I’ve never had much interest in National Novel Writing Month. Since my attempt to pen my own Tolkienesque fantasy saga as a twelve-year-old, I haven’t been tempted to try my hand at fiction.
But today, Shawn Blanc made me rethink my NaNoWriMo disinterest:
Starting today — Friday, November 1 — I’ll be writing and publishing something every day for the whole month of November. Though, instead of writing a novel in a month, I will be simply be focused on publishing something — anything — every single day. From photos, links to interesting things, articles, reviews, etc.
I love this, and I’ve been looking for a reentry to creative work on the web. So, on a whim, I’m planning to follow Shaun’s example—posting something each day throughout November.
So far, so good; this post is Day 1!
I've been enjoying myself in Tokyo for a week and haven't shared about it (until now), and I think that's been a healthy decision.
More experiences with people I love. Less validation from strangers.
— Marshall Bock (@marshallbock) September 18, 2018
My online audience is minuscule, and it’s likely to remain minuscule for the foreseeable future. My Twitter follower count stalled out years ago, my blog gets precious little traffic, and my podcast boasts very few subscribers. When I write or record, it feels a bit like shouting into the wind. Is anyone listening? Does anybody care?
Marshall’s tweet reframed this feeling for me. Yes, I’d love a larger audience, but would that really make me happier? Would strangers’ appreciation make me feel more loved or less isolated? I suspect not.
I want to use that feeling—of underappreciation by the internet—as a cue to invest in relationships that have a guaranteed return: my family. My friends. My hometown.
The next time my follower count threatens to bum me out, I want to be mindful enough to shut my laptop and go wrestle with my daughter instead. I want to silence my phone and sip a quiet latte in my neighborhood coffeeshop. I want to close Twitter, leave behind the iDevices, and invite my family on a rainy-day hike. ■
As Apple’s fall announcement event approaches, I’ve been eyeing the rumored iPad Pro. I find myself daydreaming about a “magic” tablet that, paired with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, will inspire me to consistently create content and publish it online. That will somehow catapult me to internet nerd success.
Based on my history, that’s not going to happen. I’ve bought three iPads in the past; none of them made me more disciplined, more creative, or more talented. Each time, I struggled to find a use case for the thing, and the iPad would sit, unused and unloved, for weeks. Eventually, I abandoned the iPad upgrade train and sold off my iPad Pro. To be honest, I haven’t really missed it since.
Lesson learned? A new device won’t magically transform me into a prolific creator.
Fortunately, the inverse is also true: if you want to create stuff, you don’t need a new device. You probably already have everything you need to make stuff on the internet. Consider:
- You could put off podcasting until you have spent $600 on a microphone, an audio hub, and a year’s worth of hosting. Or you could create an Anchor account for free, record using the built-in mic on your iPhone—and start today.
- You could tie your blogging aspirations to writing software that costs $40 a year—or you could just use the text editor that comes free with your computer.
- You could believe that a $150 mechanical keyboard will make you a better writer—or you could get by with a $15 Logitech bargain from Walmart.
- You could “learn to draw” using a $700 iPad Pro and a $100 Apple Pencil—or you could pick up a $10 drawing pad and $20 worth of pencils and pens.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not the tools that hold us back. The real obstacles to creative productivity? Low motivation and overcommitment. ■
A month or two ago, we trekked up to Pennsylvania to visit family. My wife took some time off from work, but I decided to save my vacation days, which had run short after a recent beach trip.
That meant I needed to find somewhere to get my work done. Hoping to avoid the dining room table or kitchen counter, I settled on the closest Starbucks. Here’s what I learned about remote work, the “third place” office, and myself:
Starbucks is loud.
Starbucks uses canned music, like most other restaurants. I don’t begrudge them that. If I were meeting a friend for lattes, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But when I’m trying to be productive, it’s not ideal.
