Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Working & Writing to Schedule

Previously I summed up (from other summaries, mind you!) one of the latest in a long line of “productivity tips from writers/thinkers/doers” books, and left it hanging with the advice to “stick to a schedule”.

Paul Silvia wrote a nice, short book a few years back about this very thing, called How to Write a Lot. So far as I can tell, it has become somewhat of a cult classic, and for good reason. The book begins with an assault on various forms of what is essentially “excuse making” about not writing, or what Silvia calls “specious barriers to writing a lot”. Silvia isn’t particularly normative here though, and he does an admirable job of stripping so much of the moralizing and tsk-tsk’ing from the “why don’t you write?” question. It also helps that Silvia himself at least claims to not particularly enjoy writing. Intrinsically satisfying or not, Silvia tells us, writing is just part of the job; so get down to work, then get on with your life.

Silvia frames this mainly around the fundamental divide between “binge” writing and writing to schedule. The latter is good, the former to be avoided. So, “binge” writers tend to hold off writing until they can “find the time” to do it, or until they “get inspired” or “feel like it”. Nonsense to both, sez Silvia: “Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write. Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it. It’s that simple.”(Kindle Locations 126-127). I could go on here, and Silvia has certainly got some other good nuggets here, but you should just buy the (cheap) book. [That’s not an affiliate link, by the way!]

From my vantage as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, the real problem with binge writing – putting aside the broader question of whether it is ever an effective long-run strategy – is that it simply isn’t feasible. Binges require time, and that time is increasingly allotted to me in what feel like zero-sum chunks: my binge time comes at the “expense” of someone else covering for me. However, as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, I do have some time during the working day to get scholarly work and writing done in smaller chunks….but that doesn’t seem to be happening unless I get it planned for and scheduled.

How do you shift from binge to scheduled writing? The mechanics are pretty easy, actually:

  • Set Goals and Prioritize Them
  • Make a Schedule
  • Track Your Progress [update: and report it!]
  • Reward Yourself (Treat Yo Self?)

Goals for me are fairly easy, in that I’ve got a backlog of material I constantly feel guilty about not having written or finished, but Silvia is keen on actionable and concrete goals (as are most people who talk about goals). Rather than “finally finish that dreaded dissertation-summary general-interest article that has been the monkey on your back for years”, why not: “complete the two paragraphs in the lit review that will bring your theoretical argument up-to-date with a couple of major articles in your area”? You make a list, rank it and then get down to knocking things off.

That’s the easy part. What about a schedule? How do you stay flexible week-to-week with shifting meetings and other obligations? And what do you work on once you’ve got that schedule? Good questions, I say, and precisely the ones I will turn to next! For now, though, I’m a bit over 500 words, and my goal (aha!) today was to get that done and hit publish.

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Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Getting Meta About Writing

I’ve tried to avoid the “reading about working as substitute for actually working” trap, so I chose *not* to purchase and read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals book this past fall. Currey did a sort of meta analysis of advice and recorded practices from writers and other “creatives” (oy), trying to identify shared habit and patterns amongst them. Or, maybe he was aiming for more of a compendium, without the summarizing. Regardless, from what I surmised from the various reviews of, and reactions to, the book that I did read, Oliver Burkeman’s six point summary of the book does pretty well. He concludes:

1. Be a morning person

2. Don’t give up the day job

3. Take lots of walks

4. Stick to a schedule

5. Practise strategic substance abuse

6. Learn to work anywhere

“Giving up the day job” isn’t really an option for me, if for no other reason than the “day job” is actually supposed to be providing me time, motivation and support to work and write! So, that’s not the problem. Walking (#3). Ok, I completely agree, and already do a fair amount of that. Walk downtown to work in a coffee shop (aka the “anywhere” of #6)….don’t mind if I do! This probably ticks off the #5 box as well (if not, dedicated mypressi action at home should do the trick).

