Sharing Outline

Table of Contents

This is a rough outline of things I'd like to write about, screencast, draw, or share. is written in Org Mode for Emacs, and it's the file that generates index.html. Issues and pull requests welcome ( preferred, but I can understand HTML patches too)! ,

Does a topic here intrigue you, or can you think of some useful follow-ups ? E-mail me at (or file an issue, if you're geeky that way ;) ).

Inspired by anything? Feel free to write your own posts, and send me a link. =)

HTML version: Org:

You can find my blog at .

Click on the headings to expand them.

To review

Inbox of sketches to classify or write about


Automate Text

Emacs microhabit 1/52: Automate repetitive text. (Skeleton, Keyboard macros, Yasnippet, Emacs Lisp…)

DONE Developing Emacs micro-habits: Text automation   emacs

I've gotten the hang of basic multiple-cursors-mode and I'm making gradual progress towards internalizing smart-parens by the simple approach of focusing on one tiny habit at a time. For example, I spent a week reminding myself to use mc/mark-all-like-this-dwim or mc/mark-lines instead of using keyboard macros. Picking one small change and paying close attention to it seems to work.

Inspired by the Emacs Advent Calendar, I wanted to start a 52-week series on micro-habits for more effective Emacs use. Little things make a lot of difference, especially when frequently repeated over a long period of time. It reminded me of this quote I came across on Irreal:

I brain-dumped an outline of four sets (basic Emacs, Org, programming, meta-habits) of thirteen small tips each. Looking at my list, I realized there were many ideas there that I hadn't quite gotten the hang of myself. I figured that this might be more of a project for 2016; in the meantime, I could learn by doing.

The first micro-habit I wanted to dig into was that of automating text: abbreviations, templates, and other ways to expand or transform text. I'd used Yasnippet before. I sometimes accidentally expanded keywords instead of indenting lines if my cursor happened to be at the wrong spot. But I hadn't yet drilled the instinct of automation or the familiarity with templates into my fingers.

This blog post isn't the guide to automating text. I'll write that later, when I've figured more things out. In the meantime, I'll share what I've been learning and thinking so far, and maybe you can help me make sense of it.

Emacs has a separate manual for autotyping, which I had never read before. The short manual covers abbrev, skeleton, auto-insert, copyright messages, timestamps, and Tempo. Did you know that define-skeleton lets you create a template that accepts multiple interregions if you call your skeleton function with a negative argument? It took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out how to mark interregions and use them. They have to be contiguous. It might be easier to think of marking the beginning of the region, marking some points in the middle, and then calling the command when your point is at the end - which is probably how most people would interpret the diagrams, but I was trying to figure out how to mark discontinuous regions, and that totally didn't work. And then I forgot that using helm-M-x means you need to specify numeric arguments after typing M-x instead of before. (I wrote about that very point in one of my blog posts, but it slipped my bind.) Once I got past that, I was delighted to find that it worked as advertised. I still haven't imagined a situation where I would use it, but it seems like a good sort of thing to know.

What are the practical situations where text automation can help people work more effectively? I looked around to see how other people were using it. Coding, of course - especially if you use Emacs Lisp to transform the text. Debugging, too. Marking up text. Remembering parameters. Wrapping regions. Writing e-mails. Adding blog post metadata. Citing references. Lifehacker has even more.

I came up with several categories for text automation to help me more easily recognize opportunities to work better:

2015.01.05 Seeing opportunities for abbreviations and text automation – index card

  • Abbreviations are about typing long words with fewer keystrokes. For example, you might shorten "description" to desc.
  • Phrases are like word abbrevations, but longer. You might want to be able to expand btw to "by the way."
  • Code benefits from expansion in multiple ways:
    • Automatically inserting characters that are harder to reach on a keyboard, like { and }
    • Being consistent about coding style, like the way many people like adding a comment after the closing brace of an if
    • Transforming text that shows up in multiple places, such as variable names that need getters and setters
    • Filling in the blanks: parameters, comments, etc.
    • Reducing the cognitive load of switching between languages by establishingq a common vocabulary. For example, I sometimes need to look up the syntax of for or the proper way to display a debugging statement when I switch to a language I haven't used in a while
  • Templates are also useful for consistency in writing, planning, and other areas
  • Text transformation can save time and minimize error.

2015.01.04 Automating text – index card

Translating the examples I'd seen to my personal interests, I could probably find plenty of opportunities to automate text while coding, debugging, writing, planning, or publishing. To dig deeper, I looked at each of the categories in detail.

  • Abbreviations

    2015.01.06 Abbreviations – index card

    When I was curious about typing faster, I read forum posts from people who had increased their speed by developing their own form of digital shorthand. The trick works on paper, too. When I need to write quickly or in limited space, I use abbreviations like bc for "because" and w/o for "without." Why not on the computer as well?

    I often take advantage of dynamic abbreviations when I know I've recently typed the word I want. To trigger those, I just have to type the beginning of the word and then use dabbrev-expand. I haven't set up my own static abbreviations, though. Main obstacles:

    • I want to write shorter words instead of longer ones
    • In the beginning, it's faster to type the word instead of thinking of the abbreviation and expanding it
    • If I have to undo or backspace, that makes me slower
    • If I burn this into my muscle memory, I might be more frustrated on other computers or in other apps (then again, I already customize Emacs extensively, so I guess I'm okay with the tradeoff)

    Anyway, here's a short list I'm trying out with define-global-abbrev and hippie-expand:

    hw however
    bc because
    wo without
    prob probably
    st sometimes

    Hmm. Let's say that it takes me two keystrokes to trigger the expansion, whether it's the xx keychord I've just set up or the M-/ I've replaced with hippie-expand. (Hmm, maybe a double-space keychord is a good candidate for expansion too.) Is the retraining worth a ~50% possible reduction in keystrokes? Probably not.

    How about text with punctuation, so I can minimize reaching for symbols?


    Maybe it's better to look at the words I frequently misspell, or that I tend to slow down then typing. I'll keep an eye out for those.

