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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.


Building a Smarter To-Do List, Part I

Since new folks visit 43F each day, I thought it might be valuable to return to one of our most popular evergreen topics to review some "best practices" for keeping a good to-do list. While a lot of this might be old hat to some of you, it's a good chance to review the habits and patterns behind one of the most powerful tools in the shed. Part 2 appears tomorrow (Update: now available). (N.B.: links to previous posts related to these topics are provided inline)

Why bother?

In my own experience wrangling life's entropic challenges, some of my best gains have come from maintaining a smart, actionable, and updated accounting of all the things I've committed myself to doing. While the quality of that list may vary from day to day, it's the best place to train my focus whenever things are starting to feel out of control. In fact, the health of my to-do list usually mirrors the health of my productivity (as well as the barometric pressure of my stress). On the good days, my to-do list has a living quality that helps guide my decisions and steers me through unexpected changes in priority or velocity. And on the crummy days, it becomes the likely suspect when I need to quickly reassess the state of the union and make changes.

While you can argue for the flavor and approach to task management that best suits your style (and your personal suck), it's hard to disparage the benefits that come from getting task commitments out of your brain and into a consistent location. One list scribbled on one busy day is not necessarily the answer (although it can be a lifesaver). Try thinking of your to-do list as an evolving plan for responsibly focusing your effort and attention in the near future.

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Kick procrastination's ass: Run a dash

Procrastination can drive most of us into a spiral of shame that’s as mundane as it is painfully personal. We know what we should be doing, but some invisible hang-up keeps us on the line. Unfortunately, the guaranteed consequence of procrastination is growth in the scale of the task you’ve been putting off—as well as the anxiety that it creates. All the time you’re putting something off, your problem’s getting bigger—both in reality and in your head, where your colorful imagination is liable to turn even the most trivial item into an unsolvable juggernaut that threatens to overwhelm you. And that means extra stress, more procrastination, and the music goes round.

My favorite tonic for procrastination—which I have mentioned in passing previously—is what I call a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute. By breaking a few tiny pebbles off of your perceived monolith, you end up psyching yourself out of your stupor, as well as making much-needed progress on your overdue project. Neat, huh?

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Harnessing your interstitial time

Sometimes, it's easy to feel like your work has degraded into a series of interruptions--that any block of time you've set aside to focus on a project is in constant danger of being minced to bits by phone calls, emails, and the weekend anecdotes of your co-workers. Worse still, we all suffer daily from innumerable waits, delays, and last-minute reschedulings, all of which can upend our plans and lead to a constant shifting of available time.

Rather than always seeing these changes as an intractable liability, try to look at them as opportunities to liberate unexpected pockets of time and focus. While literally non-stop interruptions are likely to make any of us nutty, a slight adjustment to your planning and outlook can lead to fast gains in productivity and a much-improved attitude about your working environment.

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Cringe-Busting your TODO list

As I’ve said before, items can sometimes linger on your TODO list a lot longer than you’d like, and it can be tricky to understand exactly why that is in each case. I’m convinced cringing is often a factor.

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Choosing a daily GTD action plan

Chris Murtland's "revolving workflow strategies" for GTD

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How does a geek hack GTD?

MytxtsetupProductivity programs like Getting Things Done obviously have been developed around the needs of managers, sales people, and entrepreneurs. This makes sense given that those are largely the people who are buying the books, listening to the CDs, and attending the seminars (or certainly represent the largest market share of potential customers).

But, one of my main goals with this site was to discuss the way that productivity plans and methods designed for the business world can be reframed in a context that's useful for developers, programmers, and garden-variety geeks. This is not to say that geeks don't fill many or all of these managerial roles in their work, but they also tend to have work styles, deliverables, and skillsets that are markedly different from the average, notional GTD user.

The prime example: "@computer." Man, geeks don't just use a computer for occasional work or to "look something up on 'The Interweb.'" They live on their laptop and take it anywhere they'd bring their wallet. They eat wireless like potato chips and crank out code for a living. They have an IM window and an IRC channel running all day. They're streaming conferences in and live-blogging conferences out. In short, if they follow the stock GTD setup, they will have a very, very long "@computer" list.

So I wanted to start a conversation about how geeks handle their lists, their projects, and their agendas--not so much in terms of the tool they use to store the information, although that's fair game--as with how they segment the information and decide when to break it into pieces. I'll start by providing the setup used by a San Francisco web developer who spends a lot of time on his PowerBook: me.

(Please note: since I'd love to see a lot of discussion about this, please post your response on your own site and just send a single trackback ping to this post (hit: http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/1128456). Comments below are ok for short responses or for posting links to your non-tracback-able site, but please try to limit yourself to a paragraph or so. Thanks.)

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Getting started with "Getting Things Done"

This article was originally posted during the first week of 43 Folders' existence, and, pound for pound, it remains our most popular page on the site. Please be sure to also visit related pages, browse our GTD topic area, plus, of course you can search on GTD across our family of sites.

GTD coverI’ll be talking a lot here in coming weeks about Getting Things Done, a book by David Allen whose apt subtitle is “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” You’ve probably heard about it around the Global Interweb or have been buttonholed by somebody in your office who swears by GTD. (It probably takes a backseat only to the Atkins Diet in terms of the number of enthusiastic evangelists: sorry about that.)

Like I did the other day with Quicksilver, I wanted to provide a gentle, geek-centric introduction to Getting Things Done, so that you can think about whether it might be right for you. It also gives you time to pick up your own copy of the book and get a feel for how David’s system works. (You can support 43 Folders by buying the book from Amazon, but it’s also up at ISBN.nu and, of course, on shelves at your local bookstore). You’ll also eventually want to grab some of the other GTD essentials, like a ton of manila folders, a good label maker, and a big-ass garbage can. It’s time to get your act together, hoss.

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Introducing the Hipster PDA

This article was originally posted during the first week of 43 Folders' existence, and, pound for pound, it remains one of the most popular page on the site. Please be sure to also visit related pages, browse our Hipster PDA topic area, plus, of course you can search on the Hipster PDA across our family of sites.

Recently, I got sick of lugging my Palm V around, so I developed a vastly superior, greatly simplified device for capturing and sharing information. I call it “The Hipster PDA.”

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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