Is the pencil over? It’s no secret we’ve turned to keyboards and touch screens to convey our thoughts, complete our work in the office and design everything from bespoke stationery to custom footwear. For most, it’s hard to recall the last time an octagonal wooden shaft rested between our fingers. But for a select set of highly creative individuals, writing instruments are still in high demand.
I’m surprised how many of the artists quoted in the article use pencils. As a lefty, I’ve never been able to use a pencil effectively. But a good pencil has its advantages.
I’m in the middle of major life reorganization. Two weeks ago, I moved from Illinois to Central Florida, as I mentioned earlier. Since that move, I’ve also started transitioning to full-time freelance editing. I used to teach full-time while editing and writing on the side. Now I hope to flip that: edit and write full-time and teach fewer classes each semester.
I fall into the latter group. There is something about Tim Ferriss I can’t stand: he’s smarmy and arrogant in his approach. He promotes dubious “hacks” over doing authentic work.
So I got caught up in a conversation about Tim Ferriss with my friend and fellow blogger Jason Braun, who digs Ferriss’ work. (Readers may remember Jason from his post “Naked as a caveman, except for the tools.”) Jason recently lent me his copy of Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup, and that book got us talking about promotion and authenticity.
Handing back Jason’s copy The $100 Startup, I said I buy into Guillebeau’s approach more than Tim Ferris’s because Guillebeau ties it back to ethics and legacy. Then I said this: “Ferriss’ bullshit in last month’s Wired about becoming a superhuman through grey market drugs bothers the fuck out of me. It’s gimmicky, dishonest, and goes against the point of eastern philosophy and his idea of simplicity. I’m starting to realize that he’s a shill, and I’m tired of shills. Instead of taking random pills to wait and see what happens, he should have sat down for an hour to do some real work.”
Fast-forward to later that day, Jason wrote me on Facebook:
Jason: Picking up from our conversation about Tim Ferris before: I mean aren’t you at least a little impressed with the obsession that drove him to do drugs not for getting high and acting stupid, but to become part cyborg and greater than he was before? I mean, he was looking for the philosopher’s stone!
Kevin: My deal with Tim Ferriss isn’t all of his content, but his approach. He is very successful at what he does, I’ll give him that. But a lot of what he writes about is found in other books. In terms of his mix of Eastern and Zen philosophy and seeking fulfillment in work, I’ve read this before. You should check out Leo Babauta, for example. His whole idea is minimalism and breaking life down to the essential for self-fulfillment…so similar to Ferriss, but I guess I just like Babauta’s more subtle approach it’s more authentic–he’s like Yoda instead of the Death Star.
Jason: Just don’t hate me when I’m famous, Death Star or no. The easiest way might be the best way, and that’s what Ferriss does. I’d argue there’s no such thing as authenticity, and not every blog post or book needs to be a manifesto.
Kevin: I guess, but I think there’s something to ethics, legitimacy, and authenticity, however you define it. If everyone did what Ferriss did we’d all be loud asshats blowing things up instead of working together.
So readers, what do you think? Check out some of Ferriss’ work if you’re not familiar. Is he a 4-hour-genius, or another self-absorbed flash in the pan?
Oh, and Jason and I are still working this idea out. We’ll be back with more of our conversation soon.
Last week, I mentioned that a writing goal, like Chris Guillebeau’s goal of 1,000 words a day, can help you create the right writing habits. It’s the same for anything, really: if you can commit to something realistic, and do it every day, the rest will fall into place and you’ll see improvement.
For me, this same principle applies to running. As with my writing, my running hasn’t always been consistent, and I’m trying to change that. I try to run every other day, with another workout on off days to rest my muscles. Since November, I’ve been able to keep this schedule (for the most part) so it has become a consistent habit.
One of my favorite novelists is Haruki Murakami. His memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a reflection on his career as both a runner and writer. Throughout the book, he admits his writing only became an artistic and commercial success because he wrote every day and kept disciplined throughout his career.
