Clear House, Clear Mind

As a community, we have too much stuff. We have so much stuff, we don’t even notice that it’s there. I became acutely aware of this recently after I broke up with my now ex-girlfriend, and moved house twice (first in with my parents, then out into my own place again).

I had boxes of stuff. Books. Computer equipment. Clothes. Paper (notebooks, filing drawers, and so on). Gifts that I was hanging onto out of a sense of guilt if I threw them away. Stuff that doesn’t even have a category.

So I got rid of most of it. The process took months (and I’ve never even considered myself a pack-rat), but I’m finally making headway. I never want to go back to the world of stuff again.

Photo by Ryan Tir.
Photo by Ryan Tir.

There are a lot of benefits to having less stuff. I’ve noticed three main ones:

  1. You suddenly have a lot of spare cash. You’re not any richer, since you’ve just swapped a $10 doo-dad for $10 in cash. But it makes you feel richer, which is nice. And you can invest that $10 to get even richer, or spend it on something actually worthwhile.
  2. You appreciate the things you have more. I now look at what I have and think how lucky I am to have the things I do, rather than “oh God, I have too much stuff!”. It’s a nice change.
  3. Everything works. I can pick up any book on my shelf and know I will enjoy reading it. Every single book. Likewise, it would be very difficult to dress myself with any item in my wardrobe and not look half-reasonable, since I’ve disposed of everything that doesn’t fit, is worn out, or I just plain don’t like.

Stuff that I didn’t dispose of:

  • Anything that I actually needed! Why get rid of something if you are just going to have to buy it again later? It’s a waste of time and money to do that. Your individual situation will determine what you actually need.
  • Sentimental items. I’m not saying that I’ll never get rid of the stuffed teddy bears I’ve had since I was a small child, but it’s certainly not time for that yet. The antiques my grandmother gave me in her dying days will never go, despite the “where the hell will I put that?” response they caused when I received them.

Stuff I did get rid of:

Books

I used to have a huge collection of books. I had ten “In A Nutshell” books from O’Reilly. I had dozens of Penguin Classics. I had hundreds of books. Now I have twenty.

Photo by David Orban.
Photo by David Orban.

When you buy a book, it can become one of four possible things. Some you’ll never finish reading because they’re awful. Some you’ll read, but you know you’ll never read again. Others you might refer to once in a while, such as a cookbook. Finally, there are those books you’ve read to death. You know every word, and yet you go back to read them again.

Any book in the first two categories should go immediately. You do not want these books wasting space in your house. Books in the fourth category should definitely stay. Books in the third? Well, it’s up to you. I got rid of them if I could find the same information online, and kept them if I couldn’t.

Now, how to get rid of books. If you live in Australia, this is actually incredibly simple. You put them in a box, and ship them off (with free postage) to a service that sells them online for you. It’s amazing. I love it. It’s called FishPond SmartSell.

Computer Gear / Electronics

Getting rid of computer and other electronic equipment is depressing, for one simple reason: the depreciation on these purchases is incredible. A motherboard you bought for $350 a couple of years ago is now worthless. You cannot even sell optical drives. This stuff is junk.

I had a lot of computer junk. I knew it was junk, but I kept it around anyway. Patch panels. Dozens of SATA cables. A $50 printer with no ink. Sticks of RAM. All of it taking up space in my life (and in my study no less, where space is most precious). By getting rid of it, I’ve made a lot of space, and a bit of money.

In Australia, the best place to sell computer equipment (and most other assorted items) is Gumtree (Americans could use Craigslist). It’s relatively easy (especially compared to the minefield that is now eBay) and has a very large user base. Unfortunately eBay is full of cheap Hong Kong sellers who sell new items for less than you can post your old items for. Don’t even bother. You’ll want to spend a bit of time getting a feel for how much items are worth, so as not to sell things for too cheap.

Photo by Jonas Ahrentorp.

I now basically have just a laptop, a printer, a mouse, and some external monitors. It’s all I need, and it takes up very little space.

Papers

I used to have stacks of spiral-bound notebooks with ideas and grand plans in them. I had filing cabinets full of tax receipts and superannuation reports. I now have very little of that. Here’s how I went about the process:

  1. Obtain a shredder (preferably a cross-cut model such as this) and a scanner (one with a feed tray is best, such as this). You can most likely borrow these from relatives to avoid the need to buy, if you don’t have them.
  2. Make sure you have a good backup program on your computer, so you don’t lose anything (lest the tax man come after you). I recommend BackBlaze. It’s automatic and it just works.
  3. Read through the spiral-bound notebooks, ripping out any page that has what is still a great idea or a useful note in it, and shredding any page that has a password written on it. Dispose of the notebooks.
  4. Scan to PDF all of the notebook pages that you want to keep. This will be a long and tedious process, but it’s mind-numbing work, so watch TV at the same time. After you scan each page, shred it.
  5. Now move on to the filing cabinets and other papers. Some items can just be thrown out (or shredded if they have personal information). Some items can be scanned and then shredded (most things needed for tax fall into this category). Some things will need to be kept (birth certificates, car registrations, etc). Scan these anyway, it’s nice to have a backup.
  6. Put the shredded papers into the compost and make some lovely worm food.

