Tips

On Pinboard (and a Few Tips)

Over the years, I've heard a ton of great things about Pinboard, which advertises itself as a "bookmarking website for introverted people in a hurry" (which in turn describes me to a T). As an avid user of both Instapaper and Evernote though, I had a difficult time envisioning a place for Pinboard in my life.

My typical reading/archiving workflow has looked something like this for a while:

One Thing Well

There are a lot of apps in the world that are renowned for doing "one thing well." They're often seen as the best in their respective fields, because the developer focused on a single problem and simply nailed the hell out of it.

Why not apply the same principle to ourselves as artists?

After all, there are a ton of potential roadblocks when it comes to doing creative work, many of them psychological. Maybe you're trying to juggle too many projects at once. Maybe you've got so many ideas that you can't even take the first step with any of them because you're overthinking everything. At some point, you've probably allowed yourself to become distracted from your work, even despite your best efforts.

We've all been guilty of these things and more. I think it helps to focus on a single issue and really tackle that one thing until you're at the point where the only thing left to do is slightly tweak here and there. Pick a single project and aim for perfection in that one thing before even thinking about moving onto something else.

Perfection may not be achievable – or else nobody would need to be creative anymore – but your work will be better for trying. This is what all efficient craftspeople originally set out to do: eagerly master that one skill, honing it day-by-day until it becomes second nature.

Don't allow your work to become diluted by indecision and inaction. Forget distractions. Focus on the task at hand and block out the rest.

Do one thing well.

Some Options for Backing Up Your Google Reader Subscriptions

Well folks, this is it — the last weekend before Google reader shuts down for good. By now, you've probably already chosen a new RSS setup to get you through this tragic time, but you should still go ahead and back up your Google Reader data while you've still got a chance.

Luckily, there are several ways to do that:

Tips to Overcome Writer's Block

Writer's block is something we all face at some time or another. That frustrating feeling of having this desperate urge to write, but being unable to get the words out. Sometimes it's so bad we can't even think of a topic to write about! After banging our heads against the wall for a while and getting nowhere, we throw in the towel.

(Inevitably, we'll wake up in the middle of the night, suddenly struck by an idea that we must get out of our head immediately or else risk losing it. The human mind sometimes works in mysterious and beautiful ways.)

I've said this before, but I feel that I face this block more often than other writers. That may or may not be true, but try telling me that when I'm in the middle of an agonizing session of futility. I'll probably look at you like you're crazy.

Those magical moments when the words seem to flow effortlessly? They're rare. You can't just sit down with your writing tool of choice—whether that's a typewriter, a laptop, an iPad, or even just pen and paper—and expect the magic to happen. It's not realistic.

Sooner or later you're going to hit that wall, just like everyone else does.

So, how can we overcome this wall? After some trial and error, I've found some ideas that have worked for me, and I thought I'd share them with you guys. I don't claim to be an expert, but maybe this stuff will help you too. That's the goal, anyway.

Tip #1: Exercise

You might ask yourself, "What the heck is this guy on? Exercise? I'm trying to get some writing done, not break a sweat." But I'm completely serious here.

One reason I end up having writer's block sometimes is that my head is too full of information I've absorbed throughout the day. After skimming hundreds (if not thousands) of RSS posts and tweets, not to mention all the fantastic stuff people have been linking to, I find it difficult to focus on my own task at hand.

Our brains aren't really built to process such a river of information every day, and yet I and many others keep doing it. It's an information addiction I'm working to rid myself of.

When I need to clear my head of all that cruft, I simply step away from my laptop and go for a light jog around the neighborhood. Give it a try, it may work wonders for you. Preferably sans-iPhone, so that you're not tempted to put on music or a podcast or whatever. That would defeat the purpose of what we're trying to accomplish here.

During the jog, try not to think about all the stuff you need to get done, or the deadlines you're facing, or the work you failed to finish previously. None of that matters right now. Instead, focus on your breathing. Enjoy your surroundings. Wave at the neighbors. Smile.

By the time you're done, you might just feel more relaxed and have a clearer mind. And if you do, I bet that the words which seemed so far out of reach earlier will come to you more freely.

If exercise really isn't your thing, give meditation a try. You don't even have to leave the house or office. Shut off all distractions, find a comfortable place to sit up straight, close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and try to empty your thoughts of all worries.

Even if it doesn't solve the writer's block, you'll feel tons better.

Tip #2: Photography

Writers are creative thinkers. Whether we know it or not, this tends to translate to having a natural eye for photography. Maybe not true in all cases, but in my experience, some of the best writers I know can produce some incredible photos. These skills seem intertwined as far as I can tell.

So, when the part of your mind that controls word production gets a little worn out, try getting out a camera and taking some photos for a while. Find something you've seen a million times and find a new way to capture it, perhaps using a different perspective.

Engaging a different portion of your artistic side this way can be the spark that ignites your creativity.

It doesn't have to be a DSLR or anything. If you've got a smartphone, chances are you've got something decent to work with. Or maybe you've got an old disposable camera laying around somewhere. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one that's with you.

