HACK / MAKE

Louis CK — “The Verb of My Life is Learning”

Beyond being a hilarious comedian, Louis CK is a good person who tries really hard to do new things, and push himself and the people and ideas around him to become greater.

This interview, conducted by the A.V. Club, is a must read. It digs into Louis’ perspective on dilemmas, trying and making mistakes, and creativity. He says the verb of his life is learning, and that means seeing if things will work and figuring stuff out even when he feels like he’s drained.

Go read the full interview. These parts felt relevant to what I deal with or want to push myself towards.

There’s a woman I see who’s not my therapist, but she’s like an old friend who’s a therapist in profession. She lets me talk to her like a therapist once in a while, and she does a great thing. Whenever I have a big dilemma, like this is a big problem in my life, she always says, “Wow, you’re going to have to figure that out.” [Laughs.] That’s all she says. And so I had to figure it out.

We like to think dilemmas things will work themselves out; that maybe there’s some sort of hack that will get us by. The truth is just that “you’re going to have to figure that out.” No complex system or workaround. Just figure it out.

Yeah, well, I like to try stuff. I like to try to see if something can work. It’s really satisfying to figure out, “What if we try it this way?

These things he’s tried, selling his show video and tickets online, has made him millions. He didn’t know if it was going to work but part of his goal wasn’t the outcome, it was seeing if something could work. When you are trying things, don’t map the outcomes as successes and failures try to see if a thing could work, and if it can’t, try to see if a slightly different or maybe drastically different thing will work. Trying stuff isn’t always about creating your intended outcome, but just any outcome. Believe that sometimes what’s created from you trying something could be evening greater than you intended or imagined.

I said to my agent, “Let’s find out if this is a huge mistake. Let’s find out. I’m willing to sacrifice my first theater tour and have the places empty and identify that it’s because I wouldn’t let the radio people participate. But we also might find out that it didn’t make a difference and that I never have to do it.” […]

Anyway, the obvious story is that it didn’t make a fucking difference. It didn’t matter.

What kind of dogmas, habits, and assumptions of how things should be done just don’t make a difference—just don’t matter? Are you doing things at work a certain way because you were told it has always been done that way? Sometimes there’s a good reason why that’s the way that it’s done but just as often it was just the way the first person did it and trained the next guy to do it that way too. Are you willing to find out that it doesn’t make a difference the way something has always been done? That it’s OK to do it your way?

AVC: In a blog post on your website you wrote, “I hope with all my heart that I stay funny.” Is that something that you’re worried about? That this could all fall apart tomorrow, that the skill set you built up could somehow evaporate?

LCK: The skill set will stay because those are just basically know-how stuff. But the basic little engine, the fucking whatever is, the Iron Man glow-y heart thing… [Laughs.]

AVC: Creativity.

LCK: Yeah, that thing. Sure. That could flame out at any second. No idea. I have no reason to be able to count on it. It’s just there. I can do a lot with hard work and no creativity. I could do it. When you really become a professional at this stuff, what’s important is how well you can do when you’re not inspired. If that’s still workable, then you have a career.

We all fear this. Sometimes you just need to keep cranking no matter what you’re up against. Sometimes just make the clackity noise until something good comes out. Stephen Pressfield writes about needing to keep creating art because you’re a pro, and that’s what pros do.

Just keep making things no matter what dilemmas are in your way, when things make a difference or not, even when you’re afraid of your waning creativity and maybe you’ll just change things like Louis CK has changed the art of comedy.

Building Email Templates into OmniFocus Tasks

I have a few recurring tasks in OmniFocus that are like “Email weekly update” or “Email change log”. Here’s an easy way to build email templetes right into OmniFocus task notes so that you are one click away from sending that recurring email.

The basis of this little hack is our old friend mailto:. This standard can handle much more than just a single address. In one link, you can include a list of to: addresses, cc: addresses, bcc: addresses, a subject, and a body.

The format that works with Mail.app1 looks like this:

mailto:name@email.com, anothername@email.com?cc=thatguy@email.com&subject=Weekly Recap&body=Here's a recap of what happened this week: 

All you need to do to set this up in a recurring task is to go to the notes field and add in a short note like “Weekly Recap Email Template” then select the text and go Format > Text > Add Link and paste in the mailto: link you created.

Now whenever you need to send out that email, you have a template built right into the OmniFocus task.


  1. Unfortunately, these template links don’t survive the sync to iPhone or iPad. 

Foolproof

Don Lehman, talking about the industrial design of what looks like the new Apple dock connector:

Again, the simpler you make something, the less prone to failure it becomes.