The next step is organising these PDFs into a useful form. The stuff kept just for tax purposes can just be filed away and forgotten about in the depths of your hard drive, but anything that needs to be looked at again should be organised.

Clothing

Clothing went through a simple three-step test:

  1. Does it still fit me?
  2. Is it still functional (holes, wearing, etc)?
  3. Do I like it?

Unless I got a yes to all three questions, it went into the charity bin. Simple as that.

Other Items

I disposed of a lot of other items too. A lot of things I sold on Gumtree, as they had some resale value. Unfortunately, others went into the garbage. This made me sad, but it’s important to realise they didn’t become garbage when they went into the bin; they became garbage when they were no longer useful. I just hadn’t thrown them out yet.

Conclusion

While my process of elimination and simplification is still ongoing, starting to clear out my house on a physical level has cleared out my mind too. I can see (both literally and metaphorically) the things that are important to me. I hope to never look at stuff the same way again.

Time Management 101: First Principles

As promised in my second post on running a company, I want to talk more about time management. I’m definitely still learning myself, so while I do have useful things to say, take them with a grain of salt.

Image by https://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/
Image by Sean MacEntee

I want to start at the core of the time management problem, and work outwards from there. Before I can give any practical advice there is a question we have to ask ourselves: what is the point?

Principle #1: Know what you want.

Before there is any point to improving how you manage your time, you have to ask yourself what you want to achieve. Not only that, but you need an answer that you passionately believe in.

Similar to how exercising without a goal won’t succeed, managing time without a goal won’t either. You can join up to a gym, buy new exercise pants and book appointments with a personal trainer, but unless you actually want to achieve a defined goal (such as losing 10kg, running a marathon, or joining a sportsball team) the motivation to exercise will disappear and your exercise habit will deteriorate to nothing.

Let’s take my example. I want to better manage my time so that I spend less time on business administration and personal errands, and more time either working productively or having fun.

But it’s not just enough to have a defined goal. You have to believe in it. And for that, we need to go one step further. With exercise, you might want to run a marathon. But why would you want to do that? Because you want to feel good about your body. You don’t want to feel shame any more. And that’s good. It’s an emotional feeling, and we can latch on to emotions more than we can to abstract goals.

Personally, I want to spend more time on productive business and relaxation because those are the things I enjoy most. My work brings me joy, and so does spending time with my family and friends. Doing laundry does not. The emotional attachment I have with the people around me is the motivation I need to better manage my time.

You might have similar motivations. Or perhaps you want to get a promotion, in order to feel the higher status that brings you.

Work out what you want, and then make it feel real.

Principle #2: Time is your only resource.

When you are born, you are gifted with roughly 67.2 years of time, which equals about 24500 days, or roughly 600,000 hours (based, of course, on where you were born and to whom).

Graph of life expectancy.
Graph from Wikipedia

Unless your parents were ridiculously rich, pretty much everything you have after the age of 18 was earned by yourself. Your car, your house (lucky bastard), your life partner, all these things required an investment by you. And what was the form of that investment? Time.

  • When you courted your partner, you were giving up time in order to gain something more valuable (hopefully): love.
  • When you bought your first car, you did so with money from your job. What is a job? Trading your time for your employer’s money.
  • A house is a slightly more complex trade, but it still involves an investment of time – both before buying the house and after (both in the form of paying the mortgage and maintaining the house).

When you buy shares in a company with the hope of receiving a dividend, you’re investing your time. You spent some of your time now in order that you might have to work less (and thus have more time) in the future.

When you have a debt (like a credit card) what you really owe isn’t money: it’s the time you will have to spend to pay back the debt.

The key realisation is that time can be converted into money (most of us do it every day, in the form of a paying job), but also that money can be converted into time (by paying somebody else to do something for us). In the inter-connected global economy (fragile as it is) it’s easy to make this conversion happen both ways.

Every time you order a pizza, you’re spending your money (which you earned with your time) in order for somebody else to spend their time making a pizza in lieu of you. Because everybody is good at different things and has different prices on their time, this trade makes sense: the specialisation in the economy allows everybody to be more efficient in how they spend their time. And it’s this we will explore next.

