hoos

(online)

Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

this is how you achieve the sublime

This is how you achieve the sublime — not by being infallible or invulnerable, but by showing yr fallibility and sharing in the glorious moment where, by sheer luck of the draw, the universe smiles on you and you are, even if for only a second, more than what you were born as. That is the true spirit of rock'n'roll. Yr a fuck-up. Yr beautiful. Yr human.

-- "We Sent Patrick Stickles, of Titus Andronicus, to Review the Replacements Reunion Show. Naturally, he wrote 9,000+ words."

Naturally. As you do.

a truth detached is not worth a damn

“A ‘truth’ detached and purified of pleasures of ordinary life is not worth a damn in my view. Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be first tested in the kitchen—and then in bed, of course.”

-- Charles Simic, "The Art of Poetry, No. 90" at The Paris Review

For 50 years now the fine folks at the Paris Review have been producing the premiere Magazine for Serious People Who Read Stuff. The highest pleasure of the magazine, beyond the terrific fiction and poetry and snapshots of art, are the famous interviews they include with authors whose names you know, or perhaps don't.

They've been collecting the best among them for some time, and you can grab the early versions in the Writers at Work series. They've also recently started rejiggering & re-releasing them in brand new printings, and even a boxed set which, if I may say, is gorgeous looking.

god this <em>Paris Review</em> box set is beautiful

In a great many of these interviews it can take some wading to find the best material, but my God, the gems from the masters are beautiful little things.

Not to spoil the boxed set purchase for you, but all 50 years of interviews are also now available on their site for free. Take a peek in those vaults, who knows what you'll find.

a polaroid of stuff management

A few months ago elsewhere on the internet I laid out the nuts and bolts of my ~stuff management~.

I don't quite operate like this anymore--in large part I've switched from index cards to appending to Dropbox lists with Drafts--but the cards are still always at hand for note taking when the phone isn't practical.

They're good while recording a program for the internet, or while blue sky solutioneering at the computer monkey job.

Here's the bit from a while ago.


Using GTD's 'contexts' in my work life has proven pretty useless--if I was strict about it my whole day would be crossing items off a comically long list called '@computer'--so the project thing is an adaptation, but using contexts in my personal life has proven to be hugely useful for me--now instead of puttering and tooling around on my phone on the train, I wind up writing emails I need to send once I get out of the tunnel, etc.

I think the reason this has proven to have so much staying power for me--it certainly isn't for everyone--is that it helps me manage my worst habits and tendencies (forgetfulness, distractability, overcommitment as my spirit animal) in a way that keeps me moving forward in all the projects I'm involved in and care about.

I've got things down pretty simply now. For non-jobby-related items ('personal,' sure, but also Vof99 related, definitely a kind of work):

  • a set of index cards bound with a binder clip to write stuff down when i'm away from the computer
  • lists on the back of the index cards with tasks divided by the places i need to be to do them, namely '@home' '@work' '@[girlfriend's]' and '@train'

For jobby items at the computer monkey desk:

  • a text file where i write stuff down as it occurs to me, then transfer to appropriate project lists during reviews. i also record tasks completed during the course of the day (by the end of the day i wind up with a list that's 'the date and the stuff i did')

  • a folder called 'projects' full of text files, which themselves have notes and the next relevant todos for the individual projects

  • an outlook calendar that's like the map for my day--i spend my day knocking out tasks within each project within the time boundaries i set on my calendar. the last thing i do before i leave the office is sync my cal to my phone so i can review it on the train and prep in the AM.

"an influence is never just an influence"

"A literary influence is never just a literary influence. It’s also an influence in the way you see everything—in the way you feel your life."

-- the poet Thom Gunn, interviewed in The Art of Poetry #72 at The Paris Review

This dovetails nicely with what Robin and I were dancing around in TDA #2 "Like How Chemicals Make Stuff": you not only can't escape influence in your work, you can't escape the way it shapes your life. Instead of being afraid of it, you should work with it--study and learn the limits of those influences so you can move beyond them with purpose.

Oh God, Where Are My Lists?!

“As we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent, than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. And it’s also easier to do little things that we know we can do, than to start on big things that we’re not to sure about.”

— John Cleese, talking about To Do Lists. Not really.

turn fear into risk

In the near future on The Definite Article we'll do an episode on fear, and why it's important and healthy in doing any kind of creative work. Dave Thomas, one of the authors of The Pragmatic Programmer (which you should read even if you can't write a line of code), just gave a talk at this year's That Conference that--based on Mike Rohde's typically awesome sketchnotes--seems to resonate pretty deeply with my own ideas about fear, focus, and energy.

