Thanks to the advances of the connected world, we have more apps and devices to improve our productivity than ever before. There are thousands of companies all claiming to have the productivity tools you need to work faster, more efficiently, or in a way that’s more compliant—but there are a few problems with these claims.

For starters, productivity is hard to measure. How can these companies be sure that their tools are making people more effective? Second, some productivity tools end up creating more work as a result of the secondary process they require; for example, if a time tracking app requires all your employees to make manual entries, and requires your supervisors to review each time entry, it could end up costing as much time as it saves. Finally, there’s the cost to benefit ratio to consider; you might be able to share more information than you did previously, but is that extra feature really worth the $100 a month you’re paying for the tool?

These problems can be summarized with a single question: how can you tell if a productivity tool really improves your performance?

And fortunately for you, there’s an answer—even if it’s not a black-and-white one.

Does This Tool Add New Tasks and Work?

First, consider whether this tool adds any new tasks or processes to your routine—both as an individual and as a team. For example, if you aren’t currently using a method to track employee time expenditures in your startup, introducing a new time tracking app will force your employees to open the app whenever they work on tasks or projects.

Usually, there’s some kind of “use” process and some kind of supervisory process. The “use” process comes into play when you use the app in addition to whatever work you were putting into your daily responsibilities. The “supervisory” process occurs when someone takes charge of reviewing how employees are using the app and/or instructing new employees how to use it. It may also include correcting errors, especially when it comes to CRM platforms or other big data-related apps.

Adding new tasks and work doesn’t always mean the net productivity savings of the app are lower; in fact, most productivity apps function by adding a few minutes of work to save a few hours of work. But it’s worth keeping in mind.

Is This Tool Saving You Time on Key Tasks?

Next, consider whether this tool is actually saving you time on the key tasks you need to accomplish during the day. For example, take Lumion 9’s LiveSync feature, which allows designers and architects to visualize their designs faster. Designers are going to go through the same process of imagining and creating designs, but they’ll be able to create, render, and therefore visualize those designs faster. This is a complete net savings of productivity, and therefore makes the app “worth it.”

The problem here is that it’s sometimes difficult to measure just how much of a savings you’ll get from a productivity app’s time saving potential. In some cases, you can do a direct comparison; simply measure the time it takes you to do the task under normal circumstances, then measure the time it takes you to do the task with the app helping you out. Note the difference, and multiply those savings out to determine how much time you’ll save over the course of a day, a week, or longer.

Is This Tools Changing Your Mentality or Emotions?

Benefits aren’t strictly limited to time savings, however. You should also consider whether a productivity app is having an impact on your mentality or emotional wellbeing. For example, if a calendar app sends you notifications well in advance of all your most important events, you might reduce the stress you have to deal with, in turn improving your performance throughout the day. Or if you’re using an app that allows you to communicate more efficiently with your teammates, you might feel a stronger bond within the team, and therefore be able to work under much better conditions.

The difficulty here is that these benefits are difficult to quantify. Sure, you might feel happier with a new app in place, but how much is that really worth? Are you saving a specific number of hours? Are you able to get more done in a day because of it? You’ll have to make best estimates here.

Is This Tool Distracting You?

Some productivity tools are deceiving in how they impact your productivity, however, due to negative secondary effects. For example, if you add three or four different communication tools for your team in an effort to maximize their efficiency, you might end up causing more distractions. If each app allows employees to get notifications, they could quickly become bombarded with those notifications, losing time every time they switch their attention or toggle between apps. You might also find yourself distracted by content-based apps that allow you to process information faster or in new ways.

How Are Your Habits Changing?

Next, consider how your habits are changing, or if they’re changing at all. This can work in your favor, or against you, and in many different ways.

For example, let’s say you’re using a productivity app that restricts how you spend time on distracting sites, limiting the amount of time you spend on social media or preventing certain domains from being accessed. If you notice that you no longer feel as tempted to visit these sites, and you spend more time on only productive or work-related sites, you can count it as a win. If you simply find new kinds of distracting sites to visit, however, this may be doing more harm than good.

This demands a significant level of self-awareness. It’s hard to tell when your environment is shaping how you work and act, so you may not be able to accurately determine how your habits are changing.

How Many Other Tools Are You Using?

You may also want to consider how many other tools you’re using for the same purpose. Using too many tools can make your devices cluttered, and interfere with how you spend your time. If you’re forced to log your activities in each of three different apps, for example, you’ll probably spend more time than you save by improving your awareness of your activities. Having redundant features available in two or more apps can also result in confusion on how to use those apps.

How Much Are You Paying?

It’s also important to know how much you’re paying for a productivity app. If a new app results in a negligible increase in productivity, but it’s costing your business $300 a month for all your users, it may not be worth paying for. This is hard to compare one-to-one with your time savings, since you’ll have to consider both quantitative and qualitative benefits.

Bottom-Line Takeaways:

There are a handful of bottom-line takeaways here:

  • Don’t assume a tool is strictly improving your performance. It’s easy to think that buying or integrating a new app is going to strictly improve your performance, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Start with a neutral assumption, and base your opinions on measurable performance changes, rather than claims from the developers.
  • Always test before you buy. Most productivity apps offer you a free trial before you buy, so make sure you take advantage of it. Spend a few weeks monitoring your performance, and determine whether the cost is worth it.
  • Limit your number of apps and tools. As a general rule, the fewer apps you use, the better. Not only will it concentrate your efforts, it will also force you to be extra choosy about the apps you rely on.

Productivity tools are designed to help you get more done every day, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently good at their job. Pay close attention to whether your apps are saving you time, or adding new work to your plate, and scrutinize every tech decision you make on behalf of your business.

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Frank Landman

Frank is a freelance journalist who has worked in various editorial capacities for over 10 years. He covers trends in technology as they relate to business.