What I’m thinking right now

the first hurdle: emphatically non-leaped

Yesterday was a total meltdown. A carefully-laid plan was in place: leave work by seven, get home, watch Bobby, get a much-needed early night. Instead I wound up in an epic staring-at-the-PC session till 2am. That’s right, 2am.

All the classic mistakes were made. I worked up till about 6pm, whereupon my phone rang, and it was mum, who has taken to phoning me at work. That ate 25 minutes (not that time spent talking to your mother is ever wasted, kids). After that, I’m not sure what happened. I did a tiny, miniscule amount more work. Replied to a couple of emails. Sent one. And the next thing I knew, it was 8.30. And I still hadn’t been for the run I was meant to go for at lunchtime.

A run later, I eventually got home at a little after ten. Bobby was impossible, and I was furious, but at least I still had a chance to get to bed early. I just wanted to change the music on my mp3 player. Simple, right? Oh, I’d better just write that blog post I’ve been meaning to write. And I have to download those choreography videos for the concert in December. OK, got those. Let’s try to watch one – woah! Computer freeze!

<geek>

I spent twenty minutes staring at my PC, waiting for a folder to open. (It turns out, if anyone’s interested, that Quicktime was having trouble generating thumbnails of the videos). The much-vaunted speed benefits I was supposed to get from having a 2/3rds empty hard drive failed to materialise. I wound up having to restart, which when you have as much crap in your startup folder as I do, takes about 10 minutes.

</geek>

Then I tried to set up my new Bluetooth dongle, and get some messages off my phone. I’ve done it before, and didn’t anticipate any problems. But it took three tries, and over half an hour, before the bloody things would talk to each other.

All in all, popping on the PC for twenty minutes turned into a three-hour epic, and my early night became a red-eye. All the classic signs of pointless, exhausted late-night geekery were there: for example, the music I was listening to finished and I couldn’t be bothered to put more on.

So. This is a setback, but obviously not insurmountable. When I eventually get my early night, it’s going to help – after all, these things always seem to happen when I’m already knackered. It’s one of life’s little pissers. Nevertheless, lessons clearly need to be learned.

There are two problems: attitudinal and technological. The tech issue is that the reminders and limits I set up to control my internet use are simply not proving effective, largely because they’re too easy to ignore. I used to have kids’ software de-activate my internet connection at midnight, but I deactivated it because it was horrible, messy and popped up all sorts of random alerts at weird times. The last straw was when it locked me out of my main account and forced me to set a password! But I might have to reactivate it. The hourly pop-up, where I’m supposed to say whether I’ve spent the last hour saving Africa or pissing about, is to easy to just close. And the <geek>greasemonkey script</geek> I installed to limit my firefox use has, predictably, been constantly de-activated. So I’m going to have to review my solutions there.

But the key problem is really one of attitude. I’m still taking a totally task-oriented approach, not just to my actual work, but to the host of other little things that eat up my time. So I don’t think “I’ll spend ten minutes checking my email,” I think, “I’ll check my email” (or rather, I just do it, knee-jerk), and keep going through till I’ve dealt with it all – which usually takes far longer than ten minutes. Similarly with last night. There was no reason why I had to do any of those tasks that night. Any of them could have waited. But I went into it seeing them as tasks to be completed, and kept going till I’d ticked them off, even when it had become completely obvious it was too late and the computer didn’t want to behave.

This task-based approach is based on a myth – that when it comes to consuming media, or geeking – the two activities that, more than any others, eat my time – there is a finite amount to be done. I’ll just finish this pile of magazines. I’ll just finish sorting that new widget out. Etc.

But actually, these things never end. You read all your reading material, you just find more. You spend two hours tracking down all three versions of New Order’s “Temptation” (I kid you not – this was me two Wednesdays ago) and a day later, it’s forgotten and another vague quest takes over. The internet isn’t technically infinite, but it’s so vast it might as well be. And, similarly, the onward march of technology means there will always be another piece of software, or dongle, to stick into your PC and spend two hours making work. It’s never finished.

So it’s a trap to look at it in a task-based way: it’s a recipe for having your life taken over. Instead, what I have to do is think about it in a time-based way. I’ll do this for ten minutes. I can have an hour, as it’s Saturday. And whatever I get done in that time, is what I’ve got done. This isn’t obviously, true for actual tasks, for example at work. There, you often need to do something till it’s done. But the trick is knowing when that mentality applies, and when it doesn’t.

There are, in fact, very few tasks that this approach doesn’t work for – especially the kind of things I waste time on. Obviously there’s no point leaving a car half-washed, but fortunately that’s not my kind of time-wasting. Given that my computer has a “hibernate” function, there’s no reason I can’t turn it off and walk away literally in the middle of a task with no problems.

So this is the challenge – to make a clear distinction between tasks that have to be done till they’re done – like Africa and actual work stuff – and others where the level of stuff to be done is, essentially, infinite. There, I need to think in terms of time, not tasks. To keep a task list, and tick things off as I do them, but to accept that, on balance, the list will probably get bigger as I add things quicker than I tick them off. But that’s not really a problem. Because the other thing that all my time-eating activities have in common is that none of them actually matter.

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