Ben Crowder

Archive: Productivity

Shortform initial draft

After blogging that Shortform mockup, I kept finding myself needing the app itself, so I went ahead and started writing it. It’s very much a draft and not polished, but the core is there, and it’s usable enough that I turn to it quite often.

What’s working

  • You can create notes.
  • Notes are autosaved to a folder specified in preferences.
  • Notes are reopened when you open the app, like with Stickies.
  • User-customizable global hotkeys (using MASShortcut):
    • Show app
    • Create new note
    • Create new note with the contents of the clipboard

What’s not implemented yet

  • Console. I made a first failed attempt (which messed all the window layout up) and need to try again.
  • Title bars. I’ve decided I don’t actually want them — they look nice, but since you can drag a note using the margin on any side of the window, and since you can use keyboard shortcuts or the menu item to close the current note, the title bars aren’t really necessary.
  • Preview mode.
  • Themes.

And everything else on the issues page.

The code

It’s on GitHub as usual.

Note that this is my first OS X app, so I’ve undoubtedly flubbed a number of things. But I do have to say that Cocoa is a very nice framework to work with — I was able to get to this point far more quickly than I expected to. And Objective-C is — dare I say it — growing on me a little.

Shortform mockup

Lately I’ve been itching for a way in OS X to quickly create temporary sticky notes but with Markdown support and with decent text processing (regex find-and-replace, etc.) and with the ability to type first and act later (like Drafts for iOS). The default Stickies app doesn’t really fit the bill (and it isn’t pretty).

So I’ve mocked up an OS X app I’m calling Shortform:

I don’t know if I’ll actually write the app (Cocoa learning curve and other pressing needs, etc.), but since the likelihood of someone else writing it is very small, that may have to be what happens. Things of note:

  • Console and reusable actions. In the upper left note, you can see a console at the bottom. It’s a command line for text editing, basically. There’d be built-in commands (like replace or trim or what have you) along with ways to send the text elsewhere (email and web services being the two main ones I’d use). You would also be able to save a sequence of commands into a reusable action.
  • Keyboard shortcuts. Lots of configurable shortcuts — new note, new note with clipboard contents automatically pasted in, shortcuts for custom actions, etc. And a global shortcut to focus the app.
  • Markdown preview. The middle note (with the green header) shows a preview (processed through Markdown to HTML with some CSS). I’m thinking notes could be in either edit mode and preview mode, rather than having two separate windows.

How I think I’d use Shortform:

  • Quick text processing. I often need to do a quick regex on a snippet of text — adding hyphens to the beginning of a list of things, for example.
  • Temporary notes while I’m working on something. Stuff I need to write down but don’t care to keep in a longer-term notebook. That’s how I use Stickies right now.
  • Quick entry for blog posts, etc. I love Drafts on iOS. Type first, then do what you need to do with it. It’s particularly useful with web services — I can type a note, then send it to whichever one of my Vinci notebooks I want.

Anyway, at this point it’s just a mockup. If I do end up building it someday, I’ll let y’all know.

Project poll 2013 edition

Time for another project poll, like last year’s. As before, I’m doing this to get a better feel for which types of projects y’all are interested in (“y’all” being defined as the people who are reading this post).

Leave a comment saying which kinds of projects you’d like to see me do or keep doing. Write-ins are fine, too. Here’s the list, in alphabetical order (and “books” refers to ebooks):

  • Art (religious)
  • Art (science fiction and fantasy)
  • Books (classics in their original non-English languages) — Les Misérables in French, Dostoevsky in Russian, medieval works, etc.
  • Books (English classics) — Jane Austen’s books, Twain, Sherlock Holmes, the Brontë sisters, etc.
  • Books (fairy/folk tales)
  • Books (Mormon Texts Project)
  • Books (New Testament/Old Testament reader’s editions) — like the Book of Mormon reader’s edition
  • Fiction (science fiction and fantasy)
  • Fonts — like Cantilever
  • Language charts — like my Latin charts or Greek alphabet chart
  • Mormon Artist
  • Software (games)
  • Software (genealogy-related)
  • Software (language-related)

State of the union: October 2013

A quick update on what I’ve been up to, since I’ve apparently become a bit of a prodigal blogger.

Mormon Artist. That’s where almost all my free project time has been going. We’ve been posting new interviews every few days, and we have twenty-three more currently in the works. (If any of you are interested in helping with interviews, by the way, let me know. We could use a few more people.)

Yesterday morning I switched to a standing desk at work, to help with some lower back pain I’ve been having. More on that in a month or two when I’ve gotten used to standing this much.

Last but not least, our daughter is starting to do a little better. She’s gaining weight again and has passed her admittance weight (two months later), which is a very good thing. We’re hopeful.

Skiff

I’ve had some project task management itches for a while, and a couple months I started scratching. The first app that came out of that was Donne, a project to do list web app that’s mostly done (I’ve been using it for over a month now), but it still needs some polishing before I release it. Here’s a sneak peek, though:

And mobile (same design, it’s responsive):

Donne’s core concept is that it only shows you the very next action for each project you’re working on, so you don’t get distracted by the rest. But I’ll talk more about that later.

The second app, which I am releasing today, is Skiff. It’s a really simple, lightweight, rather geeky tool for seeing tasks for a lot of projects at a glance. To wit:

Each project’s next action is highlighted, and you can quickly filter to show just the project (or group) you want, using the box in the upper right. (‘/’ will focus on it as well.)

All editing happens via text files (I use Vim) with a subset of Markdown for syntax:

## Errands

* Get the milk
* Wash the car
* Feed the dog
* Verb the noun

The app supports multiple lists of projects (you just create a new text file in the lists directory), and you can add a CSS file for any list to get a different theme for that list:

Finally, it’s PHP-based, so you do need to have a web server or run Apache on your computer (I run it locally on my MacBook Pro).

I’ve found myself using both Donne and Skiff as I’ve worked on Unbindery, Skiff to help me keep track of things on a larger scale, and Donne to help me focus when I’ve made my list of what needs to happen next. Eventually I may integrate Skiff into Donne, to get a best of both worlds kind of thing. We’ll see.

Erasure

When I was a kid, my mom used to have us memorize poems. She’d write the poem out on a whiteboard and we’d recite it a few times, then she’d start erasing a few words, have us recite it again, erase a few more, and so on. And it worked.

Turns out it’s super easy to do the same kind of thing in a web app. Here’s Erasure:

If you click on an erased word, it’ll briefly become visible again. (But of course you only want to do that if you’re really stuck.)

As usual, the code is on Github.

Scratchpad

A new discovery for me: the idea of a catch-all digital scratchpad.

It’s simple and obvious, but for a while I was creating tons of one-off notes in Simplenote/Notational Velocity to work through algorithms or jot down measurements or write down a phone number before I called it. Each time, I’d have to think, “What am I going to call this note?” And then half the time I’d forget to go back and delete it afterwards.

No more. I’m calling my note “scratch” and it’s working beautifully so far. A single place to jot things down. Hardly any friction. Bliss.

(The inspiration for the scratchpad idea was Soulver, by the way.)

Finishing school

After that list of projects I’ve abandoned, it’s probably good to talk about actually finishing stuff. You know, the important part. All of this is based on my own experience with projects, of course; your mileage may vary.

  • Rule 1: Work on interesting projects.
  • Rule 2: Be a steamroller.

Rule the First

Who wants to spend their life working on boring stuff? I don’t, so I only work on projects that hook my interest and tug me along in excitement. Does this mean I only chase the glamour? Well, the Unicode standard gives me goosebumps — you decide.

This rule is important, but I’d say that as far as finishing projects goes, the next rule is where it’s at. (And that’s good, because sometimes — at work or school, for example — it’s not always in your power to work on interesting things.)

Rule the Second

All the excitement in the world will only get you so far. On almost every project I’ve worked on, I’ve hit the sluggish middle where things just aren’t as exciting as they were at the beginning.

At this point, it’s time for a decision: whether to continue or not. Some of the questions I ask myself:

  • Why am I doing this project?
  • How does it fit in with my larger life goals?
  • How much will it take out of me?
  • Is it worth the time?
  • Am I stuck? (Writer’s block, the ugliness of rough drafts, that sort of thing.)
  • Am I doing this project for someone else? (If so, I’m less likely to drop it.)
  • How hard is the medium? (For me, writing fiction is hard and makes me feel devilishly inadequate. Art is also hard, but it’s getting easier as I continue doing it. Coding and design are comparatively easy.)

Dropping a project at this point isn’t always a bad thing. I often have to work on a project for a little while before I know whether it’s worthwhile to finish it. If it isn’t worth it, I have no problem bagging the project. (And yes, I probably drop projects I shouldn’t. This process isn’t anywhere near perfect.)

If it’s still important, however, or if I’m merely stuck, then I gear myself into steamroller mode and just slog my way through the murky middle until I’m back in the clear again. It’s hard work. It takes discipline. (Or at least you have to be good at pretending to have discipline. I don’t think I actually have good discipline.)

How do I manage the slogging? My project tracker has been a huge help here, reminding me that I don’t have to do it all at once.

If I’m stuck, I take smaller tasks. I try to think clearly about the project, making sure that I know what my next steps are and that I’m not trying to clump lots of tasks into one vague metatask. Being willing to backtrack is also important. Sometimes you just have to start over.

Other tidbits, in no particular order

The joy of creating is probably the strongest motivating force in my work. And it’s oh so satisfying to look back and see a nice long list of things I’ve made.

I’m heavily influenced by the things I consume (read, watch, listen to, etc.), so if I need to get motivated for a particular project, I often just read something that has to do with the project and that’ll get me motivated again.

I don’t watch TV shows anymore. I don’t play video games. I try to avoid time sinks. I do rest and relax, perhaps more often than I should, and that’s an important part.

When I’m feeling inadequate, I like to review the kind things people have said about my work. I keep these in a “Kind words” note in Simplenote. Reading biographies of creators (writers, illustrators, designers, etc.) is also inspiring.

Ben’s orphans

For the last while, this blog has mostly chronicled the projects I’ve finished and released. I thought it might be useful to show the other side — the projects I started but didn’t finish.

Here, then, is a list of the projects I abandoned, unfinished, from January 2010 to now. I didn’t include projects I didn’t do any real work on (since my list of project ideas is a lot longer than this). I may come back to some of these, but it’s unlikely.

