Mistaking the tools for the project

August 25th, 2008

Soviet Russia was famous for starting ambitious projects, only to peter out a few years later. Giant steel works were started, apartment building walls built, even a humongous hole in the earth was created, but never finished.

Americans are famous for buying self-help books by the stack, spectacularly starting ambitious plans to lose weight, be more productive, make more money in less time, or just be happy. They’re both the same thing.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the second most popular type of blog, after technology-related blogs, are about productivity. Sites like 43 Folders, Lifehacker, Tim Ferriss’s blog, and countless stock and personal finance blogs. Not only that, but on a regular basis, these sites rehash the same topics: how to start writing, get your personal finances in order, declutter your home, work more efficiently, etc. etc. etc.

This proliferation of tools is both a blessing and a curse. People who are serious about improving their lives can find plenty of free resources to get started. But the considerable variety and contradictory paths available easily causes a vortex where the act of finding and starting the tools is mistaken for actually using them.

For example, consider the Getting Things Done system. It’s a very complex process of managing tasks and reorienting one’s way of working so that putting off tasks is no longer an issue. There’s just one tiny problem: GTD is so intricate and requires so much effort just to change one’s habits that most people give up fairly early in the implementation. By being a single way of getting things done, GTD ignores the truth that we all think and organize differently, depending on a multitude of interconnected traits.

My guess that most people who claim to be using GTD to organize their life are lying to themselves and others when they say that it’s helping them work, if using it all. And those who actually utilize the concepts created by David Allen are typically only using bits and pieces…and haven’t finished Allen’s book either (oh, the irony).

Also consider all the websites, posts, and resources for aspiring writers. Everyone has an opinion on the best way to get started, a preferred method of writing, the best software, superstitions, and so on. The truth is that there is no right way to be a writer, only that the only requisite is that the writer actually finishes the writing. But people don’t see it that way; they think they have it in them to write something good, and spend all their time getting everything set up “just so” only tire and not finish anything. If you’re worried that this might be happening to you, I suggest you read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It’s about a dying man who regrets that he never finished any writing. The first time I read it, it scared me enough to stop trying to write, and go do other stuff.

The issue I’m trying to get at is that it’s too easy to get stuck on the tools and not follow through. And that feeds into the very issues of procrastination, laziness, and feeling of non-success that started the process.

If you’re reading this post because you’re looking for tools to improve your life and become healthier, wealthier, and wiser – take my advice: stop looking for tools. Don’t read those blog posts on the best way to change your diet or how to get through your emails.

Stop. Using. New. Tools.

Instead, just do whatever you’re trying to accomplish in whatever way you know how, unless you’re working on your health*. Take note of how you naturally try to get things done, and improve on that. Chances are you already have all the tools you need.

There’s a Taoist story that to ponder that relates to using the tools you have:

In China, a well-known thief was conscripted into the military. A huge battle was about to be waged with a much larger army. The night before the thief’s army was to advance, the thief asked to see the general, saying he could end the war before it even began. “You are crazy. the general will never see you,” said a captain. But because of the wise look in the thief’s eyes and his insistence, the captian too this message to the general.

The general had heard of this famous thief and thus asked that the conscript join him in his grand tent. The thief bowed and told the general, “If you will give me three days, I can win this war,” and then shared his idea. Because the general was winse in the Taoist ways, he said he would assure the thief three days without battle to carry out the plan.

Later that night the thief snuck through the enemy camp and into the opposing general’s tent and stole the general’s sword. He took the sword tho his commander, and the next morning the wise general presented the weapon to the opposing army with great fanfare.

That night, the thief again snuck into the opposing general’s tent and, this time, stole the general’s bedspread. This prized possession was returned to the opposing army with a formal, public ritual the following morning.

The third night, the thief returned to the opposing general’s tent and took his decorated helmet.

At dawn, there flew the flag of surrender over the opposing general’s tent, signaling the end of the war. “What are you doing?” exclaimed the opposing general’s advisors. “We have their army outnumbered ten to won; why would we surrender?”

“Because,” replied the general, “tonight they would have taken my head.”


*Your health and your body is your most valuable possession, so always seek the advice of experts when trying to improve your health. Picking the wrong tools could be very dangerous. Much more dangerous than using the wrong software to write the Great American Novel.



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