On the plus side, I think I finally found my Holy Grail of personal content management, the new version of DEVONthink (Mac OS X only, I’m afraid). It hasn’t impressed me as an ideal solution in the past, but the last few iterations are amazing. It’s been quite an enabling little beast for my job at hand, allowing me to sift through thousands of pages of text (plain, RTF, HTML and PDF), find related entries, track my sources, manage all related media, and write various documents without bother or fuss. Its capabilities are constantly surprising me. Stay tuned for a write-up….
Like most other gadget freaks, I always want the latest and greatest. I can’t go near a Future Shop without venturing inside with a drool cup duct-taped to my chin. I dream of all the things I could get –one day– when I have far too much money and have those business needs which somehow validate purchasing plasma screens wider than my apartment’s living room, wireless speaker systems capable of generating more noise than the eruption of Krakatoa, pens that do everything but write, and strange hunks of plastic that serve as an all-in-one cell phone, barometer, airplane landing signal, holographic chess projector, egg timer, and remote control for next-generation iPods yet-undreamt-of. Like other forms of lust, this too can lead to blindness.
Lately, my dear old faithful Linux SGI box is staggering on its last legs, and so my thoughts turn to how I might replace it. Since portability is key to a lifestyle like mine, a laptop makes perfect sense. But ah, which one?
In my last place of employment, I requisitioned a shiny new Sony Vaio laptop with a Pentium 4 2.66GHz processor. Part of the day was spent in Windows XP Pro, part of it in Debian Linux. Let’s say that the machine was not without its problems. At times, especially in Windows, doing more than one thing at a time seemed to make it incredibly sluggish. (When burning a CD or DVD, you had to be careful not to run another program in the background or touch any keys –even the screen brightness– lest you make a coaster.) Because of the “shared memory” video card, it wasn’t even possible to play a 3D game like Neverwinter Nights while on the road: the OpenGL was software-only. And then there was the failing power brick. When I called Sony tech support, I was pushed to a flustered Indian woman who knew no other English than what was in a flow chart: after nearly an hour’s wait on the line, a 10-minute conversation (me: “Look, I’m a techie… I know that this power supply has a loose connection inside, and I can’t open it!”; her: “Please check that the plug is in the wall socket, and you have pressed the laptop ‘on’ button”), and her request to “Please hold while I look into escalating your issue”… I was promptly dropped. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but this happened a second, third and fourth time as well, albeit with different call centre personnel who had even less of a mastery of English.
Confession: I used to be an Mac bigot. Occasionally working with designers who felt confident and smug about how their pricey machines were far superior to my beloved PCs, I learned to make fun of these hippie freaks who barely knew anything about their machines, who clinged to overly-simple interfaces, and who resisted the urge to join the rest of humanity. I stayed as far away from Macs as possible, which was actually quite easy in this redneck Windows area of the world.
Five years ago, I joined a school in Nova Scotia that would only provide me with a Mac laptop, specifically a Powerbook 2000 Pismo. This oddly-shaped little black laptop came with Mac OS 9.1, and O! did I hate it. I could barely change anything, the interface was far too simple for my liking, there was no right-click button, and there was very little complexity under the hood (I had grown quite used to Linux). When the UNIX-based OS X was released, however, it was an entirely different story: it was powerful enough that I could start to enjoy it. How could you not like something that lets you use Photoshop one minute, and then jump into a terminal to edit bash scripts with vi and tweak its Apache the next?
Five years later, I still have the Pismo.
Now, five years for a laptop is a looooooong time. Usually, an older machine has been dropped, has begun to experience major hardware malfunctions, and is so woefully underpowered that it is practically useless with modern applications. In contrast, this Pismo is still running exceedingly well, to my complete surprise, and each new generation of OS X seems to make it faster. Its specifications: 256 MB RAM (eek!), G3 400MHz processor, 8 MB ATI 3D video card, DVD drive, Firewire, 10 GB hard drive, AirPort wireless, Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. Strangely enough, it’s quite zippy and responsive. I can have several large applications going at once (including Adobe programs, Firefox and a word processor), and it seems to be able to handle the load very well. In fact, I’d even venture to claim that it’s almost as fast as the P4 2.66 Vaio for regular day-to-day work. True, the poor thing is starting to show its age: the fan comes on and sounds a little whiney, DivX movie files stutter ever now and then, the DVD drive occasionally has to work a little harder to read some CD-ROMs, and the power brick (er… “yo-yo”) is held together with electrical tape and tender care, but all this just gives the little beast more personality. I can see why people adore their Pismos: there are plenty of user comments on sites like LowEndMac that sound off about their wonderful little “workhorses” in such endearing tones that they often verge on love letters. The resale value is also extremely high for such an old machine.
