A lot of productivity apps make big promises to show you how to be more organized, more focused, and more efficient. But do they actually deliver? For answers, we decided to conduct a simple experiment with the help of one of our contributors of course. The mission? Use a productivity app for two weeks and determine if it teaches you how to organize yourself and your time. Our contributor, Ashley, jumped at the chance to improve her organizational skills using the free app To-Do*.
Did it work? Let’s find out together.
How to Be More Organized Using a Productivity App
I’ve wondered how to be more organized, at work and at home, my entire life. Or at least since 7th grade. My classmates created lists of tasks to complete, things to remember, stuff to learn more about. In comparison, my own organizational system consisted of notes scrawled on scrap paper that I immediately misplaced. I lost notebooks and planners or abandoned them shortly after purchasing them. Why was this so hard for me?
I began to think that my attempts to get organized were futile, so when Positive Routines asked me to review Microsoft’s To-Do app I didn’t have particularly high expectations. How could an app teach me how to get organized—something I’d been trying to do my whole life?
Getting started to get organized
Willing but skeptical, I downloaded To-Do and read through the tutorials. It seemed simple enough. Instead of creating and sifting through an endless, digital collection of lists, To-Do helps you be productive by focusing on the present.
Here’s how it works:
- Get a clean slate every morning due to the app’s organizing principle feature, “My Day”.
- Add items to the to-do list feature called, “To-Do”. (Keeping it literal, Microsoft.)
- Name your to-dos and add them to your day, request a reminder, or set a due date.
What happened when I started using To-Do
I began to populate the to-do list with every task I could think of. Soon I had 15 things that were in no way related to each other. Some were small, like booking plane tickets, while others, like writing an article, were larger and had multiple steps. I could feel myself starting to panic. Then I noticed a tiny purple plus-sign with the words “New List”.
I created a new list for long-term projects and titled the first item “Write article.” Inside the task’s page was the option to create steps. And create steps I did. I added one step for researching, one for building an outline, and so on. Essentially, I broke down the large task into manageable steps that can be individually crossed off. Then I built some more lists.
How I felt about my new organizational system
I liked a lot about the To-Do app, but I didn’t like everything. Here’s my list of pros and cons from day one.
- Permanence: I couldn’t lose my lists forever the way I could with my paper ones.
- Usability: Surprisingly, I liked the interface. When you complete a task, a green checkmark appears next to it, and a green strikethrough appears across the text. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as scratching a pen across a page but it was faster.
- Speed: Like most of us these days, I realized that I type faster than I write.
- Space: Because digital space is endless, I didn’t have to worry about fitting stuff on a single page.
- Focus: I could write as long a list as I wanted without feeling overwhelmed because the app focuses only on the tasks you select for that day.
- Prioritization: Look, it’s still up to you to go through your lists in the morning and decide what is a priority for that day. An app can’t really do that for you. This is where things started to get hairy.
- Expectations: The first day I added 18 tasks to my day. I completed four. That crushing defeat hardly needs elaboration.
The insight that changed it all
If you dig around in the help section, you’ll find that To-Do wants to help users manage expectations based on some of their internal research. They give users a suggested, “magic number” (i.e., the number of tasks that you can realistically complete in a day). According to the app, “…the average To-Doer completes three of their My Day to-dos per day, so we think that three is a good place to start.”
And expectations = managed. I was one task above average. But more importantly, this suggestion gave me a critical insight into both organization and productivity as a whole. Most people couldn’t complete everything that they set out to do. Adding more stuff to my list doesn’t mean I complete more tasks. But it does mean that I feel bad about what I didn’t get done.
I made two critical choices that changed my approach on how to be more organized.
- Schedule no more than three To-Dos on a given day for the first full week
- Prioritize things in order of when they needed to get done, not what I felt like working on first.
And it worked. I was getting stuff done, crossing tasks off, adding to my lists, and giving myself due dates. And then remembering those items in the morning when the app would suggest certain tasks for that day.
The most important lesson I learned from using To-Do
After two weeks of using To-Do, I felt more organized, had a clearer head, and was less stressed. If something came up that wasn’t a task yet, it went into a list called “Think About It”. If I was putting off calling or emailing someone, I was greeted with reminders until I completed the task.
But I wasn’t perfect. Sometimes when faced with a self-imposed deadline, I balked. More than once that meant reflecting on the larger project or goal, and deciding whether or not it still had meaning for me. The answer wasn’t always yes. This brought on another insight. When faced with a task I was procrastinating, I was forced to admit the reasons I abandoned my systems. It wasn’t because I had the wrong notebook; it was because, in some situations, I lacked meaning.
I wasn’t too busy to get things done; I just didn’t want to do them. The abandoned notebooks were a testament to the fact that I blamed an external system for an internal disorganization. It was a powerful thing to learn, and I have an app to thank for it. Now, please excuse me while I cross this review off my list.
A productivity app can only take you so far
In conclusion, productivity apps can help you organize your life, but they can’t tell you what makes it meaningful. And we know that productivity and meaning are closely related. So next time you ask yourself how to be more organized, remember that you can have the best organizational system out there, but if those tasks don’t mean anything to you, they won’t get done.
Your turn: What tools, systems, or strategies taught you how to be more organized and more productive? Share your experience in the comments.
If you’re looking for other tools that can teach you how to be more organized, check out this article on productivity podcasts.
*Positive Routines is not affiliated with To-Do or Microsoft. We merely wanted to test out a productivity app to see how it works. All opinions are our own.
Author: Ashley Friedman
Ashley Friedman is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She writes about culture, lifestyle, identity and the arts and has contributed to ManRepeller, Time Out New York, Refinery29. She loves restaurants, museums, and vintage shopping and has a really comfortable couch.