Write out the list of things you need to do

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You should do more writing when you’re thinking about the list of things you need to do. I wrote this list in longhand. That may seem strange in a world where we type practically everything, and I find it a particularly good way to organize my thoughts.

It is it productive to make lists? You might find it to be busy work, a useful skill, or just a procrastination effort. I find that making a list of things allows me to stack rank or highlight the most important things, remember when deadlines occur, and to see more clearly where the items fit together.

Writing text (or anything in longhand) is useful for a couple of reasons. First, it forces me to slow down – I can type faster than I can write these days – and makes me think. Seeing the words appear little by little on the page makes them feel more deliberate and considered. I believe it’s harder to commit to an idea when the information just appears (poof) fully formed from a cut and paste or other method. Writing the words out forces you to think about why the idea is there on the figurative page and what you really meant to say.

The second reason working in longhand is useful is that this practice builds in a guaranteed cycle of reading and revising. How often do you write something the first time, then upon reading it later wish you had taken the time to improve it? Even when I have trouble reading my own handwriting, I gain at least one editing pass to say the words out loud or in my head and to rephrase my thoughts. The first draft is not usually finished at the end of that first writing.

Finally, writing with a stylus (your choice – use a pen, pencil, chalk, whiteboard marker, or something else) activates different parts of your brain. Writing longhand gets you thinking in a more expansive way than typing or tapping.

This year, I learned to write

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/

This year I learned how to be a writer. The easy part was deciding to start. The hard part was continuing to write. I don’t mean that any individual piece of writing was hard to start, or hard to finish. The hard part was realizing and understanding how much work there is to producing a great piece of writing, and knowing that much of the time, I wasn’t going to get there.

Unless I did get there. Much like the practice of drawing, writing only looks easy when you turn your head back at the body of work and say “that was good” or “that wasn’t so good”, and you have to do the work of writing to arrive at words that people want to read. This year I learned that whether you’re having a good day or a bad day doesn’t make the writing easier – it just makes it writing.

I thought I was doing a good job at writing before this year. Words, words, and more words have always been easy for me to produce. But not always words that conveyed meaning. When I left my last job I added “Writer” to my list of occupations – and started paying more attention to the craft of putting the words together efficiently, expertly, and beautifully.

Great writers (Orwell, Lamott, and White among them) sometimes explode off of the page and often state with absolute clarity facts and feelings. They bring intensity, passion, and verve to their craft, and it’s a joy to see it happen.

For next year, I want to apply this practice to other things that I do so that I take less for granted. When I talk to customers, I want the writing that I do to be as meaningful as the best essay I wrote last year. When I write emails, I want to make sure that the meaning is emerging in the smallest number of words that make sense. When I engage with my family and friends, I want to make those words matter even more than they do today. I’m certain I’ll often get my words wrong, confuse people when I think I’m being clear, and say different things than I intend. And I know I’ll be working at the practice of making them better.

Is Blogging Still Useful?

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photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariareyesmcdavis/

“What’s a Web Log”?
Once upon a time there was a Blog (web log). It was a place where you would go to read pithy insights, long form articles, and think pieces by people whose writing you respected. Over time this term was replaced and superceded by the simpler “blog”, which came to mean lots of things from “share a photo”, “create a domain name just to make a point”, and still “share interesting writing so that other people who care might have a good place to read it”.

Anachronisms happen fast.
The concept of blogging now seems quaint, like the rotary dial, a long-playing record, or a black and white tv did when I was a teen growing up in the early days of the Internet and computers. “Blogging” meaning “writing with the express purpose of placing your work in one place and finding an audience so that you can compete with other established publishers” now seems to be an outdated concept. The Blog is Dead.

The Conversation is Alive.
Yet there is this curious thing that’s happened to “blogging” or the activity we used to call blogging. Everyone who writes has turned into a syndication network of sorts, sharing almost everything almost all of the time. When was the last time you met someone who writes for a living and then learned that you could find their writing only in one place? In the same way that long form writing became “share photos in one place” and “share articles in another place” and “share random 140 character blasts” in a third, blogging no longer really exists.

There’s a paradox here. We’re both here having this conversation. It looks a little bit like a blog – having medium form content shared on a specific subdomain – and also has social features that allow you to upvote it (please do), share it, and comment about it. The blog has evolved from being an essay with comments to an almost constant conversation. To me this is a good change because it feels more like talking to other people.

What’s the use in blogging?
You might then ask, why write? There are lots of reasons to write every day (Dear Founders, Startups are Easier if You Write Every Day) and the most salient ones include:

  1. Get better at explaining your ideas to others – if you can’t form a few sentences that make sense to other people, you won’t be able to explain these same ideas in person.
  2. Explore a long-form idea over a series of posts. In the same way that you have a conversation with people over an extended length of time, your thoughts on a topic may change. Write about it – the results may surprise you.
  3. You never know who you will meet. Amazing people will find you because they read what you write. The possibilities are endless.

Can you measure what you do 4 times a day?

I’m writing this post on a timer. I am doing this as part of a practice suggested by Jason Womack in “Your Best Just got Better” – the basic idea is to measure what you do so that you can improve your ability to use the time that you have effectively. The other, overarching idea is to really focus on what you are doing so that even under duress you can get your most important things done and not get distracted by “what just happens.”

I think this idea has really good applicability to our “everyday work lives.” Think about it for a moment – how many times during the day do you stop what you’re doing – just to check email – and then return to what you were doing (answering a question, talking to a customer, or just not “doing” anything). Yes, I know – you say – I’ve read all of the studies (or at least skimmed the RSS feeds or tweets about them ) that demonstrate that breaking your flow of conversation can rob you of at least 15 minutes and perhaps up to 3 hours (three hours!) of productive work. So how do you actually do it?

My personal commitment is to try Jason’s method of using a timer to measure 15 minute blocks – you only have about 96 of them in a day, not including sleep – and to time 4 of me a day to start, to really measure what I am doing (the how I am doing it will naturally follow, I think.) This is really easy with a finite task (answering all of the customer questions in my Desk.com queue) and much harder with a less well-defined problem.

Do I know what will happen with this practice? Nope. At first (and while writing this post) it seems a little strange, like using muscles I haven’t tried to use in a while. Over time, I’m hoping that it will better able me to use the blocks of time that I have (wherever I have them) to get more done in the time when I am working’ and remind me to use more blocks of time on the key things I want to get done (which also include sleep, exercise, and family time.)

What I do know so far is that using the timer as the boundary is sort of great. It frees me up to write without worrying about writing the perfect sentence and instead focusing upon the heartfelt one. It gives me the idea that a finite task is that – just finite – and that trying to focus until the end of the task before checking email may seem hard (I am addicted to email, after all) but that a bit of focus strung together will deliver a lot more focus over time. And how am I doing? In the 15:00 of the timer, I’ve had the time to read over this piece twice, write what was on my mind, and to feel quite mindful about doing it. Thanks Jason. (Cue alarm.)

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