The Most Important Productivity App Is the One That Stitches Them All Together


Welcome to the world of Recipes and Zaps.

There are two main approaches people take when they want to increase their productivity, and they’re both ineffective. One is to squeeze water out of a stone, using shortcuts, finding hacks, and reducing keystrokes. The other demands that you tap into Herculean stores of willpower, perhaps by waking up earlier or working in long, uninterrupted stretches.

Both of those options are seemingly based on the idea of maximizing efficiency. But there’s another way to improve your workflow, with the creativity of a designer and the pragmatism of an engineer. And in doing so, you’ll catch a glimpse into some new skills to thrive in our digital economy.

Welcome to the world of Recipes and Zaps.

These supercharged versions of your favorite apps recognize that improved productivity requires more than a good to-do list. You’ll still want that to-do list, of course, but the workflow we need to organize usually also lives in our communication tools (email, Slack), note-taking apps (Evernote, Google Docs), and file storage (Dropbox). Sometimes it even spans multiple device types beyond the smartphone (think wearables or the connected home). Sooner or later, you’re going to need something that ties all of these apps together.

Two web services, IFTTT and Zapier, act as the “plumbing” for the app ecosystem, allowing you to create Recipes (on IFTTT) and Zaps (on Zapier) that enable you to combine the functionality of multiple apps, for instance Gmail and Dropbox.

IFTT and Zapier work by identifying certain actions in one app and extracting the relevant bits of information into a second app. An action might something active (i.e. “starring” a Slack message or posting a photo to Instagram) or passive (i.e. an RSS-feed indicating a new blog post or an email with a specific word in the subject line).

Let’s use the example of starring a message in Gmail. Once the action is initiated, you know have a handful of variables to play with, including the sender’s address, subject line, body of the text, and attachments (if any). You can take any combination of these variables and insert them into your connected apps. So for example, you might create a to-do list item with the subject line, update a Google sheet with the sender and subject line as a separate columns, or save the attachment to a specific folder on Dropbox. Both IFTT and Zapier have simple user interfaces that make the process as easy as calling an Uber.

The combinations you can create are virtually endless. I’ve set up my own system so that when I star a message, it creates a task on my Omnifocus to-do list; when I collaborate with a hired freelancer and add the article to Pocket, it creates a new Trello card; my Twitter @ mentions get collected in a Google Sheet, and when I leave the office, my wife automatically gets an email. I’ve also created a system to aggregate highlights in Instapaper into an Evernote note, and to add the Best New Tracks from my favorite music blog to a Spotify playlist.

You may be looking at this list and wondering how much time is really being saved by all this automated organization. It’s meaningful, but is the tip of the iceberg on a much bigger trend at play. This kind of system represents a new set of skills that will impact workers ranging from the solopreneur to the Fortune 500 careerist.

Now, anyone can create powerful, customized applications—a domain once reserved for computer programmers. It still requires a technical competence of sorts. After all, one must have a basic understanding of what these services can do, the ability to apply the right logic to solve problems, and most importantly, the creativity to understand how to put all this together in real-world applications. None of these skills are taught in school, yet they remain accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

Even better, the tools are getting more powerful—and more accessible to the non-programmer. You can create chat bots using Google Sheets and DIY e-commerce sites using Wordpress. You can even employ machine-learning to find your favorite dog photos. As the world continues to get digitized, you’ll be able to access voice inputs (Alexa), data from sensors (Nest), and images from drones, all without needing to write a single line of code.

In programming parlance, the API (or Application Programming Interface) represents a simplified way to call a function (or a group of actions) in a modular and repeatable method. As APIs become more powerful, the benefits accrue to the coder, scaling their productivity—but now they are accruing even farther up the chain to non-coders. Ribbonfarm blogger Venkatesh Rao incisively calls out the implications for the future of work: “Today, you’re either above the API or below the API. You either tell robots what to do, or are told by robots what to do.”

There’s still a long ways to go in our journey from productivity to computer vision. But the APIs at our disposal are undoubtedly more powerful and more accessible than ever before. Programmers already recognize this. For the rest of us mere mortals, it takes only a change in our thinking to see it, and benefit from it.