Category Archives: Productivity

Agreeing With The Essence While Disagreeing With The Details

It’s a difficult thing when someone you respect speaks out against something you’ve been seriously considering.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out two things: how to move forward with the work I’ve been doing online and what to do about the work I’ve already created. Just when I finally felt like I figured things out, Shawn Blanc had to go and make some truly excellent points about attempting to evolve your future work by eliminating your current project.

As he puts it:

Recently I was talking with a friend who was considering deleting his weblog and starting all over. Tossing his archives into the trash, changing the domain, and re-focusing on the sort of writing that he most wants to do.

His premise was that a new domain and new “brand” would help set the tone for the new voice he wants to write with. And that by trashing his archives of the work he’s written so far, there will be nothing on his new site which he’s embarrassed about. Nothing juvenile or off topic.

I told him he was being silly and then linked him to this article by Zeldman where he writes: “If your old work doesn’t shame you, you’re not growing.”

Now this is a damn fine point and one that gave me pause. While embarrassment isn’t really the issue here, there are plenty of parallels between what Shawn describes and my current situation. Essentially I’ve been planning to move on from a current project in order to focus on a similar one. Before reading this, I was not only ready, but actively preparing to completely shutter a multi-year project in order to focus on something new. But what do I do now that someone whose advice and instincts I trust has suggested the exact opposite?

Consider What Others Are Saying, But Don’t Always Follow The Exact Advice

All too often, we read blogs, listen to podcasts, and seek out books and advice to find answers. We’re not sure what to do and we hope that someone we respect will know what’s best. There’s nothing wrong with this, but occasionally we let our respect for others (and our own fears) replace, rather than inform, our own opinions and instincts. This is never the writer’s intent; it’s just a common reaction to a well thought-out point. There’s no harm in seeking inspiration, but it can be dangerous to take the advice of others as gospel.

Here’s an alternative approach that I’ve always found useful. Use advice that contradicts your current course of action or line of thinking to first challenge and then strengthen your own thoughts. There’s a temptation to either embrace everything they’ve said or dismiss it. Don’t. Take a step back, think about what they’ve said and then consider if they are right. If you still feel like they aren’t, don’t just move on. Try to figure out what gave you pause and what they may be right about or hinting at that caused you to question your current approach.

Ignore the details that do not fit, but question how the essence might help improve your own thinking.

In my case, I’ve created a situation where I have two sites—A Better Mess and Workflowing—yet have come to the realization that I only have the bandwidth to effectively create for one. Shawn’s advice and conventional wisdom would probably lead me to keep A Better Mess, a site I’ve spent years building, while backing down from the newer project. Upon reading his thoughts, I found it easy to build a case to refine what’s already working rather than reinventing it. But even as I found myself agreeing with what Shawn was saying, I still felt that the better course of action would be to shelve something I’ve spent years creating to focus on a project that I believe is a better fit for my future.

As much as I agreed with much of what he said, the advice wasn’t an exact fit (it wasn’t aimed at my exact situation, after all). Embarrassment isn’t what’s causing me to want to make this move. Don’t get me wrong, A Better Mess has plenty of pieces I’m embarrassed by, but it’s also a project I love, and I am extremely proud of the work as a whole. But it has come to feel limiting. It was a project I created to help myself. I wanted to capture my struggle to get things done and chronicle my attempt to improve. It’s a very real struggle and one I continue to face, but it’s not the site I want to be writing right now.

As it says on the site:

A Better Mess serves as a journal or record of one ADHD-addled mess (that’s me!) to find the best way to do the best possible work.

As I’ve grown, my interest in the the way we work has moved beyond my own difficulties, and my focus has shifted away from the first part of that previous mission. Today I’m far more focused on finding the best way to do the best possible work.

Now could I evolve this site to meet that mission? You bet. But everything in me tells me I’m better off doing that on a platform that is better suited to the mission. One that wasn’t created to achieve a similar, yet different goal.

So, What Happens Next?

This will be the last post on A Better Mess.

Over the next few days, I will be rolling over the site’s feed to Workflowing. If you like what I’ve written here, you’ll like what I write there. If not, it’s very easy to unsubscribe. Unlike A Better Mess, Workflowing will look to share and create work that looks to help others to do better, not just me.

