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January 11, 2009

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Posted by Patrick at 09:24 PM *

I have jury duty for the next two weeks. Grand jury duty, M-F, all day every day. I’ve deferred it twice; given New York State’s newly-aggressive “everybody serves” policy, best to get it over with. But it means I’ll be substantially away from the office for most of that time, using my evenings to try to deal the day’s most important work-related email. (Needless to say, smartphones and broadband-equipped notebook computers are not allowed in grand jury hearing rooms.)

I’m not thrilled. 2008 was a year in which I got more and more behind on the basics of my job. First because of my involvement with launching, then later because of other unexpected shocks. Teresa had a heart attack. My friend Soren had a frickin’ stroke. There were other distractions. By the holiday break, last month, my personal email inbox had 300 unanswered messages. My “Tor” inbox had over 800.

Email, all by itself, is a horror story. I’m about this far (holds up fingers in universal gesture of “not very damn far”) from declaring “email bankruptcy”, Lawrence Lessig-style. The trouble with email is that it’s so easy to get into the habit of letting your inbox be your to-do list, and then what you have is a world-writeable to-do list with no editable hierarchy. Worse, every attempt to winnow or organize it becomes a traumatic encounter with all your worst recent omissions. It’s a bad relationship to develop with your work. David Allen’s Getting Things Done describes the problem brilliantly. Unfortunately, as with many other reforming visionaries (Marx, Jesus, Bill James), GTD’s prescriptions are less obviously doable than the diagnosis is acute.

So here I am, a little over a week past fifty, a little over a month past Twenty Years At Tor, unhappily conscious of how much of my working life has lately consisted of running in a circle while dragging one wing. I have real work, important work, dealmaking and editing and scheduling and planning, that’s running months late. (My fabulous assistants bear no responsibility whatsoever for any of this.) I have authors and agents I’m genuinely fond of who are probably beginning to wonder, you know, WTF. I’ve seen other editors, good editors, get into this kind of slough-of-despond. I’ve even seen them emerge from it; I’m just a little unclear about how.

This is getting to sound awfully self-pitying, so in fairness I should say that I’ve contributed to the problem with conscious choices of my own. I’m in a band; indeed, we’ve started recording a full-length album. Like many people I know, I got unhealthily obsessed with the US election. Throughout the past year, I traveled, read books, and did other things that weren’t work-related. I certainly could have been more disciplined. As a rule, we dig ourselves into holes with a teaspoon, not a steam shovel.

At any rate, the prospect of being away from the office for two weeks does not fill me with joy. This is not a time when I want to be forced to the sidelines by yet another out-of-left-field emergency. For cry eye, I’m even going to miss watching the inauguration!

I really don’t know how I’m going to dig out from this. I probably will, some way or another. But I don’t have a tidy end for this post. And I’ll certainly be hard to reach for the next two weeks.

Comments on Next Actions:
#1 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 09:40 PM:

Good luck.

As much as you can, in the midst of all else, enjoy it.

#2 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 09:49 PM:

I wish I could say that I don't understand the problem. I further wish I had some useful advice that doesn't feel like throwing your hands in the air, and hoping that something gives, and things sort out... or hoping that those around you will be forgiving.

Hm. Thinking about it, I have one piece of possibly useful advice, which somebody'd posted about housecleaning... namely to chew off little bits, and not think about the big awful -- in the case of housecleaning, to attack it in 15 minute chunks, and only those tasks that can be done in 15 minute chunks. It seems to keep them mind from getting hit with that "OMG too much stuff, too far behind, ARGH!".

Come to think of it, I'd have to suspect that Structured Procrastination owes something to that. Hmm...

#3 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 09:50 PM:

Yes. Enjoy it, and learn from it. To the extent possible.

My sympathy to you for the squeezed feelings you describe. Your friends will still be your friends if you have to go away for a while...

#4 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:00 PM:

As a soon-to-be houseguest, I pledge to do my best to make things easier rather than harder. (Errands done happily on request.)

#5 ::: Misha ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:01 PM:

Not that I don't love a slough of despond as much as the next person, but I don't know a single person in New York who's had to stay at jury duty for the whole two weeks in recent years unless they end up on a trial -- the "everybody serves" rule means there are enough jurors to go around and then some.

Typically, you end up being bored out of your brains in the courthouse for a few days, get moved around from place to place while lawyers cut deals right before the matter goes in front of a judge, and watch some terrible afternoon TV because it's on in the jury pool room. (This is in Kings County local court -- IIRC, when I got called for Federal, I just had to phone in every morning for a week and get told by a machine that I wasn't needed.)

#6 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:08 PM:

Good luck with jury duty. I would send you some homemade chicken soup to lift your spirits -- it's my mother's recipe, and it's very damn good -- except that it doesn't ship well.

#7 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:17 PM:

My sympathies. Will they at least let you read?

Also, you are describing my life. I am a single parent, working one full time job, two part time jobs, and fulfilling two volunteer positions. Plus, I have hobbies and interests.

Everyone I know lives like this, except my parents who are retired. Has it always been this way, or is it a relatively recent social phenomenon?

#8 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:21 PM:

"I don't know a single person in New York who's had to stay at jury duty for the whole two weeks in recent years unless they end up on a trial"

As I said, I'm on a grand jury, not a trial jury. Totally different rules, and no real possibility of getting off early.

I've been on a trial jury, six years ago.

#9 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:26 PM:

Juli Thompson @ 7 ... Everyone I know lives like this, except my parents who are retired. Has it always been this way, or is it a relatively recent social phenomenon?

It seems to me that it's a relatively recent social phenomenon -- and perhaps a very North American phenomenon. It's hard to argue that Europe, where 5 weeks vacation is normal, and it's downright peculiar to not actually -take- your vacation doesn't have some sort of clue that folk in North America are missing...

#10 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:27 PM:

That's also a hideously convoluted way to say "Huh, maybe time off to unwind is a good idea, and will keep us from getting too wound up ..."

#11 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:32 PM:

Best wishes, Patrick. It doesn't sound easy or fun, but having a clear sense of the problem seems likely to help.

Maybe you could get friends to cover by blogging about things you'd like to be doing? After all, if there's a record of it happening, it's like it happened! *hides*

#12 ::: Velma ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:39 PM:

My advice about grand jury duty (having done it last year) is to make sure you have friends and loved ones around to get hugs from (if that's your style) at the end of each day. You're likely to get cases that show both some of the ugliest and some of the stupidest aspects of humanity.

Also, try to get out and get sunlight every day; those rooms are awful.

#13 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:49 PM:

Holy crap, Velma, I didn't know you'd done grand jury.

#14 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 10:52 PM:

Juli@7: It's recent on the time scale of "last few decades", and is part of the overall conservative machine effort to break down the middle and lower classes. Work hours are up and practical vacation time time is down for essentially everyone in the US, and the propaganda mills spew lies and misdirection about the alternative social choices demonstrated in Europe.

#15 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:01 PM:

Every place is different - I got grand jury duty once in Texas. I got to be the second alternate, so even though it was a six-month service term, after the first day I was never needed. In that county it only meets about once a month, I understand, unless there's a real rash of crime.

#16 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:04 PM:

I did grand jury last year. Queens. Four weeks, M-F, all day. Smartphones and laptops were allowed in the hearing room but you'd have to provide your own net access via cell modem or the like, and of course turn off phones and close computers during hearings. Maybe Brooklyn's rules are different.

A substantial proportion of my grand jury were retirees, government employees, cops, or employees of law firms (receptionist, shipping clerk, & lawyer). The commonality: none of these suffer lost income from serving on a jury for weeks.

Good luck. Want advice at all? If so, my first piece: if you can, be foreman or a secretary. You'll feel more in control and be able to help your fellow jurors.

#17 ::: Velma ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:05 PM:

Ayup. Last July, for ten days. Rape, murder, drug deals, casual manslaughter, robbery, stalking, destruction of buildings through theft of copper pipes, carjacking, drunk driving, hate-crime beatings... I came home each night and wanted to bring everyone I love into a castle, and pull up the drawbridge.

#18 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:37 PM:

the only time I actually had to serve on a jury it was a complete waste of time, in a time of year when we were so totally busy at work it was stupid.

So I went to the courthouse in Independence, MO at 7:30, the judge let us go at about 3:30 and I'd run out out to College and Quivira in Johnson County, KS and work for four hours. It was a civil trial.

I was so mad at the stupid people who had pressed it that I'd happily choked them when they got run out of court (short form, they claimed a freezer on a porch started a house fire that destroyed their house, they sued the freezer manufacturer. Trial happened, when the freezer mfr asked that the fire department report be entered into evidence. Their attorney refused to allow that and the judge said 'the jury cannot make a honest judgement without that report" and threw out the case. )

The fire started in the fuse box. In the center of the house. The freezer was on a porch on the edge of the house. And the engineer for the freezer company said that since 1948 or so, all refrigerators and freezers have what is called a fusible link in their compressor, if the motor seizes and gets hot, the link melts and the whole thing shuts off for good. Very reassuring.

#19 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:40 PM:

My sympathies! On the other hand, I'd guess that jury will be much more effective for your presence....

Having checked out your links, I may well purchase Allen's book, as I also have trouble getting things done. Admittedly, in my case, it's more about my own cognitive issues rather than external overload, but even so, Allen's system looks pretty useful.

#20 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:46 PM:

Yikes. Best wishes with it.

It might be small consolation but the justice system needs competent people in its juries. So while having to serve causes grief, it may help to think of it as doing one's bit for a better society.

#21 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:50 PM:

Gack. Much sympathy. Geri Sullivan's been in a state of limbo over grand jury duty for a while, and I've been learning some from her about the exciting world of same. It would be tough for me, from what I've heard, and I'm guessing I haven't heard it all.

They also serve who got called on without having raised their hand. In going through with it, you are upholding the lofty principles we all know. I salute your service.

#22 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2009, 11:52 PM:

So, I guess emails of support are out?

* * *

I was on two trial juries. (Both, interestingly enough, at times when my day jobs were about to end . . . companies going under. When I was through it was time to go in and say goodbye to my co-workers.)

First one was dim-bulb young mom who kited checks at Toys R Us and Babies R Us. A week and a half of tedious squabbles over checks, basically. Oh, and an attempt to have the frauds divided into two cases so the amount would come in under the grand larceny (if that was the word) level. She eventually plead out. Sad, more than anything.

Second case was a DUI/DWI. Guy had his keys and license confiscated by cops cutting him slack. He went home, got keys and an expired out of state license, and got his car. Refused a breathalyzer, but the police station tape showed he was a bit tipsy. I would have given him the lesser charge, but got swayed by fellow jurors who claimed to know more about drinking and how long one stayed drunk. We found him guilty. Not fun.

#23 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 12:02 AM:

Xeger @#2: Following your link, that "Structured Procrastination" sounds awfully like something I read in an Art Buchwald piece when I was a kid. (That would have been in the late 70s, maybe early 80s.)

#24 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 12:36 AM:

I was on a criminal jury once about 15 years ago. The case involved the theft of receipts from a Jack-in-the-Box (5 or 6 grand; who knew?). The accused was the night manager.

He claimed he'd put the funds into the bank deposit bag and dropped it into the Night Depository, apparently forgetting that there are 24-hour cameras focused on those boxes. The bank presented the film as evidence; no manager and no bag.

We convicted him after eight hours of deliberation over two days; one of our fellow jurors kept coming up with more and more outlandish possibilities to explain the guy's innocence. We finally convinced him that we had to work with the evidence presented, not the theories he could invent.

#25 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 12:52 AM:

The only criminal case I served on was a gun possession charge. The guy was on probation, the cops did a surprise inspection and found a gun under his bed. They never presented any evidence that he knew the gun was there, though. He lived in a relative's spare room, and one of the previous occupants could have left it there. I thought he was probably guilty, but there was definitely room for doubt.

I was only an alternate, though, so I was dismissed at the end of the trial. I never did find out how it turned out.

#26 ::: Arachne Jericho ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:05 AM:

My sincere sympathies. The squeeze is a horrible feeling. And grand jury duty sounds more than a little bit awful.

I have complete faith that you'll find a way out. You're smart and hard-working and dogged, and everything else about you says you'll be okay.

In the meantime, I wish you strength and also some way to sit back and recuperate, even if only for a little bit.

#27 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:08 AM:

I was thinking that you might get dismissed from the jury if you wore a Star Trek uniform, but looking at the 1996 news report, I find that I misremembered: It wasn't that Barbara Adams wore a Trek uniform to court that got her dismissed, but that she spoke to the media about wearing a Trek uniform.

(And hey, Abi, Barbara Adams was a bookbinder!)

#28 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:42 AM:

You quit smoking.
You'll get through this rocky passage.

#29 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 04:22 AM:

I think you'll do some good on the grand jury. When you get back, the e-mail backlog won't be a whole lot worse than it is now. You'll need to triage the messages. Some of them will be about crises past, some about non-crises or crises others can handle. The remaining ones, where you can make a critical difference, are the ones that matter.

My other advice is don't even think you can work at 100% efficiency. Try to figure out what percentage of your work is predictable and capable of being planned. Make sure you leave enough time in your schedule for all the other things that are really important. Predictable, routine work that is easy to quantify, might not be the most valuable work you can do.

#30 ::: Juliet E McKenna ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 04:32 AM:

Can't offer much beyond sympathies and hopes that this too will pass.

However, on the 'contributing to the problem yourself', I would suggest we are all entitled to work to live, not live to work.

Also, by way of general observation, back when I was a student, and later as a personnel officer, every so often I encountered folk in danger of meltdown/burnout due to a sustained surge in work/not enough time available to give 100% to everything/diligent personality combination.

An effective strategy that I saw senior tutors/managers apply was to insist that the potentially overwhelmed person for eg, took their full lunchbreak entitlement, getting out of the building if possible, even if only for a walk. Or mentally escaping by reading a book - for pleasure NOT work. That they allocated definite blocks of time after work and at weekends for hobbies, family, friends. The overall reduction in stress meant their time actually spent on work was soon markedly more productive.

What folk in this bind were advised to cut back on was volunteer-type activities, committee work, PTA etc where there were actually other capable people in those organisations who were just not pulling their weight.

#31 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 04:46 AM:

Bruce Arthurs @27: That might be how they do things in Arkansas, but in New York you. do. not. get. out. of. jury. duty. Here, amusing antics to make you seem unseatable are not so much likely to get you an exemption as a night in jail for contempt. You can see in Patrick's first link that NY's chief justice has been called three times in the past fifteen years. (Although I do wonder how thrilled she would have been to draw grand jury....)

Apparently, if there is a secret, it is to move to a village in New York. My dad just got off grand jury duty in Ontario County which was one day a month for three months. It's a damn shame that you can't trade with someone else, what with all of the unemployment in the area. I'm sure there are plenty of equally bright people in New York who would love to have two weeks of full time paid work during these uncertain times.

If I've heard correctly, NYC courts have wi-fi, so in theory you can get a laptop and make it your "job" to whittle down your inbox in your spare moments. Admittedly, I don't know how much spare time there is and how fragmented it will turn out to be.

#32 ::: rahaeli ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 04:56 AM:

I recommend Hiveminder for task organization duties; it lets you input things at whatever level of granularity you need, relate tasks to other tasks, etc. It also accepts input via email and AIM, so when something comes in via email that you need to do, you can enter it onto your Hiveminder list and delete the email.

#33 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 05:31 AM:

Stefan Jones @22:
So, I guess emails of support are out?

I laughed out loud at this.

#34 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 05:38 AM:

Sympathies. Take as much portable kit as you're allowed; I had jury service at the Old Bailey last year (looked like being four months at one point! But our jury was discharged and then I was let off, for which I am very very grateful) and almost didn't get behind at all at work because all my meetings were cancelled and there was only four and a half hours of actual court time per day.

