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Time-Wasting: Good vs. Bad

What I am now experiencing in one isolated aspect of my life’s work, you may already have experienced or should experience. I hope you can learn from my mistakes. I also hope you can find a way to overcome your comparable mistakes inexpensively. As you read this, you may think, “That sounds a lot like my experience with . . . .” You may even encounter a “shock of recognition” — a phrase that usually refers to a moment of self-awareness in which a person recognizes the reality of what he has become or was.

I had one of those shocks this week. It was the result of my first evening spent enduring a long, miserable task that I had better accomplish: the cleaning out of my files of clippings.

I began to clip magazines and newspapers in the mid-1960s. This escalated a decade later, and became (I now see) maniacal from about 1980 to 1996. Today, I have a dozen 4-drawer legal files filled with clippings. The categories are in the hundreds.

My mania ended with the advent of the Web. I stopped subscribing to magazines and newspapers. (I still subscribe to financial newsletters.) Yet I did not save to disk most of the files that I have read on-line. I do save a few documents this way, now that there is a free disk-search-and-retrieve program that I like: Copernic’s.

But saving Web-based pages is not a mania for me. That’s because I can find more material than I have time to read on almost any topic simply by using Google.

I am in the process of moving. I want to get rid of half my filing cabinets. This means getting rid of at least half my files. Whether I will attain this goal is problematical. It took me two hours to go through the equivalent of one file drawer. That means 47 to go. It may be wiser to just put up with the files. Or maybe I should just toss out all of the files. That’s what my father-in-law did two decades ago, after 40 years of clipping stuff. At the time, I thought he had made a big mistake. I no longer do.

WASTED TIME

Every life is filled with wasted time. Every job is also filled with wasted time. We spend much of our lives collecting, learning, cataloguing, and generally burying ourselves in information that later turns out to be trivia.

It took me two hours just to skim through two boxes of clippings. I tossed out a pile of papers about 11 inches high. Most of these were yellowed newspaper clippings. I took one look and tossed most of them. Yet to file each one, I had to clip it, paste the columns on a sheet of paper, label the paper, and file it. That took time. I hate to think about how much time it took.

In the bad old days, I had only one category per document. Yet most documents should have been identified by several key words. A clipping on OPEC could have been filed under “Energy: Oil,” “foreign policy,” or “cartels.” A clipping on Henry Kissinger could have been filed under “Kissinger,” “foreign policy, “conspiracy,” “war,” or “myopic weasel.” I had to make a choice. Then I had to remember that choice.

On the whole, I have been able to retrieve old articles reliably, if I could recall the article. But, after 1996, I found that I rarely went to my old files.

So, I have forgotten many categories and most clippings: thousands and thousands of clippings.

I did not know that the Web would arrive. I did not know that the way we access new knowledge and details of fading memories would change more than it changed since the invention of the printing press.

I knew by 1982 that scanning software would someday allow me to file my clippings on a hard disk. I knew that data-retrieval software would eventually enable me to retrieve whatever I had filed. I did not think it would take over a decade to produce workable but inefficient products that would do this. PageKeeper was one of them. It did not catch on. Nothing really works well yet. If it did, Microsoft would either buy it or imitate it.

So, I kept clipping. I kept buying filing cabinets.

Now I will toss out most of what I filed. As I read file after file, I thought, “Why did I bother to clip this?” There were exceptions. I am keeping about half, but most of these are longer articles clipped from magazines. The newspaper clippings are mostly too narrow or too obscure or long since superseded.

As I write this, I recall my advice to a friend who also suffered with clipping mania. He told me in the mid-1980s that he was facing a major problem: a mild heart attack. His physician told him to slow down. Yet he was still compulsively clipping. I told him to let every newspaper pile up for a week.

Then he start reading them. I predicted that most of what he would have clipped a week before would have become outdated. He did what I said. He reported back within a month that he was clipping far fewer articles. But I did not take my own advice for a decade. The Web forced my hand, not a heart attack.

BUT NOT COMPLETELY WASTED TIME

Nevertheless, my files have convinced me that all that time was not wasted. The discipline of reading, clipping, and cataloguing articles did provide me with an overall sense of what was going on. Now that I see them, I remember some of it. I can see in one quick survey what developed. A few of the clippings are still worth keeping.

Decades ago, Linus Pauling told his assistant Art Robinson that there is value in reading widely and trying to remember seemingly unrelated facts. Pauling said that the mind will sometimes come up with links to memories that will prove useful.

