Friday, February 26, 2010

Everything in its Place

Home organization starts with laying the groundwork---finding a place for everything. But once you've found a spot for every single thing, even if it's a great spot, how do you keep it there? How do you make sure everything is in its place?

Constant vigilance!

It takes a little effort every day. I take five minutes to clean up before I go to bed. Usually, this involves hunting down my shoes (they always seem to end up near the dinner table), putting away my laptop, and maybe folding up a blanket or two if it's been a cold day in the living room. It doesn't take long, and it leaves the house clean for when you wake up in the morning. How refreshing!

More importantly, a little night cleaning keeps things from piling up. Letting clutter pile up is a sure-fire way to avoid cleaning it, but doing something every day can help clear out your rooms even if you don't do it all at once. This small effort fulfills the old saying that "a stitch in time saves nine".

Keeping everything in its place is a challenge for me, but it is one that I welcome.


As of today, the last weekday in February, my monthly resolution is complete! I've written three hundred words each day! I've had a lot of fun putting up my writings here.

As for the future of this blogging effort, I'll keep it going for now. However, since I'm setting a new monthly resolution next month, I may be forced to cut down on the frequency of my posts. We'll see how my time ends up being used.

Thanks for the comments! They've been fun and encouraging. Nothing can spur thought and discussion so well as a timely remark.

On to the next month...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Internet is the New Television

In my reading, I see a lot of advice to turn off the television. After all, if you want to get better at something, you need time in which to do it. For most of us, finding more time is like wringing water from a rock—it's just not there. Never fear, says everyone—just take time out of your television watching! After all, nobody needs to watch 4 hours of television each day. (Yes, that's what Nielson says is the national average.)

Problem is, I don't watch that much television. I do indulge in an episode or two of shows we check out from the library, but that doesn't feel excessive to me. (Of course, maybe 4 hours each day doesn't feel excessive to the average American. It's always easier to find more wasted time in others' lives than in your own.)

Anyway, after ruminating on this, I arrived at the conclusion that for me personally, the Internet is the new television. Sure, the Internet is a useful resource and a great entertainer, but aren't there things I would rather be doing instead? I have so many projects I could accomplish if I weren't so wrapped up in checking Slashdot every single day.

I'm trying to find a good way to incorporate this into my next monthly resolution, which has not been easy. After all, how does one structure a resolution to help with this quandary? Especially when I need to use the Internet for work, and for valid personal interactions. The trick is going to be finding some way to restrict some usage of the Internet, and not others.

One idea I'm considering: anti-bookmarks. That is, make a list of websites that are draining to your productivity, then post a notice that you're not allowed to visit them. When you are done focusing on whatever task you're working on, you can take down the notice and peruse to your heart's content. (More info at Everyday Systems.)

Are there any ways you've used to modify your Internet browsing habits?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Are Smartphones a Smart Decision?

With Microsoft's recent announcement of Windows Phone 7 Series, I've been thinking about why I would want a smartphone. There appears to be a lot of buzz about it, specifically around the social media features. After all, it's pretty hip to have Facebook on your phone—how hip it must be to instantly have updates show up, wherever you are!

Whether or not the WinPhone does well, it is a good run by Microsoft to realize dreams of ubiquitous computing. Between the iPhone and Palm's Pre, web-centric phones are making quite a splash.

I myself feel ambivalent toward the advent of the web-centric phone. It does seem like a fantastic innovation—having the Internet's wealth of knowledge available all the time must be a fantastic boon.

Nevertheless, I have a few complaints.

Web-centric phones are expensive. Their purchase prices alone run into the hundreds of dollars, and that price is dwarfed by the prospect of paying for the "unlimited data plan" that they require. At our house, we pay twenty dollars per month for Internet service already—stacking an extra data plan on top of that seems redundant and foolish.

Web-centric phones are so tightly integrated that they blur lines that I like to have in place. For example, work and personal e-mail. I absolutely love using a different account for my personal mail, because it helps assure me that I will not be interrupted at work by personal matters, nor interrupted at home by work issues.

But I think my biggest reason for being wary of web-centric phones is not related to the phone at all—it's myself. I think that I already spend too much time on the Internet with just a laptop at home. I would much prefer to live "in the moment" more, and for me, that means "unplugging" from the Internet and not being distracted by it.

