Have you ever wanted to do something (something productive, of course) but were unable to make yourself take action? Yeah, me too. It’s a common problem and it’s called procrastination. One of the best ways to falcon punch procrastination in the groin is to use productivity tools – because they put the onus of action taking on something external, rather than on your capricious and unreliable brain.
In this article we analyze the pros and cons of three of the best productivity tools out there: habit trackers, journals, and spreadsheets.
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Why You Should Be Using Productivity Tools
Your brain – in all its glory, wonder, and power – is not infallible. Which is kind of funny to think about, right? Each one of us possess the most powerful supercomputer in the known universe right in our noggin, and yet we struggle to make ourselves do the things we really want to do.
“Should I go to the gym? Yup. But am I going to eat pizza and binge watch Netflix instead? Yup! Am I going to regret this decision later? You betcha!”
So, to counteract our powerful yet unreliable brains we use productivity tools.
It’s the same way a mechanic uses a wrench to do… “mechanic person things,” instead of their fingers (or something like that… I obviously don’t know much about mechanics.)
In other words, we use habit trackers, journals, or spreadsheets because our brains are unreliable. But there’s also another little reason you should be using productivity tools that’s called the “consistency bias.”
What is the Consistency Bias?
The consistency bias is the delusion that how you are thinking and feeling right now is the same way you have always thought and felt.
Now, obviously this bias isn’t true.
Because human opinions, emotions, and especially habits change drastically over time. But what the consistency bias tells us is that if you don’t actively keep tabs on your progress then you wont notice how you’ve changed over time.
“Ok, so how does this relate to productivity tools?”
Well, when it comes to getting the most out of your productivity and your habits, keeping tabs on your progress is one of the most important things you can do.
Example (going back to the gym vs pizza and binge-watching scenario): as the result of some mystical miraculous miracle (or so it seems) you were actually able to force yourself to go to the gym. Boom baby. You’re feeling great and you’re able to keep up this gym routine for about a month…
…and then next month comes around and you inevitably fall back into that same pizza loving Netflix binging routine. You’re astounded. You can’t figure out why you were able to get your ass to the gym last month when you feel like a lazy sack of potatoes this month.
What you don’t realize is that when you were going to the gym last month you were also eating better, sleeping better, knitting more, working on your coding project more, and hanging out with friends twice as much as you were this month. All of these things were the perfect amalgamation of events that motivated you to hit the gym.
But, because of the consistency bias, your brain is thinking that you’ve always been a gym goer and that you’ll always be a gym goer. You’re not thinking about the things that lead to your success and you’re not thinking about how to replicate them in the future. Thus, you don’t replicate them and you start to fail, again.
Let me put it more succinctly: by using productivity tools to keep track of your progress you can identify past mistakes, realize what works, and replicate your success going forward. In other words, you avoid the consistency bias.
Now, with that being said, let’s get into the specific pros and cons of habit trackers, journals, and spreadsheets.
Habit Trackers – Pros and Cons
Related: The 6 Best Habit Tracking Apps
Habit trackers are applications that you use primarily on your phone. Though, many also have web browser integration. You can find a plethora of them (some better than others) on the Play and App store. Examples include apps like Habitbull, Habitify, Habitica, and chains.cc.
Habit Tracker Pros
Because they’re used on your phone, habit trackers are extremely portable. And in an ever more complicated and fast-paced world having things anywhere you are is a big deal.
For example, I use a habit tracker to track my eating out expenses. So whenever I get the check, BAM!, I whip out my phone and enter in how much I spent. Takes like two seconds and it allows me to keep track of my spending.
Don’t underestimate the importance of portability in today’s day and age.
Ease of Use
As long as you possess some phone literacy (so not my mother) then habit trackers are extremely easy to use.
Most habit trackers operate as a nice calendar grid made up of your habits.
Tap once on any particular day within the grid to mark its corresponding habit as a success, and tap twice to mark it as a failure. Long-tap to enter in a comment or note for the day, and navigate to another part of the application to look at your statistics and success percentages.
Automatic Statistical Feedback
Remember that bit about avoiding the consistency bias? Automatic statistical feedback plays a huge roll in that. This feedback will, among other things, tell you how successful you’ve been with a particular task, give you your streak, max streak, and percent successful days.
This is some really vital information that you’ll want to pay attention to. Best of all, it’s automatically calculated for you as you enter in your habits (you just have to find where it’s displayed in your application.)
Habit Tracker Cons
Lack of Customization
Habit trackers have little to no customization. This means that if you want to track your habits in some other way, or if you want to find additional statistics on your habits, you can’t.
More than once I’ve found that the statistical feedback I get from habit trackers is inadequate.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to get more information within the app itself. So before you get too invested in any one habit tracker, make sure that it’ll give you the feedback you’re looking for.
Lack of Personalization
There’s a lot of research out there that says that when things are personalized to you, you’re much more likely to pay attention to them. Now, when this comes to habits and productivity, that means you’re much more likely to pay attention to your habits and stick to them.
So if you can customize your tracking method then you’re giving yourself a huge advantage.
Unfortunately, habit trackers have a distinct lack of personalization. In fact, I don’t know of a single habit tracker app where you can significantly customize the design of the tracker itself.
Journals – Pros and Cons
There are a few different types of journals out there. One type is a simple notebook (the kind you might use in school) where you jot down your thoughts.
