Personal systems, productivity, and slippers
I was recently talking with a very busy friend about personal tooling. He's a freelancer that also manages several hobby projects. As a busy person, he tries to have a kind of system that speeds up his tasks and eases his work day. I'm a bit the same, so we dug deeper into the subject, until I came to a realization.
Yes, we use tools to achieve the same goal, but we have very different relationships with them.
Our personal systems
This friend is a smart, very intellectual guy capable of self-reflection. He often changes the way his system works to try to achieve automations. But at some point, managing and self-reflecting on this system has become another task in itself that seems to add work to his already busy schedule.
Since he can't program, he has to tinker inside existing apps and follow this field evolution. Else, if another tool comes out and is doing exactly whan he needs, he could miss it! He uses things like the Shortcut app in iOs to automate tasks. He tracks his time, both for profesionnal and personal projects, through a service like Toggle. I don't know his whole setup but I'm sure that if something is considered top notch, he's using it!
Now, let's compare to my own kinda yolo system. I have a single text file that serves as a journal, a wiki and a bookmarking tool. A program I made turns it into a website. I created my own time tracking system that uses another text file. My own markup language is used to write those text files, while my pattern library allows me to decorate things. I use a salvaged computer that runs a very specific linux distribution named Regolith, and use very few external services outside of Github and a chat programs.
So there's quite a difference between us. But what I feel is the biggest one is how, at first sight, my tools are very personal but unproductive. Meanwhile, my friend's tools seem super productive but very generic.
Features versus pleasure
Let's take our time tracking systems.
With just a shortcut on his phone, my friend can start and stop a timer. The data will be added to his Toggle account, that will produce a nice report, shared on all his devices. He can probably program time for each task, get alerts when he exceeds the time allowed. Installing and configuring all this probably took him no more than an hour.
My time tracking system is a text file. It's the most unprecise clocking system you can think of. There's no app to launch a timer, it counts only in hours and only serves data by week. If I forgot to fill time and how much a task took me, I have to remember and estimate. Data is only visible on a page, and only if I rebuild and re-publish it. It took me dozens of hours to create all the parts involved and it doesn't even do a lot.
I don't know for my friend about his, but I LOVE my time tracking system. It's so me. It's carefree. A little bit irresponsible. It sets boundaries. It allows self-reflection, yet does not allow micro-analysis. Its design is funky and weird. Outsiders told me they found it fascinating, which I think is so cool. How many people can say a time tracking system is cool?
It's the same for my website and my markup language. It took me around 150 hours to code those two things. I redid both 3 times. I could just have taken a simple static site generator like Eleventy and write in Markdown.
But if Eleventy is super cool, I hate the NPM ecosystem that supports it because it's fragile and alive. There are notifications in the terminal telling me this thing is deprecated, this thing has a vulnerability. this one needs funding. And Eleventy will evolve, which means I'll have to do... updates?! Gosh, the horror! The last thing I want when I sit to write in my own space is some outsider telling me to do things!
It's the same for Markdown. I like inline Markdown! But I hate writing Markdown links! Using
[Text of link](Link to image) for a link does not work for me. When I decide to post a link, I often already have it copied. So I need to paste this thing as fast as possible and I will decide what text to use after. Markdown asks for the text before the link, that means I have to write all those characters, paste my link, then come back to the square brackets to write my text, then go back at the end to continue my sentence. Ugh, procedures.
All this can sound as minor inconveniences, and they are. But they add up, and their sum will lead to an interruption of my workflow and, eventually, to procrastination.
Tools as slippers
If the tools I use while working create friction, the time I need to do the work will increase, and time will be wasted, not saved. Imagine having a hammer with a squared handle. You can still hammer things, but that will be very unpleasant and will make you want to quit.
If you can, why not change the hammer handle? Even model it to your own hand? That's what I consider an exercise in self-discovery, as noted in my tools page.
If, one day, I need a precise client oriented time tracking system like my friend's one, I will build it. It probably won't be available on all platforms. It will miss features that many people feel are important. It might be awkward to use. The style will probably be weird to others.
But I'll make sure that, when I use it, it feels like I'm wearing my favorite pair of slippers.
Now if you excuse me, I have to ask my partner at which hour I started writing this, because I forgot to look at the time but still need to input it.🙈