  • Phrases

    2015.01.06 Phrases – index card

    Phrases are an easier sell. Still, I'm trying not to settle into the rut of set phrases. I should cut those mercilessly or avoid writing them from the beginning.

    co check out
    iti I think I
    otoh on the other hand,
    mean in the meantime,
    fe for example
    fi for instance,
    oc of course
    ip in particular
  • Code insertion

    This is, fortunately, well-trodden ground. The yasnippet package comes with a large collection of snippets for many programming languages. You can start by familiarizing yourself with the pre-defined snippets for the modes that you use. For example, in my installation, they're under ~/.emacs.d/elpa/yasnippet-20141117.327/snippets. You can use the filename (or keywords defined with key, if specified) as the abbreviation, and you can expand them with yas-expand (which should be bound to TAB if you have yas-global-mode on).

    I mostly work with HTML, CSS, Javascript, Ruby on Rails, and Emacs Lisp, so this is the cheat sheet I've made for myself:

    2015.01.07 Code insertion – index card

    For HTML, I need to remember that the tags are generally expandable, and that there are a few Lorem Ipsum abbreviations triggered by lorem.1 through .5. CSS has a v abbreviation that sets up a bunch of rules with vendor prefixes. For Javascript, I'll probably start with f to define a function and log to output something to console.log. Rails has a bunch of iterators like eai that look interesting. As for Emacs Lisp, the pre-defined templates generally add parentheses around common functions so you don't have to type them, and there are a few shortcuts like bs for buffer-string and cc for condition-case. I think I'll modify the default snippets to make better use of Yasnippet's field support, though, so that I don't have to delete and replace text.

  • Templates

    In addition to using text expansion for code, you can use it for planning and writing other text. I saw Karl Voit use it to great effect in my Emacs Chat with him (around the 44:00 mark), and I've been gradually refining some templates of my own. 2015.01.07 Templates – index card

    For example, here's the template I've been using for sketched books. Note: If you use Yasnippet for Org Mode properties, you may want to set yas-indent-line to fixed or the fields will get confused.

    Gist: sbook

    ,# key: sbook
    ,# name: Sketched Book
    ,# --
    **** TOSKETCH ${1:short title}
          :TITLE: ${2:long title}
          :SHORT_TITLE: $1
          :AUTHOR: ${3:authors}
          :YEAR: ${4:year}
          :BUY_LINK: ${5:Amazon link}
          :BASENAME: ${6:`(org-read-date nil nil ".")`} Sketched Book - ${2:$(sacha/convert-sketch-title-to-filename yas-text)} - ${3:$(sacha/convert-sketch-title-to-filename yas-text)}
          :ISBN: ${7:ISBN}
    ***** TODO Sketchnote $1
    :Effort: 2:00
    :QUANTIFIED: Drawing
    Prepare the file
    ***** TODO Write personal reflection for $1
    :Effort: 1:00
    :QUANTIFIED: Writing
    View in calendar
    ****** Sketched Book - $2 - $3
    $3's /$2/ ($4) ...
    I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.
    Haven't read the book yet? You can buy it from Amazon (affiliate link) or get it from your favourite book sources.
    Like this sketch? Check out for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.
    ***** TODO Post $1 to blog
    :Effort: 1:00
    :QUANTIFIED: Packaging
    ***** TODO Update sketched books collection
    :Effort: 1:00
    :QUANTIFIED: Packaging
    1. Index sketched book
       - Edit index
       - Edit ebook
    2. Compile
    3. Update
    ***** TODO Tweet sneak peek of $1 with attached picture
    Copy text and launch Twitter
  • Text transformation

    One of the advantages of tweaking text expansion inside Emacs instead of using a general-purpose text expansion program is that you can mix in some Emacs Lisp to transform the text along the way. I'm still thinking about how to make the most of this, as you can see from this half-filled note-card:

    2015.01.07 Text transformation as part of expansion – index card

    For example, this snippet makes it easier to share source code on my blog while also linking to a Gist copy of the code, in case I revise it or people want to comment on the code snippet itself. It doesn't use any of the built-in text expansion capabilities, but I think of it as a text expander and transformer because it replaces work I used to do manually. You'll need the gist package for this one.

    Gist: Sacha

    (defun sacha/copy-code-as-org-block-and-gist (beg end)
      (interactive "r")
      (let ((filename (file-name-base))
            (mode (symbol-name major-mode))
             (condition-case nil (buffer-substring beg end)
               (mark-inactive (buffer-string))))
            (gist (condition-case nil (gist-region beg end)
                        (mark-inactive (gist-buffer)))))
         (format "\n[[%s][Gist: %s]]\n#+begin_src %s\n%s\n#+end_src\n"
                 (oref (oref gist :data) :html-url) filename
                 (replace-regexp-in-string "-mode$" "" mode)

    Both Yasnippet and Skeleton allow you to use Lisp expressions in your template. If you don't have all the data yet, you might consider writing another Lisp function that you can call later when you do. For example, in the sketched books code above, I have an Emacs Lisp link that composes a tweet with a link, puts it in the clipboard, and then opens up a web browser. (I do this instead of posting directly because I also want to attach an image to that tweet, and I haven't figured out how to modify any of the Emacs Twitter clients to do that.)

    So that's what I've learned so far about automating text in Emacs. It'll take me more than a week to get the hang of the abbreviations I've just set up, and I'll probably need to add even more before adding and using abbreviations become true habits. But hey, maybe this will help you pay closer attention to repetitive text and editing actions in Emacs so that you can automate them too, and we can swap notes on useful abbreviations. Hope this helps!

    For more information, see:

Books to write

Think like an Emacs Geek

  • An approach for learning intermediate Emacs: After you've gotten the hang of the basics, how can you keep learning more about using and tweaking this text editor? This will probably take different forms: small weekly tips for constant improvement, Emacs Lisp and Org Mode courses, and so forth.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be an even better user of Emacs. I want to work more efficiently and fluently, and I want to have more fun with it too.
    • Who might find it useful? People who want to keep tweaking how they use Emacs. Mostly developers, but probably also writers and people interested in personal information management
    • What is the change I want to help others with? I want people to become confident about using Emacs for the long term. I want them to be able to play around with different mindsets/ideas, seeing the big picture instead of getting lost in lots of configuration details. I want to help people think like an experienced Emacs user.
    • To do this, it would be good to read:
      • Archives of Emacs blogs (ex: the ones featured on
      • Manuals for Emacs, Emacs Lisp, and popular packages
      • the (small) collection of existing Emacs books
      • Related technical books for taking people beyond the beginner stage
      • Books about technical writing and learning design
      • Source code
    • What this book would be:
      • Different mental shifts/ideas, workflows; things people don't even think to search for
    • What this book is not:
      • How to write a package
      • Overloaded on specifics that will be obsolete or that are hard to get right for multiple platforms
    • Related
    • Possible titles
      • Emacs Mind
      • Thinking Like an Emacs Geek
  • Think Like Emacs
    • Why
      • What's the difference between a beginner Emacs user and an experienced one?
        • Beginner struggling with new concepts, frustrated with differences
        • Experienced Emacs users have a sense of where things are and how things fit together
      • In addition to learning new keyboard shortcuts and terms, you also need to make mental shifts
      • Invest time = compounding interest, long-term pay-off
      • As you become more comfortable with Emacs
      • You pick up new ways of thinking, aha!
      • Ideas for workflow as well
      • Community
    • Getting over the first barrier
      • Short-term learning challenge, long-term use
        • Other people are more interested in moving forward, I think
      • Keeping Emacs open, Emacsclient
      • Keyboard shortcuts; CUA, evil-mode, the Emacs Way
      • Terminology, glossary
        • Things that often trip people up
          • Buffer, window, frame
          • Yank, kill, kill ring
        • How to make sense of terms
      • Defaults and customization
      • Finding information
      • Self-documenting
    • Learning how to learn
      • Noticing an opportunity for improvement
        • Limited (ex: forgetting, mis-remembering)
        • Repetitive
        • Complex (distinguish from repetitive)
        • Rough
        • Open for customization
      • Learning slowly
        • Trying out new stuff
        • Keeping things manageable
          • Pick one thing
          • Sticky notes or index cards
        • Continuous improvement
        • Revisiting things you've learned
          • Digging deeper into packages and functionality
          • Spaced repetition, flashcard.el, org-drill
        • Keeping up with changes
        • Things you use infrequently
      • Asking for help
        • Mailing lists / newsgroups, StackOverflow, IRC
        • Examples
        • What to do if it doesn't work
      • What to do when you're frustrated
        • Try a smaller piece
        • Bubble gum and string
      • Managing the yak-shaving impulse
        • What is yak-shaving
        • Write down your tasks
        • Use the 80-20 rule
        • Set time limits
      • Finding inspiration; things you didn't know you didn't know
        • Google
        • YouTube
        • EmacsWiki; randomness
        • Twitter
      • Connecting with other Emacs geeks
        • Mailing lists and newsgroups
        • Twitter
        • IRC
        • Planet Emacsen, sharing
    • Working with the package ecosystem
      • Finding and configuring packages
        • list-packages
        • new packages
        • description or source code
        • Finding blog posts and resources
        • Looking at modes and interactive functions
        • Customizing variables
        • Reading source
      • Sum > parts; combining packages
      • Overriding packages
      • Extending your own
    • Dealing with your limitations
      • Forgetting
        • apropos, helm-apropos
        • smex, helm-M-x
        • where-is, describe-mode, helm-descbindings
        • guide-key
      • Mis-remembering
      • Messing up
        • Undo history, undo tree
        • Backups
        • Version control
      • Back and forth
        • The kill ring, browse-kill-ring, helm
        • Registers
        • Split windows
        • Window management
      • Interruptions
        • org-capture
        • window configuration
      • Distractions
        • dark room
    • Workflows, general ideas, way of thinking
      • Keybindings
        • Your own keys
        • Overriding
        • Prefix key approach
        • Avoiding ctrl-shift-etc.; keychords, command mode, prefix
        • Modes
        • Common keybindings, navigation
        • Extra modifiers: Hyper, Super
      • Automating repetitive actions
        • Keyboard macros
          • How
          • Recording a macro
          • Running a macro
          • Running a macro several times
          • Be careful
          • Registers
          • Counters
          • Saving macros
        • Multiple cursors
          • dwim
          • lines
          • killing and yanking text
          • phi-search
        • Writing your own Emacs Lisp functions
      • Jumping around quickly
        • Why navigation makes sense
        • Projects
        • Finding information
          • Swoop
          • Grep, helm-do-grep
          • Tags
      • Minibuffer
        • History
        • Ido, Helm
        • Mini-edit
      • Narrowing
        • When is it useful?
        • Focus
        • Different modes
        • Limiting the effect of something
        • recursive narrow
      • Indirect buffers
        • When is it useful?
          • Different major modes
          • Looking at different parts of the same buffer
      • Working with multiple systems
        • Sharing your config
        • System-specific configuration
        • Versions
        • Reminding yourself where you are
          • Background colour
      • Overviews and outlines
        • imenu
        • folding
        • Org
        • org-struct
      • For developers
        • Flycheck
        • Syntactic editing
        • Refactoring
        • Read-Evaluate-Print Loops
        • Literate programming
      • Emacs Lisp everywhere with M-: and C-x C-e
      • Working out loud, Org Babel
      • Planning
        • Org
        • Projects
        • Agenda
        • Tags
      • Other things you can do in Emacs
        • Why
        • Shell
        • IRC
        • Emacs 24.4: eww
        • Twitter
        • Mail, news
      • Source diving
        • Why?
          • Find out how things work
          • Modify things, even with just a little knowledge of Emacs Lisp
          • Find out about other cool things you can do
        • describe-key, describe-function, find-function
          • If you don't know the name of the function, but you know the keyboard shortcut or the menu item you use to call it, you can use M-x describe-key to display its name and description.
          • If you know the name of the function, you can use M-x describe-function.
          • Sample output
          • If you already know the name of the function and you want to jump to its source code, you can use M-x find-function.
          • Should have the sources installed
            • How to install sources if you don't have them yet
        • edebug
      • Initialization
        • eval-after-load instead of requiring everything
        • use-package, req-package
      • Font-locking
    • Working with other people
      • Sets of customization
      • Screen-sharing approach
      • Impatient-mode
      • Shared screen or tmux session
      • Vagrant?
    • Writing Emacs Lisp
      • Beginner resources
      • Coming up with your own stuff
        • How to find things that do something close to what you want
        • Hooks
        • Redefining functions
        • Advice
      • Thinking in terms of buffers
        • vs string manipulation
      • Do what I mean
      • Macros
    • Sharing your workflow and configuration
      • Why
      • Examples
    • Helping other people learn Emacs
      • Why this is worth it
      • Spark their interest
      • Help them get started
      • Ease them into it
      • Learn together
      • Tips for presenting within Emacs
  • Thanks
    • @gozes

