Category Archives: productivity and writing

Highly Focused People

Each day we bombarded by multiple commitments, emails from co-workers, the occasional fire to put out, and so on. Additionally, there are probably several tasks that need to be completed, some more that you would like to do, and others that just seem to be in the distant future. You can’t do it all. And, as research shows, we can only do one thing well at a time. When you go back and forth from task to task you will always be underperforming. This is just on the day-to-day.

There is also something to be said for focusing on one project for a longer period of time until you see it to completion. Trying to juggle multiple commitments doesn’t allow you to get into the flow on the project.

I found James Clear’s advice on Twitter helpful, especially the line “If you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.”

Tweet Link – @james_clear

Highly focused people do not leave their options open. They make choices. If you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.

The great irony of this is that by limiting your options and remaining focused until you master a skill, you actually expand your options in the long run. Life-changing optionality is a byproduct of providing great value, which can only be achieved through focus.

So commit, focus, and complete then move on.

∞ Kickstarter: The Panobook from Studio Neat

I’ve bought a couple items from Studio Neat, including the recent Glif. They always put out a good product and are worthy of backing on Kickstarter. In their latest offering they have seemingly succeeded in marketing a notebook gone sideways. Its actually a clever idea and one that I will probably use quite often for taking notes at my desk. I’ve backed it and so should you.

Here is Panobook, in a nutshell:

  • The unique panoramic format (160 mm x 288 mm) is designed to sit nicely on your desk, either in front of, behind, to next to you keyboard.
  • Each page contains a subtle dot grid, with guide markers to help with layout.
  • We really sweated the details. All of the materials have a premium feel and are very nice.
  • Panobooks are designed to be kept. Put it in the included slip case, annotate it if you want, and line a bunch up on the shelf.

Image from their Kickstarter page

Back the project on Kickstarter

Additionally here is a podcast episode with the guys from Studio Neat discussing the Panobook

😳😳😳😳

😳😳😳😳

Deliberate Practice

Developing grit in your activities is a combination of several things such as passion, practice, and a feeling a purpose with what you are doing says Angela Duckworth in Grit. When it comes to practice you can’t merely go through the motions. Practice must be deliberate if you want to improve and get to a state of flow at your task. Deliberate practice allows you to “experience the thrill of getting better, and the ecstasy of performing at your best (137).” When you achieve these two aspects you are one step further in developing perseverance at your work.

So what is deliberate practice? Duckworth outlines three elements:

  1. Know the science. Why? Because without a reason for your deliberate practice too often you will just cruise through life and not improve. The science includes
    1. A clearly defined stretch goal
    2. Full concentration and effort
    3. Immediate and informative feedback
    4. Repetition with reflection and refinement
  2. Make deliberate practice a habit
  3. Change the way you experience and think about deliberate practice. If you are just going through the motions without the proper feedback and goals then you are likely to become less motivated. Deliberate work should be rewarding giving you a sense of accomplishment.

Following Your Passion

I’m currently reading Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which explains how to persevere through your work. Too many people get started on one thing, switch to another, then another, then another, and so forth. Grit, according to Duckworth consists of three aspects: interest, practice, and purpose.

In the chapter on interest she discusses the popular notion of “following your passion.” At graduations everywhere numerous speakers will talk about how they followed their passion and love what they too while often being highly successful. Duckworth, agrees, in principle, with this advice but argues that there is more too this. Generally, people don’t develop a passion for something right away but developed it over time. Thus, following your passion is true but before you can follow your passion you must have one.

First, you need an interest, which contains three elements:

  1. Discovery – finding your interest and passion must first begin with that discovery. This can take time and you should be forced into one thing or another. She says that play should come before work. Find out what types of things interest you.
  2. Development – “interests are not discovered through introspection (104).” Interests take time to develop through a series of interactions with the outside world. When you get started on something you won’t know if you like it or not, it takes time to develop that interests through doing. “Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention–again and again and again (104).”
  3. Encouragement – after discovery and development your interests often need encouragement from those closest to you. Your family, friends, and peers “provide the ongoing stimulation and information that is essential to actually liking something more and more…positive feedback makes us feel happy, competent, and secure (105).”

At the end of the day “follow your passion” isn’t bad advice but you first need to find out what your interests are and what drives you. This takes discovery, development, and encouragement from others.
In my own life, I’ve seen this play out in a couple of ways. I’ve always been driven by helping others improve what they are doing. Looking at something and saying we can make that better. This baseline interests has taken the form in what my current position is working in online learning at Southern Seminary. When I first saw this idea of education I wasn’t too familiar but I had ideas of how to make it better in this context. Its taken time to develop (and its still developing) but this interests is now what drives me. How can we improve what we are doing here. At the end of the day, I’ve had encouragement from friends and other peers, which has sparked further interest and passion in this. If you would have asked me four years ago if I had an interest or passion in online theological education I would have said no. But I’ve discovered, developed, and been encouraged in this interest to where now its become a passion that I want to continue developing and improving.

Mac Tip: Pasting as Plain Text and Using a Free Clipboard Manager

If you do any sort of copying and pasting on your Mac then you know what a pain it can be when you paste text that is formatted from its original location. This is especially frustrating when copying from the web, PDFs, or software such as Logos or Accordance. There are a several different options for fixing this problems. Here are two of them:

The first option is native to the Mac. It is simply using the keyboard shortcut Option+Shift+Command+V. This will paste as plain text stripping all the formatting.

Another option that I use all the time is through a clipboard manager called Flycut (its free!). This app stores everything you have copied and allows you to cycle through and then paste as plain text. This relieves the stress of going back and forth between apps to copy and paste. Instead, just copy everything you need then cycle through your latest copied texts and then paste. You can do all this by holding Shift+Command+V then continue pressing V to cycle through everything.

3 Simple First Steps for Overhauling Your Productivity System

Everyone has a system for getting things done. Unfortunately, for many, that system is in their head, post-it notes scattered around, or their email inbox. I can’t speak for everyone but my guess is that if this is your system then things you need to get done are either all happening at the last minute as something triggers you to remember or they are falling through the cracks. This is no way to live!

If you are wanting to overhaul your productivity system you can take some simple steps to make life much easier. I could tell you that you need to read Getting Things Done, purchase the best task manager, and sit for hours recalibrating everything in your life. Yes, this would work but for most people this is overkill when you are just starting. The best productivity system is the one that works for you. The trick is to find that balance of the simplest method for keeping track of everything without being unnecessarily complicated or burdensome. Being a productive and efficient person should give you clarity and time for the most important things in your life. Productivity is not about (necessarily) getting more accomplished but organizing your life in such a way that you have a good balance for everything.

I love these two quotes from Tim Challie’s book Do More Better (you can find my review here):

  • “Productivity is not what will bring purpose to your life, but what will enable you to excel in living out your existing purpose.”
  • “I don’t want you to do more stuff or take on more projects or complete more tasks. Not necessarily. I don’t want you to work longer hours or spend less time with your family and friends. I want you to do more good. I want you to do more of what matters most, and I want you to do it better. That’s what I want for myself as well.”

Below, I outline three first steps that you can take to help your productivity system. These are just initials actions that you can do in order to boost your productivity and free your mind for engaging in the most important aspects of your life.

3 First Steps

Perform a mind dump – this idea comes from the GTD system. At the most basic level the idea is to get everything off your mind. One of David Allen’s most popular quotes is “Your mind is not for keeping ideas but for having them.” If you are storing everything you have to do in your mind then you are not free to think through the most important ideas in your life. The only way to remember that you have to do something at the end of the week is to keep reminding yourself of that task. That’s just one task. Now think of everything you have to do and you can quickly see that this can become overwhelming.

