Archive for March, 2008

All bow to Romero

With THE MAN

‘Twas a good weekend. More to come.

links for 2008-03-29

Night of the Zombie

Much more funny stuff over at Mediocre Films [via Wil Wheaton]

links for 2008-03-25

Stupid Little 5k, the 2008 edition

I woke up on Saturday at 5:45am wondering whose bright idea it was that I should wake up on a weekend morning when it was still dark in order to run a 5k race in 35-degree temperatures with occasional sleet. I forced myself out of bed and even managed to eat a decent breakfast before heading out for this year’s Stupid Little 5k, a race that indicates the start of the running season for me, since I tradionally slack way off during the winter. Even though I went six months without running and didn’t break that streak until six days before the race, two runs last week turned out to be enough to prep me for the 5k.

I clocked in at 25:37, one second faster than my official 2006 finish. And, really, an ~8:15 pace isn’t bad at all considering how out-of-shape I figured I was.

I also manage to snag the race’s only cash prize: $15 for placing 25th overall. Woo-hoo! I even got a little trophy to go with it.

I currently hold the record for 30-year-olds and I think I may also have the record for 32-year-olds after this year. Of course, I should note that a 32-year-old had never run this race before, so I could have crawled the whole race and still snagged the record.

I placed second in my age group. Out of two.

At least one kid younger than 13 beat me by a mile (not literally). And at least one person over 60 did, too. He beat me by half a mile (literally).

What blew my mind was the guy who finished first in the 10-miler. Not only did he beat the 2nd place finisher by several minutes, he finished in a race-record 54:04, which is a 5:25/mile pace. That’s insane.

The rest of the weekend was spent catching up with old friends (Alex, to be specific), entertaining guests, and dealing with a crazy ass 1 1/2-year-old that’s sprouting way too many teeth at once.

links for 2008-03-22

Productivity, Organization, and an Attempt to Simplify

For a while now–the last year, most earnestly–I’ve been trying to shift from a consumptive, disorganized, cluttered, and busy life to a simpler, more organized and productive life. I’ve become a regular reader of Lifehacker, Unclutterer, Zen Habits, and 43 Folders. I’ve read books like Refuse to Choose and Zen to Done. I’ve adopted a lot of new techniques and methods and have even made some progress toward my goals. Since friends like Paul and Bob have both posted about their productivity/organization setups, I thought I’d do the same thing.

Buckle up, folks. This could be a long one.

The Disclaimer

Of course, your mileage will (ain’t no “may” about it) vary. Also, I’ve got a long way to go, so some of this may change in the coming months or years, but I’m starting to settle into a groove where I’m feeling comfortable. And that’s why I figured it’s time to write this all down.

To-Do

I’ve got a scattered brain, due in part to my tendency to take on way more projects than I can handle. “Oh, yeah, sure, I can get a book together in a month, no problem!” is something you’re likely to hear come out of my mouth any given day. One of the main reasons a lot of these projects go unfinished is that I have always followed the “I’ll do whatever I feel like doing today” method, which will often end with me having watched an episode of Wife Swap, spontaneously baked a batch of cookies, and taken an impromptu nap, all without actually having made any progress on my projects.

So, I’ve been forcing myself to get better about keeping a to-do list. Over the past year, I’ve tried a ton of web-based solutions. Remember-the-Milk was good in concept, but just felt wrong. Tadalist was neat, but too simple. Tasks was thorough, but too complex. Simple text files worked well, but lacked some automated features I could use. After a while, I finally thought I found the perfect tool: Google Notebook (a use-anywhere, glorified text editor). I set aside a separate notebook for to-dos and created individual notes for different contexts: @home, @web, @book, @business. I’d add items as I thought of them and would highlight my to-dos for the day/weekend with one color and my secondary to-dos in another.

This worked pretty well, but grew kind of unwieldy and didn’t offer any real sorting options. So, I’m now using Toodledo and have found it to be just the right balance of simplicity and functionality. I use the “priority” ranking to sort when I’m going to do stuff (rather than the due date option because deadlines and I don’t agree). “3” is “today,” “2” is “soon,” “1” is “when I get free time, and “0” is “undefined.” I use the “Folder-All Tasks” view and have folders set up for “home,” “web projects,” and “business.” Another change I’ve made is that I no longer add blog post ideas as to-do items. Rather, I add those to a Google Notebook and only once I’m sure I want to write that post do they make it to the to-do list.

moleskinecahiernkg But even Toodledo is only part of the to-do solution for me. Most of my brilliant flashes of “oooh — I should do this” or “oh man, I need to do this tonight” come to me when I’m away from the computer. For that reason, the most important part of my to-do solution is the 3 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ Moleskine Cahier (pictured right, courtesy of Mark Frauenfelder). It’s the first notebook I’ve ever had than I can literally keep in my pocket at all times. Paired with a Zebra Mini Stainless Steel Pen that fits perfectly in the crease of the Moleskine, I’m never without a place to take notes. The last 16 pages of the cahier are perforated. I use these pages for writing down shopping lists and can then tear the pages out and chuck ’em once I’m done with them.

