The Art of Letter Writing Is Dead (And Other Concerns)

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A reminder from webcomic xkcd, people have always feared that technology is “ruining” things. We can lament the “pace of change” or we can develop the skills to manage it, whether it’s the telegraph or Twitter.

Read the entire comic, which features excerpts of people complaining about the “pace of modern life” for the past 150 years.

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Austin Kleon: How To Be a “Scenius”

By Austin Kleon

By Austin Kleon

Writer and artist Austin Kleon, of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work! fame, is a big supporter of creatives that can contribute to an artistic community as opposed creating in their own vacuum. In FastCo Create, he borrows the term “scenius” from the musician Brian Eno to encourage artists to change their end goal from being a genius to being a creative contributor:

Kleon cautions against the artistic myth of the lone genius pounding away in a garret somewhere…. He created his own scenius online. Kleon says, “I think what has been the most remarkable in my career is that I’ve never been part of a geographical scene. I didn’t move to New York after college. I didn’t move to L.A. I moved to Cleveland, and there’s not a whole lot of a scene there. But what I did have was the Internet, and I became part of a scenius by putting my work out there. I started blogging in 2005, and back then, we were all connected, we just didn’t have social media in the same way as we do now. You’d just post things to your blog and people would send you comments or emails and you’d slowly find people as they stumbled across your work. When I did work I really liked and put it online, it attracted the people I wanted to meet. For me, being online, that was my scenius. That was my moving to New York in the ’70s. Or Paris in the ’20s.”

Kleon notes that you don’t have to be in the same medium as the people in your scenius. In fact, it helps if you’re not. He says since moving to Austin, he’s fallen in with musicians and filmmakers in addition to writers and artists, and those relationships have informed his work.

The key to being a scenius is to create something every single day. A constant stream of creative outpout ensures that you remain a vital part of a creative community. As Kleon told 99U in an interview:

We all get 24 hours. No one gets more time. Sure, you might have your job, you might have a kid, you might have a family—I had all of those things when I was writing my first book—but when you get ruthless about what you really want to do, there are so many gaps. So many little spaces in the day where you can find the time….

It happens a lot of in creative work that you finish a project and you don’t know what to do next. It can be a bit disconcerting. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have a daily practice that you do no matter what you are working on.

Your work, no matter what it is, matters. When you put it out there every day for your creative scene to absorb and consume, you cultivate your own brand and the community in tandem. That’s what being a scenius is all about.


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Achieve Goals By Gamifying Them

Benoît Bossy

Illustration by Behance member Benoît Bossy

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests the secret to successfully achieving goals is working up to them level by level, video game style. The idea is that you make incremental changes to your existing behavior over a period of time, pausing along the way to master each level before progressing to the next. He took this approach to losing weight:

Like a video game, the way to changing your health habits is by starting out at the first level, and only going to the next level after you’ve beaten the one before that. The problem is that most people start at Level 10 and fail, and wonder what happened. Most of us want to skip several levels, but we’re just not ready.

So the secret is to start at Level 1, and only advance once you’re done with that level. One level at a time, you’ll master the game of losing weight and getting healthy….

Level 1

1. Start walking just for a few minutes every day.
2. Reduce your eating by a little bit. A very little bit.

Level 2

[D]on’t go to this level until you’ve had a streak of seven days of doing Level 1.

1. Walk every day for a few minutes more. If you’ve been going around the block twice, make it three times. Or add 5 minutes to your walking.
2. Eat a little less than in the previous level. Just a little less — not really noticeable.

Level 3

If you’ve successfully done Level 2 for another week, you’re ready to add more:

1. Walk a little more.
2. Eat/drink less of something that’s empty calories — less soda, sugar, bread, pastries, sweet coffee drink, chips, cookies, pizza. Don’t drop any of these completely, just eat less of it.

And so on. Minor tweaks collectively add up to major changes. The trick is having the patience and diligence to stick with those small shifts and implement them week after week until you’ve achieved your ultimate goal. To stay motivated and track your progress, try using a goal-centered app like, LittleBit, or or a more analogue system like Jake Lodwick’s Standards self-management technique.

There’s no bonus round in real life, so make the one you have count.


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How to Deal When You’re Disappointed In Yourself

By Burnt Toast Creative

By Burnt Toast Creative

Creatives are no stranger to experiencing crushing disappointment. No matter your medium, it’s easy to equate your work with yourself, since your product is a reflection of your inner humanhood. Whenever you’re disappointed in something you’ve produced, or else your failure to actually produce that thing, that feeling of frustration may bleed into general dissatisfaction with yourself as a whole.

Of course, self-disappointment does nothing but further quash your motivation and productivity. If you feel like what you create is worthless or falls frustratingly short, you lose your inspiration to create anything at all. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits offers a few poignant suggestions for overcoming this feeling of not living up to your own standards, including:

See the Greatness of the Present

Let’s turn from the self we haven’t been, to the self we have been. This self might have “failed” at X, but it has also succeeded in lots of other ways. This self has tried. It has gotten a lot done. It’s not perfect, but it has good intentions. This self has been the best it can be, even if that means imperfection. This self has cared, has loved, has strived for better, has made an effort, has wanted the best for others. Not always, but it has. This self deserves that kind of recognition, and love for being the best self it can be….

Work with Curiosity

[G]oing forward, let’s practice tossing out our expectations of how we’re going to do today (and in life in general), and instead adopt an attitude of curiosity. We don’t know how we’re going to do at work, or in our relationships, or with our personal habits. We can’t know. So let’s find out: what will today be like? How will it go?

Be curious, in an attitude of not-knowingness.

It’s fun to find out things!

Yes, expectations will come up for us, and we will fail to live up to them, and we will feel frustration and disappointment again. This will happen, and this too will be a bit disappointing, because we want to be perfect at being curious and present. We’ll have to repeat the process when we notice this happening. That’s OK. That’s how it works — constantly renewing, never done.

But as we get better at this, I promise, we’ll learn to see things with a new curiosity, with a gratitude for every moment that we meet, and with a more loving and kind view of constantly failing but constantly striving selves. These selves are wonderful, and that realization is worth the ever-constant journey.

This combination of mindfulness, self-compassion, and curiosity enables you to move forward in your creative process and continue thinking and making. To take it one step further, you can dig out of a self-disappointment hole completely, as you use the above tactics, by removing direct internal fault-finding from the equation. As Janet Choi comments on what psychologist Ethan Kross has found, avoiding the first person, and addressing yourself as “you” instead, can have powerful positive consequences in silencing that inner critic:

When you get out of “me,” “myself,” and “I,” you mentally gain distance from yourself and get out of your own head. Much like you can gain perspective on a piece of art by stepping back a few feet, you can gain added insight on your thought process by putting some mental distance between your present mindset and your typical nervous, anxious self.

As you’re focusing, per Babauta, on thinking about your next project with a sense of possibility and openness, do so by asking yourself, “Who are you most excited to talk to about this piece?” or suggesting in your head, “You should carve out an hour tomorrow morning to work on this first thing, while you’re fresh.”

Just as you require multiple artistic implements at your disposal to complete a creative project, you need a variety of self-help techniques in your toolkit to conquer inner disappointment.


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When You Should Design “Badly” On Purpose

By Yen Divinagracia

By Yen Divinagracia

As a talented creative, you probably shudder at the thought of purposely designing something badly. Why would you possibly do such a thing, other than out of passive aggressiveness towards an infuriating client? (Bad idea.) UX content strategist Jerry Chao suggests that purposely designing badly can be a great tactic for conquering creative block:

There’s a big difference between having no good ideas, and no ideas at all. Chances are, the more bad ideas you have, the more pressure you apply to come up with good ideas. In these cases, the best way to beat designer’s block is to get all the bad ideas out of your system.

Try designing a mockup in which you make all the wrong decisions on purpose. You may find it strangely productive.

For starters, you’re exercising your design muscles a lot more than just staring at a blank screen: designing badly is better than not designing at all. On a deeper level, designing a purposefully bad mockup forces you to think critically on the same topics, but from a different perspective. If you can figure out the worst place to stick a call-to-action, for example, that will shed some light on the best place. This kind of productive distraction allows you to think about solutions without actually thinking about them.

This process uses the same mental muscles as when an editor considers a piece of writing by placing it upside down or backwards, forcing him- or herself to focus on the bare bones of the work: paragraph structure, word choice, syntax. The technique makes it impossible to glaze over while reading, and can surface interesting patterns or qualities of the work.

Coming at a project from an intentionally awkward angle can offer a refreshing new viewpoint that affords that much-anticipated creative breakthrough. Just don’t publish your bad-on-purpose project to your portfolio–at least without an explanation of the exercise.


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Use The Right Work Tool For The Right Purpose


No matter your field, your communication style, or your organizational habits, you’re likely bound to the holy quartet of organizational work tools: email, conference call, chat, and calendar. On Blinkist’s blog Page 19, Caitlin Schiller diagnoses a lot of the wasted time and unproductiveness that plagues the modern working world as misuse of said work tools. Consider the common problems of workplace chat that likely plague you, as they do all modern professionals at one time or another:

The main problem with office chat is that people feel freer to write off-the-cuff questions because they’re not technically interrupting—the recipient can still choose whether or not to respond. The thing is, we’re reactive creatures, and we feel that we need to stop what we’re doing and attend to the people who ping us. Even though your intention with getting in touch by chat is to be unobtrusive, you have little control over whether your colleague’s work is interrupted. If she sees a message notification, chances are she’ll look. Even if she doesn’t respond outright, a portion of her focus will now be diverted by your remark or question. In general, chat should only be used for quick questions that are keeping you from moving forward with your work, or to set up a time with a co-worker to talk through a larger issue. Anything else, put in an email so you’re not disturbing your colleagues.

When in doubt, only chat if you would want to be chatted. The caveat, of course, is that, best practices aside, everyone has slightly different preferences and affinities when it comes to work tools. So: ask the handful of people with whom you work most closely what their specific inclinations are when it comes to using chat, and also email, phone call, or calendar invites, so you can maximize your collective productivity. One person may prefer that you email them even with yes/no questions rather than interrupt their workflow with a drive-by. Another may want to untangle a project snafu together over chat rather than phone so that there’s a written record he or she can refer back to later. For most creatives, especially when it comes to work tools, getting sh*t done is a team sport and there’s no one-size-fits-all uniform.


