43 Folders

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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Because buying new running shoes is more fun than actually running

We’re fortunate right now to see so many great tools emerging to help people get their act together.

Products like 37 SignalsBackpack and TaDaList are beautifully constructed, entirely usable, and have an amazingly high sense of fit and finish. It doesn’t go without saying that these products are also very fun to use. At the same time, a clever little app like GTDTiddlyWiki comes along that’s lightweight, portable, and is also very fun to use. And, although I haven’t played with Trumba or Sproutliner much yet, I understand they’re both turning a lot of heads and are—you guessed it—very fun to use.

These are all Good Things, and I couldn’t be happier that the quality of tools we’re seeing is so consistently high. Kudos, tool persons. You have all done a good job.

Still, as attracted as all we users naturally are to adopting these new apps, I have a growing concern that I want to share. And while it’s not directly related to these particular products, I do think it goes to important attitudes we have about seeing tools as panaceas for our productivity and time-management problems.

My concern is that there’s a big difference between buying new running shoes and actually hitting the road every morning. Big difference. One is really fun and relaxing while the other requires a lot of hard work, diligence, and sacrifice.

Ultimately, the tools that we choose for any purpose will only be as useful as our ability to use them effectively and to understand what their improved quality means to the way we approach our work (as well as the challenges that led us to seek out these new tools). You can buy a successively more costly and high-quality series of claw hammers until you’ve reached the top of the line, but until you learn how to use them skillfully, you’re going to keep making ugly bird houses.

Understand: this is coming from the world’s biggest fan of productivity pr0n, and, as ever, I make no apology for my love of anything that pretends to make me more effective (or involves buying a new notebook, of course). But I think it’s critical to understand the difference between using something because it’s fun and pretty versus understanding what behaviors and habits it can help you to improve. These above-mentioned products all have huge amounts of potential for each of us, but without personal insight into what they’re meant to improve, they’re just distracting toys.

No tool can save you from your own crap behavior, so as you approach these great new apps—and I hope you’ll at least check them out if you haven’t—please try to do it with a bit of perspective about how or why the old tools were not working for you. Consider the patterns that you can observe about how you do your best work and which tasks have benefitted from a certain tool or approach in the past.

And, finally, as you start to choose one new, dedicated tool to improve your productivity, be circumspect about the amount of pure “dicking around” time that you spend. Yes: learn the tool well and understand its functions and limitations, but avoid the temptation to blow a week moving “your system” into the Next Shiny Product until you really understand how you’ll be better off having used it. Don’t fiddle endlessly, just because it’s fun. That’s not running; that’s just playing with your shoes.

Making improvements means change and often pain along the way. It’s hard to get better, and good tools like these can definitely ease the journey. I guess I'm proposing you try to understand yourself at least as well as the widget you’re hoping will turn things around.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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