Regarding Order

A More Sane Way to Set Yearly Goals: 19 for 2019 with Gretchen Rubin

Recorded on December 20th, 2018

My wife got me excited about Gretchen Rubin’s book Outer Order, Inner Calm, and the Happier podcast she does with her sister. On episode 199, they reviewed progress on their respective “18 for 2018” lists. These are as simple as they sound — lists of things to do, see, make, or habits to adopt in 2018. They’re doing their “19 for 2019” lists and I like the idea much more than the tired, futile (for me) process of “new year’s resolutions”. Those always sound like “Be it known that once and for all I am going to correct longstanding character flaw X in my brain and 2019 will be the year it happens”.

The “19 for 2019” is more like a to-do list for the year, just like I make to-do lists for certain days. It’s a way to say, OK, I can only get so much done in a year. What things would I like to not allow to sit idle for another year? Those can be as mundane as “Paint the front steps” or “Build a bookshelf”. It’s so easy to let a year slip away without moving on a bunch of projects that would make life better if they were done.

By the way, reading “Outer Order, Inner Calm” is on my 2019 list.

Trump: The Anti-Tufte

Recorded on October 13th, 2016

I guess one of the reasons I bristle when Trump appears in a video, frothing at the mouth, is that he invariably spouts some data-less claim about what a disaster this or that situation is, and then follows it up with a fanciful vision of what the great outcome will be because of him and his genius. He never describes those outcomes in detail, and doesn’t give any path or outline any steps that will get us there. It is strictly a hand-waving exercise. No precision, no complications, no multi-factor problems. All of it can be solved by getting tough, building a wall, hiring the best people, repealing the dumb laws, etc. That’s the extent of it.

Apologies to Edward Tufte for invoking his name, but Trump is like the anti-Tufte. Zero evidence is presented in every case. There’s no room for analysis or compromise. Just lies about statistics and lies about science, all to puff himself up and make his supporters buy what he’s selling. It revulses me the same way that corporate buzz-speak revulses me, because I know there’s no substance, only misdirection. In any workplace, when I hear “leverage” used as a verb, or “synergy” used at all, my bullshit radar turns on and I know that whatever is coming next needs to be looked at with caution and skepticism. Trump is human chartjunk, except he’s not even as good as chartjunk — he’s just crayon scribbles on a paper bag. My bullshit radar goes into the red whenever he starts talking.

It’s going to be a long 26 days.

Andrew Sullivan: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

Recorded on September 22nd, 2016

There’s hardly anything I can add to Andrew Sullivan’s article that he doesn’t say better: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours

All those technologies re-connect me with dear old friends on Facebook, inspire me with beautiful photos from strangers on Flickr, and make me feel so close to my favorite podcasters (who are humans). But that network also provides an endless source of distraction, killing my attention and everyone else’s through a thousand tiny ephemeral cuts.

By the way: the irony of finding this article via a link from a friend on Facebook is duly noted. At least I learned some new words while reading it: “febrile”, “novitiate”, “caviling”.

“Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.”

“Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.”

Back to One Master TaskPaper File

Recorded on August 16th, 2016

I abandoned the additional This Week.taskpaper file and am back on one single Current.taskpaper file. It was getting to be too much to flip between the two on the phone, so I never did it. The new Current.taskpaper file is expanded to include some day-oriented faux projects at the top of the file, because I can’t seem to reliably adopt regular TaskPaper due dates.

The lesson here is: do not let your task list fester like a fridge full of old food (something Merlin Mann has said many, many times). Get rid of the stuff you’re never gonna eat, even if you had good intentions at one time, and especially if you’ve been carrying it all around for too long. Same with moldy tasks and actions.

I was almost lured into signing up for Todoist, which is a great system run by good people. I know, though, that the attraction of that app for me is to have a perfect relational database of tasks. The flaw in that idea is that a perfect task structure may help get things off your mind, but it can be so perfect that you go numb to it and just gaze at its perfection. Your projects and tasks shouldn’t have to sit around long enough to need a perfect structure. You should have enough structure there to make them not chaotic, but there should be enough mess in there that you want to get rid of (i.e. complete) the tasks as quickly as possible.

No matter what system or app you use, there is just no substitute for the unsexy work of:

  1. Regularly reviewing your commitments and what steps will need to happen to get them done
  2. Being realistic about what you can achieve in a day or week
  3. Actually doing the things on the lists

Filing vs. Searching

Recorded on July 30th, 2016

My friend Allen and I were talking today about the difference between obsessively filing photos by year/month/event and just dumping them into a giant folder and letting metadata take over. Same thing for Evernote items. You can make folders for every category of stuff you want to keep, or you can toss it all in one bucket and rely on search to get you what you need. And the unexpected benefit of going with search is that by using it, you’re bound to encounter half-forgotten things along the way that you might not have seen otherwise.

