Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’ve lately been coming to grips about why so many people (myself included) spend so much time constantly tweaking their productivity systems. This is an evolving thought, so bear with me while I let my brain leak for a bit.

While the most apparent reason, of course, is procrastination –tweaking our systems makes us feel like we’re somehow accomplishing something while simultaneously avoiding any real work– I’ve noticed that there are four chief archetypes of people that obsess about their systems (although I doubt that anyone of us is wholly one or the other). I’m calling them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy.

The Tinker is the consumate tweaker for tweaking’s sake. This type of person likes to pry things apart, bolt or glue things together (often enshewing instructions), modify existing setups (even if they already work fine), and apply his or her mind to figuring out exactly how to squeeze out one final ounce of power, usability or adaptability from the item or task at hand. Often considering intelligence to be their strongest virtue, Tinkers are far less concerned about using the system than the idea of creating it, since this is where the real intellectual challenge lies; actually using something for pragmatic purposes is usually quite boring. Fascinated by planners, bags and utensils with multiple uses, hidden compartments, and a overall sense of utility rather than style, the Tinker might also carry a Swiss Army Knife, Leatherman, or other multi-tool “just in case.”

Tailors have more refined tastes than the others. They find that the image of their system not only reflects upon their personality, but helps to motivate them, like an Armani suit might suddenly help a business person gain much-needed confidence. These people may snub their noses at $1 notebooks and hold out for Moleskines or artisan-made Italian journals, or walk away from functional G2 pens or Faber pencils in order to find an exquisite fountain pen or French grapevine charcoal. After all, these are things of beauty, and one can never experience too much beauty. However, when it comes time to actually use these tools, they’d prefer not to sully their cherished possessions with something so banal as to-do items or grocery lists. So then the complicated affair of fine-grain leather card-holders, bronze book-darts, and removable inserts begins….

Unlike the Tinker or Tailor, the Soldier is a very down-to-earth person tightly focussed on the task at hand. The problem is that it’s difficult to know how to proceed. This is why he or she spends so much time listening to the directives of others, trying each new technique in an effort to find what works. Soldiers carefully review a dozen productivity blogs, slog through several mailing lists, and faithfully work through the links on 43 Folders, LifeHack.org and Lifehacker. Loyalty is a prime virtue, and this is manifest in how they follow certain bloggers, authors, applications or setups. Their heart truly yearns for a system that works, and once they find it, everything will be well. Till then, however, the Soldiers march on their weary way.

Agile, flexible and thrill-seeking, the Spy is unlike any of the others. Speeding onward by sheer force of their curiosity, they leap from site to site with a keen eye towards getting and implementing the latest and greatest. Like James Bond securing the latest high-tech creations of Q, the Spy quickly puts together kits for deployment involving all the fashionable equipment and methods. These oddball mixtures might include digital PDAs, various types of software, web applications, Hipster PDA cards, Fisher Space Pens, printable templates, Moleskines, and anything else that strikes that moment’s fancy. Then, once mundane practicality (like making a to-do list or appointment) intrudes upon their otherwise thrilling lifestyle, it’s time to move on, mission seemingly completed. And so the cycle begins anew.

Hello, everybody. [Lowers head and clasps hands.] My name is Douglas Johnston, and I’m a compulsive Tinker.

Update: In case you’re interested, there’s a poll going on over at DIYPlanner.com. What type are you, or are you something completely different?

19 Replies to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

  1. Damn, I think I match *all* of those.

    >bear with me while I let my brain leak for a bit

    I love that phrase. Or how about “excuse me while my brain does a little wee on the carpet”?

  2. Are you hiding in my closet? Have you looked into my pen case? You saw the four generations of binders and my treo didn’t you? I am a well dressed spy and depending on my lists can be a dedicated tinker from time to time. If only I can turn into a soldier and finally justify the cost of my obsession!

  3. Tinker. Some aspects of spy (4-function space pens, with stylus! Fossil Wrist PDA!) , but hoo boy tinker tinker tinker. I actually went to the extent of developing Julian Day Planner calendar pages, based on the Julian day count and decimal fractions of the day, to keep myself motivated to be organized. (Here is informaton about it, though I’ve switched fonts to Blue Highway to better mesh with the DIY Planner; I’ve put up the PDF of January 2006 if people want a look at that. I find it tough to imagine anyone else actually _using_ it, though.)

  4. The funny thing is that George Smiley is a spy who’s really not anything like a Spy. OK, maybe not “funny” funny, but… nevermind.

    As a card carrying Tailor (I vary my fountain pen based on mood, and have a variety of inks for different circumstances) I must admit that my productivity is always suffering because I know that I should be getting more pleasure out of my system — and that a perfect system would leave me feeling so refeshed that I’d never want another. I tell myself that if it looks (or feels) good enough, I will finally stick with it.

    My salvation (I hope) is embracing a minimalist aesthetic. If I can get comfortable (even excited) about cheap cardstock, them maybe I can reach the end of my journey.

  5. Very insightful!
    I have to classify myself as primarily a Soldier… I am loyal to my productivity blogs, try everything they suggest (that I can on a Windows machine and student budget) and somehow can’t drop the idea that my One True Perfect Tool is just one Bloglines click away.
    Still, there is more to it than that. There are systems that do NOT work for me that I absolutely wish would. The HipsterPDA, for example, is just so sexy but I simply cannot be satisfied with paper’s messiness.

  6. Douglas – very keen observations!

    There’s something niggling in my brain about the overlay with the archetypes of Magician, Warrior, Lover, and Sovereign…

    But since you framed this as people who “take so much time tweaking their systems” it may be only a subset of those of us who have an interest…

  7. LOL–I think I’m a hybrid Spy/Tailor. Bleeding-edge Adventure–with Style and Class. 😉

    I agree with the esteemed Mr. Allen about the four Archetypes connection, but I’m not familiar with the archetypes you mentioned. It reminds me very much of David Boje’ four spiritual paths: The path of Unity (Intellectual Understanding is the Highest Value), the Path of Devotion (Beauty and Ritual), the Path of Work (Git-R-Done) and the Path of Harmony (Synergy and Holistics.)

  8. A tinker? A tailor? A soldier(‘s things)?

    Emmm… you weren’t, by chance, listening to Tom Waits whilst writing this, were you?

    I guess not. There’s no spy in that song…

  9. I’m in the “all of the above” cateory, although the Tailor side doesn’t do it for appearances. I think my biggest problem is that I’m fascinated by systems in general. I love the idea of setting up a new system to use. When I’ve finished that one, I start on another one! And when I figure it out in one operating system, I move to the next. So far, I’m still disinterested in Pocket PCs but that’s about it.

    Is there a 10 step program for this yet??

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