This is really a great time for choosing among an impressive variety of third-party software for Mac OS X and iOS. What’s more: there’s a lot of high-quality applications out there, at very affordable prices. When talking about workflow and productivity — two of the most abused words in recent times — the usual advice is that you should find out what are the best tools for you in order to increase productivity and decrease the friction in your workflow.
Typically, discovering such best tools is accomplished by following a trial-and-error process. You follow the advice or the example of people you trust, you download/purchase a series of apps, you try them and you see which ones ‘stick’, i.e. those that better fit in your workflow, and all’s well that ends well.
The problem I’ve had to face in my own personal path of workflow/productivity betterment is that there’s an increasing number of apps so specialised, so focused on performing one single task excellently, that to complete one step in my workflow, I would have to use two or three of them. Or there are several apps with a broader scope in the same category, and one ends up choosing two with overlapping features because App A is great at Features 1 and 2, and App B is great at Features 2 and 3.
I’m not making specific examples because the problem isn’t the apps themselves or how they’re designed, although I do think that in recent times there’s been a bit too much hype surrounding so-called ‘one thing well’ apps. The problem, in my opinion, is that we probably end up having more tools around than we actually need. Everybody loves cool little apps each doing one thing well, but my question is: are you really more productive and is your workflow really improving when you end up with 25 of such apps? Do you really feel your workspace as an elegant, minimal place to work in? (I’m talking of computer workspace, not the physical room you work in, although maybe it’s possible to extend the example to the physical space as well).
Don’t get me wrong. I love the occasional little utility that can ease certain aspects of my workflow. And I hate bloated, elephantine applications which try to do too many things and end up being usability and user-friendliness nightmares (iTunes, Word…). However, if I have to choose between (1) a single application that manages my calendar, my reminders and also acts as a quick notepad, and does that decently. And (2) three different smaller applications each managing one of those aforementioned tasks equally decently, I will probably choose the single application. For me, having fewer tools to check or switch to while I work is a preferable option than having to deal with a multitude of ‘one thing well’ little apps. Of course it’s not just a matter of quantity over quality, more like the balance between the two. When quality is enough, I really prefer solution No. 1 to solution No. 2 in the example above.
If you’re raising a brow while reading this, I understand. The fact is, I focus more on the workflow than on the tools themselves. This recent wave of geek minimalism, in my view, tends to advocate a certain — how shall I say — ‘application fetishism’. So people download “Cool Little Photo Editor” which only crops, rotates and resizes pictures, so if they want to change contrast or saturation, they’ll have to download “Cool Little Colour Variator”… Both these two fictitious tools have great interfaces and look nice, but you see where this is going. Where’s the minimalism in piling up two, three, four little tools when a medium-sized single tool could perform the same tasks just as well (albeit losing a bit on the overall coolness factor)?
Save a little friction
Speaking of tools and workflow, another word I’ve noticed popping up frequently in recent times is friction and the related quest for frictionless workflows or productivity or something like that. In this regard I offer another perhaps less popular perspective. Because I value the flow in workflow greatly, I don’t continually fiddle with applications and app combinations in a relentless quest for the Frictionless Holy Grail. I don’t rely on various tools that put too much automation in what I do: I want to retain a bit of friction because it saves me from falling into the ‘habit trap’. I learnt this the hard way, by relying on solutions that either were discontinued at a later time or stopped working when OS X Lion dropped Rosetta and PowerPC support.
In other words, I strive for a comfortable software setup for my work, but not too comfortable. Muscle memory is a bitch, and I purposely avoid setting up customised keyboard shortcuts or hotkey combinations, to refrain from doing too many things automatically and/or absent-mindedly. If this sounds awfully counterintuitive to you, consider that I also work on different Macs of very different vintages with four different keyboard layouts (Italian, Italian Pro, Spanish, US). Pressing key sequences without looking and just relying on muscle memory would be a problem in my (admittedly extreme) situation.
This amount of friction that remains in my workflow isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance. Not falling into the habit trap allows me to be more flexible when something changes (an app is no longer supported, an app update removes certain features in favour of others, a minor or major OS update introduces instability or incompatibility with certain apps I use, etc.) or when I have to change something, like the machine I’m working on, or when my work requires the introduction of a new application so that I can take care of new tasks I’m asked to carry out. (For instance, sometimes a client requires me to use certain software, whether I like it or not).
Applying minimalism to the tools I use in my case means to fall back on a basic set of tools that can make for an efficient workflow, avoiding fragmentation as much as possible, and avoiding too many distractions brought up by having to deal with too many ‘one thing well’ little apps. For me, the flow in workflow always comes first: no matter how cool certain apps are in and of themselves, if they don’t fit in my workflow, if they fragment it, if they introduce additional steps or points of failure while trying to solve another problem, if they introduce unwanted distractions, then I reject them. Getting to know well the applications included with Mac OS X is crucial in this regard, because sometimes they might be more than enough to carry out certain tasks without having to add too many third-party applications to the mix. (I’m obviously generalising here — of course there are exceptions).
Finally, retaining a bit of friction in one’s workflow may not be that bad if it prevents from falling into the habit trap: applications change, operating systems change, hardware and software setups change accordingly, and staying in one’s too comfortable comfort zone might hamper one’s work or, worse, make users unreasonably averse to change, novelty, and progress.