The rise of self-improvement & productivity apps & hacks

Manas Saloi is obsessed with productivity. “I’m always trying to make the most of my time,” says the 28-year-old from Bengaluru over a WhatsApp call, while pacing up and down his room to keep the step count going. A product manager at the tech company Gojek, his work requires him to create a goal-setting framework called OKR or Objectives and Key Results — basically, a list of measurable goals. Saloi has made this a part of his life. He sets personal OKR — an annual goals list — to improve his physical, mental and intellectual health. This year’s OKR ranges from reading 50 books and playing more football to learning Malayalam (his fiancée’s first language) and walking 4,000 steps daily, among others. He lists them on an Excel sheet, assigns them weightage and a timeline. A column is dedicated to tracking their progress through the year. He shares the OKR online to inspire others and to ensure his own accountability.

To achieve these goals, Saloi uses a combination of apps, hacks and wearable gadgets. An app, Loop Habit Tracker, reminds him to read, write and take his vitamin supplements; another, Headspace, helps him meditate. A wearable gadget, Mi Smart Band 4, tracks his activities like walking and running, while a digital notepad, InkPad, ensures that his thoughts don’t slip away. He takes stock of his personal growth at the end of every week.

If self-improvement were a brand, Saloi would make a feisty ambassador. Except he would have a million contenders. Like Jitesh Luthra, 28, a market development professional at VC firm Blume Ventures, who limits his social media usage on the phone to three hours a day, practises intermittent fasting and sugarless eating as a lifestyle choice and is trying to learn Italian. Or, Anamika Sirohi, a Gurgaon-based marketing professional, who does 45 minutes of cardio exercise at sunrise, takes podcasts on productivity for breakfast and clocks 10,000 steps on her fitness tracker by the end of a day. Sometimes she prefers standing during work meetings to break her sedentary pattern.

At a time when our innate desire to be a better version of ourselves finds support in easily accessible apps and hacks, the obsession with self-improvement is not limited to Saloi, Luthra and Sirohi. It is a cultural phenomenon across age groups, professions and geographies. People want to try out the latest fads in health and wellness, and monitor and improve meals, sleep, heart rate and mood swings. And they are willing to pay for it.

An ecosystem of blogs, books, videos, podcasts and apps feeds the desire to improve oneself to the point that it feels like the central purpose of life, that failing at it would mean failing at life itself. Productivity influencers are real, and popular ones like Thomas Frank have close to 2 million subscribers on YouTube.

Five of the top 10 podcasts on Spotify in India are on lifestyle content based on self-motivation, with On Purpose with Jay Shetty emerging as the most streamed podcast on most days. Even in the time of Netflix and Audible, the written word provides a continuous stream of productivity porn. On Amazon India, books in the category of “Mind, Body & Spirit” grew by 1.2 times in 2019 over 2018, a company spokesperson told ET Magazine. Atomic Habits, a book on enhancing productivity by James Clear, has sold over a million copies worldwide since October 2018. A survey by market research firm Fact.MR pegs the potential size of the global smart fitness tracker market at $2.7 billion by the end of 2022. This includes trackers for sleep, heart rate, activities and meals.













Competition Streak
Streaks, a paid app on iOS for habit tracking, earned $40,000 in net revenue in January 2020 alone, according to Sensor Tower. Created by Australian developer Quentin Zervaas, the app unwittingly competes with and often benefits an Android app by the same name created by an Indian developer for the same genre.

Shobhit Bakliwal, 27, a Bengaluru-based developer who created Streaks for Android, says, “Three years ago, I got a legal notice from them to change my app’s name. I pointed out to them that my app released before them in 2015.” His Streaks has over 100,000 users and makes an annual revenue of $15,000-16,000. “Given Android’s larger universe, I benefit from their popularity because people come looking for it on Android and assume it’s the same app,” he says. As he has since moved to other projects, leaving Streaks to almost run on autopilot, Bakliwal doesn’t consider his iOS counterpart a competitor anymore.




For seekers of self-improvement, though, even competition is a productivity hack. Satyarth Priyedarshi, 38, uses the in-built activity tracker in his Apple Watch for competitive fitness tracking with his wife Jyoti. “It’s a healthy competition. When I occasionally drop out, she helps me get back in the game,” says the Mumbai-based digital professional. There are standalone apps like Habitshare, with over 50,000 followers, that allow users to track habits with friends and family for “extra accountability”.

An astonishingly high number of users download apps that remind them to drink water. Over 10 million users are on an Android app called Water Drink Reminder. “These apps assess your activity levels and weight to determine when and how much water you should have in a day,” says Ankita Rai, 27, a Mumbai-based student of chartered accountancy, who uses a hydration app. Mubeena Azeez, 32, installed one last year when she found she had kidney stones. “The app helped because I would otherwise forget to drink water while working crazy hours,” says the Bengaluru-based HR professional. Azeez also has a period tracker app that keeps her prepared for any likelihood of inconvenience at work during menstruation.


Big Planners
Planning your day — through apps or creative bullet journals — to be able to do more in less time is par for the course. Oindrila Dey, 21, a master’s student from Kolkata, has a bullet journal to keep track of her meals and her moods. “Two years ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD and my therapist told me to write things down.” Bullet journalling or Bujo has helped Dey keep calm.




