A manifesto for a more wondrous age.

I recently came across this article on John Carmack’s work ethic, and how he tracks his own productivity. John Carmack, if you’re unaware, is one of the patron saints of game development, being a founding member of id software, and responsible for some of the foundational games in the FPS genre like Doom and Quake.

The story goes that Mr. Carmack has a stack of CDs in his office, which he listens to front to back on a stereo. Whenever he isn’t working, say if someone comes to ask a question or he has to go to the bathroom, he pauses the CD.

Then, given that the CDs are only being listened to if he’s working in his office, he can use them to see how much time he’s spent working. Of course, this is only one metric to track yourself by, and assumes you’ve been working at a constant pace while the music is going. And that requires discipline.

You see, to John, it’s most relevant to be honest with yourself about how hard you’ve been working, and whether you’ve been working at all. I’ve fallen into many traps before where I’ve allowed myself to feel complacent or productive, when perhaps I wasn’t writing very effectively at all.

I’ve long admired the work ethic of Haruki Murakami, who wrote his first novels at the kitchen table around midnight after his long shifts at Peter Cat, the jazz bar he owned. If you’ve ever read a Murakami novel, you’ll know how important jazz and records are to him. In fact, on his website, he has a section talking about his massive record collection.

Like Murakami, I need to listen to music if I want to be effective. There’s something about the consistency of having music in the background that keeps me focused on the task ahead.

For a long time, my primary source of music consumption came from Spotify playlists, like this painstaking effort to recreate Murakami’s jazz collection. More recently, I’ve been listing to YouTube live lo-fi hip-hop compilations in the background of doing whatever I was doing, be it writing or cooking or reading.

I still love lo-fi, and even the convenience of music streaming, but lately I’ve been moving away from streaming in favor of something a bit more concrete. I don’t have any CDs, anymore, but I do have a vinyl collection.

Vinyl has seen a slight resurgence in recent years after a steady decline since the dawn of iTunes. There’s a lot to love about wax. Of course, there’s the physicality, of owning your music, as opposed to “borrowing” a digital copy. It’s fun to collect, and to hold, to display, and of course to listen to. There’s something really magic about watching the needle bob up and down in the grooves.

For me, records have served another function, sort of my own version of John Carmack’s method. Lately, as I’ve been writing, my means of tracking my progress and holding myself accountable have been twofold. For one, on my desktop, I use Josh Avanier’s Log to monitor what I’m up to, my peak performance, and see the stats that underly my work.

Instead of launching Spotify when I sit down at my computer, which serves as only another distraction, lately I’ve been putting on a record. A side of a standard 33 RPM 12” record is roughly 22 minutes, give or take. That’s nearly one Pomodoro cycle.

I start the record from the beginning, allowing myself the time to get settled before the music starts. Then, I start the task on Log. For those 22 minutes, I write straight through, not stopping to edit. When the record hits the locked groove, I know my time is up, and I pause the task on Log before getting up, stretching, going to the bathroom, and flipping the record over (or switching albums entirely.)

While I’m writing, I can glance over at the record and get a quick gauge of how far in I am to the session.

Because of the physicality of the record, and the listening experience that it favors, I’m not going to “skip a track”, or leave it playing if I leave the room. I also don’t want to leave it spinning in the lock groove once it finishes. In this way, it forces me to stay on track, until the record comes to an end.

So far, this method of keeping my focus and logging my productive time has been very fruitful.

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