Advertising
Advertising

Get Random!

Get Random!

Get Random

    We spend a lot of time at Lifehack talking about getting organized – making up lists, labeling files, simplifying your workspace, and so on. Everything in its place, and a place for everything, right?

    There’s nothing wrong with this view of organization, so long as you’re getting more work done than the time you’re spending on staying organized. But a lot of times, our brains don’t work quite so neatly. For that matter, our lives don’t work quite so neatly. As it happens, we live in worlds that are as much defined by randomness and chaos as by neatness and order.

    Advertising

    This isn’t a “left-brain/right-brain thing. It’s about how we engage with the world. Because the world isn’t always as neat and orderly as the systems we create to interact with it, we can fall “out of sync” at times. We feel this all the time – overwhelmed, creatively blocked, or just plain stuck. At those times it’s a good idea to inject a little randomness into our otherwise predictable system.

    Randomness isn’t just a way to “break out of the ordinary” – it is the ordinary! And as much as we try to control things, we need that little seed of randomness now and again to close the gap between our attempts to organize our lives and the mixed-up world that is our lives. It’s what we’re designed for – humans didn’t evolve in a GTD world, we involved in a messy and chaotic world, and we’re pretty well adapted to it.

    Bring on the Crazy

    Here are a handful of ways to add a dash of randomness to your life. Try them all or just one or two, and see if you aren’t quite surprised at the results.

    Advertising

    The Noguchi Filing System: Designed by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, the Noguchi filing system relies on the vagaries of use habits, rather than the alphabet, to sort your files. The idea is simple: instead of filing material in traditional folders and drawers, you put every document (or bundle of related documents) into a 9×12 (or larger) envelope, label it, and file it upright on a shelf. New folders go on the left-hand end of the shelf, and every file you remove goes back not where it came from, but again, on the left-hand end of the shelf. As you use the system, the left side will fill up with material you use the most often, while material you useless often will move to the right. Every so often, you can box up the right half of the shelf and archive it, or shift them into long-term reference sections by subject (Noguchi color codes his reference files, and moves them to their own shelves to be ordered by use once again).

    Though it seems crazy, in testing Noguchi says that access time is almost always faster in shelves sorted by the Noguchi system. That’s because material you’re most likely to need is going to be material you’re most likely to have used recently, and that material is all on the left. The rarely-used files to the right might take longer to find, but since you rarely need to find them, on average you’ll save time – not to mention the time you save by not filing in any particular order in the first place.

    Bananaslug Fever: Searching on Google is pretty straight-forward – if you know what you’re looking for. But it’s easy to get stumped, trying search after search around a topic and coming up with a bunch of not-so-inspiring pages. Enter Bananaslug. The brain-child of my fellow UCSC alum (Go Fightin’ Bananaslugs!) Steve Nelson, Bananaslug works like Google – in fact, it is a front-end to Google – but adds a random keyword from one of a dozen or so categories to your search, creating some interesting – and maybe even inspiring – results.

    Advertising

    For example, a search for project planning on Google turns up the usual assortment of Wikipedia and blog pages, plus a book or two. Useful, if you’re looking for basic info, but what if you already know all that, and you want to learn something new? When I enter “project planning in Bananaslug and ask for a random keyword from the category “great ideas” (it chose “reasoning”), I’m introduced to whole fields of project planning I didn’t even know about: quantitative reasoning, semi-quantitative reasoning, geometric-based reasoning, temporal knowledge representation, and so on. I could get the same results from Google, except I’d never, ever have known to add “reasoning” to my search terms.

    Change something: Ever try to change a habit. Man is that hard. Experts say if you keep it up for 21 days (or 30, or 28, or 45, or…) it becomes a habit, but that’s clearly BS – the time it takes for something to become a habit varies by the habit itself, the personality of the person trying to instill it, the motivation, and so on. Some things never become habits, and some habits are born in a minute.

    A lot of psychologists, coaches, and other counselors don’t advice their clients to adopt new habits, because habit-creation is rarely under conscious control. Instead, they advise their clients to just change one little thing, anything – move your computer, talk to someone new, try something that’s off your regular routine. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing every day, either – the idea is to create enough chaos that your regular habits become indistinguishable from the new non-habits. Try one new thing every day, and see what happens.

    Advertising

    Brainstorm: Stuck for an idea? Try “blue”. Or “propeller”. How about “traction ankle”? Throwing a random word or idea or phrase into the mix and forcing yourself to seriously consider it, no matter how far off-topic it might seem, can create a cascade of associations that finally circle back to something useful. For example, according to Eric Abrahamson in A Perfect Mess, the word “blue” was the key that led an advertising firm to develop a safety-focused campaign to reach out to the previously-untapped market of female auto insurance buyers. How? Who knows, and who cares? The important thing is that it works.

    Unschedule: Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have a schedule. If you want to see him, you call his secretary, and if he’s available right now, you come on over. If not, try again later. How crazy is that?

    Of course, your life is a lot more complicated than his, I’m sure – he only has a state to run and movies to make. For you, maybe instead of a “non-schedule” you could try an “Unschedule. Popularized by Neil Fiore in his book The Now Habit, in an Unschedule you schedule only the things you want to do. In the gaps in between, you work on projects, writing them into your schedule after you’ve worked a solid half-hour on a single project. At the end of the day or week, you can see how many hours of productive time you’ve racked up – surprisingly, it’s often much  greater than people manage with a much more orderly, less random schedule. (You can see an example of an Unschedule at Fiore’s site.)

    When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Weird

    Like anything, randomness is best in moderation. Try adding a dash to your otherwise orderly day-to-day and see what happens. One thing about randomness, it’s flexible – that little bit of weirdness might be just helpful today, but one day, when the going gets really weird, you’ll be ready to go with it. You may even go pro*!

    (*With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life 3 The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) 4 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 5 40 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2020 Updated)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Advertising

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Advertising

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    Advertising

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

    Advertising

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next