Libra Horoscope for week of August 16, 2012 The Hubble Space Telescope has taken 700,000 photos of deep space. Because it’s able to record details that are impossible to capture from the earth’s surface, it has dramatically enhanced astronomers’ understanding of stars and galaxies. This miraculous technology got off to a rough start, however. Soon after its launch, scientists realized that there was a major flaw in its main mirror. Fortunately, astronauts were eventually able to correct the problem in a series of complex repair jobs. It’s quite possible, Libra, that you will benefit from a Hubble-like augmentation of your vision in the next nine months. Right from the beginning, make sure there are no significant defects in the fundamentals of your big expansion.

My event planning template

I had read at some point a post on Mark Forster's forum that made a big impression on me. When talking of productivity, the writer said to think about what needed to be done in terms of tasks, routines, and habits. Tasks require a lot of attention and energy, routines less so, and habits are automatic. The trick to being more productive at the office (or anywhere) was to routinize as many tasks as possible, and if appropriate, make them habits that required little conscious attention at all.

Events Calendar

Example 1: Working out in the morning? Establish a routine for setting out the weight bench the night before and put your sneakers and shorts right on the floor so your feet hit them when you get up the next morning.

Example 2: I have a monthly report I produce that requires multiple steps across multiple files. After creating about 7 or 8 of these reports, I finally created a 3-page procedure that walks me through every step. Until I wrote out those steps, I didn't realize how many little decisions I had to make along the way and why I kept putting off this relatively straightforward chore. This task will never be habitual, but it is now more of a routine.

So I wondered about event planning, and how I could be more systematic about the planning and tracking so that I didn't have to remember anything.

I researched various event checklists on the web and developed my own events template, with separate sections for things like contact information (all the people I had to contact for an event), copies of all the emails I sent, a screenshot of the flyer we sent out, a lessons learned section, which I filled in as part of a debrief meeting after the event, and many other informational bits and pieces.

ASIS&T required its member groups to file an annual report of its activities. So, I included blanks in the form for the data they wanted to see. My goal with the event planning document was that it would be a package of every word we sent, every person we contacted, every  problem we faced. That way, we could review them if we chose to return to a particular venue or to see what attendance was like for a specific event. These documents also  encapsulated a lot of experience so that when new members of the board came in, they could look at our historical record and see how we planned and executed events.

When I took on the National Night Out planning responsibilities again this year, I pulled out the event template and used it to capture everything related to this year's event. I can now pull out the document when it's time to plan next year's event, and most of the hard thinkwork will have already been done. I'll just need to plug in new dates and new names.

Feel free to download the template document below. I've also included a generic event planning document that I compiled from various sources around the web; it provides a week by week countdown of everything that you may need to have in place for a successful event. These are in Microsoft Word 97/2003 compatible format. Feel free to edit at will and use for your own events!

eventtemplate (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

eventplanningchecklist (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

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“I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.” —Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know

On being an information packrat -- Part IV

One of the great things about a good productivity system is that it contains decision points where you can decide to keep or dismiss outdated tasks. If “buy Christmas cards” is on your list, and it’s April, then you can probably safely delete that task and not miss it.

Abundance

Not so with information. Dismissing old or outdated information is not often a step in casual information management. We tend to keep stuffing it into our storage systems because there are no obvious temporal or physical limits. So we invoke the “just in case” clause and the information debris silts up on the hard drive.

So what are some good, simple ways for managing the information I’ve decided to keep in my life?

Seth Brown’s post on information processing helpfully provides a three-part structure for thinking about information management, which I’ve adapted below:

  • Filtering incoming information
  • Consolidating information
  • Retrieving stored information

Here are some ideas I’ve run across that I’ve found the most useful, challenging, or memorable. Others are new to me as I’ve run across them in researching these posts. (Part 1 of this series contains my complete list of sources.)

I use (or will use or may use or sometimes use) a mix of these methods, depending on the context, the information, mood, energy, time, etc. Also, my workplace habits tend to be more rigorous than when I’m relaxing at home, for example.

Keep in mind, always:

  • Less is enough
  • You’ll probably never refer to what you keep
  • You won’t have more time in the future to organize this stuff. Deal with it now.

Filtering incoming information

There is, of course, my spaciousness question, which can be helpful but is not a cure-all, especially at the office.

 Keep it only if you need it now

If it’s for a project you’re currently working on, keep it. Otherwise, let it go.

If you’re keeping it for a specific reason, create a bin for it: a folder, an envelope, a directory on your computer, etc.

Is it action or reference? How do you envision using it?

JD Meier has a great page from his online book Getting Results the Agile Way on managing information, from which I’m borrowing heavily. He recommends deciding whether this is information you need to take action on – in which case, it goes into whatever productivity system you use – or it’s reference.

He also recommends creating a scenario (or in developer-speak, a use case) that helps you evaluate whether to keep the information or not.  If you cannot imagine using the information to satisfy the needs of the scenario, then let the info go. You can always find it again later.