Web-centric phones might be perfect for you, but my impression is that they are not for me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No 'lympics!

About a month ago, we planned to go to the Olympics. After all, we live only a couple hours from Vancouver. And why shouldn't we go? We wanted to be part of this big Olympics thing. So we proceeded to buy tickets to a hockey game, and bus tickets to get there. We blocked out time on our schedules so that everyone would know we were leaving. We planned and scheduled and developed contigencies and budgeted.

And then we didn't go.

It's not that the Olympics aren't cool. We are both convinced that having a bunch of countries of the world come together in a group competition is a healthy and sane way for countries to interact, and my history-loving wife is keenly aware of the important role the Olympics have played in international relations over the past centure or so.

And no, we're not totally convinced that the Olympics are a bastion of corporate money-grubbing. Although you've got to admit that the official web site is less than encouraging. The "Coca-Cola Pavilion"? "Official Vancouver 2010 licensed merchandise"—avaliable at the "Aboriginal" pavilion? Please.

But no, the reason we chose not to go to the Olympics is somewhat less idealistic than either of those.

In the day before we were to head to Vancouver, we got several negative reports about the Games. People with first-hand experience from earlier in the week told us tales of unruly revelers, lengthy lines, and security slower and more stringent than the TSA. Not to mention the media coverage of glitch after glitch.

We also had been planning on skipping the exorbitant rates of lodging, instead staying out on the streets all night long, hopefully in the company of other Olympic goers. But every single event we could find on the schedule was over by midnight, leaving us several early-morning hours of absolutely nothing to do (temporary homelessness, really) until our return bus left at six that morning. Unless, of course, we were willing to fork over the Olympic-sized premium for a hotel.

Instead, we decided we would rather stay local with our adventures. Sorry, Olympics!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Preparing for Monthly Resolutions

If you're looking to improve yourself, and if you think (as I do) that setting monthly resolutions will provide a framework to help you in that effort, here are a few tips that might make things a little easier in starting up the habit.

Spend some time thinking about how exactly you want to improve. Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? What are your ultimate goals? These big-picture ideas should point you in a certain direction.

Using your goals, find a manageable issue to start with. While your goals could (and should) be hugely different from your life right now, find something that you can do now to change in that direction. A jumping-off point is just the thing for a monthly resolution, especially your first resolution in an area.

Keep a list of other ideas. As you ponder your life and how you would like it to improve, ready yourself for epiphanies by having a list handy. I find that I get ideas about ways to improve all the time, from church services to riding the bus. And the time invested in making and keeping a list of ideas is easily recouped through less headache in the next step.

Every month, pick a new resolution. I usually give myself a reminder a week in advance of the new month. This gives me a chance to isolate the most important resolution for the month. Here, a list of ideas proves invaluable—I feel much more comfortable picking one resolution when I can see at a glance all the alternatives that I'm not choosing.

In the week before a new month, write up a plan document. This can range from a bullet list of accountabilities to detailed prose on the methods you will use. I include a paragraph explaining why I think it's an important resolution—this is useful in keeping my mind focused on the goal, and also can provide inspiration if the going gets tough later on.

With your plan document in hand, you are ready for a new month!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Resolutions for a New Age

Resolutions are funny things. For most people, resolutions are made in December, broken in January, forgotten in February.

The prospect of changing a habit for an entire year is not one that I find encouraging. That's a long time. And what if you fail at your resolution? Will you have to wait until next year to set another?

That's the way lots of folks do it. But that's not how it has to be. I have had great success in my own life with setting resolutions at a more manageable level. Specifically, I set one resolution (at least) each month. Here's why.

A monthly resolution seems easier to keep. Its short time frame tricks the brain into underrating the difficulty of the resolution, raising confidence. This may sound like a cheap trick to play on your own brain, but it works for me.

A month comes along a lot more often than a year. At a rate of one per month, you can fully accomplish twelve resolutions in one year. On the other hand, doing twelve annual resolutions starting in January is probably biting off a bit more than you can chew.

A new month is never more than five weeks away. By this I mean that if you utterly fail in your lofty goal, that's okay---at least you don't have to wait until next year to start again. Also, if the going gets tough around day fifteen, you can often convince yourself to keep going because you're already halfway done.

