Though we’ve been referring to it with the acronym WFH, telecommuting is not the same thing as working from home. Technically I’ve been working from home for over a decade. This telecommuting thing is entirely different.
I did a variety of things in my past work life, often switching between different projects and different styles in the same day. I booked client calls, wrote on freelance and on spec, traveled, worked on planes and in my lap and in coffee shops and on a hotel bathroom floor in the middle of the night.
In all those ways, my freelance life was (is?) both more versatile and less comfortable than what I’m doing now.
Telecommuting is like being in an ordinary office, only at home instead of inside a cubicle.
During my first week, I’ve spent more than half my time in meetings and webinars. Not only do we start on time, it’s necessary to start a bit early to make sure there is time for both the hardware and the software to connect.
Unlike normal meetings in conference rooms, most people are on mute for most of the call, so it’s common for someone to be talking to themselves in an empty room for several seconds before everyone realizes their mic isn’t on. Picture this happening with people sitting around a table and it’s actually quite funny.
Everyone is using different equipment, some company-issued and some more ad hoc. Most people have worked for the company for years - or decades - and others were actually hired after the shutdown. Like me, there are people who don’t have a physical desk, chair, computer, phone, or anything else. Our physical existence is hypothetical.
I have the good fortune to have visited the building several times. I’ve met a few of my new colleagues in person, some through my husband and others through Toastmasters. I know where I will probably sit, if we start going back to the corporate campus soon. A few of the new hires can only look at pictures of the building and guess.
One of the odd things about telecommuting is getting used to VPN. It’s like the movie Inception, a computer within a computer, or sometimes more. A desktop within a desktop, with its own wallpaper and its own software. “I’m opening a browser from inside a browser!” This is really important for security reasons, of course. It works well enough once you’re over the “nesting Russian doll” feeling.
This process has been fun. The days are going by so fast, and there are so many things to learn and so many people to meet.
It’s also been weird, because the interruptions are so different from the kind that are typical in an office. I joined a call with my boss first thing in the morning, and there happened to be an entire flock of crows freaking out for several minutes on the roof across from us. (“Us” meaning my household, not me and the person to whom I was speaking). Today it was a dog barking frantically in the alley on my end; last time, it was someone else’s neighbor’s dog barking in the yard next door. So many dogs.
Cats are another one. Someone will be talking, chatter chatter chatter, and then suddenly a plaintive MEOW. Must be cat lunchtime.
My parrot has her good days and her bad days. Sometimes she will play quietly in her box fort for hours. Other times she wants to be on the call and has a way of letting out a shrill whistle the moment I turn off mute. It’s like she knows. (She might).
We’ve been joking about making her a little headset of her own. She is a biped who speaks English, and at 21 she’s certainly old enough to start contributing to the household. Maybe they’re hiring a paper shredder, who knows.
Telecommuting has changed a lot in our household. My hubby and I sit at our own desks, together but apart, on opposite ends of our couch. We’re often on calls at the same time. We have the same schedule and the same days off. We work in the same department. This is how we met, fifteen years ago, though of course in those days we couldn’t have guessed we would marry and share a whiteboard together.
This style of working from home is much more interesting, now that the world has shut down for who knows how long. The time passes very quickly. I like to imagine what I’ll be working on three years from now, and how much of what is new to me today will be routine then. What will a regular workday look like in 2023?
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
Cal Newport is back to help us think clearly. It’s no surprise that the author of the incredible and essential Deep Work would bring us a thoughtful, well-researched book like Digital Minimalism. Let’s pause a moment and consider whether our use of electronic devices and social media is intentional.
Newport makes a compelling case that our digital lives have become pervasive without our really realizing it. We never planned to be checking our phones so often; it just happened. Further, this unintentional creeping was deliberately designed by tech companies. They manipulate our attention, using intermittent rewards to keep us hooked and using their products as many minutes a day as possible.
What should we do? We should protect how we spend our time. We should make those decisions based on our deepest personal values and the activities we enjoy the most. Digital minimalism is making sure that our social media use, streaming content, gaming, and other uses of our time provide massive value. It’s also making sure that our digital lives aren’t completely crowding out delights like playing music or visiting friends face-to-face.
There’s a “new economics” that shifts the unit of measure of value from money to time. Many of us feel that we don’t have enough time, no matter how much money we have. Minimalism is a way of reclaiming our time from cultural default activities and rededicating it to people and activities that are truly important to us. Newport cites the financial independence community and Mr. Money Mustache as examples.
Intention over convenience is the goal. Are we actually choosing how we spend our time, and are we respecting our own priorities? Hacks are insufficient for reining in digital consumption, though people have tried. Newport advises a detox, a thirty-day digital declutter, during which we can rediscover all the things we love to do but forgot about, because we always have our phones in our hands. We can then gradually reintroduce digital content, remembering that permanent transformation is what we need to get our lives back.
