Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.
43 Folders: Time, Attention, and Creative Work
Merlin Mann | Sep 10 2008
["what is this?"]
Here's something I wrote last week for this site's new "About" page:
Call it a motto, or a charter, or -- if you have to -- a "mission statement." But, for both of us, it's a stake in the ground that keeps me focused on what I feel best suited to do for you with this site right now.
I want to help you identify and remove any obstacle that keeps you from making things that you love. And then I want to help you figure out how to make those things even better. That's pretty much it.
R.I.P., Productivity Pr0n
Friends, I'm done with "productivity" as a personal fetish or hobby. There are countless sites that are all too happy to vend stroke material for your joyless addiction to puns about procrastination and systems for generating more taxonomically satisfying meta-work. But, presently, you won't find so much of that here.
Except inasmuch as it can help move aside barriers to finishing the projects that you claim matter to you, "productivity" is often a sprawling ghetto of well-marketed nonsense for people who really just need a ritalin and a hug. So, for myself, random tips and lists that aren't anchored to solving a real-world problem for a smart but flawed adult with a mind are dead to me. Pour a forty on 'em.
From now on, I'm going to talk about how people make stuff. Books, art, code, buildings, ballets, companies, furniture, whimsical hats, songs, or what have you. But understand: this isn't just for fancy people and fine arts majors.
You're already "creative"
If the work that really matters to you involves understanding a relationship between a handful of seemingly unrelated things and then figuring out the best way to portray, magnify, or resolve those relationships, then you're already doing creative work. Any time you make a connection between two or more axes that hadn't occurred to you 10 minutes ago, yes, you've done something creative. Seriously. This does not require your wearing a beret.
But, then -- and this is really important -- if you want to actually make something out of all that insight, and if you have the will and desire to polish and improve the execution of all the things you produce, then we'll have a lot to talk about.
But, if you want a "site about GTD," "a blog about index cards," or a wide-mouthed sluice of recycled links to lists of geegaws that will keep you momentarily distracted from how sad you are, then you're wasting both of our time here. So, go. You're stinking up the joint.
This is now a site for people who want to finish things that they care about -- but who still occasionally need help, inspiration, and the courage to push all the bullshit off their work table. This is about clearing that space every day, and then using it to do cool stuff that makes you proud.
So. What, then?
If I may say, that's all great stuff, and you're still going to need it if the mind is willing but the attention is occasionally weak (or under attack). No, if anything, you'll be seeing more articles targeted at how to do this stuff well so you can get back into the studio faster.
You're also going to see more material about the habits and patterns that have been demonstrated to work for makers who have had long-lived careers in the creative world. In itself, this is the direction I'm most fascinated with right now, and it's likely one I'll be returning to often in the coming months:
How do you fire your muse and learn to rely solely on working your ass off every day?
As I'm learning, it definitely can be done, but there's no secret or silver bullet; it's just work, work, work, combined with a personal commitment to editing and improvement that produces the best results of which you're capable as often as possible. It's the kind of productivity that's about applying your time to frequent, high-quality "releases" -- not laying in a hammock while people in Bangalore update your website.
But, what about all the cool notebooks, links to lists of "GTD resources," and ponderously detailed tutorials on how to label a file folder? Yeah. From now on, maybe don't expect a lot of that here. Unless I feel it has a direct link to helping you do things.
Here’s the thing
A notebook is basically the creative equivalent of the NFL jersey you picked up at Macy’s; unless you fill it with a lot of hard work and sacrifices, you’re just a dilettante with poor spending patterns. An aspiring something. A fan of the game. An existential cosplayer. And, that’s not what I want to help you to be. Even if you really love Moleskines or the Raiders, God love ‘em.
So, we're going to talk about what goes in the notebook; not the fact that it's pretty and has a little bookmark. Then I want you to leave here.
That's the basic idea. We'll see what evolves.
And, there's these other things
I'm also working on some other stuff for the site that I hope will please more people than it annoys. In any case, they're each important to me. Here's the shape of the map.
1. Less noise in general
Less chrome, less noise, less blah-blah, and less unnecessary anything. On a given day in the future, you may notice this as fewer ads, lower (but higher-quality) post volume, and an ongoing attempt to make the site fast and easy to use. I'm working on this. With money and people and new relationships and so on. More as it develops and becomes worth highlighting.
2. Walking a truer productivity walk
It's important to me that we both try to stay focused on the real goal: which is being done with a project that you care about. It's not about hanging out, smoking cloves, and chatting about "Différance" late into the Paris nights. I want you to visit here, get what you need, then get the hell back to work.
So, if you occasionally notice me smiling, and putting a firm but gentle hand between your shoulder blades as we begin a walk toward the door, it's because that's closer to where your work is. It's not here, it's not in your inbox, and, with all due respect, it's probably not in a list of 5,000 links.
