Ben Crowder

Blog: #productivity

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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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Lately I’ve been thinking about this Sam Altman quote on focus:

Focus is a force multiplier on work.

Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on. It is much more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours. Most people waste most of their time on stuff that doesn’t matter.

Once you have figured out what to do, be unstoppable about getting your small handful of priorities accomplished quickly. I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is very successful.

Still mulling it over. (I like it, just figuring out whether/how to apply it to myself.)


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Links #15


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One of the most important tools in my productivity/creativity toolbox is carving out time to think. I’ve recently started being more intentional about doing this, and already I can tell the difference. It feels a little like a superpower.

The areas which I’m currently dedicating time to think about are: story ideas, art, HCI/toolmaking, school, and work. I’ve done something similar in the past where I would write down everything as I went along, but I’m finding benefit in making specific, separate time for each area, and in not writing things down by default (but I do of course write things down if I need to).


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