Pauling was correct. We don’t know how our minds make these connections. They just pop up. We recall a related incident, the way I just recalled my friend with the heart attack.

We say, “garbage in, garbage out.” But we don’t know today what will turn out to be garbage later. We know that most of it will be, but we cannot accurately predict what. So, we fill our minds with useless stuff. Then we forget most of it.

That’s what files are for. In the old days, when I decided to write on some topic, I would skim through a file to see what I had clipped. But if the file was really fat, or if there were several fat files on the same topic, I would rarely do this. It was too much work. I would rely on my memory to pop up some recollection. Then I would go to a file and go through it in search of the document.

If we only knew what the future will bring… we could avoid so much garbage.

ANOTHER IMMENSE “FILE”

Technology keeps advancing. As it does, it makes earlier technologies that were once on the cutting edge of progress turn obsolete. It also makes hash of our plans and our investments.

My entire career has been tied to books. But the format of books is changing: from paper-based to digit-based. There will come a day when I will have a lightweight, book-sized reader with a screen as easy to read as a 1200 dots per inch piece of paper. It will enable me to highlight a passage, file it electronically, attach key words to it, and subsequently identify what book and page it came from. Its non-availability today is a matter of price, not technology. When such a product is offered for sale below $500, and when a common format makes digital books legally available for reading, my research will change: no more yellow highlighters, no more photocopies, no more filing cabinets, and no more dependence on my fading memory.

I suspect that the product’s main limiting factor today is not hardware or software but rather copyright law. There is also the problem of converting entire libraries to a digital format that will be readable by multiple hardware products. Google has begun the work of conversion, and just in time: acid-based paper books printed before 1880 are disintegrating.

It is only a matter of time before Harvard and Stanford will have no library advantage over Podunk State for anything published before 1923: public domain. If the newly independent Republic of Freedonia decides to ignore international copyright law, Harvard and Stanford will have no library advantage over you and me for $200 a year.

Today, I can walk into a university library and go on-line. Only rarely do libraries require student passwords. I can access any scholarly journal that the library subscribes to. I can find an article and e-mail it to myself. I can then file it on my own computer.

Students can access Lexis/Nexis, which is a database of newspaper and magazine articles. If I can’t gain access (and I probably can), I can pay a student $6 an hour to research any topic. Or I just find a cooperating student who lets me use his/her password. If I want to write a book in three weeks, the way I wrote The War on Mel Gibson, I can do it, cheap.

I own a library. It is housed in a 3,000 square foot facility. It has 100 bookcases, seven shelves per case. I am now about to give away 80% of it. The Web has changed the way I work. I have not decided on which institution should get it.

Along the far wall is a boxed collection of microcards. On these cards are readable imprints of everything published in the United States from 1639 to 1811: books, pamphlets, sermons, newspapers. It is called “Early American Imprints.”

I used this set in my university’s library, 1969—71 to write my Ph.D. dissertation, “The Concept of Property in Puritan New England, 1630—1720.” In those days, only a few graduate research libraries had this set.

In the late 1980s, microfiche replaced microcards as the preferred technology. Microfiche can be used to produce printed pages. Microcards cannot. The company that produced the cards was about to use them as landfill. A man found out and went to the managers. He offered to buy them. He agreed to sell them to individuals and organizations that would not buy the new microfiche version. The outfit agreed. My non-profit research organization bought the main set for $5,000, and I paid even more for the newspapers.

This was a mistake. I never got back to the Puritans. Now, microfiche technology is obsolete. The first set of materials is available to libraries on-line. The material is searchable. How, I don’t know. The images are poor and the type face is ancient. The letter “s” looks like an “f,” except at the end of a word, when it looks like an “s.” The newspapers are not yet digitized.

I offered to give away the collection to a college library. The librarian politely refused. He is even dumping hard copies of scholarly journals, as are most librarians. Microcards are dinosaurs.

So, I will probably go on eBay and offer the collection to home schoolers or Christian day schools. What cost $18,000 in 1988 will get a couple of thousand, maybe. But in 1965, the same collection cost probably $50,000, worth six times as much today.

Technology giveth and technology taketh away.

IF WE KNEW THE FUTURE

Entrepreneurship is the art of forecasting the price of things, and then buying items today that will be worth more later, and selling items today that will be worth less.