It’s not that I hate Starbucks’ musical selections. Their catalog of singer-songwriters is fairly benign. No, the real problem is that any music with discernible lyrics distracts me. The performers’ sung words get jumbled up in my brain with my own. That’s why, at home, I prefer tracks without lyrics: movie soundtracks and classical pieces dominate my playlists.
It’s not just the piped-in music that makes Starbucks noisy. A dozen customer conversations strain to rise over the din. Behind the counter, there’s this constant cacophony of clanking dishes, steaming milk, order-taking, and whipped-cream-spraying. Even the best noise-cancelling headphones would struggle to filter out all that.
My solution? I blast white noise (or more technically, lower-frequency “brown” noise) through my headset. That manages to drown out most of Starbucks’ “atmosphere.” This approach has its drawbacks (e.g. I can’t play my own music), but the constant thrum of static creates an aural bubble that lets me concentrate.
Technically, Starbucks no longer requires you to buy something to claim a seat. Visitors can hang out (or work!) without even visiting the register. But I would feel guilty if I occupied a table without a Starbucks cup in hand—especially if others customers couldn’t find a seat. That meant I always ordered a drink.
In a “real” coffeehouse (i.e. a locally owned shop that takes its coffee more seriously), a latte or even a café mocha are reasonable treats—not “healthy,” per se, but not awful, either.
Starbucks is a different animal. I was hard-pressed to find anything on the Starbucks’ menu that qualified as “healthy.” The franchise’s path to ubiquity was paved with sugar. Your drink is pumped full of syrup. Whipped cream comes standard. Expect chocolate drizzled on top (even if you didn’t request it).
The non-liquid options aren’t much better. Starbucks’ checkout counter is surrounded by piles of processed calorie bombs: mass-produced pastries, prepackaged brownies and organic (but still unhealthy) candy.
So, yeah, visiting Starbucks may sabotage your diet. It will also significantly lighten your wallet. Even if you limited yourself to one drink, you’re looking at at least $6 or $7 to claim a workspace. Buying lunch there? That’s $10 more. And a few snacks? Another fiver. Long story short: if you spent a month remote-working from Starbucks, you could easily drop $500 on food and drinks alone.
To be fair, that compares favorably to renting an office or a coworking desk. But you’d save significant cash by working from home, brewing your own coffee, and nuking last night’s leftovers.
The pee dilemma
At a traditional workplace or a home office, you never have to think twice about a five-minute bathroom break. Just lock your workstation and leave.
But at Starbucks, every twinge of your bladder presents a problem. Do you you risk leaving your $2,000 laptop (plus any accessories) lying there on the table? Should you ask a nearby neighbor to serve as your (unpaid and disinterested) security guard? Or do you wind up your cables, stow away your gear, and haul everything to the potty, hoping you can find a seat when you return? Even if you do, all that packing and repacking eats up precious work time.
Designers, developers, and even productivity gurus often prefer multiple monitors and the real estate they offer. In my home office, I have four monitors (three external screens plus the native laptop display), and even that often feels inadequate.
At Starbucks, I’m constrained to my laptop’s relatively tiny work space. It feels like working with one arm tied behind my back, no matter how much I practice the multitasking shortcuts and swipe gestures. Yes, there’s something to be said for the increased focus of viewing a single app, but many tasks are far easier when you can set two or three app windows side-by-side. 1
Home, sweet home (office)
After a few days working at Starbucks, I gave up. I borrowed a folding table from neighbors and set up a makeshift workspace in our hosts’ laundry room. What it lacked in ambience, it made up for in quiet, convenience, and cost. When we returned home, I was eager to return to my dedicated home office.
I still do make work pilgrimages to my local coffeeshop. Every Friday afternoon, you’ll find me there, winding up my work week and sipping on a mocha. But those visits last just a few hours. I’m just not suited for days-long work sojourns at Starbucks. ■
- Some creative types, facing the same issue, have resorted to hauling their iMac back and forth to the coffeeshop each day. No, thanks. ↩
What’s it like to record a podcast while running? I found out.