Thoughts? E-mail me at

52 Weeks to an Awesomer Emacs

  • Overview
    • 5-30 minute tips
    • Slow pace so that you can practice and focus on one thing the whole week
  • Topics
    1. Learning strategies
    2. describe, apropos, where-is
    3. Helm, helm-M-x; Ido, smex
    4. Better defaults
    5. Use search to jump around
    6. Ace-jump
    7. Helm-swoop
    8. miniedit
    9. cycle-spacing
    10. forward-sexp, backward-sexp, kill-sexp
    11. Browse kill ring, Helm
    12. windmove
    13. Configuration structure
    14. Folding
    15. Prefix argument
    16. Multiple cursors
    17. Undo tree
    18. Guide-key
    19. keychord
    20. text-scale-increase, text-scale-decrease
    21. registers
    22. recursive-narrow
    23. visual-line-mode?
    24. Edebug
    25. Dynamic abbreviations
    26. autocomplete
    27. Rainbow delimiters?
    28. Popping the mark
    29. Limiting commands with region, narrowing
    30. Transpose characters
    31. Checkparens
    32. Zap to char, zap up to char
    33. REPLs
    34. Writable Dired
    35. Writable Grep, helm-swoop
    36. Eshell, term, ansi-term
    37. Twit
    38. Eww
    39. Diminish
    40. Super basic Org
    41. Mode line cookies
    42. Calendar
    43. Idle timer
    44. Info
    45. Packages
    46. Navigation
    47. Smartparens or paredit
    48. Imenu
    49. Evil-mode
    50. Multiple systems
    51. Git, magit
    52. Continuous learning about Emacs
      • Planet Emacsen
      • Twitter
      • Gmane

Building your personal knowledge management system

  • A guide for creating your own personal knowledge management system: I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution will work, at least not with our current understanding. But I want to learn more about different approaches, I want to make mine totally awesome, and I want to help people build their own from the pieces that are already out there.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a wonderfully organized system that lets me easily capture, review, make sense of, and share what I know. I also want to have the vocabulary and concepts to be able to critically examine this system, spot gaps or opportunities for improvement, and make things better.
    • Who would find this useful? Fellow information packrats, writers, bloggers, self-directed learners
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Personal knowledge management and personal information management
      • Guides to using various tools
      • Information architecture
      • Library science
      • Writing and sense-making

Self-directed learning and experimentation

  • Tips for self-directed learning and experimentation: How to structure your time and learning, how to recognize and explore interesting questions, how to take notes, how to make sense of things, and so on. I want to learn more effectively, and I want to help other people learn more effectively too.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be able to structure courses of study for myself, take great notes, build useful resources, and accumulate new knowledge.
    • Who would find this useful? Self-directed learners who want something more than online courses
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Quantified Self, experimentation
      • Note-taking and sense-making
      • Self-directed learning

Working out loud

  • More notes on working out loud: particularly addressing the excuses and barriers that get in people's way. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a smooth workflow for learning and sharing. I want to have a wide network of people who can build on the stuff I'm learning about, and who get manageable updates that are scoped to their interests.
    • Who would find this useful? Individual practitioners interested in building their skills and network; social business advocates; bloggers who are also working on building personal insight and shared knowledge
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Social business, social learning, working out loud, personal learning networks, and personal knowledge management
      • Collaboration, team communication
      • Writing at work

Visual thinking

  • Visual thinking: particularly in terms of using it to clarify your thoughts, remember, and share. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be more fluent in using visual tools to explore thoughts and figure things out. I want to improve in terms of visual organization, technique, clarity, explanation, integration into my self-directed workflow, and so on.
    • Who would find this useful? People who've already started doodling (or who are picking up the hang of it) and who would like to use it for more things
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Mind mapping and other forms of visual organization
      • Sketchnoting
      • Planning
      • Blogging and other forms of personal publishing
      • Journaling
      • Information organization and sense-making

Following the butterflies of your interest

  • Something about how to follow the butterflies of your interest, because I rarely see this perspective in productivity books and because it's something other people might find helpful.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? I want to get better at going with the grain of my energy, doing what I want to do (and doing the work that helps me want what is good to want).
    • Who would find this useful? People with many interests - scanners, multi-potentialites, Renaissance-people-to-be.
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Career and life planning, especially unconventional paths
      • Productivity
      • Writing, note-taking
      • Psychology, cognitive limits, distraction

Learning, writing, sharing knowledge, and constant improvement

DONE Cultivate memories deliberately   life happiness

How much can we influence the memories that come upon us unexpectedly or the ones that we bring up when we reflect?

Sometimes, in the middle of washing the dishes, I remember standing on a footstool in my mother's kitchen and washing the dishes there; she'd taught the three of us sisters to handle different stages of the dish-washing assembly line. I can see what prompted that memory. The connection is easy to understand. Other times, I'm not sure what drew me back to a time or place I'd forgotten. Some memories make me smile. Others remind me where I could've done better.

I've been thinking about long-term happiness, experiences, and memory. I imagine that at eighty or ninety years old, you'd want to have plenty of good memories. What's worth paying attention to? What's worth creating experiences for? How can you smooth the edges of rough memories and intensify good ones?

Here are some of my thoughts about the memories I want to cultivate through attention and understanding.

2015-01-31 What's worth remembering – index card #memory

I'd like to remember, clearly and distinctly, the things that contribute to happiness: connection, mastery, triumph, little moments of joy. How can we get better at things like that? Paying close attention, and creating the situations where these memories can arise.

I'd like to remember the storms – not to dwell on them, not to feel a victim, but to remember that they're temporary and that we've weathered them in the past. (No Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for me!) I don't write as much about these (in public, or even in my journals), but that doesn't mean I don't think of them from time to time. By not writing about them, though, I miss out on the opportunity to make sense of them, to fit them into a coherent narrative that helps me move forward.

I'd like to remember the things that will help me make better decisions: ideas, assumptions, consequences, lessons learned. Since it can be hard to remember details and one's mind is often tempted to rewrite things more favourably, writing about these things is a good way to extend my understanding over time.

I have a lot of mental clutter. The time in school I wanted to experiment with fixing a memory with intense clarity, choosing (of all things!) the speckled ceiling to focus on. Many embarrassing moments, like the time a friend teased me for having mispronounced "adolescent" in a moment of inattention. Every moment contains a lesson, but I'm not sure that these lessons are worth the attention my mind gives them. I don't dwell on these thoughts, but they skitter across my brain from time to time. It would be good to be able to acknowledge them and their underlying thoughts, and then put them on a mental shelf. Then, when they escape, I can say, "Oh, hello again! Do you have anything to add? No? Back you go."

