The Third Something

101 / One Thing At A Time

Some thoughts on productivity and visual storytelling.

If there’s one golden rule for telling stories with pictures it’s probably this: one thing at a time.

The audience can only focus on one idea per shot or panel, and so a big part of the job is breaking down bigger ideas into their smallest units and then deciding what order to show each unit.

One unit = one shot.

I discovered this making this film years ago. Visual storytelling is not unlike how the binary language of computing works: large files are broken down into their smallest possible pieces — a binary unit (or byte) — and then transmitted in a near endless string of distinct bits, to be reassembled by another machine.1

What is a film or a comic but a long string of distinct images?

Even a simple sentence like “the cat sat in a tree eating a mouse” is actually three ideas, and therefore three shots or three panels: a tree, a cat in the tree, a cat eating a mouse.

A three-panel sequence showing a cat sitting in a tree eating a mouse.

One thing at a time.

It’s the season where my birthday and the end of the year have me all reflective; am I using my time right? What can I do next year to move it forward?

I wonder if the golden rule of visual storytelling applies to life as well: I can really only do one thing at a time. Which is a shame really, because I have so many things I want to do!

And every year, as I get older, it feels more urgent to get started on them all.

Oliver Burkeman’s new book 4000 Weeks might bum you out with its central idea: you probably have only 4,000 weeks alive on this planet and you can’t possibly do all the things you want to. (Answer: stop trying. Pick a few and never look back).

But, for those projects you do choose, he argues in favour of serialising them.

Commit to having only one major project or obligation on your plate at once. You can’t take on a new project, activity or mission until the current one is completed. A kind of one-in, one-out rule.

One thing at a time.

I like this because it sets an intention — not just to prioritise something, but to deprioritise other things. Burkeman calls this strategic underperformance.

The difficulty is the anxiety of delaying the other projects you really want to do. Still, it beats never doing them at all.

One of my favourite factoids from Burkeman’s book: the word decide has its greek root in a murderous family of words: homocide, genocide, patricide. To the greeks, to make a decision to do something, meant murdering countless possible futures.

That’s probably at the heart of all our indecision. But here’s a second golden-rule of visual storytelling: sometimes you have to kill your darlings.2

  1. So a 1Mb image file, for example, contains 1,000,000 binary units of information. To complete the metaphor, a movie with 2,000 separate shots in it, could be described as being 2Ks (kiloshot), but I’m not sure how that would be useful! ↩︎

  2. I’m sorry for the long gap between recent newsletters. The struggle to do more than one thing at once is real! I’m hoping a more regular service will pick up in the new year. ↩︎

Until another Sunday soon,

Adam's signature