February 12, 2008

What I Learned from Being a Professional Gardener

During my first set of college years, I had a summer/work study job as a gardener. You might think that the major lessons were about plants and how to grow things, which I did learn. But the biggest lessons I learned were about how to handle a massive maintenance project with a minimal staff.

Our campus was a 147-acre botanical garden, and there were only a handful of gardeners to maintain it. The system was very simple: every morning we would be sent to a different area to weed (weeding being the major task for maintaining a tidy garden). The staff pruner would go deal with a different area that needed work, and sometimes she would take along a student assistant. For a week or so in the summer we pruned ivy from the college buildings. But mostly, we weeded.

I've tried to be as methodical in my approach to my own garden as we were about the campus back then. Instead of wandering all over the place picking a weed here and there, I will settle into an area and clear it completely, putting the weeds in a bucket to go to the compost pile (we composted our weeds back in college, too). When I finish an area I can continue to the next contiguous area, or move to a place that needs more attention.

I think it's the fact that when an area is done, it's completely cleared of weeds of all sizes that makes such a difference. Whether you clear the weeds by hand-pulling as I do now, or by scuffling them off as we did back in the good old days, the area is not going to even start looking weedy for a while. And when it does, you can come around again.

And now I'm trying to be even more methodical about the work. Instead of just choosing a spot, what if I divided the garden up into zones and worked each zone until it was done before moving on? I could make the zones as small as I wanted to give myself variety, and if they were small then the day's task would be over sooner.

This is a little different from the usual household division method for housework. It's as if I approached housekeeping by saying that today I am going to make the living room couch sparkle, and just ignore the rest of the room. I think that doesn't work as nicely indoors because clutter is very different from weeds: it can appear in huge amounts in seconds (weeds take time to grow). And you can move clutter from one area to another (you can do that with weeds but it's a lot of extra work and would be really weird). And you might want to keep some of the clutter (whereas the weeds are by definition unwanted).

For me, the lesson is about breaking things down into pieces and working on each one of those pieces in turn. Instead of trying to weed an entire campus, I was just trying to weed the planting beds around a particular building. And in a few weeks of work two or three teams of weeders would have touched every part of the campus.

The other thing that I have come to realize was very important was that the campus did not mulch anywhere. There are some compelling reasons not to mulch (just consider the cost of mulching a 147-acre campus for a moment), but the biggest reason seems to be that when you mulch, that makes systematic weeding a lot more work. You can't use a tool like a scuffle hoe without wasting a lot of mulch and possibly just reburying weeds. And the mulch tends to hide the weeds until they have much larger and stronger root systems, and are harder to kill. I've never found that mulch reduces the number of weeds to be pulled, anyway (they grow in mulch just fine). I use mulch only sparingly in my own garden.

So, did I learn a little tidbit about gardening methodology, or something bigger? The real lesson is to think about making sure your methods support your processes. By not mulching, the campus was allowing the weeders to work more efficiently, which allowed us to cover a lot more ground in a relatively short period. I'm trying to apply that to my own life, where it's clear that sometimes something I am doing -- something I thought would help -- is not supporting my overall goals.

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September 13, 2007

House Rules

Rules are not always arbitrary or unfair. Sometimes they're just life lessons codified, or even mutual decisions written down. We have some very simple house rules. Here are some examples:

- No perishable food item is ever stored in the drawers of the refrigerator. Why: out of sight is out of mind. It's been our experience that anything perishable in the "crisper" drawer is going to go bad before we remember it's there. We call that bin the "rotter." So what goes in the drawers? Beverages, usually. Cans and bottles of soda, beer, water.

- When we're down to one, it's time to restock. What? When you put on the second-to-last roll of toilet paper, you should go that day to the store and restock. I prefer to go earlier, myself. Because you know you're going to put it off, anyway, and at least this way you have not only the full roll on the dispenser, but the spare in the cabinet to cover you.

- When you do a load of laundry, throw in the kitchen towels and the bath handtowel as well. Why: somehow, the kitchen and bath handtowels get forgotten in the usual round of laundry; there's not enough of either or both of them to merit a load on their own, but they get really dirty. So instead of trying to work in a real schedule for cleaning them, we have a simple rule that you grab them when you go to do a load of laundry (right next to the kitchen, anyway). If we've really messed one up, we might just throw it in the washer to wait for the next load to be done. So there's a regular supply of clean towels without much extra effort.

