Archive for the 'Productivity' Category

Throw away all your poorly-designed tools. Seriously, throw them all out.

Monday, June 14th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction, an article on artistic movements, and another on market efficiency.

Can you point out all the hand tools, power tools, light fixtures, remotes, software applications, and furniture in your life that you’ve learned to live around the quirky and inefficient design choices that on a good day give you good joke fodder but on a bad day make you curse the children of whoever made that deathtrap?

Yeah, you should seriously consider throwing all of that junk out.

Realizing how much time and energy you are wasting on inefficient design is so hard most people only notice poor design for a few moments before moving on with their day. But if you were obsessed enough with the problem to time your tasks you’d see the glaring problem, especially when compounded over the course of your life.

It’s more than wasted time. Think of the mistakes made, both minor and major, that are made because of poor design. Have you turned on the wrong burner on a stove top? Was a recipe in a cookbook too ambiguous or missing ingredients so you had to rely on guesswork to finish the dish? And they can even be deadly – think of dull knives and hard-to-understand food processors.

How’s that chair you’re sitting on while reading this? Comfortable? Will you be sore later? Is your footrest high enough? How about that desk height – is it better for writing by hand or for typing on a keyboard? You may not even realize how uncomfortable some of your furniture really is if you’ve used it long enough to adapt to the pressure points and discomforts.

All of this adds up to a giant drag on the happiness in your life. Material possessions aren’t everything but the objects that populate your world contribute to your well-being. Being mindful of the tools you use and the dwelling you assemble for yourself only helps you to concentrate on the more important things in life.

I’m not saying to throw everything out now. That’s likely too cost prohibitive. Here’s a few suggestions to follow:

  • Replace anything inefficient or uncomfortable in the order of what you use the most. Start with your bed (that’s six to eight hours of use every day!), if you work from home consider your desk and chair, then work on your kitchen supplies, and so on.
  • Spend the money and get a Mac or any other Apple device. Computers play too big a role in our daily lives now for you to be using a machine that doesn’t respect the user. This rule applies until another company starts selling a computer with a similar caliber of design.
  • The best advice I’ve received on furniture and home decoration is to not buy everything at once. Fill your home piece by piece over years. The hardest thing avoid is decorate a room in one sweep. By staggering your purchases you can give your home a more organic look. But most importantly, get rid of those poorly-designed tools.
  • Buying things that are aesthetically pleasing to you should be a given. You could find the most comfortable chair in the world but if it looks like a claw and gives you nightmares, keep looking.

One big positive externality for replacing your poorly-designed tools is you are helping to encourage manufacturers to produce better designed products.

There is no time

Friday, August 7th, 2009

We all have a specific amount of time while alive to do all the things we want to do and be all the things we want to be. The time we’re given isn’t short, though it may end abruptly. However, no matter how long you may have to live, the uncertainty of it ending should be enough of an incentive to make the most of the time we’re given.

Therefore, do not waste time by not pursuing the things you want to do and be. If you have even the slightest inkling of something you could be doing, go out and do it. Even the act of working on the things to reach that goal are better than merely dwelling on what may happen. So, go ask that girl out*, build that website, see that city, ski down that mountain, write that book, record that album, accomplish those goals you promised you’d do before you die.

If you need a more eloquent way of explaining this point about living, read Seneca’s letter “On The Shortness of Life” (Here’s a nicely-highlighted version by Timothy Ferriss).

If there is something you’ve been putting off doing for whatever reason, try doing it right now. Regret comes from what wasn’t attempted, not what was tried.

(I’m writing this post not because I’m an expert on the topic or that I’m following the advice at all, but because I’m trying to understand its implications myself.)

*Trust me, it sounds better this way than trying to be gender-inclusive.

If you’re going to read a self-help book, make it an old one

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Behind every change in technology, social rules, and history are the same basic struggles that every human in the last 10,000 years has had to endure. And someone smarter than us saw that and wrote down the best way to make it through, by their own experiences and mistakes. They wanted, just like we want, for the children to have it easier.

In the company of the wise men and women were people who claimed to have that knowledge, or had ulterior motives, or just wanted to profit. It still happens today, and gives the self-help industry a bad name.

