August 23rd, 2014

A Few Remarks about Lists, and other supports for time management and personal organization

My regular readers have already moved on to the next post, or are bracing themselves. Whenever I say, "A Few Remarks", think that guy in the trench coat, back repeatedly with, "Just one more ..."

I have posted in the past about my decluttering efforts. Because R. and I were Mature when we married, we each had fully developed homes: furniture, decorations, kitchen equipment, linens, etc. We also moved across country a couple times, and we didn't completely empty either original household for a while. But when we moved here, we both cleared out our original spaces, and after we'd been here for a couple years, I had the contents of a storage space shipped out as well (<-- that's not completely accurate, but let's pretend it's close enough). Fortunately, we have an unfinished basement that is large. We whittled it down over time, and I read a bunch more decluttering, personal and home organization books, time management, etc., including David Allen's _Getting Things Done_. Eventually, all the rooms in the house were painted, the photos collected in albums, furniture rearranged and replaced, things framed and put on walls, home gym filled out with some additional items, my CDs ripped and moved along, my library drastically reduced, etc. Old electronics were recycled. Things were moved up to the cloud. Backup processes were instituted, blah, blah, bleeping blah. I set up a home office with a desk and a lovely chair and a big monitor and decent keyboard and trackpad to plug my laptop into.

My latest project has involved developing packing lists for different lengths and types of travel and adjusting some of the things that I travel with, with the goal of forgetting fewer things when I travel, and being able to pack lighter while still having everything with me to make me and my family comfortable wherever we go. The current project is figuring out how to do a short trip using only carry-on luggage, a skill I once had when I was single, but let me tell you this is a whole different world with two small children (I never once contemplated this while the kids were in diapers/strollers).

I thought it would be useful to try to summarize some of what I am doing and how I am doing it, as always (because it's all about me!) mostly for myself, but also for any of my friends who might be curious.

Some of this is going to be boring. Good news! I'm going to break it up into a bunch of posts and label them clearly. Forewarned, etc.

A brief history of my address book

In the mists of time (probably the 1980s), I had a little notebook that I kept a lot of information in, including names, addresses and phone numbers. This would have been pre-email. I did not (and you probably aren't going to believe this, given that I was a computer science major, and then worked in the field for a number of years) own a computer of my own until I retired. (Told you you wouldn't believe it.) While I was in college, I kept some files with phone number and email information in them, that I would periodically print out, altho I was not nearly as organized about this as Some People I Knew.

Some years later, those highly organized people all started buying Palm Pilots, but I held off for a while. I did eventually give in, and bought a series of Palms and Treos, usually the ones that had the cartridges, including the short-lived Treo phone (I loved that thing, altho the microphone kept breaking). The last Treo I bought had wi-fi. I had it after I moved to Mayberry the first time, and of course I synced it to whatever computer I lived with, so the iMac before the move, and R.'s computer after I moved.

Then I bought a feature phone, and programming contacts into that was a nightmare, so a long twilight of horribleness occurred. I went from having a device that was my calendar, phone book, and even did some mapping and routing, to basically nothing. I went from having laboriously moved all my billing and payments online to everything slowly reverting to paper (usually because of one email delay). I had honestly _forgotten_ that I was once an organized person, in the haze of pregnancies and caring for babies and then young children with special needs. I tried a Crackberry, but it bricked itself. And then I finally got an iPhone. For whatever reason (probably because I finally could), I dug up the ancient address book (I had gotten it off of where it had been synced, into Yahoo at some point), moved it over to Apple's Contacts, and then started updating everything based on hundreds of My Contact Info Has Changed Emails that had been accumulating in my inbox for years. That, in turn, was part of the OMG I have over 500 messages in my inbox this has got to be fixed, project.

It is quite straightforward to synchronize your Address Book using Apple Contacts on a Mac computer, iOS device(s) such as a phone, iPad, etc. With the deployment of iCloud, you can even log into your contacts (and Notes, etc.) on anything at all that has a web browser and an internet connection. It is worth doing, because then you will have your up-to-date address book with you everywhere you go, because I know for damn sure you are sleeping with your iOS device and even taking it into the bathroom. I know this, because I read the news, and I've read about your device burning up your pillow, and I know that dropping your phone into the toilet bowl is a tragic and all too common event around the world.

