High Gear

Given the radical shift my life is about to undertake, I've begun to feel a bit overwhelmed. So much to do, so little time and all that.

To combat this increase in to-dos, I'm going to more heavily implement the schedule your day tactic so that I may better manage my time and tasks. And I'm not talking about merely identifying a handful of things I'd like to accomplish tomorrow; I mean scheduling my day down to the hour.

With my new job, adult responsibilities are going to begin to creep into my life, undoubtedly encroaching on the things I'd really like to be doing. By scheduling my days, I hope to be able to set aside sufficient time for both work and personal responsibilities. I want to put my best effort into all of my endeavors, and I don't want anything to fall by the wayside.

If I don't manage my time—if I don't ensure my life runs the way I want it to—no one will.

With that in mind, I'm going to be diligent and ruthless in my scheduling. This goes for obligations as well as hobbies. If I want to read, it needs to be on the schedule. If I want to work out, it needs to be on the schedule. If I want to write, it needs to be on the schedule.

This approach will allow me to focus on one thing at a time without worrying about all the things I'm not doing. Rather than try to keep track of everything on my own, in my head, I'll be able to look at my schedule and know what I should be working on right now.

It will take much experimenting and tweaking, but it needs to happen. It's the only way I'm going to be able to do all of these things well.

As summer draws to a close, it's time to kick things into high gear. It's time to come up with a plan and execute it. It's time to take things to the next level. Stay tuned.

P.S. If you're on App.net, you can find me there as—surprise—andrewmarvin.

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The Amount of Time You Have

As listeners of the ZenGeek Podcast will recall, I had dinner with my family over the weekend, and my sister was contemplating what to do with her two huge closets worth of clothes when she relocates to Rhode Island at the end of the summer.

That got me thinking, and I realized that if she hadn't had two huge closets, she — theoretically — wouldn't have as many clothes.

If you have the space, you'll eventually manage to fill it. If you have a huge house, you'll eventually fill it with stuff. Consciously or not.

The same is true with time and work. I can take pretty much as long as I want on my thesis as long as I keep filling out the Incomplete extension form. No wonder I've taken fifteen months to write the thing! There's no sense of urgency. If I had a deadline with real consequences, I probably could have finished it in half the time.

Many of us have eight hour work days. It's bizarre that we can procrastinate and stretch the simplest task so that — seven and a half hours later — we still haven't done it. Imagine how much you could get done if you only had two hours to do it all.

The amount of time you have is the amount of time it will take.

On the other hand, it's amazing how much you can get done in just a few minutes when you really concentrate.

Or when you really love what you're doing.

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How to Schedule Your Day

Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come.

My thesis is so very close to being done, and it’s time to make the final charge so that I can stop writing about it and you can stop hearing about it.

My goal is to have my thesis finished and submitted by August 1.

To facilitate this plan, I’m conducting a bit of an experiment this week.

Because I work in the evenings, I tend to have a lot of free time during the day, and deciding how to allocate that time is often difficult. Sometimes I take so long to decide what to do that I don’t end up doing much of anything.

To combat this issue, I’m scheduling out each of my days the night before, à la Shawn Blanc.

For example, on Sunday night I planned out my Monday, which looked a little like this:

9:30 AM: Wake up. Check iPhone (Twitter, RSS, messages, etc.)
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM: Thesis. Fifty-minute blocks, ten-minute breaks. (Via BreakTime.)
12:00 – 1:00 PM: Workout. (Push-ups, goblet squats, overhead dumbbell presses, kettlebell swings, pull-ups, chin-ups. x2. Ten-minute run.)
1:00 – 1:30 PM: Shower, shave, dress.
1:30 – 3:00 PM: Prep and send QLE VIP Newsletter No. 1.
3:00 – 4:00 PM: Stop at Post Office. Drive to New Haven.
4:00 – 6:30 PM: Late lunch with Rich.
6:30 – 7:00 PM: Drive to Newington.
7:00 – 9:00 PM: Work.
9:15 PM: Home. Write. Rest.

It didn’t work out perfectly down to the minute, but having the day planned out was incredibly useful for knowing exactly what I should be doing right now.

One nice thing about scheduling your day is that you know exactly how long each thing is going to last. One of the barriers to working on my thesis, for example, is that it seems like such a huge task. But if I know I’m just going to work on it for two hours — and at noon, I’m done for the day — it’s much easier to concentrate and get a lot done during that time. Getting my least favorite thing out of the way first is a great feeling.

Fortunately, my dentist appointment today is scheduled for 9:40 AM.

I’m only working part-time while I finish my thesis, but this system can be applied to anyone’s work day. I recommend trying it out and seeing how it works for you.

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Back to OmniFocus

I’ve been using Dropkick as my task management app for quite a while. Although, as I mentioned in my review, it’s not really a task manager at all. It’s just a way to create utilitarian lists and sync them across your devices. Dropkick isn’t the prettiest or most feature-filled app, but it’s good at what it does.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is OmniFocus: the behemoth of GTD/task management apps.

I’ve mentioned my distaste for OmniFocus several times. I bought the iPhone and iPad apps a while ago and used them for some time, but ultimately, the app’s cold personality and steep learning curve caused me to pursue other options. I was also in no mood to shell out $80 for the Mac version.

And yet, here I stand to tell you that I’ve decided to give OmniFocus another go.


Amidst the excitement of WWDC, the Omni Group graciously put OmniFocus for Mac on sale at half price (still is!). I decided to pull the trigger. I now own the entire OmniFocus suite, and I hope that the addition of the Mac app will help me put OmniFocus to better use. Quick input for ubiquitous capture on the iOS devices is OK, but it can’t hold a candle to the Mac version’s quick input keyboard shortcut. In addition, Launch Center Pro’s OmniFocus input is quite fast, particularly with this tip by Robert Agcaoili.

I was waiting for Things to support cloud syncing, but it seems development is destined to remain slow and unreliable. My esteemed Crush On Radio cohost, Richard J. Anderson, has abandoned Things after being a dedicated user for sometime. It’s sad, but I still hope to be able to give Things a try in the future.

There’s no doubt that OmniFocus is an amazing and powerful piece of software. I have much to learn about it, but I’m willing to give it an honest effort. I want to like OmniFocus. I really do. Mac Power Users just put out the third installment of their Workflows with Merlin Mann saga, and Merlin offers a lot of good tips that I’m hoping to implement.

So there you have it. Back to OmniFocus. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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So Long, Lifehacker

Last week, I wrote a thing about too many inputs. One of the concerns was RSS, an area where I sometimes feel I’m just swiping “read” to process to zero as quickly as possible.

The key to RSS is being mindful of your subscriptions and only allowing those that are truly valuable to occupy your feed reader. If you’re finding more irrelevance than value, it’s time to unsubscribe.

The Culprit

One of the feeds I struggle with most is Lifehacker.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lifehacker. The site contains both a lot of great information and a lot of useless information.

Lifehacker is a high volume feed. I’d estimate they post between fifty and a hundred times a day. This frequency makes for a difficult subscribing decision.

I want to be more productive, and I want all those tips and tricks, and I want to astound people with my wealth of brilliant geek knowledge.

But do I need to know that you can use mayonnaise to clean crayon off your walls?

Or that you can use a banana peel to relieve itching from poison ivy and mosquito bites?

Or how to use a jelly pocket for a better drip-free PB&J?

Maybe I’m just biased against food hacks, but I now see where Merlin is coming from. It’s gotten to the point where whenever I see new Lifehacker posts in Reeder, I know I can just swipe, swipe, swipe them as read and knock fifteen or twenty off my unread count.

I’ve struggled to come up with a solution, because a few times a day there actually is something worth reading on Lifehacker. I’ve followed the site via RSS for years, and I’ve been following it on Twitter since I first signed up for an account.

The Lifehacker Twitter tweets every single post, so following in both places is extraneous. It comes down to the lesser of two evils: do I continue to swipe, swipe, swipe in Reeder to maintain a clean Twitter feed, or do I continue to flick past endless Lifehacker tweets to make RSS significantly more manageable?

