Tag Archives: technology

Understanding Alan Turing

I’m playing the role of Alan Turing in the upcoming StageQ Queer Shorts 8 production, Of Machines and Men, which starts June 7, 2013.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

In case you aren’t familiar with Turing, he was a Brit who helped end World War II by cracking Germany’s Enigma code. He is considered the father of computing and artificial intelligence. He was also a gay man who was convicted of the crime of homosexuality, and given a choice between prison and taking estrogen therapy for one year. He chose the latter, so he could continue his important work. He ended up dying by cyanide poisoning; it was ruled suicide, but I don’t believe it’s so cut and dried. It could have been accidental, given the experiments he ran in his home.

While the play, by definition of being a “short”, is no longer than 10 minutes, the playwright has done an amazing job of weaving together the important aspects of Turing’s life and thinking. As I learn my lines, I see more and more of the intricacy of the script, and am pleasantly blown away.

I’ve been reflecting on experiences in my own life that help me understand a bit about Turing.

My First Database

I have always been fascinated by computers, data and programming. I remember one sunny morning when I was four years old. The sun was beaming in our front living room window. My sister Jane had already taught me how to read, and I had been going around the house with pencil and paper, writing down all the words I could find. This morning I was focusing on the clock we had in the living room, that looked a little like this one:

FlipClock

The seconds were kept by a continuously turning wheel showing five-second increments. The hour, 10-minutes and minutes were tracked by a wheel that flipped a card at each change.

At four years of age I sat down with paper and pencil and watched this clock. I wrote down the time as it changed (I think I probably would have done this in 10- or 15-second increments). After doing this for several minutes, I stopped and looked at what I had written down—my database, if you will. I wasn’t sure what I was attempting to accomplish, and indeed, could not find a value for it in the moment. I did it because I had the intuitive sense there is something valuable here. I couldn’t figure out the value at the time, so I stopped.

The First Computer

TI-99/4A

TI-99/4A

When I was in 7th or 8th grade, we got a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A Computer—I think it was a gift from my Uncle Charles, when he got his first IBM. And it came with the 128k extended memory cartridge, that slipped into the slot on the right side! I began to learn formal programming with this little machine, including making a video game of first one tractor then two attempting to run down hapless animals (forgive me, I was young). Although, the animal got the last laugh if the two tractors collided, standing on its hind legs and taunting the farmers.

The Next Computer

Apple ][e

Apple ][e

In 1981 I started high school. Also new to the school was its first Apple ][e, complete with two—count ’em TWO!—5.25″ floppy drives. I learned Apple Basic, devouring it eagerly. One of our math teachers took a summer class so he could teach the computer course. Because I was a freshman, I couldn’t take the class, so I taught myself. The school soon got more of these computers, and I stayed every night after school (when I didn’t do cross country or track) and wrote programs.

My First “Turing Moment”

In his day, Alan Turing had to face the disbelief and scorn that people had for his concept of “thinking machines.” I remember the first time I faced something similar. I was just learning Apple Basic, and create some sort of simple Hello World program to get the machine to do something. Getting machines to do things really got my imagination going. I was showing a couple fellow students this simple program, and a teacher came in the room, so I showed him. The first thing he pointed out was a misspelling in the output text. I could tell from his tone that he wrote off the computer, and my efforts, because of this error.

To this day I must always be ready for how others cannot see past the literal images they see to the power and potential of the program behind. Also not to take this kind of thing personally.

My First Big Project Failure

I loved those years during high school as I was learning to program. Eventually the students in the computer classes would ask me for help while we were in the lab after school. Not only did I help them figure out whatever problem or assignment they were working on, I went on to show them what else they could do. I learned that the computer teacher told his students not to ask me for help—apparently I was teaching them too much!

My senior year I think I decided to not go out for one of the sports so that I could spend more time programming. At that time the girls gymnastics coach came to me with my first Request for Proposal (albeit verbal)! Keeping track of scores at girls gymnastics invitations was apparently a painful endeavor, with scores from all of these girls having to be tracked and tabulated on a board. She asked if I could write a program to do it.

