Empty flat

Reuben and Joshua's bed
Reuben and Joshua’s bed

I struggle with weekends at the moment.

During the week I’m busy. I usually rise around 05:45, say morning prayer, have breakfast (usually porridge… what can I say, I’m Scottish), get myself together and head in to the office early. In the evening I return to my flat and get stuck in to hall life and other little projects that I have on the go right now (writing, illustrating, music, reading).

Most weekends I have my three children over, and I love it. I love them. I love being with them. I feel whole again. They have such energy, such life, such wild imaginations and we spend hours riffing off each other’s silliness with word play and rhyming (earlier today we had “stranger danger with the lone ranger”, and “I am Gimli, son of Glóin, son of… George?!”).

Some weekends they come over on Friday evening, still in their school uniforms, bouncing with energy, irritable with tiredness, overflowing with cuddles. A few hours later, they are asleep in bed, and I’m either asleep too or I spend a quiet evening in the lounge enjoying the emotional glow of having my boys with me again.

Saturday is usually filled with all sorts of activities. Reuben enjoys lying beneath his duvet on the bedroom floor with his tablet, watching cartoons on Netflix or Minecraft tutorials on YouTube. Joshua and Isaac migrate from the sofa to my PC and back to variously play computer games on my PC (mostly LEGO, although they’ve recently got into the multiplayer Ballistic Tanks and Dirt 3 rally) or their tablets. Usually at some point the LEGO comes out. Yesterday Reuben presented me with a packet of Papercraft models he’d received for his birthday asking for some help to build them. Translation: Dad, could you please build all of these for me while I watch?

Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.
Minecraft, but on paper: Papercraft.

This morning I heard Isaac (who will be six next week) exclaim, “Look at me! I’m doing elf parkour!” while playing LEGO The Hobbit.

Sometimes we’ll go out, though by the weekend they are often ready for a quiet day in, especially if the weather is foul. (Me too!) Yesterday we went out shopping for new winter hats and gloves, and they then spent a couple of hours (and most of the heat from the flat) traipsing in and out to play in the snow.

By Sunday lunchtime I generally begin to feel melancholic and heavy as I begin to anticipate the loss that I will feel when they have to go home. It’s unusual for me not to shed a tear after they are driven away. Not always immediately, but certainly at some point.

On some occasions Joshua (mostly) has simply refused to leave and has curled himself up in a ball on the sofa in a sulk and has stopped responding to any encouragement to leave, or simply repeats “I don’t want to go!” Sometimes I’ve just let him stay for a few more hours and we’ve enjoyed a fabulously fun afternoon, just the two of us, before cooking dinner and driving him back to Anstruther in the evening.

This is the hardest part of the separation for me. I’m sure I’ve said this before—I’ve certainly mentioned it in conversations more than once. I can accept that Jane doesn’t want to be with me: I’ve broken up with girls in the past. But it hurts to not live with my children.

I’ve often wondered what other people think about me because I moved out. It wasn’t easy. I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On the day I moved out, my brother at times had to physically carry me. I’ve never experienced grief like it—my father’s death nineteen years ago was a walk in the park (well, in the cemetery, at least) compared with this. I would have happily stayed with them but it’s less socially acceptable for a mother to move away from her children than a father.

During the week, where I can, I nip over to Anstruther after work to see them for an hour or two, in a house from which my memory is slowly being erased. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing and it keeps me going until the weekend when we can enjoy another few days of silliness and laughter and cuddles together.

This weekend, for some reason, the WiFi went off in my flat. So it was a good opportunity to introduce them to the wonders of setting up a portable WiFi hotspot using my smartphone (4G, thankfully). And then watching them gobble up about half a month’s bandwidth allowance in two days between them on their tablets.

We also started to play around with Microsoft Kodu, which is designed to introduce children to computer programming.

This is Isaac's latest world and Rover.
This is Isaac’s latest world, and Rover the robot.

Using nothing more than an Xbox games controller (and/or keyboard and mouse) Kodu allows you to easily create games within a simple point-and-click environment. It was amazing to see Isaac get into it and think through how to build his world and program the controller with the basic framework of when X, do Y, e.g. when I press A on the gamepad, fire a missile; when I bump into a rock, make it explode; or when I press the right trigger on the gamepad, make my character grow to four times his normal size. Their experience with Minecraft: Pocket Edition has done wonders for their creativity and problem-solving skills.