The Twitter feed allows me to be more selective in which articles I choose to read. If a headline catches my interest, I can bookmark it or send it to Instapaper. Otherwise, I just keep scrolling. Compare this to RSS, wherein every item must be processed one way or another.


The Solution

I think it’s time for Lifehacker to go the way of Facebook for me. The percentage of relevant posts has gotten much too small, and when it comes to tech news, I prefer to read dedicated sites or real people anyway.

I’ve unsubscribed from Lifehacker on RSS and Twitter. I did, however, add it to my News list on Twitter. I only check my lists every other day or so, which allows me to keep a relaxed eye on the site while freeing myself from its information firehose.

I think Lifehacker is best treated as a database. It contains a wealth of useful information, but most of it isn’t useful either A: to me, or B: right now. Rather, if I ever find myself thinking, “Jeez, I’ve got all this mayonnaise and my walls are covered in crayon”, I’ll go look up a solution on Lifehacker.

Reading Lifehacker on a daily basis is like reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover: nonsensical. It’s more practical and efficient to look up something specific when I need it, instead of wasting my time reading about things that don’t apply to me.

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Why & How I Deleted Facebook

One week ago, I deleted Facebook.

Needless to say, I don’t miss it at all.

The Why

The simplest answer is this:

Facebook is a timesuck, and I need all the time I can get.


Because of its artificial and forced two-way friendship model, amassing hundreds of Facebook friends is easy. One might even consider it difficult to avoid.

Having lots of friends is desirable, even if those friends are mostly meaningless acquaintances. It makes us feel like we aren’t alone, like we’re a part of something. It’s nice to be popular.

I joined Facebook circa 2005 as I was preparing to graduate high school. Before long, checking Facebook became part of my routine. As a college freshman, it was an attempt to meet people. New town, new school, no friends… But there was Facebook.

For many, Facebook is ingrained to the point where we can’t imagine living without it. It seems so useful. You can look at people’s pictures. You can check relationship statuses. You can stalk guilt-free because everyone does it. You can “keep in touch” with friends and relatives. You can play games.

And you can post statuses.

The status update is the source of Facebook’s superficiality. When I post a status, I know that at least some percentage of my ~400 friends is going to read it. No matter what it is. A description of my lunch. The story of my great workout. A photo in which I look particularly attractive.

What’s the motivation for sharing these bits of information with hundreds of mostly-strangers?

Because I know I’m guaranteed to get some attention in return.

People love what I’m having for lunch. They cheer me on when I post about running my latest 5k. And they won’t hesitate to tell me how great I look in this photo.

And if I have a bad day? It’s like ordering a rush delivery of attention — all from the comfort of your laptop.

Consciously or subconsciously, the underlying motivation of a Facebook account is vanity. Self-affirmation. Titillation.


Facebook is very mainstream. Everyone is on it. But the mainstream is called such because of what it is: shallow.

And what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. Hundreds and hundreds of “friends”, few of whom we care about, and most of whom we need to wade through to find who really matters.

Insidious Distraction

As I wrote in Ubiquitous Distraction, whenever we check an input, we severely inhibit our ability to create.

This is not to say we can’t find inspiration in blog posts, or escape in a great novel, or levity in a funny YouTube video. But what separates these inputs from Facebook is value.

Facebook provides very little value that cannot be obtained elsewhere. It provides hours of distraction with almost no reward.

I was fortunate to never find Facebook very addicting. Years ago, I began hiding all of the people I didn’t care about, and so checking my News Feed was easy. Log in, read a handful of new posts, and get out. I rarely felt compelled to stalk, check pictures, or play games.

But even still, those few minutes added up. Between the iPhone and iPad apps and logging into the website, I would still manage to check it multiple times a day.

Rarely would I find anything worth the time. Sure, I’d like a status or two, or make a comment if something particularly witty came to mind.

But, why?

What am I getting out of clicking that little thumbs-up button?


What am I contributing by clicking that little thumbs-up button?

Nothing, except for a fleeting moment of gratification.

Every moment I was reading a Facebook status was a moment I was not thinking about making great stuff.

Of course, we can argue that the same is true of Twitter, Path, Instagram, et al. But these inputs are far more likely to provide value because of their models for following and connecting.

You follow people on Twitter whom you find interesting. They do not have to follow you back.

Path is specifically designed for sharing with close friends. You may share your Path with someone, but they do not have to share theirs with you.

Instagram (for the moment) follows the same model as Twitter. Follow those with good pictures. Ignore those without.

You only encounter bullshit in these places if you choose to follow people who post bullshit.

This is where Facebook differs from other social networks.

The How

So, how does one go about departing the land of Lucida Grande?

1. Download Your Information

If you’ve been a member on Facebook for years, as I was, you’ll probably be fearful of losing all of your wall posts, pictures, videos, etc.

Fear not.

Facebook allows you to download all of your information fairly easily, provided you know how to do it.

Click here to learn how to download your Facebook data.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Click the account menu at the top right of any Facebook page.
  2. Choose Account Settings.
  3. Click on “Download a copy of your Facebook data”.
  4. Click Start My Archive.

The archiving process takes a while, and you’ll receive an email from Facebook when your download is ready.

I want to mention here that when I tried to download my archive, I received an error several times stating that my data couldn’t be downloaded. I had to try again the following day before the download link worked.

2. Permanently Delete Your Account

Note that Facebook distinguishes between “deactivate” and “delete”:

If you deactivate your account from your Security Settings page, your profile (timeline) disappears from the Facebook service immediately. People on Facebook will not be able to search for you. Some information, like messages you sent, may still be visible to others.

In case you want to come back to Facebook at some point, we save your profile (timeline) information (friends, photos, interests, etc.) so that the information on your profile (timeline) will be there when you come back. A lot of people deactivate their accounts for temporary reasons.

If you do not think you will use Facebook again and would like your account deleted, keep in mind that you will not be able to reactivate your account or retrieve any of the content or information you have added. If you would like your account permanently deleted with no option for recovery, log in to your account and then submit your request here.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way to quit Facebook: visit DeleteFacebook.com and click the red button to be taken directly to the account deletion page.

Upon doing so, your account will be deactivated for fourteen days. Afterward, the account will be permanently deleted. If you log in during the grace period, you will cancel the deletion request.

Be Free

I was on Facebook for eight years and who knows how many hours.

I still catch myself wanting to type “f-a-c-e-b-o-o-k-.-c-o-m” in my URL bar once in while. It’s muscle memory at this point. But then I remember I don’t need to do that any more.

And it feels good.

I’m not saying that everyone who uses Facebook is an idiot. Most of my friends are still on it. However, I do believe the large majority of content on Facebook is worthless. The cost outweighs the benefits.

For me, it was time to move on. The cost outweighed the benefits. Like the week I changed my life and started rising early, leaving Facebook was the result of self-evaluation.

It’s going back to basics: when something no longer works for you, or no longer contributes value to your life, it’s time to let go.

Eliminate unnecessary things — that includes social networks.

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App Review: Dropkick

Like my note-taking system, I’ve grown dissatisfied with my to-dos/task management on my Mac and iOS devices.

OmniFocus & Things

I’ve had OmniFocus on my iPhone and iPad for a while now, but as I’ve said before, I don’t like it. OmniFocus is incredibly powerful, but I don’t enjoy using it. The app feels cold and utilitarian, and every time it reminds me to do something, I resent it a little more. Too bad, because I love the icon.

Contrary to the typical story of “Apple nerd switches from Things to OmniFocus and loves it”, I’ve been contemplating the opposite transition. Things seems to be much simpler and more friendly than OmniFocus, but Cultured Code has received much criticism for taking years to implement cloud sync, which has only recently reached public beta. I’m sure it won’t be in beta forever, but I’m reluctant to invest in any app that isn’t consistently updated, and right now Things’ release cycle feels too sporadic for my liking. Those who love Things love it with a passion, and I hope cloud sync comes out of beta soon. I really want to try it, but I don’t feel it’s time yet.

I Have Needs

But how many?

OmniFocus is feature-laden, and while you can use as many or as few as you’d like, I can’t help but think I don’t need such a professional grade task manager. Hence, my leaning toward Things.

