Want productive software? Look for these 5 principles

Picture of happy colleagues working together

Following a huge surge of interest in David Allen’s description of what it would take to make “the ultimate GTD app,” he and I recently met to discuss my 5 principles for designing productivity software.

Seeing the success of the interview, I’ve summarized my 5 principles below. These are the principles I used when creating my award-winning GTD app. Here’s what I hope you’ll get out of this:

  • If you’re looking for the ultimate productivity app, use these principles to evaluate your options
  • If you’re a developer, I hope these principles guide your design

Why your productivity software is important

For better or worse, our tools shape our habits, even our thinking. You know: “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” That makes app selection incredibly important, because you will be shaped by the tools you use.

This made it paramount to design an app that encouraged good, lasting habits. Productivity had to be “baked in.” Over six years — with a lot of unsparing and invaluable feedback from David — we honed this tool into something to not only track tasks, but shape habits.

1) No leaks

We’ve all experienced leaks. You write something down, something important — maybe on paper, in a note on your phone, or in your task system — and it disappears. You don’t see it again until it’s too late.

For your brain to let go of things and stop bugging you, you have to trust your system. For you to trust your system, you must know there are no leaks.

Therefore, any truly productive software must do the following:

  • Highlight any leaks to the user
  • Alert user to unclassified or undecided items

This is part of what it takes for an app to be built for confidence.

2) Attract more than repel

We’ve all picked up a promising app, only find it’s just too much work to use. So we drop it.

This problem is reflected in a key finding from my Work Styles survey: 45% said “I spend too much time tracking work and not enough doing.” For a productivity app, this will not do.

Like I said in my recent post on my productive paper system, unconscious resistance is a term David Allen coined to describe “resistance to using one’s own systems.” This is also known as friction.

My goal was to maximize my users’ time — which meant minimizing their time thinking about the tool. After all, you use an app to track your work, not to think about the app!

  • Beware of creating unconscious resistance — keep personal in productivity
  • There’s a fine line between thinking about actions and thinking about the tool
  • Require as few steps as possible:
    • Reduce clicks
    • Anticipate or identify choices
  • Limit distractions
  • Reduce effort
  • User must perceive inherent value in product features
  • Key capabilities including quick capture, review, and find

3) Pass the 30-60-90 test

New ideas and features always seem amazing and shiny — but will they stand the test of time? Every feature must add lasting value.

  • Be watchful for shiny but unproductive or unused features
  • For every proposed new feature, are we still talking about it 30 days later?
  • Are a significant number of users still using it consistently 60 or 90 days later?

There were a number of features we thought were amazing at first — and then never used again. They were axed.

4) If you add, add value

In most software development (as in most projects), the constant temptation is to add more stuff. More is better, right? More options, more styles, more colors, more graphics… Professionally, this is known as “feature creep,” emphasis on creep.

As the old saying goes, “Less is more.” I’ve personally found that true in my reading and hobbies. I’m more satisfied with a very small number of quality options than with a plethora of choices.

Therefore, I look for the following in any app:

  • Don’t burden the user with noise, distractions, or decisions
  • Everything must be built with perceptible intention
  • Any feature that does not add consistent, reproducible value to users’ workflow should be removed (or at least disabled by default)

5) Would David or Eric use it?

Many tools claim to be designed for GTD®. Very few deliver. Instead, many leave users feel they’re working the system, instead of the system working for them.

In the design and testing process, I always asked:

  • How close does this adhere to GTD’s proven principles?
  • Before asking David to review a feature, can I first show that I’ve been using it consistently for an extended time?

How to look at your productivity software

Think about your tools. Do they work for you, or do you work for them? Do they make your work easier or harder? Do they attract or repel?

If you’re looking for a productivity app, I hope these principles help guide your choice. If you’re stuck with the tools you have (likely at work), consider how you can reshape them with these principles. After all, while your tools certainly shape you, you can also shape them.

For my full interview with David, click here.

What’s the most productive software you’ve found — and more importantly, what makes it so good?

Here’s to your calm and clarity!


Time to start blogging/podcasting again…

David Allen (@GTDGuy) recently invited me to join him for two podcasts. We covered a variety of topics around two themes.

Eric in his office on a podcast

The first is my 5 Principles for Productivity Software Design and offers a glimpse of what I went through to design eProductivity. I also share what you should look for as a designer or user of productivity tools.

The second theme is how not to let your tools shape the way you work — a topic I am passionate about. The workplace is broken, and I have ideas on how to fix it. Good stuff to come.

If you were one of the many who completed my team’s Work Styles and Key Frustrations survey, thank you! You’ll be interested to follow the reactions and recommendations which I plan to share. I initially intended to respond personally to everyone, but this has proven impractical due to the hundreds of responses received. Therefore, I decided instead to share my survey observations in blog posts (and hopefully future podcasts with David Allen and others).

There you have it. I hope you’ll find this upcoming series extraordinarily helpful.

If you completed the Work Styles and Key Frustrations survey or want to keep up with the latest Intentionally Productive news, be sure to sign up to be notified.

Here’s to your calm and clarity!


Microsoft MyAnalytics: It’s like a Fitbit to measure the way you work

Not too long ago, one of my colleagues started using a screentime-tracking app on her iPhone. She was astonished to discover how much time she really spent on social media and messaging apps.

If you had similar insights on how your time at work is spent, what do you think you’d see?

This quick post is about a recent addition of the Office 365 suite: MyAnalytics.

This new app from Microsoft is like a Fitbit™ that measures the way you work. It gives you personalized private feedback on where you’re spending your time along with helpful tips and recommendations. For example:

This kind of information – on how much time you spend in meetings vs. focused work vs. unplugged and relaxed – plays a valuable part in developing an Intentionally Productive mindset.

