An Ode to Tools

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I share some perspective on tools and some gratitude for those that allow me to do my daily work.

The purpose of a tool

The purpose of a tool is to help you accomplish a task. For things like changing a lightbulb, a chair around the house will do just fine. But if you’re a handyman, you’re going to want to invest in a ladder. For the things that you care about, investing in tools is arguably the highest leverage choice whether they are equipment or skill based. As someone who deals with files, notes, and code, I spend a lot of time reading and writing text. Therefore, a text editor, something that allows me to manipulate chunks of text much like photoshop allows image manipulation, is something I cannot live without. Imagine trying to produce code by handwriting, or worse, with Microsoft Word.o

It may seem like a text editor is overkill, and you might be right. Twenty years ago, however, it was not a common skill to learn to type without looking down at the keyboard. Given how much time we spend at computers now (especially if you’re someone who landed on this page), I would be shocked - perhaps even horrified - if this was not a tool in your toolbox. The key idea is, pay attention to what things you do routinely, and selectively upgrade your tools to suit your needs.

On the other hand, it’s easy to over-optimize a tool in the name of productivity, even past the point where it becomes antithetical. Why research for the best power drill when you just need to unscrew the back of a TV remote? It sounds silly, but I’ve found myself in situations where I’m sure the analogy isn’t too far off.

Tools I’m using

  • Freedom

Freedom is an app that eliminates distractions. By blocking groups of websites that you specify, you can keep yourself in check. It’s particularly useful for building habits, like “No email before 10am”. It takes a minimal amount of willpower to set up, but after that initial activation energy, it has definitely saved me hours of lost time.

  • Vim (+ Spacemacs)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite text editor(s). Growing up on vim, I have a deep appreciation for its concision and brevity to translate a vision in your head onto the screen. As I mentioned before, the basic idea is that instead of just letters and a cursor, vim allows you to treat a body of text in a more structured way. By being able to specify chunks by “What’s inside quotation marks” or “3 paragraphs” or “The rest of this line up until the next ‘t’”, manipulating text becomes blazingly fast. I use a text editor anytime I write more than a sentence. My todo list, emails, and yes, definitely this post all usually get written up in the terminal.

  • Kindle

As a kid, I hated reading. As an adult, I appreciate that the vast majority of human knowledge has limited channels to reach me, and reading is powerful tool for exploring, learning, and at times, escaping. What I love about the kindle is that it’s easy on the eyes and tends to have great battery life. I highly value not having to plug something in every day. Also, you can check out books from libraries straight to your kindle, so don’t forget to check out your local library!

  • Remarkable Tablet

Picture a kindle, but larger, and with a stylus. As a researcher, this type of “dumb” technology is perfect for allowing me to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by the twenty other tabs I have open. The e-ink screen is much more calming than the typical digital screen.