Reverse Engineering ADD

The following are offered as actions to take to offset attention problems:

  • Externalize important information at key points of
  • Externalize time and time periods related to tasks
    and important deadlines
  • Break up lengthy tasks or ones spanning long
    periods of time into many small steps
  • Externalize sources of motivation
  • Externalize mental problem-solving
  • Replenish the SR Resource Pool (Willpower)

Unsticking Things

Sometimes you need to get unstuck. Here are a few techniques known to work:

1. *Invert the problem*: what are the concrete things you could do to make the opposite result happen? Want to finish that book or article? What are the necessary steps to make sure you don’t finish it? (How many of those steps are you already undertaking?) Even if you end up with a depressing list of things you are already doing to undermine yourself, you can then begin to undo each of those things. Instead of whipping yourself for not getting the big thing done, focus on *not* doing one of the corrosive things. When you’ve stopped doing one, stop doing another. (It’s the opposite of creating a good habit: it’s eliminating bad habits. It seems silly, but what happens is you start finding yourself with time. If nothing else, maybe you’ll stare at the clouds more.)
2. *Eliminate the inessential*: there is, perhaps apocryphal, story of Warren Buffett guiding his pilot through three steps. In the first, he tells the pilot to write down his top 25 career goals. In the second step, he tells him to circle his top 5. Then he asks, in the third step, about the remaining 20. When the pilot says those are important, too, and he’ll try to get to them, Buffett responds that those 20 are to be avoided at all costs. The logic here is that we spread ourselves too thin, we either want to do more than we can or we want to please more people than we can. The result is that we end up paralyzed by too much. Don’t be paralyzed. Focus on the most important things and get them done. Who knows, once they’re done, you can re-assess things and maybe some of those top 20 contenders will be in the next five. (Honestly, five things may be too many.)
3. *Use Eisenhower’s Box*: Stephen Covey, so far as I can tell, adapted and refined the same box that Eisenhower used throughout his long and distinguished career. I’m guessing someone taught it to Ike, so it’s got some years on it. I could draw a diagram, but, honestly, you’ve seen this particular 2-by-2 grid so many times, you can imagine it for yourself — and that’s probably for the better:
* IMPORTANT & URGENT: Do it now.
* IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT: Schedule a time to do it.

The effectiveness is when you recognize that things like watching television or checking social media are probably in that last category. So, yeah, sorry about that.

James Clear is a big fan of the two-minute rule, which he divides into two parts. The first is taken from David Allen’s GTD methodology which dictates that anything that can be done in two minutes, that needs to get done, should get done right away. The second one is good: new habits should take less than two minutes to do. It’s one way to get them to stick.


One of these days, I am going to sit down, spend the time, and figure out some of these workflows over which power users celebrate. I don’t know that I have ever really mapped out the distinct workflows for research versus teaching versus personal interest. And, to be honest, those differences have led to what can only be described as *document sprawl*.

I’ve taken efforts to bound/tame the sprawl by putting an increasing amount of material in [Papers][], and letting it manage things. It does a pretty good job now, especially, of letting you set up collections and letting you sync those collections to an iOS device — making sure everything in a collection is local to the device when you are about to leave the webosphere is not quite as convenient as I like, but I trust the developers to figure it out. (They release updates at a pretty impressive pace.)

Still, there are things I handle in GoodReader, if only because some of the electronics work in which I am interested or teaching myself linear algebra doesn’t strike me as “worthy” of Papers. (And that’s a weird thing to consider. Are research materials sacred in some fashion?)

In the mean time, I’d like to start collecting notes on workflows:

* Michael Schechter has written about [“Sending Files to Evernote While Creating Tasks in OmniFocus”][ms] using Hazel, an app about which I have only heard much but never tried.


Bullet Journal

Because, you never know when the urge to go analog will strike: [Bullet Journal][]. The [] is quite good. And people have taken this and run [many][] [directions][] with it. (It gets weird. Fast.)

[Bullet Journal]:

The Spark File

Steven Johnson, author of _Where Good Ideas Come From_, keeps a [spark file][]. It’s a version of the [“one Big Text File”][] idea that circulated, as [one commenter][] put it earlier this year, in the “mid-naughties.” There are plenty of [one-file][] [approaches][], and [rejections[], and even variations like [one-directory][] approaches. The canonical entry is probably [Doctorow’s][].

[spark file]:
[“one Big Text File”]:


Kalzumeus is a site written “by an engineer for engineers”, but many of the observations about the culture of engineers apply equally well to academics — though it’s a shame the current economic situation is mostly the obverse. Still, having sat through more than one search committee, I know how much time is invested into the final candidate and that it really is worth your time to get what you want: you will be happier, and that should make your employer happier — if it doesn’t, then you should really question working there.

Weekend Update

So having the Damoclean sword for the boat book manuscript does amazing things. For the second day in a row, I have gotten up at 6:30 on a weekend morning and plunged into that list of tasks that always build up but detract from getting writing done during the week — what Stephen Covey once distinguished as the urgent versus the important. What have I done in the first few hours of these mornings?

– Written letters of support for promotion for colleagues (at R1s, no less, which is weird, because why would they ask me?).
– Mentored a recent graduate who was not my student nor even at my university, but she’s smart and she deserves the support.
– Transcribed notes from meeting with the BSA mobile app group and even accomplished the task therein!
– Caught up with all the stuff for the upcoming MLA meetings — AFS@MLA is back at two sessions, baby!
– Submitted paper for the upcoming conference in China.

Up next? Book some more airline travel and transcribe a recent interview with Kurt Venable (another little piece of the boat book).

Two Minutes

When Yung-Hsing and I were avid NBA watchers, following our beloved Pacers of old, we used to love to cry out “Two minutes! Two minutes!” just the way the announcer at Market Arena did. [James Clear has a nice post][] on Quora about just how much you can get done in two minutes. Mostly, it comes down to the idea that you can start just about anything in two minutes and that thinking of simply getting started is a nice way to lower the threshold to larger projects or changes you want to make. Here are some Clear’s examples:

> **Want to become a better writer?** Just write one sentence (2–Minute Rule), and you’ll often find yourself writing for an hour.
> **Want to eat healthier?** Just eat one piece of fruit (2–Minute Rule), and you’ll often find yourself inspired to make a healthy salad as well.
> **Want to make reading a habit?** Just read the first page of a new book (2–Minute Rule), and before you know it, the first three chapters have flown by.
> **Want to run three times a week?** Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, just get your running shoes on and get out the door (2–Minute Rule), and you’ll end up putting mileage on your legs instead of popcorn in your stomach.

[James Clear has a nice post]:

The Pursuit of Less

HBR has an essay by Greg McKeown on [The Disciplined Pursuit of Less]( Such a disciplined pursuit stands in stark contrast with the way most organizations, and individuals, proceed: more is more. The study to which he refers, _How the Mighty Fall_ by Jim Collins, focuses on organizations, but McKeown is interested in the applicability of its principles to individuals. It is, in some ways, a repetition but also perhaps a refinement, of the current mantra of *pursue your passion*, but there are some directions provided in this case to help individuals maintain focus.

McKeown begins with the idea that you should increase the strictness of your criteria from something simply being an opportunity to three questions:

– What am I passionate about?
– What taps my talent?
– What meets a significant need in the world?

His immediate analogy is the difference, in cleaning out one’s closet, between asking the question “will I potentially wear this again?” and “do I love this?” the two questions will result in significantly different amounts of clothes in boxes going to Goodwill. The goal, McKeown notes, is not to find “a plethora of good things to do” but to find “our absolute highest point of contribution.”

McKeown’s example of someone who has successfully answered this (set of) question(s) is [Enric Sala](, who left his academic job and eventually became an explorer-in-residence with National Geographic.

That particular example, the notion of being an explorer-in-residence, could not have rung my bell harder. It was only a few months ago that I turned to my wife, who after all these years still is willing to listen to my dewy-eyed daydreams, and mused that my dream job in Louisiana would be to be an ethnographer for the LSU Agcenter network. To my mind, nothing would be more interesting than being able to spend my time moving about the countryside, checking in with farmers of various stripes, following them as they do their amazing work, and documenting it in various ways that elicits not only their intelligence but also the simultaneous robustness and fragility of modern agriculture. (Certainly being a NG explorer-in-residence and able to do much the same on a global landscape would be an opportunity of many, many lifetimes.)

With such clarity of what I really want in front of me, I have to admit that it was the universe’s very good sense to replace a dean for whom I happily pursued a wide variety of projects for a single course release with a dean whose only thought is to the bottom line. While I am carrying a full teaching load again, I am suddenly no longer chasing an incredibly wide array of institutional projects. As I noted this summer, I was engaged in trying to:

* maintain UL’s position as a Core member of the Bamboo Consortium Planning Group
* develop the new website for the American Folklore Society and edit its new on-line publication, the _AFS Review_
* propose an Institutional Repository for the university
* build a relationship with Evangeline Council of Boy Scouts of America in support of their own documentation practices (which has resulted in a job for one of our PhD graduates) and a potential Atchafalaya Basin Center
* develop a proposal for an undergraduate digital media production lab (based on our prior success in finding a graduate digital humanities lab)

I am in the middle of wrapping up these tasks now, and while I miss profoundly the collaborations involved and the opportunity to improve my little corner of higher education in the Deep South, I have to admit that my little corner was largely indifferent to my help and that a certain level of exhaustion is no longer a part of my life. I simply don’t feel like I’m trying to juggle one more ball than I can manage any more. Which is, for those of you who have seen me juggle, perhaps not the best analogy, but it’s the one that sprung to mind, and so we will all have to live with it.

McKeown’s set of criteria is even more interesting as I move forward. I have been, for example, been trying to find ways to engage one of our local research centers to make it more folklore-friendly — rather, to make it as folklore-friendly as it once was but is no longer under new management. I have tried a few indirect approaches, and even found myself being rather rudely direct recently, but, still, I saw an opportunity for something bigger to happen. In talking with the prospects both with my wife and with my mentor, I realized that not only would the amount of effort, and real feeling, I would put into the project never be mirrored but that also such organizational revision, as much as it is something I care about and is something that I am fairly good at, is not seen as a significant need in my corner. Thus, there is no market. Why forge ahead into a space in which there are no potential buyers? (Do I think that the kind of organizational revision is really needed in the larger world? Yes, but my little corner of higher education is very focused on survival at the moment, and they do not subscribe to the notion that the best way to survive in turbulent times is to look to the future and re-cast yourself by your vision of that future.) Perhaps, in the past, I might have railed — in my head at least but also perhaps dangerously in public — that others were being blind to the obvious. The fact is others see things differently. In my corner of higher ed, those others are in charge. Their reality is my reality. They are my immediate audience, but they need not be my larger, or long-term, audience.

To return to the more compelling set of questions: what is my passion? what is my talent? what is a significant need to which I can apply those two things? While my work with texts represents an opportunity, and I really would like to pursue my next book project, _Everything Is Not a Story_, I realize that my real passion is for *making* and *makers*. I love being around people who are alert to the possibilities in the universe that have not yet been manifested in material form. The talent that I think I bring to this is that I not only love such individuals and processes but I can describe them with words. Finding a place from which to do this is my current dilemma…

Stormy Wednesday

The University is closed today, thanks to Hurricane Isaac, and I spent the morning updating the design of the website: cleaning out some typographical cruft (getting rid of Google Web Fonts in favor of fonts already available to most users) and getting rid of the lefthand column for metadata, which not resides in small type across the top of each post.

Details for those interested:

* The sans-serif type face I have been using for headers, footers, and headings was *Economica*, but I have changed that to Apple’s *Avenir New Condensed* — which looks a lot like Adobe’s *Myriad Pro*, a particular favorite of mine. Right now, on the Windows side, the display face should give you something reasonable with *Arial Narrow*, but I hope to be able to call upon Microsoft’s new *Segoe* type face in the near future. (For reference, the body type face remains `Georgia, Times, serif` in the style sheet.) This change gets rid of two calls to Google’s font server, one from the PHP for the header and one from the style sheet itself. It’s an incremental speed-up, but I feel like it also increases users’ privacy by not dragging you through a third-party server.
* The gradient background fill never quite worked for me, especially when the javascript toolbar was present. It is now gone.
* The lefthand column for metadata, which was really some CSS trickery with a negative margin always bugged me a little bit, and, to be honest, it never looked all that great. I like the single column format: the goal is here to write to be read, so why not make the reading as pleasant as possible?

In the afternoon, I revived my [Evernote]( account having waded through the many videos for [The Secret Weapon]( My goal is to bring a reasonable system for keeping track of things to get done back into my world. I own licenses for OmniFocus for Mac and iPhone, but I balked at paying more information for the iPad app. I own a license for Things for iOS, but I don’t know if I ever paid for a license for the Mac. And, besides, both were lousy about attaching information with to do items.

The flip side is that TSW appears to be less effective at capturing simple to do items: it appears mostly to be aimed at leveraging e-mail inboxes as sites for generating actions. *Hmmmm.* We’ll see how this works out. It’d be nice for this to work across the whole range of stuff that comes across my desk and that syncs as easily as Evernote does.

The Evolutionary Nature of Agility

In all honesty, I regularly get my fill, which, interestingly enough, usually leads to eye rolling, of the technorati’s constant claims that “everything is different now!” and “change is only getting faster!” I’m sure there are other things the technorati claim that annoy others, but those are the two that I feel I hear too often. And my response is always a historical one, that is that they should look to historical documents.

If they, or you, do, then what you discover is that for at least the past one to two hundred years, Americans (particularly Americans it seems to me) have felt that things were changing at an unprecedented rate and that the world was just on the verge, the brink, of tipping into udder chaos and/or madness. I swear, just read any local paper for more than a few issues at any point in time — my personal favorite period is post WW2, a time when the atomic bomb tests, the rise of the cold war, and unrest at home (thanks to soldiers returning home and trying to fit back in) had everyone on the edge of their seats.

With the Russians as a tangible enemy and the atomic bomb as a real weapon of mass destruction, you could almost argue that things really were tipped into madness then and that in the present moment things are pretty damn staid. Come on, social media is the same as the threat of global nuclear annihilation? No, I don’t think so.

But this in no way is meant to undermine the very real economic turmoil going on around the world, and particularly here in the U.S. And that turmoil, when it impacts you, feels like the world itself has moved away from the order once known to something new and distinctly hostile. And, of course, there are always the hawkers of apocalypse, who also happen, luckily for you, to be able to offer you advice on how to get through these wholly different, altogether new tough times.

Things are changing, and changing in ways that I cannot wholly grasp: I just don’t have the time to try to figure it out, and I haven’t yet come across someone whose vision seems akin to the impressions I have. Here’s what we know for sure:

* *Manufacturing is volatile.* Just at the moment that the U.S. seemed to have shipped about every different kind of making overseas, there has been a rise of smaller shops and factories interested in producing high quality goods or goods for very particular markets. Occupying a niche allows them to thread their way through the larger players against whom they cannot compete on price.
* *Resources are limited and uneven.* The petroleum industry has reached peak oil, which means not only fuel supplies but all the other synthetics — I’m thinking especially of plastics — on which we have based modern life will at some point in the near future begin to climb in price and increase in scarcity. But many of our consumer goods also depend upon rare earth metals that form the basis for electronic components. Unfortunately for some, resources of this kind are not spread evenly about the globe, and you may be rich in some resources but not in others.
* *The rich are going to get richer, but not smarter.* This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that the middle class will indeed get squeezed pretty badly, it seems to me, but because the rich also tend to be arrogant and think they know everything, they will self-limit themselves because, well, they aren’t that smart. What the IT revolution has made very clear is that there is wisdom in crowds, but it isn’t wisdom the way we usually imagine it.

This new kind of wisdom is the whole reason for me starting to write. I was prompted by [Sean Park’s review of Dave Gray’s _The Connected Company_][sp]. In his review, Park is taken with something Gray’s story of a young Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky:

> What Palchinsky realized was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think…His method for dealing with this could be summarized as three “Palchinsky Principles”:
> * first, seek out new ideas and try new things;
> * second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable;
> * third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along

> Most organizations and most forms of politics have the same difficulty in carrying out the simple process of variation and selection…if we are to accept variation, we must also accept that some of these new approaches will not work well. That is not a tempting proposition for a politician or chief executive to try to sell.

What Gray, and Park in turn, are outlining here is, of course, a version of natural selection, what the Internet often dubs the “fail early and often principle” that is usually attributed either to Google or Amazon or some other prominent company. It definitely is the founding principle behind the whole *agile* programming movement, with which I became familiar when I dabbled with the Ruby programming language more than a few years ago. I had never thought of the agile working principle as being aligned with the crowd sourcing in any particular way but to my mind they are both working with ideas well-established by evolutionary biology. This, I think, substantiates those lines of inquiry that posit that information, whether it be genes or cultural memes, behaves in much the same fashion.

My question to myself is: where to go next with this? Suggestions are welcome.


Naming Digital Files, or, The Need for Metadata

David Sparks has a book out called _Paperless_. At some point I would like to buy it, if only to see how he used _iBooks Author_ to his advantage. In the mean time, I read an [excerpt][] that was published in Macworld last month, entitled “How I Name Files on My Mac.” He starts much the same way that I do, with the date, entered as `YYYY-MM-DD`. I sometimes use dashes and sometimes do not, but he makes a good case for using dashes and spaces for the sake of readability:

> After the date, I place a space followed by a hyphen followed by another space. You could skip this and simply use a space, but I prefer the extra space for readability. Next, I try to describe the document. For example, 2012-05-15 – property insurance declarations page or 2012-05 water bill.

> For correspondence, I put the name of the sender and recipient after the date separated by an arrow (->), followed by re- (for regarding) and a brief explanation. So, for example, a letter from Brett Terpstra to me on May 16 about a new iPhone gets named 2012-05-16 – terpstra->sparks re-iphone 7.pdf.

> You can add more. If you are in the service business for example, you could add the client name after the date: The February 7 service agreement for a company named Area 51, Ltd. would be named 2012-02-07 – area51 – service agreement.pdf. You could code documents as proposals, offers, contracts, marketing, or any other sort of document you routinely bump into. This serves, in essence, as a rudimentary tagging system in addition to a naming convention.

It reminds me of a dialogue that I often have with my colleague Leslie Schilling, who is digitizing a large number of image files. She keeps wanting to pack a lot of information into the name, and so she wants to discuss naming schemes. I always demur, noting that she should just use some unique file identifier and then let a database handle all the work of associating metadata with the data. In both this instance and that of Sparks, and my, naming conventions, the file names are acting as a kind of metadata. Next time I see Leslie, I am going to have to admit that, deep down, I agree with her. I like having the file names to be descriptive, in effect to contain metadata.


More Life Lessons

I am not particularly fond of the “ten things I learned” or “the ten things you need to know” genre, but there are a few things in [Kathy Caprino’s essay on Sara Blakely][10] that I want to remember to teach myself and my daughter.

1. For my daughter, I want her to remember to **fail big**.

2. For myself, I want to learn not to share ideas too soon, not because I worry that people will steal them but because sometimes an idea needs to be nurtured before facing the scrutiny of the world, which often doesn’t receive new ideas very well.