This discipline came into play through his running as well. In the midst of his writing career, Murakami has run a handful of marathons including the Boston Marathon.
I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, but I found this quote from the book to be just as relevant today as it was when I read it the first time:
Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.
Running, just like writing, is a difficult process. It requires commitment and drive, then it requires follow-through. It’s not something you can do every once in a while; instead, it takes years of practice to improve.
Maybe you’re not a runner or writer, but the same applies to other creative work. Just remember: this is a process, and it requires drive, persistence, and consistency to be successful.
Since it’s the beginning of the year, I’ve been thinking a lot about professional and personal goals. One of my professional goals is to write more consistently. While I write a lot, I’ve always been an inconsistent writer. I tend to sit down for a couple hours and throw out thousands of words at a time, then go long periods without writing anything.
I’ve learned over the years that this approach doesn’t work for me. Over the past year, I’ve tried to standardize my writing schedule, and I’ve made some improvements. But this year, I hope to create even more consistency.
In all aspects of my life, I’m trying to create lasting habits. I’ve been successful with going vegetarian, creating a consistent workout schedule, and getting regular sleep, but I haven’t been successful with consistent writing. However, I’ve come up with a strategy to change that.
The 1,000 words standard is that I commit to write at least 1,000 words a day of something. I don’t necessarily think all 1,000 words are good enough for publication; in this case, the discipline is more important to me than whatever the final deliverable is. I know my own weaknesses, and I know I won’t be happy with myself if I miss more than a day or two once in a while. Accounting for Sabbath days and occasional missed days, this allows me to generate an annual output of 300,000 written words — about 100 blog posts, 20 newspaper columns, 20 guest articles for various outlets, 3 information products, and 1 book each year.
This might not be the best approach for everyone — after all, Guilebeau’s career is built on his writing — but the point is that Guillebeau commits to a habit and shows the results of that habit.
Personally, I commit to an hour a day of writing. During that hour, I put aside everything else and focus only on writing. I try my best to keep with this schedule, but sometimes I’ll miss days. If I miss a day, I don’t stress, but I try to write something, even if it’s just a short five-minute reflection at the end of the day. The point is to stay consistent.
I find that on days when I write for at least an hour, I end up with about 500 words, or two pages, of writing. Doing some quick math, this ends up being about 150,000 words a year. That’s an impressive amount, but I have to commit to it.
What are some of your writing commitments and processes? Feel free to share in the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter.
On a whim last October, I signed up for a MOOC on Coursera.org. For those not familiar with the term, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and it’s just that: an online course open to the public. Coursera.org brings together a collection of MOOCs on various subjects through partnerships with a collection of Universities. Essentially, by taking a Coursera.org MOOC, the student is able to access these courses for free. Open access is an important component in the MOOC movement, and it’s also a movement many scholars are taking very seriously.
Coursera.org doesn’t offer degrees or official accreditation from the host Universities, but they do offer a certificate of completion from the instructors offering the course. This gives the student “bragging rights,” but it also shows a willingness to legitimize the course for the student, even if the student isn’t getting a degree or a grade at the end. Over time, some type of accreditation system could be implemented in these courses.
There is much debate about the role of MOOCs in higher education. Many in higher education are skeptical of their lasting power and see the MOOC movement as a fad, and others are hostile. Obviously, MOOCs are incredibly disruptive to the status quo in academia, and many wonder if MOOCs will weaken the value of higher education.
As a recovering academic and current adjunct instructor at a state university, I see some value in keeping certain aspects of the traditional university intact. For example, the traditional university provides structure, credibility, and (in some cases) funding for cutting-edge research. For many students, this provides enough value for the time and money spent on a degree.