Adam Kayce is also a devotee of practical information processing. He suggests asking a similar question: When I need this information in the future, what will I be doing? Asking your brain a more sophisticated question like this kicks off the imaginative machinery that generates possible scenarios you can use to evaluate the new piece of information. If you can’t see yourself actually using this information in the future, then you can probably safely let it go.

Ask: would I search for this on my own?

Tom Stafford explains the endowment effect and suggests asking a counteracting question. For objects you’re considering throwing out, like a book or clothes: If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?

And for information that is sent to him via email or other avenues, he asks: If I hadn’t just been sent this link, how hard would I work to find out this information for myself?

Consolidating Information

OK, the information has gotten through your filters and you want to keep it. What next?

Create fewer, but bigger, bins

By and large, create as few folders as possible. But put more stuff in them. Don’t spend too much time creating hierarchies of directories; keep the list flat, which makes them more scannable.

An IBM study on email use concluded it was better to use search across a few email folders than to create elaborate mail folders. (Well, maybe – we use Lotus Notes at work, and its search facility stinks. Gmail’s, however, is great.)

For paper items, I use a method described by Eddie Smith at Practically Efficient: a single pouch, labelled with the current year, and I put most loose bits of paper in it. The most recent items are tucked into the front of the pouch. (More about this in the Retrieving section.)

Bins should relate to projects, not general ideas

Think about the practical application of the information you’re keeping; keep it action-oriented. Your hard drive is not a commonplace book.

Adam Kayce recommends creating specific, project-related folders for any files you want to keep. Don’t think “entrepreneurship”; think “My Startup Business.” If you don’t know how you’ll use the information, you can let it go.

Let it cool off

As time passes, bright shiny objects tend to go a bit dull.

To keep myself from buying whatever bright shiny object floats before me on Amazon, I park the object on an Amazon wishlist. I love wishlists since they give me a place to park non-urgent decisions that I can review later at my leisure. Time works its magic and weeks or months later, I can review the items on the list and more coolly judge whether I want to invest money or time in this or that object.

Likewise, if I see an article that passes the spaciousness question, I send it to my Kindle via Readability. Every morning, Readability sends a digest of the previous day’s web pages to my Kindle so I can read them at my leisure sans ads. I have an embarrassingly large number of these digests. I am just now getting around to pages I sent to Readability in late May and am finding – surprise, surprise – that they’re not as interesting today as they were three months ago. In a digest of 20 articles, I may read fewer than half of them.

This is the value of a parking lot, a deep-freeze, call it what you will. Out of sight, out of mind can be used to advantage here.

For digital files, create a folder on your desktop called “Inbox” or “Parking Lot” or whatever. Put the loose MP3s, PDFs, working files, etc. in there and then clean it up later at your leisure. Set a reminder in your calendar program to review the items or – if’n you’re brave – set a program like Hazel to automatically delete the folder’s contents every other month or so. If that’s too radical, use the annual pouch idea: create a directory, name it “2012,” and put the files in there.

Have lots of stuff already? Keep only 3 

Peter Walsh recommends in It’s All Too Much that booklovers who want to make room on their shelves trim down their collections to the best 3 books of each genre they really want to keep: the best 3 Alan Moore graphic novels, the best 3 Chekhov collections, the best 3 books on meerschaum pipe collecting, and so on. If you have a collection of objects that you want to thin out – salt and pepper shakers, cookbooks, spun-glass seashells – but you can’t emotionally let all of them go, then maybe you can let some of them go and keep the 3 that mean the most to you. Become a curator; define the criteria that are important to you.

As you can see, the key point of many of these methods is to rouse you out of your trance and really look at these objects and the emotional issues that are attached to them. Weigh them, consider them. Why are they there? How are these objects serving you now – today? What’s the worst thing to you, emotionally, about letting them go?

Sift

I remember one of my professors talking about this strategy. Oftentimes, just sifting through the sedimentary layers of files silted at the bottom of your hard drive is enough to scrape off something good or to see that this item isn’t needed anymore. Creating new directories, grouping files, creating a new hierarchy of directories: manipulating the files in a sort of woolgathering way can help the quiet creative part of your mind to sift the information and perhaps see new patterns in it.

This can be useful in cleaning up old email collections or writing an article or essay. Sifting, making lists, resorting, reordering, refactoring – these use the slower thinking processes of the brain and can yield benefits beyond the simply productive.

Retrieving Stored Information

Decide whether you want to optimize for speed of storage or speed of retrieval

For some items, such as receipts or health insurance forms, I have specific labelled folders so that I can access them quickly if I need them. When I am saving digital files from a project that I want to use again later, I put lots of information in the filename so I can figure out what is in the file a year from now. In these cases, I am spending time creating metadata that will let me retrieve items faster.

By contrast, with a yearly folder to hold stray paper, I’ve optimized for speed of storage. If the paper isn’t something related to insurance or financial matters, I can quickly stuff it into the pouch and I don’t worry about assigning any metadata. I can deal with a loose paper item quickly at the expense of having to spend more time looking for it later –  should I ever need it.

