Over the past few months I’ve been getting Cal Newport’s newsletter, the focus of which has been largely on deep work (go figure) and the need to block out enough undistracted time to do truly great work.
That’s the ideal situation, of course, but for me — where my creative pursuits aren’t my day job, and where I want to spend time with my wife and kids — I end up having to work mainly with small slivers of time here and there. It’s not perfect, but you can get a surprising amount of work done in small chunks over time.
I find that three of the things that help me be productive in those moments are:
Think. More specifically, I try to spend some of my downtime (shower, walking) thinking about and around and through current projects. This is especially useful in pushing through problem spots. For me, the work goes far more smoothly when I take time to think through things first.
Journal. As a close counterpart to thinking, journaling about projects helps me talk myself through what needs to be done and how to go about it. A month or so ago I started doing a daily brain dump journal entry where I talk to myself about what I’m working on, and it’s been really, really helpful, especially because I now have something external I can look at to remember where I was on a given project (important when I’m not able to work on every project every day) (I tend to work on several projects at a time).
Next actions. One of the main things I took away from David Allen’s GTD methodology, identifying next actions is an integral part of how I work. My available creative time often comes in chunks of two or three minutes, which is just about the right length of time for a concrete next action. My daily journaling has turned into the best time to identify these.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, of course, but hopefully these are somewhat helpful.
I’ve recently begun scanning my journals using my iPhone and the Scanner Pro app, and it’s working out fairly well. My process:
Using the built-in iPhone camera app, I long press to lock focus and exposure (this saves time so it doesn’t have to autofocus each time), then photograph each page of the journal. It’s not as high quality as it would be if I used an actual scanner, but it’s much, much faster, and far more portable.
After I’m done photographing, I open Scanner Pro and select the images from the camera roll, then use the Black & White Document setting to process them into a PDF.
From Scanner Pro, I export the PDF to Dropbox.
The resulting PDF is nice and clean and easy to read, and the files aren’t too big (150 pages is usually between 80 and 200 megs — for me, very much worth the space to preserve important documents).
A concocted example:
That’s before (the image is straight from my iPhone camera, no postprocessing), and this is after Scanner Pro is done with it:
I should add that ordinarily, with actual journals there wouldn’t be as much empty border around the content.
One hitch I’ve run into is that Scanner Pro chokes on anything larger than around 150 pages (it crashes), so I do long journals in chunks.
For that reason and a few other small annoyances, I’ve been looking into replacing Scanner Pro with a desktop-based script that takes a list of photos and processes them into a nice black and white PDF. Imagemagick gets me part of the way there with this command:
Migrating to Day One has resurrected my efforts to scan and transcribe my older paper journals. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve run into the need for a couple small shell scripts to automate things.
On several of these journals I’m scanning the full two-page spread because the whole journal fits on the scanner platen, which means splitting the resulting image out into two (one for each page). Splitimage uses ImageMagick to do that nicely. There’s some overlap, but for a fully automated solution it’s not bad, and it saves me a lot of time cropping.
I prefer taking these split images and renaming them sequentially using something more meaningful (“journal-2009.005.jpg” rather than “IMG_0034.JPG”, for example). I used to do this with OS X’s Automator tool, and it works quite well, but I wanted a quick command-line tool to speed things up. Enter dub, a zsh script that simplifies the batch renaming process. Now I can just type:
dub journal-2009.X.jpg *.JPG
And then it’s just a matter of dumping them into Unbindery and transcribing them.