Managing a To Do list

There are thousands of to do lists applications to choose from, across most every kind of programmable device we’re surrounded with. I have a to do list, but I don’t use any of the apps. A few years ago someone noticed how I did this and asked me to write a few words about it. Whoever it was… I have forgotten, sorry to take so long.

I manage my list using a spreadsheet. Yes, an old-fashioned, dawn of the PC era spreadsheet. The killer app from before that term existed. Why?

  1. A spreadsheet is an amazing general purpose tool.
  2. It has the columns of data I wanted to have right now. I want a new column? Click click and I have it. It doesn’t matter if someone who wrote the to do app thought I needed that column.
  3. Some old column of data no longer useful? Click click, it’s gone.
  4. Finding or sorting data? Yes, in arbitrary ways, right now.
  5. Fonts too large or too small? I don’t go shopping for a new application from someone with a better sense of design. Click, the font is whatever size I prefer.
  6. Sometimes color coding or bold seems like a good idea… and it can be done instantly. Or removed – without shopping for a different application or trying to persuade an author of an application is a good idea.
  7. Sometimes I want to access my list from my phone or tablet. Therefore, I use a cloud spreadsheet application – and have access to the list anytime, without yet another app.
  8. Print? Sure, everyone once in a while.

I think this is a good general pattern: pick out an app for a special purpose only when there are aspects of the behavior of such an application that are not easily met with the general application. But by default, it’s your data, keep it in one of the many applications that already deals with your data in a generalized, flexible, proven way.

At the technical level, my to do list is very well managed. But what about at the logical level, what about really managing my to do list? That’s for another post.

 

Really Managing a To Do list

Earlier, I wrote about managing a to do list, recommending a boring general purpose tool (a spreadsheet) for the purpose. But what about managing the contents of the list, not just the bits? Here are some ideas that have proven useful.

  1. If you are responsible for more items than you can easily remember, have a to do list. Ignore the advice out there to discard your list.
  2. If you’re young and don’t have a list yet, consider that having one might be a necessary step to taking on more responsibilities over time.
  3. Ideally, have one list. However, if your work involves sensitive information that can’t be mentioned (even tersely) on a personal device, have two lists. Keep your work and home lists, on your separate work and home devices.
  4. Record each new thing to do, on the one list (or the one of two lists). Don’t let other extra lists build up elsewhere. No post-it notes, no 294 inbox emails each of which is a todo, etc.
  5. Prioritize the top N items on the list each day. N might be more or less depending on the size of your items.
  6. Compare/reconcile the top of your todo list, with your calendar, briefly each day.
  7. Keep a close eye on urgent vs important while prioritizing. Research Eisenhower or re-read Covey if you forget.
  8. Each week, review: prioritize further down the list.
  9. During a review, notice items that aren’t likely to ever be of enough priority to do at all, and delete them.
  10. During a review, notice items that should be on someone else’s list instead, and delegate them there.
  11. During a review, notice items that are better not to do at all, and make a “not to do” list if necessary.
  12. Beware the arrival of new TODOs that endlessly push the old ones down the list. New items that aren’t of enough priority to do relative to what’s on the list, are better of discarded.
  13. Don’t prioritize and review too often – organization good, procrastination bad.

 

Computers talking to each other

There is a lot of development going on in artificial intelligence. AI is back from the long “AI Winter”, and this time it seems like it is getting somewhere useful. There are types of programs which we would’ve previously called AI, the we now sometimes called the machine learning, doing real valuable work.

(How soon will this end up with a real genuinely “intelligent” computer program? Is the singularity near? Is it far? I have no idea.)

But I think this is how actual AI will make it into our lives. In an irritating, mundane, wasteful way.

Our smart phones are getting smarter and smarter. There are now features by which they can help us answer incoming messages, SMS and email. They can gather statistics about the way we have answered different messages, they can use all of the vast trove of data that are gathered about all of our activity (hello Google, how are you today?), they can mix in some “AI” techniques, and produce much-better-than-random results.

Now simply imagine progress on this for a few years, with faster and better processors in our smart phones and in the cloud. Eventually, our smartphones will get pretty decent at offering us proposed replies to incoming messages, guessing what we would say to each other. Eventually we will get tired of having to always tell our phone “yes, go ahead and answer the way you guessed”. We will be a switch offered which simply turns that feature always-on. Our devices will then be able to answer incoming messages, automatically, as if they are us, without our intervention.

More than one person will turn this on.