And so… to my usual Sunday evening routine. Over the next few hours I will sink back into the silence of the flat, enjoy the warmth of the memories of another fun weekend with my children, and look forward to the next one. And prepare for my week ahead.

Using TreeSize Free to increase disk space

A couple of days ago, when I switched on my PC and opened My Computer I was presented with a bright red drive tile icon, indicating that it was running short of free disk space.

Drive C is red and reports 10.0 GB of 111 GB free
Drive C isn’t looking very healthy

I was puzzled as I had only recently run CCleaner to collect unused files, old browser caches, un-required file settings and bin them all. I was sure that I had over 13 GB of free space.

TreeSize Free

I turned to TreeSize Free to help me identify what was taking up so much space. I first blogged about TreeSize Free in 2011 in a post called My top free Windows 7 add-ons.

Once installed, all you do is right-click a folder (or drive), select TreeSize Free from the context menu and after running for a moment the application will tell you how large that folder and all its sub-folders are.

This is what it looks like.

Screenshot of TreeSize
TreeSize shows me that I have 5.4 GB of music in the Amazon Music directory

What I learned the other day was that four items were taking up the most space:

  • Podcasts (14.8 GB)
  • Amazon Music (5.3 GB)
  • XAMPP Apache server (2.9 GB)
  • Adobe CS4 applications (2.7 GB)

I deleted the podcasts and music—I keep the music I listen to on another drive, this is simply where I download them after purchase.

Then I uninstalled Adobe and XAMPP, and reinstalled them on a larger drive.

Now I have a much more healthy 36.0 GB of free drive space.

Drive C now shows 36 GB free
That looks more healthy

If you are in a similar situation, I thoroughly recommend TreeSize Free. As they say: if you don’t measure it, you can’t control it.

Robot AM radio

robot-am-radio

I used to have a bright yellow one of these AM radios which I found on The Old Robots.

His (or her, I never thought to ask) eyes lit up when people spoke or music played, as I listened to Radio Luxembourg beneath my bed sheets late into the night.

And thus began my love of radio. Now sometimes my eyes light up when people speak or music is played.

The importance of a good email subject line

Ever since I first read Sally McGhee’s excellent book on productivity Take Back Your Life! (Microsoft Press, 2005) I have been acutely aware of the importance of writing good email subject lines.

The subject line is the message title that appears in your email client before you open the message to read it. To illustrate, here are a few emails that I received about National Youth Choirs of Great Britain-related activities:

My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line
My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line

Write the subject line afterwards

McGhee’s advice is to write the subject line after you’ve written your email, as the subject line should summarise what you’ve written.

How many times have you written a subject line, then written the email message, and then had to go back to edit the subject because it now doesn’t match what you actually wrote?

If the subject line is meant to be a summary of what you’ve written, then it makes sense to write it afterwards.

What makes a good email subject line?

McGhee suggests that when writing a good subject line you should make it very clear:

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

So, a subject line of “Website” isn’t really helpful at quickly conveying what is being asked. Which website? What would you like me to do with the website? Is it one that you’d like me to update, or visit, or build? Is there a deadline?

Actions

Something that I love about McGhee’s approach, that I would love to see spread more widely, is her use of action prefixes for email subject lines.

There are four different types of action, McGhee suggests:

  1. Action reqiured (AR)
    The recipient has to complete an action before they can respond.
  2. Response required (RR)
    The recipient needs only to respond. There is no action required.
  3. Read only (RO)
    The recipient needs only read the message. There is no action required, and no need to reply.
  4. For your information (FYI)
    The recipient doesn’t even need to read the message, they simply need to archive the message somewhere as it may be useful later.

McGhee then suggests prefixing the subject line with the initials of the action required. For example,

AR Project board status report required by Monday 9 January 2017

Immediately I know that I need to do something, I know what it relates to (the project board), I know what it is (a status report), and I know when it needs to be completed (Monday 9 January).

More than that, if all my emails were prefixed accordingly, I could then sort my inbox by subject line and see a prioritised list of what I need to do: act on, respond, read, or simply archive.

McGhee also has a neat practice for very short messages: write the whole message in the subject line only, so the recipient doesn’t even have to open the message, and end the message with “EOM” (end of message). For example, if I’m replying to an email trying to fix a date to meet for lunch I could write a subject line: “RO Tuesday at 12:30 is fine EOM”.

