The beauty of tech maintenanceHow to hack your tech to-do list

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As a longtime (now mostly recovered) reader of women's magazines, I have struggled with the ever-mounting list of feminine maintenance tasks. Leg shaving, nail filing, face cleansing, check. Hair deep conditioning, sunscreening, foot pumicing, ok. Lash tinting, brow shaping, lip conditioning (hey, I'm not naming it if I haven't done it)....well, it gets to be quite a bit of work. And then you get older and the list just gets longer: hair colouring, skin de-tagging, botoxing...where do we ladies find the time?

After a dozen years and many more magazine pages, I finally concluded that the only rational solution was to keep a set number of beautification slots. If Glamour tells me to add botox, I'm giving up deep conditioning. If Elle tells me it's time for eyebrow shaping, I'll have to jettison leg shaving. There is just only so much time I have available for physical perfection and I've got to put the minutes where they count.

I've now been a computer owner for almost as long as I've been a magazine reader, and I'm afraid the challenges of tech maintenance are even more relentless than the challenges of beauty maintenance. Back in the day (you know, when we used to walk a mile to school in our bare feet) I had all my files -- and I mean ALL my files -- on a single 5.25 inch floppy disk. These days, I not only have 84 gigs of data to keep (dis)organized, I have several dozen applications I need to keep updated and debugged. I have a blog to upgrade and tweak, and a personal web site to maintain (Or not. Why yes, those are straight HTML pages you see on http://www.samuel-cottingham.com.) I need to keep my iPhone working and synced. I need to make sure our BitTorrents are downloaded on time, converted to MPEG 4 and in the right directory for our Tivo to find them.

I realize that I may be stretching the definition of "need" here, but whether your technological frontline involves BitTorrent and Tivo or typewriters and telephones, every technology you take on carries an associated workload. We commit to the latest version of our favourite word processor, or the contact management system our friend recommended, or the totally hot little smart phone, because they promise to make us more effective and more efficient. And along with the time saved, we get a whole new to-do list: Learn the software. Configure the software. Upgrade the software. Debug the software.

For a geek like me, that isn't all bad. Yeah, I spend more time checking MacFixit for tech tips, but better database reconstruction than data entry. I'll happily take on new tool after new tool....not just despite the maintenance footprint, but in some sense because of it. It's actually fun to get my Bittorrent search engine set up in a browser that's configured to open the torrent in a client that saves it to a place where it can drop into the mpeg converter and automatically appear in the episodes listed on my Tivo.

And so my list of tools to manage grows longer and longer, until managing my tech is a full-time job. In fact, that's my fantasy solution: find somebody to pay me to manage my own personal technology, full time. I figure if I had 40 hours a week I could probably keep my software up-to-date, my hard drive organized, my data backed up and uncorrupted, and my eighteen tech devices synced. Attention, reality TV producers: just let me know when you want to start taping Geek Family Robinson and I'll dedicate myself to the job of keeping our home technology fully and perpetually optimized.

But until the producer calls, I've got to fit the tech management effort into the margins of the work the technology is designed to support. And I'm forced to acknowledge that not everybody would regard my ideal solution of full-time tech optimization as a dream job. I am told there are thousands of people -- millions, even -- who would be delighted to spend exactly no time on their technology setup whatsoever.

For these folks, unlike geeks like me, the calculation of time saved versus effort expended is much more straightforward. Trading data entry for tech troubleshooting isn't any kind of bargain for them: a minute is a minute. For them -- and probably for me too -- the best solution is akin to my Iron Law of Beauty: define the envelope of time you're willing to spend on maintenance, and if you add one new technology to your repertoire, drop another.

Easier said than done. If you're a beauty queen, you'll do what the magazines prescribe, even if you have to wake up earlier to do it. If you're a techno-compulsive, you'll sign up for that latest web app, install the newest version of the design suite, automate every last task you can find a tool to automate. Adopt and adopt until the trade-offs you make are by default -- which glitchy bit of software is bugging you the most? which stray hairs are the most unwanted? -- rather than by design.

And if you're both a primper and a geek, your choices are more brutal still. When my friend and colleague Jason Mogus recently overheard me confessing that I keep tweezers in my purse, car and desk drawer -- so I never have to endure an egregiously misplaced eyebrow hair -- he laughingly observed that the time I'm spending on my brows, he's spending on his Blackberry. I may have a better arch, but he'll respond to your e-mail quicker. I laughed along with him, then started practicing tweezing with one hand and typing with the other.

So no, I don't entirely practice what I preach. When I read about the nifty new iPhone app, I install it...without deleting any of the three dozen I already have installed. And yes, when Elle told me that eyebrow shaping was de rigeur, I picked up some tweezers.

But am I still shaving my legs? You'll have to wait until spring to find out.

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