self help

Learning to Discard

Funny how once you become focused on a thing, you start to notice occurrences of it everywhere. This week, a bit of serendipity came in the form of this letter from Nick Disabato, talking about how he’s been learning to discard things, and being more intentional about the things he chooses to be part of his life. If you’ve been struggling with how to get rid of things, like I have, I highly encourage you to give that a read.

I’ve been trying really hard to make strides in discarding lately, so that letter gave me another boost of confidence that I’m heading in the right direction. We got rid of a ton of stuff two years ago when I moved my family from Maryland to Seattle (and I’m talking rent-a-dumpster levels of stuff), but as we unpacked, and ever since, I’ve been thinking that I still didn’t get rid of enough. As I recently wrote, that thinking has extended to my email as well. I have started to realize that the root of the problem is that I’m letting too many things into my life that serve no real purpose.

Just this weekend, I finished reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. While it is — like many self-help books — about a page and a half of decent tips expanded to book form, there were three big takeaways for me:


I had a conversation with my friend AAl on Twitter, regarding 2,051 emails in my inbox:

bobtiki-twitter-small It’s a stream from which I pluck the occasional tasty salmon. It’s not all Things I Have to Deal With.

aalgar-twitter-small So… it’s like The Den. Filled mostly with stuff you don’t need, but maybe one thing might be useful?

bobtiki-twitter-small oh god what have I done

At that moment, it hit me, what I was doing. The Den, as AAl and I have come to call it, is the personification of my clutter; a room in my house that is somehow possessed of a will of its own, compelling me to go out into the world and return with stuff with which to fill it.

It’s funny because it’s true.

I have a real problem discarding things, and I’ve tried so many ways of tricking myself into doing it, and none of them have really worked, long term. (I’m trying yet another one right now!) I certainly come by it honestly — my grandfather died, leaving a basement full to the brim of old junk, unopened mail, cobwebs, and fifty years of National Geographic. My parents rented a dumpster to clear out his house, and I’ve already rented a dumpster to clear out my own house, when we moved from Maryland to Seattle two years ago.

As fascinating as I found his basement when I was a kid, I’ve sworn that I wouldn’t leave a similar heap when I die. However, I don’t seem to really be making headway on that goal. It’s not just The Den — it’s my email and so many other areas in my life where I deal with the parts that I find interesting, and just let the rest of it flow by. The trouble is, it’s not a stream that will harmlessly find its level in the great sea, it’s a giant conveyor belt of crap that takes everything I didn’t pluck out, and dumps it in an enormous pile that someone will have to deal with eventually.

Probably that someone should be me. It is all Things I Have to Deal With.

I don’t really have the perfect solution here, or Ten Amazing Steps To Learn to Throw Crap Away, but envisioning my email inbox as a giant ugly pile of unopened letters, shitty Penny Saver magazines, and half-torn cardboard boxes really helped put things in a new perspective.

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!


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:



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.


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 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.


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.


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.



I realized this morning, with all this GTD stuff, I’ve been expecting myself to change very quickly, and for the world to suddenly become a happy shiny place, all because I’m not just letting papers (and emails) pile up all over the place, willy-nilly. I don’t really need to turn my life around on a dime to be happy with my own progress. A little change for the better every day is just as admirable, and probably much more sustainable. And as Luis points out:

you improve a little bit each day and over the long run you’ve outrun the pack.

Wise words, indeed.

Ultimatums to Myself

Well, the three of you who actually read this column regularly may have noticed that I took quite a hiatus the past few weeks, and unannounced at that. Some of you have even expressed concern that somehow the Earth’s gravitation pull had lost its effect on me, and that I might have been somehow flung off into space. Thankfully, no. The real reason lies somewhere between a hectic few weeks at work, an accelerated schedule at home preparing for the new baby, actually having the new baby (it’s a girl! [link now gone —Ed. 2015-08-15]), housework, lazying about, and a really terrible bout of hayfever, which, as it turns out, isn’t really a fever, and has very little to do with hay.

In any case, as an extra little bonus for all you long–suffering fans (as well as those who merely fascinated to watch a train wreck in progress), I finally saw Star Wars: The Phantom Menace a few Friday nights ago, and wrote a collaborative review with my friend AAlgar, which can be found in the Sarcastic Voyage archives. [also, sadly, now gone —Ed.]

