The Smith's Journal - January 2008

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The year ahead

Tags: Misc, Pro

Welcome to 2008. You may have noticed that I've already written entries for each month of the year! This is just to save me the monthly chore of adding links for each month to all of the previous archived journal pages. (Hopefully by next year I'll figure out how to write a script to do it for me... ;-) Yes folks, this website is still all maintained and coded by hand, for love! Doing so allows much greater flexibility than any blogging system, and so I'll take this opportunity to mention upcoming events in the relevant months. These will then be replaced by what actually happened, which may end up being something else - I might not achieve everything I planned to. So my Journal is now also a forward-looking diary of future events :-) Please reprogram your Time Machines accordingly...

As the festive season wears off, let's not forget to look after each other and have a very good year.


Zen Habits

Tags: Pro, Computers

In the ongoing battle to Get Things Done, I've been reading articles on the ZenHabits website, which has lots of ideas, some of which are useful, but some not so. I've already tuned out all unimportant media channels. I tend to question my own sanity when I find myself reading advice from people who rate Gmail as a good email program to boost productivity (*cough* try mutt). Easy to learn does not mean good in the long-term. And as for people who use Twitter... (I sometimes wonder whether spending hours reading productivity articles is all that productive... :-)

For example:

"Take a look at your to-do list. If it's more than 10 items long, you can probably simplify it a bit."

ToDo list

Tags: Pro, Computers

Ten, huh? My ToDo 'list' is a series of 11+ text files, each hundreds or thousands of lines long, ordered and structured into related topics/timescales, and that is not even counting my WebsiteUpdates, company BusinessPlan, FiveYearPlans, PicturesToScan, CompositionsToFinish, RecordingsToEdit, etc. My daily tasks are selected from these lists in order of deadlines/desirability/undesirability (yes, sometimes you need to do the most unpleasant thing first).

While I appreciate the ideas in the ZenHabits articles, maybe his lifestyle is just not like mine. I run my own business, adminster a few websites, lead a band and perform in a few others, and have a car, house and garden to look after. He has six kids. (I can't imagine how I'd cope with even two kids!) I'm not sure how I could live without having things set out clearly. By externalising and ordering my tasks I keep my mind free of clutter and "Must remember to do x..." nags. (Oh, he's apparently advocating this as well?!?) Like installing software packages, accomplishing one thing often depends on having first done another thing, recursively. Every programmer knows that to achieve a complex task, you must break it down into simpler tasks. If a ToDo list only has 10 items, then either you really have no life, or a head full of chaos (or a team of helper elves :-) Or perhaps he just means a list for today? But his advice for that is to only try and do a few things at a time. That would be more reasonable.

Granted, it does take time maintaining these ToDo lists, so I've started decrufting old obsolete stuff into a list of ThingsINeverDid. Originally I just had one HUGE list with separate categories, but it became too difficult to move around in, so I split them into separate files. I would like to reduce the size and complexity of the files, but that relies on having the energy to actually DO the tasks and move them from Do lists to my Did list. It's often much easier to write something on a list than to actually get on and do it. Putting things off is something else I need to work on eliminating.

My Did list is effectively a diary of everything I did, which I started in June 2003 as an easily searchable replacement for the paper diaries I've written for much of my adult years. The huge benefit is that I can search for things in the 15000 line file in seconds, and of course it takes no shelf space, just a 500KB Plain Text file which is readable on any computer.

My main problem is not having an effective (paper) filing system within reach of my desk, so I must fix that ASAP, to reduce the inevitable build-up of clutter. And I must get round to updating my FoldersList, a file which says where everything in my house can be found (or rather could be found before I moved house!). It's so much easier to search a computer file than a whole bunch of cupboards!

Just writing about this here is making me examine my systems and hopefully streamline things more.

Answer the goddamn phone!

