Bat Phone agreement

A request: if your app is in the “Productivity” category, do not send me bullshit.

For instance:

I like Dropbox. I like Trello. It’s great that they work together. I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THAT NOW. I want a Bat Phone agreement with my apps: if the phone is ringing, the commissioner needs my help. You don’t call the Bat Phone to chat.

I turn off what I can but there are still some things a guy might reasonably want notifications from, you know? And that’s how they getcha. It feels like a mob threat. “Oh-ho! You’se wanna turn off notifications? From us? Big man. Be a real shame if something important didn’t get through. Real shame.”

Everybody wants to onboard me, engage me, educate me. I’m just trying to do some work here, buddy.

Press and hold

I was having trouble with my internet service the other day. At one point the technician, Sanchez, had me press and hold the router’s reset button for 15 seconds. Fifteen Mississippi! He made it clear: it’s not enough to press the reset button. You have to hold it in.

A metaphor for vacation if I’ve ever heard one! It always takes me a while to stop noticing the absence of inboxes and anxieties that compete for my attention in daily life, to relax enough to feel genuinely at ease and not like I’m just slacking off. A snow day is nice here and there. Weekends mean more time with friends. But they aren’t enough for me to reset.

Soon though, hopefully! I’ve got a solid winter break awaiting me — two full calendar weeks, plus this weekend — and I’m getting ready to hold that button. Slack? Signed out. Twitter? Deleted. Out of office reply? Set and set. Even as I type this, I find myself wanting to check Twitter, or my email, but for what? Just habit.

My new camera’s1 manual informs me that it can only remember the time and date for about four days with the battery removed. Then it gets reset. Pull my battery, baby. I don’t want to know what day it is.

  1. Went with the Ricoh GR III. I’m not confident in using it yet but I’m taking to it quickly.

My 2019 Playlist

Photograph of the author and his friend Margot singing karaoke. Or rather, Margot is singing and Scott is playing air guitar.
Performing “The Chain” with Margot Bloomstein at the Confab conference party karaoke. Photo by Sean Tubridy.

I started a thing last year where I add songs that are resonating for me — for whatever reason — to a playlist named for the year. Hence: My 2018 Playlist.

I kept it up through 2019, with a bit more gusto, so I’ve got an even bigger list this year. With a bit of light curation, I ended up with 40(!) tracks:

Reviewing the playlist feels partly like flipping through a familiar scrapbook and partly like digging into the pockets of a jacket you haven’t worn in ages. A few of these tracks I hadn’t heard since the first time they hit my ear. Many of them represent shows I went to — Yeasayer, An Horse, Cursive, The Mountain Goats, IDLES, Jeremy Messersmith, Built to Spill. Some represent themes or life events — I Turn My Camera On, Crown. And many (most) of them are just me thinking: “heck yeah, let’s bookmark that.”

This is a personal exercise, which is to say that this is not a bit of music journalism wrapping up the “best” tracks of 2019 or anything like that. I also don’t expect you to put this on at a party (though I did do my best with sequencing it in a listenable way). But I like to share anyway, in case it inspires you to do your own music scrapbooking in 2020, or just helps you discover one good song to add to your own playlist.

Here’s the tracklist:

  • Martha Sways – Andy Shauf
  • Cactus – David Bowie
  • I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital) – Conor Oberst
  • Harmony Hall – Vampire Weekend
  • Give Me Back My Man – Ohmme
  • Cadaver Sniffing Dog – The Mountain Goats
  • Sunshine Rock – Bob Mould
  • Isolation – Cherry Glazerr
  • I Turn My Camera On – Spoon
  • The Sun and Moon – Cursive
  • Crazy Energy Night – Pom Poko
  • Gotta Get Up – Harry Nilsson
  • Crown (feat. Diane Coffee) – Run The Jewels
  • Turn the Light – Karen O & Danger Mouse
  • The Story – Brandi Carlile
  • Wide Awake – Parquet Courts
  • Homicide (feat. Eminem) – Logic
  • Live Well – An Horse
  • Service, Please – Tongue Party
  • Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams (Audiotree Live Version) – Camp Cope
  • Ecstatic Baby – Yeasayer
  • Melody X – Bonaparte
  • Monday, You’re Not So Bad – Jeremy Messersmith
  • Never Fight a Man With a Perm – IDLES
  • Hurry On Home – Sleater-Kinney
  • The Chain – Fleetwood Mac
  • Do You Remember (feat. Death Cab for Cutie) – Chance the Rapper
  • Pain – The War on Drugs
  • Toothbrush / Trash – Mount Eerie
  • Teenage Wasteland – Wussy
  • Loading Zones – Kurt Vile
  • Oom Sha La La – Haley Heynderickx
  • Dizzy – SHONEN KNIFE
  • Salted Caramel Ice Cream – Metronomy
  • lucy – Soccer Mommy
  • I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus – beabadoobee
  • Acetylene – Wussy
  • Goin’ Against Your Mind – Built To Spill
  • Sunny Love Song – Bob Mould
  • Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jaques Morelenbaum, & Judy Kang

Being the thing

Composite screenshot of November and December calendar pages in the Streaks app for a goal of "60m Writing". November 25
Overslept on Friday. Womp womp.