June 5, 2006

Let the Machine Remember For You

If there are routine things you have to do that you keep forgetting, it may be time to think about how you can avoid having to remember them in the first place.

Oh, yes, there are calendars and alarms and all that, but maybe the best solution is to not have to think about it in the first place. Electronic bill paying is an obvious example of this: you can monitor it, but you don't need to worry about whether you've paid the gas bill on time.

Then there's thermostat timers that turn the heat up or down depending on the time of day -- I'm so dependent on mine I can't imagine living without it. No more forgetting to turn down the heat before bed, or coming home to a cold house, or spending too much time thinking about whether it is time to fiddle with the heating controls. That brain space can be used for something else.

How about some other daily running worries that you can eliminate with automation? An appliance timer can turn on the coffee machine for you in the morning (or they make machines with timers built in) and turn it off for you, too. You can buy a kit to put little drip emitters in your potted plants, and hook that up to a timer, too. Imagine never killing a plant by forgetting to water it again. We have a timer on our shower ventilation fan, so it runs for thirty minutes after you turn it on to suck the humid air out of the room, then shuts off automatically. Bliss.

You can use automation (and appliance timers) to help make lifestyle changes. Want to cut down on your TV viewing? Put the TV on an appliance timer and it will be turned off for you when the limit is up. It's obviously trivial to override the system, but it requires real thinking about whether you want to watch TV now or not.

The real beauty of the automated system is that you can turn off that background process that is always nagging you to remember things. The machines, which are really good at remembering things, will do that for you. You can do the stuff that your brain is really good at.

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November 10, 2005

10 Ways to Simplify Your Life

The first thing you should know is that simple doesn't mean cheap, it doesn't mean fast. It means easy. And easy for me doesn't mean easy for you. I've tried to make these as generic as possible, but if you're looking at one of them and thinking about how complicated that would be to use in your own life, it's time to read suggestion #8 below.

1. Know your priorities

The most important thing you can do to make your life simpler is to know what is important to you. When you know what is important to you, you can easily tell when you're being roped into doing something that's important to somebody else. There are, of course, plenty of occasions where that happens, but not all of them deserve the same amount of your attention and time and energy.

I keep a list of the five things that are most important to me at any time. Just looking at that list reminds me of what I should really be spending my time on, and helps me know when a time-sucking project should be dumped.

2. Remove choices

Remember when there were only 4 channels on TV? It was a lot easier to choose what you wanted to watch then, wasn't it? When we had a satellite TV service, we programmed the "Station Guide" to show us only the few channels we actually watched. It made deciding whether there was anything good on TV a lot easier.

There are other ways you can use this. If you have trouble deciding what to wear in the morning, consider engineering your wardrobe. Get rid of redundant pairs of shoes, multiple bottles of shampoo, whatever you have that makes you pause during your day and decide among what seems like endless alternatives, reduce those alternatives to the highest-value and make the decision easier.

Another good way to do this is to arrange the movies you own by last-watched date. So when you're looking for something to watch, you can grab the one at the top of the pile. This works best if you don't keep movies you hate (or even ones you're indifferent to; the idea is to make an easy choice that results in a desired outcome, not to just fill your time).

3. Make decisions once

Speaking of removing choices, some decisions really only need to be made once. If you're constantly trying to come up with meals that are nutritionally balanced and tasty, you should really be writing down the menus you come up with and putting them in a notebook somewhere handy so you can use them again. I keep track of the calories in the food I eat, but I don't recalculate them every time. I just reuse the same calculations I made months ago.

4. Build generalized systems

I have a little motto: "If it worked once, it will work twice." It doesn't mean what you think it means. It means that if standardizing your wardrobe worked well, then standardizing your eating habits will also work well. I like making decisions into little pellets that I don't have to handle too much, and that works for me. I have my simple wardrobe where no outfit can be bad, and a simple set of meals that I choose from. Pellets work for me.

If you function best with more choices --perhaps having the Chinese menu type approach (pick one from each column and everything is OK) -- then use that approach for more than just getting dressed or choosing dinner. Use it for buying toiletries, for example. It worked for you once. Try it again.

5. Keep your memory outside of your brain

This is a basic one. Don't try to keep track of to-do lists or systems or pre-made decisions in your head. Just write them down. A few sheets of paper are fine. I like a dedicated notebook. Some people use their computers. Just get it out of your head. Knowing you're free to forget it without losing it forever will take a load off your mind.

