HACK / MAKE

Navigating Unknown Territory

This weekend, exactly a year from my arrival to New York, I felt the need to get away from the city. I took a train out of dodge and went backpacking. I knew where I was leaving from and where I was planning on staying the night but in between I didn’t know exactly how I’d come and go.

I found my way through Penn Station, connected on to my final destination, and found the pathway from the tiny, side of the road train stop to the trailhead where I would disown the city for a couple of days.

As I made my way from the red-blazed trail onto blue, then yellow and back on red, I realized something. “For this being the wilderness, these trails are really well marked.” See, there are other people who come here more often and have already blazed a trail. They’ve left a clear path, clean it up after storms, and make sure it’s well marked so it’s easy to follow. They even have maps so you can plan your trip or not get lost along the way.

I had gotten from my apartment, the underground maze of the subway, and a beehive of people in Penn Station the same way I would get through the bush to my campsite.

I have my way to work memorized but I don’t know the way from the uptown A subway into Penn Station to connect to the train I have to catch. The station is busy and a bit overwhelming but if you remember to look up pretty often you’ll notice signs pointing you in the direction you need to go. There are people who posted these signs because they knew the way and knew you would need a hand.

Through these backcountry trails, it’s a lot less busy—practically desolate. The lack of bustle, people to follow, and crowd to blend into can be intimidating and make you feel lost and alone. Yet, if you keep your head up you’ll keep seeing the trail blazes along the way, marking your path. It’s smart to carry a map, to plan your way ahead of time, and know the mileage but plenty of people get along fine just looking for the next marker.

Sometimes you’ll be blazing your own trail. You’ll be in a place where no one has ever been before and you have no one to follow. It’s easy to lower your sight to what’s just in front of you. It’s scary to look much further ahead than your next step. But to find your way around the wilderness like they have for hundreds of years—to bushwhack, blaze a trail, orienteer and pioneer—you use a compass to find a landmark in the right direction ahead of you, your bearing, and then you keep your head up and walk to that place. You need to keep an eye on what’s in front of you so you don’t trip on rocks or step on snakes but you keep looking up to that spot on the horizon, your bearing, your true direction, your destination, and keep heading that way.

There are directions posted all around us. Remember to look up and look out for the signs.

Chances are that wherever you’re planning on going—with your career, your hobby, your relationship—someone has been there before. They’ve left a trail marked and all you have to do is keep your head up, look for the signs, and ask if you are heading in the right direction. There might even be a map. Someone knew that you would need a hand finding your way so they drew out the directions for you already. If you don’t know the map exists because you haven’t searched for it or were too proud to open up the map you had in your hands, you’re losing out of the knowledge and experience of people who’ve blazed a trail ahead of you.

Moving through unknown territory is an endless loop. You look up to make sure your steps are in the right direction then you look down to make sure your step is safe and secure. You don’t want to step on loose ground or something that might bite you. Too much looking down and you lose your bearing. Too much looking up and you might step on something you regret. But all along the way you use the markers that other people have left behind for you. Take advantage of the wisdom and experience that other have and passed along because they knew you would need it.

You’ll get lost if you don’t.

GTD for Creative Work

Dave Lee on how GTD sucks for creative work:

Though I still appreciate some of GTD’s principles (next action, desired outcome as project, brain dumping, etc), I think the system can actually work against the creative innovator. It boggles down the innovator with a flood of tasks, when the innovator needs space and room for experimentation and discovery.

Most task/to-do software is based around the concept of projects and tasks. It’s really too bad. The tendency is to fill up your task software with dozens of projects and tasks under each project. But the more you look at your projects and tasks every day for the next few weeks, it gets discouraging. It feels like a never-ending river of stress.

GTD is and always has been a framework, not a set of constraints. If you feel like some part of Getting Things Done1 isn’t working for you, change it. Frameworks are flexible.

If you’re just “filling up your task software” so it begins to “feels like a never-ending river of stress” than you’re probably doing it wrong anyway. Just because something makes it into your inbox from a brain dump doesn’t mean it’s something you have to do. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start moving more things from your inbox into the trash. Make more decisions up front in the process that something isn’t worth your time—it probably wouldn’t have gotten done well anyway.

Back to the creative stuff. I have an Area in Things that I use to list topics I want to write about. I don’t create massive projects with overwhelming lists of todos when I write an article. I do use the standard GTD flow when I think of topics. They get dumped into my inbox and at some point processed and put into the area where I’ll add notes if I have other thoughts. Or they will get put in the trash if it’s not something I want to write about yet. If it’s worth doing at some point, it’ll come up again when the time is ready and I won’t have to be managing an extra task in the meantime.

A challenge for creative minds is a want to create new solutions when minor tweaks to something tried and tested may be all that’s needed. Get over how cool it would be to design your own productivity technique and create more cool stuff.