Yet it appears that MOOCs disrupt the university in all of the right ways: they extract the core value of higher education (knowledge and discovery) for anyone to access. While a degree might help some people start a career or attain mandatory qualifications, the university, as structured today, is too insular and doesn’t represent our interconnected and networked ways of living. The MOOC, however, allows for access to education via the internet, and it does without the debt or the long-term time commitment.
Why would I take a MOOC now? I don’t really know the answer to this question, except that I’m curious about what it’s like to take a course in this way. I chose a course that will relate to my profession, and I hope it will be successful.
I will blog about my MOOC experience while it takes place, but it doesn’t start until January 28. (By the way, the MOOC I signed up for is called “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” so feel free to join in if you’d like.) Until then, here are some of my goals:
Use the MOOC to network with other like-minded individuals
Gain new skills related to digital technology and culture
Be open-minded and curious about the material
Take a critical look at the role of the MOOC in the next few years: is it a fad, or does it have staying power?
One MOOC is not enough to judge its value, but I hope that by going through this process, I’ll start to rethink what it means to gain knowledge in the 21st Century.
This is the time of the year when many people either make resolutions to change, stop, and/or improve something in their lives, whether it’s to finally write that novel or head to the gym. Waiting for these people are the gym membership specials and writing workshops ready to take these resolution holders’ money, even though they know that most will fail.
In the past, I’ve made similar resolutions. The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are designed to fail: after a couple weeks — or, if you’re good, months — it’s easy to fall back into bad habits. When a resolution is set, the tendency is to think that if it’s not met right away, the resolution was a failure. This repeats the cycle of starting and failing at resolutions when they’re not met.
So this year, I’m done with resolutions. I want to see what it’s like to live mylife without worrying about some ridiculous set of rules or unrealistic achievements.
That doesn’t mean I won’t set goals or try to achieve my best. In fact, setting goals, instead of making resolutions, is a more effective strategy, according to a MarketWatch article by Chuck Jaffe (“Make goals — not resolutions — for 2013”). In the article, Jaffe says that setting goals will allow you to achieve more in smaller increments (toward a larger goal) and helps you avoid the crash-and-burn of resolution failure:
That’s why I gave up on resolutions back in the 1980s and instead started setting annual goals. I didn’t want a single mistake to sideswipe a long-term pledge, so I started drawing up a wide-ranging list of personal targets covering everything from the family to the financial. I would write down my goals, put them in a sealed envelope and send them back to me, with the envelope tacked unopened on my office bulletin board as a subtle-but-constant reminder that I had promises to keep.
Like Jaffe, I have a list of long-term goals this year, but I have short-term targets to meet throughout the year. Some of these are professional, some are personal…but all of them help me achieve my best this year. I started doing this about six months ago, so even though I have specific plans for 2013, I’ve been working toward these goals for a while. I see more success when I focus on short-term targets with the long-term goal in the back of my mind.
For example, I want to get in shape. I enjoy running, so for the last few months, instead of focusing on how many miles I’ve run or my running pace, I’ve focused on creating the habit loop. (For more on habit loops, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.) Now I’m in the habit of running on a schedule, so I can focus on how many miles I run regularly. Then, I can start focusing on other exercise routines. I use apps on my smartphone to track this for me, and I can see improvements as a result. Instead of focusing on the failures, I focus on what is working.
Think about the resolutions you have set this year, and consider turning those into goals. Set up short-term goals (or achievements) that help you build up to achieve the long-term goal. Don’t focus on the times you fail — there will be those times. Instead, make sure you keep working towards the larger goal.
Two months ago, I wrote an article about how “wasting time” helps someone stay sane and allows for more productivity. I wrote this in the context of creative activities, like writing, but since the article went live, I’ve had a lot of readers from all types of careers respond positively to the ideas in the article.
In the article, I talked about how the brain works better when it’s not always in that clenching state of mind. Research indicates that we have our best moments of insights when we step away from the issue we’re trying to resolve than when we force a solution. Although there are many instances when sticking with a problem can lead to a new solution, it’s often a good idea (especially when really stuck) to go do something unrelated to work. For me, that’s usually a walk or some outdoor activity that kicks my brain into gear. Other times, it’s a matter of leaving certain things for the next day and moving on to another project or idea, or simply sitting or meditating.