GTD absolutely changed my life; until I read it I never once had email straight, and since I've read it it's hardly ever been out of hand (never at work, and rarely at home). Which is not to say I don't drop commitments, miss deadlines, all the rest of it; but not because key emails are sitting unread in my inbox.

The single most useful part of my work email strategy is that I carry a BlackBerry which I use on the tube every morning and most evenings. Because I'm on the tube I can't read long messages or attachments; so it forces me to sort through it all quickly. I arrive at my desk knowing exactly what I need to get done that day. At least till stuff changes... which it always does.

#35 ::: Ken Macleod ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 05:44 AM:

Patrick, your post has just brightened my morning, for reasons which I'm sure will be obvious. You have my sympathy re time, and the slough. Laying everything out before a friend or even sympathetic acquaintance willing to listen but not directly involved in your work or personal life can help. They don't have to actually do or say anything.

#36 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 06:00 AM:

really don’t know how I’m going to dig out from this.

"He says he's found the main control to the power beam that's holding Patrick here; he'll try to make the precise location appear on the monitor... The tractor beam is coupled to the main reactor in seven locations. A power loss at one of the terminals will allow Patrick to leave."

#37 ::: janeyolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 06:43 AM:

First (if you are even reading these comments, which you shouldn't be!) I fellowfeel. I have learned that the delete button is my friend.

Second, maybe this two weeks will also be as time to answer what is shouting loudest.Dump the rest. Don't worry. If it's truly important, they will send you another email.

And who knows, maybe you will find the next Rowling writing furtively in the jury box next to you.

#38 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 06:51 AM:

I find GTD relatively useful. Mostly, it's provided a little more structure for keeping a to do list. It could get very easy to fiddle with the list endlessly. So I write down what I can remember, and start doing the bits I can. If something new comes up? I write it down, and then go back to Doing Things.

The key insight for me was I needed to *know* where my notebook with the lists was. Always. When I thought about it, it was easy to describe what such a notebook needed to look like so I couldn't lose it and wouldn't want to. Then I found it, bought it, and have managed to always put it back where it belongs for 3 months.

I find in an email mess, there's important stuff all through. At the back of the pile, there's stuff that was "important and urgent" where you're late, and stuff that was "important and not urgent". Both are really critical to deal with. At the brand new end, there's important and urgent where you're not late. Alternating which end you tackle will make you feel a little better... most of us hate turning things in late. Ten minutes a day to triage will probably give you a couple hours (or in bad cases, days) of work.

#39 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 06:59 AM:

On the "getting things done" front:

I know the email problem well. I generally try to turn everything around immediately, but if I build up a backlog, the only solution is to hack it down into reasonable sized blocks.

Answering ten emails can usually be crammed into two hours -- nine of 'em take six minutes each, and the tenth takes over an hour. So the thing to do is probably to chunk the backlog into blocks of ten, do the easy ones, and then stick the hard ones on a different list. And if possible, delegate them.

But. Email generates replies. So if I was in your position I'd change my signature to basically say "clearing an 800 message backlog, estimated turnaround: X weeks". Hopefully that'll clue most folks in that they really don't want to stick more correspondence in that queue.

The chronic over-work thing isn't just North American -- we've got it bad in the UK as well, probably as a cultural import during the Thatcher era. Apparently the UK has more people who work 48 hours or longer per week than the rest of the EU combined. What everybody else said about the solution -- go with it. Be ruthless about any non-work activity that isn't actually fun and doesn't make you happy. And try to take that vacation! (But don't overdo it -- vacations can be stressful too.)

#40 ::: Nalo Hopkinson ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:18 AM:

I'm rooting for you to find your way through to the other side. I'm experiencing the same phenomenon as a writer; just too sick, tired and overwhelmed to keep up any more. Other writers tell me it does get better eventually, and I'm hanging on to that wisdom and stroking with the one good wing. Best of everything to you and Teresa.

#41 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:22 AM:

One of the few 'benefits' of Resident Alien status is that it provides an automatic escape from jury duty; non-citizens not allowed.

I used to joke that in legal extremis, I could plea-bargain my way down to deportation; but that was before the last eight years and new theories about the rights of non-citizens.

#42 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:24 AM:

Yowza! You have my sympathy. I've been summoned for jury duty, and been able to tick an exempt box each time.

Gail just got a jury summons, for the beginning of February, which should be interesting.

#43 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:58 AM:

Sorry about the work overload!

On the bright side, I bet honest prosecutors and honest defendents will be glad you were on the grand jury.

#44 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:19 AM:

I want to do jury duty.

But the only time I got summoned, I had to write a letter to the Sheriff's Officer that included the phrase: " ... the jury selection time clashes with my first appointment at the cardiac risk clinic."

Oddly enough, I was discharged by return of post.

#45 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:23 AM:

Don't feel bad about taking time for music. I'm currently without a decent source, and it's *awful*. (One of my ex-smoker friends says that quitting music is much harder than quitting smoking.) Those studies about musicians and endorphins aren't lying.

#46 ::: ADM ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:40 AM:

I had Jury Duty during the summer and last semester. Here, we are supposed to be available for 6 'calls' during a three-month period. I was allowed to miss the first two dates, because I had a plane ticket for London -- leaving the day after I got the summons! The rest, I had to show up each time, but the only time it looked like they would empanel me, I pointed out I'd have to cancel classes a second time, and the judge set me free (the other calls, the lawyers didn't want me ...)

BUT -- about Patrick's e-mail ...

Patrick, can you delegate this to an assistant? Not necessarily all of it, but can you either have them do triage or can you create some folders for stuff you know you don't need to handle? Once upon a time, I was an exec assistant, and at one point my boss was serving on a federal jury in LA. At the time, we were fighting off a very nasty hostile takeover bid, and he (CMO and the second-ranking person on the org chart) was doing lots of work from his hotel at night (almost all via phone and portable fax, as it was before many people carried lap-tops and there were no smart phones).

One of the things about e-mail and smart phones is that we've pretty much removed the layer of filtering and protection that assistants used to provide. Maybe ignoring what the technology allows -- at least for a couple of weeks -- would lessen the burden and allow you to focus on the most important stuff?

#47 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:56 AM:

I guess NY is different - I got called for grand jury, and only wound up having to do a 1/2 day orientation. I don't remember why they let me go home after that, but I think it would have been 4 weeks if they hadn't. (I didn't ask to be excused, or anything - they just called 30 or so people and said, ok, everyone else - shoo.)

The time I got called for a drug trial, it was much more boring, there were no doughnuts, and it was incredibly difficult, when everyone was asked if there were personal reasons they couldn't serve (and they instituted the Cone of Silence and everything!) not to go up to the judge and say, well, he's my drug dealer...

(But I did manage. It's amazing I ever make it through the airport.)

My only email advice is to set an autoreply, right now, that says something like "your email is being deleted unread. Write back in a month if it's still important." And then get to deletin'. It's not nice, but it does help with paring down the incoming flood while trying to deal with what's already there.

#48 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:59 AM:

This is coming on exactly the day when I come back from a three-week vacation and find 300 unread mails in my in-box...

#49 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 09:08 AM:

Sympathies and best wishes.

* * *

I am currently typing one-handed in my PJs, holding a freshly-bathed baby in the other hand. I was supposed to be on my way to a court appearance 3.5 hours away. But Friday I came down with a stomach bug, and yesterday I was still sufficiently weak that getting on the road at 5:30 in the morning seemed not just undesirable but actively dangerous. (It still does. After SteelyKid's next meal she's going to daycare so I can sleep undisturbed.) As much as I hated to do it, I had to ask a colleague to take the appearance for me. And he, bless him, said that of course he didn't want to go, but equally of course it was we did for each other so he would.

I hope to remember that statement and apply it as appropriate in the future, from both ends.

#50 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 09:30 AM:

The current unread email count in my inbox stands at 2775. I'm pretty sure I'll never get it all read, and will simply need to programmatically dump everything older than 3 months not addressed directly to me.

#51 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 09:37 AM:

I find Popfile, which sorts mail into boxes, Very Helpful.

