system design

2020-07-28 07:09

Part I: Why am I writing this?

  1. Where I to die tomorrow, would anyone have any idea what my brain was up to for all these years? I pride myself in learning– from people, from books, from careful observation, from mistakes… do the current outputs of my brain and my life align with what I hope they should be to paint a complete picture? What does alignment in this way look like? Blog posts? An online portfolio? A cleverly orchestrated will so people will be able to know exactly how I thought and felt should I die an early death?

Create a website. You know you’ve always wanted to run a youtube channel. Take a weekend each year to write letters to everyone you care about. Hell, maybe write a memoire once a year and keep a will up to date (with detailed closing accounts and deleting profiles instructions). That way, if you kick the bucket early you’re covered. Also, having your affairs in order frees you up to die a hero should you chose to sacrifice yourself to save somebody else in the moment.

  1. My brain does not remember as well as it used to. I remmeber poking fun at my poor mother for not remembering whodunit on Monk reruns. Now I am the person who has forgotten differential equations and spanish and even basic facts. Learning is central to who I see myself as a person, so it would make sense for me to invest some time in fortifying my brain with external systems to help me stay on top of all my interests. I should look into spaced repetition software like Anki for skills I want to keep. For thoughts, feelings, and events, I really need to keep a good journal and good notes.

Keep a notebook. It should have a calendar, a section for lists and project steps, a ‘live’ set of actions, thoughts, etc. Check this notebook before every meal so that you associate the twinge of hunger with triggering it and the feeling of satiety with the reward of checking it. Every week process it by dumping out stuff tucked in pages, tabulating the data, checking progress on projects, and keeping an eye on the dates. Think of something clever to do with the journal at each meal. For example, review the calendar and daily actions over breakfast, refresh over lunch, and write a journal entry for the day before dinner. Keep an up-to-date index for everthing.

Keep a file cabinet. Organize it once a year in January, and keep tabs on exactly what lies inside. No more than one drawer should hold A-Z reference. Another drawer should hold all the supplies needed to be able to make full use of the file cabinet in less than 30 seconds. The remaining drawer should hold the tickler, the file cabinet equivalent of setting your keys on top of some important item the night before. This drawer should have a folder for all the months of the year, four weeks of the month, and one for the weekend. This is where stuff gets put when you want to be reminded of something in x amount of time. Check this every week and take full advantage of it for spaced repetition.

You’re going to have digital stuff to keep track of as well. Separate documents into backups, reference, and projects. Reference is static– just for the things you want to keep. Projects is live apart from a lone ‘archived’ folder for projects you may need to pick back up again in a hurry for whatever reason. Other buckets include email inboxes, bookmark lists, configuration dotfiles. Automate what you can to back everything up, but set reminders with analog tools when you can’t.

Analog and digital systems each have their strengths, so leverage them. You may need to be reminded of what exactly is in the file cabinet, so create a digital file listing all the contents so that you can search it. You may not want to rely on the internet to recall some obscure formula, so add it to your journal to a dedicated reference page. Digital files tend to be hoarded more than analog ones (recall the 1 drawer limit) so consider writing a script to printout a file tree whenever the directory structure changes.

Obviously a key decision to be made here is in which pursuits are worth your time. This one is tough. No quick rules or sly hacks are going to cut it here, so it is best to be honest with yourself and go with your gut. Are you really going to learn an entire new language, or is your willpower better spent on something else? Use the system to your advantage by creating a guilt-free enviroment for saying no– work hard to make sure your ‘someday maybe’ list isn’t masquarading as a ‘to look into as soon as I have down time’ list. From there, prioritize by how much energy you have or the situation you need to be in so that you can make progress. Should you embark on that complex electronics project when you know you’ll need to order parts, setup a workstation, and have several hours-worth of patience to see it though? Again, there’s no shame in pushing a cool project to the back burner as long as you don’t flounder with giving the current challenge your undivided attention. Actually, consider having an intermediate list called ‘the backburner’.

  1. So far I have been unable to create a habit facilitation system that has been flexible to survive all that life tends to throw at it. I’m not sure what this looks like– a phone app or computer program, perhaps. I think setting up some kind of habit coaching system with CUES, ROUTINES, and REWARDS will really help me conserve decision-making willpower and accomplish more of life’s non-negotiable tasks with less effort. Cleaning my room may be draining, but tidying up for 5 minutes before bedtime each night could be enjoyable.

Habits are of the form CUE, ROUTINE, REWARD. Step one is to be mindful of the habits you already have and ponder why it is that they stuck. Spend a day and a page in the notebook keeping track of as many habits as you can and jot down what you think the CUE, ROUTINE, and REWARD are. What types of stimuli really provoke you? The bulk of making good habits is in how crafty you can be in exploiting yourself.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me as I grow older that I simply cannot afford to be so equally interested in everything if I expect to get anything done. Too often I find myself so utterly absorbed in some new fascination that I completely abandon the last project I felt so strongly about the previous week. To be honest, I am begining to doubt whether or not I still have the necessary patience to complete longer projects.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with having such magnetic curiosity provided it is well managed. My hope is that by restructuring my life around a small number of well thought-out systems I will find myself more suited to see larger, more ambitious projects through to completion.

After some thought, it is clear to me that a central component of these systems must be an old-fashioned pen and paper notebook. It occurs to me that, were I to die tomorrow, none of my ideas, discoveries, realizations, interests, or analysis exist outside my own head. I don’t use social media and I rarely reveal my thoughts openly to the world in conversation. I’ll have to leave a paper trail if any of my ideas are to leak out into the world. zettelkasten thoughts