Magic Picture-Making Machine

We got off easy last winter, but we’re paying for it spades this year. Snow, ice, cold—you name it. (Will I miss this when we uproot and head to Vancouver in a few weeks? We will see.)  Having finally laid my poor 3GS to rest, I gave my film cameras and DSLR a break and quickly snapped a few wintery photos one recent afternoon at my in-laws’ cabin using my shiny new iPhone 5, basking in its eight megapixel glory.

Sure the images are a little soft, and if I was really serious about taking photos that afternoon I would have pulled out a DSLR or some medium format film. But at least as long as that new iPhone smell lasts, I think I’ll still be in awe that my current phone produces nearly double the megapixels that my first (clunky, expensive, etc.) digital camera could. See Clarke’s Third Law.

Evergreens, etc.LightsOld tobogganTrees (various views)Stacked logs

Posted in: Photography

Made to Last

My journey down the rabbit hole started with one lovely vintage Polaroid camera. Over the months, two more Polaroids, a Canonet rangefinder, and a Pentax SLR joined the party. Then—the pièce de résistance—a Hasselblad 500C/M. Yes, I have fallen madly in love with film.

Confessedly, the first Polaroid was acquired on a whim and as a novelty, but it didn’t take long for it to become about process and philosophy. It’s about creating something immediate and physical, and thinking about the shot before I take it because there is no trash can button.

It’s also about the cameras—the tools. They’re all between 20 and 40 years old, and with one exception, they all still work much as I imagine they did the day they rolled off the assembly line because I am obsessively picky about the condition my vintage acquisitions (though I haven’t given up on that pesky Canonet yet…). Sadly, I have a hard time imagining what modern picture-taking implements I currently have in my life that will still be usable a few decades down the road. And even if they are miraculously functional, still having a machine with USB ports to plug them into might be the bigger problem.

I’m certainly no anti-technologist—probably couldn’t be further from it. (I don’t know many Luddites who stand in lines to buy shiny new iOS devices the day they’re released.) But these cameras have left me unexpectedly nostalgic for time when planned obsolesce wasn’t baked in to the objects and gadgets we spend our hard-earned dollars on.

Compounding that issue, we also buy things are harder and more costly to fix, not just ourselves, but by trained professionals as well. Computing devices used to be hackable, now they’re hermetically sealed. Ever needed to replace the glass on iPad? You may as well buy a new device altogether. Yet, armed with only minimal knowledge of vintage camera mechanics, I’ve managed to clean, repair, or hack a few of these cameras myself using little more than a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers, toothpicks, and an exacto knife.

But that’s the trade-off between mechanical and digital, I suppose. Not that this is any kind of groundbreaking revelation, nor is it any insinuation of the superiority of one format over the other because they each have their advantages, in photography and many other domains. Based on my own experience, I can say that learning how to take a decent photo using film exclusively would have been much slower (instantaneous feedback obviously makes it a lot easier to fiddle with exposure settings until you get them just right), and much more costly (film and processing ain’t cheap!). Indeed, digital can be more forgiving in these regards.

However, there is a relatively predictable relationship between the fanciness of a tool, the ease with which a person can figure out how to use it, and the degree of complexity under its hood. Simply put:

Fancy tools that are easy to use on the surface are usually impossibly complex underneath. Simpler tools tend to be less user-friendly or intuitive, but much easier to hack.

Just think of the internals of MacBook Air versus a pile of punched cards. And yes, I realize that vintage cameras aren’t that difficult to figure out, but I did manage to make one critical (and in my defence, common) error loading the first roll of film in my Hasselblad. I unknowingly took twelve photos without actually advancing the film once. Try making that mistake with a DSLR.

As consequence it would also seem that the things we create with modern tools—for better or worse—are easier to discard as well. Take a picture, delete it, try again. But believe you me, I put some thought into how I use each $25 pack of TIP film. And for some reason I still have shoeboxes full of not-quite-perfectly exposed photos in my spare bedroom closet. Why can’t a bring myself to get rid of them? Because they have physical form? Because I’m a sentimental packrat? Who knows. But there they sit in the closet, as I feverishly delete any less than perfect, recently imported digital photos to spare bytes on my hard drive.

