Should We Stop Listening to Podcasts?

When you mention time and attention theft, most creators think of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (which I call Facebook II). They usually don’t think about Youtube or podcasts, which have the same issues: the ad model and all its abuses to the listener, and the lack of quality in favor of burn-out-inducing “consistency” and quantity (something that is also tied to the ad model).

I didn’t give too much thought about it until recently. I quit Facebook and Instagram years ago. I became the lightest of Twitter users.

I hadn’t cared that podcasts were robbing just as much of my attention. Then, while wondering why I was using two apps to manage them (each does something better than the other and both block ads in their own way), I saw this post from Ben Brooks:

“Isn’t the entire point of a podcast that the entire podcast is relevant and entertaining? Why are people paying to get these “features” instead of demanding better content?”

Then this from Matt Thomas:

“The podcast is free but your time isn’t.”

Both were painful to read, because they were totally true. We’re just numb to the Buzzfeed-ification of podcasts, even (especially?) in outlets like NPR.

Then came popular YouTuber CGPGrey (one my favorite podcasters) and his Project Cyclops. In short, this is a well-known, well-liked podcaster who is now advising people to stop listening to podcasts. He has promised to stop listening himself as well — he will only create.

He followed up his announcement of Project Cyclops with an episode questioning why we’re letting attention seekers (arguably the last people we should encourage) have access to so much of our time. He refers to them as the kids from Drama club (nice people, but with a dire need for our constant attention).

To cap it off, Grey posted this excellent video to begin Project Cyclops. If you’d like to dive into the science and philosophy behind such projects, check out Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

Funny that I haven’t heard much about this on the podcasts I listen to...or on Twitter. These people usually adore Grey and his projects. It’s almost as if they’re chained to a business model that won’t them be open and honest.

A Free Mini Scheduling Course

"As soon as I have a schedule, I can fail."

Amen. This is the best reason/admission I've ever heard from someone scared about scheduling. It's also the best reason I've ever heard to make scheduling a part of your life.

Francis Wade turned me on to this series of videos on time management for ADHD sufferers. I don't have ADHD, but I found a lot of answers to basic questions about scheduling I often see in my email.

Chris Hardwick on Scheduling and Note Taking

The Evernote podcast recently interviewed Chris Hardwick about his productivity habits. How did he go from unknown stand-up comic to the guy who seems to be the go-to nerd representative on TV?

First, he puts a priority on scheduling and organizing his calendar:

"There’s no trick to getting better at stuff, you just have to do that stuff. In order to do that, you have to organize your time."
"I think color-coding your calendar is really important because if your calendar is just full one color, it’s going to look like an overwhelming mess. Color helps you realize that your events are modular. The color is going to tell you what emotional importance it has, so you can make better decisions about how and where to put things and balancing out your days. Like, “oh I have all green this one"

Then, he stresses writing EVERYTHING down.

It’s important to write everything down. Whether it’s a notebook or Evernote or whatever, keep track of all that stuff because it allows you to manipulate it, like in your color-coded calendar, to make that information into modular bits of useful data that you can move around and use in more effective ways. 
In the same way that you would organize a closet, and have everything stacked and put exactly where you know where everything is, it allows you to do that emotionally with your life in all the intangible things that you can’t see, but you experience. And it allows you to create so much better of an emotional flow for work and your personal life. But you can’t do that unless you really start tracking all that stuff.

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.

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.

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.

Why You Should Work in Silence

I read this a while ago in The Atlantic and didn't want to believe it:

"Studies show that for most types of cognitively demanding tasks, anything but quiet hurts performance.”

The whole article is good, but that's the main idea.

I love listening to music while working. I can usually remember what I am working on by the song that was playing at the time. I remember working in the darkroom on a print that won contest back in 1995. How did I know it was 1995? Three new albums were playing on repeat while I was printing: Astro Creep 2000, Balance, and Waiting for the Punchline.

These days I have instrumentals or thunderstorms playing while I'm working. But, after reading this, I tried silence for a while. Then, I went back and forth comparing the quantity and quality of my work.

Turns out, at least for me, the article is accurate: I work better in silence.

But I have more fun with sound.

I suppose the answer is to weigh your priorities at the time (heavily biased towards fun), and never ever work in an open office.

Chris Ducker on Time Management

Chris Ducker has spent years studying and implementing time management techniques, and writing about what he's learned. He agrees with a growing number of my peers that schedules beat to do lists. In fact, in a recent episode of his podcast, he broke down the top 5 things he's done over the years to get more done AND increase his free time. His rules:

  1. Track your time.
  2. Give yourself less time than you actually need.
  3. Schedule everything. Literally everything.
  4. Speed up your consumption time.
  5. Save email until after lunch.

Why schedule everything? He explains:

"It’s only since I’ve been scheduling everything that I’ve had more free time than ever. When I left my calendar open and clear, I worked probably 16, 17 hours a day. I never saw the bloody finish line, because I always had something I could be getting on with, because my calendar wasn’t dictating what I should and shouldn’t be doing. Now, however, that I schedule every little thing into some block, I work a 6-hour day. I never work a Friday. I haven’t worked a Friday for almost 4 years now. So, not only am I more relaxed and more productive when I’m at work, but I get to spend more time with the people I truly love and cherish.”

As for tools:

“I don’t use any sexy to do lists...I just use my Calendar on my iPhone.”

As a content marketer (let's just say writer/podcaster), this guy is way more successful than 99.9% of all writer/podcasters. I think we can learn from his example, and the examples of other evangelists for this method, like Garrick van Buren and Patrick Rhone. The calendar may be the most important and underused tool on your phone.

Schedule Your Thinking

Tom Kelley and David Kelley in Harvard Business Review:

“Schedule daily 'white space' in your calendar, where your only task is to think or take a walk and daydream. When you try to generate ideas, shoot for 100 instead of 10. Defer your own judgment and you’ll be surprised at how many ideas you have—and like—by the end of the week.”

It sounds silly to schedule time for daydreaming, thinking or taking a walk, but if you don't schedule it, it won't happen.

I know that if I schedule a few hours in a meeting room at the library, I can usually write a few posts and even plan a project or two. If I don't schedule it, none of that happens. I will respond to email, clean, get groceries - literally anything but create something worthwhile. 

There's always something or someone pulling at my time, with perfectly good reasons. But, if I want to accomplish anything, I need to put an obstacle (and some distance) between myself and that obligation.

As for the second part, generating ideas, it works. James Altucher popularized the notion of coming up with 10 ideas a day - 20 if your struggling with 10 (just come up with lots of bad ideas and stop being a perfectionist about it). It's now a part of my morning ritual, which is also scheduled.