  • Hwaet (Old English dictionary iPhone app)
  • The Rainbow (picture book based on Christina Rossetti’s poem)
  • Top Hat (picture book written and painted on my iPhone)
  • Abraham & Sarah (Photoshop illustration)
  • Baptism (Blender illustration)
  • Faceoff (Photoshop illustration)
  • Tanglewood (a young adult fantasy novel)
  • Soul on a Stick (short story)
  • The Human Chameleon (poem)
  • Beyond (genealogy web app)
  • Dante (genealogy-geared wiki-like web app)
  • Cubed (short animated film)
  • Grimm 1857 (ebook of the original German text from the 1857 edition)
  • Sanskrit Compound Consonants (chart listing Sanskrit conjuncts)
  • The Pearl (ebook of the Middle English text)
  • md2icml (script to convert Markdown to ICML for import into InDesign)
  • md2wbook (script to convert Markdown to standalone bookish-looking web pages)
  • Gloria Dei (Blender illustration)
  • Isaiah reader’s edition (book)
  • Weekly Miracle (Photoshop illustration)
  • Dantes (serif book typeface)
  • Marionette (short story)
  • Vulgate (Latin New Testament ebook)
  • Robot War (short story)
  • Psalter (book)
  • Fountain (iPhone font editing app)
  • Clementine Vulgate (Latin book)
  • Arnold and the Castle (short story)
  • Elijah (genealogy web app)
  • On the Run (Blender illustration)
  • Concrete Butterfly (Blender illustration)
  • Treehouse (Photoshop illustration? I don’t remember, actually)
  • Blowpop (Brushes illustration)
  • Polyglot New Testament (ebook)
  • Black Rose (short story)
  • The Strip (Photoshop illustration)
  • Redwood (genealogy web app)
  • Facebook Enemy (short story)
  • Blender Quicktips (website)
  • Blenderviews (website featuring interviews with Blender community people)
  • Vim Interviews (website featuring interviews with Vim community people)
  • Treeview (pannable web-based pedigree chart app)
  • The Toybox (animated short film)
  • Getting the Amulet Back (Photoshop illustration)
  • Sidescroller (Brushes illustration)
  • Throne Room (Blender illustration)
  • Donne (to do list web app)
  • Chord Progressions (chart)

There you go. As you can see, it’s a miracle I finish anything at all. :)

The 30-second rule

I’ve found that one really effective way for me to break through mental blocks and make headway on a project is to tell myself I only have to spend thirty seconds on it.

Can I get anything useful done in thirty seconds? Depends on the task, but the important thing is that it makes it a lot easier for me to get into the project and start working. Starting is the hardest part, after all. (After that, in my experience, the next hardest part is stopping.)

For me, this has worked well with my project tracker (which I’m still using daily, by the way). All I have to do is work on something for a little bit and then boom, I can put a nice satisfying mark on the tracker. And it works — I’m able to make myself work on projects just so I can check them off, and I’ve used this over and over again to overcome resistance and get things done that I’d previously been avoiding.

Small and simple, but dang, it’s effective.

Living in the cloud

Last week my work laptop died. Logic board went kaput. The poor thing was still under warranty, thankfully, so they’re fixing it, but in the meantime I’m using a loaner laptop and I’ve been reflecting on the advantages of living in the cloud.

Almost everything I’m currently working on is in Dropbox, and while I haven’t installed Dropbox on this laptop (since it’s a loaner), I can pretty easily download from and upload to Dropbox.com to keep things going. It’s a beautiful thing.

My notes are in Simplenote, so they’re still accessible everywhere. (I’ve been using the web app instead of Notational Velocity. I miss NV. And the web app lost some of my unsaved notes at one point, which isn’t cool. But I do love Simplenote.)

My coding projects are on Github. My email is on Gmail. My art and photos are on Flickr. My family videos are on YouTube. Many of my documents are on Google Docs. My blog runs on a Linode box, which is why I can publish this post.

Sure, cloud living is a little dangerous. The Internet goes down and poof, no access to anything. But I keep copies of my files on my local hard drives, so it works out okay. (I have Dropbox on my iMac and my work laptop, so there are three copies of my important files. Notational Velocity keeps my Simplenote notes in a folder. My coding projects are in Dropbox. I keep copies of my art and photos and videos. I have WordPress email me a weekly backup of my blog. I have a daily script archiving my tweets. About the only thing I’m not backing up regularly — and I should start doing this — is Gmail and Google Docs.)

Oh, and I do of course have external Time Machine hard drives both at work and at home backing things up all the time.

Why I closed my LinkedIn account

I mentioned on Twitter today that I had closed my LinkedIn account, and over the last few hours I’ve gotten a flurry of responses asking why.

Noise. That’s why. I’m not in the market for a new job, and when the time does come for me to move on, I’m confident that my networking ability won’t be crippled by my lack of a LinkedIn account. It won’t, I promise. Hanging on to LinkedIn = more noise in my life = more things to take up mental RAM and distract me from actual, real, interesting work. (Work that will help me get jobs in the future, I should add.)

As a footnote to that: LinkedIn wasn’t taking up much mental RAM to begin with, sure — I wasn’t spending time on it other than to approve requests. And I can see how it could be valuable to some. In fact, I applied for my current job because a couple friends forwarded me a LinkedIn listing. I just don’t need it in my life right now.

How I got to this point

A couple of blog posts have been in my thoughts a lot lately. The first is Aaron Mahnke’s post (via Practical Opacity):

I think we’re nearing the end of the honeymoon period with social media. At least I know I am. We’re taking off our rose-colored glasses and seeing things for what they really are. We risk suffocating under a comfortable blanket of feeds and following. And while death isn’t on the line, our sanity just might be.

Call it what you want, but we only have so much air to go around. And I don’t know about you, but it’s time for me to get picky.

The other is Paul Graham’s The Acceleration of Addictiveness (both of these are great reads):

Most people I know have problems with Internet addiction. We’re all trying to figure out our own customs for getting free of it. That’s why I don’t have an iPhone, for example; the last thing I want is for the Internet to follow me out into the world.

A shift in priorities

What I want is mental peace and quiet. Social media and the Internet fill my head with so much noise that it’s hard to get anything done. Yes, there’s an unending supply of links to cool things, and yes, most of them are very interesting. But do I need that? No. I don’t. I’ve been asking myself how I want to spend my life, and clicking on cool links just isn’t on the list. I want to clear my head and spend more of my time making stuff, reading books, being with family, and doing other things that make me feel whole instead of splintering my mind a thousand different ways. On my dying day, I’m not going to look back on my life and wish I’d checked Twitter and Facebook more often.

I’m pulling back, recovering from my Twitter addiction (because let’s face it, that’s exactly what it was). I’ve deleted the Twitter app off my iPhone and have only been checking in on my feed a couple times a day to respond to replies. I’ve also cut down my Google Reader feeds and have started spending my lunch breaks reading novels instead of surfing the web. This feels so much healthier. Am I missing out? Maybe, but I don’t care anymore. I’ve got better things to do.

By the way, announcing that you’re retreating from a social network almost feels like defection, like you’re waving a big “I’m a misanthrope!” sign. Which is stupid. I love people. I love meeting people and making new friends. Luckily there’s this thing called real life where I can still do that any time I want.

I used to look at people who weren’t on Twitter/Facebook/whatever and wonder what was wrong with them. Now I’m seeing the light: life without social media is possible. Ha. Seems ridiculous when you put it that way, doesn’t it. And that, my friends, was the problem.

Quitting the cult of busy

First, go read Scott Berkun’s The Cult of Busy. It’s good.

Being busy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I, for one, spent many years subscribing to the (false) philosophy that busier = better. And I’ve spent the last couple years unlearning that lie.

One of my favorite lines in scripture is from 2 Nephi 9:51, where Jacob is paraphrasing Isaiah. Here’s the first sentence:

Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.

Translation of that last phrase: Don’t waste your time doing stuff that doesn’t matter. Say no to the trivial and unimportant things that try to clog your life. Say no to the not-so-trivial things that sound good but aren’t as central to your goals. (Those are the hardest.) If you want to live a good life, you really, really, really have to learn how to say no and say it often. Live simpler.

It’s not just saying no, though. You have to say yes to the things that do matter. For me, that means spending time with my wife (and, come March, with our baby). It means leaving blocks of empty time in my schedule to think and ponder and meditate. It means going on walks and enjoying nature. It means being creative and reading and learning new things. It means making books. It means serving in my calling at church and generally trying to make the world a better place.

What it doesn’t mean (again, this is for me): taking on lots of external projects, especially big ones. It also doesn’t mean spending hours surfing the web or playing Angry Birds on my iPhone or watching back-to-back TV episodes courtesy of Netflix or Hulu. They’re all very addicting (at least for me) and my time is too precious to waste on things that leave me feeling yucky and dry. I’d rather spend my life doing things that make me feel good (visiting family or reading or doing family history or learning German or what have you).

There’s no award in heaven for having the busiest schedule. Pull back, do less, and spend more time on the things that really matter. Then life is awesome.

What’s in my Simplenote?

Minimal Mac is asking what’s in your Simplenote. Here’s what’s in mine:

  • Project scratchpads (notes, URLs, process lists, todo lists, etc.).
  • Kind words people say about me (for when I’m feeling down).
  • A list of book/design project ideas.
  • A list of books I want to read.
  • A list of fonts I want to get someday (mostly book typefaces).
  • Agendas and meeting notes.
  • Drafts for some blog posts and occasional emails.
  • Short snippets of stories I’m working on.
  • Drafts of my Twitter profile bio.
  • Odds and ends (the VIN on my car, phone numbers, URLs).

Once again, let me just say that I love Simplenote and use it every day. And the new 3.0 release is quite nice.

Writing tools I love

I do a lot of writing (not as much as I should, but a lot nonetheless), and since I spend so much time in word-related apps, I figured I’d give them some gush time.

I’ve dabbled with tons of word processors and text editors — Bean, OmmWriter, WriteRoom, TextMate, you name it — and yet I always come back to Vim.

It’s my wordmaking home. Vim is a geek tool, certainly, and the learning curve is oh so steep, but it does exactly what I want it to do, it has extremely powerful text editing commands, and MacVim gives me distraction-free fullscreen mode (Cmd-Shift-F). Plus, it’s a keyboard-based editor, and I love the keyboard something fierce. So fast, so smooth, so easy to dump what’s in my brain straight into a file with hardly anything getting in the way.