While I will –no doubt– eventually succumb to the technophilia evoked by the beautiful new Powerbooks, I’ve decided that I’m sticking with the Pismo for now. I’ll pump up the RAM, slot in a new hard drive, refresh the electrical tape, and maybe even get a G4 upgrade. The new Powerbook can wait: I already have a good machine, one that feels a little more like a companion than a cold hunk of silicon, metal and plastic.
I was doing some work in the local library (a fairly small one), when I decided to take a little break and peruse the shelves. The productivity section was small indeed, but it yielded a little unexpected treasure: Getting Things Done by Edwin C. Bliss, subtitled “The ABCs of Time Management”. Now, I’ve heard this book mentioned a couple of times, mainly in the context of David Allen’s more famous book of the same name, but I had little idea as to its content. A glance at the sign-out stamps indicated that has been borrowed roughly once every three years. Obviously not a very in-demand book in this neck of the woods. Without further ado, I slapped down my library card and took it home.
First, let me say that I’ve heard a little bit of condescention and smugness used when mentioning Bliss’ book, mainly from hard-core GTD fans who have never read it and somehow seem to resent the back that an earlier productivity book could somehow use the sacred nomenclature. Folks, the term “getting things done” is a pretty run-of-the-mill –even bland– title that… uhm… seems to offter advice on getting things done. While I hesitate to congratulate either Bliss or Allen (or their publishers) on their creativity when naming books, I certainly don’t hold a lack of originality against them either. “It is what it is.”
On to the book. I was very pleasantly surprised. In a way, this is more in line with what Allen hopes to achieve in Ready for Anything, a collection of productivity ideas and wisdom. Bliss, also a consultant of many years’ experience with megacorporations and a lecturer on organisational and time management issues, has put together a book that is deceiving in its randomness. Rather than start at a particular point and build up to a complete, self-contained system (as Allen, Covey and others do), he instead organises the sections alphabetically. He moves from “After-Action Reports” to “Alcohol”, and finishes with “Xenelasia” and “Yesterday Trap”. (There is no “Z”, but I’m not going to hold this against Bliss; I would have liked his take on Zen, though.) In other words, you can open the book, start anywhere, and absorb of few pieces of advice before you rush off to actually get things done.
While Allen and Covey back up their ideas mainly with anecdotes, Bliss is more logical about presenting evidence to back up his thoughts. While he does share the occasional personal story, his approach is far more scientific. He quotes surveys, statistics and studies, and gives well-researched examples for certain topics. These little “mini-essays” –each averaging a page or so– are filled with practical advice, insights into the leaders of large companies, figures from little-known but meaningful reports, and plenty of great little (dare I say it) “life hacks” that cause your neurotransmitters to suddenly figure in the right sequence.
For example, he mentions the “Stand-up Desk”. Now, I’ve never really considered this idea. Apparently, not only great writers like Hemingway, Woolf, Carroll, Nabokov and Winston Churchill used standing desks, but many leaders of large organisations do. This caused me to reflect on something that I’ve noticed about my own thinking habits: all my heavy duty thinking, I tend to do while pacing or standing at whiteboards. Bliss quotes a USC study that indicates an acceleration of 5-20% in the brain’s information-processing speed while standing instead of sitting, as well as a marked improvement in reaction time for anyone working on difficult tasks. He also mentions the fact that a desk should be about elbow height, and that there should be a bar to raise one foot occasionally to prevent back problems. This entry alone has kick-started the creaking gears in my mind: the next time I change around my office, I will certainly try a standing desk for a while. I might have to play around with the ergonomics, especially with regard to using a laptop, but it sounds like a worthwhile experiment.
Bliss covers many other topics in the same way, including the need for sleep, how to overcome mental blocks, the use of exercise in increasing productivity, procrastination, a step-by-step guide to handling correspondence quickly, and so on. There’s plenty of solid, practical advice that one can put into play almost immediately, and enough scientific research to feel informed about your choices.
I am not sure if this book is still in print or not (my edition was updated in 1991), but Amazon.com carries some copies that are quite inexpensive. Highly recommended, especially considering the price.