I was 37 when I bought my first (and current) laptop. I bought it with money from my first freelance gig, and I was so proud! It paid for itself with work I’ve done on it since. Now it’s not really keeping up with the demands I put on it, and I’m ready to go big. I’ll use it until I wear the letters off the keyboard. I’ll spend several hours a day interacting with it. It will be my spare brain. I’m using what could be a fairly ordinary consumer purchase as an organizing point in my life. If this upcoming fantasy purchase really has the potential to be a spare brain and transform the way I work, how can I use this time to create a watershed in my timeline?
Fantasy visions have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ We tend to get caught up in just the ‘after.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if I could fly? Yes, probably! We’ll have to spend some time figuring out all the steps that come before “I’m flying” before we can make that happen. Same thing with any other dream that wants to become reality. If my ‘after’ is “I am changing the world with my keyboard every day,” where am I starting? If I pull up my map app and I want walking directions, I need both a starting location and an end destination.
The truth is that I’m currently caught between two worlds, the analog and the digital. I went paper-free as much as possible several years ago, and we’re pretty good about dealing with mail and incoming paper every day. The trouble is that I still have notebooks and paper files from the past that I haven’t integrated into my digital world yet. There is never a “good time” to deal with archival material; if it’s sitting there and it hasn’t been handled, that’s a 100% reliable sign that it hasn’t been needed. If I haven’t needed it yet, I may never need it. Still, when I’ve gone through these old notebooks in the past, I’ve felt that I wanted to keep the information. It happens that right now, I’m keeping it in a completely vulnerable, perishable, inaccessible format.
My paper files are irreplaceable. That means there aren’t any backups. If anything happens to them, they’re gone. I haven’t exactly memorized this stuff. We’ve had professional movers a couple of times, and for whatever reason, one of them took it upon himself to dismantle my file boxes and put all my paper notes in a moving box. In the process, a lot of papers got bent, crumpled, and smeared. The indignity of it all! Digitizing my notes is one way to protect what I see as their sacrosanct integrity. It will also make them accessible from the road.
We have another problem that goes beyond this full box of vulnerable papers. Photographs. It’s easy to see the point on the timeline when we got camera phones, because the hard copy photographs simply stop happening. What I’ve learned from dealing with old photos is that they have a lot of problems. Our old albums from the 70s and 80s lose their adhesiveness and the plastic page protectors get brittle and discolored. Whenever we pick them up, loose photos cascade out the bottom. I have an aluminum box with old photos and memorabilia in it. If these photos are damaged, that’s it. I once did a very sad clutter job that involved throwing away several years’ worth of photos. They had been left in a paper shopping bag in a garage and were pancaked together with damp and mold. We tried, but they proved impossible to peel apart without tearing. The irony of keeping things because we want to preserve them is that we often guarantee their ruin instead.
If you care enough to keep it at all, take steps to make sure it’s truly preserved. Water damage, mold, mildew, smoke, sawdust, paint, vermin, insects… Anything in storage that is not climate controlled and accessed regularly absolutely will show the effects of entropy and neglect.
We have tons of digital photographs, of course, and that’s part of what makes it easier to see the hard copies as less desirable. I can and do enjoy looking at photos of everyone in my extended family on a regular basis. We have hundreds of pictures of our pets. We don’t spend much time looking at older photos because the current ones are so fresh and available. The problem is that our photo folders are only organized by date, not content. I often find myself looking for a specific photo as an illustration, and I have no idea what year it was taken, much less which month. Part of this fantasy ‘spare brain’ project will be to consolidate the photos and tag them in a way that makes them more useful.
I have this fantasy project of making slide shows of the peak moments from different years and then watching it at the New Year. Maybe I’ll do it after I get the new laptop.
There are other digital things I would like to consolidate. It turns out that I have files on our shared desktop, my laptop, various thumb drives, a couple of formats of flash memory cards, a stack of data CDs and DVDs, my Dropbox, Evernote, and my phone. The stack of physical media has more mass than the equipment itself. A lot of it probably contains redundant or obsolete stuff. When I look at it, I’m sure I’ll wonder why I was keeping it, and maybe even where I got it.
Our office represents more than just a room. (It’s our pets’ bedroom, so a chunk of it is dedicated to a birdcage and a dog crate). What we wanted was a place where we could both work. What we have is more of a place where we store stuff we don’t want to look at in the living room. We both do most of our personal bureaucratic work and our side projects either in the living room or at a café on the weekend. Sometimes when the weather is nice I work on the back patio. Excavating some of the funky old electronic clutter could be a way of energizing the space.
Why am I keeping old paper notes? Because I think they’re relevant for some reason? If there are projects I intend to complete, I need to schedule time to work on them and set some deadlines for when they’ll happen. The longer I have them around, the less likely Future Me will even be able to decipher them. The more time that goes by, the worse I’ll feel if anything happens and they are destroyed. Why didn’t I protect and preserve them when I had the chance?? I could diligently sit and scan them all in a couple of hours.
Why are we keeping old CDs and electronic files? Because we think we’ll need them at some point? What’s on them besides photos? If it’s nothing more than a bunch of old backups, they’re probably redundant. If it’s something important, we’d better figure that out in case they get scuffed or cracked or the file formats become obsolete and unreadable.
Why do I have so many thumb drives? They aren’t labeled. I don’t have a system for keeping separate data on separate drives. Why do I have so many?
Looking at a stack of undifferentiated, unlabeled, untagged stuff is exactly like walking around in a confused stupor. It’s like a plastic sculpture of a disoriented, possibly hungover human brain. If my waking mind was that poorly organized, I’d be walking around in circles with my shirt on backward and my shoes on the wrong feet, babbling and playing with my lip. I should just put it all in a box labeled HERP DE DERP and then send it to the landfill.
The fantasy of a new laptop is the fantasy of mental clarity. It’s the fantasy of being current and not having old projects hanging over my head. It’s not necessarily procrastinating to choose not to spend time sorting old, probably irrelevant materials; at least 80% of that stuff I’ll most likely never need. Keeping it, though, is like keeping apple cores or empty cans. It represents the leftovers of time I spent, things I did, thoughts I had, and time that has passed. I’m setting myself the intention of liberation from these stale old calcified thoughts. ‘Decision’ means ‘to cut off.’ I’m cutting off the fuzz that clouds my workspace. I’m creating a space where I can feel fully confident that I’m working on the most important thing every day, that all my important data are readily accessible, and that there are no ancient tasks lingering around to distract me. That new laptop will be like a space shuttle to the future.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.