Even though I will be moving on, Shawn’s right. I shouldn’t dismiss my old work by destroying what I’ve built here. There’s nothing to be embarrassed of, even the embarrassing stuff. I need to figure out what I’ll do with this site and the work I’ve created for it (even if that is just leaving it up and leaving it alone), but it will live on in some way, warts and all.

That said, I still plan to focus on Workflowing. I want to give my future work what I believe to be the best possible chance for success. A Better Mess means the world to me, but from a personal standpoint, it’s also run its course. In the same way that attempting to erase previous “embarrassing” work will hold you back, so will clinging to the work you’ve outgrown.

I cannot thank those of you enough who have been kind enough to spend your time and attention here. I also hope you’ll follow along or at least stick around to see what comes next.

The App Choices of Others

My friends and unwitting mentors, Patrick Rhone and Myke Hurley, discussed a common and unhealthy obsession with the app choices of others on the latest episode of Enough. It’s a great listen and while not entirely necessary for the sake of understanding this post, I encourage you to go and check it out.

I learn a great deal from Patrick; he has a gift for making me think and forcing me to solidify my own ideas on a subject. This latest episode on actions over apps was no exception. Patrick made a strong case, both on his blog and on Enough, for not discussing his choice of app. He feels that this omission lets people focus on what matters most, the actions we need to take. I see his point, but I also see things differently.

When Looking At The Choices of Others

As Patrick points out in the episode, there is a temptation to look at what others are using and just run with it (I was guilty of this for far too long). This almost never works. Unless that person seems an awful lot like you, faces very similar challenges and has near identical preferences, it’s unlikely that trying things exclusively based on their choices is the best use of your time (and even then, it’s no guarantee). The app choices of others will offer insights and starting points, but what works for one person rarely works for another and almost never works for you.

This risk aside, there can be a lot to learn from how others work, especially once you de-emphasize what they use and focus far more of your attention on the how and why they approach their work. Seeing the specific choices that another person uses to effectively accomplish their goals is a gift. If you manage to avoid the common trap of expecting what worked for them to work for you, the opportunity offers tremendous insight into the discovery of your own approach. It allows you to get a tangible look at what is often the obtuse concept of a system or a workflow. You get to see how the various pieces fit together, which is far more important than any one application.

When Looking At The Actual Apps Themselves

When trying to figure out how to improve the way you work, Patrick is right. You shouldn’t start with the app. It is indeed about the action you want to take, but—at least for me—a big part of that process is taking a step back in order to find the right tool or tactic to help me to accomplish a necessary actions. Ultimately it’s about creating processes that ensure those necessary actions happen.

During the episode Myke mentioned that my intensive use of OmniFocus likely keeps me from trying an alternative task manager like Things. While the work involved in making a change detracts from my desire to switch, the short term pain of making a change isn’t what keeps me from considering my alternatives. For years I struggled to capture my ideas, organize them into projects, manage not to be overwhelmed by the number of things I need to do and figure out what I was actually supposed to do next. Once I found a way to do this in OmniFocus, I didn’t need to look any further.

I never feel tied to an application choice; I’m only ever committed to what’s working (and I’m very committed to something once it works). There’s always going to be something shiny and new, but one of the best pieces of advice I can offer is that once you find something that works, stop looking and use it to do great work. Make, as Patrick often suggests, a final choice. Something that is effective, well-worn and comfortable is far more likely to yield a desired outcome than something with potential that is new and unfamiliar.

It doesn’t matter what works for others when you’ve already found what works for you. This is especially true in a world that will always try and offer something new. When the latest version of Things came out, I heard great things from friends who suggested I give it another look, but task management is a solved problem for me. I’d rather dedicate that time to the personal productivity challenges I’ve yet to resolve.

Why The Apps Matter

The way that others work matters, but only to the extent that it helps you find your own approach. I see why Patrick is reluctant to discuss the applications he uses. I see why the obsession with what others use deters him and others from sharing their own choices. But I also believe those who are struggling will have a harder time without specific examples. The idea of a trusted system is vague, especially to those who have never had one. I struggled long and hard to find a way to get things done. I know the difference that a clear window into the workflows of others can make when it comes to finding your own.

Those of us who talk about these kinds of things need to do a better job of making it clear that what works for us isn’t universal. Our suggestions aren’t answers, just solutions to try. I’m just not sold that the best way to make this point is to avoid the specifics that, if weighed carefully, can help you find the best way forward.

There’s a lot to be learned from choices of others. You just have to accept that they probably won’t work for you.