The episode will be soon, but in the mean time:

from Mike Rohde's sketchnotes of Dave Thomas's talk at That Conference. You can see more of Mike's great work at his site. 

from Mike Rohde's sketchnotes of Dave Thomas's talk at That Conference. You can see more of Mike's great work at his site

Index Cards Are Good For You

I have index cards and pens all over the house—by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, by the phones, and I have them in the glove compartment of my car. I carry one with me in my back pocket when I take my dog for a walk. In fact, I carry it folded lengthwise, if you need to know, so that, God forbid, I won’t look bulky. You may want to consider doing the same. I don’t even know you, but I bet you have enough on your mind without having to worry about whether or not you look bulky. So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse—in which there are actual notepads, let alone index cards—I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact line of dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card back in my pocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers—as if it has just come back to me—and I take out my index card and scribble it down.

-- Anne Lamott Bird By Bird: Some Advice on Writing and Life

Being Committed Is Not A Straitjacket: 3 Steps To Smarter Scheduling

This is the second part in a series of posts intended to lay out my basic thinking on getting your work done more effectively and sustainably, in a way that leaves you room to have a healthy life of your own alongside the building of your best work.

Today I wanted to talk at a slightly higher level about understanding how and why it can be so challenging to schedule things accurately, and how to avoid overcommitment so that the things we say we care about don't become straitjackets.

Don't Be This Guy

Being intelligent about your commitments is really a three part process--as with most worthwhile things, it's simple, but not easy. You have to make real commitments, you have to keep your commitments, and you have to guard your commitments. Stay with me here.

1. Make Real Commitments

Some years ago I realized something about myself: in my day-to-day speech I'd been doing a lot of bet-hedging.

If I was given the opportunity to join a campaign group planning a direct action, I would say "yeah, I can probably help with that." Who likes to say no to their friends and comrades, especially when we're doing work we believe in? But here's the problem--I'd say "yeah, I can probably help."

I wouldn't:

  • check my calendar to get a sense of my availability
  • try to get a bigger picture sense of whether I had room for a whole new set of commitments
  • take the time to map out what my role would be
  • figure out what my involvement would demand from my time and energy.

What started as a People Pleasing tendency--"yeah, I can help"--would end with exhaustion, work undone, and comrades in a lurch. Don't blow smoke. If you don't think you can realistically handle the demands of something new in your life, if a real peek into your availability shows that you're in fact really busy, be honest with yourself and the people you work with: say no.

Make real commitments. Figure out what you can really devote to a project by looking at your calendar in context before you jump on the next project bandwagon. Don't say yes to earn a smile. Say yes because you know you can make it happen, and you can look at a calendar and say "this is when it is gonna go down."

2. Keep Your Commitments

Here's the other side: all your best-laid plans (god, that calendar is pretty) earn you nothing if you don't keep your commitments. This is the real key, and though it might sound obvious, if you're used to making Mumbly-Mouthed Maybes all the time then you might be a litle out of practice with making sure you hold to your promises too.

I'm just sayin.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1. Make a note of where you are if you need to, and then move on to item 2.

Thanks to Hofstatder's Law you'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, and you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do. Once you have that, you'll know how to plan even more effectively going forward. On top of that, you're strengthening your discipline at moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

3. Guard Your Commitments

This is all great advice if you work by yourself in a cave on a mountain in Tibet, but the reality is that you work with people--and people. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

That means that to whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

If you start building a pattern of behavior this way, people might even come to see you differently. You'll no longer be Captain Overcommitment, the guy who says yes to everything and winds up with 30 broken spinner plates and a buncha hurt feelings.

You'll be the guy that knows when to say no--and the guy whose Yes really means things will get done.

Shakespeare on Avoiding Burnout

The next part in the series on control of your time and attention will come next week.

In the meantime here's this, which I posted on /r/productivity the other day.


Today's Classic Poems post at Slate looked at Shakespeare's "Sonnet 29," which goes like this:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The Classic Poems post writer looks at the piece as evidence that even a world-historic writer of Shakespeare's stature could sometimes get depressed about his writing, to say nothing of the other miserable states of affairs in his life: he was likely in massive debt, his plays doubtless made him enemies in the theatre, and so on.

I took something slightly different from this revisitation, though: as a person (and a writer) who's struggled with feelings of inadequacy and burnout--"with what I most enjoy contented least"--I was most interested in seeing how old Bill got out of his darkened state. Predictably, it's love; this is a sonnet, after all.

Here's where it gets interesting, though: there's considerable academic debate to this day about whether Shakes was writing the sonnets as autobiographical outpourings of his deepest heart, or if they're just creative exercises and attempts to master the sonnet form. Let's take a side in that discussion and imagine that this is a creative exercise--what's Bill saying to us about how he escapes burnout?

