Truly Productive Gift Guide 2015

There are so many gift guides out there this time of year, so I don’t like to add the the noise or piles of choices. The last thing the world needs is one more person pushing products in the spirit of commercial giving.

But this giving season is also an opportunity to offer something simple and thoughtful to someone we want to thank for being awesome, for being helpful, even just for being part of our life. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s just a good excuse to treat ourselves to something a little special as a reward for our own achievements, or to help us accomplish our goals for the new year.

So in that spirit, and in the tradition of my first Truly Productive Gift Guide post from last year, I bring you a new recommendation for “one thing” that anyone who wants to be more productive should be giving or receiving this year.

My only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive, simple to use, and most importantly, that it be a tool that enables productive work. Ideally, it’s also well designed without being overly adorned. I like my tools to be useful and purposeful, with minimal decoration. Something that can develop a unique personality the more it is used.

Drawing on my own experiences over the past year, I’ve looked at all the tools that I have found the most useful on a daily basis, and realized that there was one tool that I’ve been using and loving every day more than anything else. This is something that’s almost been an extension of my brain ever since I picked it up, and I can’t think of a nicer gift for yourself or anyone else this year:

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Thanksliving

I am thankful for every day.

Thankful for being alive and being aware of the world.

I am thankful for backyards in summer. A full moon in the snow of winter.

For dreams. For the ocean and the clouds. I am so thankful for clouds.

I am thankful for New York City. Chicago. Paris. London. Tokyo. Boston. Ithaca, NY. Deerfield, NH.

I am thankful for books. For lemons. For bicycles. For birds and squirrels. For apples. For yogurt. Chocolate. Popcorn. Bacon. Gravity. Baseball. Buster Keaton. The Muppets. Ice cream sandwiches. Iron Giant. George Carlin. Woody Allen. Nichols and May. Bill Murray. David Letterman. Peter Jennings.

For all the things I can’t remember, and everything I’ll never forget.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996, standing in the back of a hushed theatre and watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. Standing in a tent in Battery Park watching Zingaro dance with horses.

I am thankful for infinite knowledge at my fingertips. A computer in my pocket. Crossword puzzles. Rivers. Mountains. The Beatles. Bach. Moby Dick. Blood MeridianInfinite Jest. Autocorrect. Portal 2. Maple trees in March. Shakespeare. Jacques Tati’s Playtime in full 70mm on a huge screen on a Saturday afternoon.

I am thankful for the these words that let me be thankful.

I am thankful for my tribe.  Thankful for my wife. My friends. My families. For those who have left, for those who have died. For those I have yet to meet. For those I will never know who endure war, poverty, injustice, starvation, disease, and all those dedicated to helping them.

I am thankful for those who have fought for my country, for their country. Those who are smarter than me, stronger than me. For those who excel and those who strive to do better. For those who listen. For those who nurture.

I am thankful for teachers. Thankful for farmers. For makers, artists, builders, creators, explorers, storytellers, musicians, thinkers, editors, dancers, comics, athletes, chefs.

I am thankful for libraries, and for people who share. For procrastination. For poetry. For freedom. For the feeling of slipping on a freshly laundered shirt straight out of the dryer.

For hot water. Cold water. Clean water – anytime, anywhere. The first cup of fresh coffee. The last sip of old whiskey.

I am thankful for pockets. For paper. For pencils. For language. For learning. For learning to be thankful every day. Learning to give thanks and receive thanks.

I am thankful for my eyes, my ears, my nose, my tongue, my fingers, my toes, my lungs, my heart.

I am thankful for love. Thankful for being human with you. Thankful for our human-ness.

I am thankful for you.

Everything With Moderation

Things have been a little crazy at the office lately, especially since the college I work at became part of national news trend pieces for a few days last week. It’s a situation that has continued to build tension on campus over the past month and, for me personally, as an employee and alum of the college, it’s been sad to see how much the negativity and anger that has arisen from the situation quickly became louder than voices looking to find solutions and make change.

Of course, just walking around you’re only mildly aware of the level of frustration people are feeling. Public demonstrations, posters, and signs from the many voices vying for attention have ebbed and flowed across different public spaces on and off campus, but nobody’s camped out on the quad in protest, and most classes and schedules have continued as usual.

But things are much different if you pay even a little attention to social media. One quick search for our school on Facebook, Twitter, or YikYak and you’ll see just about every opinion people have, often followed by flame war comments going back and forth about who’s more ignorant or why people want to see our president resign. You’ll see individuals sharing moving stories of their own experiences as targets of racism, marginalization, or violent speech. And you’ll find posts filled with passionate opinions, arguments, and links to all kinds of longer rants that all seem to be strongly for one thing or strongly against another thing.

Sadly, few of these are kind to the people they see as against them. In fact, several posts or comments have been messages of outright hate, and that has been the most disturbing part of this whole experience for me.

