Tag Archives: productivity

The Junk Drawer

I just did something remarkable, so much so that I had to tell you about it right away: I didn’t just toss the junk on my desk into the junk drawer. I was trying to clear off some space as a way of delaying the inevitable work I needed to do. I picked up some junk that had accumulated on the surface of my desk and pulled open one of the two junk drawers beside my desk–and I froze. What am I doing? I thought. I have enough junk in those drawers, I don’t need any more. Instead of tossing the junk into the drawer, I tossed it into the trash.

Having recently completed a big project at work, junk drawers have been on my mind lately. I often compare the rollout of a big software project to the cleaning out of junk drawers when moving from one house to another. The big items–beds, sofas, televisions sets, dining room table–are easy. They are the low-hanging fruit of the moving process as well as the software process. With a couple of strong backs, it takes almost no time to move a sofa, or dismantle a bed. Much harder, and much more time consuming, is the stuff scattered throughout various junk drawers in the house. There’s a ton of stuff in those drawers, and you have to make a decision about each item. And because they are hidden in drawers, you don’t see them and don’t think about them when considering the bigger picture.

I just went through the junk drawers in my office to give some examples of the kinds of things that accumulate within them. Here is what I found:

  • A bottle of lens cleaner. Okay, I use this fairly frequently, along with the microfiber map of the DC Metro System, when cleaning my glasses or computer screens. Can you wash a microfiber cloth? Mine seems to be rather dirty at this point.
Microfiber map of the DC Metro System, dirty.
  • A box of a dozen Pilot G-2 black gel roller pens (0.7) with 6 pens remaining. These, and their blue cousins) are the only pens I use. I go through one of these black pens every 25 days or so. I always have one black and one blue pen in my back left pocket along with my Field Notes notebooks. (Maybe I should refer to that as my “junk pocket”?) But do I really need the box? Couldn’t I dump the pens in to a container of some kind? Well, then I’d need a container and six for one half dozen the other.
  • A bottle of Rite Aid brand allergy relief pills that expired back in March 2017. I probably can get rid of those.
  • 2 NetGear PowerLine ethernet devices that allow you to use the phone lines in your house for ethernet. These were useful in the old house, but we don’t need them in the new house, what with the improved wireless access and Fios. I can probably get rid of these as well.
  • A bottle of Naproxen tablets that expired back in April. The bottle is mostly filled and I can’t remember why I bought these in the first place.
  • Not one but two Geometry and Math kits with compasses, small rulers, protractors, triangles. I can no longer remember when or why I bought these, either.
  • A baggie containing screws from the door to the stairwell that we removed when we moved into the new house. At least the bag is clearly labeled: “For stairway door.” Now if only I could remember where we put the door.
  • A bag of a dozen or so black, thick Field Notes rubber bands.
  • A pair of old reading glasses which don’t come close to helping me read anymore.
  • A single-punch hole puncher
  • A 3/4 full bottle of Target Clinic hand sanitizer. How about that! It expired in 2015, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?
  • An unopened package of 3M Command Brand Damage-Free Picture Hanging Strips.
  • A slightly out-of-focus pin that says “Eat Drink and Be Irish” that would have been a useful accessory on St. Patrick’s Day.
  • 5 ink cartridges for the printer–still useful because we still print things, especially with the last three months of school taking place at home.
  • A family photo from back when our youngest was born.
  • 13 “Forever” stamps.
  • Roughly 100,000 return address labels that St. Jude’s continues to send me after I once donated some money to them a few years back. I thought they used the money to help fight children’s cancers, not make return address labels.
  • Some expired credit cards.
  • A package of thousands of colored dot labels.
  • Boxes that once held FitBits and iPhones.
  • A bag of peripheral cables from the 1990s.
  • A VHS cassette with a label in my grandfather’s handwriting that has faded to the point of being unreadable.
  • An old mousepad.
  • A stapler remover that reminds me of a Langolier.
  • 5 colorful wristbands from our last trip to Disney World

Yesterday, I talked about catching up on my to-do list. I think I should probably add “clean out the junk drawers” to the list. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t. I would only be making room for more junk to accumulate and if I left the drawer full, it would force me to either find another place for the junk or throw it away, whichever is easier.

Catching Up on To-Do Lists

Today, in a pique of nostalgia, I found myself flipping through the 24 Field Notes notebooks that I have filled up since 2015. I’ve had this feeling lately of an accumulated mass of things I have not yet crossed off my various to-do lists.

The first unchecked (or in this case, un-crossed-out) item on the list is from June 2015. It simply reads: “Checkbook on stairs.” That’s okay, though, because even half a decade later I remember exactly what this scribble meant. It meant that I’d left the checkbook on the stairs so that when I headed up to the office, I’d see it and put it back in the drawer. The problem is, we have since sold those stairs, and for that matter, the office at the top of them. I imagine all of the checks that once resided comfortably within that checkbook are now comfortably deposited in other people’s bank accounts.