Although I’ve been thinking about my productivity for a while, it’s only been in the last two months that I’ve practiced this idea of getting away and wasting time when stuck. In the article from August, I mentioned some strategies I’ve put in place based on this idea and another book about productivity, The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. Here’s what I’ve done to keep myself sane:
Set realistic daily goals, with one main objective and no more than three smaller tasks
Don’t do “real work” past 8 p.m., with a goal to get this down to an earlier time, like 5 or 6 p.m.
Set aside 2 times a day for e-mails and spend only a short amount of time responding to each (and only respond to those most important)
Set aside at least 20 minutes each day for low-stakes writing and another 20 minutes to work out or walk
Know when it’s time to set things aside and move on (this has been a challenge, but I’m getting better)
Before I go into my progress on all of these, let me first explain what my schedule is like to give some context. Right now, I teach four college composition courses at two separate universities, tutor at a college writing center, work part-time evenings and every other weekend at my local public library, and do some freelance writing and editing on the side. On top of this, I write on this blog and have started writing fiction (or more like try to, it’s not ready for the world to see quite yet).
While I enjoy all of these jobs, I end many days feeling overwhelmed with all of the stuff I have to do each day. I do fall behind easily on basic tasks and have, in the past, felt so much burnout that it has led to anxiety and other problems. I knew that when this semester started up, I needed a smart plan in place to keep sane and productive.
So far, this plan has worked: I’ve managed to keep my work and personal lives balanced enough to maintain this schedule. But these past few weeks were tough. Midterms just finished up, lots of essays and assignments needed grading, and I’ve had to adjust. I’ve had to say no to some people, even for projects or tasks I’ve wanted to do. I’ve also had to do a lot of work early in the morning in order to maintain my commitment to my wife that I wouldn’t work past 8 so that we’d have time together each night.
Here are some of the ways I’ve adjusted in order to stay sane. When I can’t get away to do something fun, I keep these ideas in mind to balance my objectives.
1. Redefine fitness goals. Here’s my problem: when I start something that matters, I tend to go all in. This is good in some cases, but a hindrance in others. Also, if I don’t meet some unreasonable goal set by myself at the beginning of starting something new, I tend to give up quickly. This happens with my workouts. I try to add miles onto my run that take away from my time to do other meaningful things. I have to remind myself that I’m not training for a marathon. Instead, the goal is to maintain adequate fitness and to take advantage of the happiness and productivity inducing brain power a decent workout provides. I make sure I have at least 15 to 20 minutes of something: a short run, a brisk walk with my dog, or a couple minutes on the bike. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but enough to where it’s beneficial to me.
2. Learn to say no. Another problem of mine: I tend to take on too much at once because I have a lot I want to do. I’m also lucky in that I know a lot of people who need help with projects and who want to help me out with mine. But lately, I’ve had to turn down some exciting freelance opportunities because I know I just can’t do it all.
3. Unplug and detox from the internet. I’ve picked a couple days out of the last few months to get off the internet. This is an idea I’ve written about before, and I recommend it as a way to gain more focus.
3. Minimize my time spent preparing for classes I teach. I am confident enough in my teaching strategies at this point in my career, so I don’t feel a need to add on to what I know works. I also let my students know that if they need help on an assignment outside of the time I’ve already set aside to help them, they’re on their own, or they need to use campus resources like the Writing Center for any further help. The key is that if I’ve set aside an hour for office hours that day, I need to do what I can in that hour, and everything else will have to wait. Basically, this is a matter of knowing and acknowledging the boundaries I’ve set.