Recently finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I probably should have read it before I wrote a book about writing? But I’m happy to report it didn’t leave me second-guessing my guidance in Writing for Designers. Just envious of King’s prose and storytelling skills.

Like many books on creative practices, much of the advice can be reduced as such:

to be the thing (e.g. writer)

do the thing (e.g. write)

and do it every day (e.g. today, and also tomorrow).

Novelists often recommend daily wordcount goals as a way of approaching the doing part. King suggests 1,000 words a day and building up from there. That makes sense to me if you’re writing a book manuscript. A book is a big hunk of marble you’ve got to chip away at daily. I’ll probably try daily wordcount goals when I’m committed to my next book.

Thing is, there’s quite a bit of non-book writing I’d like to be doing. Essays and articles and blog posts and newsletters and the like. I’ve tried wordcount goals for this kind of stuff in the past and it doesn’t work for me. Telling myself I’m going to write 1,000+ words of whatever per day has led me to write exactly that: a bunch of whatever. Hell, my first book draft was twice as long as they wanted. Quantity of words written is not the problem.

Of late I’ve been trying a different habit, and the results are encouraging. For 15 out of the last 16 days, primarily in the morning, I’ve started a one hour timer. When the timer is running, I am a writer. I am practicing being the thing.

Most of what I do during this hour is, in fact, writing words — as fast as the Gingerbread man runs, as King puts it. But I might also be editing things I’ve written, or reviewing my Ulysses and Drafts inboxes to find what I want to write next, or turning finished drafts into stuff other people can read.

Focusing on the hour instead of the output is about committing a serious part of my day toward living the life I want. When I am being studious and creative and productive – when I’m reading and thinking and making – I feel great. When I’m not, I don’t. I hope all of this work adds up to something, and helps to elevate my profile and boost my career. But even if it doesn’t, it still feels like what I am supposed to be doing.

This is a more fragile habit than a wordcount goal. I have to be honest with myself about how I’m using the hour. There are a lot of non-productive approaches to being the thing when it comes to writing: shopping for notebooks (guilty), choosing the best music to write to (guilty), researching writing apps (guilty), tweaking shortcuts and workflows (guilty), looking at a looooot of Wikipedia articles in the name of “research” (guilty). I’ve eschewed hard rules so far during the hour, but I do try to be really and truly settled before I start the timer – email checked, coffee made, bathroom visited. I also turn off Wifi. (Turning it back on here and there to grab a link or publish a post.)

The hour is harder to fit into my day than an arbitrary quantity of writing, but that’s part of what’s important about it to me. I want it to hurt a little. I want to have to change things to make it work.

Establishing good habits is hard as hell, especially going from zero to an hour a day. I hope I don’t have to adjust this approach too much going forward, but I’m going to try to be kind to myself if I do. So far it’s helped to:

  • Have a supportive partner who’s also practicing this. We’ve done many of our hours together at coffee shops, and once, adorably, side-by-side on an Amtrak train.
  • Go to bed a little earlier. Harder than it sounds for my dumb ass, but I’m trying.
  • Set multiple alarms. A thing I didn’t expect going into this is that the writing basically has to happen in the morning or it won’t happen.
  • Track my habit in the Streaks app. (It seriously KILLS me that I missed a day and I’m already eager to beat the previous 11-day best.)

Okay. Hour’s almost up. Gonna get this thing ready to publish.

Enjoy!

I feel that the word “Enjoy!” should not be used as a command. If you can follow something with “or else!” it doesn’t come across as that friendly.

I’m still enjoying The Allusionist podcast about language, and had a great time a few weeks back at the stylish Parkway Theatre in Minneapolis to see No Title, the touring live show from host Helen “Sauceman” Zaltzman and her “doctor” husband. Earbuds make podcast hosts seem like they live inside my head, so there’s something strange and special about the energy in a room of people all publicly enjoying the same normally-private nerdy thing.

The Allusionist is a very accessible show, in that you don’t have to listen from the beginning to enjoy (I haven’t). But if you’re looking for a jumping off point, this recent episode on food is very relatable. I’ll never not notice a server (waitron?) saying “Enjoy!” again.

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.