Build a Ramp

A RampThere are two things that every workable organization system promotes. The first is taking regular time to go over what you’re doing, such as a daily review. The second is to build your infrastructure (tools, habits, environment) in such a way that doing the right work is also the easiest path.

There are infinite variations of the latter, but it’s familiar to all of us in ideas as simple as “If you don’t want to eat ice cream, then don’t keep ice cream in the house.” It can easily be unpacked into tools like universal capture or inbox zero or whatever. The specifics are not very important but the idea absolutely is.

As important as this is when you’re trying to build your overall system, it’s also something to bear in mind when you’re trying to get specific tasks done. Sometimes you’ll find yourself with a big hair all of a task in your to do list that you’re just getting no traction on. Maybe it’s too big, or too scary, or too messy – whatever the reason, it’s just not moving and you need to do something about it1.

In those situations, I like to build a ramp.

That means I add a new task to my list whose purpose is to make it easier for me to address the hairball. The ramp’s purpose is not to solve the hairball problem, or even to work on it directly, but rather to address the things that are giving me the opportunity to not work on the hairball.

Simple ramp tasks might include things like “Schedule an appointment on myself to break down the hairball”,“Create initial hairball checklist”, “Create Dropbox folder for hairball” or even silly things like “Create a cool codename for hairball”2.

The right ramp for the situation depends on the reasons that I’m not making any movement on the problem. That’s important because while the ramp task itself should be helpful, the process of thinking through what I need to do to unfamiliar myself is invaluable. Especially when a hairball has sat on my list long enough that its inertia is more of a barrier to motion than anything intrinsic to the task.

It’s a simple technique, and you won’t need it in every situation. But the next time you find yourself staring at something you know you need to do but just aren’t, see if there’s a task you can pick up to build a ramp for that big task, so it maybe starts rolling on its own.

  1. GTD nerds will, of course, suggest that the right answer is to break it down into smaller, actionable steps. That’s good advice, and when it works, it’s another way to build a ramp, since the first action is (hopefully) much easier than the task a whole. Unfortunately, some tasks – especially hairy ones – can resist this. Sometimes the it’s the very task of breaking the hairball down that is daunting! In this situations, then that is what you build a ramp to. ↩︎
  2. Careful with these though. Start doing enough tangential tasks and sooner or later you’ll find you’re shaving a yak. ↩︎

Why Write on the iPad?

This new keyboard configuration is comfortable enough that I set it up and had been doing my morning reading for 10 minutes before I realized I had not actually turned on the keyboard. That’s probably a good sign regarding how comfortable I find it.

It’s on now, of course, and I am thinking a little bit about the implicit question raised by this setup. I have a very nice laptop. It is unquestionably more capable than my iPad for a variety of tasks. It is also reasonably small and portable, enough so that it’s not that much bigger than iPad plus keyboard. So why in the world do I want to write on the iPad?

There’s a question behind the question, which is closer to ‘why have an iPad at all?’, and it’s a fair one, but also one I’ll handwave a little. Certainly, there are practical concerns – probability and battery life are both better – but they are not such overwhelming differences as to make the situation clear cut. At it’s heart the answer is simpler than that: I enjoy my iPad, and I consider that sufficient. The combination of flexibility, simplicity and power delight me, and I like the tablet form factor a lot.1.

But even with that, why write? The device well designed for a host of activities (games, videos, reading) but the fact that I need to buy a keyboard rig kind of indicates that’s not really its focus.

For me, that is exactly the trick of it. The limitations of the form play to exactly what I want.

Here’s the thing: if you are doing something on an iPad, then that is the thing you are doing. Multitasking expands that a bit, so you might be doing two things, but that’s got constraints, and it’s about as far as you’re going to push it.

In contrast, were I to go to my desktop right now, I have more than a dozen apps open, plus a number of passive utilities that occasionally need attention. It is an entirely different world, and when I need to frequently context shift, then the computer makes that very easy. During the workday, when I need to stay on top of several streams, that’s fantastic.

However, when I’m doing work where I need to maintain focus, it’s a problem. It’s too easy for me to look over at another window and see what’s up on twitter, or look something up, or check slack or anything else. Now, this problem is not unique to me. The negative impact of distractions and multi-tasking are pretty well documented at this point. But I, personally, am very sensitive to them. Again, this is great when that’s what I need to be doing, but it’s a real problem in other situations.

This concern is what turns the iPad’s limitations into advantages for me. It is a magnificent tool for doing one thing at a time, and when it comes time to write (or do similar work), then the amount of disruption caused by context switching provides the resistance I need to keep me on task.2I think this is a pretty common situation. There’s a reason that so many writing apps offer a ‘distraction free” sort of interface, and it has a lot to do with users like me.

