Archive for lifehacking

Dirty Laundry and the Writing Routine

Posted in lifehacking, Tokyo, writing with tags , , , on December 4, 2010 by katekanno

If you’d have asked me five years ago, whether I could be happy back in Japan, I would have laughed. When I returned to the U.S. after thirteen years here, I’d had it with the crowds, and a school system that liked to treat foreign teachers like talking dogs rather than professionals. Well, other than the talking dog part — I’m  now at a university where I am treated as an adult — I’ve discovered there’s a lot less harm in a few grouchy, hung over salarymen than some hopped up douchebag in a BMW trying to cut me off on the 405.

There’s also something about living in a big, abrasive city that perks up the synapses. Having to jostle through crowds and hang up my own laundry rather than throwing it in a dryer, and separating garbage under a Byzantine recycling system, has had some positive side effects on my motivation to write.

I’ve even been alternating chores with writing.  One becomes a reward for the other, but I don’t ever try to do either  all at once.  I’ll write for an hour, then fold the laundry, and so far both are getting done.

I was wondering how others might balance their household chores and other errands with their writing routines.  Any tricks to psyche yourself out and remove the guilt for having left the dishes in the sink?

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Hibernation over, hopefully…

Posted in blogging, lifehacking, Tokyo, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by katekanno

It’s been a long three months since I’ve posted. Getting re-acquainted with Tokyo a new job, as well as a few writing projects, have been part of it.  The other has been our new internet situation.

When we moved into our apartment, we had trouble accessing our WiFi. We fussed and moaned for a few days, and then realized —  wow! — We were so much happier without it.

I’ve been more focused than I’ve been in years, and have not only completed two drafts of my first professional script, but three short stories of which I’m truly proud. I’ve sent them off, received one very hopeful rejection email, and am happily waiting for the rest to circulate back through the ether.

I’ve finally, finally reached that point where writing is a happy compulsion. I knew it was there; it just needed one tiny inconvenience to nudge it awake — in this case it meant having to carry my laptop to the kitchen and hook it up to a LAN cable.  The old stand and surf also has an added benefit of making me more focused about what I’m looking for online.

Other people have more control over their online life. I didn’t.  And when you don’t have control, particularly in cases of technology, it’s sometimes best to downgrade. Throw a shoe in the loom, replace that microwave with a conventional oven. The food’s still there. It’s just better.

Filtering distraction: how to use index cards to stay off the web

Posted in computing, lifehacking, Lists, memory, multitasking, social networking, stationery lust, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2010 by katekanno

“The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.

Michel Montaigne  (From a blogshort essay on idleness that describes internet haze brain to a T.)

This is your brain on the web.

Or mine, anyway, and for the last several months I’ve been obsessed with finding ways to curb the impulse for distraction.

For writers, this problem is exacerbated by our own insecurities, that inner voice that tells us we’ve got a fact wrong, or that we simply don’t know enough about a subject to be blathering on about it like some blowhard in the Guggenheim.

One option I’ve tried is the Freedom application. You can find a better description of it here, but basically it cuts you off the web for a designated amount of time. If you want to get back on, you have to reboot your computer.  It’s an excellent way to get started, a sort of training wheels for willpower.

Another option I’ve devised myself is the use of index cards. Many writers praise them as an immediate idea recording device, but they can also be used, I’ve found, to keep my twitchy little fingers from clicking the browser icon. Here’s how it works.


Obtain index cards, one stack will do, but you’ll find you’ll need more as you go along.


Place one of them next to your computer, and write the name of whatever writing project you’re working on across the top.


Close your browser, bring up word ( or whatever program you use), and start writing. Fend off the evil voice when it’s simply throwing rocks at you — especially do this when it sounds like your mother. However, if it asks a legitimate question such as “Is that really how internal combustion engines work?” or nags you that “you really need to elaborate more on cuttlefish anatomy,” you pick up that card and write it down. Now I usually number the questions, simply because I know I’ll need the order later, but now you are free from the urge to click your browser and thereby instantly forget what it was you were looking up in the first place.


