We've all heard the phrase "train of thought", but have you ever stopped to wonder where in that train you are?
I like to think of myself as sitting in the engine, in control of the operation, but recently, I came to realize this simply was not so. I owned the train, but I wasn't in charge.
In practice, this meant anxiety about the future, forgetting to do things I wanted to do, and forgetting important dates.
The biggest concern was the sense that I wasn't making progress on the Big Things. I had moved to the big city and taken on a cool new job, but I felt stuck on most other fronts. I was happy about those changes, but they were not The Solution.
Here's an example: Cooking. I have tried to get into the habit of cooking for myself for some time. But as Yoda would say, there is no try, only do or do not. And I did not.
Which means I ate out all the time. Which means I spent a lot of money on food. Which means I never got around to making my living room something better than a storage closet. Which means I never got in until late. Which means I spent most work days wondering where the time went. Which means I felt my apartment was more like a hotel than a home.
Today, I cook. I'm saving money, but more importantly, my day is entirely transformed. Contrary to my expectations, cooking requires little time investment. Most of the time is spent waiting (for me, at least). In that intervening time, I clean, I relax, I enjoy my home. With all this time on hand, I can enjoy my life as never before. I'm spending more time on new things, on the Big Things I never seemed to get around to.
Sweating the Small Stuff Into a Bucket
In short, I spent some time sweating the small stuff. Yes, GTD, read about it somewhere else. But GTD to do what?
Strange as it may seem, it began with RSS. I'm an information junky. I read a lot of RSS in a day, and I make an effort to stay on top of what is going on. I spend time reading RSS. A little too much time, I came to realize.
There are two ways to interpret this situation:
a) I should spend less time reading RSS. It is "wrong" to be obsessed with information.
b) I am filling this want in an inefficient way.
I spent a lot of time thinking it was option a, and let me tell you, those thoughts got me nowhere. Enough of that.
I decided to try the efficiency route. In the productivity world, there is the concept of "buckets". I'll define a bucket as a destination for things in one's life that have a clear meaning.
Your calendar is a bucket. It contains things you will do at a specific date, time, and place. If something is happening at 3pm on saturday, it goes in your calendar. More importantly, you know that, and you know where to answer such questions: In your calendar. If it doesn't have a date or time, it can't go on the calendar.
My RSS needed a new bucket. I use Google Reader, which I love. My process is to run through new stories, read the quickies, and star anything that looks interesting. The problem was that this starred list contained two kinds of things: Things I definitely want to read, and things I maybe want to read.
Picky as it may seem, this level of ambiguity caused starred items to pile up. This is how nameless anxieties are born: Indecision.
The point of a system like Inbox Zero is not to move your email around into magical folders. It's to systematize the making of choices.
Consider this: All the people I know who fret about their email have loaded inboxes, and all of them think the loaded inbox is not the problem.
In a sense, they're right. The problem is that their inboxes are full of items about which they have not made choices. The point of emptying ones inboxes is to create an unambiguous message to ones head: "There is nothing here about which I must make a decision. I know this because the indecision bucket is empty."
When your inbox is empty, you know with certainty that is true.
A bucket is a choice.
Back to my RSS. I saw the problem: I needed to split this bucket. Starred items would be for items I might want to read, and items I did want to read would go into... something else. For a while, somewhere else was my browser tabs, but that proved unmanageable.
Next, I tried moving everything I wanted to read into OmniFocus. Better, more manageable, and I already use it manage everything else I do, but a little cumbersome to get to when all I want to do is read.
At this point, I discovered Instapaper. Instapaper is a web service at which you throw any url you want. The web page in question is stored for later. Even better, Instapaper can reduce the article down to a nice, lightweight text-focused edition. Better yet, there is an iPhone App that will load all your Instapaper items, so you can read them later, offline, particularly useful if you ride the subway to work.
This is where the beauty of accurate buckets becomes evident. The only way something can get into my Instapaper Bucket is if I specifically decide it is interesting and worth reading. Not maybe, but definitely. Which means I can open Instapaper and be certain good reading will follow.
And since I know good reading will be there, I know all parts of the road lead to good reading. My system works.
Further, I'm forced to decide before I send to Instapaper, because only good reading can get in. So I have less concern tossing a merely okay article.
The reason to horde all those articles was the fear that the good reading would run out. If maybe items and good reading items are in the same bucket, it's hard to know if there's still good reading. But if I have a bucket that only contains good reading, then there's nothing to worry about. I know there will be good reading. Why?
Because it's in the bucket. Because I decided.
This Isn't About RSS
Maybe you aren't a news junky, but I'll bet there are things you feel take more time than they should.
I would challenge you to look closely at the situation. How much of your anxiety is built around choices not yet made? Maybe not all of it, but I'd wager much of it is.
What if you just sat down, and decided? What if you took all those worries, and wrote them all down. You might see patterns. You might see creative solutions. The big win: You'd see that your anxieties are finite.
Now you can set about resolving them. Here's some free advice: Start with something small.
Bucket In Hand
Once I had sorted out my RSS bucket problem, I saw what I truly wanted: To know I had good things to read. With a clearly labeled good-things-to-read bucket, that problem was completely solved.