4. Keep long-term goals in mind all the time. One of the reasons I write fiction, maintain this blog, and write and edit for friends and colleagues I trust is because my long-term goal is this: I want to be an independent writer. Teaching writing is great, and in many ways, it helps writers pay the bills while freeing them up to spend time writing every day. But teaching is just a means to an end, in my opinion. Maybe I shouldn’t write that (keeping in mind that current and future employers are hiring me to teach), but that’s how I feel.
The key is that it’s important to prioritize those long-term goals each day. Spend a solid amount of time each day focusing on doing whatever it is that gets you to those goals — if you don’t, you’ll allow short-term, less important goals get in the way of your higher potential.
I’ve had some setbacks in the last few weeks, but I’m hoping this re-focus, and keeping up with the things that matter most, will get me through the rest of this semester and the next few to come.
With this in mind, what are some strategies you take in getting through each day? How do you maintain focus on what matters most to you?
The above quote comes from a scene in Hamlet that occurs before Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”). In this scene, Hamlet is reading a book that’s been reduced in his mind to mere words and has lost its meaning. Hamlet seems to be saying: what’s the point?
As a writer, teacher, and avid reader, I understand what it’s like to feel like what I do has lost its meaning, that my career with words is just that: words, words, words. It also reminds me to have some perspective on what I do — that yes, it is sometimes just about words, but that these words matter if I continue to build up my creative and professional experiences and learn from them.
This post is for creative people who want to create meaningful things that matter. I’d like to focus on two creative and professional approaches that have changed how I get stuff done. First, I’ve learned that doing things that seem counter-productive — “wasting time,” if you will — can help me focus on and finish more creative activities. Second, I’ve learned the value of trusting your intuition: that it’s OK to “lose control” and to improvise every now and then. Since I write and teach writing for a living, I’m focusing on the writing process (but this can apply to any creative activity, really).
The Idle Mind
I’ve written about the importance of “getting away” from the writing process in order to gain perspective in a previous post. These ideas come from Jonah Lehrer’s now-controversial book Imagine, but putting aside Lehrer’s recent issues, there is still a lot to gain from his ideas about the creative process. Lehrer explains that getting away from our usual work habits tricks the brain into moments of clarity and insight:
While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged. (p. 33)
This idea is confirmed in a New Statesman article titled “What some people call idleness is the best investment.” In this article, author Ed Smith discusses why working too much is counter-productive, and that the “cult of busyness” creates bad work and unhappy people, not more creative output. For writers, he says this:
Most writers admit that they cannot write more than about four hours a day, even during a purple patch. They may lock themselves in the study all day long (safely protected from spouse and phone calls) but that doesn’t mean they are writing non-stop. You pedal a bit, then freewheel; even locked in your study, you will be doing this with your mind.
And yet the conventional workplace – the office – condemns the optimal working day as contemptibly slack. Watch carefully the next time someone rushes purposefully past you in the office corridor, shielded from eye contact by the ubiquitous smartphone, radiating the carefully honed “Can’t stop, too busy” expression so characteristic of corporate ambition. They are not rushing to arrive somewhere, still less to achieve anything. They are rushing because rushing is how they display how hard they work.
This idea sums up how I approached work up until at least the last year, but specifically the last couple months. After reading this article and Lehrer’s book, it confirmed that “being busy” isn’t the answer: the answer is finishing better work while allowing the mind to rest, to allow idle time, to not feel guilty for not working harder than is normal.
For example, right now I’m writing this blog post draft. I should be finishing up my semester teaching plans, working on content for a client, and reading some books that I agreed to review. Instead, I am writing this blog post, an activity unrelated to my most important work priorities right now. Why do this?
In the past, I would have scheduled all of these things into a packed 8-hour day, despite knowing that I need to teach a night class tonight, clean up around the house, walk my dog, and make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I would then feel guilty when, as always, I didn’t finish everything. This guilt would turn into real procrastination and more guilt/worry, creating stress in my life and a feeling of unnecessary busyness.