While I’m a proponent of GTD, I’m not at a point in my life where I need to manage multiple projects, meetings, and deadlines.

The modesty of my task management needs has led me to Dropkick, upon Federico Viticci’s recommendation.

Enter Dropkick

Dropkick is a to-do list app that syncs across all of your devices.

And that’s pretty much it.

The app is very minimal and monochrome. (If you ask me, it could use some color and personality.) It has no preferences. The icon is decent.

Dropkick lets you add lists, tasks, and nothing else. What really stands out, though, is its cloud sync. Using a free Dropkick account, your lists and tasks are synced very quickly across all devices within seconds.

One slight annoyance is that there’s no quick input on the Mac version. You have to switch to the app, bring the window to focus, and hit CMD + N. It’s not bad, but it does create a bit of friction when you want to quickly add a to-do.

I don’t have much else to say about Dropkick. It does one thing well. The apps are free for up to ten tasks at a time, and in-app purchases grant you unlimited tasks. You can buy the entire suite for $12, which is exponentially less than Things or OmniFocus.

As I try out Dropkick, I find myself wondering if it strikes the right balance between features and simplicity. OmniFocus is too intense, but Dropkick might be too sparse. If all you’re looking for is a way to sync to-dos between devices, though, Dropkick is inexpensive, fast, and reliable.

Check it out.

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The Superficial, The Metaphysical, and Why It's OK Not to Be Brilliant All the Time

A Creative Trough

My creative output tends to fluctuate from week to week. Some weeks I have a long list of ideas I want to write about, while other weeks I find writing to be absurdly difficult. Sometimes it's a lack of ideas, and sometimes it's a lack of motivation.

I've been in a bit of a holding pattern with my thesis this week as I wait for feedback on my new and improved (thirty-page!) introduction and start planning the final steps toward completion. This, coupled with the fact that the weather has been miraculous lately, has distracted me from the astounding productivity I saw at the beginning of the month.

I'm still getting up early and doing yoga every morning, but I feel like I've been accomplishing less. Sure, my thesis is on hold, but I could be using the spare time to push the site forward. Instead, I've been doing a lot of reading, exercising, and sitting outside.

I only have excuses for my lack of "real" productivity over the past week, but I also think there's a certain degree of value to this downtime.

The Superficial vs. The Metaphysical

I tackle a variety of topics on this site, and I tend to view each topic as falling into one of two categories. Some of them are "superficial", and some of them are "metaphysical". The superficial pieces — about apps, or shaving, or music, for example — tend to be more light-hearted, fun, and "easier" to write. The metaphysical pieces — about the beauty of being wrong, or letting go of Bruce Springsteen, or creativity — tend to be more serious, challenging, and subsequently more difficult and rewarding to write.

I feel most accomplished as a writer when I feel like I've created something out of nothing. Not just anything, but something of substance. I like feeling that I've reached with my writing, as opposed to, "Hey, here's my new favorite app you should check out." At times, this superficial posting feels a bit like a cop-out.

But, we are human, after all. Some days you don't have a brilliant idea. Some days you don't have the strength to ponder the depths of human existence. And I think that's OK.

Lighten Up

Life is too short to be serious all the time. Some writers may be able to push the envelope every single day, but I don't feel that would be the most honest representation of myself. Some days I feel like reading about eastern philosophy for three hours, and other days I feel like playing old video games from 1997. It's all fun. It's all good. It's all worthwhile.

The value of deep thinking and writing intense, thoughtful pieces is self-explanatory. We push our minds beyond their self-imposed limits to reach new levels of contemplation, understanding, and growth.

What's less obvious is the value of the so-called mindless activities, as well as the importance of rest.

The fluctuations in our creative output — the cresting waves of productivity and the lowly troughs of writer's block — are a natural part of our humanity. It's hard to be brilliant and earth-shattering every single day, just as it's hard to be relentlessly productive every day between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM.

Don't allow yourself to feel guilty about what you're excited about today.

It might be philosophy, or it might be video games. If it's video games, so what? There's value in shutting your brain down for a while. It's a form of rest, and the rest is what gives you the strength to do the hard work.

If a saxophonist never put any rests in his music, he would just keep playing the same note over and over until he passed out due to a lack of oxygen. It's the rests — the spaces between the notes — that give the notes their own unique life.

Writing is the same way. If I tried to write a challenging, deep piece every day, I would probably burn out very quickly. I might even stop writing the site for a while. By writing a mix of the fun and the thought-provoking, the superficial and the metaphysical, I keep myself sane and steady. And it's all part of the package. Everything I write about here is Me. I try to keep a general focus, but at the same time, you'll never find an article here about something I don't find interesting or consider valuable.

And look at that. Here I am, 900 words later, after wondering all weekend what I was going to write about for Monday. I thought to myself, "Maybe I'll try to write up some little piece about the value of doing nothing, and then I'll figure out something better for Tuesday." But what started out as a tiny, superficial idea turned into a piece I kind of like. Funny how writing works like that.

In short, don't be afraid to do "nothing" once in a while. Let your mind turn off or wander aimlessly. Sometimes, just sitting quietly and thinking is doing quite a lot. If you sit and think for long enough, eventually you'll arrive at a place of drive and inspiration, where you want to get up and build something amazing.

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Ubiquitous Capture Roundup

Ideas can vanish as quickly as they take shape, so the ability to capture them right away is a critical part of both one's creative process and overall productivity.

I've tried many ubiquitous capture systems (a key component of David Allen's Getting Things Done), but I've yet to settle on just one. As such, I'd like to explore the pros and cons of several systems here.

Note: This article is about capturing ideas and thoughts. It is not about bookmarking things on the Internet or saving articles to read later. I have separate systems for those things. (See: Yojimbo and Instapaper, respectively.)

On My iPhone

Many capture tools are iPhone apps. My iPhone is always within arm's reach, so in many ways it's the ideal ubiquitous capture device. These are the capture-capable apps I currently use, with varying degrees of frequency.

  • OmniFocus: The powerhouse of to-do apps, OmniFocus features an omnipresent quick capture button. This feature allows you to add an item to the app's Inbox at any time, even when syncing data. As I mentioned in my home screen app roundup, I don't love OmniFocus. It's loaded with features, but its utilitarian design and lack of personality make it feel very cold. It's not fun to use, although I know many can't live without it. I suppose they would argue that a task manager isn't supposed to be fun, but regardless, I rarely feel compelled to open the app, even to capture an idea. I've thought about switching to Things, but its update cycle makes me hesitant, and I'm not sure I even need such heavyweight to-do apps at this point in my life. App Store: $19.99

  • Mail: I keep my inbox at zero, so if there's something in there, it means I have something I need to take care of. Sending myself an email is a decent way to make sure I don't forget about an idea because I look at my inbox throughout the day. But, emailing myself is a cumbersome process: tap Mail, tap Compose, type email address, type subject, type message, tap Send. Too clumsy for my taste.

  • Noted: This app solves the problem with using Mail for ubiquitous capture, which is a lack of speed. When you open Noted, you're presented with a blank text field. You type, hit Send, and the message automatically gets delivered to your email address. That's it. Noted does one thing very well. Currently, I keep Noted in a folder on my third screen, so it's not the easiest app to access. I could move it, but I question how necessary it is for my capture system to involve email. App Store: $1.99

  • Notesy: A beautiful and feature-rich notes app, Notesy replaced the default Notes app on my iPhone long ago. It syncs via Dropbox, and it's very reliable. I use it to keep running lists, or to take notes if I ever find myself in a meeting. Notesy opens in the same state you left it, so if that's somewhere you don't want to capture your idea, you'll have to back up a screen and select a different/new note. App Store: $4.99

  • Clear: A beautiful, musical, and innovate to-do list app, Clear is quite wonderful. It occupied a spot on my home screen for a while, but I've since moved it to screen two. List items in Clear can only be a handful of words long, so it's not great for capturing complex ideas, but adding things to lists is quick and easy via its gesture-based UI. I use this app for running lists as well, such as books to read and gift ideas. It's better suited for capturing brief to-do items than it is for remembering complicated thoughts. App Store: $1.99


In the last week or two, a few new capture apps have come onto the scene.

