Sitting on the Floor of an Empty Room

I'm spending a few days at my dad's house while he's away on business. I didn't bring very much with me: Mac. iDevices. Kindle. Toothbrush.

As I write this, I'm sitting on the floor of my old living room. I took my desk with me when I moved out.

There's something I love about sitting on the floor of an empty room. Just me, my computer, and a few other possessions. It has a romantic quality to it. I'm alone with only my thoughts.

But at the same time, I'm also in so much company. My thoughts are infinite, and even though they exist only in my head, they never abandon me. I'm not quite as alone as I thought.

Likewise, all that's in front of me is my MacBook Pro, but this 15" screen is a window into the vast expanses of the Internet. I can read about anything, learn about anything. I can listen to music. I can write. What more do I need?

Sitting here on the floor of an empty room reminds me that a lack of physical things does not equate to a lack of meaning. In fact, I'd argue that it augments my awareness, and subsequently, my ability to experience and create meaning. I'm not distracted by stuff, so my thoughts come through much clearer. It's quiet. My perception is heightened. I notice the air and the crickets chirping. I'm more aware of my emotions and why I might be experiencing them.

If I was surrounded and distracted by stuff, there would be no room for all that.

When we remove stuff, we create space, and we become better equipped to fill that space with meaning.

An empty room is, in some ways, the most hospitable.

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So Long, Lifehacker

Last week, I wrote a thing about too many inputs. One of the concerns was RSS, an area where I sometimes feel I’m just swiping “read” to process to zero as quickly as possible.

The key to RSS is being mindful of your subscriptions and only allowing those that are truly valuable to occupy your feed reader. If you’re finding more irrelevance than value, it’s time to unsubscribe.

The Culprit

One of the feeds I struggle with most is Lifehacker.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lifehacker. The site contains both a lot of great information and a lot of useless information.

Lifehacker is a high volume feed. I’d estimate they post between fifty and a hundred times a day. This frequency makes for a difficult subscribing decision.

I want to be more productive, and I want all those tips and tricks, and I want to astound people with my wealth of brilliant geek knowledge.

But do I need to know that you can use mayonnaise to clean crayon off your walls?

Or that you can use a banana peel to relieve itching from poison ivy and mosquito bites?

Or how to use a jelly pocket for a better drip-free PB&J?

Maybe I’m just biased against food hacks, but I now see where Merlin is coming from. It’s gotten to the point where whenever I see new Lifehacker posts in Reeder, I know I can just swipe, swipe, swipe them as read and knock fifteen or twenty off my unread count.

I’ve struggled to come up with a solution, because a few times a day there actually is something worth reading on Lifehacker. I’ve followed the site via RSS for years, and I’ve been following it on Twitter since I first signed up for an account.

The Lifehacker Twitter tweets every single post, so following in both places is extraneous. It comes down to the lesser of two evils: do I continue to swipe, swipe, swipe in Reeder to maintain a clean Twitter feed, or do I continue to flick past endless Lifehacker tweets to make RSS significantly more manageable?

The Twitter feed allows me to be more selective in which articles I choose to read. If a headline catches my interest, I can bookmark it or send it to Instapaper. Otherwise, I just keep scrolling. Compare this to RSS, wherein every item must be processed one way or another.


The Solution

I think it’s time for Lifehacker to go the way of Facebook for me. The percentage of relevant posts has gotten much too small, and when it comes to tech news, I prefer to read dedicated sites or real people anyway.

I’ve unsubscribed from Lifehacker on RSS and Twitter. I did, however, add it to my News list on Twitter. I only check my lists every other day or so, which allows me to keep a relaxed eye on the site while freeing myself from its information firehose.

I think Lifehacker is best treated as a database. It contains a wealth of useful information, but most of it isn’t useful either A: to me, or B: right now. Rather, if I ever find myself thinking, “Jeez, I’ve got all this mayonnaise and my walls are covered in crayon”, I’ll go look up a solution on Lifehacker.

Reading Lifehacker on a daily basis is like reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover: nonsensical. It’s more practical and efficient to look up something specific when I need it, instead of wasting my time reading about things that don’t apply to me.

