We’re now in Week 5 of Apps Month. April is the first month that had five Tuesdays in it since January, so we get another bonus week on this topic. However, I don’t really consider this week’s action item to be a bonus. It’s actually one of my favorite tricks, and a powerful one if you give yourself a chance to implement it well.

As always, visit the Tidy ’24 Calendar to review what we’ve covered so far.

Apps Week 5: One App, One Purpose

This week’s topic is one of the most powerful tricks for getting what you want from the apps you use. It’s simple, just something we don’t often focus on. It’s a rule I express as “One app, one purpose.

This rule means you install and use apps based on a specific task or goal, such as email, scheduling, note-taking, or task management. Then, you always use only that app whenever you work on that task or goal.

Here’s my favorite example. As you all know, there’s a lot of content on the internet. I can’t consume it all, nor do I want to. But I frequently find things I do want to read, watch, or listen to, either for fun, learning, work, developing some new skill, or just because I’m curious and it looks interesting.

I’ve consciously trained myself that anything that falls in that bucket of “interesting stuff I want to consume” gets dumped into Readwise Reader. That is my One App with the One Purpose of holding the content I’ve decided to consume. Despite being called “Reader,” it also works for videos and podcasts. With YouTube videos, it even grabs the transcript and automatically summarizes it for you, potentially saving a lot of time if the summary is enough for what I wanted. Once an article or other piece of content is saved, I know exactly where to find it later when I have time for it.

Now, I could go on and on about Readwise Reader because it’s honestly a really great tool, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a good example of “one app, one purpose.” For the purpose of content consumption, my one app is Readwise Reader.

Define Your Purpose Narrowly

However, sometimes, your purpose for an app is more challenging to pin down, or you have a task that doesn’t logically fit into a single app. That’s a fair objection, but it has a simple solution: define the purpose more narrowly.

For example, while “consuming content” for me fits inside Reader in 99% of cases, “creating content” is much more complex. For Tidy Bytes, I have branding images and logos, email newsletters, video content, social media posts, and several behind-the-scenes plans and checklists to stay on top of everything. I can’t do all of that with one app, and if one app claimed to be able to do it all, it would probably do much of it badly.

To solve this, I narrowed my focus a bit. Instead of “creating content,” I have “writing,” “graphic design,” “video recording,” “video editing,” and “social media.” Separating these into distinct purposes makes it easier for me to pick the best app for each task and then get good at using each one.

I don’t actually have a written list of these various app/purpose combinations, although that wouldn’t hurt. But I’ve deliberately molded my behavior around the “one app, one purpose” rule over time. Doing it intentionally with a clear goal transforms “one app, one purpose” from a natural consequence of the app’s design into the trick that makes that app a perfect fit for your own use.

Apps With Too Many Roles

I want to give you one more example of what is, for many of us, the worst offender of the “one app, one purpose” rule: email.

Fundamentally, email is a communication tool. That makes it very versatile. But that also means it can end up filling many very different roles. You might use it not just for sending messages between friends, family, and coworkers but also for learning, for promotions from places you shop at (or even don’t shop at), for news, for social media updates, for alerts for your favorite YouTube channel, for banking…all kinds of things.

The point isn’t that it’s inherently wrong or bad for you to use email this way. Some people do, and it works perfectly well for them. But it’s easy for your inbox to feel noisy, messy, and overwhelming if it’s fulfilling so many different purposes, and you’re not someone who can naturally and easily stay on top of it all.

I don’t want my email account to have a purpose as broad as “communication.” Way too much fits into that. So, I choose the narrower purpose, “personal long-form communication.” This means if I’m writing to someone else, or they’re writing to me, and it’s not something I’d send as a text message (or I can’t send it as a text message), then I use email. For everything else, I look for a different method. I guard my inbox very carefully.

Now, because of how technology has evolved, I make two general exceptions: first is for the automated notifications that come from regular use of services, like order confirmations, shipping confirmations, bank statement alerts, or utility bills. These things often aren’t available any other way (besides snail mail), so email is the best option. The second exception is for periodic newsletters that I intentionally signed up for. It’s not strictly personal, but I did ask for it, and that’s good enough for me.

So, while I don’t want to dictate what you should use your email for, I encourage you to consider whether your inbox is doing its job well or is possibly doing too much.

Communicating vs. Consuming

I want to bring special attention to one category of apps that many of you may not be aware of, and that is the newsreader. Newsreader apps give you one place to subscribe to whatever sources you want and easily see all the latest headlines across all sources in one spot. But unlike your email inbox, articles don’t just pile up forever, waiting for you to do something with them. Yes, you can go back and read old ones if you want to, but you don’t have to.

There’s an important difference, however subtle, between a newsreader and your email:

  • Email is two-way (bidirectional). People talk to you, and you talk to them (or you can if you desire to).
  • Newsreaders, on the other hand, are one-way (unidirectional). You can read whatever you want and ignore the rest with zero consequences.

This makes it psychologically easier to avoid feeling overwhelmed even if you have a few thousand unread articles in a newsreader. Who cares? The world goes on! But in your inbox–no, those things, you feel, require action. If you can start using a newsreader app (assuming you don’t already), see how much you can shift out of email and into the newsreader. You’ll find that your inbox gets quieter.

My Own App Choices

Below is a list of many of the apps that I currently use, and the purposes I’ve chosen for them. This is not a list I think everyone should follow; many of these would be poor choices for some of you for one reason or another. But I want to provide some inspiration and illustrate how I follow my own recommendations.

  • For email (personal long-form communication), I use Fastmail.
  • For content consumption (except most news), I use Readwise Reader.
  • For reading news, I use Newsblur.
  • For writing of all kinds, including notetaking, I use Obsidian.
  • For task management, I use TickTick. (Todoist is also excellent, but TickTick is slightly more to my taste.)
  • For video recording, I use OBS Studio.
  • For video editing, I use Camtasia.
  • For graphic design, I use Canva.

I use other apps and tools besides what’s on that list, but they’re more unique to my job or hobbies and not generally relevant.

Action Steps

  1. Identify three apps that you use regularly.
  2. Write down what you use those apps for.
  3. If there is any overlap or ambiguity, pick at least one thing to change about your usage to provide better clarity and separation between apps.

You might decide to use a different app entirely or modify how you use it or what you focus on while using it. It doesn’t have to be drastic, just intentional.

How Does This Help?

Identifying why you use certain apps helps clarify how and when to use them effectively. It also highlights areas for improvement, such as using an app outside of its intended purpose or having multiple apps that do the same thing. It provides an opportunity to look for better options or methods, even if nothing specifically bothered you.

Who Does This Help?

This exercise is great if you’ve passively built up a collection of apps without regularly considering which ones serve you best. It also helps if you frequently have to hunt to find the right app (a sign that you have many pointless apps installed) or often wonder which app makes the most sense to use for specific tasks.

Who Does This NOT Help?

If you only regularly use a few apps and already know what they’re used for, this week’s action steps will only help a little. However, even in this case, reviewing won’t hurt. It may reveal something interesting about your app usage habits.

Quick Review

For Week 5, you aim to implement one app, one purpose. Identify three apps that you use regularly and write down their purpose. Pick at least one thing to change to improve your usage habits if there’s any ambiguity or overlap.

If you’d like any input about what apps might work better for certain purposes or have any questions about digital organization, comment below and let me know! I always enjoy hearing from you.

Happy data-taming!

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