2015-01-18 Narratives – index card #storytelling #perspective

By thinking about memories on my own terms, I can make sense of them my way. The narratives we tell ourselves have such power. If your story is "Everyone's against me!", it's easy to find memories that fit that pattern, and you'll feel worse and worse. If your story is "Actually, things are pretty awesome," it will likewise be easy to find memories that fit. By thinking about the general types of memories that come up and connecting them to a positive story, it'll be easier to respond to them positively when they come up at other times.

In addition to cultivating your existing memories, it's also good to deliberately create good ones. The impression I get from how other people do this is that people plan Big Memories. The awesome vacation. The ascetic pilgrimage. The conquered marathon.

My life tends to be about small memories. The in-joke picked up from the movie W- and I watched a few years ago, blended with the pun of the moment. The amusing situations our cats get themselves into. Cooking with friends. There are big memories mixed in there too (family trips, graduations, weddings), but the small ones… How can I explain this? The small ones seem as richly flavoured as the big ones are. Big memories are easier to tell other people about, but the small ones are more plentiful.

(Unless you're like my dad, generating big memories by the bucket-load because you're always on interesting adventures.)

What would it be like to be a big-memory-full person, a bucket-list-crosser-outer, a grand adventurer? Maybe I'd go refresh my memory of a night sky so clear you feel the dimensions of space. Maybe I'd splurge on eating interesting food at wonderful restaurants. Maybe I'd go to more parties (some of my friends throw themed ones, even). Maybe I'd bike around more in the city, or take the train and try biking near Niagara. Maybe I'd get back into the habit of having birthday parties.

In "Memories Make Your Life Meaningful – Here's How to Have More of Them, Ben Casnocha writes:

  • Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories.
  • Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs.
  • Do things with people. And use people as a key variable.
  • Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine.
  • Review and re-live memories soon after the fact.
  • If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks.

More novelty, more randomness, more challenges, more people, more review, more attention. This slows life down, makes it denser with memories, and expands joy.

DONE Alternatives to sitting meditation: How I clear my mind   reflection

The Lifehacker article "Try a Writing Meditation If Sitting Still Isn't Working For You" reminded me of how I've never quite resonated with the popular advice to clear your mind, meditate, and be mindful. When people ask me if I meditate, the word makes me think of doing yoga or sitting zazen or taking deep breaths – none of which I do. Maybe I'll come around to those ways eventually, but in the meantime, let me share a few of the ways that work for me just in case they might help you too. =)

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don't meditate – index card #reason #meditation

I generally keep my life low-stress. Frugality gives me a buffer from most of life's financial stressors. Low expectations and personal responsibility make happiness easier. Stoicism helps me focus on what I can control.

I do like relaxing and being more appreciative. Everyday activities like doing the dishes, cuddling cats, spending time with W-, and following my curiosity give me that sense of abundance and fortune. They also help me slow down my thoughts and bump into interesting ideas. This reminds me of the relaxing side of meditation.

As for becoming aware of and addressing my self-talk or my thoughts, writing and drawing do a great job of bringing those thoughts out there so that I can acknowledge them or do something with them. I think this is like the self-awareness side of meditation.

Still, sometimes something perturbs my calm more than I'd like. When I'm miffed at something, that's really more about me than about something else. It's a good opportunity to take a look at my thoughts to see where I was lax or mistaken. This is like the clarifying side of meditation.

So I guess I do meditate, but I don't do it in the stock-photography-meditation sort of way. Here are some other tools I use to shift my mental state:

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state – index card #emotions

Activities that move my body or my mind make it easy for me to move my thoughts, too. For example, walking gets me breathing fresh air and looking around. Cooking immerses me in tastes and lets me enjoy doing something tangibly productive. Reading takes me inside someone else's experiences. Helping someone shifts my focus from myself to someone else.

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park – index card #relax

(In particular, walking to a nearby park will almost certainly result in seeing lots of really happy dogs. There's something about seeing a dog with a big grin and an even bigger stick.)

What is it that I'm really doing when I choose these activities? I think I'm quieting my brain enough so that I can think with less distraction. Then I can pay attention to the thoughts that I find odd or that I'd like to address, to see if I can resolve them.

In addition to responding to life as it comes, I sometimes think ahead about the way I'd like to respond to life. This is because my life has so far been pretty awesome. I don't want to take it for granted, and I also don't want to be blindsided by challenges. From time to time, I think about more difficult situations that I could find myself in so that I can try out different responses. This is the contemplative side of meditation, I think.

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair – index card #stoicism

So that's how I "meditate," I guess. No relaxing music, no super-deep thoughts. Mostly just everyday activities and the occasional bit of reflection. Seems to be working for me so far. =)

Personal knowledge management

Making sense

  • TODO Write about memex, personal knowledge management
  • Planning improvements
    • Current state
      • Journal
      • Blog posts
      • Sketches
        • More on my computer these days
          • Colour
          • Grid
          • Whitespace
        • Possibly missing out on relaxed reflections?
    • Ideas for improvement
      • Tracking the pipeline
        • TODO
        • Learning states
          • learn (plan, research), do (learn, reflect), teach (explain, summarize)
        • Sketch -> post pipeline



  • Different dimensions of scaling up
  • If you can get better at learning, everything else gets better
  • What does better mean?
    • Ask better questions
    • Find resources
    • Apply what you learn
    • Remember what you learn


DONE Tell the difference between diminishing returns and compounding growth when it comes to investing in skills

When is it worth improving a skill you're already good at, and when should you focus on other things?

I started thinking about this after a conversation about what it means to master the Emacs text editor. Someone wondered if the additional effort was really worth it. As I explored the question, I noticed that skills respond differently to the investment of time, and I wondered what the difference was.

For example, going from hunt-and-peck typing to touch-typing is a big difference. Instead of having to think about typing, you can focus on what you want to communicate or do. But after a certain point, getting faster at typing doesn't give you as much of a boost in productivity. If I type a little over 100 words per minute, retraining bad habits and figuring out other optimizations so that I can reach a rate of 150 words per minute isn't going to make a big difference if the bottleneck is my brain. (Just in case I'm wrong about this, I'd be happy to hear from people who type that fast about whether it was worth it!)

