Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

You might not know this, but I send an email letter to a handful of subscribers every Wednesday. Almost from the beginning, I referred to it as a letter rather than a newsletter.

Over the life of that letter, more than a few people have asked me why I call it that. To me, there's a distinction between a traditional (if you want to use that word) email newsletter and what I'm trying to do.

Newsletters are often put out by people who are reporting to their followers — what they're up to, what they're thinking about, what they're selling. Often, those newsletters include more than a few links. Others are purely linkstations, consisting almost entirely of outgoing links. All in small, bite-sized chunks.

With my past, and current, experiments in email publishing I took a different tack. I used George Orwell's “London Letters” to the magazine Partisan Review, and Alistair Cooke's “Letter from America” on BBC Radio as my models. No, I'm not comparing myself to Orwell or Cooke — I have nowhere near the skill and talent they had as writers or communicators.

But like Orwell and Cooke, my goal is to share a moment in time. To share ideas, often partially formed or still gestating, that have grabbed my attention. To present what I hope is an informed opinion on a subject. To share my interests with others.

Admittedly, it takes a bit more patience, concentration, and attention to engage with what I send out each Wednesday that it does to, say, engage with a linkstation newsletter. In that why, what I write and send is more like a personal missive rather than the breezy copy found in many a newsletter that lands in someone's inbox.

Does that format work? I'm still trying to figure that out, to be honest. But it is a format that I enjoy and which challenges me. And, I hope, one that challenges that people who stick with my letter.

A few of my friends are very keen on learning languages. Aside from studying, practicing, reviewing flashcards, and all of that they also frequent the various language learning blogs and forums that have cropped up on the internet.

From what I've heard my friends say, that little world is a microcosm of our wider one. The blogs and forums are at times inspiring, annoying, petty, uplifting, edifying, and downright infuriating. Just like a lot of other communities of the internet.

One never-ending debate seems to revolve around which system or method espoused by which polyglot is the best way to learn a language. The discussions and arguments can get quite heated, I'm told.

That debate (if you want to call it that) doesn't seem to take into account that different people do things differently. They learn differently. They see things differently. They all take a different path.

What works for one person might not necessarily work for another one. And that doesn't just apply to learning languages. It goes for productivity, fitness, learning to code, writing blog posts, playing chess, ad infinitum.

The path that you take towards what you want to do isn't important. What's important is your destination. Don't worry about others and their ways of doing things. Follow the path that's right for you. Do what works for you. Ignore the backbiters and whiners. Ignore the skeptics and naysayers. Block out the negativity, even from your own community. Ignore the infighting and specious debates.

Worry about yourself. And only yourself. Focus on your goals. That's the only way to improve and to do and achieve what you want.

Maybe you just can't finish all those tasks. Maybe you can't stay on track. Maybe you can't get or stay organized.

Over the years, I've talked and worked with a number of people who were in those situations. And most them felt let down by their tools. They believed that the web of software and apps and services at their fingertips were the cause of their productivity dropping off.

They were wrong.

If you're in any of those situations, or situations like them, don't blame your tools. Your tools aren't the weak link in your chain of productivity.

You're that weak link.

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Whether we intend to or not, we accumulate things. Nowadays, a lot of our clutter is digital. Files, notes, images, videos, information of all kinds, and more.

Take Evernote, for example. It's a very popular tool for capturing and organizing information of all kinds. I know more than a couple of folks who put everything into Evernote. I'm sometimes shocked to see how much information, much of it irrelevant, that they collect.

In the end, this only adds to their digital and mental clutter. You can bet they'll never take advantage of even 10% of that information.

While we sometimes (and sometimes more often) can't avoid accumulating that clutter, we can do something about it. That something is what I call a periodic purge.

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That question is Why?

It's a question that many people don't ask themselves. They don't ask it because strikes at the heart of their reasons and motivations for doing something or learning something. And if they do ask Why?, often the answer is half hearted at best, or an answer which provides a feeble justification for doing something or taking a particular path.

Why? is such a difficult question that we fool ourselves into believing the trite or stock answers, or feeble justifications, that we come up with. We tend to follow along with the crowd because it's the easiest thing to do. We continue on because that's what is expected of us.

If you can't come up with a compelling answer to the question, then you need to reconsider the reason you're doing something or the reason you're trying to learn something. If you can't, chances are you're not having fun, you're not as engaged as you want to be, and you're not learning or progressing at the pace you're capable of.

Take the example of a friend of mine. A couple or three years back, she took up CrossFit. When she talked about CrossFit, she didn't sound very enthusiastic. Partly because she wasn't having fun, partly because of the gung ho no pain, no gain attitude that seems to part of modern fitness culture, and partly because she has been plagued by a number of minor injuries since starting.

I asked her why, in light of all those factors, she keeps it up. Her answer was a weak justification based on CrossFit being the so-called latest and greatest, and because it's good training for me. The problem is that she really wasn't training for any kind of athletic event.

Asking why got her to think about her motivation more clearly and with more depth. So much so that she gave up on CrossFit and started learning aikido. She's having more fun, learning more, and isn't walking around hurt.

Whether it's adopting a fitness program, learning a language, learning to code, or adopting a new device or tool you need to ask yourself Why. Not just ask the question, but deeply ponder it. When you do that, you'll really know whether a course of action is right for you.

All of us, at one time or another, feel the need to jump on the latest bandwagon or to follow the latest trend. It could be using the trendy new software or web app or social network. It could be learning to code or studying another language. It could be buying that new gadget or device. It could be taking part in the newest fitness craze.

But how many actually stick with any of that once the initial glow and excitement wears off? Hard to say, but I'd guess not many.

While you might be experiencing something new, you're also wasting time and energy pursuing something that you wind up dropping after a few days or weeks.

You could save yourself a lot of time, energy, and hassle by asking yourself a simple question before you jump into something. That question?

Do I really need to?

If you can't immediately answer that question, chances are you don't.

Take a friend of mine, for example. He aspires to be a writer. But he also has a major tool fetish. Over the years, he's jumped from one writing tool to the next — on the web, on the desktop, and for mobile devices. Why? With each new tool he tried, he was convinced that he'd achieve writing nirvana (his words, not mine) and become more a more productive writer.

He didn't.

Instead, my friend found himself back using an app called iAWriter. He's more productive with it than with any other tool. And he's spending more time writing than jumping from tool to tool.

And if say that you need to do something, you also need to be able to explain why. Not just half-hearted justifications — like Everyone's doing it or It's new and fresh or It's better than x — but well-thought out reasons. Reasons that you form with deep thinking and by doing research. Once you start digging deeper, you might find that you don't need to change, that you don't need to jump on the latest bandwagon.

You can save yourself a lot of time, energy, and grief by asking the question Do I really need to? The question is simple, but the answer that you come up with can be profound.

We all know people who are frustrated with or bitter about aspects of their lives. Sometimes, with life in general.

You know the type of person I mean. Someone who spends a lot of time nitpicking. Someone who spends a lot of time complaining about anything and anyone.

You might, from time to time, be one of those people.

You could be disappointed with something that happened in the past — a job you didn't get, a school or course you didn't get into, a relationship that failed. It could be an accumulation of things that haven't gone well in your life.

There have been several times when the universe decided to squat down and defecate on my life. When that happened, I was bitter. I was angry. But I realized that the bitterness and anger weren't making my life better. They weren't making the situation better. In fact, that bitterness and anger were making things worse. Not just for me but for the people around me, too.

Instead of embracing your bitterness and frustration, you need to let go of it all. Here's some advice which can help you do that.

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