The key to workplace productivity is not an app

Work, work, work, work, work.
Work, work, work, work, work.
Image: AP Photo/Staff/Priest
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You could waste a lot of time looking for the right productivity app.

There are over 19,000 productivity apps in the iTunes store, and endless recommendations of apps that promise to magically give hours back to your day. But here’s the thing: switching between apps all day long is actually the enemy of productivity.

Researchers have found that the average worker toggles between apps 10 times every hour. With each context switch, there’s another possibility of distraction. And after each distraction, it takes on average (pdf) 23 minutes and 15 seconds to truly get refocused on the task at hand.

So how might workers keep productivity software as a tool working for them, rather than the other way around? We spoke to three productivity app founders to find out.

Develop an etiquette

At the productivity software company Zapier, digital culture matters because there is no in-person culture. Each of its 100-plus employees works remotely, so the Slack workplace communications app is where their company culture lives.

According to CEO Wade Foster, the company has more Slack channels than employees. Zapier has intentionally designed many channels that are not work related because, as Foster says, “you want to get to know your neighbors before your house is on fire.”

But with so much workplace chatter—almost all Slack channels at Zapier are public so that anyone can see what’s going on— the chat app can be an endless time-suck. ”There’s an etiquette we all understand about email,” Foster says. “We don’t have a similar etiquette built up around Slack.”

Zapier has developed a few rules of internal etiquette, like turning off the feature that alerts coworkers when you’re typing and checking a co-worker’s timezone before sending a direct message. “You have to customize your software so it works for you,” says Foster.

Turn off your notifications

Mathilde Collin was getting pulled in a million different directions.

As Front, the workplace communications startup she co-founded, grew to nearly 100 employees, it seemed that the hours in her day no longer belonged to her. So, she did something radical by startup CEO standards: she decided to shut off her notifications.

“I wasn’t able to put my full attention into current projects with my phone buzzing and lighting up,” she says. “Turning off notifications actually made me better at my job.”

With this realization, she encouraged the rest of her company to do the same. A third of Front employees, as well as some prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have joined her in her #nonotifcations crusade.

“Taking control of my day in this way has made me far more efficient, helped me focus for longer periods of time, and reduced the stress that comes with feeling like I’m constantly being pulled in different directions,” she wrote in a blog post on Medium.

It was limiting, not adding to, the technology in her life that was actually the key to hacking productivity.

Take your productivity hacking offline

Aye Moah, a co-founder of the email productivity startup Boomerang, spends her days managing a team of engineers, analyzing data, and reviewing product designs. As Boomerang’s head of product, she has no choice but to spend most of her day online. Though technologists like Moah often extol the virtues of connectivity, she believes “we’re paying for connectivity with the loss of focus and the study of things that matter.”

When she thinks about the way that she manages productivity in her own life, the two “hacks” that come to mind are staying hydrated and making sure she moves around. In her mind, productivity apps are great—indeed, she’s spent the majority of her career building them—but real productivity comes from a healthy and balanced life.

“People talk about productivity like it’s all about numbers and lines of code, but real productivity is about the feeling you get when you close the laptop for the day,” says Moah. “I go home happy when I feel accomplished.”