Some efficiency tips for noobs

My biggest pet peeves are clutter, unnecessary details and logistical messes.

I hate digging around for things in my own home. I can hardly stand watching someone try to find some important “lost” file on their computer because they weren’t thinking when they saved it the first time. I go crazy listening to people stress out while making last-minute decisions about where to eat, which route to take or who’s picking up which kid with which car from which friend’s house.

These things drive me nuts – more than they should, probably. I’m self-employed, which gives whole new meaning to the phrase “time is money” – if I miss a day of work, I miss a day of pay.

So in my never-ending attempt to avoid these frustrating situations, I’ve learned a few things about how to declutter and organize modern life. The three tips below barely scratch the surface of what’s needed to truly be organized and efficient, but they are three things most people don’t do that would otherwise massively reduce their day-to-day stress levels.

Use one digital ecosystem.

I don’t have experience beyond Microsoft and Google (I guess that leaves out Apple), but going all-or-nothing with one company’s solutions is really the only way they will help you, rather than cause frustration and anxiety. For example, I use Google almost exclusively—Gmail, Calendar, Chrome, Maps, Drive, Play, etc. Because these apps are all under one umbrella, they talk to each other. They coordinate events on their own in ways that make life easier for me. After a while, Google even starts to predict my behavior and informs me of things like traffic on my morning commute and weather on days I plan to fly.


Speaking of flying, I booked a flight last week on Expedia. Gmail “noticed” the email was a flight itinerary, so it “talked” to my Calendar and automatically added the flight to my calendar. And the day of the flight, Google will send me a note about when to leave my current location to get to my flight on time.

These things would not happen if I used, say, Microsoft for email, Apple for calendar and Yahoo! for maps. Instead, I’d have frustrating coordination problems that have me spending valuable time copy-pasting information from one app to another.

Use a calendar religiously.

I use Google Calendar for everything—work, personal and whatever falls in between. Both my wife and I update it immediately upon scheduling any appointment, which means we can see the future in real-time—we don’t have to call back and forth to confirm with our respective doctors, employers or family members when we’re available to do something.


Sound cluttered? It can be. But what’s great about most calendars is you can code events to appear on one calendar or another (work vs. personal, mine vs. my wife’s) and filter your view to see as many or as few calendars as you want.

For example, I regularly block off most weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on my calendar as “Work.” I code this as “Personal” so my wife can see it. Inside these blocks, I add my work meetings, calls, etc. But I don’t share these items with my wife. I share with her only what she needs to see in order to know when she can, say, schedule a massage for herself (i.e. have me watch the baby). She sees that I’m working that day without having to sift through dozens of me-exclusive items that don’t affect her, and I see what I need to do at work that day without having to manage separate calendars.

Make use of Sunday evenings.

I suspect Sunday evenings are down-time for most people – time to catch up on TV shows, recoup from a fun weekend, or simply zone out before the work week.

But taking just 15 minutes on Sunday evenings to review your upcoming week can make all the difference in the world. Review your schedule for the week and be ready for what’s coming ahead of time. You may even find yourself needing to look at your calendar less often during the week. I do.

My Plan

If you’re married or living with a partner, sit with them while you review your week. Then you can ask questions about confusing calendar items or tentative plans right then as they come up, instead of playing phone tag later in the week just to learn some annoyingly tiny but vitally important detail about some evening plan or another.

My personal gains from these 15 minutes, in terms of reduced stress and time saved during the workweek, are immense. I have avoided entire hours of coordinating and logistical planning. And I’ll bet the returns on this time grow exponentially as family size grows and the number of soccer practices, piano recitals, play dates and other engagements increases.

Jesus as salesman. Relatable Jesus.

We really don’t know much about Jesus.

To show that, here’s a perspective on Jesus from Bruce Barton – a critical dissection of his method that, for unclear reasons, I don’t think Christians are usually willing to entertain:

Finally he knew the necessity for repetition and practiced it.

It has been said that “reputation is repetition.” No important truth can be impressed upon the minds of any large number of people by being said only once. The thoughts which Jesus had to give the world were revolutionary, but they were few in number. “God is your father,” he said, “caring more for the welfare of every one of you than any human father can possibly care for his children. His Kingdom is happiness! His rule is love.” This is what he head to teach, but he knew the necessity of driving it home form every possible angle. So in one of his stories God is the shepherd searching the wilds for one wandering sheep; in another, the Father welcoming home a prodigal boy; in another a King who forgives his debtors large amounts and expects them to be forgiving in turn – many stories, many advertisements, but the same big Idea.

Another selection:

His language was marvelously simple – a second great essential. There is hardly a teaching which a child cannot understand. His illustrations were all drawn from the commonest experiences of life; “a sower went forth to sow”; “a certain man had two sons”; “a man built his house on the sands”; “the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” The absence of adjectives is striking.

