Teenage Lessons

December 28, 2007

I have long been disabused of making New Year’s resolutions, yet I have not stopped experimenting in other ways in which to make life more interesting. I recently decided to try living my life in the manner of my teenage son. What does this entail? Simply put, my generation grew up with the simple attitude that we should be responsible, and take care of work. On the other hand, my son’s generation thinks that they should be responsible and take care of play. I am beginning to see the subtle wisdom in this.

Over the past week, I decided to plan a few things to do, keeping items that did not have immediate deadlines strictly off the list. Then I decided that I would finish these things off very quickly so as to make sure the more important “play time” could be accessed as soon as possible. I have been getting my day’s work done in about half the time it usually would have taken me. And I am greatly enjoying my “hard-earned” play time. In short, by not finishing one job, and then feeling guilty and finding another one and so on, thereby immersing myself in work all day, I am getting things done, and then stepping away from the computer and enjoying quality time reading and writing in a manner that is more focused and far less frenetic than skipping from one window to another, in a mad rush to chase down all the “interesting” things that one can do when one is tethered to a device that is tethered to a modem of some sort. And more than that, I am also being able to get outside a lot more, and enjoy the beautiful outdoors with a great sense of satisfaction of having put my day’s work behind me. More than that, the stuff that is urgent and needs to be done gets done, and I don’t revisit and waste time on it making cosmetic changes and corrections. Anyway, what did I learn? Lets see if I can make more sense of these lessons than the stream of consciousness you just read.

  1. Make a do-able list, stick to it, and when done, stay away from work very strictly. Don’t bother with it at all, and go about doing something else that is not “work”. Of course, the other way is to only get to work at the end of the day, and then you have already limited the time for it. This is the teenage approach and I am using it – and yes, it works quite well, I am pleased to admit.
  2. It helps to walk away from the computer. I am a pack rat and when I read a magazine and want to look something up that strikes me as I read I would usually go to the computer and make a note of something there, or look up the item being referred to in the magazine. I don’t do this anymore. I just dog ear the page in the magazine and then keep it on the desk for when I am next going to be on the computer. Which is probably the next day. Just so you know, teenagers don’t even really bother with email. They know its inefficient.
  3. By staying away from work you are also staying away from email. Email is fast becoming the greatest time sink of most working people. Just yesterday, the Chronicle released a study where employers were all commenting on the amount of time being wasted in trivial email tasks and various protocols have been suggested to people so as to avoid clutter in in-boxes, for example, we should not copy people more than absolutely necessary. Teenagers do not copy people – I notice they usually send messages to one person only most of the time.
  4. Read and delete stuff, and only respond to the absolutely essential. When responding, keep it to two to three lines maximum. A teenager would not go more than a line.
  5. Make email the last thing you do in the time set aside for work. Once you have done your chosen work tasks, you are ready to play, so opening email then will force you to be efficient with it, because its what’s standing between you and the good times. Teenagers don’t even make email something that needs to get done. I rarely get a response from a teen on emails that I send. There’s a reason that email arrangements for my son’s scout troop are sent to parents and not the kids.
  6. Texting, phoning, and instant messaging are all more efficient than email. Yes, this is true. Teens already know this. I find it incredibly efficient now that I am getting away from email. The big advantage of email is that it is totally asynchronous, whereas all the others are completely or somewhat synchronous. However, this is also email’s major source of inefficiency, it rewards delay and lack of brevity, both of which teens have eliminated already.
  7. Time away from the computer is time that gets used thinking better. I find that since I am now spending at least 2/3 of my day not working, much of it goes into thinking, some of that about the next day’s work. I find that I am much better “prepped” to get my planned work done the following day, as I have run it through my mind many times, turning it round and round, so that when I sit down to write, it flows smoothly, and takes half the time it normally would otherwise. This was an epiphany to me when I saw what was happening. (This blog post has been running in my head for a week now so much so that it took very little time to write out just now). Teens seem to know this already, and they talk through things a lot more before getting down to work them out – it seems to really work well. Of course playing several hours of video games must definitely keep help in background processing all those important tasks for the following day! (Thats a joke).
  8. I have learnt that trying to organize all the information that we get (and I do try very hard to do so) is a waste of time. I spend a lot of time filing things into folders, keeping PDFs and so on, and really, this is unnecessary. When needed these things may be accessed. My generation spends so much time organizing things that the time left for processing information is too low. Teenagers on the other hand, just dont bother, they process what they need and let the rest go, relieving themselves of lots of overhead, and keeping their minds clear for information analysis and not organization. Better to carry a few things in one’s head than use one’s head to store many things on a hard drive. Just ignore much of what flows across one’s computer, it surely improves the signal to noise ratio of what we digest. Otherwise, information overload will become the cancer of our minds. The great secret of mastering digital media is letting go.