Keep this in mind when you’re creating and refining systems and planning projects.

Simple doesn’t mean something isn’t complex, just that it’s not complicated. Simple means the sum of the parts is easy to grasp and understand. It allows you to set a clear project goal. But simple isn’t easy. Simple isn’t an excuse for doing something big or hard.

Make your projects easy to understand by simplifying your goal and clearly knowing your intent. The actions it takes to complete can be complex—hard to execute or take a lot of time—but doing the hard work to make something simple will make your projects foolproof.

Not Your War

I tend to think that I have my life together but every once in a while I’ll be reminded that I can’t control everything. Things happens just out of reach. I keep my thoughts and actions organized. I plan my finances and most of the time that goes well. The times it doesn’t is hard because it’s beyond me. The things in my grasp are tightly knit but the things outside of that are unknown and untenable.

There’s something about thinking you have things together; you know you’re wrong and you know that there’s nothing you can do to get that last bit of shit together—what’s just out of reach. The shit that happens to the people that you love, the shit that happens to the people you don’t that ends up making its way to you. It’s stuff that doesn’t even really exist but can somehow still go missing. You can’t fix it because it only manifests itself as stress and frustration and you can’t fix that crack. You can make phone calls, and send emails, and try to plan your way out of it. But you’ve got nothing. You can’t control it. You have have no ground to gain because this isn’t a land war.

It’s a war of perseverance. It’s a war of trust. It’s a war of endurance and your ability to focus on the long journey. The part that’s frustrating is that you think that if the war was on your turf, you’d be able to fight it—and win. The truth is that war is not yours to fight and you gain from that. You’ll have your front-line battles again but, this time, you have yourself to fight. You fight for strength to keep your wits. You keep yourself prepared for the next battle you’re called into. You journey through urges to throw stones, throw words, throw cheap blows because you don’t realize there’s no other enemy to fight.

When you realize the enemy you’re fighting against, the war becomes controllable. The outside forces will continue their fight and you just have to keep yourself alive until the shelling ends and you can charge on all fronts.

Good Design is Long Lived

Dieter Rams, in Objectified:

Good design is innovative. Good design makes a product useful. Good design is aestetic design. Good design will make a product understandable. Good design is honest. Good design is unobtrusive. It is long-lived. Good design is consistant in every detail.

Great words from Rams. I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability in the projects and systems I create. For me, anything that’s important must be set up in a way that’s sustainable. It doesn’t mean sustainable forever but something I can maintain and commit a high level of attention and respect for a reasonable period. If I don’t think a new thing can be—or I want to—sustain it for the foreseeable future it’s not simple enough for me to adapt.

Why? Sustainability tests the utmost value of something. Commitment is tough to presuppose. Commitment comes from understanding the value of something and choosing to partake in it long term. Without that understanding, it’s hard to commit. But sustainability is easier to determine up front. It’s the difference between asking yourself, “are the logistics for this worth my time long term?” and “is this something I understand, respect, and am passionate about enough to be a part of?” You can only get a true sense of what it takes to commit after something has been sustained long enough to get a good measure of your passion for it.

If you want to love the things you have and do, consider up front if they have a good, long-lived design.

The Benefits of Carrying a Pocket Knife

I carry a pocket knife—a Spyderco Tenacious, to be specific—with me wherever I go. (I also keep a Leatherman Wave in my bag.) Here are some benefits of always having a pocket knife with you:

  • To open all of those Amazon boxes that show up on your doorstep nearly every day
  • You get to feel just a little bit like your badass Grampa who carried a knife
  • You can pry off a beer bottle cap when you’ve forgotten an opener
  • Though you’ll probably never need to, you feel a little bit better armed against the big bad world
  • To McGuyver your way out of anything
  • Even when you don’t need it as a tool, carrying it is a small reminder that you’re prepared for whatever comes your way

“The Benefits Of” is a fun series pointing out some small and large ways that little things can benefit your life. You can read all of the Benefits Of posts here.

20,000 Feet

Managing Your Areas of Goals and Responsibilities

Areas of Responsibility are the places, things, people, and projects you care about enough to do and where others rely on you for something. They’re different for each of us depending on the kind of work we do and the shapes of our families and friendships. These areas define who we are since they are how we spend our time and attention.

Understanding these areas gives you a high-level look at what you need to be good at, efficient at, better at, and what you can let slip or cannot drop. You might have five or twenty areas, and they won’t all be equally as important to you. By gaining this view at 20,000 feet, as David Allen puts it, you’re able make better decisions about what you need to be getting done:

Listing and reviewing these responsibilities gives a more comprehensive framework for evaluating your inventory of projects.