…Pause…

Information management is obviously one of my life’s themes and I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic later when I have something new to say. Lord knows I can’t let a stray thought pass without the Internet knowing about it.

In the meantime, I think I will try to embrace the big-picture message: let it go. Seth Brown pointed me to an NPR article with the rather melancholy title, The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything. (It’s a good article; read it.)

Exercise the power of choice. Choose what you want to enjoy, enjoy it, and then let it go. The tighter your hold, the less you keep.

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Depression frequently occurs as resistance to the flow. Anxiety can come from focusing too much on the unknowns of the future and feeling unsupported. A lack of movement in your life indicates a lack of gratitude for that area of your life. Dear Ones, yet again we tell you that the key to empowered living is surrender (which allows your guides to assist), flow, staying in the Now and gratitude. If you simply focus on those aspects you can save yourselves a lot of unnecessary discomfort. So, the next time you feel out of sorts, ask yourself, Am I embracing the flow? Am I in gratitude? What are the blessings of this Now moment? Have I asked for assistance from my team of helpers? This will help you pinpoint where you need to self adjust and bring very quick relief as well as empowered movement back to your life. ~Archangel Gabriel

Robertson Davies on Useful Knowledge

On my 1998 "sabbatical," I read about 25 or so books. Among them were the collected works of the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, one of that country's great literary lions whose rather old-world style and eccentric areas of expertise led to some fascinating novels -- What's Bred in the Bone being a particular favorite of mine -- and some interesting failures. One doesn't hear much of Davies since his death, and that's a shame.

In one of his early novels, Tempest-Tost, he has the music master deliver a little speech that impressed me so much at the time that I've delightedly trotted it out whenever the subject of information management rears its tedious head. 

Up to the time I read the book, I admired and attempted to emulate the Sherlock Holmes idea of the mind as a limited container for information that needed to be categorized for convenient retrieval:

I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

A Study in Scarlet

But on reading the following passage by Davies, I saw there was another way one could organize one's mind -- mainly by not attempting to do so. It seemed to me then, and to me now, as so much more natural and relaxing. And in this age of structured information and rigid databases, it's a quote I find very inspiring because it's so human:

“Oho, now I know what you are. You are an advocate of Useful Knowledge.... Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.”

Isn't that marvelous? As I think about how I wish to manage my information stores, I think about that shaking the machine vs shaking the dustbin. Which is more robust? Which is more fun to maintain?

On being an information packrat - Part III

Clouds breaking up after a rainy morning in th...

The first post in this series looked at information hoarding, and the second looked at mindsets that could help me reframe the problem.

Now, one thing to know about me is that I always go for the most complicated solution first. It's a part of my nature and something I have to plan around. So once I start planning a new intervention for myself, I keep in mind another Extreme Programming maxim: Do the simplest thing that could possibly work. Add complexity only when needed.

If I want to reduce the trivial information entering my life, then one way to do that may be to adopt a goal so large that it does not allow room for trivia to grow or collect. During the years when I was getting my master's and working full-time, I found that I almost naturally prioritized what was important and what was trivial. Can  I do something similar in this case?

Perhaps. During some goal-setting exercises last year, I read Mark Forster's book How To Make Your Dreams Come True (available free as a Microsoft Word download here) and one of his own goals was "spaciousness." For whatever reason, that word resonated with me. I also wanted to feel spaciousness in my schedule, in my physical surroundings, in my head. Clutter-free, room to move, breathing space -- all inadequate to describe the feeling of spaciousness that I desire, but they're a place to start.

So one way I could employ a goal of spaciousness to reduce my information hoarding would be to ask myself a question of every piece of information: Will this add more spaciousness to my life? 

This is not the question I tend to ask of most bits of information in my life. I usually ask, Is this interesting? Would this be fun to read? Would this make me look smart and knowledgeable? And usually, the answer is yes, of course, please, bring it on, more, MORE, MORE.

But keeping in mind that people rarely access their personal information stores -- and I will be no different from anyone else -- then the spaciousness question may serve a useful filtering function. Spaciousness is a deeper, wider, longer-term ideal I want to welcome into my life; I am hoping it will naturally crowd out the bright shiny objects that are of temporary interest only and that serve only to steal time from my future.

Also, asking this single question is simple and easy to remember. I will, of course, have to rouse myself out of my web-reading trance to ask the question until the question becomes more of a habit.

I tried it out a few times today already. I was scanning an email newsletter, clicked on a link that looked interesting, and almost sent the article to my Kindle to read later, when I thought to ask myself the question. The answer came back immediately: No.

I rather regretfully passed on the article, and forgot all about it till I wrote that paragraph. If I really want to read it later, it's available on the web. Until then -- let the bits go.

Ah, but Mike!, you cry (I hear you out there, crying): what about information you do want to keep? Howsomever will you handle such items, pray tell?

The next (and, I hope, last) post in this series will round up several methods for thinking about and managing your growing information piles. I fear it may turn into another corker of an omnibus blessay, but then I do this research so you don't have to.

