Why Many Productivity Tools Fail

Clock arms superimposed over half of a gear. Why many productivity tools fail.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Productivity tools have come a long way. These days there are options for every taste and desire, from paper-based tools to cloud-based digital applications. Finding a tool that fits your needs can be a great way to improve your productivity. Nevertheless, with all the available options, it seems like many people still have a hard time harnessing the power of tools to become more productive. This leads me to wonder why many productivity tools fail?

First, let me acknowledge that not all tools are equally good. There is no regulation of productivity tools, so it is up to consumers to ask around, read reviews, and otherwise figure out which options are worthwhile. Particularly with subscription-based products, it is always a good idea to try out a “free” version before purchasing.

Second, finding the right productivity tool may require a bit of trial-and-error. Just because a tool works well for a friend doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a good fit for you. We all have different priorities, and it helps to know what is most important to each person. For example:

  • Do you prefer paper or digital?
  • Do you like products that allow creativity (e.g., bullet journals) or is accessibility most critical (e.g., mobile-friendly)?
  • Do you need a tool that can accommodate multiple users?
  • Which functions are you looking for? (e.g., calendar, task management, email integration, project management, reminders, etc.)
  • What size is important to you? (e.g., a wall calendar vs. a phone screen)
  • For digital users, which platform do you use? (e.g., Apple or PC/Android)
  • Do you need segregation between personal and professional responsibilities?
  • What is your budget?
  • Do you prefer to pay a one-time investment or a small/monthly charge?
  • What integration do you need with other tools you are already using?

Answers to all of these questions, and more, can help you find the tool that is best for you.

The good news is, there is no one perfect tool. I am old school, and still using a paper-based Filofax. My planner helps me capture and track both calendar items and all my tasks. Do I have to carry it around? Yes, I do. Can it be shared with others in my family? No, not really. However, for a couple of reasons, this option works quite well for me. For instance, I love that it doesn’t require charging or internet access. It also has just enough storage for me to tuck in a receipt, or business card. In the back, it has a few pages where I can jot down random notes, observations, and doodles. Hosting my calendar somewhere other than on my phone makes it easier for me to schedule client appointments, freeing me from having to toggle between the phone and my calendar.

Admittedly, if I were starting out now, I would probably go for a cloud-based system. It’s hard to beat the ease of adding an appointment from an email. Also, if I were keeping track of multiple children’s schedules, it would be handy to be able to color code, synch, and view from multiple locations. There are more options now, with functions I may have found very useful.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Given that there truly are a wide variety of productivity tools available, why do many of them fail?

I believe that the answer may have nothing to do with the tools themselves.

Think of your productivity tool like a hanger in your closet. There are many kinds of hangers: velvet ones, wooden ones, hangers with clips, hangers with double rods, slimline hangers, hangers of all colors, etc. This could be a blog post in itself!

Now let’s imagine a bit. What if your hanger could:

  • Send an alarm when you haven’t hung up your garment.
  • Provide a digital display of the last time you wore the item.
  • Feature a scrolling display of all the other items in your closet with which the item it is currently holding makes a nice outfit.
  • Have a sensor to notice when the garment is dirty and needs to be washed, possibly placing a pick-up call to the local dry cleaners.
  • Light up to help you see more clearly.

Hey, with AI, you never know!

Even if your hanger could do all these things, they still wouldn’t work unless you used them properly. Have you ever noticed people don’t love hanging things up? There is just something about the process of removing the hanger, and then fitting the item onto the bars, and then stuffing the hanger back onto the closet rod, that just feels like a hassle. It’s easier to dump clothes on the back of a chair or over the arm of a treadmill. At the end of the day, a hanger can’t hop off the rod, walk over to your garment, shimmy underneath it, walk back to the closet, and hang itself up. Not yet, anyway.

The same is true for productivity tools. We can invest a lot of money in them, but if we don’t commit to using them properly and regularly – dare I say, every day – we are wasting our time. A common reason many productivity tools fail isn’t because there is something wrong with the tool itself, but rather is the result of a low level of commitment on the part of the user.

To properly harness the power of a productivity tool, it is important to fully embrace it. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including by:

  1. Investing time up front to understand all the tool’s capabilities.
  2. Practicing using features that may not be instantly intuitive.
  3. Setting aside time to enter all relevant data, both initially, and in an ongoing manner.
  4. Checking the tool every morning to review the plan for the day.
  5. Intentionally prioritizing and scheduling tasks.
  6. Mindfully establishing reminders and alarms throughout the day as needed.
  7. Tracking progress throughout the day.
  8. Reviewing the tool at the end of the day, rescheduling incomplete tasks, noting priority items for the next day.

Once we do these things, and only then, can we then put our trust in the tool. It’s wonderful to offload tasks and thoughts into a planning tool, but if we only periodically do so, and/or if we only periodically check in to see what we’ve entered, we undermine our ability to trust that the tool is accurate. This often leads to making a second list or jot down thoughts on little scraps of paper that end up scattered about, both of which further sabotage the success of the primary productivity tool.

Just like hangers, productivity tools are not yet capable of doing our thinking for us. It is critical that we set aside sufficient and consistent time to interact with the tool, thus enabling it to keep us on track. If we only commit half-heartedly, we will never achieve this level of trust.

*     *     *

Do you both use and trust your productivity tools? How much time do you spend daily reviewing them?

