Productivity

Root Systems by Chris Foley

Sarah J. Bray offers some insights on being a highly sensitive entrepreneur:

Isn’t it interesting how when you give a plant good nourishment at the roots, the rest takes care of itself? I’m learning that work-related growth is the same way. It’s taken me a while to truly embrace this concept (and I’m still uncovering new layers of how to do this), but the more I do, the calmer, clearer, and more effective my work becomes.

At an individual level, this means optimizing my habits and rhythms rather than chasing bigger and better projects and outcomes. This has been tremendously hard for me (hello, INFP!) because I hate doing the same thing I did yesterday and the day before and the day before that. I love obsessing over new things and letting my passion for something drive me into the ground.

But you know what I love more? Being healthy. Being confident in my ability to keep working on something and making it better over time. Having a feeling of spaciousness in my life instead of the constant feeling that I should be doing more.

Sarah’s quote above is from Part 1; also check out the second and third parts of the series.

A Simple Trick for Writers by Chris Foley

Paul Graham’s simple but wise advice for writers is to write like you talk:

Here's a simple trick for getting more people to read what you write: write in spoken language.

Something comes over most people when they start writing. They write in a different language than they'd use if they were talking to a friend. The sentence structure and even the words are different. No one uses "pen" as a verb in spoken English. You'd feel like an idiot using "pen" instead of "write" in a conversation with a friend.

Paul’s essay archive is also worth a look.

(Via Josh Ginter)

19 Blogs I Follow in 2019 by Chris Foley

Last year I published a list of my favorite blogs that reflected some of my picks for the best independent writing on the web. This year the selection grows by one, with several new additions. Although the material from these writers is highly varied, a common theme tends to dominate: honest, straightforward writing from authentic minds, presented in a clean, clutter-free layout, emphasizing ideas rather than hard-selling a product, and broad enough in scope so that people outside their field would be interested in what they have to say.

  1. Brain Pickings - Maria Popova reads a lot of books. More than that, she crafts the ideas of authors and artists into fascinating blog posts that make you want to dig deeper into the literary, cultural, and scientific worlds.

  2. CJ Chilvers - A writer and photographer from Chicago who writes about creativity, technology best practices, and everything in between. His ideas on newsletters helped me greatly when I launched my own last year.

  3. The Cramped - Patrick Rhone’s blog about the pleasures of writing with analog tools, and how rediscovery of pen and paper can help to jumpstart your creative process.

  4. Cross-Eyed Pianist - Frances Wilson looks at the pianistic life with a special emphasis on the development of the amateur pianist. I particularly like the perspectives of her frequent guest bloggers.

  5. Cultural Offering - Kurt Harden writes about family life, public affairs, art, literature and the pleasures of the table.

  6. Daring Fireball - John Gruber is mostly known for his web projects (Markdown!) and The Talk Show podcast, but his blog casts a wider net with his curation of tech news and current events.

  7. Derek Sivers - Derek founded CD Baby in 1997, selling it just over 10 years later. His unique perspectives on personal development are offered with “a minimalist desire for only what’s needed.”

  8. Execupundit - Michael Wade is a consultant who writes about leadership, management, ethics, and life. He also understands the importance of process and why we need to find beautiful things.

  9. Kottke - Jason is one of the OG bloggers from over 20 years ago, and still one of the finest purveyors of hypertext products.

  10. Marginal Revolution - Economists Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabarrok offer not just a first-rate economics blog, but one of the most balanced news sites on the web.

  11. Melanie Spanswick - Melanie writes about the art of practicing the piano, education, and musical culture. A must-read for pianists.

  12. The Newsprint - Josh Ginter’s blog is memorable not just for its stunning photos, tech and gear reviews, but for his varied curation of Fresh Links from around the web.

  13. Nicholas Bate - Nicholas’ words of wisdom are offered in short, digestible posts, but their impact can be profound.

  14. Patrick Rhone - A lovely quiet street of the internet to restore sanity in an overstimulated world. In Patrick’s words: “It’s not about stuff, really. It’s about the stuff behind the stuff.”

  15. Sandow - Greg Sandow looks at issues at play in the world of classical music and how it needs to grow (or grow up) in order to survive.