Principle #3: What is your time worth?

Managing your time practically comes down to an issue of opportunity cost, one of the core concepts of economics. In it’s simplest form, the opportunity cost of a product or service is the sacrifice that is needed to have that product or service.

For example, a bottle of Coke is about $4. You can either have the $4 of money, or you can have the Coke. You can’t have both.

Opportunity cost is most interesting when it becomes relative. Let’s say you have a choice between going to the beach (or some other enjoyable activity) with your friends, or going to work and earning $1000. Most people would go to work, since $1000 is more valuable than the time spent with friends. Now let’s say you have the same choice, but you only earn $10. Most people would quit immediately and spend the time with their friends. Spending time with friends is worth more than $10, but less than $1000. Or is it?

What if we repeat the experiment over time? Let’s say every hour I work I earn $100. In the first hour, I’m pretty chuffed to have earned $100. I work a second hour, and I have $200. After the fourth hour I have $400, but I’m also pretty hungry. At this point I could work another hour and earn more, or I could have lunch and spend $20 (assume I’m eating out). I decide that the cost of having lunch ($120, combining both the meal cost and the lost income) is less than the cost of being hungry for another hour. Over time, our needs change and thus our opportunity costs do too.

When we do tasks like laundry or the dishes, we are saying that the cost of being able to find a clean dish or clean clothes in the future is less than the cost of having to clean them now. Whether this is true for you depends on your circumstances.

When we watch TV, we are saying that the cost of this activity is less than the cost of anything else we could do with that time (including earning more, spending time with family, running errands, etc). We have to keep in mind all the time: is this what I want to be doing with my time to the exclusion of all else?

Principle #4: Eliminate the unnecessary.

This principle is really a logical extension of the previous three principles, but it’s important enough that I’m going to include it anyway.

Given that we only have a finite amount of time, the opportunity cost of everything we do can be measured in time, and we have goals to achieve in that time, it makes sense to prioritise.

There are some things we should eliminate entirely. Logically, smoking is number one. It shortens your life, it costs you time smoking, and it costs you time working to buy cigarettes.

There are other things we might want to spend less time on, but still want to do. I enjoy watching some television, but I need to be conscious of not wasting too much time watching ABC News 24, no matter how awesome Michael Rowland is.

What we choose to eliminate and cut back on is different for everybody, because we have different goals and values in life. I don’t care about fashion, so I do only what I need to in order to look respectable. Other people enjoy fashion, so it’s a worthwhile time investment.

If something doesn’t interest you, either eliminate it from your life or figure out how to automate or outsource it.

Life is as fun and interesting as you make it.

Photo by  Alexander Boden
Photo by Alexander Boden

So those are my principles of time management. From now on, in following posts, we can be a lot more practical.

More Advice on running a company

Following on from my post How to run a small company in Australia, here is some more business advice, in no particular order:

  • Keep an eye on cash flow. It can be great to send off thousands of dollars of invoices, but if you don’t have the money today to pay suppliers (or employees) then you’ve got a problem. People don’t like being paid in promises, they prefer cash. I feel very uncomfortable if I have less than a full month’s expenses (including wages) in the bank. I like having two or three.
  • Know the failure rates, and plan accordingly. My business is now almost three years old, and it’s only now that I’m starting to think “you know what, I might just be able to make this work”. A source of mine at the Commonwealth Bank says they see 70% of start up businesses fail within the first year. From my point of view, one of the key success factors is not to dream big before you’re capable. Don’t buy into the Silicon Valley mindset of buying brand new Aeron chairs for every staff member, when you don’t even have a single client (or a product/service, even). Doing so is a guarantee of failure, in my opinion.
  • Ideas really are worthless, and implementation of them is a lot harder than you first imagine.
  • Time management is important, and difficult. “Work” as such never really stops, and work hours are unpredictable. I sometimes start at 7:30am, and I’m quite often working at 10:30pm. On the other hand, sometimes I will work only a couple of hours a day and then go to the beach. But one thing is constant: worrying about the business. Worrying about client work, worrying about bills, worrying that my staff are happy, and so on. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about time management, and I might go into this in more detail in another post, but the key is this: fill your schedule up with big rocks.
  • Ask for help before you need it. Get all the advice you can. Not all of it will be good (indeed, some of it will be awful), but pick out the good stuff. Get advice from your bank before they need to bail you out, they’ll be much happier.
  • If you’ve got multiple directors and/or senior staff, think about who has access to bank accounts.
  • And the most important thing: starting my own business is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. If you have the inspiration and the opportunity, do it. If you don’t have the opportunity, try to make the opportunity happen. Business ownership is an amazing feeling.

