The Art of Getting Your Shit Together

October 11 2020
scenes from my notebooks telling me to get my shit together

Ever since 2018, I have been on a quest to get my shit together. While this year added some further complications to the mix, I thought it would be useful to share the tools and methods I've used on this journey.

The very first step in getting your shit together is, of course, knowing what your shit is. Already I had hit my first obstacle: my shit isn't documented anywhere.

I thought I'd start simple to begin with - the humble pen and paper. I was naive to think this simple. Already we have a plethora of choices:

  1. Do you want loose paper, or a book? I opted for books, I wanted my shit to have a sense of permanance.
  2. Notebook or Diary? I have tried both. However usually around March I arrive at the realisation that the premise of a diary revolves around a heavy social agenda.
  3. What brand of notebook? Over the years I've flitted between Moleskine, Leuchturrn, based on whomever had the most vociferous fan base at the time.
  4. What type of paper? Was my shit rigid or freeform? Dotted paper tends to offer the best balance, but occasionally I choose plain for ultimate flexibility.
  5. What size? Large lets you fit a week comfortably on a page. Small lets you convince yourself you might carry it around in your pocket every day.
  6. What writing instrument? Pen for permeance. Pencil for life regrets.

One thing is for certain - never use a tainted notebook. When in doubt, get a new one. There's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than 192 completely blank, crisp pages without your stain on them. In my collection I have 24 notebooks. Of these, only 2 are complete, 5 are completely untouched, 9 are more than half empty.

all my notebooks

My most recent attempt fell to pieces once we started working from home. The lack of writing space on my desk, coupled with my wandering mind during video calls meant that my once pristine pages were now filling up with uncouth scribbles. As soon as a notebook becomes sullied so, I lose all desire of using it. As the move to remote working becomes a more permanent fixture in our lives, we must adapt our environment to suit it.

The first step was to create space. There's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than a clear desk. For me, the biggest obstacle here was that my desk was actually a cabinet.

But as the saying goes: when life gives you obstacles, make an obstacle course.

In a stroke of what I may call genius, I removed the doors to the cabinet. And voila, suddenly I have an entire inch of extra space, and an environment that looks most welcoming for my pending shit.

desk before desk after
Desk. Before and after.

The next step was to choose more suitable tools. If a notebook was no longer fit for purpose, I had to find something that would be. And of course, there's if there's one thing we Software Engineers excel at, it is using a whiteboard.

I bought a small whiteboard from town and stuck it up on my wall. This simple act already made me feel empowered. I went to sleep that Sunday night ready for the week ahead.

Later that night, it came crashing down. Not a problem, I thought, and I went back to town to buy some velcro adhesive things. This lay in my cabidesk for two months before I mustered up the energy to read the instructions and try again.

Later that night, it came crashing down. It was time to go digital.

Whiteboard with stupid todo list

This wasn't my first attempt at going digital. I sometimes use Google Keep for quick notes on my phone. I have three Trello boards attempting to track the contents of my brain at various stages of life. There was even a time I delved into emacs org mode. None of these were enticing enough to lure me away from paper.

emacs org mode with stupid todo list

But there was a new kid on the block now: Notion. Combining todo lists, kanban boards, wikis, calendars and databases in a pretty form factor, this app looks like it was designed to keep my shit together. After all, there's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than spending an insubordinate amount of time building a convoluted system that only you can understand.

I spent an evening putting together all sorts of pages, for my personal and professional lives. And for a while, it felt as though my shit was coming together. I had a neat overview of everything going on at work, all categorised by people and products that I can refer back to whenever I need to. I had lists of things to do, watch, read, eat. My entire life was at my fingertips.

Then the weeks passed, and it transpired that this was all an incredible amount of upkeep. My fantastically organised work database became a glorified todo list. And once you watch one movie that wasn't on your "To watch" list, can you even trust it anymore? I thought to myself, so many people swear by Notion. Maybe the problem is how you've set it up. So I turned to Youtube.