Some skills seem shallow. There's only so much you can gain from them before they taper off. Other skills are deeper. Let's take writing, for instance. You can get to the point of being able to competently handwrite or type. You can fluently express yourself. But when it comes to learning how to ask questions and organize thoughts I'm not sure there's a finish line at which you can say you've mastered writing. There's always more to learn. And the more you learn, the more you can do.

I think this is part of the appeal of Emacs for me. Even after more than a decade of exploring it and writing about it, I don't feel I'm at the point of diminishing returns. In fact, even the small habits that I've been focusing on building lately yield a lot of value.

No one can objectively say that a skill is shallow or deep. It depends on your goals. For example, I think of cooking as a deep skill. The more you develop your skills, the wider your possibilities are, and the more enjoyable it becomes. But if you look at it from the perspective of simply keeping yourself fueled so that you can concentrate on other things, then it makes sense to find a few simple recipes that satisfy you, or outsource it entirely by eating out.

It's good to take a step back and ask yourself: What kind of value will you get from investing an hour into this? What about the value you would get from investing an hour in other things?

Build on your strengths where building on those strengths can make a difference. It can make a lot of sense to reach a professional level in something or inch towards becoming world-class. It could be the advantage that gets you a job, compensates for your weakness, opens up opportunities, or connects you to people. On the other hand, you might be overlearning something and wasting your time, or developing skills to a level that you don't actually need.

When you hit that area of diminishing returns – or even that plateau of mediocrity – you can think about your strategies for moving forward. Consider:

  • What kind of return are you getting on your time? (understanding the value)
  • Is there a more effective way to learn? (decreasing your input)
  • Can you get more value out of your time from this skill or other skills? (increasing your output)
  • If you learn something else first,
    • will that make more of a difference in your life?
    • will that help you when you come back to this skill?

These questions are helping me decide that for me, learning more about colours is worthwhile, but drawing more realistic figures might not be at the moment; learning more about basic Emacs habits is better than diving into esoteric packages; and exploring questions, doing research, and trying things out is likely to be more useful than expanding my vocabulary. I'll still flip through the dictionary every now and then, but I can focus on developing other skills.

How about you? What are you focusing on?


Learning from people   learning connecting

I have a friend who's focusing on learning how to ask better questions. Actually, he realized his goal is probably to ask more questions in the first place, since even simple questions ("Where did you come from?") can lead to interesting stories.

It got me curious about getting better at learning from people. I think this will help me learn about the stuff that I can't find in books because:

  • New things often aren't in books
  • There's a lot of tacit knowledge that's difficult to capture
  • Sometimes I don't understand something well enough to research it
  • Talking to people can help me come across things I didn't know to ask about

2015-01-20 Asking better questions – index card #asking

I think getting better at asking questions and learning from people involves figuring out:

  • what to ask about (spotting opportunities or following curiosities)
  • who to ask
  • how to build rapport
  • how to pick the right time/place/sequence
  • how to frame the question (level of detail, phrasing, etc.)
  • how to follow up

So that gives me specific things to focus on in terms of learning from others and trying things out myself.

I've been thinking about two aspects of learning from people: working with mentors/coaches/trainers, and having casual conversations with other people.

2015-01-24 Imagining awesomeness at learning from people – index card #learning #people


I've been lucky to have many mentors (both formal and informal) who helped me learn how to navigate organizations, find opportunities, build skills, and so on. But I haven't been as deliberate about learning as I could have been. I periodically consider finding a coach for my writing or coding, but haven't taken the leap.

I've heard from people who weren't sure if therapy was working out for them; they couldn't evaluate their progress. I think I'm hesitant for similar reasons. I'm uncertain about choosing candidates, asking useful questions, evaluating the results, and balancing the value and the opportunity cost.

This is precisely the sort of situation for which an opportunity fund is useful, because it pushes me to Just Try Things Out. I'm slowly warming up to that idea, hence all the blog posts thinking out loud.

Here are some areas I'm considering:

2015-01-19 Imagining an editing experiment – index card egation #writing #editing

For example, an editing experiment might help me develop a better mental model of an editor, forcing me to search for more specific vocubulary (down with "stuff"!), testing to see if something I've written makes sense, and checking for gaps.

2015-01-24 How can I learn from observation feedback – index card #learning #people

In addition to directly asking for specific help, I might learn a lot from general observation. A friend suggested Atul Gawande's Better for its approach to learning: a surgeon inviting other surgeons to observe him and give feedback, even though this technique was mostly used by people with less experience. It makes sense to do that even when you're more experienced, and it's probably even more useful because people can swap tips or explain things they unconsciously do.

Other people

2015-01-24 Mixed feelings about learning from people – index card #learning #people

I noticed that I have a strong bias towards online conversations instead of offline ones. Sure, online conversations might be lower-bandwidth or not as nuanced. But blog posts and comments expand the conversations to include other people, and it's easier to follow up on threads of ideas. I think this preference is among the reasons why, compared to several years ago, I now spend much less time going to parties or meetups. Instead, I focus on writing and connecting online.

But I get plenty of writing time already, so maybe I should mix more offline conversations into my life. This would follow the principle that I shouldn't always do what's fun and easy. It makes sense to develop skills and routines in other areas as well. For example, I can imagine getting better at cultivating acquaintances through shared activities like cooking at Hacklab and hosting board game afternoons. I can test and refine several quick stories for small talk, which frees me up to focus on learning more about the other person through questions. It's like the way foreign language learners can boost their feeling of fluency by anticipating common questions ("Where are you from?" "What do you do?") and practising answers to those.

I think that getting better at asking questions and learning from people starts mostly from getting to know people as individuals. What makes them different? What's interesting about their lives? There's always something to find. The next step after that is to gradually build the acquaintance or the friendship through things like lunches or get-togethers. It makes sense to open my world so that I can come across good people. I enjoy their company, I grow in helping out, and I learn from the conversations with them and the mental models of them.

