And the Community Reaches Back

D*I*Y PlannerWell, I’m hard at work on the release candidate of the D*I*Y Planner, version 3.0, and I decided to ask for volunteers to help proof the templates, edit the handbook, and write new sections for the (already fairly copious) documentation. Seeing that was set up essentially as a community-driven project to focus on paper-based productivity and creativity, centred somewhat on the ‘Planner, I thought it only right to invite those interested to participate in its development.

So, was that a smart thing? After all, the ‘Planner has been my little baby since its inception, and I’ve guided every line, checkbox and uneven margin via my “benevolent dictatorship.”

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Three Seconds

There’s a well-known maxim in advertising circles that you have approximately three seconds to hook your viewing audience with an ad. Within that time, a lot has to happen. Your viewer has to see the ad, assess the overall image, be influenced by the colours, drift to the area of main importance (the “heat”), zero in on the central visual or text message, absorb that, identify the significance of that with one’s own experience in some way, and then make a decision to carry on investigating the message or text. Now, no one tells you how to do this. The human mind is an astonishing contraption, capable of incredibly complex procedures and analysis within milliseconds, and it does all this automatically. The patience so advocated just a half-century ago is a rare commodity, and our little grey cells have been trained, as by a crack military drill, to disregard those advertisements that require more than three seconds’ investment.

Harken back to novels written in Victorian times and compare them to those today, and you’ll get a similar appreciation of how our minds are beginning to change when faced with a rapid-fire deluge of information. Way back when snuff was fashionable and the glimpse of a woman’s ankles was grounds for marriage, novels and stories often began with long and arduous descriptions of setting, delving into the intricacies of weather, tree branches, rock formations, the collapsing of a farmer’s wall down the road, and the progressive deterioration of several generations of day lilies. Today, we tend to favour in media res, beginning in the middle of things. The first paragraph of the first chapter, and we are already on the roller-coaster, holding tight. (Yes, literary pundits will think of a million exceptions here — I’m speaking in generalities.)

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’ve lately been coming to grips about why so many people (myself included) spend so much time constantly tweaking their productivity systems. This is an evolving thought, so bear with me while I let my brain leak for a bit.

While the most apparent reason, of course, is procrastination –tweaking our systems makes us feel like we’re somehow accomplishing something while simultaneously avoiding any real work– I’ve noticed that there are four chief archetypes of people that obsess about their systems (although I doubt that anyone of us is wholly one or the other). I’m calling them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy.

The Tinker is the consumate tweaker for tweaking’s sake. This type of person likes to pry things apart, bolt or glue things together (often enshewing instructions), modify existing setups (even if they already work fine), and apply his or her mind to figuring out exactly how to squeeze out one final ounce of power, usability or adaptability from the item or task at hand. Often considering intelligence to be their strongest virtue, Tinkers are far less concerned about using the system than the idea of creating it, since this is where the real intellectual challenge lies; actually using something for pragmatic purposes is usually quite boring. Fascinated by planners, bags and utensils with multiple uses, hidden compartments, and a overall sense of utility rather than style, the Tinker might also carry a Swiss Army Knife, Leatherman, or other multi-tool “just in case.”

Tailors have more refined tastes than the others. They find that the image of their system not only reflects upon their personality, but helps to motivate them, like an Armani suit might suddenly help a business person gain much-needed confidence. These people may snub their noses at $1 notebooks and hold out for Moleskines or artisan-made Italian journals, or walk away from functional G2 pens or Faber pencils in order to find an exquisite fountain pen or French grapevine charcoal. After all, these are things of beauty, and one can never experience too much beauty. However, when it comes time to actually use these tools, they’d prefer not to sully their cherished possessions with something so banal as to-do items or grocery lists. So then the complicated affair of fine-grain leather card-holders, bronze book-darts, and removable inserts begins….

