Morning Pages Should Be Like Skimming Stones

The morning pages habit trundles on with my Moleskine Volant notebook filling up by the day. Some days it’s easy to get started while other days it seems like a struggle. It shouldn’t be like this.

Every year we visit Jennifer’s family just outside of Toronto. The holiday usually revolves around shopping for the girls and golf for the boys, but on those days where we want to spend the time together as a group we sometimes head down to the lake. It’s a great spot for a picnic and a walk, it lets the kids explore and of course there’s that love of skimming stones. You spend a couple of seconds looking for a good stone and you throw. There’s no concern about the quality of the throw, a few throws is all that’s needed to get better. Also you know that once it’s thrown that stone is gone forever. Well at least until it’s washed back up back onto the shore again.

Your morning pages should be like this. Just writing, seeing where it takes you and never worrying about that writing coming back. It’s an exercise to clear your mind and nothing more. Also it doesn’t matter about the content of your morning pages. It’s all for you. No-one else. Once it’s written it can disappear from the eye of the public forever. Just like your little stone skimming across the water and disappearing, your morning pages can hide forever.

This morning I was stuck for something to write about, so I just started writing. Half a page in and it started to get easier. The next time I start my morning pages it won’t be so hard to get started. I just need to remember it’s just like skimming stones.

An Empty Cartridge

I’ve just checked the order on a batch of Pentel pens and refill cartridges I bought from Amazon. It was around sixty days ago. Since receiving these pens from Amazon I’ve tried to build a habit of writing my morning pages on weekdays. Rather than typing like a demon possessed, I’ve used pen and paper for this task. To be honest I’ve skipped a few days, but I’ve fulfilled my daily quota on most of the days.

Yesterday was a bit of a milestone. I ran out of ink. That one pen lasted about sixty days in total. What I was left with was an empty ink cartridge. I’m not sure how many pages I’ve written in my notebooks in total as my morning pages are spread out across two different notebooks and there’s stuff between each set of morning pages. Might be time to dedicate a notebook to this.

Checking back on my writing I’ve looked through what I’ve achieved and been impressed by the amount of words that I’ve written. Most of it will never see the light of the Internet but there’s a few ideas in there for posts and writing projects. Hell, there’s even a few ideas for novels in there.

I’ve popped in a refill cartridge ready to start the process all over again. Around sixty days from now I expect to burn through another cartridge. If I haven’t, then I’ll know I’ve missed out on more than a fair share of writing days.

The Hobby Writer

I’ve got something of a fascination with writing. It’s not that I want to become a writer, although the idea is rather tempting, I’m just curious about the process that writers go through from an idea or concept through to the final published article or book.

The fascination with writing started in secondary school. For an assignment we had to submit a short story on anything we wanted. I wrote about my first experience with a death in the family that happened just a few years before I started secondary school. After submitting the story I didn’t think anything else of it until the day we got our assignments back. There were a few red pen marks where I had bad grammar or spelling mistakes but other than that I received a “very good” on my assignment. After class the teacher asked me to stay back for a minute. He congratulated me on the honesty of my story and the re-telling of the moment in my life.

A couple of years later and during the build up to my exams we had to submit a short story. At the time I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy books, so I decided to try and pull the two genres together into a single story. Unfortunately it sounded too much like a series of books that was already out, but I decided to run with it any and see what I could do. I received a favourable grade for my story but I was marked down for my short story being unoriginal.

It was few years from then until I started a mind mapping blog called MindMapSwitch. It was my first attempt at writing and while the blog was a moderate success, it did get me more hooked on writing. It was during this time that I bought Stephen King’s On Writing book as well as a few ebooks on writing.

Today, I’m still writing as often as I can, but the idea of being a writer is something that seems so far away. A number of people I follow on Twitter have made the jump to being full-time writers or are on their way. They’re publishing as often as they can and they are clearly happy with the change to being a full-time writer.

Despite writing on my blog now for over two years, I still don’t identify myself as a writer. I do write yes but it’s more on a hobby basis. I write for myself when I can and that’s it. I have ideas for books that I would one day like to write but the prospect of even putting out a short book on a particular topic seems so out of my reach. For now I’m fine with having an interest in writing. As long as I’m on the fringe of writing, it will be something I’ll always appreciate.

Where's the Value In Writing?

For the last two weeks I’ve been writing my morning pages. The fact that I have managed to keep this going for two weeks is a good sign and I’m glad to be doing it again. The content of the writing itself isn’t important, well not at the beginning anyway.

What eventually happens though is that I do find something to write about after those first few paragraphs. The writing then becomes more focused and I start to see where my morning pages are going. It doesn’t always become something of value, most of the time it’s just a stream of thoughts on the page but every now again there’s an idea or thought there than can be the basis for a blog post or an article.

In doing this I’ve started to realise something

When we make something easy, we reduce its value.

