Ben Crowder

Blog: #productivity

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I used to keep track of genealogy research todo items in an app of my own make (Gent), but lately I’ve had better success with a combined todo/notes approach using Google Docs. (I create a document for each family I’m researching — or for groups of families when I feel like it makes sense — and pretty much just use lots of bulleted lists.)

As for the research itself, I recently made compact family charts (I’ll blog about those sometime soon) and have been filling in the gaps in my lines. As part of that, most recently I’ve been sourcing everything on my Iorio line in Morrone del Sannio, since I did most of the research on microfilm back before sourcing was easy. (Sidenote that’s probably also a post for another day: in the last month or so I’ve found that I can now do pretty much all the research on my phone, which has led to a fairly big increase in how much time I spend doing genealogy.)

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Productivity in small slices

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.

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For a while I had been itching to have a better way to track genealogy research todo items — something that organizes items by family and links back to Family Tree, mainly. And thus Gent was born:


I’ve been using it for a couple months now and really like it. Before, I felt disorganized and didn’t know where all my notes were; now, even if I come back to my research after a month or two away, it’s easy to get back into it.

The app is built on Django (Python), and I’m calling it a 0.1 release since there are almost certainly bugs I haven’t found. But it does work for me. (For what that’s worth.)

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The power of next actions

I have a habit of not finishing illustrations I’ve started. Right now, for example, my art tracker spreadsheet tells me that eleven of the forty-one illustrations I’ve started in 2011 so far are unfinished.

Ordinarily, if I still haven’t finished an illo and it’s been a week or two since I last worked on it, it’s basically dead in the water. I forget about it. It languishes. And then it makes my list of abandoned projects for the year.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. If the idea behind the piece can’t support its own weight, it’s better to let it go. But more often than not, the idea was just fine.

So, what I’ve started doing (and should have started doing a long time ago) is making a list of my unfinished pieces and then deciding what my next action needs to be for each one. For one piece, it’s to draw the characters more clearly and clean up the linework. For another, it’s to try a new perspective to make the object in the distance loom larger. For another, it’s to rework the idea so it’s more interesting, because right now it’s kind of static. And so on.

It’s working.

Take my “Return from Exile” piece the other day. It began as a loosening exercise in Photoshop that looked kind of like the inside of a cave. I then forgot about it and kind of stopped caring. It was definitely in danger of being abandoned forever. But when I made my list and figured out that my next action was to smooth out the rough strokes, bam, I got back into the illustration and I was able to finish it.

Sometimes I forget that the project management techniques I’ve learned from coding and design and my other projects can just as easily be applied to art. Art isn’t voodoo.

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Project tracker PDF

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


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

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Project calendar


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. (“Looks like I’m neglecting my writing. 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:


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’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.

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