Don't Put the Tool Before the Craft
Breaking Up with Productivity Advice
I am deeply envious of chefs with great knife skills.
The precision, the speed, the consistency. The twinge of fear in your fingertips as their blade glides in front of their nails. The satisfaction of a neat pile of green onions at the end of the cutting board. It’s delicious.
I asked Myles Snider if he could teach me or knew where I could learn. But I was shocked when he said “Honestly man, don’t bother.”
Don’t BOTHER? How could a chef tell me not to bother learning advanced knife skills? Surprised, and a little miffed, I asked him to explain.
“Chefs have to learn these crazy knife skills while they’re staging because they might spend hours cutting vegetables every day. You spend, what, ten to twenty minutes a week cutting things? Basic knife skills are gonna be fine for you.”
Hm, fair point. I could spend weeks practicing knife skills and it would only save me a few minutes every week. There were other benefits of course, like showing off at dinner parties, but it wouldn’t help me with what I really wanted: to get better at cooking.
Myles helped me avoid an easy error:
Putting the tool before the craft.
I shared a confession last week: I’ve abandoned most of the productivity techniques I blogged and talked about over the last decade.
My first blog back in 2012 was all about developing good, productive habits. On my old blog, I have a couple dozen articles on productivity. I have tried almost every tool, trick, tactic, and voodoo ritual to David Allen under the sun.
Did they work? Sure, I got really good at checking off boxes and ignoring text messages and breaking my 10 year goals down to minutely goals.
But did all that technique do anything? That I’m less sure about. It’s not like I’m launching rockets or creating new medicines or running for President. It didn’t make my writing better. Maybe I can squeeze a bit more out of my 16 waking hours a day, but that’s hardly the metric we judge our lives on. For the most part, I was using my vast expertise in productivity to… make more content about productivity.1
There is, of course, a balance. If you learn nothing about working smarter you’ll waste countless hours. But our productivity methodology is just a tool. And it’s a mistake to confuse tool sharpening, or worse, tool buying, with actual work. Playing around with a new writing app feels like it’s going to be the thing you need to finally sit down and write that great novel inside you, even though 99% of all great books were written by hand or typewriter.2
We can’t be too hard on ourselves for getting distracted by this confusion though. There is so much content focused on trapping the attention of everyone looking for quick fixes. All you have to do is open YouTube or TikTok and you’ll learn more about what people with yachts do for a living, the habits of highly successful people, and what some surprising new study says about focus.3
But Myles's advice for knife skills applies even more to productivity. Most of us are wasting time we could be spending learning our craft by playing around with our tools and washing our pickup truck instead of hauling anything.4
So how do we find the right balance? We need to find the minimum viable scaffolding to get our work started and then focus on doing the work from there, making little adjustments as we go.5
To the extent you’re going back to working on your tools, it should be driven by some noticeable shortcomings in the actual work. Your knife isn’t cutting like it used to. You’re losing too much time to email. Tool work should always be a focused attempt to fix a specific problem, not passive information consumption hoping to find a quick win that will make the work easy.
If there’s no major problem, stop looking for solutions. Every minute we spend looking for The Right Tool is a minute we’re not using our perfectly good word processor to bang out the next great American novel.
Don’t put the tool before the craft.6
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This is kinda the dark truth with many of these topics, particularly productivity and finance. No amount of goal setting or planning will make up for working on small things or having a low-value skillset. No amount of investing or budgeting will make you rich off a small income. There are usually much higher leverage areas to focus on, but that’s much harder to do and doesn’t get clicks from people looking for easy wins.
Admit it, you’ve thought about buying a typewriter.
That is the Jack and the Beanstalk myth after all: Jack wants to get rich quick so he sells the family cow for magic seeds and ends up finding a goose that lays golden eggs. We all want to believe that the right magic beans will save us from a life of arduous farming. It’s weird that we tell this story to kids. Jack should end up obsessed with finding magic seeds and die falling off a beanstalk or something.
I admit to judging anyone who drives around with an exceptionally clean, unscratched, undented pickup truck. For the year or so I had my Tacoma I only washed it once.
Asking an expert to advise you on that minimum viable scaffolding can be a frustrating process though. Here’s Stephen King on how to organize the plot of a novel from “On Writing”:
“I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).”
He suggests that you don’t try to plot out your novels at all. You just start with a character in a situation and see what happens from there. I fully believe that this is what King does and it works for him, but it’s rough advice for a newcomer. That’s probably something you can do after you’ve written a dozen novels. We all want to get to a point where we don’t need any structure and can just flow in our craft intuitively, but you have to get through the Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence phases first.
To attempt to provide some minimum-viable-scaffolding for productivity, so you can turn off the feed and get back to work, here it is in one sentence:
Do the most important thing for a few high-energy hours, with minimal interruptions, every day.