So, Merlin Mann snapped.
This is kind of a big deal because Mann is one of the big thinkers in productivity on the web, and has been instrumental in helping a lot of people (including me) help get a grasp on things like Getting Things Done. His Blog, 43folders, is part of my regular reading rotation. He’s had enough good, important things to say that have influenced my thinking that I’m writing about the bad one solely to inoculate myself against it. Writing makes it easier for me to be philosophical about it rather than worked up.
This actually began with a previous post over on his personal site that was a not-so-subtle mocking of distraction free writing software like Writeroom, Writemonkey and such. I suspect it was inspired by IA Writer‘s feature that hides all the text except that which you’re working on (which is kind of silly, but the app’s pretty good otherwise). It was a nice bit of mockery and I walked away smiling and shaking my head and thinking “Man, Merlin hates those apps.”
Now, its worth noting that I love those apps, and most of the writing I get done is in those sorts of programs. It’s the right tool for me. But I’m OK with it not being the right tool for everyone. Compared to the nonsense I’ve had to field for using Moleskine notebooks, this is small potatoes.
Anyway, that post lead to this one, a fairly long, sustained explosion about the critical problem with any and all productivity tools and methods, which can be summarized as follows: Any tool that might help you get more done can also be used to waste time pretending to get things done.
We’re all familiar with this phenomena – you see it when you get a spiffy new day planner or piece of todo software and then spend more time using your new tool than you do actually getting anything done. You see it when someone starts on a new methodology (like GTD) and spends all their time tuning their system rather than working. You see it when someone spends a hundred bucks on a notebook and folio and three hundred dollars on a pen and proceeds to fuss about ink rather than writing. You see it when someone buys a two-thousand dollar camera and spends all their time fiddling with buttons and settings and bags rather than going an taking pictures.
This is both insidious and frustrating. It’s insidious because the person doing this feels busy. They’re engaging the tool, so they don’t realize they’re not engaging the work. It’s frustrating because the problem does not correlate directly with the tools or methods. In someone else’s hands, that tool or method may be exactly the thing they need to do the job, and that’s the rub. Whatever your frustration with how people use the tools, if you focus on on that you will encounter a group of people who will stand up and say “this tool works for me.”
And that’s why Mann’s explosion was inevitable, but still kind of problematic. There’s no way to get as deep in productivity as he is without getting profoundly frustrated with people who turn to the tools rather than the work. Sooner or later you’re going to see some tool that is so utterly useless to you that you’re just going to snap and make it clear that this tool is emblematic of all your frustrations and annoyances at how people are doing it wrong.
So, I don’t blame him for that. But that the blunt instrument he’s waving around is a tool I get a lot of use out of kind of makes it problematic to me.
Now, heck, I doubt he intends to come across as if distraction free writing software is really the apex of all that is wrong in productivity. Ask him on any other day and I suspect you’ll find that he’s fine with the tool so long as people use it rather than use it to not do things. Similarly, if you ask him another day, I think he’s less likely to equate a tool with a failing on the part of the person using it. But today? Today he snapped.
And it’s ok. Everyone reaches that point sooner or later, and Mann has earned more than enough good credit to make up for it. But I admit I’m just going to sort of sidle past this one and let it fall to the wayside of time. And that’s maybe a shame. There are good, salient points mixed in with the rage, and some part of me says its worth hanging on to it just for those.
But one other thing I’ve learned from real productivity is this – no matter how useful something is, if it hurts you every time you pick it up, that’s probably not the tool you want.