Don’t swat a fly with a Buick

Several years ago, I purchased David Allen’s landmark productivity book Getting Things Done. Allen describes an elaborate and effective method of, well, getting things done. One ingredient is the “ubiquitous capture tool,” which you can think of as a mobile inbox. It’s something that’s always with you, ready to capture anything you need to remember (David uses “capture” as a fancy way of saying, “write it down.”).

When I finished reading the book for the first time, I was inspired and eager to start. I bought some equipment, like a plastic in-tray for my desk, some 3×5 index cards, a label maker and a pricey Palm Treo (I realize I just dated myself). The Treo would be my ubiquitous capture tool. It was sleek, powerful and portable. I imagined myself using it to complete important and productive tasks. I’d whip it out at meetings with an air of gainful nonchalance. “This thing? Oh it’s just my electronic capture tool. Watch as I use it to get many things accomplished.”

Two months later, I recognized what was really happening: I was making lists. I was using a two-hundred dollar PDA to write lists. In other words, I was swatting a fly with a Buick. I sold it on eBay, put a stack of index cards in my pocket, and haven’t looked back.

Today, I use a pocket-sized notebook and a Fisher Space Pen (they write in any condition or orientation). That experience prompted me to examine other areas of my life in which I was prone to overkill. Computers are one of those areas. As a nerd, I’m often tempted by the latest and greatest piece of technology. Yet, I keep an 8-year-old iMac around because it’s great for writing. (The keyboard attached to it is 20 years old.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fun toys, especially when it comes to productivity. If you like the tools you have, you’ll be more likely to use them. So use what you like. At the same time, be aware of any instances of overkill.

So, are you swatting any flies with Buicks?

19 Comments for “Don’t swat a fly with a Buick”

  1. posted by Ann on

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this post! I, too, use the old 3×5 as my major “capture” tool. I grow so weary of the “overkill” of certain technological “additions” (not necessarily “advances” for the lot of us) and wonder if, sometimes, it is best to be “old school”.

  2. posted by Celeste on

    My husband always called that kind of thing, “inventing the electric comb”.

  3. posted by Jasi on

    pencils write upside down too. if you want to save a few more bucks. 😉

  4. posted by WilliamB on

    There’s a related phenomenon in cooking, when you (ahem, I) realize that the fancy spiffy recipe is pretty much just a complex version of something familiar and simple. Most recent example: Cooks Illustrated’s recipe for Shrimp Fidelos (sp) is tasty … but time consuming to make and hard to distinguish from spaghettini in tomato sauce with shrimp.

  5. posted by infmom on

    I did the same thing. Thought a PDA would be the answer (but at least I bought my Tungsten E2 used on eBay). It didn’t take long before I realized that I looked at the address book once in a while (when I’d forgotten someone’s address or phone number) and the rest of the time used it for the moon phase calendar and the Mobipocket e-book reader.

    The thing is, I remember most of the stuff I need to do. I don’t need a digital assistant. For appointments, meetings and so forth, we got one of those big desk-blotter calendars and hung it on the wall in the breakfast nook so we can consult it every day.

    I must admit that the “Habit List” published by Productivity 401 several years ago (a variation on Jerry Seinfeld’s checklist) has helped me see where I’m meeting my goals and where I need to do better. Since I’m running my own business now, this is important.

  6. posted by Stephen on

    Personally, I’ve been using Things for Mac and iPhone for years. What I like about the Mac version in particular is that it 1) uses layers of organization and 2) enables you to use or create keyboard shortcuts for lighting-fast organization. I’ve created a system so I can apply common tags super quickly; I probably wouldn’t bother tagging if I had to move a mouse around or type out each tag letter-by-letter.

    I guess I’m saying that even little touches, ways to save 0.25 seconds to perform a single action, can make make a big difference in your decision to be diligent and stick to a system of any kind. It’s not entirely rational, but it’s certainly how I am.

  7. posted by cassi on

    Well I go digital. I use my google calendar which is on my computer and android phone. I send reminders to myself as either text messages or emails of important things only and that’s been a real life saver. Plus I get a daily agenda in email every morning at 5 (and yes I’m up at that hour). I’m very right-brained and will forget everything otherwise. I always have my phone with me so will input things as they come up.

    I also use google tasks for projects that are not ready to be put into a to do list yet – ideas and such. Paper is great but I usually forget to check it. Something ringing in my pocket I’ll check.

  8. posted by Julia on

    I love my iPod touch for keeping track of all kinds of things – my calendar, recording what I eat, managing my budget, etc.

    But when I tried to use to as a capture tool, it just failed miserably. Somehow, I can’t use it to record miscellaneous notes or make lists – my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way. I still prefer paper and pen for that task.

  9. posted by cathleen on

    I work at the company named for a fruit. Therefore I am wired to the hilt.
    I especially love iCloud as all my devices are synced automatically OTA.

    I do write things on paper but almost never refer back to it, it’s more about dumping it out of my brain. And then I remember it.

    I use iCal, Reminders and Notes and that covers all my needs for “lists” and reminders.
    My phone is never more than a foot from me 🙂

  10. posted by Mary I. on

    I’m a low-techie — so low that I read the last post and strained my brain thinking of possible fruits that were companies. (I got it, eventually.)