I came out of the conversation not knowing which is ultimately better, but believing more than ever that while filing stuff carefully has its place, it’s easy to go overboard. Once any one of us is gone, who cares about how organized our Dropbox folder of curated photos is?

Trello’s Cool Built-In Calendar for Multiple Pressing Deadlines

Recorded on July 14th, 2016

Last night I whined about how I couldn’t keep it all straight when multiple deadlines start piling up in parallel projects. My TaskPaper master file isn’t going anywhere, but I accept that sometimes life gets crazy enough that you need to swap part of your stuff into another system, just to get a big picture of what’s going on for the next few weeks and keep the momentum going of all those projects.

Here are a couple of projects in Trello on iOS that look a lot like actual projects (that I don’t want to show). I first listed some milestones for each project on various cards, then assigned them some due dates without thinking too much about it.

screenshot of some Trello lists

Then, on the non-mobile browser version, you have a couple of calendar views of all the cards that have due dates. I’m attempting to use those dates as milestones, not as “start and finish this task on this day” dates.

Here’s the month view, which makes it easy to see how close your tasks are getting to the final due date of the project (mine is labeled in red). You can also get a good sense of where you’re going to be loaded down. Magically, you drag cards around in the calendar and their dates change when you go back to the card details view. The final cool thing about Trello calendar views is that you can plug their iCal feeds into Google Calendar, if you really want to see how your aspirational milestones map against the existing commitments of real life:

screenshot of Trello month calendar

I especially like the week calendar, because it groups your tasks by project, and you can read the cards more easily. It shows you clearly what you need to focus on today (or what you should have focused on yesterday if you waited this long to review everything).

screenshot of weekly calendar in Trello

I will give this a shot!

Randy Pausch on Keeping a Clear Desk

Recorded on July 4th, 2016

Yesterday, I was going through what I call a “box of shame”. It’s one of those boxes I end up with after I realize I have too much unprocessed crap on my desk and I sweep it all into a big box so I can keep working, knowing that I’ll deal with it later — sometimes much later. That’s no way to live, but it’s still one notch better than having your work held up by a bunch of stuff that’s physically in the way.

Among all the random papers and wires and half-filled Field Notes notebooks, I saw a Post-It note where I had scribbled, “Randy Pausch crucial desk clear”. No date on it, and no other context, but I knew that it was something that I wrote down to get out of my head while I was working on something else one day. And I knew it was a phrase I had heard during one of the many times I listened to the audio version of Randy Pausch’s “last lecture” at U.Va.

From the transcript of the “Time Management” (PDF) section of his lecture, here’s the part that my Post-It note referred to. And yes, it’s funny that I would be reminded of the wisdom of an orderly desk while sorting through a pile of desk clutter:

Paperwork. The first thing that you need to know is that having cluttered paperwork leads to thrashing. You end up with all these things on your desk, and you can’t find anything, and the moment you turn to your desk your desk is saying to you: “I own you! I have more things than you can do! And they are many colors and laid out!” So what I find is that it’s really crucial to keep your desk clear, and we’ll talk about where all the paper goes in a second, and you have one thing on your desk because then it’s like: “Haha! Now it’s thunderdome! Me and the ONE piece of paper.” I usually win that one. One of the mantras of time management is, touch each piece of paper once. You get the piece of paper, you look at it, you work at it, and I think that’s extremely true for email.

It should be instructive that a professor who knew he had a short time left in his life would still put such a high value on keeping a clear desk, an empty email inbox, and writing thank-you notes.

The First 22 Minutes of the Morning

Recorded on May 15th, 2016

One thing I left out of my notes from listening to Mark Fernandes was this nugget (paraphrased):

Most of how your day goes is decided in the first 22 minutes of the morning. What do most people do in the first five minutes? Check their phone.

“Check their phone” has been me ever since I got an iPod touch in 2008, and the iPhone only made things worse. Weekday or weekend, I wake up, turn off the alarm, check various notifications, and peek at email. On my weakest days, check Facebook, and there goes an untold number of minutes. Fernandes suggested trying something different. Instead of reaching for the nearest electronic device after waking up, let your brain spin up to speed on its own time. As you go about your routine, think about how you want the day to go and what you want to bring to it, before taking in a bunch of new input (or expectations) from the outside world.

I did that this week and I noticed immediately how much more mentally quiet the morning became. I was less artificially harried, and able to think thoughts at my own slow pace. Besides that, I actually got much more time back every morning because I wasn’t wasting minutes idly poking away at links on the web. Not having the phone (or laptop) available as a pacifier for that initial chunk of time forced me to think about what else I could do that would usually be crammed into the last few minutes before heading out the door.

The only phone use I allowed myself in those first 22 minutes was opening Drafts to dump a task in the inbox if it occurred to me. I figured that small bit of device use — to get something short out of my head and then shut it off — would be worth breaking the rule.