6. Avoid technical solutions

If you're trying to solve a problem with your life getting too complicated, the way not to make it come together fast is to buy or download a bunch of highly specialized software that is supposed to make your like a hundred times easier. If you are having trouble getting your life together, spending every night for two months building a perfect database with all the fields you need and an open data structure might get you a nice piece of software, but it's not making your life simpler.

Or if you already have this stuff, don't try to learn every trick in the world to make it work best. Constantly optimizing your systems adds complication.

If you find that stuff fun, have at it, but do it during your "free" time and do it because you love it. Gearing up won't make your life simpler. It will just add one more thing for you to think about.

7. Put it in front of you

Whatever is in your line of sight will get noticed. So when I need to keep something in the front of my brain, I put it in the middle of my desk. If you look at my desk, it is actually a map of how critical various projects are to me at any given moment. The center is where I have what I am working on right now. Around that are supporting projects or unrelated projects that I need to keep in my mind. On the very edges are things that related to important projects but are not of themselves important.

I use this system in other ways, too: pieces of projects I'm working on go on my computer's desktop; my pile of things to take with me from house to house goes in the middle of the table; my morning to-do list is at the top of the notebook page for that day.

Another way I use this is to leave myself notes. If I keep forgetting to make sure the cabinet doors are closed (I'm trying to learn to do this automatically), I put a note where I'll see it when I leave the kitchen that says, "SHUT THE DOORS!" For a while I had a note on the door that said, "Did you brush your hair?" because for some reason I kept walking out the door and realizing my head was a tangly mess.

People who come to visit may think you are insane, but you won't be walking around with the feeling that there was something you were supposed to do.

8. Get lazy

I think the best engineers are the laziest engineers. Frank Gilbreth always wanted to see how the laziest person on the assembly line worked. There is a simplicity in laziness. When you're looking at a problem and having trouble coming to grips with how to approach it, imagine the way you would deal with it if you were much lazier.

For example, I could have written my own content-management system. But Movable Type was much easier, and instead of requiring real dedication on my part, it took me all of a few hours to install and get running, and that was only because Perl needed upgrading. I could use a more flexible system, but I've got Movable Type up and running.

Laziness keeps you from spending time and energy on things that are not important to you. If half as good is good enough, why on earth are you spending the extra energy? It better be because it gets you something you want.

9. Embrace handwaving

This is my big bugaboo. I'll spend weeks and months agonizing over all details of a project, trying to get all the tiny details perfect. This is so unnecessary. Sometimes, it's easier to make a decision after you have gotten started. So I'm teaching myself to insert "handwaving here" into my plans. When I get to that, I know I shouldn't try to figure out exactly which PVC connectors I will need for the pond filter system until I start assembling the thing, for example. I can always make a couple trips to the store during the day.

10. Overestimate

You can spend a lot of time trying to get every estimate perfect, and still be wrong. So if you're trying to decide when to leave to get to a meeting on time, give yourself 10% more time than you needed. Don't book a flight that lands an hour before your presentation. Buy more plywood than you think you need for the project. Make too much food for a party.

Not having to engineer everything will make the process easier. And if you do make order-of-magnitude mistakes, you can make note of them and fix them next time.

October 16, 2005

Getting Ready to Sell

I've been reading a lot of web sites with tips on how to sell your house faster lately.

Not because I want to sell my beloved pile, but because they give me good ideas about how to make fast, cheap changes to where I live. In fact, many of the tips make me wonder why people would not do that to begin with.

For example: Sweep the front walk and plant some flowers. These are a couple simple ways to make a house look more inviting and home-like. So why do people even have to be told that? Because when it's your own house, it is home, so you don't need to make it look more that way to sell yourself. On the other hand, doing some landscaping around the house will make you happy every time you see it, and it's relatively cheap. Just remember to water those plants.

Don't mask smells with scented products. The real estate agents rightly point out that this will make everybody who visits you wonder what you're trying to cover up. Smells come from somewhere: find out where and get rid of it (musty bathrooms may need a ventilation fan replaced or installed). Wash your kitchen floors and walls regularly (yes, the walls get dirty if you cook at home). You want people to notice a nice, fresh, clean smell when they walk in the door, not "Clean Scent" deodorizer.

