Serious Bump in the Road

Okay, it’s been weeks since I posted here, or in fact done anything about this blog at all. Even though my intention was to work on this for fifteen minutes every day. And that’s okay. Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…well you get the idea.

My father passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly three weeks ago. I don’t want to get off topic by talking about what that was like, but suffice it to say that it threw off my equilibrium pretty severely. Just getting back to the necessary tasks in my life has been difficult, let alone “discretionary” tasks like working on this blog.

It’s my intention to resume this project now and I’m even hoping that maintaining this habit will be grounding and, dare I say it, therapeutic. There is comfort to be found in the familiar, the routine and the ritualized. Perhaps I’ll post more on that tomorrow.

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One of my aims in blogging for 15 minutes at a time is to be able to really focus on what I’m doing. Focus can be difficult to maintain for long periods, especially for the easily bored (and easily attracted to new shiny things) like myself. Writing is an activity that clearly requires focus – but what about reading?

Reading on the web is usually an activity that we measure in seconds rather than minutes. In the age of the 140 character message (I’m looking at you, Twitter) it’s easy to forget that reading can be an immersive activity worth investing focused chunks of time. Unfortunately text on the web, even when worth reading for an extended amount of time, is often formatted poorly and surrounded by ads, banners, widgets and all other kinds of distracting miscellany.

Enter Readability, a “lab experiment” from arc90. Readability is a bookmarklet that strips out extraneous web page elements leaving just the main text in your choice of sizes and styles. I love this tool. I read a lot on the web and so many pages are cluttered with text that is too small or with too low contrast. Readability does away with those annoyances and lets me focus on the text and only the text. Give it a try, and happy reading.

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The Creative Habit

After reading several posts over at 43 Folders and elsewhere raving about Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, I picked up a copy from the library and have started reading it. Much of the book’s content will be familiar to those who have read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Both books talk about attention, memory, fears, etc. and both include exercises for overcoming blocks and becoming more creative. Happily (at least for me) Tharp’s book avoids Cameron’s focus on spirituality and concentrates instead on the nuts and bolts of living a creative life.

The Creative Habit is also a pleasure to read. With the stories of Tharp’s creative life to the name dropping, history lessons and marvelous typography and layout, this book would be worth a read even if you had no intention of following any of its advice or completing the exercises that Tharp recommends. I’m hoping to adopt some of the practices mentioned in the book though, especially that of the creative ritual.

The Creative Habit speaks a lot of rituals, habits that creative individuals perform day after day as a way of priming themselves for their work. Examples include a yoga practiioner’s candle lighting and a writer’s adherence to working exactly the same hours every day. I don’t think I’ve ever had such rituals, or if I have I haven’t noticed them. Much of the discipline that Twyla Tharp praises has always been difficult for me. I’ve been hard working, passionate, and highly focused on various kinds of creative work in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the kind of discipline that sets apart an artist like Twyla Tharp or people that she most admires. If The Creative Habit brings me any closer to practicing that kind of discipline then it will have been well worth reading indeed.

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Art and Blogging

Art_Fear.jpgThanks to CoolTools I came across the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The review quotes from the book extensively and there are a couple of snippets that hit home with me:

What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece.

Well that pretty sums up one of the major reasons I’m writing this blog. I’ve tried blogging in the past but never felt good at it and always doubted that I had anything worthwhile to say. I would post rarely and never made that much progress. My hope now is that by working on this blog frequently each post will inform the next until I discover what this blog is about, who it’s for and whether it’s worth continuing. Essentially I’m looking for emergent properties, phenomena that I’m sure are familiar to many artists who come to see the thing they are creating as they are creating it.

The only pure communication is between you and your work.

I’m sure hoping this is true, since I’m not counting on a huge readership for this blog. If I were concerned about reaching a number of readers, or what any reader might think of this project, then I certainly would not have started this blog. I write what’s interesting to me about this process and have not considered pleasing anybody else. There are many areas of life where satisfying other people’s needs and desires is important, but this is not one of them.

