How I Go Offline

In response to my earlier post about work-life balance, Daniel Souza asks:

This is an important question. I’ll answer it here rather than on Twitter, where my responses will get lost among all the other chatter.

It’s important for me to have “offline” time every day. There are certain practices that allow me to do so, and I will cover them below. That said, I don’t think of these practices as something exceptional I do to regain my sanity or anything like that. They’re just part of my day, like going through my email is part of my day.

I think one of the main reasons why people crave “offline” time is that they haven’t yet learned to manage their use of information environments effectively. For example, many people leave notifications on by default. Many of the digital systems we interact with are designed to capture our attention so it can be sold to the highest bidder. The constant stream of interruptions is exhausting and counter-productive. As important as it is to take time to be “offline,” it’s as important to develop healthy use patterns for online environments.

On to Daniel’s question. Here are some practices that allow me “offline” time:

  • Reading. I read a lot, mostly in physical books or in a Kindle device, neither of which can send notifications or allow me to open another app.
  • Meditating. I set aside time (usually 15-20 minutes per day) for mindfulness meditation. This does for my mind what flossing and brushing does for my mouth.
  • Naps. Not something I can do every day, but a practice I take advantage of as frequently as I can. 30-45 minutes is enough to reset my entire system and keep me going for several hours.
  • Hiking. One of the upsides of living in Northern California is nearby access to wonderful hiking trails. My family and I frequently take advantage of this privilege.
  • Long baths. This may be TMI territory, but I love taking long baths. We had a wet winter this year (after a long drought) so I can now indulge more frequently with less guilt. (I often read in the bath.)

There isn’t anything exceptional about these practices. They don’t take a long time. They’re not things I do because they take me offline; I enjoy doing them and being offline is a side benefit. Again, while being offline (daily!) matters, having a healthy relationship with online environments is as important. If you’re in a position to do so, take back control of your attention. At a minimum, turn off unnecessary notifications.

Work Anywhere

I’ve never liked the phrase “work-life balance.” It’s a bad distinction: work is a part of life, and being alive is a prerequisite to getting work done. To think of the two as separate is to impoverish both, so I’m inclined to blur the lines. This is easier to do today than ever before. Many people see this as a negative, but not me.

By “work,” I mean creating value for others in exchange for some remuneration. There’s no reason why this should be constrained to a particular time or place. We’ve inherited our current work patterns from a previous era when work required expensive, fixed infrastructure. (Think industrial factories.) People agreed to be at this infrastructure at particular times of day, in shifts. This maximized efficiency for industrial work.

But this is not necessarily efficient for information work. If a client emails me to ask a question, a faster reply is often more valuable than one that takes longer. Using my little glass rectangle, I can get back to them from anywhere. I’ve generated lots of value while sitting in public transport, waiting for the teller at the bank, after finishing lunch, etc. These impromptu dips into “work” aren’t an intrusion into “life” — I see both as a continuous stream.

Independent consulting gives me great control over when and where I work. When I don’t have meetings, I like to work from my local public library, which is always quiet and pleasant. Or maybe I’ll walk to a coffee shop for a cup of tea. Whatever the case, changing my physical environment helps me get things done. I cordon off particular activities to one place or the other; the change of venue is a palette cleanser that allows me to shift my focus from one task to another.

This way of working is very effective for me. There were times in my career when I forced myself to sit at the same desk for eight-hour work days. Even though I was “working” more, I was much less productive. Tethering myself to the same place and forcing myself to produce “on command” was often a recipe for frustration. That’s not how the mind works — at least not mine. I need to shift modes, change the zoom on the lens, get my body moving.

I can engage more fluidly because my work doesn’t happen in physical environments; it happens in information environments. With small, powerful electronic devices, I can access those information environments from anywhere. This calls for discipline — the work needs to be done, after all — and organization. But the payoff is a release from the tension many of us feel between “work” and “life.” A well-ordered information ecosystem can simultaneously make us more effective and more engaged with the world beyond our desks.

My Digital Memory

I was an early user of Gmail. I don’t remember exactly when I signed up for the service, but I do know I was using it by September of 2005. It became my primary mail system in a relatively short span of time. There were four features that drew me into Gmail:

  • Its amazing anti-spam filters. Hooboy has this saved my sanity!
  • Its lightweight web-based UI.
  • Its large (for the time) storage allocations.
  • Its search functionality, which is (still) one of the best I’ve experienced in any system.

It’s the last two of these features that I want to delve into here.

Gmail isn’t just an email system; it’s a digital memory of my life. Shortly after I started using it, I imported the previous four years of mail into my account. As a result, I have a searchable email archive of the last eighteen years or so. This is an incredibly powerful thing to have at your disposal.