And yes, I know it's amusingly ironic that I'm creating yet more information about managing information. But to quote my favorite tech writer, Andy Ihnatko, "I am but an imperfect vessel for the perfection of the universe."

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An improv principle and event planning

In the winter of aught-six, I took a beginning improv class at DSI Comedy Theatre and learned a lesson that I pass along almost as holy writ to others.

DSI Comedy Logo

As an actor who always preferred having a script in hand, lines memorized, and my character's blocking pencilled in, improv struck me as insane as Frost's tennis without a net. Improv always scared me to death, yet I always loved watching it. It was a mystery. So I decided to face up to it and took the class, which was excellently led by Ross White (who now edits Inch).

Ross taught us that there were -- invisible to the audience -- many little rules and guidelines to improv and, weird to say it, but I actually did feel my mind change its shape and stretch to make new neural connections about halfway through the 6-week class. Many of my assumptions about how to act onstage were challenged.

Of the many things Ross taught us, there were two principles that stuck with me. The first was counter-intuitive. In a two-person scene, when given a random prompt ("You're a chocolate chip in a cookie -- go!" "You're superheroes who work as janitors -- go!"), the pressure is on and the temptation is to force the scene to a conclusion, to lift it and drag it -- and your partner -- to where you think the scene should go.

As Ross explained, though, that's working way too hard. Beginners think that, in a two-person scene, one actor needs to give 50% and the other actor needs to give 50%. In fact, Ross said, the breakdown is this: one actor gives 25%, the other actor gives 25%, the situation gives 25%, and the audience gives 25%.

When you look at the scene in that way, you can relax and make more impact with less effort. It's not all up to you; you're simply one of many people ensuring that the scene will succeed. Everyone is pulling together.

Which leads to the second principle: trust. You simply lay back, let the water support you, breathe, and just float. Relax and trust that your partner will contribute ideas to the scene (though you have no clue what they'll say till they say it) (and they probably won't know until then either),  trust that the scene will take wing and lift off, and trust the audience, which really does want to see you succeed. When I learned to stop forcing the punchline or forcing the moment, I found myself enjoying improv more and being delighted and surprised at where our improvised scenes wound up.

I explained the 25% principle to fellow neighborhood association board members last night after they congratulated me for working so hard to organize the NNO event. As I told them, it wasn't that difficult. I only had to give 25%, the other board members gave 25%, the potluck event on its own gave 25%, and all the neighbors who came out to eat and meet gave 25%.

After people started trickling in to put their dishes on the tables, it really was like an improv scene come to life. No one could control what was going to happen next; you could only go with the flow, work with what your partner gave you, and trust that it would all turn out just right. Which, I'm pleased to say, it did.

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National Night Out

In Durham, about 90 neighborhoods have signed up to participate. Police officers are scheduled to drop by as many of the neighborhood events as possible. In our case, Morehead Hill used to have an annual potluck and we've folded that tradition into the annual NNO event. Other neighborhoods will have ice cream socials, games, music, and so on.

When I researched my master's paper, one interesting tidbidlet I noted from a criminal justice study was that one way to reduce crime in the community was to have a neighborhood get-together at least once a year. That face-to-face social time was enough for neighbors to meet and recognize each other, refresh connections, and so on. There's something about actually seeing people, getting to know the "regulars," that helps everyone.

The study also noted the interesting fact that meeting more often than once a year did not significantly reduce crime in the neighborhood. It's a small investment of time and energy that has the potential to yield outsized results.

I could easily extend this post to details of how I'm treating this year's event differently from last year, working with volunteers, and the kind of volunteer job I realized I'm best suited for -- we may even get rained out tonight! How am I coping with that?!?-- but I shall reserve those details for a later post of ghastly length and inordinate self-absorption.

On being an information packrat - Part II

Stratego

(As with all of the posts in this series, I have culled these bits and pieces from many different sources. All of the sources I used for reference are collected at the end of the first post in this series.)

One of the statistics I remember from school is that only 2% of the books in a huge university reference library are ever checked out. Likewise, you will only ever reference 2% of all the files you keep. Now, that 2% will be different for everyone. So surely it’s safer to keep the other 98% too, just in case. Right?

Of all the sites I scoured, web developer Adam Kayce's post on information management was the most sensible, level-headed, and universal. The punchline: You don't need as much as you think. A lesson he learned on his path was that he could let go of things that no longer served him, knowing that he could replace them later because, as he says, we always have what we need when we need it.

What I like about this philosophy is that it's gentle: it's about letting go rather than acquiring, and it comes from a place of abundance. Holding on to information because you're afraid you won't have it later is a scarcity mentality, which keeps you playing small. A better, bigger stance to take is to acknowledge that you have all you need right now and, if you do need something, you can easily lay hands on it whenever you want.

