Daniel D. Beck

Acute Strategies

I recently made a simple game to overcome distraction, procrastination, and boredom. To play the game, I draw a card from a deck of tricks I use to get excited about whatever it is I’m avoiding doing. The cards look like this:

a deck of cards fanned out, faces showing

The cards are handwritten on a deck of blanks I found on Amazon. Each card has a single prompt that I’ve found has helped me in the past, such as:

I’m someone who thrives on routine, but I also have a tendency to feel constrained and seek out novelty, even if it upsets my useful routines. By playing this structured productivity game, I can use both of these things about myself to my benefit. The strategies are familiar, but drawing a card creates surprise.

In form, the game owes everything to Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. That’s why I’ve been referring to my deck as “Acute Strategies.” Oblique Strategies has a bunch of fun and sometimes cryptic prompts for resolving creative blocks like “Work at a different speed,” “What would your closest friend do?” and “Consider transitions.” But even though “Honor thy error as hidden intention” is some of the best advice out there, actual creative blocks are rare, at least for me.

The kinds of creative problems I have are often solvable or at least sidesteppable. Instead, I have a lot of practical blocks. I have a hard time keeping my mind on where I am and what I’m doing. It’s hard to know when it’s time to take a break, when I need a literal buzzer to remind me where to put my attention, or when I need to change what it is I’m working on.

In terms of the cards’ content, I have a lot of sources of inspiration, from the Pomodoro Technique to robber barons, but the theme of the collection is from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. As a technical writer, I’m obliged to have a soft spot for the book; Pirsig was a technical writer and it comes up several times in the narrative.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig uses a phrase I really like, “gumption trap,” to describe practical blocks. Gumption traps, broadly defined, are the things that sap enthusiasm. For fixing motorcycles, it’s shitty tools, exhaustion, physical inexperience, and missing parts. Gumption traps are adjacent to interesting problems, but they’re not interesting problems themselves. They’re just the stuff that’s in the way.

When I think about adding a new card to my deck, that’s the kind of problem I’m thinking of solving. So when I’m having trouble making progress on something, grinding away to no effect or avoiding the work, I draw a card and have a pretty good chance that it will give me a little boost of enthusiasm to get going again.