Besides that obvious bit of turning an enjoyable evening into a half–a–column, I’ve been slacking quite a bit lately — in writing the column, and in other aspect of my life. I have realized that I need to improve myself — which, believe me, is much more motivating than being told “Get with it, slacker!” by some other entity. As is the case with most teenagers (or so I understand), I have retained the not–so–wonderful quality of thought that turns every suggestion for improvement into a bald force in the opposite direction — I don’t like being told what to do, or in other words, I have a problem with authority.

Self propelled embetterment being the impetus it is, though, I have assigned myself a few ultimatums to that end:

1. Read every book I own, yet have not read, before any new books are acquired.

I have, on rough estimate, at least 50 or 60 books that I personally own that I have barely cracked the covers of, much less read all the way through. These range from the mainstays of science fiction and fantasy classics (Tolkein’s Hobbit saga, Ann McCaffery’s Pern books), to Mark Twain, to [other books].

This applies to magazines as well, though some of that can’t be stopped easily — subscriptions. I am, though, making a lot of headway in going through my current collection of magazines and clippings to digitize them for posterity. I think ageing the pile was a good idea. I now see a lot of the stuff I was keeping is now either archived somewhere else, or just isn’t important to me anymore. It’s given me a much better perspective on what articles I need to keep in the future, which — beyond a good deal of how–to articles dealing with my profession — is very little.

2. No more movie purchases until a DVD player is acquired.

I find myself searching more and more for the widescreen VHS versions of movies I want to purchase. I understand a lot of people hate the widescreen (or “letterbox”) transfer of movie, mainly on the grounds that “these stupid black bars take up half the screen.” Well, if we all had widescreen TVs I suppose we wouldn’t have that problem, but for now, being the movie hound I am, I want to see the whole film, which means shrinking it to fit my non-wide TV.

DVDs, though, can show you the movie letterboxed, pan & scan (what people normally think of as full–screen on the TV), and true widescreen (if you have a wide TV or video projector). Given that, the higher resolution they contain (sharper picture), and the fact that they won’t wear out like a tape will over time (they’re like CDs for video), I project at some point in the very near future, I’ll be converting my collection to DVD anyway, so why buy any more movies on VHS that I’ll be replacing with a DVD within a couple of years anyway? No, I’ll wait and buy all of my new films on DVD, and slowly replace my collection with the more durable medium.

3. An absolute bedtime of 10 pm & drink 12 c. of water each day.

As my parents always said (and still do, I’m afraid), a good night’s sleep and keeping hydrated the two most important keys to good health. While I may be paraphrasing (they also wouldn’t mind if I returned to vegetarianism), I believe, at least, that these two measures will increase my health dramatically. I have noticed on the few days that I have (unintentionally, you understand) followed these guidelines, that the next day, I awoke filled with energy, ready to face the world (or at least some noble, local pursuit). My energy levels have been sagging such as late as to force me to make this vow— to actually take a bit better care of my body. [GASP!]

4. Track my finances better and more regularly — and SMM.

Much to my father’s chagrin, I am truly terrible at keeping my finances under my belt. (I’m not sure if that turn of phrase means what I meant it to mean, but I like how it sounds.) For the most part, my wife and I string along from paycheck to paycheck, just making ends meet, through no fault of my own, mind you. I’m what you could charitably call a “spendthrift.” I very regularly lose track of where I am financially (even though I have it all plugged into Quicken, I don’t update it every day, like I should), and often come close to overdrawing the account. The only thing that keep us from starving or living on the street is the efforts of my wonderful lifemate, who insists I give her cash to cover things like that. (I love you!)

My new vow is to become more aware of where all the money is going, keep better track of everything, and in the wise words of my Dad, “S.Y.M.” — Save Your Money — so we’re no longer one paycheck away from homelessness. I’ve even worked out a plan to pay off my wife’s student loan faster and start investing foolishly for the long term in the stock market, to build capital for a new home purchase and retirement (it’s wiser than it sounds).

5. Keep writing my weekly column.

As noted, I’ve slacked off on this duty for quite a while — nearly two months now — but I’m back, and I plan to keep with it. I need to write, even if I don’t write as well (or as effortlessly) as I’d like. It’s an outlet I need, and good experience for my journeyman profession of making films. I hope I can be entertaining — or at the least, interesting — to you, my readers, at the same time.

I think I’ve set some relatively high goals for myself, considering they’re fundamental changes to my lifestyle. I’m going to do them to the best of my ability — and if you catch me lagging on any of them, feel free to give me a smack on the nose with a rolled–up e–mail. I may need some “encouragement” now and again.