Does that mean we ultimatley end up creating and keeping better things with digital? Or does it mean that we spend more time creating mediocre things until we get lucky because the cost of minor failures is negligble? And if so, is something inherent to the craft lost? I don’t think the answers to these questions are obvious, and again, I must reiterate that I don’t think one format is superior to the other. Each has its advantages, and digital may end up with the only advantage that matters if film ever disappears. But there’s something to be said about things that are made to last—be it the tools, or their creative outputs.

Update

Coincidentally, I was catching up on episodes of On Taking Pictures shortly after publishing this post, and I think that hosts Bill Wadman and Jeffery Saddoris do an even better job articulating what I have attempted to explore above. Of note, episodes #003 (The Future of Film) and #008 (The Amateur Professional). To really see what I mean, skip to about 40:00 of #008.

Why We Can’t Get Anything Done

When you put a group of skilled people in a room together and task them with a project relevent to their talents, great—or a the very least, better than good—things should emerge. But often they don’t. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

My thoughts on why this happens were mostly amorphous and generally nagging before. But I stumbled on a few blog posts this week, and things suddenly started to crystalize.

So without further adieu, let’s start with Rands in Repose:

The more you grow, the more things you have, and the more you need people whose job is simply to coordinate the increasingly interdependent building activities. These people, called managers, don’t create product, they create process.

Ah yes, managers and process. Necessary evils in most organizations of a given size, but anathema to creativity and creative problem solving. (For clarity’s sake, I’m not actaully implying that process-implementing managers are inherently evil people. Moving on…)

And now, from Seth Godin:

Why isn’t it better?

  • Perhaps you don’t know enough
  • Perhaps you don’t care enough, or
  • Perhaps you’re unable to execute because of committees, the status quo and fear

Creative, skilled people usually like to solve problems. Not impossible problems or boring problems (hat-tip Merlin Mann), but intesting problems. Too often, management and process necessitate that these people spend most of their time working on the former.

You probably don’t know enough (and will never know enough) to solve an impossible problem, and you’re not going to care enough to solve boring problems over and over again. Meanwhile, committees, status quo, and fear—produced as the inevitable by-products of management and process—result in even more impossible and boring problems in need of solving, and fearfully water-down inspired solutions to the few interesting problems skilled people actually have the opportunity (and time) to solve.

And here’s the real lunacy of it all. When process stifles the production of “better than good” work, managers may try to layer more process on top to fix the problem.

To articulate the fundamental issue with this fool’s errand, we have Cennydd Bowles for The Pastry Box Project:

Skilled people without a process will always find a way to get things done. Skill begets process. But process doesn’t beget skill. Following a recipe won’t make you a great chef – it just means you can make a competent bolognese. Great chefs don’t need cookery books. They know their medium and their ingredients so well that they can find excellent combinations as they go. The recipe becomes a natural by-product of their work.

So in sum, here’s what we have. When an organization reaches a particular size, it seems natural to add managers who implement processes to keep things on track. But the intial success that brought the organization to that point was more than likely the product of the creative contributions of skilled individuals whose personalities/habits/etc. clash with this way of working.

The resulting burearucracy produces new problems that derail these individuals from doing the work that they care about. They feel deflated. They get grumpy. Then, when it comes time to solve a problem that is for once neither impossible nor boring, even remotely inspired solutions end up being diluted from higher up out of fear. And when organizations realize they’re not producing the results they once were, or at least believe they should be capable of producing, what’s the answer? “Let’s strike a subcommittee.”