So, my first suggestion, is to think of different areas of responsibility in your life. For me, this falls into 3 broad categories: personal (family, home, church, dog, etc), work, and school. Gather three pieces of paper and 15, 30, 60 minutes to sit down and just write down anything that comes to mind that you have to do in those areas of responsibility. I think you’ll be surprised about how much you are actually storing in your mind.

Just this simple process of performing a mind dump will give you clarity about what all you have going on in your life. Once you have done this, develop a plan with your most important tasks. If there are events you need to go to or prepare for then put them on the calendar. For projects, write down the next action that you need to do in order to move the project forward. Many tasks can be deferred until later. Keep a list of these on a separate sheet of paper that you can review at a later date.

This is just a first step in order to help you realize what all you have going on and to clear your mind. Unfortunately, this is not a one-time deal. I try to perform a mind dump every month or so because inevitably I forget to write things down. The next step, will outline what to do moving forward so you don’t develop a habit of constantly trying to remember things.

Create an inbox for your tasks – whenever something comes up that you need to do then you need to write this down in a consistent location. A dedicated task manager is best for this in my opinion (I recommend OmniFocus, Things, or Todoist) but getting started you can use anything such as the Notes app on your iPhone, Evernote, or even just go old fashioned and use a pocket notebook such as Field Notes or a memo pad.

You don’t want to just keep these tasks in your inbox though. You consistently need to clear this inbox and put the tasks in the right place. If it is a larger project then open a file or a separate note for the project and write down some next actions (Evernote allows you to set reminders for notes). For simple tasks put them in a reminders app such as Reminders or the Due app (this is what I use). For time sensitive material such as events use your calendar. By using an inbox it will give you one central location to review new tasks and deal with those appropriately.

The key is not to try to remember everything. This is not how your brain is designed to work! We are naturally forgetful. Don’t keep tasks in your email, brain, or post-it notes scattered around. One location will help you track everything you have going on in your life.

Review – finally, I recommend that you review your tasks on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Personally, I do a Friday weekly review (see my post on this here) but you can do this anytime that works best for you. By reviewing your tasks and projects you will be able to see what is coming up and plan accordingly. The review does not need to be complex but you do need to take a 20,000 ft. view of your life and see what all is going on.

Conclusion

So if you are feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of tasks that you have to do I recommend starting with these three steps. In further posts I will talk about a more complete system but these three things will help you get started in creating your own system. Everyone’s system will be different but I think there are certain pillars that will improve everyone’s productivity.

If you are interested in more then I suggest looking at David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. Much of my productivity system is based on principles that he outlines in this book. As I said above though, I don’t follow it completely but it gives me a better vision of how I work and how I can track everything going on. The key is to develop a system for you and stick to it. You will have ups and downs. You will need to reset, perform the mind dump, and recalibrate what you are doing. At the end of the day, make your system work for you and you not working for your system. It should always work in the background helping you focus on the task at hand.

Book Review: Do More Better by Tim Challies

I don’t want you to do more stuff or take on more projects or complete more tasks. Not necessarily. I don’t want you to work longer hours or spend less time with your family and friends. I want you to do more good. I want you to do more of what matters most, and I want you to do it better. That’s what I want for myself as well (5).”

Challies nails what should form the foundation of every productivity goal and system. The goal of productivity is not to add a another plate to your life with a bunch of “todos” but to rather arrange your existing todos to flourish in life. One of your goals might be to spend more time with your family. Or maybe you have a healthy work/school/family balance but you are always rushed at completing your projects. Being more productive in this sense would allow you to manage your time and more efficiently work to improve the projects at hand. Regardless of what your goal is remember don’t become more productive so that you can do more in you life but rather how can you do what you are currently doing better. The more aspect can come later when you have a grasp on your own efficiency with the tasks that you do have on your plate now.

One of my biggest complaints with productivity blog posts/articles/books with a theological foundation is that they become too “Christianized” and the advice ends up littered with out-of-context proof texts and twisting and forming scripture to fit ones productivity goals. Some do this better than others but on the whole I am continually disappointed with productivity advice from an explicitly Christian perspective.

Recently I was lamenting to a friend about this problem and I remember thinking why can’t someone just lay down some solid theological foundations and based upon those write a productivity book.

Finally, enter Tim Challies.

The first chapter serves exactly this purpose. He calls it a “productivity catechism” that lays out the foundation for the rest of the book. Hallelujah. Finally. I find the catechism to be a helpful primer preparing the reader for the practical and helpful advice that comes later without much of the cheesy Christaineeze.

Challies defines productivity as “effectively stewards your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” This simple definition fits with what I was arguing above should be at the heart of any productivity system: to learn how to use the time you have wisely.

A productive person is not about finding all the latest tools, tweaking the most intricate systems, or learning all the shortcuts but forming yourself into a new person (24). Productivity only happens with a life change in the individual. The way you go about your life needs to drastically change in order to transform into an efficient person. All the outside help in the world will not aid you in becoming more efficient if you are still a lazy and distracted individual.

The rest of the book comes boils down to a modified (and simplified) Getting Things Done (GTD) system. This includes figuring out what all your responsibilities are in your life and putting them on paper (ch. 3), stating your mission (ch. 4), picking the right tools (ch. 5), collecting your tasks (ch. 6), plan your calendar (ch. 7), gather your information (ch. 8), live the system (ch. 9), and maintain it (ch. 10). Challies’ writing is simple and clear. Each of these chapters is filled with sound advice and practical examples, solidifying the content of the chapter. He also includes two bonus chapters on email (don’t skip!) and 20 tips.

For this review it is not necessary to go into all the details of each chapter or even summarizing them. The book is already short and to the point (perfect for a productivity book). I would recommend this book both to those who are looking for a helpful guide for becoming more efficient in their life, or, if like me, you have read much on productivity systems (especially GTD based systems) you will find little tidbits of helpful pointers throughout the book. For example, a short section on expecting interruptions provides two potential pitfalls that one might run into when dealing with interruptions. First, the fear of man, which means that you are keen on pleasing people that you end up saying yes to everything. And second, pride, which signals that you already know best so you will say no to everything (95).

Is this the only thing you should read on productivity? Probably not. I imagine Challies would agree. This is a basic introduction and primer to get you started on your feet and it serves it’s purpose well. Another book I would recommend in conjunction with this is the classic Getting Things Done by David Allen. This book goes into more details and stands as the foundation of the GTD system. Remember, everyone’s productivity system will look different for each individual so don’t think that you will have to fit the mold of someone’s system. Take the best of what your read and hear from others and incorporate it into your life. But remember, knowing a lot about productivity won’t make you more productive. That takes the hard work of transformation, focus, and discipline. The tools and system just help you along the way.

Now get to work!

Purchase

My Friday Review for a Better Monday

Starting another week is often difficult because after the weekend any momentum you had during the previous week is gone. Monday is a time for restarting, Tuesday rolls around and you're back in the swing of things, Wednesday and Thursday can be productive days, and then Friday comes and its almost the weekend. So, in very general terms you potentially have 2-3 days of productive and efficient work.
I've followed a modified GTD system for several years now but I never really implemented one of the core pillars, the weekly review. It was always one of those steps that seemed nice in theory but I never made the time to actually try to do it. Several months ago I decided to implement the weekly review into my schedule.
I began to block out my Friday afternoons. The first couple weeks I tried doing it in the office but "better" things always came up, questions to be answered, and distractions challenging me every minute. I decided that I needed to get out of the office in order to focus. Now, shortly after lunch and wrapping things up in the office, checking with others to make sure any questions need answered before the weekend, and (generally) tidying up my desk so its ready for the next week. I then head over to a local coffee shop in Louisville, Quills Coffee, with just my iPad and headphones to get started.

