Article about successful people who use just one software tool.
April 28, 2014 9:15 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago, perhaps 5-10, I read a brief article by someone who interviewed a number of strikingly-successful somewhat-famous people and concluded the one thing they all had in common was that they relied on a single software tool for nearly everything. Can you point me to the piece?

As I recall, the tools were all different, and often ill-adapted to the tasks, but what was common was that a very small number of tools were used to do just about everything.

I'm 80% sure it was online text, with radio a slight possibility, and I saw it within the last decade. The tone was very much The Verge or, and I'm sure I found it linked from elsewhere. But, my search engine skills are no match for the sea of SEO crap that includes all the words I'm interested in.

Because it supports all of my biases and habits, I've found myself mentioning the article fairly often in casual conversation in the last few years. But, I'd sure like to have a reference, and to check that it's not embarrassingly bad.
posted by eotvos to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps it was an article about Danny O'Brien's 2004 talk Life Hacks - Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks, which among other things spawned the phrase "Life Hacking."
I did a really unscientific poll of a few of these people, asked all kinds of personal questions, and sat in front of a dining room table and piled up index cards until I thought I saw a few patterns. It turned out it was more than just common software projects; a lot of people used their computers in similar ways.

Power-users don't trust complicated applications.

Because complicated applications crash, or get abandoned by their creators, or just keel over from feature-bloat and become unusable around version 5.0. I think the line I used was "power users trust software as far as they have thrown their computers in the past".

One way to think of text files is the grimy residue left over when an application explodes in your face. You put all your data into, say, Palm Desktop, and then one day you lose your Palm or move to a platform that can't read your desktop files. So you export it all into plain text, and try grimly to import it into the next big application. After a while, you just stay with the plain text, because it's easier.

Text has some concrete advantages too: you can get stuff into a text file quickly, and you can search text files quickly. Getting data in and out fast, and in a non-distracting way, is really the most important thing for a filing system. That is its very point.
I also remember a similar article that included a discussion of how some users use spreadsheets for everything (rather than text files). Maybe by Joel Spolsky…
posted by mbrubeck at 9:52 PM on April 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I found the Joel Spolsky article I was thinking of:
Round about 1993 a couple of us went on customer visits to see how people were using Excel.

Over the next two weeks we visited dozens of Excel customers, and did not see anyone using Excel to actually perform what you would call “calculations.” Almost all of them were using Excel because it was a convenient way to create a table.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah... most people just used Excel to make lists. Suddenly we understood why Lotus Improv, which was this fancy futuristic spreadsheet that was going to make Excel obsolete, had failed completely: because it was great at calculations, but terrible at creating tables, and everyone was using Excel for tables, not calculations.

Spreadsheets are not just tools for doing “what-if” analysis. They provide a specific data structure: a table. Most Excel users never enter a formula. They use Excel when they need a table. The gridlines are the most important feature of Excel, not recalc.

Word processors are not just tools for writing books, reports, and letters. They provide a specific data structure: lines of text which automatically wrap and split into pages.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:55 PM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I remember this article as well. I seem to remember that it mentioned both omnioutliner and excel (and I think plain text). I'm thinking it was either on lifehacker, 43folders or some site like that. I'm trying to find it, but I'm having the same problem you are.
posted by Brent Parker at 10:46 PM on April 28, 2014

Merlin Mann used to blog a lot about this, back when life hacking was a big thing. Here's a good example.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:05 AM on April 29, 2014

Cory Doctorow's notes from the O’Brien talk (linked from the interview above) have some more relevant bits:
All geeks have a todo.txt file. They use text editors (Word, BBEdit, Emacs, Notepad) not Outlook or whathaveyou.

Everyone, including Alpha Geeks, use only one app:
  • People complain about how their work wants them to use organizers…
  • Joel Splosky uses Excel for everything.
  • HR person sends website designs in PPT.
  • Don Lancaster sees the world in Postscript.

Geeks write scripts to take apart dull, repetitive tasks. They'll spend 10h writing a script that will save 11h—because writing scripts is interesting and doing dull stuff isn't.

Scripts are embarassingly coded, often forgotten.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:59 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks, all.

I'm pretty sure mbrubeck's got the original source for what I've remembered.

It may even be that the Doctorow notes are the original document I encountered. I feel like it was more flushed out with examples, and was the main point of the piece rather than one small point among many. But, it's possible that's an invented memory. Or, perhaps I ran into a blog post making reference to either the talk or the summary.

Either way, I've now got a source to point to when chatting about the idea. And one that seems to be much better known than I imagined. Thanks!

And, it sounds like a pretty interesting talk on the whole. I look forward to hunting down audio from the later version mentioned in the first interview link when time allows.

I also now feel rather bad about the unkind generalizations I've been making about everything containing the phrase "life hack."
posted by eotvos at 3:59 PM on April 29, 2014

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