2×4 With Yuvi Zalkow

2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.

I’m excited for today’s 2×4 post. It’s long, but it’s worth it. So make yourself a cup of coffee or, better yet, pour yourself a drink as today, I have something good for you. A look inside the neurotically hilarious mind of failed writer1, Yuvi Zalkow

As I’ve attempted to hit publish in order to get more of my ideas out of my head and onto the web, I’ve gone looking for unwitting personal guides to help me get more done. Few that I have come across have proven to be as helpful and as entertaining as Yuvi. His presentations on everything from your child being the best time management tool to leveraging your bathroom breaks to write a novel are often unusual, yet always helpful.

Today, Yuvi was kind enough to share some of his tips and tactics as well as some of his personal experiences on two of my favorite subjects, creativity and productivity. Take it away, Yuvi!

Creativity

1) Have you always considered yourself to be a creative person?

No! It wasn’t until I went through a bout of depression (after graduating college in 1995) that it hit me how important storytelling was to my life. Both reading other people’s stories and trying to tell my own stories. Not only telling stories, but telling stories that affect others. Pretty quickly I got hooked on trying to figure out what makes a good story. When I started weaseling out of social events in order to write, I realized that I was into this writing thing pretty seriously. So here’s my suggestion: get depressed. It’s a great spark for creativity.

2) What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate towards to realize your creative goals?

Since I’ve been working on novels over the past few years, my current obsession is about ensuring that I keep at it without letting up. I don’t really romanticize the writing life these days — I’m more interested in the durability aspect of things. So I tend to be inspired by people who kick me in the tuches and say something as simple as “shut up and write.”

As for the medium, it started out as just pen and notebook. Then, for many years, I went back and forth between a notebook and Microsoft Word on a PC. But two years ago I got my first Mac (and my first iPhone) and discovered all these fabulous writing tools. Even so, I still enjoy writing with pen and paper.

3) If you had to point to one thing, what specific post or creation are you most proud of and why?

There are two different things I do in the creative realm. There’s the pure creative writer thing and there’s the dude who creates these neurotic presentations about writing and productivity. So I find myself wanting to point you in two directions. (Is that legal?) As a writer, I’m most proud of the novel I’m working on. The problem is that I can only point to a bunch of places on my computer where the novel currently resides. So until I finish the novel and get it out into the world, I can point you to one of my stories that is viewable online: When My Body Smashed Into The Sidewalk

As for the presentations, I’ve had loads of fun with all of them. If you want a silly quick one, here’s a story about my messy desk: Desk Envy

But if you want to get more into hardcore writing chatter, here is the secret to my latest novel writing technique: Bucket Writing

How is that for cheating? You ask for one. I give you four.

4) Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative take to unlock their inner artist?

Hmm… My suggestion is to let go of having a specific goal or endpoint. Not forever, but just at first. Give yourself some room to mess around and screw up. For me, that’s a very powerful space to be in. After you stumble around in that space for a while, you can always worry about shaping it into something more coherent, but if you start off thinking something like “I need to write a book that will be the next Harry Potter,” you’re going to have trouble learning a creative craft in a serious way. (Especially if you write about neurotic, pantsless Jews who are very unlike Harry Potter…)

Productivity

1) Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

Let’s see. For my day job — the thing that pays the bills — I’m a technical writer. I used to be a software developer but I realized that I enjoy the art of explaining confusing techie stuff to mortals more than most others in the room.

I have a wife and two kids! That keeps me occupied.

Plus, my night-time job (at least after the kids are asleep) is writing fiction. I’m working on a novel right now that takes place in rural Georgia in the 1930s and this story is kicking my ass — in the best possible way. I just mean it’s a challenging project. I’ve never attempted historical fiction before.

I also just started doing online presentations about creativity and productivity and that’s been a blast. Actually, my biggest weakness regarding productivity involves spending too much time making presentations about productivity. (Maybe I should do a presentation on how to avoid doing presentations.)

