My Most Important Daily Writing Assignment

I write all day and have for as long as I can remember. Some of it is for pay, but I journal every day as well and take an insane amount of notes about everything.

But the most important thing I write all day happens around 5:30am when I'm packing my son's lunch. Every day I write a new note for him. At 5-years old, he's as sensitive as I was at his age...extremely. A little pick-me-up half-way through the day makes a real difference.

He returns the notes to me at the end of the day. I photograph the ones that survive every week.

He returns the notes to me at the end of the day. I photograph the ones that survive every week.

I tell him our dog wrote his notes (thus the paw prints). He plays along, but reminds me dogs can't write notes.

I tell him our dog wrote his notes (thus the paw prints). He plays along, but reminds me dogs can't write notes.

The funniest thing about it is how much I stress about making each day's note different and positive for him. But when it's done, it feels like I can take on the writing day with some momentum. It's so strange that such a little thing can carry so much emotional meaning and have such a impact on the rest of both our days.

David DuChemin on Productivity

Photographer and Publisher David DuChemin describes his process and it sounds familiar:

“On a smaller scale my productivity has gone way up as I’ve transitioned from keeping a TO DO list to just putting stuff – even the smaller tasks – straight on the calendar. Putting it on a list says 'do this at some point' putting it on my calendar says 'do it now.' I still keep the list because that’s where things go before I put them on the calendar. But if I sit down on Sunday and think about what I need to do in the coming week, the stuff comes off the list and goes onto the calendar. I schedule it.”

With this system, he's written 9 books and 20 ebooks, while running a publishing and photo business, traveling around the world, and hosting workshops. This is the kind of stress test on a productivity system I could not duplicate.

Remember, worthwhile productivity systems exist to help you to work LESS and stress LESS, while making greater progress towards a better life, whatever that means to you specifically. It's not about just getting more done.

I may sound like a broken record on this topic, but it appears I'm in good company.

The Future of A Lesser Photographer

Craft and Vision Publishing has just announced they’re moving to a new business model. They’re having one final sale on 50 books, including A Lesser Photographer.

After Friday, A Lesser Photographer will no longer be sold on their site.

What does this mean for A Lesser Photographer?

All rights to the books they publish will revert to their authors in six months. We will be free to update and sell our books however we want.

My plan is to add several chapters to the book and publish it in print for the first time. I’m looking into designers and printers now.

I’ve been dying to update the book and this opportunity is like an early Christmas gift.

I thank David DuChemin for believing in the book and spreading the message to all his fans. I wish Craft and Vision all the luck whatever new business model they choose. They won’t need it. They’re smart cookies over there.

Ignorance is Bliss

Having an "external brain" in the form of a smartphone appears to be making us stupider:

"Scientists have begun exploring that question — and what they’re discovering is both fascinating and troubling. Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens." - Nicholas Carr

At the same time, having an "external brain" in any form appears make us calmer and less overwhelmed.

"Because the number of items we can attend to is limited, we need to get things out of our head into the external world, so we can allow our brains to think clearly. The brain evolved exquisite place memory and mechanisms for reminding us of things. And that reminding mechanism ends up today as a bunch of chatter in your head. If you write it down, your brain knows that you've written it down, and it can stop reminding you." - Daniel Levitin, Professor of Psychology, Cognitive Scientist, and author of The Organized Mind

Ignorance is bliss?

How to Balance Creativity and Productivity

A post over at Kottke.org about the struggle between creativity and productivity is getting a lot of attention today. I don't usually link to trendy articles, but this is right up my alley: 

"I get more done in less time than I ever have, but sometimes I feel like there’s nothing creative about my work anymore. Sure, I make the doughnuts every day but am not inventing the cronut. How do you accomplish your work but also leave ample time for letting your creative mind off the leash?"

Short answer: embrace the calendar. Long answer:

I wrote several articles about the tug-of-war between creativity and productivity 5 years ago. I went on podcasts to defend my anti-productivity rants. The debate got as far as David Allen himself mentioning it on a podcast (though not me by name), where he quickly dismissed the issue. He claimed this struggle is well covered in the Getting Things Done philosophy. 

I'd like to say I've come a long way since then, but the truth is this has always been a struggle and always will be. The philosophy behind GTD is more solid than I gave it credit for back then. This is mostly because the foundation of GTD is at the intersection of buddhism and neuroscience. There's essentially thousands of years of research into the mind, backed by new scientific discoveries, that went into GTD. It's a good system.

