It doesn’t keep

Author's photograph of several pads of paper on a desk referenced in the article.
Various paper pads I keep at my desk. (Ninja Turtle for scale.)

Reflecting on how I use paper and notebooks.

Paper helps me think. I’ve used plenty of Field Notes and Baron Fig notebooks over the years. But truth be told? Most of my notebooks become obstacles, not tools. Three-fourths-filled Pandora’s boxes of contextless notes, forgotten or abandoned to-dos, poems or sketches that I cringe to look back on, and other detritus that reduces the likelihood I’ll ever actually make anything out of what they contain.

Reflecting on this reality has led me to start preferring pads and notebooks with tear-away sheets. I find that I’m more productive and creative by focusing on getting rid of paper.

The mindset I’ve adopted is: Paper gets processed. In a Getting Things Done sense, that means all paper — sticky notes, legal pads, napkin sketches, and (slowly) my former costly notebooks filled front to back with day pages1 — gets treated as one big Inbox. A piece of paper represents Work To Be Done. Paper carries, but it doesn’t keep.

Processing the paper could mean:

  • Trashing it. Deciding that whatever I captured is of no value, crumpling it up, and tossing it on the metaphorical fire. (Or literal, if I’m camping.) This is hard for me with creative writing like lyric ideas or bits of poems … but it’s also necessary. Storing every pleasant word combo that crosses my brain leads to a creative traffic jam.
  • Transcribing it. If the paper has something on it I want to further develop, I might capture and transcribe it into Notes (for songs) or Ulysses (for other writing). If there’s a sketch or diagram or something useful about the form, I’ll snap a photo and keep that alongside the written transcription. Importantly, I don’t let these images stack up in my camera roll.
  • Transferring it. Putting the idea the paper represents into the specific thing it should be: a task on my NOW2 list, an item on my grocery list, an appointment on my calendar, an entry in my Day One journal, etc.

Processing paper — deciding between trashing, transcribing, or transferring — is a productive friction that helps me make. It’s freeing, because I don’t feel pressured to write anything important. It’s focusing, because not every idea I capture goes forward. It’s motivating, because I am gaining confidence in a process that turns random neuron firings into actual Works I can share with the world (and not just abandoned secret scribblings).

I have no doubt that I’ve thrown away paper with marks that could have become good songs, good articles, even good books. But I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to do everything, I end up making a whole lot of nothing.

If this approach is interesting to you, I have a few tips:

  • Keep various sorts of paper handy. Different sizes and patterns suit different types of thinking.
  • Avoid fixed bindings. Could-tear-it-out-if-I-have-to is not the same as loose or perforated.
  • Have a wastebasket handy. If there’s not a fireplace or trash can in your office, where’s the paper gonna go? You don’t want obstacles between you and processing.
  • Find a good processing cadence. I don’t process every notepad every day; the legal pad that lives on my music stand gets processed every few weeks as needed. Bits of paper on my desk get processed at the end of every work day.
  • Use more paper than you’re used to. If you write everything on one big piece of paper it’s very difficult to process, and you may as well be using a notebook.

And some paper recommendations:

  • Ampad gold fibre notepads, 5”x8” – ~$25 for a dozen. I also have some legal pad sized ones. These are nice if I’m working on a talk or client deliverable and need to have several sheets going at once. The relatively thin paper is very satisfying to crumple up and toss across the room.
  • Doane Paper Flap Jotter, small – $13 for a 3-pack. I use these on the go. Normally a very short scrap of an idea goes directly into Drafts, but in some contexts if feels rude or not classy to pull out my phone. It’s also practically useful to carry paper you can leave as a note. I’m not a above a 79-cent drug store memo pad but the Grid + Lines pattern and chipboard cover make these a real treat.
  • Baron Fig Mastermind desk pad, standard – $15 for 2(!). My go-to for when I need to wireframe or storyboard something. This paper starred previously in my post about sketching a blog post.
  • Square memo pad – Varies. The one in the photo is a Neenah Environment Papers sampler that came in a goodie bag at Design Camp. It lives on my desk now. I will be sad when this one is spent, as they seem to not be for sale. I don’t like sticky notes (no shuffle) but I do love a small form factor. These are a bit bigger than a Post-it at 3.5″ square.

  1. Day pages are just what they sound like; I write the date on the top of a two-page spread, and keep a little log in a Bullet Journal-esque fashion. Appointments, things I did or bought, things I ate, etc.
  2. NOW is an Apple Reminders list of next actions it is possible to accomplish that day. I swap tasks between this and a LATER list of things I need to do soon-ish, but can’t or won’t get done that day for whatever reason.

A smaller toolkit

“The more you know, the less you carry.” – Mors Kochanski, wilderness survival expert.

Writing and sketching. Card-sorting. Diagrams. Interviews. Spreadsheets. Workshops (guided ideation and synthesis). That’s my toolkit, more or less, for most design problems.

