Islands and icebergs

Spent all week working on something and I just trashed it. Wasn’t coming together. Hate to do it because you never know if you were almost there. Sometimes you’re hating it and hating it, and you keep sailing on, and then blam-oh! There she is! I see land, boys!

But maybe you stopped just before the iceberg. This one felt like an iceberg. The idea seemed reasonable enough, a good thing to write, that would get some shares, generate engagement. I’m not above writing for engagement, but I don’t want to hate myself while I’m doing it. This one just wasn’t feeling like me. I think. Unless I should have kept sailing.

Good news is I’ve still got the boat, and a little more practice sailing than I had before.

Sometimes the box is more fun

One of the first times I presented on ecosystem mapping, an attendee shared an image of their own map they’d been inspired to create. It was interesting, colorful, and information-rich. But also? It wasn’t what I’d call an ecosystem map. At first I worried about the quality and clarity of my presentation. But others shared back diagrams that hewed more closely to my method. So then I laughed, and decided to be delighted.

The more methodized a discipline becomes, the easier it gets to tell someone they’re “doing it wrong.”1 But who would have been wrong in this scenario, really? Order your cat a new cat tree from Amazon and they’re just as likely to play with the box. I don’t think this means we shouldn’t have cat trees or boxes. And good luck telling a cat what to do.

The attendee borrowed tips on diagramming and thinking visually and did their own thing with them. That’s great! I’m not a genius, my methods aren’t gospel, and for all I know, what they made was more useful than anything they’d have gotten out of my more rigid approach. I’m happy building trees, but sometimes the box is more fun.


  1. I get more mileage out of “Tell me about how you use Tool X” than “That’s not how Tool X is supposed to work.” This attitude doesn’t always come easy, especially with my own methods, but I’m glad when I find my way to it.

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.

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.