Being a morning person does seem to be common enough to be close to universal…though there are always the exceptional cases, people who write for hours, late, each night. But with kids and a “day job”, going later doesn’t seem to be sustainable in the long run. I work in the evening already and find that this is an OK time to hammer away at focused administrativ-type tasks or email. It’s not a time for exploratory work or challenging writing. Going to bed at midnight and getting up at 7 is already on the limit. However, shifting bedtime back in order to feel OK getting up earlier (say 5:45am) might be a way to get that precious hour of directed work in, before the busy-ness of the day kicks in.

I often think of getting up early and writing/working in the morning as akin to the “pay yourself first” mantra from the personal financial management literature. Do your work first, even if it’s a small amount of it, and you will feel better during the day when you do the work for others.

This leaves, #4, perhaps the most important of the conclusions: stick to a schedule.

For that, I will need another post, in which I can talk about Paul Silvia’s book, “How to Write A Lot”.

See you then!

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Pants & the Steadfast vs. Hot-Swap Component

A few years back (turns out almost exactly 3, now that I look), a post on snarkmarket proposed a cool way of thinking about “stuff”, drawing a distinction between “components” that are steadfast and those that won’t really last. The talk in the post was about media devices and the danger of buying a “TV” that locked you in with some set of services or other tech stuff that might be quickly made obsolete. The plea was for a “dumb” screen instead – something that could just show a good picture, and be swapped in with whatever particular content device or source might become the new norm (Apple TV, Mac Mini, cable box, etc.). We were looking for our first flat panel display at the time (I think!) so it resonated.

Then, interesting design-y guy Frank Chimero dropped into the comments there with a reformulation and expansion of the original distinction, arguing that we should think of objects as “steadfast” vs. “hot-swap”. Steadfast, as you would expect, are things that last and can serve as the foundation for a system. Whereas hot-swap items come and go, and can be plugged in and removed “without shutting down the system”. I find it a useful way of thinking about the stuff you buy and own and how to prioritize where the money is spent on quality and utility. In terms of computing/tech stuff, for instance, Chimero thought of his external display, keyboard and mouse/trackpad as “steadfast” and a laptop as increasingly “hot-swap”. In the age of cloud storage, the App store and Dropbox, laptops can actually come and go without much bother (putting aside the issue of *cost*).

Chimero also used the example of clothing, thinking of shoes, pants, coats as steadfast and t-shirts, shirts and ties as hot-swap. I’m with Chimero on the shirts, socks and underwear as hot-swap (how could one be otherwise, really?). But this is the (micro) dilemma I currently face: are pants really steadfast or are they hot-swap? As part of my ongoing wardrobe renewal and simplification – broadly organized around what seems to get called the “capsule wardrobe” model (and likely the focus of another blog post) – I’ve settled on having a few pairs of grey chino-type trousers for work. Almost any dark shoes will work with these, as will black or dark socks as well (so I don’t have to buy tan/light socks), and any number of sweaters. There are now a number of interesting trouser options out there from a variety of these small-batch boutique-ish producers (e.g. Bonobos, Outlier), ranging from premium prices (~$100 retail) to crazy expensive. Outlier, for instance, makes some pants that would seem to be super durable and “steadfast”…but they are $240 a pair! My current candidate for the hot-swap pant is the Uniqlo “vintage”(?) chino, which can be had for $40. The Producer from Express is about the same….and can be had on eBay for anywhere in the $15-20 range. Even if they only last two years, it’s hard to not consider pants as a hot-swap component.

So, there you have the first post for 2014, and it’s about pants – albeit with a useful distinction about “components” and such. Again, though, if the point is to get some words (any words) out there, this will have to do for now!

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“App-ocalypse”

Recently came across an interesting article, reporting on some actual empirical data about “app” purchasing and actual usage in the real world. On the one hand, the piece reported a huge number of app purchases/downloads by the average user (like dozens and dozens). This is definitely not how I have used my iPhone(s) for the past few years.But, then they discussed actual usage of those purchases/downloaded apps:

But how many apps do people actually use? According to Flurry, the average consumer uses only 15 apps per week.