Vim suits my needs 95% of the time, but when I’m away from my computers, I use my Field Notes if I’m feeling analog, and Simplenote on my iPhone if I’m not.

Simplenote is wonderful. It just works. It syncs over the air and I can get my plain text notes anywhere — on my iPhone/iPad, on my computer via Notational Velocity, or anywhere else via the web app. Beautiful.

I didn’t discover Notational Velocity until a few months ago, but wow, I’m in love with this app.

(The weird spacing has to do with how Old English poetry is formatted, by the way. It’s not a Notational Velocity glitch.)

The keyboard shortcuts are delish. Even better, NV is free (open source) and syncs with Simplenote. And it gets better. NV lets you store notes as text files in a directory, so I’ve got my laptop storing NV notes in Dropbox for extra redundancy. Bonus: This means I can drop a text file into my NV folder on my laptop and it’ll automatically sync it with Simplenote. (To be honest, I’ve never done this. Maybe someday…)

And that’s it.

Disclaimer: While it’s fun to talk about tools, tools do not a writer make. Words are words, regardless of whether you put them down with a pencil or in Word or on your phone or via dictation software. Tools can make it easier, but the more important thing is the writing itself — getting words out of your head and onto paper or screen — and you can do that with pretty much anything.

Earplugs, revisited

It’s now been a week since I unplugged (or plugged, I guess, depending on how you look at it). What’s the verdict?

Mixed.

I liked having more time for reading and making things. And my mind did feel quieter, less distracted and more focused.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming because of my use of the past tense in that last paragraph) I missed being social on Twitter. Apparently I need that. I love people and I love talking with people and that’s basically what Twitter is. Also, I get enough time-sensitive emails that checking Gmail only twice a day isn’t going to cut it. (This was news to me.)

So, no more 2x/day limit.

My new goal is where I should have been all along: the middle ground, sane and healthy and ruddy-cheeked. I’ve coaxed my subconscious into monitoring how often I’m checking Gmail et al., and if my middle ground frenzies itself into a frothing every-other-minuteness, I’ll pull back and take a breather for a few. That should do the trick. (If it doesn’t, you’ll be getting another blog post.)

Now to go tweet about this…

Earplugs

My life often feels like a series of endless interruptions snatching at my mind, pulling it like taffy in a dozen different directions. It’s enough to drive a man crazy. In fact, I do feel a little crazy when it’s happening — just a tad insane, out of my mind, if you will. It’s not healthy.

The Internet is a magical place. I love the Internet. Much of my life revolves around it. Because of the Internet I was able to start an online magazine which led to my meeting my wife. My day job is web design, and I applied for it because of a LinkedIn forward I got. I’ve made a lot of friends over the Internet, through mailing lists and blogs and Twitter, and I value them.

But the Internet is almost too much, you know? Too many voices, too many things to do, to watch, to read. A steady patter of pings begging for my attention relentlessly, and if I turn my head every time they come, I spend my life turning my head instead of actually doing things and making things and being a real person.

I like this line from Jack Cheng’s article Habit Fields:

Just because you can have instant access at your fingertips doesn’t mean you should.

More and more, I’m finding myself turning things off, trying to silence the buzz so I can get some actual work done — and regain my sanity. I’ve disabled all incoming email and Growl notifications. And even then, I’m still checking Gmail and Twitter every two minutes hoping I’ll have shiny new emails or tweets waiting for me. I have to exit out of the apps entirely if I want to stand a chance at avoiding distraction.

What I’ve discovered: The longer I go in between checking Gmail/Twitter/Google Reader/whatever, the better I feel. I don’t know how long is ideal (a day? half a day?), but I’ll tell you what, it sure as heck isn’t every five minutes.

It’s not just Gmail and Twitter, of course. It’s the whole idea of multitasking. Peter Bregner’s article on how and why to stop multitasking is beautiful. Also, if you haven’t already read the Nicholas Carr’s Wired article on how the web is rewiring our brains, go read it. Now. I’m not convinced that this rewiring is entirely a bad thing, but I do find that it’s harder and harder to finish reading books (which are so much longer than blog posts). And the more I multitask, the less I get done and the worse I feel. (This is one of the reasons why I like the iPhone and iPad — you’re effectively forced to singletask, and it’s an oh so beautiful thing.)

Big blocks of focused time are delicious. Spurts of attention timesliced every which way, not so much. I want more quiet, less noise.

Unplugging is hard for us Internet junkies. After all, feeling the pulse of the world in your fingertips is heady. No man is an island, and extricating ourselves from the web, even for a short time, can be sticky.

But people have been doing just fine for thousands of years without the Internet, and a few more hours away from my email or Twitter really isn’t going to make anything blow up, much as I’d like to think it would. A couple years ago, I couldn’t for the life of me understand people who didn’t have email or who only checked it once every week or two. Now, though, I envy them.

I want to try something radical, something completely crazy like, oh, checking my email and Twitter only twice a day. ;) Twice a day. Man, it feels almost impossible, but at the same time my heart wants to sing at the thought. I’m giddy thinking how much more I could get done each day with all that extra time — more time reading, more time with my family, more time just thinking. Peaceful time. Mmm.

Okay, I’m going to do it. From now on, I’ll check my email and Twitter once in the morning (around 9:00) and once at night (around 9:00), and that’s it. Period.

Which means I can’t check my email for another four hours. Goodness, this is already getting hard. (Yeah, I’ve got it bad.)

Here we go.

Rock solid action

In January I blogged about next actions, but I didn’t realize till now just how important it is that todo items be concrete. Not vague. Not fluffy. Not general. To get things done, todo times have to be rock solid and mentally tangible.

If I have any items on my todo list that aren’t concrete, my brain clouds up and I don’t get anything done. But as soon as I wipe those abstract items off my list, voila, my mind clears up and I can finally do stuff again.

Example: “Russian edition of Crime & Punishment.” First, there’s no verb here. Verbs help. Second, this is not an actionable item. It’s a goal, but not something I can directly do. So I think about it for a second and decide that the first thing I need to do is “Look for a copyright-free online edition of the Russian C&P text.” That’s something I can do. (Even more basic, I could start with “Find out how ‘Crime & Punishment’ is written in Cyrillic so I know what to search for.” It’s “Преступление и наказание,” in case you were wondering.)

The trick is noticing those vague items when they show up on my list and then moving them elsewhere (I’m using my Things inbox at the moment) until I have time to process them and figure out what real actions I need to take.

Honestly, vague todo items are to blame for probably half of the productivity I lose. (Bejeweled accounts for the rest.)

Fear of illustration

Naturally, after I announced to the world that I wanted to be an illustrator, I promptly stopped illustrating. I wish I could say that the past month has been filled with a movielike montage of training, with my spending every waking moment drawing and painting and learning my craft. Instead, I’ve hardly done anything.

What happened? I got scared.

Doing illustrations for a living is daunting, and now that I’ve announced my intentions — now that I’m serious about it — I’ve gone and frozen up.

So now it’s a matter of thawing. Of realizing I don’t need to be perfect. Of making myself practice and produce. Of smushing the fears.

This is what Steven Pressfield calls resistance in The War of Art. And it’s too dang effective. I’ve been telling myself all sorts of excuses, using almost every avoidance tactic in the book to keep from illustrating — from doing the one thing I want to do. Sigh.

But I’m not going to let the resistance get me down.

I don’t exactly know how yet — I’ve thought about making myself draw one illo each day, but I also want to finish more complex pieces that take longer than a single day — but I’ll figure something out, so help me.

On doing hard things

So, my last post was about how I’m going to write this genealogy app, right? Beyond, as it turns out, is a fairly difficult project with lots of spiky hurdles and design challenges growling at me. A few days ago I was staring straight into the maw of this slavering beast, my eyes open to how hard it’s going to be to actually pull this off.

And I got scared. Overwhelmed. My next thought: “You know, I’ve abandoned this project before. Like, five times. I can abandon it again.”

But then (and thankfully there is a “but” here) as I was walking home later that day, I was visited by the first of three epiphanies. (Hmm, this is starting to sound a little like Dickens’ Christmas Carol.)

Epiphany #1: Writing Beyond will be hard. Very. Hard.

Corollary #1: It’s still worth it.

As usually happens in these cases, supporting evidence quickly rallied to my side.

Exhibit A: After dinner, I was reading Seth Godin’s book Small Is the New Big and came across an essay on hard work. “It’s hard work to invent a new system, service, or process that’s remarkable,” he said, and it grabbed me by the collar and shook me, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with Beyond.

Exhibit B: My friend Janssen told me about an article on the perils of praising your children — if you tell a child they’re smart, it actually inspires them (despires them?) to underachieve, whereas if you tell them they’re a hard worker, they do better. That’s the story of my life, folks. People told me I was smart, and as a result, whenever I ran into something that I couldn’t coast through easily, I gave up almost immediately. I put too much trust in innate talent (which may or may not have been there at all) and almost completely ignored effort. This is a recipe for failure. Edison was right: it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

We now turn to the epiphany of Creativity Present. As a brief bit of backstory, I’m about 15,000 words into the first draft of Tanglewood, my young adult fantasy novel. Last week I decided to put it on hold so I could focus on writing short stories, because they’re shorter and thus easier (in my mind, anyway). Then on Wednesday I was walking home and had yet another epiphanic visit:

Epiphany #2: Writing Tanglewood will be hard.

Corollary #2: It’s still worth it.

I’m sensing a theme here. I decided that yes, writing a novel is something I really want to do, and jumping ship now isn’t going to help my goal. So I’m going to write short stories after I finish the book.

The third epiphany, tall and cloaked, came yesterday — also while I was walking home. (Seriously, my best thinking time is while walking home from work. And in the shower.) As you may have noticed, I’m an artist (with a very, very lowercase ‘a’). I like making art. But I’m not very good at drawing, particularly at drawing anything that remotely resembles a human. And I’ve been stuck at the same level for a very long time.

Epiphany #3: Learning to draw will be hard. Corollary #3: It’s still worth it.

In retrospect this all sounds completely obvious, but dang, I’ve wasted a lot of time avoiding hard work — and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I’ve been evading the hard stuff by doing easier things, or by telling myself that I wasn’t cut out for art or that I shouldn’t spend my time programming when I really should be spending my time doing x, y, or z.

Bzzt.

Lesson Learned #1: Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.
Lesson Learned #2: Worthwhile things take effort. Always.
Lesson Learned #3: Recognizing that it’ll be hard somehow makes it easier.
Lesson Learned #4: Doing things that stretch my skills is exhilarating.

