Collecting Effort like Rainwater

From the 2011 Archives Empire Building, Metrics, Productivity No Comments

SUMMARY: Although I didn’t know it when I started, the addition of sub-blogs to collect my thoughts into topical areas has helped me define a content generation system that is helping me bootstrap my way into other challenges. The big insight is this: for me, capturing many small changes is more effective than trying to plot giant changes.

When thinking of making a significant change in our life, it’s often accompanied by grand visions of preparation: stockpiling of resources, coordination of manpower, synchronization of swatches, and so forth. The Great Change, as it comes to be known in our imagination, will be the result of a concerted focusing of effort and resources. We will steel ourselves to meet not just the enemy over that next hill, but also to overcome the whispered self-doubts within us. So rally around the banner of self-motivation and change, and may the fates be on our side as we charge the mountain that holds our richly-deserved destinies from us.

It happens to be a lot of work, too. Big change requires big-time preparation. I’ve been trying to figure out Big Change for years, and have yet to make my charge. I have made a number of exploratory sorties, of course, making a lot of little changes that have added up to something significant over time. I struck me today that perhaps this is actually the way to do it, when you’re short of the overwhelming force you think you need. I’d pictured Big Change like MacArthur returning to the Philippines to initiate a long and bloody campaign of liberation. It’s no wonder that I procrastinated on Big Change; I seemed to lack the natural aggression to force myself to engage in a personal war of self-improvement.

Alternatives to Big Change

Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been finding some peace in a different approach that is less about overt militar action than it is about organic growth. It has some similarities to another military concept called defense in depth. It’s the idea that instead of creating one massive defensive perimeter, you instead layer defenses to take the momentum away from your foes until they lack the ability to form an effective attack. In more relaxing terms, it’s kind of like building a sand castle on the beach with a whole bunch of moats in front of the main structure, slowing down the waves. Real castles were designed with defense-in-depth in mind as well. So what does this have to do with making big change? It’s the idea that many small defenses add up…perhaps there is such a thing as offense in depth.

I wasn’t able to find any reference to “offense in depth” online—perhaps it’s filed under a different concept like “siege warfare” or “attrition”—but here’s what I think it would mean to me:

  • The design of the overall system encourages the capture of incremental changes and other efforts, emphasizing many small “collectors of change” instead of one big one.
  • The collectors of change capture tangible resources: hard knowledge, material assets, or connections with other helpful people.
  • The collection of knowledge and material assets can be easily harvested for immediate deployment.
  • The system’s level of “collected power” can be assessed easily.
  • An assessment of the system also provides insight into new strategic directions.

Mentally, the image I have is that I’m collecting my tiny bursts of productivity, which can happen at any time, and funneling it into a capture system that I can use for idea generation, process capture, and publishing. It’s like collecting rainwater into various funnels, pooling it all into one reservoir of effort that I can count through number of blog posts. I can also assess its impact on the world by looking at website analytics; while this doesn’t translate to dollars, it does give me a sense that what I’m doing IS having an effect. And that encourages me to keep going.

How the Website Compares

The change I made a few months ago was to add multiple sub-blogs to my website, something that I’d wanted to do for a long time but only recently mustered the necessary energy to do. This was, actually, a big change, as it involved significant effort to figure out how to do it without blowing up the entire website and breaking incoming links. And when I made the change, I wasn’t quite sure just how to integrate those sub-blogs into the main website without diminishing it. Since there wasn’t a clear, optimal answer, I just started adding them as new topic areas came to mind.

I just twiddled a couple of the new sections, a letters section and a reading section. These are areas that I’d always wanted in some form on the main blog but didn’t know how to add. It took several weeks, actually, to come up with the final-final names. What’s interesting to me about these new sections is that they’ve created the small collectors of effort that I needed, focusing my thoughts in a topical way without muddying up the main thrust of the website.

And what is that main thrust? I couldn’t have told you a week ago, but now I realize it’s this: conversations with friends. That is, anyone who happens to enjoy what they read here. Today I felt that all these sub-blogs are starting to efficiently capture all my interests in a tangible way. They provide all-important continuity for my varied interests, allowing me to pick-up where I left off (the coding journal is a good-if-incomprehensible-to-laypeople example of this). These collections are also highly satisfying in that they collect my efforts in a form that I can later refine.

Systems Analysis

Structurally, I would describe my current setup as follows:

Content Generation:

  • Main Website with Popular Collections: Daily writings and findings, shorter articles and notices, collections of popular links (e.g. “productivity tools”)

  • Sub-Journals: Topically based around process, design, hobbies, and technology. It’s here that I can write in ludicrous depth about anything I want, and fear not of flooding the main blog with long articles of limited interest. Instead, I can highlight the good parts and post the summary. This is enormously freeing. I can also keep a sub-journal under wraps until it’s ready to go.

Content Syndication:

  • RSS: Syndicated feeds help people keep up-to-date on the topics they’re interested in. RSS feed traffic is down overall, and has been shrinking steadily over the past few years, but it remains a useful way to spread the word.

  • Social Media: Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and LinkedIn are the social media playgrounds where I maintain a presence. Twitter I actually use seldomly, trying to keep the tweets infrequent but useful. More conversational interaction happens on Facebook, either on my personal page or my official page; this is often a sneak peek at upcoming stuff. Flickr I use to post pictures that I take of stuff (because I like pictures of stuff), and LinkedIn is…well, I hardly use it. It rebroadcasts my twitter stream, though I should probably turn this off.

Inspiration Generation

Where do ideas come from? They come from places like this:

  • Local Interaction: Hanging out with my friends and participating in community-making activities like my local podcast helps replenish my will to do cool stuff. Having your own local scooby gang is critically important.

  • The Wave with Colleen™: We’re up to Week 97 on the Wave. This is a shared activity journal maintained with marketing maven Colleen Wainwright, aka The Communicatrix, where we can write up raw thoughts on just about anything that’s on our mind. It’s that safe judgement-free zone, where you can talk shop, turkey, or ice cream sandwiches with someone who’s smart in the way you need.

  • Readers and Email: I get plenty email from readers with suggestions for products or questions about one thing or another. These get queued into GMail for later execution. This has been piling up lately, and I need to put a system in place to manage these side projects.

Those are all the components I can think of that are actively helping me drive content generation, which is the main element I am collecting. “Content”, in my mind, is anything that helps me make something cool. It could be a good piece of advice to be collected into a future book. It might be an insight about technology that could turn into a product. It’s definitely any new form I create to bring a new perspective on an old challenge like time management.

I find, however, that I’m still missing some key ingredients:

  • Managing Projects: I use BaseCamp for managing client conversations, but I’m finding it’s getting to the point where the variability in conversation rates is making it hard to keep track of everything. At any given time, there are a number of “dormant” clients who are in the midst of working out something for themselves, and several new clients with needs requiring definition. And I haven’t even included my OWN projects, which are legion.

  • Capturing Business Efforts: While my content generation efforts seem to have fallen into a good rhythm, I don’t have anything as smooth for business activities. I have a monthly GROUNDHOG DAY RESOLUTIONS REVIEW day, which I’ve started using to force myself to do monthly reporting. I wish I had a framework to capture everything.

To meet these two challenges, I’m bootstrapping myself into developing some kind of web-based application. I didn’t realize at the time that Project Second was about that, but it seems more obviously a continuation of what I’m doing with Content Generation. In fact, by using the sub-blog structure to record all my efforts on the code project, I’m using the Content Generation system to maintain forward momentum on this front; I get the two-for-one buzz from observing progress in my online journals AND producing content at the same time. It’s all adding up.