September 24, 2006

Streamlining My Gear

I've been knitting for a really long time, and have acquired lots of gear over time that has just turned into a huge jumble. Recently I decided to cut that out, and I have been pruning my stuff down to my favourites and some more versatile pieces.

Here's everything, now. OK, I still have a bunch of straight needles that I'm probably going to give away, and those are stored in a big roll-up needle holder, but this is the stuff I'm using regularly.

All the knitting junk

What's in there, anyway? Well, I got the storage pages from KnitPicks, and tied them into bunches with some loose binder rings. I also have the big binder thing that comes with the set, but I find it can't hold as much as I want, and then it's hard to separate the pages into categories. I'm still deciding whether I will use the binder for current projects or not.

In this first set of pages, I have some ordinary circular needles of various sizes. Some of these I will eventually get rid of, because I don't really need them any more. The pages are labeled with the size of the needle and its length.

Some circular needles

In another bundle, I have all the bits and bobs from the set of KnitPicks Options needles I bought this summer. I'm very happy with this set because not only are they very fine circular needles, but they can be set up to operate as straight needles, too. Four of the pages that have three pockets will hold all the tips currently available from KnitPicks. Again, I labeled them with the size. The cables are stored in two-pocket pages and also labeled with their length.

The Knitpicks Options set

Another bundle of pages holds my little tool bits. Markers, cable needles, my little embroidery scissors, measuring tape, that sort of thing. I used to have a lot more of this stuff, but I've been getting rid of the things I don't use very often or only use out of guilt.


I use this little bag to hold the tools for my current project. Mostly things that would get snagged on the yarn in the knitting bag. It's a toiletries kit from an international flight on Virgin. I like that it is see-through, so if I'm looking for something I can locate it from the outside instead of having to dig around.

Current project stuff

And I had a few bags and things left over. Nice if I break something, or get more stuff and need to have more space, but also nice to keep away from the main working tools.

Extra storage bits

I've been looking for a cheap cardboard 6-ring binder to hold these together, but the loose binder rings work very well and the pages fit nicely into a little box I have, so this system will work just fine. Now I can stop obsessing about getting it all organized and perfect, and actually do some knitting.

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September 30, 2005

Managing Large Projects

I haven't been writing here lately because I have been working on a fairly detailed larger project, which is to say the beginning of the landscaping at the house. Some people have difficulty approaching a large project like this without panicking about things like what variety of grass to buy and how tall the grass will end up being and so forth, while losing sight of the overall picture. It makes the whole process really harried and frantic, and very stressful. It occurred to me that I might want to write about how I go about planning a large project, and some of the ways to take a complex, daunting project and make it more manageable.

The very first thing I do is define a scope. Defining a scope means setting limits on what I am going to do. In the landscaping project, I want to plant grass, add some paths, and plant roses and fruit trees. We would also like to build a greenhouse, but that is less critical. The rest can wait until later.

Then I determine timing. Roses and fruit trees are planted from bare roots which are only sold in the winter, so planting those has to wait until January. Grass can be planted at just about any time in our area, but it is best to do it sooner in our case because the wind is blowing our soil (what little there is) away. Paths need to be laid soon, because we have a major dirt tracking issue. The greenhouse has no dependancies, because it can be purchased and installed whenever we have money and time. So we're going to drop the greenhouse from the plan because it doesn't depend on anything and nothing depends on it; it's a separate project. The trees and roses will also become a separate project, because we have to wait until January to plant them.

With scope narrowed and focussed, I need to choose technologies or tools for the project. I decided to use sod for the lawn, because it stood less risk of getting all eaten up by the dogs running around or people walking, and because it required less gentle care than grass seed. Sod is more expensive than seed, but seemed to work best for our situation. We discussed having a company do it, but cursory research showed that we could save a lot of money by doing it ourselves, and it's very easy. We had already decided to put down oyster shell paths, because that was what was original to the house. If we decide we hate them later, they are easy to remove, or can be used as the base for another kind of path. And I wanted steel or other metal edging between the path and the lawn, to keep things tidy.

With technologies chosen, I went to do more detailed research. The research done for choosing technologies is pretty cursory: you're just trying to figure out what is available, what the pros and cons are, and make a decision based on that. Now you do more in-depth research, like reading about the steps involved in installing sod or trying to find a brand of edging for sale in your area. This may require you to rethink some aspects of your technologies. I discovered that the state of the art in lawn edging is now aluminum, rather than steel, and found two brands I liked. One is sold online, the other at stores, and I was unable to find a store that stocked it. Easy decision.