Gather up your used index cards. You have a mission. Open your browser or go to a library. Find the answers to your questions — or decide that some of them weren’t really as relevant as you first thought — and write them down.


Return and revise your manuscript with your newfound information, and as a side benefit, a new sense of security because this time you have a better idea of what it is you’re talking about.  The really interesting thing that you’ll discover is that very often, your uninformed instincts about particular topics were more on target than you thought. For example, one of my characters was a 1940s Western director who had trouble finding extras who could actually ride horses. I’d worried that this wasn’t a legitimate plot device for getting another character hired on his film, but when I went to do my research, I discovered that this was indeed a common hurdle for directors of big budget Westerns; furthermore, they were even more frustrated by hiring limits set by the Screen Actor’s guild during the time. I was not only better informed, I was psychic!

This system has worked very well so far. If you’re in need of an extra boost of willpower you can use the index cards while Freedom is on. That should keep you away from the facebook/twitter vortex for at least a little while.

Creating a reading journal (a cozy catastrophe in progress)

Posted in lifehacking, Lists, literature, stationery lust, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2010 by katekanno

Here I am in this noisy café, unable to concentrate thanks to a gaggle of chain-smoking obasans complaining mightily about absent friends and their sorely inadequate children.

It’s as good a time as any to update my blog.As I’ve been making my way through the notebook, I’ve been able to devise a my own version of a reading journal and thought I’d share.

Note: I don’t like to choose sections of my notebook for use beforehand: doing so wrecks the fun of writing in it, sort of like slogging carelessly into a pristine patch of snow takes away the magic, so I organize as I go along.

1. Orange is for Reading

This is the reading journal. A work in progress, but basically if the book is certain to contain a lot of words I’ve never heard of, I draw a line down the page. The inner side I use to write those words and the outer edge for quotations, thoughts, or questions.What I like about this system is that it’s an easy way for me to stay honest about what one blogger aptly called “the shit I know I don’t know.”

2. Beige is for Writing.

I don’t really have a system in place here. If I have a story idea or to expand on something in my reading journal, I scribble it down and slap on a tag. That way I can come back and grimace at my leisure.

3. White is for er… Japanese

The move back to Japan demands that I get my ass in gear and start studying the language again. I passed level one of the Japanese proficiency test back in 1997, but 12 years (five of them out of the country) is plenty of time to get rusty. Thus, I added a language section. I use it the same way I do the reading journal, except there’s A LOT more vocabulary space, and my thoughts are mainly awkward practice sentences.

4. Yellow is for Lists

For anything and everything. I’m especially fond of book lists, but they’re also wonderful writing prompts,  great for mining memory and personal experience — a tip from Barbara DeMarco Barrett’s Pen on Fire.

This is what the closed book looks like. I use tags from mujirushi. I love their muted colors. I love their notebooks, too. And their pens. And their lunch boxes, and…I’ll stop now.

That’s pretty much it. It works well so far, but I’m sure that I’ll be wringing my hands over a new class/system soon. How do you organize your notebooks/ reading journals?

Exploitation vs. Exploration

Posted in blogging, books, education, lifehacking, literature, multitasking, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by katekanno

Exploitation vs. Exploration.

Previously the former word brought to mind underpaid factory workers or at least those miserably lopsided friendships in junior high, whereas exploration has always drummed up that conscientious chap in the beat up Tee, making his open-minded, charitable way through a new place.  If exploitation was Saruman, hacking up the trees in Lord of the Rings, then exploration was Indiana Jones, knowledgeable, adaptable, and of course, heroic.

On a larger level, of course, this is still true. On a personal level, such thinking is the disaster that we inflict on both ourselves and the world.