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Made of Soylent

I have consumed Soylent for lunch almost every workday for over a year now, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. In fact, I think it may be the best lunch solution I’ve ever found.

Because for me, lunch is a problem.

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I realized a long time ago that eating a meal in the middle of the day is really difficult for me. Lunch is the one meal that most often feels like a chore, something I’m obligated to do more than something I want to do.

And it’s not because I don’t care about food—quite the opposite, really. I love to eat, and sandwiches—the archetype form factor of lunchtime fare for almost a century—are one of my favorite kinds of food. If I’m in a more leisurely situation like an outing with co-workers or on vacation with my wife, maybe a Saturday brunch with friends, I enjoy that lunch, too. But in the middle of a busy weekday, or even a weekend filled with errands, the idea of having to stop whatever I’m doing to eat something just causes me stress.

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Fall

Fall is here, and the ground is awash in the colors of decline. I admire something like a tree that can create such a glow at its tips not by pushing energy outward, but only by withdrawing, extracting strength from the outside in.

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Fall

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But the bright colors of fall are not a building up, they are an unveiling of what was already there, the lifting of a curtain from the latest masterpiece. They are the final light before the dimming of winter, the applause at the end of the act. They are the cue for intermission.

This is the blank space on the page after the end of a chapter, the place we insert our bookmark before closing the cover, satisfied that the hero is safe for now, that the lovers have finally found each other, and we can pause before the final chapters begin.

It’s time for the slow fade to winter, as we follow the lead of the trees and pull inward, reel in the energy we were pushing out, and focus on strengthening our inner reserves, preparing the baffles and layers of down for our winter burrows.

Fall is the end of the summer rave, the final song at the after-party when we start trying to remember where we left our shoes a midst the crumbs and confetti scattered on the floor. It’s the time when we look up at the clock and realize how late it is already, and all the rest of our obligations come flooding back to our minds with a flare of color just like the trees outside our window.

Fall is here. Time to get moving.

Do More Less

I had a really unproductive Monday this week. There were a few big things I really needed to get done that day, some important pieces of a project that were my responsibility, and some tasks other people were waiting on me to finish so they could then complete what they had to do.

Yet no matter how many times I attempted to get started on the important tasks of the day, I kept trying to pay attention to too many things at once, getting distracted by unimportant “shiny” stuff, and before I knew it my time for completing work was gone for the day.

Basically, I was terrible at my job on Monday, and it cost me. I lost some reliability points from my teammates, lost some faith in my ability to be disciplined about how I work, and worst of all I lost several hours of productive time I couldn’t really afford to lose.

But I bounced back the next day, and each day after that I got more work done and met all the important deadlines I had. I didn’t become a productivity machine, and I still couldn’t do everything I wanted to in the midst of multiple meetings and random interruptions. But I made up for the time I had wasted on Monday, and all it took was a small change in perspective:

I stopped trying to do more work, and that enabled me to get more done.

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My HighEdWeb Tribe

How great would it be if we could be in two different places at the same time? If there was a time/space loophole that allowed you to be at work and stay on top of all the projects and tasks you need to get done, while at the same time another part of you got to be somewhere else, learning and exploring and growing, and hanging out with friends?

If I had the ability to be in two different places at the same time, one of me could still be in my office all of next week focused on one of the half-dozen major projects that have to get done; my other self would be flying to Milwaukee to learn and hang out with some of my favorite humans at the HighEdWeb Annual Conference.

I seem to long for a clone of myself like this every couple of years, those in-between years when the budget isn’t available for me to attend major conferences and I can only participate from afar by watching the back channels on Twitter and catching up on presentation slides after the conference is over. Which is still useful, and frankly it’s often the only option for hundreds of people who never get the time or budget to attend these events in person.

Part of the wonderful thing about conferences these days, especially those for and about people working in web and social media, is that they naturally bleed over into the virtual spaces where a hashtag like #heweb15 is all you need to catch up on what’s happening practically in real time (and good luck keeping up!)

But still, nothing beats actually being there and immersing yourself in the conference. I remember how energizing it feels to be able to focus on new ideas from presenters you may have never seen before, meeting people in real life you’ve only ever known online, absorbing the ideas and happy vibes of those around you.

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Taking Out the Trash

There are few things more satisfying than being able to identify stuff you don’t need/want/use anymore, gather it all up and get rid of it. All month long I’ve been taking out the trash and let me tell you, it’s been one of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on all year. The only thing I regret is waiting so long to do it.

You know you’re an adult when an empty 22 x 8 foot, 60-cubic-yard, solid steel waste container being unloaded onto your driveway makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. To me, this container wasn’t empty—it was full of possibility.