I also discovered that the sod sellers recommend amending the soil before installing sod. So I located a source of soil amendment (fortunately, the same supplier as the oyster shells) and arranged to rent a tiller to mix the stuff in with our existing soil.

The other recommendation is that you roll the lawn, both before and after it is installed, with a water roller. Further research indicated that rolling the lawn weekly for the first year would lead to a nice, flat surface that is easier to mow. Renting a roller that often adds up quickly, and they can be purchased for about $100, so I bought one online. These are all detail decisions, to be made only AFTER you've chosen a technology. If the technology changes (let's say you decide that instead of sodding the lawn yourself, you're going to hire somebody to do it and maintain it) your need for tools changes (they probably have their own roller) and supplies, as well (they will amend the soil for you).

Having done that detailed research, you may think you are done. Wrong. Now you dig down even further for specifications. This answers questions like "how much soil amendment do I need? How much oyster shell? How many square feet of sod?" In our case, we have a drawing of the future landscape, so it's a matter of carefully measuring the area of both lawn and path, and doing a quick calculation. Why did we not do this earlier? Because the options we were given were all priced the same: by the square foot or by the "yard"; it was easy to compare them without adding to the complexity of the problem in our heads. Keeping the problem simple and dealing with detail later is critical.

Having done the calculations, we know we need to order so many yards of compost (our chosen soil amendment), oyster shells, and so many square feet of sod. We know how many feet of edging we will require, and we have a rough idea of where it is going.

Now we get to the messy part: the assembly of materials.

We're arranging for materials to be delivered in the days before we plan to work, except for the sod, which will be delivered the morning of the day we install it. It's going to be somewhat chaotic and there will be huge piles of compost and oyster shells in the yard, but it's liveable. The new problem to wrap our minds around is the order of business. The problem is best broken down into "what do we need to know, and when?"

If the sod is delivered first thing in the morning, and needs to be installed immediately (give or take), we should have the substrate prepared beforehand. So the day before the sod is delivered, we need to know where the paths are, and where the trees will go, because those areas will be left free of compost and will not be tilled. So using string or landscape marking chalk, we lay out the paths, lawns, so forth. Places where compost should go should have Xes in them to make it clear. At this point, the paths should be prepared and edging installed. Oyster shells can be spread out there, and rolled down with the roller (see, the thing is very useful). Now we have our hard edges for the lawn. The problem has been reduced in complexity at this point: the supporting information has been filled in and now we're just colouring in the lines.

With a well-defined area for the lawn, the compost gets spread out evenly, with rakes and shovels and so forth. Then tilled in. Then the whole thing is watered lightly, rolled, and sprinkled with a fertilizer to help the sod out in the first few days. Then we are done, ready for the sod to arrive.

The next morning when the sod arrives we can focus all our attention on it, rather than worrying about paths and trees and all sorts of other things. We lay the sod, water it in, roll it a couple times, water it some more. When you're dealing with a time-sensitive and delicate process, spending the time laying the groundwork to make it go smoothly and allow yourself to concentrate on it is critical.

The process is a matter of confining the complexity of what you are working on at any moment:

  1. Define your scope so you know what problems you're trying to solve

  2. Determine any dependancies and timing issues for the larger aspects of the project

  3. Choose technologies, but leave your options open

  4. Do research on your technologies to get the details you need to proceed; adjust technologies as needed

  5. Be willing to go back as far in the process as you need to as circumstances change

  6. Gather tools and equipment indicated by research; know when you need each item and make sure it will be there when you do

  7. Use research to make a reasonable schedule: what do you need to know to get each step of the project done?

  8. Use research to work in a systematic fashion: draw the outlines, then fill them in

  9. When a step is critical and sensitive, clear the decks so you can concentrate on it

August 30, 2005

How to Make Lists

One of the things that I see people doing wrong all the time is making unusable to-do lists. We've all done this: you decide to get your life in order and sit down and make a list of everything you have to do, and then you try to do it all in a couple of days. You burn out, and the list gets shunted off to the side.

My more practical way of dealing with this is to make extremely short to-do lists. The list contains at most five items, all must-do items, and all reasonable to finish in half the time you have for tasks in the day. Why half? Because the other half of your time gets lost on distractions, bad traffic, mistakes, other things that come up, and what have you.

The critical element of this is the ability to prioritize tasks. You should be able to look at something that needs to be done and know how important it is that it get done today, by the end of the week, or by the end of the month. When you know how important a task is, you can figure out the order in which you need to do things. If you know when the task needs to get done but it's very far in the future, write it on your calendar a few days before you have to start it, to remind yourself. If you want to finish it earlier, you can look at the calendar and see if there's anything ahead of it in urgency. Some people use a tickler system with folders and so forth to remind them, but I find my calendar is more useful because I look at it every day, and it's a single place to look for things I need to do. Your mileage may vary.