Email isn’t just about communicating with other people: We also receive confirmations for doctors appointments, bank statements, flight boarding passes, contracts, etc. Over time, these things add up to an important repository of information about your life. Something that may seem trivial now can be quite important in the future. Because you have so much space in Gmail, you don’t have to throw it out. And because Gmail’s search is so good, you don’t have to worry about categorizing it upfront.

Last night I was making a list of trips I’ve been on over the past few years. Compiling this list was relatively easy using Gmails advanced search: I used the before and after operators to define time windows​ and included the three-letter​ airport codes where I frequently fly from (SFO and OAK.) I completed what could’ve been a long, tedious task in a matter of minutes.

I particularly feel the power of my digital memory in its converse. Once I was trying to recall the exact date of an event that occurred prior to 2001. This proved surprisingly challenging. I’ve been paperless for the past decade or so (meaning I scan every important paper-based document that comes my way,) but I have few documents in my system from before this time. For stuff between 2001-2008, I can fall back on my Gmail archive. But I have scant information in my system before 2001. Searches return nothing. I looked for a long time among old paper-based archives for the date I needed, only to come up empty-handed.

Some people are very disciplined about keeping archives. I’ve gotten more so over the years, but have little to show for earlier parts of my life. For stuff in between, I can rely on Gmail as a digital memory; it seldom lets me down.

Possible Future

An old Pink Floyd song includes the following lyric, which I love:

They flutter behind you your possible pasts,
Some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost.
A warning to anyone still in command
Of their possible future, to take care.

These lines provide a visual to an otherwise abstract — but important — idea: that the future holds many possibilities, but once set on a particular course of action, these possibilities close off.

Your ability to affect outcomes diminishes as you become invested in the decisions you’ve already made. The older you get, the harder it becomes to change course. Time runs out; “the future” shrinks; you’re left to contemplate what might have been.

Thus, as you age it becomes increasingly harder to change directions. Eventually, you run out of time to undertake major corrections. Where early in life the vector for your life was flexible, it embrittles as you grow older. You become set in your ways.

This is a challenge in a world in which change happens faster and more thoroughly than before — and in which people live longer. You must actively fight the urge to become fixed and brittle. It’s an ongoing struggle: The more you experience, the more invested you become in the things that have worked; things that feel comfortable.

Comfortable is for chumps. Your possible future needs ongoing care.

Introducing The Informed Life Podcast

I’m excited to announce that I’m launching a podcast, The Informed Life. The tagline hints at what the show is about: Better living through skillful information management.

In this age of smartphones, social media, and fake news, you have access to more information in more situations than ever before. Information is central to how you make decisions. It can enrich your life, but it can also squander your attention. What if you could use information to help you achieve your goals?

The Informed Life will explore how folks from different fields manage their personal information ecosystems to be more effective:

  • How are they using information to their advantage?
  • Do they use social media? If so, how do they get the best out of it without wasting time?
  • How do they deal with communications over email and chat?
  • How do they keep track of commitments?
  • How do they keep their project-related documents together?

I suspect everyone does these things a little bit differently, and want to learn what works and what doesn’t.

The first episode is a conversation with my friend, co-author, and publisher Lou Rosenfeld. We discuss how he manages information to effectively coordinate the various workstreams at Rosenfeld Media, including the upcoming Enterprise Experience conference.

You won’t find The Informed Life in your favorite podcast directory yet. That will come over time. For now, you can listen by visiting TheInformed.Life, following on Twitter, or subscribing with your favorite podcast client. (Here’s the RSS feed.)

I’m new to hosting a podcast​ and am looking for feedback on how to make it better. Please get in touch if you have thoughts or comments on the show. Hope you enjoy it!

Getting Unstuck By Switching Environments

Sometimes I get stuck when working on something. I’ll sit at my desk, staring at the computer’s display. Nothing! It’s not that I don’t know what I need to do next. Instead, something in me resists moving forward. Perhaps I’m feeling overwhelmed, or maybe I’m distracted by some other issue I must deal with.

When I’m feeling stuck, I’ll usually pack up my laptop and move to a nearby coffee shop or public library. Switching to a different environment usually does the trick. The combination of a 10-15 minute walk and entirely different surroundings are enough to allow me to regain my focus. I treat the excursion as an appointment with myself, one that will focus on getting a particular thing done. When I get to my destination, I’m usually ready to get back to work.

While this trick invariably works when I switch to a different physical environment, I find that switching information environments often makes a difference as well. For example, perhaps I don’t leave my desk but instead switch to working on my iPad in a different app. Often, changing contexts from the laptop to a mobile device is enough of a jog to help me regain my attention.