Now, this is much more in the realm of how I use the iPhone….and brings up a question I’ve had in the back of my mind for some time now: apart from games, how do developers break out in the iPhone app market, now that all of the most obvious utilities and applications have already been written? For someone like me, I barely even bother thinking about apps any longer; I’ve got what I need, it works, and I don’t need to waste more time/screen space looking for something I don’t need. What is funny from this article, though, is that the whole thing is motivated by their advocacy for smarter search functions that would put people in contact with more relevant, but undiscovered, apps. In my view (really, my “experience” is more like it), though, people aren’t using only 15 apps in a week because they can’t find any better ones. Rather, they are using 15 apps or under a week because they don’t have any need for anything else! No real point here, just some thoughts off the top of my head.

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via App-ocalypse | TechCrunch.

How I Read

About two years ago, I came across this passage on Merlin Mann’s blog (this entry being an ode to Instapaper creator Marco Arment):

Are you getting this? I hit one button, and magical and interesting things just…happen.

Things I want to read magically appear on the Instapaper web site.

They also magically appear on my Instapaper iPhone app.

And, because my bookmarked Instapaper items are also available as an RSS feed, they magically appear in Google Reader…

Which now also magically syncs with NetNewsWire on my desktop and…

My preferred iPhone reader, Byline.

And — this one’s the killer — because I’m one of those nerds who bought (and adores) the Kindle, once a week, Instapaper dutifully, magically, shuttles a single file with all of the week’s bookmarked stories directly to my reader.

Boom.

All of this happens with zero intervention from me. Which means substantial, challenging prose that used to get skipped in the rush of the day now becomes available anyplace it suits me. In the line at the ATM. On a plane. Wherever.

And, that all happened because I clicked one button. If that’s not blowing your mind right now, go read all that again. Because that shit is sick.

via kung fu grippe • Three things about Marco Arment.

This was pretty compelling, and definitely pushed me over the edge with respect to the “can I justify getting an iPhone?” debate. And, almost to the detail, this is still the exact same “workflow” for reading I follow every single day (at least every single day in which I’ve got internet connectivity). I have found myself describing parts of this workflow to a few different people over the past few weeks. So, might was well write it down in one place and tell future people who are subjected to my opinions/advice to come right here and have a look.

It doesn’t take too long to explain “how I read” because, for all intents and purposes, it’s the same flow outlined by Mann. Although I never actually “see” Google, the whole thing centers on Google Reader. Reader is, of course, an RSS syncing and management system. You find internet sources with “content” you like, you subscribe to their RSS syndication feed. This drops the content into your feed reader, notifying you when something new has been published, and (usually) delivering the content directly to your reader.

The key with Google Reader is that it also syncs these feeds from multiple devices. In simple terms, this means you can check your aggregated content from anywhere on the web (a browser, a feed-reading program on your computer, your iPhone, your iPad, whatever) and things that you mark as starred, as read, as unread will show up as such on other devices. While plenty of people just use Google Reader directly through a browser, I use one of the many options for feed reading on both my Macs and my iPhone: an app called Reeder. Reeder grabs your content being synced by Google Reader and displays it for you in a nice, simple and clean interface on both the Mac and the iPhone (or iPad). Reeder isn’t actually doing the syncing of the feeds, for you – it’s just the way that you interface with the Google “guts”/engine underneath. The nice thing with Reeder (like many other apps, I should add) is that it interfaces with the next step in the reading process: Instapaper.

What is Instapaper? You should check out the site. Instapaper is a service that “harvests” (my way of understanding it) content for later reading, keeping it synced and organized. One way of using Instapaper is to use an RSS reader (like Reeder) that integrates with your Instapaper account; if you find entries from your RSS feeds that you think you’ll read later you just hit the Instapaper button and the full text is sent to Instapaper. Additionally, you can install a little “bookmarklet” for Instapaper in any browser so that, once you navigate to some content you want to harvest (e.g. an NY Times article, as is most often the case for me) you can grab it simply by clicking the bookmarklet.