#52 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:11 AM:

Last time I was called for (regular) jury duty, they let me go when I told them that if I thought that a law was wrong, I was going to vote against enforcing that law regardless of the facts of the case. I think maybe I'm on an exclusion list now, as they haven't asked again since then.

#53 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:19 AM:

Emily @#38: At the back of the pile, there's stuff that was "important and urgent" where you're late, and stuff that was "important and not urgent".

That sounds more like Covey's ("7 Habits") system. That originally looked helpful to me, but I found his prioritization system rapidly decayed into shuffling.

#54 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:19 AM:

Technology has caused a lot of stress by making us the rate-limiting step in a lot of communication-type work. A friend of mine finished the first draft of his Master's thesis and sent it to his adviser, half a country away-- ten years ago, he would have spent a hundred pages and postage and gotten at least a week off while it traveled, was critiqued, and came back to him. He got it back the next day or the day after.

#55 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:49 AM:

Good luck, Patrick. And don't worry, the people who have piled you with things to do will understand. (Myself being one of them.)

#56 ::: Sandra McDonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 10:49 AM:

Fly me to New York and I'll help you go through your inbox. Free of charge!

#57 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 11:27 AM:

Emily @ 38, I like your idea of deliberatley alternating tackling a little from each "end" of the pile. Part of the problem with any backlog is trying to decide LIFO (last in first out) or FIFO (first in first out) and being swamped in guilt about the other "end" whichever way you choose. Looking back, I can see that when I've been unconsciously alternating processing journal submissions from the top and bottom of the pile, I do feel better about it!

I've just started a six-month sabbatical, and my prime project besides the book I'm working on is a ruthless examination of how I've let my life get so crowded and figuring out what to do about it. If I run across any Good Stuff, I'll report it here!

One good piece of advice I've noted down so far: Any organizing you do should be for YOUR personal ease and convenience, not to live up to some outside ideal. And many people refuse to get organized as an unconscious protest against authority figures in their past. If you can get yourself free of outside expectations and look on organizing as something you do FOR YOURSELF ONLY, as an investment that will pay off in future time-savings, you should theoretically find it easier to dissolve those mental-road-blocks.

#58 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 11:45 AM:

I know exactly the sort of behind you're up against. A couple of the suggestions above (bring the laptop and spend some down time sorting/expunging email) are really good ones. Chipping away at the pile will probably make you feel a little less frantic.

Anyway, you have all my sympathy, because...ugh. I know you don't take any of it lightly.

#59 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 11:54 AM:

For me the most important part of GTD was the triage step -- learning to dispatch the 2 minute replies from the same stream of work in which I delete the junk.

Then, for good measure, I let people know when I'm in backlog mode. My triage then goes from "that might be interesting, I'll keep it around" to "that might not be interesting, I'll delete it".

I'm convinced these two changes have saved my career, particularly as I've moved into positions of more responsibility, and thus more email grief.

#60 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 12:31 PM:

I live in DC, where I get to serve on petit jury or grand jury every two years, jes' as reg'lar as a clock kin tick. Petit jury's not so bad, as DC now has a one-day-or-one-trial system; if you're not empaneled on the first day, that's it for two years.

Grand Jury is a Whole Nother Thing. Five weeks, five days a week, plus two call-back dates. I've done that twice now; would have been three times, but the second time they called too many people and offered the spillover the chance to serve on a petit jury instead (I jumped at the chance).

In DC, because we don't have home rule, the prosecutors are Assistant US Attorneys and the judges are federal appointees. That guarantees a fairly high level of competence.

But the crimes are basically lowlife crimes, committed by the sorts of people who have no effing idea at all. People who commit crimes while wearing a GPS anklet. People who make calls on a jail telephone asking their friends to destroy evidence or to commit perjury, despite the recorded announcement that warns that "calls may be monitored and recorded". People who post pictures of themselves, illegal weapons and all, on their Facebook sites. I'm a passionate believer in the presumption of innocence; but I don't have any problem in finding probable cause for prosecution with evidence like that.

(By the way, Patrick: In DC, they let people have their laptops in the grand jury room. You can't use them (or read, or eat, or chat, or sleep) while testimony is being given, but in between, it's fine. If you have a cellular internet connection, you can get quite a lot of stuff done.)

#61 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Conmiserations, Patrick.

Seems like a vicious circle to me: The more the average employee works, the fewer people are needed to do the same amount of work, the more competition you get for jobs, the more the average employee has to work to keep his job...

Juli Thompson @ 7 Also, you are describing my life. I am a single parent, working one full time job, two part time jobs, and fulfilling two volunteer positions. Plus, I have hobbies and interests.

Everyone I know lives like this, except my parents who are retired.

Now that obviously can't be. Are you and everyone you know rich? No? As everyone knows, people who work hard get rich and poor people are lazy, so if you and the people you know aren't rich, it's obvious to any serious thinker that you can't possibly work as hard as you describe. Who are you going to believe, the serious thinkers of the world, or your lying eyes?

xeger @9, It seems to me that it's a relatively recent social phenomenon -- and perhaps a very North American phenomenon. It's hard to argue that Europe, where 5 weeks vacation is normal, and it's downright peculiar to not actually -take- your vacation doesn't have some sort of clue that folk in North America are missing...

Still true for people who've an established career, I think, but people just trying to get into the job market often work American hours- in internships. And our free-marketers are going on and on about how we're all way too lazy (except for the meritious people in the business elite, who are obviously the only ones who work hard).

#62 ::: Dan Bailey ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:26 PM:

I recently declared email bankruptcy at work. I timed it in accordance with the start of the new year. I dumped all my email into a folder called 2008, deep archived it, and went about my business. No problem so far.

My next order of business is something I am taking from The Four-Hour Workweek -- I'm getting a virtual assistant at $5 an hour (outsourced to India). It should help significantly with staying abreast of my day job, my small business, and personal b.s. tasks.

Now if only I could find someone to finish the rough draft I'm working on. :-)

#63 ::: Schizohedron ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Patrick, have you ever read (I know, I'm placing more reading atop an already teetering pile) Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero series? Mann's greased-rails GTD approach might help bridge the gap between theory and practice that you currently perceive with the original GTD.

As for the jury duty experience, I was called for petit jury in 2000, was dismissed during voir dire (insurance fraud case + parent involved in deposition for insurance = on the bricks before lunch), and am surprised I haven't been called since. Now actually would be the perfect time for me, being unemployed at the moment with a bunch of career-research reading to do.

#64 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:49 PM:

In three years, I was called for jury duty three times by the state where I was a resident but had to defer because I was in college at the time. Then, when I got home and lived there for another five years almost, I never got called again.

Which is sad, because I wouldn't have minded jury duty so much.

#65 ::: Benjamin Biggs ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 01:57 PM:

Sandra at #56: Fly me to New York and I'll help you go through your inbox. Free of charge!

Hey, no fair! I'm already here! :)

And I'm still looking for a job too!

#66 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 02:38 PM:

The motherboard on my previous computer died in October. Hey presto! Instant freedom from 500 e-mails in my inbox.

This strategy not recommended for all readers. Must be 18 years or older. All restrictions apply.

#67 ::: joXn ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 02:43 PM:

One way to handle a pile of e-mail which I find to be useful is to sort by message size. The very small and very large messages are almost always easy to handle: the small ones tend to be one-liners that can be handled with one line of response, and the large ones often have useless attachments and can be deleted. (But don't delete your authors' manuscripts!)

#68 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 03:35 PM:

At the start of this year, I deleted to backlog of Tables of Contents from a single journal that I keep meaning to skim, but never do.

Don't be afraid to blow off the stuff that makes you feel guilty that you don't do it, even though you don't get anything out if it.

And I second finding an assistant to presort your emails, even the backlog.

Don't forget that GTD says you can renegotiate your commitments with yourself.

#69 ::: Fishwood Loach ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 03:41 PM:

I haven't read every post, but a quick scan tells me no one has had my experience.

I was called to serve on a Federal Grand Jury in July of 2006.

I ended up serving every Wednesday (with some cancellations) for 18 months.