Other people have done it and we can use their example. Digital Minimalism has many examples of digital minimalists who started painting and reading again, among other things. We can use the internet in service of a “leisure renaissance,” learning to do new things, connect with people who share our interests, and find out about events and activities.
Digital Minimalism offers a Seasonal Leisure Plan, which can be built either around the academic calendar, quarterly business cycles, or anything else that the individual prefers. Newport also has a plan for Slow Media, a good idea for news junkies like me. We can continue to engage in social media, though most people can get their needs met in 20-40 minutes of use per week!
This is a provocative and interesting book. I read it after realizing that I had been filling far too much time reading news articles, and making the resolution to be more aware of my news consumption. I decided that the easiest way to deal with this was to focus on reading full-length books instead, like I’ve done most of my life, and using my devices to support that. It has been wonderful! Why read a bunch of clickbait instead of novels and fascinating books like Digital Minimalism? Now that warm weather is coming, I’m going to sit myself down and think about all the fun things there are to do outdoors, with my phone zipped into my pocket.
For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.
Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
As I’ve learned by interacting with my readers, many have come to accept a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives.
After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely.
Here’s my suggestion: schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure.
This is not a drill. I finally figured out how to speed-read OverDrive e-books! February 16, 2019 will remain one of the greatest days of my life, the day I got my heart’s desire. I’ve been trying to learn to read faster since I was seven years old, and now I can, and I’ll never ask for anything else as long as I live. Well, except for more pants with pockets.
Oh, and one other thing: an e-reader that continuously auto-scrolls like the old app I had on my Palm 3 PDA.
This is my position. I support DRM to the extent that people shouldn’t rip off copyrighted material. Artists deserve to get paid. I’ll never understand why people are willing to take material from their favorite musicians or authors, refusing them just compensation. On the other hand, if I’m reading a book for my own personal use, I should be able to read it in whatever format I like.
Purple type on a fuchsia background, or vice versa
Whatever I like! If I want to buy a paperback and read it upside-down, nobody will stop me. Why would they? If I want to design an app that allows me to read upside-down, and I have to strip the DRM to do it because none of the apps on the market have this feature, then I’m a criminal?
Anyway. I’ve figured out this secret and I’m going to use it until someone stops me.
I’ve loved Outread for years now, and I got a second gift when I figured out how to speed-read books. I suddenly realized that the top speed in Outread has increased to 1500 words per minute! It was 1000 when I first downloaded it. I was able to build my speed from about 700 to the full 1000, and all this time I thought I had maxed it out. Will I ever be able to read faster with full comprehension? No idea, but it’s nice to know the option is available.
Next question: Is there a way to do this on anything other than an iPhone or iPad?
Answer: I don’t know, but you’re welcome to research this on whatever device you have.
Next question: Does this technique work with e-books in other apps?
Answer: It could, with considerably more effort. I tried with both iBooks and Kindle, and while I was able to highlight and drag to copy text, I wasn’t able to Select All for a whole chapter. If I were hellbent on doing this sort of thing with a Kindle book, I would play an audiobook while mindlessly highlighting and copying a bunch of chapters into Outread. I suspect it would take at least an hour per book.
Next, next question: Would this work with scanned pages, like from Google Books?
Answer: Not sure. I haven’t yet found an app that will do OCR and then turn it into text that I can copy and paste. Curiosity is compelling me to poke around, though, and I’ll certainly try.
People are justifiably skeptical about speed-reading. It’s basically a party trick, like memorizing long strings of numbers or playing cards in a series. Neat, but why would you want to?
I speed-read for personal use, because I want to and it’s a free country. Possibly I’m a mutant. I also listen to audiobooks on 2x, sometimes higher if I feel like the narrator is slow enough to make it worth digging out my old laptop. People do weirder things in private, at least I suspect they do. I also talk to myself and laugh at my own jokes, so heckle away.
There are limits to speed-reading, though. I speed-read news if it’s entirely text, but it doesn’t work if the story is based around charts, graphs, or strings of numbers. I have to pause if there is a lot of specialized terminology, like engineering jargon or Latinate scientific names. I might skim an article on something that’s only of tangential interest to me (coffee or parenting or dating, for instance), but I’ll speed-read something if I really want to read the whole thing. I do read at normal speed if I’m there for the authorial voice.
This is how I will probably break it down:
Normal speed for horror, high speed for suspense
Normal speed for literary fiction, high speed for pop fiction
Normal speed for self-help, high speed for business books
Normal speed for memoir, high speed for how-to manuals
Readers tend to be traditionalists. Book sniffers, the lot of you! Oh, I’ll never let go of my... I’ll never use an e-book... Audiobooks don’t count... *shrug* whatevs. You do it your way, I’ll do it mine. I do sometimes savor a book the slow way. I don’t feel that every book performs at that level, though, and probably 90% don’t. That doesn’t mean I’m going to read fewer books!