Once your content is in Instapaper, it can be read any number of ways: on the iPhone/iPad through the Instapaper app, through the Instapaper website on any browser, or, more recently, through a Mac app that downloads the Instapaper files so you’ve got them even without internet access. This last option became much more appealing with the recent (massive) revision to the excellent Read Now application.

So, this gets you to Mann’s basic point from above: you now have easily harvested, completely synced, ad-free and stripped down reading material that you can access just about anywhere, any time. You can fairly easily manage the flow of massive amounts of information from many, many sources (via RSS), shunt it into Instapaper, read it, discard it or save it. This is the core of my reading workflow.

Two final points:

1. What about managing items that I’ve read in Instapaper, but want to save for later reference? I’ve got a shit ton of these; after all, most of what I’m reading connects to various lines of scholarly research/writing/thinking or to issues raised by my teaching. Bookmarking and tagging are imperative – the only way to get back to these needles in an ever-growing haystack. For bookmarking, I use the absolutely excellent service, Pinboard. Like Delicious  (and Diigo, which I used before and which has some compelling features) and any number of other services that have come and, too often, gone over the years, Pinboard is a bookmarking service. However, the model is totally transparent and minimal – you own your data, you pay (minimally) for the service and your information/attention is not sold back to you. Another great plus for Pinboard is that these other apps/services all tie in directly, in the background via password. So, read in Reeder, Instapaper or Read Now, like an article and want to save it….now you just hit the Pinboard button, enter your keyword tags and the link is saved. Or, you can pay Pinboard an additional $20 or less each year and they save the full text of each article! Your own personal archive, in case the link breaks, the website dies, whatever.

2. The most exciting thing about How I Read currently is the possible integration of an e-reader – in my case, the cheapest (and, non-“touch”) Kindle. All this reading and access is great…except for doing all this reading on a little 4″ (or whatever it is) screen on my iPhone. It’s killing my shoulders, neck and elbows. Really, it is. The laptop is a bit better, but still far from ideal for reading. I actually own a Nook Touch and really like the e-ink display. But, what I realize these days is that most of what I read is content that first appeared on the web in some fashion and has now ended up in my Instapaper “files”. Instapaper has some options here: with a single click, you can tell Instapaper to take your most recent 10 (maybe it’s 20, I can’t remember off the top of my head) articles, format and download them as an e-pub file (essentially a little book/magazine file, as far as your reader is concerned). You can then manually transfer this to any e-reader. But that right there is the problem: you must manually transfer the file. Yes, that means, plugging it in to your machine, moving the new e-pub over (and possibly deleting an older one, to keep things clean), ejecting the e-reader and then reading it on the e-reader. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s not the sort of thing I find myself wanting to do any more often than once a day. In truth, I barely do it at all.

This is where the Kindle advantage comes in: any Kindle you register gets its own dedicated email address. If you have a non-3G Kindle, this email will be delivered, free of charge, when the Kindle is on wi-fi (like, at home). So, you can set Instapaper up to send this e-pub file to your Kindle’s email address. And then you can read your Instapaper content on a proper e-ink screen, from a super simple, super cheap device. The non-touch Kindle, with ads, is now only $79. As a dedicated reading device this seems like a crazy deal. Of course, I don’t own one yet, but I’m really looking forward to getting one and giving it a try.

A last random bit here: you might be wondering why I’m not interested in the Kindle Touch. What I’ve realized with the Nook Touch is that I really dig having an e-reader that I can treat like a book. I want to be able to wrap my hands around the thing, move around with it, etc. without worrying about whether I touch the screen or not. The “advantages” of the touch screen are pretty much moot for me – I don’t mind using small side buttons to advance pages, and the menu system on these readers is simple enough that using a little directional arrow/tiny joystick/whatever input device to control the thing is perfectly fine by me. Plus, the cheaper the better, as far as I am concerned. I want, in essence, a “dumb screen” for reading – I want to dump content onto a small, cheap device with a good screen. If it breaks I will be sad, but I won’t be bankrupt – which is the problem with using an iPad primarily as a reading device (e.g. it starts at $500…which is a lot of money for something my kids might pick up, or I might leave on the couch).