  16. The Sovereign Professional - The freelance world has its attractions but is not without downside. This is what you need to read in order to stay grounded in a world of chaos and entitlement.

  17. Study Hacks - Cal Newport’s long-running blog started out as a site to help college students with study skills. Since then it has grown to become the centre of the digital minimalism community in a world where technology has made it increasingly challenging to maintain focus.

  18. Susan Eichhorn Young - Susan’s authentic voice is a beacon for those of us in the performing arts. Her kind but firm advice points of towards an artistic life filled with discovery, intention, and a growth mindset.

  19. Three Star Leadership - Ideas, strategies, and leadership reading curated from around the web by Wally Bock.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to putting together the list of 20 in another year. What blogs have I missed? Leave a comment and share your favourites!

(Image courtesy of Aaron Thomas)

Nothing Important Comes with Instructions by Chris Foley

Jocelyn Glei’s latest episode of her Hurry Slowly podcast explores the distinction between rules and principles, and why developing internal motivation is so important. This quote in particular resonated with me:

I don’t like systems, and I don’t like systems because systems rely on rules, and the problem with rules is that they break down in the face of complexity, in the face of rapid technological change, and in the face of all of us just being weird, idiosyncratic humans who have specific quirks and rhythms and needs. More useful than a set of rules that come from the outside is a set of principles that come from the inside, and I think that this distinction between rules and principles is fundamental to developing a functional understanding of in a world of rapid change. 

Hurry Slowly S02E11: Nothing Important Comes with Instructions (iTunes link)

It's Not About the Side Hustle by Chris Foley

Molly Conway writes about the modern trap of hobbies into hustles and how we no longer do things for their own sake:

Whenever I have some time to myself, I panic. Unstructured time — especially spent alone — is phenomenally rare in my life and I feel an overwhelming obligation to make good use of it. I should get some laundry done. Meal prep. Ask each item in my dresser if it brings me joy. Figure out how to fold a fitted sheet. Paint my nails. Work on the play I’m writing. Do a face mask. But instead, I deal with my option paralysis in the least helpful way possible: by scrolling through my phone alone in the dark until I run out of battery (literally or figuratively) and put myself to bed feeling like I’ve lost something valuable and hating myself for it. I can’t be productive, and I can’t fully relax, and I can’t possibly be alone in this.

How did we get to the point where free time is so full of things we have to do that there’s no room for things we get to do? When did a beautiful handmade dress become a reminder of one’s inadequacies? Would the world really fall apart if, when I came home from a long day of work, instead of trying to figure out what I could conquer, I sat down and, I don’t know, tried my hand at watercolors? What if I sucked? What if it didn’t matter? What if that’s not the point?

Even though the hustle seems to be hard-wired into me, I plan to take some time to relax and enjoy my fountain pens, quiet reading time, and regular walks during the more relaxed schedule of March break.

(Via Macdrifter)

Hard-Wired for Social Capital? by Chris Foley

Eugene Wei’s long read on status as a service is a useful lens to understand the underlying motivation of those you come across on social networks. His launching point:

Let's begin with two principles:

- People are status-seeking monkeys
- People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

Even those who decide not to spend their time on social media are not immune:

Some people find status games distasteful. Despite this, everyone I know is engaged in multiple status games. Some people sneer at people hashtag spamming on Instagram, but then retweet praise on Twitter. Others roll their eyes at photo albums of expensive meals on Facebook but then submit research papers to prestigious journals in the hopes of being published. Parents show off photos of their children performances at recitals, people preen in the mirror while assessing their outfits, employees flex on their peers in meetings, entrepreneurs complain about 30 under 30 lists while wishing to be on them, reporters check the Techmeme leaderboards; life is nothing if not a nested series of status contests.

The motivations of folks on my Facebook feed now makes a lot more sense.

