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Photo by Jorge Sanz courtesy flickrI was having a browse through my App Store the other day. The “Productivity” category had 1,049 apps. This included lots of things you might expect to see–to-do list managers, for example–but also an app that is nothing but a library of ringtones. Now I’m as open to as the next person to changing the way I work, but I struggle to see how hearing “La Bamba” instead of my default ringtone is going to make me more productive.

All this led to some reflection: how best should we choose the software tools that we use from the hundreds and thousands that are out there? It seems that information overload, which we’ve all been warned about for years, is now not just about too much email, too many tweets or Facebook posts, it’s also about an overload of the tools that are available to help us stay on top of things.

What we see out in the world is that many people have gathered lots of software tools, but they’re usually not getting the best out of them. Apps in particular are usually cheap, reducing the barriers to trying them out. So people end up with loads of them, and they often overlap. In a seminar recently I met someone who had four different list manager apps, each of which he used for about a week before losing enthusiasm and moving on to the next one. People like this are “promiscuous organizers”. They move from one tool to another, hoping to finally find The One Right Tool that will really change their lives.

So as you’re weighing up whether to splash out on that new App or piece of software, here are some things you might want to consider:

  • Do I care whether this tool makes me more productive? To paraphrase the Bible, man does not live on productivity alone. If all this tool does is makes you smile, charms you, or amuses you, then great! Just be clear that’s what you want from it.
  • What positive change will this bring? What specific problem will the tool solve for you? Using the workflow phases from Getting Things Done can help as a decision framework here: does this tool help me Collect, that is will it provide me with potentially meaningful inputs (like Facebook, say, or a news app)? Does is help me to Process, to make decisions about the inputs? Does it help organize reminders and supporting material for actions and projects? Is it a source of reference material, there when I need it?
  • Do I already have a tool that serves this function for me? If so, how will the new tool do the job better?  How will the information from the old tool be transferred over to the new one?
  • How reliable is it likely to be? If you’re buying an App, the reviews of previous purchasers on the App Store can help you sense how sturdy the App is likely to be. Do you know anyone else who has used it? What’s their experience been?
  • Is it fun to use? Any tool you have that’s a pleasure to use is much more likely to be engaged with, whether it’s a cool pen or an App.
  • Does it need to synchronize with other tools in my life? The rise of the Smartphone has largely been driven by the fact that it allows us to have email, calendar, and other information with us all the time. To be effective, does this tool need to share information with other tools you have? Ideally you don’t want to have separate copies of information in multiple places. If you do you’ll either spend too much time keeping them in sync, or you’ll allow them to fall out of sync and they’ll become dusty distracting corners of your organisational system.
  • Does it support offline working? Will you need access to the information when you’re not online? If it does synchronize, how does that happen, manually or automatically? Speaking as one who flies regularly on business, until Wi-Fi is available on all flights, this is a critical consideration for me.
  • How will the information in it be backed up? Smartphones go missing, software crashes. Be sure you know how and when the information is being backed up, and what you need to do if you need to get it back.
  • Will my IT department allow it? Support it? Many IT departments have policies on which hardware and software they’ll support. Some allow “self-supported” software on corporate devices; others strictly limit the software that is allowed.

Finally, I try to keep in mind that even the best tool is only as good as the thinking that I employ as I use it. A common phrase in Germany is “a fool with a tool is still a fool.” As much as the lazy side of my nature would prefer, tools can’t make the priority calls, deal unaided with ambiguity, or grapple effectively with the nuance of tough decisions. When it comes to those things, we need to employ that tool between our ears.

  • Dan Lakey

    Evernote answers most of those questions for me.

    • Todd Brown

      Hi Dan – thanks for your note, and I’m glad to hear Evernote works for you. It’s is a great suite of tools for folks who can or want to be exclusively Apple-based. Lots of our clients have PCs mandated for them, though, which means Evernote isn’t an ideal option.

  • Jerry Stevens

    Evernote is what I use. I looked at IQTell which synchronizes with Evernote but I came to the realization that it adds a layer of complexity that would slow me down.

    • Todd Brown

      Hi Jerry – thanks for your post. Your experience echoes the experience of many of my clients. The addition of (what seems to be) a straightforward and beneficial element to their system often leads to more complication than benefit.

  • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jon D Harrison

    I agree with others that use Evernote, but I still find this to be less than perfect. The fact that my employer block access to Evernote does not help my use of the system.
    Great list of considerations!

    • Todd Brown

      Hi Jon – thanks for your note. You’re not alone, of course, in having to create what seems to be a sub-optimal system from the set of tools permitted by IT. We just need to design a trusted, usable, reliable system as best we can with the tools we have. I gave up long ago on achieving the “perfect” system, but what I’ve got (in my case the core is Outlook + the Netcentrics Add-In + an iOS Task-synchronization app) works very well and with time has become pretty transparent and intuitive – it feels these days like it just supports the way I work. Have fun!

      • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jon D Harrison

        Thanks Todd – you make a really great point: “it feels these days like it just supports the way I work.” That is key! I have not quite found the exact approach that will fit my work flow/style

        • Todd Brown

          My pleasure. Another thought that might be helpful is to be open to completely re-creating your system from time to time. I actually went completely paper-based for a few months several years ago (other than calendar and email), and found that it really sharpened my thinking and decision making.

          • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jon D Harrison

            Great suggestion!

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