Nesting TextExpander snippets

For extreme Mac productivity nerds: Brett Terpstra describes nesting TextExpander snippets. For example, if you’re a software developer with a product priced at $X, create a separate snippet with the price and include that snippet in other snippets. Then when you change the price it automatically changes throughout all your boilerplate. Neat.

“Habits are things you get for free”

“Write every day. When you write every day, it becomes a habit and you do it automatically. Habits are things you get for free.” – Cory Doctorow, in Lifehacker

Fantastic insight. I think of it often. And it applies to everything, not just writing.

I have literally spent decades of my life wishing I did creative writing every day. Now I do it. It has gotten to be a habit. I do it even when I’m insanely busy with other things, or I’m completely wiped out from work. Just 20 minutes a day, as Cory has said elsewhere. Sometimes even less. But every day. It adds up. For me, it has added up to several short stories, and three novels (one complete, two complete drafts — if you’re an agent or a publisher and want to see them, let me know: mitch@mitchwagner.com).

Same thing with exercise. I went for decades wishing I was the kind of person who exercises every day. Now I do it. I take a moderately-paced walk, every day, even when I’m insanely busy doing other things, or wiped out from work.

Same thing for eating. I used to eat a lot of junk food. Now I eat more healthy foods. I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. When I’m hungry for a snack, I reach for a piece of fruit, or nuts, or carrots, or yogurt. It no longer occurs to me to reach for potato chips. (I do enjoy my nighttime snack of chocolate cookies — but that’s OK. Treats are part of a healthy diet.)

I don’t say these things to brag. I’m just pointing out the power of habit. If you cultivate good habits, they’re automatic. You know longer have to think about them.

Habits are things you get for free.

I have plenty of bad habits too. I’m a slob. I’m sloppy about personal finance. And even my good habits fall away when I travel: I don’t do creative writing. I don’t exercise. I eat a lot of crap. I’m working on better habits.

I’m still liking TaskPaper after a day

That’s already a breakthrough. Sometimes I spent a few hours on the weekend configuring a new productivity app and it fails to survive even an hour on a workday.

Here’s a big thing I like about TaskPaper: Because it’s plain text I can just arrange things however I want. Put tags at the beginning of a task. Arrange tasks into projects or not. Change the order however I want. Go crazy.

Two significant drawbacks: It doesn’t automatically support dated tasks. I mean, you can add a date to a task, but it won’t automatically stay hidden until the appointed day and then magically appear in your task list when it’s time. I knew that when I started trying it. There are workarounds, and I can live with it.

The second drawback is more significant: Because my task list is just a text file that syncs with Dropbox, if I walk away from my desk and make a change on my iPhone or iPad, that change will likely result in desktop conflicts. The only workaround is like the old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” “So don’t do that.” I need to remember to close Taskpaper when I leave my desk. That’s too easy to forget. I can think of a couple of workarounds: Keep a separate “errands and chores” list for things I need to remember to when I’m away from my desk, and keep a separate inbox exclusively as a place to add tasks as they occur to me when I’m out and about.

Day two with TaskPaper is Tuesday.

On the value of keeping a “spark file” of partly baked ideas, and reviewing it every few months

Steven Johnson:

The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good. And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don’t turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them.

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable. Sure, I end up reading over many hunches that never went anywhere, but there are almost always little sparks that I’d forgotten that suddenly seem more promising. And it’s always encouraging to see the hunches that turned into fully-realized projects or even entire books.

This seems like a profoundly useful idea, and not just for writing — but for life.

It’s a variant on the someday/maybe list in GTD, which I’ve never really understood the purpose of until now.

The Spark File

This is how danah boyd works

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For years danah boyd has been watching the internet through an academic lens, studying how society interacts with technology. Her recent book, It’s Complicated, looks at how teenagers, born into an online world, are navigating social media and whether they’re better off for it.

I’m danah boyd, Researcher at Microsoft, and This Is How I Work