The further I get into my career the more affinity I have for simple and sturdy intellectual tools that can be applied to any number of situations. Give a skilled survivalist a knife, good shoes, and a bit of rope, and they’ll be just fine.

A Year of Writing for Designers

Print and ebook editions of my book Writing for Designers.
Print and ebook editions of my book Writing for Designers.

My first book, Writing for Designers, was released by A Book Apart one year ago today.

Personally, much of the past year has been a blur. I experienced a profound loss in December in the death of my mother, a scant 68 days after the book was first released. Reflecting on a year since the release of Writing for Designers has been investigative for me, in a way. I barely remember being some of these places, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten others.

But the book has brought many wonderful people and experiences into my life, and I’m grateful to have had it as a bright spot, however dark the background.

Here’s what a year in life of the book looks like:

  • October 16, 2018 – Release day. The ebook becomes available for purchase.
  • October 16, 2018Content Strategy MPLS/St. Paul meetup webinar. Delivered my first iteration of How to Get the Writing Done, the talk I reverse-engineered out of the book (and previous workshops) to make the lessons appeal to an audience of more than just designers.
  • October 16, 2018 – Release party. I bought some food and drinks and hosted friends and a few strangers at the Stray Dog restaurant in my neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis.
  • October 18, 2018A List Apart article goes live. They published the introduction chapter to Writing for Designers as a preview, and lots of nice folks tweeted links and quotes.
  • November 13, 2018UX Book Club Chicago meetup. To my knowledge, this was the first book club to feature Writing for Designers. I popped down for an in-person presentation and Q&A at the very cool headquarters of Solstice.
  • November 28, 2018 – Recorded User Defenders 059. Had a chat with Jason Ogle on a special edition of sorts of his excellent User Defenders podcast. It was released a few months later.
  • November 29, 2018 – UMN Technical Writing presentation. Shared How to Get the Writing Done in a webinar with folks involved in the technical writing program at the University of Minnesota.
  • January 29, 2019Print edition released. A Book Apart put together a way to order ebooks from the Briefs series as print-on-demand paperbacks. This was a lovely surprise not long after the ebook release.
  • February 7, 2019IxDA presentation. Delivered a breakout session of How to Get the Writing Done in the Cinerama theatre at Interaction 19 in Seattle.
  • February 19, 2019Gather Content webinar. Part book promo, part Confab promo. Lots of great Q&A after an updated presentation of How to Get the Writing Done.
  • March 3, 2019AAF CRIC meetup. One of my first road trips after bringing the truck up from Arizona in January! Shared How to Get the Writing Done with a crowd of folks in marketing, advertising, PR, and tech. (And came home with a great bottle of Cedar Ridge whiskey!)
  • May 5, 2019Prime Academy presentation. Been dropping in to visit the UX cohorts with some regularity at this educational bootcamp, and this time I brought in How to Get the Writing Done (and lots of free copies of the book in paperback).
  • June 6, 2019Content Design NYC meetup. Shared How to Get the Writing Done and a few copies of the book with this rad and fairly new content design meetup at Kickstarter’s HQ in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

And next week, I’m heading to PUSH UX in Munich to present a full-day workshop based on Writing for Designers and an updated version of the How to Get the Writing Done talk on the main stage.

The book has an acknowledgments section, to which I will now say “ditto!”. I also shared a thread (or tried to, anyway) of quotes and reviews and other nice things folks have shared since the release this morning on the @DesignersWrite account.

At the top of this article, I called Writing for Designers my first book. That’s on purpose. I don’t know what’s next for Writing for Designers, but I do know that another book is next for me. I was glad to learn that I could get something like this done, and I learned a lot from doing it (from various difficulties and failures as much as any successes).

On to the next one.

Always be deleting

I want to spend less time in front of computers. Less time, not no time. I like my comfortable computer job, I like my internet friends. But less, less.

Part of this initiative is my new mantra of Always Be Deleting. It’s probably not a bad mantra for a content strategy practice (my job), but I’m applying it to my personal experience of digital things. In every app, every service, in every little digital place, I’m looking and asking “What can I get rid of?”

If I open the Photos app, I find a photo to delete. If I get lost in scrolling Twitter, I unfollow someone. (Or block. Always Be Blocking, that’s another good one.) Emails are always getting deleted, yes, but I’m mashing that Report Spam and Unsubscribe button with abandon, now.

I’m deleting apps from my phone, files from archives, drafts from inboxes. Less less less. My instinct used to be to organize all of this stuff, to label and categorize and move and filter it, to put together smart rules and idealized folder structures and get to some sort of perfect Dewey Decimal System of my own digital life. And because I’m me, and because entropy, that was untenable, and so the system would rot and linger, and the books piled up on the carts, and I’d feel bad about it, and…why? I’m honestly not sure how much my life would change if there was some sort of Young Adult Fiction-esque apocalypse that wiped every digital thing from existence. I mean I’d probably regret not having my own songs better committed to memory. But most of it could just go poof and I’d approach tomorrow exactly the same way.