A Balance of Concepts and Tactics

When I look at my own attempts to improve, there are two things that have made all the difference in my ability to do better work: concepts that help me understand my work and tactics that help me do it.

For too long, I’d focus on one or the other and the impact on the way I work was insufficient. As I continue to improve, I’ve come to value the relationship between “how” and “why” we go about achieving our ambitions.

For those looking to get a better sense of both the concepts and the tactics that can help, today is a good day. Two very smart friends are introducing projects; one offers an in depth look at the concept of mastery over how we work and another shares actionable tactics in many of the key areas of productivity.

Workflow by Kourosh Dini

It’s rare that logic and beauty can occupy the same space, it’s especially rare that this would happen in a productivity book. Workflow is a unique book. It speaks to the concepts far more than the tactics (although there are plenty of useful takeaways that will improve the way you work). It looks to infuse meaning and offer a better understanding of ideas that have lost their very definitions in an age of quick fixes.

It’s very much a textbook of self-mastery. It is meant to be read slowly and carefully. It’s accessible for a novice audience, but is targeted for those who want to take a deep dive into the concepts of productivity, creativity, workflow and mastery.

Workflow is available throughout May for $30 and will double in price starting in June. This 500+ piece masterwork is well worth its full price, but you should seriously consider getting it now at the introductory pricing.

For more information, be on the lookout for a more comprehensive review of Workflow over at Workflowing.

The Productivityist Workbook by Mike Vardy

Just as Workflow is aimed at those looking to study the subject, The Productivityist Workbook focuses more on the immediate challenges that keep people from accomplishing their goals. In this easily accessible workbook, Mike Vardy offers tactics that will help you do a better job of dealing with email, task, time and idea management. This book is meant to be ready quickly and you can start implementing the tactics in it right away. It offers insights and methods that will benefit those looking for a 101 introduction to several key areas of personal productivity.

The Productivityist Workbook is available today for $5.

I’m a biased fan of both Kourosh Dini and Mike Vardy, but I believe their latest projects – especially the complementary balance of concepts and tactics between them – will prove helpful to anyone struggling to do a better job of approaching their work and life.

My BitQuill Interview

Yours truly on what’s changed in my life because of this site:

This may sound like hyperbole (and probably is), but I’m a different person for this experience. Or at least a far better version. I know myself better; I do more to mitigate my many, many shortcomings; I have a far better sense of what I want from the world and have developed a few of the skills needed to actualize those ambitions.


Don’t get me wrong, I still have a ways to go. There are far too many days where I tip more towards the “mess” than the “better,” but more than any other time in my life, I feel as if my life is moving in the right direction.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Related side note: never, ever follow Pat Dryburgh in an interview series.

The Hunt For A New RSS Reader

I’ve received a few questions about what I plan to use as a replacement for Google Reader. While I still believe that it is too early to pick an alternative, I’m starting to consider my options.

Rather than continually post on the subject, Mike Vardy and I have setup a “Running List” post over at Workflowing. We will continue to update this with what we believe to be the best options as well as the direction we’re both leaning and why.

There’s still time before the July 1st shutdown of Google Reader, but RSS plays a vital role in how both Vardy and I read the web. We’re anxious to choose an alternative, but at the moment we’re going to sit tight and keep an eye on how our options evolve. If you’re starting to consider your options as well, we’d welcome your feedback.

Getting My Workflowing

For far too long, I’ve wanted to align more of the work I’m doing. This is especially true of what I create for the web. At the moment, I write for this site, I co-host a podcast with Mike Vardy and collaborate with him on a newsletter (and since that isn’t enough, we also have a second podcast associated with said newsletter). In theory, each project has an identity of its own, one that needs to be nurtured. In reality none of these identities are being managed particularly well.

All Over The Place

I’m spread too thin, this holds true for much of my life, but it’s especially true on the web. It’s a mess of my own making and it’s one I need to start cleaning up. I’m taking the first step towards bringing more of my work together; I’m also not doing it alone. Today Mike Vardy and I are introducing Workflowing.

What is Workflowing? I encourage you to check it out for a deeper look at why we wanted to create this and what we intend to do, but at its core it’s a site that aims to do a better job at helping people to actually do better.

Darn You Patrick Rhone

While we are introducing Workflowing today, we’re not officially “launching” it until later this summer. Rather than working in private, we plan to continue to develop the project in public. Those who have listened to the latest Mikes on Mics episode know that I’m somewhat obsessed (read: very obsessed) with Patrick’s recent launch of Minimal Guides. In the span of a week he took a question on and turned it into the first in a series of guides.

