Archive for April, 2009

Impatience

One of the major impediments to my own productivity is impatience. Part of me always wants the thing accomplished now, better, faster. Any imperfect efforts are not good enough and certainly not as good as the fantasy I maintain of what can be. Working with this impatience is frustrating and sometimes paralyzing. So how the heck am I supposed to get anything done?

Chunk It

Breaking projects into bite sized chunks has helped me a lot. The key here is to define a task as something that cannot possibly be done wrong. “Create Design for Blog” is something very difficult to do perfectly, but “find four photographs for a possible banner image” is something that, once satisfied, is difficult to find fault with.

Leave Room for Iteration

There is always room for improvement, but how often do we give ourselves that room? Whenever possible, I plan for iteration of tasks and projects so that I don’t have to do it perfectly the first time. It’s much better to rework something several times than spend the same period trying to get it right once. Techniques like Agile Software Development have taken this idea and used it to complete huge projects involving teams of workers. So it should work for my own personal projects, right?

Forgive Yourself

On the first try or even the fifth, sometimes a project won’t work out the way I’d like. At that point it’s crucial to forgive myself, learn any lessons I can from the process, and move on. Failed attempts are inevitable and carrying around bad feelings about them only puts more pressure on the next project, creating a vicious circle of inflated expectation and dashed hopes. &lquo;Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.&rquo; So said Samuel Beckett, and he knew a thing or two.

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Fun with Blogging Tools

There’s only one thing I know about carpentry and construction: pick the right tool for the job and know how to use it. The same lesson applies to many other kinds of work and I’ve tried to apply it in how I blog and work on the web in general.

Having the right tool is about more than getting a job done efficiently. Tools can be beautiful, elegant and in some cases works of art in themselves. The U.S. Constitution might not command the same respect if it were written with a ball point pen. Chefs prize their knives and take great care in their maintenance. What tool we use to get a job done makes a difference to our entire experience of the task.

Down to brass tacks: here are the tools that I use in publishing this blog:

MacBook Pro

The macintosh computer has been my favorite tool almost since it was created. If you’re a mac person then you know that the experience of using one of these computers becomes part of how you interact with the digital world that you would never be willing to replace with another kind of machine. Apple was built on the idea that computers should be easy and even enjoyable to use and create as little friction as possible in people’s lives. For the most part they’ve lived up to that promise and the Macbook Pro may be the best computer I’ve used.

WordPress

More of a platform than a tool, although it has many tools built in.

MarsEdit

A blogging application for Mac. Marsedit is the only tool of its kind that I’ve used, but it’s never given me a reason to look elsewhere. It handles multiple blogs on several platforms (now including Tumblr) and its clean interface stays out of my way. Writing text, uploading and embedding images, saving drafts, previewing posts – that’s about all I’ve needed to do and MarsEdit handles the task admirably.

Textmate

The best text editor I’ve ever used and perhaps my favorite application of any kind. Powerful, flexible, elegant – everything you want a text editor to be. What makes Textmate so good? First of all it’s amazingly fast and responsive, which I put down to smart coding on the part of its sole programmer Allan Odgaard. Second, this app has functionality to burn thanks to its plugin architecture which makes it possible to add commands, snippets and shortcuts. Subversion support, commands and syntax coloring for every known language, tag completion, and on and on and on. My favorite new command: look up a selection in Google and then wrap the selection in a link that points to the top result, automatically populating the title attribute with the page title. Brilliant. I use Textmate in tandem with MarsEdit using the system wide “Edit in Textmate” command which Textmate will install for you. MarsEdit for blog access and posting, Textmate for writing.

These tools are not just necessary items that help me to get things done, they are sources of pleasure in their own right. Goals are great and some tasks need to be completed, but if you enjoy the process of getting there it all becomes much easier. Using the best tool for the job, the one that feels right, can make it happen.

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Just Give it Fifteen

I don’t know anybody who is good at figuring how much time tasks take. There are some who generally overestimate, giving themselves too much time to complete a certain task and then not being sure what to do with the surplus. There are those who underestimate, never having enough time in the day or short changing their own work. Case in point: it’s surprising what you can get done in fifteen minutes.

Most nights I put my three month old son to bed. Sometimes he fights it, sometimes not, but either way he’s asleep in about fifteen minutes. This is a fact I have to keep reminding myself of because when he is fighting sleep it seems like it’s never going to happen. I get frustrated and this time alone with my son becomes no fun for anybody. But then I remind myself to just stick with it for fifteen minutes. Sometimes he’ll yell for ten minutes and then settle down; sometimes it’s gradual and sometimes it’s as if a switch was flipped from awake and upset to asleep.

All kinds of activities work this way. Sometimes you just turn a corner. So next time I’m faced with a difficult challenge or a project that I don’t know how to approach, or even a household chore that I’m dreading, I’m going to give it fifteen minutes and see what happens. Maybe I’ll get a little closer to resolving the issue; maybe I’ll take a giant leap forward. In either case fifteen minutes isn’t much of a cost to get there.

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The First Fifteen Minutes

Upholding my commitment to 15 minutes a day on this blog has been difficult. On any particular day other matters intrude, other priorities seem more urgent, and even 15 minutes seems like a long time to be taking from other concerns. Worst of all, if I miss that day, I can’t just make it up the next day – this blog is developing 15 minutes at a time. Period.

So what I’m doing today, and hope to do every day, is commit the first fifteen minutes of my online day. I’m in front of my computer every day, usually at work. I can get to work fifteen minutes earlier. Or, while everybody else is checking their email, reading their favorite blogs and waiting for their PCs boot up (glad I work on a mac), I can be working on this blog.

I’ve learned this already: a habitual task not tied to a habitual time is difficult to maintain. When I think of the things I do on a regular basis, they almost all take place at a particular time of day, or at least a specific time relative to other tasks (first thing, right before bed, etc.) Some tasks I can throw on a list and trust I will complete them, but only if they are part of the same workflow as the rest of the tasks on the list.

Context switching is hard. Since posting to this blog takes place in a separate context than the rest of the day, I’m going to have to put it at its own time. That first fifteen minutes is my time and, dear readers, yours.

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Zeldman on Blogging

Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman taught me how to work on the web. His Designing With Web Standards was the first book I read on web development and his web magazine A List Apart continues to be an invaluable resource. So of course I jumped to check out the interviews conducted with Zeldman by Big Think.

Check out Zeldman on the history of blogging. I really related to one of his comments: “Just write. I just wrote and it made me an expert. The reason I’m sitting here as an 'expert' is because I did stuff first".

Here I’m trying to “just write”. I’m not the first web developer, I’m not the first blogger; maybe I’m the first blogger to commit to writing every day for a short period of time and write about it. Maybe, some day, I can be an expert at that. It’s pretty amazing that the web has given me this opportunity at all. As Zeldman points out in his interview, you don’t have to find a publisher any more, you don’t have to worry about how many people are listening to what you’re saying. Just write. Just create. Worst case is becoming an expert at something that nobody else values. But if you live your life by accommodating other people’s values…well that’s a post for a different day.

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