FINALLY! I could take this passion and DO something with it!

I met with her and learned what today I would call the “business rules.” What’s the maximum number of teams at a meet? 8. How many girls on a team? How do you calculate the scores? How do you round the scores? Etc. I developed a very efficient program that showed, I believe, the 8 teams across the top and events going down the side. To enter scores, the user would hit a letter corresponding to the column and row (much like a spreadsheet), and the computer would ask for the score, then do the calculation.

The Fatal Flaw is Revealed

I tested the program and showed it to the coach. She loved it. The day came to use this child of mine at an actual home invitational. I rolled the cart down to the gym, and someone helped me carry it up to the stage, where the judges or whatever sat. I got the roster for teams and began entering them into the program.

Then my heart sank.

There were NINE teams! Not eight—NINE! I had designed the entire program—all of the logic, all of the display—on there being EIGHT teams, as I was told! I went to the coach and told her the problem. “Well, can’t you just change it to allow for nine teams?”

Can I just change it? NO! I can’t just change it! I don’t think I yelled at her (I was way too polite for that), but I told her that I couldn’t after furiously trying for a short while. I’d insert a metaphor here of an artist making a huge change to her piece of work or an architect changing the design after the project is half done, and you get the point.

I walked out feeling very frustrated and angry, and defeated. It was that experience that taught me the power of…

Always, Ever and Never

Today one of the first things I have to teach clients is the absolute meaning of these three words. Programming is very different from engineering or other disciplines in that most disciplines allow for approximations and estimations: in music you can be in tune enough, in engineering you can use approximate values1, but with a computer you must respect ALWAYS, EVER and  NEVER.

When I was told there would be eight teams, I should have asked, “So it is NEVER, EVER possible to have more than eight teams at an invitational? EVER?” In answer to questions like this, people often respond with, “well, not usually, so I wouldn’t worry about it.” My job is to worry about things just like that.

Despite this first “failure,” to this day I continue to have a passion for helping people automate time-consuming or monotonous tasks, as well as helping individuals to connect through systems and data.

I am not Alan Turing

I am certainly not Alan Turing—I’m not the genius he was. However, my life history has given me some preparation for understanding what he faced, both in terms of working with computers and living in the world as a gay man. I’m continuing to do research into who Turing was, so that I can portray this hero of mine as best I can.

I want to do him justice.

imagesPlease Come See the Play!

Queer Shorts 8 is opening June 7. I hope those who live near Madison will
check it out! Reserve your tickets here.

1I eagerly await the rants from engineers because of this statement. ;o)

Take Care of the Bacon, Y’All!

I think I got this from Merlin Mann. It works.

You already know what spam is–it’s the stuff you don’t want. Well, there are less-important emails you also received from organizations and other stuff you signed up for, but you don’t really want to read it often. This stuff is called bacon.
Bacon is really annoying in the inbox. I really just want to see email I’m interested in reading in my inbox. So I decided to do something about it. Since I use Outlook, I created a rule that puts emails from certain email addresses into a special folder called “Bacon” (oddly enough). I’ve placed this folder beneath my JunkMail folder. As new bacon arrives in my inbox, I add the new email to the rule I created.
Now when I check email, I see the emails I’m most interested in when looking at my Inbox. I then use the Unread Mail filter (saved to favorites) to quickly review all my Bacon and see if I want to read any of it. Otherwise, I can quickly delete.
I also have emails filing themselves upon arrival, and read them all in the Unread Mail filter. This is especially handy if you can predict the subject line (especially from mailing lists that put a prefix in the subject), or if the email is always from or sent to a specific email address.
This all makes email much more painless!
What other tricks do you use to help with your influx of emails? Please share in the comments!

Zero Inbox

In a previous post I described the trials and tribulations of floods of email and living in that lake for way too long. I also described slashing and burning and emptying my inbox.

After that entry I was minimally successful at keeping my inbox empty. And I still had one very bad habit: if something arrived in my inbox that needed to be done but couldn’t happen right away, I left it there until I did it. When would I ever learn?
Well, the answer to that is August 22, 2008. I don’t remember where I got the link, and I found this page with a video by Merlin Mann talking about his Zero Inbox philosophy. None of the concepts were rocket science: there are 5 actions you can take on incoming emails:
  • Delete
  • Delegate
  • Respond
  • Defer
  • Do
Delete: I wasn’t deleting enough. Does everything really require a response? No. Delete.
Delegate: I’m a very compliant person. I’m very quick to take on too many responsibilities and say yes. I’m working on this (no, I didn’t buy any magazines for candles to the kid who came to my door yesterday, and I thanked him for offering). So for me, delegation starts with saying, NO I WILL NOT DO THIS–at least internally. Then ASK someone else to do it. I’ve been working on this one over the years and am getting better and better at it.
Respond: This one is not a challenge–I’m pretty quick to respond to people.
Defer: This one I was doing all wrong. I was deferring by letting it sit in my inbox. NO NO NO! I’ll get back to this in a second.
Do: I probably do too much of this. Just take the action now. Touch it once. The problem is that I can so easily get distracted by doing requests that come in that are of low importance or urgency, when there’s other more important and urgent things to do. So don’t do too much doing.
In Mann’s words, the most important thing to do when having an over-full inbox is to “simply stop sucking.” I love this! He suggested creating a DMZ folder (Google DMZ if you don’t know it) and putting all inbox contents there. Deal with that as you go, but don’t leave it in the inbox. Start fresh with the inbox and stop letting them pile up. This works! I stopped sucking immediately, and it felt great.
Getting back to the deferring, the inbox is NOT a successful way to defer. I now spend a bit more energy identifying the things I really want to do and saying no to those that I don’t or won’t. I then defer by putting the item in my calendar on the date I will do it.
If I take an action on an email by sending an inquiry, thus needing to wait for a response before more action, I flag the email as a task to complete, and put it in a new folder I created called “Waiting.”
If something is just kind of there–not really significant but I don’t want to lose it–I’ll flag it and add a reminder date, and stick it in the DMZ folder. Maybe not the best strategy, and at least it’s out of my inbox.
None of these concepts are new or earth-shattering–indeed, I learned most of these concepts from Patricia Clason years ago when I took her time management course. It simply took a decision to be really conscious and disciplined about it. Both of these ingredients are crucial to keeping an empty inbox, which for me means having a much more relaxed and orderly life. I continue to whittle down on the DMZ folder, and will one day perhaps delete it altogether (hopefully it will be empty. ;o}).
I’m practicing the same discipline on my desktop: nothing remains on it for more than a day. The receipts I put on from Home Depot last night I entered into Quicken this morning and filed, except for the return I have to make, so that is going out to be rubber-banded on the item and put into my trunk on the next visit.
I find as I follow these practices life is a lot more enjoyable. While I have experienced many long periods of having a buried desk and a flooded inbox, I know very viscerally that these things drain my energy and put me in a funk. Having clear space helps me feel like I can breathe.
How’s your breathing?

Find it Now – Google Desktop

Part 3 of a 10-part series on spending LESS time administrating your life and more time LIVING it!

The Challenge

I’m sure you’ve had this experience just like I have: I got an email… about that thing… from that guy… where is it? Is it in the marketing folder? Nope. Events? Nope. Where IS it?

It can be very frustrating to not be able to find things on the computer: an email, a link to a website, a document. Have you ever thought, “When I look for something on the internet, I use Google. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that on my own computer?”

Guess what: You can.

The Solution: Google Desktop

What Google search does on the web, Google Desktop does on your computer: it goes through all the files on your computer (you can customize the directories) and emails on your system, as well as pages you view on the internet, and indexes them.

The next time you want to find something, you hit ctrl-ctrl, and a “Quick Search Box” appears in the middle of your screen. Type the words you’re looking for, and as you type a dropdown list dynamically updates with each new word you type. Hit the button, and a browser window opens and shows you the results of the search, just look Google for the web.

An example of the Quick Search Box (click on it for a larger view).

You can also refine the search: emails only, graphics, documents, and within each of these, even finer granularity. For emails, all those TO me, FROM me, or to or from any of the individuals who are listed with any of the emails that match your search.


An example of results in the browser (click on it for a larger view).

There is even more to Google Desktop, including Google Gadgets and Sidebar. I don’t use these much, although others might find them enjoyable.

I do have one warning: If you have a HUGE amount of emails and documents (and I mean huge: I have 700 MB of emails), Google Desktop may slow down computer performance. So, YMMV (your mileage may vary) and proceed at your own risk.

That said, I’ve never had problems with Google Desktop. Google makes great products—easy to install, intuitive to use. And yes, it’s available for Mac and Linux.

I no longer worry about not being able to find things, as long as I can remember a fairly unique combination of words contained in the document, email or web page. This is a great way to turbo-boost your tech life!

Your Next Steps

Next issue: A truly amazing way to organize specific information on your computer, even words in graphic images, to quickly find it, then share it on the web with others!

Free Your Mind – Jott

This is a copy of a blog I keep on BigLife.

Part 2 of a 10-part series on spending LESS time administrating your life and more time LIVING it!

The quote “Free your mind” comes from the movie The Matrix, when Morpheus wants Neo to let go of the limitations of his beliefs to see new possibilities.

While this column may not allow you to stop bullets or leap hundreds of yards, I believe it will show you new possibilities that you can attain quickly to spend less time adminstrating and more time living your life.

The Challenge

The title of this entry is quite literal. I used to carry so much junk around in my head: groceries I needed, errands to run, dates to remember, and a bunch of other to-dos. Given that my memory isn’t all that great to begin with, it took a lot of energy, and wasted a bunch of “RAM” that I could be using for more creative endeavors.

So I started using systems: I started keeping a calendar in Outlook, grocery lists and to-do lists on paper. That helped. And there were still way too many things I kept in my head.

Or, worse yet, I’d be driving my 17- to 20-minute commute to work and remember, “oh yeah, gotta get the car serviced… oh yeah, gotta email Beth… Oh yeah, I need milk…” and a thousand other oh-yeahs.

Listen, the RAM comment may seem like hyperbole, but I mean it. Do you know how much creative energy you spend remembering stuff? I’d be willing to bet it weighs you down more than you think.

What do you do with your oh-yeahs, especially when you’re driving? Simply attempt to remember it better—maybe use a mnemonic device? Write it down on one of those pads that’s sunction-cupped to your windshield (yikes!)? Leave yourself a voicemail? Record a voice memo on your cell phone?

The Solution: Jott

I no longer do any of those things. I use a free service called Jott to put the information right where it belongs. This is an ultimate “touch it once” method: no longer will you have to write down or record something so that you later have to transfer it to your schedule, to do list, etc. Jott it and be done!

Jott receives your phone call, converts your words into text, and then sends the words where they need to go. No training of the system is required to recognize your voice. Some examples:

  • Email: Above I remembered I needed to send an email to Beth. I would call her, but I need to make two other calls while I drive, and Beth likes to talk (I do, too; just not right now!) I call Jott via the speed dial on my cell phone (using my Bluetooth headset for safety!), say Beth’s name, confirm, then speak what I want her to read: “Hi Beth. Would you like to meet at Monty’s—M-O-N-T-Y-apostrophe-S—Blue Plate for lunch on Thursday at noon? Let me know. Thanks!” Beth gets an email with these words, and Monty’s will be spelled correctly. If the transcription wasn’t perfect, she can click the link to listen to my original audio message.
  • Email a Group! On the Jott site you upload all of your contacts, or define them on the site. You can then arrange them into as many different groups as you like, each with as many members as you want. When Josh and I went on vacation to Palm Springs in February, I remembered on the way to the airport that I had forgotten to email everyone when I was leaving and returning, which is my custom. I called Jott: “Family members… Yes… Hi all: Josh and I are getting on a plane in an hour for Palm Springs. We’ll be gone until the twenty-sixth. I’ll post some blog entries of the fun stuff while we’re there. Enjoy the snow!” An email was sent to all of my siblings (I’m the youngest of seven) and my parents.
  • Update your schedule: In Part 1 of this series. I talked about keeping a schedule in Google Calendar. Check this out: I call my mechanic to make an appointment for maintenance on Thursday at 8 am. I don’t want to simply remember this, so I call Jott: “Google Calendar… Car maintenance Thursday at 8 am.” That’s it! Jott allows links to more than 20 different online services, including Google Calendar. When I go to look at my calendar, there will be a one-hour appointment Thursday at 8 with “Car maintenance” as the subject. How cool is that!
  • Other Online Services: of the 20+ services to which Jott connects, there are several online to-do lists, including Remember the Milk. So I Jott: “Remember the milk… yes… Buy a gallon of milk.” and it appears on my to-do list.
  • Blog! This one may seem silly, yet it actually works well: I have Jott hooked up to my Blogger account. Officially you can record up to a 30-second Jott, although i’ve gone for up to a minute and not be cut off (yet I have been cut off before). When in Palm Springs I used Jott twice to make blog entries. See the last three entries on the bottom of this page. Once again, Jott puts a link in the blog entry so that readers can hear the initial recording if something is unclear.
  • Remind yourself: I’m going through my day and I want to remember before leaving work to run an errand on my way home. I don’t want to put it in a to-do list, I just want a reminder. Jott to the rescue: “MYSELF… Stop at Home Depot and get more varnish… [do you want a reminder?] Yes [what date?] today [what time?] 4:50 [am or pm?] pm [setting reminder for today at 4:50 pm. Is this correct] Yes… [Jott sent]” Between 4:35 and 4:50, Jott will send a text message to my cell phone with the reminder. It’s like having my own secretary!

Every time you Jott, Jott sends you an email to confirm the Jott. This gives you an opportunity to confirm the transcription, and the email even contains a confidence level of the transcription (high, medium or low). If it got something wrong (and it does sometimes; it’s not perfect), you can then correct it if necessary by sending another email, etc. And I almost never need to do this.
I’ve covered the highlights of Jott, and there’s more. Go to www.jott.com to learn more and sign up for your free account. Oh yeah, free? Yes, they are officially in Beta. I’m guessing at some point there will be a fee, and for now, I’m lovin’ it for free.

Once you use Jott, email me and I’ll send you my trick for Jotting in loud places like restaurants with 95% accuracy!

Your Next Steps

  • Learn more about Jott and how it works.
  • Go to http://www.jott.com/ and sign up for a free account.
  • Have questions? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll answer them in a future blog entry.
  • Have other technology that makes your life easier? Please leave me a comment—I’d love to learn more tips and tricks, and may share it here in the future.

Next issue: find that one email from that one guy about that one thing…

Quit Slaving Away—Master Some New Technology!

This is a copy of a blog I keep on BigLife.

Part 1 of at least a 10-part series on spending LESS time administrating your life and more time LIVING it!

After listening to Victory’s interview of Melissa this morning, I was inspired to do some blogging in here to share some of the tools I’ve used to turbo-charge my own life.

You know, to be honest, I haven’t been doing coaching in the strict sense of the word in several years, although I do lots of informal coaching of folks. And I’ll tell you why I do it: with anyone I have in my life personally or professionally of any significance, I want them to share some of the systems I use so that I/we don’t have to muck around on mundane tasks, and can instead get on with spending time together! Since I’m a geek who enjoys camping out on the leading edge of software products, I can sometimes push right past people’s comfort zones with technology. I’ve since learned to tone it down and get more buy in. Anyway–enough about me; you are likely more interested in the technology.

Are you the Master of the Slave?

Right now I have at least 10 ideas of things you may or may not use already, but I’d be willing to bet you don’t use most of these things! How would you like to turbo-charge your life in these areas?

  • Do you waste time scheduling with the people close to you, or do the back and forth of setting meetings with clients or associates?
  • Would you like greater mastery of all of the valuable information that you are flooded with on a daily basis? Do you ever waste time looking for that one email from that one guy about that one thing?
  • Do you have a great EASY way to organize and clean up pictures?
  • Are you a blog master? Have you dabbled? Do you not know what I’m talking about?
  • Do you have a lot of documentation (fancy word for information, procedures or instructions) that you’d like to keep organized for your own use and perhaps share with others?
  • Would you like to have a greater number of quick, easy, “soft” connections with people, that allow you to know what’s up in their lives without spending a lot of time?
  • How much time to you spend on the administration of your life when you’d rather be spending it on living your life!

How about we work together to minimize some of that could-be-better-spent time, eh?

Stop spending time scheduling—Use Google Calendar!

I’m sure you already have a calendar of some kind, be it paper or Outlook or something else, and your first response to my suggestion to add yet another makes your stomach hurt.

It’ll be ok—stay tuned.

When I was first getting serious with my boyfriend Josh, we were having one helluva time finding time to spend together because we’re both pretty busy people. I’d always used Outlook and he’d always used Yahoo! for his calendar. Well, I’d just begun playing with Google Calendar, and I had a great idea.

You see, Google allows you to create multiple calendars for yourself, and SHARE them with others! And you select the access you want others to have: see only free/busy information, see full schedule, make changes to your schedule, manage sharing of your schedule. See my public calendar (new window).

Considering what I mentioned above about pushing people too hard with technology, I suggested we try it. It was a smashing success from Minute 1. Here’s a typical screenshot of a week in my calendar:

(I’ve” shrunk the image to protect privacy.)

The gold is my personal schedule. Blue is Josh’s. Brown is time scheduled for ME, sleep and work. Me, sleep and work—are you kidding? Nope. If you don’t schedule EVERYTHING then visually it seems like you have a lot of free time that you don’t actually have, because you have to sleep! I also schedule two ME! nights each week, which are nights that I DO NOT allow myself to work. I can do laundry or read a book or see Josh, but it’s time I invest on me. I hope I don’t have to say how valuable that is here… I can also move them around in the week as much as I want, but they have to stay on that week!

Josh and I simply check out our shared calendar when getting an invite from friends, send the other an appointment, and when accepted, accept the friend’s invite! Or we plan the time we will spend together, etc. It’s been a real godsend.

The green in the upper right marks Memorial Day Weekend. Now look at the list at the left, which is of calendars that I keep with other organizations. I can’t tell you HOW USEFUL this is! Others who are involved in the same organization can have these listed on their calendars, and life gets a whole lot easier!

You can also send invitations for any event, and if you use Gmail, all of your contacts are already available (you can also import them).

I keep calendars for: a monthly dinner group of friends, instructors at the Center for Creative Learning, the public calendar for the Center, the Detroit instructing calendar, my half-marathon training schedule (big success!), a public calendar (where others can see my important travel, etc.), and a monthly video group I like to attend.

Don’t want to give up your calendar? You don’t have to!

Google has a program that will automatically synch many calendars directly with the Google Calendar: either your calendar or Google’s can “win”, or it will synch both ways. Problem solved!
Don’t feel like there’s a need to keep as many calendars as me—if you keep just one and use some of the techniques I’ve mentioned, you’re way ahead of the game!

Your Next Steps

In each of these columns I will give you some suggested action. If you don’t take action on new information soon after learning it, it’s as good as gone.

  • Read about Getting Started with Google Calendar
  • Do you use Google Calendar? Please leave a comment below on a great trick you have, or just share how you enjoy it!
  • Have you tried it and gotten stuck? Leave a question below and I’ll answer it in an up-coming entry.
  • Do you have a technology tip that would be good for this blog? Please share it below or email me directly.