  • [ ] For the following, I am just going to outline what I do in my personal weekly review. For canonical GTD methodology see David Allen's book.

    Looking Backwards

    First, I review my calendar from the past week. How many times have you had meetings or appointments, took good notes, maybe some action items, and then forget about them until a later date? When reviewing my calendar I write down all meetings, appointments, and other interactions I had with other people. I then briefly summarize what was talked about, collect any action items that need to be completed and add them to my inbox, and then finally, gather any notes and store/label them appropriately. If there are people I need to follow-up with I will usually make a separate list for this as well. This allows me to close the loop with others and not have that hanging over my head through the weekend trying to remember what happened in the previous week.

    Project Review

    The next action I take is to review all my projects and tasks that I have going on. Using OmniFocus for this is easy because it has a review function built in. But even if you do not have a task manager then you can still easily manually review your projects. Reviewing projects does not mean going through all the details. For me, the process is getting closure for the week and preparing myself for Monday. I've found extremely helpful to write down action items, or next steps, that need to occur on the project to move it forward. Most projects, just taking that next step can be the difference between delivering on-time or forgetting about it or delaying its completion.

    Clearing Inboxes

    Next, I begin to go through me email inbox according to the "two-minute rule." Basically, if an email can be taken care of in two minutes or less then I complete it right then. This allows me to move quickly through my email. Also, you would be surprised at how fast you can take care of several things when you employ the two-minute rule. At the end of the day I want my inbox to be clear. This doesn't mean that I have taken care of everything but I've either delegated the task, put the email in my task manager for a later date, stored it in reference, or, for many emails, just delete them.

    Looking Forward

    Finally, after looking back at the week, reviewing projects, and processing my email I am ready to make a game plan for the next week. The reason I do this last is because every other step I am adding tasks that probably need to be added for the following week. This is especially true of email. Being at inbox zero doesn't mean everything thing is complete. It just means that the task in the email is in the right location to be accomplished at the right time.
    I first open my calendar and on a separate piece of paper I begin to right down any appointments that I have to be at (note, I also look at my personal calendar to just verify if it will effect the work day and make note of it if it will) . If it is a meeting, I ask myself what level is my involvement, do I need to prepare anything, and who will be at the meeting. If I need to prepare anything I write this down with a note that it will take XX time to prepare for. I find writing everything down separately to be helpful.
    Once time-sensitive events are taken care of I look at projects and other miscellaneous tasks that I have going on. I usually think more big picture. What is my goal for the week? Where do I want to be next Friday. From there I write in tentatively what I would like to accomplish each day. This is always very fluid once the week starts but it helps having a reference point at the beginning of the week.
    I usually have a couple major projects that I need to devote "deep work" on. For these, I mark out specific times that I will work on these projects. I add this to the calendar as well (see this previous post on some ways I use the calendar). Additionally, I plan out time I need to prepare for any meetings so when Monday rolls around and there is a meeting Tuesday morning I know that sometime Monday I need to sit down and review for the next day.
    Finally, for my situation, I have a review meeting every Monday with my Instructional Designer's in the online learning office (they do a great job btw!). I make sure I have written anything down that I need to talk with them about, review the projects they are working on and make any notes or questions, and just make sure I am ready to devote the 1-2 hours with them. This process has saved so many potential future disasters. Finally, I review for our "continuing education" time after my Monday review with them.

    Conclusion

    This process takes anywhere from 1-4 hours. Often, it depends on the time that I can devote to it. If I can leave the office right after lunch then I have about 4 hours in the afternoon to devote to this so I will go through everything in more rigorous detail. Sometimes, things come up and I have 30-60 minutes so I review much more quickly. For Fridays that I don't do a weekly review the next week just seems like a disaster. I am ill-prepared, forget things, and Monday just seems like a freight train charging at me. Doing a weekly review will make your next week more efficient and productive. Taking the time to review backwards and forwards helps you stay on track, meet deadlines, and keep pushing ahead. Ultimately, it clears your mind to be able to think of the big ideas to change things.

Setting Aside Time to Prepare for Meetings

Over the past several months I’ve implemented the process of setting aside times for certain activities and putting them on my calendar. Previously, I only used the calendar for activities that I had to physically be at. My philosophy was that tasks should be kept in the task manager (OmniFocus), events such as meetings and appointments on the calendar (Fantastical), and quick one-off tasks in a reminders app (Due). I still largely keep this distinction but I am finding that certain tasks such as working on a project for work, prepping for a meeting, or reviewing the week were not getting done.

Deep Work

I first began setting aside “deep work” sessions to work on specific projects. On Friday, I would look at my week and set aside 10-15 hours to specifically mark on my calendar [Deep Work: Project Name] in certain time slots. I marked the slot as busy, tell my team during this time I’m unavailable, remove the distractions, and get to work. This has been immensely helpful. Sometimes I’m not as dedicated as I need to be or something comes up in the “Important-Urgent” category that needs to get done but for the most part I’ve been able to make step-by-step progress on a couple long-term projects.

Meeting Prep

The second activity I’ve been adding to my calendar is setting aside time in order to prep for certain meetings. Some meetings you just need to be there and little prep is necessary. Others, you could probably wing it but preparation would make the meeting more fruitful. Sometimes, preparation is necessary otherwise the meeting is mostly a waste of time. And finally, there are others based on a long term project that you’ve been working on for awhile so you are already prepared for those. For meetings that would be better for all parties if there was preparation on my end are the ones that seem to fall through the cracks. I always think that I’ll have time to look over some documents before but inevitably life happens then it is 1:45pm and the meeting starts at 2:00pm so I just quickly look over some things and go. Sure, the meeting isn’t a disaster but it would be 10x more efficient and productive if I had taken the time to plan.
Thus, enter another category I’ve been putting in my calendar: meeting prep. Ideally, I’d like to set aside time 30-60 minutes depending on what the topic is right before the meeting so ideas are fresh but if I can get any prep in then that is alright. Therefore, when I look at my calendar at the beginning of the day or week I visually see time that I have set aside to prepare for certain meetings. Don’t just “get by” when it comes to meetings. Yes, most of us find them a necessary evil but don’t compound that by not preparing for it on your end (even if you aren’t the one leading it).

Protect the Non-Appointments

The key for putting these “non-appointments” in the calendar is to treat that time as sacred. When someone wants to get together then when you look at your calendar then those times should be marked as busy. Protect those times because each time you don’t it will be easier and easier to let your week fill up with other miscellaneous tasks.
At one point, I tried filling in my whole calendar. I marked “deep work” sessions, meetings, and other appointments then also slotted in times for “admin work,” which simply meant that I’m available, in the office, and doing various tasks. I found, after 3-4 weeks of this that it was visualization overload when looking at my calendar because every slot was filled up. I was available during certain times such as the “admin work” that could be filled with other events but it was not visually helpful to see everything slotted the same way. I did try to distinguish different types of work by changing the title to [Admin Duties] and [Deep Work] but I still found it not to be clean enough.
So I still think the calendar is best suited for appointments but I’ve increasingly found that slotting in certain activities can be a useful visualization for planning my day or week. Take the time to plan for meetings, everyone will be better off because of it. Most of us can “fake it” and still have a slightly productive time and sadly that becomes the norm. Instead, plan in order to make efficient and productive use of not only your personal time but other people’s time in the meeting as well.

