Productivity Apps or Technologically Induced Cognitive Overload?

Addie Johnson
4 min readMay 1, 2019

Many work cultures rely heavily on productivity extensions, apps, and other widgets. But with such a sharp increase in the creation of these supposedly helpful tools, America is not seeing any rise in tangible productivity. What gives?

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

If you cut down a tree and there’s no to-do list app to check it off, did you actually complete the task? When you have six to-do lists, four collaborative workflows, and twelve calendar extension apps, how much are you actually using each app to be really productive? Everyone is getting busier and managing time differently. Time is our most precious and valued resource — we want to save as much of it as possible. With the hundreds of productivity apps, internet browsers, widgets, and books on the subject, producers and consumers have obviously done significant research into the benefits of efficient time allocation. Not as common, however, do these producers and consumers discuss the disadvantages to some of these technologies and approaches.

We’re not actually more productive.

Even though there are more “get stuff done” mobile applications now more than ever, Americans have not exhibited a proportional uptick in measurable productivity. According to an analysis by the New York Times, Americans’ productive output is actually slower now than since the early 1980s.

Contrary to such a statistic, the Utilities and Productivity sector of the mobile application market has exploded in recent years. Because productivity is such a hard variable to quantifiably measure, it does not seem imminently evident how Americans could be less productive with more resources.

It’s harder to concentrate and get into a productivity “flow state.”

One of the biggest issues with productivity apps and productivity culture is the fact that most are not psychologically conducive to cultivating a “flow state” in which someone could focus and work for longer periods of time. One study by Nilli Lavie at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College in London demonstrates that humans work better without distractions. However, phones themselves are sources of immense distraction— push notifications, buzzing, and brightly colored interfaces create a disruptive feedback loop. Within this loop, employees become wired to continually check their phones and furthermore become more reactive to new information. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Employees who manage their attention poorly are constantly in reactive mode. That leaves them no time to reflect and thoughtfully apply their knowledge and experience to offer you an edge in your business — the very reasons you hired them in the first place.” Not only is a reactive state of mind detrimental to the employee’s personal attention span, but also their work attention span — which is entirely unhelpful when one must sit down to concentrate for several hours.

Our brains are getting overloaded with information.

This constant checking and information consumption leads to a phenomenon called Cognitive Overload, which essentially means that the brain is processing so much data that it cannot focus on any of them at full capacity. Furthermore, we are exceedingly unproductive when trying to switch between task/to-do list/app, etcetera. The cognitive overload phenomenon connects to the idea of time management VS attitude management. Time management could be how someone might think they spent three hours working on a logo mockup, whereas attitude management understands that in reality, we may not be working at full capacity for all three hours, especially if there are other forms of distraction.

How can productivity and technology coexist?

In order to combat these issues within productivity app/hyper-productive culture, it is important to understand how you work best, then organize your action plan around your own habits. By observing and understanding how you work, you can get into your creative zone and workflow much faster and more efficiently. For example, if you know that you are a highly structured person and or need structure to function, you might block out your day on paper the night before or in the morning. From that base of time allocation, you could use your productivity apps to fill in or schedule certain tasks to be done and pre-plan your breaks to minimize endless social media holes. By being organized and deliberate about your personal approach, technology and productivity can integrate and make your life easier. However, in the grand scheme of things, apps are just a means to an end. Most apps can’t get the work done that you need to get done (if they could, there’s probably an app for that), so it may be smarter to observe and learn from the core underlying principles of these productivity helpers, rather than relying solely on their utilitarian purpose.



Addie Johnson

writing about the intersection of design, business, and technology //