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.


Guest post: More on distractions, from Paul Ford

Last week, I enjoyed and linked to Paul Ford’s Ftrain post, “Followup/Distraction.” It led to us exchanging a few chatty emails, so I asked Paul to favor us with a deeper write-up on his idea of narrow vs. broad distractions. More specifically, I asked: “Is there such a thing as a good distraction?”

Are there "good" distractions?

by Paul Ford

I don't want to differentiate between "good" distractions and "bad" distractions. I want to stick to the idea of "narrow" and "broad" distractions. Because sometimes a broad distraction--like, say, getting drunk and watching the movie Red Dawn--is exactly what you need. In fact, one of the best things I can do when I'm in a rut is go see some utter-crap movie that features CIA operatives and lots of gunfire. I like to goof off a whole lot. I think it's insanity to try to justify that in any way.

I struggle, though, because my PC can play a DVD of Red Dawn while I check my email and work on an essay. This sort of computing power is fine for strong-willed people, but for the weak-willed like myself it's a hopeless situation. My work requires me to patiently work through things and come up with fresh ideas. And I can honestly say that since broadband Internet came to my home a year and a half ago my stock of new, fresh, fun ideas has grown very thin. It's just too much. My mind can't wander, because, with anything that interests me, I can look it up on Wikipedia to gain some context. Before I know it I've got thirty tabs open at once in Firefox. Then new email comes in. I loathe the way computers blink to demand your attention; the computer wants to tell me, for instance, that it can't load a web page. On the Mac, my Firefox icon starts jumping up and down like an anxious toddler (I know I can probably turn this off, but there are always more pop-up windows). My computer constantly wants to share totally asinine, useless information like that with me. So I've started using an Alphasmart Neo to draft text, and WordPerfect for DOS to edit and revise. My average daily word count has doubled as a result, and my stock of fresh ideas seems to be replenishing.

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Paul Ford: The two kinds of distraction

Followup/Distraction (Ftrain.com)

Paul Ford, eloquent as usual, on the two kinds of distractions--the wide kind that are the equivalent of a kitty toy for distractible humans, and the narrow kind, which stimulates you to follow a train of thought into tunnels it's nary entered. Paul concludes, in part:

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Kendall Clark: AlphaSmart Neo's interesting for what it's _not_

On the Joys of Primitive Computing: The AlphaSmart Neo

I keep hearing rumblings about the AlphaSmart Neo, but haven’t put my hands to one yet. Anybody out there got one? Tried one? Seems a bit steep at $250, but I’d love to play with one (<accent belle=“southern”>Why, I declare: I do believe I’ve dropped my kerchief: AlphaSmart, would you be so kind…?</accent>).

Kendall Clark seems to think Neo’s part of a larger trend:

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Lifehacker features (and craving more)

Lifehacker - Feature

Our pals over at Lifehacker have a new section of Features where they’re posting longer how-tos and tutorials on all manner of cool stuff. Don’t miss How to set up a personal home web server, How to control your home computer from anywhere, and Professional E-mail Tips. These are all very well done and super-useful.

Permit me to extend two enthusiastic horns of rock toward the Lifehacker domain to celebrate this august move. The crew there is composed of some very smart cookies, and it’s really cool to see them spreading their wings and being encouraged to augment their link blogging with excellent original content. This is good.

Just because no one’s asked me yet, I’ll volunteer a stray factoid: the sites like 43F that I ever visit more than occasionally have some things in common: a) they have an original voice and a point of view, b) the authors make an effort to create and share new content and ideas—or at least present old ones in a new or contextual way.

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Prompts to start you writing

Roy Peter Clark has distilled the concept of “writing as carpentry” down to twenty simple techniques for tightening up your work.

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Tips to prune crufty writing

Useful set of tips on improving the carpentry of your writing by avoiding cliches and colorless (or too colorful) language.

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TOPICS: Tips, Writing

Poets, dadaists, and word nerds: Rejoice

Cool site with a bunch of tools, games and articles that will appeal to word nerds.

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TOPICS: Heh, Tips, Writing

Anne Lamott: Put the puppy back on the paper

I’ve previously mentioned Bay-area writer Anne Lamott in the context of her fondness for index cards and her belief in the importance of capturing ideas at the moment they come to you (it’s something I also really believe in). It’s fun to hear her talk about this stuff, too. She has a discursive speaking style that’s, by turns, insightful, frustrating, and very funny.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading her book Bird by Bird a section or two at a time whenever I have a few minutes, and I have to say, it’s one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.

As a guide for young or aspiring writers, I’d put it up there with On Writing Well and Writing Down the Bones in terms of practical, really useful advice. She strips away so much of the pretense and BS about the writing process and encourages you to just start writing—focusing on small assignments (all you need to do is fill a 1″x1″ picture frame with words) and what she calls “the shitty first draft.” Great stuff.

But I think some of the most amazing passages in the book have little to do with writing, per se. It’s all about how we choose to look at the world and ourselves.

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Park on a downhill slope

Jeffrey Windsor shares a great tip for making it easy to start work in the morning—by always leaving your work at a point where it will be easy, intuitive, and interesting to pick things back up. Instead of grinding away until you're drained and out of enthusiasm, quit while you're on a roll.

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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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