How Do You Structure Your Life?

A mannequin's mechanical parts exposed. Seen at La Musée Des Automates, La Rochelle, France.

Man's Mechanics Exposed

How does life become complicated? Why does it happen? How do we fix it?

These questions occur to me once and a while. I’m not always lucid enough to remember just how complex life is — or perhaps I’m blithely unaware of it.

In either case, I think I prefer those times when it does occur to me, because it also highlights my own problematic patterns. And when a problematic pattern is highlighted, you can address it. Its visibility is its weakness, as you can change or slay that which you see.

In this case, there are a couple of patterns that come to mind. First, I have a great desire to learn things. Not quite everything, but certainly a substantial list of things. I’m constantly frustrated by my lack of knowledge of history, or the limits to my scientific understanding. Lumped in with this is the desire to explore those great works of fiction and philosophy that inform our society. Not knowing those means a break in the universe, a separation between the foundations of how the world is and the understanding of how it came to be.

I think many of us suffer from this break. I recall a quintessential example of this, a story I heard somewhere. (Like many things, the detail slips my mind, although I believe it was an episode of This American Life.) In this story, a woman was preparing a roast beef in the oven. Before she put it in, however, she sliced a piece off the top, which I think was placed on the side. She wasn’t actually sure why it was done — it was merely something that she remembered her mother always doing, and it seemed to contribute to a better roast.

When questioned, her mother admitted: “We used to do that because our roasting pan [or perhaps the oven?] was too small for most roasts.”

I think there is a lot of that going on today. Perhaps it is inevitable, given the collective complexity of history. At one point, one could have read all books in existence (at least in their language). Today, one cannot even read all the RSS feeds of their immediate interests that are produced in a day. The sheer amount of information generated means we all lose touch with how our world is constructed.

Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to attempt to at least get a broad survey of the greatest of historical influences as well as as much of the foundation of modern thought as we can. I’ve always believed this, but my attention span hasn’t been strong. It isn’t exactly that I lose interest, but rather that I simply forget what I was doing, and the knowledge lies fallow until I stumble across it again. At that point, there is inevitable frustration, as I cannot recall the details of what I had learned to that point, and feel that I have to start over again.

This may sound foolish, but when I started to revive my French skills before coming to France (and also while here), I felt that frustration. I had known so many more common words before, but now I struggle to remember even the most basic. I realized, of course, that the real reason the knowledge had gone stagnant and reverted was lack of exposure, both to others with this knowledge, but perhaps more importantly by my own lack of expression of this knowledge. I had not read anything or written anything in French for several years. I have not spoken in French for any length of time, beyond a phrase or two, for over a decade.

Fortunately, I spent several years in attentive rapture learning French, starting in grade 3 and going all the way to grade 11. I omitted French in Grade 12 due to scheduling problems — I wanted to try a few other subjects before leaving high school, including Drafting — something I regret. I did manage to take a qualifying course in one year of university to make up for it, although that course was intended to cover anyone from zero to 11 years of French exposure, and was quite beneath my skill level.

I’ve picked up an audiobook to help learn French, as well as the day-to-day interactions with people, and the attempts to read and write in French. (Although the writing was mostly limited to angry emails about my Internet connection…)

But I forgot about the audiobook. I realized the other day that I haven’t listened to it for over a month. I still need to — my French hasn’t progressed entirely beyond its level, despite the introductory nature of the early audiobook — but I simply forgot.

Thus, the second pattern of which I am usually aware but which comes out even more prominently is this forgetting pattern. With the growth of the acknowledgement of learning and attention disorders in the 20 years since I attended high school, I do wonder whether I suffer from some form of this apparently modern epidemic. But then, I realize, that even given such a diagnosis, there is no aid there. Further, should it not be possible for me to overcome this limitation, if it is truly mild (and compared to the cases I’ve heard about, I have little truly to complain about)? Should I not be able to design a system that can manage myself?

Perhaps this is also the structured approach of a computer programmer. I think that the best in that discipline are able to design such structures of complex interaction which are, nonetheless, simple to understand, beautiful to behold, and which make truly complex things into manageable, stable, adaptable constructs. Alternatively, I suppose, one might consider this another instance of the notion of “life hacking”, using clever tricks to manipulate one’s self and one’s environment into performing beyond its original intent or basic function.

Of course, one of the difficulties with such an endeavour lies in my weak patterns: I have to remember, and I have to stay focussed.

I’ve never been very good at maintaining routines that are not externally based or enforced. Left to my own devices, life will become chaotic. This is something that, at times, I am proud of, a sense of freedom that I might miss if I program my life too much. But I recognize, too, that absolute freedom produces little progress. So, I have to acknowledge the desire to wander a bit, but manage it, control with flexibility.