I wondered where the “22 minutes” idea had come from. I didn’t remember Fernandes citing the source for that number, but I searched a bit and found some references to Robert Cooper, a neuroscientist with some books about harnessing hidden powers of the brain. I haven’t looked deeply into it, but his theory of “aiming the brain” in those first few minutes seems to line up with what I observed the past few days.

What Is This Phone For?

Recorded on April 7th, 2016

This is probably T.M.I., but I don’t care. It’s a cool trick.

On the latest episode of Cortex (#26: Pick your Poison), C.G.P. Grey told Myke Hurley that he thinks deliberately about what he wants his iPhone and various iPads to be used for, and he tailors the homescreens to put himself in the right mindset when he uses them. Some devices are for work/health and some are for fun/relaxation. His current iPhone homescreen looks like this, and I hope he and Myke won’t mind that I stole this from the Relay FM website:

screenshot of C.G.P. Grey's iPhone homescreen

His top row is especially crazy, with its folders named “.” and containing single tiny icons. His thinking there is that he doesn’t need folder names if the one app visible in each folder reminds him of the rest of the similar apps hidden deeper in the folder. It works for him, but that’s too much thinking for me.

What I take away from his overall aim is that he doesn’t cram his homescreen full of apps. He doesn’t turn on his phone and feel overwhelmed by choices, or get distracted by a bunch of things to lead him astray, even though it would be theoretically more efficient to have as many core apps one tap away as he could fit.

My homescreen was full until yesterday. When I heard Grey’s method, I thought about what I wanted to do more of on the iPhone. My answers were: read more, write more, plan the days and weeks better, have better habits in general, be healthier, and listen to more lossless music. And alongside that, what are the apps with notifications/badges that I really don’t want to have to skip to screen 2 to see? Here’s what I came up with:

screenshot of my iPhone homescreen

This whole scheme is brand new, so there are a crap-ton of annoying badges reminding me of things I’m behind on, but I’m catching up.

I had also been trying to come up with a way to be more aware of some instructions my doctor gave me to keep cholesterol in check. It had been a month since my lab results, and I had already forgotten what she said about eating better and getting more exercise. I figured if the bullet points from her email were in a place I could see them regularly, I’d be more likely to remember them and make better choices between now and the next visit. I copied and pasted her instructions into Pages, squeezed the typeface way down, took a screenshot, cropped it to show just the text I wanted to use, inverted it in Adobe Photoshop Express, and then used Fixer to make a wallpaper image out of it. The bullet points take up precious screen real estate, but that’s the whole idea.

When Sarah saw the resulting homescreen, she congratulated me on my unprecedented level of nerdiness.

We’ll see if those diet/exercise reminders work, or if I go numb to them after a while. So far, it’s been nice to see the more focused homescreen for the past couple of days, and I do feel like the apps that are left are therefore boosted in purpose and importance. Everything else I actually use is only a screen or two away, or available by a Spotlight search anyway.

Blackstrap Molasses; Matter Out of Place; Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops”

Recorded on February 29th, 2016

Three things which I don’t know enough about to write separate posts on:

  1. Because I am always looking for an excuse to eat/drink molasses out of a spoon, I am delighted to share this from the University of Maryland Medical Center:

    Blackstrap molasses, also known as pregnancy tea (1 tablespoon per day in a cup of hot water), is a good source of iron, B vitamins, and minerals. Blackstrap molasses is also a very gentle laxative.

  2. Though you would never know it from looking at my desk, I am becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea of “matter out of place” (MOOP). I learned it from Unclutterer, who learned it from Tarin Towers when she wrote:

    MOOP is a term coined by hikers and other ecology-minded people who use phrases like “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace.” It stands for Matter Out of Place. In a state park, it might refer to a bottle cap on a forest floor, a cigarette butt on a footpath, a tent peg neglected when the tent got packed up. In a house, it might be a wet towel on a bedroom floor, a coffee mug on top of the TV.

  3. Tonight on WERA-LP, Butch played a bit of a beautiful track by William Basinski from his incredible work, “The Disintegration Loops”. That I missed out on him for so many years is distressing, because he is right up my alley. I found this on The Quietus | Time Becomes A Loop: William Basinski Interviewed:

    “I’m talking to him about the tenth anniversary of The Disintegration Loops albums which have just been reissued together as a box set. The tracks were created from pre-existing loops as they were transferred to digital masters, made unique by the way the magnetic tape crumbled slowly away, causing unexpectedly beautiful and affecting progressions in the music.

    These new recordings were first created in Brooklyn the day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and since then, for reasons that are relatively obvious after one listens to them, they have become considered by many to be one of the most pre-eminent American artistic statements of the 21st Century so far.”

    That piece, “dlp 1.1”, reminds me of My Bloody Valentine’s hazy, rubato loops on “Loveless”. And I see that it’s available on Amazon Prime Music. A-ha.