Of course, this may all seem a bit reductionist, and as I said these thoughts are still rough around the edges. But I find myself continually going back to Bowles. If you give a recipe to someone who has never cooked before and tell them to follow it step-by-step, they will probably produce something edible. If you give a professional chef the same recipe and tell them to follow it step-by-step (and they don’t first storm out of the room insulted), they will probably produce something lacklustre in comparison to expectations. Process, politics, and asinine rules can’t manufacture intelligent, creative outcomes.

And I don’t know what the solution is for reconciling bureaucracy with creative work either. But what I do know is when an organization operates like it has something to lose—and merely pays lip-service to value of the work that its skilled employees have the potential to create—it does lose.

E Is for Empathy

One of the biggest issues plaguing poorly executed attempts at communication on the web is simply a lack of empathy for the end user.

That’s not say that the owners of ineffective web properties are necessarily lacking in empathy, intentionally callous, or unappreciative of their visitors. It’s more likely the case that at some time during the process of planning and implementing a new or redesigned website the needs of user fell out of view.

Sometimes this happens because of well-meaning assumptions or ill-defined project objectives. Other times it’s due to budget shortfalls and compressed timelines. It can also be the result of obsessive organizational navel-gazing or internal politicking.

Whatever the cause, it may be rectified when we shift our care and attention to what users truly need. And with that, here’s my short (and by no means comprehensive or prioritized) list of characteristics that exemplify empathetic web-based communication:

  • Your website assists users in completing their intended task
  • The preceding bullet assumes you know with relative certainty what your users need—if you don’t, be sure to ask them…directly
  • Your website has a thoughtfully-conceived layout, and users have plenty of room to browse and read content
  • Users aren’t smacked in the face by garish or explicitly trend-driven design when they arrive on your website
  • Content is written in your users’ language (i.e. no jargon)
  • The content on your site is up-to-date and relevant
  • The content on your site has been structured with the unique challenges posed by reading on a screen in mind
  • The messaging on your site is audience-appropriate and has substance
  • You have reduced noise wherever possible
  • The information architecture and metadata structures of your website weren’t simply based on your org chart
  • Visual and text-based cues assist website users with wayfinding
  • If your website exceeds the size of a basic, static brochure site, you have labelled content with appropriate metadata, and provided users with a functional mechanism for in-site search
  • Your website code is well-structured, semantic, and adheres to best practices in web standards (thus making your content more modular and portable to other viewing contexts)
  • The size of your website has been optimized to produce fast page-load times, especially on mobile devices
  • Your website has been built with accessibility in mind
  • Technological bells and whistles work on your website as intended, providing as seamless an experience as possible for your user
  • Any bleeding edge HTML5/CSS3 functionality has been implemented in such a way that those using modern browsers can enjoy an enhanced visual/interactive experience, while those using older browsers will still be able to use and navigate your website without being noticeably hindered by obvious degradation
  • No black hat SEO or usability tactics can be found anywhere on your website

Based on this short list alone, it’s easy to see how crafting empathetic web experiences for end users will require a long-term investment, both in terms of man-hours and dollars.

However, taking time and care to craft the best possible user experience—one that will simultaneously help users do what they came to your site to do (with relative ease) while allowing you to meet the business objectives that your website was built to satisfy in the first place—pays dividends in the end.

Introducing Edit Hub

After innumerable hours of tinkering, I’m happy to finally throw Edit Hub out into the wild.

Edit Hub started out as a teeny, tiny spark in my brain as I sat in Kristina Halvorson’s workshop at An Event Apart last year. Even though content strategy has exploded as a discipline recently, the tools that we use to do CS work are still rather unremarkable.

And while there seems to be more and more apps in development that aim to help with up-front content strategy work—GatherContent (private beta) and Page Trawler (alpha) come to mind—there’s not much out there yet for people who want to manage an editorial calendar, develop and host various iterations of content, and collaborate with other content creators all at the same time.

Over years of trafficking and juggling Word docs, text files, images, videos, and emails with all kinds of content pasted in and attached to them, this deficit has become very apparent to me. Whether for print publications or digital media, I would have loved to have a centralized place for internal content sharing, subsequent revising, and discussion.