How I Use The Archive and My Music Staff to Create Engaging Lesson Notes by Chris Foley

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For the last 10 years, part of my teaching practice has been to develop a system of sending engaging digital lesson notes to my piano students that will help them to understand what they need to practice on a weekly basis. These emailed lesson notes help students become accountable to both daily practice and their musical goals. Having lesson notes pushed to students and parents via email has been transformational for my teaching practice for several reasons:

  1. Students can’t use the excuse that they lost their lesson notebook if they fail to meet practice objectives

  2. I can type faster than I can write by hand, and with much greater legibility

  3. Students and parents receive lesson notes in their inboxes at the conclusion of every lesson

  4. Students will have an archive of lesson notes going back months that they can study for details that might have been missed previously

  5. I can create greater value for all my students, given the cost of music study

Studio management and what I need during the lesson

For the last few years I’ve been using My Music Staff as a one-stop solution for handling the day-to-day activities of a studio, whether it be for marketing, scheduling, invoicing, or repertoire management. MMS also handles lesson note management beautifully, and is handled within the attendance page for each student. When I made the jump to digital lesson notes a decade ago (here’s an earlier incarnation of my system), I needed to find a system of typing notes on my laptop that was non-intrusive during the lesson, that allows me to create and send new documents quickly, and an archive that allows me to very quickly search for past lesson notes when lesson planning.

I would rather not point-and-click so much during the lesson, and when I type I prefer the smoothness of a separate note-taking app, with no clutter, that allows me to type in a minimal environment with the current line at or near the centre of the screen (aka Typewriter Mode), create new files in an instant, and search previous files. I’ve used several other apps, most notably Byword and iA Writer, and what I like about these markdown-based apps is the stripped-down look that allows me to focus on just creating words with no visual clutter.

However, my specific need is for a seamless transition between several times of activities. When I’m teaching I need to be able to do all of these actions:

  1. Create new files very quickly

  2. Very quickly switch from typing to searching previous files, then switch back to the current file to continue typing

  3. At the end of the lesson, copy and paste into the MMS lesson notes pane

  4. Accomplish all of these on the fly, with keyboard shortcuts, in an absolute minimum of time

The Archive

An app that I discovered a few months ago which fits very smoothly into my lesson notes workflow is The Archive (macOS only), a project of Christian Tietze and Sascha Fast based on the Zettelkasten note-taking and retrieval system that aids academic research with an emphasis on the organic growth of seemingly unrelated notes (or cards in Niklas Luhmann’s original system).

The way that a Zettelkasten system works is that individual notes are added into the system at the same time that a mechanism for storage and retrieval allows connections between notes to become apparent. Where this is useful in piano pedagogy is that it allows a teacher to create a seemingly endless number of files for student lesson notes (these are sent to students and parents at the end of the lesson via My Music Staff) which can be searched later, not just for an individual student, but throughout one’s entire teaching practice. Here are a few things that you could search for within the note archive:

  • Individual repertoire (for example, 4 students at present are playing Für Elise, 2 students are playing Tan Dun’s 8 Memories in Watercolor, and 6 students are learning Bach fugues)

  • Upcoming performance opportunities (in a studio with over 60 students, this is really important when managing recitals, auditions, festivals, and exams)

  • Lessons taught for an individual student

  • Individual snippets of information that can be cut and pasted between lesson notes for several students (such as recital info, links for a specific topic, or practice strategies)

What I particularly like about The Archive is that the search bar at the top of the app is used to both create files and search for either individual files or specific instances of words within the file as a whole. This is in addition to the app’s ability to utilize hashtags as saved searches and create links between notes. The speed of use when using this app helps me to spend my time focusing on my students rather than navigating an interface.

How it works in practice

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At the beginning of every lesson, I use an Alfred keyboard shortcut* to create a year/month/date/time timestamp for every note that I create in The Archive, followed by the student’s name. For example, a lesson note for the hypothetical student John Doe created at the time of writing would be “201903070859 John Doe”.

After creating the title I hit Return and type out the lesson notes on the fly as things arise. At the end of the session, I copy the body of the note (Command-A, Command-C on macOS).

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Then I go back into MMS on the browser, paste the lesson notes into the Notes pane (Command-V), add any extra notes in the Parent or Private tab, click the parent’s name at the bottom of the page, then hit Save, which reconciles the lesson, saves the lesson notes into MMS along with any changes to repertoire, and pushes out the lesson notes.

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The Mac desktop is great for finding quick shortcuts for these types of workflows. I use two separate desktops, the one on the left for Chrome and the one on the right for The Archive, moving between them with a three-finger swipe. At the beginning of the teaching day, I open a separate tab for each student and have the attendance page ready for each (accessible via the MMS teacher dashboard or calendar). The keyboard shortcuts for the entire process are well rehearsed and only take a few seconds.

