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Twyla’s Box: It’s Where Everything Goes

Self-Reliant Film » Blog Archive » Twyla Tharp: Getting Things Done (with Boxes)

This post by Paul Harrill is a great take on what I've been saucily referring to as, "Twyla's Box." (Yes, again with the Twyla Tharp book.)

I'm sharing it here, because in addition to delivering a thought-provoking slap at the self-abuse of productivity pr0n ("Certainly if you find yourself reading productivity book after productivity book you’re missing the point" [ouch]), it includes a canny synthesis of the overlap between (the best, non-fiddly parts of) GTD and those patterns that seem to help folks like Twyla Tharp to keep making for decades. Nice work, Paul. Loved this (and sorry for arriving so late to the party; I am now subscribed).

So, first a quote from Paul's post, followed by (forgive me) a long-ass re-quoting of Tharp's chapter, "Start with a Box", which I've lovingly copied straight from Paul's swell post. Paul said:

For one thing, the book caters to artists, not paper-pushers. Sure, in some ways, work is work. But getting things done can be a lot harder when the “things” are ideas you’ve dreamt up entirely on your own. (I imagine this applies to programmers, too. Merlin, are you reading?) [Heh. I am now, Paul. — mm]


As Tharp states in the first few pages, her book’s basic premise is that “[i]n order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” The rest of the book talks about how to make a ritual of your creativity, how to work through creative blocks, and how to get out of (and altogether avoid) ruts.

From Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit chapter, "Start with a Box:"

Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.


There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet.

It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.

The box makes me feel connected to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project: I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.

Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box....

Dynamite, right? And I love Paul's post-script here:

No “tickler files.” No “weekly review.” It’s even more simple. Boxes. Just boxes.

As I said in my presentation the other day, I also love the related topic of "Scratching," where Tharp talks about kind of wandering around with a high tolerance for ambiguity, just letting ideas and inputs flow over her. And, where do those ideas and inspirations go? You guessed it. The Box.

I won't quote that one at length, but I do really feel like this stuff fits together in a sensible, secular way. It's just practical ideas, all pegged to pushing product out the door. Such appealing material that I feel I've barely scratched the surface of.

So excited to keep diving into this stuff. Feels like there's never been a better time to fire your muse.

PS: Can I also mention that Dan M., Paul K., and John G. were, to my knowledge, the only ones in the audience at my talk who audibly laughed out loud at the "Twyla's Box" slide? Which is, you know, disappointing. Because I did say, "box." I mean, come on, people, work with me, here.

PPS: All the sample slides above link to a Clips post with my full deck. Which, as ever, will make hardly any sense without my blathering alongside them. But, I think they're kind of pretty, plus they remind me favorably of Mike Monteiro's stuff (wonderful drawings you should totally buy).

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.”




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