So I’m going to forge onward with Beyond, keep writing Tanglewood, and practice drawing humans until they look real and not like hobgoblins with elephantitis.

And yes, I know I’m sort of bending the actual meaning of the word “corollary.” :)

My new filing system

After years of living with a lame file organization scheme, I finally took a look at how I was working and revamped my system to match it. This new system is bliss.

The main difference is a “current projects” folder, which I’m calling sandbox/ and which lives in my Dropbox folder. Everything I’m working on goes in there, one subfolder per project. When I finish a project, I move its folder to the archives.

As I mentioned in my minimalist desktop post, I’ve cleaned off my desktop and switched to using an inbox/ folder, which lives in my home directory. All my downloads and other temp files (quick HTML prototypes, etc.) go there.

And finally, we have the archives, which are the standard Mac folders: Documents/, Pictures/, Movies/, and Music/. I’ve sorted Documents/ into general categories (Art/, Design/, Books/, Writing/, Receipts/, etc.) which contain finished projects/files.

That’s that. With the sandbox/ folder, I can see exactly what projects I’m working on at the moment and access those files no matter where I am. Oh, and did I mention the peace of mind of knowing that my current work is always backed up in a handful of different places? (My two computers, my external hard drives at both home and work, and the cloud. That’s five places. Mmm.)

Todolistitis

I used to be a man of many todo lists. They were a badge of honor, a kind of nerd street cred that I took silly pride in. They were also out of control.

See, the whole point of a todo list is (a) getting it written down so it’s out of your head (freeing up mental RAM) and (b) reviewing the list so you actually do the stuff on it. With my twenty-plus lists, I was nailing the first part — oh, man, I was (and still am) so good at writing todo items down — but doing a spectacularly bad job at reviewing those lists. Things fell through the cracks. A growing sense of guilt would perch on my shoulders as I watched my piles of post-its and index cards grow, waiting for me to go through them.

And yes, there were piles. Post-its on my desks both at home and at work, index cards stashed in my Field Notes, and items all over the place on my computer — text files, Simplenote, Things, my Glider wiki, Todoist, you name it.

Then I learned a simple lesson: having a bazillion systems is almost as bad as not having any system at all.

And so I decided to consolidate (one system to rule them all, one system to find them, one system to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, that sort of thing). I took a hard look at what I needed out of a todo list and came up with this list:

  • Quick item entry
  • Available everywhere
  • Sortable into projects
  • A daily prioritized “I need to do this soon” list

I almost started writing my own system, then realized that Things for the iPhone already did everything on my list, and it had the advantage of already being written. :) So I committed. I gave up post-its cold turkey and abandoned all my other todo list stashes.

And it worked.

So, whenever I realize I need to do something, I add it to Things. Each day I decide what I want to do that day and put those items on the “today” list, placing them in the order I’d like to do them in. And then I do them. It’s that simple.

What I’ve learned: keep the “today” list short, and only let concrete verbs in as items (next actions, basically). When I follow those two simple rules, things don’t get out of control. When I don’t, I end up ignoring the list and it’s as good as useless.

So now I have a single home for my todo items, a warm, cozy place where I can actually give them the attention they deserve. Because there’s only one place to check, I remember to check it daily (usually many times a day). And todo items don’t fall through the cracks anymore. I’m happy.

(Postscript: I keep my work todo items completely separate, in Things for Mac. It’s nice, but I still much prefer Things for iPhone, though.)

My minimalist desktop

Continuing on with the minimalism trend in my last post, I’ve stripped my Mac’s desktop bare:

Update: If you want the wallpaper image I used here (which I made in Photoshop), you can get it from Flickr — I’ve posted it in 1920x1200 (which I use on my iMac) and 1440x900 (which I use on my MBP).

Less really is more here. This feels so much less cluttered and so much more productive than it did when my desktop was full of files.

What I did

I’ve turned off all desktop icons (no more using the desktop as a storage area), gotten rid of as many menubar status icons as I could (I’m keeping battery, clock, and Spotlight because I use them, but I haven’t yet figured out how to get rid of Dropbox or JustNotes), and trimmed my dock (which has been on autohide for a while now) so it’s just a list of apps that are running.

Also: I used the Secrets prefpane to move the default screen capture location from the desktop to ~/Documents/Screenshots. Works like a charm.

How I get by

To launch apps and get to folders, I use Quicksilver and Finder. I also have Visor, which lets me pull down a terminal at any time (I’m using Control-. for the shortcut) (I’m also using Control-< and Control-> to move between tabs in Visor).

The future

I wish I could autohide the menubar the same way I do the dock. (MenuShade looked like a solution until I realized it doesn’t work on Snow Leopard.)

I also want to figure out how to get rid of the menubar icons for Dropbox and JustNotes. Update: I used Dock Dodger to get rid of the JustNotes dock icon and set JustNotes to hide the menubar icon. (Thanks to Wade Shearer for the tip.) Second update: I found a screencast on hiding the Dropbox menubar icon. But I’m not sure anymore that I actually want to get rid of it — it’s useful for seeing if things are fully synced. Hmm. We’ll see.

I’ve thought about using GeekTool to put a clock straight on my desktop, but that really just goes against the whole minimalism philosophy. If I can get my menubar to autohide, then I don’t want to see anything on the desktop.

Next on my agenda: figure out a file organization scheme that actually works.

Let’s refocus once again

Once again the proverbial light bulb has gone on, this time pointing out to me that I’m still trying to do too much. And I’m still getting distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter.

This time around the realization came via Cal Newport’s article on fixed-schedule productivity. Read it. Great stuff. I’m also digging the Zen Habits blog.

A while ago I realized that my life’s work is in books, and more recently I found that that’s in writing them and designing them. That’s what I’m made for. But is that what I spend most of my free time doing?

No. And that’s the problem.

From now on I’m not letting myself work on any side projects unless they have to do with books. I’m axing Donne (the to do list web app I had just started building), Beyond (my genealogy web app), the chord chart I was designing, and all other non-book projects. Instead, I’ll make do with existing tools.

For example, I was going to typeset a nice PDF of our Mormon Artist volunteer handbook, but I can just put the information up on the website. Much faster. Similarly, I was going to extend my Glider wiki for multiple users so we could use it for the magazine style guide, but I realized I could just use Google Sites and have it up immediately. Check.

Also, to keep myself from getting distracted too often, I’m going to do my best to limit my time on email, Twitter, and Google Reader. We’ll see how it goes.

My new plan is to have no more than one writing project and two book design projects going at any given time. Here’s what I’m working on:

Current writing project: Tanglewood. It’s coming along really well, too — I’ve woken up fifteen minutes early each morning to write and have managed to hit my 500-word quota every single day so far.

Current book design project #1: the D&C reader’s edition. I’m still reparagraphing it and have been dragging my heels, but I’m going to focus now and make it happen.

Current book design project #2: a short illustrated edition of Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Rainbow” (which is actually part of a longer poem). More on this soon.

Will I still be thinking and writing about web stuff? Sure. That’s my job, after all. But in my free time I’m focusing strictly on books. That’s the only way to get really, really good at making them.

Getting things done: next actions

A couple years ago I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy, and wow, it’s gold. While I still haven’t read the whole book yet and still don’t do most of the things he proposes (like the review sessions), the one thing I have done has made a huge difference already: next actions.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. —Mark Twain (p. 239 of Getting Things Done)

Big projects are overwhelming, and overwhelm tends to stuckify us. No good. But small things are definitely doable. That’s the trick.

For example, writing a book is hugely intimidating. Books are long and complicated beasts, and the thought of writing that much and hoping it actually turns out good is very, very daunting. That’s why most people who want to write a book don’t end up writing one. It’s scary.

But writing, say, a paragraph? Anyone can write one, even on a bad day. And once you’ve written one paragraph, why not write another? It’s magic.

By small and simple things are great things brought to pass. —Alma 37:6

Next actions have to be concrete. If they’re abstract, they won’t happen. “Write a genealogy web app” is too vague. Better: “Find a Python library to read GEDCOM files” or “Sketch out some possible source entry pages.” Those are solid, concrete, physical actions and they’re a bazillion times more likely to make something happen.

Another example: we needed to wash our car. For weeks I knew I needed to get it done, but nothing happened. I realized I was stuck, sat down for a moment and thought about it, and decided that I needed to find a car wash nearby. A few seconds later I found one on Google Maps nearby, called it to get their hours and prices, and got our car washed later that day.

This technique — deciding a single small, concrete action needed to do to push each project forward — is how I get things done.

Do it right now: take a project you’re stuck on and decide what the next physical action is that you need to do to move forward on the project. Write it down.

Doesn’t it feel good?

What matters now

If you haven’t already seen it, check out What Matters Now, a free 82-page ebook by Seth Godin. It’s a collection of short essays by people answering the question “what matters now,” and there are several gems in there. Here are my favorites:

Chris Anderson

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and little bit of self-taught expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and if it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production. They are a virtual microfactory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; everything is assembled and drop-shipped by the contractors, who can serve hundreds of such small customers simultaneously….

Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, DIY and UGC — all these digital phenomena are starting to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution gets real.

This makes me giddy. He’s right — this is going to change the world in a huge way. Most of the stuff I make is purely digital, unless it’s a book or a magazine or a chart I get printed, and while that’s not a bad thing, it gets a little ethereal at times, just a bunch of bits floating in cyberspace. I’m excited to make it real and start creating some hold-it-in-your-hands bona fide objects. (Objects that weren’t previously possible, that is — tools and gadgets and the like.)

William C. Taylor

Imagine any and every field possible. There are so many brands, so many choices, so many claims, so much clutter, that the central challenge is for an organization or an individual is to rise above the fray. It’s not good enough anymore to be “pretty good” at everything. You have to be the most of something: the most elegant, the most colorful, the most responsive, the most accessible.

I’ll save my thoughts on this for the blog post I’ve got in the oven, but let me just say that I agree completely: quality is better than quantity.

Daniel Pink

Management is great if you want people to comply — to do specific things a certain way. But it stinks if you want people to engage — to think big or give the world something it didn’t know it was missing. For creative, complex, conceptual challenges — i.e, what most of us now do for a living — 40 years of research in behavioral science and human motivation says that self-direction works better. And that requires autonomy. Lots of it.