He also did much of the work in public, which helped shape and improve the end result. He worked hard, he worked out in the open, he encouraged feedback and, in the span of a week, turned his idea into something tangible. It’s a project that continues to improve as we speak. We’ve been inspired to follow Patrick’s lead. There’s still a lot to be done, but Workflowing is no longer just an idea; it’s something that exists and will now continue to evolve. We hope you’ll follow along.

So… What Does This Mean For A Better Mess?

As of today, not much. If you’ve noticed, I haven’t been writing a ton of “how to” posts. It wasn’t intentional at first, but I’ve already been changing this over to a slightly more personal site (or at least focusing more on the personal aspects of my own attempts at self-improvement). A Better Mess is not going away; it is however becoming a Workflowing project. One that I’m very proud of and passionate about. It will continue to remain as active as ever. Some things will make their way over to Workflowing, but if you enjoy the site today, I expect you’ll enjoy it tomorrow.

And What About The Rest Of Your Projects?

For the time being, we’re looking at Workflowing as an umbrella for all of the work that Mike Vardy and I create. It will also serve as a place to share the work that helps and inspires us. Over time, things may change, but as of today A Better Mess, Vardy’s Productivityist and Mikes on Mics will continue.

Rather than maintaining separate social media accounts for each project, everything will now be shared and promoted under Workflowing. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, ADN and Google+ (that last one was Vardy’s idea). To help things along and help align things we will be shutting down Mike Techniques in favor of focusing our energies on making Workflowing the best that it can possibly be. Subscribers should have already received an email from us explaining what comes next.

We have big plans for Workflowing. I encourage you to check it out and see if what we’re working on has the potential to help you do better.

Yes, You Have A System

Talk about workflows and productivity long enough and you eventually find yourself listening to those who say that they either do not have or do not need a system. It’s a subject we touched on when Matt Alexander joined us for an episode of Mikes on Mics and it came up again on this week’s Systematic podcast with Myke Hurley (et tu, Myke?). Frequently as I hear one version of this or another, I’m not sure the assertions jive with reality.

The truth is that everyone has a way that they go about their work. Most just aren’t aware of it or don’t care about it. 

Now you’re probably expecting me to put up some fight about how this is a problem. And since we all have a system we should all be thinking about how to make our own better. Not so. There are many who don’t need to think about this at all. Their natural aptitude is either sufficient (as is the case with both Myke and Matt) or their ambitions aren’t all that lofty and they don’t require it. I envy the former and question the latter, but – much as I may envy them both – there’s nothing wrong with either one. If what you’re doing is working for you, if you’re able to achieve all that you set your mind to (ambitious or otherwise), you’d likely be wasting your time trying to figure out how to do even more.

You’re Making The Wrong Assertion

Framing the conversation as do you or don’t you have or need a system is the wrong way to look at things. It’s not an issue of the existence of the system, it’s a question of its effectiveness.

If you’re yet to really consider your system, don’t ask yourself if you need one. Don’t start by asking yourself something along the lines of “do I need to read Getting Things Done?” Instead, start by asking this: is how I’m working, working? If the answer is yes, great! Get back to work. If not, don’t worry, but start looking to understand the system you’re pretending not to use and then start figure out how to make it better.

You may not want to acknowledge or address your system (or as is the case with Myke and Matt, you may not need to), but this has nothing to do with its existence (for further proof, take a look at every bad habit you’ve been ignoring). If you start off by questioning if you need a system, you’re ignoring the fact that you already have one. 

Does This Even Matter? 

It’s easy to write this off as a semantic argument, but there’s a risk that comes along with pretending you don’t already have system. If and when you finally decide to improve the way you work, you’ll end up building upon a broken foundation. And when you start with a bad foundation, the “system” you choose will often do very little to actually improve your potential.

Do or do you not need a system is the wrong question, so stop asking it. Instead, consider the only thing that matters, is it or isn’t it working? If it is, why on earth are you still reading this? If it isn’t, there are plenty of sites, books, tips, tactics, apps and methodologies that can help you understand and improve that system you’ve been ignoring for far too long (this site is hopefully one of them, so be sure to subscribe for free by email or RSS).

You have a system. Just make sure you’re happy with it and then go make something amazing with it.