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August 13, 2004

Clutter Apocalypse 2004

Posted by Mike on August 13, 2004 10:48 PM

Time for a little workflow blogging.

After a week of feverish activity trying to figure out a way to set up a testbed to try some ideas out, here are a few things that have come to the fore in the two week post-test period:

  • My nutty "schedule the day" idea was a flop. I had two very structured dayplanner calendars set up with the intent that I'd keep track of how well I followed them then adjust them, but it drove me nuts. I scrapped them after three days. It wasn't a habit I was going to pick up.

  • I've become pretty hooked on the whole PDF workflow thing: I have destination folders set up for receipts, reading material, and documentation. Perfect for freeze-drying web pages. I need to barnstorm the EUR archive and save my clippings, and maybe do the same for some of my old LinuxPlanet stuff.

  • As discussed with coworker Amy today, the iCal-based to-do list doesn't work. It lacks the tactile pleasure of checking stuff off or scratching things out. I bought a 5.5x8.5 binder with a funky rubber cover and snaps and I keep a paper to-do list. Stuff goes on it with a little square next to it, then I spend the first few minutes of the day figuring out what's important and what I can afford to let slide if need be and assigning a rough number order to the day's stuff. Stuff gets checked off as the day progresses and things happen, then I spend a few minutes before bed copying over the stuff that didn't happen to a fresh sheet. I used to keep to-do lists a lot, then I worked for people where to-do lists were pointless and I lost the habit. I'm glad I'm getting it back.

  • Good tools have helped:

    • OmniWeb is pretty wonderful. Being able to save snapshots of groups of pages ("workspaces") and flip back and forth between different Web contexts is a godsend. My weekly EUR research barnstorm has been enhanced a lot. It's much less clumsy than saving groups of bookmarks. When I'm done with a column, I click the rewind button and the canned Google searches and starting pages in my saved "EUR Research" workspace are all rewound to a clean default, ready to start another week.
    • TextSoap makes life with a bullpen of Word-centric authors tolerable by providing one-stop text cleaning for annoying smartquotes, destined-to-become-question-marks-in-someone's-browser em-dashes and assorted other hazards of ante-iso-8859-1 living. I need to tweak it so I've got a good collection of most-needed scrubbers under a single button, but it's a good tool to have out of the box and it's a timesaver.
    • DragThing is under heavy consideration. The weird thing about it is that it's useful for a fairly limited thing, but that thing makes OS X so much more usable by putting common folders a click away instead of forcing me to track down through the Finder or clutter my desktop with aliases.
  • The Palm... The Palm... Glad to have it when I'm out of the house, I guess, but it's not very exciting.


I also had a real set of epiphanies over my relationship to material stuff. It took a lot of fussing and thinking :

Here are some things I've held on to:

  • books about the army I can't use
  • a ratty old canteen from Yellowstone Park when I worked there
  • a piece of wood that made me think about a city built into a mountain
  • a stuffed animal from an old relationship
  • a sizable collection of technical books

Some of that stuff is innocuous, some of it is just stupid to keep 'hold of. The canteen, for instance, isn't anything that reminds me of a specific moment, or brings Yellowstone any closer: I carry my summer in Yellowstone in my memory. The piece of wood no longer makes me feel the thing I did when I first looked at it and imagined a fantastic city. It's just a piece of wood, held on to because I need to remember that I once thought a particular thing that doesn't resonate. I carry the feeling of seeing and imagining that city in my memory now. The wood is useless and dead. Those technical books have all been interesting in their time, but I don't use them anymore. Having them helps me feel anchored in my identity as someone who is comfortable and fluent with technology. But they don't make me any more or less that way. They just fill up space. Hundreds of pounds of books I won't read, for the sake of anchoring a piece of identity on them.

The thing I've come to realize, though, is that the real walking memory of all those things is me. I am the sum of my experiences and cares and passions. No thing can be that. No collection of things can be that. And in the process of gathering up so much stuff, I've become less mindful of the things that really do mean something, that resonate with me now.

So I've spent the last few weeks purging clutter. Most of my mass-market paperbacks are in grocery bags so I can drive them to a charity. Lots of other stuff is getting taken to Goodwill or wherever I think it'll be useful. I'm giving away technical books to geek friends who think they can use them and saving only the ones I know I still refer to from time to time. My mighty animal book collection, standing at somewhere over two dozen, is probably going to be reduced to an owl, a fish, and a dog.

It's taking some time to go through this process. We have a lot of stuff in the house and I'm dealing with it room by room. The big push will come next week when Al and Ben are in Michigan and I've got the weekend to go into the truly menacing Closet of Peril and tear out three or four boxes of hoarded spare parts, old video cards, potentially dead motherboards, defunct hard drives, network cards and other bits of nerd detritus. All that stuff will be herded to the basement, where it'll get sifted into piles of "appropriate for a trip to freegeek" or "not," and I'll feel significantly lighter.


I am here to testify that getting rid of stuff is Good. I got rid of tons and tons and tons of stuff when I moved from a big house to a much smaller space - and, save for one box that I fear went to goodwill instead of the new place, I don't miss a single, solitary thing I let go of.

I settled on a hybrid list making-keeping process of sorts, which satisfied my own tactile need to have something to write on. I'd do my to-do lists in one fell swoop for a week or so (and add in items linked to calendar events as well, which can be done well in advance) in an online planner. Then I'd print out the day's list onto something I then would have on my desk. It went to meetings with me...got amended, updated, scribbled on, and new items added to it constantly.

The next morning, I'd take some time to synch up the now-scribbled paper list from the day before with the computer program; then print the new list. And yes, I could even print it on pre-punched sheets that fit my planner - and did, heh. Because I am: anal that way.

Posted by: Betsy at August 14, 2004 10:50 AM

Could I have your canteen if it's metal, no matter how ratty?

alan at bluehole dott org

Posted by: alan at August 17, 2004 5:32 AM