Live an examined life

If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to watch. Think about that for a moment. The capacity of the human brain to store data would take almost four lifetimes to view if it were a film. With all that data, how does anyone organize it?

Note-taking is a practice. Maybe an art form. Possibly a lost art form. Here are some handwritten scrawls I found in my notebooks:

  • abiding by one’s principles is getting more important
  • a marketers job is to manufacture consent
  • to be a successful business guru: use faux scientific terms, command attention and speak with confidence
  • “Your head is a crappy office. . .”

Some of these are quotes, paraphrases and scribblings in the fashion, or after the manner, of a commonplace book.

Notes.

From time to time I review these notes and weigh their merit. How does the old expression go? Eat the meat and spit out the bone and gristle. Or, as I suggested earlier, thistles and wild flowers. Some ideas are rubbish. A couple of these notes I have considered off and on during the last couple years. One of these big ideas is productivity and time management. Another concept that captivates my thoughts is guiding principles.

Many business books explore the topics of productivity, time management and purpose. A lot of business books seem full of great ideas. Some are useful. But after a few critical passes a lot of these business and marketing books melt away like cotton candy. Nothing left but a stale after taste.

Weeds & thistles.

One such business book offers the thesis that leaders should ask why their company does what they do. This starts out well. Purpose is offered. But not principles. Is a purpose-driven company wrong? No. Everything has a purpose. But what about a plan? Is it Benjamin Franklin who wrote: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail? Many business leaders implement ideas suggested in books without considering the consequences. Is purpose and plan interchangeable? What about a triumvirate of purpose, plan and principles? Plans change. Marketplace adaptation and other factors. Purpose is shifted due to internal and external needs. Principles. Principles are value statements. They are core business doctrines.

Wild flowers.

Many years ago, possibly fifteen years, I read that an international news magazine avoided presenting their news on their web site because the editorial leadership found no reason for it. (Keep in mind this was before the disruption of mobile phones and social media.) The subscriber-based magazine found no need to compete with itself on two platforms: print and digital. When the global market crashed in 2008, a lot of magazines and newspapers ended publication. Permanently. But this international news magazine increased its circulation during that time period. Their guiding principles were not compromised in spite of competition rushing to publish content online free of charge. To paraphrase their mission: you’ve seen the news, now read the story. The editors did not ask, why aren’t we on the internet like everyone else? When the time was right, when the method fit their mission, then they provided content online, in audio and video, on a mobile app as well as their legacy product — a weekly printed magazine.

One of those handwritten notes mentioned earlier was a quote from David Allen. He pioneered a system called getting things done (or GTD). The method offers a plan of how to get stuff out of your head and in to action. The goal is productivity. Each task should have three general responses: do, delegate or defer. Decisions are based on variables like time, energy, resource and others. While listening to one of his GTD audio podcasts I noted: “Your head is a crappy office. . .” A cluttered mind is a cluttered life. One of the practices of the GTD system is to unclutter your mind by capturing data outside the head. Whether you write notes or lists on paper with pencil or pen or email or text message yourself, the goal is to clear the mind. A clear mind provides space for planning, examining purpose and establishing principles.

Closing thoughts.

In the first draft of this piece (which was crafted nearly two months ago), I wrote: “A clear mind provides space for meaningful purposeful actions.” In the margin I noted: “What does this mean? Define the term meaningful. Define purposeful. Rewrite this line. Be clear, direct and to the point. No room for squishy platitudes.”

This is an example of why it is essential to re-examine the notes and ideas presented. A noble task is to live an examined life. The amount of data in a human brain is expansive. If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to view. Ultimately, how does an individual bring order to the chaos from the stream of cerebral activity?

An acquaintance, many years ago, mentioned that keeping a diary or journal was useless if you did not review it periodically. In other words, it is a good discipline to glance at the rearview mirror of commonplace books, diaries and journals before returning your focus to the front windshield and the task at hand.

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How much time do you spend on Facebook?

FB-Screen-shot-2014-08-22

In a GTD[1] effort to increase productivity, I studied my online activity this spring using time tracking software. Currently self-employed, I wanted to make sure time is not wasted but used wisely.

For the most part, social media is out. Same goes for video games and online audio and video streaming sites (not that I ever play video games online anyone, but I do allow myself to listen to music and audio podcasts while working).

A couple times during this period I noticed that the weekly report showed that I spent four hours on Facebook. I was shocked. Maybe I left the computer on while running an errand (which could take hours due to my current rural location) and left the internet browser window open during that whole time. I made immediate efforts to close that open loop of un-productivity.

