For All Of Us Fiddlers

From Brett Kelly’s “Buyers Guid For Minimalist Writing Apps”:

The more time you spend dicking around with these apps is time you’re not making something. It’s super easy to split hairs about which app is best and which one is the most minimal or whatever, but this is such a solved problem that spending more than a few minutes thinking about it is a complete waste of time. […]

I use Notesy on my iPad and iPhone. It has all the features I need and it works just fine. Ben prefers iA Writer and (the other) Brett likes Byword. If you’re in the market for such an app, any of these would be fine places to start.

But, let’s just agree that endlessly evaluating these types of apps is a textbook case of fiddling.

(I’m honestly not trying to pick on anybody, but the above post was inspired by this post).

There’s been quite a bit of talk over the last week regarding minimalist writing applications. Too much, in fact. Like Brett, I was driven to write about Ben Brooks’ post, especially after reading this:

I downloaded the new Byword for iOS this morning — I spent the first 15 minutes trying to decide between the two custom fonts. 15 minutes. 2 fonts. Just imagine if I could change the background color? I used to spend hours a week tweaking colors in WriteRoom.

Like Brett, I’m not trying to pick on Ben. I don’t think he is wrong or bad or that my way or my app is any better. I just see myself in that comment. While I’m more prone to tweaking overall workflows rather than individual apps, I’m just as guilty of giving up time fiddling with things that really didn’t need it. I can get lost in Keyboard Maestro trying to streamline something that didn’t really warrant it. It’s fun and it’s easier than the hard work of actually making something. I’ve become excellent at rationalizing this: I’m trying to remove friction, I’m creating useful tools for others who struggle, I want to review this app and really need to know what it is capable of. Sometimes this is true; most of the time it is feeding an addiction.

This kind of fiddling is not a byproduct of our tools, it’s a result of our choices. Finding something like iA Writer (a minimalist writing app known for having no preferences and Ben’s app of choice) doesn’t solve the problem, it simply means you’ll find something else to fiddle with. Sure, you could go through every aspect of your life and eliminate anything with options. You can seek out as much minimalism as the world will offer, but wouldn’t the time be better spent building up willpower?

Minimalism shouldn’t replace self-control, it should eliminate waste. Temptation is always going to be there, it just may not come in the form of keyboard shortcuts or font sizes. We may be able to control our writing environment, we may be able to control our workflows, we may be able to control every last pixel of our website, but in reality we don’t control all that much. The world is constantly lobbing distractions our way (and when the world isn’t, our brain is more than happy to help). Cultivate the willpower to stare these distractions in the face, know they are there and make great stuff while staring them down1.

If you’re prone to fiddling, here are a few things you may want to consider:

  1. Find something that works and stop looking for something better.
  2. Schedule a regular review of your tools and workflow. If you can’t beat it, limit it.
  3. Stop reviewing or trying new things, especially if you’re mostly happy with what you’ve got.
  4. Quit going into preferences. Only ever go in with the intent of changing something specific.
  5. Whenever tempted, go make something instead.

Have any better ideas for getting past fiddling and into your work? Leave them below, I sure as hell can use them…


  1. For those who have read The Information Diet, stare the biscuit down until it’s stale  

2 Responses to For All Of Us Fiddlers

  1. It would be great to hear some thoughts of non-geek writers to see what distracts them. Are they really distracted by the menu bars of Pages or Ms Word?  I think minimalism is a form of self-restraint. Sometimes you need that external help or prop that keeps you on the right path. By limiting your options and choices you create a mental space in which the brain can better function. This goes in line with the ideas behind of Paradox of Choice  where too much choice makes the situation worse as it’s almost impossible to make a satisfying choice.

    The reason we jump (me included) from app to app, looking for that perfect one, is not because there is one or two that are absolutely better then the rest. The reason we do it is because we desire the end result that people using these apps have achieved. The sad truth is no tool will help if we are not willing to do the work.

    • Hmmm, do we know any non-geek writers…

      My gut is no, that you don’t see it until you see it, but once you do, you cant unsee it (if that makes any sense).

      As for the app to app jumping, I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid this (mostly because I know how addicting it would be for me). I’ve only ever tried Byword and avoided iA Writer. I obsessed ahead of time doing my homework, chose and stuck with it. I try to avoid switching at all costs. While it’s not a writing app, my task manager is a perfect example. I was with Things for far too long before I switched over to OF.

      I find the good enough app that you actually use (especially if you really know what you want) will always trump the perfect app where you can’t stop yourself from looking for something better.

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