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

Filtering by Tag: productivity

Next Actions: Don't Get Caught In the Nonsense

Where Getting Things Done's "next physical action" idea really becomes useful is in the things you're stuck on.

If you make coffee as part of your morning routine, that doesn't mean you need to put "spoon grounds into filter" on your next actions list--you know how to make coffee. You know how to do lots of things, maybe even some very complicated things, in your personal and work life--the object of all this stuff is not to overwhelm you with hypergranulizing everything you do.

But if there's something that's been stuck on your to-do list for days, or maybe weeks or months? Poke at it. Why haven't you done it yet? Is there some dependency hidden inside of "- replace broken coffee maker" that you haven't thought about, or that you're avoiding thinking about out of some kind of anxiety or fear?

Have you not bought the new coffeemaker because if you pick one without your SO's input you're gonna start an argument, cause one time a Keurig made him some really bad coffee? Or is it just that you haven't comparison shopped on Amazon yet? Maybe your next action for "replace broken coffeemaker" is "talk to SO about what kind of coffeemaker they want." Or maybe it's "look into Keurigs on Amazon." (Don't get a Keurig.)

But the point is--next actions are about breaking big nouns into useful verbs to move you forward. Don't get caught up in the nonsense of crossing things off your list that might not even need to be there to begin with.

How I Run My Day from the Keyboard

Every day, when I sit down at my computer monkey job, I log into my workstation and click a single button. Within about 5 seconds, all my necessary programs are running and I'm ready to get to work with single-minded focus, freed-up brainpower, and confidence that all my tools are at my fingertips. Here's how.

And stick with me, will ya?

I've spent a lot of time here, between tumbls, discussing the bigger picture view. The reason for that is simple: if you're not approaching the work you do from the right angle, no matter the details in the weeds, you're going to have a more difficult time recognizing and solving your problems.

On the other hand, if you understand why you're doing the work you do, it's easier to decide what is--and isn't--worth your time. And it's that much easier to decide what belongs at the top of your to-do list. When you know which work matters to your sanity, you know what your next action ought to be.

With all that out of the way: I do think it can be worthwhile to zoom in and look at the finer points: looking at how other people get things done can help you learn how to smooth the rough edges off your own workflows, and keep your momentum when you need it most. I do a whole podcast about it, for crying out loud.

What I've learned from those great discussions with Robin is that when you've got a solid set of processes in place, even if your energy is flagging, you can trust your process to carry you through. So--let me tell you a little something about my tools, and my rationale.

As I use Windows in my work environment, I'll be discussing the software I use in that context--but the open source & Mac alternatives I'll point you to, coupled with the principles I'll be laying out along with the tips, should allow you to implement the ideas you like without any trouble.

The Quicklaunch Workspace

A batch file is a simple program--don't let that word scare you. All we're talking about here is a few lines of text that your computer--and you!--can understand.

I've created a small batch file--artisanal, if you will--that's linked to shortcuts for all 8 of the programs I need to get my work done. Then, I've created a shortcut to the batch file itself, and added it to my quicklaunch bar--this lets me launch all 8 programs I need just by clicking the icon. To walk you through this, briefly:

  1. Create shortcuts to each of the programs you intend to include in your batch file, and move the shortcuts to a single folder.
  2. Rename your program shortcuts to simple, one-word names. (I use the boring abbreviations RE, Exc, proj, ffx, genjourn, lny, apx, otk, and RPT)
  3. Open a text editor. On one line each, for each of your necessary programs, write:

    start [your program name]

  4. Save your text file as something like 'workspace.bat' in the directory where you've saved your shortcuts. Be sure to select 'all files' from the file type dropdown menu when saving.

Et voila: clicking on your new batch file should launch your little workspace suite. As I mentioned, to bring friction even closer to zero I like to create a shortcut to the workspace file and drop it in the Quicklaunch bar, just to the right of the Start button. Because double-clicking is for chumps.

There's a lot more you can do with batch scripts, from the simple to the advanced.

Why does this work for me?

As goofy as it might sound, going straight from login to having all my necessary programs running with the click of a button is indispensible to my productivity. Clicking that workspace button amounts to a moment of undivided intention, a decision that I'm diving into my day in earnest and without distraction or hestitation.

Though (as you know) I'm not a Merlin, the Mann himself might say that approaching your work in this kind of self-conscious fighting stance is transitive--it's a decision that prepares you to put the verb back into work.

The Keyboard Launcher [Launchy]

A keyboard launcher is an app that lets you do work with just a couple of taps on the keyb. Ostensibly they're there to help you quickly start programs, but once you know your way around a powerful launcher you'll be able to do much more robust work within your launcher--open documents, modulate preferences, alter & append to files, and more.

I use Launchy. If you're a Mac person maybe you like Quicksilver, or maybe you're a weirdo who uses Ubuntu, in which case I'd point you to Gnome-Do the wonderful keyboard launcher I use on my home computer.

With a quick Alt+space and Launchy's rapidly learning autocomplete, I can easily navigate to files nested deep in network folders that would be a drag to click and scan for once, let alone the dozens of times a day I need to call on buried documents.

Together with batch scripts to tweak Launchy, it easily becomes a competitor with the best keyboard launchers out there. And when you pair it with the last tool in my toolbox--Auspex--it's a golden ticket to faster work with smooth & unbroken focus.

Why does this work for me?

If the quicklaunch workspace is all about the decision to get down to work, then the keyboard launcher is about the decision to keep your focus tight. When you're using alt+space to move between programs and files there's no space available for the distraction of "ok start menu...oh look Firefox...I wonder what's on Twitter?"

It's about decreasing friction between your work tasks, and increasing the friction to your distracting timesucks--so you can make it easier to do what you need to, and harder to waste your time.

The Text Expansion App [Auspex]

I use Auspex, an open-source text expansion app for Windows. If you're not familiar with this sorta thing, essentially what it does is recognize a custom (short) string (say, 'sig') and replaces it with your custom (longer) string (say, 'Cordially Yours Now and Forever, Englebert Humperdink VIII'). When you start thinking about the possibilities here for essentially automating a lot of the text you write, this starts to get compelling.

Rather than resting your eyes while you autopilot through yet another customer e-mail answering the same question for the 20th time today, you can tap in "thx;", hit tab, and watch with glee as Auspex does the work for you.

One of my secret geeky joys is using Auspex snippets within Launchy. For example, I keep "gtfm" (or "Google That For Me") as a snippet that expands to the url for Google search results for [xyz]. Alt+space brings up Launchy, gtfm-->tab drops in the url with the cursor in position for my search terms, and a tap of my search terms takes me straight to my search results. It's 4 seconds typing time vs. a lot of cursoring and opportunity for distraction.

There are other options out there--maybe you've already heard of TextExpander. Lifehacker likes PhraseExpress. Fair warning: stay away from Lifehacker's own Texter which is great in some respects, but full of issues that the terrific writer/coder Adam Pash doesn't appear to have the time to address alone. He's helpfully passed it on to folks at Github, but at last run it still didn't do great things for me. Auspex gets my reco.

Why does this work for me?

Ultimately text expansion is a useful tool for me because it lets me save brain cycles for the work that matters instead of the work I can rely on a simple program to do for me.

What's especially wonderful about text replacement apps is that they dramatically decrease the cognitive load of repetitive tasks. Rather than wasting your time or your brain power, letting the expansion app handle it for you helps keep you free of stress & ego depletion a little longer, so that you can use that brainpower on decisions instead of another piece of reporting markup.

And so,

I'm hoping, if you've made it this far into the weeds with me, that you can still see the principles underlying the particular suggestions I'm making. These are the tools I use to get things done at my desk--but maybe you need different tools. The tools, as I suspect you know, matter far less than how you use them. Michaelangelo might have had to work at it, but I have a feeling he coulda done the Sistine Chapel with some uncooked spaghetti if the Medicis had gotten stingy on him.

Do you use these tools too? Something else--better? How do you approach your day?

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.

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.

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.

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.

mental shortcuts that can wreck you, or save your ass

There's a term in psychology called 'heuristics.' In essence, when we talk about heuristics, what we're really talking about are shortcuts your mind takes on the path to understanding something in the world. In the instant classic Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman calls heuristics "simple procedures to help find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions." He notes that while we can intentionally apply a heuristic in the service of trying to solve a difficult problem--"if you can't solve a problem, but you see a solution to another problem, solve that"--our mind is constantly using other mental shortcuts of which we're completely unaware. They can be helpful--you can make instant evaluations--but they can ruin work too: what if your evaluations are wrong?

One of the most frequently used heuristics in day to day life is the availability heuristic, and I'd like to lay out it's advantages, pitfalls, and opportunities presented by awareness of its existence when you need to get work done in an affinity group, or a small team of any kind.

Is it "a little too easy?"

Kahneman defines the availability heuristic as "the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind." Like the other mental shortcuts under the heuristic umbrella, you're answering a hard question ("how many people will come to this march?") by solving an easier problem ("people come to marches we put on.")

When the availability heuristic has kicked in--which is most of the time, unconsciously--what you're really reporting as an answer to the hard question is just how easy it was for you to remember other things that are similar to what's being asked about.

This holds true more or less across the board:

  • Notice how the incidence of 'suspicious packages' skyrockets after a dangerous event?
  • Do you have trouble convincing people with arguments from history, data, and even your own lived experience if the person you're convincing has life experience that contradicts your point?
  • Do you ever feel like 'you do all the work' on your team?

These examples represent the availability bias in action. When examples that support a viewpoint are more readily available to our immediate memory, we tend to believe that viewpoint without fully considering the most robust data available.

Now certainly the availability heuristic has its uses--there are instances when the conclusions our shortcuts lead us to are right, after all. But it's important to be on guard against the dangers of ignoring the information that matters to making your planning decision, or to playing a role on (or leading) your team. If you don't take caution at moments where an easy answer to a hard question presents itself--in other words, when your availability bias might be influencing your thinking--you run the risk of trusting instincts that are based on the past, instead of the reality of the world around you.

Otherwise, the resentful logic of 'I'm doing all the work' will start to sound like the truth.

Short-Circuiting the Shortcut

You can get around this. As Kahneman helpfully writes, "the proof that you truly understand a pattern of behavior is that you know how to reverse it." Norbert Schwarz, a German psychologist, found in the early 90s that availability bias can be disrupted when the ease with which we remember instances that support our point is called into question. Put another way: to disrupt the unconscious bias the availability heuristic can give us, we have to be willing to question the conclusions we jump to by checking them against the available data.

If you feel yourself instinctively answering a hard question in the midst of 'going with the flow,' it's useful to double-check your thinking by carefully following and verifying your own logic, questioning at each step.

Being willing to question your own conclusions rigorously can seem like an obvious suggestion--but when the shortcuts that take us to those conclusions are so often unconscious, and the conclusions we come to can be so damaging to planning and team health, it's important to short circuit the shortcut as often as you can.

That way you'll know you're making the most justified call, and you can move forward on solid ground to carry on the work that matters.

courage is a muscle. build it.

Lots of the most worthwhile things in life carry a high risk of failure. Will your direct action succeed? What's the boss going to say when you ask for the raise? Is this campaign going to work? Will this fundraising plan reveal you as a leader, or make you look silly?

To make ourselves vulnerable to failure requires courage. Courage is one of those weasel words that can mean something very different to different people. It's often understood as a mysterious thing that comes out in moments of great drama, and that can certainly be true. It's been usefully described as "not action without fear, but action despite it." But what if we approached courage from a slightly different angle?

What if, for the sake of argument, we thought of courage as a muscle that can be developed? How might that notion change the way we approach moments of fear and vulnerability, big decisions that we may very well get wrong? And what habits and thought processes might we adopt to do a thing like develop courage?

If we take courage to mean decisive action in the face of uncertainty, we might begin to think about the steps we could follow to feel more confident in the decisions we make. Steps like these:

1. Ask yourself: what does success look like?

Imagine  the ideal outcome for your decision dilemma. Then, ask yourself what, from that ideal picture, you'd be willing to sacrifice and still remain satisfied. You've now got something like a goal window--an ideal state to aim for, and a set of realistic acceptable tradeoffs that will still allow you to achieve a win.

When I was Interactive Director of The Parley a few years ago, we wound up taking a risk I didn't feel ready to take. The Creative Director and I had discussed putting together a locally-focused TED-style event that was designed to bring together activists, technology & knowledge workers, and artists. I loved the idea and thought "I can't wait to start planning this, with a couple of months lead time we could put on a great event."

I arrived home after our meeting to discover that the excited Creative Director had sent out an e-mail to some of our most impressive contacts announcing we were doing this event in 3 weeks, asking if they'd like to participate. I was immediately horrified. Three weeks? Surely he was crazy. This was going to be a disaster.

But he seemed sure of himself. I sent him a gently inquiring e-mail asking him just what he thought we could pull together in 3 weeks, and his answer was short, and assured: he laid out the contours of the event as he imagined it, and said "this is totally doable."

A failure here would be embarassing for us, but I trusted him. Before I had wrapped my mind around it, he already understood what success looked like.

2. Determine the Importance of Your Goal

How important is achieving this end-state to you? Is this a question of deeply held values, or would you just *rather* have a certain outcome? Figuring out how important this goal is to you will help you determine how hard to fight for it.

The Creative Director and I had a long set of discussions about what this event could mean if it was a success. I hadn't fully wrapped my head around it, because I couldn't banish mental images of the Hindenburg. The CD laid it out: making this happen would be a splashy entrance into the world we were hoping to break into. If we succeeded, it would be by pursuing something that was at the heart of what we were about as an organization--connecting people across boundaries to make cool ideas into reality. A success here would be huge for us. And we had 3 weeks to do it. I suddenly understood: we had to get moving, fear of failure be damned.

3. Weigh Costs & Benefits

What will you have to sacrifice to pursue this goal? You don't have an infinite number of hours, and to take on new goals you'll need to make room for the work of pursuing the goal.

Before I'd come home to see the announcement e-mail there were a half dozen other ideas I was interested in pursuing, but they were all going to have to be set aside in the single-minded pursuit  of making this thing real (now we only had 2 weeks!). Still, the meaning of pulling this off successfully wasn't lost on either one of us--and the meaning of pulling it off at the speed we were doing it definitely wasn't lost on me. The CD pushed us, because he knew the cost was worth the benefit.

4. Is this the right time?

Why pursue this now? Is your interest in this uncertain project something that aligns with your longer-term goals? Are there obstacles in place now that might disappear if you wait?

This sure as hell didn't seem like the right time to me, at least not at first. We had two days to go before this event was happening, tickets were on sale and moving at a quick clip, and I was still scrambling to get us intermission entertainment and to confirm the last few prominent speakers for the event. From where I stood it seemed like the decision to put this together was impulsive, and that if we'd had more time to plan we could ensure a success.

The CD understood something I didn't: even if this event wasn't perfect, we could use it as a foundation--it would be a learning experience for all of us that we could use when we tried it a second, third, fourth time. As he knew, and as I've learned, there are benefits to just starting.

5. Backup Planning

Your 'oh shit' moment could be the most important part of your planning: what happens if despite all your planning and foresight, it turns out you've made the wrong decision? What will you do?

In our case, our contingency plan was "do it again, but better."

That's probably not the best Plan B you've ever heard of, but we were young and full of belief in what we were doing.


As it happened, the event was a huge success. The thing I didn't think was realistic to do in the time frame we'd allotted, the event I'd feared would make us look like fools when it fell apart, went off without a hitch. We got press coverage, we watched people from different worlds shake hands and plan to collaborate on future projects, and we walked away with a higher profile than we'd had to date.

Oh, and I DJ'd a minimal house music set as DJ of last resort.

This all came together because we worked hard, but none of it would have happened without our Creative Director having the courage to throw together an ambitious event with prominent guests on a short timeline. He had that courage because he had already made the calculations--this was a risk, but it was one worth taking.

Know what you're aiming for, decide how hard you'll fight for it, make sure you're ready to make sacrifices, make the time to act, and have a backup plan. When you know the contours of success and the costs of failure thoroughly, courage can be easier to find. And if it's easier to find today, it'll be easier still to find tomorrow.

work that radically matters

I like to say that this is a blog about finding the time to do work that radically matters.

What the hell does that mean?

In my free time I'm involved in activism, organizing, and media work that aims for systemic changes in the way we live in this country, and on this planet. I feel a profound sense of urgency to fight injustice, but having been an activist for a decade, I know too well the burnout that follows Doing It All At Once.

I spent years pulling my hair out as I tried to balance classes, study time, a healthy personal life, and my political work. I would come to fall behind in classes, or miss crucial organizing meetings & events, or hear from people I cared about that they couldn't remember the last time they'd seen me. I had no idea how to manage all my commitments, and the blown deadlines combined with my belief in the importance of the work to create a profound sense of guilt–a heavy weight of failure that would only add to my anxiety. Eventually I collapsed: I moved to another city, transferred to a community college, and dropped out of politics entirely.

What I didn't know at the time was just how good I had it. When I re-entered political work with renewed frenzy half a decade later, I had a full time computer monkey job that put more demands on the use of my mind than any class in college ever did.

After not a little struggle and some very familiar headaches, I've found a way that works for me.

My paid-work is the most fulfilling its ever been, because I've learned how to get what I want out of my work week. The radio network where I host & produce is growing, because I've learned how to manage my commitments. The activist work I do often gets done with a freshly startling efficiency, because I've learned how to facilitate, and sometimes lead, groups of people with divergent ideas.

And so much more of it gets done with a smile on my face, because with the time and energy to do the work I believe in–work that matters–I'm as satisfied as I've ever been with my life. That's what work that matters radically is: striking at the root of the problems in our world, but doing it in a way that lets you live a full and healthy life--down to the root of yourself.

I'd like to use this space to show you how I got here, but much more importantly, I'd like to use this space to learn from you. I'm here to share the approaches that are working for me, and the steps I'm taking to improve. I'd love to hear from you: why my approach doesn't work, what doesn't work for you, what works for you instead, how you'd suggest I change the things I'm doing. Please get in touch.

I also have to acknowledge that Merlin Mann's work at 43 Folders and Back To Work have been huge influences on me, and a lot of the frameworks I use are politicized modifications of ideas I picked up through him.   If what I write here doesn't work for you, or seems too political or specific to organizers, I suggest you check out his incredible work. On my best days, I hope the things I write here are ideas he might find interesting.

I hope you enjoy the site, and I hope it helps you–maybe even pushes you–to do work that radically matters.

more rewarding things to be scared of

"I pitched Inbox Zero to them as the opposite of The 4 Hour Work Week. The book deal that I got was based on the fact that I said 'he gets the first third of all of that right,' which is 'learn how to manage your attention and not apologize for it.' I think he gets the last two thirds wrong, because he says 'phone it in and put up a hammock with your free time'.

This about how to make the time to do something harder than what you're doing. Rather than managing your attention to be able to do less, it's about making the time to be scared of something that's more interesting. Thinking this way is complicated, and hard, but I hope it does encourage someone to make a change to do something more worthwhile than fiddling with their e-mail. Or writing a book about fiddling with e-mail.

I hope this is something along those lines. If it's not, maybe I'll do it better next time. But it's not gonna stop me from trying."

-- Merlin Mann, on why he abandoned his book, in B2W #13, "The Kids' Great"

sometimes it's time to quit

Someone started a thread on /r/productivity today asking if she should quit her new job working graveyard shift at the coffee shop--after just 90 days it's making her miserable, she's losing time with her family and friends, and it's having an adverse impact on her health. She has two other job offers, she says, but she's concerned that it will look bad on her job history to leave a job so quickly. She asks for suggestions on how to handle her dillema. This was my advice. ---

Quit!* Listen--if you're at a gig that's disrupting the things that matter most to you, like quality time with your loved ones, and you have two other opportunities with (I presume) better hours, I would absolutely go with one of the other offers. As you say: you're young and a student, and you're not depending on any of these part-time options for your livelihood, so I see no reason you should stay.

No one looking at your resume when it comes time for Real Jobby Job interviews will notice or care that you were only at a coffee shop for a month if you have a job history that continues from there. Better yet, protip: don't put this gig on your resume, and start it with whatever job you pick up from here. Even if you're working on building up job history for future prospective employers, the trade-off of losing 90 days of that history in exchange for a job that allows you to maintain a healthy lifestyle and stable relationships with the people you care about is absolutely worth it, at least in my book.

That said, if you decide to stay (maybe you get paid more, or like the camraderie), here are some tips on staying healthy and productive while working graveyard, as I have:

  • Try to get your 6-8 hours of sleep in a room that's as dark as possible, maybe with a drone sound to drown out noise.
  • If you miss out on crucial sleep time, learn how to use naps effectively to regain energy during the day. A strategically timed coffee nap got me through lots of graveyard nights at hotel front desks.
  • Exercise for 20-30 minutes (even if it's just a brisk walk) soon after getting up. Start your day with a glass of milk, a few eggs, or one of those fancy-pants juices with 30g of protein--as long as you get a boost to jumpstart your body (and that doesn't have to be caffeine!), your whole day (ahem--night) will feel different.
  • Eat your pre-work meal 3-4 hours before your shift starts. That way your food will be fully digested and you'll be less likely to be fighting drowsiness at work.
  • If you can manage it time-wise, for the sake of relationship health it's great to be able to spend the morning with your significant other before they head out for the day. Maybe you can share a meal--steak and eggs works pretty well for breakfast or dinner, ya know. Everybody's happy.
  • Since it sounds important to you to be in touch with your family, try to make time to call them for chats between the time you wake up and when you head in to your shift. I try to call my parents each once a week, and I have a rotating schedule of friends I call once every few weeks as per Merlin Mann's advice to make sure I stay connected to people that are important to me.

Hope this helps in some way. Hope you let us know what you decide to do! ---

*(You can tell I've been listening to a lot of, uh, Quit!)

your gut has shit for brains

“I've been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

― Nick HornbyHigh Fidelity

The suggestion is something like this: if you put in your 10,000 hours of skills practice, you'll achieve a kind of expertise that allows you to rely almost entirely on your intuition to make decisions about what you do, and what you should do next.

It's not hard to understand our cultural glorification of the gut--the brilliant instinctive decision made under pressure plays into our collective myths about the talented loner who leads the way to the future.

Still, I've got problems, just on the face: trusting your gut tends to bias you toward your first option--you're less likely to look fairly at the costs and benefits of your alternatives.

More importantly, though: the thing we call intuition is a quiet form of pattern recognition, the mind tracing pictures onto situations to form a map of the way forward. Back when people's idea of a fun Saturday night was a round of Pictionary on the wall of the cave, if you saw the shadow of a sabretoothed tiger a little pattern recognition engine would kick on in your brain: you'd compare that to your past experiences of seeing a shadow of a tiger, remember that the last time around it didn't end too well, and you'd high-tail it out. That was really effective for us when we were powering cars with our feet, but today we live in a world that's faster, more interrelated, and more complex.


Given the explosion in the amount of information we all have to handle, expecting our brains to pull useful decision-making signal from the noise (on top of remembering to buy milk) can be an unneccessary tax on our attention and a source of anxiety. If you're working in a group you'll quickly find that attempting to force your fuzzily-understood vision onto the group because you believe in the power of your instinct, you'll be cutting off new ideas, killing morale on the team, and undermining group cohesion.

Still, obviously--intuition is valuable. The key is evaluation--measuring your instinct against the world, and against other people's information, to see whether the map your brain has drawn onto the world bears any relation to reality. Trust your gut to churn. Trust your gut to be generative, and point you in new directions. But never stop there. Keep measuring. Compare your instinct with the information other people bring to the table. Keep the discussion open.

That way, when you step off into the wild blue yonder of your final decision, you'll know you're acting on more than a shadow on the wall.

Understanding your Context, Purpose and Skills (Drucker, Part 2)

This is the second post in a series on applying Peter Drucker's four factors of a theory of business to the way we work and think as organizers and individuals. The first factor Drucker suggests we ought to wrap our minds around is the need to understand our context, purpose, and skills as individuals. What does that mean?


Coming to grips with your context is a challenge. It involves stepping back from where you are right now (in your organization, in your career, in your life) and taking an honest look at your environment and your role in it. It requires asking yourself questions like these:

  • Who, really, are the people you share your daily life with, and what drives them?
  • What kind of environment do those people create?
  • What kind of environment does your behavior create?
  • What constraints do your day to day commitments put on the opportunities you can pursue?

Your answers to these questions--if they're honest, and not-self-serving--can help you form a realistic picture of the slice of the world that surrounds you. If you want to understand how to move forward from where you're standing, you have to know where you're standing. Getting to know your context is key for that.


Do you know why you do what you do? Maybe this one is easy. Maybe you get up in the morning and run to work because you do work you believe in. But can't that get hard to remember sometimes? When you're knee-deep in a tedious slog, maybe working with people you don't like, maybe unclear on how this project fits into the vision you're pursuing? This is a question where it's useful to be a little selfish: why do you do this work? What does it mean for you, what do you get out of it, how does it transform you? What's the end you're pursuing with this work?


What are you capable of? Do you stretch your capabilities to test the limits of your skills? Do you need to learn more to continue to grow? How would you go about doing that? What needs to shift in your life to make time for the new learning you should be doing?

If we want to continue to develop as members and leaders of our communities it's crucial to understand our place, our reasons for action, and the projects we're capable of taking on. Just as important as understanding these three categories, though, is that they all reinforce one another. I'll say more about this in the next post in this series.

the druck is here for you: 4 factors to figure yourself out

Why do you do what you do?


Peter Drucker, you'll often hear, was the man who invented 'management.' Strictly speaking, that's not at all true--if 'management' is the theory and practice of getting workers to be as productive as possible, then modern management can be, and has been, traced back to the era of American slavery. That theory and practice was further developed by a well-worn list of names in the earliest days of the robber barrons: Frederick Taylor and his "Scientific Management,", led into the softie human relations approach of the 1930s (which might be how they still run things at your office), and eventually came our friend the Druck.

There are a lot of reasons--especially, I think, for open-minded radicals--to like the Druck. There's his skepticism of centralized authority, his insistence that an organization should be driven by something more meaningful than profit, and his distaste for "the boss" as either an order-giving autocrat or a smiley-faced fascist therapy leader. Ultimately what I like about his thinking best, though, is his insistence that we should find fulfillment in the stuff we do; that if we don't find fulfillment in the way we spend our time--whether it's at a desk or organizing a rally--then we're ultimately missing the point.

In his well-regarded essay "The Theory of Business" Druck lays out the notion that most attempts at doing something cool and new eventually fail because they don't change their thinking as the environment around them changes. They may start out well thanks to a clever or novel approach to a problem, but the world keeps turning, and often an organization will find itself gasping for air as it becomes increasingly apparent that it's running based on an outdated picture of the world. If a project is to stay successful, he argues, it has to be running on a solidly founded but testable theory of business.

But who the hell cares? Why am I talking about this?

With all the competing demands for our attention in our working and organizing lives, it strikes me as profoundly valuable to evaluate our approach to our work and our time using the kind of thinking Drucker lays out. The stuff in this classic is also applicable to the choices you make every day moving through the world--as a worker, as an activist, as a leader, as a family member. If you want to make sure that your approach stays nimble, and that you don't wind up gasping for air, a modified version of Drucker's "4 specifications of a valid theory of business" might be worth working through. Here's my mildly bastardized human-scale take on the Druck's four specifications--in order to be consistently successful, you need:

1) Your understanding of your context, purpose, and skills to be honest and realistic.
2) Your context, purpose, and skills to be mutually reinforcing.
3) Your knowledge of your context, purpose, and skills to be crystal clear.
4) Constant willingness to re-evaluate your thinking on all of the above.