A month is long enough to develop a lasting habit. A large number of my own monthly resolutions have stuck around for good. According to some people, twenty-one days are required to formulate a habit, and you're giving yourself around thirty. In my experience, that's enough time for habit setting, even giving you a few days' padding at the beginning to get things rolling. (I often find that my resolutions are hardest at the beginning of the month.)

Some projects may be too long for a month. But instead of setting up another New Year's Eve goal, try breaking it up into month-long components. If you're trying to lose weight this year, set individual monthly resolutions for things like exercising, mindful eating, and drinking water.

Setting monthly resolutions will get you all the benefits of yearly resolutions without the headache.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finding Places II: More criteria

Finding a place for everything is important, as explained earlier. Here are some more considerations for choosing places:

Does it have a reason to be there? Storing a hammer in your sock drawer is a surefire way to lose the hammer. Either (a) you'll forget that it is in the sock drawer, or (b) after using it, you won't think returning it to the sock drawer is very important. Either way, it's now lost. (Of course, if you often use a hammer near your sock drawer (creative toenail clipping?), this might work just fine. Just make sure it has a reason for being there.)

By contrast, putting a hammer in a toolbox signals clearly where things are, and where they go when you're done with them.

Do frequently used items get first pick? When deciding where things should go, it's often helpful to define primary and secondary storage. For example, the kitchen has always been a bit of a space crunch for us—we always seem to have more things than space in which to put them. Our solution so far has been to choose those items we use the most (the blender, for example) and give them priority placement. We successively choose the most important things and find places in the kitchen for them, until things start to edge towards "a little cramped". Then we take everything that didn't make the cut and move it all out to secondary storage—in our case, the hall closet. We love that all the essentials fit comfortably in our kitchen, and we don't mind having the roasting pan a short walk away from the kitchen—we just don't use it that often.

Finding a place is only the first part of the equation, but it is the hardest for most folks, and sets a foundation for maintaining order.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Actual Wages -- Backwards

You might already have figured your actual wages, using both your actual time (work plus time you spend on work) and your actual pay (not including taxes, and subtracting expenses you wouldn't have without your job, including indirect expenses like vacations and "costuming").

But here's a twist: try it for your hobbies.

Take your favorite recreational activity and evaluate both the actual time you spend on it and the actual cost. Try to consider all the indirect costs of time and money, too.

Let's examine an example: video gaming. Suppose that every month or so, our gamer spends fifty dollars on a new game. Let's also suppose that she plays it every day for an hour, or about thirty hours per game. Simply take the dollar amount of total dollars spent over total time spent in hours, and you'll get $1.67/hr, something roughly comparable to an hourly wage. (At least, it has the same units, if not the same semantics.)

Or try another one: watching television. Suppose you watch three hours per day of television, or about ninety hours per month. And suppose that you have a thirty-dollar cable susbcription. This works out to a tentative cost of $.33/hr.

However, there might be more to this. For many of us, watching television and its associated advertisements leads us directly to additional spending. If in watching television, you are induced to spend a hundred dollars each month that you wouldn't have otherwise spend—this is not an unreasonable assumption—your actual cost suddenly jumps to $4.30/hr.

The point of figuring out the actual cost of hobbies is not primarily to choose between options. Your hobbies should be dictated by what you love, by your passions, not by choosing the cheapest one out there. Instead, use this information as an incentive to make better use of your hobbies.

To make a hobby more cost-effective, you really have two ways to handle it—either spend more time on it, or spend less money on it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What Do You See?

One particularly difficult aspect of being colorblind is explaining it to others. Though not incredibly uncommon, colorblindness occurs rarely enough that when most people learn of my colorblindness, they express curiosity. Common responses include, "So what does red look like to you?" and "What color is this?"

My experience with colorblindness differs from what most people imagine. I don't have problems telling whether the stoplight is lit red or green. Nor am I vexed by not knowing automatically the color of each object I see. After twenty-some-odd years, one adapts to these things.

I do have difficulty with certain situations. I simply cannot distinguish ripe bananas from green ones, at least not without touching them. I also do not fully grasp the nuances of color that accompany items like my pair of "green bordering on grey" khaki pants—whether they appear to others as green or grey seems to depend on my shirt, my shoes, even my mood.

Sometimes I have trouble with my own gadgets. Recently, I used a cheap battery charger that had only one light as an indication of status, changing from yellow to orange when the battery had finished charging. It thus earned a well-deserved colorblind-friendliness rating of zero. (A better design that probably doesn't cost much more is to have a single light blink during charging, then go solid once it's done.)