Don’t make me think!

We know from numerous studies by the Nielsen-Norman Group that screen users tend to scan rather than read every word.

Usability consultant Steve Krug encouraged digital content authors to write with a user-centred approach. His book title “don’t make me think!” has become a mantra in my team.

A bad example from my web host

I became very aware of the importance of writing good email subjects in the light of these insights these past couple of months as the renewal date for my web hosting approached.

45 days left…

On Monday 28 November I received an email from my web hosting provider telling me that I had “45 days left until service expiration”.

Fine, I thought, I have about six weeks to sort it out. I knew that I wanted to look into moving my website to another host, so pencilled in that period between Christmas and New Year to look into it; my current hosting package expires on 12 January 2017 so that would give me plenty of time.

21 days left…

On Thursday 22 December, I received another email from my web hosting provider: “21 days left until service expiration”.

I glanced at the subject line and read the opening paragraph:

There are 21 days left until the expiration of your [package] Hosting garethjmsaunders.co.uk on Jan 12, 2017.

Great! I still have three weeks to do something.

14 days left… WHAT?!

So, imagine my surprise when six days later I received an email from them with the subject line “Sales Receipt”.

WHAT?!

But my hosting doesn’t expire for another two weeks. Why are they suddenly charging me the best part of £260 now?!

That’s when I read through the rest of the email that I received on 22 December.  Paragraph two:

In order to provide you with a smooth and uninterrupted service, we will renew it automatically on the next bill date – Dec 28, 2016. We will charge you 215.46 GBP (excluding VAT) for the renewal period of 12 months.

I quickly got in touch with their support team, got a refund, and instructed them to cancel my hosting on 12 January.

What would have been a better subject line?

Looking at McGhee’s three tips for what makes a good email subject

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

we can look at the email subjects I received from my web host, and suggest how this could be improved. The email I received on 22 December read, “21 days left until service expiration”.

What project or task were they communicating about? A service was expiring. No indication which—I actually pay for two services with them. It would have been clearer if they’d indicated which one.

What action was being requested? They were implying that I needed to renew (or at least review) my hosting service.

What was the due date? Well, the subject suggested 21 days, but in actual fact I had only 7 days before something was actioned.

A better subject line would have been:

Action required: 7 days until automatic service renewal for garethjmsaunders.co.uk

That is the action that I am most concerned about: when does the money get transferred out of my bank account.

Conclusion

I will certainly be paying closer attention to emails now, but also more careful about writing meaningful subject lines that better summarise the email message for recipients.

First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish

A book with blank pages lying open on a white background

A few months ago I read this blog post by Marc Laidlaw: “Writing for Half-Life“, in which he talks about working at Valve on the story for the computer game Half-Life (1998).

This paragraph in particular spoke to me:

“The crucial milestone for me was the completion of our first rough mock-up of the entire game—in essence our first rough draft. I knew that once we could move through the maps from beginning to end, without cheating, we would all discover a new vision of the game. Something closer to the final vision. This was something I believed very strongly, based on my experience as a writer. First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish.”

That final sentence “first drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish” is what really stood out. I wrote it down in my to-do app and have referred to it on more than one occasion since then.

It reminds me of a passage from Tom Shippey’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century who reveals that this was also Tolkien’s experience while writing The Lord of the Rings:

“Tolkien had no clear plan at all […] It is is an interesting, and for any intending writer of fiction rather an encouraging experience, to read through the selections from Tolkien’s many drafts now published […] and note how long it was before the most obvious and seemingly inevitable decisions were made at all. Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.”

(pp. 52–54)

Tolkien, in many ways, wrote himself into the story and, like the rolling countryside of the Shire around him, the plot began to develop and evolve. It was a gradual revelation to him: some aspects were obvious, others had to be teased out, and there was much revision.

I have found that a very useful thought to hold onto this year, not only while working on writing projects but in life in general. I don’t need to get things right first time. I don’t need to know how it ends, I just have to make a start.

This quotation from Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast (1964) has also been close to my heart:

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

All you have to do is write one true sentence… First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish… Now there is a plan for going forward into 2017: step by step, living forwards, living without fear, open to failure, open to living in the moment.

Who knows where 2017 will take us but I pray that we do it with integrity, with grace, and with compassion.