When a new task appears on the horizon, I ask myself if it can be put off until tomorrow or later, and put it on another day's to-do list if I can. If not, well, it's one of those time-eaters. But in general, if you're working through your daily to-do list regularly, a single drop-everything priority appearing is not too much of a setback. I try not to fill to-do lists more than a few days in advance, because that's a bad road to be going down: if you pack your schedule you have less time to adapt to new things coming on the horizon.

When I finish the items on my to-do list, or on days when there's not so much stacking up to get done, I might fill it in with less important tasks. Like refilling a prescription or organizing a dresser drawer, or anything else that can be done pretty much any time. I pull this task off a sort of backlog to-do list that I call the can-do list. The can-do list is huge, containing all the little tasks I have sitting around, low priority, waiting for me. When I realize I have to do something, but not right away, I'll add it to the can-do list.

The key to staying sane is to not let the can-do list take priority. The can-dos are things you fit in around everything else. They may eventually turn into must-dos (you should know when that's going to happen), but until they do they should be lower in priority and they should have to wait for the to-dos to be done. It's nice to check them off, but if you're spending your time ticking off items that are low in priority while the high-priority stuff falls by the wayside, you're not going to be getting much benefit from your lists. My can-do list is spread all over my calendar, roughly in the time frame when it gets more critical. When I'm low on to-dos, I just look forward in the calendar and work on to-dos or can-dos from days in the future.

For example, here's a bunch of tasks that came up today:

  1. Fill prescription
  2. Cancel daycare for Rosie during vacation
  3. Buy campus parking permit
  4. Work on design for class web site

I figured out when each item needed to get done:

  1. Fill prescription (must do by Sept 22)
  2. Cancel daycare for Rosie during vacation (must do by Sept 4)
  3. Buy campus parking permit (must do by Sept 10)
  4. Work on design for class web site (no set deadline, want to have it done by Sept 18)

So the first thing I did today was cancel the daycare. I did it before even thinking about whatever else had to be done, because it was the earliest-priority item.

Tonight I will buy my campus parking permit, because I need to get that done before we leave for vacation (we won't be back in time for me to do it afterwards), and I'll probably drop off the prescription to be filled, too, because it's fast and I don't want to forget, which is likely after a vacation.

I probably will not get around to working on the web site, but I've been planning to work on that after we get back from vacation, anyway.

Note that these are all items from my personal life. I keep professional to-dos separate from personal ones right now, because that works well with this particular internship. When I'm in school, school to-dos take over the list, but I always save one or two spots for personal things.

To summarize:

  • Limit the number of things you try to do in a day

  • Know when things need to be done

  • Do things in the order in which they are due

  • Do the most important stuff first

  • Don't let unimportant stuff clutter up your time

August 10, 2005

Traveling Lightly

Several years ago I had a job where I had to travel quite a bit, and the experience taught me a lot about how to streamline the process of preparing for a trip without forgeting just about everything I needed to bring with me.

The first thing I did was pin a piece of paper to the bathroom mirror. On it I wrote every item I used in the morning and evening in my normal routine. After a few days, I used that list to assemble a travel toiletries kit. Initially I bought sample-sized bottles of stuff, but in the years since then I have switched to little travel bottles meant to deal with the pressure changes in an airplane. The kit was left, packed, in the bathroom. When I got home from a trip I would replenish it, so it was always ready to go.

Clothing is pretty easy, too: for every day I pack one shirt, socks, and underwear. Depending on how long I will be gone I will bring one or two extra sets. Also depending on how long I will be gone, I might bring an extra pair of pants. If I'm planning to go out, I bring one simple evening outfit (a long black skirt that never wrinkles, nice shoes and tights, and a dressy top).

Then there's the other crap.

For whatever reason, going on vacation seems to be a time when we lose all sense of what we actually do on a daily basis. People haul along games, sporting equipment, musical instruments, half their library, and a dozen odd electronic devices. This stuff is heavy and bulky and as far as I can tell half of it doesn't even get used, and the other half only gets used because it happens to be there.

When I travel, I bring the following extras: my cell phone, my iPod, one or two books, and the digital camera. If I read the books and need more reading material, I give myself permission to buy magazines or more books. The iPod is actually a recent addition to the crew, and I'm not sure it's going to stay; I like listening to radio shows, but it takes up room and is one more thing to worry about losing, damaging, or having stolen.

The next step, after you've pared down, is fine-tuning your packing. This means that when you are travelling, if you need something, write down what it was. If you end up having to buy something (like, say, deodorant), keep the one you bought in your travel kit.