But because every new human goes through the same motions of life, collectively we catch on to when we’re being fed bad advice. And so we keep coming back to the books containing true wisdom. Smart publishers see this and keep those books in print. Silently, unconsciously, we weed out the filler.

If you need a written guide to life, read something that’s old and still has an audience.

Any rule on how old is arbitrary, but if it helps I suggest reading books written earlier than 200 years ago. If you need further help, here are two books I suggest:

  1. The Way to Wealth by Benjamin Franklin
  2. The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracián

One advantage of old books is that you can find them free online (like here and here).

I picked those two books because I place great value on brevity and because they keep religious matters to a minimum.

But book wisdom isn’t as useful as that passed on by a living breathing human with personal experience. That’s why I’m only telling you where you might find advice, as I am lacking the requisite experience and wisdom. Think of these books as catch-up, for those of us not lucky enough to have a mentor early in life*.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a mentor now at whatever stage of life you’ve reached.

*I was a lucky, though squandered it some. One of my role models growing up was a scoutmaster who got involved because of his son but stayed to help other boys learn how to free-thinking, motivated adults. He was a successful businessman who always carried himself with dignity and authenticity. The biggest lesson he taught was how he taught: he led his life the way he wanted us to lead our lives: with honesty, compassion for others, and an eye on the next foothold (it also helped that we had the Scout’s Law**). And this is where I mention that I’m an Eagle Scout, and damn proud of it.

**Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

Things to do before you die

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

I have this list.

Kept on a page on my Backpack account, in a text file on my computer, and a sheet of paper tucked into my wallet, is a list I created of all the things I want to do before I die. These things are not complex or vague; rather they are very specific and completely reasonable for me to accomplish with no hindrance but time.

Stephen Levine wrote a book years ago called A Year To Live in which he and his life lived one year as if it was their last. It gave them a certain perspective that most people won’t confront unless they’re forced to deal with a terminal illness or other death sentence. I didn’t read the book, but rather read about it in Dharma Punx, by Levine’s son Noah, about growing up in SoCal as a punker and drug user until he cleaned up and began practicing Buddhism. Then I think something along the lines of life goals was discussed in The 4-Hour Workweek. And finally, I somehow kept a jpeg of a list of all the things some guy wanted to do. All these coalesced into my list, which I keep handy at all times to make sure I’m following my dreams.

You want to see my list? Fat chance. They are my personal goals, and to give them out would spoil the fun.

But you can create a list of your own. Try it now:

  1. Write down every thing you’ve always wanted to do but never ‘had the time.’
  2. Next, cross out anything that’s abstract or too complex. For example, “Work as a Mickey Mouse greeter at the Magic Kingdom” is great because it’s exact and straightforward; but “stop global warming” is way too big.
  3. Now eliminate anything that could possibly be too hard. Remember, the only constraint to what you can do should be time. Try to be somewhat realistic – you’re probably not going to spontaneously turn into a unicorn or gain superhuman strength. However, you have more freedom to do the things you want than you think, so don’t hold back!
Congratulations! You now have some things to do, and soon. Good luck, and may all your dreams come true.

Mistaking the tools for the project

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Soviet Russia was famous for starting ambitious projects, only to peter out a few years later. Giant steel works were started, apartment building walls built, even a humongous hole in the earth was created, but never finished.

Americans are famous for buying self-help books by the stack, spectacularly starting ambitious plans to lose weight, be more productive, make more money in less time, or just be happy. They’re both the same thing.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the second most popular type of blog, after technology-related blogs, are about productivity. Sites like 43 Folders, Lifehacker, Tim Ferriss’s blog, and countless stock and personal finance blogs. Not only that, but on a regular basis, these sites rehash the same topics: how to start writing, get your personal finances in order, declutter your home, work more efficiently, etc. etc. etc.

This proliferation of tools is both a blessing and a curse. People who are serious about improving their lives can find plenty of free resources to get started. But the considerable variety and contradictory paths available easily causes a vortex where the act of finding and starting the tools is mistaken for actually using them.

For example, consider the Getting Things Done system. It’s a very complex process of managing tasks and reorienting one’s way of working so that putting off tasks is no longer an issue. There’s just one tiny problem: GTD is so intricate and requires so much effort just to change one’s habits that most people give up fairly early in the implementation. By being a single way of getting things done, GTD ignores the truth that we all think and organize differently, depending on a multitude of interconnected traits.