Jesus used few qualifying words and no long ones. We referred a minute ago to those three literary materpieces, The Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, The Gettysburg Address. Recall their phraseology:

  • Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
  • The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • Four score and seven years ago.

Not a single three-syllable word; hardly any two-syllable words. All the greatest things in human life are one-syllable things – love, joy, hope, home, child, wife, trust, faith, God – and the great advertisements, generally speaking, are those in which the most small words are found.

Irreverent to speak of Jesus as marketer? Was he simply an advocate of a “big Idea?” Is it right to consider and judge his method, even if we find it flawless?

On that note, here’s another selection to consider – this time from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

I’ve read this over and over. I think it shows just how little about Jesus we really know.

As a kid in Sunday School, I remember watching animated movies about this episode — of Jesus calling his disciples to “follow me.” In them, he walks about seemingly unknown to the hoards of people living around the Sea of Galilee. He walks up to random young men that he seemingly didn’t know beforehand. He asks them to drop their things and follow him.

They obey.

If you really think about it, there are only a few explanations for this. People do not randomly leave their families and livelihoods behind to follow a stranger. Have you done this? Has anyone you know done this?

Even cult leaders develop a relationship with their followers before leading them away from their families and livelihoods. Perhaps they wrote a book that their followers have read. Maybe they demonstrate powerful understanding of things their followers care about. Whatever it is, cults don’t appear spontaneously–their leaders possess some characteristic or history that lends them influence in their followers’ minds before they make the decision to leave everything behind.

On that note, I see two possible explanations for Simon and Andrew’s bizarre behavior.

  1. They were influenced by some supernatural power to follow a man they knew nothing about.
  2. They knew something about Jesus that quelled their natural, healthy hesitancy to follow him anywhere.

The first one is, I think, the most commonly-believed explanation. Movie depictions of this episode often entail some majestic-looking bearded man walking, trance-like, toward Simon and Andrew, and calling their names in a hypnotic voice. They, also trance-like, drop their things and follow him as he continues walking down the lake-shore.

I can’t prove this explanation wrong. It’s plausible. It is, however, lazy. It forgoes any more relatable explanation, or one that might be more useful to one with a healthy skepticism of random, supernatural events. I don’t like such explanations. They don’t jive with what we know to be true about the human condition.

The second one is interesting because, if it’s true, it opens the door to further knowledge about Jesus’ life and influence prior to the beginning of his ministry. We don’t know much about Jesus’ twenties except that he was a carpenter. We don’t know if he had friends, where he lived, or how he spent his time.

Extra-biblical depictions of Jesus during this time tend to skim over it, often alluding to twenty-something Jesus as a sort-of “man in waiting” who knew his ministry was not to begin until later.

But such a depiction isn’t necessarily true. It’s conjecture. It’s possible that Jesus had a full life and was very influential among his contemporaries. Perhaps he was a profound speaker. Maybe he was exceptionally strong or tall or boisterous. Maybe he was a genius (see Luke 2) and engaged others with deep insights about God and the Torah.

What I’m really getting at is the possibility that Jesus was very relatable, and that we really know very little about him. Christians believe he is God, but they also believe he is “fully man.” So could others see in him a person they wanted to be? Could they relate to him? Did his boldness inspire them to live better lives? Did they aspire to be more like him? Did they even think that was possible?

Yes, I think, on all points.

My alma mater in the news

…well, maybe not the news, per se. Does The Atlantic count?

Grove City College reports demographic and some other information to the government on a voluntary basis, said its president, Paul McNulty. He said that—even though it doesn’t have to—the college also tries to adhere to the principles of Title IX to serve male and female students equally. “I think a lot of other colleges wish they were in Grove City’s position, because they worry that [government] requirements are going to fundamentally change the direction of the institution,” said McNulty.

“The issue has never been about discrimination,” he said. “We value our independence. We value the fact that we do not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next, and we don’t have to then shoulder the burden of the administration costs associated with those policy initiatives and requirements.”

Long story short, my alma mater (Grove City College) does not accept federal funding and, by implication, cannot accept students who finance their education with federal student loans. They do this on principle for reasons of financial and academic independence–as President McNulty states in the quote above, to “not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next.”

I’m not really sure why this is “controversial,” as the title of the article alleges. Colleges like Grove City College don’t want federal funding, and I’m guessing critics of such colleges’ missions and values don’t want taxpayer dollars to help fund their operations. If anything, the “controversy” is that the government places values-based controls (vs. financial/administrative controls) on colleges who accept federal funding.

