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Tools of the Trade
Jun 23, 2019
5 minutes read

Workshop Just as trade-based professionals devote time over their careers to acquire the right tools for the right jobs, I too think that knowledge workers should place a high priority on finding the hardware, applications, and processes that work best for them. When you’re spending 40+ hours on a pursuit, small improvements to both your quality of life and output can have outsized impacts over time.

Throughout the day I use many different devices. Often on my desk you’ll see a laptop, tablet, phone, and kindle. And for each of these devices I try to use them for as little overlapping functionality as possible, meaning for any function I need to perform there is ideally only one specific device that can carry this out. By limiting what each device can do allows me to easily compartmentalise and focus on individual tasks.

For instance, when I was a technical lead this involved me writing code as an individual contributor, managing a team, and communicating often with other parts of the company. Initially I did all of these roles purely on a laptop, but found that because this device can do all functions, I’d get distracted and mindlessly switch between roles. I’d be in the midst of writing code and a slack alert would come up, or I’d find myself opening a browser and typing in “gmai…”. It was too easy to context switch. Now, yes, of course you can do things to improve your focus and mindfulness, effectively minimising the problem through awareness and discipline, but that sounds hard. So instead, I decided to increase the effort needed to context switch by limiting the capability of each device. I purchased an iPad, this was the communication machine. It had email and slack and hangouts, and when I was using this device I was in communication mode. This allowed me to uninstall and sign out of all these services on my laptop, and focus on using the laptop purely for programming. Often times too I’d use them in different locations. Am I sitting at my desk on my computer? Great, that means I’m programming. Would I like to do some email? Sure, that means I have to get my iPad and move to the couch. Nice, simple, the constraints work.

I’ve extended this to my personal life as well. In the mornings using my phone is tempting; checking email, reddit, hackernews, watching youtube, it’s oh so tempting. But there are some things I like using on my phone in the early morning ; checking the weather, meditation apps, playing some music. So how do I use my phone in a way that I only use the good apps and not the bad ones? With self discipline and a strong will? Pfft, difficult. Instead, I have a seperate phone for my mornings. It’s an old iPhone SE, loaded up with only the good apps. My normal phone I keep in a box until I’m ready to leave the house. Once again this might seem like overkill, why have two phones (and one much less functional) when a single phone can do all of the things you need? But I’ve found that physically separating contexts, and having temptations further away than just a tap, allows me to more easily keep on track.

In this connected world, where all of your different devices can be connected and synchronised, there is the urge to maximise the functionality of each device by loading them up with as much capability as possible. But I’ve found that in many cases limiting the functionality of a device works well for me. I’m writing this on my iPad, a device which is largely set up for creating. If I wanted to check twitter or talk to friends on messenger, I can’t do that on this device, I’d have to go to the other side of the room and get my phone to do that, and often that is enough of a barrier for me to stop and think about what I’m doing, rather than getting in these automatic loops of jumping between functions. And this is why I love my kindle. It serves a single function. To read ebooks. No other distractions or capabilities. That’s what I strive for when thinking about how I use my devices.

I do this for the apps I choose to use as well. If I have email on a device, I make sure to use different apps for my personal and work emails. I even had two slack apps to seperate my work based slack channels from personal ones. I have three note-taking apps (Agenda, Bear, Notability) for different note-taking functions (Project based meetings, Text Notes, Visual or Handwritten notes) and two todo list apps; Omnifocus for project based todos, Due for routine based todos. This means that when I have a specific function I need to perform I go to the specific app the fulfils that and only that function.

This may sound complex, but in reality it just takes some reflection every once in a while to think through how you do things and what tools are suitable to achieve these things. I find that by getting these systems right it simplifies things as it’s always very clear which function you’re performing right now as well as forcing you to be more considerate when you need to context switch.

Tags: productivity

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