Tags: Pro, Computers

The ZenHabits article on Multitasking has some valid points, but seems wrong-headed, starting with an exaggerated portrait of a data-junkie, then going on to suggest turning off all other distractions such as phones to focus on the job in hand - this may be OK temporarily for critical tasks that really can't be interrupted, but in the Real World, most of us have to answer the phone because our customers/boss/contacts/friends expect it. If they just wanted to pass on some information, most of them are grown-up enough now to have texted or emailed us; the fact that they're spending time and money to call up for a RealTime interaction is something we should respect. (Unless we are rich enough not to need customers/boss/contacts/friends of course.) Having to later catch up on answerphone messages often takes longer than just taking the call there and then. Answerphone tennis gets really annoying after the fourth rally, and is very unhelpful in tender business/relationship negotiations.

Regarding mobile phones though, I would say that they should only be answered if you're in a suitable situation. It's pointless trying to speak about something important if you're in a noisy street of traffic, and sometimes work shouldn't intrude onto life, and vice versa. Dartington Summer School had a fine policy of banning mobile phones everywhere on the site all week except for under one large tree designated for contact with the outside world. Paradise does not require the existence of mobile phones.

Multitasking for humans

Tags: Pro, Computers

Research shows that our brains aren't good at doing certain tasks simultaneously, such as talking while driving/drumming, yet other combinations such as listening to (lyric-free) music while reading are quite possible.

While it has some good points such as decluttering your workplace, I have to take this ZenHabits article to task as well:

"My computer has no desktop icons," [Good, you don't need them]
"and I try to have only one program open at a time (unless more than one is absolutely necessary)." [Oh dear]

That is not a very efficient way to use a computer. While your mind may be focused on one task, you are limited to what the current application can do. If you need information from somewhere else, you need to fire up another application. The beauty of modern multitasking operating systems such as GNU/Linux is that they can effortlessly switch from one process to another without you having to do anything other than press ALT+TAB.

Computers for power users

Tags: Pro, Computers

I currently have (only) two Firefox browser windows open: one with a few tabs of my own website as I construct this very page, and the other with 22 tabs of ZenHabits articles I'm reading and linking to, plus some other GTD stuff. I also have an xterm, a ROX-Filer window and 7 instances of KATE Named Sessions running an average of 8 documents each for tasks I'm currently involved with. If I'm editing photos, The GIMP will be running, and perhaps a few more xterms and ROX-Filer windows. I also have two consoles running a shell and my email program mutt, which I only switch to occasionally through the day.

Just because I have all those things running, doesn't mean I'm constantly swapping my mental focus; rather I keep doing one task until I need to shift to another, and when I do, everything is exactly how I left it, so I don't waste any time. It's like having a magic octagonal desk with all my documents laid out around the edge, and every time I click my heels, it instantly rotates to present me with the papers I need neatly ordered as I left them and without blowing them away. Or maybe I have eight offices and can instantly teleport between them at wish (no, if I had that ability, I doubt I would work for a living ;-)

Get LinuxThis is an average load for my computer, which is only a Pentium III 450MHz (yes, in 2007!). Yet it can handle all this because I am running GNU/Linux and have optimised my choice of software (e.g., Openbox window manager) for maximum productivity and no nonsense - the opposite of Windows and Mac OS X - this is fast and light like a Formula F3 car (albeit an old one) rather than a heavy and overpowered SUV.

I look forward to the day when my new computer has an SSD with negligible latency and lightning fast data transfer, such that I only need to run one or two applications and be able to fire up whatever I need simply by hitting a key, as fast as I can blink. Any slower than that will slow me down. (I tend to work at the speed of thought, not the speed of eye-candy which most people seem happy with on their toy 'computers'.) But no, on reflection, even with such a nimble system, the UNIX way is still better: having many small yet interoperating programs each highly specialised at its own task is usually more productive than using one monolithic application that fails to do everything quite so well.


Good Zen Habits

Tags: Music, Studio, Pro

Some of the better ZenHabits include Setting Goals and Most Important Things. Here are mine:

2008 Goal:
be able to record, overdub, mix and master electronic and acoustic music in my studio
5 MITs in my life:
composing, studio, drumming, computing, wellbeing

This year's goal is not even to finish my next album - that will come in another year. First I must get audio in and out of the computer, and then start pumping out CDs of all the recordings I've made for people, and thus start my record label.