Writing a word is easy. Anyone can do it, but the value of the word is almost worthless. Without context or surrounding words to form a sentence, the word is nothing but a word. It’s worthless.

Writing a sentence is just as easy for most of us. Even writing a paragraph should be easy for most of us. And that’s when we start to see a glimmer of value. That’s when your writing can become something of value. Beyond this where do we go?

Writing a letter, a blog post, a long form article or even a book. As the number of words needed to fulfil each form of writing is passed, the next form of writing becomes harder and harder to do. At the same time though, the value of that piece of writing increases.

Writing enough words to make a book. That’s real value. Assuming your writing is coherent and is of a high enough quality for someone to take the time out to read it. That’s real value, but it’s also difficult to do and that’s the trick with writing.

If you want your writing to be valuable then it needs to be more than a word, a sentence or even a paragraph. Shorter forms of writing should be difficult to do but not out with your grasp. Anything longer than this will definitely be difficult to do but still possible.

Writing is difficult to do, but that’s what is going to make your writing stand out from the writing of everyone else (or even their lack of writing). You’ve taken the difficult road to writing something of value.

Offline Tools

When we talk about tools that make us productive, we often refer to products and services that automate things for us. They do the leg work for a specific task while we move on with something else. While this is a nice idea in theory, too often than not, we find ourselves swept up by emails, messages, phone calls, social networks and other digital interruptions rather than moving on with that other task.

The best tools aren’t just tools that automate work for us (although they do help), they also let us do with the work without interruptions. These tools don’t rely on network connections, the Internet or any other digital highway to work. They just work, with or without an Internet connection. A few examples of tools spring to mind. For me tools like, Byword, Marked 2, Vim and Sublime Text are great tools for working offline, but being able to work offline aren’t the biggest selling feature.

As a software engineer I do a lot of reading of manuals, technical and programmming books. I also read a lot of programming language and framework documentation through the day. My memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, so I might refer to the docs for a programming language or framework when I’m writing code. Most of these docs are available online. I’m not always online though. Which is why I love using Dash. It’s a document browser that allows to the documentation of various programming languages and frameworks offline. So whether I’m online or not, I can always be sure to get access to the documentation I need when I’m working.

There’s a huge number of apps now that try to keep us in a state of being permanently connected to the Internet, but it comes at a cost. Being online means being connected, being connected means being distracted and being distracted is how we fail do the work we intended to do. When it comes to being productive, look for tools that work offline. Turn off your wi-fi and get working. It’s surprising how much work you get done.

Blank Pages

Blank pages are great. They are empty to begin with. Devoid of markings, letters, pictures, symbols or any written mark that represents something. They are empty for a reason. They need to be filled. But what with?

With a blank page you can start writing. A sentence, a paragraph, a poem, a short story, a long story, a film, a trilogy of films. It all begins on a blank page with a few words.

With a blank page you can start drawing, sketching or even doodle. Whatever it is you want to call it. Your thoughts visualised could be an idea that will change the world or act as a window for future generations to see through. It all begins on a blank page with a few lines.

With a blank page you can start making. Take an idea. Iterate over it with different approaches. Draw variations of it, list the pros and cons for each different variation. Finalize it before moving forward. It all begins on a blank page with an idea.

With a blank page you are recording a thought or idea that could outlive you and even the end of this century. With a blank page you are freeing yourself from the confines of technology. With a blank page you have decided that it is better to have a reliable means of recording that doesn’t require wi-fi, the Internet or even a battery.

Did I mention that blank pages are great?

Stop Reacting

Seriously, stop reacting.

Stop checking Twitter, Facebook, email and anything else that’s driven by notifications. In fact just turn off all notifications. Turn them off on your computer, phone and tablet. Notifications are the great reactive intruder that ruins your focus. With notifications turned off, you’ll stop reacting to the outside forces that will destroy your focus.

Stop putting the work aside that should be doing for the work you need to do. Yes there are things we need to do, but we should be smart enough to identify the work we need to do and schedule it in for the appropriate time in the future. It then becomes work we should be doing at the right time. Continually reacting to work that needs to be done shows a lack of planning. Plan ahead to eliminate reactive work.

Stop reacting aimlessly to changes in your life. Aim for a point in the distant future and work towards it. The world will do it’s best to try and push you off track. Changes in family, career, finances and health can be negotiated with a slight detour but you can still arrive at the place that you initially aimed for.

Stop reacting. It can be done.

Always Be Learning From Experiences

Learning tends to come from acquiring the knowledge of topics that we’re not familiar with. This is why as kids we all went to school. At a young age we have limited knowledge of how to read, write and count. Through years of education and study we eventually acquire enough knowledge to allow us to learn and understand each of these topics. We can specialise in this new found knowledge by going to college or university or moving into the workplace and getting a job.

What about what we already know?