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PS – If you want a great review of various e-ink readers, from this particular reading perspective, check out Marco Arment’s detailed comparison. You could even click through on his links, if you choose to buy one, so Instapaper gets a little bit of affiliate credit.

My Official Predictions for Apple’s iPhone Event on Tuesday

512 Pixels gets it just about right for me:

  • Apple will release something new that will be pretty good.
  • People will be disappointed, thanks to the insane rumor mill.
  • I will mark “All as read” in Google Reader after the event and order a new phone.

via 512 Pixels.

I’ve never had to bother with Mac rumor mill as much as in the run-up to the current iPhone product announcement. Truth is, I’ll buy WHATEVER the newest iPhone turns out to be (4S?, 5?) because I have no choice in it! My 3GS has been on borrowed times for a couple of months now – a very cracked screen that somehow has not continued to spread, yet still works; gobs of dust and gunk behind the glass (in large part from the replacement of the screen after cracking it two summers ago); and, the standard cracking on the black plastic case starting from the dock connector. While I’ve been qualified for months now for the subsidized upgrade to an iPhone 4, it seem stupid to pull the trigger until the newest revision comes along.

Thus, I’ve been a slave to the rumor mill, waiting for the “late summer” and then “early fall” predictions. Now my biggest fear is that the announcement will be made this week….but then the actual top-end phone (if Apple ends up doing a revised 4 AND and a new 4S) won’t be ready for purchase for another few weeks.

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Bliggity Blog and the Importance of “Sane RSS Usage”

After months of spiraling and self-reinforacing guilt-shame over lack of attention to BB here (and, I’m sure, the disappointment of at least a small handful of individuals throughout the world) a recent “debate” about RSS usage kicked my ass back into “self-actualized” mode with this blog. This should be good for at least a few posts in the next month, before some other (non)catastrophe leads to yet another blogapocalypse on BB.

First, a brief tip of the hat the tech warriors debating the utility of RSS feeds. Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng goes so far as to call RSS “poison”, at least in so far as clogging up your reader with high-traffic feeds defeats the very purpose of having a centralized place for content dumps. Marco Arment, on the other hand, makes a good case for sane RSS usage, arguing that RSS is perfect for, ahem, er….well, blogs that are infrequently updated, and perhaps not worth reading in the first place. Of course, the real take-home point/factoid from the Ars Technica article is that some poll reports only 6% of American’s actually use RSS in the first place. Given that BB has always run on a quality over quantity ethos in the domains of both content and readership, I’m good with that.

The really pathetic thing about my serial abandonment of the blog is that I’ve got, I think, 4-5 posts in draft form currently saved. I even write stuff and then put it aside! I am hoping that this new era of being a tenured professor will also usher in better blog discipline. In theory, I should now feel liberate in my working life, able to parse out my writing efforts across student grading and communication, my own scholarly work and correspondence (the latter of which, I have come to realize over the past 10 years, is absolutely foundational to intellectual and professional development but is also enormously time-consuming), as well as steady blogging here at BB. Right now the more mundane and utterly draining communication for administrative stuff (override numbers to classes, planning the course schedule for next semester, etc.) leaves me feeling like there will never be any time for stretching the brain out a bit….but I always tend to feel overwhelmed at the start of a semester.

But, I could at least get these drafts converted over to the published column, right?

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Best Craigslist or Thrift Finds Ever: BJ Edition

Apartment Therapy has this great thread going on with people describing their best finds on CL or in thrift shops. Some amazing stuff listed – makes me look forward to more time someday in life to trawl the local CLs constantly looking for deals.

The first comment, though, was perhaps the best:

I found a couple of used tires and a blowjob on craigslist. I find it is better to tell a friend you are meeting someone you don’t know at a hotel outside of town. That way, when they steal your wallet and drive off with your car, you have a ride home.

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via Apartment Therapy.