My notion setup. Most of these pages are empty

Very quickly I found myself in Productivity Youtube. A Youtube where the algorithms dictate that all I want to do is watch people who seem to have their shit together tell me how to get my shit together. And my gosh were the algorithms correct. There's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than watching other people tell you how to control your life.

I watched enviously as people told me how they set up their second brain, adopted minimalist lifestyles, learned a language in a week and read 137 books that changed their lives. The more I watched, the more I started hating myself and them and everything around me. But after around the 400 hour mark, it became abundantly clear what these people had that I didn't - time.

And so the next phase in my journey became about time. You can't get your shit together unless you have time to find your shit. As I walked the streets pondering this dilemma, it hit me. Bird poop.

I ran home to wash my hair, and as I did this the solution became blindingly obvious.

Rinse, lather, repeat…

Repeat. All this time I'm spending washing bird poop out of my hair, what if I just didn't have any! I must spend at least twenty minutes a day checking if my hair looks okay. Twenty precious minutes I could be spending getting my shit together, instead of getting something else's shit away. And it's no coincidence that the richest man in the world has no hair.

So I shaved my hair off. With this one trick I now had enough time to become a CEO. There's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than not having hair.

Fake it until you make it

picture of my whatsapp showing 137 contacts
Optimum number of contacts

The next step in getting my shit together was to remove all the other shit that was getting in the way of my shit. In 2020 this of course means social media.

Like most of us, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. On the one hand it is a cesspit. On the other, who knows if I'd have any friends without it. Nevertheless, relationships are a small price to pay for together shit.

While some research has already been done on the application of Dunbar's number to social networks, my unscientific experimentation has led me to believe that 137 is the optimal number of connections on any social network. So I began to cull my friends, and operate a one-in-one-out policy henceforth.

This kind of drastic action can of course lead to some amount of loneliness - particularly acute during this pandemic. To alleviate some of the lost interactions, I decided to build an app that emulates people I know commenting on fake posts and photos, so I never have to feel alone!

I also took this opportunity to delete a vast amount of my social history, leaving only a select few posts that portray an illusion of shit-togetherness. There's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than pretending significant aspects of your personality and history just never existed!

Hobbies and Interests

When one pictures a person that has their shit together, it is likely that this person has various skills and hobbies. I know this seems somewhat counterintuitive after the last phase - after all what use is a hobby if you have nowhere to post about it. Regardless, I wanted to give myself every chance possible to accumulate my shit.

This year I had selected two party tricks that I thought would take me to the next level. Firstly, I wanted to learn to solve a Rubik's cube. I have seen The Pursuit of Happiness - solving a Rubik's cube was a surefire route to a successful career and likability. Today I am incredibly proud to say that I can solve a cube in an undisclosed amount of time.

The second is, in hindsight, a low point of this journey. Honestly I don't even remember why I thought this was a good idea - maybe I had also seen it in a movie or other pop culture. Anyway, I wanted to be ambidextrous. Don't want to dwell on it. Wrote four pages with my left hand before realising how futile it was.

Ambidextrous writing. I know, it's stupid.

While party tricks are great - it turns out in 2020 there haven't been many parties. So I had decided to invest in another hobby of mine: music. There's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than being a rock star.

While I have been casually playing a bamboo flute or six for a few years, I thought I should simultaneously pursue something more mainstream. After all, there's nothing that screams "I am in control of my life" more than following conventional wisdom and practices!

App that fakes a notification of a comment on a photo of my Teenage Engineering OP1

So I bought a small MIDI keyboard that I could keep on my desk and dabble with whilst working. And this was pretty good…until I wasn't working. Then you have to carry the keyboard with your laptop, and it becomes a whole thing. The obvious solution was to spend even more money on a portable synthesizer.

And this was pretty good…until it struck me that for all this to have a net positive effect on my STS (Shit Together Score), I'd actually have to learn how to play music. So I engaged the Youtube algorithms again, and shifted from Productivity Youtube to Music Youtube. After around the 400 hour mark, it became abundantly clear what these people had that I didn't - talent.

And so, dear reader, as the journey comes to an end you must now be wondering how did I actually get my shit together.