The Curious World of Productivity Apps

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hourglass I’m typing. If I stop typing for more than five seconds, everything I’ve written will be deleted. If I pause for just a moment, the text will start to fade and the edges of the screen will turn blood red. Just keep going. At least I’m writing. Is it good writing? I don’t know anymore. I was only trying to be productive.

This is The Most Dangerous Writing App, one of the more extreme examples of the glut of apps that have appeared in recent years to help us fight procrastination. Designed to combat writer’s block, it works from the principle that getting something on the page is the most important step, and a dose of pressure is never a bad thing. You might not be able to write a Ulysses on it, but it certainly helps to kick things into gear. Still, its existence begs the question: have we really reached a point where this level of threat is necessary to make us focused?

We live in a new age of distraction. Smartphones have made many aspects of our lives immeasurably easier, but they also provide myriad opportunities for time-wasting. There are 2 billion smartphone users in the world, and half the population of developed countries use them daily. In a recent survey by Pew, 46 per cent of American respondents stated that they could not live without their smartphones. Bearing in mind that these gadgets didn’t exist ten years ago, that’s an astonishing statistic. Research has also shown that we use our phones twice as much as we think we do, with many young adults spending five hours a day – a third of waking time – on their handhelds. In several cities around the world, support groups have been set up to help self-professed smartphone addicts.

Time on smartphones can be spent productively – answering emails, managing calendars, checking up on cat photography. But people fritter away so much time online, coasting from one clickbait listicle to the next, that an entire tech industry has sprung up with the aim of keeping us focused. We’ve started using technology to keep us away from technology. The world of productivity apps and time management software is the third biggest sector of the app world, having increased in use by 125 per cent last year. While the majority, such as Evernote and Wunderlist, are streamlined organisation boards, keeping together your notes, to-do lists and calendars across devices, some are a little stranger.

On the sensible end of the spectrum, RescueTime tracks the time you spend on apps and websites and then presents the stats to you at the end of the day. If you can plainly see how much time you’re wasting, you can take better control of your life. But for many, seeing these stats isn’t enough. They find it all too easy to drift onto Facebook during a short break and resurface dazedly an hour later, inexplicably reading an article about a woman who died childless, leaving all her money to her pet lizard. For these types, there’s Self Control where you create a blacklist of websites that you will not be able to access for a set time period, even if you delete the app or restart your computer. If you can’t control yourself, let the computer do it for you.

Some apps get more personal. Carrot is a to-do list with a moody disposition, getting sulky if you don’t get enough done. When I missed my last deadline, it told me that its hatred for me burns with the passion of 10,000 suns. If you really need the fire under your feet, try Gettupp, which alerts your friends when you miss your appointments, or Aherk, which releases embarrassing photos of you onto social media if you don’t meet your deadlines.  Get Sh*t Done is a more aggressive solution, hurling profanities at you if you fail to complete your tasks on time. It’s a bit like a boss from hell, but at least you can put it on silent mode.

As the Chinese proverb puts it, “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Taking a rather literal interpretation of the idea, the beautiful Taiwanese app Forest has you plant a seed in a virtual plot of land. When you put your phone down, the tree grows. If you exit the app to send a text or take a selfie, your tree will start to die. There is no punishment other than the dying of your virtual tree, but for many this gentle reminder is enough. Your collected trees form a virtual forest that you can share with friends and you can collect coins to sponsor the planting of real trees in India and Zambia. Build Focus brings a similar game logic to your real life, rewarding periods of concentration with the construction of your own virtual city. If you get distracted, your buildings will go up in flames.

Many of these apps recommend working in 30-minute spurts, followed by a short break. This is inspired by the Pomodoro technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Details of this and many other productivity techniques can be found on Reddit’s r/Productivity board, but there’s a danger of spending too much time on there – one user commented that he had spent “more hours looking for the answer to the question ‘how can I finally get work done?’ than on actually getting work done”.

One thing that these apps don’t do is ask what the point of trying to lead a more productive life is. Being productive might help you earn more money. It might make you more popular with your boss. But will it make you happier? Will it give you more free time? It often seems that efficiently completing your tasks simply frees you up to complete even more tasks. There are always more things you could be doing. If you’re struggling to get anything done at all, these apps might be just the boost you need. But if you’re getting by alright… Do you really need to cut down so ruthlessly on procrastination?

You don’t need to give an answer right now. Maybe think about it tomorrow.

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