On Not Pushing Your Tools

15 August, 2022

In the early 1990s, I was heavily into desktop publishing (DTP). As I was learning that craft, I couldn’t afford the DTP heavy hitters of the day — PageMaker, Ventura Publisher, QuarkXpress. But I did have a copy of WordPerfect 5.1 (yes, the version that ran on DOS) on my trusty 386. And, one day while browsing in a downtown Toronto bookstore, I stumbled across a volume titled Desktop Publishing with WordPerfect 5.1.

Pairing software with dead trees, I managed to learn how to publish long, well-formatted documents using a tool that wasn’t really designed for that task. It was a cumbersome process, but it was possible.

In learning to desktop publish with WordPerfect 5.1, I gleaned a valuable lesson: unless you have no other choice, it’s not worth the time or effort to push your tools beyond their intended uses.

It’s not uncommon to come across blog posts and hacks that tell you how to wrestle an application into doing something it wasn’t designed to do.

Take Evernote, for example. It’s a good tool for collecting and organizing information. But it’s not a word processor. It’s not a blog post editor. It’s not a flashcard app. It’s not a presentation tool. Yet many people who embrace Evernote use it for all of that. And a whole lot more.

As good as Evernote is at collecting and organizing information, it’s not as good as the dedicated application people try to use it to replace.

I can understand why people try to push their tools beyond their uses, beyond their limits: they might not want to clutter their hard drives with specialized applications. They might not be able to afford those specialized applications. Remember what I did with WordPerfect those 30-odd years ago? And why?

Sometimes, though, you need to bite the bullet. You need to recognize the limits of the tool that you’re using and, when necessary, turn to something else.

The goal behind using tools is to make us more productive. To free up our time. Trying to push your tools beyond their limits is definitely not the most productive use of your time and energy.

Scott Nesbitt