The Right Productivity Tool

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the reason someone’s not as productive as they want to be is not because they haven’t found the right stuff to organize their life.

It’s because they keep getting more stuff to organize their life.

Because here’s the problem: any productivity tool will have flaws. So if you’re looking for the “right” productivity tool, whatever tool you choose, its flaws will push you towards looking for a different tool. It never ends.

If, instead, you had less stuff — and by that I mean fewer projects and fewer responsibilities, as well as fewer possessions — you wouldn’t need the perfect productivity system. You’d have the space and time to get stuff done. You could use a piece of paper or a text file or a Google Drive document to keep track of your to-do lists.

Project Debt

'Bologna, Via Marco Emilio Lepido - SS9' by Pom Angers on Flickr

‘Bologna, Via Marco Emilio Lepido — SS9’ by Pom Angers on Flickr

Last night, I slept deeply and dreamed copiously. When my alarm went off, I slowly surfaced into the real world in one of those strange grey modes of thought where my mind was unfettered by reality but still aware of it. One belief crystalized:

I have too many projects.

This happens to us all; to me it happens frequently. Most of the time, I sigh, acknowledge it, and try to whack my way through the weeds of my projects.

But this time I saw the way through clearly: It’s exactly like getting out of debt.

The best way I’ve found to get out of debt is to first stop spending money (look at how you spend money and reign that in; no more new video games or DVDs or what-have-you until things are back in control), second build a list of all your debts, and third pay off your debts starting with the smallest one. By starting small, you feel accomplishment.

Same thing here: Don’t start any new projects, and start with the easiest project on the list. For me, that’s an overdue haircut. Time to get started.

Minimalism vs. Frugality

Most of us need to control our spending.

Many people at some point realize that their finances are, well, not where they should be. Many of them respond with a focus on frugality, and look for cheaper cell phone plans, coupons, combined internet and cable plans, and streaming services.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with reining in your spending, and psychologically you may need to start with simple changes like this, it focuses on reducing your spending. It’s a bit like putting a bandage on a chest wound; while an important first step, it won’t solve the underlying problem.

Minimalism, in contrast, undercuts the need for frugality. A minimalist doesn’t need a cheaper cable service, because he eliminates cable (which you only need for one show which you can legally stream anyway). He doesn’t have to buy the cheapest possible laptop to replace his spare “travel” laptop, because he only has one laptop, which he take with him everywhere. Which means he doesn’t have to manage all the software subscriptions on that spare laptop, or figure out how to synchronize his files, by the way.

Now, there’s absolutely a tension between minimalism and frugality. Every so often, a minimalist will end up buying something that she might otherwise have kept in the back of a closet.

However, I believe that the cost of those moments are far outweighed by the ongoing costs of buying and maintaining a collection of possessions. Realistically, we’re not going to only buy things that we end up using later. Some of it will sit in a drawer until we die. And while we all run the probabilities in our heads, let’s face it: we’re all notoriously bad at predicting how much use we’ll get out of our stuff in the future. Otherwise, our garages and attics wouldn’t be full of stuff we don’t use.

So, minimalism says: cut out that spending at its root. Don’t buy things in the first place.

The Power of the Scanner

'stack' by hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr

‘stack’ by hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr

We still receive a lot of paper. People hand us receipts and flyers. We get bills and statements in the mail.

I don’t keep all of these, of course, but all my life, I dutifully kept mortgage statements, credit card statements, any unusual financial notices, etc. I’ve gone paperless with as many bills as I can, but some places are still old-school. I told myself I’d sort through them all. I honestly thought I would.

And sure, enough, once in my life I went through and tossed a bunch of old credit card statements. The rest of the time, they piled up in my two filing cabinets.

As I began to pursue minimalism, I realized I didn’t need physical copies of almost any of these documents. I could just scan them in.

At first I thought I’d just need to spend a couple of days with a scanner and digitize everything, so I only needed to find or borrow a scanner briefly. But after a few days of planning, I thought about the future. What would I do with the next piece of paper that arrived in the mail?

So I looked around and invested in a USD $75 “mobile” scanner, meaning instead of a flat scanner bed it feeds documents through rollers. These used to be finicky and low-quality, but it turns out they’ve gotten a lot more reliable in recent years. They’re also compact, so I don’t have to haul out a flat bed scanner every time I want to scan something.

Oh man, this has worked beautifully. I can pull out the scanner, plug it in, fire up the software, and scan a 2-page document in about 60 seconds. At which point, I never have to handle that piece of paper again.

Now, you might say, what’s the difference between putting a physical piece of paper in a filing cabinet instead of dragging a digital file into a folder? Well, that paper takes up physical space. After enough time, I’ll fill up that filing cabinet, or I’ll have to spend a lot of time purging.

In contrast, a 2-page scanned document on my hard drive takes up 30 KB; I can just leave it there forever. And if I ever have to make a serious purge, that’s actually faster with digital files (I can drag and drop 50 files a lot faster digitally than physically).

But that’s not all. I’ve moved three times in my life, and I’ll likely move again. That’s just the odds in our increasingly mobile world, where it’s downright easy to get a better job in another state (or even another country), compared to just fifty years ago. When I have to move, I’ll have to bring all that paper with me, or attempt a purge just when I have less time to do it.

