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

Click banner image for more Subscription Week 2022 coverage

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.”

Fintech

Gensler: Bitcoin may be a commodity

The SEC has been vague about crypto. But Gensler said bitcoin is a commodity, “maybe.” It’s the clearest glimpse of his views on digital assets yet.

“Bitcoin — maybe that’s a commodity token. That has a big market value, but that goes over there,” Gensler said, referring to another regulator, the CFTC.

Photoillustration: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Protocol

SEC Chair Gary Gensler has long argued that many cryptocurrencies are subject to regulation as securities.

But he recently clarified that this view wouldn’t apply to the best-known cryptocurrency, bitcoin.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Workplace

What the economic downturn means for pay packages

The war for talent rages on, but dynamics are shifting back to the employers.

Compensation packages could start to look different as companies reshuffle the balance of cash and equity.

Illustration: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

The market is turning. Tech stocks are slumping — which is bad news for employees — and even industry powerhouses are slowing hiring and laying people off. Tech talent is still in high demand, but compensation packages could start to look different as companies recruit.

“It’s a little bit like whiplash,” compensation consultant Ashish Raina said of the downturn. Raina, who mainly works with startups that have 200 to 800 employees, previously worked as the director of Talent at Index Ventures and head of Compensation and Talent Analytics at Box. “I do think there’s going to be an interesting reckoning in terms of pay increases going forward, how that pay is delivered.”

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Policy

How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Fintech

From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Latest Stories
Bulletins