2) How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

That definitely isn’t a trivial thing to do. The geek in me wants to say OmniFocus does it for me. But that’s not really true. OmniFocus is just a well-designed vehicle for managing your tasks. But you still need to know how to drive the thing in the right direction.

I first had to break down how many hats I want to wear every week. There’s the family man hat; the day-job-that-pays-the-bills hat; the creative writing hat; and the presentation-maker hat. And then it’s a matter of deciding what I want to accomplish with each of these hats. I’m not great with long term goals, but I’m good about weekly and monthly goals. And so I take some real care in adding things to my task list that are important to me. I think two overlooked aspects of task management are (1) the need to review your projects and tasks regularly, and (2) the need to get rid of the bullshit that you realistically aren’t going to do or don’t need to do. Without these two parts of the process, you’ll never be able to balance your life, at least not in any kind of intentional way. Learning to do these two things well has helped me a bunch.

3) What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

So let me talk about some of my geeky tools. Here is what I use for writing:

  • I start out writing my stories in either nvALT or WriteRoom on the Mac. They are both nice, lightweight writing tools.
  • If I’m on the iPhone then I use Notesy. (And I sync it with Dropbox so I can go back and forth between the Mac and the iPhone.)
  • If I’m dumb enough to let my writing turn into a novel — which I often am — then I jump into Scrivener. Love love love Scrivener. It’s not necessary for short things, but for me it’s essential in organizing a big project.
  • I also sync my Scrivener projects with Dropbox so that I can continue editing my chapters in Notesy on my iPhone. (Seriously! That’s a real part of my novel writing process…)

As for my presentation making:

  • ScreenFlow is just great for recording and editing.
  • I use SketchBookExpress and a $50 Wacom Bamboo Pen to do my third-rate drawings.
  • I use Keynote if I’m doing a more formal presentation, though recently I’ve enjoyed just drawing on the screen instead…
  • I use Toon Boom Studio to do the animations though I’m pretty dumb about animating things.

As for productivity:

  • OmniFocus
  • OmniFocus
  • OmniFocus

I use this tool on both my Mac and my iPhone. Love this thing. It has a learning curve, but once you learn how to use it, wow.

There are a bunch of other great little tools that I use all the time, but I don’t want this answer to go on for too many thousands of words. (e.g. TextExpander, Keyboard Maestro, LaunchBar, Hazel, BetterTouchTool, TotalFinder.)

On a low tech note, I write a lot of simple lists to get me through certain parts of the day. For instance, if I have two unexpected free hours on a Sunday evening, I’ll just scribble on a piece of scratch paper how I want to use that time. Nice to have this lightweight option always available.

As for my parenting workload, the tool I use most is a gin martini, straight up, with two olives.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

4) What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?

Good question. It’s awfully tempting to think that there’s a tool out there to solve all your productivity issues, but that is rarely true.

  • You need to think of what your goals are. What do you want to do with your week or your year or your life? Think both about short term and long term goals.
  • Once you have goals, you need a process to get you there. I think the key is to get to know your tendencies and strengths and weaknesses well enough so that you can find a process that fits who you are. The “Getting Things Done” bit works great for some, but not for others. That’s fine.
  • Also, you may need to stretch yourself some, but at the same time, you shouldn’t expect a radical change, at least not right away.
  • Once you come up with a process, then consider searching for a tool to make that process easier.
  • Setting small, achievable steps is important. It’s just too overwhelming and disheartening to try to save the world on day one. Do that on day four.

Thanks so much for participating Yuvi and special thanks to Eddie Smith whose rather excellent Practically Efficient blog first pointed me in Yuvi’s direction!

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  1. Well, he is now a failed, failed writer []
  • http://www.asianefficiency.com/ Thanh Pham

    Great interview guys. I always love reading how others setup their lives and their way of organizing.

    • http://michaelschechter.me MSchechter

      Same here! And learn a lot that way. It was actually the Mac Power Users workflow episodes that inspired the idea of seeing how others work. Thankfully Yuvi and Gini have really started the series out with a bang!