Now, I’m not anti-paper. I believe it takes less time to stick papers in a filing cabinet that uses alphabetically-labeled folders than to scan them, and paper is great for certain kinds of work.

But I now also believe that the saved time of storing paper comes with hidden costs, in stuff that needs to be physically managed in a way that digital files don’t. Even if paper is filed away, the container in which it’s filed is taking up space and needs to be cleaned and maintained (and pulled out to get at that pen that fell behind it).

In any event, this scanner has been a powerful investment. As of my writing this, I’ve processed (that is, reviewed and either scanned-and-shredded or trashed) about 3/4 of the papers in my house: a three-drawer filing cabinet and a banker’s box, all now empty. I intend to get to the point where I only keep a banker’s box worth of critical paperwork (like the deed to my truck), and every page that comes in gets either scanned or recycled on the day I receive it. It only takes a few minutes; slightly more time than it took me before to file it. And I won’t have to haul it around ever again.

Pursuing Minimalism

'White out' by Matt Wiebe on Flickr

‘White out’ by Matt Wiebe on Flickr

August 3, 2017: the day my copy of Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things arrived on my doorstep.

Sasaki’s earned a reputation as one of Japan’s leading bloggers about minimalism, documenting his 5-year journey towards reducing his possessions. My curiosity got the better of me, and since Japanese self-help writers tend to be less aggressive than their Western counterparts, I figured I’d see what he had to write on the subject.

I devoured the book in 2 days.

The advice seems blindingly obvious: The more you own, the more you have to manage (that is, store, repair, keep clean, etc.). And just having an item in your view subconsciously triggers your mind. You can’t glance your eyes past a stack of unread books without some part of your brain noting it and filing it as something else on the to-do list. Your possessions drain your mind, besides their drain on your bank account.

Somehow, Sasaki got to me. I grokked his perspective, and it felt right.

Importantly, importance matters and remains personal.  I’m keeping my iRobot vacuum because I vastly prefer it to manually vacuuming myself (and it’s now my only vacuum). Sasaki doesn’t need a car, because he lives in the middle of Tokyo, where every conceivable shop is within a 15-minute walk or train ride.

In any event, I’ve spent the past month and a half paring down my board game collection (selling those that I’ve never gotten to the table), selling unused furniture, throwing away duplicate cables (how many spare HDMI cables do I really expect to use in the near future?), and doing the one most time-consuming thing: I bought a small desktop scanner and have been scanning all the paperwork I have in filing cabinets and banker’s boxes.

Why do I write all this? Because on Sunday, after scanning (or tossing) over half of my papers (credit card receipts, mortgage notices, RPG design notes, etc.), I stood up, stretched, and felt a strange emotion.

I felt free.

I know that’s a strange, loaded word to use. I’ve tried to think of a better one, but it truly felt—and still feels—like freedom. There’s less stuff rattling around in my head. I can actually formulate a plan for the evening, remember it all, and stick to it, because there’s nothing else to interfere with it.

It’s been revelatory.

Hello, again.

'a White Room' by Richard Schatzberger on Flickr

‘a White Room’ by Richard Schatzberger on Flickr

My, this place is dusty.

I’ve been gone from this site for over three years now. Much has changed since then, personally and globally. I’ve moved houses, switched employers, abandoned a couple of hobbies, and taken up a couple of new ones.

Three years ago, I felt like I didn’t need a personal blog. Social media didn’t quite replace blogging, but it made blogging less relevant. I didn’t need to post occasional thoughts here; I could get a lot more conversation out of a post on Google+ or Twitter. And, granted, that’s where the conversation still takes place.

Well, now I’m pursuing new things, and this place should serve as a welcome repository for my thoughts. Blogging serves as a useful tool in that way, I think. I don’t write essays on other media; I can here.

I plan to write about minimalism, drawing, and creativity, and write an occasional movie or book review.

Let’s do this.

My Backup Solution

This is my backup solution and process.

My Laptop

I have 2 external hard drives: External Backup A and External Backup B. One is at home and one is at my parents’ house.

Every Monday, I plug my local External Backup drive into my laptop and clone the laptop’s data to it. I use Carbon Copy Cloner on the Mac; you could use rsync on Linux or DriveImageXML on Windows.

Most weeks, this takes less than half an hour.

Whenever I visit my parents–which is every week or two–I bring my local External Backup drive, and swap it out for the one at their house.

The Data Core: Dealing with a Large Drive

'Engineering plans storage, 2001' by seattlemunicipalarchives on Flickr

‘Engineering plans storage, 2001’ by seattlemunicipalarchives on Flickr

I have more data than just what’s on my laptop, though. I have movies, anime fansubs, backups of my YouTube videos, and backups of old data. That’s why I set up a 12 TB RAID 5 array connected to a Raspberry Pi running ArkOS.

The RAID 5 array ensures that if any one drive in the array dies, not only does it continue to work, all the data on that drive is still available. I can even replace the drive while it’s running. Plus, it’s not 1-for-1 mirroring, so every drive I add gives me the full capacity of that drive.