Sometimes I feel that the audio recording is richer and more nuanced than the text, especially if the author is narrating, and that the print readers are missing a layer of intent. Likewise, sometimes the e-book is better designed, making it easier to refer to footnotes or references in other chapters. About speed-reading, it’s possible that some authors would be delighted by this, especially for thrillers and suspense. Ultimately I think they all prefer that their books are read and enjoyed.
Is speed-reading somehow worse than buying stacks of books off the remainder table and stuffing them into a bookcase, displayed but unread? I think not.
All right, now I’ve shared my secret. I’m off to speed-read my next book.
I use a lot of apps to stay organized, and by ‘organized’ I mean “to keep my brain from floating off into space like a weather balloon.” It took me a long time to find these apps, and there are probably eight I tested for every one that I use. That’s why I’m sharing here.
There are also perfectly fine analog versions, or other ways to track the same habits and information I do without using a smartphone.
I use an iPhone because I tried Android and didn’t like it. Like everything else, it’s personal preference, so if my recommendations aren’t available on Android then maybe you can find something similar. Several of these are paid. I’m willing to pay for apps that work because it’s still less than the price of a magazine, and comparable to a lot of drinks and snacks I have nothing to show for after I buy them.
Lockscreen if I need to catch my own attention on an early morning, when I’m essentially half-moss for the first couple of hours and unable to manage my usual system. You can do this by taping a note to your bathroom mirror, something large-format if you need corrective lenses. I have been known to try to stick notes directly to the front of my phone.
CallProtect to block spam and fraud phone calls. How DO people deal with that if they don’t have a smartphone? How do they avoid getting woken up if they can’t set quiet hours on their phone? (I actually know the answer to this because I grew up with a rotary phone, but I like to forget those days).
WaterMinder to track my hydration, because if I don’t drink enough water early enough, it interferes with my sleep. You can track your water intake simply by always using the same size of container (cup, glass, mug, bottle, pitcher) and counting how many times you empty it.
MorningRoutine to help integrate new habits and keep me from wandering around while I brush my teeth. You can do the same thing with a checklist and a stopwatch.
Mint to track all my bank accounts and my portfolio. You can do this with a ledger or a spreadsheet, although it’s a lot more work.
MyFitnessPal for weigh-ins and a food log. You can do this with paper and a website or a paperback book of nutritional information, but it takes a while.
Thyme to set timers on multiple washers and dryers. Most people would either do this with a clock, not have to use a laundromat in the first place, or maybe just leave their wet clothes in the machine?
TripIt for trip planning. My husband loves this so much that it practically brings tears to his eyes. I put together an itinerary with all the addresses and reservation times and share it with him. Then all he has to do is whip out his phone and order a cab. You can do this with paper and a folder.
Transit for knowing when the bus is coming. Even though we ride one of the most irregular buses in the known galaxy, Transit has pretty good intel on when the darn thing is actually coming up the road.
Clear for my list of book recommendations. I usually see them slightly before they’re released, so I can’t request them from the library for a few weeks. This is a beautiful app and very useful for basic lists. I could use Notes, but it’s just so pretty. A paper list of books to read? Mine used to fill an entire spiral notebook, but knock yourself out if that’s how you want to do it. Or just buy them and stack them up until they fill your entire house.
Reminders to remind me to do things during normal business hours, such as making a business call, texting someone who I’m sure doesn’t want to hear from me at 11PM, or doing something in our apartment’s business center when it’s open. Most people do this with sticky notes, but in my experience mine always come unstuck and drift to the floor.
Notes for every darn thing. I do with the Notes app what I used to do with index cards, looseleaf paper, spiral notebooks, sticky notes, and the backs of envelopes. The main difference is that I always have all my notes with me. I don’t lose them and they don’t get thrown out or shuffled into books when I need a bookmark. I can do a keyword search, too, and find the note I want in about one second. The result of this is that in the past four years, rather than just have a scattered billow of little tiny notes, instead I have a blog, a podcast, a self-published book, and a book proposal in progress.
MinimaList for when I have a list of stuff that makes me want to procrastinate. Make the list, tap an item, and a pomodoro timer starts for 25 minutes. It has a range of snarky messages and it will tell you off if you pick up your phone while it’s in focus mode. Racing against a timer is a gamification method that works for me.
Switching to a smartphone changed my life. It ended a fifteen-year streak of never reading or replying to my email. It helped me to start being on time or early to things, because I could check the weather, estimate transit time, and know I wouldn’t be bored in a waiting room anymore. It gave me a way to take photographs and make illustrations that I never would have before. My analog life was messy without the art, while my digital life is more creative without quite as much mess. I look forward to how much future innovation will inform my process, while somewhat shuddering at how it used to be before I turned 35 and got this electronic brain annex.
