Skip to content

Category: Lifestyle

Ask for playlists for your birthday

This post is about Kevin Kelly, whom I came across lately after reading somebody’s newsletter. Despite my best efforts, I can’t remember whose newsletter it was. My apologies to the ether for not giving due credit.

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, has curated a lot of cool odds and ends, hosted on a part of his website called The Technium. When he turned 68, he celebrated by publishing a list of 68 pieces of advice.

He then did 99 pieces of advice another year. The latest is a list of 103 pieces of advice.

Kelly talked about these lists recently, especially his latest, on the Freakonomics podcast. Something he said on the podcast leaped out at me. Paraphrasing, he sums his efforts to avoid getting stuck in a rut as:

Don’t sit in the same chair every day. Avoid getting in a rut. For my birthday, I ask my kids for playlists of what music they’ve been listening to lately.

I love this idea. What could be a better birthday gift than lists of the best music, films, books etc. that the people you love have found lately?

I’m 30 now, that age where people start to become more set in their ways. Is this the way to stay fresh?

Music playlists would be especially good for me. I listen to a lot of music, but I’m one of those people who puts on the radio or auto-compiled Spotify lists, and has no idea which artists they’re listening to.

Books are the obvious ask, but I usually ask for specific books that are on my list. That runs the risk missing out on a lot of stuff I’ve never heard of. Maybe it’d be better to ask people for books they love.

When Post-Its Go Bad

I have a post-it note on my desk that says RADIANT GENIUS. All-caps, no explanation. Just RADIANT GENIUS. It’s been on my desk for a while now. I have no idea what it means, so it’s useless, the product of a less refined moment.

But I can’t bear to throw it away. Adorable that I thought that note would be useful later. How could anyone forget the entire phantasmagorical world of ideas unlocked by those infamous words of power: RADIANT GENIUS.

There’s another note on my desk. It says Robots and Dragons. And there is a little smiley face on it, to emphasize the calm confidence I had in those words at the time. Clearly it was a genius idea — though I’m not sure I’d call it radiant genius.

I’ve written a bit about notetaking and systems for developing creative ideas. But the above are evidence that there’s another side to scribbling everything down: some proportion isn’t useful and is at best clutter, and at worst is confusing.

A few might be comedy gold, fodder for the pinboard. But the whole effort at keeping notes falls flat if it isn’t searchable to some extent. The whole system has to be purged periodically for it to be of any use.

For me, that just means reading over everything, collating things into a blog post or my .inbox file on Evernote (inbox sorting in Evernote is explained here), or a list of quotations that I keep on Notion (twinned with things that sync from my Kindle using ReadWise). Occasionally things go into Obsidian, where I’m building a sort of personal Wiki (they call it a Second Brain, but that sounds a bit grand for what I’ve got going on).

Keeping things running smoothly does mean throwing things away, which I find difficult, especially when I feel like the note is just on the cusp of reminding me of something good. But if it doesn’t serve as a decent trigger for your memory, the note has failed, so it has to go.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my generally scattered mindset at the moment, and how that’s been refelcted in a messy workspace. So my focus for the next little while is keeping clutter to a minimum. Though I’m going to keep RADIANT GENIUS a while longer.

Harnessing Creative Bubbles Before They Burst

I live with frequent brain fog. I’m not sure why. Could be chronic stress, bad sleep patterns, over-dependency on caffeine to function, general anxiety. Who knows.

What I do know is that I only get about an hour a day of clear thinking, if I’m lucky. It’s difficult to compare between individuals, given natural variations in energy levels and attention span, so let’s be specific.

Most of the time I function just fine: I can socialize, run errands, exercise, do admin, and perform the less intellectually demanding aspects of work. But anything insightful, thoughtful or creative is walled off behind a snarl of vines, iron wool and vertigo.

As a rule, the wall comes down once a day.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern in what triggers the spells of clarity. They just come, leaping from the shadows, unbidden and grinning.