There I was this morning setting up a new database for an application I’ve been working on for a client when I noticed that the application’s scripts to setup the database wouldn’t run due to a dependency on data in the database that was always assumed to be there. Simply put, I couldn’t create the database from these scripts.

So my knowledge of the application has changed and I have learned something new. What I have learned isn’t a new topic, just a tiny part of a topic I already know. My experience with the database scripts has taught me that basing the build process of the database on data that is already assumed to be there is wrong.

While we tend to seek out to learn from new topics, we forget that we can also learn from experiences. At time we might think that the knowledge we have is correct, but it’s only through experiences that we find out whether it is correct or not. In this case I have raised my concerns with the client about the build scripts for the database and proposed a solution to correct it in the future.

Always be learning. Whether it’s from new topics we know nothing of or by fine tuning the knowledge we have through experiences.

Managing Your Time Online with Automation and Filters

Left unchecked, you could easily waste away your time online. Posting, bookmarking, pinning, reading, uploading, downloading, torrenting and streaming. We’ve entered into an era of the Internet where there’s growing demand for you to be connected to anything and everything. If it’s not managed properly you could easily get sucked into an almost endless zombie state of clicking, scrolling and swiping. It’s something that I’ve grown more aware of over the years, but with kids in the house, you suddenly become more aware of how much time you spend being connected. I don’t want my kids to remember their parents as “those two with their heads creaking into their phones”.

With this in mind, I’ve started being a little bit more selective of how I manage my time being connected. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I only class the time I’m on the Internet, this can include any form contact with my laptop and smartphone. Cutting back on the this time is the key, but how do we do this?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve made a few changes to the apps I’m using and how I use them, and I’ve found that there’s two key places where you can improve severing that attachment to technology. Automation and filtering.

Automation

Automation is the ability to take a number of manual steps and make them run on their own without any human intervention. Sounds a bit daunting to start with, but there are in fact a number of great services that can make detaching from technology easier.

I’ve used IFTTT for the last couple of years to automate a few things between different services I use. I wouldn’t call myself a power user, but it’s easy to set up recipes means that you can schedule all manner of action between the different channels you might use.

I’ve only just started using Zapier in the last couple of weeks. IFTTT is great but I’ve heard good reviews about Zapier as well. My first impressions of it are good, and while they don’t cover all the same channels that IFTTT does, they do have a vast catalog of services that you can hook into.

Using tools like this can handle the mundane tasks for you, like backing up your photographs to Dropbox or builing lists on Twitter for an event you’re attending. Each step might only take a few seconds to do, but given that you’ll probably end up repeating these steps time and time again, it’s worth looking at tools like IFTTT and Zapier to handle them for you.

Filtering

Filtering is where we want to pick out the signals from the noise. What’s the important stuff? It’s something I haven’t used much in the past, but I’ve finding it to be more and more useful to limit my time online.

Perhaps the first place you might have came across filtering is on a number of Twitter clients. Tweetbot and Echofon allow you to mute keywords in your stream. This comes in handy when you don’t want to see tweets about a particular topic. I recently muted keywords for the Apple Watch event a couple of weeks ago and recently also blocked tweets from the SXSW event. Both topics weren not in my interests and so to stop my timeline being polluted with links to these I muted them in Echofon.

The last place I’ve seen filtering avaialble but haven’t used yet is in the RSS reader application, Feedbin. For each of the RSS feeds you have, Feedbin gives you the option to mute a feed. I haven’t used this yet but knowing this feature is here means that I’m abit more open to subscribing to other RSS feeds. I can mute feeds that are perhaps covering a specific topic over a number of days or weeks and if it’s something I’m not interested in, I can mute for that period of time.

This is just a couple of ways in which I manage the daily onslaught of information. I would be interested to hear of other suggestions that you use to manage and reduce your time being connected to the digital world.

Getting Noticed

I’ve always been the quiet type, often electing for the quiet corner of the room rather than being the speaker on the platform. Paul Dessert’s guide to getting noticed as an introvert though has me thinking I need to shake up this behaviour if I’m to push my career forward as a freelancer.

Here’s his take on going to meetups:

Seriously, do it. I know what you’re thinking, “screw that, why do I want to talk with a bunch of random strangers? Most people that go to those are greasy salespeople”. Guess what, you’re right. Most of them are filled with people handing out business cards. Ignore them. Find people that are interesting. They don’t have to work in the same industry as you, in fact, I’d suggest seeking out people in industries other than your own. You spend most of your time at work or school associating with like minded people, step out of that bubble and understand the needs and pains of others.

Want to know the secret to a good conversation? Shut the fuck up. Plays right into our wheelhouse, right! People LOVE to talk about themselves. Let them. Just listen and learn. You’ll make new friends and gain a potentially valuable contact you can lean on in the future.

The introverts guide to getting noticed by Paul Dessert