  • Drafts:. Like Noted, Drafts always opens to a blank note, which lets you start typing right away. Several smart folks (including Dave Caolo, Stephen Hackett, Ben Brooks, and Federico Viticci) have all had positive things to say about Drafts. After watching the video on their website, I have to say Drafts looks mighty useful, particularly due to the array of actions you can take once you've captured your idea. You can tweet, email, and copy text easily, and it supports Markdown syntax, previewing, and exporting to email. I don't love the icon, but I must admit Drafts seems like a great app, and one that was specifically designed for ubiquitous capture. It doesn't have sync yet, and there's no iPad app, but I might be willing to overlook those shortcomings. App Store: $0.99

  • Pop: The first offering from Patrick Rhone's brand new development team, Minimal Tools, Pop is like Drafts, but without all the features. That's not a bad thing, as the Minimal Tools philosophy is: "Feature number one should always be as few features as needed to perform the primary purpose." I dig that mindset. Write, Read, and Copy All are the only features you'll find in Pop. It truly is a digital piece of paper. Plus, it's got a ballsy icon. App Store: $0.99

  • Dropkick: A simple and elegant to-do list app, the full Dropkick suite for Mac, iPhone, and iPad will only cost you twelve bucks. It syncs over the Internet and looks like a great, few-features to-do system. Again, it seems better suited to capturing tasks than ideas, but it could be a great option for those who just want lists of tasks with checkboxes. App Store: Free, with an in-app purchase for full functionality.

Old School

Sometimes, it feels good to write with a pen and paper. Despite my atrocious (and worsening with age?!) handwriting, I keep a pen and scratch pad on my desk so I can scrawl ideas, thoughts, and to-dos immediately while I'm at my computer. This works very well, because when I get an idea, I don't have to wonder about which app I want to use to capture it. I just jot it down and go back to what I was doing. I highly recommend keeping a blank notepad next to your computer for this reason.

I've also just recently started carrying a small notebook with me at all times, for when I feel like writing something down by hand.

There are two components to capturing ideas longhand:

The Pen

At my desk, I prefer writing with the Pilot G2 0.38mm in black ink. (I don't acknowledge blue pens.) I used to use the 0.7mm, but my handwriting is too messy for such a thick line. The difference between the two is drastic. Obviously, the 0.38mm has a much thinner line, but it also has a scratchier feel, which I wasn't sure of at first, but I've grown to love it. However, my yoga studio uses the 0.5mm, and I always love writing with it, so I might try a happy medium in the future.

The problem with pens is carrying them in your pocket. While I often have a backpack with me, I don't always, and so into the pocket the everyday-carry pen must go.

I'm wary of putting anything extraneous in my pockets. I throw out most receipts immediately, and spare change always goes into my piggy bank or my car's center console. If I'm going to disrupt my pocket-carry system (iPhone front-left, wallet back-right, keys front-right), it better be because of something awesome.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen is pretty awesome. Designed by Paul C. Fisher, it promises to write anywhere and everywhere, even in zero-gravity, underwater, or in extreme temperatures. When closed, it measures just 3.75 inches — perfect for a pocket. When open, it's a standard 5.25 inches. Despite its size, it has an impressive weight to it. That's what she said. The Fisher Space Pen writes very smoothly, although not like the Pilot G2. It feels more like a (shudder) Bic pen to me, but I might not be used to it given the scratchiness of the 0.38mm G2. The Fisher Space Pen is refillable, and people claim to go a full year on a single ink cartridge. I think the pen comes with the medium point by default, so I'm going to try the fine point for my first refill to see if it makes a difference. Special thanks to Patrick Rhone for introducing me to the Fisher Space Pen via this post on his daily pens.

The Paper

Obviously, you can't carry a full-sized notepad in your pocket, and I'm reluctant to put a napkin in my pocket (gross) regardless of how brilliant an idea it may contain.

When it comes to pocket-sized notebooks, the two frontrunners are Moleskine and Field Notes. I have limited experience with Moleskines, and while they look very nice, they seem too thick and heavy, and too fancy to get beat up and sat on all day in a back pocket.

Field Notes, on the other hand, are made to be used and abused. You can get a three-pack for $9.95 (less than the price of one Moleskine), and they come in blank, lined, and graph paper varieties, as well as special edition colors and more. Field Notes are thin; they have just forty-eight pages, which is plenty for jotting things down. Field Notes are also made in the USA, which feels good.

I ordered a three-pack of lined Field Notes a while ago, and I still haven't filled them up yet. I think my next pack will be graph paper, as it allows you to write both horizontally and vertically. Not that my handwriting adheres to lines of any sort, but you know.

A Perfect Ubiquitous Capture System?

Together, the Fisher Space Bullet Pen and Field Notes make a great on-the-go capture system. I've only been carrying them for a few days (pen front-right, paper back-right, for now), so I'm going to stick with it and see how it goes.

At the end of the day, I still haven't decided which ubiquitous capture system I'm going to use longterm. But, it's great to have options, and hopefully this has elucidated some of them for you. If and when I settle on one, I'll be sure to update you.

The ability to capture ideas quickly and without friction is very important. If you've never thought about developing your own ubiquitous capture system, I highly suggest you try it. Your brain is full of stuff; don't trust it to remember all of its brilliant ideas.

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Ubiquitous Distraction, Oases of Quiet, and Why You Can't Come Up with Anything

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea of ubiquitous distraction — the notion that distractions are everywhere, and that it’s increasingly difficult to exist in a state without distractions.

The trouble is that distractions often don’t seem like distractions, and sometimes we don’t even consider something a distraction, even though it’s preventing us from doing what we should or even want to be doing, which itself seems like a pretty good definition of “distraction” to me.

Take checking Twitter, for instance. I love checking Twitter. There’s so much cool stuff on Twitter. Many days, it’s a gateway to something inspiring, thought-provoking, or just plain interesting. It has value, no question about it.

But at the same time, when you’re checking Twitter, it’s very difficult to do anything else, or at least do anything else well. It’s the case for single-tasking. The reason for this inability, I think, begins with the fact that checking Twitter requires you to receive information.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. We’re receiving information all the time, through all of our senses, and probably even when we’re asleep.

I believe an incompatibility exists between receiving information and, shall we say, creating your own information. That is, there is a tension between absorption and creation.

When you’re receiving information, it’s difficult to put out information. For example, it’s hard to listen when you’re talking. When you’re talking, you’re acting as an output. You’re sending words out into the air. When you’re listening, you’re receiving the words from someone else.

A talker’s output is a listener’s input.

Talking and listening at the same time is very difficult. We think we’re capable of doing both simultaneously, but more likely we are alternating in rapid succession between talking and listening.

Suppose I’m reading a book and therefore taking in external information. To understand what I’m reading, I need to pause and think about it. This process happens almost instantly, probably between sentences. That’s what punctuation is for. Otherwise, we would never have an opportunity to understand a thought.

Beyond mere understanding lies the act of pondering. To think about what I read, I need to stop reading and process it. I might have passing, reactionary thoughts to what I’m reading as I read it, but to truly ponder on it, I’m better off pausing to reflect.

Our inputs are innumerable. Twitter, Facebook, texts, books, radio, television, magazines, etc. Whenever we interact with these things, we are receiving information, and thus we are unable to create new information, whether we realize it or not.

With that in mind, it’s clear that reaching a creative state — that is, a state where creation is possible — is incredibly difficult.

Suppose you’re trying to come up with a creative, original thought, or otherwise do some kind of work wherein you’re making something out of nothing. Writing a blog post, a poem, a short story. Painting a picture. Composing a song. Something that requires you to be creative if you’re going to produce anything significant.

If you’re surrounded by inputs, that state of creation is going to be difficult to reach. How can you create something while you brain is busy taking in and understanding external information?

As long as you are surrounded by inputs, you will find no room for your creative output.

This relationship strikes me as insidious in the sense that we may never realize it’s happening.