Now that I’ve cribbed from Art and Fear I’m looking forward to reading the whole book. I’ve put a hold on it at my local library branch since I’m too cheap to buy a copy. Libraries are great aren’t they? But that’s a subject for another day.

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How habits earn you compound interest

Starting habits is hard and following through on them difficult as well. One thought that gets in the way is that the habit itself is useless and the rewards are too meager to matter. This ignores a basic property of habits which is that they can have a cumulative effect. Starting habits is just like starting a savings account.

Like Money in The Bank

Saving money is most useful because it can earn compound interest so that the amount accrued over time is much greater than the sum of the amounts at the time of deposit. This fact is not intuitive and frankly I couldn’t tell you exactly how much my savings are going to be worth several years from now. Still, the principle of compound interest is one that many of us have been taught and so we trust that saving money has greater worth than the immediate sacrifice necessary to do so.

Habits are the same way. Let’s say you were to start a habit of running for thirty minutes a day. The first week of running is going to be difficult and uncomfortable. As you continue running becomes easier, you can run further and the benefits begin to clearly outweigh the cost. Even though you may be putting in the same time for every run, the process at the end of a year feels very different than it did at the start. That’s because, like money in a savings account, the benefits of exercise accrue over time.

The Power of the Unpredictable

There is one important way that positive habits are different than money saved: money in a savings account increases in a mathematically predictable way once you know the interest that the account produces. The benefits of positive habits accrue in often unpredictable ways; this is their greatest power as well as part of the difficulty of forming positive habits.

When I was 25 years old I took up the guitar. A roommate of mine had moved out but left his guitar behind and I had a friend teach me some chords. I practiced every day, until picking up the instrument became a habit that was difficult to shake. I had no ambitions as a guitar player but the more I played the better I got and the more I enjoyed it. A couple of years later I had the opportunity to play as part of a student theater project and so polished my playing for those performances. A few years after that I was out of work and got a job taking over as musical accompaniment for a touring theatre company. Getting paid to play music is one of the best jobs I ever had.

When I started playing guitar I had no idea that it would lead to a paying gig or a stint with a band that I joined after that. Habits can be opportunities, and like most opportunities it’s impossible to know where they will take you. So don’t put off forming positive habits because they are difficult today; think about the what a new habit might make possible tomorrow.

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Personal Analytics with Me-trics

There’s online tools for measuring everything from your bank account to your blog stats and now me-trics (currently in beta) enters the space with a tool to measure…everything. That’s right, me-trics offers to measure your hours of sleep, twitter feeds, bank balance, mood level, and more. Most of these stats need to be entered manually but some, like Twitter followers and bookmarks the service offers to track automatically.

Unfortunately me-trics cannot yet deliver on its promise. I signed up for a beta account and have not yet been able to get much use out of the service. I haven’t been able to get automatic tracking to work and the system of separate surveys and tracking screens doesn’t quite offer an intuitive experience.

Even with a bunch of kinks to work out, me-trics is intriguing. If you can’t improve what you can’t measure, then being able to measure absolutely everything carries the promise of total personal improvement. I hope me-trics figures out a way to deliver on that idea, unless somebody else gets there first.

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Owning Time

It’s a banner day for the productivity and creativity community: the 43 Folders podcast is back after a long hiatus. Merlin Mann has broken the silence with a podcast on the subjects of ganging and constraints. Without rehashing the podcast itself let me say that ganging and constraints are tactics that attack two sides of the same coin: owning your own time.

This blog was a small way for me to take back my time. I committed to owning 15 minutes every day to do nothing but blogging, right here. Fifteen minutes is not a big deal, but how often before had I avoided taking even a single minute in a day to doing something completely driven by my own desire to accomplish something? Most of my day is spent delivering on others’ expectations, nurturing relationships, taking care of obligations. That stuff is important, but unless it is held at bay it becomes all consuming, and then good luck carving out any time to pursue something else.

Merlin has some great advice (as usual) on how to take back your time and, more crucially, why doing so is necessary. The podcast was ten minutes and thirty-two seconds well spent for me.

