The right tool for the job 23 May 2005

15 comments Latest by Rugby Fan Steve

I’m often asked “Why are Ta-da list or Backpack better than paper? I already keep my to-do lists and notes in my notebook.” My answer is always: “They aren’t always better, they are sometimes better.”

The point here is this: Use the right tool for the job. It’s not breakthrough thinking, obviously, but for some reason people think software should solve every problem all the time. And, if it doesn’t, then they think they should move on to the next piece of software. Don’t move on, slide over. Reach into your other pocket.

People don’t complain about paper when it can’t do something, but if software can’t do something then it’s “bad” or “useless” or “a waste” or “needs more features” or “crap” (yes, we’ve heard all of these things). That’s an impossible expectation to meet and a harmful assumption to make.

Lots of people think a to-do list program should be THE to-do list program. Or a note taker should be THE note taker. The reality is that software, like paper, should be sometimes solutions. And you should never be afraid to use both. One isn’t better than the other, it’s just different than the other.

Software isn’t THE solution. It’s A solution. It’s one of many.

If I’m at the beach, writing in the sand may be the best solution. If I’m on the bus, a quick scribble in the back of a book might be the best solution. If I’m at my desk, Backpack may be the best solution. I may even want to move some of the written stuff into Backpack, or some of the stuff in Backpack to paper. Think context over consistency.

Backpack is no good if you don’t have a keyboard just as paper is no good if you don’t have a pen. Use what is most convenient first and then think about how to make what is more convenient more useful. That’s using the right tool for the job.

15 comments so far (Jump to latest)

PJ Hyett 23 May 05

I’m adverse to apps like Backpack for the same reason I don’t like blogs. I find myself trying to come up with something to write about more often than using the time constructively. It’s easy to waste 10 minutes getting your Backpack page setup when it would have taken about 10 seconds to just have jotted some notes out on paper and continuing with whatever you were working on.

Nick Dominguez 23 May 05

Backpack and personal notebooks are both the right solution. Both solve the problem of personal orginization in their proper “space”

What I mean by that is… we live our lives in 2 seperate spaces now, analog and digital. We work all day long in our digital space but then we leave the office or our desks and we enter back into the analog space.

Both need to be orginized, both need to be tended to. Backpack won’t help you carry around receipts or letters to mail, etc. But it will keep track of your emails, word documents, images and PDF files.

And in reverse the Hipster PDA won’t do the same, but it will help you consolidate all your stickies, receipts, help you keep a journal, quick notes from meetings, etc.

Both have their place and their use.

Rick 23 May 05

If you give me a pen and paper, more than likely I’ll start doodling on it like I’m back in high school. It’s for this reason that I like blogs/wikis/backpack/etc.

Mark 23 May 05

No matter how flexible a tool is, some adaptation to it on your part will be necessary. I’m a web programmer who doesn’t need to be able to type * or ** to make unordered HTML lists, and I have a web site with FTP for uploading files to, and a MovableType blog to post things to, and etc etc.

I gave Backpack a try, because I’m impressed and intrigued by 37Signals’ offerings, to compile a lesson plan for some in-house JavaScript tutorials here. It was great. I was able to present an organized overview of all my planning using a simple tool. And because Backpack took care of the HTML, I was able to think about the task at hand. Did things always work the way I would’ve done them or how I expected? No. But they worked well, and that makes it an attractive option for me.

Why use a web-based To-Do list or planning tool? My grocery list belongs jotted on a piece of paper. Things I need to share with colleagues or collaborate on or that tie into getting things done via online services…they’re well-suited to a Backpack-style solution.

wayne 23 May 05

It is unfortunate that Jason is forced to answer that question often enough to necessitate posting a rebuttal in this space.

Casey Gollan 23 May 05

The problem with to-do lists in notebooks is the mess it turns into after a while, and the lack of reorganizing without rewriting.

Owen 23 May 05

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and have settled on two hipster PDAs to help keep my work and home life seperate. However, Backpack is absolutely and categorically the best tool I have found for web reasearch. I was able to send a press release to the food and book writers at pretty much all bay area media outlets (print and broadcast) without knowing anything much about them to begin with in a couple of hours simply by hitting the sites, finding people, cutting and pasting basic info right into a backpack note and then cleaning it all up later. Now I had a pretty list of them all and could cut and paste right back out with everything in the right place into my custom press release emails.

It doesn’t sound like much but I’d say that I saved 50% of my time using Backpack versus any other way (including c&p into email apps etc.) Plus now I have a great list…

It is also good for more adhoc projects where you gather a lot of information and then break it down and reorganize it and slowly distill it into a plan of action.

Funnily enough I’m not a fan of the to-do functionality. And yes, I know I could do this all probably better with a wiki, but then I’d have to install it and set it up and all that stuff.

All these tools are in their infancy though - I’d say Backpack 3 or 4 will really be great after they have had one more big aha moment and added a new twist that radically changes and improves everything in it already.

Anonymous Coward 23 May 05

no shit

bort 24 May 05

where on earth did this term “hipster PDA” come from?

bort 24 May 05

oh i see. i just googled it. it’s an in-joke. ugh, why not just say “notepad”?

Platte 24 May 05

I agree, Backpack and Ta-Da could work well when they’re just another part of a busy life for people who have lots else to do.

But they both (last I checked, anyway) produce numeric URLs ratther than URLs containing keywords, which limits these applications’ utility when attempting to hook into them via email, IM,, and other applications, both online and on the desktop. It’d be great if the URL reflected its contents. That step would dramatically increase the perceived availability of the information tucked inside those pages.

Jason, might your post make a good argument for improving the URLs that your applications produce?