Have you considered painting those rooms? A fresh coat of paint can really spruce up a room, especially if it is not plain white. Lots of people paint once before they move in and never paint again because it will be too much effort. Well, use the opportunity to declutter all the stuff piled around the walls and paint that room. While you're at it, washing the glass covers on light fixtures regularly not only brightens the place up, but removes any fly corpses waiting up there to gross somebody out.

Don't turn on all the lights, or use side lights instead of overhead lighting. Let's face it, overhead lighting sucks. It glares, it is unflattering, and it takes all the character out of a room. Table lamps and floor lamps can make a room much more attractive and interesting, and it doesn't take much effort to use them rather than a horrible overhead light.

Dump the knick-knacks. Large collections especially. They look busy and get dusty fast, and it's hard to appreciate anything small and grouped together from ten feet away. The test I give little jobbies is this: when I'm doing anything other than looking at them, are they in scale with what I'm doing, or too small or too large? I have smaller things on bookshelves (one or three in a space between books), larger things in a shelf by themselves, and the few very large things I have are either furniture or garden ornaments. I don't have room for a life-sized stuffed panda in my living room.

Hire a cleaning service to give the place a going-over. Agents hire cleaning services to get the stuff we miss every day, like the gunge that builds up around faucets, and the grease in cracks in the cupboards -- this is the stuff buyers notice right away, but don't think you never see it, even if you never notice it. We hired a cleaning service to come every other week and do the big stuff (floor washing) and the details (gunge removal), but you can make a huge difference in your house by hiring a service as infrequently as twice a year for a thorough cleaning. Costs vary depending on what you want done. Make sure to have them dust your bookshelves, because you would not believe what is in there.

Clean the curtains and carpets regularly. We tend to forget the curtains and carpets. They become part of the furniture, as it were, and we can forget that any smell or dirt or dust in the house gathers in them, too. There are carpet cleaning services that also do drapes, or you can rent a cleaner and do it yourself fairly cheaply. I installed machine-washable curtains in the messy rooms, so I can just take them down and throw them in the wash.

Clean your upholstered furniture, too. Especially dining room chairs. If you have upholstery in a messy room like the kitchen, consider getting slipcovers or making them yourself. Slipcovers, of course, should be machine washable, or you are kidding yourself. Yes, chenille looks lovely... for five days, and then you have to dry clean it. Do you really want to be dry cleaning dining room chair slipcovers every week? I don't think so.

Clear everything off the fridge or message boards. I'm a big offender on this one. I'll leave a note to myself up for so long that I couldn't even tell you when I wrote it. Or menus from delivery places, or coupons for toilet paper. This stuff needs to get off the fridge, off the cork board, and only important messages should be there, so you can see them. It'll clear the visual clutter from the kitchen. An effect that will be improved if you also stop using the countertops for storage. Find a home in a cupboard or shelf for that stuff. If you don't use it every day, it should be put away. If you don't have a place to put it, get rid of something else to make room.

That's far from every tip for staging a house. Real professionals have an eye for what will work and what will not, but it all comes down to a few simple principles:

  1. Refresh surfaces with paint, plants, or cleaning

  2. Remove visual clutter that comes from collections or accumulations

  3. Little things can make a big difference

August 23, 2005

Engineering a Wardrobe

It occurred to me, after writing about packing for a trip, that half of knowing how to pack lightly is having worked out a reasonable wardrobe.

If you want to make you life simpler, reduce the hassle of trying to put together an outfit in the morning, and reduce the amount of effort you expend in maintaining a wardrobe, Jay Gatsby's example is a good one. Fitzgerald's playboy had a wardrobe full of exactly the same outfit. While that is a bit of overkill, the systematic purchase and use of clothing is the goal.

I've always been fascinated by lists of what clothes you should own, with details like how many pairs of socks and underwear, how many dress shirts, and so on. But the reality is that determining what you need is so personal that you really cannot rely on a list made by somebody else. I spend my days in one of two modes: standing in a studio making models all day, or sitting at a desk drafting all day. If you're a trial lawyer or construction worker, the wardrobe that works perfectly for me is not going to work for you. My hobbies are large and extremely messy; if you do needlepoint you may not need to change your clothes at all.

So start by making a list of the things you do that require changes of clothing. Here's mine:

  1. Work or school
  2. Messy projects
  3. Exercise
  4. Out to fancy event
  5. Sleeping/Lazy time

Pretty simple, no? That's because "Messy projects" encompasses everything from gardening to making plaster molds or repairing plaster. And work or school require pretty much the same outfit; I could dress more casually for school or more formally for work, but I don't because it's simpler not to.