My guess that most people who claim to be using GTD to organize their life are lying to themselves and others when they say that it’s helping them work, if using it all. And those who actually utilize the concepts created by David Allen are typically only using bits and pieces…and haven’t finished Allen’s book either (oh, the irony).

Also consider all the websites, posts, and resources for aspiring writers. Everyone has an opinion on the best way to get started, a preferred method of writing, the best software, superstitions, and so on. The truth is that there is no right way to be a writer, only that the only requisite is that the writer actually finishes the writing. But people don’t see it that way; they think they have it in them to write something good, and spend all their time getting everything set up “just so” only tire and not finish anything. If you’re worried that this might be happening to you, I suggest you read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It’s about a dying man who regrets that he never finished any writing. The first time I read it, it scared me enough to stop trying to write, and go do other stuff.

The issue I’m trying to get at is that it’s too easy to get stuck on the tools and not follow through. And that feeds into the very issues of procrastination, laziness, and feeling of non-success that started the process.

If you’re reading this post because you’re looking for tools to improve your life and become healthier, wealthier, and wiser – take my advice: stop looking for tools. Don’t read those blog posts on the best way to change your diet or how to get through your emails.

Stop. Using. New. Tools.

Instead, just do whatever you’re trying to accomplish in whatever way you know how, unless you’re working on your health*. Take note of how you naturally try to get things done, and improve on that. Chances are you already have all the tools you need.

There’s a Taoist story that to ponder that relates to using the tools you have:

In China, a well-known thief was conscripted into the military. A huge battle was about to be waged with a much larger army. The night before the thief’s army was to advance, the thief asked to see the general, saying he could end the war before it even began. “You are crazy. the general will never see you,” said a captain. But because of the wise look in the thief’s eyes and his insistence, the captian too this message to the general.

The general had heard of this famous thief and thus asked that the conscript join him in his grand tent. The thief bowed and told the general, “If you will give me three days, I can win this war,” and then shared his idea. Because the general was winse in the Taoist ways, he said he would assure the thief three days without battle to carry out the plan.

Later that night the thief snuck through the enemy camp and into the opposing general’s tent and stole the general’s sword. He took the sword tho his commander, and the next morning the wise general presented the weapon to the opposing army with great fanfare.

That night, the thief again snuck into the opposing general’s tent and, this time, stole the general’s bedspread. This prized possession was returned to the opposing army with a formal, public ritual the following morning.

The third night, the thief returned to the opposing general’s tent and took his decorated helmet.

At dawn, there flew the flag of surrender over the opposing general’s tent, signaling the end of the war. “What are you doing?” exclaimed the opposing general’s advisors. “We have their army outnumbered ten to won; why would we surrender?”

“Because,” replied the general, “tonight they would have taken my head.”


*Your health and your body is your most valuable possession, so always seek the advice of experts when trying to improve your health. Picking the wrong tools could be very dangerous. Much more dangerous than using the wrong software to write the Great American Novel.

Three things to do during a recession

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Despite how journalists portray a dampened economy, a recession (or at least a slow economy) is the perfect time to start new ventures, not pare back existing ones. Here’s three things that can be very lucrative if done during periods like now:

  1. Buy stocks – the old adage, “buy low, sell high” applies well when the stock market is doing poorly. Everything that goes up, must come down: that’s what is going on now; but everything will go up again. And down. And so on. The trick is to do the research to find stocks that aren’t aren’t doing so hot, but the company is doing fine, because those prices can go up.
  2. Start a new business – creditors are more reluctant to lend out their money, people are less willing to buy new products, and most of your friends will think you’re crazy. But starting now will mean you’ll be established for when things get better, for when the other saps who didn’t read this blog post start spending money again. The company I work for was started during the 1990-1991 recession and it’s doing perfectly fine thank you.
  3. Start some new hobbies – learn to play guitar, build of model of the spaceship from your favorite show, learn all about Korean culture, join the cast or crew of a community theater, attend slam poetry competitions, start a blog and write about all the crazy things that interest you. The idea is to begin doing new things – who knows, maybe you’ll find while doing some new hobby a great idea for a new business or some crazy new career that will make you happy.
So instead of battening down the hatches, use this period as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and put yourself into a good position when things get better again – they always do.

Need something else to inspire you? Try The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.