A Slashdot thread on this topic yielded this gem of a comment:

You are young, and have not met the big disasters of life yet, like a divorce with children, the death of a loved one, the bad decisions with life-long consequences. At your age I liked keeping track and archives, even bank statements many years back. Not a good idea. Your past starts to grow on you, and can slow you down on your way to new pastures. So remember to build in mechanisms for forgetting all but the most essential stuff. Use Facebook and Linkedin to keep track of people, keep some nice pictures, but learn to delete and forget. You will thank me later.

Letting go of what you don't need is a key idea that is also echoed in Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy, a book I reviewed in a previous post. A key paragraph from my review:

Hurst’s big idea is Let the bits go. Similar to the basic instructions on organization–do, delegate, defer, or delete–Hurst’s advice is to act on what’s actionable, deliberately save only what you think you need, and let the rest go. This enables one to move swiftly through all the RSS feeds and downloaded files while still being able to find the one file you really need. “Just in case” is not really a good reason to save anything.

The just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality is too big of an issue to cover here, but suffice to say: lose the just-in-case thinking. Just-in-time will work for me 80 percent of the time, and in building a system, I want to solve the frequent, most annoying problems first. The exceptions and special cases that make up the remaining 20 percent can be dealt with as they arise. (Nothing stops a good-enough solution in its tracks faster than trying to solve all the exceptions at the outset.)

The just-in-time position is also expressed in the Extreme Programming precept of You Aren't Gonna Need It:

"Always implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them."

Even if you're totally, totally, totally sure that you'll need a feature later on, don't implement it now. Usually, it'll turn out either a) you don't need it after all, or b) what you actually need is quite different from what you foresaw needing earlier.

One of the phrases that pops up on the interwebs for this type of subject is the Bright Shiny Object syndrome. That page, that link, that YouTube video -- each is a siren's call to click, watch, read, listen, absorb, engage automatically, without even thinking. It's a common experience that someone begins a web session searching for a specific piece of information and then looks up an hour later blinking like they've just emerged into daylight from a dark movie theatre.

I want to draw a line (however crooked) between the fascination I have for the web's bright shiny objects and meditation. Meditation is defined as many things, but one of its purposes is to demonstrate to you – through experience – that you will always have bright shiny objects flashing through your consciousness: memories, ideas, conversations, voices, songs, desires, hunger, images, an itch on your knee, the dog barking next door, etc. One of meditation’s goals is to show you that you can detach yourself from that parade of imagery and noise -- that you are not that parade -- and that you will be OK if you let the parade pass by without comment, without attachment, without engagement.

It may well be a stretch to say that browsing the web is a meditation, but I certainly spend a lot of time doing it and I do fall into a trancelike state staring at the screen. Let's say, for the sake of experiment, that web-browsing is like meditating. Would that change the nature of how I surf the web? How I interact with links on web pages, how I spend my time and attention? It's something for me to think about some more.

In the next post, I'll review several different tactics and tips for managing information that I found in my informal researching. Stay tuned, infovores!

 

 

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Many of you are doing a splendid job getting clear on what you wish to create. You are stepping into your role of co-creator with mindfulness and excitement. This is, of course, wonderful, but what many of you are not realizing is that you are still supporting obstacles for yourself with the negative speech habits you developed long ago. Why not take a day to be very aware of your self talk? Are you always “sick and tired”? Your I AM statements define you and carry far more power than you realize. Remember the universe will always answer yes to what you proclaim about yourselves! How about self talk that says, “I am magnificent!” “I am shifting with grace and ease.” “I am lovingly supported and honoured in all of my endeavours.” “I accept!” “I am whole and happy and healthy.” “I am shining brilliantly with beauty and love.” Again, this is not about puffing oneself up with ego. This is merely changing your I AM statements to truly reflect who you really are. ~Archangel Gabriel

On being an information packrat

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - Bookshelves - WGA05755

Lord Peter Wimsey remarked that "Books...are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development." (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)

I don't, like my father, collect tools, nails, screws, etc., nor clothes and knick-knacks like my mother. But information? I'm a sucker for it.

And when the digital age arrived, I used lots -- LOTS -- of software to help collect, corral, and bend to my will all of the loose, scattered, random information whizzing past my ears in the belief that by squirrelling all the squibs and squidlets and atomic particles of data into cozy, well-behaved compartments -- THEN -- I would be in control of everything that mattered to me. I used Lotus Agenda, AskSam, InfoSelect, Ecco Pro, Zoot, and others in my Windows-using years, sometimes Word's document map feature, and I did the same when I used a Mac. One of the first apps I bought when I started the PhD program was Devonthink Pro. (Nowadays, I rely on nvAlt, a fork of Notational Velocity -- but I digress.)

And it wasn't just software: I kept journals off and on for years and stacked them on my shelves also. I taught myself NoteScript so I could take notes even faster. All the drafts of every short story I ever wrote. And on and on.

Why? Well, isn't it obvious? I might need it one day! What more reason does any hoarder need?