More thoughts

Thinking about this, I realized that I'm not bad at learning from people. I'm pretty good at learning from books, blogs, and online conversations, which is why I rely on those so much. But there are some aspects of learning from people that I can improve, and I can play around with those without cutting too much into the time I spend learning in other ways.

snippet: own questions

This push towards originality reminds me of how I've been drifting away from technical workshops, business conferences, and self-help books. When people teach other people in large, quick group settings or in traditionally-published books, it makes to go for a broad base. The more people you can help, the more affordable help is. Introductory material is easy to plan for, because you assume people are starting from scratch. Maybe they have no experience, or maybe they're tired of their old systems and are willing to start anew. If the market is sufficiently large, you might be able to plan for a slightly different profile: say, a Node JS tutorial for Ruby developers, or an Emacs tutorial for people shifting from SublimeText. For the most part, though, it's difficult to advantage of the skills students might be able to transfer from related fields. That's okay. The introductory stage is simply that. You just want to build competence. When you get to the intermediate or advanced stages, though, instruction is harder, and learning is harder as well. No one hands you a curriculum to follow. You have your own goals and preferences, and you need to adapt or stitch together what you learn from other people. You need to come up with your own questions. 

DONE Future pull and the power of imagination   planning

I know you're supposed to live in the present, but I get a lot of value from thinking about futures and what I can learn from the possibilities. Imagining different futures helps me see what I can do, choose to do some things instead of others, and keep track of how I'm doing along the way.

In the problem-solving model that Tim Hurson shares in Think Better (2008), you come up with potential Target Futures and prioritize a few based on three factors:

  • Influence: Is it something you have influence over?
  • Importance: Is it important enough to you that you'll put in the work to get there?
  • Imagination: Can you solve it with an off-the-shelf solution, or do you have to come up with something new?

A good future pulls you toward it. You want it, and so you act.

I periodically think about what the target futures for my interests look and feel like. Last year, I wrote about how I don't need to get to "awesome" in everything. Sometimes it still helps to think about what that "awesome" might look like, though. I realized that I don't have to use the same definition of "awesome" that other people use. Figuring out what "awesome" means to me can help me identify the differences between my current state and my future state, and that shows me what I can do or what I can learn to get there. I want to pick differences that are mostly under my control, that are important enough to call me to action, and that may even create something new in the world.

  • Coding

    2015-01-15 Imagining coding amazingly – index card #wildsuccess #coding

    I figured out a little more about what tickles my programming brain. I'm not the kind of person who builds massively popular projects with elegant architecture. Someday I might do a good job at building bridges for other people so that they can do even better. What makes me really happy right now, though, is writing small, idiosyncratic pieces of code that are tailored to my particular needs (or that make things a little better for people I feel good about). On the surface, this doesn't have widespread impact. but I guess it also creates a future-pull – showing other people that this sort of play and customization is possible. So, if I follow that vein, amazingness looks like:

    • Seeing clear, simple ways to address challenges or take advantage of opportunities
    • Pulling the pieces together (APIs, etc.)
    • Making reasonable interfaces
    • Writing decent code
    • Being proficient with tools
    • Getting good at that delivery and feedback cycle, whether it's for other people or for myself

    I'm getting a lot more practice in working with the APIs for services I frequently use. I've scripted quite a few small tools that interact with Flickr, and I'm looking forward to more experiments with Org Mode and Evernote. I'm also working on learning more about the tools I can use: debuggers, frameworks, even coding conventions.

  • Working out loud

    2015-01-15 Imagining working out loud amazingly – #wildsuccess #sharing #writing

    What about working out loud? What would that look like if I could do it really, really well?

    I'd keep detailed notes - probably in Org Mode, since that lets me mix everything together: snippets, links, research, TODOs, etc. My notes would help me get back on track after interruptions or delays. Whenever I finish a small chunk, I publish a post, since that's easier to work with than waiting until I've finished everything. I'll know if it's working if I:

    • don't get as frustrated with dead ends, because I can just backtrack up the trail
    • can look up my reasons for things I've forgotten
    • can help other people find out about things they can do, take advantage of example code, or probe my understanding
    • get the occasional suggestion from people on how to improve what I do

    I'm focusing on getting more of my thinking out the door. One of the things I'm currently figuring out is how to balance logical order and chronological order when writing up what I've learned. On one hand, I want to save people time by pointing them straight to stuff that worked. On the other hand, it can be useful to see the thinking process. I'm experimenting with using signposts (like the "later in this post" part of one of my write-ups). I'm also experimenting with harvesting tips and putting them into occasional other-directed posts.

  • Writing

    2015-01-15 Imagining writing amazingly – index card #writing #wildsuccess

    I don't need to get to Pulitzer-prize-winning awesomeness. I want to get better at figuring things out and sharing them. I think this involves being able to:

    • wrestle with vagueness and beat it into specificity
    • share practical tips
    • extract ideas from research, other people's thoughts, and my own experiences so that I can help people save time
    • and back up everything reliably!

    If I can get better at seeing things, that's a really useful bonus. Since the easiest way of doing that seems to be sheer accumulation of experience, I'm focusing instead on other things that I can get better at first. Research is one of those skills I want to build up again, as there can be lot of value in a good literature review.

    2015-01-14 Setting constraints for my writing chunks – index card #writing #constraints

    I'm also working on building up and linking to different chunks so that people can read at the level of detail they want. By setting constraints on chunk size and getting better at managing an archive of linkable things, I hope to be able to organize thoughts more flexibly.

  • Packaging

    2015-01-15 Imagining packaging amazingly – index card #packaging #wildsuccess

    I imagine that as I get a sense of questions (other people's and my own) and good sequences to answer those questions in, I'll get better at putting together guides that lead people through those sequences. This helps because sometimes it takes a lot of knowledge to figure out what the next good question is or how to formulate it. For me, that's what packaging is about: making sense of things, and then sharing that in a way that helps other people make sense of things too.

    I'm still far from getting really good at this, but as I build up chunks and figure out what order to put them in, I'll get better.

  • Your turn

    When it comes to the things that you're learning, what are different ways "awesome" could look and feel like? Are those futures powerful enough to pull you toward them? What do you need to do to get a little closer to those futures?

