Information vs. User Disarray

Who is this for? Those struggling to determine the ideal number of tools to use in their workflow.

From Devir Kahan at BitQuill:

Over the last few weeks a problem that has only gotten worse with time started to bug me more than ever before. I call it “information disarray” and it is the issue of all of the important organizational bits of your digital life being scattered throughout a variety of different apps and services. Your todos are in one app, articles ideas in another, things you want to buy in another, movies you want to watch in another, appointments in another, and lists in still another. Everything is everywhere and you have no idea where to look to find something.   There was a time when there was a single application you could go to and see everything you needed to worry about or take care of that day/week. Now things are spread out all over the place with highly specialized apps each claiming little bits of information for themselves. I can never find a specific item that I want, and I have, more than once, missed important information because I was not in the right app at the right time.

We’re now offered an array of tools to help us manage our day-to-day, many of which overlap. It’s far too easy to take on too many of them and find yourself lost in the very tools you hoped would save you. That said, I also think trying to structure one tool to do it all (or aggressively minimizing tools for minimizing’s sake) to be an equally inefficient solution. Let’s face it, the lack of ever having a single application where you could go to see everything you needed is what led us to branch off and find more focused alternatives in the first place. 

While I agree that there is a very real concern about having too many tools doing too many things, I’m not sure I agree that this is a technology issue. To me, it’s strictly a user issue. I avoid highly specialized apps as they tend to lead to the kind of confusion Devir warns against. Rather than using a grocery app, I stick to a general list app (Listary is my current choice, but Silo is coming along nicely). This means that anything that would belong on a list, from hardware store needs to books I’d like to read, all live in one place. I may not get the advantages of more focused apps (such as Recall for book, TV and movie suggestions), but I never wonder where anything belongs.

Rather than obsessing on a single app or even the app count, I always find it’s better to think of these tools as part of a single workflow that’s meant to provide the clarity needed to get through the day, week, month and year. The solution, at least for me, digitally is the same as in my home: a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’m intentional about the tools I use, but I’m even more intentional about the way I use them. All written text goes into nvALT, reference materials go into Evernote, tasks are in OmniFocus, lists are in Listary, reminders are in Due, appointments are in Fantastical/Google Calendar. By the way, these tools are not mutually exclusive. If I need to get a piece of writing done by a certain date, there’s a task for it in OmniFocus with a link directly back into that piece. If I have a meeting, the reference material gets the same treatment in OmniFocus with a link back to my notes for the meeting.

In Devir’s case, he is trying to use Things to handle more of his workload. This may very well work for him, but if I tried to keep my daily tasks, my writing wants, my shopping lists and more in once place my system would implode in on itself. The clarity my system provides me would diminish and ultimately it would help me get less done. Between managing my home life, my work life and my personal projects, my task list is overloaded enough.

This may seem insane to some, it may even create some friction, but I never wonder where anything goes or where I need to go when I need something, I know. Is there still disarray in my day? Absolutely, but very little of it tends to come from my technology and if used right, I don’t think much of it will for you as well. It just requires taking the time the time to decide what to use, discovering the best way to use it and then having the discipline to actually use it that way. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve found it to be an effective tool for eliminating a fair amount of my daily disarray.

2 Responses to Information vs. User Disarray

  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my article, Michael. I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this stuff over the last few days since I wrote it. I have a few questions for you, now:

    1. Why even use Listary for lists? Why is something like nvAlt not enough? I’m considering moving my lists out of Things, but do I really need a separate app for lists?
    2. On that note, in the opposite sense, why not use a designated app for writing? Why not use Byword’s iCloud folder for all article ideas? Why even keep those in nvAlt/notes?

    I guess my issues with using too many different apps is that the whole thing can seem hacky at times. In the simplest way — even the way Apple hopes you would do things (as in, using their own apps) — how would you go about doing things? Does your workflow really need dozens of scripts and shortcuts and hacks to make it work? Sometimes constraints are good, although I agree that sometimes they are not. It’s like the Drafts app for iOS: Still, after all this time, I have no idea what the advantage of using it is. Is it such a pain just to open the app you want up and type in what you need?