Say it’s a Wednesday night, and I just queued Thursday’s blog post for publication. But, now I’m in trouble, because I’ve run out of ideas for potential blog posts. I’m all tapped out. But, I need to publish something on Friday morning. The readers depend on it. No matter, something will come to me over the course of the day.

I wake up Thursday morning and check Twitter and RSS. I catch up on the day’s news. Then, I put some music on while I take a shower. I listen to a podcast as I’m eating lunch. Read the news some more. More music or podcasts in the car on the way to work. Actual working while I’m at work. More music or podcasts on the way home. Read some more news while eating dinner.

And now I’m screwed because the day is over, and still no new ideas have come to me!

Well, how could they?

If you were taking in information all day long — news, music, podcasts, other people, etc. — then how could your brain possibly have had a chance to create something original? There was no space to create.

This brings me to an excellent video featuring John Cleese called “A Lecture on Creativity”, which Merlin Mann referenced on Episode 62 of Back to Work.

In his lecture, Cleese advises creating what he calls an “oasis of quiet” when it comes time to do your creative work. He recommends five things as necessary to reaching a creative state, but I’m only going to refer to two of them here. You can (and should) watch the video for the rest.

The first requirement is space, which Cleese says means, “sealing yourself off” from the world. Some place without inputs, without distractions.

The second requirement is time, as in a set period when you wrestle with your problem and only your problem, and after which you go back to your life. He recommends ninety minutes, as it generally takes a while to get used to being alone with your problem and letting the creative juices flow.

Cleese’s “oasis of quiet” is something increasingly rare these days because we are so often surrounded by inputs. In my example of trying to come up with a new blog post idea, I never allowed myself the opportunity to experience an “oasis of quiet”. I was always receiving external information, and thus my brain never had the opportunity to create something of its own, or, to pull knowledge from the air.

To do our best creative work, to really make something great, I believe we first need to build that oasis of quiet. Because there are so many inputs — and therefore so much noise — in our world today, and because we have become so acclimated to them, we do not realize how stifling they are to our creativity.

I’ll end with a quote from Cleese’s lecture:

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent — like thinking — and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

Things like Twitter, as wonderful as it is, are trivial when it comes to creation. Sure, you might discover something that inspires within you a new idea, but following that, the actually process of making something with that idea can only be achieved in an oasis of quiet.

It’s up to you to determine what your oasis looks like. Perhaps you’re sitting. Perhaps you’re pacing. Perhaps you’re alone, or in a crowded café. Perhaps you’re on the couch in the dark, or out in the sunshine.

Whatever it looks like, your oasis needs to afford you and your mind the space and time to create. To do that, you must eliminate inputs. And, you must be patient while you wait for your creativity to come out of the woodwork.

Take the time to turn off your inputs, and find the space and opportunity for your creative output to blossom.

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That Week I Changed My Life

On the evening of March 31, I took the long way home — as I do — and decided that it was time to make a drastic, life-changing decision.

What lead me to this point?

Thesis Bound

Lately, I’ve been struggling with remembering who I am, which in large part has been a side effect of my inability to finish my thesis.

Not having my thesis done was paralyzing me. I felt guilty about not having it done, and I also felt unable to concentrate on anything else, like job hunts, apartment searches, important work, etc.

I could not move forward until my thesis was finished.

A thesis is like an anchor, weighing you down and serving as your one final — but incredibly strong — tie to academia. It’s the last remaining bond between student life and the real world.

In some ways, it’s comforting. You’re still a student. The full pressures of adulthood do not yet apply to you. But, it’s debilitating for the same reasons. You’re still a student. All you have to show for it is a couple of degrees, a lack of direction, and no career.

My Fault

My inability to finish my thesis had been due to a lack of discipline. I work in the evenings, and I’m a night owl. I love to stay up late and sleep in.

When it comes to getting out of bed in the morning, a thesis is perhaps the least effective motivator of all time.

I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning and sleep until lunchtime, only to spend another hour in bed catching up on the day’s news on my iPhone. If I was lucky I’d find the strength to exercise in some fashion before having lunch and going to work in the afternoon.

Sounds luxurious, but it sucked.

I was in a rut, paralyzed by a routine of ignorance and complacency, ignoring who I wanted to be and just waiting for things to get better. I would fantasize about how awesome my life was going to be, and then I’d wait for it to happen.

Until I realized waiting doesn’t work.

Survey Says

Several stars aligned that last weekend in March, which helped me to reverse my downward spiral.

The first was that my yoga studio was about to start a 30-day challenge for the month of April. Hot yoga, Monday–Friday, 7–8 AM; your choice of weekend classes.

I had no intention of doing the challenge. I wanted to, but I told myself I couldn’t do it.

I work too late. I don’t know how to go to bed early. I’m literally miserable in the morning. I’m a stubbornly proud night owl. Let the cheery morning people do it.

However, that weekend I had to work my monthly Saturday shift, which consisted of teaching eight three- and four-year old boys how to do karate at 8:30 in the morning. So, I was up early. Not by choice, but I was up early.

On Sunday, I decided to go to yoga at 9 AM because my schedule had changed, and I was no longer able to attend my Thursday night class. I like to practice yoga at least twice a week, so I went to bed at a decent hour Saturday night, and made it to yoga the next morning. Up early again, this time by choice.

I’d risen early two days in a row, which is a rare thing.

Which brings us back to my Sunday night drive.


As I cruised along my familiar route, I listened to no music, no podcasts. I thought long and hard about the challenge, my thesis, and my life. And then I realized…

This is the only way you’re going to get your thesis done.

This is the only way to free yourself.

This is the only way to move forward.

That was nine days ago.

Since that night, I’ve woken up at 6:25 AM. Every morning.

I’ve done yoga from 7–8 AM. Every morning.

I’ve come home, enjoyed a cold shower, gotten dressed, made tea, and read. Every morning.

I’ve been at the library when it opens, worked on my thesis, and written for three hours. Every morning.

This routine has turned my life upside for the better.

When I say it was a life-changing week, I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. My productivity, mood, and sense of self-worth have increased ten-fold. I’ve been a proud night owl for as long as I can remember, and here I am getting up with the sun every day. I never thought it could happen, and I never thought it would matter.

It did, and it does.

I love it.

Freedom Found at Dawn

When my alarm goes off in the morning, it’s cool, calm, and quiet. There’s a sense of solitude, which is what I crave and thrive on.

When I practice yoga at 7 AM, I take care of my body. I get my exercise out of the way, first thing, and I feel energized for the rest of the day. If I want to do more exercise later, great. If not, it’s no big deal.

I get home, and it’s still only 8 AM. The whole day still lies ahead, and I feel like I’ve already gotten so much done. The library doesn’t open until 10 AM, so I take my time. I relax. I enjoy the shower. I shave mindfully instead of in a rush. I have time to make green tea. I sit by the window with my iPad, reading my favorite sites or equally amazing things in Instapaper.

I drive to the library at 10 AM. It’s about a ten-minute drive; just enough to enjoy some music or listen to one of my favorite podcasts. It’s beautiful outside. Springtime. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and infinite, and the clouds are fluffy. The roads are mostly quiet, as the morning rush has ended. It’s been an amazing day, and it’s only 10 AM.

I take my usual cubicle in the library, in the corner by the window. I’m surrounded by books and people in pursuit of knowledge. I power up my Mac and work on my thesis, fifty minutes at a time. I take breaks, stand up, and stretch. It feels good to put my head down and power through the work. I keep adding words and pages. I feel like I’m making it better, and I feel like I’m getting better in the process.

I feel like I’m working toward where I want to be.

Around 1 PM, I stop working on my thesis — even if I want to keep going. I make a note of where to start tomorrow. I preserve the momentum. Then, I write something for this website, which I love to do. I take an idea I’ve been formulating, and allow it to become manifest. It’s a reward for typing about Middle English lyrics for the last three hours. The words seem to come easier, writing about things I love. I finish the draft. It’ll be reread and revised later on before being queued for publication. I feel accomplished.

And it’s only 2 PM.

I go home for lunch, feeling exceptional. Guilt-free. Productive. Healthy. Confident. I can eat mindfully, without rushing. After, I leave for work on time, or work out, or relax, depending on the day. So much has already gotten done; everything else that happens today is just gravy.