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How to Take a Massive Brain Dump

Your brain is like your body’s inbox.

Every time we think of an idea, or are given a to-do, or come across something we want to remember, it goes directly to the brain. Like an inbox, though, it’s possible for the brain to get overloaded.

When we fail to process our desk’s inbox, more and more things accumulate until the inbox is overflowing. This inundation creates both physical and mental clutter. Our desk is literally buried under paperwork, which in turn makes us feel stressed and claustrophobic.

Our minds work the same way. Like an inbox, our minds contain a finite amount of space. When too many things build up, the result is chaos.

An item placed in an inbox will remain there until it is acted on by an individual. Likewise, a thought in our mind will remain there until we either forget it or act on it. Since forgetting things is usually bad, we struggle to retain as much as we can.

When our lives get busy, we find our minds overflowing with thoughts, ideas, and to-dos. Left unprocessed, these thoughts bounce around in our heads, usually crashing into other thoughts and making us feel stressed and overwhelmed. If you’ve ever felt like your head was going to explode thinking of all the things you need to do, then you know what I’m talking about.

The solution is what David Allen calls a “mental sweep”, otherwise known as a brain dump.

The idea is to get all of your thoughts and to-dos out of your head and down on paper. The process is simple: write down every single thing you can think of that is competing for your attention. And I mean everything, no matter how big or how small:

Return library book.
Send thank you cards.
Pay auto-loan.
Email Auntie Sally.
Do laundry.
Buy deodorant.
Finish thesis.
Research carry pen.
Buy Mother’s Day present.
Finish transferring DVDs.
Move tax return to savings account.
Investigate adjunct jobs.
Finalize Manference XIII.
Process email.
Make dinner plans with Keith.
Email Kevin and Caitlin about November.
Reschedule doctor’s appointment.

And so on. Write until you can’t think of anything else. You want your mind to feel clean and empty when you’re done.

None of these tasks are that big of a deal, but storing all of them in your head at once is a recipe for a mental breakdown. The fact that you haven’t captured these thoughts on paper means your mind is constantly working to remember them. “Oh, I forgot I need to do this… Which reminds me I need to do that… And I still haven’t done this… And I need to do this, that, and the other thing… AHHH!”

Writing everything down in one big list frees your mind from having to remember it all. Even if your list turns out to be three pages long, it’s OK. It’s better to have everything in visual form because it allows you to keep things in perspective. OK, this is everything I need to do. When it’s all bouncing around in your head, you can’t get a sense of the big picture. You’re missing the forest for the trees.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I always try to sit down and do a mental sweep. I empty out every thought, idea, and to-do and put it down on paper. Then my mind is free and calm because I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. It’s all right there on the page, and I feel better. Instead of struggling to keep my brain from exploding, I can focus my energy on actually getting things done and crossing items off the list.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with things to do, I strongly encourage you to do a mental sweep. Dump your brain out on paper. You’ll feel much better.

If you’d like more, check out Merlin’s post on the subject.

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The Clean Slate Monday Theory

I like to start the week off with as clean a slate as possible. Mondays are tough, but a little preparation and perspective makes it a lot easier to get off to a good start.

For me, the Clean Slate Monday Theory consists of two components:

  1. Tying up loose ends
  2. Making a plan of attack

Both of these need to be completed in advance to ensure a smooth start to the week. Allow me to explain.

Tie Up Loose Ends

This is a matter of taking care of all the unfinished tasks that have accumulated over the course of the past week. For example, by the time Sunday rolls around, my living quarters are usually in disarray. My desk is cluttered, my bed is a mess, I should probably clean, and there’s a good chance I still haven’t put away my laundry.

Walking into this mess Monday morning is detrimental. We don’t realize it, but these little tasks weigh on us. A small part of your brain has to spend energy reminding you, “Oh, I still need to do this. Oh, I still need to do that…” The longer you have to remember to do something, the more mentally taxing that task becomes, which stresses us out.

I usually dedicate an hour to all these miscellaneous things on Sunday night. Clean the desk. Vacuum. Put the laundry away. Throw some new sheets on the bed. This helps me wake up Monday morning feeling calm because — quite literally — my slate is clean. It’s a much better feeling than waking up in the middle of a disaster area. “Happy Monday! Look at all this crap you still haven’t done.” That’s no good. The last thing I want is to have old stuff nagging at my attention at the start of a new week. Make it a fresh start.