Certainly, weekly is less disruptive to life than just a month or so, but you can imagine my employer's reaction when I told them this news.

It was actually interesting work, and 18 months gave the members plenty of time to get to know each other. About half of us (myself included) would have happily volunteered for another 18 month term given the opportunity.

#70 ::: Gianluca ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 03:45 PM:

It's hard to argue that Europe, where 5 weeks vacation is normal, and it's downright peculiar to not actually -take- your vacation doesn't have some sort of clue that folk in North America are missing...

More or less. My national collective agreement (metalworkers/private industry, for historical reasons, I suppose, I'm a telecommunication engineer and I work as sysadmin/network administrator, started 3 months ago) states "the worker is entitled to 4 weeks of vacations (20 or 24 days according to the length of the working week). After 10 years and before 18 years he is entitled to another day, after 18 years he is entitled to another week." It is not allowed to renounce to the vacation, I was notified that my company's policy is that if you don't take all your days on a given year, you must take them before the end of the next March. According to the supplementary agreement stipulated between my company and our local union section I'm also entitled to 32 hours of paid leave, that is a little more than 4 days (working day is 7 hours 35 minutes, lunch break not included.)

#71 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 04:05 PM:

Linkmeister @66: I live in terror of that. Hell, I just went to moderately extreme lengths to get back roughly 45Mb of archived email from 1992-95 that I thought I'd lost (but which still existed on an old quarter-inch backup tape -- thank Brian, Ken, and Dennis for standards like tar(1) and mbox(5)).

On the other hand, I effectively declare email bankruptcy on a rolling six-monthly basis. That is: every nine months, I go back and dump everything in my inbox that's over 3 months old into a backup archive. If some exchange has been generating correspondence for over three months then I know where to find the archive, and the recent stuff is still present in my inbox. But if I haven't had a nudge on a topic in three months? Dead.

#72 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 04:51 PM:

Charlie @ #71, It's not an experience I'd like to repeat, yet three times in ten years I have. T'ain't fun. That empty feeling in the belly is not one I enjoy, either.

#73 ::: Sandra McDonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 05:04 PM:

Benjamin at #65: You go help him, then! Be sure to start the email triage with any message from authors whose last name starts with M. M-c. M-c-D. Yes, that'll do quite nicely :-)

#74 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 06:44 PM:

I get called periodically for petit jury duty. NJ has something like "two days or one trial," so it's usually one day, and one phone call to a tape that says "OK, you're done."

This last time, though, I got put on a jury. It was a vehicular homicide case. In New Jersey, to be guilty of vehicular homicide you have to be 1) driving the car, 2) solely at fault for an accident in which someone dies, and (yes, and, not or) 3) operating the car in a "reckless" manner. (Btw, mere speeding is not considered "reckless" in NJ.)

Well, the defense stipulated that the kid was driving the car. The prosecution called the driver of the other vehicle, who admitted on cross that he was partially at fault (IMO it was more like "entirely," but partially is enough). Then we had battle of the experts, where the prosecution tried to establish that the speed of the car was way above the speed limit, and the defense expert refuted that very neatly, not that it was relevant.

The prosecution kept trying to get witnesses to say that the kid was driving recklessly, but all they'd say was that he was driving "pretty fast." I was ready to vote for acquittal after the prosecution rested; then the defense started in with all the things the police did wrong, making almost all the prosecution evidence irrelevant (not inadmissable, just non-interesting).

We got sent out of the room during closing arguments when the prosecution tried, again, to claim that the defendant was driving recklessly; the prosecutor summed up quickly when we came back in (we later heard that he'd been told that if he overstepped once more the judge would declare a mistrial with prejudice).

I was an alternate. Damn. But as the deliberating jurors weren't completely nuts, they acquitted the poor kid. The judge asked us all if we had any questions; I said "Yeah, I have a question. Was this case complete crap?" He said "Absolutely. If you'd convicted him I probably would have set aside your verdict."

#75 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:03 PM:

Most email clients these days let you search by keywords or email addresses.

Can you grab chunks you know you can get rid of that way? That might get rid of those repeats from email lists and such.

Also, if you search by a particular email address, you can see all the emails from that address, and it might let you see the flow of the "conversation" and get rid of a bunch with one email.

#76 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:20 PM:

Charlie Stross wrote: "I live in terror of that. [...]"

I can sympathize, but if I say why I now only live in mild anxiety instead of suffering a paralyzing fear, I could be accused of astroturfed product marketing.

I've been using the rolling email purge like yours since, oh, somewhere in the early 1990s I think. It works reasonably well for me, and I've found it works a lot better in conjunction with the automated backups my operating system performs, but then I might not be the most highly organized ape on the planet. Your fuel economy may differ.

#77 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:36 PM:

J.H., there's a Making Light tradition that we rejoice in the successes and happinesses of our fellow posters, and that we share good news in (among other ways) the form "this really worked for me". It's not like you have no history here. 'Fess up. :)

#78 ::: EClaire ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 07:54 PM:

I got a really interesting looking book for my birthday (in October) - "A Not-So-Big Life" by Susan Susanka - all about how to simplify your life so that you have time to focus on the things that really interest you. Unfortunately, I haven't had time to read it.

#79 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 08:17 PM:

EClaire@#87: There seems to be a vicious cycle here... ;-)

#80 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 09:08 PM:

Matthew@31: Apparently, if there is a secret, it is to move to a village in New York.

Anywhere outside the city may be good enough. I was summoned once in 9 years living in Brookline, whose county runs SW from Boston; in 16 years in Boston I've been called either 4 or 5 times. (Only sat a trial once, and got lotteried out of the decision panel.) The paper had a story recently saying that Boston could run out of jurors due to the 3-year post-service exemption, aggravated by a system which handled "3 years" as "not in the calendar year in which your 3 years ended". I hope they don't wind up going to 2-year exemption such as Theophylact has.

#81 ::: Mike Langlois ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 09:18 PM:

Try this instead of using your inbox as a task list. Go to:

Cover your eyes and ignore the huge list of stuff that it can do, but that you won't.

Sign up for a free account.

Start using the email drop box for tasks. That's all, just the ONE feature.

You send an email to the address, and the subject becomes a task. You have 4 drops, one for today, tomorrow, this week, and later.

You can drop tasks on your list in 3 seconds flat, from anywhere, including your phone. You'll get in the habit of putting a task in as soon as you get it, which will take a huge load off of your brain.

Also, being on the web, you can check your list from anywhere. It'll also send you reminders daily, as well as a weekly summary of what you've done.

If you follow the advice of one random stranger this week, make it this one :)

#82 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 11:00 PM:

Bruce Baugh #77: "'fess up!"

So, it's like this. My day job is working on the team that writes and maintains the firmware for a certain network attached storage/backup device. I'm absolutely certain that Patrick knows this, and it's probable that other moderators here do as well.

So I know more than a little bit about the product.

Honestly, I was pessimistic that the thing would even be a usable— much less an acceptable— solution, but I've found that the backup retrieval/restoration system is actually worth using, and it has deep knowledge of my email queue inside the backup archive.

I recognize that nobody likes an annoying evangelist, and I'm trying not to be one of those wankers that nobody likes. That said, I'm mostly happy with it and I feel comfortable recommending it to family (now that the early, most horrible bugs seem to have been stomped).

p.s. There are still some performance issues that annoy, but they're not deal-killers, and I have limited ability to make any more progress on that account.

#83 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2009, 11:12 PM:

j h woodyatt @ 82 ...
I have to say that for the most part, I really do like the thing[0].

[0] barring the random performance, 802.11g weirdness and freezes (fewer now). I wouldn't be nearly as annoyed about the little hitches if I didn't like it :P

[indulging in a canonical sin] ... Please do let me know when Time Machine can actually back up file vault securely... and without my having to logout and copy the entire file vault volume en mass... (which completely defeats the point, and we're just using it as common low-value information storage[1] currently)

[1] Okay, okay... music, movies, shows, pictures ... ;)
[canonical sin complete]

#84 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:44 AM:

I've been dealing with multiple e-mail accounts since 1989. Accounts that routinely have upwards of 150 new mails, real mail, non-spam, non list mails, per day.

