Monday, 14 April 2008

The reluctant lifehacker

Over the last few years I seem to have found myself increasingly drawn to articles like these. Not that I can recall ever implementing even a single bit of advice suggested by any one of the personal productivity, organisation, or time management gurus featured therein. Really, I'm not even sure why I read them at all. And yet, I do. Every single word.

The one idea I've come up with is this: I think it might be for much the same reason that I sometimes find myself reading articles about the inexplicably murderous or psychotic of this world - basically, out of a sort of horrified bafflement as to what might drive someone to do such things... I just don't get it. Why would anyone regiment their life like that? (Oh, and I don't really get violence either. Obviously. Or at least I didn't until I'd worked in customer services for a couple of years...).

But now, here I am, self-employed and freelance, and - in a direct reversal of the customer service years - constantly nagged at by stirrings of optimism and ambition and dreams that seem all too impatient to be fulfilled. Also, there seem to be quite a lot of troublesome bits of paper. In fact, it's a bloody unmanageable nuiscance this being happy thing. Not least because it's really starting to test my natural antipathy towards organisation and time management.


You see, I'm actually starting to wonder if maybe they might be on to something? I mean, however hard I might find it to believe otherwise, it's not necessarily impossible.

Is it?


The trouble is, so much of this stuff seems to be couched in the kind of terms employed by the competing nonsenses of Self-Help*. Add to that an off-putting whiff of cultishness, and whenever I go near the stuff, sooner or later, my mind starts going into the kind of peristaltic mental spasms that I tend to think of as the brain's equivalent of the gag reflex. Oh, I'm sure there are some nutritious morsels of common sense in amongst the emetic babble... I'm just damned if I can swallow them.

Nonetheless, if only to shut up those noisy and demanding dreams, I'm determined to attempt to give it all a fair hearing. At least for a few weeks. After all, it's usually best to try to learn about things before dismissing them out of hand and subjecting them to ridicule. For one thing, ridicule's an awful lot more effective when you know what you're talking about. And easier.

So, in that spirit, or something like it, I've really, actually, been properly reading through 43 Folders and lifehacker. And re-reading those articles I linked to at the start.


But before I elaborate, an update on last week.

If you remember, I was trying out out some Greasemonkey Firefox extensions. The results:

- Better YouTube - really handy :) Downloading videos - or just opting to use the buffer-before-playing alternative video player - generally, and mercifully, sidestepped the tedious faffing and replaying I often used to have to employ to get the increasingly glitch-ridden (but perhaps just on my machine?) YouTube to work. And automatically showing the full details of each video; well, it's just a tiny thing, really, but still very, very welcome.

- Better Gmail - erm, not so much. Being able to add a Google Reader feed to the sidebar is just a constant self-renewing invitation to procrastination, frankly. As for the other options: I suppose they might be useful to some people, but I found all of them either a bit fiddly or merely cosmetic. Then again, I was happy enough with Gmail already, so it probably just wasn't for me.

- From the Top 10 Greasemonkey scripts, though, I shall definitely be continuing with Textarea Backup. Finally, no more losing not yet sent blog comments when you (or your browser) happen to do something stupid :) That alone, come to think of it, might be worth all this productivity-blog reading I've been doing.

Speaking of which, time to return to lifehacker and 43 Folders.

Observations so far:

The former's emphasis on tech-enabled hacks and shortcuts, I have to say, certainly sent my brain into noticeably fewer peristaltic contractions. The cultishness and self-help stuff is there somewhere, admittedly, but mostly it's pleasingly well buried beneath a wealth of inoffensive practicality and useful downloads. Some of it's even just simple DIY stuff like how to make a cheap laptop stand, or using carrier bags for something creative. In short, I shall definitely be returning; it's not hard to see why Time magazine named lifehacker among its Top 25 Blogs.

43 Folders, if I'm honest, wasn't entirely indigestible either. It's very much Mac oriented, so if that's your machine of choice, you'll probably feel a bit more at home there. And there's a handy, ever-expanding, and - you'll not be surprised to hear - well organised wiki of all the hints, tips, systems and strategies its writer and users employ. Under(and over)lying pretty much all of it, though, is David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) system. And it's at this that my cult averse, Self-Help queasy, organisation-agnostic brain seems to heave most strongly of all.

Join me next week, then, as I explain my GTD misgivings, try to keep brain vomit at bay, and perhaps learn that a tickler file is something other than where Ken Dodd keeps his tax returns.

I'm looking forward to it already...

No, actually, I am.

But mostly just because I'll probably end up having a go at time management guru-du-jour Tim Ferriss as well - anyone can enjoy a four-hour workweek, my asterisks!

UPDATE: Don't know if anyone's tried the Better YouTube package yet, but at the moment it seems to need updating. Instead, you might want to install the updated Download as MP4, Full Details, and Alternative Video Player scripts separately.

*Clearly, this is a gross generalisation. Some of the nonsenses are actually quite complementary.


Sean McManus said...

I can recommend the podcast series that 43things did with David Allen. I'm sure some people benefit from following complete rules and systems, but for most organised people you can just pick up a few ideas to use without having to join the cult completely. I'll be interested to see the next episode of your blog series on lifehacking.

Tim Warren said...

Thanks, Sean. I did happen upon those podcasts somewhere, so will probably take a listen before Monday.

My main issue - as will become clear next week, I think - with systematising and micro-managing your life is that so many of the best things in mine have come about through chance, coincidence, or at most as a result of very loose, very open-ended planning. Except, nowadays I do seem to have rather more things to keep track of, and more things that I want to accomplish...

So, er, yep, I think my intention here does seem to have become, basically, that of trying to sort the help from the Self-Help, and pass on anything I find that's fairly easily implemented - small scale tweaks and improvements that don't feel like robbing yourself of chance and spontaneity, or turning a bit obsessive, I guess.