A while back, I launched a magazine with a friend. There was a moment during the first meeting before discussing the work ahead, the articles we’d need to write, the people we’d need to work with, when we found ourselves discussing building something on top of Trello to organise magazine ideas. I was about twenty links down a clickhole looking at API documentation and wondering whether we’d need to support emojis in our comments to each other when I thought to myself: “Simon, you’re procrastinating.”
I’m aware that hunting for better tools is a distraction technique. Even when I decided to do more writing and began by Googling the best keyboard to use, I was aware of what was going on. Yet at the same time, I wonder to myself, how am I supposed to get any writing done if I don’t have a mechanical keyboard with bluetooth and physical buttons to switch between multiple devices?
Abraham Lincoln once said:
If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe
Sometimes I use this quote to justify my endless hunt for ever better tools. My case is only slightly damaged by the fact he never said this.
Perhaps this desire to find a new and better tool is some leftover, hunter gatherer instinct in me. Or perhaps it’s just a result of commercialisation leaving us endlessly dissatisfied. My other vice is hunting for Life Hacks or Life Pro Tips, or any other variant of this concept, to improve my life. At a high level, these are efficiency get-rich-quick schemes. There’s the promise, always elusive, that the right life hack will, with basically no effort, allow me to go from the inefficient, lumbering buffoon I am today, to an efficiency wunderkind, able to blaze through a day’s work in a matter of seconds.
I haven’t found one yet, but maybe next time. Perhaps I need a better way of browsing these lists of life hacks. I should look into RSS readers.
I fall for the automation trap as well. Here’s what happens: a task that I do occasionally but manually seems to be calling out for automation. But after a morning spent hunting for the right way of automating it, plus another day debugging it, I’ve wasted any time saved by automating a task I do for two minutes once a quarter.
I rationalise this for myself by saying it reduces my mental load. That the time saved is nothing compared to the stress removed. That by removing this task from my list, I’ll be freed to think more creatively. Sometimes I almost convince myself.
And yet there are times, when I labour away in vain at something, before switching to a different tool and suddenly I’m like a hot knife through butter. Now we’re sucking diesel. Cliches of that ilk describe me. And more than that, working is fun. It’s not just that I’m able to work more quickly, I’m inspired to do things that I wouldn’t have done before.
I’ve had it twice recently. With drawing, the fantastic Procreate, paired with an iPad and Apple Pencil. If you read any reviews or watch any artists talking about this app, it’s remarkable how many of them use the word “fun” to describe the process of using it. It’s just nice to use. Not only does it save me time and frustration compared with Photoshop, but the ease of use means I pick it up more often. Friction is removed. This sounds like an advert, but the specific app is less important the effect changing tool had on these artists.
Closer to home, the Medium editing interface is a thing of joy. There’s nothing to it — it’s just a blank screen and a flashing cursor. There’s none of the fancy options in Microsoft Word. I’m severely limited in what I can do (bold and italics… and that’s about it. No centering or right aligning it. No strikethrough or underlines or colours). And yet when I’m writing I don’t miss any of the features of Word. It turns out I didn’t do those things anyway (underlining? I’m not a monster). In fact, maybe I even found those buttons and commands oppressive: Themes, Insert Table of Figures, Quick Parts. All those buttons just lurking there, jeering at me with their officiousness. Should I be inserting a table of figures? Am I missing out by not doing so? Is everyone else marking citations without me?
And so this is what I’ve realised. Sometimes the right tool does make a difference. Not always. But sometimes. This isn’t hugely useful to me, as it’s more justification why I should be comparing different types of trainer rather than going for a run. Maybe my hunter-gatherer roots are doing me a service here. They do say that a big part of homo sapiens’ success is due to our ability to use tools. So while all those bonobo chimps are wasting their time trying to type out Shakespeare with a scissor-switch keyboard, I’ll glide past them with a mechanical wonder. Just as soon as I pick which one is the best.
Both of these things can be true: I am putting off things by investigating tooling and sometimes I will find a tool that will inspire me to do more than I ever would have done without it.
At other times, the perfect tool just doesn’t exist. Maybe it will one day in the future, maybe it won’t. But if you are interested in your craft, a passing interest in your tools is absolutely okay. They say a bad workman blames her tools, but when I hire a plumber to come fix my leaking tap, she gets out an industrial wrench, rather than trying to lever it off with a broken piece of wood like I was.
The thing with finding the right tool is that it inspires me. At least in the short term. And maybe that is all it needs to do. Perhaps that hunt for the “perfect” tool is less about finding the forever tool, and more about getting out of a creative rut. The hunt for tools is the hunt for other ways of approaching the work.
I’ve become obsessed with the site usesthis.com. On it people (artists, writers, developers, creative types) describe, sometimes in laborious detail (which I love) what software and equipment they use in their jobs and lives. We spend so long asking people how they get their ideas, but I can’t help thinking it’s more interesting to see the mechanics of what happened around that idea. Ideas are ten a penny. It’s the implementation that is special.
My interest was caught by Tracy Chou’s comments about Medium:
I sometimes even use Medium’s editor to compose even if I don’t intend to publish on Medium, because it’s so beautiful.
It surprised me to see a web-based text-editor described like that. It’s just typing words into a textarea. How could it be beautiful? And yet, once I started typing these serifed characters onto this white screen, I found myself typing things I otherwise never would have. A new tool, with its different advantages and limitations, prompted new creative thoughts.
My dad is an artist. He likes to tell a joke about artists and critics. When a group of critics get together, he says, they talk about form and meaning and symbolism in art. When a group of artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turps.
Usesthis.com is at it’s best when someone talks in precise detail about the way they carry out their craft. The warts and all bit, the admission that they wrote their novel in email messages to themselves or that they use an old iMac running Windows. While the creative act happens ineffably in our head, the manifestation of that act happens very concretely between us and our tools. The inspiration for the painting is vague, the turps is real.
All of this is to say, the hours I’ve spent messing around, comparing microphones only to end up using the one I had anyway are worth it for the occasional discoveries that trigger a new creative endeavour. The strengths and weaknesses of those tools seeks into my subconscious and forces me to think about the craft. A bad workman blames his tools, perhaps, but that’s only because he hasn’t spent the time to pick ones that work for him.
There’ll be new tools that come along and present other opportunities. And in the meantime, while I start researching what chair is best to support me sitting for long periods at my desk doing creative work, well, at least I have a hobby.