The art of positive deletion

Posted Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A very important concept in programming is what we coders call “garbage collection.” Basically, a program is like an old pail of water - if you don’t make sure all the holes are filled, that water’s gonna go all over the place. It’ll get everywhere and make your life miserable. A computer only has so many resources, and holes in a program (e.g. memory leaks) will keep taking up more and more of those resources until there’s nothing left. The concept of garbage collection can be applied to life in general, though. I call it “positive deletion,” since what you’re doing is eliminating Stuff from your life so the Stuff doesn’t clog up the rest of your life. After all, you only have so much Life! Positive deletion is a combination of time management and spatial organization. You need to get rid of things that take up resources as quickly and completely as possible. Parkinson’s Law is only too true, so you need to make sure you’re only spending as much time on a project - whether personal or for work - as absolutely necessary. Thomas Edison couldn’t have invented 1,093 things in his lifetime if he didn’t understand this principle. Of course, that doesn’t mean pushing out an incomplete finished product. Do what needs to be done, but try and do it in half the time you (or your boss) originally assess it at. If you fail to meet this ambitious goal, then I guarantee you will at least have made it in under the original assessment! There are other task/time management techniques you can use (e.g. batching, worst first, etc.), but they’re out of the scope of this post. Another aspect of positive deletion is the outright culling of unnecessary garbage from your life. For example, how much time do you REALLY need to spend in front of the TV every day? Or the computer? Try out some of the following tips to get rid of the garbage:

  • Sort out your goals. Make a list of all of your personal and work-related goals. Categorize them by importance - Vital, High Priority, and Low Priority. Assign due dates to each of them, assuming that you will work on only one goal at a time.
  • Knock out the most difficult task first. Also known as the Eat a Frog principle, doing this will ensure your day can only get better…and you’ll gain self-respect for not procrastinating in the process!
  • Reduce your time-wasters. If you’re a chronic TV-watcher, try dropping an hour off the time you spend watching the tube every day for a month. Next month, another hour. Similarly, if you spend way too much time reading email, try the Ferriss method of email batching.
  • Plan your day. Using Google Calendar, 30 boxes, or another calendar, plan out tomorrow from waking to sleeping. Include half an hour for planning the day after that. Keep doing this for a week. At the end of the week, start planning out the entire week after that, and so on. Most importantly, stick to the plan! While there will inevitably be unforeseen events (such as family emergencies, flat tires, etc.), for the most part the plan’ll keep you on track and away from the little time-wasters like neuroticly checking email every ten minutes.
  • Set limits. Don’t just let yourself “work until it’s done.” Set a specific stopping time, and stop when you reach it.

There are many more possibilities here, but those five will be a good starting point for you. There are a great many other blogs dedicated specifically to productivity (43 folders, Steve Pavlina, Lifehack, etc.) that will expand on the positive deletion principle. For those of you already familiar with productivity optimization, you may be interested to read Dumb Little Man, as it has some interesting and unique tips that go beyond the usual. In the end, if you can take charge of your life, you’ll find that the most valuable currency of all - time - is yours to command. Positive deletion is but one of many tools to help you with that goal. Try it out for a month, and see how it affects your life!

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