Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: productivity (page 1 of 1)

doin thangs

Big bear 2

I haven’t written much over the years about what people call “productivity,” partly because I don’t have a lot to say. A few years ago I thought I would permanently be a Zettelkasten kind of guy, but then I discovered that I need different methods for different projects. But some things have remained constant: 

  1. I have two guiding principles
  2. My only task-management tool is a calendar; and 
  3. I use that calendar to schedule regular times for reviewing my notes and drafts. 

I haven’t written about that third one before, but it’s really the key ingredient. Many people think that having the right note-taking tool is essential to productivity, but I don’t. Sometimes I make notes on my computer in text files; sometimes I write in notebooks (of various kinds and sizes); sometimes I make voice notes on my phone. I just use whatever happens to be easiest at the moment — though when my mind is overfull I always sit down with a notebook and hand-write my thoughts for at least an hour. But I could probably do that with a voice note just as well. 

No, the tools don’t really matter to me, and I have learned not to fuss about them. What’s essential is scheduling time — I set aside an hour each Monday morning and a whole morning on or near the first of every month — to go over all of those notes and do a kind of self-assessment. I sit down with my notebook and my computer and ask: Where am I in my current projects? What did I accomplish last week? What do I need to think about further? Is there any research or reading I need to be doing? What should be my priorities this week (or this month)? That kind of thing.  

I could have the best note-taking system in the world and I’d still be lost if I didn’t have regular periods for review and reflection. 


I like this from my buddy Austin Kleon: A solution to writer’s block: Transcribe yourself — I do something similar, though not for writer’s block, because that’s an affliction I have never experienced. (“More’s the pity,” some of you are saying.) I use dictation as a means of generating unfiltered ideas, and transcription of the audio files as a way of filtering the ideas I’ve generated.

But I don’t use my phone. I use this:

IMG 0029

Why use a separate device when I could use my phone? Because this thing ain’t connected to the internet. When I’m sitting down to do some serious reading, I don’t want any internet-connected device within reach. If I have a thought about something in a book, I grab this little recorder, note the book and the page, and briefly describe the idea. Sometimes I read a relevant passage into the mic.

Many people want a way of recording ideas that has less friction — for instance, they want a device that will transcribe their spoken thoughts for them. There are times when I use such services (Dragon is great), but I avoid them in my idea-generating phase because I think friction is my friend. It helps me a lot to have my thoughts on a device that I just have to listen to. When I do my weekly review sessions, usually on Monday mornings, I go through all the little audio files I’ve recorded in the past week to listen for ideas that have some value. Then I type out clarified and condensed versions of them, which makes them usable for essays or posts. Again: unfiltered recording, filtered transcription.


Freddie might be indulging in a bit of exaggeration for rhetorical effect here, responding to the “discourse of exhaustion”:

Listen. Listen to me and understand: you are exhausted because your species was a mistake. You are exhausted because life is pain. You are exhausted because for 200,000 years we evolved to run the plains like the wild animals we were, our social circles 10 or 12 people at most, and now our conditions have changed so quickly that evolution can’t keep up, so we sift through our thousands of human connections spellbound by the impossibility of maintaining them all as we sit in our cramped and sterile apartments in crowded cities that were never meant to exist. Once we were animals. Now we are something much worse.

Let’s grant, per argumentum, that all this is true. It nevertheless is also true that I have never been as tired at the end of a school year as I am right now. Covidtide has been distinctively challenging for many of us, it just has, though I don’t claim to have a full understanding of all aspects of the phenomenon.

One of the small comforts of the past year has been reading the blog of Ada Palmer, a science-fiction writer and historian of the Renaissance who also deals with chronic debilitating illness, and in the course of learning how to deal with her symptoms has learned a few things that might be helpful to the rest of us.

Among other things, dealing with occasional incapacity has made her attentive to elements of the historical record that others might pass over. She especially notices all the quotidian things that stand between us and what we want to do, what to be. For instance, in a transcript of a talk, this reflection on Michelangelo:

In his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.

And then — more directly connected to our moment — a comment on Isaac Newton:

Early in the pandemic the anecdote went viral that Isaac Newton came up with his theory of gravity while he was quarantining in the country from a plague, and many people (not jokingly enough) used it to say we should have high standards for what we produce in a pandemic, or that if we don’t set high standards it means we’re not geniuses like him. The true fact (historian here, this is my period!) is that Newton did theorize gravity while quarantining, but didn’t have library access, and while he was testing the theory he didn’t have some of the constants he needed (sizes, masses), so he tried to work from memory, got one wrong, did all the math, and concluded that he was wrong and the gravity + ellipses thing didn’t work. He stuck it in a drawer. It was only years later when a friend asked him about Kepler’s ellipses that he pulled the old notes back out of the drawer to show the friend, and the friend spotted the error, they redid the math, and then developed the theory of gravity. Together, with full library access, when things were normal after the pandemic. During the pandemic nobody could work properly, including him. So if anyone pushes the claim that we should all be writing brilliant books during this internationally recognized global health epidemic, just tell them Newton too might have developed gravity years earlier if not for his pandemic.

If you’be been able to be as chipper and as productive in this past year as you normally are, consider yourself blessed. I sure as hell haven’t managed it.