An Historic, Monumental Occasion

On February 7, 1995, I bought my first computer. I totally forgot, until I checked Quicken to find the date, that I got a loan from my boss to get it, which I paid off for over a year. And isn’t it interesting that 12 years after that day I met Josh? Anyway…

Probably the next day (for some reason my emails only go back to 1998) I got my first email. Oh the joy! Oh the wonder! Oh the fabulous possibilities! I couldn’t GET enough email! Please, oh please send me email! Let me learn about this strange new world!

A few months after this I received an email from my friend Chester, completely out of the blue. I had no idea he even had a computer. Chester had been living in Bay Area of California, and I hadn’t heard from him very much. It was a wonderful way to reconnect with him.

I forget exactly how many computers I’ve owned, although that’s a bit confusing. Judging from Quicken, I updated my motherboard in 1998 (January – would that have been for Windows 98?), and I think that was the first OS I installed from CD (oh the speed! Oh the convenience! This is AMAZING!). It then appears I built a computer in 2001 – I’m guessing with my friend Matt’s help. And in 2006 I built the computer I’m using at this moment, again with Matt’s suggestions for hardware.

I’ve learned a lot about computers all this time, to the point that I build my own machines and do all the maintenance a slightly-above-average geek can do.

And during all this time, the emails have been coming in. And coming in. And coming in…

It reminds me of my first “real” job, which is the job I still have today at Qualtim, which I’ve had for 17 years (does anyone DO that anymore?). After a few months, it was just my boss, Kirk, and me. And we took over administration of WTCA, then called the Wood Truss Council of America, but now called WTCA – Representing the Structural Building Components Industry (why do I still need to look that up after two years?). When we first took over, I turned from proto-geek to full geek: I created a timesheet and invoicing program in Excel so that they didn’t have to be done by hand any longer. I taught myself about relational databases and built my first one to run the association. It handled company and individual information, membership data, orders, shipping, and much more. I first created it in Lotus Approach (oh the days…), and then re-created it in Microsoft Access. The timesheet/invoicing program was then re-created in Access, with a bit of help from my friend Brad. The data was then ported to SQL Server. Today that program is called “Main,” and is the backbone of our organization.

When I was 23 and first creating these systems, I was high as a kite. I was learning a lot, and to have all that responsibility for a nation-wide association was quite a kick! I built the data and procedural foundations for what is today a multi-million dollar organization!

However, as time went on, the shine fell off the apple a bit: I soon realized that along with that joy and prestige (?) came a lot of responsibility. And that responsibility got heavier, and heavier… and heavier. I learned that the lack of documenting was going to lead to serious issues: first, I have a horrible memory, and while I can figure out code pretty quickly, it still wastes time. The larger danger, however, is that if I were “hit by a bus” (a phrase we have used consistently over the years), others would have a really difficult time figuring out some of the–shall we say–“elegant” solutions I’d created. I felt like Ebinezer Scrooge’s cohort Bob Marley, who dragged the chains behind him after death – that’s what Main felt like at times. Even today, when we have three programmers on staff, I’m still the only one who takes forays into Main to make updates, etc. Others have gone in over time, and none of them are with us any longer.

Let’s get back to the topic at hand: email. During all of those database adventures, the emails continued to pile in. There were long stretches of time that I didn’t delete email from my inbox, to the point of having thousands of emails. Because I was becoming an instructor with the Center for Creative Learning, I found it necessary to get more organized, so I cleaned out the inbox, leaving only those tasks that needed to be done, responded to, etc. And I flagged emails that were of greater urgency: red being most, then yellow then orange, purple is for info only, and green is for whatever else.