Every now and then the system would get shaken up and I'd notice something: so much of that information I was hoarding really didn't age well. In one of my upgrades from one computer to another, I exported my InfoSelect database to a Word file and I kept that file nearby. I probably opened it only once or twice in the years after that; it vaporized into the informatic ether years ago. When I read my old journals, I was astonished at how useless they were to my present self -- I didn't need to relive all that high-dudgeoned emotional thrashing about in the pea soup of my soul. The stuff I culled were good bits of advice or quotes or other such things I'd copied out from my reading or what people had told me. And I'm talking probably less than 0.00001% of the whole.

So all of this information I had kept -- and let's be honest, that I'm keeping now -- has ultimately very little value to me.

What in the world drove such compulsion to document every fleeting idea or datum that passed my eyeballs? I skim-read a few Krishnamurti books many years ago, and the big idea I grokked from them was his opinion that most all the neurotic, self-defeating behavior we gut ourselves with comes from fear.

Let's start with that as our hypothesis: If fear is at the core of this behavior, then fear of what? Being left out (something I felt strongly in my adolescent years, but that does not apply to me now). A fear of missing out on something potentially wonderful, potentially useful, potentially life-changing. The fear, perhaps, that someone else knows something that I don't and that I need, even if I don't know it yet.

This might explain why I capture stuff and then read it once or, sometimes, don't read it at all. Simply knowing it's in my personal deep-freeze is enough to give me enough comfort. (Insert here analogy to dragons hoarding treasure and virgins -- two commodities for which dragons have no possible use.)

There is also, I think, a fear of looking foolish, of not having the answer if I were to be called on. Wedded to that was my self-image forged from my various jobs as the information-maven, the guy who could find anything online, the tech writer who could retrieve that email or half-forgotten file that earned me kudos and made me look like a hero and earned me the unofficial title of "team librarian." At my current job, it is certainly the case that we are often asked to pull 5-year-old files out of the air with no warning and could we send it later that afternoon, please? With part of my self-image at work hinging on my ability to lay my hands on a file or email, on providing an answer, it became even more important to be organized, to have the info at the ready.

I think, I hope, I have slowed this compulsion somewhat. I hope I am more selective. There's a reason to keep some online information you really need; web sites and PDFs and other resources do go away; the Internet is not a library, after all.

And although i kind of cherish the image of being an information packrat, there are severe downsides. No, I don't have huge piles of data teetering over me and threatening to crush me. But there is a psychic cost. Judith Culpepper (a writer otherwise unknown to me) makes the excellent point that when everything is important, then nothing is important: "The extra, useless data cloaks the useful bits both physically and mentally. Physically, the sheer volume of clutter [that] too much information produces hides everything." Because every day brings fresh onslaughts of information, there is no possible way to absorb any of it. So, she concludes, "The only answer is to hoard more. Hoarding feeds on itself, pushing focus out of the way in the quest to appease the almighty 'might [need someday]'."

Oh my Lord, does that sound familiar! Well, then, the answer must be to catalog, organize, codify this mass of undigestible data, right? But even that is a fool's mission, as Culpepper explains: "Then you waste time cataloguing, sorting, and otherwise tending to too much useless data. Buying binders and other organizing tools often seems warranted. Great. Now it's sucking time and money." The data is managing you, instead of vice versa. I have a huge Devonthink pile of web pages, PDFs, and other stuff that I attempted to sort out into alphabetically organized topical groups earlier this year. Except I never finished organizing the pile. So it's like a room I've framed in and I'll get to the drywall someday. Maybe.

Culpepper makes another really sharp insight. Namely, that managing this mass of trivia ultimately steals focus from all parts of your life.

Each piece demands attention. Consequently, the day becomes divided into small sections spent pursuing wildly divergent paths. Admittedly, each is of interest. However, too much time spent poring over tidbits pushes out time for prolonged study. Suddenly, you aren't truly good at anything. Possessing few skills beyond hoarding, any skills mastered are likely to be trivial, picked up accidentally in the course of flitting amongst the clutter. The information controls now; it decides how to spend time. You have no goals. The lure of too much information pulls away from them, makes them impossible to achieve.

The goal, in fact, is now to manage the information rather than putting the information to use in a way that would benefit a specific objective. I am now the host organism through which the information parasite propagates itself.

And I detect also in Culpepper's description of flitting from one shiny object to the next the spectre of boredom, that dread modern disease.

I'm not saying "Don't obsess." Good golly, I am a Fred Astaire freak and love scarfing up any new bit of info on the man and his art. Another friend loves his Harley-Davidson, another studies how to improve his billiards game. Part of the fun of a hobby or pastime is learning more about it. But those are contained and specific interests, and they refresh rather than deplete. And, as I said, there are situations, such as at my workplace, where organizing and managing information is vital to my success.

So what can one do to find some sort of balance? How can I manage my information managing? I'll look at some ideas in the next post.

References

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

Steve Donoghue wrote what I thought was the best tribute to Vidal; it was graceful, heartfelt, lyrical. And absolutely the most gorgeous photo of the young Vidal I’ve ever seen. Though I will take him to task on Gore’s “abandoning his country”; Vidal always maintained US residence and lived in the US for the last decade or so. And America was a huge theme of his life and much of his work.

