You’re doing it wrong

That morning, my mind spun as I tried in vain to re-create the various perceptions and emotions that had been written into Google’s servers and were now abandoned to the ether. I felt a sudden sense of mourning that I still have not gotten over. And yet, to my surprise, I felt something else alongside it: a conflicting sense of relief and even levity. I would never have voluntarily deleted all of those emails, but I also can’t deny, not entirely, that there is something cathartic about sloughing off those thousands of accumulated disappointments and rebukes, those passionate and pathetic fights and dramas, even those insights and stirrings—all of those complicated yet ephemeral layers of former selves that no longer contain me. I began to accept that I would need to imagine my way back into those previous mental states if they were truly worth revisiting—and that if I could not, then the loss was necessarily manageable. I closed my laptop, wandered outside into the specific corner of France that my former selves’ cumulative choices had led me to inhabit, and was overtaken by a sense of hope.

~ Thomas Chatterton Williams from, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/11/deleted-emails-gmail-inbox-capacity/672244/

Disclosure: I quoted the entire last paragraph. Yes, that takes the zing out of the article—but I fear few of you, dear readers, will click through for something… this again, Craig?! …related to my opinions about email.

If you have folders (and sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders) of email, or especially if your Inbox is not empty: You are doing it wrong. Don’t save the email. Instead figure out why you feel the urge to save the email. Then fix that urge.

The real underlying problem is that systems thinking is not something everyone is accustomed to. And lest you fear that Wikipedia article, it’s really very helpful. Does this sound like something worth understanding?

Systems thinking is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. It has been used as a way of exploring and developing effective action in complex contexts.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_thinking

You’re saving that email because it has a photo attached. Saving this other email because it has the order confirmation for that thing you just ordered—should be fine, but every once in a while you need that email when the thing doesn’t show up, or you need to return it, or you can’t log into their online system. Saving this other email because it has the details for that thing we’re going to. And this email has a link to something your friend said to read. That email is a newsletter you really want to maybe read later some day maybe. And so on. I’m not saying it’s easy to imagine systems for all of that stuff— but it is possible. Pick one of those emails, and have an honest think about why you’re saving it.

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R e p e t i t i o n

The popular history of spaced repetition is full of myths and falsehoods. This text is to tell you the true story. The problem with spaced repetition is that it became too popular for its own effective replication. Like a fast mutating virus it keeps jumping from application to application, and tells its own story while accumulating errors on the way.

~ Piotr Wozniak from, https://www.supermemo.com/en/articles/history

If you’ve never heard of Super Memo, and you click over there, it’s likely to distract you for an hour. This article is both the origin story for Super Memo and for spaced repetition. I’ve read at least one other thing (I’ve not read this article in full, but I have read at least one other one), that is a comprehensive deep dive. Today, I’m sharing this in the hopes that you’ll glance over at it, skim around and realize that, since you will then be acquainted with Wozniak, I am not the most systems-crazy person you know of.

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Priorities

Lack of time is lack of priorities. If I’m “busy,” it is because I’ve made choices that put me in that position, so I’ve forbidden myself to reply to, “how are you?” with “busy.” I have no right to complain. Instead, if I’m too busy, it’s a cue to reexamine my systems and rules.

~ Tim Ferriss

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So many paths

In early January, I started regular co-working sessions with a friend, Sumana Harihareswara. She read that post from 2013 about wanting to write more, and emailed me to see if I wanted to form an accountability team to work on our writing together. She’s making progress on her book, and I’m writing more here: we’ve been able to get a lot more done together than trying to work solo and power through.

~ Jacob Kaplan-Moss from, https://jacobian.org/2021/mar/9/coworking-to-write-more/

There are many paths to the top of Mt Getting Stuff Done. If you find yourself currently off the beaten path, this article is a nice trail map. It mentions cadence in the sense of “don’t break the chain” or “routine is your friend.” I want to talk about a recent epiphany I’ve had about a different way to look at cadence.

There are several things I’m currently doing which require ongoing, incremental effort. And for a long time, each of them to varying degrees, just wasn’t getting done to my satisfaction. I had repeatedly set goals, blocked out time, etc. Recently—unrelated to my points here about cadence—I’ve been making superlative progress on these things. (Because, reasons.) And I find that now I can see the cadence is much faster than it needs to be to reach my long-term goal. When these things weren’t getting done at all, I had an idea of the amount of work that was required to make meaningful progress. Now I can see that I can actually slow down. I’ve known, for these projects, just a teeny-tiny amount of work, would work. But I didn’t really believe it, until I had a cadence, and truly apprehended how teeny-tiny I could actually scale my efforts and still make meaningful progress.

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Chesterton’s Fence

As simple as Chesterton’s Fence is as a principle, it teaches us an important lesson. Many of the problems we face in life occur when we intervene with systems without an awareness of what the consequences could be. We can easily forget that this applies to subtraction as much as to addition.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2020/03/chestertons-fence/

I’m going to ‘fess up and say that I don’t recall ever hearing of “Chesterton’s Fence.” If you too just went, “who’s what?” then do check out that article.

That said, I’m nervously thinking everything about it—his fence, that article—seems obvious to me. Not simple, but obvious. Any time I find myself with such thinking, rather than stand on my megalomaniac soap box and yell at “those kids”, I instead begin searching for a clear reason for why I know, what I am claiming seems obvious.

In this case, the knowledge comes from learning systems thinking. Somewhere along my way I learned to think about everything as systems of things. I’m always trying to see how this thing is related to, dependent on, and causative of, some other things. Somewhere along my way I found Chesterton’s fence, (but the fence system didn’t include long-term planning for owner identification and so the fence I apparently found wasn’t labeled.)

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A random proof

Here’s how I do things.

GIVEN…

  • I have a book that has 2,000 pages. (Curiously, it is exactly 2,000 pages.)
  • Life is finite, (and probably also “short.”)
  • It’s unlikely I can get through it front-to-back; I’d like to read as many pages as I can.
  • I’m a systems guy; I want to figure something out once and then never think about that same problem again.
  • I have a personal task management system; It can easily remind me to do things however I’d prefer.

I WISH, that I had an easy way to get a random page number. This strikes me as very easy to build. Therefore, because it is easy, because Internet, and because humans are awesome…

THEN, such a thing must already exist.

THEREFORE, I guessed, “!random”, would exist in my favorite search engine—here, you’re welcome—and quickly found my way to this: https://www.random.org/clients/http/

QED (Quite easily done, yes; But, no.)

All that remains is to skim their simple API docs, and then type this simple URL: https://www.random.org/integers/?num=1&min=1&max=2000&base=10&format=html&col=1

This enables me to create a repeating task which has that URL. I click the link, and flip to that page. You’re thinking, “holy shit no.” And I’m thinking, “tiny building blocks, well placed, get shit done.”

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