At Snapdeal, “planners” was the most searched item in the diaries category last year. While these were in the Rs 400-500 price category, annual planners at higher price points are doing well too. Illustrator Alicia Souza says her annual planners, currently priced at Rs 1,500, have witnessed a 100% year-on-year growth in sales since its launch three years ago. Souza’s customers, mostly women, give her suggestions — to include a meal and grocery planner, and a period tracker — that ultimately find their way into it.

Annkur Agarwal, cofounder of Pricebaba, too, prefers pen and paper to make his daily to-do lists. “I think it’s because the digital screen is a distraction in itself. There’s always the risk of slipping into WhatsApp messages while making your list,” says the 33-year-old Mumbaikar.

Pursuit of Appiness
Inside the self-improvement theme park, not riding on an app is still acceptable, but decluttering of emails is de rigueur, especially in some sectors where professionals end up getting 100-odd emails in a day and have to reply to most of them. Superhuman, a Silicon Valley-based SaaS company for better email management, has attained quite the aspirational status in this space. The invite-only service comes for a monthly membership fee of $30. As on February 21, it had over 285,000 users waiting for membership access, says founder and CEO Rahul Vohra. While he declines to share the number of existing members, a June 2019 article in the New York Times pegs it at a little less than 15,000 customers. India is among its top four markets, after the US, UK and Canada, Vohra told ET Magazine. Luthra of Blume Ventures is a fan and has got director Sajith Pai on board too. Pai now hopes to find similar efficiencies in workflow apps like calendar, to-do lists and notes.

At Superhuman and in Silicon Valley, a productivity app called Notion is popular for its workflow management capability, which brings notes, docs, tasks, projects and communities all under one cloud. “There’s been a 5x increase in the active usage of Notion in India,” says Akshay Kothari, COO of the company with 35 employees and 1 million users. While the tech sector has been its early adopter, a lot of people from diverse backgrounds use it in interesting ways, adds Kothari on a video call from the US. While a medical student uses it for studying and personal development, another user has made a detailed index of Pokémons.

The loudest chatter around productivity comes from Bay Area, says Anmol Maini, 23, an engineer with San Francisco-based startup Fast. “Perhaps because we don’t put as many working hours as China does, we want to maximise the time dedicated to work.” This chatter has ripple effects. It has pushed Suhas Motwani, 25, a business analyst at a global FMCG’s Poland office, into co-creating a productivity app with a developer friend in India. Called Indistractable Launcher, the app — with 100,000 installs in beta stage — reduces a user’s screen time by 30% by designing a minimalist phone launcher. “We are already receiving funds on Patreon from fans who have also reviewed the app on YouTube.”

Within the global tech community, productivity is not just an obsession, it’s a lifestyle. Maini tells us how growth and product managers across the world keep an eye out for new productivity tools on Product Hunt, which is like a LinkedIn for tech products. Maini says he must have tried 30 different email management services before settling on Superhuman. Besides efficiency tools, sleep and meditation are huge with this community, says Blume’s Pai.

Jagdeep Kapoor, brand consultant, Samsika Marketing, explains the obsession with productivity and self-improvement: “When material needs are taken care of, people want to buy products that give them a sense of wellbeing. Also, everyone is out there to prove themselves but not as much to others as to themselves. We believe that to prove ourselves, we have to improve ourselves. It’s as simple as that.”

Tech is at the heart of most productivity tools and self-improvement hacks, even when it is to monitor the usage of said tech. In the case of actor and standup comedian Sumukhi Suresh, social media is work, too. Channelling her former background in sales, Suresh keeps monthly targets for her social media posts and their traction. “I tried using HubSpot, a software, to consolidate all my social media apps, but gave up because it takes time to figure out how these tools work. I don’t have the mental bandwidth for that.” However, she feels she will cave in soon.

Having tech fulfils our need to track our personal objectives, to stay motivated and to reassure ourselves that we are on the right path, says Meghna Mukherjee, a Noida-based psychoanalytical psychotherapist. On the flip side, “measuring personal growth can make you anxious when you see how far you are from your goal,” says Pai. “I will be lying if I said I don’t get anxious about missed goals.” Before you get better, you often get worse. Pai highlights the importance of not getting enamoured by shiny tools and of limiting to-do things to five daily.

But many are far from that stage of wisdom at this point. “A lot of my clients use apps to quantify themselves on certain parameters and say they are falling short of a standard. Hence they are not doing well and need to figure out how to do better,” says Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Delhi-based creative arts psychotherapist. The right question should be “why they are not doing better” instead of “what can they do now to remedy it”, she says. The one-size-fits-all hacks are a problem, she adds, “Your personal nuance gets subdued to pander to these life hacks.”

Like a lot of people around her, Sirohi from Gurgaon tried strict diets to stay fit. Eventually, she had to develop hacks that worked for her because those diets were "not sustainable when your lifestyle needs you to travel and have work dinners and breakfast meetings". In the case of Azeez from Bengaluru, the mood predictions of her period tracker started dictating her emotions. "If the app would say I'm likely to feel bloated on the first day, it would make me conscious and that got frustrating." Eventually, Azeez learned how not to let the mood predictions affect her. Even someone like Saloi, who wears his apps on his sleeve, literally, knows that "apps and hacks don't change our lives unless we are disciplined." After trying a cloudful of them last year, Saloi has recently replaced most of their functions with a basic alarm reminder.

Author and marketer Harish Bhat, 57, keeps it simpler still. "I am obsessed with productivity but I don't entangle myself with documenting or measuring my goals via apps and hacks," he says. After all, "It's more important to be happy than to be appy."