43 Folders

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Folders for organization _and_ action

I recently ran across a mostly-helpful post on a website that mentioned the importance of using email folders for "organization." For some reason, this made me wince. I suspect it's because the day I got good at email was the day when I stopped organizing my messages and started focusing on doing something about them. Is this a distinction without a difference? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why.

As one of the holiest sacraments in the Church of Productivity Pr0n, folders -- be they physical, digital, mind-mapped, or purely notional -- represent the canonical way to put information into thoughtful piles. Folders of any sort afford a kind of higher-level, low-stress thinking that GTD fans in particular seek out. Folders do lots of stuff well:

  • allow me to keep like with like
  • let me not have to think about the things I don't need to think about right now
  • help me know how to find things when I do need them
  • assist me in switching gears quickly
  • make my life less chaotic and messy

So, yeah, folders are great at all of these things, for sure, and yeah, they do help you to get organized, especially in the sense of having less stuff in your life that's sitting around unprocessed. But at what point can a folder become an impediment to smart and timely action? Put more generically: how do we not allow the buckets and cubbyholes in our lives to become affordances for procrastination and dis-organization?

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Back to GTD: Do a fast "mind-sweep"

This post is part of the periodic “Back to GTD” series, designed to help you improve your implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Whether you learned GTD from the book or heard it from The David himself (via one of his excellent seminars), you know that the vital first stage of Getting Things Done is Collection.

As laid out in Chapter 5:

Basically, everything is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it's not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it's resident somewhere in your psyche. The fact that you haven't put an item in your in-basket doesn't mean you haven't got it. But we're talking here about making sure that everything you need is collected somewhere other than in your head.

And, as David succinctly states elsewhere in the book, if you don't use a dedicated inbox in the context of a healthy collection habit, your whole house or office turns into your inbox. And that just doesn't scale. Failing to do so in recent weeks may be why you've fallen off the GTD wagon.

So, just as you learned Collection as the first step in implementing GTD (and to subsequently maintain your system), it's precisely the place to start when you're trying to properly get back into it.

And for the errant GTDer, I feel like the most powerful collection exercise is what DA calls "the mind-sweep."

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Inbox Zero: Processing to zero

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

The truth is that you probably can take the average email inbox -- even a relatively neglected one -- from full to zero in about 20 minutes. It mostly depends on how much you really want to be done with it. The dirty little secret, of course, is that you don't do it by responding to each of those emails but by ruthlessly processing them. Is that how you thought this worked? Answering 500 emails in 20 minutes? Jeez, it's no wonder you're such a mess. Your cognitive dissonance is epic.

Here's the deal: your email has been accumulating because you don't have the time to answer it properly, which is certainly reasonable and accurate. You also fear losing track of the email you haven't responded to -- that it will fall between the cracks. This fear is also reasonable and accurate. But you're just as keenly aware that with the backlog of email you have plus the increasing rate of incoming messages you receive each day, you can't possibly ever catch up. This, sadly, is also entirely reasonable and accurate. It's all reasonable and it's all accurate, but come on: something's gotta give.

Like Kirk's "solution" to the Kobayashi Maru Scenario, there's an easy but non-obvious way to win at this Catch-22: you cheat. You don't answer them all. Not even most of them.

You rewrite the rules. You adapt at a higher level. You have to, or else the Klingons will overwhelm you with their superior fire power and brute force -- and then your email would remain unanswered for eternity. Think how sad that would be.

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Solve problems by writing a note to yourself

Dear, Merlin,

For someone so fond of lecturing other people about their problems, I have a lot of annoying tics (I mean, duh). One of my worst, at least back in the day, was seldom bothering to RTFM before demanding lots of time-consuming help from others.

For years, my court of first resort was almost always to email the smartest, often busiest person I knew about a given topic, alerting them as to their new role as the speed bump between me and solving my problem (cf: the classic Balloon joke). I've gotten better at it over the years, for sure, and, in the age of Google, it's a habit that's easy enough to shed.

