Some thoughts on planning, remembering, and the body (a.k.a. “getting things done”)

First, a note of explanation: What follows is not a post on “getting things done” or on the merits of various productivity tools. It is, rather, some thoughts on the ways I’ve found those tools to shape my thinking and my work.

After almost four years of trying to keep track of all my various projects with various apps, I’ve given up and gone back to a combination of a paper journal (hardbound, dot-printed rather than lined) and, for long term planning of specific projects, various homespun electronic documents and spreadsheets. It’s working wonderfully; I find I’m far better able to keep track of what I’m doing and what I’ve done. Having made that change, here are some of my observations.

  1. The promise of having continuous access to my project information was… well, promising, but I never did get around to using my smartphone in that way. I hate typing on my smartphone. I have fairly big hands, and staring at little screens makes me feel boxed in, almost claustrophobic. A hardbound journal meets the same need; it’s always with me. Better, it’s always open on my desk; I don’t have to push buttons to access it. I can’t, therefore, ignore it. (If I tried, it’s orange.)
  2. Apps swallow their past. Once you check an item off as completed, it disappears from view. There’s nearly always a way to retrieve that information, but not typically in a way that I find conveniently displayed. Loose sheets of paper are worse; they get thrown away. A journal, as long as you mark entries rather than crossing through them, preserves the past in readable fashion. That’s of some practical value: I can, for example, see when I last gave the dog her heartworm preventative or note a tendency to put off certain tasks. I can learn from my mistakes in a way that’s impossible if I hide or erase or throw away (or even cross through) what I’ve done. But there’s also something philosophically worrisome to me about the ease with which productivity apps move you inexorably into the next task. It encourages presentism, an emphasis on what’s important now and on what’s next, and I think the culture already encourages far too much of that. Hardbound journals, by contrast, encourage reflection and a vision of oneself as a whole over time.
  3. An app, no matter how flexibly it’s designed to be used, is inherently algorithmic. Computer code is algorithms. And if I’m using that code, I, too, have to follow the algorithm; my own thinking must shape itself to the algorithm. Now, it’s true that processes of work must always adapt to fit the tools at hand, but some tools are more flexible than others. Blank sheets of paper, dotted rather than lined, bound into a journal, give me tremendous flexibility. I can choose my own symbols and systems, index as I wish, organize as suits my preferred ways of thinking, planning, remembering, and visualizing. As my thinking about my thinking evolves, my processes can evolve with it. With an app, I’m stuck in someone else’s head. (There’s also a difference, I think, between a tool and an algorithm, but that needs more thought.) A simple table in an Open Office document serves that end when paper doesn’t.
  4. There is some satisfaction to writing, physically writing, the X next to a task completed. It serves the same purpose as checking a box on a computer screen and watching it disappear, and so they may be functionally identically, but to claim that the two actions are thus identical and interchangeable reduces human experience to mere functionality. I’m not an algorithm (see #2, above); I have a body, and I think with it.
  5. I buy the blank books and ink for my fountain pens from a local stationary shop — yes, I still have a local stationary shop, an amazing thing, and I’d like to help keep it in business! Both come ultimately from some company or other, I don’t know where. (France?) So I’m not claiming any sort of purity. But to use them, I don’t have to support my cable company, my phone company, or one of the world’s largest global corporations (e.g. Apple). And when I stock up I get to have a chat with a guy who calls himself, professionally, Crazy Alan. So there’s that.

Travel in the magic city

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

This summer I moved to a new neighborhood that happens to be much nearer the freeway that divides my city. My house is less than a mile from an on-ramp, though you wouldn’t guess it in this quiet and wooded neighborhood; you can’t hear the traffic on a still evening, and my yard backs up to a seven thousand-acre research forest. Now, I have lived on the edge of this city for sixteen years, and I have always avoided the freeway unless I was traveling some distance and needed to hook up with the interstate at the far end of it; I almost never hop on for just an exit or two. I could say that my distaste for the freeway comes from knowing what its construction did to the old and vibrant black neighborhoods it tore through fifty years ago, but I’m not actually that pointlessly principled. Nothing I do will those neighborhoods back, and I won’t make an academic justification for what is, at bottom, a visceral dislike of divided highways.

Since I moved in, it has slowly dawned on me that I can get practically everywhere faster by taking the freeway. (Likely this would have been obvious to anyone else sixteen years ago: as I said, it’s visceral.) But it has at the same time dawned on me that I might be eroding other, existing neighborhoods by using that freeway—not directly, not by physical or economic means, but simply by changing my perception of them. Where once I drove past strip malls and gas stations, through old neighborhoods holding their ground and neighborhoods that are well on their way to gentrified, noting the changes that happen day by day and week by week, I find myself getting downtown more often by exiting my own neighborhood onto a strip of blacktop that could be anywhere in America and emerging a block or two from my destination. For all that I see of what’s in between, I may as well be asking Scotty to beam me to church, or to the grocery store.