If we want engagement, and the mediocrity-busting results it produces, we have to make sure people have autonomy over the four most important aspects of their work:

  • Task – What they do
  • Time – When they do it
  • Technique – How they do it
  • Team – Whom they do it with

Hallelujah! This is music to my ears, and it rings so, so, so true. In my line of work, autonomy trumps management, period. If only there were more of it…

John Moore

A winning business understands that to gain a customer it must first be willing to lose a customer….

Costco wins customers by losing customers. Its membership model shuns consumers not willing to pay the yearly membership fee. Its broad but shallow merchandise mix turns off consumers wanting more choices. Costco makes deliberate sacrifices because its customers will also make deliberate sacrifices in exchange for lower prices.

Winning businesses have a common trait, an obvious and divisive point of view. Losing businesses also have a common trait, a boring personality alienating no one and thus, sparking passion from no one.

This goes along nicely with William Taylor’s essay. You can’t do everything, and if you try, you’ll be mediocre at best. Also, take risks. It’s the only way to succeed.

J.C. Hutchins

Most of us settle in, and settle for what we have. Rather than pursue, we accept. Our lives become unwitting celebrations of passivity: we undervalue our work and perceive ourselves as wage slaves (and so we phone it in at the day gig), we consume compulsively (but not create), we pine for better lives (but live vicariously through our televisions).

These corners we paint ourselves into, it’s no way to live. There’s no adventure here, no passion, no hunger for change. Remember that relentless optimism you once had? The goals you wished to achieve, before settling in? They’re still there. You need a nudge to find them; a little gumption.

You can start that business. You can lose that weight. You can quit smoking, and learn to garden, and write that book, and be a better parent, and be all the things you want to be…the thing this world needs you to be. It requires courage and faith, both of which you can muster. It requires effort — but this effortless life isn’t as satisfying as it seems, is it?

Declare war on passivity. Hush the inner voice that insists you’re over the hill, past your prime, unworthy of attaining those dreams. Disbelief is now the enemy, as is the notion of settling. Get hungry — hyena hungry. Get fired up. Find your backbone, and your wings.

Flap ’em. It’s the only way you’ll be able to fly.

Love it. Grab some gumption and go do cool, beautiful, wonderful things.

Project tracker PDF

For those who liked the project tracker, here’s a PDF version (yes, I’m now calling it a project tracker instead of a project calendar):

project_tracker

You can print it out, fold it up, and carry it in your pocket, or post it on your refrigerator or desk, or three-hole punch it (there’s room on the top margin for that) and put it in a binder. You do have to fill out the month, days, and days of the week manually, but there’s a little more flexibility this way.

Project Tracker Printed

Project calendar

I’m apparently addicted to productivity and having lots of projects. I’m also very, very fond of tracking things. Put the two obsessions together and you get this:

ProjectCalendar01

It’s a project calendar for keeping track of (a) which projects I’m working on and (b) when I’ve worked on them. That way I can easily see where my time is spent and possibly where I need to adjust things. (“Hmm, looks like I’m neglecting my writing. Whoops. Time to fix that.”)

I started out using the back of my Field Notes notebook, since it has a handy grid, but I ran into a problem: when I finish the notebook, I no longer have my project calendar with me.

Enter Google Spreadsheets:

ProjectCalendar02

The grey boxes mean that the project has ended. Each month is its own sheet, which keeps things tidy. (Projects that end don’t need to be on the next month’s sheet.)

And the best part? It’s super easy to maintain. I can just copy and paste the black boxes, and when I start a new month, it only takes a few seconds to clear out the boxes and change the days of the week.

Speaking of tracking things, I forgot to blog about my writing log (which I used to use back when I was writing more frequently):

Writing Log

I need to go in and start using that again. (Since, ahem, I’ve been a slacker.) I’m also planning to make a grid-based log for scripture reading and family history and other church-related things I want to do more diligently.

Update: You can now download a Google Docs template of the project tracker.

Another update: There’s now a project page for this.

Death to distractions

This pretty much goes without saying, but distractions are anathema to productivity. (Sidenote: I recently found out that I’ve been pronouncing “anathema” wrong all along — it’s a-NATH-e-ma, not a-na-THEME-a. Whoops.)

Back to distractions. (Ahem.) When I’m not focusing on the task at hand, I turn into distraction-seeking mode — checking my email every couple minutes, scrolling through the latest tweets in my Twitter feed, pulling up Google Reader to see if there’s anything new, and then looking through my open tabs to see if there’s something interesting I haven’t read yet.

It hurts my head. No, really — when I spend more than a little bit of time in this mode, I feel my brain scrambling like a pair of eggs. Oh, wait, that’s drugs. Anyway, it’s not healthy. (Can we say headache?)

Much better to isolate distractions into their own corner. My new goal is to check email only a few times a day, and then only read through RSS feeds and tweets once a day or so. Or at the very least make sure there are clear boundaries for when I do all of that so that it doesn’t bleed over across the whole day, because when that happens, blech, yuck, and ick, nothing gets done.

Focus is soothing and feels oh so good, but when my mind is pulled hither and thither, it’s too much. I want peace like a river, and you only get that when you turn the distractions off. That’s this week’s project: to become a distraction exterminator.

P.S. My new dream job? Doing book design/typesetting for a major publisher on a line of the classics (like the Penguin Classics). Oh my goodness, that would awesome.

P.P.S. Classical music sooths my mind, too. Mmm. (I’m listening to Beethoven’s Fifth right now.)

Midsummer resolution review

My sense of time apparently has some kind of terminal illness; I was sure it had only been a day or two since I last posted here. But no, it’s been a week. It almost feels like I’m losing my grasp on time — it’s hurtling by faster than I can keep up with — and yet I’m completely okay with that.

Going along with the time theme, here’s a quick review of where I am on my New Year’s resolutions, along with some newer goals.

1. Go to London. Done. I might even go again in the fall. ;)

2. Listen to only classical music in January. I made it halfway. I don’t know why I don’t listen to classical more often, though. It clears my mind like no other kind of music.

3. Read 60 books. Goodreads tells me I’m at 27 so far for this year. Should be easy enough to hit. And with my new writing/reading focus, I wouldn’t be surprised if I make it to 70 or 80.

4. Write half an hour a day. I’ve decided to go with a word count goal instead (500 a day for now, but I’ll soon ramp it up to 2000, I think), and while it took a while to get consistent, I’m happy to report that I haven’t missed a day since June 11. (Excluding Sundays.)

5. Write five short plays and get at least two of them produced. I’ve written two so far (I think), and both got produced. I’ve also completed a draft of a full-length play.

6. Write 50 short stories. Um, I’m still at zero. Whoops. :)

7. Write one novel. I’m on chapter four of my Tanglewood novel; I started a new draft and plan to finish it by September 1 if not sooner. Incidentally, I printed out a copy of my Out of Time novel (NaNoWriMo 2007) via Lulu. It arrived today, and flipping through it, I cringed a lot. It’s painfully bad. That’s why I’m putting it on my desk, to motivate me to finish Tanglewood so I can finally have an unembarrassing novel to my name. ;) I don’t know yet if I’ll do NaNoWriMo this year. Probably?

8. Write and illustrate a children’s book. This is on the back burner till I finish Tanglewood.

9. Get into the habit of submitting work for publication. Still working on this. It’ll come soon, though, now that I’m writing a lot more.

10. Keep Mormon Artist afloat. Still alive and kicking. :) I just got two new editors, in fact. We’re coming out with our special contest issue and our sixth regular issue this month.

11. Complete 20 digital paintings. This resolution is nixed.

12. Stay at Inbox Zero. So-so. Right now I’m at three.

13. Get married. :P Um, a younger, more reckless Ben put this on the list. An older, hopefully wiser Ben is going to take it off now. :) (Off the public list, that is. It’s still very much on the not-so-public list, although not tied to any specific timeframe. ;)) (Yay for unnecessary disclaimers. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to become a lawyer.) (Those wonderings never last more than a few seconds. I could never be a lawyer.) (Okay, Ben, time to shut up and move on. Right now. :))

And now for the newer goals:

A. Read no more than five books at a time. Did I mention this on here? I can’t remember. Anyway, it’s mostly going well, though sometimes it’s really hard. And I’m not counting the books I read on my iPhone as part of the five. (Yeah, that’s probably cheating, huh. :)) I miss my 15-at-a-time days, but I’m finishing more now, which is better.

B. Cut side projects and focus on writing. It’s going really, really well. I’ve still got a small handful of loose ends but they should all be tied up by the end of the month, and even now I’m writing a lot more and reading a lot more. I’d forgotten how good clarity and focus feel. :)

Writing tools

Reading Cory Doctorow’s “Extreme Geek” article on Locus got me thinking about my own writing tools. I write pretty much anywhere and everywhere. In the real world (because the Internet is obviously not real ;)), I write on index cards or in notebooks (Moleskines and Field Notes are my favorites), always using extra fine black Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball pens. (I can’t stand ballpoints. And I hardly ever use pencils for writing. Not sure why.)

Sometimes I write in WriteRoom on my iPhone. I originally thought writing on an iPhone would be too slow, I should add, and I certainly wouldn’t use it as my main writing tool, but it works fairly well for small bursts here and there. There’s a lot of power in that.

Most of the time, though, I use a computer (go figure). I love typing fast, so I use MacVim (a port of Vim, a geeky text editor). It gets out of my way and lets me fly. I’ve also used CeltX for playwriting and screenwriting (very cool software). I often store drafts in Google Docs as backup and for easy collaboration and feedback.

This is the old Unix geek in me, but I really, really prefer plain text. It’s ultra-compatible with everything (I never have to worry about not being able to read my files later on), it’s lightweight, and there’s no formatting, so I can focus on the words themselves. (Because believe me, if I wrote in a word processor, the designer in me would be fiddling with the fonts and leading and margins every two minutes.)

Typesetting

While I dig plain text, I also love beautifully typeset documents, so I usually paste things into InDesign when I want a nice pretty PDF. It’s worked out okay for me, but I’m trying to move to more of a LaTeX-based workflow because (1) most drafts are just temporary and don’t really need lots of typesetting time spent on them, (2) InDesign files are huge but LaTeX files are small (and plain text!), and (3) it’s geeky. ;)

To that end, I’ve been working on a Perl script called Playwright that takes a human-readable plain text file as input and outputs a PDF via LaTeX (XeLaTeX, specifically, since XeTeX is the best way to do TeX on the Mac) (I use the MacTeX distribution). Here’s what the input looks like:

Tree of Blood
Benjamin Crowder
Draft 1: July 7, 2008

Scene: The dark attic of an old family homestead. Knickknacks and boxes are 
strewn about the room, some on a table, with a small chest off to the side.
FRANK and MARTHA—brother and sister, each in their twenties—come through the
door holding flashlights. 

