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.

Getting Unstuck

Whining, Blue Smoke & the Mechanics of Getting Unstuck

I've been working on a bunch of (non-43 Folders-related) stuff lately, but I started feeling that hankering to come back and write something new here. To get the engine started, I went through some old posts and turned up a few (oddly self-inspiring) ideas that I want to re-share. The topic? "Getting unstuck."

  • Hack your way out of writer's block - "Literally. Put five completley random words on a piece of paper. Write five more words. Try a sentence. Could be about anything. A block ends when you start making words on a page."
  • Solve problems by writing a note to yourself - "Seriously, open up your email program, type in your own email address, then choose a brilliant subject line that perfectly encapsulates your particular problem."
  • Do a fast "mind-sweep" - "And as long as you let that stuff accumulate as chunky deposits on the edges of your perception, it’s very unlikely it’ll get done since — well — they won’t get done until they’re been captured and properly started, right?"
  • Cringe-Busting your TODO list - "Per cringe item, think honestly about why you’re freaked out about it. Seriously. What’s the hang-up? (Fear of failure? Dreading bad news? Angry you’re already way overdue?)"
  • Patching your personal suck - "Every patch that fails teaches you a little something that might come in handy some day. Mistakes, as they say, can be a buddhist gift."

I guess all I'd add -- since it's on my mind today -- is that I'm learning how much it pays to listen whenever you hear yourself mentally whining.

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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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Catching the brain rain

Warm, Partly Cloudy, 100% Chance of Brain Rain

I like James' ideas for catching the "brain rain" -- a way of setting aside a few minutes each day for firewalled creativity through idea generation and capture. This kind of habit could fit nicely into an end-of-day ritual, maybe before a quick review and daily cleanup.

Keys to catching the brain rain:

  • set aside 10 minutes, each and every day
  • have pen and paper handy
  • allow yourself the freedom to think crazy thoughts
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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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Unpacking the anxieties on your TODO list

Writer’s Block, Geek-Block, and Procrastination

I like this practical, tactical approach to “cringe-busting” a list of tasks that you’ve been procrastinating. Basically, you write down each thing you want to do as well as the anxiety that’s kept you from doing it.

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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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Converting 'waiting on' items

I’m curious about how GTD fans handle their “waiting on” items. I’ve decided to try something a bit different in my own setup, and I’m wondering if others have done something similar with any success.

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Patching your personal suck

50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work is a terrifically useful and very entertaining list of hacks, tricks, ciphers, and fake rules for helping yourself write. Or more specifically, it helps you get unstuck, unblocked, and out of that hated procrastinating mire. It’s actually a much better version of my “Hack Your Way out of Writer’s Block” that I somehow missed in putting my ideas together.

I have to say, I’m really pleased to have discovered this article today, because it comports with some stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and with the approach that sums up my feeling about “43 Folders-esque” ideas: in order to find what works for you, it helps to understand why the old stuff doesn’t

By now, everybody knows that I swiped the basic idea for 43 Folders from my pal, hero, and personal muse, Danny O’Brien. His work on the original Life Hacks presentation was centered around research into why some people, especially those overachieving alpha geeks, seem to get so much more accomplished over the same 24 hours we mortals start with each day. Some of them, like Rael, just seem preternaturally organized and focused. Others, like Cory, are blessed with an ungodly gift for effective multi-tasking.

But many of the other productive nerds, as you soon realize, have just gotten really good at identifying their weaknesses and developing the compensatory psychic muscle needed to shore up their vulnerabilities. Forgetful? Write stuff down. Easily distracted? Set timers. Saddled with pointless interruptions? Leave the office. Find the bad code in your system and eliminate the bugs. Find the fastest, easiest, most elegant solution that could possibly work. Can it really be that simple?

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Hack Yourself: Exorcise the Demon

Hack Yourself” is a short essay packed with inspiring thoughts on change, self-image, and the ranges of possibility that you permit yourself. Too many great bits to quote ‘em all, but I found this part especially illuminating:

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Hack your way out of writer's block

I recently had occasion to do some…errr…research on writer’s block. Yeah, research. That’s what I was doing. Like a scientist.

I found lots of great ideas to get unstuck and wrote the best ones on index cards to create an Oblique Strategies-like deck. Swipe, share, and add you own in comments.

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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.

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