Hammers, nails, and screws

August 30, 2020

This week I’ve seen numerous people doing the online equivalent of walking around with a hammer, looking for nails.

Unfortunately, when you do this, you’ll see lots of things that—from a distance—look like nails. But a lot of those nails are, in fact, screws.

This manifests itself in many ways:

  • People trying to use hip apps such as Notion or Roam to solve all of their productivity struggles.
  • People trying to use their task manager to track their goals or to track their habits.
  • People trying to build a one-size-fits-all knowledge management system (we might call it a “second brain”).

Predictably, many of these efforts fail. That’s because when you try to do these things, you’ve got it backwards: you’ve found a “solution” and try to apply it to as many problems as you can.

Don’t do that.

Instead, you always want to start with the problem.

What is your problem? Or: what are your problems? (Because you might have more than one problem.) If your problem is…

  • that you miss deadlines, then you want to use a task manager to alert you of upcoming deadlines on tasks and projects.
  • that you can’t find the notes you took on past meetings, then you want to set up an app that lets you easily organize and search your notes.
  • that you don’t know where to find a particular file someone sent you, then you want to establish rules of which types of files you’ll save where and you’ll want to organize your folders logically.

And so on.

Too often, when it comes to our productivity, people talk in generalities. As a counter, I challenge you to get specific: what isn’t going right for you?

It’s okay if your first answer is “I’m disorganized”. But dig deeper. Surely there are some things you’ve organized reasonably well. Perhaps it’s your paper notes or your email inbox or your bookshelf.

So which exact types of information have you not organized well? PDFs? Your handwritten notes? Your digital notes? Your tasks? Your individual projects? Your team projects? The answer matters, because it dictates which tool you should use.

You may have found some lovely hammers. I really have nothing against Notion, which I actually use in my course, Big-Picture Productivity. I don’t have anything against Roam or against <insert your="" favorite="" hip="" app=""> either. But think forwards, not backwards; clarify your problem and </insert>then find an appropriate tool to solve it.

Don’t be the person with the hammer, looking for nails—and getting disappointed when they turn out to be screws.

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