MARTHA
We’ve got to make sure we’re back before the bus leaves...

FRANK
[Looking around with the flashlight, poking through boxes. MARTHA watches.]
Martha. We’ll be back way before the bus leaves. (Pause.) I’ve got a watch. 
Don’t worry. 

MARTHA
Mom and Dad are going to *kill* us if they ever find out we came here. 

I’m using some conventions here to eliminate the need for markup codes: character names are in all caps, stage directions are in parentheses, the first line of the file is the title and the second is the author, italics are marked with asterisks, etc. This way feels more natural.

Here’s kind of what the output PDF looks like (it’s still in progress, of course):

Playwright

The best part? All I have to do is type a single command and boom! Instant PDF. Less work on the typesetting end equals more time for writing, and I like that.

Once I get Playwright polished and working the way I want it to (it’s close), I’ll write some new scripts for doing the same thing with fiction (which will be much simpler :)).

Sync

When you write on more than one computer, keeping things synced can be a pain. Enter Dropbox, a cross-platform cloud that makes syncing über-easy. (All you do is put your files in the Dropbox folder and it takes care of the rest.) I’ve been using it for a few months now and absolutely love it. I can start a draft on my iMac at home, tweak it on my laptop at lunch, and then read over it on my iPhone on my walk back home. Very, very cool. You get two gigs free, which is more than enough for writing. Dropbox is so seamless that there really isn’t much to say about it: it just works.

Oh, wait, there is one more thing: the way Dropbox works (your Dropbox folder is just a local folder on your hard drive which then gets copied into the cloud) means that you get nice redundancy without even trying. I’ve got three copies of my writing files now — on my iMac, on my laptop, and in the cloud. (This also means that you don’t have to be online to edit those files. Dropbox will sync them with the cloud when you get a connection again.)

Version control

Writing on the computer is great, but one of the huge disadvantages is that you lose the history: we usually edit documents in place, saving the new versions over the old ones. You can save under different filenames if you want, but then you have lots of files all over the place. Not good. Version control is the answer.

Version control systems (like Subversion and CVS) have traditionally been used by programmers to keep track of source code, but they work quite well with normal writing, too. I use Git. It’s lightweight and feels good, and I also like how it keeps the repository (diving into geekspeak here) in a single directory rather than in all child directories ala Subversion.

What does this get you? It keeps track of your files over time, so if you accidentally delete a passage, you can easily go back and get it. Want to see what your file looked like three weeks ago? A few keystrokes and you’re there.

Now, there is one hitch — you have to manually tell it when you want it to take a snapshot — but as you’ll see in the third point of Cory Doctorow’s piece, he’s got some scripts called Flashbake that can automatically commit your files to Git every fifteen minutes (or however often you want). Flashbake also pulls in more metadata — your three latest blog posts, the weather, your location, etc. — which is cool but not really something I’m interested in at this point.

That’s all, folks

I’m interested in what other people are doing, though, so feel free to drop a comment telling us what you use for writing.

Paring down

It’s not about the numbers, I know, but I often feel like I want to do everything and be everything, swallowing the universe down whole so I can really truly live it.

Um, that doesn’t work.

I’m all for living fully, sure, but doing lots and lots of stuff doesn’t necessarily make for a full life. A busy one, yes. A fulfilled one? Depends.

At any rate, I’ve gotten into the habit of putting way too much on my plate — reading fifteen to twenty books at a time (no, not at the same exact moment, though I can’t say I haven’t been tempted ;)), working on ten or so writing projects at a time and another ten or so design projects at a time. There’ve been moments of bliss in there, but more often than not it’s been stressful and chaotic and I’ve felt like my mental RAM was always maxing out. (Not to mention that getting an upgrade is a little out of my budget at the moment. ;))

So, a couple days ago I decided to give myself some constraints:

5 books at a time. 2 writing projects at a time. 3 design projects at a time.

It’s already working wonders. Since giving myself this rule, I’ve finished three books (aside: reading twenty at a time means it takes eons longer to finish any one book) and feel like I’ve rejuvenated my reading habit, and with fewer projects in the foreground at any one time, my mind feels a lot clearer. I can wrap my head around it all now.

Which isn’t to say it’s been easy — every day I come across books I want to start reading, but now I tell myself that I can’t pick up a new one until I finish one of the five I’m currently reading. And it’s working. Hallelujah!

Ditto for the two writing projects. I’ve got this novel I want to finish by the end of summer, but I kept getting distracted by other shiny little projects. No longer. One long project (the novel) and one short (a screenplay) is enough to keep me busy but not so much that I’m drowning in to-do list items. And whatever two things I’m working on will get much more attention than they would have otherwise.

Anyway, this is good, making me both more productive and more happy. And in all honesty it’ll probably help the numbers as well — spreading yourself too thin doesn’t really have many benefits, I’m afraid. Now let’s just pray the whole thing sticks and becomes a habit instead of evaporating next week. :)

Forum on Children’s Literature: Day 1

A couple weeks ago I was reading Shannon Hale’s blog, and she mentioned that she would be keynoting at the upcoming UVU Forum on Children’s Literature. That’s my kind of conference. :) Besides, I love Shannon’s books (even though I put my hand over the cover when reading Princess Academy so my roommate wouldn’t see the word “princess” and start to wonder ;)) and so there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity to hear her speak.

So, I got up early this morning (too early, says my body) and got on the northbound 831 bus to head over to UVU. A couple minutes later I looked out the window to see where we were, and realized we’d headed south and were now approaching the Wilkinson Center at BYU. That’s when I realized I’d gotten on the wrong bus. Fifteen minutes later I caught the right bus and made it okay to UVU (though it was a little tricky finding out exactly where the conference was).

General impression: with a couple hundred women at the conference and maybe ten or twenty guys tops, I definitely felt in the minority. But at the same time I think I felt far more comfortable than I would have been if I’d been surrounded by guys at some sporting event or something.

Keynote: Shannon Hale, “Girls In Towers: How to Break Free, Lose the Prince and Save the World”

Anyway, Shannon Hale gave the keynote and was hilarious. You know how sometimes you read a book and then when you meet the author you’re kind of disappointed because they’re not like what you expected them to be? Shannon was everything I expected and then some. She’s very down to earth, incredibly funny, and one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard.

After a slideshow of funny photos of her “stalking” other authors, she started off with a G.K. Chesterton quote which I love — “Fairy tales are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.” She talked about how she writes, including anecdotes from writing Book of a Thousand Days and Rapunzel’s Revenge. And of course in the Q&A, someone asked her to talk about getting the Newbery Honor (for Princess Academy).

I really like her idea of keeping a writing journal (I did it briefly and then stopped, and now I’m not sure why), writing every day and not giving yourself excuses (though she does take Sundays off), and daily wordcount goals (1000 words/day, which is what mine is too, actually). She also talked about losing a lot of sleep (I’m already getting quite familiar with that ;)) and how writing is a form of mental illness. :)

Favorite Books Panel

Next was a book panel entitled “Our Favorite Books We Didn’t Write or Publish,” with Abby Ranger (editor at Hyperion), Nicole Craig (teacher), Shannon Hale, Lu Ann Staheli (educator), Robert Neubecker (illustrator), Carol Lynch Williams (writer), and Janice Card (bookbuyer) on the panel. And, for the heck of it, here are the books each person recommended:

  • Abby: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks; The Mysterious Benedict Society; Where the Wild Things Are
  • Nicole: Love That Dog; Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon; Alphabet City
  • Shannon: The Wee Free Men; Whales on Stilts; Castle Waiting
  • Lu Ann: Far World: Water Keep; Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow; Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
  • Robert: Leonardo the Terrible Monster; Go, Dog. Go!; and Dr. Seuss books in general
  • Carol: Madapple; Saffy’s Angel; Everything So Fine
  • Janice: Impossible; Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears; Swords

Abby Ranger, “Revising Your Novel”

Lots of good material here on, well, revision. Most of my notes are specific to the novel I’m working on (and thus not as interesting for y’all), but here are some pointers (I should add that these are paraphrases tailored to my own needs, but they’re fairly close to what Abby said):

  • Wait at least two months to start rewriting so you can see the manuscript with fresh eyes
  • On your first reading, don’t overthink it; be hyperaware of your impressions and feelings, and take notes on any unsatisfied expectations
  • Working on the details too soon can keep you from seeing the big picture
  • Make each character crucial so that you can’t take them out without changing everything
  • The measure of a subplot is how well it ties into your main plot

There was much more than this, of course. I sat next to Becca Wilhite, who is super nice and whose novel Bright Blue Miracle just came out (published by Shadow Mountain). This may be kind of silly, but authors are like rock stars to me, even if they’re on their first book and I haven’t even read it yet. But more on the rock star thing later.

Lunch: Michael Tunnell, “My 2009 Newbery Committee Experience”

Michael (we ran an article on him in the last issue of my magazine) has been on two Newbery committees — the 1991 committee that gave Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee the Newbery Medal, and this 2009 committee that just gave Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book the Medal. He talked about the whole process, which I’d never really given much thought to before, but it’s fascinating.

Book Signing

The line was very long for Shannon Hale and almost nonexistent for everyone else. Kind of sad, in a way, but that’s just how things are. I brought my copy of The Goose Girl and got in line. I think this may have been my first book signing ever — if I’ve ever been to one before, that memory is completely gone.

Anyway, yes, I was nervous (the whole rock star thing), so all I was really able to do was push my book in front of Shannon, reply “Yes” when she asked if I was Ben (they asked us to put post-its on the title page with the name we wanted inscribed), and gush out, “I love your books.” She wrote, “For Ben — who has excellent taste in books. Shannon Hale”. Aw.

Shannon Hale, “What I Wish I’d Known”

This time I (and my friends Marisa and Heather, who I ran into at lunch) came early and saved second-row seats. Shannon talked about a lot of different things, with tons of funny stories and asides, and it was a delight. She talked a lot about the writer being at the bottom of the book totem pole, with even the lowliest bookstore clerk being more important; about publication as part of the journey and not the end goal (focusing on the process more than the product); about not saying anything negative about other people’s books online because it’ll come back to bite you; and about not giving yourself permission to give up on a book (as a writer). Again, tons of great ideas and things that I needed to either learn or remember as a writer. And Shannon’s a delight.

