My friends and unwitting mentors, Patrick Rhone and Myke Hurley, discussed a common and unhealthy obsession with the app choices of others on the latest episode of Enough. It’s a great listen and while not entirely necessary for the sake of understanding this post, I encourage you to go and check it out.
I learn a great deal from Patrick; he has a gift for making me think and forcing me to solidify my own ideas on a subject. This latest episode on actions over apps was no exception. Patrick made a strong case, both on his blog and on Enough, for not discussing his choice of app. He feels that this omission lets people focus on what matters most, the actions we need to take. I see his point, but I also see things differently.
When Looking At The Choices of Others
As Patrick points out in the episode, there is a temptation to look at what others are using and just run with it (I was guilty of this for far too long). This almost never works. Unless that person seems an awful lot like you, faces very similar challenges and has near identical preferences, it’s unlikely that trying things exclusively based on their choices is the best use of your time (and even then, it’s no guarantee). The app choices of others will offer insights and starting points, but what works for one person rarely works for another and almost never works for you.
This risk aside, there can be a lot to learn from how others work, especially once you de-emphasize what they use and focus far more of your attention on the how and why they approach their work. Seeing the specific choices that another person uses to effectively accomplish their goals is a gift. If you manage to avoid the common trap of expecting what worked for them to work for you, the opportunity offers tremendous insight into the discovery of your own approach. It allows you to get a tangible look at what is often the obtuse concept of a system or a workflow. You get to see how the various pieces fit together, which is far more important than any one application.
When Looking At The Actual Apps Themselves
When trying to figure out how to improve the way you work, Patrick is right. You shouldn’t start with the app. It is indeed about the action you want to take, but—at least for me—a big part of that process is taking a step back in order to find the right tool or tactic to help me to accomplish a necessary actions. Ultimately it’s about creating processes that ensure those necessary actions happen.
During the episode Myke mentioned that my intensive use of OmniFocus likely keeps me from trying an alternative task manager like Things. While the work involved in making a change detracts from my desire to switch, the short term pain of making a change isn’t what keeps me from considering my alternatives. For years I struggled to capture my ideas, organize them into projects, manage not to be overwhelmed by the number of things I need to do and figure out what I was actually supposed to do next. Once I found a way to do this in OmniFocus, I didn’t need to look any further.
I never feel tied to an application choice; I’m only ever committed to what’s working (and I’m very committed to something once it works). There’s always going to be something shiny and new, but one of the best pieces of advice I can offer is that once you find something that works, stop looking and use it to do great work. Make, as Patrick often suggests, a final choice. Something that is effective, well-worn and comfortable is far more likely to yield a desired outcome than something with potential that is new and unfamiliar.
It doesn’t matter what works for others when you’ve already found what works for you. This is especially true in a world that will always try and offer something new. When the latest version of Things came out, I heard great things from friends who suggested I give it another look, but task management is a solved problem for me. I’d rather dedicate that time to the personal productivity challenges I’ve yet to resolve.
Why The Apps Matter
The way that others work matters, but only to the extent that it helps you find your own approach. I see why Patrick is reluctant to discuss the applications he uses. I see why the obsession with what others use deters him and others from sharing their own choices. But I also believe those who are struggling will have a harder time without specific examples. The idea of a trusted system is vague, especially to those who have never had one. I struggled long and hard to find a way to get things done. I know the difference that a clear window into the workflows of others can make when it comes to finding your own.
Those of us who talk about these kinds of things need to do a better job of making it clear that what works for us isn’t universal. Our suggestions aren’t answers, just solutions to try. I’m just not sold that the best way to make this point is to avoid the specifics that, if weighed carefully, can help you find the best way forward.
There’s a lot to be learned from choices of others. You just have to accept that they probably won’t work for you.