20100312

Love thy tools to maximise your productivity

It is a widely accepted theory that the use of tools determined the development of the human brain. Nowadays, using tools is thus a quite common endeavor everybody does.

But ask a carpenter if he would use a jagged saw, or a draftsman a broken pencil. It is not only using the tools, but using the best tools.

But what is for the best tools? Using the best possible tools is not enough: you need to love your tools. I read somewhere that the best way to keep an organized system (like GTD) is to do it with tools you love. Like, for example (if you enjoy that kind of things) with a Moleskine notebook and a pen you like to write with.

You can ask any of my University class mates for my handwriting during lectures. It was horrible, although I could write with quite a pretty script if I wanted to. I didn't see the point, as what I wrote was for me, and I was too lazy to keep it nice.



But one day, truth dawned on me. Why? Well, I was given an assistant professorship, for 3 hours a week I would be writing on a blackboard, and using the solutions of the problems I came to the day before.

And bad handwriting is something I didn't like about my teachers, so I decided it was a time for a change. The next time one of my former class mates (in fact, a friend who was with me since high school), she asked to one of my students (and a friend of her) Whoo! He has a clear handwriting!? And the answer was a promptly Indeed. I was happy about that.

I managed to do that by writing with a Parker pen I got as a present something like 10 years ago... and after ending my classes, I stopped using it. My handwriting still was good... but not as good.




I think I'm beating around the bushes. The fact is that as of a few years ago, I really enjoy my own handwriting, thus I want to use the best possible tools to cast them in paper.

A few months ago I recovered my "old" black Parker pen to write down what my thesis was turning out to be... And just a few weeks later I discovered the Parker Esprit and promptly bought it. A pocket pen, smaller than my old one, with a really nice look and telescopic enlargement: when fully open it is the same size as my old one. And it writes like a charm. Good!

But this is not a post about hand writing, or pens. Although it looks like it is, isn't it? It is a post about using tools you love. Why do you have to use tools you love? I can give you a bullet list if you like:
  • Won't refrain
  • Enjoyment
  • Even bliss
  • Cool factor
  • Practical
  • ... sure there are more!
But this isn't enough, as a bullet list doesn't cover what I really mean by all those things.

Won't refrain: You won't put off doing that you have to do, because you will be doing it with the best possible tool, and one you, in fact, love using.

Enjoyment: If you enjoy at least a part of what you are doing, it is easier to keep doing it for a while longer. Example: drafting a solution for a problem is usually something not really enjoyable, but if the tool you use for it is one you love to use, at least doing it has a pleasant side to it.

Even bliss: Just combine something you love to do with doing it with a tool you love to use. What can go wrong?

Cool factor: You can brag about doing things in a way you enjoy them (as an emacs lover, vi users are easy prey to AucTeX).

Practical: That, of course, depends on your mentality. Usually the tool you love to use is also the best suited for "the job you are doing".

Now comes the reflective stage. Take a piece of paper and your favorite writing tool, and start by making a list of what your job requirements are, following these rough guidelines:
  1. Handwriting required? (Y/N)


    1. Do you like your handwriting?
    2. Do you love your hand writing tool?
  2. Computer typesetting? (Y/N)


    1. Do you like the program you use for it?
    2. Do you like the environment you work within your computer?
  3. Other computer usage? (Y/N)


    1. Do you like your "X" application? (X=mail, calendar...)
    2. Do you enjoy your typing speed and feeling?
    3. Do you enjoy your keyboard keypress?
  4. Phone usage? (Y/N)


    1. Is your phone accessible?
    2. Does it work correctly?
  5. Other tools you may use? (Y/N)


    1. Make a list of those on your own!
For every Y in the previous list, try to answer the questions sincerely. Some of these questions may feel a little... whimsical, at least. But they are not, and I'll give you a few hints of what I mean by them. I have already talked about handwriting, by the way!

Typesetting: If you use a computer, chances are high you use it for typesetting something, and if you enjoy my blog, you probably use LaTeX. Is your LaTeX editor the best it can be? Well, all editors have quite a few advanced features you may not be using and can have a critical impact in your performance and sense of fulfilment. I am a emacs user, and have a few pointers on what to do with emacs. You can read it anyway, and try to see what advanced options of your editor allow you to cut typing time. And if you can't, dump it and find another! Quick!

Applications: There are a lot of options for calendars, mail and such, and there is no point in being trapped in something out of rutine. Getting used to a new environment is hard, but sometimes rewarding. It took me one year to get used to emacs' keybindings, and now, after 3 years I really enjoy them, because they feel second nature. If you are an advanced user of anything, you know how this feeling of naturality is, and how good it makes you feel. Go on and try something new!

Typing: This is subjective. With practice, and a typewriter, I had to be pretty sure I didn't need to erase anything I wrote (the eraser roll was as expensive as 3 typing rolls!), and I got used to almost never having to delete anything. And you know, writing without looking at the keyboard is far more efficient. Is your typewriting like this? Or are you always looking at the keyboard and putting misplaced characters? Now it depends on you, if you prefer to keep losing all those seconds and half-seconds (you can try to estimate how much time of your writing is spent going backwards) or do something about it. Just saying aloud (but not so loud if you share your office) d'oh everytime you have to erase anything different from at least a word will sure eliminate this habit.

Flow typing and keyboard strength: This is also quite a subjective feeling. I am no pianist, but a few years ago I read a book on musical practice theory called Effortless mastery. I highly recommend it as a quite rewarding read, even for non-musicians. What the author describes in one of the middle chapters is how one of his music teachers played effortlessly with his hands flowing over the keyboard. Do you write like this? I have done it, but not much more than once a day. When I am in this flowing state, writing with a keyboard is almost like direct mental transfer from me to my computer. Just let go with the flow of typing... or change the keyboard.

Phone: This is easier... If you use a lot your phone, you have to be sure it works correctly and as expected, without strange noises or any quirkiness.

Of course, a lot more can be said about which tools to use, but I think this is something you have to find out yourself. I just gave you some pointers you have to follow in the path. Good luck!

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Written by Ruben Berenguel