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Screw Inbox Zero: Here’s a Better Plan


There’s never enough time. There never will be enough time. Time management is a doomed battle, especially for creatives who are constantly juggling a variety of projects. 

In an article on Quartz, writer and psychologist Tony Crabbe describes how our modern obsession with time management grew out of the Industrial Revolution, when factories needed to coordinate hundreds of people’s shifts in synchronicity. That tidal shift from the concept of task management to time management is responsible for what has today become a monumental issue: We are all way too busy, scrambling to get way too much done, in an ultimately futile effort to clear our inboxes and complete our to-do lists often to the detriment of deeper, more meaningful output:

[W]hen we complete more tasks, all that happens is more appear to take their place—send more emails, get more replies. In essence, if we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don’t get it all done—we just become busier…. When we scatter our attention across a thousand micro-activities, we prevent ourselves from engaging deeply or thinking properly….

Research by Microsoft, for example, suggests that 77% of UK workers feel they have had a productive day if they have emptied their inbox. It constantly horrifies me to see the number of blogs and books which focus on the goal of getting to an empty inbox or zero tasks, as if either achievement was worthwhile. No business or life was changed by an empty inbox.

Here’s a (not “the”, but “a”) solution: first, stop measuring your personal success or productivity by the number of emails that languish in your inbox. Accept the discomfort that comes from letting some messages go unanswered for longer than usual.

Next, consciously carve out time every single day (i.e., ironically, put it on your calendar) to X out of your Outlook or Gmail, turn your phone on silent and put it in your pocket or face down on your desk, and remove any visible clocks or timekeepers from the vicinity. Luxuriate in the absence of time-tracking, and just immerse yourself in the deep creative, contemplative thinking that can’t happen when you’re even subconsciously, subtly aware of how many minutes have gone by. By doing so, you’re taking back the power to manage your actual work, not your time.

We can’t change the basic unwritten code of how the modern working world operates. At least for the time being, the email inbox and other digital message repositories (project management software, IMs, texts, Twitter DMs) hold us accountable based on a temporal structure. You wouldn’t be a responsible working adult if you just decided to answer only the emails you felt like answering, whenever, based on your level of creative inspiration. But you can create a functional balance between task management and time management that’s short of the incorrectly-hallowed inbox zero. Take back your tasks, and in so doing you’ll take back your time.


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Great Work Engages All Five Senses

By Tony Zagoraios, Stavros Kypraios, and Georgios Papaioannou

By Tony Zagoraios, Stavros Kypraios, and Georgios Papaioannou

If you want to heighten the experience of your work, you need to appeal to more than just one of the five senses. Without realizing it, we tend to only cater to one of our senses in our work—for example, designers or web developers who focus on sight. Abstract visual artist Devon Sioui explains how incorporating even just one more sensation can change the overall experience:  

My sister-in-law Faye [Harnest] is an author, poet, and braille transcriber. She always had this idea to incorporate braille in a visual way with paintings and texture… She’ll punch her poem in a braille machine on acetate and from there we will attach it to the canvas. Then there is a lot of paint layering overtop and incorporating the edges so it doesn’t look like it’s taped on… [we want] people to come [and] explore the paintings by touch… because you don’t ever really get to do that.

By engaging the sense of touch along with sight, Sioui and Harnest are able to enhance the overall artwork experience for both themselves and the audience. Besides visually taking in the dynamic colors and composition, the artwork takes one way the audience experiences the world around them and integrates it into another, heightening the senses.

Industrial designer Jinsop Lee started evaluating his life experiences based on senses by creating a graph with a scale from one to ten along the vertical axis and the five senses along the horizontal. Every time he had a memorable experience, he recorded it like a five senses diary. He found that the best experiences engaged more senses on a higher level than others easily forgotten. Once he was aware of what made for the best experiences, he began appealing to more senses within his design work. Lee challenges us to incorporate as many senses as possible to make any experience more memorable:  

Now in the middle of all this five senses work, I suddenly remembered the solar-powered clocks projectfrom my youth. And I realized this theory also explains why Chris’ clock is so much better than mine. You see, my clock only focuses on sight, and a little bit of touch. Here’s Chris’ clock. It’s the first clock ever that uses smell to tell the time. In fact, in terms of the five senses, Chris’ clock is a revolution.

And that’s what this theory taught me about my field. You see, up till now, us designers, we’ve mainly focused on making things look very pretty, and a little bit of touch, which means we’ve ignored the other three senses. Chris’ clock shows us that even raising just one of those other senses can make for a brilliant product.

Of course, not every line of work will be able to add extra senses to a project—or at least, not without having to really sit and think outside of the box. Which in itself is the whole point: to expand your thinking about what’s involved in your work. Perfect experiences engage all the senses, so why focus on only one? See what other senses you could pull in. It could be what turns a good project into an unexpectedly great one.


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