So instead of waiting for someone else to build a web app that would make all of my wildest content wrangling dreams come true, I decided to try building something myself on WordPress.

[insert screeching record sound effect]

Huh!? WordPress? Ultimately, I had a few excellent reasons for building Edit Hub as a WP theme, not the least of which include that WordPress is self-hosted, it’s extendible, and its user interface keeps getting better and better (but I digress…).

My big idea with Edit Hub is to turn WordPress into a centralized web-based app that allows you to:

  • organize your content and related media assets
  • facilitate collaborative content development
  • maintain an editorial calendar
  • export content into a variety of useful formats

I designed Edit Hub with communications professionals of all stripes in mind, but business owners, project managers, and just about anyone faced with the prospect of creating, refining, and publishing content will find it helpful—especially when developing this content requires collaboration with others.

All you need to get Edit Hub up and running is a fresh installation of WordPress. Oh, and did I mention that Edit Hub (like WordPress) is 100% free?

Peaked your interest yet? Visit the Edit Hub page to learn more about its rockin’ features, view screenshots, check out a demo site, and download a copy of the WP theme zip.

A small disclaimer

As far as back-end web development is concerned, I’m mostly a hobbyist and Edit Hub v1.0 is very beta.

I do welcome any and all feedback from those brave souls who give it a try. I built Edit Hub based on my own experience coordinating collaborative content production for both print and web, so I’d love to hear what features fellow content workers would like to see implemented in future releases.

So what are you waiting for? Go check it out.

Posted in: WordPress

Get In a Box: Thoughts on Constraints and Creative Work

It should be easier than ever to make stuff.

Free (or relatively low cost) tools abound. Places to share or sell the final product of your labours are in no short supply either. Oh, and feedback? That can be almost instantaneous, if you want it to be.

So why does it still seem so damn hard to see creative endeavours through to completion?

You may be grappling with the Resistance—that insidious inner beast that halts creative momentum in its tracks. Steven Pressfield says that thwarting the Resistance can be as simple as showing up everyday and doing the work. But that’s easier said than done, of course.

Where do you start? How do you start? What platform or medium do you use? So many choices! It can be paralyzing at times.

So put yourself in a box. I started thinking about constraints and their paradoxical ability to propel creative work forward while listening to a recent episode of The Big Web Show where Jeffrey Zeldman prodded guest Mike Monteiro on how he overcame a ten-year bout of artist’s block.

The emergent thesis from the discussion was simple: limit the parameters of what you will produce and how you will produce to make the prospect of delving into creative work less daunting. In other words, start small, minimize the number of decisions you’re going to need to make, and just get to it.

Correspondingly, I would add that once past any kind of artist’s block, self-imposed constraints serve another important function: maintaining consistency. Not in a way that dampens creativity, but in a way that supports and lends direction to it (for instance, as a style guide would).

Ultimately, I think constraints can be lumped into three broad categories:

Scope/Specs

I’m all for spontaneous, uninhibited creative acts that effortlessly culminate into masterpieces, but in my experience those are few and far between. Having a clear idea of what you’re going to create (or what you’re not going to create) before you confront the blank page is half the battle.

Specs don’t need to be elaborate either. I took a textile design class in undergrad where the final project was a hand-painted silk kimono that had to include white, black, turquoise, and any kind of repeating pattern somewhere in the design.  If not for those specs, I’d probably still be standing over a wooden frame deciding where to commit dye.

Tools

When you limit yourself to only using a certain tool, you are imposing a constraint on yourself (e.g. a certain paint brush, a specific code library, iambic pentameter). Further, some tools have interesting constraints built into them as well, like the 140 character limit in Twitter.

I think that limiting what tools you’re going to use is the least threatening of all constraints to impose. Consider starting here.

Timeframe

I’ll confess, I suck at setting deadlines for my personal projects. I suck even more at adhering to the ones that I do set. I think part of it is a fear of shipping (Resistance!), and the other part is having the creative confidence to say “yes, I’m done now.”