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Software Timers

In my last post I talked about the benefit of timing tasks and the simplicity of do so – all you need is a simple egg timer and a piece of paper. Still, what kind of a netizen would I be if I couldn’t link up some more high tech timers? I’ve used a few software timers myself of which the following are a sample.

Minuteur is a great little egg timer and stopwatch; simple, elegant and flexible. There have been a couple of major updates since the last time I used this software so it should be even better now than what I remmember. The latest version costs 8 Euros (it’s by a French developer) but there is an earlier version available for download that is free. Mac onlhy.

Time Tracker is a web based timer that lets you create tasks and time each of them individually. Since it’s web based you have access to your task list from any computer with an internet connection. Time Tracker worked well for me for a long time. At some point I exceeded the maximum number of archived tasks that the system could handle, but the developer may have solved this problem by now. It’s worth taking for a spin anyway, especially since the service is free.

Klok is a feature rich timer and time tracking software. You can time tasks and assign them to projects and clients in order to track the time accordingly. Klok also helps you analyze your time by creating graphs based on the data it collects. Currently available in a free personal edition downloadable as an Adobe Air application for Mac and Windows.

Have fun giving these timers a try.

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Task Timing and Maintaining Focus

stopwatch.jpgSince I’ve been using the preview release of The Hit List (reviewed in my last post) I’ve been taking advantage of its built in task timer. My though was that I would keep track of how long I was spending on each task and get a sense of whether my time was being spent wisely. So far I haven’t done any analysis of where my time is going, nor have I changed my behavior based on what tasks I should be spending more or less time on. Even so, the task timer has been extremely useful because of an unforeseen benefit.

The timer keeps me on task.

Whenever I see the little timer window on my screen I know that there’s on thing I’m supposed to be doing now. If I let myself get caught up in distractions then I’ll be destroying the accuracy of the timer. Of course, I could just stop the timer, do something else, and then start it again (and I have done this) but the mere presence of the timer tends to keep me doing, and completing, one thing at a time. For me this is huge. I’m easily distracted and can easily allow one small task to stretch out over a whole day while I pay attention to something, anything, other than what I’m trying to accomplish.

You don’t need a piece of software to get this benefit; a simple egg timer on your desk and a note saying what you’re timing would accomplish the same thing. I’m sure there are other benefits to task timing (including the aforementioned long range tracking), but if all it did was keep me focused on one thing at a time it would be more than enough.

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Time Management Tool: The Hit List

The folks at The Potion Factory have developed a Time Management application, now in public preview, called The Hit List. I’ve been using the app for a couple of weeks now and am seriously impressed with the design, feature set and overall philosophy behind it.

The Hit List is structured around lists as the basic framework, which works brilliantly with the Getting Things Done approach since David Allen’s program is also list based. Features include quick entry from any app, associating tasks with contexts and tags (contexts are really just a kind of tag), assigning start and due dates, and Today and Upcoming lists which aggregate tasks depending on when they start and end. These features are pretty standard and are shared by other apps like Things and Omnifocus.

The feature that sets The Hit List apart is the way you navigate around the application. Task creation, tag and context association, date setting, switching to different views and lists – all of this can be accessed through the keyboard. As a habitual user of Quicksilver in the past and now Launchbar (both for Mac) I love to be able to keep my hands on the keyboard. Total keyboard control of The Hit List makes it fast and fun for me to use and easy to jam through my workflow.

Another feature usually missing from apps like this that Hit List includes is a timer. Select a task and hit the “b” key and a small timer window pops up, visible on top of other windows, that shows that task and the time elapsed. In concert with Bubbletimer I’m hoping this will make it easy for me to track what I’m spending time on. As I look at the timer now I see that I’m at 13 minutes for this entry so I’ll wrap it up.

The Hit List is already a pleasure to use and should improve with a release version. Further features like upcoming iPhone integration could make it a best of breed app and even worth the $69.95 the Potion Factory is planning to charge.

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