Artificial intelligence will then consist of our devices talking to each other, pretending to be us. If this works well enough, are we even needed at all? Some days it seems like all I do is read and write email. On such a day, if my devices could guess what I would’ve written sufficiently well (not perfectly, just sufficiently well), I can simply take that day off. Or that week. Or forever.

Bits are Free, People are Valuable

A few days ago, I caught myself thinking about whether to save some images and video; whether the likely future value of those megabytes would be greater or lesser than the cost of storage. This is a sort of thought that was important and valuable… a couple of decades ago.

Bits are Free

Today, and at least for the last decade, bits are so absurdly cheap that they can be considered free, compared to the time and energy of people. Storing gigabytes or terabytes because they might come in handy is not just for government agencies, it makes sense for all of us in our daily work.

Waste bits to save time.

Waste bits to help people.

People matter, bits are free.

Bits are Free at Work

Here are some ways I waste bits at work:

  • We often gather a few people working on project to meet or code together; it is very easy to start a video or screen video recording of the work. That recording can then be shared with anyone on the project who wasn’t present.
  • We record screenshots or videos of the future in progress, and send it to a customer. Yes, we could wait and present to them “live” using WebEx or whatever. But it is cheaper to waste the bits and conserve human coordination effort.
  • If I have something complex to explain to someone, I can do it in person, and I can do it on the phone, and I can write lots of text. But if I already know them well enough to partly anticipate their questions, I will start a video recording and explain something using voice and white board. The bits are cheaper than the coordination to work “live”. The bits are cheaper than asking them to figure it out themselves.
  • Driving down the road, it is unsafe to text, or read, or write, or (I am looking at you, morning commuters…) apply makeup. But while the numbers are unclear, we have a broad assumption that merely talking with someone while driving down the road is OK. I sometimes make use of traffic time, and burn some bits, by recording audio about some problem to be solved or other matter. The bits are free, who cares if this uses 1000x as much data as sending an email?

Wasting bits can grow somewhat extreme. In the first example above, I described a screen video of developers working together, recorded for the benefit from other developers. You might imagine this as a high-ceremony process, done on important occasions about important code. But bits are free – so we sometimes record such video even if no developer will ever pay attention to it – the value is there even if just one developer maybe lets it play in the background while they work on something else – much like by working in the same room as other people, it is common to pick up some important bit in the background. If one developer learns one small thing to make their work better, that is more valuable than 400 MB of video storage space.

Bits are Free at Home

Here are some ways I waste bits at home:

  • When I take photographs, I take a lot of photographs. One might come in handy. Who cares if 95% of them are bad and 90% of them are useless?
  • Why do cameras have settings other than maximum resolution? Bits are free.
  • Nearly 100% of paperwork I get in the mail, other than marketing, I scan, OCR, and keep in a searchable archive. The disk space for this costs almost nothing. The time saved deciding whether to keep each item, and how to file each item, is irreplaceable. I probably only ever look at 10% of what is scanned, but who cares?
  • If my kids are doing something even vaguely interesting, I try hard to remember to take photos and record video. Looking back at when they were very young, snippets of video we have (from before every phone had a decent video camera) are priceless. I can’t reach back and record more of those, but I can easily record things now that might be fun in the future. Who cares if 95% of that video no-one ever looks at? If I ever need to go through it, I can do it then. The storage space in the meantime doesn’t matter.
  • If I need to look at a model number, serial number, etc. of anything around the house, I snap a photo of it. Then I can look back at the photo anytime from anywhere. Yes, it is absurd to store 3,000,000,000 bytes of JPG rather than 20 bytes of serial number. But they both round to zero.

How Free Can Bits Get?

I expect this tradeoff will shift even more exponentially in the future. In a couple of decades, perhaps:

  • We will record 5 petabyte ultra beyond-HD holographic recordings of insignificant activities just in case someone wants to watch them.
  • We will run video and audio recording of our lives 24 x 7, to be indexed just in case anyone ever wants to look back at it.
  • Future cameras won’t even come with an on-off switch, and will instead record continuously for the lifetime of the camera.

 

Standing Desk Experiment and Experiences

Round 1, 2007

Back in 2007 I read a few articles about the merits of stand-up desks, in regards to health and productivity. According to the New York Times and other sources, standing desks have been not quite common, but neither terribly uncommon, for many years. Sitting all the time is apparently quite unhealthy. Famously, Donald Rumsfeld used one, and maybe it helped him come up with this?

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

(This quote got a lot of chuckles, including from me; but it is actually a good and important point. I wish someone less politically charged had popularized it. Many commentators suggest that Rumsfeld’s phrasing and concern for unknown unknowns came from Werner Erhard, himself a very smart but somewhat odd fellow.)