And my inbox began feeling heavier, and heavier… and heavier. In the early ’90s I used to be BORED, not having enough to fill my time! Oh how I’ve yearned for those days, or at least a short visit of that feeling (that feeling was one of my three goals on vacation, along with eating and sleeping). In the past 10 years, life has felt more full than I like, at times being really stressful. I worked for 9 years at 3/4 time, taking most Wednesdays off. Then when I bought my house in 2004 I figured I’d better work full time to “support the house” – stupidest thing I ever did. The next three years were miserable, and I went back to 3/4 time last year. Although by then I had Josh in my life, so any vacuum I created was more than filled.

And all along, my inbox has been a focal point. A metaphor for my too-full life. An anchor. At times an enemy. I had a vision of a free and easy life, where I’d get up on a warm Spring morning with a smile on my face, have a Zen breakfast on the back patio (please pronounce “PAH tio” or “PAH chio” if you like), do some reading, BREEEEATHING all the way. And I’d be able to do that because my inbox (hear low cellos from a horror music score here) would be empty. I MUST EMPTY MY INBOX! But how? There are too many things to do! TOO TOO MUCH!

Well, sometimes adequate pressure is required to bring about change. Last December I was stressed out and had an epiphany: I cannot process all of the educational emails that come in as a result of my instructing work. I still had emails that I had to finish reading from 1998! I set up a system for the instructors to save that information for reference when needed, and get it the heck outta my inbox! At that point I got it down to eight emails, and was on top of the world. And immediately thereafter it began growing again. My decided limit at that point was a screen-full of emails. I soon surpassed that mark.

The pressure built again until the end of last month, when I added more decisions to my earlier epiphany: I cannot say ‘yes’ to as many things as I was. I love to please people (I’m actually quite compliant in personality), yet doing so gets me into trouble, i.e., not having a life. So I sent an email to the Instructor body of CCL informing them that I was going to focus my efforts on areas where my value is greatest, and leave some things for others to do. And I have been: when an eBook was being created, I only gave it a quick read-through, and didn’t do a SINGLE edit, which, with my desire to have things “Just so,” was a huge success in and of itself. Others were surprised by this (lack of) behavior on my part, which meant the success was serious.

This brings me (now us, since you’ve been reading this long [you still there? really? not bored yet?]) to last week, where I (trumpet fanfare) REMOVED THE LAST EMAIL FROM MY INBOX.

Have you ever had one of those moments where something monumental happens, and you don’t fully appreciate it until later? An unpleasant example I had that was comparable was cutting the end off of my fingernail with some of the quick a few weeks ago: I realized immediately what happened, but then sat and looked at it to really assess how bad it was (it wasn’t that bad – not a mark on me today). Or walking across the stage to graduate, or many other life-changing events. Does it sounds silly to compare these things to an inbox? If it does, I haven’t adequately communicated the significance of the feeling.

I’d lived for so long with my inbox having “something for me to do” – say 13 years? – that I was literally disoriented. It felt for a moment like I was looking at my Junk Folder, which I always empty immediately. There was nothing there to do. I imagine it felt something like having a dog die who was always peeing on the carpet, barking at the neighbors, chewing up shoes, and being generally unlikeable. Yet when he died, there was an empty place.

Well, this is where that analogy ends, because emails still come in, unlike the dog that won’t be coming back to life any time soon. It takes resolve and focus to keep my inbox empty, and I’ve got the systems in place to do it: things get passed off to others, scheduled, or filed with a reminder now. And it feels REALLY GOOD.

This morning felt really good, in fact. I got up with a smile on my face (petting Raja for a while is good for that), made my simple bed, walked across the bamboo flooring to open the blinds, then put on my robe and made some 10-grain cereal. I’ve responded to a few emails or scheduled things, and deleted or filed them. All. ALL of them. There’s nothing in my inbox right now. How does it feel?

As always, your comments, even if just “I was here!” are welcome.

Jott

This is a very interesting post. I’m creating it by talking into my cell phone I’m using a new service called jott–that’s http://www.jott.com/. It allow you to simply talk into your cell phone and it will send an e-mail, update your Google calendar, start a blog entry, and several other really valuable functions. Give it a try–I think you might like it! listen

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