Make a Plan of Attack

Tying up loose ends also enables you to successfully execute step two, which is to make a plan of attack. Starting the week with a clean slate is great, but not having a plan makes it easy to squander all that potential for productivity. Sometimes, figuring out what needs to get done is more difficult than actually accomplishing it.

Thus, make a plan in advance. What do I need to do tomorrow, and when? What’s the week look like as a whole? Write it down. You can get as granular as you like with your to-do list, as long as it makes good use of the clean slate created by tying up the previous week’s loose ends.

A Weekly New Year

Everybody hates Mondays, except for Shawn Blanc:

Mondays are my favorite day of the week for the same reason the morning is my favorite time of the day. The morning is when my mind is most clear — there is not yet the accumulation of “mental clutter” from the activities and worries of the day and the whole day looks like a blank canvas.

Shawn’s definitely got it right. Why is Monday so terrible, but New Year’s is so great? With the former, it’s “Ugh, another whole week of work.” Well, then on New Year’s it should be “Ugh, another whole year of work!”

The difference is that we see the new year as an opportunity for a fresh start, not as “back to the grind”. We should try to treat Monday the same way. Why not? Making an entire year bigger and better than all previous years is a lot of work, but making the next seven days as productive and enjoyable as possible? Much more manageable.

Mondays can be a source of stress if met unprepared. However, a clean slate — literally and mentally — can help start the week on a calm and productive note.

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Game Over, iPhone

I’m a proponent of removing clutter. A clean workspace, physical or digital, helps reduce stress by eliminating distractions and adding lightness to your day. When the weight of clutter is removed from your desk, it’s also removed from your mind. Clean is calm.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to take a drastic step and delete the Games folder on my iPhone.

Going game-less on the iPhone is something Stephen Hackett has talked about on his site, 512 Pixels. I touched on it, but only recently have I decided to adopt Stephen’s thinking.

iOS is a terrific gaming platform, and there are many fun and beautifully designed games out there. But, in the four years I’ve owned an iPhone, there’s never been a game that has held my attention for very long. Maybe a month, if I was playing it with a friend, but such games are rare. Even ports of games I loved as a child, like Mega Man and Chrono Trigger, go mostly unplayed after the first couple of days.

So, I’ve decided to try getting rid of them, and I think the benefits will outweigh the consequences.

  1. No games = more space. Some games are pretty large and take up quite a bit of room on my phone. This isn’t a huge problem because I own a 32GB model iPhone 4, but now that iCloud is in full effect, I’m keeping more and more music on my phone instead of a separate iPod. There’s simply no reason to take up valuable space with unused apps, games included.

  2. No games = save money. I know: most iOS games are a couple of bucks at the most, but those dollars add up. According to iTunes, I’ve downloaded 240 apps since I got my first iPhone circa 2008. Some of those were free, but some of them were $4.99 or more. If I don’t have a Games folder on my iPhone, I’ll hesitate before buying any new games, especially since I can’t stand the thought of a folder with only two apps in it.

  3. No games = more productive. As I said, I’d rarely play the games on my iPhone, so it’s not like they were preventing me from getting things done. However, sometimes I’d choose a mindless game over doing something more useful, like reading an article in my Instapaper queue. Some may argue that it’s good to mindlessly play a game for a few minutes during a work or study break, but I think reading — or even not looking at a screen at all — is far more relaxing.

  4. No games = guilt-free. Most would argue that games don’t have feelings, but it’s hard not to feel bad about never playing that $9.99 5-star role-playing game you splurged on two weeks ago. Gone are those negative feelings; every little bit helps.

I’m probably going to personally offend a few friends with this decision, so let’s call it an experiment for now. I’m keeping the games on my iPad for the time being, since its larger screen is better suited for playing. As for my iPhone, unless the greatest game of all time becomes available for iOS, I can’t imagine I’ll miss my old Games folder. Although, if that day comes, I might have to give it a spot on my home screen.