Being colorblind isn't easy on one's spouse, either. From sorting socks to identifying which ties go with which pants, my wife is a saint indeed. When the bananas are looking ripe (at least they might be), or the battery charger is done (maybe), I need backup, and she is the first person I turn to.

Colorblindness has its pleasant side effects, too. For example, how many people do you know who can ingest green ketchup without a second glance? How about blue milk? I count these among my many talents. In fact, being colorblind has made me a lot less attentive to color in general. (A few hundred years ago, I suppose that this "talent" caused the deaths of plenty of people who ate the wrong root because of inattention to a color difference. Today, though, that doesn't seem to be much of a problem.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Wheel of Color

In World War II, when airplanes flew bombing runs over camouflaged Nazi camps, the pilots were faced with a problem---they couldn't see the enemy. The camps were camouflaged well enough to be nearly invisible. Technology wasn't available to solve the problem---while heat-sensing goggles would surely have been nice, they were hardly available. So who came to the rescue?

Color blind people.

Before I explain, let me point out one thing you might not know about color blind folk: they are often not totally insensitive to color---they are really color "different". Many color blind people, myself included, have all the sensors needed to detect color (red, green, and blue), but the wavelengths of some of these sensors are different than normal. For example, my red sensors are geared more towards orange.

By the same token, light is not necessarily defined in terms of red, green, and blue---it is a continuous spectrum. In computer monitors, we use red, green, and blue to simulate all the colors of the rainbow, but that is only because we sense the world through those three particular wavelengths. A true orange color stimulates both green and red cones, so a computer can imitate a true orange with varying degrees of the component colors. But real-world pigments and colors are more complex than can be shown through a computer screen.

With that, let's go back to World War II. When the Germans chose colors for their camouflage, they evaluated the color scheme with their "normal" eyes, choosing the colors that hit their eyes' light sensors the same way the landscape would. Seen at a distance against a dark forest, such camouflage should be invisible. But since color blindness is a difference in light sensor wavelengths, the camouflage colors would not necessarily strike the eyes of color blind soldiers quite the same. Additionally, people who are color blind often focus more on texture than on color. This discovery gave the Allies a valuable weapon in the war against Nazi Germany.

Maybe that's why there are color blind people around still.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Finding Places

In the organizing world, there's a saying: "A place for everything, and everything in its place." At first glance, it seems trite. But believe me, it has changed lives. Mine, at least.

The first part of the phrase is the more important of the two, the foundation. "A place for everything." What does that mean?

Having sufficient storage space is not enough. Just because all your stuff can fit in your house, or in your closet, or in your storage unit, does not mean that it has a place, at least not in any sense worth mentioning. No, each item of stuff has to have a specific place. But, you may ask, if everything fits in your house somewhere, doesn't it already have a specific place? Well, technically, yes. But some things make one place better than another. Here are a few of the criteria I've used in trying to find a place for everything.

Is it stored near where it is used? Obviously, it is preferable for cooking utensils to be in the kitchen. This makes it easier to get what you need when you need it—storing the remote controls by where you watch television makes life a little less frustrating. It may also help you remember things you might otherwise forget—having safety goggles stored right by your table saw will make it more likely that you'll use them.

Incidentally, what if you use one thing in two different places? For example, we use scissors at our information center for processing mail, but we also use scissors for creating cards, which we generally do in the living room. Our solution? Buy an extra pair to go with the decorative paper. Having only one place where each item can go helps us find scissors without having to check various "hangouts" each time.

There's a lot more to this to say, but this is a good starting point. With a place for everything, you know where to find it!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Oldies but Goodies

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

I have a lot of old things. From a twenty-year-old car to a five-year-old (non-smartphone) PDA, a sizeable majority of my possessions have been around for a while.

I like my old things. Our little sedan is fairly reliable, and it is up to almost any task we have put to it—on one occasion, we even managed to transport a bookcase in it! My trusty PDA seems to be going strong after all this time, and I know it backward and forward. Like an old pair of shoes, these things fit me comfortably.

Keeping old things around takes some work. It's not all peaches and cream—maintenance, repair and stewardship are all part of holding on to old things. I've had to buy new bits and pieces for my PDA on occasion, and our car sometimes needs repairs that are pretty expensive. At times like these, it's tempting to give up and replace something with its new counterpart.