We pay in time for things that will appreciate or depreciate. Money is replaceable. Time isn’t. When we waste time, it usually costs us more in the long run than when we waste money.

The allocation of time is the most difficult of our responsibilities. I regret having bought those microcards. I did not put them to good use. But I regret far more the investment of time in assembling all those clippings. I see them piling up, and I wonder, “What was I thinking?”

Yet there are a few items that I am glad I saved. I think they will prove useful someday in my writing. But who knows?

Maybe I should toss out all of the files. It would save about 150 hours of work. But to do that would be to acknowledge that my future will be very different from my past. Nobody likes to make that kind of complete break with the past.

In the movie, About Schmidt, there is a scene where Jack Nicholson returns to his former place of employment, an insurance company. He spent his career in the accounting department. As he passes by the building, he sees his files in the basement, ready for the dumpster. In these boxes rest the visible results of his life’s work. They were important to him at the time, but they are about to be tossed away.

What about Schmidt? Was he the equivalent of those files?

The script writer did a good job with that scene. He did not have to have Nicholson verbally ponder his own worth. It was crucial to the movie that he not do this. The character was not about to admit to himself or others that his life in retrospect seems to have been, if not wasted, then not significant. But for most people, the illusion of their cultural significance doesn’t last long. There is nothing like attending a funeral to remind us of this. But tossing out files comes close.

ILLUSIONARY OCCUPATIONS

Because I had something close to mindless to do, I watched the TV show on the 100 most famous lines in movies. There was no doubt in my mind which line would be number one, any more than I had a doubt regarding its predecessor on the most famous song. The song had to be “Over the Rainbow,” and it was. The line had to be “Frankly, my dear . . . .” The only reason for watching that sort of show is to find out the also-rans.

Far and away, the most important line in the history of the movies was written by William Goldman. Several of Goldman’s lines made the top 100, but not his most important one. That line was put into the mouth of Deep Throat in All the President’s Men.” It has become legendary: “Follow the Money.” It does not appear in the book. So, Goldman’s greatest line gets no respect. Hardly anyone knows that he wrote it.

Movie actors may imagine that they will exert influence. A few of them may, if they get the right parts. But they do not speak their own lines, and hardly anyone recalls the names of the script writers of any specific line, unless it’s a re-make of a play by Shakespeare.

Writers imagine that they will be remembered, but here is the grim reality. First, hardly anyone reads old novels, except when they are assigned in an English class. Second, nobody reads old non-fiction books, except when they are assigned in a history class. The Great Books make Great Shelves, but hardly anyone ever takes one of them down from the shelf to read it in order to gain greater wisdom.

I sat down and listed books over a century old that have influenced my thinking directly, as distinguished from the influence of some contemporary who said the book is important. The list is incredibly short. De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one, but I only finished both volumes a couple of years ago. I had read in it in grad school. His Old Regime and the French Revolution influenced me: one main idea. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is on my list. Bastiat’s The Law (1850) influenced me, but it is really a long essay.

The information in old books gets superseded very fast. If a successor does not pick it up and run with it, or if he has no successor, a book will die. Virtually all old books have died. They are read, not for wisdom, but to find out what some author said and what influence he had, way back when.

So, authors may enjoy the illusion of having produced a stand-alone masterpiece, but it’s still an illusion. Great artists have a shot at this. Nobody else does. But there are few great artists around today, as far as we can see.

CONCLUSION

We are all in the same boat. Our lives are filled with what appears to be waste. Yet the waste seems necessary for whatever productivity we add. We cannot eliminate waste. At best, we can minimize it.

Goal-setting and time-management are techniques that help us reduce waste. But no matter what we do, most of what we do seems to subtract from the legacy we leave behind.

If this is true, then we might as well accept waste. Somehow, it is an inescapable part of our lives. Waste contributes to our production. So, it’s not really all waste. It’s just whatever is unaccounted for in our overall production process.

I budget waste into my life. I recognize that some of my time will be spent on what appears to be unproductive details. We can increase our output by acknowledging the reality of waste and dealing with it. It’s like cholesterol. There is good waste and bad waste.

So, I have budgeted in an hour a day for tossing out clippings. But I have decided that it’s not for saving file cabinet space. It’s for coming across an occasional gem, and hoping that my fading memory will retain it.

You know the story: the hope for a pony in the pile of waste.

I suggest that you pick a project like this and complete it. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder of how few ponies there are in life. We should learn to appreciate them.

June 25, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com