Lately, in addition to blogging and podcasting every day, I’ve been recording short videos and uploading them to YouTube.
These vlogs are pretty bad. I address the camera from my cramped little home office—a talking head with a weird-looking haircut. My ramshackle light rig casts a yellow, washed-out pall over my face. I deliver this scripted, stilted little speech, often spouting half-baked ideas. Very few viewers ever see these sad little videos; as I record this, yesterday’s episode has a grand total of one view. One.
Making something mediocre, let alone something that’s genuinely bad, is difficult for me. I’m very much a type-A personality; I was the kid who mourned every A-minus and who restarted a piano piece every time he hit a wrong wrong note.
And it’s not hard to see the flaws in what I’m posting, particularly when I compare it to others’ work on the web. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Casey Neistat, vlogger king. His work makes me feel simultaneously jealous and ashamed. I feel jealous because he’s so damn good at what he does. And I feel ashamed because Casey and I are almost the exact same age (we were literally born just four days apart). Two thirty-six-year-olds, one who does amazing, admired work, and one who… doesn’t.
This self-critical, all-or-nothing mindset has sabotaged my creative impulse before. I have abandoned a half-dozen online projects when I wasn’t satisfied with either the quality of the result or the (nonexistent) audience reaction. My latent perfectionism sabotaged the daily discipline, grinding the machine to a halt.
The only difference so far this time around is that I’m pushing through that discouragement and trying to ignore the results. In short, I’ve learned to be okay with being terrible. I’ve decided to just keep making stuff, whether it’s mediocre or not. ■
At least five times in the past decade, I’ve started online projects, only to see them wither away from lack of attention.
Past abandoned blogs
Oh, I invest long hours at first: writing a mission statement, shopping for a WordPress theme, and hand-hacking the CSS. But once the actual content creation begins, I quickly lose interest. I may post sporadically for a month or two. But soon enough, I give up. Eventually, I surrender the domain name, and my “brilliant” concept vanishes from the internet.
Occasionally, these projects failed because I lacked passion for the niche. For example, I once founded a project called “The Outage”, which was dedicated to suburbanites who put down new roots in the mountains. It wasn’t a terrible website idea, but I soon realized that I was more interested in my own urban escape than in telling other people’s escape stories. The Outage died a slow death.
More frequently, I abandon my blogging efforts not because I’m disinterested but because no one else is paying attention. My posts generate nearly zero pageviews. My Twitter follower count barely budges. I put myself out there, and I’m met with dead silence in return: no engagement, no encouragement, no audience.
Obscurity kills creative drive, if you let it. Love me? That’s great! Hate me? Well, at least you’re following along. But ignore me? That’s the response that’s most difficult to accept.
Working in obscurity
Here’s what I’ve learned from these multiple abandoned efforts: when you’re starting from scratch—totally unknown—you need to find satisfaction in something other than audience engagement.
Imagine a wood worker, hand-crafting beautiful furniture on her homestead, high in the mountains. She’s miles from the nearest collector or customer, and there’s no chance of selling her handiwork—or even showing it off. No one will see the rear joint on that oaken cabinet. Nevertheless, the craftswoman spends hours sanding down its rough edges and carefully aligning the two joined pieces. She delights in the making, even when no one else will appreciate the end result.
I’m not kidding myself; this blog isn’t a work of art. But the metaphor works for me. If audience engagement were my only reward, it would be so easy to justify cutting corners. Half-ass the proofreading. Ignore that clunky paragraph. Skip posting for a day or two. Who cares, after all? No one’s paying attention.
From experience, that way lies surrender. When I stop delighting in the work for its own sake, I soon stop working altogether. When I let website analytics or podcast download stats serve as my primary motivation, discouragement festers, and I soon stop writing. It’s happened a half-dozen times before.