Of course, time constraints are arguably the most important of all, because it’s not art if it’s not done and nobody ever sees it.

A Word of Caution

A sacred cow is not the kind of constraint we’re talking about here. If there’s an unquestioned limitation you impose your creativity—or perhaps is externally imposed on your creativity—it’s likely having the exact opposite effect on your work. Slaughter your sacred cows mercilessly.

Content, Here and Now

What does the increasing compression of time and space mean for content?

It means I order a few books online—that is, books of the dead tree variety—and an hour later I mindlessly reach for my iPad to start reading one of them. Donald A. Norman would call this an associative activation error. I might say it’s emblematic of brain rewired for instant content gratification on the device of my choosing.

Give it to me!

Good or bad, we have grown accustomed to media that is served up right here, right now, and however we want it. The anticipation of content’s arrival seems like an antiquated nuisance. Not being able to access it after its initial release is an irritant. Missed last week’s episode of House? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. Heard about a book on the podcast you listened to on the way to work? Download it while you pour your morning coffee, and start reading it at lunch.

A liquid, not a solid

In addition to its speed and ubiquity, content usually costs less now. It also needs to fit into a lot of different boxes, because it now needs to fill temporal gaps in all kinds of spaces—standing at a bus stop, waiting in a restaurant, passing time in line at the bank, etc. The diversity of our new content boxes makes the bygone days of fretting over whether your website looked the same in IE and Netscape seem laughable.

Yes content creators, it is your problem

Clearly, there are serious implications for content producers here. On one hand it has never been easier to push content out, yet on the other, it has never been more exasperating. From paperbacks to PDFs to fixed-width websites, most content is still rigid and oblivious to its viewing context. Technology can help, but smarter content ultimately requires deliberate choices by its creator.

These won’t be simple choices, and they will most certainly have an expense tied to their implementation. But making these choices now will be a lot less costly and a lot less painful than pretending you don’t need to make them at all.

Posted in: Content

Fair’s Fair? (A Very Brief Overview of Fair Use and Fair Dealing)

If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you create some kind of content that eventually finds its way to the internet. There’s also a good chance some of that content occasionally incorporates other people’s copyrighted material.

Now here’s the million dollar question: Are you sure (and I mean really sure) you know what and how much you’re allowed to use of that copyrighted work?

If you have no idea, you’re not alone. Fair use (or “fair dealing” depending on where you live) isn’t black and white. In fact, it can be highly amorphous and subjective depending on the specific case. However, one thing doesn’t change: if you’re serious about creating, distributing, or sharing content online that makes use of copyrighted work in any way, you’ll want to make sure you have your fair use/dealing bases covered lest you receive a strongly worded cease and desist letter in your mailbox.

Inspired by a recent episode of The Web Ahead where fair use author and advocate Pat Aufderheide spent the better part of an hour clarifying and debunking myths about legally permissible usage of copyrighted material, I decided to dig deeper. (Yeah I’ll confess, I thought it would be fun to read about copyright law in my spare time.)

As Pat pointed out in the podcast, fair use is like a muscle—we have to use it or risk losing it. And all too often, we simply default to excluding copyrighted material, opt for Creative Commons licensed or public domain content, or take our chances incorporating what seems like a reasonable amount of a copyrighted work in what seems like a reasonable way without understanding what’s truly considered fair usage.

So the first important thing to note is that while international agreements have somewhat standardized the provision and transference of copyright between countries, what counts as fair use/dealing varies significantly depending on where you live.

For instance, fair use is a primarily an American concept (though also employed by Israel) and tends to more liberal than fair dealing, which is predominantly used in Commonwealth countries (including Canada, where I live).

In the interest of keeping things concise, I’m going to look at fair use vs. fair dealing from a US vs. Canada perspective. So here goes…

According to Pat Aufderheide, qualifying fair use (US) of copyrighted material comes down to two essential questions:

  1. Was the new work transformative? (Does it create new culture or commentary in some way, or are you merely redistributing the original work again?)
  2. Was the amount of copyrighted content used appropriate? (For the specific context, of course)

(A meatier explanation of fair use criteria can be found on the US Copyright Office site.)

