The Computer User I Want To Be

Learning about computers can be a dangerous thing. Breaking though the veneer of graphical interfaces reveals inefficiencies and inaccurate metaphors. For example, rsync copies files faster and uses fewer resources than the Finder. Copying lots of files is what rsync does best, but being a command line power tool there are a few subtleties with using it that are not readily apparent. As your skill grows, so to does the tendency to eschew modern tools in favor of “power tools”. You begin to see the inefficiencies of graphical tools as problems, problems that you need to fix. I’ve been down that road.

Power tools are impressive, but they also lend themselves to fiddling, spending more time configuring the tool than actually using it to get work done. Or worse, you need to stop tracking on what you are doing at the time to think about how to accomplish the next task. I was reminded of this as I was writing the first two New Mac Essentials posts, and realized that I needed to reread my own Principle of Least Software.

Use only the software that you need. No more, no less.

I was recently in Chicago attending training for Hadoop. I used DEVONthink to take notes and sync them over to my phone. I also used it to collect PDFs and web archives of documentation. It worked fairly well, but after thinking the experience thorough I found very little that I did with DEVONthink that I could not do with TextEdit and the Finder. I’ve obsessed over the ability to sync data to my phone, but the truth is that there have been very few times that I actually used that data.

DEVONthink was on my list of Mac Essentials, but I’m removing it. I have spent far too long thinking about how files are stored and the most efficient way to get to them. I’ve spent too long thinking about how to “manage a project”, instead of moving on to the next task in the project. When I consider my own tendency to overcomplicate my computer use, I realize that being the fiddly geek who spends his time tweaking his .muttrc file is not the guy I want to be. I believe in learning your tools, and learning them well, but I also believe in using as little software as possible. Most of all, I believe in using your computer as the tool it was intended to be. A bicycle for the mind.

When I bring my computer to life in the morning I want as little friction as possible between me and the tasks I need to accomplish. I can’t afford to think about the most efficient way to store a task, or file a PDF, or title an email. I simply need to do the task, read the document, and write the email. So, I’ve spent a good portion of today reorganizing my files, removing unnecessary applications, and streamlining my process. Time spent sharpening the saw is time well invested.

The kind of computer user I want to be is the kind who uses the simplest tool available, and does so with speed, accuracy, and finesse.