Another, but more antiquated type, is a systematized journal with a predefined structure where you’re filling in the blanks.
And another type is called a bullet journal that’s designed to give you maximum creativity and personalization. In this article I am referring to the first and the last type, but not systematized journals.
Because journals are created on blank sheets of paper (or grid paper in the case of a bullet journal) they have an extremely high level of customization. Unlike habit trackers you don’t have to follow the format given to you, and you can organize your journal any way you want.
Journals have the highest degree of personalization of any tool out there because they’re created using pen and paper. Remember, the more personalized anything is to you the more likely you are to pay attention to it. So this is probably the biggest pro of journals
Many journal users self-report that the customization and personalization process is a cathartic and relaxing experience in and of itself, similar to meditation. Just take a look at some of the creations at reddit.com/r/bulletjournals and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve also included some examples in my video about productivity tools.
Customization and Personalization
Ironically, a journal’s potential for customization and personalization can be its biggest downfall as well. This is because the creative space for journals is so large that it can quickly turn into a distraction or a form of procrastination.
If you watch my video (here) you’ll see an example of a bullet journal where the creator reported spending over 30 hours drawing one single page. Now, I must admit, the page itself was beautiful. But it just seems ironic that the tool that is meant to make you more productive is taking up so much of your time.
When creating journals, you may have to apply some self-discipline to make sure that you don’t get sucked into the black hole of creation (dun! dun! dun!)
Of course, this is where the counter-argument of cathartic expression comes into play. And if it’s making you happy, that’s another story. But if it’s specifically meant to increase your productivity then you probably don’t want to spent 30 hours creating a single page.
Automatic Statistical Feedback
My biggest gripe with journals is that they don’t have any automatic statistical feedback. Unlike habit trackers or spreadsheets there’s no page you can turn to that will automatically calculate your streaks, success percentages, or averages, etc.
Now, you could say that I’ve become too dependent on technology, but I’d simply argue that you’re not dependent enough! Because I know that if I have to manually make a bunch of calculations every week then I’m simply not going to do them – which kind of defeats the purpose of tracking in the first place.
Remember, we want to look at our statistics so that we can fervently avoid the consistency bias as much as possible. And the fact that I can’t do that easily with a pen and paper journal is a big turn-off for me.
The final con of journals is that they’re not as portable as habit trackers or spreadsheets (because they’re not digital.) All in all, they’re a bit clunky and hard to carry around. And trust me, I’ve carried around enough books in college to know that I never want to always carry one again if I don’t have to.
Spreadsheets – Pros and Cons
Ah. Finally, here we are. My favorite productivity tool of all time (in case you couldn’t tell by the fact that a specific portion of this website is dedicated to productivity spreadsheets.)
Spreadsheets are applications such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets that are found on your computer, phone, and web browser. In this day and age I’m guessing you’ve at least seen a spreadsheet before because if you haven’t then I don’t know how to explain them (it’s like trying to explain the taste of salt to someone who’s never had it.)
I prefer Excel to Sheets because it simply has more functionality. But the ease of use of sheets is hard to deny. Regardless, here are the pros and cons of spreadsheets as a whole when used as a productivity tool.
Spreadsheets are the paragon of digital customization (journals take the crown overall, but spreadsheets are a close second.) I’ve even gone so far as to replicate some habit tracking apps I have on my phone, with slight tweaks, in spreadsheets; because, yeah, you can do that!
Similar to journals, spreadsheets also have a high degree of personalization (also known as formatting.) Basically, you can make your spreadsheet look any way you want, and you can personalize it to fit your personality and style. Remember, it’s very important to personalize things to you so that you are invested in them and are thus more likely to stay consistent over time.
Automatic Statistical Feedback
Spreadsheets are the undisputed king of automatic statistical feedback because you can code them to do basically anything you want. Do you want a count of streaks and success percentages? You got it. How about some averages? Done. Maybe some nice graphs or charts? Boom baby, no problem!
The point is, spreadsheets allow you to get the information you’re looking for easily. With journals you have to calculate the information yourself, and with habit trackers you may not be able to get the information at all. But with spreadsheets, it’s all at your fingertips.
Because spreadsheets are digital they are extremely portable. And they can be used on your phone as well (although the phone versions are a bit more clunky.) So, just make sure you have the right application downloaded (Excel or Sheets) and you shouldn’t have a problem
With all of their benefits, there is a bit of a learning curve to creating productivity spreadsheets. I’ve been creating productivity spreadsheets for nearly 10 years and I’m still learning new things with every spreadsheet. So if you’re creating a habit tracking spreadsheet from scratch and you’ve never used spreadsheets before then you’re in for a pretty long project.
With that being said, I’ve created a plethora of pre-designed and ready to use spreadsheets. You can find all of my Productivity Spreadsheets here. And if you want to easily create your own custom habit tracking spreadsheet with ZERO spreadsheet experience then fill out the form below.
Time and Experience
Spreadsheets take a significant amount of time to create, even if you’re an “experienced spreadsheet maker” (some even take as much time as that 30 hour journal page from above!) But, again, I’ll just simply say that you can skip all of that time and experience nonsense and download one of my spreadsheets.
Overall, I use a combination of these tools in my personal life. But my favorite productivity tools in order are spreadsheets, habit trackers, and then journals.
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