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Wetware of writing and doing

Originally presented at Tools for Thought Rocks on October 29, 2021 (with video and timestamps). Below is an expanded text version of my presentation for anyone who prefers reading.

I talk often about my apps and their features, but rarely about how I use them day-to-day—partially to leave space for people to imagine their own workflows, but also because I didn't think it wouldn't be of interest to share mine. This changed after a conversation with pvh, who remarked that after reading the website for Launchlet and trying to play with the compose interface, it wasn't clear how all the parts came together until watching my tutorial videos—I found that interesting coming from someone who has plenty of experience with computer programming and its paradigms. It made me realize 1) that interfaces clearly communicating 'features' doesn't mean people appropriate them, 2) the importance of good affordances to help people go beyond merely 'using the app' to extending themselves in the process. The larger question to address here is: how can the environment better transmit what is possible so that those within it can take fuller advantage? It will likely take some time for me to find my own answers and implement them in projects, so for now, I feel motivated to do what is knowable and share more about how I use my apps to illuminate the wetware.

What I find myself 'doing' most of the time involves: making apps and websites; writing texts about personal experiences and interests; recording screencasts about programming; organizing online events; and generally working on personal projects. It all adds up, and to keep things from overwhelming me I practice a productivity trinity which can be summarized as:

  1. Capture everything: get ideas out of your head as soon as possible.
  2. Organize if needed: move it where you are likely to encounter it.
  3. Purge: do it or delete it as soon as possible.

The mix of details below might seem chaotic, but they all relate to these three points in some way.

One objective of Capture everything is to keep going: I avoid interruptions like checking out links people send me and do everything later; it helps to maintain focus on whatever has my attention. Making time to read articles or watch videos can be a challenge and often gets neglected, but in my experience it usually happens eventually and delaying consumption has the benefit of obsoleting some things before you get to it. When there's a lot of collecting from streams or timelines and placing into queues help batch the process of reading, watching, listening, and writing, it helps to have a place to put things.

Most of my queues are digital now (although at one point I did write and organize my life with small pieces of paper): Pocket is for reading because it syncs with my e-reader (to read without internet access, and with something closer to paper than a screen, and without the distractions of my computer or phone), and for checking out websites because I like to close all my browser tabs as soon as possible; 1Feedis for newsletters (as it interrupts my flow to read long text while checking e-mail), and for following Internet things with a timeline presentation; Joybox is for audiovisual media segmented with tags for listening, watching, and passive consumption; Kommit is for words and phrases that I want to learn from foreign languages; Launchlet is for shortcuts and removing friction from workflows; Emoji Log is for personal tracking and time-bound journaling, like books I read or recipes I cook, or more personal thoughts and monitoring emotions. For everything else, there's Hyperdraft, which is mostly reference-oriented and not time-bound—it functions as: dashboards of to-dos for dozens of projects; space to mix private and public writing; an environment that spans the entire arc of 'capture, brainstorm, organize, outline, draft, write, publish' that is on all my devices and local-first, thus minimizing discontinuities from needing to be in a specific place or not having internet access; writing queues my for various newsletters and a templating system for Ephemerata; quick jot-pads for when I'm not sure where to put something; and a convenient place for Ideas increment automatically when they are captured.

All these queues provide, on the one hand, a sense of space that I find relaxing because there is a place to put things, and on the other hand, an uneasiness about being overwhelmed as they are easy to neglect and intentionally out of sight; the serenity is stronger when you trust yourself to attend to them. How does one maintain balance and create healthy rhythms for processing these queues? Many of my strategies help me avoid being 'completist' and find reasons to purge things when there's a backlog: if I read until the halfway point and haven't found anything interesting, if the video doesn't hold my attention, if I haven't moved on it in weeks, if it's expired or irrelevant now, into the void it goes. It took me a while to realize that 'delete' can mean "I don't want to be reminded of this"; we have to train digital systems to not show things 'forever'. I try to prune my lists frequently in addition to actually doing things, but it's hard for me to repeat at specific intervals as life tends to get in the way: I've found it useful to observe how I feel and find the cadence that works for me—we are not machines. One rhythm I frequently engage in with enthusiasm is [[work digress cycle]].

I've been surprised at how this idea of queues helps me 'write without magic'. It feels like writing happens without great pain or earnestness, and I think of it reductively as "mostly just moving things around". Let's say there's 3% which is creative personal expression (that everyone has but in their own way), and 97% which is stuff that requires no talent, such as: capturing ideas as they occur, allowing details to passively collect over time, periodically perusing through the old to find potential connections to the new… Here the queues function like buckets collecting drips of water: some have zero drops, some have one, some have a few; eventually some have 'enough' or are overflowing and can be marked as prompts for finalizing, which for me implies taking a queue or list of items to sort, group, massage, tidy, and publish. It's easier than confronting a blank screen, or twiddling thumbs to figure out how to start, and showcases the power of Writing creates a space for 'the answer to go': with little effort, I find myself having lots to write about, unintimidated by the process of finishing. I think everyone has the necessary pieces to do this, but most people get stuck in their 97%, which is a tractable problem that can be encroached upon by finding tools and workflows that fit, making things simpler or perhaps effortless, and cultivating calm spaces to write and reason that are free from judgement.

Understanding the wetware is not always obvious and I'm still not sure of how it should be presented, be it in words or an interface. I hope that with plenty of examples of how I use my apps, it helps unveil how they can be leveraged to do more. In the future, I would hope to integrate an understanding of my own processes into the onboarding of my software so that it doesn't require more than the experience of using the app to feel empowered by all its possibilities. I might summarize this first exploration as 1) collect, organize, purge with lots of queues, 2) let time work in your favour, and 3) spend time on what motivates you.

P.S. Thanks to Jess Martin and Tools for Thought Rockscommunity for the invitation to present, and the prompt—this wouldn't exist if it wasn't for your concept of 'Workflow Walkthroughs' 🙏🏽.

P.P.S. For anyone who made it this far, please enjoy this short video of my old-time analog to-do dashboard.

Follow my journey on Twitter (or via the mailing list)

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