The World is My Warehouse

My Old Way of Thinking

Until recently, my strategy for deciding what possessions to keep has been simple: to a first approximation, “keep everything forever”. There is family history in this direction, so I come by this honestly. I have kept many pieces of equipment, cables, books, magazines, tools, office supplies, and much more. There are 200 square feet of shelving in my basement (including my data center), that’s 19 square meters for those of you in the rest of the world. Applied to books, this strategy means that I keep every book forever, in case I ever want to read it. I’ve been building up a library.

I have seen the light, though.

My New Way of Thinking

If it is something unique in the world, or too expensive to replace, or I use at least every couple of years, keep it. Otherwise, give it away, sell it, or discard it. The world is my warehouse. If I need it back I can buy it again; statistically I will buy back only a tiny fraction of what I get rid of, and at low cost. Again, a book example: most older books (including dozens I have gotten rid of recently) are readily available at a fraction of the cover price, if by chance I need them again.

Life (and business) must be about the future. By tossing residues of the past out of the way, more capacity (physical and mental) is available to pursue what matters now.

Update: I thought back to this post when I read Paul Graham’s Stuff essay in July 2007.

A Few Days Away, a Fresh Look at Email

On my office PC, I have a complex, tuned mechanism for processing email: many filters, many folders, etc. I check email at least a couple times per hour (sometimes every few minutes) and tend to send many short replies to message threads.

When I travel, my email processing is much simpler: check email a few times per day (or much less, depend on whether it’s business or pleasure travel). All incoming messages land in the Inbox. I read, I delete anything I won’t need, then file each remaining messages in to one of two folders: “Stuff to file when I get home”, “Stuff to act on when I get home”. (The idea of filing everything in one folder has a lot of merit, which I’ll explore someday when I find a local email client which handles that model as well as Gmail.)

During my trip last week, following the process above, an important aspects of my “email life” became much more obvious: I receive an enormous number of messages that only peripherally relate to me – mailing lists, automatic notifications, etc.; and dealing with those messages takes too much time. This fact, so obvious when it all lands in the Inbox a few times per day, had been hidden by my filing system and rules, and by spending a few minutes time all through the day and evening on email.

So I trimmed, radically: I unsubscribed from lists, I turned off automatic email notification systems, etc. I now aim to let several messages build up about a topic, them write one well-considered reply instead of multiple fast replies, seeking quality over quantity.

On a related note, I also let the many RSS feeds in my reader (FeedDemon – a great product) build up while away, so that when I return, I have N days worth, rather than reading every day. In the past I’ve slowly caught up over several days. This time, I used the large buildup as an opportunity to more clearly see which feeds have the most value to me… and unsubscribed from many others.

I wrote the above in the first person, but I think it is good advice in general: guard your inputs, periodically take stock of overall incoming quality and quantity in to your inboxes. What enormous time sinks are hiding in your email rules/filters/folder system?

Disconnecting to Keep Distraction Away

I’m back from AYE. The last session I attended was Dwayne Phillips‘s on “Distraction”. Distraction is a recurring enemy here, always ready to strike, to divert me from the task at hand. I’ve recently been using “disconnection” to fight distraction and focus on an intense task for a few hours, and noticed the same notion on the 37 Signals’ blog, a post by Matt entitled “Get Off”.

There is an ongoing flow of incoming data in our online lives. Hundreds of emails per day. Hundreds of RSS feed items. Dozens of IM contacts. Phone calls. Voice mail. The “water cooler”, physical or virtual. The disconnection idea is simple: Go offline, physically and network-wise. Leave your office and go somewhere away from your normal environment, away from email, RSS, instant messaging, the web, etc. Reduce your inputs, to make room for more output.

My implementation is to go to restaurant or cafe, in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon (out of politeness, to avoid disrupting their business by using up a table during peak times); preferable one without “WiFi” to remove that temptation. Then I sit, sip, and Just Work on something important. I write code; I write text; I review documents; I brainstorm. I use my notebook PC with a 12” screen, a stark contrast to my 2560×1024 resolution desktop configuration. The latter is wonderful for many kinds of work; but it is also more distraction-prone.

If you find yourself struggling to task on large important tasks, instead distracted by a thousand smaller things, give disconnection a try.