But more critical than adding to the pile of stuff you carry everywhere is subtracting. There are some things I've just stopped carrying with me. They were things that I thought were important for a long time, but when I looked at my own behaviour on trips, it turned out that they were not. Things like lots of little packets of pills for various ailments (it turned out that most of the time I didn't use them and they expired, and when I did need them I could easily buy them where I was), or sunblock (which I rarely use). Also, I no longer pretend I will keep a perfect travel diary. I used to lug along a little blank book and it would sit, unused, for the entire trip. Sometimes just subtracting that much stuff makes it possible to put everything in the overhead bin and travel with no checked luggage.

After every trip I go through the toiletries kit and consider the other things I brought. If I used them, they probably get to stay, although if I only used them because I brought them then they might go anyway (bringing my own stash of tea with me was one of these things). If I didn't use them, they probably go, although there are afew things I haven't used that travel with me anyway (like my inhaler).

Paring down the stuff I travel with, while also making sure I have everything I need, has really changed the way I travel. I can pack for a weeklong stay abroad in fifteen minutes, for one thing, so there are no hectic nights before departure. And I remember (almost) everything, so there's not as much feeling like a total moron at my destination. Most important, though, is the feeling that I carried only what I needed to bring and that when I needed something, I had it. It makes travelling less hectic and disruptive, and it means that I can really relax and enjoy my destination. Not to mention how much easier it is to get through airports and train stations and taxi queues with one or two smaller bags.

After posting this, I happened across this web site, which has similar advice (if somewhat more extreme) and offers some good reviews of luggage.

August 04, 2005

Born Organized

One of the things I see in various communities for getting one's life in order or decluttering is the concept that there are some people who are Born Organized. That is just so wrong.

First of all, it's definitely possible to have developed systems for managing one aspect of your life that work really well, while other parts of your life are in total chaos. It's not about being born to one level of organization or not, but about how successful the systems you developed as you were maturing happened to be. Because we develop these systems before we really need to put them to the test, we have no way of knowing which ones are the right ones or not, unless we happen to have parents who recognize this and help us develop good systems.

Here's my example: Noel is a very tidy person, instinctively. He tends to fuss about cleaning things up, and moments after we finish eating he'll be stacking the plates up to take to the kitchen, no matter whether we're in the middle of a conversation or not. He likes a nice, tidy house, and he pushes me to keep the house that way. I, on the other hand, am a very untidy person. I've learned new tidy habits as an adult, and certainly have come at the decluttering thing from the cluttered/collector end of the spectrum. For me, keeping the house tidy is a real effort, and I had to develop systems with very strict rules. I had a side business for a few years where I helped other people declutter their homes, because that helped me keep on track with my own work.

On the other hand, I naturally keep track of time commitments in my head, know what's on my calendar for today, tomorrow, next week, etc. at any moment without checking it, and know how long it will take to get there. This is something I do without really knwoing how I do it. This skill is a huge struggle for Noel, who ended up having to adopt a set of strict rules and an external reminder system (he uses Franklin Covey's Seven Habits system), and in fact has become an instructor so he can teach the system to others.

A lot of people look at Noel's use of the planner and are amazed at how natural it seems, as if he were born using it. But it took a great deal of effort on his part to find the right system, and learn it and practise it until it was internal to him. He still falls off the wagon and has to get back on. Many of my former clients looked with awe on my ability to show them how to remove clutter and clear out large areas of their homes, but it has been a real effort for me to manage my own clutter and find the things that can leave the house without pain. I still find myself hoarding things, and have to correct that. Getting back on the wagon definitely gets easier with time, but it's not natural by any means.

The reality is that nobody is completely Born Organized, and the moniker is one that is most harmful to the people using it. If organization is something you are born with, then no amount of system creation can make up for that. But the reality is that all of us have some part of our lives that is totally chaotic and harmful to us, and we all have systems that don't work that we could improve on. We do tend to notice when people have systems that work better than our broken ones, but somehow we seem not to notice when other people are unable to manage something we find easy. I had to learn how to understand Noel's schedule issues because the idea that somebody could not keep their calendar in their head was foreign to me.

We all develop these systems for managing our lives when we are kids, then have to rely on them as adults. Some systems work better than others, and we can all learn from that (though some systems that work well for one person don't work as well for another). Other systems clearly do not work, and the only way around that is to develop a new system to fix the problem. We should not focus on putting ourselves down for not having a perfect system for everything, and definitely should not imagine that there are some other, perfect people out there who somehow have it all figured out naturally. That's a defeatist attitude and it just so happens to be flat out wrong. We're all human beings with flaws and perfections.