By comparison, fair dealing in Canada is more restrictive. According to a lengthy article by Giuseppina D’Agostino (you’ve been warned), the Supreme Court of Canada has established six criteria for determining fair dealing:

  1. The purpose of the dealing (Especially whether it’s for commercial purposes)
  2. The character of the dealing (In other words, how many copies were made and how widely were they distributed?)
  3. The amount of the dealing (Fairly straight-forward, but highly dependent on the context of the case)
  4. Alternatives to the dealing (If a non-copyrighted near equivalent is available, better stick with that one)
  5. The nature of the work (If the original material hasn’t been published yet, and your usage helps widen public dissemination, then the dealing may be seen as more fair, but this gets complicated with confidential material)
  6. The effect of the dealing on the work (Will your use of the copyrighted work impact the market for that work?)

There’s certainly overlap, but clear differences between the two countries—a point often taken for granted, especially (I would argue) north of the 49th.

One thing that doesn’t differ across geopolitical boundaries is the abundance of myths about fair use/dealing that are mistakenly understood as universal laws. A few of the common ones include:

  • “The original copyright holder should want me to spread their work.” Perhaps true, but this argument won’t hold water in a lawsuit. Even in Canada, if “the nature of the work” criterion is the only leg you have to stand on, then your fair dealing case is probably thin.
  • “As long I give credit to the original creator, then it’s ok to use or adapt their copyrighted material as I require.” Nice try, but alas, no.
  • “If I use less than one chapter / 30 seconds / 10% / etc. of this copyrighted work, then it’s considered fair usage.” Nope. These are usually institution- or industry-specific guidelines. Generally, there are no hard and fast rules about fair use/dealing thresholds.
  • “Fair use/dealing isn’t worth the hassle today.” In the face of rampant DRM and perpetually extending copyright terms, it’s worth the hassle more than ever.
Now it’s time for the likely obvious disclaimer: I’m definitely not a lawyer, so consult a one regarding fair use or fair dealing where you deem necessary. You may also want to do some googling to find out if any guidelines or case studies specific to your industry or profession exist already. Precedent can never hurt.

Update

Canadian copyright law saw major changes during summer 2012. The definition of fair dealing was finally expanded to include education, parody, and satire. Non-commercial use exceptions also expanded. Somewhat remarkable considering the usual draconian direction of copyright law amendments over the last couple decades.

Recommended Reading & Resources

And just for fun…

Posted in: Content

Tools Always Matter

The decision of what tools you select to support your online work isn’t one to be taken lightly. And in an age of ubiquitous app stores, all kinds of software as service, and nearly inescapable access to the cloud, that decision becomes more difficult than ever based on the volume of options alone.

(Mix in some organizational politics for good measure, and ensuring that you and all other end users actually have the right tool for the right job may seem like a pipe dream.)

In particular, your choice of what content management system to use for your website is certainly not immune to these perils. In fact it may be even more susceptible, as the tool you use to maintain your web presence (theoretically) should keep pace with the ever-advancing technology of the web—not just for aesthetics, and not just in a superficial attempt to keep up with the new hotness, but for a host of very good reasons related to security maintenance, usability, and accessibility.

But unfortunately many CMS-related decisions are made for the wrong reasons. My favorites (personally witnessed on multiple occasions) include “our other website runs on X CMS, so we’ll use it for this site too” and “because communications/IT/some consultant/etc. said so, that’s why.”

These reasons aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but when they fail to take into account user needs (both internal and external) and business goals, you’re setting yourself up for an expensive problem down the road.

I’ve written before that a CMS is not a panacea—in other words, no piece of technology no matter how expensive it is (repeat: no matter how expensive it is) will solve your content problems for you. However, a misfitted CMS will indeed create a host of new content problems that in turn compound the ones that already existed. Not the least of these problems include users who out of necessity bastardize the CMS’s built-in features or hack out solutions to problems that can’t be solved by the system’s native functionality.