Seana's signature

16 thoughts on “Why Many Productivity Tools Fail”

  1. That is so well said, Seana. You nailed it! The key takeaways here are to know what will work for you (paper, digital, a combo), understand what you need from your productivity tools, commit, and then trust them. The trust piece is huge. If you use your tools randomly, they won’t be effective.

    I used to have a paper system, but at some point (decades ago,) I made the switch to digital. At first, I only used the digital for my contacts. Eventually, I expanded using a digital platform for task management, lists, and scheduling. The biggest thing with both the paper system I used to have, and the digital system I now have is that I trusted both.

    1. It’s all about the trust! As I am writing this, I’m thinking about how important trust is in a relationship, and I guess in some ways we have a relationship with our tools. As with our personal relationships, they are based on commitment and trust. When those are strong, the relationship thrives!

  2. Like you, I love my paper planner. I often introduced it to my clients, because a paper planner works best for people who are visual I find if you identify your strengths first you can find a tool that will be a better fit. You were right that no tool is perfect, and that the real value lies in the routines you create around your tools.

    1. I was sitting in church yesterday (Sunday school actually, where I help teach the littles), listening to an auditory message, thinking about how most people are visual. I was noticing how many children appeared to be struggling to maintain attention, and was wondering how adding visuals might help. It’s a little tricky, since children might not understand that images are not photographs of biblical times, but I do think images help people focus and remember.

      I love that phrase, “routines you create around your tools.” That is exactly the point. Often we think the power is in the tool, but it is also so much in the routine!

  3. So interesting Seana! We have hope and good intention that something like a tool is going to be the answer to our challenges that we all face. However, we try different things, courses, buy bins, books, apps, etc. only to find we are still overwhelmed with all the choices, where our attention should go, what to focus on etc. Love your post! So true!
    Kim recently posted…How to get more clarity around what you want?My Profile

    1. I have some clients who are struggling with this right now. They keep thinking if we just “find the right tool” that will take care of the problem. But a tool cannot replace the person using the tool. We still need to invest time, energy, and consistency to be able to reap the benefit.

  4. This is brilliant! I knew that different tools work for different people because we’re all unique, but I wasn’t expecting you to say tools only work if we actually use them! I suspect that those two things are connected – if it’s the right tool for you, you’ll be more drawn to using it.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Using Your KeywordsMy Profile

    1. I suspect those two things are connected as well. If we find a tool cumbersome, clunky, counterintuitive, or otherwise unpleasant, we are much less likely to consistently use it!

  5. I love the list of questions! Over the years, I have integrated my business with my personal calendars. However, I created a weekly one-page-per-day custom paper planner using Microsoft Excel where I incorporate additional tasks or things that come up that do not need to be written in my calendar. Over the years as my business changed, I found that it was super easy for me to modify the Excel file to change with the times. It works pretty well.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…How to Organize Your Family Holiday TraditionsMy Profile

    1. Sounds like you have really invested time and thought into your tools, and that is why they are working so well. Each tools has its positives and negatives, but it is the routines we form around those tools, and the amount of commitment we invest to keep our tools working for us, that really bring the success!

  6. I feel like you are reading my mind. So often, I hear people complain that this or that digital (or even analog) tool “doesn’t work,” but the truth is that in part, it doesn’t work for THEM and in whole, that it doesn’t work BECAUSE of them. It’s not a matter of finding fault, but just as all clothes do not fit all bodies, not all productivity tools are appropriate for all people. And even if they were, as you note, people still won’t learn the ins-and-outs to help the tool help them!

    Meanwhile, I love the closet app you describe; it’s like a real-life version of Cher’s closet program in Clueless combined with a little Samantha Stevens tinka-tinka-tink Bewitched magic! Wouldn’t we all love that?

    And of course, you know that I’m a paper planner person. I use digital to give me a “ding” alert for Zooms and scheduled phone calls while I’m sitting at my desk, but the big meetings and small tasks are on paper because I’m visual and tactile. I know the importance of learning the details of apps to get the most out of them, but deep down, I know that I don’t want to, and so (with few exceptions for blog-related experiments), I’ll probably never commit to a productivity app. But at least I know that the fault is not in my stars (or apps), but in myself. (Shakespeare would not be impressed with my take on his fine words from Julius Caesar! Oy!)
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Take a Break for Productivity — The International PerspectiveMy Profile

    1. What a terrific comment, Julie. You always put a smile on my face!

      Learning the details of new tools is a hassle. I needed a tutorial last time I got a new car, and I still don’t remember all the bells and whistles. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m still with my old friend paper. No tutorial required LOL!

  7. I am definitely a paper product user. I do use digital for a few things but I just have not enjoyed the task of transferring everything to digital and become distressed if the digital is now working for some reason-usually because of my lack of expertise. I feel safer with paper. I also like that it doesn’t have to be charged-a constant “need to do “. Interesting points made.


    1. Any system is equally valid if it works for you. There is not “magic” in digital. It’s more about your level of commitment to keeping your tools up to date so you can trust them.

  8. So fascinating! And one interesting thing is that your needs change over time. Like the whole paper vs digital thing. I used to ONLY be able to get tasks and first drafts done by writing them. Then I lost that for years. Recently I started writing notes every morning as a practice of gratitude and love, and it’s just interesting that I was able to toggle back. Anyway, I know that wasn’t 100% relevant, but it’s more that your post made me think of that.
    Tamara recently posted…How to Choose the Best Dog Grooming Products: A Comprehensive GuideMy Profile

    1. I write a daily gratitude list with a pen and pencil as well. I think it really helps set me up with a positive mindset for the day. So fun to know you are doing that too!

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