Category Archives: productivity

Shut up and write

“The more you talk about something, the less likely you are to do it.”  My dad told me that several times when I was working on my MS thesis, because he’d seen it many times with PhD students working on their dissertations.  The thesis and dissertation are major papers, often taking years to write, presenting the student’s original research and conclusions.  They are required by many graduate degree programs (particularly in the sciences) in the US and elsewhere.  The difficulty of completion, (particularly of PhD dissertations), leads to doctoral candidates who complete all the other requirements being classified “ABD” for “All But Dissertation” until they complete that work.  Sadly, many never do. 

Dad was a professor of Geography (at LSU for the bulk of his career) and he’d seen students struggle with the shift from taking classes and qualifying exams to completing a major research project and then writing it up.  He’d observed that those who talked the most about their plans and their writing seemed to have to most trouble finishing.

It turns out that studies since the 1930’s have shown that talking about your plans establishes them as “social reality”, providing some of the benefits of completion even though you haven’t actually met your goals.  The positive feedback you get from discussing your plans (ie virtuous feelings and congratulations from friends for making the decision to act) can provide enough positive emotional feedback that it actually reduces the motivation to follow through.  (Links here and here.)

This tendency to substitute discussion for action is related (at least in name) to a book and a movement (in the Arlo Guthrie sense) that might be of interest to writers:

  • Writing coach and teacher Judy Bridges wrote a book in 2011 titled “Shut Up and Write”.  I’ve never taken one of her classes, but was exposed to her book at The Clearing, a folk school in Ellison Bay Wisconsin, when I was taking a class on stained glass.  I’ve enjoyed the book, although I haven’t been disciplined enough to follow through on some of the practical exercises it contains.
  • “Shut up and write” sessions have popped up in several cities, where writers get together on a regular basis to socialize for a short period of time, and then write.  They write individually, but the group setting provides positive peer pressure (you’re less likely to daydream if everyone else has their heads down pounding out the words).  This phenomenon is described at the “Thesis Whisperer” (love that name!) website.  They don’t specifically mention the risk of “social reality” reducing motivation, but I found them when googling for the masthead image.  The concept is similar to a “sketch crawl”, allowing for socialization of lonely authors or artists, but also for dedicated working time.

The next time you’re talking about your writing not going well, think about how much time you spend writing, and how much time you spend talking about it.  You might find that a change is in order.



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GTD and the concept of context


 I’ve shared a couple of GTD tips previously, and today I’ll discuss another one that can be enormously beneficial, and yet generates a lot of debate in the GTD community.  That’s the idea of context: a collection of next actions that share a set of requirements, like tools or location.  I like to describe it as getting the reminder to take action when you’re in a position to do something about it.

If you’ve ever put an item by the front door so you’ll see it when you’re headed to work in the morning, you’ve already used the context idea.  You might remember you promised to loan “Storm of Swords” to a coworker while you’re eating dinner, and when you get up and put it by the front door, you are eliminating the need to remember that action in the morning, when you will be rushing out the door and have other things on your mind.  The action (“take book to Paul”) is available to you in the context of heading out the door, when you can complete it. 

 Any tool described as a GTD tool provides for the use of contexts.  They’re basically tags that you can use to group tasks with similar requirements, and by convention start with the @ sign.  You might have a context for @home and another for @work, or @online vs @outside, the latter to distinguish between actions that you can only do when you’re online, versus those that require you to be outside (mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, etc).  Contexts are optional, and need to be tailored to your work and your way of working, but I find them very useful.  I might have 4 different projects that each require me to send an email, so I can tag each of those actions with my @email context.  The next time I sit down with 15 minutes free and open my email application I can also open Omnifocus (my GTD app of choice), check the @email context, and fire off those emails, making progress on all four projects, without having to think much about those projects.

Another useful implementation of context is agendas for people you work with.  I currently have only one context in this category, @amy, for things that I need my wife Amy to complete.  Anything we need to do or discuss together gets assigned to the @amy context, and then I can bring that list up at a time when we can work together on them.  The image at the top of this post is a screenshot of a portion of my context list, including tags like @tools and @studio to sort actions that require me to get out my toolbox (“tools”) or that can only be done in my glass studio. 

