Recently I was asked about productivity apps and my thoughts on how effective they can be. When it comes to technology to keep me more focused and productive, I tend not to buy in, but for others it works quite well. Here is my take and answers to some questions.
What, specifically, does our brain need in order to focus and be productive, and what is/are the mechanism(s) behind why?
The key to harnessing the power of focus and attention is to NOT give your brain reasons to become distracted. It’s that simple. As animals, our survival is predicated on our ability to use our senses constantly to protect us from perceived danger. As humans, we have evolved mechanisms to filter out all of the noise and constant input from our senses that don’t have any impact on the tasks at hand. For example, as I am typing this, birds are chirping outside, my AC is blowing, and I can hear the refrigerator humming. However, I can only hear these things when I stop typing and really listen. Why? My brain knows that these noises are not essential to the task at hand and because of this, it labels the noises as background and centers my focus on writing. Every time my phone goes off, or a tab on my computer does something, or an email comes in, my brain will get distracted and start releasing neurotransmitters to recognize those inputs, and by extension, I begin to lose focus. If you can minimize your inputs, you will increase your focus.
What are the qualities that many productivity apps have that, ironically, sabotage our brain’s ability to focus be productive?
Following along with the previous points above, as someone who understands how the brain works, I never understood the concept of a productivity app. To me, “productivity apps” are oxymoronic, as apps are most frequently utilized on our phones which is by far the number one distraction causing device we own. Think about the logic here. We are stressed out because we are feeling a lack of focus and productivity, so we take ourt phones, download an app, and then constantly check this thing over and over to make sure we are doing what we need to be productive. To me, this just sounds stressful, and to the brain, it is. Once again, every time we look at our phone our brain dumps neurotransmitters to accommodate the bright lights and moving images. These chemicals cause a wave of activity throughout our brain, and while activity in the brain doesn’t sound like a bad thing, it is when we are trying to channel that activity in a focused task. Our brains are old school, rather medieval actually. If you need to do something to help organize your thoughts, write them down on a piece of paper somewhere and use it as a reference. This requires minimal brain energy and stimulation and won’t fight against your purpose of increasing focus and productivity.
What’s the mechanism behind how the following productivity app issues affect our brain—and paradoxically, make us more distracted and unproductive?
I think the general answer to this is that productivity apps offer our brains something else it needs to learn and do amongst all the other things it has going on. When we have lots of things to carry we don’t just stack them up individually in our arms, we put them in a bag to help us carry them around. Once they are in the bag, however, we rarely keep checking inside to see what is going on. We simply carry the bag, get to where we are going, then unload it. Productivity apps offer a similar enticing quality…they will help you carry all that stuff you have to do. The problem with the apps is that they require you to frequently engage with it, or using the previous analogy, they require you to frequently open the bag to see what’s going on. This is the problem with apps. It’s not their intended function, it is there purposefully designed reengagement over and over that is non beneficial.
Which productivity apps do you feel are doing it right, and why? wrong?
If I had to choose an app that is helpful to productivity, I would recommend those that are designed to spur our own creativity or intended to help us destress. One app I enjoy for this is “Calm”. The app is designed to not be too interactive and allows for the human to sit, relax, re-center, and then move on. Sometimes we find ourselves so stressed out and overworked we just cant possibly sit down and be productive. This is a real problem nowadays, and in fact, the WHO just recognized this “burnout” as an official diagnosis, I spoke about this on a previous episode of my mental health podcast.
While learning how to be mindful and meditative without reaching into our pocket for our phone is the preferred method to increase productivity and focus, if you must, download the apps that are the least functionally clunky, and sensual stimulating.
Image courtesy of Calm.com