In especially busy days, I’ll often switch several times: I’ll move to work on my iPad in a coffee shop, and then walk a bit more to work on my paper notebook at the library, then come back to my office to work on the larger display there. This helps me draw boundaries around tasks: whereas I spent the last hour focused on project A, now I’ll spend the next couple of hours on project B. The change of place creates a clean break between activities and helps introduce some variety in my day.

I’m lucky to live in a time when we have powerful portable computing devices and the flexibility to work when and where I want. I try to make the most of it; doing so contributes to my productivity.

The Role of Paper in Learning

How do you learn a new subject? Let’s say you’re starting work on a new project, one where you have expertise in the craft but not the domain. You’ll be working alongside subject matter experts. Their time is limited; you don’t want to waste it by asking lots of newbie questions. It’s up to you to come up to speed fast so you can ask relevant questions and help structure the problem.

As a strategic designer, I find myself in this situation often. For example, a few years ago I worked on the design of a system that was meant to be used by neurosurgeons and radiologists. While I’d designed user interfaces for complex systems before, I didn’t know much about neurology. Working in this space required that I get up to speed quickly on a complicated subject matter. (No “it ain’t brain surgery!” jokes on this project!)

Over the years I’ve developed techniques for learning that work for me. I’ve written before about the three-stage model I use. To recap: when learning a new subject, I aim to 1) contextualize it, 2) draw out the distinctions in it, and 3) explore its implications. I strive to make each stage actionable: to make things with the new information I’m learning.

What kinds of things? It depends on the stage of the process I’m in. In the very early stages, it’s mostly scribbles, sketches, and various notes-to-self. Further on in the process, I look to share with others — especially with people who know the subject matter. In both cases, I’m looking to establish a feedback loop. Seeing the ideas out in the world changes my relation to them. I’m reminded of the tagline on Field Notes notebooks: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Spot-on. The act of putting pen to paper changes my relationship to the idea; the act of articulating it nudges me to give it structure and coherence.

I deliberately chose the phrase “putting pen to paper;” this process doesn’t work as well for me with digital tools. I’ve been experimenting for years with digital sketchbooks, but keep coming back to pen-and-paper for speed, reliability, and ease-of-use. That said, digital tools play an essential role. My (continuously evolving) learning ecosystem includes software like OneNote, Ulysses, OmniFocus, and Tinderbox. Recently I’ve also started experimenting with DevonThink. These tools all serve specific needs and do things that paper can’t do.

There’s lots of overlap between these tools, so why have so many of them? It’s tempting to want to cut down the ecosystem to as few tools as possible. But putting everything into a single tool means sacrificing important functionality; the ones that do lots of things don’t do any one of them as well as dedicated tools. For example, OneNote, Tinderbox, and DevonThink can capture reminders, but none of them do it as well as OmniFocus, which is designed for that purpose. (Having OS-level, cross-app search functionality such as macOS’s Spotlight is a boon, since it means not having to remember which app you put stuff into.)

A paper notebook could be the ultimate “does everything” tool. People have been taking notes on paper for many hundreds of years. There are lots of frameworks around that allow you to use plain paper to track commitments (e.g., bullet journals), separate signal from noise (e.g., Cornell notes), etc. Paper is super flexible, so there’s always the temptation to do more with it. But paper is far from perfect for some learning activities. For example, capturing lots of long texts and finding patterns in them (what I’m using DevonThink for) is best done with digital tools.

While the form of my learning ecosystem keeps evolving, it’s increasingly clear what role my paper sketchbook plays: It’s a scratchpad where raw thoughts and ideas emerge. It’s not for capturing long texts. It’s not for sharing with others — not even with future me (i.e., “to remember it later.”) Instead, it’s an extension of my mind; a sandbox where I shape for myself — thus internalizing — the things I’m learning.

In practice, this entails jumping back-and-forth between digital tools and paper. I once aspired to consolidate these steps into a “smart sketchbook” (see here and here) that would allow me to eschew paper. However, I increasingly value the role my physical sketchbook plays in my learning ecosystem. Its limitations are an advantage: using it requires a shift in modality that keeps ideas flowing, vibrant, and malleable.

Designing Your Life

When designing things to be understandable, coherence is an important goal. Perhaps it’s the ultimate goal. It is for me. I aspire to coherence in (and between) all aspects of my life: work, teaching, writing, family. Every day I ask myself: how can they come closer together? How can one inform the other? How can I generate the most value with the least waste?

I’m currently working on the systems studio class I’ll start teaching in a few weeks. I have several other projects going in parallel: a keynote speech I’ll deliver in February, client work, this blog. They all connect somehow. Invariably, there’s tremendous energy at the connection points. Themes emerge. I press into these themes, dig deeper. (“Emerge” is the right word — this is not a top-down process. Instead, the interests lead the way. I discover them by doing, by trying out new ways of being in the world.)

