Clean living: Approaching the Optimal Stack

Despite all my protestations, 2007 is shaping up to be another crushing (and frankly, retarded) schedule of commitments; May, particularly, involves multiple transatlantic and transpacific hops. And of course every time I pull something like this it cuts the heart out of any attempt to eat right, sleep right, get a reasonable amount of exercise, enjoy my neighborhood, and stay on top of my other obligations.

It takes me longer and longer to recover each time, and the multiple dislocations involved make it far more likely that we’ll do something stupid like forget to pay a bill and come home to no Internet…which only makes it harder to climb back on top. And so on.

I’m as skeptical of the discourse of Productivity as anyone, but our life pattern these last few years has convinced me that I simply need to get a handle on the increasing velocity of stuff flowing through my life, lest it overwhelm me completely. By “stuff” I mean professional responsibilities, of course, but also general household maintenance, and that still-fuzzier set of tasks aimed at furthering personal goals and ambitions – basically, everything David Allen’s Getting Things Done deals with.

Like so many other people, I first stumbled onto GTD via Merlin’s seminal 43Folders. (I’ve kept half an eye on 43Folders as well as other so-called “lifehacking” sites since their inception, but ironically enough I haven’t really had time to investigate them properly. One discovery as useful as this is quite enough for me to feel comfortable recommending his site to you, though.)

Do you know what I mean if I describe GTD as “non-religious”? I mean that in both senses. On the literal level, it doesn’t carry any of the creepy Christian resonances that put me off the Franklin Covey “Seven Habits” material. But it’s also fairly minimalist as these doctrines go: non-dogmatic and modular enough that it doesn’t require wholesale reinvention of the self. You can derive some benefit from it without letting go of any of your sense of who you are. (This is important. I know I’m not the only one who regards my personality as something more or less coextensive with the spoor of books, gadgets and clothing I’ve been known to leave in my wake.)

So I’m satisfied that, in GTD, I’ve got at least the outline of a useful stuff-management doctrine. Putting a doctrine into practice, though, always requires some kind of material armature, some dedicated apparatus. (GTD in particular is all about getting actions off your mind and into some kind of trusted external framework.) And after a decent amount of fit and fiddling I feel like I’ve arrived at that apparatus: a stripped-down, no-bullshit collection of tools for life management that I think of as the Optimal Stack.

Something that concerned me, in trying yet again to get organized, is that I didn’t want this to be another one of those occasions on which I rush out to accessorize my new “lifestyle direction,” only to find in the fullness of time that the accessories are basically all I’m left with. Been there, etc. So I put a certain amount of thought into leveraging tools that I already have and use.

As it turns out, there were one or two things that I decided were worth the purchase, but happily none of them were physical. More accurately, where my emergent stack seemed to require a physical component, I ensured that I either already had it close at hand, or was able to dig a useful approximation out of the closet’s nether recesses.

What I did wind up buying is software. I laid cash on the barrelhead for two applications I’ll name in a moment, which is something I haven’t done in a very, very long time; in the final analysis, trying to match the functionality of these two apps with free-as-in-beer alternatives would have required more effort than either my time or yours is worth.

So. Here’s the current version of my Optimal Stack for life which, if not effortless, is at least simplified enough that I can parry its demands with something approaching grace:

I’ve surrendered all but completely to the RSS. I’d been half-assedly using the free NetNewsWire Lite for years, but after seeing Timo‘s nifty customization of it (and how he used it to reduce the daily torrent to something manageable), there really was no alternative to springing for the full version. Since so much of my life – thinking, writing, teaching – involves staying abreast of activity across a scatter of particularly dynamic fields, this isn’t anything close to optional.

I use a standard (nay: inevitable) Moleskine and the splendid Inka pen I keep on my keychain to capture thoughts, addresses, references on the spot. Nothing new here; the wrinkle is that I dump all of this, as immediately as humanly possible, into…

A dynamic master list of “projects” and dependencies, in this case the lovely Kinkless GTD. Most conveniently, this is sync’ed to iCal, which in turn sends me e-mail reminders of approaching action items. (This works for me because I’m one of those whut respond to every incoming message immediately; YMMV.) Kinkless itself is free, but it requires Omni Outliner Pro; again, fortunately, I was already using the free version for my writing, so it was just a matter of an upgrade.

