Workplace

Most consumers don’t appreciate subscriptions. Productivity nerds do.

Productivity subscriptions can add up quickly. These enthusiasts think every penny is worth it.

Illustration of money and tech-related emojis

Protocol talked with several productivity aficionados about how they manage and prioritize their app subscriptions, diving into how much they’re willing to pay for productivity.

Christopher Fong/Protocol

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If you want to deduce whether someone is a true productivity nerd, ask about their stack. You might think people are passionate about their workplace tools, like Slack versus Microsoft Teams. But what about people who build immaculate productivity stacks in their spare time? The tool choices are endless in the personal productivity tech landscape, and the debate is fierce. Self-proclaimed productivity nerd Chris Klein said he loves when people unlock the power of a productivity app and then pledge allegiance to that tool; he joked that some people might “take a bullet” for Notion.

There are only so many tools you can take a bullet for, though, before your stack grows too chaotic — and your wallet grows too empty. Like every area of tech, productivity largely runs on the subscription model. Some, like Adobe (up to $53/month) Superhuman ($30/month) or Sunsama ($20/month), are on the pricier side. Most are on the cheaper side, around $5 to $10 a month; but those costs can add up.

When you look at the productivity app market at large, the most popular subscriptions are the basic ones. According to Lexi Sydow, head of insights at data.ai (formerly App Annie), the top mobile apps in the productivity category are Dropbox, and various Microsoft or Google products. VPN apps are up there, too. Almost 25% of apps downloaded globally fall under utility and productivity, Sydow said. Productivity apps make up only 9% of consumer spending, however. As a whole, we’re more likely to spend money on entertainment.

Which makes sense! Spending money on a Netflix subscription sounds way more fun than spending money on a task management app. Still, the productivity-obsessed consumers are out there. Protocol talked with several productivity aficionados about how they manage and prioritize their app subscriptions, diving into how much they’re willing to pay for productivity.

Your tools should work with you, not against you



Klein, a creative and real estate agent, has dabbled in productivity for over a decade: since he was 10, to be exact.

“Most kids were worried about what girl they liked in middle school, and I was like, 'Damn, my task manager is causing me so many problems,'” he said.

His stack has been through many iterations, mainly because he kept landing on tools that felt lacking. Some were powerful but looked terrible; others looked great but didn’t allow for customization. Eventually he progressed from wanting a basic task management system to attempting to build a second brain: productivity expert Tiago Forte’s term for taking all the thoughts and experiences in your brain and organizing them in a coherent system using digital tools. Basically, it’s what all of us strive for when accumulating productivity tools.

A coherent system means being strategic about your productivity subscriptions. Klein prioritizes integrations when evaluating productivity apps, as well as privacy policies and feature sets. He needs his tools to work together, so integration and automation options are the first things he looks for.

“Otherwise, I’ll be in an endless spiral of managing and maintenance and no actual work will be done,” Klein said. “If a tool lacks integrations or connections to other tools, whether it be something as simple as Slack or to a full platform like Zapier or If This Then That, then I won't even look at it.”

Rahul Chowdhury, productivity expert, recommends looking at your subscription usage. To manage subscription fatigue, he will make a table of all his active subscriptions and list how many days in a month he uses each tool. Then he’ll add a quick description about why he purchased the subscription. Taking these two data points into account, he’ll decide whether to keep or cancel the subscription.

Klein also considers usage frequency when exploring a new tool. He’ll pay extra attention to how he’s spending his time. This is something you can do manually (see Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra’s time log) or via various time tracking apps. Using Rize.io, Klein will note how much time he’s spending in the new app, and how much work he’s getting done.

“It’s very rough data, but it’s mostly like, is this working against my brain or with it?” Klein said. “Notion has been so great but so dangerous for me. I can build a system just for me, but I can get in a rabbit hole of building a system for hours when I shouldn’t be.”

Getting acclimated to the subscription model



Keeping track of subscriptions is a hassle — the subscription model certainly benefits developers, but it isn’t something the average consumer appreciates. “I would rather just have a one-and-done investment in that technology or software at a fair price, and use it forever,” said MIT PhD student Fatimagül Husain.

Because of her subscription fatigue, Husain prefers using just one app: She has bet her productivity on Notion. The fewer apps, the better. “To just have one to manage your workload and productivity is, frankly, relieving,” Husain said.

But many productivity power users know what it’s like to depend on an app and then lose it because the developers couldn’t afford to keep it running without regular payment. Michael McWatters, director of product design at HBO Max, actually prefers the subscription model for this reason. Even if a product he likes offers a free version, he’ll opt for the paid tier to ensure the product stays healthy.

“I've gone through the pain of really liking something and then having it disappear because the developer wasn't making money,” said McWatters. “If I'm using it and I'm relying upon it heavily, it’s worth it.”

As an app developer himself, McWatters knows that you’re never fully done building an app. “It’s not like you cook the pizza and the person eats it, and that’s it, it’s over,” he said. “You’re always baking and adding new ingredients and keeping up with the latest trends.”

Another telltale sign of the productivity-afflicted: They cannot stick to one app. They’re constantly moving their notes from Evernote to Roam Research to Notion to Obsidian and back to Evernote again. Subscriptions let them roam more freely from app to app and perfect their systems. “I appreciate subscriptions and the flexibility they provide,” Klein said. “If I only need a tool for three months, that's it. That's all the money that's out of my pocket.”

Klein said he probably spends more on productivity than the average person. But so what? He enjoys it.

“It’s like a hobby, you know?” Klein said. “I don’t need all of them, but some people go spend $30 on a Friday night to get a few drinks. I have some subscriptions for productivity tools.”

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