How, you might ask, can trying new things, reading new authors, and meeting fabulous new people be a bad thing? It isn’t.
But my life, and I suspect the same is happening in those of many other people, is suffering from a glut of exploration, both physical and psychological. It’s what buries our living spaces in useless consumer junk, the books we don’t read, our time with mildly interesting pursuits and people we know only tangentially, and our brains with all of that digital information on which we, to use that ominously cutesy term coined by David Armano,  snack.

Take all of those indelicate act(s) of multitasking: What are they but pure exploration at the expense of exploitation? We listen to 30 new songs on Pandora while talking on the phone and attempting to cook that souffle via the step by step instructions that we’re watching on the Food Network. And we’re making a hash of it all, even the talking, which we’re reducing more and more to Malaprops, disjointed threads, and yes, grunts.

So this is the year I make a determined effort to exploit more and explore less. Exploit! Exploit! Exploit! I’m with you Saruman. But only when it comes to myself. Save the trees.

Because when you exploit on a personal level, you do save trees. Let’s take my book habit, because it’s come to me after spending five predominantly dull years in the world’s dullest town with nothing else to do but read like a maniac, how very rarely I’ve come away from a book feeling that I know it  to my satisfaction, that I have many of its ideas, characters, and underlying themes mastered, before I’m on to the next one. I’m not trying to beat myself up, or to argue that I’ve gained nothing for my efforts. But as a writer, I want to be better poised to use what’s in what I read both for inspiration and to strengthen my own abilities.

Exploitation project 1: The Reading Journal.

To this purpose I’ve been keeping a reading journal. I’ve been doing it for awhile, but haven’t really landed on a good system until now, my biggest problem being how to separate the writing I do for myself with notes or ideas taken from books. I’ve been using color coded tags from Mujirushi to separate pages of my own writing and the  journal, which is working out well so far. In the reading journal, I  draw a line down the page and note any words or concepts with which I’m unfamiliar, leaving random thoughts or quotes I want to keep on the other. Although I’m not a proponent of Gardner’s learning styles, which are finally, and thankfully being discredited, the act of writing things down rather than typing them up does seem to help me remember what I’ve read. It’s rote baby! There’s no magic trick or psychobabble that can make it any easier.

Social Networking: Playing Sidekick to our Shadows

Posted in blogging, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by katekanno

I was listening to an excerpt of Patricia Bray’s workshop lecture on the protagonist. Bray is the author of The Chronicles of Josan and the Sword of Change series. Although she actually spent more time (at least in the clip) talking about the sidekick, she made some very interesting points that immediately pushed me into a few wild speculations on how social networking and the use of technology might be shifting the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Sidekicks, Bray states, are useful as they can stimulate audience interest in the first person while still acting as chronicler. She uses the Watson/Holmes model as an example: Watson narrates the story, taking care of all of the workaday details, while remaining in first person and thereby creating a gateway for reader identification.

Yet the sidekick narrator, she adds, also allows the reader the cushy position of superiority to Watson. We may identify with the good Dr, but we can imagine ourselves to be more like Holmes, the old “If I were like Watson, I like totally would have figured that out by this point.” And last and most obvious, the appeal in creating creating a sidekick , Bray states, is because multiple characters pick up a larger audience/readership.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Social networking applications also allow us to present a “real” version of ourselves that takes on the dual role of first person chronicler. Take the status update in which we can switch back from first or third person. “I am not happy that my cat has lobbed a hair ball on my lap,” or “Ryan is not happy that her cat has gobbed a hair ball on her lap.” This is both an act of chronicling and a call for identification.

Second, in creating these personas on Facebook or Twitter, its often the case that we try to project someone who is more Holmes than Watson — and this is a very loose comparison, by which I mean the role of a main protagonist — but the irony is that through our labors our real selves play sidekick to our own projection.

Third, no matter how little glamor or mystique our own profiles actually present, our voyeuristic tendencies mixed in with our ability to haze over reality, allow us, like the reader, to feel superior to those other personas that our “friends” project on the web. Think about how many times you’ve curled your lip ever so slightly at seeing your friends misspell a word or hearing that their movie plans include a second viewing of New Moon? That we rarely reflect on how asinine we may in fact look to others, insures that we remain busy pumping air into that puffed up and ultimately phony profile.

