Todo Zero

What if I suggested that you finish each day with nothing left on your todo list? This is the only rule of Todo Zero.

You might find yourself biting back some choice words. This sounds like unhelpful advice from someone with a much simpler life than yours.

Not so fast. Picture a world-class juggler with half-a-dozen balls in motion. How many balls do they have in their hands at once? None, one, or two. Never more than two. The remainder are in the air.

By analogy, work on just one or two things at a time. The remainder can be scheduled for some time in the future. In this way, it’s very possible to finish what’s currently on your list.

Otherwise, all of the competing priorities of a long list clamour for your attention. They clutter one another, making it impossible to focus. When you’re pulled in many directions, you’ll end up immobilized and demotivated.

At least that’s what has happened to me. My implicit solution was to procrastinate until panic seized me, and then enjoy its temporary clarity of focus.

So, here’s a recipe for Todo Zero that will take an hour or two to start with:

  • Go through your todo list and pull out anything that’s going to take less than 10 minutes.
  • Pick out the one or two jobs that you really want to tackle – these should be the most important or urgent things on your list. Break them down into pieces that you could tackle today if you really put your mind to it, and note them down.
  • Schedule everything else as future events in your calendar (I usually just assign them to a date without a time). Give yourself enough room before the deadline to finish them without rushing. Don’t be over-optimistic about how many or how quickly you can work through them.

So, that leaves you with quick tasks that take less than 10 minutes, along with the one or two most urgent/important jobs for today.

Marvel at your wonderfully shortened todo list. Look away, take a deep breath. Do not look at your email. Make a coffee. Feel a little calmer than you did, and enjoy it.

Now, let’s do the same for your email.

  • Find any emails that are going to take less than 10 minutes to reply to, and boomerang them for 2 hours’ time.
  • Pull out one or two emails that are urgent or important, and boomerang them for 1 hour’s time.
  • If you have the energy, boomerang each of your remaining emails for future times individually (tomorrow, a week away or a month away, depending on urgency). If you don’t have the energy, just boomerang them wholesale for tomorrow morning.

Stand up, and take a deep breath. Walk around for a few minutes, and make a cup of coffee. This is going really well.

  • By the time you get back, you should be staring at a short todo list and a pretty clear inbox. [If anything new has landed, or any have boomeranged back, send them away for an hour. We need a clear head]
  • Now, let’s dispatch the less-than-ten-minute odds & ends tasks. Do some of them, most of them, all of them, it doesn’t matter. Just a few, to get back a sense of momentum.
  • Your most urgent emails have boomeranged back. Deal with them.

Take a break.

At this point, you’re close to the point where you have a clean slate, and just your important tasks. You probably have some meetings and stuff. Have lunch. Refresh.

  • Now, it’s time to tackle those one or two important high-priority tasks-for-today.
  • Picture yourself at the end of the day, leaning back in your chair with your hands knitted behind your head, smugly. For that to happen, double down on those one or two most important things, and the rest can wait. You will feel great.
  • Don’t do anything else today. Don’t check your email if you can avoid it. Your goal is to boomerang away (by email or calendar) anything but them.

With any luck, you made progress on those one or two most important tasks.

Armed with this approach, you can triage your own life. You can choose to focus on the most urgent or important things first, and ignore the rest. They’ll shamble back when their time has come, and then you can dispatch them in turn.

P.S. There are a few tools that will help:

  • Google Calendar – add a new ‘Todo’ calendar, whose notifications are set by default to email you at the time of the event.
  • Any simple todo list app or text editor of your choosing. It doesn’t matter.

P.P.S. One final note. I can’t juggle two balls, let alone six. So take that into account, seasoned with a pinch of salt, in reading this.

P.P.P.S. Of course, there is nothing that’s original here. It’s a death-metal-mashup of Inbox Zero and GTD. It’s not always feasible to work like this. If you don’t procrastinate, you probably don’t need it. Etc.

The muses are deaf, so speak up

Good thoughts tend to shy away from short walks with a destination. They’re kept at bay by the neuroses and instant replays that circle endlessly like tethered carrion.

Do you want to know the only way I’ve found to think while walking? Talk out loud. Loudly proudly aloud. Feel free to gesticulate. Close your eyes if traffic conditions permit. Tell yourself a story. Don’t use your normal voice.

Why would talking out loud make such a colossal difference? Perhaps because repetition feels explicitly boring out loud, so we avoid re-treading the same paths. Perhaps because full sentences flush and flesh out our half-thoughts? Perhaps because serializing our massively parallel murmur squeezes the thoughts out one at a time with greater velocity, like putting your thumb on a hose.

The effect is so striking that I’ve wondered about potential neuroscientific explanations. It could be that different neural pathways are being activated – perhaps it is only by vocalizing that we recruit speech production areas, or only by hearing our own voice we recruit speech comprehension areas. Or just that there’s less neural juice sluicing down the byways of my mind during my inner monologue, and the extra oomph required to speak gives the thoughts extra vivacity.

The explanation I favour? If I’m going to have to listen to myself, I want to be entertained.

P.S. For best results, wear a hat and learn to talk like Tom Waits.

Communal interactive jukebox

[I wrote this in 2003 – there are still pieces of this vision that haven’t been realized]

why isn’t there a little wireless didgeridoo that just sits next to a cd player (stereo audio input), with a wireless network card, and maybe an ip address or a network id or something that you can initially configure easily/remotely by plugging in a computer via a usb or something, that just sits there and plays whatever your laptop running winamp tells it to by wireless???

apparently these exist already 😦
but they’re pretty crap at the moment – they’re proprietary, and are only just getting up to speed with 802.11b etc.

this doesn’t exist though:
you could set a password to it, and then anyone with a laptop nearby who knew its id and had the password, could wrest control of it, e.g. at a party. better still, you could have a sort of queuing system/software for allowing different users to place requests, and people could vote whether they like what’s playing and that person’s reputation would go up – like slashdot karma – it would be a sort of communal interactive jukebox

Sssssssshhhhhhhhhhh… for now

I suppose I must really care about mobile phones ringing, since this is the third piece I’ve written about it. Maybe it’s just that I really care about auditory pollution. Or that it seems like a problem that affects billions of people and hasn’t been given enough thought.

I often want to silence my phone for an hour or so, while in a meeting or class. However, I know that I’ll forget to turn the ringer back on afterwards. This is a failure of prospective memory (‘remembering to remember’), and it’s something I feel I have almost no control over.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could set one’s phone to be silent for an hour, safe in the knowledge that soon after the meeting ended, you’d be back in business? Isn’t this what we always want?

Mobile phones should be felt but not heard

I can never hear or feel my phone when it rings, no matter how loudly or how insistently hornet-like the trilling and shrilling and buzzing and fuzzing.

For this reason, I got very excited when I heard that they now make a Bluetooth bracelet that buzzes when your phone rings.

Better still though, I’d like a sticky Bluetooth (Gluetooth?) doodad that you could affix to a watchstrap or a belt or a ring that stayed charged by dynamo from the kinetic energy of my movements – that would be much less obtrusive.

Alleviating tinnitus, and the shape of the auditory phenomenological landscape

Tinnitus is a chronic condition where you hear a ringing in your ears – for acute sufferers it can be very loud and never stops. This is tortuously unpleasant.
I wonder if this has been tried – could you alleviate the symptoms of tinnitus by playing in a kind of psychologically out-of-phase sound, to cancel the ringing sound experienced? Of course, the normal physics of waves and phases won’t hold true here, since the perceived sound isn’t ‘real’ (i.e. external, based on moving currents of air).
However, I wonder if there might be psychological rules about sounds where some external sound of the right characteristics might cause a kind of neural interference, and disrupt the perception of the tinnitus sound.
One could imagine having a tinnitus subject navigate with gradient descent through a space of auditory parameters, rating the subjective intensity of the tinnitus sounds while listening to different external sounds. Eventually, you might find a point in the auditory parameter landscape where the tinnitus wasn’t too annoying. With enough participants, you might learn something interesting about the shape of that landscape, and about the phenomenology (and neural representations) of audition.
In principle, I suppose, one could do this with non-tinnitus sufferers, but I’m assuming that the tinnitus sounds are constant and so would provide a fixed point of comparison.

UPDATE: hah! It looks like someone’s trying to do something a little akin, though it uses a more physiological than phenomenological mechanism. I wonder what made them pick a low hum? See Teen inventors fight tinnitus

Open source the Drobo data format

The Drobo is an amazing device – it allows you to pop in a handful of old hard disks, and it effectively pools them so that they show up as a single drive to your OS. It even distributes data redundantly across them to give you peace of mind with old disks. And it’s hot-swappable.
When our lab was seeking an archival solution, this sounded perfect. But unfortunately, the Data Robotics people are trying to solve a hard problem, and there are a good number of unhappy people on the internet complaining about losing swathes of data. The really unfortunate part of this is that all the data on the hard disks that you add to the Drobo unit are stored in some kind of proprietary format that presumably facilitates the distributive algorithm at the center of Drobo’s cleverness. As a result, the only way to read the data on those Drobo’d disks is with a Drobo. So if things get hosed, then there’s no recourse but to send it off to them.
So here’s my proposal. Open source the Drobo data format. Keep the hardware and the distributive algorithm proprietary. But make it very easy for other people to build apps that talk to Drobo boxes.
  • Maybe a cottage industry of hardware repair shops and that specialize in Drobo maintenance and repair will spring up. All to the good. Data Robotics’ expertise and value lies in building products, not providing services. These repair shops customers with reassuring alternatives, become evangelists for the product, and might even add value by building good third-party add-ons.
  • Likewise, encourage a developer ecosystem. Someone might even come up with their own distributive algorithm that’s better than Data Robotics’.
  • Paradoxically but importantly, by reducing the barrier to exit by making it easier for people to get their data off the Drobo, you actually reduce the barrier to entry.
The value of the Drobo is in the hardware, and maybe in the distributive algorithm, but not in the data format.

Mobile phone ringing

Everyone hates it when a mobile phone rings in a cinema, classroom or restaurant. Especially if it’s yours.

It’s so easy to forget to mute the ringer. It’s even easier to forget to turn the ringer back on at the end of the lecture. Turning ringers on and off seems beneath us, and beyond us.

Clearly, it would be better if our phone could decide when to ring for itself. This kind of ‘context-awareness’ is actually a very hard problem. Here’s one simple algorithm that might go a long way towards helping.

If my phone can pick up lots of other mobile phones in close proximity, and they’re not moving away, then assume it should be more silent. This covers most of the cases we’d want, where lots of people are sitting together, and no one wants to be disturbed. It excludes cases where we’re walking down the street surrounded by lots of other people, but none of us are sticking around.

I can think of a few cases where this might fall down. If I’m anxiously awaiting a call from the hospital about a loved one, I want the phone to ring wherever I am. If I’m sitting in a noisy coffee shop, I want it to ring loudly, and no one will be particularly disturbed.

But on balance, this seems like a good heuristic. Instead of having a manual ‘mute’ button, we might just let the phone guess, and have a manual ‘loud override’ button for the above cases.
The problem is that often, we’d rather our devices be dumb but predictable than smart but surprisingly and unpredictably tricksy.

Spacetime alarms

Alarm clocks are temporal. They tell you when some time criterion has been reached. They’re very useful.

But often, I really want an alarm with a spatial criterion – a location alarm. Let’s consider some possible uses:

  • Beep shrilly if anyone tries to steal this device from its current location. [I think there are accelerometer-based programs for laptops that do this]
  • I’m snoozing on the train – wake me up when we get near Penn Station. [This is where I first came up with the idea].
  • Give me a kick if I’m still in my office when I’m supposed to have left for that meeting. After all, I don’t need the alarm to go off if I’m already on my way to the meeting. [though that’s a combination space + time criterion]

This would make for an obvious and delightful iPhone app. I haven’t found one yet, but I haven’t looked hard either.

UPDATE: there are some really superb suggestions in the comments, and in Hacker News that take this idea much further. I particularly liked these:

  • R.J.Google Maps needs this so when I’m walking down the street I don’t have to pay attention to street address numbers/keep my eyes glued to the screen.
  • FrankusMaybe something like that could tell me when I’m close to the grocery store that I need to buy milk.
  • Frankus: A game where you try and assassinate your friends by setting imaginary time bombs to go off at a particular location when you think your friend will be there.

Google as my permanent online user id?

Google is surely now in a position where I just log into google on a public terminal and it automatically logs me into whatever sits require logins, tracks my online presence, prefetches things I’m likely to need (having saved them on a server farm somewhere local to me) and allows me to sync all this with my home PC when I get back