Why Productivity Tools are Useless Without This…

Minute Read

You might’ve heard this story before. The engine of a giant ship has stopped working. The owners of the ship bring in multiple experts but nobody could figure out how to fix the engine.

One day they brought in an old man who’d been fixing ships since he was a young boy. Once inside he carefully inspected the ship from top to bottom.

While he was working on it, one of the ship’s owners was there watching him. After looking over things, the old man eventually reached into his bag and pulled out a hammer. Ever so slightly he tapped on something and instantly the ship's engines started humming again. The owner was astounded at how quickly he was able to get it working.

One week later the owners received a bill from the old man for $10,000.

What the hell!?” the owners exclaimed to each other, “He hardly did anything at all!

They wrote him back and asked for an itemized version of the bill.

He replied with:

Tapping with a hammer………………$1.00

Knowing where to look………………$9,999.00

The Value of Tools

Over the past decade, productivity software and tools have aimed to do one thing, make us more productive.

With the advent of these tools though, we have become more reliant on new productivity tools to solve our ever burdening problems associated with procrastination, focus, and priority management.

Anybody can paint with a paintbrush and call themselves an artist, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re being productive by checking off tasks in a todo-list manager.

In today's world, we are quick to try out the latest focus or task software, yet we skip over the method and the ideology required to make it work for us and not against us.

With more productivity tools available today than ever before, it’s a little ironic to see more people reverting to somewhat primitive methods for their productivity. Simple tools from a blank notebook to a myriad of productivity planners you can buy on Amazon. Why are more simplistic solutions coming out ahead of more advanced and capable solutions?

Is writing your tasks on a notebook truly better than using a task management software?

Well, yes and no. I’ve been no stranger to productivity issues and solutions, and there isn’t a single productivity software that’s necessarily increased my output at a noticeable level. At the end of the day, we’re constricted by how we allocate and prioritize our time to the things we need to do.

While I’m a fan of Todoist, it doesn’t necessarily make me more productive compared to similar solutions such as Wunderlist or Nozbe. What’s important is to find something that does a reasonably good job at suiting your needs, then build an operating framework around it.

Your routine, habits, and mindset are much more important to your overall productivity than any tool or software.

There’s an endless number of apps that try to make us more productive. Tools like freedom.to aims to block distracting websites, but what’s the point if you never end up using it? In my mind, tools like this are simply acting as a temporary solution to the root cause of the problem.

Equally so, to-do lists can be even more distracting than helpful. They’re great for getting all your action items out of your head, but they can be a source of frustration if you find yourself always working on the low-priority tasks over the more meaningful work that drives purpose.

My name is Cody and I’m an App Addict

I’ve had an addiction to software for a long time, and I’d often go on software binges spending days demoing and trying out different software for every conceivable problem you might experience growing a startup.

I like to think that I’ve chosen the best piece of software but there’s always some part of me that itches to find something better whenever I encounter a problem or limitation with something I already use.

I’ve tried a lot of different software that runs the gambit from productivity to company operations and much more. These days though, I’m much less likely to shift to new software as I’ve discovered most problems related to software often originate from a process or implementation standpoint. Most of the time, changing up an existing system just temporarily hides the inefficiencies that existed in the prior system.

So these days, I coordinate my actions to follow a few simple rules about every new piece of software before I decide to implement it, whether for myself or for the company.

  1. What problems do I have with the existing software or method?
  2. How do I expect the new software to solve those problems?
  3. Are there any new processes, training or management I can create to fix the current problems?

For instance, I went through a 6-month period where I jumped project management software from Basecamp, to Teamwork, Asana, Trello only to come back to Basecamp (which I still use to this day).

Circle of Apps


Each tool had varying features trying to solve problems to challenges faced by their customers, but they all brought up their own unique set of challenges at the same time.

I finally realized that the individual issues I encountered with each software, were only symptoms of the larger problem I had when using them. I had no clearly defined structure for how the tools should be used. I had no set rules to audit, review or prioritize tasks or items.

Without any noticeable structure to the software I was force-feeding my team, it was chaos. Everybody was using it in a slightly different way which led to frustration which led to trying something else.

Now at some point, I realized that switching to a different software wasn’t going to solve my problems, so I reverted to the simplest tool I had encountered, Basecamp. A few years later and we’re still using it.

It's not perfect by any means though, their minimalistic approach lacks many features like recurring tasks that would be helpful to our operations, but at the same time, it’s the simplicity of the tool that makes it easy for new employees to start using it without feeling overwhelmed as to how.

World’s Best Procrastinator

Believe it or not, procrastination is and always has been a huge personal issue. There are days I wake up and don’t feel like doing anything, let alone playing video games. However, it’s those days when I have to remind myself that I don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it.

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”

― Chuck Close, Chuck Close

This is where the development of a few key habits and rules has been able to help push me through even the lowest of days.

In his book “Simple Rules” by Donald Full, he argues that having Simple rules can act as shortcut strategies to save time and effort by focusing our attention while simplifying the way we process information.  Without having to rethink every decision, we can tailor our choices and habits by pre-defined rules we create for ourselves and companies.

One way to do this is to use the “If-then planning” technique in your productivity workflow.

If X happens, then I will do Y.

So instead of telling yourself to “eat less food”, you plan out in advance what you’ll order so you won’t need the menu once you arrive at the restaurant. You can even throw in a commitment device so you have no other option, such as placing the order ahead of time so you won’t be tempted to eat or order more.

In one study, over 90% of people who used if-then planning for their exercise routine were able to stick with the program, vs the 39% of those who had no plan.

The most important attributes to your Success

Not that long ago I felt another mid-life crisis of sorts. I’d wake-up fatigued with no drive or ambition to accomplish anything. I consistently felt like my work was meaningless and I didn’t know what was important.

One day, I had enough and realized that I had all these great ideas but sucked at follow-through. As great as I thought my ideas were, I knew the more important focus should be on execution. Well, it was then I realized was may be blatantly obvious to many is that my goals and ambitions will be achieved much faster with more self-discipline and commitment.

It reminded me of Jocko Willing’s interview on the Tim Ferris Podcast along with his book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win.

I realized (perhaps yet again) that self-discipline, commitment, and prioritization were among the 3 most important factors to my success.

Now I had been fooling myself for years thinking the problem was with the software and tools I was using. It was then I put some effort into increasing my odds for success by creating some simple rules for myself. Through trial and error, I’ve listed some of my experiences and solutions below.

1. Eliminating Procrastination

If you consistently procrastinate and tend to do the easier tasks over the larger projects, set a planning rule in the morning so before you even do any lower priority tasks or check your email, you instead write down the top 1-3 items you’d like to accomplish for the day, then do them.

ADHD Task Notes

When my ADHD was so bad, I’d even commit to putting post-it notes on my monitor and actively pasting the current priority in the middle of the screen.[/caption]

Next, I devised a “Goal Tracker” in Trello and combined it with my weekly review task due each Monday. I already had a recurring task to review the 7-day task outlook along with my assistant’s task list, so I just added it to the audit. This is my own version of David Allen’s Weekly Review.

Now in a way, we’ve probably all had our own life goals or bucket list, but how often do you review it? How often do you take a few minutes each week to see where you spend most of your time in the past week and plan for how you plan to spend your time this week?

It was then I realized that the 2 things I was missing were getting myself to write daily and take an online course to further some skill set that had a personal or professional interest.

Prior to realizing this commitment, I’d get on my computer and procrastinate by playing a VR-game, browsing ProductHunt or getting lost on Reddit before begrudgingly getting myself to do the necessary work of the day. With a little help from the don’t-break-the-chain technique, I’ve been able to consistently meet all the criteria that I’ve defined as having accomplished my work for that day.

Once I wake up I need to exercise, read, write and take a skill-learning course all before heading to the office. With pressure to be at the office by a certain time and a commitment to do these 4 things has significantly reduced the amount of time I spend procrastinating even on the worst of days.

2. Improving Team Effectiveness

If your team isn’t effectively collaborating or working together, make sure you give them ample opportunity to prove themselves by setting realistic expectations and milestones.

For my company, this meant implementing the EOS: Traction methodology and the implementation of quarterly rocks (otherwise known as company objectives) and then setting appropriately organized meetings to hold each other accountable.

Other strategies might include having a Daily Standup meeting with your team to make sure everybody checks in on each other's progress and is on the same page.

3. Solving Problems

When you’re building a business there are always a number of problems you’re likely trying to solve at any moment in time. You’re constantly being barraged by software solutions and even offers by consulting agencies or seeking freelancers. However, the question I tend to ask myself first is what is the real problem and how can I solve it with a Minimally Viable Alternative (MVA).

When you’re building a business it’s easy to get stuck in a certain mindset that you need to hire an expert, agency or pay for a software solution, when quite often there is a method that will get the job done without a huge commitment of time and money.

Not that you can’t or shouldn’t seek an outside solution to an internal problem but I’ve found it to be a better solution long-term by implementing a short-term MVA while you focus on gathering more data on the problem itself.

For example, when I started my current company, I had (or thought I had) to go out and find a Payroll software for it. A few years later as my HR team expanded, they were having several issues with the Payroll solution from the limited amount of information I had at the time.

Later I learned that it would’ve been much easier (and apparently just as doable) for them to process Payroll by maintaining a Google Sheet. It certainly wouldn’t have been an ideal scenario but it would’ve provided that MVA.

If we had started with the most simple and basic solution from the start it would’ve allowed us to go through the basic workflow and understand the workflow problems for ourselves. Doing so would’ve increased our chances at picking better software to adopt later on saving a lot of time, frustration and money in the process.

Recognizing the Right Problems

When we recognize problems within our workflow, we tend to gravitate towards whole solutions instead of considering how a simple tweak to our existing workflow could have a major impact on solving the underlying root problem to the issues that arise.

Prior to recognizing potential work-flow problems, I was constantly switching my team to new software and spending countless hours thinking that doing so was a justifiable way of spending my time.

I was willing to throw money at just about anything, however, I realized at some point that the problems weren’t going to simply disappear with a shiny new toy.

There’s an endless number of productivity solutions and apps that attempt to help us focus better and longer. However, what’s the point to in buying an app like Freedom.to to block out distracting websites if you never get into the habit of using it regularly? What’s the point of paying for Rescuetime if you never learn from the data?

With that said, I must recognize that using tools is an innate desire we have as being human. After all, it’s what separated our Prehistoric Ancestors from the Apes. It’s allowed us to build mega-cities and fuel the rising growth in all kinds of amazing technology.

All the while it’s important to remember that it’s more often than not the person behind the tool which dictates the overall efficacy of the tool in the situation.

Seeking the Right Method

So the next time the latest gizmo, gadget or fancy software catches your eye and tries to sell you on the idea that it will solve a problem you didn’t know you had, take a step back think objectively about what that problem really is and how it applies to your own life or business.

I have no doubt that software and technology can improve productivity and communication, however, the tech is only as good as the person who uses it and the situation in which they find themselves in.