Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

I don't know about you, but for years I've been seeing a stream of articles and blog posts that claim to teach you how to do something like a pro. Thinks like tweeting, folding laundry, eating pizza, planning a trip. The list is endless. And most of the items on that list are common, mundane tasks. Things that I didn't realize had professional practitioners ...

I shake my head when see articles or posts like that. The notion that you need to, or even should, learn to do something like a pro is rooted in a pair of very flawed assumptions.

The first of those assumptions is that you're willing and able to put in time. The time to learn how to do something at professional level. Or, at least, the level that some bloggers and writers are advocating.

The second assumption is that you actually need to reach that level, to be able to do something with an incredible level of precision and efficiency. But do you really need to learn to do something like a pro?

I don't think so.

A lot of us embrace the idea that a professional, or someone extraordinarily proficient, always does whatever they do efficiently. That's not always the case. And you can be sure that no two adepts do something the same way. Everyone has their own variation. Everyone has their own take on how to do something. That variation, that take suits them. It might not suit you or anyone else.

To be honest, I'm not sure you can teach someone how to things like a pro. You can learn shortcuts and techniques but that doesn't mean you're a top performer or doer. At anything.

Like a number of so called productivity hacks and life hacks, the whole notion of learning to do something like a pro is wrapped up in the cleverness of a solution. A solution, often, to a problem that really isn't a problem.

Don't stress about not being able to do something like a pro. Chances are, you don't need to. The way you're doing something is probably fine.

People tend to view methods, goals, motivation, and commitment through the filter of their own experiences. Through the lens of our their motivations, our their goals, and our their needs. But those experiences, motivations, goals, and needs aren't the same for everyone.

Let's say you're not doing something to the same level as someone else. What you're doing, and how you're doing it, doesn't invalidate it. And you shouldn't let the opinions and scorn of others cloud your goals.

Yes, I wrote scorn in the previous paragraph. There's a lot of that in the online world. The offline world, too. Far too often I've read comments like If you're not doing xyz for three hours or more a day, you're not serious about it. Maybe not. But does that mean you shouldn't do xyz? Of course not!

Take, for example, language learning. It's not something I'm all that interested in. Sometimes, though, I need to gain some level of ability with a language. My goal in that case is to pick up some situational knowledge. I don't want or need to become fluent in a language.

Instead, I go with the minimum viable amount of the language I need to get by. I actively listen and try to speak immediately. I don't worry about being able to read a novel or a newspaper. I don't worry about understanding a movie or a TV show. I try to learn the words and phrases that that will help me get by, to learn to read signs at stations and airports, to read a menu. That sort of thing.

In that respect, I follow something akin to the philosophy behind the audio-lingual method. That method probably isn't the best for learning a language to fluency or mastery, but it's great for quickly learning the basics. It fits in with my goals, which differ from the goals of others.

And there's nothing wrong with that. This applies to fitness, coding, reading, or any pursuit: think about yourself and your goals. No one else's.

Do what you need to do to fulfill your goals, to do what you need and want to do. Don't adopt or internalize the goals and attitudes of others. Those goals probably aren't for you, anyway.

Whether we realize it or not, most of our lives are cluttered. That clutter isn't just physical. It can be digital, too.

Whether it's having too many possessions, too many apps or RSS feeds, too much software or hardware, clutter makes your life more difficult. It increases your stress and forces you to spend more time and expend more energy dealing with more things in your life than you should.

Eliminating that clutter can help you simplify your life — whether physical or digital. You just need to boil everything down to the essentials.

Eliminating what's not essential is difficult. I know this from experience. Before moving overseas in 2021, my wife and I had to get rid of almost all of our possessions. It was easy to decide to get rid of a lot of it. Other things, though, were a lot harder to part with. It took a lot of time and a lot of thought to do that. Even then, I think we hauled more than we needed with us.

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We seem to be living in the eternal now. We want to get through what we have to get through as quickly as possible, if only to move on to the next items on our lists of things to do.

