My father loves buying tools. Shopping for them is his only vice. His idea of a perfect weekend is a trip to a good, or even not-so-good, hardware store, and buying an esoteric tool because a new project requires one.
Sadly, despite his best efforts, I lack his real-world handiness. My apartment building super actually pays me some rent, because he’s up here so much. And my toolbox is mostly filled with old Halloween candy. But my dad managed to teach me the importance of choosing tools based upon need.
It’s a smart, disciplined way to work, even for people like me, who only use their hands to type. I apply his philosophy to my own writing and professional work and don’t use a new tool unless there’s a need for it. No matter how many reviews tell me how great it is. I love a new digital tool, especially something free and open source, as much as the next person. There’s something exciting about creating a new login, clicking around, and learning how an app works. But if it doesn’t fill a need and make my work easier, what’s the point?
Instead, I prefer to think and work within systems, not tools.
Tools are the things you use to accomplish your work. They can be anything from a digital to-do list to a notebook to a full-blown project management platform.
Systems are how you use your tools. When you put something on a to-do list, you’re using a tool. When you transcribe something from email onto the to-do list and put a due date on your calendar, you’re working within a system.
Working in systems means thinking about your workflow. Start with your ultimate goal and work backward, considering your steps along the way.
When I have a workflow challenge, I start by examining my existing tools. Working with something you already use isn’t as fun as trying something new, but it’s a good way to figure out your system. And once you understand your system, choosing a tool, new or existing, is much easier.
Let’s say you want a place to capture writing ideas, a standard subject of tool reviews. You’ll find tons of tools that allow you to capture and save information. And the Internet will recommend complex writing organization tools that promise to make you a better writer. Some people will be fine with the former and some people will thrive with the latter. The important step is to figure out which person you are, if either.
Returning to the capturing writing ideas example, if you’re using something like Dropbox, start putting your writing ideas there and see what happens. Maybe you’ll realize that the issue isn’t about a place to write down ideas, so much as it’s about forgetting to go back and review them. That’s a problem that most note capture tools won’t address, so you need to create something in your system that reminds you to check your ideas folder. That could be a tool already in your arsenal, like a calendar, or it could mean you need something new. But now you have a clearer picture of what you’re looking for; perhaps something that captures notes and sends reminders to look at them.
Working backward this way, out of systemic needs and into individual tools, makes sure you have the functionality you need.
Why people like new tools
Why do so many people start with tools for workflow challenges? There are a few reasons.
They’re a fresh start
There’s something fun about a new tool. It’s shiny. It’s unknown. You can tweak visual elements. It’s like unwrapping a present except you’re staring at a screen, typing, instead of taking something out of a box. You get an endorphin bump from the clean slate.
They’re a time out
While you’re learning to use a new tool, there’s no expectation of getting anything done. It’s a way to take a break from whatever’s blocking your ability to work while making you feel like you’re working. And playing with something new can help you to figure out new and better systems. It’s not wasted time, but you need to be mindful of what you’re doing (and not doing) when you pivot to exploring something new. The line between exploration and procrastination is razor-thin.
‘They’re going to fix everything!’
New tools can seem like the answer to all of your problems in the same way that first dates can feel like they’re presenting you with your soul mate. It’s very easy to put all of your hopes and dreams onto something (or someone) you don’t really know, but neither ever works out. A tool won’t answer all of your work problems until you have a system to slot it into. A project management app won’t make you effective until you understand what you need to be effective. Just like a saw won’t cut anything unless you apply it to wood. Or so I’m told…
The Only Thing That Will Save You is Yourself (and Your Systems)
If your work feels stuck or if you feel like you’re not on top of what you need to be, the only thing that will save you is yourself. Here are some questions to consider when trying to figure out what your systemic workflow issues are:
What’s getting lost?
This is usually the simplest thing to figure out. Most people go looking for tools because things are slipping through the cracks. The question is, what are the things and what are the cracks? Are you missing deadlines? Are you losing emails? The more you can delve into the specifics, the easier it is to see what your system might look like.
What’s blocking you?
This can be harder to understand. Once you’ve identified what’s getting lost, you need to figure out why. Are work emails piling up because your inbox is too full? Or do you not like your job? Or are you not getting enough sleep? Each block has a different system and tool-related answer. And often the answer is a larger life issue, rather than a software feature.
Are you being kind to yourself?
I read a fair amount of productivity articles because I’m always curious about how people work and organize themselves. It’s both fascinating and upsetting how many people conflate effectiveness with asceticism. Accomplishing your goals isn’t about punitively taking everything away from yourself until you’re done working. Hating yourself won’t improve your output.
If you miss something important, which everyone does at some point in their career, give yourself a break. Then, with a compassionate orientation toward yourself, look at why that happened and figure out how to seal the crack.
New things, including tools, are fun. People love starting a new notebook because it’s full of possibilities. But the work doesn’t end when you crack it open. It’s actually when the work starts. Tools aren’t going to get you to your goals, but the way you use them will. When a new service or app catches your eye, don’t reflexively ignore it, but also don’t think it’s going to rescue you. Instead, think about how you currently do things and how you can improve that process. Tools and office supplies won’t do your work for you and won’t organize your life. They’ll only make things easier and provide a way for you to organize yourself. So before you put something new in your arsenal, make sure there’s a place for it. Imagine my father in a hardware store, looking at all of those beautiful tools, but thinking about what he will use once it’s in his toolbox.