And as for attracting a larger audience through multiple characters, can you think of a better example than Twitter, where retweets from our collection of followees spawn an even greater of followers and so on until we can barely make out why we signed up in the first place.

There are arguments that social networking is in fact thinning out our personalities, making us hollower, flatter, and ultimately less interesting. I definitely agree that there’s something to that. But it’s even more unsettling when we remember that it wasn’t Watson who was performing all of those amazing mental feats. It was Holmes who kept his eyes and his mind trained firmly on the world, while we, pale shadows to that series of sparsely worded one liners, fabricate a weak reflection of what was once ourselves.

On Lists

Posted in blogging, books, lifehacking, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by katekanno

This week’s Der Spiegel has an interview with Umberto Eco on the subject of lists. Eco states that lists are stabs at immortality, an attempt to take control of the infinite through categorization:”We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

I’ve always attributed it to something less grandiose, the desire not to squander whatever limited time we have, or to just plain get organized.

Of course there’s always the old saw about cultural insecurity, particularly among Americans. Lists of cultural artifacts, books, paintings, films,  have often been a quick way to stack ourselves up against others — “At least I’ve read Proust. Sniff.” I’ve seen evidence of this;  a few months back, in fact, I was appalled when a social networking friend humorlessly posted the Booker list, and then checked off each one he had read, even adding the number of times read in parentheses. But we’ll leave him to his demons, and as long as one uses them playfully, lists can be good references, to safely shake us out of our habits, show us something new.

A few weeks back though, when jotting down ideas for a list-based project, I was suddenly overtaken by a severe, albeit brief spell of depression, not about mortality as Eco argues, but the recent prevalence of list-making in popular culture.

“The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.” Eco says. “Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.”

But if the list creates culture, what in fact is behind the creation of the lists?

I began to wonder about the increasing presence of the list, and not just those numbered sets of bullet points, but graphic organizers, Powerpoints, and so many creative works gleefully basing their form on the dumbed down worksheet absurdities of K-12 education. Take Sufjan Stephen’s grandiose plan to record an album for each of the 50 states, or the graphs albeit tongue-in-cheek in the Believer. This reverie then glommed onto NaNoWriMo, Edmo, Drunkmo, all of these attempts to impose creativity through organized allotments of time or space.

I’m not out to bash these things. I’m a participant in this year’s NaNoWriMo and believe me, it’s good to be writing rather than fretting over where my life is going. Besides, when you’re looking to brainstorm fiction ideas, lists are an insanely effective way to tap memories and ideas you had no clue were there.

But I also wonder if this recent surge in list making might not also be the result of our waning ability to organize our own thoughts.

Take research on multitasking, the implications of which are ignored in inverse proportion to the frightening results. According to an August article in Wired, Dr. Clifford Nass found that multitaskers do poorly on cognitive tests, showing an inability to ignore “irrelevant” information.“Whether people with a predisposition to multitask happen to be mentally disorganized, or if multitasking feeds the condition — “that’s the million dollar question.”

To add a ten-dollar question of my own, is this mental disorganization being fed by the computer, and is that in turn stoking our desire for order; is the smog build up in our gray matter behind our recent, and often misguided attempts to assign rank to novels, works of art, or experience itself? As much as I enjoy checking them off, you’ve got to admit that the 1001 Books/Places/Painting/Records to Read/Visit/See/Hear Before You Die series is not the end all and be all of taste.

As Nass states, acts of multitasking involve exploration, the act of gathering up as much information as possible over exploitation, focused concentration on what we’ve gathered. All of these lists seem provide the promise of exploitation, or a false sense of mastery over that information. But more importantly, I think they attract us because we can sense something is wrong. Lists provide a simplified route to exploitation, a cognitive lifeline to those flailing about in a morass of often irrelevant information.