Even the best software can reduce your productivity, if you use it for the wrong task.

Often, we use the wrong software for the job. For example, many of us use Word for tasks we could do with less effort in another program. Likewise, many of us find electronic spreadsheets useful in more ways than we should. An example of this is when you develop a complex workbook of linked spreadsheets to do a bidding or accounting function. Just because we can do something in a certain program doesn't make doing so the best approach. The sidebar offers you some rules of thumb on selecting software for a given task. Let's look at the major kinds of tasks you perform, and what kinds of software would work best for each of them.

Warehousing information. When setting up a method of storing, collating, and accessing data, consider how you'll manipulate the data. For example, do you need simple lists, cross-referencing, analysis, or intelligent queries?

For very simple databases, a spreadsheet is a quick fix. If all you really need is to look up a name and phone number, spreadsheets work fine. But, spreadsheets have their limitations. To run queries (such as, "How many jobs did we lose money on, where crew size was less than six people?"), then you need something more advanced.

You can build your own database with Microsoft Access, as one option. But, are you in the business of building databases? If you're trying to track job costs, profits, and other financial data, you need an accounting package.

To make life even easier, you need an accounting package developed just for contractors; or maybe even just for electrical contractors. Developing your own system through a labyrinth of spreadsheets is simply not cost effective.

You could buy a program that creates a database for you, perhaps a proprietary one. What if you have more than one kind of use? What if you need to use the contact information in your bidding database for accounting? You may end up with multiple databases that don't talk to each other. And that means duplication of effort, increased chance of error, data integrity problems, and other undesirable results.

How do you prevent this? Chart out your business process, and identify what categories of information you work with. This will help you see what kind of database application to use.

Then, you can do one of two things: Buy a single, integrated package that creates a central database, or select programs that will work together on a common database that one of them creates. Either way produces good results, if you can find the right products.

Your choice will depend on what best fits your business process. Just make sure you don't end up with incompatible file formats or formats that require translation between programs. Here's a helpful tip: Don't use word processors for any database function, including simple lists.

You may know someone who uses a single integrated product with great success. But will such an implementation be your best choice? A consultant or vendor can help you decide. Vendors of contractor-specific programs usually decline business where their product won't perform well for an individual client. Market dynamics make such an approach the only sustainable business model for them, so their recommendations tend to on target.

Writing letters and proposals. If you want to compose a letter or paper, use an authoring tool. Microsoft Word goes far beyond the simple text editing features added on to most of today's programs. For less than the price of a dinner, you can buy a book to lead you through Word's many powerful features. If you are writing letters to sales prospects, creating job documentation, or writing anything you expect others to refer to later, investing in such a book is essential. Not only can you be more efficient in composition, but the end result will be more effective and professional.

Let's look at what such a book reveals. When you work with hardcopy, you have the advantage of using Post-It Notes (or similar products) to give information to other people (or yourself) without changing the document. You can do the same thing in Word—simply select "Comments" from the Insert menu. You'll get a yellow notebox you can attach to the document. You can use this to note changes, revision levels, deficiencies, questions, or other information related to the document.

Suppose you need to assemble a report or a procedure from notes or from original research material. Traditionally, you'd write on index cards, arrange the cards in the order you want, hope you don't drop them, and then type in the information. With Word, you can eliminate the note cards. Using Word's Outline View, you create the structure you need and rearrange it on the fly. Word will automatically renumber when you rearrange, so you don't need to retype any headings or subheadings. This is a lifesaver if you are working on ISO certification, FDA validation, or any other complex documentation projects.

Drawing. Using Word or PowerPoint to draw designs or layouts is tedious and time-consuming—and you end up with an image you can't use in other programs. Why not use some kind of CAD software from the start, and save on the overall team effort? Sure, you can't use a CAD package without some training. But, the amount of training you need to turn out a decent CAD drawing is surprisingly minimal.

Bidding. In 1995, a firm decided to "go high tech" in a bid on a major project. It assigned a "spreadsheet whiz" to build an automated bidding package for that job. This person worked with a small team to iron out hundreds of details in creating this package. While he devoted his full time to this project, he was unavailable for other projects. The package worked well when he was done, but the project was a misguided adventure. For less cost, the company could have bought a contractor-specific bidding package with a nicer interface and more functionality. Most bidding packages would easily have beaten the spreadsheet method in capability, portability, scalability, and usability.

Accounting. Today's accounting packages incorporate many "can't live without" features at prices that make them easily affordable, even to small firms. Doing accounting via the spreadsheet method may give you a sense of accomplishment because of the hard work involved, but all of that hard work just takes the place of doing the work that pays the bills. Accounting and bidding are so related to each other that many vendors now make packages that combine the two functions.