 Another way that I’ve employed the concept of contexts is to route reminders to the right context, like the example of putting an item in front of the door.  I often remember something I need to do at home when I’m out of the house and can’t do anything about it.  We still have an answering machine at home, so when that happens I call home and leave a message to myself.  Then when I get home and hit play on the machine I get a reminder in the context in which I need to take action.

There’s a lot of debate about contexts, generally coming from people who don’t find them useful, or consider them a waste of time.  When I worked in EITS I needed to track the work of over a dozen people, and having an @person agenda for each team member helped.  Now I don’t need that level of granularity.  I found the same thing with contexts related to computer use, because I initially set up a context labelled “@online” and then found it didn’t help me, because 80% of my actions fell into that category.  Contexts are powerful when they help you sort and filter your list of next actions, but the key is to use them only if they work for you, and only in ways that work for you.



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The power of instant capture

NASA-SpiralGalaxyM101-20140505As a kid one of the things I thought was so cool about Star Trek, along with the instant opening doors, and the communicators, phasers, and transporter, was the omniscient computer.  All you had to do was address the computer by voice (makes you wonder why they had the consoles at all…) and you could access the sum of universal knowledge.  And the computer was always recording, so in a couple of episodes they were able to bring up the computer’s video records and replay what had happened previously.

Setting aside the privacy concerns (they were in the military after all…) as I got older I frequently wished for instant recall: the ability to augment my feeble memory with a replay of earlier events (even what I’d just missed on the radio).  I love the rewind on DVRs for the same reason.

Since I don’t have an omniscient system for recall, the best I can do is capture items the instant they come to my attention.  That was one of the first principles of GTD that produced immediate results in my previous job, and it saved my bacon everyday.  I started with a pocket notebook (Moleskin thin, don’t see them anymore), and then a succession of Palm PDAs, ultimately replaced by a smartphone.  Whenever someone would bring up something I needed to track, I’d make a note.  Have an idea, make a note.  Need milk, make a note.  Hear about a book on NPR, make a note (while trying not to crash the car).  I got some of my best ideas while driving, so I eagerly adopted Jott, an app that would record an audio note, transcribe it to text and then email it to me.  Since my thoughts frequently related to my @work context, next time I opened my email there it was, ready to be filed or acted upon.

I’m still amazed by how few people do this.  Some certainly have better memories than I do, but whenever I ask someone to do something and don’t see them make a note (digital or otherwise) I wonder if they’re going to follow through.  And more than half the time they don’t.

Jott’s morphed into something else, and I haven’t yet found a replacement.  I use Omnifocus as my primary GTD system, and Evernote for archiving, and both of them have good capture capabilities.  I have both on all three platforms (phone, ipad and laptop), and tend to use Omnifocus’ Quick Entry feature the most, especially on my laptop.  I used it several times during my daily pages this morning: I’d been steaming along writing about one thing, and “I need to send email about the banquet” popped into my head, and all I had to do was hit a key command, type it into the text box, and go on writing.  When I sit down to process my Omnifocus inbox later it will be there, ready to be acted upon.

Evernote is a particularly powerful tool for capturing information you may want to save, but not necessarily need to take action on.  The Evernote servers run OCR (optical character recognition) on any images you upload, and once that indexing is done all that text is searchable.  That means that you can take a photo of a document, sign or menu, upload it to evernote, and later search for text contained in that image.  It even manages fairly well with handwriting (not mine, but I can’t OCR mine).  I’ve never tried OneNote, but apparently it does the same thing as well or better.

The keys for any capture system are

  • it has be fast (I called j=Jott several times only to forget what I wanted to capture before getting connected…I know, there’s no hope for me)
  • it has to be reasonably accurate  (saving the original recording or image for reference is a plus)
  • it has to be with you at ALL times

It’s a bonus if the tools you use can be tied together, so that all the bits of info or inspiration can be routed into a pre-exiting inbox.  But the most important characteristic of any capture tool is…

you have to use it.



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