Sharing a few things we've learned about this nebulous thing everyone talks about.

“Productivity,” in the economics sense, cares about the ratio between inputs and outputs. It’s something to be measured and continuously optimized. But what we’ve come to realize is that productivity at the individual level—particularly when it comes to knowledge workers— is hard to track or quantify in any objective way. It’s often self-reported, driven by an individual’s feeling around their effectiveness and the progress they’re making toward a goal.

At Clew, we’re building  a better way to organize work, be it for an individual, a team, or an organization. For any project or thought, we capture the context, surface the relevant information, and preserve what’s important for future reference. We spend a lot of time thinking about productivity and what it means for the modern worker. It helps us understand why people choose the tools they do, why certain habits stick but others don’t, and what opportunities there are to help people work better. Here’s some of the things  we’ve learned from talking to users and seeing how they used Clew through all its builds:  

1) The fiercest competition to any productivity & future of work tool is a user’s muscle memory

Even if someone knows there’s a faster, better alternative to their existing habit or workflow, the muscle memory of doing it the way they’ve always done it is a huge impediment to overcome. The motivation to try something new might last for a week, but sustaining that momentum long enough to form a new habit is difficult if the outcome is an optimization and not a fix for a real pre-existing pain.

The product either solves for something that the user previously hated doing, or bundles together enough optimizations that the sum of the new experience is meaningfully superior to the comfort of maintaining status quo. The challenge then is to not only create a great enough experience, but to help the user recognize it fast enough before they fall back into doing things the old way.

2) Momentum is a powerful thing

Don’t underestimate the little moments that inject momentum during work. They can be a powerful motivator.


a) Whether it’s a physical list made at the start of the day, or a running checklist in an app, people really love crossing tasks off—big or small. Entire productivity systems are built around this principle of simply getting things done.

b) Momentum can come from product decisions, like the speed of search results, load times, or keyboard shortcuts. Even if the accumulated time-savings in a day seem negligible, what’s important is that it makes people feel they’re moving toward their goal faster.

We pay attention to the opportunities where we can reduce overwhelm and inject these positive reinforcements thoughtfully into our product.

3) Productivity is different for everyone

Everyone’s routines and habits around work look different. One person swears by David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, but the next person finds it overwhelming. One person is an avid note-taker with a heavily regimented day, while the next person likes to have an open calendar with broad goals. People’s roles and responsibilities are different. The tools they use to get work done are different. This is part of the reason why work happens across so many disparate, sometimes redundant tools in a team—everybody has different preferences. Yet, when we consider the existing solutions for knowledge management, they’re often rigid and overly prescriptive.

Building better tools for work means unpacking what productivity means now that workdays are open-ended, work itself is ambiguous, and output doesn’t take the form of countable widgets. Sure, there are coarse measures like the number of support tickets resolved, the number of projects completed ahead of schedule, or the number of pull requests made. But remove the vanity metrics that mistake activity with productivity, and the number of real measures of output for knowledge work are few and far between.

If you’re trying to build better tools for work then, how do you define better? What does success with the product look like for a user? How do you build something opinionated, but not overly prescriptive; something flexible, but not overly complicated? We’re constantly wrangling with these questions, trying to find better answers to them because they inform so much of how we think about the product and how we talk about the product to users. Ultimately, our aim is to help people build a better system around their work; one that not only boosts their emotions and perceptions during the workday, but helps them make progress on the work that actually matters.

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