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Minimal vs. Maximal Productivity Tools

Minimal vs. Maximal Productivity Tools
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If you aren’t new to productivity blogs, web productivity tools, and other things that have a productive spin or “GTD” in them, then you have certainly heard of the concept of being “minimalist”. The idea is using the absolute least amount of stuff to get something done or live life. Basically, all the extra stuff that you “don’t need” is just clogging up your productive nature and needs to be removed.

But, what if you want all the bells and whistles of productivity tools and the minimalist way feels somewhat restricted? This is where the idea of “maximal” productivity tools come in; tools that provide the user with a ton of functionality and settings that allows them to customize the tool in any way they see fit.

    The case for minimalist tools

    One of the largest complaints about complicated productivity tools is that they tend to get in your way rather than help you get things done. This is definitely the case with some tools that throw in every feature that comes to mind and don’t have a clear way to just “jump in” and start using the tool.

    For example, the web app Toodledo is an extremely powerful task management application (not to mention one of my favorites), but can be somewhat daunting to look at and use at first. This is because of Toodledo’s mass of user options, filters, search, etc. Contrast this with a “simpler” tool like Remember the Milk. It is obvious how to add tasks with RTM and the user interface is clean and easy on the eyes. This isn’t to say that RTM isn’t powerful, it definitely is with the addition of Smart Lists and Locations; it is saying that sometimes when giving a user too many options can confuse and distract them from actually using the tool to get things done.

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    Minimal productivity tools have been extremely popular in the recent years because of the want of users to have something simple that gets out of the way. Some of the tools that come to mind are Simplenote, Ta-da List, SimpleGTD, pen and paper, and Remember the Milk.

    The case for “maximalist” tools

    On the opposite side of the coin, the largest complaints about simple and minimal productivity tools is that they aren’t customizable enough and they lack needed features like tagging, saved searches, different lists styles, cross-platform support, etc. Some users feel that without these enhanced set features that the productivity tools aren’t good enough.

    When Mr. Allen, the GTD guy himself, speaks of systems and productivity tools, he steals a good quote from Albert Einstein:

    “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

    This could of course back up the idea of minimalist tools, but it makes me think that it takes somewhat complicated tools to work with and help control complicated things like project planning, email handling, etc. As mentioned before, Toodledo is quite the task management application and it has a ton of functionality that you may never use. But, the idea of providing the user with extra features is appealing in that you can “grow into” a tool.

      Toodledo's complicated filters and Views

      For instance, I am currently using OmniFocus (even though it is pricey as hell) and there is a sweet feature that allows you to relate a location with a context. When you are out and about and check your iPhone for actions you could complete, you can check the location listing and OmniFocus uses your GPS to give you actions that can be finished in your vicinity. At first I thought this feature was nifty, but sort of overkill, that is until I found that I travel quite a bit during a day and can utilize my location to find tasks that can be completed around me. Try to do that with Ta-da List.

      Some of the more popular maximal productivity tools include OmniFocus, Evernote, Toodledo, Outlook, and OneNote.

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      Minimal vs. Maximal: Fight!

      The last thing that I want to do is take one side or the other when it comes to feature-rich tools vs. simple tools. What I can do however, is make some recommendations to those out there that don’t know exactly which camp to settle down in: minimal or maximal?

      1. The best advice that I can ever give is to love the tools you use. What does it matter if there are a million settings or ten settings if you don’t love the tool that you are using?

      2. No tools will make you more productive. Just because you can make a list of actions and relate them to a project and have the system tell you what your next actions are doesn’t mean that you will actually do them. Tools don’t make you productive; you make you productive.

      3. There is no perfect tool. Trust me, I have been down the road and it is long and arduous. There is no perfect GTD tool; never will be. So stop Googling now.

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      4. Make a list of features you need and a list of features you want in a productivity tool. Then when you are looking for a new or better tool, compare your list to the tool’s feature set. If it’s close, then you may not totally hate it.

      5. Once you find a tool that works, stick with it. If your tools are hitting the sweet spot and helping you become more productive, consider adopting them for a year so you don’t fall into the trap of changing task-managers every time you hear of a shiny new one.

      Which side of the camp do you choose when it comes to productivity tools? Do you want to keep things simple or provide yourself with a powerful set of features that are at your disposal?

      More by this author

      CM Smith

      A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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      Last Updated on July 21, 2021

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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      No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

      Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

      Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

      A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

      Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

      In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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      From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

      A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

      For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

      This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

      The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

      That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

      Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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      The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

      Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

      But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

      The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

      The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

      A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

      For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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      But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

      If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

      For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

      These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

      For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

      How to Make a Reminder Works for You

      Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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      Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

      Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

      My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

      Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

      I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

      More on Building Habits

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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      Reference

      [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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