What students and parents get at the end of the lesson are clear objectives for the coming week so that students know exactly what to practice. Parents know what’s going on so that they can monitor if need be. In addition to a weekly lesson notes archive for each student in My Music Staff, I also have an aggregated (and constantly growing) archive of everything that I’ve recorded in lessons so that I can search for any matters of interest that may develop over time. The system grows organically.

If you have any questions about how I use My Music Staff or The Archive, leave a comment and I would be glad to respond.


You can join My Music Staff for free with a 30-day trial period. Contact me to get both a 30-day trial period plus one free month once you become a paid user. The Archive offers a 60-day trial period, after which you can pay a one-time fee to activate a license.

A quick disclaimer: I have no relationship with either My Music Staff or The Archive beyond that of a satisfied customer. I paid in full for both services (MMS has a monthly fee while The Archive is a one-time purchase) and find that both are an excellent value.

*For you Alfred nerds out there, the keyboard shortcut I’ve created is [ttime], which activates the ISO 8601 snippet .

On Doing Great Work by Chris Foley

Wally Bock on being great at what you do:

There’s no way to make sure you will receive the accolades of greatness. That’s okay. You can be great anyway.

Just pay attention to your work. Do the best you can in the job where you are right now. If you’re a leader, do the best you can to help your team accomplish the mission. Do your best to care for your team members and help them grow and develop. Try, every day, to do just a little better.

That’s what great leadership is about. You may never get the big trophy. You may never appear on the cover of a business magazine. But you can do what all great leaders do. You can make a difference in the lives of others and the world around you. That’s great work.

Inbox Zero: The Basics by Chris Foley

Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero is a practice that helps you get inputs out of the way in order to communicate well and concentrate on the things that really matter. You don’t just get rid of the unread count, you get rid of the mental clutter as well.

See an email. Respond + archive, forward + archive, star/flag/send to task manager + archive or just archive. Or delete.

The first steps will be the most difficult (especially if your inbox count is in the thousands), but it gets easier as you go. Routine is important.

Use folders or labels if you need to, otherwise just use the search function. Gmail’s search is best.

Further reading:

Snow Day Links by Chris Foley

As yet another winter storm heads across southern Ontario, here are some links to keep you occupied:

1. Are we in the midst of an Alban Berg renaissance? Two recent TSO performances showcasing Berg works got me thinking that there might be something in the air. A quick look at the Universal Editions Alban Berg schedule shows that this may indeed be the case, with 38 orchestral performances of his works between now and the end of June. This anecdote by Greg Sandow shows how Alban Berg’s music might be a viable entry point into classical music for younger audiences.

2. Sean Dorrance Kelly writes about how an AI can’t become a genuine artist, arguing that artistic achievement is a much larger idea than mere artificial intelligence:


We count Schoenberg as a creative innovator not just because he managed to create a new way of composing music but because people could see in it a vision of what the world should be. Schoenberg’s vision involved the spare, clean, efficient minimalism of modernity. His innovation was not just to find a new algorithm for composing music; it was to find a way of thinking about what music is that allows it to speak to what is needed now.

3. I really like the way that Penelope Trunk illustrates the Doppelgänger of authenticity and being true to yourself: negativity and mental health.

4. Tyler Cowen on the problem of social media:

My tentative conclusion from all this: Online life is inducing us to invest less in our memories and long-term sense of satisfaction. It is pretty obvious from human behavior that, right now, the internet is doing more to boost short-term pleasures.

The more negative take would be that online life is obscuring our understanding of our own lives. I do not go that far. After all, humans make analogous choices about balancing short- and long-term happiness when they have one child rather than four, or when they sit on an exercise bike rather than get on a plane to Paris. Those aren’t the wrong decisions for everybody.

5. Carl Pullein and Nicholas Bate both offer wise advice: say “no” more often. Your quality of work will improve.

6. From a conversation initiated by Shane Parrish on Twitter: sources of personal competitive advantage.

Finally, the Imani Winds play the second movement of Elliott Carter’s Woodwind Quintet:


(Image courtesy of Aaron Burden)