Here is an item. It says “Code bloopers” which is code to me to write a post about the bloopers one makes when writing code. This particular item remains unchecked 5 years later because I never wrote such a post. I was never able to figure out how to convey they hysterical humor one can find in the absence of a semi-colon, and the hours of hair-pulling havoc that ensue because of said missing semi-colon.

(Much later, I thought it might be amusing to take a look at some of the more outlandish Git commits I have made over the years, but I don’t think I ever put that idea on a to-do list.)

Here’s a note to myself from the summer of 2015 as it appears on the page it iswritten:

In case you can’t read my handwriting, it says “Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.” I saw this on a bumper sticker and thought it was amusing. It may have been intended as a subtle to-do item, but clearly it is not crossed out. In a rather remarkable coincidence, about a year after I scribbled this note, we bought a minivan. We thought the extra room might make our frequent road trips a little easier, what with the baby that came along around the same time.

Ah-ha! Here is one I can cross off. Sometime in August 2016 (before I was dating each page of my Field Notes notebook) is this incomplete task: “Sandman.” It is a reminder that I should obtain and read that Sandman graphic novel that Neil Gaiman created. As it happens, I ordered and received a copy of said graphic novel a few weeks ago. Looking at the list of books currently ahead of it on my to-be-read list, I imagine I’ll get to it sometime in the next 8-10 years. But I obtained it, and that is enough to warrant crossing it off the list.

Quite a few of the incomplete to-do list items in these notebooks appear to be blog post ideas that I never wrote, either because I lost interest, or thought the ideas were not good enough (I have some standards). Here are a few of them:

  • Science fiction’s growing pains (I think this has been done plenty of times by better writers than I).
  • My Wikipedia References – a post illustrating that while I don’t have an entry in Wikipedia, I am quoted in it several times.
  • Simplicity in Technology – I can only thing this was me running away with my imagination since nothing in technology is as simple as it seems.

It occurs to me that some of these notes are not to-do items, but things I jotted down that the kids said that I found amusing. For instance:

  • Referring to her handwriting, the Little Miss said, “I have good penguinship.”
  • Referring to silent reading, the Little Miss said she was “reading in my brain.”
  • Referring to her baby sister in the bathtub, the Little Miss said, “Will she look ugly if she gets her hair wet?”

I could never remember how many bags of mulch I bought each spring to put down in various places around our house. Well, to refresh my memory, on July 1, 2017, I wrote down how many bags of mulch I needed: 16 bags. Too bad I didn’t write down which notebook and on what date I wrote that particular note, making it perhaps, a little easier to find.

There is an unchecked note to myself to take notes on paper. It seems rather meta to add such an item to my to-do list, but as I have been doing this for years, it seems safe to cross off now.

Here is an interesting item: “Clean up house for cleaners.” After several months without our cleaners, they returned today, and boy was I glad they did. After they left, the house looked great. It smelled clean. The kids rushed inside and immediately took everything that had been put away and spread it across the floor where it belongs. It provided a small sense of normalcy in these anxious times.

One of the to-do items in book 11 is a number: 17,162. There is no context for it and I no longer have any idea what it meant. I’m crossing it off. There is a note reminding myself to read more John McPhee–I think I am nearly caught up on that one.

I don’t know why, but whenever I jot down someone’s name–a waiter, a tour guide–I always put their name in quotes: “Josh”, “Evelyn”, “Kyra”, “Jess.”

There ‘s a note from May 11, 20119 that the “first soloist was off key” but I don’t remember what soloist I was referring to, and I don’t know how I could have gotten them on-key after the fact. On the same day is a note to read David McCullough’s speeches, which I did do, and simply forgot to cross off the item.

On 5/14/19 the main to-do item that day is to sell our house and buy a new one. That, being taken care of, can be crossed off and marked as completed.

Flipping through the most recent pages of my most recent Field Notes notebook are the following items:

  • “Asking for it, wasn’t he?” — there to remind me of the punchline of a funny joke.
  • “Uncle Buck/John Hughes” — there to remind me to watch Uncle Buck, which I hadn’t seen in years until shortly after writing down that little to-do item.
  • “Post on catching-up on to-do items” — and with that, I think I’m call caught up!

How’s your to-do list looking?

Overchoice

Earlier this week, I completed a work project that I had been managing for more than two years. 937 days from my first meeting to rollout to be precise. Any software project like this has a tail, but it felt good to actually have the thing completed and out in the world. The good feeling came more from the former than the latter, I think.

