Ben Crowder

Blog: #productivity

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Quick update on projects, or rather the general lack thereof these past few months.

Since messing up my back again in late February, I’ve seen a mild level of recovery, but I’m still far from where I used to be (which itself was far, far from normal, those good old days before I slipped on some ice and got spondylolisthesis). Some of the things I used to do (like art) now cause enough pain, whether immediate or delayed, that I have to avoid them.

I’ve also been dealing with some out-of-the-blue episodes of vertigo. So much fun, let me tell you. The worst seems to be over, but every time I turn my head things still get a little woozy for a couple seconds.

On top of my lovely collection of physical ailments, I’ve also been feeling mentally drained and exhausted after work each day. Not sure if it’s a side effect of the back and neck pain or if it’s 2020 finally catching up to me or if it’s the new job. (If it’s the job: my company just got acquired, so I’m effectively starting yet another new job. Exciting. I’ll write more about it soon.)

With all of that, I’ve effectively been taking a forced mini sabbatical from project work. Thus the prolonged silences.

The break has certainly been restful — lots of reading — but I do want to find a way forward with making things, even though it’s fairly unclear what that will mean. Whether I’ll ever get my back back to where it was. Whether the vertigo is a new long-term companion. Whether I’ll be able to keep doing the same types of projects. (Writing and programming are still fine, physically, so I expect more of both. Not sure about the rest.) Whether this begins the inevitable slowing down in life and what then follows. (Hopefully not yet!)

A quick endnote lest my somewhat bloodless portrayal of the situation keep humanity from seeping in (and to mix metaphors post-haste, I’m not casting my net to catch any pity here, just documenting what this experience is like in the hope that maybe somehow it’ll help someone someday): there have of course been many moments of frustration and anguish and discouragement. It’s devastating not being able to help out nearly as much at home. Not being able to roughhouse with my kids. A lot of time lying on my back trying to relieve the pain. (And a corresponding bump in the number of accidental naps. C’est la vie.)

The situation isn’t ideal, but situations rarely are. I’ll still keep trying to claw my way back up to better health, of course, but if this is my lot going forward, so be it. There’s not much use in pining after what’s unattainable. I’ve adjusted, and I’ll continue to adjust as necessary, and I’ll be fine.

Anyway, that’s the far too long explanation of why I’ve been mostly derelict in posting work here these past few months.


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Links #43

Tyler Hobbs on color arrangement in generative art. I haven’t done much generative art lately (and don’t know how much I’ll end up actually doing in the future), but I like Tyler’s work and this is a good writeup.

Phil Plait on David Novick’s colored spheres optical illusion. Wow.

Shawn Wang on quality vs. consistency. Which is something I feel I could do much, much better at here on this site.

Matthias Ott about personal websites. A good thing to remember.

Jason Kottke linking to a map of the world’s lighthouses. Look at Norway!


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Blog-driven productivity

New experiment: blog-driven productivity.

Ordinarily I work on projects and then, when they’re done, I post about them. Occasionally I post about work in progress (something I’m trying to do better at as part of working in public). In both cases, though, the project work comes first.

This idea flips that around: start writing the blog post first, from the perspective of your future self after you’ve already finished the project. Then do whatever backfill work is needed to turn the post from optimistic lie to settled truth. (And when the work is actually done, publish the post.)

My brain tends to think of it as an extremely loose analog to test-driven development in software engineering.

It’s not anything particularly novel, but it intrigues me and who knows, maybe there’s something there. (In some cases, for some people, your mileage may vary, etc.)


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Low-effort journaling

This is almost certainly not novel, but the idea came up when I was talking with my friend James the other day and I figured I’d write it up in case it helps someone somewhere.

The idea is this: you set up a new email address (or use filters with your existing email, whatever works for you) and then make a shortcut on your phone so you can easily add to your journal by emailing that address. A private email blog, basically.

It’s low effort in that you don’t have to open, say, a Google Doc and find the right spot to start to write. The corresponding disadvantage is that you can’t see what you’ve already written that day. (That said, this method would also work fairly well as a lightweight way to take notes during the day, to be written up into a full journal entry later somewhere else and then archived.)

I made a sample shortcut for doing this in iOS (and I’m sure there’s a way to do something similar in Android):

low-effort-journaling.png

From left: the shortcut (using the Text and Send Email blocks), the running shortcut, and the resulting email. The shortcut can be saved to the home screen or used on an Apple Watch or put in a widget.

With this setup, I’d recommend regularly downloading your mail to your computer, through a local mail app or something like offlineimap, so that you have your own copy you can use for exporting or printing or whatever.

Note that I don’t use this myself because I already have a homegrown journaling solution (with Gate and Vinci), but I’m planning to use a variant of this shortcut for emailing notes to myself from my watch.

Anyway, if you try this out, or if you have an interesting system for journaling, let me know and I may do a followup post.


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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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Release bundles reburied

The release bundle idea did not age well. It may be the right idea somewhere down the road, but this past week and a half it stifled my projects more than it helped. Putting it on the backburner for now.


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Release bundles reborn

Starting now, I’m going to batch releases of my art/writing/etc., posting things only at the beginning of each month. I did this back in 2014–2015 for four or five months, and I think it’s a good fit for me again.

Arbitrary reasons for doing it (acknowledging that it would be just as easy to argue convincingly in the other direction):

  • To focus more. By not thinking as often about posting work (speaking mainly of art here since that’s primarily what I’ve been doing lately), I’ll hopefully be able to focus more on the work itself and less on its reception.
  • To slow down. Being able to release finished work immediately is a magical and wonderful part of the Internet, but I think some detachment can be helpful, giving ample time to assess and reassess the work and to polish it further before finally posting it. (I have regrets. Not many, but I do have some.)
  • I don’t know that batching will actually make this happen, but: to work more on somewhat larger projects that take more time. My current working theory, however, is that immediate release cycles encourage me to optimize toward projects I can finish as quickly as possible. The experiment is to see if slowing the release cycle down makes an actual difference there or not. It may not. I may just be lazy and ill-suited for large projects.
  • To write more blog posts that aren’t just release posts. Or, failing that, to at least make the blog feel less like a neverending train of releases and navel-gazing meta posts. (I do believe I’m yearning for the old days, when I wrote “real” posts. We’ll see if the essayist in me still lives.)

Rules I’m arbitrarily giving myself in this experiment, and other tacked-on miscellaneous thoughts that I didn’t want to start a new list for:

  • I’ll post each bundle on the first day of each month, or the second day if the first is a Sunday. (I’m calling these batches “release bundles,” by the way.)
  • A project has to have been finished for at least a week before I can release it — so anything finished during the last week of the month will go out a month later.
  • There’s no set end date for now. If it works well, I’ll hopefully keep doing it for a long time. If it inhibits the old creativity, I’ll stop.
  • I’m not sure yet whether I’ll write about in-progress projects during the month. Lately I’ve found myself harboring some misgivings about working in public, or at least some parts of it, and I need to soul search and figure out what I’m comfortable with and what makes the most sense for me and my introvert self.

Here we go. Next releases will be on March 1.


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Links #34


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Links #28


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Links #25


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