Australian Pomp and Ceremony

As Australians, we’ve always been very uncomfortable with who we are. Descendants of British settlers feel nervous about how Aboriginal people were treated (and to some extent still are). Aboriginal people feel uncomfortable because they have been made to feel like second-class citizens for a large part of our history (because they were). More recent immigrants are locked away in detention centres, despite our national anthem’s promise of having “boundless plains to share”.

It’s no wonder, then, that when Australia Day rolls around, everybody gets a little bit confused. Nobody knows quite how they feel about giving out Knighthoods and Damehoods again, but we’re pretty sure they shouldn’t go to a racist old fart who isn’t even Australian. I feel personally that knighthoods are a great addition to the Order of Australia, and it’s good they are being given out again. However, they should be recommended by the Order of Australia Council with no involvement from the Prime Minister.

Things like the Australian Flag should fill every Australian with a sense of pride in our country. Unfortunately, when I see it I feel a sense of shame, as it has become associated with racism and other forms of bigotry. It’s unfortunate that these things which should unite us instead tear us apart.

A lot of people say we need to talk about who we are as a country. That usually means becoming a republic. That’s not going to help one way or the other. We need to make a lot of small changes, that together will make every citizen feel a part of Australia.

Firstly, we need to live up to our promise in the national anthem: for those who come across the seas, we should share our plains with you. Being more civil to refugees should be top priority. We can’t treat people as sub-human any longer. These people are escaping terrible places. Why else would you get in a leaky boat and sail across the ocean with only a mild hope that you might get to Australia? I understand the need to perform security and quarantine checks on people before we let them into the wider community. But these checks can be done in days or weeks, not months or years. They can also be done on the Australian mainland, not a foreign country. To do otherwise is pandering to bigots, and that’s not something I want my country to be known for.

Our honours system needs some work, as I’ve outlined above. We should have Knighthoods and Damehoods, as they are internationally recognised and bestow a fine honour amongst those people who deserve them. But we should have more conversation about who gets them. I think only Australian citizens should be eligible. I think only the Order of Australia council should be able to recommend to the Queen who gets them, with no political involvement from the Prime Minister or his office.

It’s about time we changed our flag, too. The problem is, to what. I don’t have a solution here. Some people have suggested replacing the union jack with the aboriginal flag, but that then diminishes the contribution given by the British settlers to this nation. Far better, I think, to not acknowledge any particular race on our flag; we are all the same on the inside after all.

Australian flag with the aboriginal flag replacing the union jack.
The proposed replacement flag.

I’m really happy with the trend I’ve been seeing in the last few years of having a  “Welcome to country” by Aboriginal community representatives for formal events. I’ve even been to technical conferences where this has occurred! This seems to me to be a very subtle and inclusive way to acknowledge the history of the land on which this country is built.

One thing that I don’t think is particularly helpful is a discussion about being a republic. There are actually far more important things to get fixed, and we can fix them without spending years fighting amongst ourselves over who gets to be our head of state. Whilst I’m not against a republic, and would probably vote for one if a referendum was held today, I think both the current Queen and her successors are doing a fine job. Whilst a lot of people dislike Prince Charles, I can’t figure out why: he spends a lot of time fighting for good causes. He’s an environmental campaigner, and I like that.

Queen Elizabeth II firing a machine gun.
The queen, meanwhile, is pretty epic.

Whilst it’s uncomfortable to talk about who we are, sometimes these discussions are necessary in order to better ourselves. Every citizen will never be equal (capitalism and human power struggles will team up to prevent that from ever happening). We should endeavour, in any case, to give every citizen equal opportunities, as far as we can. We need to make every person feel included in our country of Australia.

Videos from linux.conf.au 2015

The penguin dinner (the “formal” conference dinner) for linux.conf.au 2015 was held at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland. This was pretty cool epic and amazing. Here are the videos I managed to capture of some of the machinery at work:

Unfortunately, I took an amazing 5-minute video of a triple-expansion steam engine being started up, but I’ve lost the footage – I think my phone might not have saved it. :(

On the Saturday after the conference, I went on The Northern Explorer, a train trip from Auckland to Wellington with a few friends. Again, I took a number of videos (as well as literally hundreds of photos):

This is actually the first time I’ve bothered capturing videos as well as photos on a trip. My phone (a Google Nexus 5) has proved that it can do 95% of the job of my dSLR in capturing the essence of a scene, and that’s good enough for me. It helps that I carry my phone everywhere, too. I will definitely be considering buying some sort of small tripod device though; as it turns out my hands are very shaky.