English: Portrait of Gore Vidal by Juan F. Bastos

The NY Times had a mostly factually accurate obit but marred with lots of snarky asides and uncalled-for digs. The funniest part of the Times obit was this marvelous correction:

Correction: August 1, 2012. An earlier version misstated the term Mr. Vidal called William F. Buckley in a debate. It was crypto-Nazi, not crypto-fascist.

I am so glad we got that cleared up.

The line in Steve’s tribute that resonated with me was his line that, with Vidal’s passing, “The 20th Century is over.” To think of a time when a man of letters could live by his pen and be a public intellectual – it boggles my mind. Vidal, Mailer, Vonnegut are the first names that leap to mind, and they evoke a time and place that seem almost as distant and quaint as Dickens’ London.

I have to agree with most of the chattering classes that Vidal’s essays are what I would come back to, again and again. To read them is to have Vidal whispering in my ear – the voice and cadence and rhythm of his prose is part of what makes them so seductive to me.

I always preferred his literary essays and reminiscences over his political essays. I respect that it was part of Vidal’s personality and commitment to his country and what he felt were his responsibilities to be involved in the cut and thrust of current politics, and he had to settle for a Cassandra role rather than that of a lawmaker and politician (a role he probably would have preferred – what a soapbox!).  But I think his political writing will age more quickly than his literary ones, and we will have to see whether his political assessments will hold up over the next 20 years. I think they won’t. I think he landed several heavy punches on the influence of money and television on politics, and his skeptical and hectoring voice will be missed from the daily debate, but I have real doubts about his conspiracy theories and his isolationism.

Of the novels, I read the American Chronicles series in order and while entertaining I won’t go back to them. Two Sisters is probably the novel I remember the most and the one I’m most inclined to want to keep for re-reading; an odd melange of script, fiction, and memoir, playing on themes he toyed with throughout his fiction. Julian was also very good and I have Creation waiting on the shelf. I’ve never been interested in the “inventions” – Duluth, Myra Breckinridge – but I should give them a try.

One of his observations I come back to often was his idea of what was at the center of the culture. In pre-literate times, it was poetry. Then prose and novels were at the center, and pushed poetry to the margins. Then radio and movies were at the center, pushing novels away, and poetry further away. Then television. All the while, poetry and the novel were pushed further away from what might be called the mainstream. I wonder now if there are multiple centers or if there is no center – the center cannot hold.

Of all the forms he worked in, I would suggest that the interview offers the most visceral thrill of undiluted Vidal. Like Harlan Ellison and Stephen Fry, Vidal seemed most at home in a chair with a camera pointed at his face. Being prodded by random questions elicited that voice and those opinions that people like me love going back to again and again.

Arts and Letters Daily has a good roundup of obits and articles on Vidal. Search on Vidal’s name to find the entry.

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On starting before you're ready

When I first got the idea to restart the blogging, my first thought was: “No, don’t start this Monday, start next Monday.” It felt like the safe option: give myself time to scope out other blogging tools, come up with a list of topics,develop a workflow, etc.

Start

And then the second, more challenging voice of The Coach came in: “Why wait? Start tomorrow. Just get started. If you wait till you’re ready, you’ll never be ready.” And I knew that starting before I felt I was ready was the wiser course.

Now, were I starting a military campaign or PR blitz, yes, sure, plan to the nth degree and get your ducks in a row, etc. But for a personal project like this, starting before I was ready meant I had to eschew the perfectionism, set up some quick ground rules to prevent myself from putting up higher and higher barriers (I’ve now reduced my first draft writing time to 15 minutes to inspire faster writing and shorter drafts), and just dive in.

My banjo teacher, who is also a spiritual teacher, said one time that “The perfection is in the doing.” It’s so easy for me to forget that, to get hung up on the result or the desired outcome before I’ve taken a single step.

One of the great teachings of Constructive Living for me was that you cannot control the results, you can only control your behavior. So starting – and starting imperfectly – is better than not starting. Starting is in your control. Once I started, I discovered in the doing several little tricks that would not have occurred to me had I relied only on planning. And even if I had planned everything to a faretheewell, I’d have had to adjust my plan based on what I discovered as I was doing. So the better course of action was to fire-ready-aim-fire.

So start the diet today, start exercising today, start writing today. Starting – and starting again fresh tomorrow – is always in your control.

 

 

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Daily Message ~ Tuesday July 31, 2012

Many people would like to change their lives and begin living more authentically but they don’t know where to start. All that is required is heartfelt gratitude for what you would like more of in your life, and heartfelt surrender of the rest. This is the formula to shift any situation into forward movement and empowered change. ~Archangel Gabriel


Daily Message ~ Tuesday July 31, 2012

On using timers and timeboxing

Mark Forster recommended the use of timers in his book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. It sort of starts with the idea of timeboxing, a demarcated bit of time within which you choose to work on a specific task. A teacher may set aside 45 minutes to grade papers, say, and then take a 15-minute break. The teacher has timeboxed that task for 45 minutes and included a break, since if she simply sat and plowed through all of the papers in a single setting her brain would curdle and the last papers in the pile would have less of her focus and attention than did the first papers.