Are there other ways to accomplish this? Damn straight! If you live on Android, I'm sure you can find a buddy who has something brilliant set up over there and she can help you get it all figured out. But having a cloud based address book is the most amazing thing ever, because it eliminates all those business cards and stupid little pieces of paper that live in your purse, pocket or wallet. Also, people are impressed, because you can quickly get in touch with everyone you know.

Your Grocery List Does Not Have To Be On Paper

Once I had the addresses out of my inbox, it was a lot smaller. And there were way fewer little pieces of scrap paper floating around. I still had a spiral notebook sitting on the counter, however, with the current grocery list. I am terrible at going through the kitchen and figuring out what I need, and I hate shopping for a particular meal. So whenever something gets used up, I put it on the list.

Alas, I often left the list at home when I went to the grocery store. Also, R. was really bad about adding to the list.

One day, I used the Notes feature on my new iPhone. That was fantastic! Until I realized sometime later that my little notes (which I think I intended to blog about) were not saved! Gah! So I signed up for Evernote, because everyone had been talking about that forever. Cool! I can use the same account on my iPad and my iPhone and my laptop! Fantastic! I'd fill out the list on my computer, close the laptop, grab my phone and go to the store. Where I discovered to my chagrin that all that stuff I entered on the computer was not on the iPhone! What! What!

Okay. So I figured out to make sure it synced before closing the laptop. And then some more subtle stuff started happening, and I quit using Evernote. I noticed I was right back to paper spiral notebooks that I forgot at home -- and those fucking pieces of paper I was trying to eliminate from my life. Lame! Why am I not using Evernote? Use Evernote! And that's when I paid enough attention to watch data literally disappear after I had entered it because it would resync with an older version. Boy did that piss me off. I googled around to try to figure out if there was any way to fix this and I got so angry I nuked my account and went back to Notes, which by this time was iCloud enabled.

And Notes now did everything the way I wanted it to. Sure, I still have to be super careful about editing a Note while not connected. But I never get screwed with data loss -- I just sometimes wind up with a duplicate note that I then laboriously figure out is safe to get rid of.

I have a "To Do" list, which is the "Next Actions" list in GTD (Getting Things Done) cult jargon, including my grocery list. At the bottom of the list is my "Someday/Later" in GTD speak. At the top of the To Do list, every night I will move things that are going to happen in the next day or so, to remind myself to do them and to surface any preparatory actions that need to be taken that are not on the list. Progressively moving down the list will be things I might not get to for days or weeks, and I will review these occasionally whenever I have time to work on stuff and also in the evening to figure what needs to move up to the top. I am not disciplined about "At Work" vs "At Home" vs WTF, because I don't find that level of organization very useful for me. If you go somewhere for hours at a time, most days, you probably will want to keep that stuff separated. Included on the To Do list are w/fs: Waiting For. When I place an order online, I'll add "w/f that thing I ordered from Zappos". When I get stuff, I'll go remove those items from the list. If I see something on the list that makes me go, hey, that should have gotten here by now, I know to go do some tracking.

Other notes capture larger projects. In Personal Kan Ban terms, I have a "swim lane" note for lifting, and another one for genealogy. When I was buying a car, I had a note that contained the research I was doing, and a list of action items and w/fs related to that project." Travel plans will generally take at least one note, but often more than one. I keep my packing lists, however, over in google docs. I also have a list that captures outstanding action items for doing taxes, projects around the house (such as getting a larger bed in the master bedroom), brainstorming future travel ("Glamping Europe" is really pretty aspirational, but hey, I can dream!). If I'm blogging about something complex, I may write it in a Note, and then transfer it (you think the ETAs are bad -- I've saved you from the very worst entries).

