43 Folders

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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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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.

Your Story: Throwing new tools at a communication problem?

I'm working on a (likely non-43 Folders) piece about a topic that seems to keep coming up whenever I talk with people about how their team plans, collaborates, and generally communicates with one another. I'd love to hear from you in comments if you have a contribution to make.

What’s your story?

Do you have a story about a time when your team or company tried to solve a human communication problem by adding a new tool? In your estimation, how did things turn out?


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Self-control running low?

Why is it so hard to say no? Why the heck do I find myself doing things I don't really want to do?

In the newsroom where I ostensibly work, I sit right next to that table - the one the people from other publications call "the table of perpetual indulgence." It usually features baked goods and junk food - great vats of candy, tubs of animal crackers, a living sea of bite-sized 3 Musketeers and Special Dark bars. It is, put simply, bad for me to be sitting here. I'm always walking off to the printer then realizing that somehow I've wound up in the opposite direction, lifting syrup-filled brownies toward my mouth. Well, I think I just found out the reason why.

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Vox Pop: Patterns for email as work conversation?

Inbox Zero is a system and philosophy that most benefits people who are overwhelmed by a high-volume of mystery meat email. The system works because it's stupid-simple, and the real art comes out of getting fast and ruthless at identifying requests for your time and attention that must be acknowledged or completed vs. the vast majority of stuff that needs very light attention (or can just get deleted).

But, not so fast -- what if, instead, you're receiving a high volume of easily identifiable messages? And what if your main "action" is reading, digesting, and then contributing? That's a bit trickier, as I have learned.

Every time I give the Inbox Zero talk to a tech-heavy group -- and most especially when I talk with engineers -- there's pushback on a couple issues. First, a lot of techies say they love it when everything gets routed through email, and second, they think an Inbox-Zero-type methodology isn't particularly useful for the type of communication that they get all day long. And that's conversations. Lots of conversations.

For many tech folks, email is the ideal and preferred way to avoid meetings and pointless flights. It's where they discuss features, debate implementation, and argue over the best solution to a problem. And that's how they like it. Some companies I visit with tell me they take pride in generating over 1000 person-messages each day. That's their culture, and love it or leave it.

This doesn't mean there's not room for improvement, but of course it's a valid and very real way to work.

Do stay tuned after the jump for your chance to join the conversation with comments and tips for managing conversational email, but first here's my observations on a few patterns that seem to work for a high volume of conversation based email:

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Motivate yourself with "loss aversion"

NPR: Put Your Money Where Your Girth Is

I really enjoyed this Morning Edition story on "Prospect Theory," or the idea that loss aversion can be an effective motivator in goals related to health improvement like weight loss and smoking cessation:

"What we know about incentives is that people work a lot harder to avoid losing $10 than they will work to gain $10," explains Ayres. "So something that's framed as a loss is really effective at changing behavior."

Related to that question I was asked at Macworld: I wonder if a gym membership might be even more motivating if you received a daily email updating you on the wasted dollars you'd spent by not working out in the last n days.

When I started paying most of my own college tuition, I remember realizing that every class I skipped was equivalent to throwing away about a day and a half of the money I'd earned from waiting on tables. It was very motivating for me, and I started missing a lot fewer classes as a result.

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A Day Unplugged: Frenzied Blackberries vs. Kwai Chang Caine?

I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really. - New York Times

In yesterday's New York Times, Mark Bittman wrote an entertaining and thoughtful article about realizing that his need to stay wired, in-touch, and updated was really starting to eat into him. His headslap moment came on an international flight, as he realizes "the only other place I could escape was in my sleep." He goes on to talk about the difficulty of maintaining even a single day of "Sabbath" from electronic communication and media:

I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop. That forbidden, I reached for the phone. No, not that either. Send a text message? No. I quickly realized that I was feeling the same way I do when the electricity goes out and, finding one appliance nonfunctional, I go immediately to the next. I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven.

But, eventually, he settles in and starts to enjoy things that would never appear on his radar screen on a wired day:

I drank herb tea (caffeine was not helpful) and stared out the window. I tried to allow myself to be less purposeful, not to care what was piling up in my personal cyberspace, and not to think about how busy I was going to be the next morning. I cooked, then went to bed, and read some more.

GRADUALLY, over this and the next couple of weekends — one of which stretched from Friday night until Monday morning, like the old days — I adapted.

Eventually (natch), he returns to the wired world. So it goes.

I liked that this piece was written from a personal perspective, which, to my mind, is the best (and, often, only) place to start any kind of experiment around hacking time and attention. And, I do really like the idea of periodically accepting (enforcing?) days without media and wires. Truly, you'll never realize how difficult this can be until you really make it happen. But, as Bittman notes, once you get over the initial crash, you can see a striking contrast in what your life could look like. Good stuff.

But, like a lot of pieces on wired overstimulation, this one comes close to conflating the axis of "work" with the axis of "electronic media." Which, in my opinion, is an unwholesome confusion to abide, even just in appearance -- especially since it could be seen as blaming inert matter for our problems, while allowing us addicts (and the culture we've permitted ourselves to grow accustomed to) to get off way too easy.

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Nuclear reset for .Mac syncing

How-To: Truly reset your .Mac sync data [Ars Technica]

I never have trouble finding company when it comes to whining about the reliability of .Mac syncing. It's surely not fair to lay all of this at the feet of the .Mac developers -- sync is, we are often reminded, "hard." But if you want to rely on syncing your Calendars, Contacts, Preferences, snippets, Yojimbo, and what have you via .Mac in a battlefield environment, you're going to need a strong stomach, a lot of patience, and reliable backups. Plus, friends, you will regularly have to _reset frickin' everything_.

Entirely overfamiliar with that particular reality, I was pleased to get pointed toward David Chartier's tutorial on saving your .Mac's village by burning it to the ground. It's a handy, illustrated companion piece to Apple's own advice on scorching earth. Very handy, and, yeah, you will eventually need it. So print it out. Maybe even have it laminated.

Apple's .Mac syncing features are sometimes no exception to these problems, and even though Apple provides a number of decent solutions in its .Mac sync support pages, they don't always work. Fortunately, a brief adventure using .Mac sync chat support (found at the bottom of that aforelinked page) cleared up a repeating "merge/overwrite" sync dialog problem for me, and we felt the procedure was worth sharing.

FWIW, here's a few other things I do (as a raving .Mac paranoiac):

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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