It’s increasingly clear to me that what lies in between matters, deeply. Not long ago I had to answer an icebreaker question: If I were given a free round-trip airline ticket good anywhere in the world, where would I go? It should be said that I hate icebreaker questions, and characteristically I found a way to be contrary. I’d cash in the ticket, I said, and take the train across the country, with no particular destination in mind, stopping here and there in small towns I’d never heard of, eating with the locals and hiking their woods and touring the local museum or seeing the world’s largest ball of twine. A smart-ass answer, as I’m afraid everyone quickly realized, but it’s also true: I’d rather see what’s in between, and I’d rather take my time about it—in theory, at least. But apparently not when I just need to buy some groceries. Continue reading “Travel in the magic city”

Rituals of embodiment

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

This spring I had to buy a new coffee mill. Facing the loss of both my electric coffee grinder and my antique hand-cranked mill, I debated about what to buy. The decision was no small matter—nothing like choosing, say, a brand of toothpaste or a college major. Making coffee is the first thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning. Well, all right, after letting the dog out. And pulling on some semblance of clothing. But it comes before shaving, shower, morning prayer, checking email on my phone, and any other actually constructive or productive activity. Inconsequential as the ritual may seem, making coffee sets the tone for the day. Not drinking coffee, mind, but simply preparing it.

It’s worth mentioning that I gave up on automatic coffee makers several years ago, when a hundred-dollar machine quit working just eight months after I’d bought it—this, the replacement for another hundred-dollar machine that lasted only a year and a half. Possibly I have some responsibility to grease the wheels of the Great Economy, but not that much. Now I do what foodies call “manual drip”: set a three-dollar plastic filter basket on top of my mug, put the filter and grounds in it, boil water in a kettle, pour the water through the grounds, and there’s coffee, better than came out of any machine I ever owned, becaue the water is always the right temperature. And in my old house, served by electric lines that meandered through a half-mile of woods from the highway, to rely on the power company for anything so essential as coffee was an act of purest optimism, because if storms didn’t knock out the lines every couple of months, a squirrel might commit suicide by transformer.

Hence my love of that antique coffee mill, which did its job even when the grid didn’t. But it had other advantages: it was quiet. It gave me something to do while the water heated besides stare blearily out the window and contemplate my inbox. It made me feel better for not needing Duke Power for every little thing. And it made better coffee, because, as I came to realize, its burrs grind the coffee consistently and cleanly, whereas the blades of an electric mill pulverize the grounds and can scorch them. So when I realized that I could buy a modern hand-cranked grinder for little more than the price of an electric one, I bit. Continue reading “Rituals of embodiment”

Old timey

A couple of weeks ago I spent my first day volunteering as a costumed museum interpreter, which is not something I ever saw myself doing. I’d worked with the site director and staff before, and figured that, as an out-of-work historian, I’d see if I could help them out in any way — doing a little research or leading a few tours, I thought, but when they found out that I build furniture with hand tools, the next thing I knew I was being fitted for 1870s clothes. And so there I was on a ninety-degree North Carolina June Saturday outside a nineteenth-century farmhouse demonstrating “traditional” woodworking. Continue reading “Old timey”

We are what we don’t discard

Cleaned out the shed that doubles as storage and workshop, the workshop half mostly theoretical the past few years as the storage expanded and my time contracted, and was unable to explain the choices I made about what to keep and what to throw away. When I was in graduate school and had less stuff, less money, more time, and a need to compensate for my endemic uselessness, I saved everything — odds and ends of hardware, bits of rope, scraps of wood, the wheels off an old lawn mower. And I used most of it, the lawn mower wheels finding their way onto a moveable grazing pen for the ducks. But no shed is infinite. Four lawn ‘n’ leaf bags await next week’s garbage pickup.

Discarded:

  • a step stool that I built in 1998; I designed it badly so that it tips over whenever you step on it, and haven’t used it since the turn of the century
  • staining rags, work gloves, and knee pads chewed by mice
  • two broken lamps that I don’t like but have been meaning since 1994 to fix
  • the balls from my childhood croquet set (the mallets are long gone)
  • sixty or so egg cartons purchased when the ducks were still laying regularly (actually I composted these)

Kept:

  • countless pieces of wood too small to be of any use
  • five dozen mason jars, in addition to the dozens actually in use in the house
  • four gallon bottles of antifreeze, each more than half full

I can admit my failure to build a decent stepstool and that the ducks are getting old and won’t be replaced, but I can’t shake the vision of endless shelves of pickles and applesauce and sauerkraut I know perfectly well I don’t have time to make. But I like the idea that I could, just as I like the idea that I could build a desk or some bookshelves in my newly accessible workshop.

I could write the shed as metaphor, that when you are young a shed is twelve by sixteen feet of possibility, that the junk in it is not junk but the physical manifestation of your experience stored as raw materials for the future, and that at some later age you reach a point where your accumulated past chokes the life out of the future. But that would be silly. It’s just a shed.

Why I don’t like the metric system

For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.

Metric vs. traditional systems

First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)

The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.) Continue reading “Why I don’t like the metric system”