Thursday, February 28, 2008

Web workers don't need Stuff.

As is frequently the case, a dozen article ideas struck me as I was checking my daily blogs today. One article I read seemed particularly noteworthy - the Tyranny of Stuff on Get Rich Slowly. After reading it, I thought about how much Stuff is appropriate for various kinds of people. Then I thought, how much Stuff do I, a web worker, REALLY need?

The technogeek in me cried out "lots of it! Gadgets define me!" The philosophe in me grumbled "I need nothing. Sell! Trash! Throw out!" Then the rational side started to churn.

I've always gone through short periods of BUY BUY BUY followed by long stretches of GET RID OF EVERYTHING I OWN. It's a vicious cycle. More than that, though, it's telling of how I view Stuff.

Something that few people seem to think about is the exact level of Stuff they need to be happy and productive. Most are content with continually buying more and better Stuff. A rare few find happiness in owning next to nothing. We really need to think about not just what makes us happy, but what makes us happy for the lowest personal cost. That isn't just cost in terms of money, either. Every single interaction we make has a cost of some kind, and this is particularly true of acquiring Stuff.

Stuff has multiple costs - the monetary price, the space it takes up, and the time its usage takes away from other things. There are also a bunch of other indirect costs, such as what others think of us for acquiring this Stuff, opportunities lost because of it, and so on. Rarely do we ever consider all of these; most of the time, we are purely focused on the monetary cost.

I blame that mostly on our materialistic culture, but the cause isn't important. Only the solution is. So, let's look at exactly what a web worker in general needs to own in terms of Stuff.

Obviously, a computer is a necessity. While it's possible to use only public machines in Net caf├ęs and the like, it's not cost-effective by any reckoning. So, that's one item of Stuff that's necessary.

Coffee, Mountain Dew, energy drinks - all consumables that really have no lasting positive effect on us. Bad Stuff there.

Housing is vital. Renting versus owning is outside the scope of this article. Utilities, obviously, are also vital. Groceries too....though we really don't need to buy that extra yummy snack just because it's on sale.

The latest gadget off of ThinkGeek is not vital. In my case especially, we're only likely to use it for a few days or a couple weeks at most before it becomes just another part of the scenery. So, too, with the latest computer games. That's not to say that computer games are bad Stuff, though - just reduce the frequency at which you buy them. One or two a year is plenty. One or two every couple years is better.

Cars are very sturdy things. Buying brand new ones is just silly, so if you really must buy a new car, get a used one that's at least three or four years old. If you're going for a hybrid, though, that's a different matter. Do NOT buy a used hybrid right now....the new battery cost will eat you alive. Get a new one if you must have a hybrid or other alternative energy vehicle.

Similarly, how many blogs/websites do you REALLY need to read every day? Though they don't have any monetary cost, they DO have associative costs like time and opportunity. Knowledge may be power, but knowledge at the cost of living tends to drag you down in the end.

There are hundreds of thousands of other things I could list here, but I'm sure you've already come up with a few of your own. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you believe is necessary Stuff and what isn't.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Art of Positive Deletion

A very important concept in programming is what we coders call "garbage collection." Basically, a program is like an old pail of water - if you don't make sure all the holes are filled, that water's gonna go all over the place. It'll get everywhere and make your life miserable. A computer only has so many resources, and holes in a program (e.g. memory leaks) will keep taking up more and more of those resources until there's nothing left.

The concept of garbage collection can be applied to life in general, though. I call it "positive deletion," since what you're doing is eliminating Stuff from your life so the Stuff doesn't clog up the rest of your life. After all, you only have so much Life!

Positive deletion is a combination of time management and spatial organization. You need to get rid of things that take up resources as quickly and completely as possible. Parkinson's Law is only too true, so you need to make sure you're only spending as much time on a project - whether personal or for work - as absolutely necessary. Thomas Edison couldn't have invented 1,093 things in his lifetime if he didn't understand this principle.

Of course, that doesn't mean pushing out an incomplete finished product. Do what needs to be done, but try and do it in half the time you (or your boss) originally assess it at. If you fail to meet this ambitious goal, then I guarantee you will at least have made it in under the original assessment! There are other task/time management techniques you can use (e.g. batching, worst first, etc.), but they're out of the scope of this post.

Another aspect of positive deletion is the outright culling of unnecessary garbage from your life. For example, how much time do you REALLY need to spend in front of the TV every day? Or the computer?

Try out some of the following tips to get rid of the garbage:

  1. Sort out your goals. Make a list of all of your personal and work-related goals. Categorize them by importance - Vital, High Priority, and Low Priority. Assign due dates to each of them, assuming that you will work on only one goal at a time.
  2. Knock out the most difficult task first. Also known as the Eat a Frog principle, doing this will ensure your day can only get better...and you'll gain self-respect for not procrastinating in the process!
  3. Reduce your time-wasters. If you're a chronic TV-watcher, try dropping an hour off the time you spend watching the tube every day for a month. Next month, another hour. Similarly, if you spend way too much time reading email, try the Ferriss method of email batching.
  4. Plan your day. Using Google Calendar, 30 boxes, or another calendar, plan out tomorrow from waking to sleeping. Include half an hour for planning the day after that. Keep doing this for a week. At the end of the week, start planning out the entire week after that, and so on. Most importantly, stick to the plan! While there will inevitably be unforeseen events (such as family emergencies, flat tires, etc.), for the most part the plan'll keep you on track and away from the little time-wasters like neuroticly checking email every ten minutes.
  5. Set limits. Don't just let yourself "work until it's done." Set a specific stopping time, and stop when you reach it.

There are many more possibilities here, but those five will be a good starting point for you. There are a great many other blogs dedicated specifically to productivity (43 folders, Steve Pavlina, Lifehack, etc.) that will expand on the positive deletion principle. For those of you already familiar with productivity optimization, you may be interested to read Dumb Little Man, as it has some interesting and unique tips that go beyond the usual.

In the end, if you can take charge of your life, you'll find that the most valuable currency of all - time - is yours to command. Positive deletion is but one of many tools to help you with that goal. Try it out for a month, and see how it affects your life!