But keeping old things around is usually cheaper than buying new things. Fixing that old car may cost a couple thousand dollars, but that's less money than you're likely to lose to depreciation during just the first month of owning a new car. Suddenly a new car doesn't seem like such a bargain.

Buying new is a slippery slope. If you're buying for the thrill of having something new and shiny, how much time will pass before you no longer feel the thrill from what you've bought? Until your gadget gets scratched? Until the next year's model comes out? That "new car smell" will fade long before the car does—are you going to devote thousands of dollars to chasing a smell?

Old stuff may not have the glitziness of new, shiny things, but keeping older things gives me more money for other, more important things.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

So Far So Good

Okay, it's probably time for me to finally talk a little about how I'm feeling about this project.

First off, there is a lot less to go on than I had earlier supposed. I have some ideas about what to write, but they are not always quick in arriving. I suppose this is what is meant by "Writer's Block".

The fun part of the process occurs after the idea's arrival, spinning it into a full-fledged article. Although I previously had written only what sounded right, I am learning the virtue of writing down whatever comes to mind, then editing it to make it sound right. This tactic generally gets me a ways down the road and actually ends in tangible results.

Interestingly, putting down my thoughts about a half-formed idea tends to help me fully organize my thoughts. I am beginning to see why some people say that you should write a book about something if you want to understand it.

I love the feel of creating something out of nothing. I know that what I write comes directly from my head, and that act of creation leaves me feeling productive in a way I had never before felt. Giving expression to my thoughts leaves me with the impression that I am leaving a mark on the world, even if it is a very small, digital mark.

This compares to writing in my journal, but only in the sense that it is writing. Knowing that it will go out to an audience does make me view things differently.

As far as endurance goes, I am certainly finding myself more willing to spend more time writing. With it as my monthly resolution, it has become my default activity when I have "down time," and it shows in the volume of text I have put out, if not in the quality of it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Getting Real with Wages

How much does your job pay?

This isn't as simple as it sounds. Just try comparing two hypothetical job offers from different companies. At first glance:

Job A:
Gross Annual Pay: $60,000

Job B:
Gross Annual Pay: $50,000

Well, that looks easy. But let's look at a few other variables. What if Job A (the higher-paying one) is in a metropolitan area, where you either will pay a lot to live close by, or spend a lot to commute from far away? What if Job B is located right near affordable housing, so you can afford to walk and have low housing costs? Now the picture changes a bit.

Also, take a look at the time involved. How much time your job really takes is not the same as how much time your job pays you for. If you didn't have a job, would you commute? Would you take a long lunch with your business group? If not, tack that time onto your total. (This raises my "forty hours per week" up to about fifty.)

The excellent book Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicky Robin, contains a more detailed treatment of this idea. But while it's useful to arbitrate between two competing job offers, it's maybe more interesting to compare a potential career with the one you've got. Maybe working at a different job, closer to home, wouldn't net you as much money—but it might save you enough in transportation costs to make up the difference. Maybe a lower-stress job would pay less, but if you enjoyed it more, maybe you wouldn't have to take such expensive vacations to "get away from it all." It's worth considering.

(As an interesting aside, note that you are taxed on earning more, but not on spending less—spending ten dollars less is about equivalent to earning twelve or thirteen dollars more, depending on your tax bracket.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting Up

Last night, I was determined that today would be a positive and a productive one. I thought about it long and hard, telling myself that I would have "the productive spirit" in the morning.

This morning, as soon as I walked out of the bathroom, I was faced with a decision: back into the warm bed, or out into the cold living room to start my day.

Would I get things started right?

I knew that if I could just make it out to the living room and start my exercise routine, I would be just fine from then on---I have never known myself to go back to sleep after working out.

But that bed looked comfy and warm.

As I carefully weighed the balance, I thought momentarily of how goofy I must look, paralyzed by the silliest of choices.

In the end, I remembered my thoughts of the night before---my hopes for starting out early and getting a lot done. With that in mind, I headed out of the bedroom and ran through my exercise routine. (Success!)

The experience taught me something about making decisions: Preparation matters. While thinking about being productive the night before didn't give me the surety of starting off my day right, it did give me enough pause to make the decision logically. With more preparation (say, forming a habit), this gets easier.