My current “time wasting” is not because I’m lazy or I want to avoid the work. It’s because this morning, I hit a brick wall with some of my teaching plans and I need to get away from it and think about it later. If I kept working on it right now, I know I’d produce shoddy work and end up with poorly written assignment sheets, class plans that are half-baked, etc. (it’s happened before). In terms of the client work, well, the project is almost complete and I have time set aside later in the week to work on the project, so why rush it now? And in terms of my reviews, I managed to get about a half hour of reading done this morning and I don’t need to push it. So, I changed today’s plans, walked the dog earlier than usual, and decided to work on this blog post that’s been on my mind for a while. After this, I’ll take some time to meditate or reflect (maybe nap, why not?) and then I’ll get back to my semester planning.
I used to feel guilt for changing plans like this. Now, I see it as a chance to recharge my brain. I gain fresh perspectives on my work as a result. In fact, I’m accomplishing more now than before, and I’m not suffering from burnout like in the past.
We define idleness and time wasting in different ways, but the point is this: things that aren’t directly related to your creative or work life aren’t bad. They can help you focus. They can grant you perspective. So watch that episode of Mad Men, take that walk, shut the office door and take a nap. It’s all about balance, so keep it that way.
The Power of Less
I’m reading Leo Babauta’s book The Power of Less. It’s a powerful and straightforward book that explains my approach to productivity: keep it simple. I’m learning that having too many goals can overwhelm and water down my vision of success.
Babauta’s main idea is that by limiting yourself in the short term and focusing on one thing at a time, you can accomplish more in the long term. For Babauta, it’s about one goal at a time: each task in the short-term should lead to that goal. Obviously, there are times when our daily routine get in the way of this, so he also suggests limiting the amount of time spent on routine tasks like e-mail if your job allows for it.
Based on Babauta’s book, I’ve come up with some daily plans that help me gain back time. For example, I only check email twice a day, and when I check it, I respond to them almost immediately. I also limit the length of my e-mails, keeping them as precise and succinct as possible. Another rule I’ve implemented is to not work past 8 p.m. at night. I wish it could be earlier, but right now 8 is the best I can do. That means I must stop grading, planning, or doing any other creative work that requires serious commitment. Instead, I read, watch TV, work out, or relax. This also means I try to get my most important stuff done early in the morning, allowing me to walk away from tasks later if I need to. I’ve also stopped worrying about not finishing tasks I’ve assigned myself in a day; instead, I just move them to the next day, so I’m still finishing them but not feeling stressed by them. I’ve also learned to limit my daily tasks by answering this question: what do I really need to do today?
Another strength of Babauta’s work is that he emphasizes intuitive thought. In my teaching in particular, I’ve become much more intuitive, allowing for flexibility in the classroom and with my preparation time. This has meant I feel less pressure to accomplish certain tasks. I go into each class with a goal in mind and a simple course plan, but beyond that, I allow my intuition as a teacher to take over. It has meant better classroom experiences for me. It’s allowed me to feel less tied to the everyday teaching responsibilities and focus on my creative activities outside of the classroom when I need to.
Words, words, words: they should matter
Hamlet’s line always gets me thinking about the meaning of creative production. In my writing classes, I emphasize that writing is a process and that it takes time, patience, focus, and a lot of practice.
However, I’ve found that, at certain points in my life, I’ve not practiced this view of writing as a process. It’s affected my creative output as a result of this. Even while teaching writing, I have, at times, felt lost in the thought of writing words that no one will ever read, and this has led to creative dry periods in my life.
This past couple of months have changed that. I’m no longer concerned that my words have no meaning. I just write and follow my creative intuitions. By doing so, I’ve produced more meaningful work than ever before, and I’m able to use these writing experiences to gain professional leads and become a better teacher and writer.
I’ve learned to stop worrying and enjoy the work I do while finding ways to make it better. Hopefully, by reading this, you can start to do the same.