At the end of the day, or whenever I’m at a computer and remember, I’ll transfer any to-do items I’ve jotted down to my Toodledo list.

So, in summary: Moleskine Cahier with Zebra mini pen to write down items anywhere, Toodledo as my master to-do list, and Google Notebook for brainstorming content ideas.

I should also add that I use a completely different to-do manager at work. I like to keep my work and home life as separate as possible, so I use this as an opportunity to try a slightly different method or tool. My tool of choice at work is the awkwardly-named, minimalist-but-very-functional Treedolist. I use three simple branches: Today, Medium priority, and Low priority. On the rare occasion I think about a work item that needs to be done and I’m not at my desk, into my Moleskine it goes.

Calendaring

For years I’ve struggled with finding a decent calendaring option. My needs are pretty basic:

  • should be online so I can access the same info from home or work
  • should be able to have separate calendars viewable on a single calendar page
  • should be able to share with other users (so, for instance, Huyen can have her own calendar and we can have a joint calendar as well)

Google Calendar has been the answer for a while now and I definitely don’t see that changing. We use it for appointments and travel. I have a public calendar for Half Pint Tour Dates that I syndicate on his site. We keep track of birthdays and anniversaries there (though, admittedly, we haven’t gotten any better about sending out cards). Google Calendar rules the school.

Actually, You Know, Doing Stuff

The problem with a lot of productivity systems is that they’re so focused on the classification and sorting of information that one of two things happen: 1. I get so distracted by organizing my to-dos that I don’t actually do any of them, or 2. I get so frustrated by the complexity of it all, I end up throwing up my hands and regressing to whatever hack-job technique I used before (ie. “none”).

zen_to_done That’s why I love Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done e-book. It takes all of the stuff from David Allen’s Getting Things Done that make sense and jettisons the very stuff that seems extraneous to me. Plus, it’s a system that encourages you to pick-and-choose what makes most sense for you.

One of the things that has proven helpful about the ZTD technique is the idea of adopting new habits slowly, over the course of a month. Trying to do too many new things at once, Leo says, is a recipe for failure, which I find to be true.

He advocates picking exactly three things from your to-do list each day and focusing on those. At this point, I’m still trying to get to where I can get three items done in a day, but I have been marking off between one and five things for any given day/weekend in order to sharpen my focus on certain tasks/projects.

I’ve combined some of the ideas in his book with Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” method (using printed yearly calendars instead of the web site), which has worked remarkably well. I have one calendar that I use to keep track of one of my everyday routine tasks and a separate calendar that I use as my “Project Task Calendar.” On this one, each month I focus on one project that I want to make progress on every day. I devote at least 15 minutes each night to that project. In January, it was simply journaling, since I wrote very few journal entries last year. In February, it was working on a particular web site redesign. This month I’ve kind of broken some of the rules and given myself a list of four things (running, working on the same site from February, cleaning the basement, and working on my album) and I need to work on at least one of those each night. Next month, I’ll get back to a single project.

This is not to say I’ve been perfect with this method — I haven’t had any months where I haven’t missed a day on my Project Task Calendar — but I’ve also never missed more than three days in a row and my overall monthly rate is about 85% (meaning I haven’t missed more than five days in any single month).

In summary, I use the general philosophy of Zen to Done, changing things slowly and persistently, combined with “Don’t Break the Chain” for a little added motivation.

Organizing: Physical

Woo boy, this one’s a biggie.

cds I never really considered myself a “material person” since I never drove super expensive cars or insisted on “only the best.” However, I’ve always been a collector. My music collection will attest to that — about 300 DVDs, countless CDs (I dunno — maybe 8 or 10 thousand?), 2000 records, 3000 cassettes. And anyone that’s been in our basement can tell you that I have accumulated a bit too much “stuff” for my own good.

Don’t worry. I’m not unloading my music collection. That’d be crazy.

But, I am tackling the problem in a few other ways.

Step 1 – Reduce consumption

I’ve made a conscious effort over the last two years to significantly cut back on the amount of new stuff that I buy. I used to get three or four packages a week at work with CDs or DVDs. Now, I order new CDs, vinyl, or DVDs a few times a year, and only if they’re ones of which I really want physical versions. I’m getting more music digitally and use Netflix for pretty much any movie I want to see. This has made a huge, huge difference. I’m much more conscious about the stuff that’s coming in and realize that my collections don’t define me in the way I used to let them.

Step 2 – Pare down existing “stuff”

This is the most difficult step for me, as I’ve always had difficulty making judgements about what’s worth keeping and what’s not. But as I get older, I’m finding it a little easier and more necessary to break unnecessary attachments to “stuff.” I’ve been looking to sites like Unclutterer for inspiration and, indeed, I’ve made some progress on the worst area of our house: the basement.