Similarly, doing a lot of reading on the benefit of a certain action (saving for retirement?) makes it easier to act that way, because the payoff is fresh in our minds. I do a lot of reading of personal finance books for that very reason---even though I read over a lot of things I've read before, the act of taking in that information again is often enough to spur me on to some new behavior that better helps me get where I want to go.

This kind of continual preparation for continual decisions is where habits come from.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Why I Ride the Bus

In thinking about aspects of my life of which I am somewhat fond, I can't help but think of the bus. Yes, I know that sounds funny, but let me explain. There are lots of things that I love about the bus:

The bus is convenient. It stops right in front of my subdivision and transports me to within ten minutes' walk of my office. (Admittedly, this is partially because one of our criteria for a house was that it be within walking range of the bus, and partially because I work at such a major employer that all the bus routes seem to go there.)

The bus is fast. My door-to-door (home to office) commute time is forty-five minutes. That's not quite as fast as a car, but it's close. (During rush hour, the bus is often the winner---hello, carpool lane!)

The bus gets me to exercise. Since that's the way I get to work, I walk fairly vigorously for at least half an hour each day. While it may not be the most intense cardiovascular activity available, I have never seen a more reliable method of consistently getting exercise.

The bus lets us get by with just one car. This alone saves us gobs of money in comparison with having to buy two vehicles. We have lower maintenance costs, smaller insurance premiums, and a lot more breathing room in our garage. That lets us save for all the other things that we want.

The bus lets me live my life while commuting. On the bus, my time is my own, to read a book, write a blog post, listen to a podcast, or enjoy a discussion with a friend. I can tune out completely, as long as I notice when we get near my stop. Commuting by car is downright frustrating in comparison.

I love the bus!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Spending Less, Getting More

Being frugal is not the same as being cheap.

Oftentimes, things that are cheaper in the long term cost more money up front. For example, take a pair of shoes. You can score a cheap pair of Crocs for a few dollars, but evaluate how long they will last—you might find that springing for a more expensive pair would also provide a lot more use.

This is not a discussing of being cheap. It's a discussion of focusing your resources.

I define value as quality over price. (Maybe with units like "Q's per dollar"?) Viewing it this way gives rise to two main ways to boost value in a purchase.

First, go and find out exactly what constitutes quality. For shoes, it may be the number of times you can wear them before you wear them out. For a shirt, maybe it's the fit. Or maybe it's the sturdiness of the seams. Your choice.

Picking the important attributes to you means that your definition of quality (your unit of "Q's") is your own.

Next, the old adage that "you get what you pay for" may not exactly be true. Once you know what you're looking for (how to define quality), start at the bottom—thrift stores. Just within the past month, I have found a sturdy umbrella and an exquisite crystal serving platter at thrift stores, and they both cost a tenth of what I would have spent on equivalent new versions.

Getting the same quality for a lower price is a brilliant way to increase your value by leaps and bounds.

Being cheap often doesn't pay. On the other hand, while shopping around and knowing the market will often result in spending more than you otherwise would have, it can pay you back over the next ten or twenty years.

That's why being frugal isn't the same as being cheap.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's Really Worth It?

When I hear people complain about being too busy do the worthwhile things in life, I think about reasons why they might not have time. Often, it's because they are busy doing things that aren't important. While this may seem backwards, it's a trap that all of us fall into.

Basically, life is made up of two types of things: those that are worth the time spent on them, and those that are not. The key to living a happy and productive life is having a higher proportion of our time spent on things that prove their worth, and less time on the things that do not.

There are two main ways to accomplish this shift. First of all, you can spend less time on the busywork. In fact, sometimes you can drop these activities from your life entirely. For example, avoid spending time paying your utility bills by mail each month. Instead, sign up for automatic bill-pay. This saves you the headache of remembering to pay on time, and it can save you even more time indirectly—you won't have to go shopping for envelopes and stamps quite so often.

Of course, if you have spent less time on some daily chore, you need to make sure and fill that space with something worthwhile. After all, cutting out time from your bill-paying routine to watch more television might not be the best idea. (Unless you really, really love to watch television...)

The other method for shifting the balance of your time is to change an busy activity into a worthwhile one. For example, work. We all need some sort of income stream to support us, but if you can find a job that is worthwhile in itself, you are taking care of your financial obligations while doing important work at the same time.