Which meant I could be pickier about what went in, which meant I could spend less time fretting mediocre material. Which meant I could prune my RSS list without any sense of loss. Which meant the time I spent worrying about this problem shrunk radically.
What could I do with all this free time? Why, learn to cook. And so I did.
Even better, because I had accomplished this, I now had the ironclad knowledge that solving an issue in my life could be done. My information obsession was not a fact. It was a legitimate want wrapped in anxiety. It could be addressed in a healthy way. Now I know I can do that.
Now Departing the Caboose
At the beginning of the year, I made a dreamer's list of things I wanted to do this year. They were concrete activities, and they were the same things I always want to do. Top of the list: Cooking.
Solving the RSS problem opened up time to look into something else, which turned out to be cooking. Now that I cook, I have more time to be home, and I spend more time cleaning. Which makes me feel better about being home, which makes me feel better period, and also saves me some cash.
Further, I can cook any time, which gives me more control about what I do when. I don't have anyone's hours to contend with. So I spend more time doing things I want to do, instead of wondering if I can fit it in.
There's a domino effect at play here. Importantly, I wrote all my concerns down, so I could look at them and think about them. Following Leo Bubota's advice, I decided not to do everything at once. I would start with one thing, solve it, and move on to the next.
It works. RSS obsession was the caboose of my train. The engine is building a boat docked at a house by the sea with the woman I love at my side.
I'm nowhere near the engine yet, but I'm out of the caboose, and working my way through the cars.
For the first time, I'm confident I'll get there.
I was saddened to read that Proposition 8 passed in California, invalidating gay marriage in the state.
As a member of the younger folk of America, which is to say, the people who will be running the country in a few years, I'd like to offer a message to those rejoicing in this result:
We are coming; Our arrival in power is inevitable. When we arrive, we will legalize gay marriage, because none of us understand what your problem with gay men and women is. Gay people are our friends and colleagues. We see no reason not to honor their commitment.
It is not a Democrat thing or a liberal thing. It is a generational thing. You have issues, we don't.
Frankly, we don't understand why you don't have better things to worry about.
So please enjoy your narrow win while it lasts. We will not let it stand for long. Do consider finding something better to spend your energy on, for this is a battle you will not win. We are determined, time is on our side, and now you have pissed us off.
A thought for the day: "The steps and actions I am currently taking are moving me closer to my big life goals."
Agree or disagree?
I bought an iPhone 3G tonight, and no I'm not going to review it. You already know everything you want to know.
I did want to highlight one small detail of the purchasing experience. After waiting about an hour in a line, I was personally serviced by an Apple salesperson who handled the entire process.
There is one part of the Apple mobile phone purchase experience that stands out from the norm. Typically, once you have selected your phone, a store drone runs off, fetches the phone, opens it, and sets it up.
In an Apple store, the assistant helpfully opens the saran wrap, then hands you the box, so that you may open the box yourself, remove the plastic cover, and touch your new phone. And when the salesperson offers you the box, he does so in a voice that implies he knows you want to, and is almost as happy to see you doing it as you are to be doing it.
To some, this may seem a silly detail. But the sort of person who would wait for an hour to get a specific phone (in other words, my sort) is the sort of person who absolutely loves unboxing their new devices. We make videos of this process. So Apple made damn sure the customer opens the box, and fiddles with the device before anything else happens.
Of course, the assistant then retrieves the phone, and sets it up until it's ready for a test call. I appreciated the smooth-as-silk process, even amid the amazing ruckus of the 5th Avenue store. And I appreciated buying from a company that pauses a moment to let me enjoy my new purchase.
It would be so easy not to do this. It's inefficient, an unabashed waste of time. More people would get through faster if the drones worked as fast as they could. It would be faster, but it wouldn't be as fun, and it wouldn't be Apple.
With this small action, Apple lets me know they understand that in my mind, the phone is mine. Phone companies view phones as a tool to access their networks. Apple treats a phone as a treasured object, and respects, nay cultivates that feeling. Laugh if you must, but it's such a treat, in this world of cutting corners, to patronize a company that acts like it respects me.
An old Apple junky like me is used to it, but you can bet new customers will be left with a very strong impression.
That's money in the bank, and that's why I love Apple products.
This sort of bullet-proof environment is the sort we expect for our "regular" apps, and now it is available to our web apps. Google needed this change, because they make some of the world's most advanced web apps. Their users need Google Docs not to crash, so Google needs that, too.
The beautiful thing is, there are no secrets here. The code is open source. Anyone can take these ideas and apply them. If they do, it's no sweat for Google. It just means more users will get a proper environment for running Google web apps.
Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Google does not need a world of Chrome users. What Google needs is a world of Chrome-like browsers. Who makes the browser is largely immaterial. If lots of people use Chrome, hey great, but I think the game is already won for Google, because they've just pushed the entire game toward their way of seeing the world.
Even if Chrome isn't your flavor of whiskey, it's still going to make your life better. You can bet your ass Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft are paying very close attention to what has just happened, and you can bet your ass they will respond in kind. Apps will start running better in all browsers, which means we all win.
So yeah, this is a very big deal, and all I can say is: Thanks, Google. And: Hurry up and make a Mac version already. Yeesh.