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Default Apps for Productivity

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
3 min read

What you choose as your default tools for your projects should employ the same amount of constraints as the tools you use for creativity: just enough to spur results and not enough to let stuff slip.

Everyone’s brain is different. Everyone’s job is a little different. This is why all-in-one productivity systems fail.

The biggest lies told in marketing and politics begin as a “comprehensive solution.” Whenever I hear this, I immediately know a giant load of bullshit is coming.

Ben Brooks has been on a journey lately, away from complex apps for productivity, and toward the simplest default system apps:

“I think all I need is a Reminder engine, I am pretty good at getting my tasks done once I am reminded of them.

And here is the scoop: Things and OmniFocus make for shitty reminder tools. They aren’t built for it. They are built for workflows, for managing tasks, projects, and tackling complexity with complex and flexible tooling.

I need a bucket not a warehouse with programmable robots.”

I quote Ben often, because I’m a subscriber and he defended me against very popular bloggers back when I was making the controversial argument that the cameras in your phones were good enough for most people. There’s a lot of good stuff in that article. Go read it.

You are not Ben, so you shouldn’t expect the same results, but here’s a few pros and cons you can learn from similar journeys I’ve taken lately with default apps:

  1. Ben is usually right in the long-term, because he has the kind of agency most people want in the long term. That doesn’t mean you currently enjoy the same amount of agency he does. Don’t get caught in a comparison trap.
  2. Agency is everything. Default system apps are very difficult to use if your boss can add to your calendar or project list at a whim and without warning. Even executives can have this issue. It’s not necessarily a matter of job title.
  3. Default apps are usually enough, but you have to think like the people making decisions on the apps. This is a part of my “Lazy Billionaire” productivity strategy — how would a billionaire CEO look at this issue while expending the least amount of cognitive energy? In most cases, this clarifies. My default weather app doesn’t have a radar, because tornados and blizzards aren’t a thing in California. My default calendar is where all productivity happens (for everything I haven’t assigned out to my 10 admins). My notes app is for quick notes here and there; easy to search and add to, but not much else. My reminders app is for…reminding. That’s it. Trying to make those tools fit into the GTD, PARA, or Kanban world is where you get into trouble.
  4. Default apps can fail. In fact, I’ve lost some data in default apps very recently. The change to iOS 14.4, for some reason, wiped out a few notes and reminders. They didn’t get sent to the trash. They just disappeared. I was only able to rescue the notes by finding a device that wasn’t on the network and moving the data to a different app. If I hadn’t known to catch it (because I saw notes shrinking on a work device out of the corner of my eye), it’s likely that backups would not have helped, since I may not have known what I was missing. This is why photo backups can be very tricky. Even text files fail and get corrupted sometimes — that really happened to me back in my Windows days and spurred my move over to Apple.
  5. Reminders now offers you the option to backup in the form of PDFs and paper, so this is less of a problem there. However, built-up, completed reminders do weigh down the system in ways that don’t seem to happen on third-party apps. I now use a shortcut to clear out these dead reminders every three months. This makes the app noticeably more responsive.
  6. We need to remember we won’t always be typing everything. Speaking to your devices will get more common every year. Default apps on all systems are built for this. Adapt to it now. You’ll thank me. This is why I use an Apple Watch, even though I hate the look. I dictate to it all the time — ideas, reminders, timers, etc. Reaching for a phone seems more and more primitive. Dotting your home and work environment with listening devices starts to makes less sense. I envy the writers who can dictate entire books already…some day.

The lesson I’ve taken from all this? Go as default as you can, but no further.