Other people continue to use EverNote. I gather that people who use Windows love OneNote. And there are a lot of other note taking solutions out there. A lot of those note takers and a lot of those solutions are oriented to highly detailed note taking, including free hand drawing, embedded web pages, charts, you name it. I don't use any of that stuff. It's just cryptic words typed, instead of cryptic words scrawled. And instead of being on the back of receipts and advertising flyers, it's all in the cloud, accessible at all times.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. Get your notes on your phone, your computer, and anywhere else you find yourself in the connected world. Make _sure_ it all plays well together. Get in the habit of using it. And DO NOT put shit in there that you really have no intention of doing. If you aren't going to do it, just tell people no and make 'em smile when you do (there are books to help you learn how to do this, and believe me when I say, it makes it downright fun to say no to people, because you can hear the smile in their voice as they thank you for saying no to them. Except telemarketers, and those people are doomed anyway). When you write down what you need to do, think of the next, small step, and if it only takes 2 minutes to do it AND you have everything to do it RIGHT NOW and are in the right spot and you feel like it, then just do it (seriously, 2 minutes or less. 2. 120 seconds. 121 and you should write it down. Hard Core). Otherwise, write down that simple little task. And the next time you find yourself with a half hour before your next scheduled activity, peruse your list and pick one or more to knock out (as my sister likes to say) and you will feel _so_ cheerful because it is an Easy Win, and most days could use a few more of those. Every day, pick out a good time to go over your list and do some editing and rearranging and dump all the crap in your brain out onto the list and sort through it. And then the next day, you can "knock out" a bunch of stuff and feel _so_ happy because at least something went right among all the interruptions. If you have a complicated task, you don't need to work out all the steps -- you just need to always have on your list the _next_ simple bit to do.

And just think of all the little scraps of paper and notebooks and misplaced notes that you will never have to deal with again.

Alas, the Calendar is Still a Problem

I would love to say that I have been as successful in terminating my paper calendar use as I have been my paper address book and my paper notes. But I have not. I think the major issue is a display problem, but I don't know.

I tried using google calendar, but I got screwed with events that I was just trying to look at getting modified and I couldn't figure out why. It terrified me. I eventually resorted to Apple's Calendar, and hooked it up to some other calendars, the birthdays in the address book, etc. R. is connected so when I actually remember to put travel dates, appointments and so forth into the calendar, he is informed and things work better. But when I am on the phone working out when and where and so forth, I resort to my space pen and the paper calendar on the wall.

ETA: This is especially sad because my Dutch instructor and I both are fully iOS/Apple/Mac people, and we keep thinking we should coordinate the lesson through Calendar. And yet we don't. No reason. We just don't.

Sorry. You're going to have to go somewhere else for wisdom. I think if Apple had the Android feature of letting you make your calendar visible on the lock screen, I might finally tip over into using it all the time. But I don't know. Android fans should be thinking neener neener neener right now, because y'all have definitely earned it.

I Got Rid of My CDs

CDs are not great for archival purposes. If you look around, you'll see that people are starting to get kinda worried about this. They are less stable in a variety of ways than vinyl. Ironic, I know.

You have some choices when it comes to moving your stack of discs to the cloud. Just about every place you can buy music has some sort of subscription with a free tier solution for ripping, recognizing and lockering your existing music. I use iTunes Match. But I could have gone with Amazon Music, or Google Play; pick whatever makes sense in terms of where you buy most of your music.

I just basically set up an assembly line and had a swim lane for ripping discs. I didn't care too much about how many I did at a time or on a day; just whenever I didn't have something else going, I'd sit down and rip stuff. And eventually, it was all done. Shortly thereafter, I turned the boxes of discs over to my sister to do with whatever she felt like doing.

Because I use iTunes Match, and because I have iOS/Mac everything, I can now listen to my music anywhere. Also, because my kids share my account, I don't have to buy separate music for them. I wish that the Pioneer music system in my car handled multiple bluetooth connections better, but if it is acting up, I can always just plug the phone in and go through the iPod interface instead (altho then the handsfree doesn't work . . .).

I bought nice headphones (I like Sennheiser, so I have a good pair for at home, and I have noise canceling ones for travel, and a neckband style for when I go for a walk alone). It's pretty painless. When I am sick of what I already own, I just go to the iTunes store and buy something. There is a free song every week there, and if you have a Starbucks account, they will message you an iTunes store code for a different free song every week. Should I probably sign up for Spotify, like you almost certainly have? Sure! Maybe someday.

I even bought an Airplay speaker, altho I don't use it very much right now, probably because the kids are at home a lot in the summer. When I do use it, the sound quality makes me very happy.

In the meantime, I can buy a couple Alan Jackson albums when I am in the mood and hit repeat artist and just listen to that until I am sick of it, which is basically the way I've always preferred to listen to music. I am an AOR girl, and that seems unlikely to change, altho the AO part has become more important than the R part over time.

Getting Rid of Mail

I have posted many, many, many times about setting up a password manager (I use LastPass), and then going on an account opening spree so I could move everything online and stop paper everything. There is Much Debate about the best password manager, and I don't really care. I like one that has a cloud subscription option (does it reduce security? Of course! And we should all be eating minimally processed whole foods all the time, yet there are still a lot of fast food operations out there) but you may feel otherwise.