An Alphasmart Neo, in all it’s technological glory.

(This is an alphasmart Neo. It’s what “distraction free writing” used to look like)

  1. Enough so that, yes, I have very seriously considered a Microsoft Surface Pro. They seem magnificent, and while Apple is kind of puttering along with their laptop offerings, Microsoft continues to do interesting things. For now, I’m not ready to make the switch, and humorously, price is part of the concern. Macs aren’t cheap, but getting a surface with enough RAM than I would not hate it constantly is pretty darn speedy too. If I hit enough of a windfall someday to experiment, I may yet try (or try something like a Yoga) but I’m not there right now. ↩︎
  2. I still have my Alphasmart Dana and Neo in the closet. They are pretty much a keyboard and a small electronic screen that can do NOTHING but type text into memory, then dump it back out later. If I ever need to seriously cut myself off from the world, turn off my phone and just go make words, then I would pack a notebook and the Neo. ↩︎

New iPad Configuration

I am a true believer in the iPad. I bought in on the first generation and have steadily upgraded as it has improved. At the moment, I’m writing this on a 9.7″ pro, which is amazing enough that I didn’t need to jump immediately to the 10.5″ (which is also amazing) but odds are good I’ll upgrade again when the next generation comes out. I find them to be powerful, magical devices, and it breaks my heart that I can’t really get away with using one as my all-the-time computer (that’s a whole topic of its own).

Critically, I have also been using them with keyboards since day 1. That was a bit heretical at the time, but for me, the idea of a super light writing machine was too much to resist. Over the years I have probably tried about 20 different keyboard solutions to greater and lesser success. I had hoped the new proprietary connector would really improve my options with the pro line, but that didn’t happen. If you want a keyboard case that uses it then you either need an apple Smart Cover (which is a great case but compromised keyboard) or a Logitech case (which has *great* keys and a place to put the Pencil, but also roughly quadruples the heft of the Ipad) and neither is really an exceptional option.

Now, back in the very early days of things, my solution was to carry around an apple keyboard and a stand. I had a nice case for it it, and it was super comfortable (they had great keys, and ran on batteries, which was convenient) and that was great, but a little awkward because the shape of the keyboard’s battery well made it a little thick. These days, apple keyboards are much slimmer, and I was intrigued when I saw a really neat looking case from Studio Neat, the canopy. It wrapped tidily around the newly keyboard, and unfolded with a space to prop up your ipad. I loved the idea, but could not quite justify the then-$50 price tag.

Thankfully, isn’t he apple accessories market, it does not take a lot of time for the knockoffs to show up, and when Fintie (who’s stuff I have had a lot of decent experience with) offered something similar on on amazon for $16, I grabbed it. I’ve been very happy I did.

My setup now looks like this:

And it’s delightful to write on. If you dig the ipad as a writing machine (and you should) then being able to go full keyboard is a joy. But the most critical benefit is when I’m not using it.

See, I still keep it in the apple keyboard cover, because it’s a very good cover and when I need a keyboard to do something quick and simple, like respond on slack or post a tweet, it’s all the keyboard I need. The rest of the time it’s light enough that I can use the ipad as a reader or game device or whatever else Steve Jobs intended. But since the keyboard is slim and light enough to casually toss into my bag, it means that when I’m going to sit down and crank out more than a few words, it’s trivial to pull it out and set up for serious business.

This excites me because historically keyboards have demanded a tradeoff between the ipad as a writing device and everything else. Keyboard covers are heavy or awkward and interfere with a lot of the “it’s just magic” ipad use cases.

Edit: Oh, one other benefit which seems like a small thing but it actually kind of amazing?

Orientation is no longer a thing I am bound to:

I honestly don’t know how big a deal this is or isn’t yet, because I am so trained to work in landscape, that I’m not even sure what it’s going to feel like to work in portrait mode, but I admit the prospect of having it be a little more paper-like in profile is pretty intriguing, if only as an option.

Setting Up The Space

I have gotten annoyed by how much of my writing is explicitly tied to Google+ or Twitter, where it is guaranteed that everything gets lost quickly, and its state is really in the hands of people whose priorities are not mine.   The obvious answer seemed to be some manner of microblogging, and looking into what the options seemed to be:

  1. Pay too much for a account
  2. Set up a simple (like Jekyll or Hugo-driven) static site.
  3. Pare down WordPress.

I was leaning most strongly to #2 because the learning and technical challenge part of it is strongly appealing, but I realized that chasing the tech was more distracting than focusing.  Wordpress has the advantage that it is well tested and just works.  If I really want to be throwing the words somewhere, then the right answer was the one that minimized friction.  And since I’m already paying for a Lightsail instance, I could set this up at no extra cost.

So, this is the start of an experiment. We’ll see how it goes.