A restructuring interlude, with rubber mallet

My home office is a disaster that’s been getting worse. The mess on the desk has been getting in the way of my getting stuff done, in part by keeping too many distractions within sight, and in part by being a hazard. Piles get knocked over, and I have to stop what I’m doing to pick them up.

It’s not been the greatest place to get work done.

The upstream issue is surface space. When we moved, I gained a few square feet of floor, but lost a lot of shelf space. The stuff that was on those shelves is still around, mostly in boxes or piles that migrate from place to place.

In a rare lucid moment the other day, I noticed that the 4-drawer file cabinet in the corner would fit into a space in the closet, freeing up just enough room for a bookshelf. I don’t open the file cabinet that often, and it would be the same distance from my desk if it moved.

Today, armed with a tape measure, I drove to the local Danish furniture store, found a tall bookshelf (some assembly required) that would fit the space (and would fit in the car with the back seat down), emptied the file cabinet and moved it into the closet, assembled the bookshelf, and filled it with books. And restocked the file cabinet. And dusted a bit.

Elapsed time: 3 hours, including coffee break.

That’s three hours I won’t have to apply to the large stack of work that I need to get done. But I suspect the time taken will pay for itself, and my wife is happy to see those boxes of books finally go away.

Paging Dr. Jung

If I go to sleep with a problem in mind, I’ll often wake up with an answer, or at least with fresh ideas. But I’m usually pretty groggy early in the morning, and those first thoughts often go *poof* by the time I’m out the shower, so I keep a pen and some index cards on the nightstand. (There’s also a small diver’s slate in the shower for those occassions when overnight ideas have been delayed in transit.)

The waking idea this morning was “this holiday season, maybe I should give fruitcake another chance.”

I have no memory of going to sleep with a problem in mind that this idea solves.

Resolution matters

When the price for a Samsung 20″ LCD dipped below $300 USD, I snagged one, only to find that the onboard video on my desktop, which had been driving a smaller 1280×1024 LCD, wouldn’t handle 1600×1200. Oops. Fortunately, the two resolutions are both a 4:3 ratio, and the Samsung scales down to the lower resolution. Text isn’t crisp, but isn’t fuzzy, either.

Swapping in a spare low-end ATI card didn’t help. I still only got 1280×1024, but now windows jerked around the screen when I dragged them. The card went back into inventory.

This morning I bought up a low-end nVidia card. On first try, it only yielded 1024×768. Oops. Digging through the Ubuntu forums yielded the “well, duh” clue: I needed to install nvidia drivers and do a minor bit of configuration. Now I had crisp 1600×1200. Woo hoo!

That’s when I found that I actually prefer running the 20″ at a lower resolution. Leaning back in my chair with my feet on the corner of desk and the keyboard in my lap, the display is about three feet away. At that distance, text on the screen at a lower resolution is readable. But at 1600×1200, I either have to kick the font size up, or lean forward and squint.

Leaning back this way isn’t doing my posture any good, but as I look a bit to the right, out the window, I see the evening sky turning dark pink and blue behind a large oak tree. And to my left, a cup of tea is within reach. Life, at least momentarily, is good.

The “strangely compelling” pile

I let things pile up in my study. The piles usually have themes, but sometimes one pile is more miscellaneous than others. After many years of doing a periodic stop, cull, discard, file cycle, stuff in some piles would remain, forming sedimentary layers of future piles. Certain things never seemed to end up discarded or filed.

As I was going through another round of culling, I starting pondering one particular pile. The things in it–an old Demotivators calendar, several articles, some newspaper clippings, a few pictures–had survived several rounds of culling. They didn’t seem to fall into existing categories, and resisted attempts to figure out new categories. I was about to punt, and pass on to the next pile.

Then it hit me. The stuff in this pile, and the stuff at the bottom of a few other piles, was “strangely compelling”. That was it. No need to classify the stuff any further, no need to psychoanalyze. I labeled a clear plastic container “Strangely Compelling” and voila!, a bunch of random stuff had a home, and I could stop beating myself up about being unable to file everything in an orderly way. And with the “strangely compelling” filter, the non-compelling stuff that was mixed in fell right out.

Slow, incremental decluttering

The first step is easy. Sit at your work area (or stand, if you work on your feet). Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Get your head as clear as you can in the space of one breath. Breathe out. Open your eyes and let your attention fall on something within reach that looks out of place. Take a moment to deal with it, in whatever way makes sense for you in the moment. This might mean throwing something away, filing it, or jotting down a note to deal with the thing later.

Repeat this a few. Over time, increase your perimeter. Open a drawer. Look at the nearby walls, or the floor nearby.

As I do this now, I see (and move) a Land’s End catalog, some papers that need filing, an expired post-it note on my monitor, and a pair of sunglasses that don’t need to be on my desk.

The second step happens in its own time. Something you need won’t be within reach. As you get it, ask yourself if this thing needs to stay within reach. If so, take a moment and find some other thing that is within reach but doesn’t need to be, and move that other thing somewhere else. Simple rule: something comes, something goes. (Or, if you read Boing Boing, something comes to town, something leaves.)

I’m at an impasse with the second step. There are reference books I reach for every few days, but the need to have them within reach isn’t strong enough to displace anything else.

This slow, incremental decluttering works a lot better for me than big bang cleanups. The latter do nothing to avoid the clutter building up again.

A memory hack for locks

Twice this year I’ve been in a hurry to get somewhere after working out at the gym, and have left my lock on a locker rather than hooking it to my gym bag. Since the folks at the gym are aggressive with their bolt cutters, that’s meant buying two new locks, and memorizing two new lock combinations. This reminded me of a convenient hack.

With a rotary lock of the “left to 33, then right to 24 …” variety, I have three sets of numbers to memorize. Since I don’t have a great memory for numbers, but can remember silly phrases, I’ll find a mnemonic for the numbers, and then string them together into a memorable silly phrase. “To be” (or “toothy”) for 23, “Too late” for 28, “free sex” for 36, and so on. A standard “improve your memory” technique. And one that works for me: I can still remember the combination of a lock I lost 12 years ago.

Sometimes, though, a number doesn’t yield itself to a memorable mnemonic. Here’s where the hack comes in: Rotary locks have sloppy tolerances. Turning the dial to within one (or one and a half) of a number is good enough to get the lock open. If you have a combination lock, try opening it with numbers that are one-off from the official combination. Cool, eh? So if you can’t find a mnemonic for a number, try the numbers on either side.