Emily Wing Smith, “A Lawyer and a Children’s Writer Walk into a Bar: What I Learned About Writing from My Father the Attorney (a talk about voice)”

The main thing I got out of Emily’s talk was that characters need to have their own voices. (Obviously. :)) I think with my writing I haven’t been making that happen as often as I should, and too many of my characters sound just like me. Emily gave five key points to keep in mind:

  • Write as you would speak
  • Know your subject (the characters)
  • Be honest (to how they talk)
  • Be personally involved
  • Be at ease (don’t nervously jump around)

Closing

They had door prizes (mostly books but also some restaurant gift certificates). I, however, somehow lost my ticket, but that’s okay since I kind of prefer not winning door prizes. (Yes, I’m weird. :))

Anyway, I’m stoked for tomorrow (particularly looking forward to Shannon’s and Abby’s talks) and über-excited for the two BYU conferences (Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers and Books for Young Readers) this summer.

Small and simple things

I love index cards. For years I’ve been carrying them around in my front pocket to manage my to-do list, and recently I discovered a new use for them: writing novels.

You see, when I was at the British Library a couple weeks ago, I came across Jane Austen’s Persuasion manuscript. She wrote the book on scraps of paper. Small scraps of paper. For me, accustomed to writing in text editors (yawning abysses of empty space ahead of me) or notebooks (with plenty of pages in them), this was crazy. A whole novel? Madness.

But Jane had it right. Over the past few days I’ve tried working on my novel on index cards when I’m away from my computer, and you know what? It’s great. Here are some of the delicious benefits to index cards that I’ve discovered:

1. Small. You can only cram so many words onto a 3x5” card, front and back. (I’m averaging around 250.) That’s good news! Writing 1,000–5,000 words in a day can be a little daunting no matter how many times you’ve done it before, but filling a dinky little index card? Even if I don’t feel like writing at all, I can certainly do that much.

2. Portable. Extremely portable. You can stash several of these — dozens, honestly — on your person without getting bogged down. (And if you want, later on you can holepunch them and put them on a ring to keep them organized.) Sure, I carry my iPhone with me everywhere, but it takes too darn long to type anything. I’d much rather whip out my pen and an index card and jot away.

3. Cheap. Ridiculously cheap, actually, and definitely cheaper than almost anything else other than plain paper. (Yes, you could go freegan and salvage notebooks from dumpsters, but that’s beside the point. :))

4. Context. Away from your computer or notebook? No worries, you can carry the last part of your draft with you on a card so that when you start writing, you know where you left off. (I’ve also started converting the drafts of my novel to ePub and putting them on my iPhone for a more complete reference. It’s working well.)

5. Outlining. Cards can double as tools to help you outline, rearranging things to your heart’s content. Or write down your character biographies, one per card. Or sketch out a map for the action. Or anything, really. There are tons of ways to use these things.

Are index cards the be-all, end-all of writing? No. Heck, I’m still using text editors and Celtx for my current play and screenplay (though I’ve thought about switching to index cards, I have to say), and even with the index cards I end up typing them in anyway, but for me they’re the perfect way to make use of those little empty chinks in the day when I could be writing if only I had my materials with me. Now I can write anytime, anywhere. (Except for the shower. I’ve got to figure something out for that… ;))

The inbox zero mindset

It’s been over a month now that I’ve been at Inbox Zero or very close to it, with a few days here and there where I haven’t quite made it. And I’ve realized something. If I tell myself I’ll get to it later, then my inbox starts to fill up and before long I’ve got 20-30 emails needing action, and the accompanying stress that comes from having that many loose ends going. But if I just take care of it immediately (and 90% of the email I get can be taken care of within two minutes per message), my inbox stays empty and my mind stays clear. And that’s worth a lot to me.

One month later

I figured that it’d be a good time to do a quick review of my New Year’s resolutions and see how I’m coming.

1. Go to London. Still planning to do this. But with all the heavy snow London’s been getting, it’s hard to tell. (They’ve been canceling flights.) I’ll admit that I would personally have much preferred there not being snow there when I go, but I guess that’s what I get for going in February. :) (I’ll just tell myself that it’s a Narnian welcome to England — reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again should set me in the right mood for English snow. ;))

2. Listen to only classical music in January. I lasted halfway through the month and then decided it was a rather arbitrary resolution, so I quit. I don’t really feel too bad about it, though.

3. Read 60 books. I think I’ve read three or four books so far. I need to bump that up a notch or two.

4. Write half an hour a day. Not even close.

5. Write five short plays and get at least two of them produced. I wrote one at the beginning of the month and got it produced. I am writing a full-length play for class, though, which should count for three or four short ones. ;)

6. Write 50 short stories. Um, I need to work on this. :)

7. Write one novel. I’m about four thousand words into my novel Tanglewood, which I’m writing for this creative writing class I’m taking.

8. Write and illustrate a children’s book. Nothing yet.

9. Get into the habit of submitting work for publication. Nothing yet.

10. Keep Mormon Artist afloat. This is going well. There are currently 1,159 members in the Facebook group (up from 712 at the beginning of the year) and we’ve had 5,165 unique visitors this year so far. Not bad for only one month. :)

11. Complete 20 digital paintings. Nothing yet.

12. Stay at Inbox Zero. I’ve pretty much stayed at this or close around it. I think the habit is sticking. :)

13. Get married. Um…

Oh, and as a heads-up, I’m planning to redesign this site soon. (Yes, again. I don’t really like this look very much anymore.)

My bone to pick with Philo T.

Television didn’t used to bother me, but over the past few weeks it’s become a set of long, chipped fingernails scraping across a chalkboard for me. There’s something about it — the mindlessness of most of it, perhaps? — that grates on my nerves. It’s becoming almost physical; I seriously have to put headphones on almost every time the TV’s on in my apartment or leave the room. For me, TV is anything but soothing.

Exception: narrative TV shows, which are effectively short films. Those don’t bother me, probably because they’re different from the normal television programming. I don’t really watch any of these regularly (actually, “hardly ever” would be a better fit), but they don’t make me want to dice the television cord and ship the pieces to Uruguay.

Note: this anti-television attitude may be due in part to my reading Neil Postman’s excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death. But I realized while reading it that I’d subconsciously noticed most of his arguments against television and that’s probably why I haven’t really been much of a television watcher ever since my teenage years. And I feel fairly safe in saying that it’s going to stay that way. TV would be complete anathema to my creativity and productivity.

Postscript: I don’t think the mindlessness of television is actually Philo’s fault, just for the record. :)

(Sorry about the dearth of posts lately. Life got busy and I let the blogging habit slip. But I’m back. :))

OfficeMax fashion statement

So, the left hem on my new dress pants decided to come down a few days ago. I guess it just couldn’t hold on any longer, poor thing. Since the trailing hem was getting in the way of things, and since I’m not exactly adept with sewing needles, I stapled the hem back together again. Five staples later and it’s mostly fixed. I say “mostly” because the hem still tries to come down, and also because even though I obviously stapled my dress pants and thus subscribe more to the utilitarian mode of dress, I’m still an artist and want the nice, clean aesthetic look that only a seamstress can provide. And I’m kind of scared to go through metal detectors now. :P So, I’ll be getting them hemmed up all proper-like sometime soon. And in the meantime, if it falls down again, my stapler is loaded. ;)

(Hmm, I get the sense that I may have blogged about stapling my pants before. Searching… Ah, yes, I did, back in March 2007. I guess this makes me a serial stapler, huh.)

New Year’s resolutions for 2009

Welcome to 2009. As has become a tradition (see 2006, 2007, and 2008), here’s a short recap of 2008 along with how I did on my resolutions, followed by my 2009 resolutions.

In 2008, I wrote 368 posts on this blog (plus another dozen or two on other blogs) and 1,693 tweets on Twitter. I bought 174 books and then got rid of 192 (not the same ones :)), bringing my year-end total to 913.

I also left my job in Special Collections at the end of May to work full-time as a web designer, still in the library. Over the summer I started a web-based magazine — Mormon Artist — and published two issues by year’s end, with the third issue coming along well. (We’ve had 3,476 visits thus far from 2,601 unique visitors, with 10,606 pageviews. The Facebook group has 712 members right now, and there are 54 people subscribed to the news blog. Considering how little advertising we’ve done, not bad, but there’s plenty room to grow.) And yesterday I launched a new book blog, Booktype, into which I can pour all my OCD. ;) I also consolidated most of my blogs into this new one, BenCrowder.net and have roughly 150 subscribers.

If it’s not obvious, I kind of like numbers. Can you tell I’m the son of an accountant? :P

Resolutions for 2008

1. Read 80 books. I only read 44 in 2008. (Track record: 31 in 2005, 70 in 2006, and 60 in 2007.) I don’t like how the number keeps going downhill. This will definitely change in 2009.

2. Read all the C.S. Lewis books I haven’t yet read. Didn’t even come close — in fact, I didn’t read a single Lewis book I hadn’t already read.

3. Read all the Jane Austen books I haven’t yet read. Ditto — no new ones.

4. Polish Out of Time and write another novel. Neither. I intended to do NaNoWriMo again this year, but things got in the way.

5. Write three short plays and one full-length play. Okay, finally, some measure of success! I wrote 16 short plays, got four of them produced, and wrote a one-act as well. No full-length, but I’m pleased with what I did do.

6. Write a full-length screenplay. Didn’t happen. Oh well.

7. Write five songs. I wrote, hmm, zero songs this year. I’m thinking that in 2009 a monthly review of my resolutions might be in order.

8. Publish five Riverglen Press titles. Only published Jekyll & Hyde. Things will start to happen on this front soon, though — stay tuned.

9. Redesign the look of my blogs. Did this, probably more than once if I recall correctly.

10. Produce a short film in 3D. Nada. I did a little bit of 3D art in Blender, but hardly anything to be proud of.

11. Post a drawing to BenjaminCrowder.com each day in January, a painting each day in February, a 3D render each day in March/April/May, and a logo a day in June. I lasted about ten days on this. Maybe someday when I have more time…

12. Reply to all incoming correspondence within a day or two. Not even close, but for the last ten days or so I’ve done it and stayed at Inbox Zero to boot. And I plan to keep it that way. And I plan to keep it that way. And I plan to keep it that way. And I plan to keep it that way.

