The Perfect Productivity App Doesn’t Exist

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The first time I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a light switch went off in my brain, “I don’t have to let commitments slip through the cracks anymore! I just need a trusted system for tracking everything!” 

I purchased a fancy to-do list app (at the time, it was OmniFocus) and began capturing every stray task or project I thought I might need to do someday.

It was glorious!

At first.

Initially, I experienced a surge of relief, knowing everything I needed to do was being saved somewhere, and I no longer had to rely on my memory. But I soon became overwhelmed by the number of tasks I’d saved to do later. The arbitrary due dates I’d set for them would come and go. And before I knew it, I had dozens of overdue items of varying degrees of importance, all screaming at me every time I opened my app.

The system that was supposed to cure my overwhelm became my chief source of anxiety. So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I scrapped that system and tried a new one. Then the cycle would repeat, so I’d start over again with something else—again, and again, and again. I was on the never ending quest for the perfect productivity system. 

But no matter what app, planner, or task management technique I tried, it was the same vicious cycle. Until I eventually realized that when it came to managing my to-do list, I didn’t have a tool problem; I had me problem.

A Breakdown in Trust

The critical insight in Allen’s GTD™ methodology is the concept of relying on a single, trusted system for tracking all of life’s commitments. As life’s responsibilities increase, we eventually learn that tracking it all in our heads stops working. We miss appointments, fail to fulfill obligations and miss important commitments. So we start writing things down.

But too often, we spread our to-do lists across sticky notes, page margins, calendars, or various apps. Again, this works for a little while. But the problem with writing things in multiple places is that we can never be 100% confident we will look at the correct list at the right time to ensure the thing gets done when needed. This leads to a lack of trust in our system of organization, so inevitably, we default back to trying to keep it all in our heads. The solution, then, is to have just one place where you store all of your to-dos. That way, you’ll learn to trust it, and your mind can relax.

The problems come when our “trusted system” ceases to be trustworthy. This can happen when you slip back into capturing new tasks in multiple places. But a breakdown in trust can also occur when your app, planner, or calendar becomes clogged with overdue and irrelevant tasks. You slowly lose confidence that you’ll see and execute the most important commitments at the right time because you have to sift through so much noise.

So what can be done?

Weeding Your To-List Garden

Imagine your to-do lists like a garden. It’s hard to stay organized, not because you are a particularly terrible person, but because work is particularly cursed because of sin (Genesis 3:17–19). Those thistles and thorns extend their wirey tendrils into your to-do list, too. You’ve got to weed the garden, and weeding is hard work.

In To-Do Lists Done Right, I use the acronym C.O.P.E to describe the four phases of managing tasks:

  • Centralize
  • Organize
  • Prioritize
  • Execute

People seem to naturally gravitate to the first and last principles: Centralize and execute. But they ignore organizing and prioritizing. We know we need to write the tasks down and do the tasks, but we aren’t particularly fond of keeping our to-do list system tidy. But ignore the weeds for too long, and chaos will start to creep back in.

In our quest for the perfect to-do list system, we’re chasing after the illusion that we’ll find something that’s easy, an app that won’t require the hard work of weeding. The recent surge of AI-assisted productivity apps plays to this desire as well. But managing tasks is work. And nothing will finally free you from working by the sweat of your brow except the return of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to live in the chaos of to-do list overwhelm in the meantime. But you do have to put in the work.

What I’m suggesting is that when you feel like your organization system is getting unwieldy, you resist the urge to run to the shiny new planner or app. Because when you start using a fresh planner or a new app, it initially feels like it might be your salvation. It’s like planting a new garden. The soil is all nice and tilled, you carefully set the plants in neat little rows, all is right in the world. But if you leave that garden for a week, you’ll return to chaos—weeds, wilted leaves, animals, and bugs. It’s not enough to plant and harvest a garden; you must tend it. So, too, with our to-do list systems. You can’t just capture and execute tasks. You need to organize, delete, and prioritize your tasks constantly. This is the work of managing your work.

Here are a few tips for practicing good to-do list gardening so you don’t get overrun with weeds.

  1. Remember your finitude. It’s good to capture tons of new tasks into your system as they come. But recognize that you’ll never get it all done. So be ruthless in deleting tasks from your system. Just because you put it in there doesn’t mean you need to do it.
  2. Schedule a weekly review time where you will organize & prioritize your list. You need to build a rhythm into your life to sort through the tasks you’ve captured, deleting what doesn’t make sense anymore, and refining, combining, and separating the signal from the noise. I like Friday afternoons for this.
  3. Take 5 minutes at the end of each day to select your priorities for the next day. Deciding what your priorities will be for tomorrow, today, helps keep you from succumbing to the tyranny of the urgent when you first start work in the morning. I like to choose 3 priority tasks then circle just 1 that I commit to getting done no matter what.
  4. Group tasks into projects. Sometimes, the sheer number of tasks in our to-do list system can overwhelm us. Grouping tasks into projects can take some of the terror out of long lists. Instead of having dozens of tasks, it feels more manageable when you just have a few projects.

And above all, remember grace. In the final accounting, one of the great blessings of to-do lists won’t be how much they helped us accomplish, but how often they reminded us of our own inadequacy and, thus, our need for Christ. The humbling to-do list is a reminder that only God is sufficient.


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