    I gotta tell you other low-techies — I LOVE my PocketMod. Easy to operate, you can tailor it to your personal needs, and it’s pretty much free. Go ahead and laugh — but I’m sold on mine. Go to and check it out.

  11. posted by Jennifer Cohen on

    Different things work for different people. I wish you’d have acknowledged that in your post. I’ve gone digital, because if I write an idea and write in on a scrap of paper or 3×5 card it’s likely to get lost. Instead, I email my ideas or the info I’m “capturing” to myself. My email inbox is my inbox. Nothing gets lost that way, and I can access it from anywhere.

  12. posted by djk on

    I use my iPhone for absolutely everything, with the two exceptions of a planner at work and a small 3X5 brightly coloured notebook which lives in my purse and functions as a spot for brain-dumping. I always have one of these on the go and toss it when it’s full. Some things do need to be written down for me, but only for the initial purpose of getting it out of my head.
    I also extensively use the notepad that comes with my phone. I organise info from work stuff to wine journaling to step-by-step projects on it.

  13. posted by squibby on

    I’ve tried the high tech way and have gone low-tech too. I just found myself playing with the tech toys too much and not actually doing things.

    Being an Aussie, I have to say I was “swatting a fly with a Holden” (Buick’s aren’t sold here).

    My organisation kit’s a little pocket sized book and an organised mind

  14. posted by Pwassonne on

    Your story reminds me of another.

    Back when the USA and the USSR began sending people into space, engineers on both sides searched for pens that would work in zero gravity conditions.
    American engineers designed very complicated, high-technology pens – I guess they were not unlike yours, only they had to be more expensive at the time.

    Do you know what the Russians did ?

    They used pencils. Normal, regular pencils. Much less time, money and effort was involved, and it worked just as fine.

    What the Americans did as the time is, in my humble opinion, overkill at its best. ^^

  15. posted by GMTB on

    That story about the pens and pencils in space is, unfortunately, not true. (

  16. posted by Cat on

    This post reminds me of me – I love tech stuff and bought an iPad 2 (on a really great sale, so harder to resist) just a few weeks ago. I realized one day that I was only using it to play the Sims Free game. I packed it up that day and returned it. I know people who cannot get by without using something like it, and I completely understand that. However, that isn’t me. I’d rather use a paper calendar and a notebook.

    That said, I do use computer calendars extensively – at work. To each their own, I guess, and even an individual’s experiences can vary from place to place or day to day.

  17. posted by Sue on

    I’m not sure I agree. I started with a PDA, and now use a smartphone. I also have adapted David Allen’s GTD method for my life, and I much prefer the electronic capture methods to random bits of paper, or even a normal notebook.

    I use Google Calendar, Remember the Milk and Evernote. the calendar is obvious – it just holds appointments and the occasional “must do on a particular day” items.

    Remember the Milk is how I keep track of my to-do list, project list, and items I’m waiting for others to do. Yes, it’s an expensive to-do list when you figure in the cost of my phone, computer, and internet service, but I can access it at my workstation, at home, or anywhere from my phone. I can organize my lists in ways that is simply not possible with a notebook, and I’m not likely to lose anything. People are amazed at how good a handle I have on my workload.

    Evernote is my “notes on the fly” system. It’s where I keep random ideas, the list of nail polish colors I have tried (and noted which ones I didn’t like so I don’t try them again), the great idea I had for a birthday present for a friend, etc.

    Is all of this overkill? I think not. Paper systems never worked quite right for me, and things would slip through the cracks. Nothing slips through the cracks any more. At any given time I can tell you exactly where I am on any given project – what I need from others and what I need to do. I can tell you what items I need to pick up the next time I hit a grocery store. I know that I have an appointment with my hair stylist in two weeks. My life is so much smoother now.

  18. posted by Susan on

    I think it all depends on just how complicated the work you are doing is – you need a tool that fits the scope of your responsibilities, and that’s available when you need it. I’m a lawyer, and I have responsibilities for multiple projects for multiple clients, plus, well, there’s the rest of my life, too, including all of my crafting projects, so a series of 3×5 cards wouldn’t work for me. I use Outlook Tasks, configured witht help of a cheat sheet I bought from David Allen’s site, plus my calendar, and each day, I decide from both of those tools what I’m actually going to work on that day, which I use a paper notebook to record. Works for me, may not work for you. I do get the central idea, though – you don’t need more than you need.

  19. posted by clothespin on

    My husband, a university overworked prof, uses a little 3×5 notebook that fits in his jeans pocket to keep track of stuff. OK, so he actually uses the military version that you can write on when wet cause he works out in the field a lot. he also uses the space pen – again, works when wet and upside down on a knee and… and pencils rub off and leads break and…

    I have a new kinda smart phone and am liking the digital calendar on it. Helps with keeping track of all the new baby doc appointments, less chance of loosing the appointment card in mommy brain fog. But then, I transfer the info to my paper calendar when I get home, too.

    OH, and I have a 40 year old sewing machine. It’s sturdy (Bernina 830) and amazing and while there are newer models that cost a LOT more I love my old dear and hopefully will never part with her. I even evacuated her (2nd thing out) during a wildfire. Yes, the newer machines will do all sorts of fancy things, but my love will always do what I ask and then some… Sewing and my Bernina make me happy, I see no reason to upgrade to a newer model. She is the mechanical love of my life!

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