What if there’s no perfect to-do list, project management platform, or productivity app?
It’s a heretical thought, especially for an app evangelist like me. In the past fifteen years, I’ve tried scores of task managers like Todoist and Wunderlist, a couple dozen project management platforms like Asana and Basecamp, and hundreds of other productivity apps that promise to make better use of my time or enhance collaboration with my colleagues or my team. (I call the combination of all of these together — from the to-do list apps to the calendars, message apps, and collaborative planning and document programs, my “productivity system.”)
I’ve liked some of these apps enough to use them for years or recommend them or even implement them with my colleagues. But I’ve found that when my projects or team change, I almost always end up changing my productivity system, too — looking for apps that will do a better job.
I’m not alone. In a 2019 survey, software comparison site GetApp found that 97% of project managers use more than one tool to manage their projects. And if there are now 272 different task managers and 777 project management apps listed on tech buying guide G2, I suspect it’s because a great many software developers find that they need to build their own project-management platforms. (Indeed, that’s the story behind Basecamp, Rindle and Todoist.)
One reason behind this dissatisfaction is that people simply like to organize their digital work in many different ways, just as you may choose to write your weekly tasks on post-its while your office-mate likes to write them on a whiteboard. And even if you choose your own software, the productivity setup that serves you well in one project or role may be utterly unsuited for the next. Perhaps you were able to run everything off the Google Suite on your last project — but this time out, you’re working with a client who hates collaborating via Google Docs. Or maybe one part of your job is made up of discrete, time-sensitive tasks, while the other is focused on large, complex, and interdependent projects.
But now, a new category of software is making it possible for anyone to create their own custom productivity dashboards, no coding skills needed. These tools, such as Airtable, Notion, and Coda, each work a little differently, but they all add powerful functionality to basic spreadsheets or text documents to give you the benefits of programming without the hassle of writing your own code. For the past six months, I’ve spent most of my workday inside one of these tools — Coda — and I’m amazed at how much more I can get done by using a productivity dashboard I’ve built myself.
I’m not the only one taking advantage of this new world: Notion’s Template Gallery contains dozens of community-contributed productivity templates that cover everything from the specific steps in video production to a complete toolkit for independent contractors. Airtable’s eclectic “Universe” contains community-contributed “bases” for tracking clients and prospects, managing an inventory of rental properties and running a product launch. The collection of project management and productivity templates in Coda’s community includes a to-do list tracker modelled on General Eisenhower’s system, a system for managing an editorial team’s workflow, and an “Omnicodoro” productivity template that combines the “Getting Things Done” methodology with a tool for working in “Pomodoro sprints.”
Looking through these template galleries can give you a sense of the possibilities, or a useful starting point for your own productivity dashboard. But you’ll get the most value from these platforms if you build a tool to your own personal specifications, especially if you have some specific frustrations or unmet needs with the tools you’re presently using. If you do, here are some principles to keep in mind:
Your frustrations with the tools you’re using now are your best indicators of what you need to build into your own custom dashboard, so start by jotting them down. Then evaluate the different DIY productivity platforms based on how easy they will make it for you to solve those particular problems. In my case, I was trying to address a couple of limitations in the Google Sheet I’d long used to track all my story ideas and pitches: I wanted a bigger edit window and a way to work more easily with a spreadsheet with many, many columns. Coda solved those problems.
The best way to figure out whether a productivity platform can work for you is to just start using it. So even if you have grand plans for a really elaborate dashboard that will automate various parts of your work, start with something easy, like a task list you customize so it reflects the different ways you like to categorize and view your tasks. When I started working with Coda, I began by simply importing my existing spreadsheet of story ideas, and then creating a few different custom views: one that allowed me to see all my ideas, one with just my best ideas, and one listing the ideas that were ready to go out to editors.
One of the joys of building your own productivity dashboard is you don’t need to use the same setup for every project. Depending on what you’re working on (and with whom) you might need just a simple task list and digital notebook, or you might want a more elaborate set of spreadsheets with some automation built in. I have custom Coda dashboards for each area of my work: one for collaborating on client proposals (mapping out responsibilities, planning budgets and drafting proposal documents), one for planning website improvements (with separate sections for site architecture, site content and technical requirements), and one for presenting my work portfolio to prospective editors (including links, work samples and social media metrics in separate folders). I even used Coda to plan our family vacation (where it centralized our travel bookings, restaurant reviews and activity schedule).
The real power of these DIY productivity platforms lies in the ability to automate parts of your work — but that automation likely depends on how well your chosen platform integrates with the other tools you use. For example, I’ve integrated my Coda story tracker with my Gmail account, so when I have a set of story ideas that are ready to go to an editor, I can click one button that combines all my selected pitches into a single draft email. And I use Coda’s connection to Zapier to set up even more integrations, like the one that connects mobile form tool Jotform to Coda so that I can quickly add new story ideas from my phone.
Precisely because productivity tools come and go from our lives, you should experiment with getting your data out of a platform when you begin using it. Not just the text; I wanted a platform that would also preserve the structure and organization of my tasks, notes and contact history. Even if it’s a matter of manually copying and pasting your hard work into a set of spreadsheets, make sure there is a way to export your work, and make a point of doing so regularly, if only as a backup.
In a world with so many turnkey productivity tools and applications, many people will find it easier and more effective to just use something off the shelf, even if it doesn’t quite work the way they want. But for those interested in building just the right solution, platforms like Coda, Notion, and Airtable are absolute game-changers. You no longer have to be a programmer in order to build the application or dashboard that suits your needs.
This article was originally written by Alexandra Samuel a speaker, researcher and writer who works with the world’s leading companies to understand their online customers and craft data-driven reports like Sharing is the New Buying. Alex is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.