It's the implementation of GTD that's the issue. It's intended to be different for every user, but it's usually not practiced that way.

If you don't have enough white space in your life to create, either build that white space into your life or, if you don't have that agency over your time, be OK with where you are until you do. Stop being so hard on yourself. The anxiety of not getting something done is far worse for you than not getting something done.

After a decade, I still use GTD, but I use it as an inbox - a place where I capture all my actionable ideas. But the calendar is where I organize my life now, because time is the common denominator for all these struggles, tasks, and projects.

Your life can be filled with endless tasks and the anxiety of not knowing whether you'll have the time to complete them, or you can ensure there's whitespace for the balance between play and work by building it into your habits and calendar. You just have to learn to be OK with the concrete fact (obvious on a calendar) that the less important tasks will have to fall away. Let them go.

Be healthy. Build more play into your life. Don't expect it to happen on its own.

The Most Important Call to Action for Your Readers

From the Mailchimp for Agencies newsletter, issue #60:

“When I’m doing a newsletter for Small Biz Triage, there’s only ever one call to action,” Rasmussen says. “That is ‘Reply.’ Write back with a question, ask to meet up for coffee, I just want you to hit ‘Reply.’” 
“Now, e-commerce clients don’t necessarily want that,” Rasmussen continues. “They want to move some product. But there’s real value in getting direct feedback and for your customers to know that if they do reply they’re going to be talking to a real person.”

Well said. So much of what's said in this article is smart and logical, but I've never seen this in the wild.

These guys understand modern publishing. It's small, responsive, and human.

I personally respond to each new subscriber and encourage as many replies to my newsletter as possible, because it's the most important thing I do online: connect with people. It's the whole reason I have a blog and a newsletter.

For a business, it's even more important. If you're not talking to your customers regularly, how will you know what they want next? If they don't know there's a human on the other end of that email, why would they want connect with you?

I have a lot of improvements to make to the design of my newsletter, but the most important design change will be to highlight the role of the reply.

 

An Inbox for Your Time

This week's dive into using scheduling instead of task management (see previous articles here), involves the step I get the most questions about: how do you track all the actionable stuff in your life that you can't schedule.

There's two somewhat shallow answers to this (with more nuance below):

  1. You're trying to track things you do not have time for and you need to ruthless about cutting stuff out of your life. Have a direction and eliminate anything you can that doesn't advance you in that direction.
  2. Stick to the fundamentals. Have a trusted capture system you can evaluate weekly. Process the most important actions into your schedule and eliminate everything else.

Option #1 works well when you have a greater amount of agency over your time. Most people don't. Those who teach about productivity topics are usually self-employed to some extent and do have the agency to employ option #1. Understand how much agency you have.

Option #2 is where most of us fit. I believe we should all strive to have as much agency over our time as possible, but if you have an employer and/or children (also known as employers), you will likely not be in full control of your time. You will have openings of time in which you can squeeze important actions. It's critical to identify those times. That's the power of scheduling for those with little agency.

Look at what happened when CEO of Basecamp Jason Fried found out that he's a rare option #1 guy surrounded by option #2 readers. There's a real disconnect between the two types and it's all about agency.

The tactic I recommend for those solidly in option #2 is to have a GTD-style inbox. Most proponents of scheduling do keep inboxes, whether they admit it or not. This could be a notebook, a series of lists in an app, or an assistant. For example, Richard Branson uses a pocket notebook, then passes the info along to several assistants. Several writers I know use paper journals. I use lists as described in GTD. The important thing is to have a place you totally trust to unload and maintain those actions outside of your head.

“Cognitive science has now validated that if you try to keep more than four things in your mind at once, you’ll lose objectivity about their relationships with each other and denigrate your performance. Less important things will bother you more than they should, and you won’t give the tactical and strategic stuff the objective attention it deserves...Similarly, if you don’t fully trust your personal systems, you are likely to be dedicating inappropriate and unnecessary mental attention to details and content, often with a resultant negative emotional component. You’ll feel pulled, overwhelmed, and often like you’re close to losing control.” - David Allen

Some may see this as an excuse to run fully back to to-do lists with no scheduling component. That's OK. Having a trusted capture system in place is an important first step. If you don't have a trusted capture system, get that first.

