In Praise of Unitaskers

Posted by Matthew Porter | Sunday 18 October 2009 2:28 PM

A Unitasker is a tool or device designed to do just one thing.

I really like unitaskers.

Sadly, unitaskers are a favorite target of many who see themselves as anti-clutter, pro-organization, pro-simplicity. The idea seems to be that if you have tools that each serve only one purpose you will end up surrounded by countless tools, leaving your life cluttered and your spirit in chains. Alton Brown hates unitaskers in the kitchen. Unclutterer.com even has a weekly feature specifically to mock unitaskers.

I don’t have a big problem with Unclutterer’s “Unitasker Wednesday.” For many of the items featured I’d be happy to just label them “stupidtaskers” and leave it at that. For a more telling look into dogmatic anti-unitasker sentiment read through the comments to this old Unclutterer post on labelmakers.

In discussing the relative merits of labelmakers there are those who conclude “It’s a unitasker.” Then they sit back as if this revelation is enough to make their decision inevitable. It’s a unitasker, so they want nothing to do with it.

When someone proclaims refusal to own a “unitasker” I’m sometimes tempted to ask: do you not own a toothbrush? Or if you do, what exciting alternate uses have you discovered for it? Then I decide that I really don’t want to know.

Listen: it’s a labelmaker. Either you find it useful enough to own, or you don’t. There is no right answer. If you really think it will be clutter, don’t get one. If you’re not sure, check the Clutter Equation and decide whether it will provide more value than it costs. But to leave the whole decision up to whether a tool is treif or kosher based on its unitasker status makes little sense. This is true even is you are concerned about clutter, and it’s especially true if you’re interested in getting things done.

Maybe it’s my Unix experience, but I find that the most efficient and uncluttered way for me to get things done is to use simple, specialized tools. Let each tool do one thing very well. Honestly, what will contribute more to clutter in your life: a complicated tool that has dozens of features and dozens of uses, or a simple tool that is thoughtfully designed to get one thing done? I’ve had far more frustration from tools that try to do too much than from tools that perform one task simply and elegantly. When I want to dig a hole please give me a simple shovel, not an awkward chimera with pointy bits on both ends. When I want a decent-looking label please give me my labelmaker, not a roll of tape and a Sharpie.

This is not to say there is no room in my life for multitaskers. It is also unreasonable to reject a tool simply because it has more than one function. But when selecting a tool be sure to think about what you will really use it for, and whether or not it can do that thing — or things — well. Multitaskers are especially good when space, weight and portability are issues. I would not want to be without a Leatherman or comparable multitool in my satchel. (And I curse the fact that I can no longer take one in my carry-on baggage.) My iPhone is definitely a multitasker — it’s a digital multitool. And my MacBook is one king-hell multitasker — though I’m more inclined to think of it as an environment, in which I use a collection of different tools. Most of those are unitaskers, like WriteRoom.

Whether physical or digital, a good collection of simple unitasking tools can allow you to develop expertise in doing things, rather than in operating tools. If your tools are simple, they become transparent. Then there’s just the task and you, getting one thing done after another.

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