Taming the progress bar

Weeknotes 39: Keeping momentum is achievable… if you let your brain trick itself.

One of the most difficult aspects of the work I do is gauging progress. Lots of the toughest times I’ve had in previous jobs have been during the push — the intense and nearly-always-longer-than-you’d-like period before launching a project, where you are struggling to get the sense of accomplishment. Relaunching Matter was a swirl of conflicting feelings, with anticipation and confidence and terror locked in battle with each other. More recently, working to help clients get their first stories and products out into the open is always balance between being committed enough to the long game while seeing short term progress that keeps momentum up.

I’m lucky enough to be confident in my abilities, and fairly level-headed in times of high stress — one reason, I suppose, I thrive on launching things — but it’s still difficult to manage. There are lots of tools out there, depending on how you organize and what your team looks like. But it’s never easy.

One trick I’ve used to keep myself going through these periods is to chop down my todo list into lots of small digestible chunks that I can use to propel me forward, and to give me a better sense of what has really been taking place during the working day. Digitally, I use teuxdeux — a clean, minimalist todo app that has been keeping me happy for years now. But I also use a couple of physical tricks to really get a sense of work. First, in the morning, I compile a list of todos on little post-it notes and stick them down the sides of my monitor. Then, each time I complete a task I move it to the bottom of the screen. At the end of the week, I look at all those completed tasks and can see whether things have been moving even when they feel static. It works for me, and keeps me bought into a sense of momentum and accomplishment.

All this is perhaps a long way to approach this past week, where progress on Project Rialto has been going, probably slower than I would like — but it’s definitely happening. Interviews are being conducted, meetings scheduled, writing pushed forwards three, five, eight hundred words at a time. The main block is really myself, or (more accurately) the need to manage a few other projects and proposals at the same time as focusing on a major piece of work. In other words, freelance life. Anxy, a couple of advisory clients, sick kid, looking for new office space, trying to stay on top of admin and accounts… it’s a constant game, juggling priorities. But I’m enjoying it.

Culturally: I had to miss out on this month’s edition of RAD, but hopefully next month we’ll have a great venue sorted out as we approach our first anniversary. Still, I managed to drop by the opening night of the latest Pop-Up Magazine in San Francisco. Highlights for me were Stephanie Foo, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Hrishikesh Hirway, and Meg Smaker. And I kept up my book-a-week pace with a return to the classics: Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I’ve always found Didion too arch, and never been wholly appreciative of her philosophical musings (harder, too, now that I hear Ortberg’s voice every time I read JD.) But even now, 50 years on, her ability to conjure a feeling of the dread and chaos of America is a surprise.

Things my friends made

This week’s favorite thing was The Nib Magazine, a new quarterly from my chum Matt Bors and his crew of intrepid illustrators and cartoonists. I was so pleased to see their blockbuster Kickstarter and even more excited to get my hands on the finished thing. It does exactly what I love — and what I would do myself — which is kick off with some grim-as-fuck material (the theme is Death) in a no-holds-barred assault on what you think things should be. But it is rewarding, beautiful… and the realization of a long dream for Bors. I can’t wait for issue 2.