Eliminating Distractions and Boosting Focus with Noizio

Whenever I am trying to concentrate, music in the background is generally distracting, especially if it is not techno, classical or other non-verbal music. But even this instrumental music is often distracting for some reason. For several years now I’ve ended up listening to thunderstorms in the background. This serves as a way to help minimize distracting noises around me but not be fully immersed in musical instruments or lyrics. Over the years I’ve tried different apps and methods for this but for awhile now I’ve stuck with an app called Noizio .

Coffee Shop Mix: This is just the first screen of sounds. If you scroll down there are several more. 

Coffee Shop Mix: This is just the first screen of sounds. If you scroll down there are several more. 

Noizio plays several different sounds such as rain, thunderstorm, coffee house, wind, waves, river stream, farm animals and several more. You can mix and match the sounds together and also choose how loud you want each individual sound to be. After figuring out your preferences then you can save it and create another one.

Personally, I use two different mixes. One in a quiet atmosphere and another for a louder atmosphere such as a coffee shop. One of the major differences between my two mixes is the presence of the ambient coffee house noise. In a silent location the coffee house noise is actually quite helpful for me but in an actual coffee shop the real background noise coupled with the artificial noise just becomes way too much. Either way, I like to be able to save different mixes for different atmospheres.

After using this app consistently for many months I’ve found that it helps me get into a state of deep focus quicker because my brain now knows that when these noises are going on then it is time to focus and write or research. So not only does it block out the noise but it also helps me get into the writing flow even quicker than without out it.

So if you are looking for an app to help you stay focus and block out distractions around you then I highly recommend the app Noizio.
It is available on both iOS and MacOS

Saturday Recommendation: Cortex

Saturday Recommendations are a brief highlight of something I enjoy that I think is worth you checking out.

The Cortex podcast is one of my favorite podcasts on the Relay FM network. Myke Hurley and CGP Grey basically think out loud about how they work and the most efficient way of getting things done throughout the day. This may sound completely boring to you but I find they have a great chemistry and are an enjoyable listen.

Check it out!

RSS, Twitter, and Newsletters OH MY

RSS used to be the predominant method that most people gathered and curated their reading content on the web. Google Reader was the free and dominant choice of the internet. Then, unexpectedly, they shut down back in 2013 . The internet went into a state of frenzy as people were then forced to rethink how they gathered their content from different websites. RSS made it easy to follow blogs and news site because you chose the content, went to one place to see that content, and mark items as read or for reading later.

Many people turned to Twitter and Facebook in order to gather links. But with the fleeting nature of both, especially Twitter, it can be easy to miss what is being shared unless you are constantly engaged on the platform, which, sadly, many are because of FOMO . Additionally, if you are trying to cut back on your social media consumption, which many are, it has become difficult to both be engaged in writing that you want to follow and avoid the blackhole of social media.

RSS

Personally, I still predominantly use RSS through a service called Feed Wrangler. RSS usually has two aspects:

  1. The service that curates the feeds from websites
  2. A reading platform to view the feeds

Feed Wrangler is 19 $/yr and I've been using it since the Google Reader shut down. They have an app that you can read your subscriptions from but I find it fairly basic and instead use an app on my iPhone and iPad called Fiery Feeds to read everything. Additionally, you can do local syncing without an RSS service but it won't be available on multiple devices. One of the great aspects of Fiery Feeds is the ability to add feeds with the iOS share sheet on websites. Thus, if I am on a blog I want to start following I don't need to hunt around for the RSS link but instead I just invoke the iOS share sheet and click on Add to Fiery Feeds and it links to it my Feed Wrangler account for syncing. Another popular and free RSS syncing service is Feedly, which can also work with Fiery Feeds.

Nuzzel

Another app, Nuzzel ( MacStories review ), has a little different purpose for curating reading content. Instead of following Twitter and getting sucked into the endless list of tweets being sent out every second I use Nuzzel to curate the most popular content from people I'm following on Twitter and my lists. Nuzzel uses as algorithm to find articles that have been shared multiple times by either just people you follow or another level down of people they also follow. This allows me to just open the Nuzzel app and view popular content on Twitter that is, in my experience, good content to read without getting lost in my timeline. In addition, you can setup a weekly or daily newsletter that Nuzzel curates to send to you at an interval at your choice.

I use a combination of both RSS and Nuzzel for most of my content. I've found that not having to open Twitter for content purposes helpful for both my sanity and productivity. Inevitably, getting on Twitter generally puts me on rabbit trails that I never intended and I lose 30, 40, 60 minutes of my day!

So check out some of the new RSS syncing services out there such as Feedly and Feed Wrangler and also use a social media curating app such as Nuzzel to allow you to still find new and interesting content without being so connected with social media.

Working Together: The Analyst & The Creative

The process of introspection of how you get things done improves yourself in many areas of life: work, school, family, personal projects, volunteer activities, and whatever else you have going on in life. This is especially true when working with others on a project. Understanding how you work, the strengths and weaknesses to your approach, plus understanding that if others work differently that it is ok. Diversity in approaches is the way forward.

The Analyst

If you're like me then you are prone to overthink about processes. You become crippled because you can't move forward because it may not be the best and most efficient way forward. So instead of starting on a project procrastination seeps in because you are thinking through the process rather than creating. If you're this type of person then often times you are in danger of crippling creativity and thinking outside the box because the process of creativity doesn't visibly move the idea forward. But you're strengths are in the same vein. You're the one that can efficiently move a project forward, foresee the roadblocks, and develop an implementation strategy for a successful project. The problem is thinking that you're way is best and the only way to do something.

The Creative

The other type of person is one that jumps and gets started on a project. Throwing out ideas, moving forward on them, restarting, and keeps trying things until something works out. Little thought is given to the how but they are driven by the process of creating, trying out new things regardless if it will work, and the eye is constantly on the end product.

Bringing both together

At the end of the day both types of people (and of course many of you will be somewhere between these polar opposites) have their own advantages and disadvantages. If you're working on a team you need both types of people. One to help guide the process, making how you go about implementing the project more efficient, and thinking through the details. Additionally, you need the creative, the one that will just jump in with a million ideas and hoping that one sticks.

The problem happens when you don't recognize what type of person that you are + thinking that its your way or the highway. Self-realization in understanding how you work and how you fit into the process is key. By understanding yourself and knowing your strengths and weaknesses you can become a team player to produce a better product.

Its hard to see outside yourself and recognize that people work differently and that's ok. Different is not negative. Differences coupled with the awareness is the way forward. When different working methods is viewed as a negative then you will crumble from frustration.

I know for me, this is difficult. For myself, the creative, the one who will just jump in with a million ideas, I tend to negatively view as one with no direction, wasting time, and working inefficiently. But by recognizing that a good idea/project can only emerge through the sifting of bad ideas is valuable. We need each other. I need the one that will push me to think outside the box, think of new ideas, and allowing the sky to be the limit in the idea stage.

So what type of person are you? How do you work? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your personality? What areas do you get frustrated in? Identification of these frustrations and analyzing the true and false aspects of each is the only way to move forward and help you create the best thing you can.

