A knife’s purpoe

My knife lives a mostly sedentary existence. It can lay latent in my pack or hooked on my pocket for weeks without use. Yet, it performs admirably when it is called to duty, even if the particular job might fall well below its station.

The knife’s tasks are mostly mundane: cutting Amazon packing tape, Toys R Us blister packs or sales tags from new clothing. Nothing difficult, nothing close to it’s intended use. However, it’s presence and utility are appreciated when the need arises.

On an occasional camping trip or outdoor expedition, the knife catches a glimpse of what it’s life could be like. Cutting through rope and wood. Bathing in sweat and dirt. But these moments are seldom and fleeting as the excursions become more suburban.

But today the knife has felt its purpose. Today the knife went to sea, its excitement building with each strike of the hull against the surf.

Today it was passed between expert hands as it cut tangled lines, opened cheap Island beer, and sliced cured game. It looked proud when the others remarked on its keen edge and its clever-yet-sturdy design.

It reached its full potential when it pierced the flesh of a freshly caught spring salmon. And as the fish bled out, as the knife was doused in its first true filth, it felt alive.

Today the knife knew its purpose when it rode home on the pocket of a 5 year old boy’s hero—his Dad who got to drive a boat, caught a fish straight-out-of-the-ocean and then brought it home for dinner.

Check out Patrick Rhone’s awesome video review of the knife I carry.

Hybrid Journal

I have a long and rocky relationship with pen and paper. I’ve often romanticized the idea of keeping a paper journal to record the passage of my life. Yet, despite many attempts over the years, I’ve never been able to stick to any kind of journalling habit for more than a couple of weeks at a time.

That was until I came across Ryder Carroll’s brilliant Bullet Journal concept and mashed it up with Patrick Rhone’s Dash/Plus pen and paper markup system into a “Hybrid Journal”.

Required Reading

None of what follows is going to make any sense unless you have at least a rudimentary understanding of Ryder and Patrick’s concepts. So, if you’ve never read them before, take a few moments to catch up on these:

Bullet Journal

The foundation and layout for the hybrid journal is Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal. He’s done an amazing job documenting the setup and usage on this site, including awesome video how-tos. I recommend reviewing it in a desktop browser to get the full effect.

Dash Plus

I have deplorable penmanship. Even my check-boxes look like shit. This is one of the main roadblocks I struggled with when figuring out how the Bullet Journal would work for me. However, I can draw a pretty boss dash, so Patrick Rhone’s Dash/Plus markup system ended up being the perfect solution.

Extending Dash Plus

Since Patrick’s system is based on a simple “—”, it is very extensible. There are almost limitless ways it can be adapted to fit your needs.

Trickle Lists

I’ve incorporated Michael Lopp’s Trickle Lists as the right page of each Month section of my journal. These give me a way to track incremental habits in a Seinfeld method-type way.

Markup

I don’t stray too far from Rhone’s suggested Dash/Plus markup. All items start with and are converted from the initial “—” Dash.

• “—” is an incomplete action item

• “+” is a completed action item

• “→” is an item that has been carried forward to the next day

• “←” is an item that has been deferred to another list, calendar, or task/project manager

• “triangle” is a data or reference point

• “*” is an event

• “lightning bolt” is an idea or thought

Pages

As suggested in the Bullet Journal walk through, I start the book with an Index, on the right page of a two-page spread, a couple of pages in. I include a markup reference in one of the preceding pages leading up to this Index.

Next, also true to the Bullet Journal, I start the each month on the left page of a two page spread, the first month immediately following the Index. The left page contains a numbered column with one row for each date of the month. In the adjacent column to the date, I mark the day of the week with a single character. This page is used as a calendar to record the most important event(s) occurring on a given date.

On the right page of the month-spread (opposite the calendar), I deviate slightly from the Carroll’s setup.

I couldn’t really grok the suggested “list of actions to accomplish each month”. So, instead of this list, I duplicate the two-column date/day format from the left page of the spread. Asymmetry drives me completely bananas, so I’m careful to get the rows to line up with those on the facing page.

I add two to three additional columns, depending on how many trickle habits I’m working on at the time. Currently, these are Daily Writing and Exercise.

These serve as a “don’t break the chain” system for tracking incremental changes.

From there, the setup stays fairly true to the Bullet Journal, dashing and plusing the events and tasks from each day as I go.

Hardware

I recommend the large, squared-grid Moleskine to serve as the journal. I like the quality, aesthetic and the history of a Moleskine. The back pocket serves as a wallet and holds a few Frictionless Capture Cards in case I need to pass on a note to someone. It’s my analog iPad mini.

I write with a 0.7mm Pentel Energel. They’ve been my favourite for years. To be honest I wish the ink dried a bit quicker, but I am learning patience.

Software

I integrate a couple of iOS apps to extend the hybrid aspect of the notebook. One serves as a digital backup of the log, and the other is used to defer tasks and track projects.

Day One

To digitally back up my analog journal, I take a photo each night of that day’s entries and add it to Day One I tag them with “hybrid” to keep them organized. Sometimes individual log items are copied to their own entry as well if I think they’ll need to be recalled later.

One could use Evernote in the same fashion and take advantage of the superior search and OCR ability. If I were to use Evernote, I’d call my main notebook “Journal” and sort it by Date Modified (like a gentleman). I’d archive that notebook at the end of each year by renaming it to “20xx” for the year that just passed and create a new “Journal” notebook to coincide with a new Moleskine.

Omnifocus

Occasionally, journal items aren’t carried forward to the next day. Instead they may belong as a next action on a project-specific list, or need to be deferred to future date. These scenarios can both be handled within the confines of the Bullet Journal, but to me they’re better handled by Omnifocus. Really, you could use any task app here—I don’t think it matters. I use OF because it’s familiar and it works the way I think.

Logging

I use the canonical Dash/Plus method to log items throughout the day. Each item as it comes in begins as a “—” and evolves from there depending on what it means to me.

Every night before bed I do a quick review and plan for the next day.

Review

• Marking any completed action items with a “+”

• Carrying forward with a “→” any items I’ll try to complete the next day

• Copying any deferred or project tasks to Omnifocus and marking them with a “←” if I don’t plan to carry them forward to tomorrow

• Copying any incomplete date-specific events to my calendar and marking them deferred with a “←”

Plan for tomorrow

• Check forecast view in Omnifocus for tomorrow, add any events to the journal

• Add any due or deferred tasks to the journal

• Select the top three most important tasks for tomorrow so I can start the day without thinking about what I need to do

This gives me a head start for the next day. Then, I just try to repeat the same process again.

Adaptability

The key to both Bullet Journal and Dash/Plus is adaptability. Neither system is rigidly defined, and Pen & Paper are inherently customizable. If you’re feeling artistic, you can incorporate Sketch Notes into your workflow. What I’ve documented here works for me and got me to stick with an analog journal. Take whatever elements you like from these systems and mash them into one that works for you.

Focus

The same energy that you currently spread amongst the many tasks you are now doing, can be focused to put a real, deep, burning, hole right in the center of the one thing you should be doing.

Patrick Rhone

I come up with a lot of seemingly great ideas. I follow through on none of them. I’m really good at starting projects, but prolific in my inability to complete them.

Because of this, I have a ton of empty folders that parallel raging-red reminders, far overdue whatever arbitrary deadline I’ve set to keep myself “on task”. I’ve had countless text notes containing a few inspired-but-fragmented sentences and dozens of soon-to-expire domains that have never been forwarded beyond their registrar’s landing page.

I get the sense that this is not an uncommon problem.

With so many ideas in their infancy, so many sparks of “creative genius”, surely I could select and nurture one of these gems to the point that I could ship something? Anything?

No.

Instead, I am overcome by the paralysis of choice. If, in some rare instance, my inspiration surpasses my inertia long enough to start something, this victory is short-lived. I become overwhelmed at the enormity of what needs to be done to complete the project. The finish line seems so distant, that any other idea instantly appears more appealing. Soon, well-intentioned deadlines pass, get deferred by a week or two, and pass again.

I lack focus.

What matters is achievement. Setting SMART goals and getting them done. And the only way to do that is with brutal honesty and relentless focus.

Ian Patrick Hines

So I decided to tear it all down. I deleted all of it. All the projects in omnifocus. All of the folders and all of the text files and all of the tags. I cancelled all of the domains.

When the dust cleared, I had a blank page. On that page I wrote “Letter One: Focus”.

Some of my favourite things to read arrive in my inbox once a week. Inspired by incredibly smart and creative people like Paul Jarvis, Austin Kleon, and Jack Cheng, I’ve published this first issue of a new weekly newsletter. The letter will ship on Sundays and each will focus on a single topic and will feature an original piece from me and a few links/quotes on the subject. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, something that is worthy of your attention, please follow along. If it doesn’t, you can unsubscribe at any time. I hope you stay.

And so I’m going through pain, and letting go of many things I love, to make one awesome thing. To give myself the opportunity for reinvention. To put my entire being into one creation, to aim myself unreservedly and with abandon into one spot in the universe.

Leo Babauta

I’ve had some other ideas for projects since tearing it all down and deciding to write this letter. They are tucked away for now, though. I need to focus my creative energy in a single place in order to get to the finish line.

Out of reach

I bet that big old iPad 2 is really holding you back from getting some serious work done. It’s just too big and cumbersome. Just not “mobile” enough, you know? Have you considered how much more useful an iPad mini would be?

And once you get that mini, you’d probably be way more productive if you bought the whole suite of Omni Group apps. You could line them all up in one row on your home screen, arranged in a spectrum by icon colour. Imagine how sweet that would look! If you did, though, you’d probably have to transition back to OmniFocus from Taskpaper. Even though you just switched to Taskpaper from OmniFocus. No big deal. Time well spent, right?

If you’re going to go back to OmniFoucs, you should really give Evernote another look, too. Did you read Vardy’s post “The Productivity Path”? That seems like a pretty awesome workflow. It might take some time getting all of your plain text notes out of Dropbox and into Evernote. Maybe you could rethink your whole organization system while you do it. You could put EVERYTHING into Evernote, so would you even need Dropbox anymore? Maybe for that distraction-free writing app you’re using.

While we’re on the subject, have you considered what features your current writing app might be missing? Sure, you probably don’t need any of them, per se, but it would be really cool if you had them available, just in case. You should probably go review Terpstra’s iTextEditor chart for an hour or two, or however long it takes you to realize that they’re all juuuuust one or two features short of perfect.

If none of those apps are a fit for your writing needs, maybe it’s time to take another route. You know what is the ultimate distraction-free writing environment? A typewriter! Retro! I bet you can almost hear yourself clickity-clacking out some real creative work on one of those vintage Smith Corona jobs. Just like Hank Moody. Drink! Make sure to spend a bit of time googling which one looks the coolest first.

Hold on, though. Before you sit down to unleash those amazing ideas, to pour those words onto the blank sheet of paper, you should really get your blood pumping. Get some fresh air. Get those creative juices flowing. Now, if you could just choose which fitness app is the best, you’d be set. And you weren’t planning to start running in those old sneakers, were you? Have you looked into what the coolest minimal running trend is …?

The Easy way

The last couple of weeks have been pretty busy. In my spare time, at the end of the day when I’m not catching up on unfinished work, I’ve been tuning out. Turning off my brain. Consuming. This is the easy way.

The moments I’ve found some small amount energy or motivation to be more engaged, I’ve spent reviewing, reconsidering and adjusting my workflows. Researching URL schemes and x-callbacks, chaining apps and actions together into a symphony of interwoven software silos. Tweaking. Testing. Tweaking. Testing.

The results on paper look pretty impressive. At first glance, it appears I may be able to publish an essay to my blog simply by pressing my thumb and forefinger together and briefly thinking about the colour blue. Definitely worth the time and energy spent.

In reality, all of this “work” has saved me two, maybe three taps (take THAT, callouses!) from my previous set up. And in the time I spent “working”, I neglected to create a single thing to warrant the use of my shiny new PUBLISH button. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but this, too, is the easy way.

You know what isn’t easy? Creating. Shipping. Looking deep enough within to find something worthwhile to share with the world. Having the courage to put my Work in front of others. For me this is the struggle, and too often I find myself taking the easy way.

Lying to yourself

You started to write this post about how saying “no” is hard, and you came up with some simple “hacks” to help. You thought you were pretty clever. It was going to be great, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, iCloud shit the bed, and you lost a couple hundred words.

You got burned and you changed your apps and your work flow and you started to write those words again. You hit a roadblock, so you saved the draft and decided to come back to it later. You’ve opened that document a few times since then, but something just doesn’t feel right about it. You’re not sure where to take it. Why? Why can’t you finish this essay?

Because its a huge pile of bullshit.

Because saying “no” isn’t really hard at all. In fact, its pretty much the simplest fucking thing that you can do. It’s one of the first things everyone learns to say. When you choose to say “no” by default, when you do it over and over, it becomes even easier. No, I can’t commit to that deadline. No, I don’t need to change my task manager. No, I don’t eat dessert. No, I’m not drinking alcohol on weekdays.

Problem is, somewhere along the way, you forgot how.

You say yes to projects you don’t have time to do. You say yes to re-evaluating your workflows instead of doing the work. You say yes to eating junk food and sitting on the couch watching TV.

Years ago you got really good at saying no. It helped you lose 70 lbs. But time has passed, and you’ve got two kids and a sedentary job and lifestyle, so you’ve gained most of that weight back. You’re also busier and more stressed than you’ve ever been.

So when you read that unfinished essay, you realize you’re lying to yourself, and by publishing it you’d just be lying to everyone else. And that’s when you decide to stop.

Saying “no” isn’t hard, and the sooner you admit this to yourself, the sooner you can get on with it and do some goddamn work.

Growing pains

Starting hurts.

When I woke up this morning and moved to get out of bed, virtually every muscle in my body was aching. This is because yesterday I started a regime of exercise, as one does, to get back in shape for the new year.

Whenever I begin to work out again after a period of inactivity, it hurts. I’m able to push through the pain because I’m excited about getting in shape. When I commit to eating healthy and to eating less, the pangs of hunger hurt. Its OK, because I’m excited about burning those extra calories.

Right now I’m trying to write something, anything, every day so I can attempt to grow as a writer. It hurts; it’s so much easier just to read other people’s work or hop on a social network and refresh until someone says something inspiring. But I’m excited about prospect of getting better.

Maybe it’s like this for all projects or habits we start. We push through the pain because we’re excited about the goal. Hopefully by the time the excitement wears off, the pain subsides and a new habit is formed, right?

But is that really the point?

When we repeat an exercise routine or a diet, our gains (or losses, depending on which direction we’re going) plateau. The body adapts. We can lose faith that we’re on the right track and give up, or keep plugging away with no tangible results.

I know when I’m working out, when I’m really into the swing of it, I look forward to the pain. If I don’t feel it, I know it’s time to challenge myself. Maybe add more weight or change my routine so I can progress and grow.

We can apply this same mentality elsewhere, too. When something becomes easy, perhaps it’s because we’re not challenging ourselves enough.

Keep moving, working, challenging, making and shipping. Keep growing. Starting hurts, and I think maybe its supposed to so we know that we’re moving in the right direction.

Letting go

In June of 1998, we celebrated my Grandfather’s eighty-fifth Birthday. The party was held in the common room of the hospital’s palliative care unit.

He was losing a long battle with emphysema and other smoking-related problems. He had fought them for so many years, I don’t recall a time in my life when he was healthy.

I imagine he must have been in considerable pain that day, because he was heavily dosed with Morphine. There were some other visitors in the common room during the party, and Grandpa kept asking what they were doing in our campsite. Opiates must be something special.

He tired quickly after the cake was served and had to be taken to his room to lay down. At this point each of us were allowed a few minutes to “wish Grandpa a Happy Birthday” alone. The grand children went first, and I was sent in with my thirteen year old sister.

In retrospect, I knew full-well that we weren’t supposed to be saying “Happy Birthday”, we were supposed to be saying “goodbye”. But on that day I didn’t want to believe it. My sister and I wished him a Happy Birthday, gave him a hug, and turned to leave. He was suddenly lucid.

“You’re leaving already?” To me, specifically. Not my sister.

We told him we had to get back to the party. He paused, looked me in the eyes, smiled and nodded.

He had gone into palliative care, rallied, and been released before. He could do it again. Why would this time be any different?

This time was different. He passed away two days later.

I wish I had listened to my gut and taken my sister out of the room and then gone back in on my own. I wish I had told him how much he had meant to me, how he had taught me what true strength and integrity were. How he showed me what it meant to be a good man. But I didn’t. I just left.

This is in my thoughts as I sit on my bedroom floor and hold his World War II medals in my hands. I keep them in a box in my bedside drawer, mixed with various other trinkets from my past. Most of this stuff is just that: stuff. I pause, reflect on what memory it holds for me, and then, for most items, I place them onto a pile to be thrown away.

I’m at the tail end of a major year-end purge. We’ve donated or thrown away a dozen or so large garbage bags of “stuff” since Christmas. Kids toys, books, clothes, junk.

These medals are staying in my drawer, though. I will likely give them to my son when he is old enough to appreciate them.

However, I will let go of my regrets today. They don’t belong with Medals of Honour. Instead, they will be the company of good memories of a great man, as they are intended to be.

As we move forward into a new year, it is a good time to take stock of both our possessions and our thoughts. To pause, to reflect, to let go and to move on.

Happy New Year,

James

Pull to refresh

I’m worried about our relationship with the pull-to-refresh interface in most iOS applications. The user experience for this feature is great, but the nature of what the action represents is concerning.

The animations are ascetically pleasing. The luxury of syncing without having to close and reopen an app or wait a pre-configured interval of time is certainly appreciated. The pull-drag-bounce routine is satisfying at an almost emotional level, and the gesture itself is infinitely preferable to a manual sync button.

But what need or desire is compelling this action? What are we expecting to have transpired or changed in the brief moment since this application was opened? What update could possibly have been applied that would require another check so soon? This feeling is particularly insidious in regards to social media applications. What are we looking for when we pull-to-refresh?

Perhaps its the fear of missing out on some hilarious banter or breaking news. Perhaps we’re checking to see if you’ve responded to the message we just sent – What could you possibly be doing that is more important than reading and responding to my @reply!? – Perhaps we’ve lost our patience with asynchronous communication.

More likely though, its worse than all of that. What we’re waiting for is someone we follow to say something that is going to inspire us to action, or looking for someone share something that will distract us from it.

Every time we pull-to-refresh, there’s a small chance that we can delay or completely eliminate the need to conjure within ourselves the motivation to do something meaningful.

Fear

Yesterday I appeared as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, 70decibel’s Enough, with hosts Patrick Rhone and Myke Hurley. You can have a listen to it here.

Patrick was kind enough to ask me to come on the show following a comment that I posted on App.net regarding my recent set up of a plain text productivity “system” and the subsequent epiphany I had about GTD and Productivity as a result. I think it turned out ok. Or did it? This is something I’m irrationally terrified about.

I had originally intended to post an essay today outlining my system and how it came to be – kind of a companion to the show. I still might, at some point. (I’ve got about 500 words in an outline for it anyway…)

However, my experience yesterday has driven me to a slightly more personal topic: fear.

When Patrick asked me to be a guest, I jumped at the chance. Why wouldn’t I want to be on a show I listen to every week? No-brainer, right? But after the initial excitement started to wear off, and as time crept closer and closer to yesterday’s recording, a nearly overwhelming undercurrent of terror came over me.

I’m not much of a public speaker and just the thought of seeing myself on video is excruciating. Even listening to myself in a recorded voice message is painful. As a result, I spent most of the twenty minutes prior to our recording repeatedly connecting to the Skype call-testing service, listening to how ridiculous I sound saying “Test-Test-1-2-3”. Let’s just say I’m glad I was by myself.

Now, by this time I’m shaking slightly and sweating profusely. Like buckets of sweat. I’m completely inside my head and whats in there is not pretty. Suddenly, the least of my concerns is how I’m going to sound on the recording. I’m now terrified that everyone who listens to this podcast is going to think I’m a farce. Even worse, what if Pat and Myke think I’m an asshole? This is a big deal; I really respect both of these guys, and I’d rather them not know who am at all than to think I’m a giant douchebag.

This sequence of events isn’t uncommon for me, and is definitely not isolated to public speaking. It usually spirals downward from this point and ends in paralytic inaction followed by self-loathing and regret.

I feel fear every time I go to write an essay for this site. What if I pour my heart into words and they never land with anyone or worse are never read? There’s a reason the content here is sparse.

I feel fear when reviewing my tasks and projects. Why? It’s just a list of mostly simple-to-complete actions. I’ve been reflecting on this – I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m scared of the unknown. What if I complete the task in question or make progress on a project, and I can’t figure out what the next action is? It’s ludicrous.

I can’t be the only one who feels fear like this, right? I think this is what Julien is talking about in The Flinch. Pressfield might have called it the Resistance. Merlin covers it in his talk “Scared Shitless”.

I’m working on it. I’m trying to push aside the fear and press on. If you’re scared shitless, maybe you can too. Do the work. Create. Click on the “Answer Call” button – it’s just three nerds talking about text files. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Community

I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with social media and, to some extent, the Internet in general.

Mostly I’ve been considering what I’m looking for when signing up for these services. What purpose do they serve in my life or what void I’m trying to fill by scrolling through status updates.

I know I’m not looking for twenty three updates a day on the potty-training challenges of high school acquaintances I feel obligated to follow. I know I don’t want to read about what piece of virtual farm equipment they would most covet, either.

Recent news regarding Twitter and the direction they are heading coincides with my own questioning of how I use the service. I wasn’t around back in the early days, but Myke Hurley’s post On Twitter makes me nostalgic for that time. Sentiments in Patrick Rhone’s essay Twalden have inspired me to (temporarily?) delete the twitter client from my devices.

So then what am I looking for?

Frightening news yesterday from Patrick Rhone, and the subsequent reaction to it, drove it home for me: community.

Not networking. Not celebrity news. Not SEO tips, or unique visitors or page views. Certainly not funny videos about cats.

But instead a genuine sense of community. I think we all want a place where friends can support us when a loved one is sick, or share with us things that inspire them. And by “friends”, I mean real people with common interests, not car dealerships or mayonnaise manufacturers.

Will app.net flame out? Will it go the way of other networks before it? I don’t know. I hope not. Right now it has the potential to be a great community for its users, and I hope it stays that way.