Your Fancy Apps Can’t Save You

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In March, I decided I was going to start meditating. Instead of closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing, I opened up the App Store.

I was met with an onslaught of options — HeadSpace, Calm, Insight Timer, Waking Up, and countless other apps — each one claiming to be the most effective.

Ignoring the irony of the fact that people have been meditating for centuries without any fancy technology, I spent a week reading different reviews and making comparisons before ultimately choosing one (and then changing my mind a short while later because it hadn’t transformed me into a master meditator yet).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a conscious consumer, but my meditation app dilemma highlights a greater struggle I see with young consumers: we think apps and gizmos are going to change us.

I’m sure every meditation app I analyzed is great, but they’re all useless if I don’t sit down for a few minutes every day and meditate. All of these apps would help me make the most of my meditation, but none of them can make me meditate.

Once I genuinely decided I was going to meditate no matter what, I did. At that point, the app barely mattered.

I’ve had the same experience with calendar, to-do list, writing, and note-taking apps.

Every time, I thought there was an app out there that was going to fix all my problems. When it didn’t, I’d switch to a new one.

I’ve now realized the truth. Apps and gizmos are simply a multiplier of the work one puts in. If the work is 0, the result will be 0, app or none.

Want proof? Let’s look at some of the world’s top performing individuals and sites.

You Aren’t Special

All great works of literature were historically written on either a typewriter or (gasp) paper.

The United States Constitution was written with a quill on hemp paper.

Hundreds of pages, countless drafts, didn’t matter. Great thinkers with revolutionary ideas found a way to do it.

Meanwhile, I spent days stressing about which software to download to write this simple article. While some tools may help, no app is going to make you a writer if you don’t write every day.

In a way, this is a form of productive procrastination. I feel like I’m using my time well by being deliberate about which tools I bring into my life, but in reality I’m just spinning my wheels and putting off what actually matters. Some of the best blogs I read may be rough to look at, but it doesn’t matter because their ideas are just so good.

In contrast, you can put together the most aesthetically pleasing blog with the best softwares, but nobody is going to come back to it if the writing and the ideas suck.

Think about Amazon and Facebook. They’re two of the most widely used websites in the world. I certainly wouldn’t call them pretty, but they work.

We need to view our work the same way.

Look at the Greats

Look at this photo of Jeff Bezos calling into a Congressional hearing.

Image from @Adxpillar on Twitter

Perhaps it’s for some secret security reasons, but that HP has to be from like 2011. Personally, I would’ve expected him to be surrounded by a wall of 4K monitors and a futuristic computer with all the RAM in the world.

Even my computer set up looks better than his, but who’s doing more important work?

If Bezos can call into Congress with that set up, I promise the rest of us don’t need newer and nicer computers to play around on the internet and maybe bang out a few words.

It’s not just Bezos, either.

Check out this video of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett discussing Buffett’s “calendar.”

To start with, Buffett’s calendar is a tiny notebook. More so, it’s basically empty.

I have separate calendar and to-do list apps, both of which are totally jammed on most days. I’m positive I’m way, way less productive than Warren Buffett, though.

The most important line in the video comes from Gates:

“It’s not a proxy of your seriousness that you’ve filled up every minute in your schedule.”

– Bill Gates

With that thought in mind, we can move toward a solution.

What to Do Instead

There’s surely some survivorship bias at play here. Some extremely successful people must use every app and software in the world to manage their lives.

I’m not here to tell you apps and gizmos are bad. The point is that they won’t save you.

If you’re already very productive and organized, a new productivity app may take things to another level. If your diet is great but you just need to lose three more pounds, a great macro-tracking app may make the difference. But if you eat seven burgers a day, I promise it won’t matter if you decide to use MyFitnessPal or any other app. Until you change yourself, the app won’t do anything.

When you can’t spend your time worrying about the newest apps, you’re forced to grapple with the true complexities of your tasks and goals.

I’ve found this quote from Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator, current CEO of Open AI, and guy who obviously gets a lot of stuff done, very helpful:

“Many people spend too much time thinking about how to perfectly optimize their system, and not nearly enough asking if they’re working on the right problems. It doesn’t matter what system you use or if you squeeze out every second if you’re working on the wrong thing.”

Sam Altman

I’d argue many of us are trapped in an endless cycle of trying to optimize a system that’s leading us to the wrong destination (or to no destination).

If you’re a computer science major who wants to work at Google, it doesn’t make much sense for you to spend hours worrying about how to turn your 95 in Intro to German Film into a 97. As important as it is to be cultured, I don’t think Google cares. Spend your time focusing on whichever skills will be most important in the job you’re looking to get into.

That may sound ridiculous, but we do it all the time. If you want to be a writer, think about how much time per day you actually spend writing. An hour? Two? Maybe three?

What do you do for the rest of the day? Instead of optimizing the time you spend on activities you don’t even need to be doing, try eliminating some altogether.

Remember, apps and technology are a multiplier of your work. For the best results, you must first identify the problem you want to tackle, and then actually go after it. Once you’re on your journey, you can start considering which apps and gizmos can help accelerate your progress.

I don’t know what the answer for your life is, but I promise it isn’t an app.

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