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What the Hell My Problems Are

I’ve been thinking for quite a while now that, while I continue to aspire to accomplishments that I feel I am perfectly capable of, as of late I have:

  • Not been making very much progress toward these goals, and
  • Feeling like I have less and less time in which to accomplish them.

I have since come to the conclusion that this is my own damn fault.

Shocking, I know.

The problems I have realized which keep me from accomplishing my goals seem to fall into three categories:

  • Lack of focus
  • Distractions
  • Being disorganized

The more astute reader may note that these are actually all the same problem.

The upshot of what I’m about to enumerate is that being disorganized (whether physical or informational) keeps my brain distracted enough that lack of focus becomes near-permanent. Heck, I’m so scatterbrained at this point that I can’t help but think that maybe meditation would help, and then I think of a scene about meditation in the audiobook I’ve been listening to lately, Variable Star (by Spider Robinson, writing from an outline and notes by Robert A. Heinlein) and am distracted by that thought just long enough that I start to think “ooh, I wonder where I left off; did I fall asleep to that last night? I can’t remember if I finished disc 5 or not; maybe I should go check,” before catching myself and mentally shouting NO! YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE WRITING THIS BLOG ENTRY, DAMMIT!

Sigh.

Let me go into exactly how this is so. Now, obviously, this column is more for me than for you, dear reader, but I know many folks who have the same afflictions as I (or at least, I see similar symptoms), and perhaps may be able to benefit from the knowledge gained from my mistakes. Not you, of course. You are undeniably smarter, better looking, and at least 20% more productive than I.

I’ll warn you right now, this is a really long blog post. It’s more of a white paper on my dysfunctional brain, and how I think I might be able to tweak it to work slightly better, than a tidy little post to solve what ails you (and me). Still, if your brain is as scattered as mine is, you may still find it useful.

I suppose I should say up front that I don’t have all of the answers. I have rough ideas of how I’m going to go about changing things for myself (and indeed, this very blog entry is part of my way of working through that mental process), but I haven’t really changed anything yet, so I don’t know how well any of this is going to work. All I can do is pave my road to hell with a few more good intentions, and report back after a while and let you know how well they stick. But for now, let’s start with the problems:

Distractions

Blogs

Well, not so much my own blog. I haven’t been posting to it for quite a long while — I’ve been too distracted. And I hardly ever go to blogs themselves anymore. That’s what RSS feeds and NetNewsWire are for, right? Bring all of your blog reading into one combined interface, so you can get your reading done efficiently without traipsing all over the internet looking for the sites that you regularly read.

However, adding a new site to your feed reader is almost too easy. What’s another blog or two added to my daily reading? Of course, you know the answer. Not much — until you add another blog or two or thirty or hundred. Sure, some blogs update at a pretty leisurely pace, and they’re easy enough to keep up with. Some update multiple times per hour. Right now, I have 9,216 unread items in NetNewsWire. Nine thousand two hundred sixteen. There are 488 in my “Productivity” folder alone.

Proposal: I need to be more discriminating in which feeds I add to my reader. Do I really need that Engadget or BBC News feed in there that adds a couple hundred items to my feed list every day? Those are nice occasionally, but I don’t need to see them every day. It would also help to partition feeds based on how often I need to check them, perhaps daily/weekly/monthly. If there are too many weekly feeds to check comfortably in one day, perhaps split them into multiple folders for each day of the week. Or better yet, just trim back.

Twitter

Oh god, oh gawd am I addicted to Twitter. And for good reason. Twitter has let me meet and have conversations with people whom it might have taken me years to meet in person without this network of like-minded folks interacting online. It’s intoxicating! All these smart, witty people in one place.

And posting is easy. You only have 140 characters per post. Make good use of it. Watch others make good use of it. Learn. Feedback. Ask. Get responses. Find out about cool stuff you’d never learn about on your own. Get tips on creating things, work and personal. It’s like a giant water cooler for people who work at home. Very, very addictive.

What’s the problem, really, if I get all this good info from Twitter? The signal-to-noise ratio is pretty low. It’s fun noise. Really fun. But still noise. And maybe I follow too many people. 270 at last count. I feel slightly obligated to follow people who follow me if they’re even moderately interesting.

Proposal: Trim down the number of people I’m following to a slightly more manageable level. I can’t base my workday on being able to check Twitter once an hour to catch up on the last hundred messages so I don’t miss anything. Realize that if I miss something, it’s probably not that big a deal. If I need to go a whole day without checking in, do it. Just check the @replies page for anything important, declare Twitter Bankruptcy for the day and move on.