Whenever I finish a big project, I go through a list of things that I have accumulated over that period of time–personal projects and other things that I have put off doing for a lack of time. This inevitably leads to a period in which I flutter randomly between items on my list, wanting to do all of them at once, and not making progress on any of them. Alvin Toffler called this “overchoice.” I’ve also heard it referred to as “analysis paralysis” but I think I like overchoice better because it accurately describes the feelings it raises in me.

Software projects tend to have crunch periods as you get closer to rollout. It’s hard to describe what’s involved in these intense periods of work to people not involved in software rollout. I often think of these periods as the loathsome part of moving where all of the big stuff–furniture, televisions, books, etc.–is packed away and ready to move and all that’s left is the stuff in the kitchen drawers, the top shelves of closets, and the attic. It always seems to take longer to deal with that stuff than everything else put together. It makes for long hours and over the last month or so, 60 hours weeks were not unheard of. (My peak was 68-1/2 hours in one week.)

It meant that no only was this weekend a 3-day holiday weekend, but it was my first days with no work (weekends included) since sometime in May. I would have an entire 3 days off–what would I do with my time?

More often than not, we are on vacation this week. We’ve spent many Fourth of July weekends in small town coastal Maine. Two years ago, we spent our Fourth in Nashville, Tennessee as part of a 10-day road trip we took. This year, things are different. We are home for the weekend and while Virginia is doing alright compared with many states, people are still appropriately cautious and so things are a little subdued. I thought this would be a perfect time to flip through my list of personal projects and figure out what I wanted to work on. I took care of a few of the smaller ones (WD-40 the sliding glass door, replace a few lightbulbs around the house) and then looked at the two big projects I have been ignoring for some time–in many cases–years.

  1. A unified way for capturing notes and annotations from my reading. You’d think that by now, we’d have a standardized system that allowed us to highlight and annotate any text we find in electronic form, whether a Kindle book, a magazine , newspaper, website, etc. No such standard exists and, indeed, some tools, like Kindle, make it particularly difficult to programmatically extract your notes and highlights. I’ve thought about ways of building a system for myself that would do that–a kind of standardized digital commonplace book.
  2. A personal digital archive of all of my papers (digital and actual). A lot of this is in Evernote and I haven’t ruled out building a curated archive in Evernote. But I’m not fond of the way Evernote currently presents this data, so I thought I’d investigate what it would take to build a local searchable archive myself.

I got to thinking about both these projects this week. The ideas began to fly, and I began messing around with some of the technology I planned to use to implement these systems. I spent hours testing out little concepts here and there. At the end of the day, however, I’d made no real progress and I was worn out and frustrated. Two things occurred to me:

  1. I had a serious case of overchoice. In addition to the two projects above, I am teaching myself some new technology required to implement these projects the way I want, which itself spawns off many little sub-projects. And there were other smaller things on my list that I was ignoring.
  2. There was one project I was avoiding. Steven Pressfield would call this losing out to resistance. I was focusing on other things in order to avoid the one thing I should be doing: writing.

Once I realized what I was doing, I felt better. I’d make my focus writing. It’s not that I don’t want to do the other projects, but that I want to write and have been avoiding it because it sometimes is hard to do. It is certainly harder (for me at least) than managing a complicated software project. But it is also much more satisfying. I have worried about my writing lately: the stories that I have been writing or want to write are not the kind of stories I used to write. I no longer think of the science fiction magazines as the right market for me–but I don’t know what the right market is. I worry about the lack of writing I’ve done here on the blog, and whether or not what I do write is of interest to anyone but me. Recent comments and emails have perked me up on this concern and that makes me happy.

Knowing that my big rollout would happen at the end of June, I told myself that beginning on July 1, I’d beginning writing in earnest again. I’d try to write every day and see what I could manage to produce over the second half of the year. July 1st and 2nd drifted by without a word from my at the keyboard. Finally, on July 3, this post is my return to the world of writing. I’m pretty sure I have the capacity and energy to be prolific over the next 6 months. The question is: will what I write be any good?

For that we’ll have to wait and see.

6 Tips and Tricks for How I Stay at Inbox Zero

Recently, I’ve gotten pretty good about keeping my inbox down to zero. I found that, for me, it takes a pinch of discipline and a couple of good tools. I figured I’d share my tips in case anyone else found them handy.

2 minute rule with Boomerang/Mailbox

For almost 2 years now, I’ve used the Boomerang plugin for Gmail and that plugin has been a game-changer. Boomerang does 3 things that I find really useful:

  • It allows you to “boomerang” a message until later. That it, it moves the message out of your inbox and returns it there at a designated time, tomorrow morning, two days from now, on the weekend, next week, or whenever you specific.
  • It allows you to send a message, and then boomerangs your message back into your inbox if you haven’t gotten a response after a certain time interval. So I don’t have remember to follow up with someone.
  • It allows me to schedule email messages.

