Using productivity and motivation apps may be the first sign of madness | Technology | DW | 20.09.2013
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Using productivity and motivation apps may be the first sign of madness

Productivity and getting-things-done apps are massively popular. Take two made in Germany: Things and Wunderlist. They're well designed and easy to use. But are all these lists driving us crazy?

Call them what you will, we've all dabbled in a productivity app or two. You may even be a pro and prefer to call them GTDs, or "getting things done" apps. They have become all important as more and more of us have smart phones in our pockets beeping and bleeping at the slightest sign of our neglect.

Of course, the real pros among us also go for motivation apps, such as Lift, or even self-tracking apps that allow you to quantify yourself in this digital age - apps that let you track how often you go running and what your heart rate was while you were at it, or how many types of chocolate you've eaten in any given week and how well you digested it.

Screenshot of the motivation app Lift

Apps like Lift aim to motivate you by visualizing your activity

No matter what we do these days, there's an app to keep it tagged and tracked. Keeping such detailed lists on our daily activities may be useful for some, no matter how banal the content.

But have we gone a bit "list crazy"? Is it possible to check lists a little too obsessively - even though you know there's nothing to check, no update? The list has got a hold over you.

"Obsessive compulsive thoughts are known to everybody," said professor Thomas Schlaepfer, vice-chair of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Bonn. "You've probably had the experience of leaving your home and on the way out you though, 'Oh, did I really close the door?' And so you go back to check and then you leave again, but then you wonder, 'Is it really closed?' - and if you do this many times in spite of knowing that you've closed the door, then this qualifies as an obsessive compulsive symptom."

But surely there's a fat line between "just a little bit crazy" and a full-blown psychological problem? Productivity apps help us all lead healthy, productive lives, right? Not lead into an obsessive compulsive quagmire.

So what are we talking about?

Let's focus on two straight-forward productivity apps made in Germany: Wunderlist by 6 Wunderkinder in Berlin and Things by Cultured Code in Stuttgart.

Both apps are award-winning, feature-rich to-do lists. They are both lovely to look at and easy to use.

Screenshot of the productivity app Wunderlist

Wunderlist is multi-platform and promises to work on any device

They offer various ways to compile and organize your lists, offering all the standard options for reminders, alerts and repeat tasks (to name a few), and allow you to sync your lists across all your devices.

Wunderlist stores your data on Amazon's S3 servers. Things uses the Google App Engine. And in my experience, both work fine. The point is, with either app, you'll have to put your trust in a third-party if you want to use the cloud - and, ultimately, whom to trust is a matter of perspective.

As a rule I use Things and it syncs within a matter of seconds. I've never noticed a delay. Colleagues, meanwhile, report some delays with Wunderlist. But that may just be inherent in a system that aims to work across all platforms and devices - while Things is currently limited to Mac and iOS, Wunderlist operates on iOS, Android and Windows.

The other major difference between the two apps is Wunderlist's focus on community based list making - it has a social element that allows you to coordinate lists, tasks and projects in a group.

Screenshot of the Apple iOS app Reminders

Apple's app Reminders is compatible with Things

Things meanwhile is more focused on the individual getting things done - but unlike Wunderlist, Things is compatible with Reminders - Apple's own list-making app - and I've found that useful for migration purposes (although you can forget any location tags you may have assigned). Wunderlist does not sync with any other programs or services, be they MS Outlook, iCal, Google Tasks, Google Calendar or MobileMe.

The bottom line is that both - and the many other GTD apps out there - are much better than your collecting staples of rough paper, dotted with illegible "notes to self."

So why the long face?

Well, I often feel that productivity apps are the digital equivalent of the boxes I use to clear up at home: I find a box, I shove stuff in it, and then I shove the box where I can't see it. And I can live happily like that for years. The same goes for the great mountain of things I need to do. I make a beautiful list - indeed, a very detailed list with a "due date" and an alert - and then I close the app and forget all about it. And I can live happily like that… until I get the third reminder (by post) for that invoice I forgot to pay after I added it to my to-do list and ignored the blinking notification on my phone (twice).

But the feeling is there's a growing community of people, who are obsessed with optimizing their productivity. That is, the quantity of things they manage to do in a day or a week. Some even say they benefit from being able to track their productivity over a period of months, and their apps visualize this with graphs.

Screenshot of the productivity app Things

Things Cloud "built its own cloud solution" but it's hosted by Google App Engine. Wunderlist uses Amazon S3

Isn't this all a bit OCD?

After all, list-making and an obsessive adherence to counting random things are just as OCD as washing your hands a hundred times a day. But I may be wrong.

"Many people live with OCD quirks, with little behaviors which don't make too much sense but it pleases them, but still they have a certain amount of suffering," said professor Schlaepfer. "And the same would go for somebody doing lists on a mobile phone. They need a lot of time to do it, they feel a compulsion to work on their lists, and it doesn't give them comfort having done it because soon after they'll feel like they have to continue with it. And so I see these smart phone apps more as a common way to live out OCD symptoms, but not as a cause of OCD symptoms."

So GTDs may not quite be the health risk after all. But they may still burn a hole in your pocket. Things for iPhone costs 8.99 euro, 17.99 euro for iPad and 44.99 euro for Mac. And while the basic version of Wunderlist is free, the Pro version will set you back by about 45 euro for an annual subscription.

But look on the bright side: they've both got "great things" planned for iOS7. Wunderlist even has a "major announcement" slated for next week. I've added checking it out to my to-do list. We'll see if I do.

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