thanksgiving is lifehack day

Well, in due course it will be “frantically begin cooking carrot-ginger soup day,” but I’ve tried to use a lonely morning (Shin-Yi is in lab) to think about some things that might improve my productivity. Take it as read that I am apprised of the basic objections to lifehacking, well summarized by Michael Agger of slate.com and Merlin Mann of 43folders.com and Jane Lindskold of tor.com: Attachment to rituals is restrictive; time spent on productivity tweaks rapidly yields diminishing returns; lifehacking is an increasingly SEO-driven ad-revenue-maximization industry with distressingly low signal to noise. Still, though, my default approach to life is so ad hoc and procrastination-riddled that some kind of structure has got to be helpful. And Lindskold, the one of the three whose advice I’m most interested in because she’s the one I most want to be like, has a lifehack of her own (complete with hat tip to the late Roger Zelazny). It’s no different than anything anyone else has posted, or than things I’ve tried for myself, except it’s more modest.

Twelve sentences a day. Find three or four times to write three or four sentences — of fiction, of course, not blogging or email or grant or dissertation. Done.

(It also lifts my heart to read that Jane Lindskold did not start writing seriously until after her PhD.)

Anyway, at various points in recent years, I managed to maintain 500 words or two notebook pages a day for several weeks. In 2002, I completed National Novel Writing Month at an average of 1667 words a day (although I put the manuscript down at word 50,007 and have never touched it again — think of it as a 5% down payment on my million words of crap). None of those has been sustainable. This experience, incidentally, violates the widely held lifehacking dogma that 30 days of good behavior is the royal road to habit formation. It takes longer in proportion to the disruptiveness and effortfulness of the activity.

Hence, twelve sentences. No fixed time — no need for a block of time. Just twelve sentences.

(Don’t mind my repetitiousness — I’m trying to convince myself here.)

Along similar lines, I think writing longhand is going to be a huge hack if I can get it implemented properly. That sounds ridiculous, of course — I have a working pen and a notebook; what needs implementation? Well, if you’re starting de novo, nothing. But if you have projects you’re working on, and working on them requires reference to material already on the computer, that’s a different thing. The whole point of writing longhand is that you can do it anywhere. (It also helps you take a draft-oriented approach to things — the amount you can correct is minimal, so you tend to settle for what you wrote and keep moving forward.) There are a few possible approaches to this:

  • Rely on what memory you’ve got. Edit and integrate post hoc on the computer.
  • Summarize relevant plot points and other information on a sticky note. Update it regularly and attach it to the notebook.
  • Only write new things in the notebook. Continue extant projects on the computer.

An associated motivating tool, which is a little bit intriguing, is Don’t Break the Chain, a simple calendar interface where you can pick an activity and just tell it whether you did it that day or not. The idea is that, if confronted with visual evidence of your hard work so far, you’ll be less likely to fall behind. This is actually what occasioned this post — as with RescueTime, posting a continuously updated DBTC calendar requires JavaScript, of which wordpress.com will have none. I would like to post my analytics publicly — I’ve studied enough social psychology that I understand, at least at an intellectual level, that public scrutiny is a motivator. We’ll see whether that has consequences for the ultimate fate of this venue. More realistically, I think the original Seinfeld version of DBTC might be more useful — get an actual physical calendar with a year on each page and make an actual physical X on each day you did what you planned to do. It makes it hard to establish multiple “chains,” which my ideal life would have (writing, exercise, meditation), but when you’re having trouble establishing even one habit, one X per day is all you need.

I’m currently using GeekTool to display my to-do list on my desktop. Although this is cute, it means I have to look at my desktop to see what I need to do, and I have to open up a text file to edit my to-do list, and all in all it’s not as effective as using Stickies was. So I may go back to using Stickies. However — and, yes, this courts diminishing returns, don’t remind me — I am mightily intrigued by todo.sh. If I can interact with it straightforwardly via Quicksilver, we might have a winner.

I’m also having vague thoughts about multiple desktops (how many is optimal?) and version control, but the last thing really on my mind is Papers, an ITunes interface for organizing and viewing journal articles. I currently name all my papers by first author and year, then store them all in one big dump and hope my memory and Finder can pull out what I need later. However, the first author is often much less helpful for recovery purposes than the last, or the journal, or the keywords. It’s not free, which always makes me shy away, but a very smart postdoc friend of mine has referred to the purchase price as “the best $20 [he] ever spent.” So perhaps some banging around with this is in my future.

And, speaking of diminishing returns… time for carrot ginger soup. Happy Thanksgiving!

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One thought on “thanksgiving is lifehack day

  1. Pingback: untitled fragment — “incunabulum” « the pulchrifex papers

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