Brief Introduction to Markdown and Why I Use it For Notes and Other Writing

Yesterday I wrote a post about the Prizmo Go app on the iPhone, which allows you to take a picture of text, copy that text, then send it to your app of choice. For this process I am using an app called Bear , which is a Markdown writing app because it allows me to either append or prepend text to a specific file right from the iOS share menu.

Many of you may have heard of Markdown before but often times it is touted for being revolutionary for writing on the web. For example, this post I am writing in Markdown to post on Squarespace. But I also use Markdown for much of my other writing includes notes, handouts, and the beginning stages of my academic writing.

I won't get into the history of Markdown here but in short it was created as a basically a shortened version of HTML for writing on the web. Markdown is a plain text "language" just meaning that you place certain characters around text that when processed it transforms the text into different formats such as bold, italics, strike, bullet lists, ordered lists, links, and more.

Why I use Markdown for Notes and Other Writing

Since Markdown is a plain text language it allows me to never worry about the formatting until the very end. If you have ever taken notes in Microsoft Word, Evernote, Pages, etc then you have probably encountered the frustration of your notes not formatting how you want and then spending unnecessary time worrying about that. The other problem is getting text out of that app into another place, which, during the copy/paste process often times the format will be different in different apps. Finally, just the look of common writing apps such as Microsoft Word is not the best for a good writing environment.

Many Markdown writing apps today make writing the front and center at what you are doing. It allows you to focus on the words rather than the format. Distractions are at a minimum and you can just sit down and write. For example, as you can see below, I am writing in Bear for this post. The focused writing environment allows me to not worry about anything else except getting words onto the page.

In addition, Markdown writing apps allow for customizable exports into Microsoft Word files, PDFs, HTML, and other formats right from the app. For most of my writing I use an app called Ulysses (see examples of PDFs below), which has excellent export options for creating beautiful PDFs. If I am writing an academic paper then most of my writing will begin in Ulysses then I will export into a Microsoft Word document for final editing and formatting.

In the early days of Markdown you had to remember all the special syntax for Markdown. Today, in apps like Bear and Ulysses you can use keyboard shortcuts just as you would in Microsoft Word to place the syntax around the words for formatting them. For example "command-B" will bold the text and "command-I" will italicize the text.

In short the two main reasons I write in Markdown involve the apps that support Markdown because they allow me to

  1. Focus on writing
  2. Export into many different formats once the writing process is complete

Brief Markdown Syntax

A post is incomplete without an introduction to the syntax (even though as I stated above you can easily use keyboard shortcuts like you would in a rich text editor).

  • Bold: wrap the text in two asterisks **like this**
  • Italics: wrap the text in a single asterisk *like this*
  • Text for a link is wrapped in brackets with the link in parentheses [like this](http://www.twitter.com/renshaw330)
  • Headers are simply formatted with hashtags so
    • H1 Header = #
    • H2 Header = ##
    • H3 Header = ###
  • Lists just use an asterisk and ordered lists are the number plus a period such as 1.

  • [ ] Those are the basics but for more you can follow this link or go through this tutorial .

Example PDFs of this posted exported from Ulysses in PDF form

  1. Example from the modified Color Form theme
  2. Example from the Novel Cochin theme
  3. Example from a theme that Brian Davidson created
  4. Example from the Columns theme

Hope this helps as both a brief introduction to Markdown and why I use it for note taking and other writings. If you have any further questions feel free to connect with me on Twitter: @renshaw330

Easily Copy Text from a Book with the Prizmo Go App

Taking notes while reading can be a time consuming process especially if you are wanting to copy text from the book you are reading. This often means having an iPad or computer out with the book next to you typing quotes and other notes from the book. This process often slows down the amount I read during a session.

Recently, I download the Prizmo Go app ( see the MacStories review for an in-depth look at the app ), which has been transformative in this process. The app allows you to take a picture of anything (I’ve just been using it for books) and then it will read the text on the page, allow you to select a certain portion, and then send it off to your favorite note taking app. So far, I’ve found that it is very accurate (see screenshots below).

You can highlight what text you want to export out. As you can see, below the image is the text that it copied out, which is 100% accurate. I normally will put the page number at the end (you can edit the text if you need to). Also, you can import photos so if you want to just take pictures as you go then do this process later you can do that as well.

You can highlight what text you want to export out. As you can see, below the image is the text that it copied out, which is 100% accurate. I normally will put the page number at the end (you can edit the text if you need to). Also, you can import photos so if you want to just take pictures as you go then do this process later you can do that as well.

Exporting to a new Evernote note

Exporting to a new Evernote note

Exporting to the Bear app. As you can see you can prepend or append text, which comes in really handy.

Exporting to the Bear app. As you can see you can prepend or append text, which comes in really handy.

In conjunction with this I’ve been testing out the Bear app for some note taking. Bear is a markdown writing app that syncs to many different devices (for more on using Markdown see here) (Casey Newton over at the Verge outlines why he switched from Evernote to Bear ). But one of the aspects that I like is that it allows you to prepend or append text from another app. So if I have a note file for a book that I am reading I can just add the text from my picture to the bottom or top of the note so I have a running list of quotes and notes.

This is all done from my phone and the process is fairly quick. You should definitely check it out if you have been frustrating with taking time of copying notes from your reading.

The Prizmo Go app is free with a couple in-app purchases.

  • $4.99 to export the text
  • $4.99 per 1000 scans for better text recognition (I found the default to work fairly well but paying for the better text recognition has worked flawlessly).

In my opinion, these small in-app purchases are definitely worth it.

Not Forgetting

I am notoriously forgetful when saying I'll pick something up, send an email, follow-up with someone, or any other simple task. When I say yes its not like I am meaning to forget but quite literarily (in the most literal sense of the word) I can leave the room and then forget. Even if I write it down I'll forget to look at the note at the appropriate time. So instead of trying harder to remember I try to be smarter about remembering.

One of my favorite quotes is from David Allen:

You're brain is not for storing ideas but having them.

Today, there are numerous tools to help our brains "forget." So really, you shouldn't be down on yourself that you forgot but instead think of ways that you can remember better. And just trying harder usually doesn't cut it.

So for tasks like this I use an app called Due . I could use the Reminders app on my phone but I've found that finicky and there is not a good way for it to keep reminding me if I'm in the middle of something.

The Due app does a couple key things that keep me using it:

  1. Recurring reminders – If I ignore the notification it will keep reminding me in 5 minute increments. The alarm will go off for a minute, stop, and come back 5 minutes later until I mark it complete.
  2. Easy snooze – I can set custom snooze intervals so when the notification appears on my iPhone or Apple Watch I can pull down on the notification and it will bring up different snooze options that I've set. Mine are 15 and 60 minutes +1 day.
  3. Natural language processing – When entering a reminder I can just type exactly what I want instead of fidgeting with a bunch of options. I can type "Remind me on Monday at 5pm to pick up asparagus after work." This will parse everything correctly, click save, and I'm done.

So don't try to be better at remembering but be smarter about it.

For more on Due see MacStories review of it .

The Allure of Email

Shallow work is the type of work that is necessary but doesn’t create anything. Its often necessary and is the nuts and bolts of an operation but at the end of the day it rarely moves anything forward.

Email is one of these mundane and shallow activities.

Necessary? Yes

But when is the last time you created anything great by getting through your email and checking it constantly? Email is a distraction that takes our focus from our activities. We get addicted to the ping or notification that someone has sent us something. We think it looks good for us if we respond right away. Its the allure of being on top of it. But at the end of the day if you are just sitting in front of your email all day the mundane and shallow is all you have. You haven’t taken the time to focus on making something beautiful.