Don't delete the emails Patrick, but archive them somewhere you don't see them. Pick an arbitrary date, and archive everything before that. Send an automatic notice for the next two weeks or so that explains you've had to declare email bankruptcy.

People who are really important know other ways to reach you--they can trip you in the hallway, or call you on the phone.

Do it.

And iPhones are great for Grand Jury Duty. If you show them that you can turn off the phone part, you can use it to read e-books!

Be willing to do it again in a few years, if you have to.

#85 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 03:14 AM:

For what it's worth, my e-mail management strategies:

1. A separate user for work and personal use. All the work to-dos only show up when I'm that user.
2. Automatic sorting of mailing list messages into folders, so that they don't show up in my inbox and I feel free to delete most of them.
3. Multiple e-mail accounts, so as to separate truly personal mail from bulk mail.

It's amazing how much difference this has made!

May your work as a juror go well.

#86 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 05:39 AM:

On backups (and wandering off-topic) ...

j. h. woodyatt @82: I do indeed use Time Machine with my Macs, and it's the best backup software I've used. (Not with a time capsule, but with external drives; a capsule is on my to-buy list, but they're kind of pricey.)

Alas, Apple's time machine has two major flaws. Enumerating (for those who don't already know): firstly, it's Mac only. (This is a problem if like me you sometimes work with different operating systems). Secondly ... the backup is at a file level of granularity -- if a single byte in a file changes, Time Machine makes a new copy of the entire file. This works well for 95% of cases, but breaks down when you have software which makes subtle changes within some very large files -- for example, traditional mbox archives with thousands of email messages in them, video editing files, VM disk images, and encrypted or loopback mounted filesystems.

(Currently Time Machine has a configuration option to declare certain files to be "off limits" -- they won't be backed up. If I was going to put in a bid for a feature request, I'd like to see this augmented with a flag to declare files as "overwritable", so that TM will maintain a copy, but rather than making a new copy with every backup run, it overwrites the single archival copy with the latest version. Or, better still, to maintain a FIFO queue of, say, ten versions of a flagged file, so that there's some backup granularity but it refrains from trying to backup a 1Gb disk image every two hours until the disk fills up.)

What I absolutely rely on as my final fallback is a lot more generic, and I'd recommend it to everyone: a waterproofed, ruggedized, 16Gb USB memory stick on my keyring. Before going out the house, I shove it in my laptop and copy my Thunderbird and Firefox profiles and my Work folders (where I keep basically everything I work on). That way, even if the house is on fire and I don't have time to grab my laptop, I've probably got a backup of the essentials on my person. (NB: I use rsync to speed things up, but a straight drag and drop will do. The important thing is to do it daily.)

What I should do is place my Work and profile directories under control of a version control system such as CVS or Subversion (VCSs save changes to the contents of a file, letting you examine and if necessary resurrect earlier versions). Then back up the SVN repository to the key ... but that's not what they pay me for.

#87 ::: Geri Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 08:34 AM:

#8 & #21: Two weeks would be hard, and missing the Inauguration is just plain wrong -- we need a new national holiday for that. If our favored candidate won, we'd celebrate. If not, well, at least we'd get a holiday out of the deal. We could spend it keeping a close eye on the rascals, or at our supposed leisure. (Remember leisure?)

I'd also be in favor of a holiday national election, but only if you work on the election in some way that can be documented.

Back to juries: I was called for Federal Jury Duty in Massachusetts -- 8 weeks on call; typical service is about 7-10 days during that time, but you never know more than a couple days in advance when those days will be. Whenever I finally do serve, I'll have two months of hell trying to set my work schedule and work commitments will need a far different time frame than the usually do. I am very grateful that my postponement request was granted as the timing of the first notice could easily have sunk my business.

Federal Grand Jury Duty up here (which I wasn't called for) is one day a week for 18 months. Knowing that it's just one day a week goes a long way toward making it manageable, but the idea of giving up a day every week for 18 months just plain terrorizes me. That's the equivalent of 15.6 work weeks in a year and a half.

Massachusetts has an utterly civilized one day/one trail system, though I don't know how grand jury service is handled.

Patrick, if you're reading this (and, like Jane, I rather hope you aren't), I suspect you're about to have one hell of a learning experience. I hope the enforced break helps you reset your internal clock and yardstick. May the sitting around time give you some ideas for how you can try to tackle things differently once you're back in your usual office.

It's all balance...and balance is damned difficult to achieve, let alone maintain.

Strength. Courage. And All That Jazz....

My request for postponement

#88 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 09:28 AM:

I use Time Machine, and I also use SuperDuper to make a bootable clone on a portable HD (which I keep in a separate location from the TM backups).

(I will be an annoying evangelist for a moment here, because I make no personal profit from it. Seriously, j h woodyatt & co.'s product has saved my bacon a fair few times so far.)

Belt and suspenders -- regardless of what actual product you choose (about which I do not care in real life -- the above is just what has worked for me).

A cautionary tale: There was a guy coming to the end of his Ph.D here. He had a backup on a portable hard drive, in case his computer failed. But he kept it in his laptop bag. The whole thing was stolen. His data, analysis, and dissertation were gone. Offering a huge monetary reward for the return of either laptop or hard drive, much greater than the combined value of the laptop and hard drive, produced no results. I don't know what he did in the end, but I haven't seen him around lately.

And on the actual topic of the post: It's oddly comforting to know that people I respect and know to be deadly competent (such as Patrick) have this problem -- because I have it too sometimes.

#89 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 12:22 PM:

Off topic, and wandering further.

Charlie Stross @86, j h woodyatt, and sundry: I was pretty surprised when the TM came out working at file granularity. There is a mid-90's technology out of Bell Labs that nails this space and is freely available, except for the OS you have to run (Plan9). Venti is a content-addressable block-storage device. Every chunk of data is stored, indexed by a cryptographic hash of that data - if two blocks (which might be in separate files) contain the same data, they hash to the same address, and are not stored twice. On Plan9 you use a file system called Fossil as the "front end" which sends snapshots of your file system to Venti on demand. Venti *never* deletes any blocks, so you can access your file system as it was on any snapshot.

When the pre-release press of TM came out I was convinced Apple engineers had seized on this technology and put a proper front end on it.
I was sad to discover it was just overlaying a traditional file-based sile system.

[cardinal sin]
That said, I'd love to use the TM, but until it handles FileVault, it's no more useful to me than the NAS already on my network.
[/cardinal sin]

#90 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Caroline #88:

Your cautionary tale reminds me to mention that for *any* critically important document, such as your diss, your WIP, or those irreplacable photos, emailing them to your gmail (or similar) account as attachments is pretty bloody useful. It's what distributed file storage should really be about--distributed redundancy.

Once, back in the days when there was barely an internet, I mailed copies of all my research notes to an account on my husband's server--a continent away, over dialup.

Currently, there is also a USB drive reposing in a safe-deposit box, containing, well, you know.

#91 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:18 PM:

You can make straight disk copies with Apple's stock Disk Utility--SuperDuper has to be the most overmarketed product ever. For myself, I keep three Time Machine backups: one at the office, one at home, and one in a lockbox. Every month I update the lockbox copy.

One of these days, some firm will actually market a truly archival storage medium. Until those days, backup, backup, backup.

#92 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:20 PM:

Charlie managed somehow not to mention the flaw in Time Machine which I find most embarrassing for my employers: it's abysmally slow when reading and writing on network attached storage. For reasons I should not explain here, I suspect this may be related to the concerns Mr. Lalonde expresses in #89. What Apple may or may not do about this in the future, I really don't know, and I have almost no influence over the thinking on that. It's a Time Machine issue, not a Time Capsule issue.

Nevertheless, Time Machine w/ Time Capsule works well enough for me that I'm willing to put up with its faults in exchange for the service it provides. In short, it's the first automatic backup/restore system I've used that wasn't more of a pain in the neck for me than a completely manual one. To be clear: the backup part of the automated systems are usually pretty painless once you set them up; it's the restoration part of the system that has always been more trouble than I wanted to buy for myself.