Sometimes I’m lucky, ready at my desk or a quiet corner or a train. I can drop what I’m doing and take to the keyboard or a pad of paper before the wall is thrown up again.

Other times, I’m not so lucky. Maybe more often than not, I can’t possibly take advantage of the clear spells, like when I’m in the shower, out on a run, or during a conversation.

Catching the tails of creative bursts over a week usually produces a sprawl of notes like this… (see half-baked wisdom point #2 below)

Recently, I’ve had more free time and a rested mind, so I’ve been able to catch the clear spells more often. Maybe half the time.

In more usual circumstances, I’m a caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived, anxious mass, carefully groomed to look like a high-functioning adult. I might catch a clear spell once a week.

I’ve tried to use my recent ample free time to maximise the number of usable clear spells. I’ve experimented, and come up with five things that work for me that I think are worth noting (and I stress: they work for me; this is not advice).

Today’s Nuggets of Half-Baked Wisdom

1. Scheduling: I hate schedules, but they work. This is advice that’s been repeated again and again by creatives in every medium. See Daily Rituals by Mason Currey for dozens of examples. If you want to create, or even to think, it’s never going to happen if you don’t set aside time for it. That’s the bare minumum. Like condoms: better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

2. Notepads, notepads everywhere: I’ve heard one person say they keep a waterproof notepad in the shower. I haven’t gone that far, but I do have notepads stashed everywhere else now: in my pocket, my coat, my bag, beside my bed, beside the treadmill. It might not replace access to a journal or keyboard, but the little snippets and notes build up.

3. Strategic drug-taking: Calm down, I’m not onto mescaline… yet. But I’ve started taking caffeine at scheduled times to optimize its effects, giving a small kick without overloading me or causing a crash later. See books like Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, for the science. And if I’m stressed and too rigid to move, a wee dram of whiskey greases the wheels.

4. The Gaiman Method: Neil Gaiman says his writing method is simple. He sits down at his desk to write, and it doesn’t matter if he produces nothing. But he’s only allowed to stare out the window. He’s free to do that all he likes, but eventually his mind gets bored and starts making stories. Crafting an environment to induce boredom not only removes opportunities for procrastination, but actually incentivises your mind to invent its own distractions.

5. Don’t Force It: Probably the most important of the five. Everything has limits: we know when we’re too tired to go on, when our limbs are twisted to breaking point, when we’re about to lose our balance. Nothing good comes from pushing too hard. I’ve found that once I managed to make use of a creative spell, I often tried to squeeze it for all it was worth. But ultimately, what came out of it just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I tried to climb a mountain in one leap.

Calming a Chaotic Mind with Mess and Morning Pages

I’m typically a tidy person. Not as extreme as some in my family, who keep all surfaces clear at all times (just stuff everything into a cupboard!). But, I’m tidier than most.

Recently, my usually orderly office has descended into chaos.

When it comes to personal space, chaos is a relative term. To some, the above would look ordinary, but it’s a stark contrast to my usual minimalism.

A person’s desk tells you something about them, as much as their wardrobe or their bookshelf. But a single viewing of these things might not be reflective of their full self, or their steady state. We all know that our wardrobe will reflect the fact that we’re going through a bit of a phase, so why wouldn’t your workspace?

Right now, I’m out of equlibrium. It’s not a crisis, but it is a time of change. I’m looking for jobs, we’re thinking of buying a house, a chapter of our lives is closing.

My desk reflects both the disorder in my mind, and my attempts to process it and take action. I make notes, I write in my diary, I doodle. I write random scenes from stories I’ll probably never finish, and scribble a lot of lists. It all contributes to a resolution.

Update on Morning Pages

Part of that process is Morning Pages, the famed technique from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I spoke about it and the rest of my journaling process in an earlier post.

I plan to use this blog as some kind of meta-journal on how my process of journaling changes over time. So, an update on how my morning pages have changed recently:

Only a few months ago, I was writing several full pages per day, just after I woke up. I was fizzing with ideas and consuming a lot of content. If anything, the morning pages barely let off the excess steam.

