Humans are one of the few intelligent beings that understand the benefit of using tools. We’ve been doing this for a while now, but in the last century our access to these tools has changed drastically. We no longer have to hit a couple rocks together to fashion a tool, we can just launch the App Store. This accessibility has solved many problems but has also created a big one that affects how we accomplish things. We now have an overabundance of tools and this can mean spending more time in the tool shed then out building things.

Bret Viktor, in his Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design states the purpose of tools:

A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities. That is, a tool converts what we can do into what we want to do. A great tool is designed to fit both sides.

The goal of a tool, whether it is the hammer or the bicycle, is meant to increase efficiency of a human action while it accurately addresses the problem it solves. A tool that fits your capability (hammer with ergonomic handle) but doesn’t do much to solve your need (hammerhead made of jello) isn’t effective. This is easy to understand when we’re working with tangible problems and physical tools but technology has brought the innovation of tools beyond human action to human cognition. The bicycle greatly improves human transport efficiency and, famously, the Macintosh was first introduced as the [bicycle of the mind] 2. Like a tool should, the Macintosh was the first computer that truly fit human capability rather than just human need. The GUI and the mouse allowed new people to harness the power of the computer and as software evolved, new problems could be solved too. There is a point though where technology becomes a hinderance—an anti-tool—when it distracts from the greater problem it’s trying to solve.

It’s easy to get into a cycle of trying new tools to solve problems we have, or maybe just solve better than our current tool. Choosing the right tools for the job is essential to be most productive so we longingly search for whatever can make that difference. This endless cycle can happen when we misunderstand our capability, our need, or both.

Patrick Rhone, the author of the fine MinimalMac and recently published enough, talks about the tools he chose for writing his book.

Like many of us, a simple text editor (his choice is PlainText for iPad) syncing text files with Dropbox, was the solution Rhone went with.

Once the initial drafts were complete, I imported the resulting text files into a wonderful program called Scrivener. I had tried it many times in the past but never quite took to it. As someone who was used to writing straight to plain text files, it seemed a bit overkill to me. It also struck me notably as something that was more designed for those who write chapter-based fiction. Therefore, it did not seem like the right fit for a short-form essayist like me.

Rhone ended up learning how to use some of the features in Scrivener, but before that, it was a tool that fit someone elses problem but not his capabilities or needs.

I use the GORUCK GR1 and pack it with what I need to “survive” and enjoy an everyday urban life. But when I spend more time packing my bag with cool EDC items than outside exploring the city (which is easy to do), it no longer is a tool to make my exploring better but becomes an anti-tool that distracts from getting outside.

This isn’t just about text editors and bags though—we’re moving up the stack. There are tools and anti-tools in everything we try to solve.

We use analysis as a tool to determine our needs and capabilities but this turns into an anti-tool when the analysis becomes the objective and not a method to an outcome. When we focus on the thought project, looking for a perfect solution rather than realizing that the solution is just a tool to fix our problem, we lose sight on what we are trying to accomplish. We fashion a perfect hammer when we need to build an entire house. It’s the difference between ideas and execution—an idea is a tool but if it just sits in the toolbox and never gets used to build something, what’s the point of it?

Finding a balance, or as Rhone addresses in his book—what’s good enough—is a combination between properly understanding and addressing our needs and capabilities and then being comfortable with the solutions we chose. We can constantly be iterating on our decision to make it work better and smoother or we can be satisfied with our current implementation and focus more on the goal.

A tool is only that, a thing to help get something done. Start thinking beyond the tool and focus on making that something something great.