I place a lot of emphasis on “It’s not about the tool” and “Tools can’t replace thinking,” and that’s all true – but this is a really cool tool because of the information it provides.

Like any tool, MyAnalytics won’t automatically make your work easier. That depends on what you do with what it tells you.

MyAnalytics will provide some semi-personalized recommendations; however, to get the most value from its information about your work habits, you need to think intentionally about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Go to MyAnalytics.Microsoft.com to get started.

Think intentionally about how you can turn these insights into action. I’m always available to help.

Are you using MyAnalytics? Do you find it useful or not? How do you think you can use this kind of information to become more Intentionally Productive?

David Allen and I talk about the ultimate productivity app

In late July, John Forrister interviewed David Allen and me for a few hours about the ultimate app for Getting Things Done (click here for my previous blog post about this). That interview was published this month as a two-part podcast.

The three of us discussed what would make for an ideal app, why it hasn’t happened yet, how close I got with eProductivity (which David designated as GTD Enabled), and what’s next.

What is the ultimate GTD app?

After 25 years of working with David, we still agree that the ultimate GTD solution is not the perfect app: it’s the solution you can make work for you. No matter how good a tool is, you can’t outsource your thinking to it.

Of course, a good tool can drastically lower the resistance you feel to your work and encourage an intentionally productive mindset. I’m still convinced that those things, much more than gee-whiz features, are what make a tool extraordinary. It remains true, however, that the best tool can only support your thinking, not replace it.

"The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

I took this photo at the GTD Summit. Einstein was right (no surprise).

Links to the podcast

To listen to our conversation, click these links:

You can also find these episodes on Soundcloud and most podcast apps.

Feel free to contact me re: app design and system implementation

Since the release of this podcast, several people have asked me to consult with them on designing or implementing their own productivity systems. If I can be of service you, by all means contact me. I’ll be happy to talk about how I can help you.


What do you think about what we discussed in the podcast? Do you agree that no tool can do your thinking for you? Let me know in the comments!

Coming soon: answers and podcast on the ultimate GTD app

At the GTD Summit last month, David Allen announced that he would give away his plans for the ultimate “Getting Things Done” app.

An excerpt from David Allen's hand-drawn 1994 plans for the ultimate GTD app

David followed up in a newsletter with a link to his plans and a recommendation that people reach out to me for more information about building the ultimate GTD app. The response has been significant: many people have written to me with suggestions and questions, as well as requests for coaching for their own GTD systems or consulting to design the ultimate GTD app.

While I can’t personally respond to every inquiry, I will be blogging responses to popular questions here (make sure to subscribe).

In addition, David Allen and I plan to record a podcast in a few weeks (which I’ll post about here), in which we’ll talk about:

  • The subtle and powerful features and design that make an app “GTD enabled
  • The rigorous thought that goes into providing a truly seamless experience for the user
  • Our experience designing and developing the ultimate GTD app (how close we came, and why it hasn’t quite happened yet)
  • Answers to some of the many questions we’ve received since David’s announcement

If there’s a question you would like David and me to address, please post it in the comments below. We’ll review these as we plan the podcast.

David Allen gives away the ultimate GTD app

David Allen, world-renowned creator the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, is giving away the ultimate GTD app (some assembly required).

Twenty-five years ago, David created a set of plans for the ultimate GTD app. Despite committed efforts by many talented people, it has yet to be built. Now, David is putting his plans in the public domain.

David Allen’s announcement from the 2019 GTD Summit (in Amsterdam) about “the ultimate GTD app”

I designed eProductivity, the GTD app that David has used and recommended for the last decade. He talked about it at the GTD Summit in Amsterdam two weeks ago. Though we were constrained at the time by the existing Lotus Notes platform, this app is, in David’s words, “the closest anyone has ever gotten” to his vision of the ultimate GTD software implementation.

Over the six-year process of designing eProductivity (2002 – 2008), David and I looked at hundreds of apps supposedly designed for GTD. I’m sure many had smart people behind them. Some were elegantly designed, but none hit the mark. For many, it was clear that their creators simply did not understand the more subtle aspects of what makes GTD so powerful.

As David showed parts of his plans at the GTD Summit, he recommended developers talk to me. A few confidently claimed that they could crank out a dream app in a few weeks. Looking back on my 25 years of experience with David and GTD, I had to warn them not to be deceived. Though what the user sees may appear simple, behind it lies great complexity.

The ultimate GTD app will require an impressive array of features, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part—the part that I spent six years thinking about—is making the entire GTD experience as seamless and simple as possible for the user. That requires not only deep understanding of GTD, but also great complexity and intricate design, all hidden behind the scenes.

Consider this illustration: the perfect system is like an automatic transmission. As anyone who’s driven a manual transmission knows, an automatic turns a complicated operation into a simple one—and as any mechanic knows, the automatic transmission can do so only because it is complex.

Twelve years of running eProductivity has given me a unique perspective on what works and what doesn’t for personal productivity tools. This has led me apply the knowledge I gained in the software space to help people do their best work where they are, with whatever tools they have (Notes, Office 365, etc.).

David Allen and Eric Mack together at the GTD Summit 2019 in Amsterdam

That said, I, along with David, would love to see the ultimate GTD app come to life. If you have a productivity application that you want to GTD enable, or you’re thinking about designing one, I can help. 

What features would you love to see in the ultimate GTD app? Leave a comment below!

To read more about the GTD Summit and get productivity tips, be sure to subscribe.