13. Get engaged. :P Um, how about we focus on happy things instead? ;)

Resolutions for 2009

1. Go to London. I’m kind of cheating on this, since I’ve already bought my tickets, but what the heck — may as well start the year off with a resolution I know I’m going to keep. :)

2. Listen to only classical music in January. I’m listening to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor “From the New World” right now. Can I just say that it’s nice there’s so much affordable classical music deals online? I got 99 Beethoven MP3s for $1.99 on Amazon a couple days ago — it’s back up to $7.99 now, but still quite a steal. I’m going to temporarily pull all the non-classical music from my iPhone and iPod so I accidentally put on Broadway or something. (See my post The classical life for why. And I’m only doing this for music, not books, I’ve decided.)

3. Read 60 books. Just over a book a week, I suppose. Quite doable, unless they’re all The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace.

4. Write half an hour a day. A habit sorely needed, since I’m currently rather sporadic in my writing. If I write half an hour every single day in 2009, I should have no problem nailing the rest of these writing goals.

5. Write five short plays and get at least two of them produced. I have a bit of a headstart on this, since tomorrow night I’m doing this student slam 24-hour playwriting festival, and so I know that by Saturday night I’ll have written a short play and seen it produced.

6. Write 50 short stories. Yeah, it’s a lot. But aim for the stars…

7. Write one novel. Whether through NaNoWriMo or not, I’m going to do this, period.

8. Write and illustrate a children’s book. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I really ought to consolidate it with resolution #11…

9. Get into the habit of submitting work for publication. I write but rarely submit; this must change.

10. Keep Mormon Artist afloat. Shouldn’t be too hard; I just want the magazine to still be around a year from now. :) And let’s aim at 3,000 members in the Facebook group and 10,000 unique visitors for the year.

11. Complete 20 digital paintings. This is something I’ve wanted to get good at, and the only way to get there is through practice and study. Twenty is an easily achievable number, I think.

12. Stay at Inbox Zero. If I can make it 21 days, then it should automatically become a habit, right? :)

13. Get married. (I figured my goal from last year just wasn’t high enough, so no wonder I wasn’t able to reach it. :P)

And there we have it. I know some people bone about making resolutions when we know we probably won’t achieve them, but that’s the entirely wrong attitude to take, I think. I set high goals so that I stretch myself, because I’ve found that my capabilities are often higher than I originally thought, but I won’t know what they really are unless I try to go past them. (And no, it’s not about the numbers. The numbers are just training wheels to get things off to a good start.)

I think I’d better go start writing. :)

Gmail todo lists

Today was like Christmas: Google just added todo lists to Gmail. I’ve been using Todoist for a while, but this looks like it may completely replace it.

Why is this awesome? For one thing, I’m almost always in Gmail, and having my todo items integrated into that workflow is very nice. It’s also a really nice and compact interface, and it’s super fast on the keyboard. I was blown away by how quickly I could add new tasks. Not to mention that you can turn emails into tasks — that is amazingly useful.

I’m hoping we get Google Calendar integration soon, along with repeating events and a keyboard shortcut to pull open the tasks pane. But even with what we’ve already got, I’m a happy camper. :)

Of projects and passion

I’m a project person. I love projects — I love coming up with ideas, I love watching them gestate and emerge and grow up, and I love the thrill that comes from knowing I’ll always have interesting things to work on. I think that’s key: life is too short not to spend it working on stuff I care deeply about. After all, it’s when I’ve got that kind of passion and excitement about a project — when I want to drop everything else and focus solely on the project that’s giving me goosebumps — that I produce my best work. Why not do that all the time?

My general rule of thumb in life thus far has been to follow my interests, and I think it’s safe to say that almost all of my skills have come from doing just that. (The more you do this, I find, the more your interests expand. Pretty soon you’re interested in everything. It’s a little hectic but never boring.) Besides, interested people are interesting. Passion is contagious.

Moral of the story? Don’t waste time on stuff you’re not interested in, unless you have an inescapable obligation to do it or it’s a stepping stone that’ll get you to where your true interests lie.

Google SearchWiki

Earlier this afternoon Google announced SearchWiki, which is pretty darn cool:

Have you ever wanted to mark up Google search results? Maybe you’re an avid hiker and the trail map site you always go to is in the 4th or 5th position and you want to move it to the top. Or perhaps it’s not there at all and you’d like to add it. Or maybe you’d like to add some notes about what you found on that site and why you thought it was useful. Starting today you can do all this and tailor Google search results to best meet your needs.

This is great for research. (Though it’s less useful for egosurfing, I do have to say. :P) Make sure you watch the video on the announcement page. Dang, this is sweet.

Long letters

As I’ve been slowing getting back to inbox zero, a remembrance of things past has shimmered up to the surface: I love long letters. When I was younger — in my heyday, if I can call it that :P — I had tons of pen pals and would write long emails and letters all the time, and get them in return, and it was great. There’s nothing wrong with short emails, of course, but long ones give you so much more space to roam, and it’s like a little Christmas every time a lengthy email shows up in your inbox.

The one downside is that it takes a lot longer to reply to long letters, but am I really in such a rush that I can’t slow down to savor things like this? Maybe I need to shift my priorities around again.

Swallowing life whole

I love passion. Crackling with life is the way to live, sparks flying with every choice you make, moving forward with everything you’ve got. I keep forgetting that. I do the same old things over and over again, with habit providing my momentum instead of fire, and it’s no wonder I feel like I’m slumbering my way through life. I want to burn. Shooting star through the sky, that’s what I want to be. None of this fizzled could-have-been stuff. No regrets. I want to drink life up, tasting every drop as it slides down my throat, sailing its way through my bloodstream to every dock and port of my soul. Life is to be experienced, not survived. Embrace the bad as well as the good, let it flow through me, billowing out my soul until I’m as wide as eternity, aware of every pinprick of life and loving it for what it is. Awake and not asleep. On fire with passion for life — both my own and all the other ones out there. That’s the bargain I’m here for.

Wait, I’m tired. Maybe I’ll go take a nap instead. ;)

Gerbil wheels

Spent 45 minutes today responding to the last three weeks’ worth of Facebook correspondence (wall posts and messages). It feels good to be caught up. Sure, I’m still woefully behind on responding to emails and blog comments, but at least I’m ahead of the game someplace. (Well, I was for a few minutes, but then more wall posts and messages started coming in. It’s a neverending cycle.)

I still haven’t figured out a good system for myself to keep up with the avalanche. I love corresponding with people, so I’m scratching my head as to why I let it go for two or three weeks at a time. Doesn’t make sense. Anyway, if you’re waiting for a response from me to an email or a comment of yours, it’s coming, hopefully soon. :)

Ben 2.0: the aftermath

Figured I may as well make this a trilogy. :) I’ve recently been realizing that the way I’ve been doing things hasn’t always been the best way, and I’m finally to the point where I can change, for real. It’s going to take some massive shifting around of priorities, and as part of that it’s going to mean cutting some things off and letting them go. Up until now I’ve been reluctant to do that — I wanted to do everything. And you know, I can’t. The more I try, the more I realize I’m just frantically running around like a headless chicken with ADD. In contrast, this new way of doing things feels very calm, very peaceful, very in harmony with myself, my God, and the universe. This is the way it should’ve been all along.

Ben 2.0: the preamble

Blogging every day becomes harder when you set a self-imposed bedtime for yourself, I’ve found. :) Late nights and late mornings don’t jive well with me — I feel like I’ve wasted the whole day — so I’ve decided to go to bed by 10:30pm from now on. Eventually I’d like to hit the sack at 10, even. (Note: this is even harder when you factor in directing plays and going on dates and stuff. Believe me.)

I’ve also gone off sweets again. My body doesn’t do well with processed sugar, and both times in the past I’ve done this (about a year each time), it’s really made a difference. I mean, I just started this a few days ago and already I can feel the change. I don’t even want sweets — candy, ice cream, cookies, desserts in general, etc. — anymore. It’s great. :)

And now it’s bedtime. (More on Ben 2.0 in the days to come.)

A not-so-Humpty-Dumpty tale

So, over the years I’ve created not a few personal websites. Here’s the full list: Blank Slate (including its blog), this blog (Top of the Mountains), BenjaminCrowder.com, Bookland, Digital Bridge, Outside the Box, Footprints from the Past, and, most recently, Halfpence. (We’re ignoring the project sites like Mormon Artist and Unbindery.)

Houston, we’ve got a problem. Eight sites. One man. An impossible mission. Coming soon to a theater now you.

No, really, in trying to burrow out a nest for myself on the web, I’ve made a tangled mess of things, leaving scattered pieces and fragments all over the place — abandoned, derelict ghost towns on the web.

My minimalist leanings are not pleased.

To fix this, in the near future I’ll be consolidating things, forming a more cohesive and unified brand so that Ben Crowder is not strewn across the web in a zillion different places. It’s time to put myself back together again. Stay tuned.

On putting out fires

Time management is hard. And I’m now starting to accept that I’m not really all that good at it. My inbox is perpetually chock-full (more than usual, too — 252 emails at the moment, all needing to be replied to), and while I do get a decent amount of stuff done, there’s always so much more. I’m a month behind on replying to blog comments.

About the only thing I have been able to keep up with lately is this blog (after a not-so-hot period) and Twitter. Twitter’s lovely because it’s only 140 characters and takes all of 5–30 seconds. (Granted, most of the emails I have to reply to would only take 5–30 seconds to reply to as well, if I just learned how to be more concise. And Twitter’s helping me do that. Seriously, Twitter’s making me a much better writer.)

Anyway, I’m going to blog soon about an epiphany I had regarding simplicity and getting stuff off my plate. And how it’s been devilishly hard to implement.

This whole productivity/time management thing, by the way, is a topic I keep coming back to because it’s a dragon I do battle with regularly. Still haven’t figured out where it’s weakness is so I can slay it once and for all. At the core, it’s a question of how to figure out (a) what’s important and (b) how to make time for what’s important, but also (c) how to deal with everything else.

Generally I let things get to a crisis point and then deal with emergencies as they arise. Or when I’m feeling completely stressed out, I read a book or watch a movie and let things slide (like emails). I do feel vaguely guilty about it, like I ought to be replying to emails instead of indulging in entertainment, but at the same time I have to recharge my batteries. And the inbox gets fuller.

Mostly ramblings today, I’m afraid. I’ll try to have a more coherent post when I write up that epiphany…whenever I find the time to do it.