Now, I write a few sentences at best, in big hand, sprawled over several leaves of the notebook. It’s a purge of the disjointed things rattling around in my head. I’m consuming far less, chewing on what I’ve taken in this year, and on some big decisions.

Soon, it’ll probably change again. That’s part of the point of keeping the journal: besides the content, the form of the pages are a very clear indication of my shifting states of mind.

Books Fund – How It’s Going

The Fund

A few months ago, I set up a Books Fund. Affording the little luxuries is something we’ve been able to do a bit more over the past few years. But, I’m still a student, and a few books do make a dent in our budget. (Well, maybe more than a few…)

My goal is to engage with the material that attracts me most. So, I started setting aside some money every week to buy at least one book on my mounting to-read list.

How It’s Going

I’ve been trialing the approach since, buying one thing off the list each Sunday. It’s been 9 weeks, and I’ve stuck to it so far. Part of the reason I set up the fund is that some books are overpriced, or rare enough that even second-hand copies are expensive. The intimidating price tag means the book just sits there on my wish list forever.

So far, I’ve bought several books that fit this category. The biggest one so far is Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter, a beefy book of wonders. I managed to find it for £15, which would have stopped me before, but with the fund set aside I knew I could afford it.

Other weeks I’ve managed to pick up several books second-hand or on deals, without any guilt because I’ve stayed on budget. This week, I managed to get 4 books for £9, including postage. And I’ve also been picking up the odd book or two on top of the books fund, because I’m weak and bookshops smell nice, so there.

While I’ve been typing this entry, the postman stuffed two more through my letterbox…

Falling Behind (a Bit)

As you might have predicted, the result of this uptick in purchases means I’ve fallen behind in actually reading them. Admittedly, I’m not the fastest reader, but even A. wouldn’t be able to keep up with this pace (and she’s a reading machine).

But the fact remains that my shelf is now populated by things I’ve wanted to read for a while, but had told myself I couldn’t afford.

The Power of Tinkering

Warning: if you don’t like nerdy things and/or keyboards, better skip this one.

I’m not good with anything fiddly. Lego, IKEA furniture, arts and crafts. I last about two minutes before I throw it across the room. God help any future children of mine who ask me to put the stickers on their Christmas presents.

I usually describe myself as a big-picture thinker. Pedantic details don’t interest me. That’s good for being creative, but not for finding pleasure in the simplicity of small things.

For me, finding a hobby often sounds more like a should-do than a want-to — which we are trying to abolish, remember.

Keychron K6 Keyboard
The Keychron K6 Wireless Mechanical Keyboard, one of the best keyboards from under £100 on the market right now.

Turns out the answer is keyboards

Right now there’s a craze of DIY mechanical keyboard modifying. I love a good keyboard, so I decided to try it despite my general dislike of anything requiring physical dexterity and patience.

You need a few things:

  • anti-static tweezers,
  • lubricant and a little paintbrush to apply it,
  • a key-puller (for pulling off the keycaps),
  • a screwdriver.

The basic idea is to take the keyboard apart, including dismantling the mechanical switches, lubricate and dampen them, then reassemble it. This (hopefully) improved the typing experience. I also got some foam padding to reduce the vibration inside the casing, and some thick plasters (band-aids) to soften the impact of the stabilisers (pins in the big keys such as the spacebar and enter key).

It’s a whole thing. I definitely don’t know what I’m talking about. If you’re interested you can read all about it here. I used this Youtube guide by Tech Hyped as my primary reference, which uses the same Keychron K6 keyboard I was modifying.

This keyboard has what are called “hot-swappable” switches, meaning you can simply lever out the switches from the board and take everything apart completely (*nervous groan*).

The Process

There’s no way of getting started other than diving in, so that’s what I did. At first I really thought I would give up, especially when I took the first switch apart and a bunch of tiny pieces flew across the room.