Like I said recently, if you've crossed the river, you should quit carrying the boat. And while I very much hope and desire that you make 43 Folders your first stop when you need to feel inspired and confident about making decisions that support your best work, I truly do not want you to waste time here. That would make me sad.
So, yes, please read this page: How to Use 43 Folders. It's a new page that provides basic guidance on finding fast answers, and ultimately, on helping you figure out why you're here.
I imagine the how-to will evolve as the site evolves, so I would be honored if you would trust me enough to bookmark that page, then consider making it the place where you begin your visits here. With any luck, it can also frequently be the page where your visits quickly end here. And, although I have to imagine it will vex the nice people who are kind enough to sell ads for my site: that's okay by me.
3. Mostly firewalled self-promotion
While it's my site and will always be used to promote my ideas and my business in the way that I think is most appropriate, I also don't want it to turn into a glorified billboard for me -- especially to the exclusion of the writing and ideas that make it theoretically useful. And, especially in the articles and content well. That space is getting more sacrosanct.
With much sadness, I've recently watched some of my most beloved and respected friends' blogs degrade into a depressing slurry of pimping, random affiliate linking, paid (or pseudo-paid) placement, idiotic traffic boosters, and wholesale ego boosting about every bakesale, state fair, or mall opening that its authors plan to chopper into.
Here, except for The Monthly Pimp, I want the content well to stay clean, focused, and worthy of your trust and my credibility. Ads go in the ad zones, and anybody can buy one to sell pretty much anything. But it doesn't buy placement in a 43 Folders post, and it shouldn't buy my association or endorsement elsewhere. Maybe for a truly paid, public endorsement deal; but not for a banner ad buy. That's just weird. Plus I don't own a chicken suit.
This doesn't mean that I won't link to my own work and my other sites and projects whenever I think it's appropriate. It also doesn't mean I'll stop linking to Amazon for products or A2 for web hosting when it's germane to what I have to say. But, I do already have a site that's purely self-promotional. And that's where I'd like most of that that stuff to live now.
OT: If you're a blogger I know and love, maybe at least consider joining me in your own overdue Superfund cleanup to the extent that you're comfortable and able. Too much money can easily buy you a very dumb audience and an astoundingly influential cohort of ex-readers.
4. No more fake "conversations"
I've loved so many of the comments and forum posts on 43 Folders. But, for an endless number of reasons that you've probably seen for yourself across the web, the quality and care of visitor contributions everywhere has hit what I truly hope is rock bottom.
Stupid, venal, ignorant, self-linking comments from people who couldn't be troubled to actually read the article. Angry forum posts full of personal attacks, giant avatars of Manga characters, and 4-vertical-inch signatures about which Golden Girl you are. Nonsense tagging, meta-commenting, ass-kissing, trolling, and...oooo!...video responses....neato! Please. It's nuts and it's pointless and it's really cynical on the part of almost every publisher that allows that crap to go on.
"Conversation," like "friend," is a word that has a meaning to human beings with faces and brains. I will not abuse it as code for the surplus page views produced by someone with an afternoon to kill.
5. This is my site. There are many like it, but this one is mine
43 Folders is now, once again, about what I have to say about things, and I want that to be the sole reason that the idea of a visit here either attracts or repels you.
Yes, there will still be occasional guest posts, open threads, and of course, I'll be linking to and quoting widely from the work of others. But I'm taking a cue from John, Andy, Jason, and anybody else who wants to own every pixel of their site. I'm buying back my own stock, even if it incurs a short-term writedown.
If you have comments about what I say here, post about it on your own blog. That's what it's there for, and it's a place where owning your words will have gravity and, in most cases, will be associated with the name of a real person who doesn't pinch loaves on his own couch.
And, then, there's everything else
Over the next year, I'm going to do lots more speaking, more of my own independent video and podcast projects, and, yes, in all likelihood, I'll finish one book and make progress toward a second.
N.B. In the case of that last thing, it's likely to be the sole public remark I'll have to share until I have a release date, an Amazon page, and a sample chapter for you to download. But, that's getting ahead of myself. We'll see what happens. Do wish me luck.
So, "hi." Again.
I want you to know that I'm back. I'm here. And I'm thinking very much about how 43 Folders can become a focused resource for people who do work that they love and make things that matter to them -- but who just want to do it better and with less bullshit and existential overhead on every conceivable front. And, if it's not clear, I really want that same lack of bullshit and surplus of polish to be evident in my own work as well. It's the goal, anyhow.
We'll see how I do. As ever, it's going to be mostly letters to myself. But, the material is out there, and as much as my schedule for other work and the time I set aside for my family and friends will allow, I want this site to be really consistently good. And, where it's able, I'd love for 43 Folders to help you make your stuff even better.
So, that's it for the throat-clearing and metatalk for now. Thanks for hearing me out, and I hope you'll stop by sometimes if you think 43 Folders can help you make something cool today.
Now: back to work.
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