Explaining that set-up is a bit outside the scope of this article, but suffice to say: I have a bunch of data on a separate drive.

So I have another set of external drives, which also live at my parents. Every 6 months, I bring those back with me, and run a set of scripts to backup that data, putting all my photos on one drive, all my YouTube data on another, etc.

These are Linux shell scripts; if you’re on Windows, you could download Cygwin and run them in a Cygwin shell. They’re of the following form:

rsync -ruv —ignore-existing –exclude=”.*” /Volumes/matrix/Photos/* /Volumes/Photo

The -r option is recursive (copy folders within folders within folders), the -u option skips files that are newer on the target drive, the -v option displays each file it’s copying, the —ignore-existing option skips files that already exist on the target drive, and the –exclude option skips any hidden files on the source drive.

If you want to do a dry run, which lists every file it plans to copy and a summary of the disk space required but doesn’t actually copy any data, use “-runv” instead of “-ruv”.

Those drives then go back to my parents’ house.

1920’s Faust (movie review)

Faust (1926 film)Wow.

It’s rare to come upon a movie that is such a masterful tour-de-force. Faust fires on all cylinders, creating a work that’s innovative, artful, and complete.

Faust’s first few minutes are composed almost entirely of complex special-effects shots, showing angels and demons riding through the air. This in a film made in 1926.

We then see a conversation between an angel and a demon, a bet that any mortal can be corrupted. The bet centers on a pure man, the eponymous Faust, who works tirelessly to cure the Black Death. The devil goes to him and offers him a truly devilish bargain.

Here’s where Faust elevates itself above so many other films. We’re so used to obviously lopsided “devil’s bargains” that we forget how clever they’re supposed to be.

The devil offers a 24 hour test of the devil’s every supernatural power. The devil points out all the good he can do: heal the sick, rescue those in peril, stop wars. Faust agrees, and it works! He heals the sick. Throngs come pleading to him. A girl clutching a cross reaches out to him…and you can see the horror in his eyes as he realizes that he cannot touch her. The crowd around sees this, and they realize his limitation. They spurn him. He rushes back to his house, tries to throw himself from the roof, and the devil intervenes: No! Faust agreed to a 24 hour test, not less!

Again, it’s devilishly brilliant. Of course the devil won’t let him off that easily.

The devil then shows Faust the other things he can do: return to youth! A flight to the other side of the world! Beauty and love! Faust, being human, tries it all. And when the 24 hours are over, you can guess how he responds.

And we’re only halfway into the film.

One of the most pleasant attributes of Faust is the clarity of its presentation. The plot moves with singularity of purpose from high to low, from temptation to revelation. You always know where you are, and you never know where you’re going to go.

I won’t spoil the ending; suffice to say it shocked me and felt perfectly appropriate.

Unfortunately, some of the minor actors fall into the over-the-top affectation of so many silent film actors. However, the leads act with solidity and grace. I felt their emotions.


Go Goa Gone (Movie Review)

Go Goa Gone PosterIt’s as though Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. watched the first Hangover movie, looked at each other, and said, “You know what that needed? More zombies.”

I watched Go Goa Gone on my flight back from Japan, so I was in a loopy mood, so my apologies if this review is overly charitable.

Go Goa Gone tells the story of a few brain-dead young Indian men who excitedly decide to crash an ultra-hip party on an island in the ultra-hip Indian state of Goa. They arrive, the party is even crazier than they imagined, drugs pass from person to person (though the protagonists abstain), and everyone falls asleep.

The next day, everyone who took the drugs is now a zombie.

Cue a comedic zombie survival horror movie. Unlike, say, Shaun of the Dead, which focuses on character relationships and personal journeys, Go Goa Gone is more of a comedic set piece. It’s about the marriage of a college frat boy movie with the constant threat of things trying to eat you.

Fortunately, the film maintains a certain level of intensity, just enough to drive the characters forward and create genuine tension. These people are not in the right frame of mind to fight off zombies, and being Indian, they haven’t seen enough zombie movies to know the “rules” of fighting zombies. This provides a clever solution to the problem of characters in a zombie movie acting like they’ve never seen a zombie movie.

Fundamentally, though, Go Goa Gone is a comedy. It’s mostly a collection of jokes and brief scares as zombies leap out.

The filmmakers were smart enough to keep the horror at the right level of intensity. The movie rarely terrifies, but it delivers a few scenes of characters searching through empty houses where you just know a zombie is going to leap out any second.

The actors deliver wonderfully broad performances, never annoyingly over-the-top but just ridiculous enough to create conflict and generate a few laughs. Even better, there are no song-and-dance routines. I suppose you could count one rave sequence, but it’s…well…a rave sequence, so the actors aren’t square-dancing and looking at the camera.

None of the special effects will shock or horrify. While effective, most of the zombies are just messy-faced extras. While this lack of gore might disappoint some viewers, it also ensures you’ll never be distracted from the on-screen action. These are all simply zombies.

There’s absolutely no depth to the film, other than exploring very bad decisions made by a few characters. Instead, it sends up both party movies and zombie movies, and does so very effectively.

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