Italiano: Autore: Francesco Cirillo rilasciata...

Forster recommended various ways to attack high-resistance tasks using a timer and timeboxing. One that I remember was to set a timer for 5 minutes with a one-minute break, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, etc. Focusing on the high-resistance task (or even a list of tasks) is easier when you agree with yourself to focus for only five minutes. Oftentimes that can be enough to get the ball rolling, and I find myself wanting to continue past the appointed time. It’s important, though, to STOP what you’re doing when the timer goes off. Your agreement with your mind is that you’ll only work when the timer is active and then you’ll take a break; your mind needs to know it can trust you. It’s how you can get it on your side.

Forster had several other patterns in his book (one of them was a 5-10-15-20-25-30-25-20-15-10-5 sequence), all with the intention to help you get through the initial chaos of a high-resistance project or task and to ease you into doing the work you need to get done. Also, in these seemingly small margins of time, you will actually accumulate several hours worth of work. Oftentimes, just getting started is the hardest thing, and little tricks like this can be tremendously useful for just that purpose.

In recent years, the Pomodoro Technique has held sway and it’s the one I tend to use the most often at home and at the office. It’s kind of boggling to imagine that the simple idea of a 25-minute timebox has spawned web sites, apps, blog posts, ebooks, etc. In the old days, that probably would have been 2 pages in a chapter of any decent time management book.

An interesting twist on the timebox is the decremental timebox system (hat tip to a poster at Mark Forster’s FV forum for the link). I’ve not used it much yet, but it’s a rather fascinating idea.

I use two timers. At the office, I use the Time Timer, which is nicely visual and utters a little beep at the end of a session. (If I’m away from my desk when the timer goes off, I prefer the timer not drone on loudly for several seconds, thereby annoying my cubemates.) At home, I use the Datexx Miracle Time Cube (which is a winner simply for the name alone). It only offers 5-15-30-60 minute intervals, but it’s dead easy to use and fun, which otherwise, why bother?

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Reboot at the OK Plateau

I have been inspired to restart blogging by, as usual, several seemingly random prompts that combusted in that imaginative furnace I am pleased to call my mind. The first was Shannon Wilkinson’s recent completion of 13 weeks of straight Monday-Friday blog posts. The challenge, of course, is in coming up with enough ideas to fill up that many posts. But I firmly believe that the more you write, the more you can write.

Another prompt was reading Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, particularly the chapter on becoming an expert by working past the “OK plateau.” The OK plateau is that level of skill whereby you get good enough results without improving your execution.

Foer’s example is that of typewriting. Most people’s typing speeds improve to a certain speed and then stay there. The patterns and movements are well-burned into the neurons so that they hardly have to “think” about typing anymore.

So, to type faster, the key is to move those unconscious skills up to the conscious level where they have to be examined, honed, improved, etc. This is exactly how my banjo teacher has instructed me to practice — set the metronome faster than I can play comfortably. The point is to get uncomfortable and stretch and confront your weak spots, which the faster speed highlights.

As far as blog posting — well, I’m not out to set any records.  But I would like to challenge myself, particularly on producing a lot of  writing. I always have a ton of little ideas, and one way to break the blog barrier is to write faster, shorter posts. Since I typically take a long time to write a post, this will be good exercise for me.

My plan is to write 50 Monday-Friday blog posts over the next 10 weeks (thanks for the M-F idea, Shannon!). This gives me the weekend to rest up, maybe write some posts in advance, and hone my writing and posting process. One reason I stopped blogging is because I couldn’t figure out a great workflow. I hope this exercise will help me use my software tools better.

And I have a few other reasons for wanting to write regularly. I will talk about them in later posts.

While we understand the energies of accelerated change can seem intimidating, what they really are is a wonderful opportunity to move very quickly into a much more empowered place. You do not need to be afraid of change, Dear Ones. It is change that can bring you healing, joy, love – all of the aspects that you wish to enjoy as you move forward in your life. Change only feels scary if you are living your life by accident. You are the captain of your life expression! Do not be afraid to take the wheel! You get to chart your course through your intention. You set things in motion by surrendering and allowing the flow to move you at the perfect speed. You stay on course by using gratitude as a tool to provide additional feedback to the universe. This system works, it is available to you right now, and it is the way to the life of your dreams. What are you waiting for? ~Archangel Gabriel

Libra Horoscope for week of July 26, 2012

Philosopher William Irwin Thompson says that we humans are like flies creeping along the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We literally cannot see the splendor that surrounds us. As a result, we don’t live in reality. We’re lost in our habitual perceptions, blinded by our favorite illusions, and addicted to beliefs that hide the true nature of the universe. That’s the bad news, Libra. The good news is that every now and then, each of us slips into a grace period when it’s possible to experience at least some of the glory we’re normally cut off from. The veil opens, and previously undetected beauty appears. The weeks ahead will be the closest you’ve come to this breakthrough in a long time.