Yes, I understand that it seems “controversial” for a college to have rules regarding sexuality and on-campus behavior that are mainstream “discriminatory,” but where does the government’s control end? No student is forced to attend Grove City College (or any college that doesn’t accept federal funding) nor do these independent colleges use taxpayer dollars to further their religiously-oriented missions. Who’s hurt?

Sell solutions, not deliverables

Something I’ve learned since starting a business:

When selling your products or services, focus on your potential customers’ stated problems/painsand not the product or service they think they need. Decide whether you can fulfill their expectations based on whether you can address and solve whatever problem they’re facing–not whether you can deliver the specifications they claim to need.

For example, I recently had a potential client (now an actual client) show me an example of what he wanted–a particular data dashboard for a particular application, similar to the one his predecessor used. He asked if I could recreate that dashboard for him with updated data.

If I were to answer his question directly, it would have been a definite “no.” Truth is, I have no idea how to create that dashboard, nor would I attempt to–it was outdated, cumbersome, and rather unhelpful to him (though he didn’t realize it).

But of course, I didn’t say “no.” I knew what his goals were, and that I could help him get there. So I said exactly this: “I can do much better than that.”

He was impressed. I got the job. They never knew that I couldn’t do exactly what they said they wanted, but it didn’t matter–I knew I could do what they really wanted.

Successful selling is about solving problems and relieving pains. It’s about managing expectations and thinking creativelyIt’s not about doing everything your client says they want, line-by-line, because the truth is: No one can fulfill every client expectation exactly as they initially conceive them.

To be honest, this is rather basic advice. I knew all this before I started selling research. But it means so much more now that I’m in the thick of things. It’s easy to be intimidated by a client’s request when you’re not sure if you have the tools to complete it. Under-delivering is enemy #1, after all. But think long and hard before saying “no.” What is it the client really wants? What problem are they trying to solve? Do you have a solution they never would have thought of–maybe something better, even different, than what they think they need?

On speaking clearly

Gosnell’s behavior was terribly wrong. But there is no reason to believe that an extra layer of regulation would have affected that behavior. Determined wrongdoers, already ignoring existing statutes and safety measures, are unlikely to be convinced to adopt safe practices by a new overlay of regulations.

This is the liberal Supreme Court’s argument against more abortion regulations. Ironically, it’s also conservative’s argument against more gun control.

In general, I think this type of confusion happens when people talk too much — when they go on and on about their position, using every possible reason to defend some ideal. We end up far from our original position, saying things we don’t really mean.

Better, and more effective, I think, to stick to one line — to get to the bottom of things and stay there. Why pro-choice? Because every woman has the right to control her body. Why anti-gun control? Because everyone has the right to bear arms.

And instead of pile argument on top of argument, dissect just one. Get hermeneutical. Explore the philosophical underpinnings of your fundamental position and dig deep into its history–even to pre-modern or ancient originators. Commit to speaking clearly and basically about what you know, and remember that fruitful debates are not combative, but investigative, and even exegetical, in nature.

Signs of the times

From the erudite Theodore Dalrymple at Taki’s Magazine:

Since perfect peace cannot hold our attention for long, accustomed as we are to a life of constant stimulation, we tend, or feel the need, to focus our minds on the dramatic. Without violent manifestations of discontent and criminality somewhere in the world, we should soon grow bored. Universal contentment is our worst enemy and greatest fear.

So we are predisposed to see in infrequent and dramatic events not merely the events themselves, but signs of the times, a glimpse of the future, a future that makes us shudder in the same way as a horror film makes us shudder. Infrequent and dramatic events have transcendent meaning for us, so to speak, in a way that reigning peace, however preponderant, does not and cannot have.

The loss of the contemplative mind

From Teddy Wayne, writing at the New York Times:

Mr. Carr also noted counterarguments: Formulating relatively simple thoughts on the internet can yield more complex ones through real-time exchanges with others, and people whose reflex is to post a notion hastily rather than let it sit may not have been the most deliberative thinkers in a pre-smartphone time, either.

Nevertheless, he sees our current direction as indicative of “the loss of the contemplative mind,” he said. “We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.”

I wonder about the connection between the limits of social media and the formulation of our opinions on contentious social issues. Do we limit our thinking to thoughts and ideas that can be communicated succinctly on Twitter or Facebook?

The medium shapes the message–the way we communicate affects the types of things we say. If we’re not careful, things go one step further: The things we say affect the way we think about things.

Therefore, the medium shapes not only the message, but the thinking. Scary thought.

I listened to this EconTalk yesterday, featuring historian Abby Smith Rumsey. She talked about the role of memory in shaping our thinking and our plans for the future, and discussed how the “digitization” of memory via the virtual logging of more and more of what we see, hear and experience may affect the way we understand the past and, more intimately, determine cause-and-effect relationships in the world around us.

