Caution & Definition

Any tool, whether physical, digital, or mental, requires some form of caution.

We must recognize our intentions as separate from the tools we use to develop them. It is we ourselves who form the intentions and are ultimately responsible for them. This may seem obvious, but in practice, it is not.

Michael Schechter of a Better Mess wrote two fine posts called Clarifying Productivity and The Error of the App Mentality, spawned from a OneThirtySeven post and a twitter discussion between himself and Matt Alexander in which Matt proclaimed,

“… purported elements of productivity often become deep pits of wasted time and effort.”

In attempting to define productivity, Schechter noted,

“It’s about understanding the structure your work needs to take in order for it to actually get done.”

Both comments are potentially true in their own right. The important underlying concept to their discussions, I believe, is found in the definition and use of the “tool”. The definition given by my handy computer states that a tool is:

“a device or implement, esp. one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function”

However, I would like to begin our examination of the tool with the following proposed definition:

A tool is an object used to shorten the distance between a vision and its realization.

With this definition, let us consider:

  • Examples of how tools may be useful
  • Examples of how tools require caution


An Example of a Hammer

As a simple example, we might examine a hammer. A hammer is a tool that allows the development of an intention such as “hang a picture on the wall.” The distance referred to is between our present experience of not having a picture on the wall and having a picture on the wall. The distance without the hammer is very far. With the hammer, the distance shortens.

The caution here is obvious. The shape and weight of the hammer translates the force of one’s arm movement into a tremendous amount of pressure upon a small area. If that force is misdirected, say to one’s thumb, we create unintended and undesired consequences of the black and blue variety.

The use of the hammer, in other words, the translation of our agency instructing the intention to place a nail in the wall, carries caution.


An Example in Mnemonics

However, tools, at least by the definition I proposed above, are not just simple objects such as hammers or even the shiny new applications resting in our computers. They may even be in our own minds. For instance, the familiar use of a mnemonic qualifies as a tool.

A mnemonic is a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something.1

Even here, we must be cautious as we recognize that the mnemonic itself is not the primary intention. We remember something for a reason. We form our intentions with some sense of meaning. Without a recognition of that meaning, mnemonics risk being hollow.

Probably the best example of this may be found where a particular student only wishes for a good grade without a care for the knowledge the grade represents. Massive lists worth of information may be memorized using the tool of mnemonics, but the meaning behind the lists themselves are lost.

The intention to learn at a meaningful depth was missing, just as the intention to hammer the nail was not well focused. In either case, intentions were not fulfilled as their associated tools were misused.


Agency & An Example in Task Management

Even a task management system requires caution. A well-tended task management system provides a means of not needing to remember every responsibility, task, and project. By creating a trusted system, we become better able to rely upon it so that we may more clearly consider the moment.

However, even in developing our habits and systems of work, we must be vigilant to retain agency, as these systems, too, have a potential trap in our reliance upon them. I define agency as follows:

Agency is the degree to which we may decide non-reactively.

When a task management system is used without thought, agency is lost. We forget that there is an importance of thinking things through. The spirit of a concept dissolves and the details become a meaningless husk. The work becomes a drudge.

Having forgotten that the trust required for a working system is a felt belief, continually reflected upon and developed, we risk following tasks on some form of auto-pilot, or we become so frustrated that we jettison the entire system–baby, bathwater, and all.

With the ability to pause and reflect, we understand how a task management system qualifies as a tool:

A task management system is best consulted, not followed without thought.

When disagreeing with a system, even though we may have carefully designed it ourselves, the task is then to

  • Recognize and acknowledge that which seems incorrect in its reflection of present experience and
  • Recognize and acknowledge its inaccuracy in representing the visions we would like to develop, at least as well as they can be seen and understood in the moment.



By pausing to reflect, we can decide when and how our purported tools either aid or impede the development of any particular intention, in the moments of their use. We cannot simply react to the systems we create. It is in the habit of reflection where we retain agency, take an active role in honing our habits, use the tools we desire with the caution they demand, and ultimately develop meaningful intentions.

And therein lies a fundamental caution inherent to our tools:

Tools are objects external to agency.

Redefining tool then:

A tool is an object, external to agency, used to shorten the distance between a vision and its realization.

If there is a moral to this, at least for myself, it is that I often benefit from pausing. The place where I may retain agency, i.e. where I can decide non-reactively, where I can decide whether or not something is helping or hindering, is in those moments where I am not simply typing away or examining the next thing. It is where I have given myself permission to let go of the work, the tools, the play, or whatever it is in which I am involved.

Originally posted at


  1. Also defined by my handy dictionary application easily accessed by a three-finger tap of the trackpad. ↩