Inspired to try out standing up at work, I set up perhaps the world’s ugliest standing desk:

2007 Standing Desk

I took an old and already-ugly normal desk, and put it on primitive stilts constructed in about 30 minutes for about $10. This was marginally acceptable for the out-of-the-way room I was using as a home office at the time. To make the most of things, I took the photo above with plenty of semi-obsolete technology and ample wiring in view. Looking back at this photo, I observe that my wife is an amazingly tolerant and loving woman.

In spite of the poor aesthetics, I enjoyed this desk for many months, and noticed an increase in my productivity and focus, discussed more at the end of this post. At the same time, some minor backaches and pains went away, and I slept better. (Be warned though, that it takes some getting used to, the first couple of weeks are tough.)

Functionally speaking, the only weakness of this arrangement was that the monitors were not high enough relative to the keyboard height.

This first-generation experiment fell into disuse when I set up a new home office with tasteful solid wood furniture and other decor, in a prominent front room of my home, at “only” 10x the cost of my old home office. The desk above went to the offices of my old firm where a couple of people tried it out, then eventually discarded it. (My new home office is not pictured here; it looks approximately like a page in the catalog of a furniture store – nice, tasteful, boring. It also contains much better hardware.)

Round 2, 2010

Inspired again by further press coverage, I’m trying out a standing desk again in 2010. I looked around at various power-adjustable desks from GeekDesk, Anthro, and Relax the Back. These have several problems:

  1. While I’m willing to spend what it takes, power adjustable desks are a bit costly for an experiment. None of them are a model of desk I’d want anyway for sitting.
  2. They only solve the keyboard height problem (the main desk surface height), they generally don’t address the height of the monitors at all. (However, Anthro has solutions for this.)
  3. They are much deeper than I need.

Instead, at the beginning of May I set up another homegrown (and slightly less visually offensive) arrangement:

2010 Standing Desk

This setup is also quite cheap, around $150 total. It is a metal shelf/rack, with an extra protruding MDF shelf screwed on to form a keyboard/mouse surface. The shelves are all adjustable, so I moved the top (computer/screen) and middle (keyboard/most) shelves up and down a few times to find the most comfortable heights: I look straight ahead at the screens, and my elbows at at 90 degrees (wrists straight) while typing.  (Update: Jeremy, a reader, set up something similar.)

I wired up some leftover accessories (display, keyboard, mouse, etc. – my good stuff is in my home office, try not to laugh at the use of a spare low-end Microsoft mouse and small monitor with my MBP). This includes a very old printer that I pulled out of storage, partly as ballast and partly to just see if it still works. (It does, but an HP LaserJet 1100 is terribly slow by today’s standards, and I may replace the whole thing when my toner on hand runs out. A personal printer at my desk is more convenient than the better printers a short walk away.)

I located this at my “work” office away from home, so as not to re-test the tolerance of the above-mentioned wife. My time is split between home and work offices, and occasionally cafes, so I stand perhaps 20 hours per week on average. Even when at the standing desk, I’ll grab a nearby chair to make a phone call.

The Standing Experience

Relative to sitting, I’ve noticed a number of benefits:

  • I focus more completely on my work, with less tendency to become distracted.
  • More specifically, I write more (text, code) and read less.
  • My back, and whole body feed better, aside from that first week.
  • I move around, shifting weight, standing on one foot for a moment, etc.; I experience no stiffness or aches that sometimes result from hours of sitting.
  • My urge to go buy a new chair went away; I already have a good chair in my home office, and rarely sit while at work.

In summary, this seems like a fairly substantial win, one month in to the experiment. I’ll report back later this year.

A bit of commentary: lots of people talk about their standing desks with some degree of bravado. That is entirely unjustified; outside of office workers, a large portion of the workforce spends most of every day standing and working. It’s the traditional sitting office worker who is doing something unusual.

Book Giveaway at BarCampSTL, Nov. 7

A while back I wrote that The World is My Warehouse, and I’ve been making that more true ever since. One tiny example is the stack of books below, which I’m giving away tomorrow at Bar Camp St. Louis.

Cordes books to give away at BarCamp

Please be polite, and only take one book per person.

Two of the books are about procrastination. You are welcome to them; but my advice on procrastication is:

  • Don’t read about procrastination. Rather:
  • Do some work,
  • Produce something of value,
  • or engage in worthwhile leisure.

Update: The book giveaway was a success, the books are gone. It further inspired at least one other attendee to give away some books also.