Productivity vs. Productivity Tools: What Works Best?

When I was studying, all I needed was a notepad and a pen to keep track of all my assignments. This method was valid and dependable… until the school break. My notes have the tendency of growing legs and going MIA on me, and by the time I was in university, electronic notepads and online calendars became my preferred choices. Laptops and PCs were noticeably harder to misplace than cellulose-based scribblings of your weekend plans.

Then came the ‘we have an app for that’ period – and all hell broke loose. This period gave rise to tons of apps that deliver one or two major tasks for the user. Now they may go by many names, but one of the more popular ones is ‘productivity tools’. A tool to make you more productive? What’s there to hate, right? Apparently, plenty.

It’s the singer, not the rhyme

Honestly, tech tools can only do so much. No one immediately becomes a Master Chef just because they have top-rated chef knives. For example, spellcheckers can help minimize spelling mistakes but they don’t make you write any better overnight. Syncing systems make sure you get the files you need anywhere, anytime, but you will still have to keep track of all the different versions of documents you have. And you need to start your time tracker before you start work, otherwise, nothing gets tracked.

keep track of files

The effectiveness of these tools begins with the user. If you aren’t the least bit productive in what you do, don’t expect the tools to be working miracles for you, because that is not what they are made for.

The trap of to-do lists

Oh, I love to-do lists. They are awesome. I wrote everything down, never forget anything, any event or errand ever again. I became the Queen of Productivity. Then I noticed three downfalls of being too productive for your own good.

The elephant in the room

One, you are expected to remember everything: your colleagues ask you to confirm things for them; your boss berates you when you miss a deadline (since it’s impossible that you would forget the date); and forgetting your mother’s birthday would launch a nuclear war in your next family reunion (sorry, mom).

todo list

You are no longer allowed to forget anything. Now that’s a scary thought.

Never-ending story

Two, you are constantly prioritizing your errands every time you add something new to the list. ‘Getting the milk’ can take as long as a week to cross out because you keep putting everything else ahead of it, as they come in. And your mind will have the tendency to forget the things you forget to add to your list.

You will be programmed to be totally dependent on this list. The effect? I accidentally deleted a list — which was not backed up — once in the middle of a super busy period. It was chaos. Utter chaos.

Who’s working for whom?

Three, you will eventually end up listing, updating, crossing out and deleting your planner/organizer/app/tool even when you are stuck in traffic, waiting for a client, sitting at the bus stop or when your phone is in airplane mode. If you think that that is normal and acceptable behavior by today’s standards, I ask you this: are you being more productive, or doing more work?

stress over work

They are not the same thing. Remember that the concept behind productivity tools is that the tools should do more so that you can do less. If it doesn’t help you get more time to yourself, then it should not be called a productivity tool.

The secret to being productive is…

…to manage yourself well. Just having the tools is not enough, you also need self-discipline, an organized approach to your tasks, the ability to use your resources well and knowing when to let go. Oh, and keeping a close eye on deadlines and knowing how to prioritize are also important characteristics but those can be helped on by said tools.

Gentle reminder to always allocate some time for yourself and for your family (even those two need to be separated). Humans are more like battery cells rather than machines. We can’t work nonstop; we need to slow down, unwind, stop, recharge and start up again.

being productive

So if work or using a buggy, blasted tech tool is pushing you over the frustration limit, you are the only person who can put up a stop sign and take a break.

Tools of my trade

Not all productivity tools are good for everyone. It’s the main reason why your colleague may like one syncing program but you like another. It’s also why there are hundreds of productivity tool lists out there that have no common similarities at all. It’s a free universe; you can use whichever tool that ‘syncs’ with you, so to speak.

More importantly though, the selection of productivity tools is a matter of personal preference; it’s like when you were picking out that accessory that goes well with your Halloween costume. You know when something is working for you and when it is not. Don’t let anyone else pressure you into thinking you should or can use only one particular tool or app.


As for me, after quitting my job to go full freelance, juggling work, a needy toddler and taking my Masters on the side made me realize that I needed all the help I can get. My favorite productivity tool? Good ol’ pen and paper — a pocket-sized notebook to be exact. I don’t have to charge it or fear that it would run out of juice; I can make copies of my reminders, put them on the fridge, pin it up on a board or slip it in a book.

My notes are easy to compile, write up, correct and update, and I don’t need a tutorial to use it properly. Plus, whenever I get a task done, chucking the note in the trash bin is always more satisfying than clicking ‘Done’.