Close down your email. Check it at certain scheduled times throughout the day (because yes, its necessary to keep things running). But get back to creating, building, improving, and at the end of the day creating something that makes a lasting impact. The ideas and projects that truly make a difference take the focus and dedication that is destroyed by being constantly distracted by your email.

The problem is that email serves as an allusion of productivity that gives us a feeling that we accomplished a lot throughout the day. We receive immediate satisfaction that we are on top of it.

But if that is what is consuming your day then really you’re not creating and building anything great. Surprisingly, I’ve found out, that you can still be “on top of it” by scheduling certain times throughout the day to check, respond, and defer emails but this also allows you to schedule bigger blocks of focus to work on the project idea that will actually move something forward.

For some, this means scheduling six or seven times throughout your day to check your email. For others, you can get by with one or two times a day. Everyone’s job is different but its the discipline and planning that will make a difference. Overall, you will be better for it.

At the end of the day, if you are truly needed immediately, the important people in your life will be able to get a hold of you and not through email.

Email doesn’t create anything beautiful. It doesn’t inspire or produce imaginative ideas. Vision for a better program never happens over email. Take the time to focus on creating things that will make a difference.

The Price of Notifications

Every app that we download is striving for our attention because without our attention then its useless. How do most get our attention?

Notifications

Sure, some notifications are helpful but by and large they serve as a distraction, vying for our attention, creating a nagging feeling inside to look at it, or at the very least shifting our attention ever so slightly that we lose focus on the task at hand and residually think about what that notification is.

In short, notifications aren’t harmless. They aren’t something that just neutrally appears on your device.

Every time a notification appears several things happen:

  1. Our eyes and our focus shift to the notification
  2. A decision must be made to ignore or engage
  3. If ignore then focus shifts back to the task at hand but your brain is still residually thinking about about the notification
  4. If engage then you stop the current task (to “multitask”) to engage in the notification then go back to your other task 2, 5, 15, 30 minutes later

Just the simple fact of making a decision to ignore or engage effects what we are currently doing more than we consciously realize. Focus on the task your working on, which could just be a simple conversation with a friend, takes uninterrupted time. Every time you lose this focus then the task your engaged in is hurt.

So think about the notifications that you let come in on your phone and computer. Almost every app that you install will ask if you want notifications on. Personally, by default I always say no and then turn it on later if I find it an absolute necessity, which is very rare. If you need notifications, check the settings to see if you can choose which notifications come in. For example, some people need to see certain emails from certain people on certain topics immediately. If your using an Apple device you can set for VIP notifications (only be notified for certain people) or set individual conversation notifications (only be notified on certain threads). You can even choose to be notified on certain text threads in iMessage or Slack .

Regardless, think deeply about what notifications come in on your devices. Don’t give in to the default and be notified by everything or even most things!

Notifications aren’t neutral but they come with a price: Your focus and attention.

Focus is Hard Work

Distractions killed productivity. The statistics on how long it takes us to switch from task to task is absolutely absurd . Focus, deep focus, is not just something that comes naturally even more so in an age when distractions are so ubiquitous. Deep work, as Cal Newport argues , is a skill that has to be learned. For me personally, sitting down for more than 30 minutes deeply focused on one task is difficult. As soon as I hit a lull in what I’m doing my immediate reaction is to do something else.

Did anyone text me?
What’s Twitter saying right now?
I could answer that email that is sitting in my inbox right now…
Is it going to rain tomorrow?
What’s the score to the Cardinals game?

These types of thoughts always come up when I lose focus. I used to think that it just took more discipline, which is partly true. But focus is a skill that we have to learn. We have to push through each day to actively say no to the distraction that’s just sitting there. Waiting. Waiting for a response from me.

Distractions are so destructive because they are the easy way out for the hard work of focus and creativity.

Focus takes hard work.

The more you train yourself to focus the better you will get at it. After reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work I have really tried to implement in my studies the discipline to not get distracted. I’ve seen over this short amount of time being able to sit for 30 minutes without the urge to be distracted has grown. Its still hard. When I do hit that lull I force myself to just sit there. Even if I’m not doing anything and a thousand other things are calling to my attention. Don’t give in. Once you do you are back to square one. The more I push myself the easy it becomes to focus longer and in return, produce better results.

Tips

  • Set a timer for undistracted time. Start small and gradually build up. During this time do not look at anything else. If you catch yourself becoming distracted just sit there. Don’t open your email, unlock your phone, organize your desk, etc.
  • Continually remind yourself that each session of deep work you are building a strong immune system to distraction. So remind yourself that this skill that you are building will have massive results in the long run. Just as a master craftsman only gets better at his craft the more he does it so too does the skill of deep work strengthen the more you do it.
  • Turn off notifications on your phone and computer. Just seeing a message pop up on your phone distractions your mind from the task at hand.
  • Set a timer for distracted time. After your undistracted time give yourself 10-15 minutes for distractions then get back to work.

You Only Have Today: Writing as Thinking

Writing is one of those activities, at least for me, that I always feel I can get done later. Its fine if I am not productive in this session because I have tomorrow and catch up. But the reality is, as my mentor and friend points out regularly , writing is often times how we think . We never actually know what we are thinking until we put it down on paper. The very act of putting words on the screen (or paper if your so inclined) formulates thoughts in our brain that continually builds on each other.

You can’t get this time back.

Many times I’ve turned in a paper only to think a week, two weeks, and a month later of new ideas, new connections, better application, and so forth. But I was never able to get to that stage because I was working up to the last minute. Always, looking back, I can think back to the days where I allowed distractions to seep in and think, “well I have tomorrow or this weekend to get some writing done.”

Sure, I made the due date and turned in the paper on time…

But it was not my best product because I hadn’t allowed time for these ideas and arguments to gestate.

Instead, I kept these ideas and thoughts in my head but never got them on paper to actually think about it. I listened to the lie that I can just think about something and figure it out. But the act of writing is what helps me think and push forward. Don’t think of writing only in terms of final production but as an activity that forms your thoughts, makes connections, and ultimately produces your best work.

So, as I encourage myself and you today, put words on paper to allow you to think through your argument or idea. Make progress, daily progress, you’ll be better for it. Don’t fall into the trap of leaving it all in your head and think you’ll be fine.

Yes, you’ll always have tomorrow (until the due date!) but to produce your best work you can never gain back today.

One book that has helped me greatly in this area is Deep Work by Cal Newport. I highly suggest you check it out.

For other related posts on writing see:

The Safety of Writer’s Block

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of writer’s block lately. Yesterday , I wrote about how the Enneagram personality test gave me some clarity about my own inadequacies as a writer when it comes to the idea of writer’s block.

Seth Godin, one of my favorite writers on the web, argues that writers block is not real. Specifically he says its a “myth, a recent invention, a cultural malady.” Elsewhere he says that it is a combination of two things ( link ):

  1. Bad habits combined with
  2. Fear of what someone else who is not on the journey what they will say to you.

I definitely resonate with the fear (and probably the bad habit) reality. Fear that what I write won’t be any good. Fear that when I am starting a research project that I don’t know the end goal. Fear that what I’m writing won’t actually amount to anything. Fear that others will tell me that it is no good and I need to start over.

Writer’s block is actually a safer place to be (another insight from Godin). When you say you have writer’s block you can easily gain empathy from your peers. Yes, we’re all in this together, its a struggle, we all know how you feel. While that seems open and honest it is actually a safer space to be than to say that those 5,000 words you wrote over the past week were absolute garbage and you have to start over. Its safer than writing and publishing/turning in something and having it rejected or receiving a lower grade than you want. Writer’s block is safe.