  1. “Getting Things Done is copy write of DavidCo, 2001” as Merlin would say

“True Wealth Isn’t About Money”

J.D. Roth leads off this article on the relationship between happiness and money with the opening line of his book Your Money: The Missing Manual:

You don’t want to be rich — you want to be happy. Many people mistakenly believe that the former leads to the latter. While it’s certainly true that money can help you achieve your goals, provide for your future, and make life more enjoyable, merely having money doesn’t guarantee happiness.

Let’s replace the word “money” here with “productivity”. It’s nothing new that “money can’t buy happiness” but productivity can’t create happiness either.

Roth continues:

Money is a tool. As with any tool, a skilled craftsman can use it to build something amazing: a meaningful life filled with family and friends. But if you’re not careful, if you don’t have a plan, the life you construct with your money can be a tenuous thing — even dangerous.

In the same way, how you get things done is just a tool. A skilled craftsman uses tools to accomplish something with greater efficiency so they can either get more work done in the same amount of time or get something done sooner so they can get on with things. They do it so they can go home and see their family, have more time for their hobby1, or go make something new.

True productivity isn’t about completing things, it’s about what’s left over when you’re done. Focus on the wealth you gain as an outcome of being efficient. Be productive to have more time to spend with friends not just to test drive a new thing you read on some blog2. Getting really good at getting things done will come when you have great reasons to be productive. Tweaking your system will still happen but it will be deliberate.

You don’t want to be productive, you want to be happy.

Challenge

This week, whenever you start planning out your day, whether it’s over your morning coffee or when you first get to your desk, pick a reason why you are going to be productive that day. Make that the reason you cross things off on your list. Work efficiently so when you leave work you can go do that thing and not because your boss needs you to get some TPS report done.

Focus your attention on where you want your wealth to be and not the tools that will get you there. If that’s your focus, you’ll come across the right tools to take you to your wealth.


  1. If GTD stuff is your hobby, go find a better one. 

  2. This blog included. 

A Simple Guide to Getting Better at What You Do

You’re reading this because you have the ambition to do something better with your life; to be better. Maybe you’ve been working the same job for years while that young hot-shot got a promotion before you or you’re in a long-term relationship and you know your partner is getting bored. It doesn’t really matter what you’re dealing with because this formula will work for anything. Whether it’s professional or personal, you’re not getting better at that thing because you’re scared and you don’t know what to do next. There are so many options and you don’t know which one is the right way. You’re afraid of what might happen when you get out of your comfort zone. If you’re doing life right, you’ll always be going out of your comfort zone so follow this guide to help ease your way into getting better at what you do.

Stop Wasting Time

You’re scared to do anything cool so you just sit on Facebook instead. I understand, I’ve been there. You have a perfectly groomed list of things you want do in your fancy, polished GTD list but it’s been years since you checked anything off of that list besides picking up milk. If you want to go do awesome things and get better at life, it takes a lot of time and you’re wasting tons of it. Get over the fear of missing out and spend less time reading the dramas of peoples’ lives. You’re wasting your time on things that don’t matter when you could be doing a lot better things. You don’t need some transition strategy to wean yourself off of time wasters. Grow up. Turn the TV off. Quit that game. You’re going to need that time to learn how to be so much cooler.

Research How to Be Better

As much as you think you have the gusto to just log off of Facebook and start being better, it doesn’t work that way. You’re going to have to spend time figuring things out. You’re going to need to read books that teach you how to be valuable, how to be creative, how to get things done, and how to find meaning. You’ll need to read blogs that challenge you. Listen to smart people who struggle with the same problems you have. You need to learn from other peoples’ wisdom. They’ve already gone through this and can teach you about it.

Right now, you’re paralyzed about doing something great because you don’t know where to start. You don’t know how it will end, or how you’ll get through it. The thing is, it’s really easy to figure out. You’re not the only person struggling with this and when people are having problems, they go to other people for help. Not sure where to start? Try the internet. Google something. Find a blog or forum about how to get yourself out of debt. Go to the library and ask for a book. It sounds lame, but you’re never going to get better if you don’t start somewhere.

Don’t Be Scared of Being Scared

All of the cool things I’ve ever done began with me being scared. The first time I rock climbed, and whenever I push myself to climb something difficult. The time I went skydiving. The time I moved to New York City alone to work for a startup and a boss I had never met in person. The time I walked 35 miles straight in 13 hours around Manhattan. I was scared to do all of those things and was usually scared while doing those things. Don’t let that stop you.

Learn to be OK with scary things so that scary things won’t stop you from being awesome. Scary things won’t stop happening. If you’re doing it right, they should happen more often. Scary things usually mean that you’re going in the right direction—out of your comfort zone. You’ll just learn to deal with your fear and not let it stop you. The worst case scenario that you’ve got stuck in your head is false. That fear is unfounded. You’re more likely to die—or at least be a boring, lame person—if you don’t do what you’re scared of.

