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How to avoid being controlled by your digital tools

A man uses a laptop computer as pigeons are seen at a park in Tokyo
REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Drown out the noise and focus on the work.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate reporter


In 2013, I founded a software startup called Publet. Almost immediately, my co-founder made it clear that my project management style was veering toward disaster. I made project requests by email. I would periodically call to “check in.” Meetings were scheduled without a clear agenda. We didn’t clearly document work goals. We were, in his eyes, a mess.

My co-founder asked (ok, demanded) that it stop. Everything became part of a process. We started documenting everything about the product in a task-management tool (Trello, then Jira). Internal email was forbidden. Status calls were banished. Updates moved online for anyone to see. Every kind of information had a clear, accessible place where it was passed between people without much effort. The face-to-face time we did have together centered on solving (well-documented) problems. Even after returning to journalism—famous for overflowing notebooks and inboxes—I stuck with a system and never looked back.

As our workplace has gone virtual, we’ve been given digital tools to order this new world. Yet these are not like our old ones. Hammers or scalpels lack the power to intrude on your thought process several times every minute. The elaborate to-do systems peddled by productivity gurus are often more crutch than aid; a good tool is one that demands as little as possible, a gear that enables your life to turn a bit smoother, and disappears whenever it’s not needed for the task at hand. A good system is the simplest one to get your work done, not the specific software you use to do it.

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