When I jumped in and made my first real, concerted effort last summer, I was amazed at how many empty boxes or boxes with only packing material were left down there. They used to have stuff in them, but I had taken that stuff out and just never bothered to chuck the boxes. I wasn’t keeping them for any particular reason, I just was lazy. I gathered up a large batch of the extra boxes, recycling the ones that were in rough shape from last year’s mini-flood and Freecycling the rest (and also Freecycling packing materials or giving them to the local shipping store). That freed up a lot of room. Unfortunately, Rasine’s old toys and clothes that she had outgrown began to fill that space. Huyen’s done a good job at sorting through the clothes and returning ones that were lent to us, giving a bunch away to others who are having babies soon (note to anyone having kids: don’t buy any clothes for your baby — you won’t need to), and keeping a few sentimental ones that we might reuse should we have a second.

Even with this progress, though, the basement is still a certified disaster zone. But, I’m working through it slowly and trying to get a little something done on it every few days. Doing a little eventually amounts to a lot and it just takes some patience to come to peace with the fact that it’s not all going to happen at once. Some people would be fine with saying, “Pitch it all and let’s start over,” but that’s not me and I’m alright with that.

Step 3 – Organize the rest

I’m kind of an organizing geek, so I enjoy this part. One of our projects for this year is to turn our living room into a library and I’m foaming at the mouth at the prospect of sorting and organizing all of our books again.

Most of our media is pretty well organized. Our books, our DVDs, comic books, magazines, records, etc. all have their proper place. My CDs have gotten out of hand, though, and when we move those to the basement and out of the to-be library, I’m going to give those a good thorough reorganizing. That’ll be the most fun weekend of my life, I tell you. No joke.

Organizing, in summary, boils down to: buying less and getting rid of more (resulting, hopefully, in a net decline of “stuff”) and then sorting the rest. Simple in concept, but often a challenge in practice.

Organizing: Digital

If I’m a bit of a physical packrat, I’m a crazy digital packrat. I’ve got a 500 gig hard drive at work with just my digital music collection on it (only about 150 gigs is used, though). I’ve got e-mail dating back to 1994. And every digital photo I’ve ever taken. And I love it that way.

E-mail

My e-mail could use some work. I’m using way too many folders and want to get down to a simpler method. Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” is pretty inspirational, but I’ve got a ways to get there.

I’m not going to comment too much here because I haven’t quite figured things out.

Music

I’m meticulous about my music organization. The music folder on my drive is organized into folders based on genres. Under those are individual folders for each album. Some people use a folder for each artist and then a subfolder for each album by that artist, but I wanted to mimic my physical CD collection organization method, which is Genre – Artist – Album By Year. Thus, a standard folder name for me looks like:

k:\mp3\Hip-Hop\A Tribe Called Quest – [1991] – The Low End Theory\

Filenames, if I have a choice (and I’m really not too picky about these), are in the format of 2-digit Track Number – Artist – Song Title, like:

07 – TrueBless – They Don’t See.mp3

mm I use the freakin
g phenomenal MediaMonkey to listen to my music. No other music app (except maybe Amarok, which I haven’t tried) comes close. I use their playlists and auto-playlists extensively, but usually listen by location on my drive. Essential plug-ins/scripts: MonkeyRok, Batch Art Finder, and the iTunes v7 skin.

Photos

We organized all of our photos in folders sortable by name based on date (ie. 2008-03-20). With pictures dating back 1999, I’m thinking I might want to set up year-based folders and let the individual dates go in subfolders under those.

We use Picasa for desktop sorting/viewing and Flickr for online sharing. Neither is perfect, but both are quite good.

Simplifying

Just like Buddhism’s concept of “The Middle Way,” my goal to simplify life isn’t about eschewing all material things and living the life of an ascetic. Rather, it’s about realizing that happiness isn’t going to come from either extreme end of the spectrum: living with nothing and doing nothing on one end or relying on “things” and always being busy on the other end. Rather, it’s about cutting out the crap, getting rid of the things that don’t matter, and generally lightening one’s load. This is a simultaneously physical, mental, and emotional endeavor.

I feel like I’ve made enormous progress on this front, but of course, there’s still a long way to go. The goal is simple. I want to be able to enjoy my quiet times without worrying about something I “should” be doing instead. When I’m working on a project, I want to feel the same drive and passion that I did when I was in college. I don’t want to feel an obligation to do anything that’s supposed to be (or used to be) enjoyable, but isn’t. I want to feel like my time is well-spent, whether it’s being with family, being productive, or relaxing.

Is that asking too much?

links for 2008-03-21

links for 2008-03-20

Lace ’em up

My first race of the year is coming up this Saturday. It’s an informal race ($7 registration and the race gift is a pencil rather than a t-shirt) on a nice, flat course out in the middle of nowhere. I decided it’s a few days away so, you know, I better try running or something first.

Last night I went for my first run since last September. I half-expected to not make it a mile; I’ve been getting winded going up the stairs at work, never a good sign. But I went out with the intention of running for distance and time rather than speed and ended up surprising myself. I ran for just over a half-an-hour, covering 3.35 miles. That’s 9:05/mile, which isn’t great, but it ranks as just slightly below average from what I was doing back when I was running regularly. The most important thing, though, is that I know I can cover 5k without dying after six months without lacing up my running shoes.

I’m going to try to get one more good run in on Wednesday and then a short 2-miler in on Thursday, leaving Friday to recover. Then I need to prepare for my next race, which is a significantly more difficult one.