The last chapter of Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 is titled “Design Your Life.” The following paragraphs from this chapter speak to me:

My opening line to my students, and a recurring theme in my classes, was that the big design problem isn’t designing a house for your parents or yourself, a museum, or a toaster, or a book, or whatever. The big design problem is designing your life. It’s by the design of your life that you create the backboard off which you bounce all your thoughts and ideas and creativity. You have to decided what it is you want to do each day.

There’s an Eddie Murphy movie in which he plays a soothsayer, and he makes the comment that you only have about 75 summers, 75 falls, 75 winters, and 75 springs. You only have 75 of everything, so you better make good use of them. Time is your only commodity — what else do you have?

If we are able to design our lives, wouldn’t the best result — the best measure of success, ultimately — be that every day is interesting? Most people don’t have enough interesting things in their lives, so in place of interest they try to accumulate money and power. But I think you’re going to be a better businessperson if you look at your life as a collection of hobbies, a collection of interests, not a matter of things you do during the day and things you do in the evening — or what you do during the day and what you do during the weekend. Think of everything you do as driven by and connected to your real interests, and it will affect everything you do.

Thinking about it as a design problem, as Wurman suggests, gives us agency. There are variables at play; our lives are ongoing prototypes of different configurations. Resistance — fear — manifests as habits we must overcome. Sometimes the work is a slog. The converse — joy, flow — is a clue to being on the right track.

Making a List

Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, Merry Christmas to you and yours! My family and I celebrate. Like many other people, we open presents on Christmas morning. My kids have just finished opening theirs, and have now moved on to Netflix. So I have a bit of time to reflect.

On my mind this morning? Lists.

Lists are central to the practice of information architecture, and one of the unique aspects of Christmas, as many people celebrate it today, is that it prominently features lists. Several weeks (or in some cases, months) ahead of Christmas Day, children start thinking of gifts they’d like to receive. They make a list. They write it down so they can share it with siblings, friends, parents, etc. and — if the household encourages that sort of thing — with the Fulfiller of Wishes: Santa Claus.

For the child, assembling this list is an exercise in structured fantasizing. “What would I be like if I had this  particular thing in my life? And what about this other thing?” For better or worse, the child starts identifying with the list. Not the things in the list, but the collection itself. One child’s list will be different from another’s; a reflection of their unique personalities through material objects. (I have three kids, and they each make their own lists. When making them, they negotiate to avoid requesting exactly the same things.)

While we are fortunate enough to afford presents, my wife and I don’t like this overly materialistic aspect of the holiday. We do get the children gifts at this time of year (their expectations set by the culture we live in), but we try to keep it simple and minimal. So when our children making their lists, we encourage them to prioritize. “If you had to choose, would you rather have x or y?” The list is a perfect structural construct for this. (Perhaps this is a good way to introduce them to the concept of bubble sorting?)

When Christmas Day comes, the children compare the gifts they’ve received to the lists they made. If there’s too much variance, they may feel slighted — even if the presents they receive are objectively better than the ones they had on the list. The list is a sort of token for their individuality; a structured manifestation of their desires; a reflection of their personality. The child put this highly personal statement into the universe as a concrete artifact that can be verified. Does the universe care? Will it pay heed to who he or she is as a person?

For a child, this list is a big deal.

But that’s not the only prominent Christmas list. There’s another list-maker in this interaction: Santa Claus himself. I’m referring, of course, to the following verse from the classic song Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

Here we have the Fulfiller of Wishes wielding a taxonomy: Serving as both judge and jury, he’ll determine who will benefit from his largesse. The terms aren’t made clear. What exactly constitutes a transgression? What behavior would risk you landing on the dreaded “naughty” category? Beyond indirect references to the state of your consciousness (“He knows if you are sleeping / He knows if you’re awake”), you don’t know. At least you have some comfort in knowing there’s a process for assuring the quality of the data: Santa is checking the list twice.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town was written in the 1930s, when the U.S. was in the grip of the Great Depression. The song featured a few verses that have since been dropped:

The season is near
For happiness time
Gotta bring cheer with every last dime
Santa Claus is coming to town

We’ve gotta dig deep
And cover the list
Gotta see that nobody is missed
Santa Claus is coming to town

Let’s keep the home-fires burning
Let’s give without a pause
Let’s prove to those less fortunate
That there is a Santa Claus

In these verses, the onus of generosity shifts from the Fulfiller of Wishes onto all of us: It is we who must “dig deep” to ensure everybody in the list is taken care of. A beautiful thought — one more fitting with the spirit of the season.