So my challenge to myself is to daily try to overcome this subtle fear that underlies the safety of writers block. For me, the fear comes from the unknown. I don’t know where I’m going. In all other aspects of life I am driven, can see the end goal, and know the next steps to take. But with many aspects of writing I am out of my comfort zone. Putting something on paper when I don’t know the direction is paralyzing for me. The only way to work through this is to sit down and write. Everyday. No matter what. It doesn’t have to be good but the only way to become better and overcome this is by doing it. Sometimes, this may take the form of writing something off topic but just to get the brain flowing and to work on the underlying issue of being stuck with so called “writers block”

If you tell me that you have writer’s block then show me all the bad writing you have done.…you actually enjoy being stuck. Its safe. – Seth Godin

The Enneagram and Writer’s Block

The Enneagram has taught me many things about my personality such as why I react in certain ways to different situations, why some actions of others annoy me, or even teaching me that instead of stuffing down my anger it actually sits there as resentment (I'm a One by the way). Recently, I had our office take the Enneagram test so we could discuss and learn more about each other. In addition, we purchased the recently released book on the Enneagram titled, The Road Back to You, to help with the learning process.

I learned several interesting things about me but one of the most insightful concerns one things that has frustrated me like crazy when it comes to research and writing. Normally, I am a fairly disciplined person that can set a schedule, stick to it, and get done what I need to get done. The problem is when it comes to starting some research papers. Sometimes, I'm just able to sit down, write down a brief outline, and begin the writing process. For other projects, I am paralyzed. Now I know that many of us deal with so called "writers block" but this always felt like something different.

I just can't get started.

So how does this apply to the Enneagram?

On p. 104-5 I found some helpful insights:

But there can also be problems with Ones in the workplace, like their tendency to procrastinate. It’s not a good sign if you spy a One tapping the eraser end of a pencil on her knee while staring blankly into a dark computer screen. Though they’re self-disciplined and driven to succeed, some Ones can put off starting or completing a project for fear they won’t do it perfectly. The occasional bout of procrastination, compounded by their hesitation to make quick de­cisions for fear of making a mistake, can slow things down for a whole team. This same fear of making mistakes will lead Ones to check and recheck their work forever, so others might have to en­ courage them to let it go and move on to the next task.

Well, this perfectly describes me. Self-disciplined, driven, but paralyzed by seemingly random bouts of procrastination. After reflecting on several events that this has happened with I've been able to pinpoint what is happening. When I have difficulty seeing the end I have more trouble than most taking that next step. It just seems impossible to just start writing so I literally will sit there and stare for an hour or more.

Well, a personality test and assessment can't be an excuse giving you a way out because that's just who you are. So now I'm on this process of figuring out what I can do with this information. How can I implement different strategies to overcome this paralyzation? Its a journey but understanding a little bit more about myself through the Enneagram has given me insights that I can use to take the next steps to progress.

Researching in Community

Yesterday, the library, lead by the research experts, held a session that focused on organizing one’s research. There were many helpful ideas and tips given[1].

One aspect that stuck out to me and was confirmed in conversation afterwards is the community aspect of helping each other in the scholarly endeavor. Three people presented and each approached their research organization in vastly different ways. Admittedly, each one stated that they are always refining and improving on their methods. There was also time for others to ask questions, clarify, and even offer some of their own thoughts.

A lot of producitivity tips and tricks exist out there. Some are more helpful than others[2]. Many try to provide a comprehensive systems saying this is the way you should do it. Everyone thinks and works in vastly different ways. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. I think that sometimes we get caught up trying to find the perfect system out there for us and just follow that. This is fool’s gold because no one person works the same way. By entering into conversations with other aspiring and solidified scholars[3] about how they work and get things done we can build up and assist each other making each one a better academic.

So I guess the point of this post is find something that works for you and use that as a base. Don’t be afraid to modify it and try different things. Be in conversation with others to open up different ideas of how to research and write better. We are all in this together. Recognize that scholarship should be a community enterprise. Learn from others and share you insights with others as well. You never know who you will be helping out.

As a side note. One reason I did the Evernote for Academics series was to provide a helpful model in some of the ways that I work and that I’ve seen others work. From conversations with others I have heard that it has sparked their own way of doing research that is vastly different than models I proposed. This is great and I would like to see more of these conversations like the one that happened in the library occur throughout my time doing scholarship. We’re all in this together.


  1. If you are in Louisville when a workshop is offered I highly recommend that you attend, as I have attended several and always find them very helpful.  ↩

  2. Hopefully mine are helpful but I’ll let you be the judge of that  ↩

  3. This reminds me of Southern’s 1892 Club, which meets every Wednesday to enter into a conversation with another scholar. It generally ends with asking questions on one’s writing practice. This is another way that by freely sharing what has helped us sparks motivation and better ways to write for others.  ↩

How to Write a Lot

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Writing. That daunting tasks that looms ahead of every student and professor. Most people don’t have time to “write a lot” or at least so they think. The 8–10,000 word article sits before us like brocolli sits before a child wanting to get up from the table to play with the other kids. The task has to be done but it is difficult to begin. The book How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia provides many practical tips on how to write a lot or more accurately as he describes in his final chapter How to Write More Productively During the Normal Work Week With Less Anxiety and Guilt (130)." The first three chapters: 1) Introduction 2) Specious Barriers to Writing A Lot and 3) Motivational tools are extremely helpful. The final four chapters provide many helpful tidbits but overal are focus more specifally for writing for the sciences.

Writing is hard and not natural. The act of writing takes practice, determination, and a set plan. Far too often academics long for the days off, spring breaks, and summer vacations to “get writing done” but then complain afterwards because of how much they did not accomplish. Writing is a skill that needs developed not a talent that comes naturally (6). Silvia provides four “specious barriers” that inhibit the writing process:

(1) “I can’t find time to write” also known as “I would write more if I could just find big blocks of time (11).” This is a blatant lie. Don’t believe it. Productive writing comes in smaller scheduled chunks throughout the week. If you are trying to find time to write then you will never find time but will fall into the trap of “binge writing.” This means that you have one “successful” 6 hour writing period every couple weeks and it makes you feel good inside. Don’t believe the lie. Rather, allocate your time throughout the week to write and defend it as you would your teaching schedule, time with family, and other activities that are important to you.

(2) *“I need do to some more analyses first,” aka, “I need to read a few more articles* (18).” Use your scheduled writing time to do “prewriting” as well. If you need to review some more research then do it during your scheduled time. This is help not hinder your productive writing if you are on a schedule.

(3) “To write a lot, I need new computer (see also a ”laser printer,“ ”a nice chair,“ ”a better desk") (19). This is just a lame excuse!

(4) “I’m waiting until I feel like it,” aka “I write best when I’m inspired to write” (23). Waiting for “inspiration” does not work.

We all need motiviation to help us continue writing. The third chapter outlines several motivational methods for writing:

  1. Setting specific goals
  2. Setting project goals
  3. Set concrete goals for each writing day

Goal setting is needed when it comes to writing constantly If you run out of specific goals then you are likely to become disinterested and forget why you are writing. Next, you need to write down specific project goals (journal article, thesis, book section, etc.). This allows you to track and prioratize your goals. Once you have completed steps one and two you need to write down concrete goals for the writing session (number of words, pages to research, articles to review, etc.) Everyday can’t be a certain amount of words because writing involves more than just writing it takes preperation, research, and revisision. Finally, you should monitor your progress so you can look back and see how well (or poorly!) you did. Oh, and writers block only happens to those who believe in writers block…writing begets writing so take up and write (38)!