On the Mac OS X only thing: I suppose if I could still tolerate the naked hostility to human factors engineering inherent in the various X Window System alternatives to the system that my employers offer commercially, then I'd be more sympathetic to the concern that Time Machine is only available for Mac OS X. Also, I do kinda have a personal stake in Time Machine being a product differentiating feature for Mac OS X, so I hope I can be forgiven for having a diverging opinion on whether this is a "major" flaw.

p.s. An ordinary 802.11n AirPort Extreme base station with an external USB hard drive can be made to behave basically like a Time Capsule.

#93 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 01:56 PM:

Randolph @ 91: You can make straight disk copies with Apple's stock Disk Utility--SuperDuper has to be the most overmarketed product ever.

SuperDuper uses rsync (and they've dealt with the permissions/blessing issues for you), so it's much faster, and you can schedule backups for the middle of the night. I found it worth the small price.

Charlie Stross @ 86: You can get a free (but small) SVN repository at Beanstalk.

#94 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 02:02 PM:

Paul @89: a major advantage Time Machine has that the Plan 9 system you describe lacks is that Time Machine stashes backups in a hard link farm on a vanilla HFS+ filesystem -- you can yank the drive, plug it into a Mac running a version of OS/X prior to 10.5, and everything is visible; you just don't have the cute time-series file explorer to make navigating the directory tree intuitive. Hell, a TM drive even works okay with Linux or Windows, if you install suitable filesystem device drivers. Which makes recovering a snapshot possible even if you don't have a Mac to hand, never mind a running Leopard system.

JHW: you might want to look at KDE 4.1 or GNOME these days. I suspect that the way Linux is going, X11 is going to quietly disappear out from under the GUI layer within another couple of years (or be internalized at such a low level that if you ever see it, something has gone Very Wrong). Certainly my Eee, running the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, is startlingly usable for productivity stuff.

#95 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 02:24 PM:

Paul Lalonde @ 89... you have to run (Plan9)

Tor Johnson, or Vampira?

#96 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 03:44 PM:

Charlie Stross writes: "...Time Machine stashes backups in a hard link farm on a vanilla HFS+ filesystem..."

On an AFP server, of course, Time Machine stashes those "hard link farms" (amusing neologism) inside sparse disk image files on the network volume.

If you know how to explain convincingly to the typical pointy-haired boss how and why this layering of the protocol stack into a Dagwood™ of almost comical proportions is the reason that Time Machine over wireless network performance blows chow so badly, then I'm all ears. This is the problem that is once again making me fantasize about moving to outer Humboldt ent-country and farming mushrooms for a living.

p.s. if you can explain this concept so even a claque of bipolar spider-monkeys on crystal meth can understand it, then clearly— you should have my job after I'm fired for my inability to communicate vital technical information to important decision-makers.

#97 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 03:55 PM:

j h woodyatt @ 96 ... and now I'm tempted to explain that "no matter how much you smoosh a huge multilayer sandwich, sooner or later there's no way you could possible take a bite of it without having to take it apart into smaller pieces ... and that, of course, means that instead of taking one bite quickly, you end up taking a whole bunch of bites more slowly and messily, to get to the same effect as "one bite out of the whole sandwich".

It's as bad as "a series of pipes" in its own way ;)

I'd be pretty tempted to describe it as having to go through -all- the copies of a bid on one RFP that you did for a particularly troublesome customer to find out what they'd added/removed when, on the theory that it's an experience they've had.

#98 ::: Ambar ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 04:40 PM:

Serge @ 95: Plan9 from the late great Bell Labs.

#99 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 08:52 PM:

j h woodyatt (#92): As one of the poor trusting souls who bought the non-TC AirPort Extreme before 10.5 was released, I just took an old G5 Mac, loaded 10.5 on it[1], and used file sharing to make that the backup server. (I might start doing RAID 1 on it one of these days, too.)

I still need to haul some phone wire to the right spot so I can use its modem as a shared network fax-sender, though.

[1] While still being in compliance with the EULA, too; the "family pack" pricing on Mac OS X saves money as soon as you have two machines, but is good up to five.

#100 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 09:47 PM:

Ambar @ 98... I know that, but I just couldn't let pass the chance to make one more bad joke.

#101 ::: Brenda Kalt ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 10:12 PM:

Good luck with the grand jury duty, Patrick. WE NEED YOU. We the people of the United States.

Sorry about the work/email mess.

#102 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 10:30 PM:

Juli, #7: I think anyone who has an interesting life has always lived this way, at least since I can remember. My parents didn't, but they were tortoises by nature.

#103 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2009, 11:21 PM:

Lee @ 102... My parents didn't, but they were tortoises by nature

I take it that they led shelltered lives.

#104 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 01:19 AM:

Christopher Davis @99 taunts me [successfully]: "I still need to haul some phone wire to the right spot so I can use its modem as a shared network fax-sender, though."

I don't think that's going to work. The modem in those older AirPort Extreme units is only good for dial-up Internet service connections. We never did the fax server support people kept suggesting.

#105 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 02:37 PM:

I agree with the 15-minute-chunks idea.

I have dragged around piles of paper all my life, but we simply do not have the room anymore. So this year I made a resolution to sort out the keepers from the trash for ten minutes a day, six days a week. It doesn't seem like much, but I can see daylight!

It might also help to get an e-mail service (if you don't have one already) that puts everything in the "Possibly Junk" folder until you specifically tell it, "Hey, I know this person." When my ISP started super-filtering everything, I was annoyed at first, but then I realized--wow, this is instant prioritization!

#106 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 04:56 PM:

j h woodyatt (#104): The modem in question is attached to (well, built in to) the G5 that's acting as the AFP server for Time Machine. The AirPort Extreme (802.11n/GbE) we have doesn't have a modem at all; the only AirPort hardware we have with a modem in it is an old gray UFO[1], which is no longer in use (as you would expect), though it managed to avoid the capacitor death of many of its mates.

[1] I bought this because I was on the other coast at a USENIX conference, all of the "loaner" wireless cards were spoken for, and none of the local retailers had Mac-compatible PCMCIA 802.11 cards available. I bought the base station, disassembled it, and pulled out the Lucent card to use with my laptop (since the Apple drivers would run it); I then mail-ordered another card so that when I got home I'd have a card for the laptop as well as a working base station.

#107 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 06:47 PM:

Ah. I appear to be suffering from Pronoun Trouble again. Sorry about that.

#108 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 08:07 PM:

When I read GTD, it seemed to be saying "If it takes less than two minutes, do it immediately. Otherwise, delegate it."

Which is not particularly useful if you're not an executive with underlings to delegate to.

I suspect I missed something, but the book did seem to be aimed at executives and not, say, the solo coder.

#109 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2009, 08:48 PM:

Lee @ 102 and Serge @ 103: "My parents didn't, but they were tortoises by nature."

"I take it that they led shelltered lives."

So they evidently took care, ah . . . pacing themselves.

#110 ::: Pablo Defendini ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 01:13 AM:

Man, you sound like I feel. These days I can barely make a dent in my inbox; a source of unending anxiety, for there is Stuff I Don't Know About Happening Right Before My Eyes! The same thing is happening to me with RSS feeds. I wish I could stop time for a while every day and just deal with i/o.

Email seems to me like a highly inefficient way to communicate, and a holdover paradigm from pre-digital days. I wouldn't be surprised if it's replaced by something more organic or more attuned to how we work sometime in the future. That said, I can't think of what that would be.

Sometimes you need to regroup and start from scratch. And prioritize some leisure time, to recharge the ol' noggin. And ffs don't let the album be the weakest link. Your merry band of co-workers will still be here when you get back.

#111 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 05:04 AM:

Pablo Defendini #110: Email seems to me like a highly inefficient way to communicate, and a holdover paradigm from pre-digital days. I wouldn't be surprised if it's replaced by something more organic or more attuned to how we work sometime in the future.