What do these things mean? I'll tackle them one by one, and tie them all together, in posts over the next few days. First up, tomorrow: understanding your context, purpose & skills.

get down off your unicycle

captain Stop making choices based on the desire to keep everyone around you happy.

If you're busy trying to keep everybody on your shitbarge cruise ship happy and your boat all even-keeled and unrocking, you're absolutely not gonna see it coming when your boat falls off the edge of the map. Or worse yet, you'll be too drained from propping up everybody's smiles to notice when the boat springs a leak and you just start sinking in slow motion. There's no worse way to go than that, with you ridin your unicycle and juggling and making everybody clap for you while the whole operation is taking on water and sliding into the deep.

Get down off your unicycle, accept that some people are gonna abandon ship and that you might even be better off without them, and *steer* your *fucking* ship.

no, i don't know what the hell this is about

Let me make something clear here, if I can.

I don't know what I'm doing.

If I have any leg up at all, it's that I'm using this space to present ideas and approaches to work and fulfillment that I'm personally exploring and verifying, and that have already worked for me.

The reason for that is pretty straightforward. As much as I'm writing for anyone who might be helped by the thinking I do here, ultimately this space is about figuring out what works for me and my eccentricities. Me: an overcommiting, distractable, overgrown punk rat from the South that would forget to meet you across the room in 5 minutes if I didn't write it down.

Not all of this will be meaningful or useful to you. Maybe, as Merlin says, you don't need this. All the better for you, for lacking these peculiar faults of mine.

Still, I think maybe my troubles with attention and time are common. I think they're especially common among people of my own age group, and even moreso among people of my own level of activity: whether you spend your free time writing poetry or organizing your apartment building, if you've got 100 kinds of demands, new approaches can be fruitful. And I'd like to use this space to make some suggestions on new approaches.

Tips aren't my specialty. I don't have the cleverest macro for appending something to your to-do.txt list. But I hope I can get you thinking about whether that thing you're adding to your list is worth doing at all. I hope I can get you thinking about what kind of work aligns with the things that matter to you. And I hope you find this a useful place to consider these questions.

79 hours a week

There are 24 hours in a day. Over 7 days, that makes 168 hours.

Subtract the 40 hours you need to spend earning your paycheck, and the 49 you should be spending asleep.

Take 89 hours out of 168--that leaves you with 79 hours a week for The Rest of Your Life: creative passions, friendships, fun, love, activism, self-care. That's a lot of things to fit into 79 hours.

How are you spending them?

I'm not asking what specifically you're doing with your time--your priorities and the demands on your attention are probably different than mine. I'm asking if you're spending the time you have in ways that make sense given the things you tell everybody you care about. We all say we have values, we all have these ideas of who we are, and about the rightness of what we do--but what, daily, are you spending your time *doing*? Are the things you do every day moving you toward not just your visions of justice, but your visions of your own future? Or are you spending your time at a job that sucks so you can come home to Twitter and Tumblr and feel righteous about your choice of retweets?

79 hours is all you get, and the only person responsible for whether you spend those hours in a way that's fulfilling and meaningful to the pursuit of your goals--big or small--is you.


A minor edit--it's been pointed out that I didn't include 'commute time' in these calculations--for me, that alone takes up at least 21 hours of the 79 'free' hours a week.

I lumped those 21 hours in with the 79, though, because I've found that the commute is one of the best times to organize my work on my passion projects: review prior and upcoming commitments, draft e-mails, read items I've queued up. On top of my paid work, of course, I still do something like 12-16 hours of work a week doing hosting, sound engineering & booking for Voices of the 99%, and I have other mercifully smaller organizing commitments as well. Using my transit time to do some of this work means that the otherwise 'wasted' 15 hours on the train goes towards work on a project that I claim matters to me.

I have to use my commute time making progress on my passion projects, or I'd be lapsing on my promises regularly. I don't expect that's true of everyone, though, so it's fair to say that maybe rather than 79 hours, your time is even scarcer than mine: you only get 58 hours. Your hours are indeed fewer and more precious under this new math, but the question remains the same: are you being smart with your time, or not?