Ben Crowder

Beats

No, not the headphones. Or plotting. Less exciting than either, it’s a new productivity technique I’ve been using lately and oh my goodness it works well (for me).

Let’s rewind. My problem has been that I work on projects in several different areas (writing, art, coding, design, etc.) and would like to make progress across all of them, but in my mortal frailty I instead tend to spend most of my available project time on whatever is easiest.

A while back I read Andy Matuschak’s reflections on 2020. The “Executing alone” section talks about the costs of context switching, which gave me the idea to spend a week at a time working in any one area (or track, as I called them). A week on writing, a week on art, etc. Advantage: much less context switching than I’m used to. But it also meant long stretches of time between tracks (depending on how I rotated through the tracks), which wasn’t so great.

Next attempt: slicing time into days instead of weeks. I created a new calendar in Google Calendar to track my daily track assignments — one day for art, the next for writing, the next for working on tooling, etc. I also opted to give myself some flexibility to work on a track for more than one day in a row if I was on a roll. Better, definitely. But it didn’t stick. I don’t know why.

Finally, at long last, I found the right thing for me: the beat. The way I’m using it, it’s a flexible unit of time ranging from a minute or two up to however long is needed (so far ten or fifteen minutes). Even with a busy schedule, I almost always have a handful of free beats scattered throughout the day where I could get something small done — a next action, usually.

That’s all well and good, but the part that changed things for me was this: when I have an available beat, rather than having to decide in that moment what to work on, instead I just press a button. It’s a random decision. And it’s amazing (for me).

To get this working, I set up a list (in the iOS Shortcuts app) that has each thing I want to work on. The projects or tracks I want to work on more often are duplicated, so it ends up looking something like this (heavily redacted, ha):

  • Writing — project 1
  • Writing — project 1
  • Writing — project 1
  • Writing — project 2
  • Writing — project 2
  • Writing — project 3
  • Art
  • Art
  • etc.

The shortcut then uses a Get Random Item from List action followed by Show alert: Item from List. Super simple, took about thirty seconds to put together. I have it set up as a widget on my phone and as a complication on my watch, and I find that I use the latter the most by far.

I’m not sure why this works so well for my brain, but moving the choice out of my present and into my past (where I can prioritize better) has worked wonders — most notably for me, I’ve gotten unstuck on several projects I’d been avoiding for months.

Anyway, I have no idea whether it would work for other people, so if you try it out, let me know how it goes.


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