Those reports intrigued me and I wanted to find out how many hours most Americans spend on Facebook per day. According to a 2011 source, the average American spends

“15.5 minutes … on Facebook every single day.”[2]

But, as you know, three years ago is a century ago in the digital world. A 2013 study reports that an

“average user spends 23 hours a week emailing, texting and using social media and other forms of online communication.”[3]

23 hours! That is a lot of online time. But that statistic does not surprise me. As a professional graphic designer, I spend at least 40 hours a week in front of a screen. And now, most design and communication applications are cloud based or at least supported online. So, as you can see by the screen shot at the beginning of this post, much of my time is designing books, book covers and other marketing and print materials while listening to podcasts or music.

A month ago a new report says

“the average American now spends 40 minutes a day checking a Facebook feed.”[4]

That is a huge increase from three years ago — 280 minutes a week spent on Facebook. 4.6 hours a week. 18 hours a month! I can layout a 240-page book in that time and maybe have time left over to design the book cover (of course, that depends on editor and author changes and corrections, but I digress).

I am sure there is a lot of news from family and friends that I miss by avoiding Facebook. But when you are self-employed those 18 hours can be used resourcefully and effectively to provide for your household — and to secure and maintain future clients. Or, at least, that is the strategy.

NOTES:
[1] GTD, or Getting Things Done. http://lifehacker.com/productivity-101-a-primer-to-the-getting-things-done-1551880955
[2] “You Spend 8 Hours Per Month on Facebook” by Ben Parr, September 30, 2011, accessed August 22, 2014, http://mashable.com/2011/09/30/wasting-time-on-facebook/
[3] “Americans Spend 23 Hours Per Week Online, Texting” by David Mielach, July 2, 2013, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/4718-weekly-online-social-media-time.html
[4] “Americans Now Spend More Time on Facebook Than They Do on Their Pets” by Joshua Brustein, July 23, 2014, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-07-23/heres-how-much-time-people-spend-on-facebook-daily

Write now, set writing goals

...any road wil get you there.[1]

“If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”[1]

Is it writer’s block? Procrastination? What’s keeping you from completing that collection of poetry or that novel you started years ago and you can’t quite get around to finishing it?

A few years ago I sat in a writing workshop and noticed that I was the only member of the group under the age of 50 years old. Further, most of the students at the workshop had been working on a memoir or a novel or something that began at a university. Now enjoying their retirement, the nostalgic desire to complete these literary works grip those writers who had been dribbling out small passages of poetry and prose for what seems to be my lifetime.

I determined at that time to set writing goals and not let time slowly bleed me of creative efforts. So, I adapted some of the productivity and time management skills I use at work to my writing life. Here’s some productivity, or time management, habits I practice at the office.

1. Don’t check email first thing in the morning.

At the office, I schedule two times a day were I read and reply to emails: once in the morning and then again in the afternoon. If I reply to every email that lands in my inbox at the moment it arrives, I would spend more than half the work day reading and replying to emails. I found that if I batch tasks, like emailing, I can maintain focus on accomplishing those tasks more efficiently.

2. Make a list.

First thing I do when I get to the office is make a list. This is a combination of project management and mind-sweeping. This activity allows me to organize and prioritize large and small tasks for the day and week.

3. Declutter the desktop.

This is something that is both on- and offline. And by “declutter” I don’t mean empty your desktop of everything. Declutter has to do with a collection system. How do you collect the papers or files? Years ago I began the practice of collecting items in folders based on the 43 folders system. Here’s how it is presented by Merlin Mann:

  1. identify all the stuff in your life that isn’t in the right place (close all open loops)
  2. get rid of the stuff that isn’t yours or you don’t need right now
  3. create a right place that you trust and that supports your working style and values
  4. put your stuff in the right place, consistently
  5. do your stuff in a way that honors your time, your energy, and the context of any given moment
  6. iterate and refactor mercilessly[2]

Again, the goal of this practice is not to have a clean, empty desktop, but a productivity system in place to help get things done.

4. Plan. Revisit the plan. Stay on task.

Your co-workers and supervisors think every task is an emergency and everything is a priority. Planning and staying on task is one of the most annoying practices my co-workers and supervisors must endure. Yet, unless I identify the goals and chart a trajectory to hit those goals, I’ll never me able to meet deadlines on time or successfully accomplish projects. How does the old adage go? If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.

Let’s do this!

Avoid waiting until you retire to complete that novel you’ve been working on, or that collection of poems you’ve been tinkering with for years. Find a writers group that can help you with accountability and encouragement. It is written that no one knows the number of his or her days. Our life is a shadow.[3] Whether it is writer’s block, procrastination, internal or external distraction, find that writing project you’ve been working on and commit to finishing it.

NOTES:
[1] Source: This Isn’t Happiness, accessed May 8, 2013 http://thisisnthappiness.com/post/48296644589/any-road
[2] Merlin Mann, “Getting started with ‘Getting Things Done’,” September 8, 2004 accessed May 4, 2013 http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/08/getting-started-with-getting-things-done
[3] Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan, 2010), 271.