So now I’m not organizing. I’m destroying. I don’t want any of this shit, especially not STORED. Good lord I’m tired of storing things. I don’t want to dust my hiking boot collection, I want to hit the trails.

I know you’re thinking it, but I’m not going to say the M-word. This isn’t some sort of “I used to have one pair of white socks and one pair of block socks but I minimized to one pair of gray socks and now my chakras are better aligned” kind of thing. It’s more: drunkenly tossing bundles of old magazines out the upstairs window while shaking a fist at the sky and hollering “I’m not gonna live like this any more, damn it!”

Tossing the little stuff adds up. A little here, a little there, and suddenly you don’t even need that box anymore, now two boxes are gone and you don’t need the shelf that the boxes went on. The more little shit I can delete and disconnect the easier it is to let go of some slightly bigger stuff, files turns to apps turns to whole platforms or systems. Things I can finally unsubscribe from, attention-sucks I don’t have to visit anymore. Less, less, less. Always be deleting.

Seattle, black and white

Got some film back from The Darkroom a few weeks back that I’d shot in February in Seattle. I actually have a different roll from this trip that I developed myself in a class, which was very cool except I don’t have any scans of it now, so…gotta put that on the to-do list.

I was still learning the camera at this point (and I still am, honestly) so I’m pretty happy to have gotten some fun shots. I had a couple exposures left on a roll before heading out of my AirBNB, hence the shot of the weirdly empty kitchen and the self-timer selfie, which ended up being two of my favorites.

I was in town for an event called Interaction 19, and did a short talk in the Cinerama Theatre, which was probably one of the coolest rooms I’ve ever gotten to speak in. The screen was HUUUGE.

Hard reboot

I believe intellectually that ideas aren’t precious. And I’ve learned the hard way that works doggedly pursued at the detriment of my health and happiness are rarely better than those I pop off quickly from a place of ease after a period of rest. But emotion often trumps intellect, and I find it hard to trash ideas and snippets and notions and drafts, to let go of Things That Might Yet Be (TTMYB).

I spent four days in New York last week, and now I don’t want to work on anything I was working on before. Specific things, not categorical things. I still want to write, even another UX book, maybe. Still want to post to my blog, write songs, make illustrations. But I came back feeling like I wanted to empty every drafts folder, burn every notebook, trash every TTMYB. Not in a manic way, not in a judgmental way (this is all trash, get it outta here!), just…a needful sort of way?

Maybe that’s the sign of a good trip. Feeling…if not changed, at least reset. I’ve been turned off and on again, and am slowly booting back up. I was made in the 80s, after all, when RAM was limited and memory management was poor. Right now, I’m enjoying having capacity, to feel like there is RAM available, if I need it.

Endless shelves

Dropbox is raising their prices, as is seemingly every other digital service of late. So I’ve been scaling back where I can. Dropped Netflix and Hulu down a level, canceled a few subscriptions here and there. There’s an intentional inertia to these services (eels, John calls them) that makes them hard to shake. If I get rid of Dropbox I have to rejigger how 1Password works, for starters, and I can’t even remember what all other services I have syncing through it. What will break if I stop using this? Do I even feel like figuring that out? It’s exactly the kind of annoying project I hate taking on, but if I don’t take it on, the procrastination gets rubbed in my face every month to the tune of $11.99 + tax.

And that’s just the practical inertia. There’s also the sort of emotional intertia that explains why I still have unopened boxes in my closet that have been with me in three different homes now. The mental energy one needs to go through old shit, to actually look at it and process it, is not an energy I tend to have in abundance. That infinite closet of cloud storage means we can pile all kinds of shit in there. You don’t even have to stack it if you don’t want to! The shelves go on and on and on. A rummage sale of remnants of your own digital life.

But I am trying to shake it, trying to have less, even digitally. It got dark fast earlier today (the today of when I wrote this); a storm rolling in. I found I was able to redirect energy I’d thought to use on a run to finally start cleaning up Dropbox, the biggest of my infinite closets. Abandoned projects, abandoned blog posts, photos of when I was fat, or sad, or fat and sad, or with people I don’t get along with anymore, or that I regret losing touch with. And good things, too, of course; things I’m proud to have written and made and had completely forgotten about … and hey, all of my hoarded pug photos are now in one place. More of a timesaver than you’d imagine.

It’s weirdly emotional work, just tapping away at my arrow keys, hitting command+delete on every third item or so. But it’s healing in a way. Digital or analog, it feels nice to unburden, to put things in the trash. It wasn’t taking up space, but it had weight. Feeling lighter already.