After turning off paper billing, it is important to make sure you have an effective notification scheme so you remember to actually pay your bills. I use autopay (I generally set this up at the site where the bill is coming from, such as the credit card company, or the utility, rather than at my bank, but there are a lot of ways to do this) for a lot of things. I eventually set up mechanisms for transferring funds online, rather than going into the bank and writing checks to myself; you probably have direct deposit set up with your paycheck, or your entitlements or whatever. I am increasingly switching from email notifications to text messages. And I'm experimenting with text messages for other notifications, too, such as shipping alerts. So far, this is great, but I could see it getting out of hand at some point.

I signed up for MailStop and MailStop is no longer available, altho if you already have it, it still works. I think Paper Karma is roughly the same system and maybe someday MailStop will relaunch. Basically, you take a picture of the unwanted catalog or whatever, send it in and magic happens. They will even notify the regulator if the catalog isn't complying with your expressed wish to make it stop. Sometimes, it is worth it to go through the catalog's system for turning stuff off, just to make it stick, but that is rarely necessary. I'll also mention that I have a policy of unsubscribing from absolutely every conceivable email that offers that. Honestly, I know where your website is; don't bug me.

I cannot emphasize enough how interconnected these are. If you only do one or two of them, it is just not as effective. But if you do all of them (and you sign up for the Do Not Call registry and so forth), you can drastically reduce the "noise" of advertising that we all have been subjected to.

USPS has a nice app that you can use to do Mail Holds through, among other things (3 day minimum, and you cannot have more than one hold set up at once, which is a bummer). Obvs, you can still do it through the website, too. FedEx will also do mail holds, altho I'm a little suspicious of them right now. I think a mail hold that should have been expired wound up slowing down a package for a few days. No harm done, however, UPS will charge you, but you have some choices for package redirection, some of which cost more than others. In an ideal world, your neighbor will be overjoyed and reliable about checking for packages and getting them into your house without doing anything else untoward (actually, I have a neighbor who does exactly this, and she's the backstop for these services). But if you don't have such a neighbor, you can make it so packages don't sit on your doorstep, or mail in your mailbox, when you are not around to deal with them.

You can really tell how successful you have been at reducing your mail, when you get the mail and so forth delivered at the end of a hold. If you've done a good job, there won't be much there, and about a third of it will be addressed to "Resident".

Is It Worth Doing? Tradeoffs in improving your organization and process

No one will ever say it as well as XKCD drew it:

When I was decluttering, I worked on really conspicuous things like unused furniture that was in our living space first, and the contents of the basement later, the contents of the filing cabinets still later, etc. If you pick the most annoying thing in your life to improve first, you'll _feel_ so much better you will have the energy to improve the next thing.

But there will come a point where you start to feel like maybe you are polishing ... something that doesn't really need to be polished. You are spending more time being organized or efficient or whatever than you are actually doing work. If you are a really committed procrastinator (I am not <-- there are a bunch of people who have just peed because they are laughing so hard. When I say my sense of humor is weaponized understatement, I am not making a joke. Much.), you might _start_ spending more time on organization than on work, and not in a good way.

Nobody ever thought I was a very disorganized person, even when things were at their worst. People who saw the house the first couple years we lived here are still noticing things that we fixed months ago, because the change has been so dramatic that it takes a while to sink in. Nevertheless, there is still a sea of toys ... everywhere. That's because we have kids and we are big believers in toys. There are still projects in progress ... on most flat surfaces. That's because we have a lot going on. We have a lot fewer stacks of things that we're not going to do anything with, but we're not sure what to do with. Most of those have been eliminated, through filing, disposal, or appropriate storage until the next time we need it. A bunch of my more recent projects (such as buying things to make it possible to travel lighter -- I know, I know. Believe me, I know) have involved what I affectionately (really!) think of as "recluttering". Two ideals guide me: I want to be surrounded by things that make me smile, and energize me and comfort me, and I want my world to tick along as smoothly and as efficiently as it is worth my time to make it.

XKCD, to the best of my knowledge, has little to say about the aesthetics and psychology, but that comic is permanently taped to the wall to the right of my desk. Because it is really, really important to me to get that tradeoff right.