Life feels remarkable.

The biggest challenge is going to bed early, because I do work until 9 PM some nights. But, I manage to be in bed around 10 PM. I either read, or treat myself to some Netflix on my iPhone. And I’m excited to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

The first night, I couldn’t fall asleep until 1 AM because I was still so energized from the day, starting with yoga that morning. I thought I would be exhausted all the time, but I’m not. It’s bizarre to say, but sleep feels like such a small part of my day. I used to stay up until three, four, five in the morning, messing around on the computer, playing on my iPad in bed. I can’t work on my thesis at home because it’s too comfortable. Too many distractions. Even writing for QLE was a challenge, especially if starting something from scratch. Then I’d sleep until I woke up, and lie in bed until I had to get up. And somehow, I’d still be tired.

Now, I just sleep to rest. To recharge for the next day. Sleep is a way of fast-forwarding to tomorrow and all the joys it’s sure to hold.

I can’t stress enough how important this change has been for me. I know it’s only been a short time since I’ve made the transition, and I’m still mindful of it every day. I don’t want to lose this routine or take it for granted. It will take many more of these days before it becomes habit.

I never thought I’d say it, but becoming an early riser is the best change I’ve made for myself this year. While I love being a night owl, it wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t helping me grow or move forward. But now, it’s the exact opposite. Everything’s changed. I was stuck, and now I’m moving forward.

I was paralyzed, and now I’m free.

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On Tweaking vs. Fiddling

Mike Vardy makes an important distinction between tweaking and fiddling:

Fiddling generally involves avoiding the things you need to do rather than work towards making those things happen. You wind up getting caught up – and have to play catch up as a result.

Tweaking is making changes that are necessary in order to better optimize your situation – in this case, my ability to shift between work mode and life mode. Tweaking are changes for the sake of progress; fiddling are changes for the sake of change.

I totally agree.

As I mentioned in my Byword review, I’m pretty good at avoiding fiddling. I admit that I love to go through preferences and settings, but once I have everything set up, I tend to forget about them. That’s tweaking. Fiddling, on the other hand, would be playing with preferences to the point where it interferes with getting your work done.

For me, tweaking is a way to tailor something to suit my specific needs. If we’re talking text editors, for example, the proper font is important. I use Open Sans in Byword, which is also the body font I use on this website. It just feels good seeing that nice sans-serif on a pleasant white background.

Much of my tweaking comes from a desire to make an app “feel” good. Fonts are a big part of how an app feels. Look at Instapaper. Each of its iOS apps’ new fonts has a different feel to it, and choosing the right one for you is central to having a great reading experience. (I’m currently using Proxima Nova on my iPhone and Tisa on my iPad.)

The point is that taking the time to decide what font I want to write or read in is not fiddling. I don’t spend time trying different options every time I open the app. If I did that, I’ve never get anything written or read. Rather, I carefully consider my choices, pick my favorites, and then get to work.

If I love the way an app looks or functions, I’m much more likely to use it. If Instapaper only had Arial and Comic Sans, I’d never feel compelled to open it. The lack of tweaking would deter me from using the app. In turn, I’d just keep saving things to Instapaper and never get around to reading them, which would make me feel guilty. Or — heaven forbid — I might switch to another Read Later app. Fortunately, Instapaper is highly functional, reliable, and offers just enough customization to make using it a joy. After I’ve taken a moment to pick my preferences, I can get down to reading.

The same is true of Byword. It’s reliable, ultra pretty, and it works on all of my devices. Byword makes me want to write the way Instapaper makes me want to read.

In addition to apps and productivity, tweaking can also help improve your quality of life. As Mike suggests, tweaking is a way of refining and improving. It’s adjusting for the sake of getting better.

If you love taking hot showers, but your skin is always dry, you might try taking cold showers — James Bond style. That’s a tweak.

If you find yourself spending an extra hour in bed playing on your phone in the morning, you might consider moving your charger to your desk. That’s a tweak.

If you hate running, you might try running barefoot like Mike and me. I couldn’t stand the thought of running a few years ago, but since I tweaked my footwear, I love it.

The important part is not spending too much time on any of these decisions. That’s when tweaking becomes fiddling. If you’re spending more time tweaking than you are getting things done, you need to dial it back. Fiddling is aimless; tweaking is focused.

Tweak, then do. Repeat as needed — no more, no less.

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What Jerry Seinfeld Can Teach You About Productivity

I’m not a huge Seinfeld fan, but there’s a terrific productivity technique that the man himself uses when writing jokes. It’s called “Don’t Break the Chain”. Here’s the story from Brad Isaac:

[Jerry Seinfeld] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

It’s a simple idea, but I find it incredibly practical and motivating, especially if you have a tendency to forget who you are.

Say you have a goal: to write every day, or eat healthy every day, or to exercise every day. No matter how often you think about these goals, as long as they only exist in your head, they will remain abstractions. When a goal is abstract, your brain constantly has to remember what that goal is and remind you to act accordingly.

When you take a goal and get it out of your head and down on paper, it frees your mind from having to think about the goal all the time. A physical manifestation of a goal serves as a reliable, external reminder.

When faced with a batch of cookies fresh from the oven, your brain can conveniently forget that you’re trying not to eat cookies. But, if you remember that eating a cookie would break the chain, you’ll be deterred from losing your focus and motivation.

By seeing how many days in a row you can do something, you can develop extraordinary momentum and drive. It can help you get back on course when you step off the path. I’ve been having some trouble with my diet lately, so I’m going to implement Don’t Break the Chain for a while, as well as for next month’s habit.

Visualizing a goal allows you to keep the process of developing a new habit in perspective. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I’m going to eat healthy starting now!” Then a day goes by, and nothing’s really changed, so you say “Screw it!” and eat that cookie.

It’s hard to visualize what life will look like after a month of a new habit. But, it’s easy to visualize what your calendar will look like with thirty days crossed off. Don’t Break the Chain makes your goals tangible, and subsequently, much more attainable. Try it.

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Dive Deep: The Case for Single-tasking

One of the great things about the iPad — on which I’m currently writing — is that it forces you to do one thing at a time.

True, the iPad is capable of “multitasking”, but it’s really just an interface that allows you to switch between apps quickly. You can never have two apps onscreen at the same time. Some perceive this as a limitation, and many cite it as the reason they would never be able to use the iPad to get any “real work” done.

We often associate multitasking with productivity. After all, why wouldn’t you want to get a bunch of things done at the same time?

Multitasking does have some value, but we always forget about the power of single-tasking.

When we’re working on multiple tasks at the same time, or even thinking about multiple things at the same time, our focus is divided between each entity. Even I know enough math to understand that if you’re working on two tasks at once, each is only receiving half of your time and attention.

When we spread our time and attention over many different tasks at once, the quality of our work suffers.

Quality suffers because our brains are built for single-tasking. When we multitask, our brains are jumping from thing to thing very quickly. We feel like we’re working on several things at once, but our brains are actually moving from one thought process to another in rapid succession. I tend to make more careless mistakes when I force my brain to operate this way. When I’m thinking about several things at once, my mind feels scattered and overwhelmed, which is stressful and exhausting.

By spreading ourselves too thin over too many different things, we negate our ability to focus deeply on one specific thing.

If you jump off a diving board with spread arms and legs — jumping jack style — you won’t sink very deep. But, if you jump off with your arms and legs together — pencil style, I believe — you can easily touch the bottom of the pool.

It’s the same with multitasking and single-tasking. Spread yourself too thin, and you won’t be able to delve too deeply into any one project. But, if you focus all of your attention on a single problem, you can reach new depths of productivity and understanding.

Writing this article on my iPad forces me to think deeply about the topic and what I’m saying. I’m not writing and surfing the web. I’m not writing and listening to music. I’m not writing and playing guitar. If I were doing any of those things at the same time, my attention would be divided between them, and I’d only be able to scratch the surface of what I was writing about.

When you want to do your best work, single-task. It can mean the difference between a dive and a belly flop.