Tip #3: Writing Assignments

Rather than doing all the work of coming up with a topic to write about, allow someone else to take care of that part for you. Writing assignments are wonderful exercises that can help jump-start your brain and get the creative juices flowing. They can also be done as a warm-up before you get started on your own topic.

A good resource I've found for writing assignments has been over at First Today, Then Tomorrow. There, playwright and author Randy Murray puts up a new practice writing assignment once a week, and they've never failed to get me thinking. Great stuff.

Tip #4: Look to Other Writers for Inspiration

Most of us have writers that we look up to and respect. Chances are, they've written about something that has interested you, or else you probably wouldn't have become a fan in the first place.

If you're struggling to find a topic, get out a book or browse through some of your favorite blogs until you see something you can add some insight to. There's nothing wrong with expanding on an idea you didn't originally come up with. Writers borrow from one another all the time. It's a natural part of what we do and I daresay that the world would be a dreary place without the sharing and building upon of such ideas.

Tip #5: Write Something. Anything.

Yes, you read that right. Another way to overcome writer's block is...write something. Anything at all. You can write about the coffee you had this morning. You can make up a backstory about that cat you see wandering around the neighborhood every day. Write a letter to your kid that they'll read when they're older. Write about the delicious meal you just had.

Seriously, just write something. It doesn't matter what. There's no need to share it with anyone else, so don't worry too much about content or style.

Sometimes the most difficult thing about writing is simply getting started. We could make every excuse in the book before we've even begun. Don't defeat yourself that way. Once you've started, you've already started winning the battle. You may even notice your hands struggling to keep up with all the words trying to escape your head. It feels completely manic, but in a good way.

Every person, whether they know it or not, is living a life worth writing about. They just have to find those stories, however small, and connect the dots until a story emerges. It's kinda like weaving a tapesty but WAY simpler. Anyone can do it.

* * *

There you have it. Those are the techniques I've used to help me overcome my writer's block. I really do hope you'll find some use for these tips, or be inspired to put together a list of your own.

If you have a great technique not mentioned here, let me know! It's nice to get a peek into the minds of other people struggling with the same things I am.

iOS Tip: Adding Bookmarklets

If you're like me, you've built up a nice little collection of bookmarklets in your desktop web browser of choice (mine being Google Chrome). For those that don't already know, bookmarklets are essentially bookmarks made up of JavaScript that perform special actions when clicked, rather than taking you to a website.

Some examples of bookmarklets I use:

  • Several Instapaper bookmarklets, such as the one that reformats webpages in text-only form and even tries to compile all 'pages' of an article into a single readable page. I also have bookmarklets for each of the various Instapaper folders I've set up, allowing me to immediately save a webpage to its appropriate place and saving me the trouble of organzing my queue later.
  • The Amazon Affiliate Link bookmarklet created by Justin Blanton. If clicked on any Amazon item page, it converts the URL to an affiliate link right there in the address bar, making it easy to copy/paste elsewhere.
  • Paul Ford's fantastic new SavePublishing bookmarklet. Click this on any article and it will find the "tweetable" sentences, highlighting them in red and showing you a character-count on hover-over. Click the sentence of your choice and it will take you to a Compose Tweet screen with the quoted sentence followed by the article's URL. Very nifty for sharing articles easily.

While adding these bookmarklets to your desktop browser is a simple process—typically done by dragging a bookmarklet link from a webpage to the bookmarks bar—adding them to your iOS device is a bit more convoluted.

The easiest method is to simply sync bookmarks and bookmarklets via Safari and iCloud, but let's say you don't have that set up, or maybe you've come across a neat-sounding bookmarklet while on the go and you want to check it out without having to access your desktop/laptop first. These steps should help you out.

Note: The thing to keep in mind is that you need easy access to the JavaScript code for copying/pasting purposes. You can't simply tap-and-hold a bookmarklet link in Mobile Safari to access the code (the only option you get is 'Open' which doesn't help), so the bookmarklet creator needs to provide the code in plain text form so you can copy it. Some do, some don't.

To get started, open Mobile Safari to any webpage at all and tap the Share button on the bottom toolbar. Choose Bookmark from the list and then Save. There's no point trying to modify anything about this bookmark yet because it doesn't allow you to change the URL address until later.

Once you've got that dummy bookmark saved, go copy the code for the bookmarklet you're trying to create. As an example, here's the code for the Instapaper text formatter I mentioned above:

javascript:function iptxt(){var d=document;try{if(!d.body)throw(0);window.location='http://www.instapaper.com/text?u='+encodeURIComponent(d.location.href);}catch(e){alert('Please wait until the page has loaded.');}}iptxt();void(0)

Open your bookmarks list and tap the Edit button, then tap the dummy bookmark you created earlier. Remove the existing URL from the second line and paste the bookmarklet code there instead. It should look something like this:

bookmarklet.png

From here, you can feel free to rename the bookmarklet as desired or place it in a folder of your choosing. Whenever you're finished, tap Done on the keyboard first, then again on the bookmarks list when it takes you back there.

Now you've got a fully functional bookmarklet waiting to be used. If you want to try out the one I used in this example, go to any webpage (for best results, find a long article surrounded by clutter), then simply tap the bookmarklet from your bookmarks list and be amazed.

There are lots of great bookmarklets out there, now it's up to you to find them and put them to good use. Hopefully this little article helps you with that.

Simple Tip For Motivation: 'Encouragement.txt'

I often have a hard time staying motivated. It's something I struggle with constantly. Some examples:

  • I sometimes start an exercise routine and quit within two weeks because I'm not seeing results quickly enough.
  • After working at a job for a certain amount of time, I can become bored from the lack of challenges and turn into the guy from Office Space who works just hard enough not to get fired.
  • If a personal project is taking too long to complete (such as an extremely long essay), I might become frustrated and quit.

Other people would probably read these and ask, "What's so hard about that stuff? What's wrong with you?" The answer is, I don't know. I just know that I have a harder time maintaining a positive outlook than other people. I'm naturally pessimistic, which is one of my least favorite qualities about myself.

To combat this, I've started keeping a log of compliments given to me by other people. Let's call it 'Encouragement.txt'. This idea ties into yesterday's brief homage to the text file.

Anytime someone decides to give me some positive feedback on what I'm doing, I put it into this text file. When I'm feeling down, or my creative energies are depleted, or whenever I'm thinking about quitting, I reference the file. It's difficult to articulate how amazingly helpful this has been for me, and I encourage you to give it a try yourself.

Want an example from my file? Here's a compliment I got from someone recently that actually pertains to Unretrofied:

"I was reading your Drafts review then started to skim your blog. You've got a lot of really good stuff up there and I really like your style. Keep it up man, you could be the next Gruber (without the smugness and dicknose)."

As someone who has looked up to John Gruber for years now (and no, I don't think of him as having a dicknose, although that bit made me laugh), this simple compliment made my entire day. And that's exactly why I'm keeping it for later.

Evernote Tip: Display All Untagged Notes

If you're like me and save a lot of stuff to Evernote, you may forget to tag notes from time to time. You may also have rules set up in Gmail to auto-forward emails with specific keywords to your Evernote email address (something I do for any emails containing the word "receipt"). In the latter case, as far as I know, Evernote will not automatically add tags or place them in the appropriate notebook for you.

Every once in a great while, I like to go back through all of these untagged notes and tag them. I'm just OCD that way. If you'd like to do the same, instead of scrolling through your list looking for anything with blank space under the 'Tags' heading, type this into the search bar:

-tag:*

The asterisk (*) acts as a wildcard, and forces Evernote to display every single note that hasn't been tagged yet. You could also use an actual tag in place of the asterisk if you want, like so:

-tag:writing

-tag:"gift ideas"

I don't really do this myself, because it's only useful in instances where you're looking for every note outside of the search term, and I can't think of a time I've ever needed to do that. Anyway, in case you were wondering, I used quotes in the second example because that tag is comprised of two words, and without the quotes to specify the exact tag, Evernote won't know what you're talking about.

While we're talking about search, you can also type something without the minus symbol (-) to find all things contained within that tag, i.e.:

tag:restaurants

If you have a ton of tags like I do, this will save you the trouble of scrolling through your entire tags list and clicking the correct one.

Evernote's search tool is pretty powerful, and an essential tool for power users and I'll probably write more about its functions in the future.

'Implementing Smart App Banners'

Transient

Helpful tip by David Smith, showing web developers how to show an iAd-style banner at the top of their mobile sites that point to their companion app, rather than using a popup message that has to be dismissed.

That’s it. Anyone visiting your site will now get this clean and context aware banner. If you are an app developer please take the 2 minutes needed to implement this. Gaudy popups promoting your app were detestable before but are now downright inexcusable.

Hopefully more companies will start using this method of advertising and quit doing this:

Transient

Useful Spotify Tip

My wife and I share a Spotify account. Most of the time we have no problem with this setup, unless we're both trying to stream at the same time. Typically it goes like this:

  • I'm streaming music at work on my desktop machine.
  • She's at home or running errands, and decides to stream some music on her iPhone.
  • My Spotify suddenly stops playing without warning, and if I open the window to see what's going on, I see a message at the top stating that my account is being used elsewhere.
  • I can start playing my music again to wrestle control back, which will cut off her streaming, but there's a chance she's playing something that helps calm our son down when he starts throwing a fit in his car seat (yes, he somehow already has music preferences at 9 months of age) and it just feels mean besides. She didn't know I was in the middle of listening to anything, which is probably by design since Spotify likely doesn't want people sharing like this.

The solution to all of this? Offline mode.

On my work PC, I have certain playlists toggled to be available offline, which tells Spotify to download local copies of tracks within (or added to) those playlists. Whenever I'm listening to something and my wife takes control of the account, I can simply switch to Offline Mode and continue listening without any conflicts between devices.

Presumably, the same would be true of having her mark certain playlists as available offline from her iPhone, but her phone is currently full of photos and cannot download tracks from Spotify so we haven't had a chance to test it yet.

Without offline mode, we would probably just pay for two different accounts, but instead we're able to save $10/mo and life is good. Give it a shot!