Then create a "uniform" for each type:

  1. Work or school: black pants, long-sleeved t-shirt, black shoes
  2. Messy projects: older clothes from work or school
  3. Exercise: t-shirt, leggings, sneakers
  4. Out to fancy event: fancy top, black skirt, black shoes
  5. Sleeping/Lazy time: pyjamas

There are a couple of important things in that series of uniforms. The first is that I've chosen a "neutral" colour to use as a base: black. This means I only need to buy shoes and purses and stuff that match black, which is hard enough, but easier than having black, various shades of brown, a burgundy, and so on.

The other is that I'm recycling the clothes I wear to work or school for use in another activity. The more you can move clothes up from one activity to another, the less you need to buy and maintain separate sets of clothing.

After I chose my "neutral" colour, I chose a set of highlight colours that work for me. I buy shirts in dark red, dark green, and purple. I might branch out and get something that is a little lighter in colour, or more orangy than red, but I pretty much stick to my uniform because those are the colours that work on me and for me. It means that everything I own works together: my jacket always matches my shirt well enough, and any accessories also work with everything I own. It also makes buying easier: I find a shirt style I like and buy it in those colours. There's enough variation that I don't always feel like I'm wearing the same clothes, but not so much that getting dressed in the morning takes more than five minutes. Perfect.

Something that's hidden is the systematic support clothing. Find a kind of underwear, a kind of sock, a kind of tights, and so on. Buy them in bulk. Not only does this reduce the amount of time you spend doing things like pairing socks (you don't need to pair them at all if you don't want to), but it means that you always have what you need and they can all be cleaned together. Not having to run fourteen different tiny loads of laundry every week makes a huge difference. And buy enough so that you can put off laundry reasonable amounts of time, but not so much that you have no incentive to ever do the wash. I think I have about two weeks worth of socks and underwear, for example; probably a bit more. I do a load of laundry every week, so if I don't do the one with my underwear in it that week, I'm still fine. More than that is probably way too much clothing; storage space is limited.

Speaking of laundry, start reading labels. Make a decision about what level of cleaning you're willing to do, and only buy clothes if they fit that. Don't even try the clothes on if they don't fit your criteria, because it's no use falling in love with a blouse that requires more care than you are willing to put into a blouse.

My criteria are pretty straightforward (I've been working on this for years):

  1. If it's worn daily, it must be machine washable on regular cycle
  2. If it requires the delicate cycle, it must be something I only need to launder monthly
  3. If it requires dry cleaning, it must be either something special, or something that gets cleaned seasonally

I own about six or seven items of clothing that require dry cleaning, and one of them is my wedding dress. The rest are fancy clothes that I wear when we go out to eat or to formal events. When the event is over, most of those can be brushed clean and hung back up in the closet. Not having to run lots of clothes to the cleaners regularly is a real time-saver and reduces the amount of stress in my life -- I hate getting things dry-cleaned. If I had a job where I had to wear a suit, I would probably have enough suits that I could make only a monthly visit to the cleaners.

A friend of mine decided to simplify his clothing by buying twenty work shirts and having them laundered at the cleaners. This means he has an absolutely astonishing number of wire hangers, but it also means that once a week he drops shirts off and picks up clean ones, and he never has to wash, iron, or otherwise maintain them. He has enough shirts that if he's late by a day or misses a week, he's fine. It works nicely for him.

When you're engineering your wardrobe, whether to simplify your life or to make mornings easier, or just to get rid of the random weird clothes that you never seem to be able to match with anything else, the important thing is to remember that this is for YOU. You are not trying to turn yourself into me, or anybody else. You have to make the system work for you or it will not work at all.

August 4, 2005

What This Site is About

Ducks in a Row is my attempt to both share and collect my accumulated information on how to get my life in order and reduce the total chaos that can come from multiple hobbies and creative outlets.

These are strategies that have worked for me, and some of them have worked for other people I've helped get organized. Some of them have not worked for others, and if they don't work for you, well, try something else. I'm not here to create a cult or anything like that.

I'm starting this site by seeding in some postings I've made on various message boards or other fora, with some additional information to give context. After that I'll post about once or twice a week on topics around getting your life in order, usually things that have been on my mind. You're welcome to send me any suggestions for topics, or questions or other feedback at