We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Organization

Problems expand to fill available space

At any given moment, I have a set of open problems in my life. On my good days, I’m working on the most important one, aiming to solve it as quickly as possible. Otherwise, my most important problem is that I’m not working on my most important problem!

From time to time, I manage to solve a problem, and can remove it from the list. As a side effect, my #2 problem “gets a promotion” and becomes #1 (thanks to Jerry Weinberg for this analogy).

The problem at the top of the list, by virtue of being a focal point, can easily seem bigger than it is. As humans, we normalize our point of view based on what is happening to us. If we apply conventional productivity wisdom and focus exclusively on our most important task, that task consumes all of our attention. Being constantly in this state can be very productive, but also create a problem orientation. I experience this as a feeling that I am constantly surrounded by problems and never “catch up”.

At times like this (if I’m aware and realize that it’s happening), these are some of the things that help me recenter myself:

  • Devote some attention to reviewing what I’ve accomplished recently, to remind myself of progress
  • Ask myself if my #1 problem is actually urgent, or if I’m just on a roll. If it’s not urgent, consider taking a break from problem-solving and work on something else important for a while
  • Give away some problems that I’m holding onto but don’t need to own
  • Remind myself that this feeling as a side effect of where I focus my attention, and I can therefore influence it
  • Laugh

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 6, 2009 at 14:00

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Working from home: inbox focus

Like many people who work from home, I use the same computer for both “work” and “personal” activity. This has many benefits, including lower cost, more efficient use of space, and reduced configuration maintenance.

The main drawback of this arrangement is that it’s easy to get drawn into the wrong context.  This is especially true in a company like Canonical, where there are people working at all hours around the world, communicating with each other on common IRC channels.  If I see work-related conversations on IRC after hours, it’s easy to slip into “work mode” and start thinking about what’s being discussed, or even responding.

Similarly, if I look at my work inbox, my brain goes on autopilot and I start processing email even if I was doing something else before.  This habit serves me well during the work day, when I can process a lot of email in the time between appointments, but in the evenings and at weekends, it’s a distraction.

Recently, I made a small change to my mail reader configuration to try to address this problem.  If I launch mutt “off hours”, it uses a different default inbox than during “working hours”.  These are of course approximate, but since both my personal and work inboxes are in the search path, it’s not a big deal if it guesses wrong. It generally only needs to be correct at the start of a session. Sometimes, it’s just the nudge I need to remind me to switch contexts.

set spoolfile = `case $(date +%u-%H) in \
    [1-5]-0?|[1-5]-1[0-7]) echo +incoming.canonical.INBOX ;; \
    *) echo +incoming.INBOX ;; \

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 30, 2009 at 13:43

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Stop deleting your email

When talking about email, I hear anecdotes from people using the “delete” key to progress through reading their inbox.  Presumably, this instructs their mail reader to delete the messages.  Permanently.  It makes me shiver each time I hear it.

Why on earth would someone do this?

An email that you have processed (read or replied to) isn’t trash.  It is reference material.  It is history.  It is information which has been (in part) absorbed by your brain, and at least seemed important enough that you looked at it in the first place.  Unlike many other forms of person-to-person communication we receive and process on a daily basis, it is digital.  This means that it can be copied and stored forever without losing any information.

I’ve been saving virtually every (legitimate) email that I receive for some years now.  When I’ve finished with a message, mutt automatically saves it to an archival folder without me having to do anything.  It’s actually less work than deleting it (which requires a keypress).  I only delete spam and other content which is truly useless to me.  This adds up to under a gigabyte of storage per year.  A few dollars worth of hard drive space is sufficient to hold all of it.

Every day, I refer back to messages I’ve read.  I refer to more recent messages more frequently, but go back three months or more on a regular basis, to refresh my memory, to pick up on an old topic, or to provide context to someone who is joining a discussion.  It is bewildering to me that this information is thrown away by so many people.

I also don’t ever have to decide whether something is worth saving or not, and this helps me process email faster.  I can relax, knowing that I can always find it again if I need it.

So, why do you delete your email?  Is this a by-product of using your inbox for archival, where anything which might be useful stays there forever?  Is it just the simplest way to put the information aside when it no longer seems important at the moment?  Do any modern mail readers lack the capability to archive messages for you?  Do they not make it easy enough?  Is it a habit which transferred from paper mail, where storing it is impractical for most people?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 27, 2009 at 11:00

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Overflow error: need for better organization and management

I know that I have too much on my mind when:

  1. I have a brilliant idea
  2. I realize that I can’t do anything with it right now
  3. I realize that if I don’t record it, I will lose it, because I have a lot to think about
  4. I consider creating a list of ideas to come back to later
  5. I notice that I have already done this (and forgotten about it)
  6. I open the list, and notice that the idea I just had is already on it
  7. It has been there for a year
  8. This is not the first time this has happened

I’ve been thinking lately that I need to put some energy into organizing my life better, and this is a good example of why.  I am flooded with information, creative ideas, desires, and responsibilities through my work, study, home life and reflection.  I have no illusions about being able to fully honor all of these: that is clearly impossible.  However, I instinctively feel that I could do a much better job of sorting and prioritizing them to maximize my personal effectiveness and satisfaction.

I am a great fan of keeping lists: to-do lists, agendas, my inbox, journals, and other tools all serve to help me capture my thoughts and consider them in a larger context.  Rather than reacting to them one by one, I can look at all of them together and make a conscious choice about what to do right now.  List-keeping is one of the most basic strategies of personal organization, and practicing it has made a dramatic difference in my life.

However, I can see that it is no longer sufficient, and that in order to continue to improve, I will need something more powerful.  I’m not looking for a new list management tool: Remember the Milk, Futz, Tomboy, Jott, and many others provide highly optimized list-keeping facilities.  I don’t use any of them myself (being a text file junkie), but they look great, and offer the right tradeoffs for different people.  My method list-keeping is good enough for me, for now.  Rather, list-keeping is not enough.

Similarly, scheduling has been a successful strategy for me, helping me to decide how I spend my time.  I am not as proficient in scheduling as I am in list-keeping, but I understand the basics and apply them.

What I need is a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about this problem which incorporates and transcends list-keeping and scheduling, and addresses their shortcomings.  I’ve only just begun to research this area, and so far, the most relevant material I’ve found has come from Stephen Covey’s classic text The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  “Habit 3” describes a historical progression of time management tools and approaches which resonates with my personal experience, and prescribes next steps to improve upon it.  I’m not sure yet whether it’s the right direction for me, but here is what I think so far.

Things I like about it:

  • Explicit recognition of the various roles I occupy in my life
  • Helping to balance priorities across different roles
  • Promoting preventative and growth activities, in balance with day-to-day progress

Things which I feel are missing:

  • Simplicity: It seems like a lot of bookkeeping, compared to how I’m used to doing things.  I want a system which is as lightweight as possible, because organizational tools which create friction are self-defeating.
  • Feedback: I want a mechanism which helps me to regularly evaluate what I’ve done and improve upon it.  This should be as easy and automatic as possible, without requiring too much time tracking and data entry
  • Technology: As a technologist, I’m always looking for ways to bring the latest technology to bear on my problems, to make me more efficient.  Covey’s approach was designed without the benefit of the past 20 years of Internet revolution, and the software which is based on it seems a bit dry and monolithic.

Dear readers, do you find yourselves in a similar position?  What are you using to manage your life?  What else did you try?  What was good or bad about it?

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 14, 2009 at 15:43

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