The Telly

This is way less of a problem than it used to be, but it still looms. A bit of background: I work in TV. I help make TV shows that eventually air on cable networks like Discovery and History. I used to have cable TV like tons of other folks, and I watched a lot of it. More than I wanted to. It wasn’t just something to be able to check my work when it aired (…and really, how often did I do that? Not much.), it became the always-on distraction. I would flip channels late at night when I had insomnia. I was addicted to watching things in HD just because they were in HD, and not because they were any good. My kids would watch tons of crap that I really didn’t want them watching. And it’s not like I really needed it to keep tabs on what everyone else on TV was doing. Why on earth would I want to base my supposedly new, fresh ideas for our own TV production on what some guy on network TV had done a year ago? Everyone else does that. Better to bring in fresh new ideas from print or online or film or some other medium. So, out the cable subscription went.

That’s right, I make TV, but even I don’t watch it.

Well, that’s not true. It’s two years later, and I still watch a fair amount of TV, but now I get all of it from the internet. Pretty much everything I once watched, I now watch via iTunes or Hulu, or in a few cases, on DVD after the requisite delay. I still probably watch too much, but at least it’s no longer a fall-back, “I’m bored” sort of proposition. I actually have to pick and choose and seek out the shows, and then either agree to watch them on Hulu with a few commercials, or decide to pay for them on iTunes. (…and boy howdy, now that I’ve been watching commercial-free on iTunes for a while, I can not stand to watch with more than one or two commercial interruptions.)

Paying for content really makes you consider what’s important to you. You don’t flip around as much — or even give new shows a chance — when it costs two dollars a pop. But even with buying season passes on iTunes, we’re still paying less than what our cable subscription was costing us. I watch about 10 shows:

I guess that’s only eight now. Perhaps I’ve dropped a couple since I last made that list. I may add an older show to that list every once in a while, and go through a season over the course of a month or two: an old season of 24 I never saw, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Northern Exposure, that sort of thing. The A.B. shows are denoted with an asterisk, as they’re the only shows that I like to regularly watch that I can’t get legally via the internet. So, I haven’t been watching ’em as much lately — waiting for the DVDs, of course, and absolutely not downloading them via any non-sanctioned means, no sir.

Thankfully, they aren’t all on at the same time, so I get some spring shows, some fall shows, and it thins things out a bit. I’ve been tempted to add shows to that list lately — I’ve heard good things about Burn Notice both on Twitter and from my wife… (and I love Bruce Campbell) but I’m loathe to add anything more that will suck up my time. In fact, I’m anxiously awaiting the end of a few of these series so I can drop them and hopefully not replace them with something.

I’ve been listening to the Life Zero podcast lately, and I agree with John’s tenet that for something new to come into your life that something old must go out. However, I think if something leaves, that doesn’t mean that you have to replace it with something else, especially when you’re already overburdened with things that demand your time and attention.

Proposal: Keep doing what I’m doing, essentially. Watch the shows I enjoy until they finally end, and be very, very cautious about picking anything at all to replace them. I could just drop everything, but… I guess I’m not ready to consider that yet.

Movies

Movies are my biggest passion in life. I’ve made a few short films. I love watching good flicks. I love the technology behind it. I love the effects — I have a complete collection of Cinefex magazine. I love good writing, and I love cinematography. In fact, the reason I’m doing TV work now is that I got into it as a stepping stone, so I could eventually make movies.

So why aren’t I making movies?

Good question. One to which I do not currently have a satisfactory answer. I don’t think it would be a stretch to chalk it up to what everything else here boils down to: Disctraction, lack of focus and disorganization. But this isn’t about making films. If movies are my passion, why are they a distraction?

If I spend 10+ hours a week watching movies, then that’s ten fewer hours I have to make movies. Or write, or work on my photography, or any of the other skills that I need to hone to be able to make a film. (And yes, I realize that I don’t have to learn every skill that goes into making a film, and that I really need to learn to gather people around me who do know these things, and I need to learn to delegate; but that is another issue entirely.)

I do agree with the old adage that if you want to create something, seek out good examples of that sort of creation for study. But if you study forever and never create something yourself, what good is all that studying?

Proposal: Cut down slightly on the number of films watched per week, but do so by being more discriminating about which films to see. Seek out great examples of storytelling, cinematography, editing, acting, and take the time to record what I learn for future reference.

Magazines and Books

This is really an extension of my issue with blogs that I went over earlier. The main difference is these take up physical space in my house. I get a lot of trade magazines, some only tangentially related to what I want to learn. Do I read all of them? Hell, no. Do I feel like I’m somehow a bad person when I let them pile up in my magazine bin that I purchased specifically to pile up the dozens of unread magazines that are in my house at any one time?

Um… yes.

In fact, the stress I feel from not reading them is worse in this case than the time I might waste reading the ones that are marginally useful. Same with the 9,000+ unread count in NetNewsWire, or the several hundred unread emails in my inbox for that matter. But I’ll get to email later.

I also have tons of books that Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Books I had every intention of reading, but I now realize I never will. Books that are out of date, have factual errors, and refer to websites or other references that don’t even exist anymore. Books that probably would have better served me had I checked them out of the library for a few weeks instead of buying. Books that take up even more space than all those magazines and provide a constant visual reminder of projects unfinished, skills unlearned, and money wasted.

