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I don’t know what your job is, but if it’s anything like mine, you’d often find yourself learning to do something new. You’d also often be overwhelmed by the abundance of available and recommended tools. Does that sound familiar?

In our old house, the walls were concrete, solid concrete. When we moved there, this put a severe damper on my role in our family of playing Mr. Fixit’s. I hated it when I had to hang something on the wall. I would borrow a drill from a teammate and wear myself out, burning up the drill bit with only a tiny dent in the wall.

Two years later, a new teammate introduced me to a masonry bit. Wow! It was like magic. What a difference it made. When he moved back to the states, he gave me his drill, and I use it often. However, I still encounter parts of the wall that are still incredibly stubborn and resistant to me drilling a hole.

Later another friend showed me that my drill had a hammer setting that essentially pounds the wall into submission while creating a hole. Its important to both have the right tool for the job and be competent in using that tool.

Finding the Right Tools

Tools are abundant. You don’t need to be proficient with all of them, but there are likely a few key ones. The Pareto principle, named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, observes that about 80% of the effects usually come from 20% of the causes. Considering this, we can assume that a handful of tools cover 80% of what you do.

How do you choose these few tools? The how-to-choose question is the crux and the most challenging part of applying the Pareto principle in everyday life. This selection process is what we will need to coach others and ourselves to cultivate leaders.

So here are three steps to walk through in trying to discern which tools are the vital few.

  1. Inventory your regular activities
  2. Consider your context
  3. Observe others

Inventory Your Regular Activities

What activities are most core to the work you do? Think about what you do most often. Which pursuits usually have the most significant impact? Identifying these can be hard just off the top of your head, so grab your calendar and look at the past month. What did you do? What about the past six months or year? If you have a task management tool, review the things you’ve done and look for patterns.

We’re looking for 2-4 categories of activities. Your list doesn't need to encompass everything you do; remember, 80%. If the categories are too general, they won’t be much help to you. Try brainstorming a list of categories and then get the most specific, narrow down to 2-4, which still encompass 80% of what you do.

Consider Your Context

Not every tool is suitable for every environment, like a standard drill bit isn't the right tool for a concrete wall. Where do you work? With whom do you work? These realities will significantly influence what tools you need. What are the unique needs and strengths of your audience?

Go back to that list of activities you created in the last step, now consider what barriers you often encountered. Use these barriers to identify what functions your tools will need to perform. I talked about function and form when we looked at principles. Now that we understand the function, we can move on to form.

Observe Others

Everybody has tools. Take time to observe others who do similar work in similar contexts and see what they use. Don’t just take it at face value but ask why they do things the way they do. Have they always done it that way? If they have made changes, how did they make that decision, and what were the results?

Be careful here. Some of the dangers include: “that looks cool,” “it worked for him,” or “I don’t have that, but I want it.” Today's culture is gadget crazy, and you have to take this into account and be cautious as you evaluate new ideas and tools. Don’t be afraid to try something new and be discerning what you adopt and pass on to others.

Here are a handful of the tools I use:

  1. Productivity: Asana, Miro, Google Workspace
  2. Communication: Slack, Zoom, Convertkit
  3. Creativity: Adobe CC, Sketchup, Byword
  4. Learning: Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, Master Class, Coursera

I also recently reviewed six digital whiteboard tools, which you'll especially want to check out if you work on a distributed team.

A 5-day journey to living from your priorities

It’s easy to spend our day reacting to what comes at us. What if you could be proactive, intentionally making decisions based on your priorities? It is possible!

Our five-day short course guides you through the process of identifying your life priorities and scaling them day to everyday decisions. You’ll learn how to establish a rhythm to build good habits and grow a team that will be with you in the journey.

Tool Minimalism

You want to keep it simple for yourself and those you lead. Start with using and teaching just one tool. You can add more or change later if needed. This simplicity preserves transferability and promotes creativity.

Taking a minimalistic approach will help you stay focused on the critical work you needed those tools for.

When I lived in Asia, many people did business out of a pushcart or a bicycle, which means they had to carry or push whatever they wanted to use. I was always impressed by how people can creatively simplify a process when a constraint is in place.

Whether physical or digital, it's so tempting to keep adding tools. But taking a minimalistic approach will help you stay focused on the critical work you needed those tools for. I've seen people and organizations burn incredible amounts of time on tool maintenance for tools they could have downsized.

So get out there and try this; better yet, involve your team in it.

Questions for reflection:

  1. When was a time you tried to use the wrong tool for a job?
  2. Have you ever accumulated a collection of tools just because you liked having them?
  3. What tool have you seen has the most significant impact on you in cultivating leaders?


Want to know more about how to cultivate leaders? Download the eBook.


This post is part of my cultivating servant leaders guide where I share lessons learned from 20 years of leading and helping other leaders grow. You can explore other guides at everyday.design or download the eBook.