Two Types of Work

All services require maintenance, but when you spend more time maintaining than growing, something is wrong.

— Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants

There are two types of work: growth work and maintenance work.

Growth work involves making new things. It can be something big (Living in Information, a new workshop) or small (this blog post.) In either case, growth work often follows a loose process:

  1. Capture a (vague! fleeting!) idea, often emergent while walking
  2. Hash out the idea (as an outline, by doodling on the iPad, working with an editor, etc.)
  3. Research
  4. Revise outline
  5. Draft
  6. Revise draft
  7. Revise draft
  8. Revise draft
  9. Publish
  10. Revise publication
  11. Promote
  12. Etc.
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Saying No

Saying “no” doesn’t come naturally to me. Whenever people ask me for favors, meetings, presentations, recommendations, etc., I often accede. I don’t like letting people down. I like being liked. Over time, I’ve realized it’s a pathology.

I feel a weird mix of excitement and dread when I get a request. Excitement to know people want my help and dread because deep down I know that I shouldn’t take on the ask — and I must let them know. So much easier to go along with it!

There’s also FOMO. Perhaps this presentation leads to a breakthrough concept, opens the door to a relationship with a new client, or whatever. It won’t be that much work, will it? I’m already 75% of the way there. Why not do it, just in case?

Like I said, a pathology.

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How I Take Notes

Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain how I take notes.

First, a caveat: my personal information ecosystem is always evolving. If you’re reading this over a year since I published it, and you don’t see any timestamped updates, this information is likely outdated. That said, I’ll share where things stand now.

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How I Manage ‘Thinking’ Time

Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. This is the first of the series.

Rather than start with a tool or method, I’ll address a question asked by Andrea Tanzi:

Why start here? Tools come and go, but time is a constant. It underlies everything else. ‘Thinking time,’ as Andrea put it, is an especially limited resource. There are so many demands on our attention!

By ‘thinking time’ I mean focused time — i.e., moments when I can advance my work, learn, and write without distraction. The aspiration: to move things along by entering a state of flow. (A good book on this is Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)

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My Personal Information Ecosystem

I love learning about how other people get things done. (It’s one of the motivations for my podcast.) In that spirit, I’ve decided to share how I work. It may come across as self-indulgent, but perhaps it can also give you ideas.

In February, I mentioned on Twitter that I was working on a post about my ‘production function.’ (Tyler Cowen’s wonderful phrase.) I asked what you’d like to know about my setup, and several folks replied with angles I hadn’t considered.

As I outlined what I wanted to cover, I realized there’s too much for a single entry. So, I’m breaking it down into several shorter posts, which I’m also planning to post as tweetstorms.

This is the first of these posts, which will serve as an index. As I write more, I’ll add them here, calling out emerging patterns. (And integrating your feedback, so please let me know what you’d like to learn about.)

Here’s what I plan to cover:

  • Tools and techniques for personal information management
  • Software and hardware for better thinking
  • Frameworks and approaches for better time management
  • Whatever you’d like me to explore (let me know!)

My personal information ecosystem is constantly evolving, so I expect this to be a ‘living’ post. I’ll edit it to reflect how things change. For now, stay tuned.

Posts in the series

Cover image: Detail from one of Benjamin Franklin’s virtue charts. Credit: Franklin’s Way.

Last updated: 2021-05-11

Possibilities for Greatness

I’m starting a new project. It’s exciting and a little scary. I’ve written before about the rush of energy I get from starting something new:

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

These paragraphs capture a key aspect of the beginning phase of projects, namely, the exciting release of energy. But they miss something just as important: how scary the beginning can be.

Where does the fear come from? I can name several aspects of the anxiety I feel right now. However, as I think about it, the fear comes down to a single word: insecurity.

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Conformism ↔ Independent-mindedness

From an insightful essay by Paul Graham:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.

[…]

There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

The essay delineates the distinctions between conformism and independent-mindedness and spells out some things you can do to develop independent thinking. (Mr. Graham is a fine thinker and writer; his essays are well worth your attention.)

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Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

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