I was so excited because I knew, at last, we would be getting rid of years worth of old, useless stuff that had been piling up, including a big pile which had been collecting since we first bought our house eight years ago. There was a big pile of wood scraps, old decaying cabinetry, shelves, rusted metal and other scraps from various minor renovations that was somewhat “out of sight, out of mind” in an old decaying potting shed that had been built off the back of our garage by previous owners decades ago, and that shed was itself now decaying and falling to pieces. After generating more scraps for that pile ourselves during a bathroom upgrade at the beginning of the month, we realized the time was right to put an end to all of the madness.

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Pocket Watch photo by Veri Ivanova via Unsplash.com

Tempus Fugit

I don’t want to bury the lede here: we cannot stop time, so we better learn how to make the most of it.

Never mind theoretical models of time—our experience of it as humans in the dimensional space we share is linear in a single direction, which means we only get to use each second of our day once before it’s gone forever, but there is an infinite amount of it ahead of us. The past may be recorded, but we cannot return to it or change it; the future may be predicted, but never completely known.

This may sound somewhat somber and fatalistic, but I think the opposite is true: recognizing the present is a limited resource, but that there will always be more time ahead of us, and really embracing that, is a positive, motivating force for life. It’s a burden lifted from our shoulders to recognize that there are rules to this universe we cannot change, and therefore one less thing we need to worry about.

So what do we worry about instead? How to make the most of those precious minutes and hours of each new day. Time is fleeting – tempus fugit – and our awareness of that fact is a big part of what motivates us, and a major part of what we stress out over when it comes to the day-to-day needs of working and living as humans.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve been thinking about this more lately, especially when it comes to the struggle of trying to decide what’s important and worth spending time on. In fact, this blog exists because of a talk I gave exploring my struggles of trying to be a productive human at work, and trying to offer ways to get through that. And there are thousands of others like me writing about these same topics, publishing books, building apps and services and companies and entire industries that revolve around helping people figure out how to get done what they need to get done everyday. And these are valuable, they are helpful, and they can improve how we spend out time resource. I hope to continue adding my voice to that and helping others navigate it as much as I can.

But before I go any further with talking or writing or giving presentations about improving productivity and work/life balance and building better habits, I think it’s important that we all come to understand and embrace this one fundamental truth:

You are not perfect, and neither am I. And that’s okay. Make the best choices you can, and be ready for what’s next.

Perfection is a concept, an ideal notion. It’s a goal for some, a representation of something that may exist in an abstract, frictionless world. But it is the absence of perfection that makes life worth living, and what makes whatever work we do each day worthy of the time we spend doing it.

We can employ all the fancy methods and apps and tools and habits we want; we can learn to eliminate distractions and strive to get things done; we can make charts and set goals and measure performance; we can take as many actions as we want to organize how we use our time, but we will never actually be able to control time.

Just like there are fundamental laws of motion and gravity for our physical universe, I think there are fundamental laws of productivity that are impossible to defy. In fact, there may be only one Fundamental Law of Productivity from which all others corellate:

“Every time you say yes to someone or something, you are saying no to someone or something else.”

Boom. That’s it right there.

In fact, that exact phrasing comes from Carson Tate in the middle of page 81 of Work Simply – not highlighted or bold typed, but just mid-paragraph. Yet it is central to what everything else in her book, and so many other people’s books and blogs and talks and sermons and stories and songs, are really talking about.

We can live more rewarding lives by making better choices about what we say yes to, and what we say no to, but we will never eliminate the fact that we have to choose.

Some choices we make ourselves, some choices are made for us, but our lives are our own. And while time may be infinite, our lives are not, so we have to decide as individuals how to make the most of the time we have.

Thankfully, we are not alone. We are all humans, and we all get to help each other figure out how to be the best humans we can be. And that will always be a productive use of our time.

Aspirations of Productivity

I’m a morning person, which means I’m up before dawn at this time of year and I get to watch the world outside awaken through the windows overlooking my backyard as I write. It’s not uncommon to see a few deer emerge from the woods and saunter by on their way to wherever it is they go, and while I generally think of all deer as road hazards and yard pests at this point (don’t get me started on how much landscaping I can’t have because of them), there are mornings when I watch them passing by and feel a little bit of envy.

I imagine that the deer, along with all the squirrels and rabbits and birds inhabiting my yard, all seem to live such an uncomplicated life. No possessions, no expectations. The only goals they have each day are to eat, rest, avoid danger and disease, and procreate if possible. Generally just stay alive, and roam where and when they want in the meantime.


There is no expectation that these creatures must somehow leave their mark in the world, no pressure to be productive with their lives other than to live. Just by looking after their own basic needs they are playing their role in the ecosystem they inhabit and that’s all that is needed of them.

So why isn’t that enough for us humans? Why do I feel myself caught up in a growing awareness of “productivity” as a thing that matters; that it’s important to make my life count for something by doing or making things with my time to somehow prove I am contributing to the world?

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