The universe has exploded with apps. There are over 1 million available for Apple (aapl) products and for Android devices: recipe apps, fitness apps, productivity apps, shopping apps. Many claim they will streamline your life and save that most precious commodity: time.
But will they? Can they?
“So many people are over-busy and overwhelmed. We’re looking for things outside of ourselves to ease our burden,” says Ali Davies, a Vancouver-based personal effectiveness coach who works with clients on time management issues. She almost never recommends a productivity app to a client. In fact, she often recommends the opposite, for several reasons.
First, because there are so many of them, many apps focus on something very specific. “There are no barriers to entry,” says Bob O’Donnell, who studies the technology marketplace as founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research. To make a viable product in a crowded eco-system, a developer “wants to have something unique, that sticks out, that focuses on a very specific issue.”
Since these niches are, well, small, problems that even popular apps attempt to solve may not be huge issues that devour people’s time. For instance, if you’re in a hotel in a new city, it’s nice to know there’s a good pizza place nearby. But your hotel concierge can tell you that too. A waiter can tell you what entrees other diners have enjoyed. It may be marginally more efficient to look at a shared grocery list compared with calling your spouse to ask if she needs anything, but in most people’s lives, saving two minutes doesn’t help much. You’ll spend those additional two minutes in your inbox. You could spend your life in your inbox. How much more pleasant to call your spouse instead?
To be sure, plenty of people do swear by their apps. If you’re in an unfamiliar city, Google Maps is helpful; the hotel concierge can give you directions but isn’t going to tag along in your car. Banking apps that let you take pictures of checks to deposit them save a drive to the branch. If you’re in a store and want to purchase an item, an app that generates coupons can save you money. In the long run, that amounts to saving time as well.
While many app-makers aim for niches, others have realized that being all-inclusive is likely more helpful. Journl, a productivity app that originated in the UK, combines list making, calendars, notes, etc., with the goal of getting people out of hybrid systems: a calendar one place, random post-it notes on a desk, lists in a separate app, and so forth. “We’re replacing all that chaos with a bit of clarity and calm,” says Lina Hansson, Journl’s chief marketing officer.
This goal of minimizing the total number of apps you use is important for saving time, because even if any one app has benefit, volume produces a cost in clutter and complication. “There are so many of them, how can you possibly keep track of them?” O’Donnell asks. Setting up an app takes time, as does adjusting your life to the app’s process. “If you find one that works for your style, great,” he says, “but that’s tough.”
Some people’s styles aren’t technical, which means an app will never be intuitive. “My wife swears by her paper list,” O’Donnell says. I asked which app this “PaperList” was, and he said, “No, I mean putting things on a piece of paper.” People get a smartphone and think “therefore I must have apps, therefore I must use them for everything,” but that’s not true. About 22% of people who download and use any given app once never use it again. Only about half of downloaders will use an app more than four times.
Finally here’s the biggest issue with using apps to save time: we are easily distracted. “It’s not always the app itself,” Davies says. “It’s the behavior it triggers.” You go into your to-do list app with the best intentions of crossing something off. But with device in hand, you check email and get sucked into a crisis that doesn’t concern you. Or you pop over to Pinterest and spend the next 45 minutes looking at Halloween costumes. Whatever time saved is dwarfed by that loss.
Davies recommends two strategies to her clients. First, “just log where all your time is going.” You might discover that the 20 minutes you spend comparing your stats to a friend’s on a fitness app could have been used to actually exercise.
Second, you might try deleting everything that’s not essential. Then see what you choose to add back. Davies did this with everything but a map app. Clients who’ve made a similar choice “have reported the significant amounts of free time they have,” she says. When your phone is less interesting, you look at it less. And, overall, that can make you feel like you have all the time in the world.