But once I settled down into the labour of it, I realised that there was no rush. Nothing was riding on my success of failure besides my enjoyment of the tinkering. I put on my headphones and listened to The Hobbit audiobook as narrated by Andy Serkis (excellent, you should try it), and I just got lost in it. I worked my way through all sixty-something keys over about a week, probably spending about 6 hours in total on it.

I’m just coming to the end now. I don’t know the outcome of it yet, but I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter. I thoroughly enjoyed just sitting there and… fiddling, with fiddly things – the thing I usually hate so much.

The inside of a switch. Imagine painting every piece of over 60 switches with lubricant, then reassembling the pieces without getting lube everywhere. Yeah.

So many pieces! Aaaah.

Verdict: Pass the lube

So often we bang our heads against a wall, trying to find our way through and blaming ourselves, only to realise that we just had to find the path that’s right for us. I’ve always been jealous of how other people focused and relaxed when they do something simple repetitive. But I had been focusing on what other people spent their time on, rather than finding what relaxed me.

Depending on the outcome when I put everything back together, I’ll either be looking for some new things to try, or I’m going to need more keyboards.

Freeing Yourself From Should-Dos

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver

‘I want to do X, but I really should do Y.’ That might be the most stupid and unhelpful thought to ever flit through a person’s mind. We collect shoulds like parasites. I should read that book everyone says is worthy. I should start jogging even though I hate it. I should eat more salad so I live longer.

All of the above are examples of self denial, masquerading as attempts at self improvement. As Brianna Wiest says in 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think:

Recognize that anxiety stems from shame. It is the idea that who you are or what you are doing is “not right,” therefore eliciting a rush of energy designed to help you “fix” or change it. You’re suffering because there’s nothing you can fix to make that urgent, panicked feeling go away. It’s a mismanaged perception of who and how you are.

Rejecting a Culture of Self Denial

Learning, exercising and eating well are all vital to health. But there are many ways to do these things – and, crucially, a way of doing them that you would enjoy, that would nourish you.

Some people advise finishing all the half-read books on your shelf, to declutter your mind and demonstrate grit. The assumption being that you will inevitably grow if you force yourself to absorb material that doesn’t engage you.

Lists of Should Dos Converted to Want Too

A simpler and better solution is to remove those books from your life. Give them to somebody you suspect will actually enjoy them, or give them to charity. Now there are no books staring at you accusingly when you walk by.

Some of the books on my Books Log are half finished and then ejected; other books never make it to the log because I put them down almost immediately. Rejecting material that does nothing for you is not the same as rejecting material that challenges you.

Minimise the Necessity to Expend Willpower

If you hate salad, never eat it again. Blend some kale into a fruit smoothie and be done with it. If you need to get a nutrient into your body (art included), find a way that demands the least willpower, while minimising collateral damage.

We use these paths of least resistance with fussy children, but not with ourselves. We think we can will ourselves into becoming a person who craves a bag of lettuce for lunch every day. Because only the weak like to eat fries and cake; the strong eat War and Peace.

Here’s a little secret: you don’t actually want to become that joyless lettuce freak, which is why you haven’t become them already. What you actually want is to be you. So allow yourself.

Turning ‘Should-Dos’ into ‘Want-Tos’

  1. Identify things in your life that snag on your mind like thorns. Anything you’ve been putting off or causes low-level chronic stress.
  2. Realise that each of these things are desires or goals, twisted into a cudgel to beat yourself. Brainstorm an activity that you will enjoy that technically satisfies the goal. If it’s fundamentally unenjoyable, like going to the dentist, pair it with a reward.
  3. Try your solution. If it’s not fun enough to make you anticipate the next time, rethink and try again. Keep going until you’ve had fun and look forward to doing it again.
  4. (One day) Realise that enjoying yourself and being engaged and excited are not mutually exclusive from self improvement. You will not grow by contorting yourself into shapes that were never meant for you.

Learning through Reflective Journaling

I read a lot. I like learning and I like problems. But my biggest problem, and the lesson I’ve constently failed to learn, is that I forget almost everything. I’ve read whole shelves of books I couldn’t tell you a single thing about.

