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.


“Distraction,” Simplicity, and Running Toward Shitstorms

Dr. Einstein goes into a little more detail.

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

—Albert Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” (1934)

Context: Last week, I pinched off one of my typically woolly emails in response to an acquaintance whom I admire. He’s a swell guy who makes things I love, and he'd written, in part, to express concern that my recent Swift impersonation had been directed explicitly at something he'd made. Which, of course, it hadn’t—but which, as I'll try to discuss here, strikes me as irrelevant.

To paraphrase Bogie, I played it for him, so now I suppose I might as well play it for you.

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First, care.

Asked and answered by the wonderful Frank Chimero:

Anonymous asked: 'How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?'

You do one thing at a time.

You might be amazed how many times--and over how many years--a given person can ask this same simple question, hear that same simple response, and still find themselves casting about for the great and arcane "secret" to achieving real focus.

But, this is pretty much it. Mostly.

Although, I must add one important "Step Zero," borne of my own tedious experience.

Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.

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Cooking for the Creative Beast

Guest post

Guest blogger, Matt Wood, learns how to feed his creative side (without giving it a big gut). —mdm

Earlier this summer, I was in the kitchen, trying to cook dinner. I had a pot on the stove and a fire going on the grill outside. I was fumbling with a bag of frozen peas when my three-year-old started shouting at me to fix one of his toys. “Hold on a second, son,” I said. “I can’t do two things at once.” He looked me, dead serious, and said, “But you have two hands, Daddy.”

Too Many Pots on the Stove

My life usually feels like this. I set out to do make something nice, and I end up with a scorched side dish, charred burgers, and crunchy peas. The output barely resembles that delicious-looking picture in Cooking Light, but hey, the toy trains are running on time!

My immediate solution has been to limit the inputs and not try to do so much at once. If I can’t cook a nice meal with a preschooler underfoot, then I won’t even try. Chicken nuggets and grilled cheese for everyone, and you’ll like it, thank you very much. While this approach to dinner fulfills various statutes regarding child neglect, it’s also not very satisfying. Apply this approach to work and it certainly creates more time to do Important Things, but it makes for soggy, microwaved output as well.

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Simplicity must be possible.

Two stories that I know I should be learning from:

  • Paul Graham on overcoming distractions. By creating an Internet-Only computer.

    I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it's the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

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Snow Day Hobbies

It snowed almost a foot here in Chicago last night, and looking at all that white stuff made me think about junior high, when my school was out an entire week for snow. I built most of the eastern seaboard in SimCity 2000 that week, on a 33 MHz PC no less. I was a nerd. It was awesome.

I thought about how fun that sounded today after I finished shoveling, and considered digging around for an updated copy of SimCity online. Then I reminded myself that the last thing I need is another hobby involving the computer. I use a computer for work. When I'm finished working, I screw around on the internet. When I'm tired of that, I read books, which isn't a whole lot different, if a little easier on the eyes and attention span.

Pardon me while I get out the nostalgia hankie, but I miss the days when my hobbies had nothing to do with staring at a glowing screen. When I was a kid, I could sit down in my room over an unopened wax box of Topps baseball cards and completely tune out the outside world until four hours later, when my mom called me to dinner, handed me a napkin, and told me to wipe the drool from chewing 36 sticks of gum off my chin.

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Re-evaluating Your Online Commitments

overworked.gifThis is the time of the year for everybody to make lame, half-hearted resolutions about how they’re going to lead a better life in the new year: lose weight, stop smoking, eat less fried cheese, take a ceramics class, etc. My gym is already full of flabby, confused-looking people who spend more time adjusting their iPod cases and checking out their new track suits in the mirror than actually doing reps. I usually treat January as my month to be lazy; I stay away from the gym for a few weeks until the interlopers poop out.

But it is a new year, and it’s not a bad idea to at least try to alter some of your bad habits, pick up a new skill, or do something to make yourself happier. My suggestion for this year addresses a problem I suspect many of the people who read this site have: the sheer number of online commitments--that is, blogs, social networks, message groups, IM accounts, Flickr, Twitter, and any other online time sink that ends with an R--that we try to maintain.

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Concentration strategies for students

Here's a wonderful tour de force on Concentration that's written for students and which includes tips on identifying distractions as well as a useful list of techniques for putting your attention where you want it to be and keeping it there.

A few I liked:

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Dave Cheong on staying focused at work

18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work

In this post from last August, Dave Cheong pointed out some of the hazards of working in a cube farm, and he proposes some handy tips for wresting back your attention from a room full of interruptions and distractions. I think a few of these tips are big winners.

Allocate time slots colleagues can interrupt you...Instead of having people stop by your desk every 10 mins and asking you questions, let them know of a time in the day, say between 2-4pm you can be interrupted. At all other times, you can really get some work done...

Apply time boxing...Instead of working at something till it is done, try working on it for a limited period, say 30 mins. By that time, the task is either completed or you allocate another time slot, perhaps in another day, to pick it up again...

Find the best time to do repetitive and boring tasks...For example, I’m more alert at the start of the day, so it’s better to work on things which require brain power early. Working on boring tasks that can be done via auto-pilot are better left towards the end of the day when I’m usually tired.

I realize that many of these ideas assume a lot of autonomy and control over your work day as well as how you conduct it -- obviously not every career is conducive to the enforcement of what amounts to "office hours" -- but I think that's kind of the point as well as the irony and the big, bottom-line challenge.

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MacBreak: Minimize distractions on your Mac

MacBreak 33: The Distracted Mac (Direct MOV Download)

Although it covers a lot of the same ground as a previous MacBreak we did on the subject, I think Leo and my segment on un-distract-ifying your Mac turned out pretty good (my atrocious hairstyle at shoot time notwithstanding). Download 10:28 MOV file now...

Here's the apps and tricks that we covered, with links:

  • Hide Others - In the front app, select "[Application name menu] > Hide Others"
  • Turn [Dock] Hiding On - In the Dock, CTRL-Click the Dock's vertical separator bar, and select "Turn Hiding On"
  • Backdrop - Create a black background that still lets you easily interact with Desktop contents
  • MenuShade - Alter the brightness of your Menu -- or totally black it out, like I do
  • Spirited Away -- Hides non-active applications after the interval of your choice (thanks for the legacy download link, Don)
  • Path Finder - Totally tricked out Finder on steroids that I love love love; where I made the Desktop black and hid all mounted drives, folders, etc. (doable in the regular Finder, too)
  • Hazel - Automagically clean up the contents of folders and the Desktop (e.g., "move old MP3s here" or "archive files older than a week" etc.)
  • Textmate - My favorite text editor. Which I apparently love to plug for no particular reason.

Edit 2006-12-21 16:51:22: Check after the cut for reader suggestions from comments for this post...

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43f Podcast: David Allen on interruptions

Productive Talk #06: Interruptions

43 Folders and The David Allen Company present the sixth in a series of conversations that David and Merlin recently had about Getting Things Done.


In this episode David and I talked about interruptions. How you can minimize the bad interruptions and make the best of the good ones.

(Running time: 10:17)

Grab the MP3, learn more at Odeo.com, or just listen here (after the cut).

Merlin's comments

In this episode, David makes the excellent point that if interruptions are a baked-in part of your job, they shouldn't necessarily be seen as a Bad Thing. It's just something you need to prepare for by "clearing the decks" in a way that opens you up for the opportunities and game-time input that new information can bring into your world.

Something not to miss -- David is just truly a whiz at changing gears based on his own system. If new stuff interrupts what he's currently working on, he scoops all the current work back into "pending," and basically says "Bring it on!"

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

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