The broader category of productivity software is so ubiquitous in modern desk roles – or “email jobs” – that most people will use at least some of these tools without identifying them as such. Digital calendars, Microsoft Teams, automated email reminders: these are all tools developed with an underlying expectation that they will in some way help you to save time and get things done. 

For “service” economies like New Zealand, the thousands of workers employed to keep their eyes on illuminated screens for most of the day may find that the secondary tools their bosses pay for really do help them to achieve more. And from their boss’s perspective, paying for Slack, Monday.com, Grammarly or even ChatGPT is worth it if it increases profit margins. 

a sunlit desk with hands taking notes and a sense of collaboration in the air
Do paper notebooks help your productivity, or do you need software? Photo: Pixabay

Despite the recent demise of the Productivity Commission, responsible for advising the government on how to get more done, New Zealand’s productivity has been slowly increasing over the last several decades. Slightly different to an individual’s productivity, productivity statistics for the country still get at the same idea: can you use the same amount of time or resources more efficiently, get more without having to put in more? For most of the last eight decades, the answer has been yes. Crucially, as Council of Trade Unions economist Craig Renney has argued, wages haven’t increased to match increased output – and inequality has increased, concentrating wealth in the hands of the richest people. 

Productivity apps are embedded in this system, and it’s worth asking who they’re really benefiting. All the same, there are ways that software can make particularly boring or onerous tasks easier. Jones, for instance, uses Notion’s embedded AI tools to automatically clip YouTube videos she makes into different kinds of content for different social media platforms. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about the growing prevalence of productivity software without discussing AI; embedding large language models in search engines or emails or team communication tools puts artificial intelligence at the fingertips of people who would never fork out $20USD a month for a ChatGPT subscription. 

If the first year after ChatGPT was released was dogged by ruminations on the death of work, the years since have instead seen automated writing and image generating tools integrated into software people were already using. As I wrote this article, I used Perplexity for searches; true to its promise, the AI search tool was often easier to use than scanning results on my own, although some of the information it provided was contradictory. Notion’s AI isn’t connected to the internet, but does offer automated tasks I’d try out if I committed to the tool long-term. 

Even Slack, the workplace communication tool, now has AI, providing summaries of what was discussed in particular channels like a workplace-specific daily news bulletin. “It’s saved me four to five hours a week,” says Ethan Eismann, Slack’s senior VP of design, who was in Auckland last week for Spark’s Future State conference. He’s wearing a grey zip up, with wooden shelves stretching behind him in a greige room: the picture of a Silicon Valley man. He looks undistracted, productive. 

a slightly grizzled white man with glasses and jeans on a couch with a snazzy looking coferency background. he's talking
Ethan Eismann, responsible for Slack’s design team, sees how the possibility of AI can save heaps of time for productivity tech users (Image: supplied)

Like any tool, Eismann acknowledges that Slack can also be distracting, workers clicking for the buzz of a red alert or the affirmation of dozens of emoji reactions, rather than because a message is really crucial to what they need to do. But at its best, he thinks, Slack tools like quick audio huddles, lists and reminders, canvases for new workflows and of course seamless communication can really make things happen. Even better, he says the tool “can get to the root of what makes you more productive”: feeling understood and affirmed at work.

Increasing productivity is certainly a good business proposition. Perplexity has raised more than $250mUSD (the money to burn through the often-dirty electricity needed for AI inevitably requires large sums from venture capital). Slack was purchased by Salesforce for $27.7bnUSD in 2020. Notion has more than 30 million users and has just bought an email service; customised, more productive messaging could be next in its sights. That’s without mentioning the many others: Asana, Evernote, Zapier, Basecamp, Trello and dozens of others.  “This type of technology is the future,” Jones says. Beyond the business models these companies offer, there’s also the sense of satisfaction from checking off an item on my Notion to-do list, the words struck through when a task is completed.

At the very least, the apps can force you to stay on task. As I wrote this article, I asked Notion’s AI to write me a to-do list to help me figure out what I had to do next. “Dig into why productivity software is on the rise: are we getting more lazy or just trying to do more with less?” Check. “Make sure the article strikes a balance between scepticism and acknowledging the benefits of the software.” Check. My to-do list clarified my tasks better than idiosyncratic combinations of notebooks, giving me the sense that if I gave it enough time, Notion might change not just how I work but how I think. 

Nowhere on the task list was my burning, irrelevant question: what has caused a YouTuber I used to follow to start posting videos with titles like “Finally Sharing the Truth” and “Deep life updates – the real story”? I asked the AI to summarise the videos for me, but it can’t watch YouTube yet. Never mind: if I tick off the rest of my tasks fast enough, I might eventually be able to watch the videos for myself.

Keep going!