Analytics be damned
But it’s not going to happen this time. I’m determined to keep sanding down those joints, day after day after day. Despite feeling obscure and ignored, I’m going to keep making stuff. Rising before dawn. Posting every day.
That effort won’t be quickly rewarded with audience interest. In fact, I may never grow a sizeable following. My tiny reader and listener numbers may stay exactly where they are, and my creative efforts may never become anything more than a hobby. The analytics may never reflect my level of effort.
I’m okay with that. Screw the analytics. At least I will have made something. I will have tried. That’s pretty damned satisfying, in itself. ■
Last night, the temperature here dipped below freezing for the first time since the spring. Our furnace fired up repeatedly throughout the night, helping us keep the autumn chill at bay. I know that because it’s easy to tell when the heat kicks on; the roar can be heard from every corner of our small cabin.
Apparently, our daughter had forgotten just how loud (and scary) that noise can be. When the heater first started, her frightened cries crackled through the baby monitor. We tried to settle her down, but eventually I set up camp in her bedroom and comforted her until she fell asleep.
All that to say, I didn’t get much rest, and (as I type this in the predawn darkness), my body is protesting. It would rather be asleep, recovering from late-night dada duty.
And if it weren’t for Jerry Seinfeld, that might have happened today. Fortunately, I’ve found inspiration in the comedian’s productivity mantra: “Don’t break the chain”.
The basic idea is that momentum becomes its own motivation. Daily habits, once established, are a sort of perpetual motion machine; you string together a “chain” of days, and you don’t want to stop. There’s magic in the streak.
What’s my good habit of choice? As of today, I’ve blogged and podcasted for eighteen straight weekdays. That chain is long and strong enough to drag me out of bed after a sleepless night. My head may be pulsing, my eyelids may be heavy, but I’m here. I’m typing. The streak summoned me to the keyboard.
And I’m scared to loosen the chain, let alone break it. One slip-up might derail me for good. “Just one day off” becomes “two days off.” Two days off becomes a week-long lull. Before I know it, my blog sits stagnant for months. That may seem overly dramatic, but it’s happened so many times before.
Happily, it didn’t happen today—thanks to the chain. I like to think that Jerry would be proud. ■
Calendar artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.
Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, shared this reflection on Twitter:
Remembering Steve today. Still with us, still inspiring us. “Make something wonderful, and put it out there.” pic.twitter.com/7aOCPkwU0U
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) October 5, 2017
Here’s a longer version of the same Jobs quotation, which Apple highlighted in the prelude to its September marketing event:
“One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there…. Somehow, in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love, something is transmitted there.”
I don’t feel a strong sentimental connection to Apple’s co-founder, but I find him a fascinating figure: irascible and difficult, yet undeniably visionary, even prescient. At times, he was childishly petulant; at others, he demonstrated careful thinking. So it seemed worthwhile to reflect on how Jobs’ ideas might apply to my renewed blogging and podcasting efforts.
Now, “expressing my appreciation to the rest of humanity” isn’t the way I usually think about my daily writing and recording routines. But maybe it should be; too often, I get hung up on “appreciation” flowing the other way around: from readers and listeners to me. How many times did listeners download this episode? How many views did that post get? Could I ever earn enough followers to monetize this site? Is anyone out there even paying attention?
This sort of selfish obsession quickly leads to discouragement. I lose my motivation to write, and I’m tempted to quit, as I have so many times before. That’s why I haven’t enabled analytics on this site’s current incarnation; I’m terrified that knowing how few readers I have will derail my determination to rise early each morning and do the work.
The Jobs quotation above suggests a more productive approach: ignore my desperate desire for affirmation and appreciation. Instead, focus on the work itself: creating something good, genuine, and helpful. That mindset makes blogging more sustainable, more fun—almost automatic.
Now, the end result may not be “something wonderful”, in Jobs’ parlance, but if I’m investing “a great deal of care and love”, it will be rewarding—to myself, if not to anyone else. ■
— Matt Hauger (@matthauger) October 6, 2017