Monochrome. A bunch of tools, some manufactuered and some improvised, hang from a barn wall.

Unbundling Tools for Thought

Short version:

  • Tools for thought promise to let you centralize and hyperlink all your data.
  • In practice 95% of the use cases can be naturally unbundled into disjoint apps, and the lack of centralization and cross-app hyperlinking has no real negative effects.

Yeah. I especially appreciate his observation about tools like Obsidian, once they become swamped with plugins. It’s too much. “Stunt productivity.”

I have been on this merry-go-round several times and have come to believe that you just don’t actually want the all-in-one thing. Clickup, Notion, Obsidian, etc. all want you to put your brain in them. Your brain is better than any of it and doesn’t deserve to be crammed into these things.

My perspective has changed over the years on what’s acceptable, but basically:

  • I don’t pay much attention to CLI tools anymore. I have a small computer in my pocket that can do a lot, including making text-based interfaces a misery. I don’t care if I can open a mosh connection to some box somewhere and do stuff. It’s novel, but it’s not very productive.

  • If I’m going to give in and make “decent mobile experience” important, it still has to be simple, and I prefer it to run natively across three platforms: laptop/desktop, phone, tablet.

Drafts, Things, Reeder, and DayOne all fit this bill. They run on everything, they sync pretty well, and they present simply. I especially appreciate Things for this because it’s possible to make it into a simple list app and live that way, then let it sort of spread out if I need to get a little deeper into planning or organizing. Apple’s Reminders is so close, but they have not thought everything through (e.g. the terrible nested tasks UI).

  • I’m sorry that iOS/iPadOS sandboxing has exerted so much pull over the direction of Apple automation. The whole URL scheme thing is woeful, leaving you with something that’s a baffling, eye-squinting nuisance to figure out on a small screen, and a lot of half-baked “what the developer could figure out” built-in actions that feel more like a proof of concept than meaningful leverage. A boss of mine once said of something I built, “I feel like I should just be impressed the bear can dance and not complain that it isn’t dancing very well.” I feel that way about iOS automation.

On the flip side, I think the app market has been a little salutary because it has forced developers to think about how to pare back and simplify.

  • Things need to be portable. I want them to come out in common formats: Markdown, well-formed HTML, OPML, Taskpaper, etc. I’ll even take JSON. Rich text isn’t okay.

And not a principle, but I am watching iCloud Files. After wondering whether there was a replacement for Evernote for one of my use cases – dropping receipts, bills, general purpose documents I might want to find again – I realized I only used two Evernote features: import and search. I never had a folder setup, I never visually browsed. I dropped things in, forgot about them, then searched for them later when I needed them. No subfolders, no elaborate tagging – just drop it in, forget about it, find it later. Every other use case bounced off me because I didn’t want the latency of using Evernote to do the task.

(btw, I noticed Evernote’s recent purchaser is a portfolio company with a big AI emphasis. What a useful trove of data they just bought.)

Anyhow, yeah … I can remember when the whole lifehack thing sort of took off and then settled into GTD, 43Folders, torturing OmniOutliner into a GTD tool until OmniFocus could step in, etc. etc. Any nerd can sit around all day long dreaming up things that would be cool, or occasionally useful, or of infrequent but quirky utility. At some point, the part of design that’s about saying “okay, enough, this is too much” has to step in and simplify.

Ironic, coming from someone who’s been using Emacs his entire adult life.