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Get Out of Your Natural Habitat

I’m writing this in the local library I used to visit when I was little. I came here to work on my thesis, and I managed to get several hours worth of work done, which wouldn’t have happened if I stayed home.

There is value in getting out of your normal habitat and doing work someplace else. At home, I’m surrounded by comforts and distractions. My bed is looking for an occupant, music wants to be listened to, websites need to be surfed, books want to be flipped through, guitars that want to be played, and so on. With all of those delights around me, how could I possibly choose to work on my thesis? Answer: I can’t.

The library is not my normal habitat. The chair I’m sitting in isn’t very comfortable; it’s not my chair. The cubicle is drab and cold; it’s not my desk. The lamp is harsh and glaring; it’s not my lamp. But, a library is quiet, and I’m surrounded by knowledge.

I always had a hard time doing homework in bed. It’s too comfortable. Too relaxing. Difficult tasks in easy places don’t mix. Desk equals work. Bed equals rest/play. You wouldn’t sleep on your desk, would you? Not on purpose, anyway. Sleeping on a desk doesn’t yield high quality rest anymore than doing work in bed yields high quality work. At least, not for me.

The utilitarian nature of this library cubicle forces me to do the work. I’m not going to surf the Internet here because I can do that in style at home, not to mention I didn’t drive here for nothing.

A new habitat forces you to see things in a different way, and subsequently to think in a different way. You’re probably so used to looking at the same things in your room, you don’t even think when you look at them. But, I’ve never sat in this library cubicle before. I’ve never looked out this window. I’ve never seen this street from this point of view. I’m surrounded by encyclopedias about the Cold War, the eighties, and names. The unfamiliarity of my surroundings puts me in a mindset different from the lazy, easily distracted one I assume every day at home. That mindset energizes me and helps me get things done. What else am I going to do in this ugly little cubicle?

Sometimes, the easiest way to fight distractions is to leave them behind.

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How to Take a Massive Brain Dump

Your brain is like your body’s inbox.

Every time we think of an idea, or are given a to-do, or come across something we want to remember, it goes directly to the brain. Like an inbox, though, it’s possible for the brain to get overloaded.

When we fail to process our desk’s inbox, more and more things accumulate until the inbox is overflowing. This inundation creates both physical and mental clutter. Our desk is literally buried under paperwork, which in turn makes us feel stressed and claustrophobic.

Our minds work the same way. Like an inbox, our minds contain a finite amount of space. When too many things build up, the result is chaos.

An item placed in an inbox will remain there until it is acted on by an individual. Likewise, a thought in our mind will remain there until we either forget it or act on it. Since forgetting things is usually bad, we struggle to retain as much as we can.

When our lives get busy, we find our minds overflowing with thoughts, ideas, and to-dos. Left unprocessed, these thoughts bounce around in our heads, usually crashing into other thoughts and making us feel stressed and overwhelmed. If you’ve ever felt like your head was going to explode thinking of all the things you need to do, then you know what I’m talking about.

The solution is what David Allen calls a “mental sweep”, otherwise known as a brain dump.

The idea is to get all of your thoughts and to-dos out of your head and down on paper. The process is simple: write down every single thing you can think of that is competing for your attention. And I mean everything, no matter how big or how small:

Return library book.
Send thank you cards.
Pay auto-loan.
Email Auntie Sally.
Do laundry.
Buy deodorant.
Finish thesis.
Research carry pen.
Buy Mother’s Day present.
Finish transferring DVDs.
Move tax return to savings account.
Investigate adjunct jobs.
Finalize Manference XIII.
Process email.
Make dinner plans with Keith.
Email Kevin and Caitlin about November.
Reschedule doctor’s appointment.

And so on. Write until you can’t think of anything else. You want your mind to feel clean and empty when you’re done.

None of these tasks are that big of a deal, but storing all of them in your head at once is a recipe for a mental breakdown. The fact that you haven’t captured these thoughts on paper means your mind is constantly working to remember them. “Oh, I forgot I need to do this… Which reminds me I need to do that… And I still haven’t done this… And I need to do this, that, and the other thing… AHHH!”

Writing everything down in one big list frees your mind from having to remember it all. Even if your list turns out to be three pages long, it’s OK. It’s better to have everything in visual form because it allows you to keep things in perspective. OK, this is everything I need to do. When it’s all bouncing around in your head, you can’t get a sense of the big picture. You’re missing the forest for the trees.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I always try to sit down and do a mental sweep. I empty out every thought, idea, and to-do and put it down on paper. Then my mind is free and calm because I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. It’s all right there on the page, and I feel better. Instead of struggling to keep my brain from exploding, I can focus my energy on actually getting things done and crossing items off the list.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with things to do, I strongly encourage you to do a mental sweep. Dump your brain out on paper. You’ll feel much better.

If you’d like more, check out Merlin’s post on the subject.

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Finding the Space to Create

My first cubicle job was working as a graduate intern at Southern Connecticut State University. To be fair, it wasn’t a true heads-down-no-talking cubicle job. Being a graduate intern in Student Life requires a lot of energy, as well as considerable availability beyond the 9–5 hours. But, I was working in a manmade box, and some days were spent entirely at my desk, being — or trying to look — busy with menial tasks while dreaming of other things.

In retrospect, I’ve come to appreciate my job there, but it was during those cubicle days when I made an entry in “Thoughts”, one of my running Notesy files:

I wish I wasn’t so busy so I could get things done.

In rereading that sentence, I remember what it was like to be a busy graduate intern — busy in the sense of having lots of little things that needed to be checked off, none of which I truly cared about.

At the time, Quarter-Life Enlightenment was still just a pipe dream in the back of my head, waiting outside the bonds of 9–5 cubicle life. I wished I didn’t have so many obligations so I could focus on the things I was passionate about. I wanted to make things. Things that mattered. I don’t have time to fill out van request forms; I have a life to live!

I was reminded of this period of my life while reading Michael Lopp’s most recent piece, “A Precious Hour”, wherein he discusses the dichotomy between busyness (the “Faux-Zone” of productivity) and creation (the true Zone):

As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others. I am moving an important piece of information from Point A to Point B. I am crossing this item off… just so. Yum. However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone, and no matter how many meetings I have or how many to-dos are crossed off… just so… the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.

My day job as a graduate intern was, for all intents and purposes, full of busyness. Many things needed to be done, but rare was the opportunity to create something. I may not have been conscious of it at the time, but this busyness frustrated me.

It wasn’t until I was asked to prepare a presentation for the annual Student Leadership Retreat that I found fulfillment. My “Simple Happiness” presentation was a labor of love and probably one of the best things to come out of my time at Southern (relationships notwithstanding). It wasn’t a to-do item to be checked off. It wasn’t some arbitrary task that had nothing to do with who I was as a person. It was a chance to build something I cared about and something that would have real meaning for people. It was a chance to create.

If nothing else, I appreciate my old cubicle for showing me that I will die should I ever be forced to work in one full-time. I need a creative outlet where I get to be nerdy and make things, whether it’s a slideshow about minimalism or daily articles on QLE.

As Lopp points out, though, busyness isn’t quite unnecessary. Things do need to get checked off, and at most jobs, that’s how you get recognized. The more things you check off, the more things you are given. The better you are at checking things off, the more trust and responsibility you receive.

But, if you’re like me, you can’t be busy all the time. You need to be able to make stuff. You need to be able to focus on the work you care about, even if it’s not the work you get paid to do.

But where do you find the time?

There are lots of productivity systems out there. Personally, I’m a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but the name never sat quite right with me. It always sounded like an endless quest to cross things off of to-do lists. Because what happens when you get things done? Other things take their place. Thus, there never really is a “done” moment. You’re always trying to get down to zero tasks — to “done” — but it never arrives. What’s the point?

It’s true: there will always be more things that need to get done. But what I realize now about the GTD system — and about productivity in general — is that it’s not about getting down to zero. That’s impossible; you’re never going to run out of tasks to do. What productivity does is help you control the busyness. If you don’t manage all the tasks that need to be done whether you like it or not, the time to create vanishes.