The idea of a right tool may seem like an overly amorphous, ambiguous, and even unattainable concept, especially when the decision of what constitutes “right” must be made by more than one person. But the thing that never changes about “the right tool” is that in order for it to feel right, you shouldn’t really notice that you’re using it. The tool should be a low-friction conduit for completing work.

However, when tools don’t work, their existence becomes very obvious, resulting in a productivity time-suck, an invitation for clunky user hacks, and an unsustainable content ecosystem destined to collapse under its own crufty weight.

At the same time that an ill-fitted content management system can force users to concoct creative means for using it in unintended ways, it can simultaneously foster perverse attachments to it. I’m talking about path dependencies. The choices that you make about technology now dictate the kind of decisions you can feasibly make later.

Entertaining and relevant sidebar: The QWERTY keyboard is the essential example of path dependency. It was originally designed to slow down typists to prevent them from jamming early typewriters, and while better iterations of the keyboard have materialized over the last century, we’re hopelessly hooked on QWERTY’s sub-par design.

Tools matter. They matter a lot. They matter now as they pose impossible hurdles to culling inefficiencies in your workflows, and they matter in an even more painful way later when entrenched work processes and prohibitive conversion costs prevent you from upgrading to a new tool.

So choose your tools wisely.

Posted in: Technology

Out With the Old

A few days ago I went on a rampage through my house.

Anything that was broken beyond repair went out the door. From an old laundry hamper that was barely held together with some strategically-placed duct tape, to a wicker dog bed that my Boston repeatedly mistakes for a giant chew toy, to a metal patio set that hasn’t fared well in Alberta’s climate… I was merciless in eliminating things from my home that had long outlived their usefulness.

Why the sudden whim to pitch and chuck? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a wasteful person by nature. I prefer investing money in fewer but better quality things. When I do find something in my home that I no longer have use for, I try to give it a second life by donating it to Goodwill, or at the very least trying to find a way to recycle or re-purpose it.

In fact, those tendencies probably explain why I keep things around longer than they remain useful or in working order—it’s that nagging inner voice that makes me feel a teensy bit guilty about throwing things away, and also has me convinced that finding something more functional will be a pain in the butt.

But sometimes you need to make a clean break. Whether you realize it or not, the things that we can’t stand looking at (but at the same time can’t seem to remove from our lives) take up space in our brains. Distracting trains of thought often include:

  • Kicking yourself for not having taken the initiative to replace the problematic thing by now
  • The monetary cost of replacing the thing (we often get very stuck here)
  • The potential inconvenience involved in finding a suitable replacement, and how it might just be easier to stick with what’s already there

The list goes on. However, there’s nothing more freeing than when you finally decide to let go.

By now you may be wondering what the direct relevance of this anecdote and its related musings are to digital marketing work. The relevance is actually two-fold.

First, you can take this at face value, and eliminate the physical objects from your life that at this point only take space. You’ll find that (miraculously) once they’re gone, it’s a lot easier to focus on the task hand, such as writing a blog post, tweaking the format of your enewsletter, pitching another blog for a guest spot, etc.

Second, you look at it as a metaphor for dealing with digital. All too often, we cling to tools and tactics that just don’t work anymore. We make rationalizations about why it’s best to just stick with what we’re doing, and develop productivity-killing coping mechanisms to make them work as best we can. Then we wonder why we don’t see better results, or why we face almost impassable mental resistance when we need to use said tool or tactic.

The remedy is simple. If something doesn’t work, then stop using it. This may seem a bit reductionist, but time and again our reasons for sticking with an old way don’t hold water outside of our own heads.

Explore new options of what can work for you, then eliminate the broken things and habits that don’t. Start small if you must, but keep going and always be ruthlessly decisive. No keeping the old thing around just in case—burn the boats so there’s no turning back.