Proposal: Weed magazine subscriptions down to those that actually provide useful information on a regular basis. I don’t care if they’re free. Just because I didn’t pay for the subscription doesn’t mean they don’t cost me time and mental effort, whether or not I actually read them. As for the books, be realistic, go though and figure out the ones I’ll never read, or which I would be better served by checking out from the library at time of need, and weed them out, donating them or giving them away to those who can actually use them.

Disorganization

My house is a wreck.

Now, we just moved to a new house. Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s just that things are in boxes. Once you get everything unpacked, you’ll be right as rain.” However, you would be horribly, horribly wrong. I would laugh heartily at your naiveté. No, my problem is much, much deeper than that. It is this:

I have too much crap.

Yes, I have too many books. And magazines. And DVDs and CDs and even a couple of vestigial VHS tapes. I have tools that I used once and broke or found to be so useless that I never touched them again. I have half-working electronics that I insist I will fix “someday.” I have bits and bobs and trinkets and gewgaws that I keep “just in case.” “You never know,” I’m often heard to say, “that might come in handy.”

This is exacerbated by illusions of becoming more of a maker/hacker type. “What if I want to use the capacitors and resistors and LEDs from this broken thing to build something even cooler?” I might say. I hardly ever do, though. And the broken DVD burner and VHS player and kitty water fountain sits in my basement for years, waiting for that “someday.”

I have more electronics and tools than I can use myself. I’d get rid of them, but I’ve become That Guy From Whom People Borrow Things. I kind of like being That Guy, admittedly — I guess it feeds my ego a little bit. I like having all the resources I need for things without having to beg, borrow and steal.

But it’s not just fun stuff like media, gadgets and tools. Oh, no. It’s paper. Tons and tons of paper. Some of it worthless, some of it critically important, all of it disorganized. I have piles of paper that I wish I could just throw away, but can’t because I’m afraid that there might be Something Important buried in the stack. And so I don’t toss it, and the stack grows. My finances are a mess, too.

I don’t know where to put things away. I don’t have a filing system that works for me. I have piles of paper and photos and slides that I’d like to scan to keep in my archives, but I haven’t figured out the best way to do that yet — and so it doesn’t get done at all.

Proposal: Take a few key ideas from Cindy Glovinsky and Julie Morgenstern and start plotting an organizational and filing scheme that will work the way my mind works and is something I can stick with. (I particularly like the idea of kindergarten-level “zones of activity” and labeled shelves and bins — that really seems to be helping.) Shed the stuff I don’t really need, and don’t worry about needing to be That Guy. Identify the stuff that’s important me and give myself access to it. Everything else needs to go. Why do I need to have this stuff in my house, in my life when I can easily borrow or rent what I might need relatively quickly? The answer is: I don’t. Get rid of it.

Lack of Focus

There are waaaaay too many things I want to do, and I’ve been suffering under the illusion that one day, if I learn enough, I can do them all.

[DEEP BREATH.]

I think it’s time to admit to myself that I can’t.

Not only will I not one day do everything I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t even do everything I want to do right now. I’ve learned that in trying to do so, I end up doing an awful lot of half-assed things, with only two, one, or even none of them done great.

I do video editing, both offline and online. I do 2D animation and graphic design. I produce threewait, no: four podcasts that all receive varying degrees of half-attention. I have a blog that I don’t write in very much. I have a second “tumblog” that’s meant for my fun links and photos and quips that aren’t fodder for my “real” blog, which I haughtily feel should be filled with longer and more thoughtful entries. I have a “business” blog where I occasionally talk about video-related tips and reviews and such. I post to Twitter. I have delusions of grandeur about writing my own apps for Mac and iPhone alike. I have email and phone calls which require attention (and a lot of email which requires skimming quickly and trashing, but instead it piles up in my inbox, providing another source of stress). I take on way too many work projects at once, and then I complain that I’m exhausted after work and have neither the time nor energy for any of my other umpteen projects.

I also have a family who would really appreciate if I would spend time with them every once in a while.

Proposal: Triage. It’s painful, but a lot of the projects I would love to do need to either be passed on to someone who has the time and resources to do them well, or filed away in a “Someday/Maybe” file for a day that will probably never come. Get everything out onto paper, even if it’s a Someday/Maybe. Get back on track with the whole Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology — that seemed to be working pretty well when I was keeping up with it. Finally, I need to do some hard thinking and come to a decision on what really is most important to me, and actually using that as a guideline so that I can decide what to say yes to, and what things get told, “no.” Saying “no” is probably also a good skill to learn.

There is No Later, There is Only Now

My plans are admittedly vague, but at least now I’ve got the bones out there. I just need to flesh them out, and I hope to share that with you as I do.

It’s somehow simultaneously painful and a relief to finally get all this out and look at it with some slight objectivity on the page instead of just stealing a thought here and there that “I should really do something about this at some point,” and then setting it aside until some nebulous “later”. Later is now. It really can’t wait any longer.

You should check out my podcast about movie magic and VFX: The Optical.