The Hidden Cost Of Having Too Many Tools
Whatever your creative pursuit, having lots of tools at your disposal can be nice. But there’s a hidden cost to having too many tools.
I like my Kindle. I like it a lot. I almost love it. But it frustrates me sometimes.
Last week, while writing a review, I found myself needing to check a few quotes I’d highlighted in a book. The workflow I use allows me to take highlighted sections of books from the Kindle and into Bear, my current note-taking app, by using the BookCision applet.
But it turned out that I hadn’t highlighted the quote I had in mind, so I needed to go back and take another look at the book on the Kindle.
However, finding the page felt harder than it needed to be. Why do some some ebooks show a page number, others a location number, and why does the Kindle sometimes show me the time left to read a chapter or a book? It all felt so random and I’d never figured it out.
Of course, the answer wasn’t hard to find. I cheated and read the Kindle manual, and learned that there is an option for this in the page preferences. (I was under the mistaken impression these preferences were only for adjusting the type size.)
You can choose how the Kindle shows you your location in the book, assuming the formatting of the book allows for it. Some ebooks are not formatted for page numbers, and in such cases the Kindle would switch to the option available, so explaining the randomness I’d experienced.
Many Tools – Many Responsibilities
We face these kinds of issues all the time and with all sorts of tools, digital and analogue. I was frustrated for some time with those notification popups in Safari, asking if a website can ping you for every new article.
“No, always no,” I would mutter as I frustratedly clicked “Do not allow” over and over again. Surely there had to be a preference that turned this off for good?
Of course, there was (a checkbox in Safari>Preferences>Websites); the only issue was making the time and finding the resolve to hunt it down.
Part of the reason why I didn’t fix those preferences in the Kindle and Safari was because life was so full of those experiences that it felt overwhelming to tackle them. As I’ve radically scaled back the things that demand my attention, it started to feel easier to act on these problems. Instead of putting up with weird behaviour, we can find the preference and change it right away.
The more tools we have, the more time and effort it costs us to deal with these kinds of situations. It’s not just the cost of learning to use the tool, but the hidden cost of overcoming the unforeseen quirks and challenges of using it in the way we need to use it.
Or to put it another way – the cost of making the tool our own.
This is why we often see professionals exhibiting a kind of technological minimalism, especially when they have to work under pressure, like the chef who uses far fewer kitchen tools than most home cooks, or the musician who prefers to play the whole set with one instrument even though owning many more, or the photographer who leaves most of the cameras and gear at home when on assignment.
Every tool carries with it an invitation to explore another little world. So it should be. Much like the actual physical journeys we make, these technological journeys are inspired by a range of desires, some purely for fun, others purely practical, others to test the limits of new knowledge or ideas.
But not all these journeys are the same. Some are fun. Many are not.
A half-hour in a cute museum we discovered while on holiday can be delightful; the same half-hour in a convenience store at midnight because we forgot to shop for breakfast can be hell.
Many of us have experienced tool overload. For example, so many creatives feel pressure to be on every communication tool out there, not just email and social media, but new services like Slack and the explosion of messaging apps as well. Some freelancers even feel they have to be on every communication option out there just to stay in the game.
And yet, every piece of creative software has thousands of available plugins that all offer some cool new way to do things. Even writers, who for a long time had few alternatives to choose from for digital writing, now have a huge range of writing apps to try out.
If you are not careful then your full-time job could just become trying out all the cool new tools. I’ll admit it. Several times over the years I’ve been guilty of this. Tool-maximising to the limit. Like my friends who feel they need to be on every communication platform to stay competitive, I’ve been sucked into wanting to master every tool in order to have an edge in the market.
But what if simplicity is a competitive advantage?
I don’t mean the “Keep it simple, stupid” cliche (too often used by folks who fear innovation and change). I mean simple by design. We could call it stylish, but let’s stick with simple. Some things might be complicated, they might play with difficult ideas, or require complex techniques to perform, but we can choose to opt for simple in the workflow when the opportunity presents itself.
What if, instead of being on every communication platform, we choose to be on only a few, or only one? How much communication would we really lose, and how much time and clarity would we regain? What if we radically limited the number of plugins and third party plugins we used? Or the number of odd, once-in-a-blue-moon tools that cause us to spend more time reading the manual than using the thing itself?
Maybe we would start to find not just more time, but more clarity and focus as well.