Every now and then it pays to pull back and take a look at how things are working. Sometimes, circumstances do that for you. A problem crops up and demands your attention, providing the opportunity to ask, “Is this even worth my time?” Such a problem has cropped up with my Amazon Prime membership.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My problem was “resolved.” I wrote to customer service and, as promised, I had a response within twelve hours. That’s terrific. I also got a full refund, which, great. There are two problems here, though:
What this means is that I’m left with a net negative.
When I explain the problem, it should also be apparent why I’m also left with concerns about Amazon as a service provider.
I didn’t receive a package. It was one of four items that I ordered on the same day. Back in the good ol’ days, you’d get a box with all your stuff in it, making a bulk order feel like a birthday surprise. It was worth waiting an extra few days just for the fun factor. Now they all show up separately, in crazy-absurd amounts of packaging, often through different delivery services. Even the tiniest, most trivial items have to be tracked separately, which is complicated by the fact that one might show up the next day while its companion shows up ten days later. I once waited three months for a $3 item before giving up and asking for a refund. I’d go out and buy these small incidentals from local businesses if I had any idea where to find them.
Not receiving a package? No big deal. Not really. The problem was that when I checked my order status, the item showed it had been delivered. Uh oh. Doorstep package theft is a chronic problem in my neighborhood, with Nextdoor posts about this trend every single day. Many of my neighbors even post photos or video from their security systems, or news clippings when thieves are apprehended. Did someone take my little $8 item?
Nope. Along with the order status showing that my package was delivered, there was a photo. A blurry photo of a package in front of a door. “Proof” that someone put my package in a spot where, if I opened my front door, I’d be sure to stumble on it. Proof!
The trouble was, it wasn’t my door!
I’m an historian, not a private investigator, journalist, nor photographer for that matter. Still, we agree on certain standards of documentation. Let’s discuss.
A picture of my own actual door indicates a few discrepancies.
The problem here is a perverse incentive. A harried driver who is tired of searching for an address can simply toss down the package in front of any old random door, snap a blurry picture of the doormat, and leave. Customer service instructions tell the customer to wait 36 hours, search the bushes, and ask neighbors if maybe they got the package by mistake. They don’t say what to do if the driver is falsifying documentation.
We’ve had issues with package delivery before. In one case, the driver wanted a two-minute discussion with me about how hard my address was to find and whether he actually had the right place. I pointed at the street number on our door twice, while trying not to cough on him, since I was home with a bad cold. Look, I’m sorry about your trouble, yet it seems that we get packages and mail here all the time. Why can some drivers find our place while others can’t?
This isn’t a flippant question. How do package delivery services resolve the frustrating, complicated problem of irregular street addresses, apartment complexes, office parks, and other densely packed delivery units? Clearly there must be a more efficient way to do this.
That’s a job for commerce to solve, not me. My job is to fund it through my purchases, not to do that labor on my own time.
I’ve already constricted the types of things I will buy through Amazon. I don’t buy clothes through them any more, after several experiences of the color or fabric looking nothing like the photo. It’s also hard to guess at fit, and not worth my time to carry returns to UPS. I don’t buy shoes, either, after a brand-new pair of sandals exploded two blocks from my house. I don’t buy hard copies of books, after several occasions when poorly packaged books showed up with minor tears or dents. I also don’t buy ebooks, since I read them on my iPhone but can’t buy them directly through the Kindle app. We don’t buy fragile items after the day we got some smashed crockery, packed loose in the box with no padding. We don’t buy anything liquid, after two occasions when shampoo or body wash showed up sticky, leaking fluid, and missing 20% of the contents. In one case, it completely soaked through the box and the box itself basically melted. We still buy pet food, even after the time when another item in the padding-free box tore open a bag of parrot kibble.
Basically it’s started to be a crapshoot. We order something for which we have a fairly urgent need, and when it shows up, sometimes it’s ruined. We get our money back - and of course we shouldn’t expect anything less than that - but we don’t get the thing we needed. We realize we would have been better off shopping for it locally, where we could inspect it and carry it ourselves.
My “job” description as shadow labor for Amazon includes:
Breaking down boxes and hauling packing material to another building and down two flights of stairs, where our trash goes
For all of this, I’m now paying an additional twenty percent for my annual membership.
I don’t mind paying more for value. I’ll pay enough that packers can take their time and choose appropriate packaging, or at least enough that my order arrives intact. I’ll pay enough that drivers get training and support, or at least enough that they care if my package shows up at the right home. How much do I have to pay to get the same level of quality that was standard five years ago?
How much will it take for me to decide that it’s worth paying for shipping and taking my orders elsewhere?
‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
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.
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