Time is the common denominator of all tasks and projects, though. To be honest about what we can really do in a day and what's really important to us, we must work toward taking control (or at least a full accounting) of our time.

The Value of Attention

I see it all the time. A big-name author or rock star enjoys the adulation of millions of fans, but takes home a fraction of the income of a C-level executive or investor.

Both envy each other, but I don't know anyone who would honestly take fame over money. In fact, the truly wealthy pay more to keep their lives as private as possible.

We're told every day as creators online that attention = prosperity. But no one's attention online lasts long enough for that to be true anymore (if it ever was).

I recently saw two posts on different social networks, one from a writer and one from a photographer, pleading with their tens of thousands of followers to help them pay their bills because one lost a gig and the other dropped his camera.

This can't be where we're going.

At 16, I was into two things: guitar playing and starting a small business. They were my two passions, and I quit all sports and extra curricular activities to practice and plot. If I were giving advice to myself from the future it would be: go all in on the business, then use the freedom that affords to pursue any kind of art you want.

That sounds like old man advice, and being a teenager I would have probably ignored it. Now, it's the advice I'd give any young artist who had even the slightest interest in business.

"Attention is the ultimate form of currency." - Sally Hogshead, advertising guru

At one time I would have agreed with this quote. Now, I think currency is the ultimate form of currency. Attention is one path of many to get where you want to be, and increasingly, it's a less desirable path.

My Favorite Newsletter

As an evangelist for email newsletters, I'm often asked for examples of the best. The problem is, the best are often niche newsletters that only a few hundred or a few thousand specific readers care about...but they REALLY care about them. That's exactly where you want to be as a publisher.

I can't tell you who's best for you, but I can tell you about my favorite.

My favorite newsletter isn't really a newsletter as most would define it in 2017. But I've read every issue for almost two decades, because it's the most useful email publication I receive that's specific to my interests.

Many of you know, I wrote a book in 1999 called The Van Halen Encyclopedia. I kept updating that book until around 2003, when the crush of new information coming from online detectives forced me to decide between spending all my time updating the book or having a real life. I chose to have a real life, and have since written more books, had two jobs in professional writing, and started a family. Good choice.

My interest in the information never waned, though. I think Eddie Van Halen is a musical talent who only comes along once in a generation (if you're lucky). I want to know what he and his band are up to, but I don't want to put in the work I used to.

That's why my favorite newsletter is the All Van Halen Announcement List.

It was started on Yahoo! back in 1999 when the idea of internet mailing lists had lost its popularity. Since then, Ron Higgins has faithfully published every major media mention about Van Halen on this list, which shoots me an email digest.

I know everything that's happening without having to subscribe to countless websites and social media accounts devoted to the band. I also have a searchable text archive of every major article and news piece written about the band since 1999. That's incredible. If I did decide to do another update to the book, this archive would be the primary source of information for it.

Only 192 people still subscribe to the All Van Halen Announcement List, yet Ron continues to maintain it in a thoughtful, easy to read, all-text format.

It's a shame. I wish all our media resources were as unobtrusive and utilitarian as Ron's emails. I'm sure, if I got all my news in this calm, collected way, I'd be healthier for it.

The Message vs. the Book

Being published by a big time publisher does not mean you’ll be read by a lot of people. You could probably reach more people with your message through a blog or podcast. Actually, you could probably reach even more people through someone else’s blog or podcast, or even Youtube channel (which is getting huge, but as a closed, monopolistic system, I urge a bit more caution).

I believe in the gravitas of books. I believe it changes perceptions about an idea and the person behind it. But I don’t believe it spreads a message best.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris (author of 5 New York Times bestsellers) recently stated that it would take him years of marketing his books to equal the same audience he gets every week on his podcast. The reach isn’t even close. But he doesn’t stop making books.

The ability of the book to clarify a topic in the writer, photographer, and reader’s mind is still without parallel.

It’s just not where you go for an audience. 

Podcaster Pat Flynn encourages people to get into podcasting no matter how small the listenership:

“If you were to create a podcast and you only have 200 people listening for example — imagine a room full of 200 people, that you’re standing in front of, and they’ve come there to see you and listen you and listen to your message. And this happens every single week. That really puts that 200 people in perspective."

Blogging and podcasting are great at spreading a message. The book is still the best home for the message.