I am also learning to stay awake all night enjoying both consuming digital media, as well as generating my own content. There always needs to be a good balance between consumption and production of content, preferably more to the latter. But to dissipate some of those activities toward organization is wasteful. Keep that to a bare minimum and you will see what our teenagers already seem to know only too well.


Email Intrusions

December 9, 2007

There is this general notion that every email deserves a response. This idea seems to be present in the minds of senders and receivers of email. Why this should be so for solicitous email has me baffled. And I dont mean spam – solicitous email is not mass-mailed.

Is this also the case for snail mail? When we send someone a letter, do we unreasonably expect a guaranteed response? I am sure this is not so. Even when we write to family and close friends, we would love to get a nice letter back, but are not greatly offended when none transpires, nor do we really feel guilty about not replying. So then why have we developed this strange guilt that drives us to respond to all mail, even if just to say “thanks”?

I get a lot of email where someone tries to get me to do something I am not really interested in based on the recommendation of someone who knows me. Does such email deserve a response? I am very often guilted into responding because of the one-removed personal connection that has been invoked through the connection with the recommending friend. Lets call this the “personal ” hook.

Many times we respond because its Pavlovian. We are so used to reading and replying as if they are one and the same thing. With snail mail these two functions were never melded together into the same neurological response. But with email, we are progressively trained to do so. As the number of messages arriving rises with time (as all of us know it does), the urge to respond reaches a suffocating crescendo, and we just end up committing to something we would never have agreed to when faced with the calmer reading of a written letter. No other activity I can think of lulls us into a feeling of being productive while wasting time than replying to email. And the number of people trying to help you stay far away from what you really want to do appears to be growing.

Solicitous email is like the vicious dog that latches on to your ankle and does not let go until you do what it demands. Even when you possess that will power needed to put unresponded emails aside and get back to other things, you will eventually re-open email, only to be instantly reminded of all those emails you failed to deal with the first time around. Like ghosts of minutes ago, they rear their ugly heads, demanding your mind share like a petulant child in a tumult of tantrums. No wonder it evokes a response very different from snail mail. which when put aside, doesnt actively intrude, unless you remind yourself of it.

I have written in the past about how the only solution is vast rejections of email by reducing the frequency of attention to less than once a day. But that does not change the fact that solicitous email remains in one’s inbox and taunts you repeatedly. It will have its pound of flesh, no matter what. Here are some ideas for dealing with the problem.

  1. If you dont want to respond immediately or ever, and dont have to (this should cover more than 3/4 of the email I get), then move the solicitous email out of the Inbox. I usually forward the email to another email account that I check only very infrequently. You can use a folder also. I’d name it “black hole”. Seems appropriate. You can even move it to a folder called “Urgent” – trust me, it will feel less urgent than the Inbox.
  2. I get more than my fair share of “please help” emails. I have been burned trying to help too many times. One feels bad and guilty, despite knowing full well that you cannot do anything. Yet, I end up trying, thus wasting other people’s time in the process, and only prolonging the time it takes to respond in the negative, usually hours later and after many back-and-forth emails. Barring the rare exception, such emails are best euthanized.
  3. Remember that solicitous emails are often mis-directed. Based on hearsay that you are the “one” most knowledgeable about the subject. Should you even reply explaining that you are a misfit, and completely unfit for the request? Probably not. Half the time when I write explaining a negative reply, I get another message in return completely changing the request to account for the reason for not engaging in the requested activity. So its best to lie low. Any response sets off a chain reaction that then eats up much more time than we can ever forecast. The best response is not “no”, it is no response.
  4. But sometimes one should not just ignore messages, especially when you are aware that a non-response will be interpreted by the sender as a failure of transmission, resulting in new deluge of messages that you already deemed fit to expunge. Therefore, one might want to acknowledge the message in a non-committal manner. Then, ignore the repeat or follow-up requests.

Unsolicited email is like someone walking into your house to ask you for a favor without bothering to knock first. I believe the best response is not to lock one’s house, but to refuse to engage in dialogue.