It’s complicated neuroscience that I hardly understand. And Rumsey says it’s hardly settled science, as Wayne (author of quote above) is careful to note in his NYT piece. At the least, I think, the possibility that the medium shapes not only the message, but also the way we understand the world gives cause for serious, personal consideration about how our choice of media–how we get the news, how we communicate with friends and family, how we express our opinions–affects the way we think about things, generally.

For example, it seems possible, to me, that over-relying on written media to communicate with others affects the way we interpret body language. Given that practice and experience makes us more fluent, in general, I think it’s likely that over-relying on text to communicate with other people diminishes our natural ability to interpret their body language–a whole other dimension of interpersonal communication that tells us more than words alone.

Maybe you don’t care about all this. And maybe there really isn’t anything to worry about–our brains are partially “plastic,” but sufficiently hardened that basic, fundamental thinking isn’t meaningfully affected by media.

At the very least, then, in a world where most look down at their phones during quiet moments, one who looks up gains a different perspective–potentially very useful and marketable. One who looks up gains an edge over other people. What successful person wouldn’t want that?

We look at our phones, anyways, hoping to find new things. We don’t want to read old emails, or see the same memes, or watch variations on the same boring videos. We want to see brand new things. And the shinier and grander they are, the more we’ll give up to see them.

I can only imagine that those most successful in creating these new things are those who see things differently and, especially, those who do things differently–those who look up when others look down.

On social change, early birds = slow birds

An interesting generalization from fertility data (chart below) at Our World in Data:

We also see from the chart that the speed with which countries can achieve low fertility has increased over time. A century ago it took the United Kingdom 95 years and the US 82 years to reduce fertility from more than 6 to less than 3. This is a pattern that we see often in development: those countries that first experience social change take much longer for transitions than those who catch up later. Countries that were catching up increased life expectancy much faster, they reduced child mortality more quickly and were able to grow their incomes much more rapidly.

I’d say this is rather intuitive. At the least, it jives with our life experiences with regard to any new frontier–a new skill, a new method, a new process or way of thinking. The pioneers of anything have the hardest time, carving paths where none existed before. The rest of us follow on trodden, smoother ground.

Social change, especially, isn’t easy. Lots of fear involved. Lots of barrier-breaking and throwing off long-held traditions. But once the guinea pigs make it through unharmed, others gain confidence.


Beyond the boring limits

Selected quotes from David Bentley Hart’s Religion in America.

For, if we succumb to post-Christian modernity, and the limits of its vision, what then? Most of us will surrender to a passive decay of will and aspiration, perhaps, find fewer reasons to resist as government insinuates itself into the little liberties of the family, continue to seek out hitherto unsuspected insensitivities to denounce and prejudices to extirpate, allow morality to give way to sentimentality; the impetuous among us will attempt to enjoy Balzac, or take up herb gardening, or discover “issues”; a few dilettantish amoralists will conclude that everything is permitted and dabble in bestiality or cannibalism; the rest of us will mostly watch television; crime rates will rise more steeply and birth rates fall more precipitously; being the “last men,” we shall think ourselves at the end of history; an occasional sense of the pointlessness of it all will induce in us a certain morose feeling of impotence (but what can one do?); and, in short, we shall become Europeans (but without the vestiges of the old civilization ranged about us to soothe our despondency). Surely we can hope for a nobler fate. Better the world of Appalachian snake handlers, mass revivals, Hispanic Pentecostals, charismatic Catholics, and millenarian evangelicals (even the Gnostics among them); better a disembodied, violent, and even dionysiac hunger for God than a dispirited and eviscerate capitulation before material reality; and much better a general atmosphere of earnest, if sometimes unsophisticated, faith.

…material circumstances (unless they are absolutely crushing) possess only such gravity or levity as one’s interpretation of them; and how one interprets them is determined not merely by one’s personal psychology, but by the cultural element in which they subsist.

Either the material order is the whole of being, wherein all transcendence is an illusion, or it is the phenomenal surface — mysterious, beautiful, terrible, harsh, and haunting — of a world of living spirits. That the former view is philosophically incoherent is something of which I am convinced; but, even if one cannot share that conviction, one should still be able to recognize that it is only the latter view that has ever had the power — over centuries and in every realm of human accomplishment — to summon desire beyond the boring limits marked by mortality, to endow the will with constancy and purpose, to shape imagination towards ends that should not be possible within the narrow economics of the flesh.

The sway of ideological legacy

Regarding the ultimate nature of reality, at least, neither the general consensus of a culture nor the special consensus of a credentialed class should be trusted too readily, especially if it cannot justify itself except by reference to its own unexamined presuppositions. So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history. Even our notion of what might constitute a “rational” or “realistic” view of things is largely a product not of a dispassionate attention to facts, but of an ideological legacy.

-David Bentley Hart