Rather than just now and again rewarding half an hour of hard work with ten minutes of pleasure, I would suggest doing this for every hour of the working day, say 45/15 or maybe tailor the ratio to your own needs - you're sure to be happier, and every good boss knows that happy workers are good workers.

Get up early

Tags: Pro

This is something I need to do, as every time I do so, I remember how amazingly productive you can be in the first few hours of the day. I don't need to get up quite as early as 4:30am, because I have no family to look after, nor regular day job to get to, but I still need to be in the driving seat before 9am. I totally agree that it's good to do your most important tasks first, to ensure your dreams are accomplished. James Galway said he became a flautist by always rising early enough to practise before work; if you try and do it later on, life often tends to get in the way and you get sidetracked. Robert Heinlein put it better.

I can also be productive at night time once I get into the Zone, but it often tends to be in a certain mode: darker and more inward, and I inevitably spend more time on the computer than in Reality. The hours before dawn can be just as cosmic as those after midnight, but with the added lift of approaching sunrise. It's too easy to get depressed at night (even without realising it); I reckon too much darkness and not enough light is not good, both physically (Vitamin D) and spiritually (monsters).

Morning routine

Tags: Pro

As a child, I used to have a set morning routine where my alarm clock woke me at 07:49 to get ready for school. From then on, I treated my morning like a timed assault course, and learned how long each task took such as brushing my teeth/getting dressed, and would check my progress against the clock. I'd like to try and return to this idea to maybe recapture some of the boundless motivation of my childhood :-)

My morning routine consists of: waking up and fighting the urge to get back into bed - this requires that the house not be freezing cold, so in winter I make sure the heating comes on, but not in the bedroom because that makes me too drowsy to even get up. Having the alarm clock by the door drags you out and into another warmer room to get dressed in. Best of all are days like this morning, when your own in-built mental alarm clock wakes you up and nudges you out of bed, only to then be echoed by your real alarm going off as you pick it up :-)

Next I take a leak and then do some yoga stretching exercises to get the blood circulating. This actually wakes you up and gives a better buzz than any caffeine/nicotine/alcohol crutch - if in doubt about this, ask a cat. Caffeine et al reduce your willpower, whereas doing something good for yourself builds energy and unity of purpose. If called for, I'll put on music appropriate for the mood I'm aiming for to bathe the head and emotions, and even do the stretching in a particular room relevant to the day's goals (studio, piano room, kitchen, garden, etc.). Eventually I would like to extend my morning exercises and learn Chinese Internal Martial Arts.

After that I'll drink some water (best not to eat+drink much before stretching), hot water if it's cold. Next comes shaving (best done early before the skin wakes up, using cold water) unless I'm feeling lazy and won't be greeting my public today. So now I feel alive, I am ready to get dressed and start the day with whatever I feel I want to do (unless I have to be somewhere early for work):

If hungry I may eat breakfast first. Or maybe, like today, I might choose to cook garlic mushrooms while singing my favourite krautrock basslines to the birds gathering outside my window. Once I feel I've achieved one of my goals, I can get down to work for others.

Of course, things don't always go to plan - we are all human after all. Sometimes I'm just too shattered to even get out of bed (Kozar put it better). And often I'm too bleary-eyed and just not in the mood to do my thing, so choose to get some chores done instead; but it's important to make time for your soul's delight somewhere in the day. Book it in your diary: I'm having lunch with my Destiny.


Faust Party 3

Tags: Music

DJ Spock presented an unforgettable Saturday night of music by Faust, named after one of their 7" singles. Since this was such short notice and they were never a chart-topping band (to say the least), I didn't expect many folk would come, just those who care for novel sounds (John Peel dug them). In case you never heard them, they make radical music exploring all areas of rock music with creative studio manipulation. They practically defined the genre of Krautrock (which is the name of one of their songs).

I headed through most of their oeuvre from their groundbreaking early albums to later more noisy stuff, so I suggested you come early (7pm) to catch the gems as they fall. And you can rest assured, I wasn't wielding powertools like they often do nowadays - I prefer their calmer beginnings. Steve also brought the new Radiohead album featuring a track called "Faust Arp".

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2008-01-03 - last updated 2008-02-06