Unlike the Tinker or Tailor, the Soldier is a very down-to-earth person tightly focussed on the task at hand. The problem is that it’s difficult to know how to proceed. This is why he or she spends so much time listening to the directives of others, trying each new technique in an effort to find what works. Soldiers carefully review a dozen productivity blogs, slog through several mailing lists, and faithfully work through the links on 43 Folders, and Lifehacker. Loyalty is a prime virtue, and this is manifest in how they follow certain bloggers, authors, applications or setups. Their heart truly yearns for a system that works, and once they find it, everything will be well. Till then, however, the Soldiers march on their weary way.

Agile, flexible and thrill-seeking, the Spy is unlike any of the others. Speeding onward by sheer force of their curiosity, they leap from site to site with a keen eye towards getting and implementing the latest and greatest. Like James Bond securing the latest high-tech creations of Q, the Spy quickly puts together kits for deployment involving all the fashionable equipment and methods. These oddball mixtures might include digital PDAs, various types of software, web applications, Hipster PDA cards, Fisher Space Pens, printable templates, Moleskines, and anything else that strikes that moment’s fancy. Then, once mundane practicality (like making a to-do list or appointment) intrudes upon their otherwise thrilling lifestyle, it’s time to move on, mission seemingly completed. And so the cycle begins anew.

Hello, everybody. [Lowers head and clasps hands.] My name is Douglas Johnston, and I’m a compulsive Tinker.

Update: In case you’re interested, there’s a poll going on over at What type are you, or are you something completely different?

Tinderbox Sparks and Flames

Perhaps I’m just hopelessly naive, but I normally try to assume the best intentions from people (at least, most days… sometimes an ill wind has been known to blow from my direction, however briefly, and I try to make amends when that happens). I tend to believe that everybody is intrinsically good, but that folks often make mistakes, take a wrong turn, or lose touch with their nature. As such, I’ll try to take someone at their word.

Which is why I’m a little confused by a post from Lee Phillips, who suspects a hidden agenda behind my recent review of Tinderbox as a brainstorming and writing tool. I can’t imagine I’ve personally slighted him, so I can only assume a sort of paranoia at work. (He runs a mailing list about the product which he calls “uncensored,” which is a little unusual in itself.) Now, I’m not going to get all kumbayah here, calling for peace on Earth and all that (it’s been done), but I would like to set the record straight on the back-story.

One of the little D*I*Y Planner side projects I’ve been playing around with lately has been a way of using templates to import (via macros) some external data, essentially populating the forms and prepping them for print-out. I’m only at the early stages of it right now, but I wanted a nice self-contained tool for experimentation that would let me structure information in various ways and export ready-to-use data for OOo. After trying a few dozen alternatives, I decided that Tinderbox –with its outline stucture, agents and high-powered export template language– would be a good choice to start with.

I contacted Tinderbox creator Mark Bernstein about the project, asking for his opinion about how his software might fit the needs of my crazy scheme. He said that it could probably work, and offered to donate a copy of the program for our little non-profit project. Now, where I live –eastern Canada– one good turn still deserves another, even in this day and age, and so I offered to run an ad for Eastgate on my sites for the month of December, free of charge. Eastgate not only carries Moleskines, which would appeal to many of my readers, but also index card briefcases and Florentine journals (that, alas, I can only drool over right now). I thought the fit was apt, and I could return his kind consideration.

Now, my review came, as they all do, as a result of the dedicated usage of the product for a few weeks. The fact that it was favourable is simply because… well, it’s a damn good product. That’s it, really. No money exchanging hands, no Eastgate conspiracy, no grassy knoll, and no little red guy sitting atop my shoulder with a pitchfork. It shouldn’t be that boring, but it is. If I hadn’t liked the product, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reviewing it at all.

As for the “smell,” I do try to wear a strong deodorant and take a shower daily, but I am a really big, hard-working man who spends a lot of time in the woods with a dog. Sorry, Lee, but I’d advise standing up-wind….