As I said in the introduction the first three chapters are chocked full of wisdom and practical advice (along with a swift kick in the butt to get to writing!). The fourth chapter encourages you to form a writing group to help you with peoples individual goals. Chapter five examines writing helps specifically in the style of your writing. Silvia notably points out that the writing and editing process are not one in the same. Write then edit do not try to do both at the same time. Chapters 6–8 are specifically focused on writing for the sciences. Many of the same principles can be used for other fields of writing (such as theology) but practically they are aimed for a different audience.

Overall, I found this book a helpful motivator to begin writing more. I hope to take many of the principles—especially in scheduling and goal setting—in my academic career. Did I mention that it is also only 132 pages so it is an easy read for one session.

Book Review: Stylish Academic Writing

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Flip open to many academic journals and you are greeted with dense and specialized prose, default structure, and a writing style that has been passed down from supervisor to student for many years. The stuffy academic prose hinders the reader from engaging, understanding, and yes, even enjoying the research and arguments that is taking place. Helen Sword, professor at the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland, specializes in literature, teaching philosophy and academic writing. Stylish Academic Writing argues that “elegant ideas deserve elegant expression” and that even in the academic world writing can be engaging and imaginative while still keeping within the professionalism that the guild requires. The research behind the book engaged in many interviews with scholars, an analysis of thousands of journal articles, and further investigation into 100 recent books on academic writing.

By default most academics do not engage in “stylistic” writing. First, writers must be open to new ways of presenting their ideas and then discipline themselves to write in such a way that is not stuffy and filled with jargon from the profession. Sword argues that writers learn from (29):

  1. memories of what our dissertation supervisor told us
  2. peer feedback
  3. examples in journals

Scholars tend to focus on styles that have been the norm within the writing they encounter rather than branching out and innovating new writing styles that are more engaging and enjoyable to the reader.

Sword addresses a variety of writing situations that create this dense prose that exists within the academy. She begins with the impersonable way in which many writers present their work. Why do writers try to engage the reader in the third person? This creates a distance between you the writer and the reader. If we write to change the mind of the reader then writing in the third person is contrary to this goal (44). Another way to become more engaging in the writing process is to use concrete language for abstract concepts. Much of our research (especially in my context of theology and biblical studies) is in the abstract but we as writers can give a concreteness to our language by taking abstract thoughts and making them more concrete. Academic prose is often filled with “to be” and passive verbs. Try changing many of your “to be” and passive verbs with “active and unusual verbs” (60).

Movies, fictional novels, and short stories generally are experts at captivating the audiences attention from the start. Writers do this in two ways: the title of the work and the introductory paragraph or scene of the piece. Sword challenges writers to come up with catchy titles that are also descriptive of the work. This is most often seen in the two-part title: Catchy Title: Descriptive Title. Sword also challenges the way in which many writers introduce their work. Too often academic article follow the same dull “4 step process” with the CARS method (77):

  1. Establish the research is significant
  2. Summarize previous research
  3. Present the gaps in the research
  4. Answer the gaps

The article needs a “hook” which engages the reader. She says, “an effective first paragraph need not be flashy, gimmicky, or even provocative. It must, however, make the reader want to keep reading” (84). She notes that in many of the journals that she examined generally one or two of the articles supplied a “hook” for the reader. Begin the work with a question, anecdote, conversation, or other methods in “hooking” the reader to keep reading the article.

In order to stray away from the abstract writing scholars should employ a variety of literary techniques in the writing such as using exmaples, anecdotes, case studies, figurative devices, allusions, and analogies (101–102). This will “revive the readers attention” (100). She provides a helpful paradigm for practicing integrating this into your writing (110–111):

  1. Choose a bland sentence of your writing
  2. Find the subject and come up with concrete similes
  3. Transform the noun into one of the figurative devices
  4. Push the limits
  5. Rework it into your sentence.

Overall, this books provides many helpful ways into making you into a better and more engaging writer. The book is filled with actual examples from academic journals and books and Sword carefully analyzes these examples and provides alternative ways of writing for each one. The end of each chapter provides a “Things to try” section that shows you how to actually improve your writing. Rather than staying in the abstract and theoretical she guides you into transforming your writing with specific steps. After reading this book I have noticed many areas in my own writing in need of improvement and will be implementing many of the suggestions noted in this short but helpful book.

The Liturgy of the iPhone

In James K.A. Smith’s, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, book he discusses the concept of “liturgy”. In Smith’s definition, liturgy is a ritual that forms our identities. Going against the notion of “worldview” Smith argues that our daily liturgies form and shape us into a new person. He says, “a way of life become habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life—we act in that way of life—without thinking about it because we’ve absorbed the habitus that is oriented to corresponding vision of the ‘good life (140).’” Liturgies don’t just make us view the world differently but we fundamentally become a new type of human being.

He then gives the example of the way the iPhone (and other smartphones) have shaped the way we think and act. Everything is now available to us right now.

How big is the Grand Canyon? Instant answer.

I want to know if we are hanging out with our friends tonight. Instant communication.

Did the St. Louis Cardinals win tonight? Instant updates.

My professor emailed me a question. Instant response.

This friend I haven’t talked to in years is now pregnant. Instant “connection” to others.

We now live in a world where everything is instantaneos. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it has shaped us into a new humanity. Social media is just dangling there begging for our attention. No longer are the days of waking up in the morning to find the sports score, waiting until the next class to ask that professor a question, getting an update in the mail announcing a pregnancy, and so forth.

This also affects our attention to specific activities we are engaged in. Everytime we think of something that we want to know we have a device that can provide instant answers. In a worship service we might love the song but don’t know who wrote it. We can just pause, take our minds off of worshipping our Creator, and check the artist. In that sermon, the preacher says something that we want to fact check we can instantly Google the answer. In class our minds drift because there might be that Twitter mention or Facebook notification. We are now pulled in many directions while our attention is being diverted from the task at hand.

I’ve really begun to think about this in terms of both worship on Sunday mornings and class time. For the past several months I’ve been turning off my phone during worship. Not putting it on “silent” (i.e. vibrate, which the whole row can still here) but actually turning it off. These months I’ve begun to see my attention more focused on worship. I am no longer distracted by the chance that I might have missed some notification or text that family member or friend a question. I can no longer get distracted by surfing the web for a question during the sermon. My attention is focused on worshipping the living God. I have to say, it has been a great blessing these past several months. I’ve also realized that the text message can always wait, that email doesn’t need responded to right away, and the Cardinals score will always be available afterwards.

I want us to think about how we have all been effected by the liturgy of the iPhone. Turn off the phone off during worship these next couple weeks and see if this habit changes who you are and how you worship. My guess is that you will see a wonderful renewed focus on worship.

∞ On Writing: Sometimes Less is More

From the Chronicle: Vitae

When you write first thing in the morning, and then stop writing for the rest of the day, your mind will continue to process thoughts related to your project. Take advantage of that. One of the best ways is to go for a walk alone and without any electronic devices. Use the time to process your thoughts. Think back on what you have written for the day and about what you will do the next day. You may be surprised about the revelations you have about your writing when you are not writing. You may even wish to take a notepad with you on these strolls.

Link

This is really a great article. But with all articles like this the insights gleaned are useless unless you (I) act upon it.

HT: Jonathan Pennington