How about an attention bidding system, where the carrier and the target split micropayments from people who bid for the right to prioritize attention contact sorting? It's based on the old idea of people fighting back against telemarketers by charging them for the time they cause the target to waste.

#112 ::: R.M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 08:30 AM:

#108, Jon H -

I take the two-minute rule to be more about "don't do it now" than about delegating. If it takes more than two minutes, you do it when you're doing that kind of thing, or you schedule it, or delegate it if that's one of your choices. (You can think of it as delegating to your future self if you like.)

It's been a long time since I've read the book, though, and the impression I have is that writing (including writing code) is one of the jobs for which it is a bit of a poor fit.

I use GTD but only for my personal tasks. In my case, this is because my work is pretty linear and contains built-in priorities.

#113 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 11:11 AM:

I cannot help but think of Mrs. Jellyby from Bleak House. Her letter-strewn London townhouse is the Dickensian nightmare vision of David Allen’s cluttered inbox, and her hen-pecked and bankrupted husband, who sat despondently with his head against the wall during dinner, is the image of any soul dissipated by sprawling disorganization. Mrs. Jellyby’s activities, by the way, were all volunteer work.

My advice for digging yourself out is counter-intuitive. Find something sustaining, healthy, and not work related and keep it going at all costs. It should be solitary, not too brainy, and something you genuinely enjoy. Don’t feel guilty about it, and pledge that no matter how much work you will do to dig yourself out, you will make time for that activity. If you don’t have it, your mind and body will rightly recoil from months of nothing but work-as-punishment for your sins.

Reading, cooking, knitting, fencing, whatever. The rest of the time, happily work your butt off.

#114 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 01:26 PM:

Evan's advice in #113 makes me glad:

My advice for digging yourself out is counter-intuitive. Find something sustaining, healthy, and not work related and keep it going at all costs. It should be solitary, not too brainy, and something you genuinely enjoy. Don’t feel guilty about it, and pledge that no matter how much work you will do to dig yourself out, you will make time for that activity. If you don’t have it, your mind and body will rightly recoil from months of nothing but work-as-punishment for your sins.

Reading, cooking, knitting, fencing, whatever. The rest of the time, happily work your butt off.

Because this works really well for me, and I'm trying to do more of it.

#115 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 04:24 PM:

Bruce @14

I like your paranoia about the propaganda of ever-increasing work as both the supposed virtue of the overclass, and the actual scourge of the underclasses.

There is a really haunting moment in Manufacturing Consent (movie) where Chomsky says that he is a propagandist because, as an academic, he has the time to be. Nobody who has to suffer the isolation and exhaustion of work has time or enough energy to figure out what the ruling class is really getting up to (pan out to a shot of hundreds of windows in which we see lonley people vegging out in front of their TVs -- what else do they have energy for at the end of the day?).

As with all Chomsky's killer ideas, the conspiracy is not present in any one person or agenda, but in the environment created by interlocking institutions. Not to go all tinfoil-hat or anything, but it's compelling to think about things that way.

Makes me think of the leisure revolutionaries in the (very underrated) Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling. After years of fruitful unemployment because of a (now less futuristic) global economic crash, they realized that work was a form of control, not a necessity. Satire, sure, but so was William Gibson's idea of "cyberspace" before it sprung to a kind of real life.

#116 ::: Jenett ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 06:20 PM:

R.M. Koske @#112 - I read it the same way, and function more or less on the following. (I'm a librarian at a high school, so the only times I reliably get 5 minutes at a time without an interruption are in the morning or late afternoon.) I also just took over my former boss's job, which means I'm both tracking my replacement's tasks and having to track several specific projects and details. And for various reasons, being able to demonstrate what I get done is a very helpful thing.

My method:
- Immediate questions always get priority. (Student here with a "How do I find this/check this out/find this primary source/etc." question, for example.)

- If it can be done quickly, do it. (2 minutes is a good starting place for this, but adjust as needed. My work limit is more like a minute. My home limit is more like 5.)

- If it can't be done that quickly, dump it out of my head into a reliable tracking system. (I'm using Remember the Milk, which seems to work best for me, but there are tons of other options.)

- Set up a set of contexts that make sense, so that you can find things to work on when you can do those things. I.e. "I have 5 minutes, what can I do?"

At work, I'm always near a computer, so my contexts are brief (can be done in 5-10 minutes with interruptions), long (needs more focused time), building (stuff elsewhere in the building, like the front office), meeting (also put on my calendar, but this way, they show up on the day's tasks and I can track agenda items.)

I also keep lists for the two other projects I'm managing, which are more flexible in terms of time, and have longer-term tracking involved. I stick stuff I want to do on them on there when I think of it, and go through periodically and figure out when I'll do it.

It's still in progress, but it helps enough to keep going on with, which is really all I can ask of a system. And I go home not dreading I've totally forgotten about something (though sometimes trying to figure how much time I need to find to get things done, which is a different sort of issue.)

#117 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2009, 07:34 PM:

Good luck, Patrick.

I've been called for jury duty twice, just ordinary jury duty. Well, technically 3 times, but once, I postponed because of vacation conflict and explained when I'd be available and was pinged then.

The first time, I waited most of 3 days and finished the Deptford trilogy.

The second time, I waited for 1 day and finished the sixth Harry Potter book. I talked to two lawyers considering folks for a particular case, explaining that my father was in the hospital, my mother had dementia, and, while I kind of welcomed the idea of jury duty as a distraction, I wasn't sure if I'd be needed by my folks, but I'd been told it was probably best not to try to get out of it.

They said, not unreasonably, that jury duty did not exist to take my mind off my problems, and that, while they couldn't exempt me, they could and would send me back to the general pool. In theory, I shouldn't have to serve again for another three or four years.

I live in Queens, in Woodside, NY, if that's helpful for demographics here.

#118 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2009, 08:33 PM:

When I read GTD, it seemed to be saying "If it takes less than two minutes, do it immediately. Otherwise, delegate it."

Well, I am the underling :). Being She Who Keeps House means if something needs to be done, there isn't a whole lot of possible delegating. (mostly, the options are to delegate to the delivery guy or my partner)

For me, the big payoff was the idea that I needed to be able to find my damn to do list. I played with using contexts a bit, and it worked out that I have basically 3 contexts... "on bike", "on computer" and "at home". It's fairly rare for me to switch contexts much within a day, so a single list for a day works well.

Pretty much none of my tasks meet the 2 minutes criteria. But I still need to bloody well *do* them, as they can't be delegated. And if I sort the list even half decently, I can do them in a logical order and the list fails gracefully if the bike's load hits 50lbs before I'm done with errands. Sorting the list so errands are clustered helps. Sorting the lists so light stuff is clustered helps. And subbing 10 or 15 minutes for 2 minutes helps.

(and yes, iirc the important and urgent vs plain important is from Seven Habits... it's 7am and no one has clean underwear is kinda urgent. it's 7am and you're making a grocery list and you note that there's only one box of tissues in the cupboard is important. the one leaves you wishing you'd stuck a load of laundry in 2 hours ago. the other means you make sure to get tissues when you visit the grocery store that week. it maybe does not work so well when you're dealing with a job more complex than keeping house.)

Sadly, there is no magic way to cross items off the list except by *doing* them. GTD kinda obscures that in the fullest versions. So if I catch myself doing more list twiddling than a quick sanity check with my partner, I tend to remind myself that it is Getting Things Done, not List Twiddling For Fun And Profit. (it probably helps that list twiddling bores me to tears)

#119 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2009, 11:04 AM:

Wow. I just noticed that the profile of infamous LJ-user "pnh" has been deleted, presumably as a step toward dealing with the problem described herein.

I'm disappointed to see this, of course, but even more of course I understand the reasoning behind it and have to think it will help a great deal.

Nevertheless, it seems quite a momentous event to me and that it ought to be marked in some way, which it probably was or has been elsewhere and I'm too out of the loop to know any better.

So, my own little tribute here: so long LJ-user pnh. Thanks for the memories. May your electrons rest in eternal peace... except, of course, for whenever they are dragged forth from the grave by various search engine caches and so forth.

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