The Focus Course

Choosing the Right Tools

Now that we’ve thought through the work we’re trying to accomplish, whether that be a creative endeavor or project at work, let’s look at choosing the right tools for the job.

Different types of work require different tools. For example, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters each have similar, but different tools in their belt.

If you were to drill down on any of these occupations you would find a vast nuance to the types of tools these craftsmen choose. A preference for different shapes, builds, qualities — some of which have a broad application and can be used in a variety of ways (think duck tape), and others that have a very specific function (think Phillips Head screwdriver).

Some tools accomplish tasks easier than others. For example, if I needed to change a tire, I could use the jack that came with my car. It’s portable and fits in my trunk along with my spare, but it’s a nightmare to use on the side of the road. Definitely not a high quality jack, but it gets the job done.

Now if I’m a mechanic and I’m constantly taking wheels off and putting them back on, it would probably be a good idea to invest in a jack that quickly and efficiently lifts vehicles. Having the right kind of jack in this case makes a huge difference.

The right jack can only be determined by the requirements of the job. Portability, efficiency in raising or lowering the vehicle, cost to maintain, risk of failure — it all depends on the context in which that tool is being used.

I happen to know a tire shop here in town that does great work. They have about ten four-ton low-profile jacks sitting in front of the garage. Customers pull in, tell them what they need done, and a team of mechanics services the vehicle right there in the parking lot. For them it makes sense to use a dozen portable, easy-to-use, heavy duty jacks verses three or four hydraulic lifts that are stationary and can only service one car at a time.

It can be easy to look at a more technical profession such as a mechanic or carpenter and reason that it makes sense for these tradesmen to take a considerable amount of time evaluating which tools they will use, and we probably wouldn’t second guess their careful consideration in choosing the right tools. Their livelihood, and in many cases their safety, depends on it.

When it comes to digital work, there seems to be a gap with the amount of care we take in selecting the right tools.

Let’s dive in.

Define the Essential

Each industry has its own standard toolset. Become a carpenter, you’d better own a hammer. Become a chef, and you’ll need a set of knives. Obviously there is a sliding scale of what kind of hammer or knives you’re going to need, but there are fundamental tasks these tools need to be able to perform.

When it comes to the tools we use in the digital world, there are seemingly endless options, and the place that you go to buy these tools is not quite the same as walking into a hardware store. It’s not quite as easy as standing in the power tools section at Lowes comparing chainsaws.

I love how Cal Newport approaches this process of tool adoption in his book Deep Work.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Contrast this with the default tool selection process.

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

In context, Cal is talking about adopting social networking platforms or other communication tools, but this kind of thoughtfulness related to tool selection should be applied to any tools we adopt. Especially those we are using daily and in a professional setting.

Let’s start with the fundamentals.

  1. What core functions does the tool need to perform? (i.e. What’s a dealbreaker? For what it DOES, but also DOES NOT do.)

  2. Does the current tool you’ve selected adequately meet the requirements?

    • What obstacles or challenges do you have with this tool?
    • What are the strengths of the tool you’ve selected?
    • Does this tool repeatedly compromise your ability to do your best work?
  3. What are some potentially deal breaking byproducts of using this tool?
    • Awesome tool, but not financially sustainable
    • Company compromises ethical values
    • Distracting — interrupts your focus and attention

Software is never going to present you with the pros and cons of why you should or should not use it, just like Facebook is never going to tell you that it has been engineered to be addictive. The challenge with choosing software is that you may have to trial various tools before settling on a final selection.

Choose One

Now that you’ve identified some core factors for what you need in your tool, it’s time to choose one.

Making the right decision is nuanced depending on your needs. The reality is, you won’t know if you’ve made the right decision until you decide.

We often wait for clarity before making a decision, but clarity only comes through making a decision and then gaining feedback.

I have to remind myself to make the best decision with what I know. It’s the unknowns that can be paralyzing, but there’s nothing to be done about this. The unknowns are simply unknown. I can’t let the fear of screwing up keep me from acting.

It’s a game of odds, you’ll inevitably screw up — that’s just how it goes — but don’t let it keep you from making a decision.

Once you’ve made the decision, remind yourself that nothing is forever. If it turns out to be the wrong tool, try a different one. In most cases, there’s going to be a process of trial and error. Knowing this also helps take some of the pressure off in the first place.

Once you’ve settled on a tool that’s going to work, commit to using it for a set period of time before re-evaluating. Chances are, no tool is ever going to check every box on your list of core criteria and “nice-to-haves.” Nothing will be absolutely perfect and the grass is greener mentality is a slippery slope.

Not to mention the process of becoming proficient with any tool takes time. Ideally the tools should eventually become an extension of the craftsman. When they begin to fade into the background we know we’ve begun to tap their true potential.

It wouldn’t be fair to move on to the next option until you’ve truly taken the time to thoroughly evaluate a tool.

Shiny Syndrome

Fortunately (or unfortunately?), we live in an age of perpetual iterations and new releases. We’re being sold a new version at every turn, which can make it challenging to stick with the tools we currently use. As we’ve discovered, going through the tool selection process is work.

On top of that, it’s easy to mistake needing a new tool with our (my ?‍♂️) addiction to novelty.

  • A new computer won’t make you a better film-maker
  • New writing software won’t make you a better writer
  • Buying a new smartphone won’t make you more productive
  • Buying new golf clubs won’t make you a better golfer

It’s easy to fall into the shiny object trap. Returning to our list of core functions can help combat the urge to abandon our current toolset for the latest release.

Does my current toolset still meet all of my core criteria and allow me to do my best work unhindered?

If the answer is yes, working the content muscle is a good skill.

If not, it may be time to re-evaluate some tools.

To summarize, the tools we use don’t inherently make us better at our craft because they are simply tools. Producing our best creative work is not so much in the tools themselves, but how we use them.

When it comes to selecting the tools we adopt, we should be mindful of what core functions are needed in our toolset. We should challenge assumptions we are making about tools we think we need and avoid adopting tools simply due to popularity or recency.

Choosing the right tools is important, and the process by which we adopt tools should have more thought behind it than, “That looks cool — I need one of those.”

Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

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