The name of the game is to change the balance of your life from "busy" to "worthwhile." And achieving that is worth it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Protecting Real Freedom

Agency, the precious ability to choose, needs protecting. Forces of the world are constantly hard at work to try and limit our agency and instead coerce us into a choice—usually one that will benefit them.

A few of the tactics I've seen:

Credit. Companies are more than willing to let you buy something now, then pay for it later. A great deal? Hardly-now you have an obligation to pay them every month until you've paid it off. The interest doesn't pose as much a problem as the lack of choice-you must earmark a hundred dollars (or whatever) of your budget each month. That's money you can't put where you need it, because you've already promised it away.

Contracts. Anyone who has something to sell would love for you to sign a contract, promising to pay them for a full year, or pay a fee if you stop service. Wireless service providers follow this tactic to the letter, and they know full well that the "free phone" deals they offer in exchange do not tip the balance in favor of the end user.

Addiction. For those companies that have no precedent for contracts, addiction offers an agreeable alternative. Addictions cut your agency at its source—in your mind. Addictive habits like smoking and even gaming can force you to surrender your freedom without even realizing it.

Advertising. Corporations figured out some time ago that the best way to sell products to the consumer who has everything, is to convince the consumer that he doesn't have everything. This is the whole goal of modern advertising—forget the facts, they're trying to create a need. Try analyzing why you buy the things you do, and you might find advertising at the root.

Peer pressure. The peers you select certainly make a difference, and they will affect your decisions in several ways. You can exercise your agency by consciously selecting your friends and the company you keep.

"Television peers." The people you let into your home through the television exert just as much power as the people you let in through the front door. If you find yourself buying a fancy car to keep up with the characters of The O.C., you might want to re-think your viewing habits.

Protect your agency. Taking a few steps today can help you be more in control tomorrow. First off, learn techniques to make decisions as rationally as possible. For instance, when you find yourself about to buy something, take a deep breath and think through the motivations driving you toward that purchase.

Next, try taking some of the tactics used to trap you in a rut, then apply them to yourself, but in the direction you want to go. For example, make your own advertising! If you want to save money to buy a house, set your computer wallpaper to a picture of your dream home. Seeing it every day will make you think of it more quickly and more often.

Keeping your agency intact has never been more important than it is now. Make sure you're making the decisions you want to, instead of choosing whatever "comes to mind"—that's usually someone else's idea.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Writer's Blo(g|ck)

While reading forms a part of any literate life, we must also give thought to its complementary component, writing. Giving back to the corpus of the written word. Becoming a contributing member of the literate community.

My monthly resolution for February has two main purposes:

Breaking in

The Internet has greatly simplified the process of getting into the world of writing. Nothing could be easier than creating and contributing to a new blog, and I know of no better way to break into the great conversation.

Bulking up

While I feel fairly confident in my abilities to write comprehensible prose, I admit that my writing stamina cannot weather an intense writing session of longer than a half-hour.

To this end, I have tried to codify a mechanism through which I can accomplish both these goals.

My plan

Each weekday during the month of February, I will post a completed, 300-word (minimum) article on this blog. I may also choose to cross-post some of them on the blog that Stephanie and I share—we'll see.


Of course, any decent plan like this needs some rules so that my lazy future self will actually do what I have in mind now. Here are my regulations:

* 300 words minimum
* One post per weekday during the month of February

Not allowed (verboten):
* Nonsensical posts—they have to be substantial, even if they're just based on the events of the day
* Excessive padding of words just to get up to the 300-word minimum

* Conveying some insight of mine
* Articles that are entertaining to readers

Also, I have some ideas for ways to make the task a little easier, while maintaining the integrity of the idea:
* Writing on any topic I want, including the self-referential topic of my writing goal
* Writing posts in advance
* First drafts—I'm not necessarily going to take time to edit for voice and everything, though I will do so if time permits
* Posting articles with typographical errors—I won't necessarily take time for basic editing, either, though I will do my best in the time available


Of course, I need to make sure that I will actually follow up with my strict plans. To this end, I will track the success of the goals in my usual habit calendar. However, since I will also be posting the articles online, anyone who wants to follow up on my progress will also help to make me accountable.

The main goal

This is my most ambitious monthly resolution to date, but the payoff looks worth it. And maybe along the way to writing a lot more, I will improve my writing and write a lot better, too.

See you tomorrow!