By James Stuber and Tasshin Fogleman
A good carpenter doesn’t use a swiss army knife; they have a toolbox. Each tool has a job to do, and each tool does that job well.
In the digital realm, we all have a toolbox: we write in Word or Google Docs, check email in Outlook or Superhuman. Why then do we seek a “unified tool” for productivity?
Toolbox Cat is not amused
There’s always new productivity software: a new task manager, a new note-taking app, a new project management tool, a new tool that does something that has never been done before.
When a new tool arrives on the scene, early adopters move everything to the tool, hoping for a new paradigm shift. Productivity gurus laud the new program, eager to lead. More conservative users scoff and maintain their preferred way of doing things.
So many seek the One Tool To Rule Them All. Early adopters imagine a world where the One Tool fixes all of their problems, keeps them productive, and increases their happiness. There is no such tool. There is no tool that is perfectly suited for every job, or for every use case. The world is too complex, our jobs and tasks too varied, for any one tool to encapsulate them all.
To seek such a tool is fraught with danger. Not only do we waste time switching to the new tool, we feel good while doing so. Exporting tasks and importing notes feels like progress, but nothing actually happens. We become Program Hoppers for productivity tools, only moving sideways.
Moreover, we wouldn’t want to use such a tool. Tools that try to do everything become bloated and hard to use. Users ask for an ever increasing number of features, slowing down what was once a lightning fast process. Eventually you will need a new feature. Disappointed, you will restart your search for the true One Tool.
Rather than seeking one unified tool for all kinds of work, embrace the toolbox. Building your own toolbox requires:
- knowing what kinds of tasks you are trying to do, and why
- exploring different tools that seem relevant to your work
- developing a sense of what each tool can do well
- refining your preferences for which tools you like for which jobs
- improving your ability to get tools to talk to each other
- iterating on your stack as tools evolve and new technologies emerge
Here is a concrete, contemporary example of this approach. Evernote has been the standard contender in the note-taking apps field for many years. But in the last couple of years, competitors like Notion and Roam have emerged. As these tools have become increasingly popular, people tout their benefits and switch all of their notes from one tool to the next. Internet fights break out over which tool is best, and people are left more confused than ever before.
In practice, we’ve found that each of these tools has their place, their strengths and weaknesses. In our opinion, these tools aren’t well-suited to replace each other. Instead, they complement each other. Instead of team Evernote or team Roam, we’re team Toolbox. We use all three tools for different purposes:
|Unstructured thinking and note-taking, especially if it involves formatted text, media, or files; collecting and distillation.
|A dashboard for personal / shared projects and areas, including: sharing statement of intent; tracking high-level throughput; coordinating with collaborators; organizing external resources and their purpose / relationships.
|“A tool for thinking”; exploratory writing which will likely take a structured form in the future, but that structure is emergent / not yet determined.
There isn’t going to be a perfect tool for all of your work. The complexity of the real world makes necessary the non-hierarchical use of tools.
Embrace the diversity and variety of tools. Try tools that seem interesting or relevant to your work. Even if you don’t end up using a new tool, you might pick up a new technique.
Avoid switching all of your tasks/notes/projects/data from tool to tool every time a new tool comes out. Try smaller, low investment experiments first.
Use the right tool for the job.
- Basics of the Unix Philosophy
- Frankenstacks and Rhizomes
- The Rise of the Full Stack Freelancer
- Digital Productivity Coach
- James’ Current Productivity Tech Stack
Is your productivity toolbox missing a few tools?
The DPC is an interactive coach, available 24⁄7 to give you a feasible next step to improve your productivity skills.