The funny thing I eventually realized was that I could and often did find the solution to my problem -- part way through writing the email in which I was asking for help. I realize this sounds kind of silly, but the next time you're having trouble figuring something out, try writing a note to yourself.

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Ganging your mosquito tasks

Not all tasks are created equal. Our to-dos all differ in priority, complexity, time requirement, and context, so it’s probably daft to always capture and expose them in an identical way. I have a little trick for dealing with this that’s been working really well for me.

Back in the day, my to-do list was an egalitarian nightmare of inefficiency — verb-centric “next actions” through they all were, I commonly faced a task list that looked something like this:

  • call Alice about Foo project
  • fix line 125 of bar.php
  • fix line 349 of bat.php
  • take out kitchen recycling
  • buy milk
  • buy index cards
  • sweep the decks

Now, the problem here might be self-evident to you smarter people, but I was missing an important concept: there is such a thing as too granular a task to track as its own event. In this instance, I was cruftifying my landscape with items that were way too detailed or tiny and, consequently, I’d turned my task list into an undoable roller coaster of un-focus. Just as “projects” are composed of “tasks,” I like to think that “tasks” themselves can often be collected into silos of small “mosquito tasks.” And my solution, as ever: text files and alarms.

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Looking back at our fresh starts & modest changes

Fresh Starts & Modest Changes

Henry David ThoreauEarlier this month I began a short series of posts and podcasts called "Fresh Starts & Modest Changes." It was meant as an antidote to the pressure that many of us feel to upend our lives with poorly thought-out new year's resolutions. The idea was to get you thinking less about the unlikelihood of success in mounting sudden, ginormous change, and more to suggest some subtle adjustments for making life just a bit more pleasant, productive, and your own. Tweaking as you go, instead of trying to treat your mind like some kind of a microwavable corn dog.

We're getting to the end of the month now, so I wanted to wrap up with a few thoughts on the value of small changes, but I'd also love to hear about any of your own fresh starts and modest changes -- particularly hoping you'll share the ways you've had the best success keeping on track with the adjustments you've chosen to make.

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My txt setup

The explications continue.

It's been a while since I talked about how I'm using text files, and my post a while ago on Quicksilver appending reminded me of a few little changes I've made over the past year or so that my fellow text geeks might find interesting.

Reviewing: Why text?

Like a lot of geeks and aspirational geeks, I do as many things as possible in plain text files. I've endlessly sung the praises of text on 43F, but in a nutshell, they're portable, efficient, tiny, and almost endlessly mungible. They're the lingua franca of Unix and most of the civilized world.

As you'll see, I use text files for any variety of things, although my favorite use is for making and maintaining lists. The aforementioned append functionality lets me quickly add items to any file with nothing but muscle memory and a few keystrokes. Best thing ever.

I also write in text files as well as store large amounts of reference information. Text is very easy to swap into HTML (I keep almost everything in Markdown format), and text is wonderfully searchable, whether using Spotlight, Find & Replace, or just via incremental search from within the editor.

Point being: I use applications like OmniOutliner, iCal, and (formerly) Entourage to organize the relationships between silos in my life; but text files are the living repositories for as much of the actual information as I can manage.

Getting a system

Like everything, this text system benefits from a loose organizational framework that lets me quickly create and change files without having to worry too much about what it's called, where it goes, and how I'll find it again. So here's a few high points from my text world.

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Faking fullscreen mode on your Mac

Faking Fullscreen Mode

I forget where, but someone once mentioned that you could probably emulate fullscreen mode in most OS X apps by using the "Universal Access" PreferencePane (if I'm stealing this idea from you uncredited, send the link and I'll correct the error with my thanks).

Anyhow, this rules. Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty fast to set up, and if you're as easily distracted as I am, it's a handy way to minimize distractions and force yourself into focusing on just one thing.

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Writing sensible email messages

Writing sensible email messages

As we've seen before, getting your inbound email under control will give you a huge productivity boost, but what about all the emails you send? If you want to be a good email citizen and ensure the kind of results you're looking for, you'll need to craft messages that are concise and easy to deal with.

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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