    We are geeks after all, and thus we find needs for more advanced programs than the average computer Joe (or Jane!). But do we need that many more things? That many more hacks and scripts and shortcuts? Is it all truly helpful — and does saving a second or two here or there really make up for a loss in simplicity and focus (at least to me)?

    Minimalism for minimalism’s sake is, agreeably, not necessarily a good thing. But when an overload of systems and hacks is overwhelming to you, pairing down might be a good idea. I still am not sure how, exactly, I am pairing down — the ideas I mentioned in my Things article might not stick — I just know that I feel a need to.

    How many of us could, in theory, get by using just Apple’s Reminders and Calendar app? I bet most of us could. Indeed, Jack Doresy seems to. Of course, to me even, using Things (or OmniFocus in many other’s cases) is a lot easier and faster. And thus that app is warranted. But is a separate list app, a separate reminders app, and a separate task management app warranted? Maybe. I’ve yet to decide, really. While the thought of that, in some ways, is a calming one — knowing that everything has its own place — in other ways it is unsettling knowing that the things I need to be worrying about and taking care of are spread thin across different apps without a guarantee they will be seen when I need to see them.

    I know some of this stuff is a slightly different topic altogether — and some stuff might even be contradictory — but that is my point exactly. It’s difficult stuff to work out — at least to me — and I haven’t yet settled on how I want to be doing things.

    That’s why we’ve got great people like yourself trying to help me out :)

    • Ok, so:

      1. nvALT is great for capturing ideas, but not ideal for reordering them, especially when at a supermarket and when your wife tends to send things in texts and out of order . I used to have these in nvALT as well when I used simplenote, but this didn’t carry over when I went to Dropbox sync.
      2. This for me is all about the power of search. I have a hell of a lot of notes and referencing what I need would go a hell of a lot slower using Byword’s sync. The external editor option in nvALT gives me quick access to Byword when I want it and I’m perfectly happy with Notesy on the iPhone.

      I only think it seems hacky when things aren’t thought out. When you try everything and a workflow turns into a frankenstein monster. I care less about the walls of applications and more about cohesion. These don’t feel like separate apps to me (may have to do with the fact that I’m a bit design blind), just the toolbox for the work I tend to do. It’s why I’m very stubborn about the tools I use and tend not to switch or try too many new things.

      As for the scripts, I don’t go crazy here, I just use them to reduce repetitive actions and act as glue for the few places where the system doesn’t tie together (i.e. sending evernote notes to OF and creating tasks from nvALT pieces). Again, not a technology issue, but the choices made by the user.

      Bottom line, I don’t think this is about the number of apps, just how intentional you are about the technology you choose. Having more apps keeps things simple for me. It may seem counter intuitive, but I get to be far more focused about how I use each tool.

      I’m not a fan of people who regularly assess their systems regularly assessing their systems. I much rather people notice when there’s significant friction and identify the right fix. If you felt that friction and made the move to Things, right on! If you just decided to minimize, I question the benefit (I don’t think you did, just making an example).

      I’m sure people could get by with the stock apps, I’m not one of them. Reminders is too limited and Calendar is slower than Fantastical (which, no matter how embarrassed I am to admit this) caused me to not use it and omit things from my calendar. To me, lists, reminders, tasks and appointments are different things that should be treated differently. I get that this is overkill to many, but it is ideal for me. If I tried to fit that all into one or two tools, I’d have to think to hard about how to structure it and would ultimately stop using it in frustration.

      But again, none of this is a byproduct of the technology itself (despite our desire for too much leading to far too focused apps, IMO). It’s all about the choices made by the people using it.

      Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t knocking your decision to make this shift. If that works for you, awesome! Just arguing the assertion that it’s an issue with the technology.

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