No New Tools
Being an early adopter is exhilarating in the same way that riding a rollercoaster can feel like travel. You’re moving, but you’re not actually going anywhere, only devising ever-increasingly complex methods to make yourself feel slightly more barfy. You are in a loop de loop of productivity, changing for change’s sake. I made an agreement with myself in January: no new apps on my phone or computer. Don’t do new stuff. Just do your work.
Text editor, spreadsheet, email, pencil, paper, Photoshop. OK. That’s enough.
Let’s talk about making tools. The things we make should either reduce pain, increase pleasure, or do some mix of the two. If you’re really good at goal A, you get a bit of goal B for free. And if you don’t figure out how to do either, you’re playing dress-up. Increasingly, I feel like a lot of my tools are dressing-up as tools, because they don’t offer any savings in time or effort, just slightly different methods to mindlessly shift information from one bucket to the next. And if one bucket has a hole in it, you get another, smaller bucket to catch anything coming out of the hole in the first bucket. This goes on and on with more holes and buckets, and before you know it, you have an intricate network of buckets whose reason for existance is to catch the information you can’t manage in the first place. You are stuck in bucket recursion, adding tools to patch the shortcomings of other tools. Those patches are how you know you have dress-up tools.
Now, don’t get me wrong: no tool is perfect. And sometimes a thing dressed up as a tool can be quite profitable, but this profitability has less to do with being useful, and a lot more to do with luck, lock-in, group delusion, a bubble/echo chamber in the industry, and saaaay—a life-long disagreement between me and money about what is valuable.
There are whole breeds of technology that do the opposite of my stated goals—they increase pain and reduce pleasure. For instance, the hot topic of tech pundits is wearable technology, but pretty much every instance of wearable tech seems like a nightmare. Ignore all the privacy issues of Google Glass, look over the utilitarian hurdles in making a smartwatch seem useful to a normal person. Instead, ask yourself a question: who wants to have perpetually visible email notifications? To me, this sounds more like an anxiety bomb waiting to go off than a tool or toy. No delight, no productivity, just more anxiety medication.
My world is laden with bad tools, because my culture is simultaneously obsessed with productivity and novelty. It is a perfect vector for fixation, because the failure of a tool only feeds the desire for new tools. Meaning, I get to feel honorable in my vigilant search for productivity while scratching my itch for novelty.
Technology also has the benefit of not talking back. If I try something in an attempt to be more productive, and I move on to other options because it didn’t work, the technology can’t tell me that I failed because I lacked the will to actually do the work in the first place. Thanks for not tattling, tech. (Or, well, at least in that way.)
What’s interesting about digital tools for information work is how frequently they are born from a specific ideology: someone thought work should be done in a certain manner, they found no tools to support that method, so they set off to build their own tool that presumes their ideology is true and best. Thus, we get another to-do app, Twitter client, or project management app.
Everything that’s made has a bias, but simple implements—a hammer, a lever, a text editor—assume little and ask less. The tool doesn’t force the hand. But digital tools for information work are spookier. The tools can force the mind, since they have an ideological perspective baked into them. To best use the tool, you must think like the people who made it. This situation, at its best, is called learning. But more often than not, with my tools, it feels like the tail wagging the dog.
So, now I come to the part where I make my plea: no new tools, please. If you are interested in improving how people work, you should devise methods for work, manners of behavior, and methods of decision making. Document your ideology and apply it with existing tools, so nearly anyone can follow along. Why don’t you use our best tool? Language. Increasingly, I feel documentation beats an app if you’re trying to shepherd an idea along. This approach seems to have worked pretty well for David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Josh Clark’s Couch to 5K. Of course there are innumerable apps supporting each method, but the ideas are bigger than an app, so you don’t need to download anything. Buy a notebook or put on your running shoes. Commit to the plan. They are not leaky buckets.
Consider making a program for people, not a program for a computer. I don’t want a new app to help me do work; I want different ways to think about work so I can get more done. It’s a nuanced difference, but I think it is an important one.