Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

the right tools

“Use the right tool for the job,” Walter Koehler says in response to this post, where I complain about having to use too many communications applications. That’s great advice for carpentry and auto repair, but I don't think it’s always applicable to life on our computers. There are a lot of highly specialized software applications out there, and while specialization brings certain benefits, it has significant costs as well.

A few years ago, I was using one application to write books, another to prepare class notes, a third for essays, letters, and so forth. Each of them was well-tailored for the jobs I was using it for, but I spent a great deal of time (a) switching between applications and (b) figuring out which tool to use for various projects. That got increasingly frustrating over time. Once I made the decision to write pretty much everything in one app my efficiency and clarity of mind increased dramatically. Whether I’m working on class notes or articles or blog posts or books, I’m in BBEdit — I even write a lot of letters in it, which probably doesn't look all that professional, but hey, I’m a tenured full professor, what do I care? It’s amazing how much you really can do in plain text files if you put a little of your mind to it.

And almost everything that I don't do in plain text I do in my browser, where I have my email (Gmail), and my personal organization. Which means that I spend about 90% of my time in two applications. This simplifies my life, and that makes me happier.

Of course, you can carry all this too far. I’m not going to go the Giles Turnbull route and put my whole life in one big-ass text file — though don't think I haven't been tempted — and I’m certainly not going to follow the example of those über-geeks who use Emacs for everything from basic text-editing to web browsing, email, life planning, and taking over the universe. Nor am I going to spend all my life in my browser, as some people do who write in Google Docs and have tricked out Firefox with fifty-seven extensions. But sometimes it makes a lot of sense to give up specialization for simplicity.