Defining What’s Important

We usually have a general idea of what we’re responsible for or want to make a focus, but listing them out—as with defining anything—helps set a clarity of vision for how you should be spending your attention.

Where you can really gain is by adjusting your areas of responsibility, to more appropriate life areas based on what you want to be doing with your attention, not just what you are currently responsible for. Travel may not be a current responsibility of yours, but you’ve been dreaming about it and want to be putting more time into that. Shouldn’t this be given a reasonable ranking in the areas you spend your time?

I defined this list in order of importance of what matters to me and how I want to be spending my time in both my personal and work life:

  • Life
    • Boyfriend/Brother/Friend/Son
    • Adventure
    • Writing
    • Teaching/Sharing/Learning
    • Technical/Systems
    • Finances
    • Household
  • Work
    • Execution
    • Project Planning
    • System Administration

What’s Important to You?

Make a list like this for yourself. Don’t just put what you currently spend your time doing but use this list to shape how you want your life to look. It’ll take some time, and it’s worth considering if the areas that are part of your life now are something you want to keep, or if you can remove things and simplify. What have you been dreaming of but haven’t made a priority? What falls through the cracks but shouldn’t any longer?

We’re going to connect this list into your system to better track progress and be prompted to create and do projects that will help you improve in each of these areas.

Your Areas Should be “Actionable”

You’ve got this fancy list of projects and actions listed out, but what helps you decide what to do next? Contexts are great for filtering out tasks you physically can’t do based on limitations—“you can’t mow the lawn from your iPhone”, as Sven Fechner says. I’ve created a folder structure in OmniFocus with a hierarchy matching the the list above to organize my projects based on what matters. Shaping your list of actions based on the areas in your life helps outline what’s most important to you and as a result, what actions should be on the top of your stack. In Project view, OmniFocus can sort the list of actions based on your folder structure, so that the actions at the top of your folder structure—what’s most important to you—are always at the top of the list and the tasks that matter less to you are given their appropriate positioning. Whatever system you’re using, consider shaping the order of how you add and complete tasks around the areas you defined and what’s you value most. When you sit down to catch up on some emails, if you’ve defined that your relationships take priority, as I have at the top of my stack, then that email to your Mom should happen before work stuff.

Keep Working Towards What Matters to You

I’ve read about people who suggest avoiding empty folders in OmniFocus; that they’re clutter. To me, once I’ve defined something as being important and created a folder to represents a section of life I want to be focusing on, it being empty is a problem. It means that I’m not working towards something in that area. If my Adventure folder is empty, I’m not planning a trip. Reviewing and seeing that I don’t have plans to improve my life somewhere I’ve chosen to focus on gives me a kick and prompts me to start doing something there. Maybe it’s just adding a few single actions or the nudge I needed to start researching that big trip I want to do, keeping these areas in view and in a reviewable system means that I don’t lose focus on what I set out to improve on.

Functional Component

The systems in our life are meant to help automate much of what we do so we can think about something once and more easily make ongoing decisions about what we want to be doing. By defining what areas are important to you and shaping your to-do list around that, you make it easier on yourself every time you look at the list. You don’t need to choose whether it’s more important to go pick up something at the hardware store you have on your Household list or go get that thing you’re wife asked of you. You’ve made the decision that your relationship is most important and will take trump on other tasks every time and the list of things you should be doing reflects this. You also have a way of reviewing the things you want to be doing from a high-level and can push yourself in the right direction when you notice that you’re not working on a certain area like you should.

Put what’s important to you first so the things that matter get your attention.

Plain Text To-Dos from OmniFocus

I spend a lot of time in OmniFocus, and that’s where I set up both work and personal projects. Sometimes it’s nice, when getting work done, to move a few tasks I’ve got lined up in OmniFocus into a plain text file.

I created an Applescript that copies your selected actions in OmniFocus along with a little unicode square at the front. Setting up the script to a hotkey with Fastscripts makes it easy to turn a list in OmniFocus to something like this:

☐ Placeholder task 1  
☐ Next placeholder task  
☐ Once more, just for fun  

I even made them Markdown safe with two spaces at the end.

And to mark those tasks as done, I created a service that, when you select the line (⌘ + L in BBEdit) and hit the hotkey you set in System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Services, it replaces the little box with an x:

☐ Placeholder task 1
x Next placeholder task
☐ Once more, just for fun

Quick and easy to-do lists when OmniFocus is a little more than you need.

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