This is the heart of the system. So far, it works and works well. There’s a nagging sense of incompletion that attends consciousness of what Allen calls “open loops,” and just as he promises, getting these loops into some concrete and reliable external reminder system really does free up all that energy. I will vouch that what you experience as a result is significant and real and comes as close to feeling “spiritual” as any other practice I’ve ever undertaken, not excluding that of daily meditation.

My phone plays surprisingly (?) little role in all this. The one hack I do have to share – late to the game, I know – is one Derek showed me: messaging Google at 466453 with the name of a restaurant or bar you’re looking for, even a fragment of same. It will hit you back within 30 seconds with an astonishingly accurate address listing. This is just about the only way in which my phone has ever made my life easier. (Ask me again after I’ve broken in an iPhone.)

– On the other hand, I’m quite serious in considering my bike a vital part of my productivity stack. It’s a time machine: I can get just about anywhere in Manhattan or Near Brooklyn quicker and more cheaply than even public transit affords.

– The final tool in my kit is one of such profound and unparalleled power that, indeed, I’m still learning how to use it properly. Oooh, it’s a good one: the word “no.” Say it with me: No. Noooo. Nnnnoooo. “No” appeals to the Taoist in me, in its incredible ability to solve problems before they start. My Optimal Stack just wouldn’t be the same without it.

And that’s it. No PDA, you’ll note, Hipster or otherwise. No FiloDayPlannerRunner. And although it’s pretty lean, I still see some ways to trim fat: Kinkless is superhandy, and I find the reminder e-mails it generates through iCal crucial, but a flat, couldn’t-be-simpler .txt To Do list has a great degree of appeal too.

Armed only with these things, I’m beginning to find life more negotiable again, opening up the kind of time and psychic space I’ve missed for a long, long stretch of months now. Your stack is bound to be different than mine, but maybe you can glean some ideas from what I’ve outlined here? Or, if not that, then at least the notion that there appears to be a fairly deep connection between addressing what seem like banal life-management tasks and liberating a sustaining current of vital energy. I’d be interested to know what of this works for you, and how.

12 responses to “Clean living: Approaching the Optimal Stack”

  1. Ben Kraal says :

    So, what is the magic NNW customisation?

  2. speedbird says :

    Nothing magic per se – more like I dug the way he had panes and prefs set up.

  3. N says :

    테스트 중입니다!

  4. N says :

    テスト中

  5. mike says :

    what bike are you using these days?

  6. speedbird says :

    It’s a Cannondale Capo (single-speed, not fixie) with Profile Airwing OS handlebars. A lot of bike for the money, IMO – more or less bombproof, but for the stoopit “graf” graphics.

  7. kazys varnelis says :

    I am struggling with this too, my friend. And I too have struggled with GTD.

    For me, paper is the big enemy. It takes space and time to wade through. Two things are making a slow dent in all this…

    1) Ditch the file folders. It’s just another pile and eventually you wind up with two many piles. The Quickborner Team had the danger of files figured out years ago when they all but banned them from the first Büro Landschaft offices. Instead, invest in European style binders. I bought the starter kit from http://www.empireimports.com/. They appeal to my European side and look so beautiful on my shelves. The small amount of time considering papers is well worth it. Eventually you just take the material out of the binder and either toss it or archive it with plastic binding posts.

    2) the Plustek 2600 book scanner works great in parallels and cuts down on the amount of printed matter in my life as does the dirt cheap Brother 7820N which allows me to scan in photocopies.

  8. speedbird says :

    Those Empire Imports binders are the nice. Thanks for the tip – I know someone who’d dig them the most.

  9. Klintron says :

    re: binders vs. folders

    The reason that Allen recommends folders is that it takes practically no effort to file something. Open the drawer, find the folder, drop something in it. Or grab a new folder, drop something in it, file it. Done. This is supposed to keep stuff from piling up.

    Binders would require either hole punching or slipping each page of something into a plastic sheet, right? How’s the “mental resistance” against doing all the work involved in using binders?

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