We tend to think in terms of sprints and pushes. We get frustrated when we don't finish something quickly.

That applies to work, to play, to reading, to learning, to ... well, to just about everything. And that's not the best way to approach anything you need or want to do.

Instead of trying to do something in one fell swoop, try thinking and acting in increments.

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I think about that goal quite a bit, and I always come to the same conclusion: the goal of technology is to free up our time. Time to do important work, or time we use to relax and escape work.

Far too often, though, technology becomes an end in itself, not a means to an end. Often, using technology becomes a perverse arms race. We try to find newest, shiniest technology because we've heard it will transform our workflow or mystically boost our productivity.

Productivity isn't about making technology the centre of your efforts, the centre of your life (working or otherwise).

Technology is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. It is, to a degree, an extension of yourself. You use technology to help make your processes, your workflows more efficient. You use the technology to help do your work.

Technology isn't doing the work for you. You're the prime mover. You're the linchpin.

Think about this: you'd still be doing the work if the technology wasn't there. Technology is a convenience. Remember to treat it that way.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Andrei Tarkovsky movie Stalker. Like Tarkovsky’s other venture into the realm of SF, Solaris, Stalker is a very stark and spare film. There were no special effects to speak of and the use of special sets was minimal. The key was the story.

Thinking about that movie reminded me of a conversation that I had back in the late 1990s about form versus function in writing. The thrust of that conversation is still relevant today.

Admittedly, I'm not a stylist with my writing. I like to think what my fingers tap out is occasionally interesting,. But I'll never be accused of breaking new ground when it comes to literary forms.

But many people like flash. They like convoluted descriptions and funky layouts. And that was the starting point of the conversation I mentioned.

Back then, I was helping write articles for a newsletter put out by a small company. The newsletter itself wasn't anything spectacular to look at. The layout was functional, the articles fairly well written. Someone from the company's support team, who had an opinion on everything, constantly berated the folks doing the newsletter. It wasn't dynamic enough, it didn't have enough colour or images.

Of course, he wouldn't listen — or, at least, answer — when I asked him how all of that would make the newsletter better. Even without all of those extras, a majority of the people who received the newsletter actually read it.

One lesson that I learned was that there are people who care about how a published piece of writing looks. They might also care about the writing itself but for them the appearance of something helps determine its quality.

Does that mean you need to make everything look like a professionally-designed magazine? Do you have to write over-the-top prose that catches peoples' attention but which they either promptly forget or give up reading part way through?

I don’t think so. To paraphrase a former co-worker, you’re not going to hang anything you write on your wall. What you write doesn't have to be art to be effective. Worry about making what you write clear, complete, accurate, engaging, and readable.

Keep your writing simple. Complex systems tend to break down. They require a lot of maintenance. Simple systems, on the other hand, can last a long time.

How do you keep things simple when writing? Find a format or three and stick to them. It's OK to deviate from whatever format(s) you choose, but always keep the basics of good writing in mind. Deathless prose doesn't have to be flash. It just needs to be interesting.

Just as Tarkovsky eschewed big bang special effects in favour of telling a story, focus your efforts on keeping your writing accurate and useful. That’s the main reason people are reading what you're writing. If you use a bit of flair to draw the reader in further, then that’s a bonus. Just don't overdo it.

There are people out there obsessed with time. With saving time (if that's even possible).

You know this type of person: finding shortcuts or hacks that enable them to perform a task a few seconds faster. Mixing similar jobs into batches to tackle them in one fell swoop. Finding the best spot to stand on the train so when they arrive, they're right at the exit of the station. The list, as they say, is endless ...

Those folks are shaving bits of time off what they're doing. But what are they doing with those shavings?

They can't just sweep those shavings up and mold them into a timey-wimey ball that will give them an extra hour to sleep or to play tennis or to spend time with the important person in their lives.

That time just doesn't add up. And it's probably not worth all of the mental energy it took to save that time.

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