People will tell you what you’re doing is stupid. They’ll say you’re wasting your time. They say these things because they wish they could be doing what you’re doing but are too scared themselves. They’re jealous because you’re not letting fear stop you. They’re trying to sabotage you. Leave these people behind. You shouldn’t be doing things for other people’s approval anyway.

Go Do Something About It

So you’ve read a couple things and you subscribe to a blog about being awesome. Great! You’re scared about what comes next but you’ve promised yourself that’s not going to stop you. Wonderful. But you’re still no better at what you do and no cooler. You haven’t gotten that raise and your girlfriend still thinks you’re boring (probably even more now that you’ve been reading all those relationship forums). What next? You need to go do something about it. It doesn’t even really matter what it is, it just needs to be step in the right direction. Do something that makes you feel alive for once. Break the rules if you need to. Do something ballsy. If you’re really scared, do something small first. Pretty quickly you’ll get the good feeling that comes from being better and cooler. You’re going to want more of that and you’ll do cool things more often.

Don’t betray your ambitions. Be driven by them. Stop over thinking it and go do something great. This is the most important part and once you do it, nothing else matters. Don’t give a shit about what other people think—they’re just jealous because you’re doing something world-changing.

After you did something great, go do something greater.


Share this with your friends and family. They need it as badly as you do. Here’s a link to share this on Twitter and to share this on Facebook. You can also subscribe to my mailing list.

Quick Text and Fast Learning with Launch Center Pro

Launch Center Pro was released in the App Store last week. It has a smart interface that focuses on launching actions rather than apps. By using URL schemes that are built into third-party apps, it quickly launches actions like searching on Yelp or posting a tweet in Tweetbot and has a text input area so you can pass text into these other apps. It really feels like Alfred but on the iPhone.

It can do basic things like create tasks in Things or OmniFocus, make new reminders in Due, or tweet using the built in tweet sheet. It can also do some much cooler things. Here are some of the great actions that I find really useful.

Search with Wikipanion

As often as I can, I wiki things. Wikipanion is my favorite Wikipedia app and it has a URL scheme so you can quickly submit searches. If you already have Wikipanion installed, it should be listed in the Installed list or you can use the URL wikipanion:///[prompt]. Pop open Launch Center Pro, hit Wiki, type your query, and Go. Boom. Before you know it you’ll be wiki’ing everything.

Look Up Words with Terminology

Words are great. Terminology is great. Too often I fake knowing what a word means when I really should look it up. Launch Center and terminology://x-callback-url/lookup?text=[prompt] is by far the fastest way to look up a definition on the iPhone.

Quick Text Files

As soon as Launch Center Pro shipped, I started digging for text apps that had URL schemes so I could make new notes really fast. Simplenote has a URL scheme but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, so I built a script instead. I have Dropbox running on my server to move around files for Secondcrack, so being able to send a query string to my server meant I could write a file to Dropbox.

What the script does is take basic parameters you pass into a URL that’s set up in Launch Center Pro and makes a new text file or appends to an existing one. You can pass in [prompt] just like in the other actions and the script will GET that and use it for your text file.

Here’s the basics of it. You set an action with the URL that points to your script, set the param you want for t and set n to [prompt].

http://domain.com/scripts/text.php?t=book-list&n=[prompt]

So now the script will GET what you pass along, in this case book-list.

$type = trim($_GET['t']);
$note = trim($_GET['n']);

You can then create conditions for the $type of note you sent with your Launch Center Pro action. Here, if I hit my Add to Book List action, $type will be book-list and go to this condition.

if ($type == 'book-list') {

    $file_name = 'Books to Read.txt';
    $file_path = '/home/user/Dropbox/Notes/';
    $file = $file_path . $file_name;
    $text = "\n" . $note;
}

This will set the file I want to write to and the text I want to append. Lastly, the file is actually written. If $file exists, $text will just be appended.

file_put_contents($file, $text, FILE_APPEND);

With this I can really quickly add something to a running log file. You could easily append your note with a date stamp or create a new date stamped file. Here’s what my Text section looks like in Launch Center. Again here, the possibilities are as endless as what you can do with text files.

You can find the entirety of this script on Github.

A couple downsides with this is that since you are hitting your server, it requires a network connection. The other is that it pops over to Safari to make the request. Sometimes if you close Safari for a while, then come back, it will reload that page, resending the query, and duplicating your note. I think a great feature in Launch Center Pro would be to optionally have action URLs open in an in-app web view. This way you wouldn’t have to wait for the switch to Safari, and you could easily close the window and be back in your Launch Pad without that window lingering around.

Launch Center Pro has really pushed boundaries of both interface and workflow on iOS and is only getting started. As more apps realize the benefits of URL schemes, I think we’re going to see some very cool things happen. But don’t leave it up to somebody else. Make Launch Center Pro do something awesome yourself and share it with the rest of us nerds.