43 Folders

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”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Patching your personal suck

50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work is a terrifically useful and very entertaining list of hacks, tricks, ciphers, and fake rules for helping yourself write. Or more specifically, it helps you get unstuck, unblocked, and out of that hated procrastinating mire. It’s actually a much better version of my “Hack Your Way out of Writer’s Block” that I somehow missed in putting my ideas together.

I have to say, I’m really pleased to have discovered this article today, because it comports with some stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and with the approach that sums up my feeling about “43 Folders-esque” ideas: in order to find what works for you, it helps to understand why the old stuff doesn’t

By now, everybody knows that I swiped the basic idea for 43 Folders from my pal, hero, and personal muse, Danny O’Brien. His work on the original Life Hacks presentation was centered around research into why some people, especially those overachieving alpha geeks, seem to get so much more accomplished over the same 24 hours we mortals start with each day. Some of them, like Rael, just seem preternaturally organized and focused. Others, like Cory, are blessed with an ungodly gift for effective multi-tasking.

But many of the other productive nerds, as you soon realize, have just gotten really good at identifying their weaknesses and developing the compensatory psychic muscle needed to shore up their vulnerabilities. Forgetful? Write stuff down. Easily distracted? Set timers. Saddled with pointless interruptions? Leave the office. Find the bad code in your system and eliminate the bugs. Find the fastest, easiest, most elegant solution that could possibly work. Can it really be that simple?

Sure, to a careless viewer, it’s all “no duh” stuff, right? I mean, why would anyone need to be reminded that you can write things down on cards and then keep them organized? Well…to be honest? A lot of us need a surprising amount of reminding. Seriously.

Why do some people find it easy to stay skinny? How come some people can draw anything they see? Why is another naturally a whiz at math? How can one person be so much more effortlessly funny than another? Ask these questions to the people with the skillz and you’ll probably rack up the same answer every time: “I don’t know; it’s just how I am.” And so the rest of us portly, uncreative, arithmetically-retarded, not-funny people stare and stew like the loser in the Charles Atlas ad. “Why can’t I have that come to me so effortlessly?”

Because, you know: you can’t just turn it on and instantly be the thing you wish you were. It takes reflection, thought, iteration, and a personal commitment to facing the stuff at which you suck. And we all suck at something. You totally suck at something, and it secretly drives you nuts every goddamned day.

So, meanwhile, back at this article. I love that the application of two completely opposite ideas can have the same net effect on a problem.  

  • Outline. Plan everything you’re going to write, scene by scene, all the way through to the end. Do your research while you’re outlining, so by the time you start writing the actual story, you’re already living in that world. With a detailed enough outline, the actual writing becomes a matter of choosing the right words to describe what you’ve already decided to tell. You can concentrate on style and let the plot take care of itself, because you’ve already done that part
  • Don’t outline. Don’t plan ahead at all. Feel the lure of the blank page. Trust your instincts and dive into the story, and don’t look back until you’re done.

The point is not that one is “right” and the other is “stupid”—what could be more facile?  It’s about understanding what’s really important in helping a given person solve a given problem. Your brain and its behavioral artifacts aren’t some birdhouse you can nail together from a page of plans. You’re constantly thinking, obsessing, and evolving as you pinball through your day. There’s no single path, and, dimes to donuts, you’ll eventually end up losing it if you try to find just one.

I guess I’m saying I love the idea that once you’ve started admitting your “personal suck,” you can sample from an endless menu of tricks that may or may not help you improve things in your life. As long as you don’t lose an eye and can still get your work mostly done on time, where’s the damage in experimenting? Try something, then try the opposite. Then try the orthogonal. Every patch that fails teaches you a little something that might come in handy some day. Mistakes, as they say, can be a buddhist gift.

The only damage you’ll find harder to fix comes from the doors you’ve chosen to close forever. The creative mind and the productive actor are both ductile and open to new possibilities. Try patching your personal suck with crazy, ridiculous, incredibly obvious solutions. You’ve learned where your problems are; somewhere, you probably have a pretty good idea where the solutions are hiding, too.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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