Thus, what we need to be able to do is find the space to create. We need to be able to get all the little things done quickly and efficiently so that there’s time for what really matters. Controlling the busyness, rather than allowing it to control you, creates space in your life. Beautiful space. And time. Time that can then be used for what’s most important, whether that’s spending time with loved ones, exercising, or creating.

Acknowledge the busyness. It’s here to stay. But learn to keep it confined. Do not let it run your life. Find the method that works best for you, and stick to it.

There’s a time to be busy, and there’s a time to create. The world will always provide us with busyness. Finding the time and space to create is up to us.

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Night Owls Are Not Lazy

Yesterday, as I struggled to wrench myself out of bed to make my 9am yoga class, I was reminded of the debate between early risers and night owls.

I’ve written about the power of night before, but I still let myself feel guilty from time to time for staying up late and sleeping in. I willingly admit that the early morning is an amazing time of day, if you can get to it. I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming an early riser, possibly by making it part of the Year of the Habit.

But I’ve decided that’s a dumb idea.

I love staying up late and sleeping in. Nighttime appeals to my introverted nature: the quiet, the calm, the solitude — it comforts me. In a weird way, the night energizes me. Even if I only slept for a few hours the night before, if I make it to sundown, I’ll usually stay up far past midnight.

I suppose my relationship to nighttime is akin to a morning person’s relationship with the early hours of the day. I imagine the process of waking up energizes these people. They love having a brand new day ahead of them. (I, for one, wish they would lower their voices.)

There’s a parallel between night and day, and introversion and extroversion, which I attribute to the presence of human beings and the resulting effects on the individual.

According to a definition I agree with, extroverts get energized by being around people. It’s easiest to be surrounded by people in the middle of the day, when everyone’s rushing around trying to get things done.

Conversely, introverts find other people exhausting. I completely relate to this. If I’m in a social setting with a bunch of people with whom I’m not familiar, I can only be friendly and outgoing (or my version thereof) for so long. It’s very mentally taxing to pretend to be someone you’re not. Eventually, I’m going to need to not be there anymore. Not in a rude way, but in an “OK, that’s enough” way.

Solitude energizes the introvert, and what better time to find solitude than when the world is asleep?

Mike Vardy has a terrific article about why it doesn’t matter whether you’re an early riser or a night owl:

There is no advantage to being an early riser over being a night owl when it comes to increasing your productivity. It’s all in how you handle what comes at you – day and night – and making sure that you handle in it in a way that suits you and your lifestyle [sic]. If you find that you like getting up early, go for it. If you don’t, then don’t change that. Instead, put your efforts into making sure that your are being productive rather than when you are being more productive [sic].

So simple, yet so profound. As Mike says, “The notion that early risers are more productive than night owls is a myth.”

Exactly. It’s a myth perpetuated by social convention — the same conventions that say you need to work from 9am to 5pm to be successful, or that you need to buy a big house to be happy, or that you need 6 – 11 servings of grains a day to be healthy.

I lovingly reject all of that conventional wisdom, so why would I try and force myself to conform to the “rule” that says I need to wake up at the crack of dawn when it defies the nature of who I am?

You should read Mike’s article, because it’s spot-on. A night owl gets as much done as an early riser; he just does it at a different time of day. Neither lifestyle is right or wrong. What’s wrong is trying to force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do. You don’t force yourself into a yoga pose if your body is screaming, “NO!” That’s how injuries happen.

As long as it’s not negatively impacting other aspects of your life, I say keep whatever hours you like. Doing great stuff is more important than trying to do it when other people say you should.

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Seize the Spark

I spent my entire Friday night listening to, playing, and marveling at the glory of music.

I also spent the first five or so hours of Saturday doing that, and consequently went to bed just as the sun was beginning to rise. Four hours later, I got up and went to my advanced students’ graduation. Two hours later, I came home, and, despite — or perhaps due to — my exhaustion, was surprised to find myself endowed with a small spark of inspiration. The kind that whispers about how being productive right now might be a good idea. The kind that tells you to clean the entire house or go run five miles. The kind that says, “Think of how great it would feel if you got a whole bunch of shit done right now.”

Such a spark can fade in just a few seconds, and so it must be seized.

I showered, put on clean jeans, my oversized SHU hoodie, and my L.L. Bean slippers. A writer’s uniform. The day reflected my enthusiasm, so I opened the windows to let in the sunlight and fresh air. I made green tea. I put on Music for Airports. I put my phone in the other room. And over the course of the next several hours, I proceeded to write one-thousand-one hundred-and sixty-five words about the major themes of Middle English lyric poetry.

It was a watershed moment for my thesis. Not only did my spree bring my thesis introduction to a staggering four-thousand-three-hundred-and-seventy-two words, but, when combined with my body of textual analysis, it pushed my total word count over the coveted fifty-pages threshold. My almost done thesis had blasted through a tremendous milestone, one that many months ago seemed imposing and somewhat life-threatening. And now, all that remains to be written is a handful of pages in the form of a conclusion.

In that moment when I got home, I could have just as easily decided to have lunch first. I could have decided to catch up on some video games. I could have decided to fall back into bed and tell myself, “I’ll do better work if I’m rested.” But I assure you, had I done anything else in that moment, that spark would have gone out and faded from memory. And I’d still be feeling guilty about not finishing my introduction.

Sometimes, you have to stay up until five in the morning playing your guitar. Sometimes, you have to go to work on four hours of sleep. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to do the work. But when you feel that twinge of productivity — when you feel that spark — seize it. Recognize it, cultivate it, and relish it.

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Favorite Apps: Clear for iPhone

If you've been on the Internet this week, you've more than likely heard the buzz surrounding Clear, the new to-do list app from Realmac Software. I'd been looking forward to Clear ever since seeing the video, and the app saw its much anticipated release late Tuesday night.

It's wondrous.

Clear is, quite simply, an app for making lists. But oh, never before has making lists been so much fun.

Most iOS apps operate from left to right. That is, when you tap something, you feel like you're moving to the right to go to the next screen. The more you tap, the "deeper" or further to the right you go. Tweetbot is a good example of this concept.

Clear takes the opposite approach, featuring a vertical structure comprised of three levels. The topmost level is the Menu, where you can access your lists, themes, and settings. The middle level is your Lists, and the bottom level consists of your List's Items. It's kind of like Inception.

Navigating the app is done entirely using gestures. There are no traditional buttons like "Back", "Next", or "Done". The app is completely fullscreen; even the menu bar is hidden. Your iPhone becomes the Clear app, and it's lovely.

Swiping down creates a new list in List view or a new item in Item view. Pull down a little further to move up a level. Tap and hold on a list or item to move it up or down. Swiping to the right completes items, swiping to the left deletes them. Swiping up moves you down a level or clears all completed items when in Item view. You can also use two fingers to "stretch" and create a new list or item, and pinch to move up a level. There are other gestures and tricks, but they're best experienced by using the app.

The whole app feels very fast. Navigating is smooth and crisp, and it's easy to enter many items into a list. I populated a list of over thirty items in a couple of minutes. You're really only limited by how fast your thumbs can type. The interface and gestures are Clear's standout features; it's really a joy to use.

Despite being a simple app, Clear still has a ton of personality. This is achieved primarily through color and sound.

Clear comes with five different themes, and list items are arranged using color to indicate priority. "Heat Map" is the app's default theme. Your most important items are at the top in a strong, vibrant red, while items in the middle gradually fade to orange, and then to yellow towards the bottom. It's very pretty.

In a brilliant move, Clear has also included several bonus themes, which can be unlocked by... doing things I cannot reveal. It's the funnest to-do list app around.

Sound is also a huge part of Clear. The sound effects are wonderfully musical and add a great dimension to the app. You can turn the sounds off and/or use vibration instead, but it's much better with them on.

Whether or not you're a list aficionado, it's worth checking out Clear just for the revolutionary interface. It's beautifully designed in every way, and it's a great example of what iOS is capable of.

It only took a few minutes for Clear to earn a spot on my home screen. It's simple, fun, innovative, and useful. Clear is a sensory productivity experience; it's an app that appeals to your fingers, eyes, and ears while helping you get things done.

You can buy Clear for $0.99 on the App Store.

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