The last few days I’ve worked on revisions in Google Docs and Highland 2 for different projects.

You get an expected word salad on your screen when collaborating on a virtual document that tracks changes. It takes a few extra moments to parse what you’ve actually written. Small changes can have outsized influence, interfering with the legibility of a sentence or paragraph. But I can get past that pretty quickly.

Even when the markup is more subtle, like the revision mode in Highland, there’s a false sense of security that comes from looking at something that shows you what you’ve changed.

“Oh, I already revised there. It’s probably solid enough.”

When I used to print drafts out and mark them up in pencil before heading back to the keyboard, the friction of looking between two separate documents made me re-evaluate every change. I always found more tweaks and changes I wanted to make.

I’m not about to call for abolishing digital revision tracking — It makes remote collaboration possible.

Still, additional friction helps me slow down and make sure I haven’t missed an opportunity to put my best work forward. I appreciate that.

What to do with a blog

When it comes to a(my) blogging method for writing longer, more synthetic work, the traditional relationship between research and writing is reversed. Traditionally, a writer identifies a subject of interest and researches it, then writes about it. In the (my) blogging method, the writer blogs about everything that seems interesting, until a subject gels out of all of those disparate, short pieces.

Cory Doctorow, The Memex Method

This post got me thinking about sharing more on the blog and less on social media. If I’m interested enough in something to want other people to see it, it makes sense to post it somewhere it will stick around and connect to other ideas.

It also reminds me of two quotes I keep in Highlighted:

“Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.”

Zadie Smith, Intimations

You can’t put a tweet on a shelf. Things stick around for a reason.

Jonathan Safran Foer

It also gets me thinking about Bean Dad (sorry to remind you about that).

How does the tool address the task? What do I accomplish sharing something on social media instead of here?

It’s all got me thinking.

I try to remind myself to always be willing to chuck out what I’ve written, but not refer to my writing as garbage.

Deleting something removes it from view, but it doesn’t erase the work I did or what I learned from it.

Looking for better instead of making better

Yesterday, someone who just met me answered a question by asking “Have been told you overthink things?” It was a pretty spot-on reading.

This morning, I came across this passage:

From the point of view of Samaya, we could say that looking for alternatives is the only thing that keeps us from realizing that we’re already in a sacred world. Looking for alternatives—better sights than we see, better sounds than we hear, a better mind than we have—keeps us from realizing that we could stand with pride in the middle of our life and realize it’s a sacred mandala. We have such a deep tendency to want to squirm out of it, like a beetle on a pin: we squirm and try to get away from just being on the dot.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

This really clicks when you’re the kind of person who has a setup for managing your to-dos, but keep Googling ways you might optimize or refine it with one more trick.

Or you’ve been stuck trying to finish a draft of something you’re writing, because you think it could be better if you spent a little more time on the thinking about the writing instead of the writing.

That pernicious idea that you must keep looking and contemplating for a better way to do things before the doing, instead of treating the doing as the path to better. That the doing is good enough.

It’s something I remind students of, and have to remind myself of frequently: You can’t revise what you haven’t written. Searching for better and ruminating is like trying to write the third draft of a blank page.

I must remind myself of this more often.

Anything can be a timer

Some work, especially creative work, acts like a gas: It fills up whatever amount of space you give it.

I’ve looked at timers, Pomodoro setups, and different apps and devices to signal to my brain “This is the time. Use just this time.” But most of them wind up feeling arbitrary and unhelpful.

If I can adjust the timer after I’ve started it, it takes additional willpower to maintain that sense of containing the work.

It got me thinking about something my wife said to our daughter when she was a baby: “You’re an adorable little alarm clock, but you don’t have a snooze button.”

Natural timers

Instead of looking for just the right artificial timer, I started thinking about where I see hard edges and clear boundaries within a day.

If I get up before sunrise to work on things, I know I can’t press snooze on The Sun.

If I start a task with a warm cup of coffee, I can tell myself it needs to be done before that coffee gets cold (or drank) and needs a warm up.

Or, and this is a little TMI, if it’s a full pot of coffee sized task, I have to check off that to-do by the time I need to head to the bathroom.

I can look at the calendar and see what events can’t be moved, and tell myself I need to finish something before that next thing starts. I can’t just say “ten more minutes, please” to a class I need to go teach, or picking my daughter up from school.

When and how I spend my willpower

It takes that little extra bit of intention to find the right time to start, but the benefit for me comes in knowing there’s a clear, definite place to end. There are consequences for going beyond that boundary.

It’s especially helpful for some creative tasks that can easily drag on into procrastination, like perfecting an outline or fiddling with proofreading a document.

Instead of needing to spend willpower deciding on the start and end point of a task, I’m only picking one.