I don’t have the best memory in the world, but as memories go I think mine is pretty good. Yet I have this problem just like many other people. Simple aptitude for recall isn’t the problem. The problem is forgetting to think about your future self. It’s not being mindful of the fact that you are, despite your lofty estimations of yourself, an ape. You might be holding a macchiato, but you’re still an ape.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is actually benefit to forgetting most of everything you experience. Only a handful of things are worth keeping, namely those that might increase your chances of staying alive. As Matthew Walker explains in Why We Sleep, this process of pruning out the unimportant stuff is one of the crucial operations carried out when you sleep.

Using How Memory Works to Your Advantage

Despite every pop-sci documentary I’ve ever seen, human memory does not function like a computer hard drive. On a hard drive you can dump anything you like, in any format you like, with as much or little organisation as you choose, and the drive will faithfully store it all with equal fidelity.
Our brains aren’t like that at all. If you put crap in, you don’t even get crap out. You get nothing out at all. Because the human brain is an expert at filtering out crap – except advertising jingles, of course.

As James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, retaining semantic knowledge (facts and arguments and philosophies) requires structure. That means at least some form of processing of that information, and recitation. Turning it into a story that means something to you is a powerful tool used by champions of memory contests (they had a good section on it on the Memory episode of Netflix’s The Mind Explained).

You need more than the willpower to remember something. You also need to avoid overestimating your faculties. Countless times I’ve failed to consolidate my understanding of a concept, because it seemed so ridiculous that I would just forget something so important and useful. I would then promptly forget it, left with only the vague impression of having had known it.

My Reflective Journaling Setup
My Reflective Journaling Setup

My Note-Taking System

So I’ve decided to start fixing that. Finally.

I’ve adopted a method that incorporates two aids to good retention: recitation and storymaking. Inspired by David Sedaris, Austin Kleon and Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky’s Make Time, I’ve committed to a combination of stream-of-consciousness and reflective journaling:

  • A book of lists. I make a new list each day, in the style of Make Time: split into my daily highlight, my must-do tasks, and my might-do tasks.
  • Keeping a reflective logbook of noteworthy things from the previous day. They don’t have to be “important”, just noteworthy to me. Graduating my PhD program and having some great pancakes are both on the list.
  • Each morning I make an entry in a journal. This is the big one for me. I’ll do a full post on this separately, but it’s another thing I pinched from various other people (I came across it via Austin Kleon, but the concept is covered extensively by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: Morning Pages. It’s just a page a day.
  • I still keep a standard diary for stream of consciousness outlet, which I leave to whenever I feel the need.

Progress So Far

I’ve built this system over the last few months. I take no credit for it, it’s a mongrel of other people’s excellent ideas. It’s just my take on it. I do it all longhand, in different books that I keep close to hand. I also keep index cards on my desk to jot down fragments as they occur to me, to be written up in full the next day.

From all this, I can collate some ideas of what I want to work on creatively, and what I write on here. It’s not a comprehensive personal Wiki, but a system of highlights and triggers, to activate the right neural pathways that reinforce a memory. This means I can summon what I’ve been thinking about and learning recently and combine it in new ways.

I’ll also be using the system to generate my recommendations that will feature in my newsletter, once I get it off the ground.

The Power of Revision

The aspect that is easiest to overlook is the importance of revisiting what you’ve written. No tool will give you the ability to write something down once and then file it away forever, and still give you the benefit of better recall. The whole point is to generate a resource that you can continually immerse yourself in, like Sherlock Holmes’ Mind Palace, only… well, really it’s just a big pile of actual filing cabinets full of paper.

The point is that you’re extending your mind beyond the scope of the neurons inside your skull. I would argue that it’s not a second brain. This kind of note-taking system isn’t a knowledge bank itself, but rather a way of capturing proccessing-in-progress, in paper (or digital) form, rather than relying on your crap short-term memory.

I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll maintain, or how effective it is. But it’s at least a bit effective – this post wouldn’t be here otherwise.