I use Boomerang in conjunction with the “2-minute” rule. When an email comes in, if I can answer it in less than 2 minutes, I do it right away. If it will take longer, I’ll boomerang the message to a later time, either later in the evening, the next day, or the weekend, depending on the urgency.

To aid in this, Boomerang has an intelligent feature that looks for dates in the message. So if the message says, “RSVP by 10/15/2014” Boomerang will automatically suggest that (or a week before that date) to return the message to my inbox, which saves me a step.

When I’m working on my iPhone, I manage my email using an app called Mailbox, which has much of the same functionality as Boomerang, but is conveniently available on the phone, so I can manage my inbox the same way there.

Gmail canned responses

I’ve been able to reply to a lot more message in under 2 minutes by taking advantage of Gmail’s “Canned Response” feature. This feature allows you to write canned responses that you can quickly insert into email messages. I’d say that about 10% of the email I send are canned responses. By far the two most common are inquiries for people wanting to do guest posts on my blog, or advertise on my blog.

For these, all I have to do is select the appropriate canned response template in Gmail and click send.

Canned Responses

TextExpander expansions

I am a big fan of TextExpander and I use it all over the place. (On Windows, I use a similar tool called Phrase Express.) TextExpander allows you to create shortcuts to text snippets and other things. This can be formatted text, and can include some cool functionality like inserting dates, and other things.

For email, I tend to you TextExpander to speed up replies, and to prevent myself from having to lookup information. For instance, if I am referring someone to a common link on my website (say, my Going Paperless posts), rather than having to remember the link and type it in (and worry about making a typo) all I do is type

xpaperless

which automatically turns into

https://www.jamierubin.net/going-paperless/

I can never remember my home phone number, so if I’m sending that via email I have a shortcut for that. I have shortcuts for all kinds of common information like my address, or website, or bibliography page. I usually create a shortcut that links to the most recent article I’ve published.

All of these speed up the process of replying to email, and help make it possible to respond in under 2 minutes.

Turn off social media notifications

One thing I did that helped a lot was to turn off all social media email notifications. Rather than have that information pushed to me via email, I pull it when I need it by checking Twitter or Facebook periodically. This eliminated a ton of email from my inbox, and for each message, eliminated the step of having to delete the email.

Filter receipts and confirmations

I make heavy use to Gmail’s filtering to deal with a lot of email. Regular bill notification and automatic payment notifications are automatically filtered without ever going into my inbox.

Receipts and confirmation emails are also filtered without ever seeing my inbox. For these, I go one step further and have them sent to my Evernote email account so that I have the receipt and confirmations in Evernote. This is automated, so not only do these messages not clutter my email inbox, but they also get into Evernote automatically.

Unsubscribing

I’ve become a big unsubscriber lately, and while it took a while for me to see the overall result, I can see now that it prevents a lot of email that would go unread or get deleted from ever coming into my inbox.


Do you tips for how you stay at inbox zero? Leave them in the comments.

An engine of productivity

jkashlock mentioned how today is a bust as far as work is concerned. It made me wonder just how much productivity is lost on a day like today. It’s not that there are a lot of people who take the day off, and so productivity falls; I’m talking about lost productivity. The people who do go into work on a day like today can’t be nearly as productive as they would normally be. Personally, I have trouble focusing on a day like today. I’m sure there are people who do get things done, even if it’s as simple as getting a desk cleaned off, or emptying an Outlook inbox. Still, there has to be tremendous productivity losses. Everyone who remains at work is thinking about their long weekend, or the lines at the airport that they have to face. Or ways to sneak out of the office early.

Well, it’s lunchtime. I’m off to my regularly scheduled noontime nap. There is nothing special about that loss of productivity. It happens every day.

In the department of “you know it’s bad when…”

You know it’s bad at work when you can’t get anyone on the phone. Unless it’s a meeting that has been planned ahead of time, you can call as many people as you want–pick five randomly–and the phone wil ring and ring and you’ll be lucky to get a call back sometime weeks in the future.

So what has the smart phone and Blackberry and all of these other gadgets done for us? Apparently they have made us so productive that we don’t have time to actually use the device anymore.

I don’t know about you but this is what it has been like at my work for months and months now and it’s getting worse. I’ve taken to leaving joking messages on people’s voicemail, threatening them with shorter work hours unless they call me back. Everyone is just so busy. I don’t get it. If I get too busy, I can’t process what I am doing and usually end up being completely unproductive. So I try and maintain a reasonable level of busyness.

I don’t know how everyone else manages.