Haply I think on thee, and then my state, ...sings hymns at heaven's gate; For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

What's he done? He's stopped and thought of something that rewards him, that repays his love with a sense of fulfillment. He's remembered that he has a thing he loves to do that makes him feel complete. It's not hard for me to imagine that he could be talking about the act of writing itself, the work he does every day.

His path out of burnout is choosing to remember why he loves what he loves, and reminding himself that the effort of his love is rewarded with a sense of satisfaction. Once he's done that, he may as well "scorn to change [his] state with kings," because there are few better feelings in the world than loving and being loved in return--whether your love is a person, or work that means something to you. There's lots of reason in his work to believe that Shakes' knew that, and maybe he was trying to pass some of that on to us here.

Smart guy.

hence my compulsion to make lists

I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.

-- Susan Sontag in Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh.

starting to break out of the sand

Thus far I've been doing an awful lot of namby-pamby self-helpy "CARE ABT YR STUFF" writing here, but it's time for the rubber to meet the road. If you're buried in tiny tasks, organizing meetings, and action planning, it can feel an awful lot like waking up buried in sand on the beach: how did all this stuff land on me? How did I not notice that I'm stuck? This is a warp-speed set of tips to get you thinking about how--and more importantly why--you want to get better at managing your time and energy. This isn't a step by step how-to, but a framework for thinking through the ways you might be able to make room in your life for the machinery required to get the shit done that you need to get done.

In the next few posts I do I'll be breaking these out and expanding on their purpose, relevance, and implementation for people trying to do work that matters.

Adopt a set of rules for dealing with incoming stuff

Eliminate the 'what do I DO with this?' problem

Some people will say you need a "productivity system" like David Allen's Getting Things Done. I like GTD, and there are lots of great lightweight introductions to it available, but it can take time and work to get started with. If you're looking for something you can adopt quickly so you can begin to see results and decide whether or not it works for you, I'd start with something simpler, like the Do/Defer/Delegate framework of Inbox Zero. In essence: if you see a thing, and it can be done in less than 2-3 minutes, do it. If not, put the time required to do it on your calendar. If you have someone in your life or circles or team who can help you, see if you can farm it out.

Then, maybe try GTD for more control.

Make (and keep!!) commitments to yourself

When you put something on your calendar (the 'defer' part), do it.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1 and do item 2. You'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do so you can plan more effectively going forward, and you're strengthening your discipline by moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

Guard your time like it's your last slice of bacon

People. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

To whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

Keep a Journal

Capture, Review & Reflect

Throughout the day, as you make notes, add them to a running journal. As the day goes on, review items you've "captured" and (as in 'do, defer, delegate') and either put them on to-do lists for the projects they're relevant for, find a place on the calendar to put it (affinity group meeting at 4!), or send the necessary communications ('hey john, how's the dooblybop coming?'). As you accomplish things, move them from to-do lists to my Completed list. In the last few minutes of the day I like to look at my journal to see a list of the things I've gotten done that day. I use that list to generate about 75-100 words of reflection on the day. It lets me clear my head, think through the progress I made and opportunities for improvement, and jogs my mind to get thinking about tomorrow. Here's a sample of what I'm talking about. I highly recommend it.

Think About Tomorrow Today

Get A Framework Down & Review It AM

The last thing I do before I leave is be sure I have time blocked out tomorrow to work on the things I know--from my daily review, my reflection, and my overall understanding of my day--will be important tomorrow. Transfer that skeleton schedule to a place you'll be able to look at it in the morning, on your way in to work. I like to put it on my Google Calendar so I can review it on my phone as I ride the train in to work, but maybe just jotting down a little list on paper works for you. Whatever you need to do, the important thing is that you A) have a sense of what you'll do tomorrow and B) look at it in the morning to remind yourself of what you've decided is important.

Bonus Tip

Jumpstart Critical Thinking

Here's little bonus brain hack-y thing to get yourself sharp in the mornings: before reviewing your calendar, read something short that you disagree with. Cognitively speaking, the act of mentally questioning and interrogating something ("wait a minute, that's BS!") is connected to the critical thinking lots of us have to do in our daily work. By massaging your brain out of the fog of sleep into the act of thought, you'll be prepared to look at your calendar for the day and examine it critically, so that when you get to the office you'll be ready to hit the ground running, deal with stuff effectively, strengthen your discipline, and generally wreck shit. That's a technical term.

2 beers in, a moment of distillation hits me

What it really comes down to is that I believe sane task management is so important to leading a full life in the struggle for justice that it in fact qualifies as a form of self-care, and as such it's a crucial component in the toolkit of an activist or organizer. Not only that, it's in fact part of leading an *examined life* in the Socratic sense--we must examine and understand the contours of our life to appreciate it to its fullest, and to have the time and energy to build not only the world we imagine, but the life we're capable of leading.