Thursday, March 18, 2010

Three automation experiments that worked

Time to read: under three minutes.

I actively detest shopping. I derive no satisfaction from department stores. When I was eight I got lost in Selfridges in London for what felt like three days.  I still experience flashbacks.  So no surprises that I love online shopping. There is nothing I like more than opening my front door on a Saturday morning and the nice men from Freshdirect handover boxes of fresh veg and goodies for the week ahead.  In fact I got thinking about other repetitive tasks that I dislike and what can be done so I never have to do them again.  Here are three New York experiments that I tried and really liked.

1. Socks. I recently signed up to Manpacks. Although it sounds like a dodgy online service for discounted viagra, it is actually a subscription service that delivers fresh new socks, boxer shorts and t-shirts to my front door every two months. Buying socks in a store is time I can never get back. I had already switched to using but now this is even easier. One ‘manpack’ every two months will, on average, replace my wardrobe over two years. Brilliant. 

2. Checking voicemail. For some reason I really dislike having to check my voicemail. I tend to do it about once every three weeks and delete all my messages at speed. I signed up to a service most excellently named: The product is called Phonetag and it automatically transcribes every voicemail you get and emails it to you.  I must admit that I love it. It transcribes about 90% of the message correctly and, if you are confused, it also sends you an MP3 of the voicemail. Importantly it always seems to transcribe phone numbers that people read out correctly. I pay per message and the cost is negligible.

Thinking about all the incoming "stuff" that bombards me made me consider all the other ways that I have to deal with incoming information. To the extent that it is possible, I have tried to make everything end up in one place – either my Outlook inbox or my Blackberry (which is also my phone). OK that's two places.  Here's where I am:

3. Never run out of toilet paper again. My wife and I signed up to Alice which automates the delivery of boring household goods to your house. It predicts when you will need various good like toilet cleaner or shampoo or recycling bags. Every few weeks a box arrives with stuff we need.  No longer to we have to having a soul destroying marital conversation about laundry detergent. Now of course you do have to tell the website how often you go through various products and then adjust it if you over or under-estimate your consumption. But now it sends me a new toothbrush every four months and I know it’s time to throw out the old one. I simply don’t have to think about it. Shipping is also free which is nice.
So nothing mind-blowing here but just a few (America-centric) experiments that worked.  And no reason to visit Selfridges or Bloomingdales ever again.

Tough questions
1. What are the most common repetitive tasks that you don’t enjoy?
2. How could you automate them or delegate them to someone else?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In praise of putting your feet up

This is the story of how I re-organized two filing cabinets of old notes, threw out 28 boxes of junk and finally sorted out the outside closet. All while sipping tea with my feet up on my couch.

Time to read this post: 3 minutes

I like the idea of being organized. I go to friends' houses and admire their zen-like living rooms. I buy books like "Getting Things Done" by David Allen and put them neatly onto my bookshelf. But whenever I write "organize junk in home office" on my to-do list for Saturday morning, I am always unable to complete it because I urgently need to read the new Economist. For three hours.

I recently picked up a copy of "Organizing from the Inside Out" by Julia Morgenstern. It has 320 pages of proposals to analyze your clutter, creating action plans and getting the job done. I tried to read chapter 17 on "Closets. What's working? What's holding you back?". I read Julie's No-Brainer Toss List for Handbags and Briefcases. I even tried to diagnose whether the root cause of my issues were
Level 1: Technical errors - simple mechanical mistakes in my organization
Level 2: External realities - as far as I can work out, this one basically means that you're screwed
Level 3: Psychological obstacles (e.g. #12 Are you a highly visual person? #19 Did you have a traumatic childhood?).

Now I have no doubt that everything in the book is extremely sensible but every few sentences I found myself urgently needing to take a twenty minute nap. So what to do?

Well the answer is extraordinarily simple. Get someone else to do it for you. Lots of people love organizing things. They write books about it. They buy all the books about it. They do it for a living. And you too can pay them to do it all for you. Without having to address any psychological obstacles or technical errors. And they're surprisingly good value.

So my wife and I contacted Nicole at Genius Organizing and booked ourselves in for a home session with her. Nicole told us to order in some good food, have some good music ready on the iPod and she'd show up at 6pm for a 3 hour blitz. She sent us a nice email telling us not to think about our clutter a moment longer and she would fix everything. And, quite to my astonishment, she did.

The actual evening was somewhat of a blur. It involved Nicole marching around demanding things like: when we had last ever opened a particular filing cabinet. "Um" I would reply, "about twice a year". So she told us that 'We're going to scan it all in so you can have it all electronically and pull it up faster than you can find it in the piles of junk'. And by "we" she meant her and her colleague, Julie.

Julie arrived to pick up piles of my MBA lecture notes. She would scan them all in for us, categorize them into electronic folders and deliver them all back on one USB stick. Then I thought our closet was in reasonable shape. Apparently I was mistaken. We were able to throw out 28 bags of junk including many random objects that have followed us around the world as we moved and I didn't even recognize. And by the way, I don't mean plan to throw it out, I mean throw out. By 9pm it was all sitting outside ready to be picked up by Brooklyn's loudest garbage collection men at 4am. This really was genius.

So that was it. Oh and I just found out this week is National Procrastination Week. Watch this for a brilliant guide for how to procrastinate properly: