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Stephen L. (Reviewer)
From the 14th to the 17th century European culture experienced an explosion of art, science, philosophy, and literature that we call the Renaissance. Apprentices flocked to the studios of masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus, William Byrd, and Hieronymus Bosch to observe and learn about new techniques and theories, and those apprentices sometimes became masters themselves. Today, we use the term “Renaissance Man” to describe someone who has mastered multiple areas of accomplishment (that’s a “polymath” for you vocabulary mavens out there) and such people are as admired now as they were five centuries ago. One modern Renaissance Man is artist, inventor, innovator, and author Dave Seah, who shares his experience with anyone who joins him at his virtual studio. We stopped by there the other day to ask a few questions.
UV: You use an interesting term to describe how you work these days: “structured procrastination.” How does that help you become more productive?
I can’t take credit for coining the term; John Perry [http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/] wrote an amusing essay on the idea and that helped place my prior notions of “writing about what catches my eye” and “gathering productive results that happen when they happen” into a general methodology.
The great insight about structured procrastination is that people like me are already productive, just not “on purpose” or in a predictable fashion. Productivity is often thought of in terms of production line efficiency “A then B then C”, with optimizations applied to reducing cost/time and maintaining quality. While it is possible for me to be disciplined to focus on one critical task at a time, it is not how I produce my best work because the production line mentality is an inefficient use of my pattern-connecting brain. Sticking to the production line approach is particularly draining if I am working by myself; in fact, the only way I can be disciplined about my work is if I know other people in the room are depending on me, but I also find it extremely draining and can not maintain it for more than two weeks before crashing. So instead of applying production line metrics, I think of what I do as having a “fruit farm” approach. In other words, I “gather” my productive output as it ripens, rather than forcing things through a factory production line on schedule. At the end of the day, there’s a basket full of goods. This is very compatible with what John Perry describes in his essay and book on Structured Procrastination.
My fruit farm approach is more suitable, I think, for creative work that involves projects that are largely about conquering uncertainty and discovering ways to do things. The production line approach is far more suitable for already-known tasks that have been solved. By purposefully adopting a “structured procrastination” approach, I’ve given myself permission to work to my own standards and strength; feeling good about what one is doing is a big part of being productive too!
UV: You’ve created some great tools to help keep people organized, like calendars, chart templates, and things that keep people on track when it comes to due dates, goals, and tasks. What tools do you use regularly, every day?
If you’re asking about which of my own creations I use daily, the answer varies depending on the type of work I’m doing. The various tools I’ve made available tend to be related to goals, insight discovery, diagnostic task tracking, or short-term planning of multiple goal-related tasks. At the moment, I’ve reduced my project load to the point where I don’t have to juggle as many things, so I have not been doing regular daily planning due to a big client project taking my main focus. This is not an ideal situation, but now that I have a better sense of what I need to do to maintain progress on my own goals as well I have some new approaches to incorporate into a new daily tool. The tools that are available on my site all follow the pattern of, “I made them as I needed them”; I encourage people to use the parts that work for them in that manner as well.
There are other tools, however, that I use everyday. There are three essential task-related contexts I actively maintain:
1) The “cloud of things I want to do”, which is a giant pile of things that are important to me in one way or another, and are accessible in one place. That place is currently Trello.
2) The “things I want to do today”, which is usually just a simple list written down on an index card and placed in a stand on my desk. Sometimes it’s a sheet of Emergent Task Planner (ETP). Sometimes it’s an ETP I draw on a piece of blank paper. Sometimes it’s a virtual “sticky note” on one of my computers.
3) The “recipes” that describe what I’m going to do, in order, so I don’t have to think about it. This helps me get unstuck while maintaining a reference point of what I’m doing. This is usually written on the same virtual sticky note that has my to-do list if the task is simple enough. For complex tasks, I’ll write an essay about it and save the file in the same context of the work. For example, when I had to write an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system for a video game-like educational project, I had to do quite a lot of explorative writing to just get my head around where to start.
It’s important that I know what kind of thinking I’m doing at a given time, and also when NOT to think in a certain way. Sometimes thinking just gets in the way, so having the three contexts above helps me keep my mental modalities disciplined and productive.
UV: The “Reading” section of your blog has reviews and commentary about books and articles that you’ve found interesting or helpful. How much time do you spend reading every week?
I don’t read many books these days, though I keep buying them. I do spend quite a bit of time scanning articles of interest to me, saving the good ones into a DropBox folder. I haven’t measured the time, but I’d guess I spend at least a few hours a day reading stuff online or researching ideas that pop into my head.
UV: Have you ever measured your own personal reading speed, or spent time trying to improve the way that you read, absorb, and remember information?
I read pretty fast already, though I’m a shallow reader and don’t retain more than the ideas that strike me. Those are incorporated into my world view, and I usually remember just enough to be able to find the source again. If it’s really important to me, then I write a blog post about it. That’s how my blog got started, actually! I really need to get back into that habit, because I miss it.
Absorbing information and remembering it is a huge preoccupation. My memory is rather weak and doesn’t handle arbitrary multivariate data relationships well, so I have to spend a lot of time formatting information so I can more easily process material by intent, guiding principle, clear actions and expected results; the vast bulk of information is usually written and structured quite poorly by these standards. So, I rewrite what I’m learning into my own documentation, which helps me remember.
UV: You’ve got goals planned for 2024 in all six of your areas of interest: video game development, illustration, composition, software tools, working with your hands, and developing a self-sustaining business. How are you keeping track of all of that?
It’s a new thing I’m trying, so I don’t have a system yet.
At the moment, the priorities on my mind are the self-sustaining business because when that works, my time to work on the other projects should open up in theory. I am also getting one of the goals for “free” because some related client work is giving me the excuse to work on it. However,, my attempt to discipline myself to do the business and the paying work first has had the opposite effect on my overall productivity. I think I need the variety of making progress in ALL my goals to feel fulfilled.
What’s holding it together right now are the monthly reviews I do as part of my Groundhog Day Resolutions, which forces me to review what I’ve been doing. Because of this, I have a sense of how the projects are progressing on a monthly basis, but I haven’t figured out how to force myself to work on them (see structured procrastination, again). I also use my website to store related information for each of the projects so I can collect all related work and documentation in one place, and pick up again later. The Woodworking Lab Notebook is a good example of this for the “making things” goal, and the GitHub repository for my video game project is helpful too.
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