A third pattern is a purchasing pattern, or perhaps more generally, an acquisition pattern. I have no idea if this is a pattern arising out of base greed, or something that reflects the limits of a very money-poor childhood, or something of a packrat mentality — or indeed, a combination of all these things. First, let me assert that growing up, I wanted for very little. A child of a single parent, I was content with the few toys that I had. Particularly, the infinite recombinability of LEGO and the endless stories that could be wrapped around miniature cars (“dinky cars”, we called them) or figures (Star Wars and generic) was satisfying. I would spend all day making things, making stories, exploring ideas. Books from the library told me amazing tales, as well.

Perhaps it was the fault of libraries. Even the small library at my Intermediate school held more books than I would ever read. I still find libraries to be places of wonder, as if all the words on all the pages in all the books create a tangible energy that I can smell, an undercurrent of ideas and knowledge that simultaneously excites and daunts.

I have a lot of books — last count was somewhere hovering a thousand, although I’ve never actually fully counted rather than estimated. The sad truth, the bitter admission, is that I haven’t read most of them. I have always been able to acquire things faster than I can experience them. Similarly, I have dozens — perhaps a couple of hundred — movies that I haven’t yet watched. Dozens of hobbies in initial stages or even earlier than that. So many things that I want to do — all of it in earnest, none of it ever becoming “boring” or “disinteresting”.

I genuinely want to do it all, yet I have found myself overwhelmed by it. I now have built my own overflowing library of things, a set of experiences that I already have that I fail to keep up with.

This acquisition pattern runs throughout my life. I have hundreds of research papers that sit unread beside the few hundred I have read. (Those are more daunting; most of these are poorly written and involve technical language I don’t yet understand.) I see a paper with a title that is interesting to some aspect of my research, and I pick it up. It gets filed alongside of the others, a large in-box full of papers that I do have some research interest in, but which aren’t germane to my immediate needs.

I have a regular account on eMusic, where I collect 65 tracks worth of music a month. This was done in part because it was far cheaper to do this than buy 2-5 CDs a month, as I used to, and because there is a universe of wonderful music for me there. But I regret to say that much of it hasn’t yet been listened to, as it simply gets away from me.

I (normally) am subscribed to well over 300 podcasts. Some of these are books, so they can be seen somewhat differently. Others have slow update rates. A number of them are news-related, and those are only relevant for a short period of time. However, at last count, my podcast list at home had well over 4000 unheard episodes — closer to 5000, I believe.

There are other examples: my RSS subscription lis, my bookmarked sites, my list of desired hobbies, my list of desired-to-watch movies, my list of desired-to-read books, my list of articles to write, my list of stories to author, and so on.

Now, how do I take control of this?

How do I combine the desire to learn, to experience, to embody, to do, to think?

How do I structure things, build a support and control and reporting and reflection system which encourages, reminds, cajoles, rewards?

How do I keep myself focussed? How do I remember?

To illustrate how difficult this is for me, let me simply say that I sat down just yesterday and wrote several things into the journal I’ve been keeping since I arrived.

And today, I had nearly forgotten about it entirely.

This is the question, and this is what I hope to do: I’m going to build a system, carefully, clearly, in detail. The system will have many parts, and will need to be refined from time to time. There will always be bugs.

I don’t have all the answers yet, perhaps none of them, but here are a few things I’ve been thinking about:

  • reflection: learning and reading and growing are fine activities, but I find that while I am engaged and aware and working during the original experience, it fades quickly. By building in a pattern of reflection, I hope to reintegrate that knowledge. This reflection is not just internal, but decidedly external. The journalling that I’ve been doing is an interesting test of that. It’s very physical, yet very mental. It’s unifying. It forces me to be coherent, clear, honest. So, I intend to use this blog as an integral part in this pattern. Everything that I experience, be it a new book, or a new piece of music, a play or a learning experience, I hope to post something about. It won’t be for everyone, but I will be conscious of the fact that anyone can look on it. I’m hoping that some do, as interaction with others is another important feature of this pattern.
  • lists: or perhaps they should be called “sets”? We all create lists, some consciously, some subconsciously, to organize our life. I’ve done this for everything from groceries I need to the tasks that I need to complete. Actually, it’s mostly in the last couple of years that I’ve done this consciously. In particular, creating a simple list before going to the grocery store is a very useful tool for both remembering the things you actually need and for limiting the things you don’t. It’s a simple example of externalized memory store, something that I’ve spoken about to friends or on podcasts, but it works well. So, I’m going to create lists. What lists? Some lists are meant to be exhaustive: all the books, music or movies that I own, all the hobbies I want to try, all the things I already own that are for hobbies, all the things I want to learn or experience, and so forth. These are useful reference lists, but are equally useless to promote action. They are daunting, huge lists that will swamp my spirit. Instead, the more important lists are shorter: 10 books on my reading list (read only from the list; only way on the list is to create a space by reading one); 52 movies in 52 weeks, one a week; one band a month; and so on. They are lists, but they are not ranked. The lists are meant to be flexible, give me momentary freedom. They are also meant to remind me of what I should do next, when I’m randomly casting about.
  • tied experiences: simply put, tying something I should be doing to something I want to do. This applies mostly to my music collection. Most albums run about an hour. I should do at least one hour of walking each day. Thus, I don’t go walking for an hour, I’ll go walking for an album.
  • do it with others: I find it hard to share experiences. Most people just don’t really care about the things that I’m interested in. But sometimes, you can pay them. 😉 In particular, I thinking about guitar lessons. I’ve wanted to be able to express music for a long time. Something about that seems important to me. I have a guitar, and I’ve tried tinkering and following videos and other such things, but it is discouraging. So, I’m hoping to save a little money and get lessons, making it somewhat into an obligation to someone else. By externalizing the demand, it might make it easier to accomplish and remember, especially if it can be made into a regular, repeating event. Of course, I want to try that with some other things, too. I have regular get-togethers with friends that I hope to transform or integrate into these practices, as well as possibly creating new ones.
  • create goals: everyone has goals, but I suspect that very few actually describe them in any real detail. I hope to make my goals more explicit through this pattern, but I want to make sure that the goals are of two kinds: the general goals, those which describe a long-term ambition that, while it can be measured, cannot really be ever completed; and the specific goals, things that I want to actually do, shorter-things that can be measured and completed.
  • do less, more: I’ve never been good at keeping really regular schedules, even those externally-based. I don’t think that will change significantly, at least not entirely. I will always have that need to occasionally wander off, or just have to play a videogame for a little while. So, in acknowledgement of that, I’ve got to figure out how to allow myself slack time. I’ve made attempts at this before, blocking off large swaths of time on a complete schedule as “variable” or “me time”, but these generally failed as too inflexible; the irony, of course, is that I was creating a complete schedule in order to have free time, and that simply doesn’t work. Instead, I think I’ll work on some part of a scheduling system where it’s more about reporting what has been done (and what hasn’t) and having something remind me of the goals that I had set, and which ones needed to be met. This also will lead to more understanding of my own patterns over time.
  • use the cold heart of a machine: artificial intelligence has been viewed in fiction as having a role like an assistant, and time and time again, there are examples of this in media. I can show you the computer butler in Iron Man, or point to any number of similar “personal operating systems” in fiction. There is clearly interest in this, but what do we really have? Most of the systems are pathetic! They are isolated from each other, specialized task management or scheduling, restricted and simplified or complex and incomprehensible. None of them have any continuous role to play, but are relegated to either nagging systems or systems which are used as decentralized but dumb scratchboards, relying on the human’s own integration skills, memory and cross-pollination. And worst of all: none of them seem to actually use any sort of intelligence at all! I don’t know if I’ll be able to build something that will satisfy this need properly — or, perhaps, something already exists that I’m unaware of — but I can’t help but think about this problem. It has relevance to me, not only personally but professionally. At the very least, I intend to take advantage of computers and the cloud and portable devices to assist me in this, and intend to create a sort of “life-hub” system, around which all of these patterns can flow, report, integrate, think, assist, remember.
  • always carry a camera: one pattern that has developed for me here is to never leave the room without a camera. I’ve taken 4500+ pictures since I came here in May. These are more examples of externalized memories, of captured thoughts. Not all of them are great — a great many of them are multiples, trying different things to capture the moment; many more are just odd moments, or ordinary things that juxtapose with my thoughts — but they are all memories, all useful tools to assist my own weak memory.
  • always carry a notebook: not necessarily a laptop, but something onto which I can capture some thoughts, given a moment. Some of these will make it into other places, most will not. I have to build in some part of reflection to reading these notes as well, something which I don’t do yet.
  • write something ever day: it can be a blog post like this, or a story, or a critical essay for my thesis, but I’ve got to exercise this skill.

I’m not sure where I’ll begin with this, or how long this moment of lucidity will last. Part of the reason for creating this post was to externalize and expose these ideas, to get them out there so that, if I happen to forget, they can reflected back at me. And, of course, to solicit interest and suggestions from others.

Although I have put a moratorium on book-buying for the present (and, indeed, of all media acquisitions beyond already established ones like my emusic subscription), I would lift this embargo for media of relevance. In my queue already, there are the audiobook versions of David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” and Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (in addition to “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins and “Gut Feelings” by Gird Gigerenzer).

I am currently listening to Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, which I find very fascinating in its oblique criticism of modern life (although, just starting book 2, I wonder if there is an inversion to take place, as all of her main characters are deplorable, in their own ways).

So, what do you think? Am I setting too high a goal? Or are my goals too vague? (At this point, I’d probably agree with that; goal-setting is a goal itself..)

What do you do? I have noticed that I am very comfortable and proficient at modelling myself after what I see others do, of adopting their positive patterns. So if you have a positive pattern to adopt (or a negative one to avoid), I’d like to hear about it.

What do you use to get by? Are there tools? Is your life integrated, or is it in separated piles of understanding?

(Just before posting, and coming up with a title, and I realized: much of what is here revolves around my informational life. I find this an interesting revelation, although I intend for more than just information to be managed. I would include within the purview of this system everything from diet and exercise to money management. Although, perhaps biased by my own field of interest, I can see much of this still coming back to information management. How fascinating!)

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