Paradox of Powerful Tools

I once worked with an organization that was using two different word processors. They had an old mainframe system with an integrated office suite that been in use for years. The mainframe was accessible from dumb terminals as well as from the newly added PCs. As they added PC’s, more and more employees began switching to Microsoft Word.

Word was a much more powerful system than the mainframe word processor. The mainframe only offered basic formatting (bold, italics, and underline), a single mono-spaced font, and a few other features like tabs and the ability to center a line of text. It seemed obvious that individuals using Word would be much more productive than those who used the mainframe system. In actual practice, this was not the case.

The people who were switching to Word found that it was taking much longer to create documents than it use to take on the mainframe system. Word offered some definite advantages over the old way like real time spell checking, but in terms of how long it took to create a document, it was slower.

After talking to a few people, I realized that when someone created a document on the mainframe, they were faced with far fewer choices than in Word. While the flexibility of Word made it much more powerful, that power came at a price. The price was the number of decisions required to make a document. Word users had to decide what template to use, whether to change the font, if they should save the document on their computer or the server, whether to accept the Office Assistant’s offer to help, and and what font to use. And that is all before they even started typing on their document. I saw people spending hours selecting clip art, trying different fonts, changing margins and struggling with indents and tabs. These were all things that hadn’t been an issue before because they weren’t possible on the mainframe.

Your productivity with a given tool is inversely proportional to the number of unnecessary decisions the tool requires. Even if the tool doesn’t “require” you to make a decision, it will slow you down if it occupies your thoughts. This means that many “powerful” tools will actually make you less productive by offering you options that you will never use.

To be productive, you need to have the simplest tool that does everything that you need. A jackhammer is much more powerful than an icepick, but if you are trying to break up ice cubes, the most powerful tool is not the most productive.

Originally published on October 25, 2005.



  1. Kevin Ricketson says

    If I have a swiss army pocket knife, and I need to cut something, your perspective would argue that it would take me longer than using a regular knife becuase I have more tools to choose from. In reality I would open the knife blade and cut what I needed cut. In your Word example, I am familiar with what you describe. However, I find this to be a short term learning curve problem – people tend to figure out pretty quickly which ones of the fancy bells and whistles work for them, and quickly discard the ones that don’t. Word and other Office suite product offer a tremendous amount of capabilities to their users, and I would estimate 90% of that capability is not even known about, much less used, by the general worker in the routine performance of their duties. They find the basic things they need, and stick with them.

  2. brent says

    yeah. I’m a swiss-army-knife-nerd too.

    how times have you been fumbling to get your knife out and get the blade out… and in the meantime someone has grabbed a pair of scissors and finished the job?

  3. says

    I carry a swiss army knife all the time, but the powerful tool thing is very real, especially for beginners and infrequent users. All you have to do is observe a middle school or high school student and see how they write papers on powerful word processors. They typically spend considerably more time working on formatting than working on good content. Just today I was yelling at my 14 yr old son to stop fiddling and just write. He is a phenomenal writer, having successfully finished last years National Novel Writing Month challenge (50k words in one month) with a day to spare, but he was format fiddling on a 4 page newsletter he was working on. He had essentially no content, but had spent two hours on it. I keep trying to reinforce the concept of writing great stuff and leaving formatting for later when it isn’t distracting you from the writing. I am on the cusp of removing the office suite on his mac laptop and just leaving him vi.

  4. Adrian says

    About 14-12 years ago I worked in the Computer Science faculty of a university and saw students constantly fiddling with Word when writing essays and reports. One of the most common pieces of advice that we gave to them was to write their essay in Notepad or Write, then once they had *finished the text*, import it into Word and add the schools’s approved look and feel.

    Sadly, appearance is valued far higher than content even in supposedly academic circles.

  5. Jess R says

    I’ve not really needed to use word to do much in the past few years, and honestly resort to notepad for a number of things, as a lot of the features included in word tend to get in the way and break workflow rather than help it.

    This past summer semester I started taking college classes again, and I’ve found that Dark Room ( is a neat little tool to help concentrate and bang out a paper. It’s only after I’ve got that rough draft written that I cut+paste into Word and add the formatting.

  6. says

    You are oh so very right – as you usually are! But finding a tool which is complex enough to have everything one needs and yet simple enough can be difficult.

    I write virtually everything I write in a text editor. On the rare occasions it actually needs layout for printing, I import the finished text into Pages and do the absolute minimum of “fancying” before I print it.

    A more general solution in the case of most OS X applications is to edit the toolbar (right click on it and choose “customise”) to remove all the toolbar icons you never use. I did this to and have a much easier time of it.

    Also, from time to time, evaluate the programs you use if they’re complex. I have been beetling along with OmniFocus but realised that although my “to do” list is horrendously large and complex that OF really is too complex for me. I keep getting overwhelmed and still don’t quite know how to work it. Unfortunately the only way to find a better one is to try a bunch and that takes time and energy of itself… Things is next on my shortlist – wish me luck!

  7. says

    It’s true, regarding MS word few people use more than 10 per cent of the features. The questions is, is the market the 90 percent that use the 10 percent or the 10 percent that use the 90 percent?
    Not sure if even Microsoft knows the answer.

  8. Keith Dorset says

    Most of what I write is within established templates I set up years ago for the business. As a result I do not have to worry about formatting, just the content. Anyone can do the same and save a lot of time screwing around in the long run.

    Some of my most productive communication has been via e-mail. I have restricted my e-mail client to text only. It’s much like writing in simple text processors such as Q10 or Notepad/Wordpad.

  9. says

    I agree completely. More features is more often than not, detrimental. Something that I have noticed with the recent developments in smartphones and tablets is that it’s not just the number of decisions you have to make but also the way they are presented. The UI plays a big part in shaping your work flow and it can either allow you to flow effortlessly towards your goal or hinder you.

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