TODO Write about metaphors as a way of figuring out something new. Metaphors we live by

OUTLINED How I learn: My learning and sharing workflow   requested

This outline can be found at

  • Types of learning/sharing (hmm, move this into separate post, although it's useful to keep goals in mind as you learn)
    • Why keep goals in mind?
      • Choose appropriate techniques
      • Avoid going down the rabbit-hole
    • Request: questions, troubleshooting, feedback
      • Keep track of who requested it
    • Exploration: planning, learning
      • Imagine success and test your goals
      • Figure out steps to take
      • Get feedback on plans
        • Small experiments
        • People
    • Discovery: blog posts, news, new library acquisitions, etc.
      • Old blogs are useful too
  • Planning (could use a separate blog post for this one too)
    • What do I want to learn?
    • How can I learn it?
    • Requests
  • Input
    • Internet
    • Books
    • Troubleshooting
    • Exploration
    • Feedback
    • Old notes
    • I speed-read, so it's easy for me to filter through Google search results, books, etc.
  • Taking notes
    • I structure my notes around how I share (categories, etc.)
    • Notes at my computer
      • Large text file managed with Org Mode in Emacs
        • Easy to add source code snippets or links to additional resources
      • On the web, I use Evernote Web Clipper + tags
        • Mostly as a way of being able to find things again with search, and to save pages even if they go away
      • Big outline -
        • Categories
        • Sometimes I add notes about my Evernote items (otherwise it's easy to lose stuff)
      • Quick notes for weekly reviews
    • Private notes
      • At clients: text file on the work computers
      • My other organizer files (ex:,,, and so on)
    • Sketchnotes
    • Book notes
      • Drawn
      • Written
      • Dictated
      • Scanned
  • Outlining and integrating
    • Taking notes lets you learn over time
    • Adding links to previous posts that I remember
    • Looking at the suggested similar posts
    • Updating my index -
      • Easier than Wordpress categories for me
      • Lets me notice when I've written a lot about a single topic
    • Planning ahead
  • Sharing
    • Part of the learning process for me
      • I try to share as much as possible of what I learn, because otherwise I'll forget within a year
    • What to use when
      • Blog posts for searchability
      • Sketchnotes for shareability, or to make things friendlier
      • Tweets for short tips (also include in quick notes for weekly review)
    • Transforming my notes (see #transform-notes)
    • Sometimes series of posts
  • Next steps for me
    • Get better at re-ordering notes and filling in the gaps
    • Learn more about coaching and delegation as ways of speeding up my learning/sharing
    • Reorganize my index so that it's less chronological; suggest reading order?
    • Spend more time on editing, revising, and integrating so that the posts are even more useful

Requested by @gozes

Learning more effectively

  • Learning more
    • Better: identify and make sense of relevant info; construct more knowledge (vs retrieving it)
    • Actually diving into documentation, experimentation, search
    • Learning from other people's thoughts
      • Do I usually jump to this state for non-technical stuff, or do I try to explore the question a little? It usually develops in a bit of a cycle
  • Tidying up my notes
    • Better: Balance between personal notes (to keep the sense of figuring things out) and tips for other people (to help people learn things quickly)
    • Very little of this, since I want to get stuff out there quickly
    • Trust that future Sacha will pull together
    • YAGNI / lazy organization
  • Planning
    • Before you learn something, plan how you're going to apply it
    • Learn faster by breaking skills down
  • Making sense
    • How to understand what you're thinking
    • Learn holistically by organizing your thoughts
  • OUTLINED Collecting my thoughts, organizing them, identifying gaps
    • fascinated by how nonfiction writers organize their notes
      • nonfiction, because fiction writers have to deal with a whole 'nother kettle of fish
    • Better: Quickly pulling things together, identifying uncertainties or gaps, non-linearly organizing notes into a logical flow
    • What are the key challenges?
      • Finding a specific thing
      • Seeing the overall picture
    • How do other people do it?
      • question by question; forward, or backward
      • Managing information overload, index, etc.
      • Scrivener, non-linear writing
      • Outlines
      • personal knowledge management
      • How to make a map of every thought
    • How do I do it?
      • Outlines
      • Links, blog posts, chunks
      • Good at small outlines; transform
      • Larger outlines sometimes sprawl, or I lose motivation
    • How
      • Sketch or blog post
      • Outline
      • Semi-linear, can be all over
  • OUTLINED Accumulating value

    How small steps can take you great distances

    Beginner: do I need to cover this? maybe in its own post, or if people ask

    • picking a good direction to go in
      • doesn't have to be a complete, detailed plan
      • rough direction, idea of good/better/best
      • I like imagining wild success
      • also see if you don't actually want it strongly enough
    • figuring out what a few good next steps are - people often struggle with breaking things down into small, doable steps
      • too big: I don't have the time
      • too vague: I don't know where to start
      • too small: I don't see how this will help me get there
      • just right: let's try it!
    • checking to see if you're still going in the right direction, tweaking plans
      • keep track of ideas and next steps
      • review your notes
      • following up


    • taking notes, so you don't have to keep rediscovering things you've forgotten
      • questions for reflection
        • what are you doing?
        • how are you doing it?
        • what are you learning?
        • what are the next steps?
      • tools
        • paper journal; write down the date. If you're working on several topics, you might consider having one small notebook per topic, or using an index. tabs, or number your pages and keep an index at the back of the notebook.
        • I like using Evernote because I can add notes using my phone or my computer
      • finding the time
        • do it while you're learning
        • "I am going to …"
        • clarifies your thoughts
        • helps you deal with interruptions and dead ends


    • seeing the connections and patterns over time <- probably worth a post, since I want to dig into this myself
      • why
        • celebrate your achievements
        • check your progress
        • look for gaps and opportunities
        • make sense and solidify your understanding
      • rereading your notes
      • this is not as easy as collecting them, I think
      • comparisons: before and after (ex: a year)
      • summarizing: timelines, outlines
    • teaching other people
      • explaining things in your own words
      • organizing small steps into bigger, more logical chunks
      • teaching specific people vs teaching in the abstract
    • sharing with people
      • because you could save someone out there a little time on that same little step too, and if you multiply that by a thousand people, that's a lot of value

    Alan Lin

  • Intellectual goals   subskills
    • Excerpt

      The book Early Retirement Extreme (Jacob Fisker - CreateSpace: 2010)

      Intellectual goals for someone aspiring to be a Renaissance man are to:

      • Be able to quickly prioritize the relevance of information and be able to quickly research and find relevant information in many different areas. Learn independently and have an interest in doing so.
      • Have enough generalized knowledge to be able to understand the information and put it into the context of a mental framework, a model or procedure, and use it to ask further questions.
      • Recognize which problems the model applies to, take the solution to one problem, generalize it, and apply it to another problem.
      • Be able to critically analyze the model, refine it, and combine different models to achieve an objective. Practice critical thinking in all aspects of life to reach a degree of rational certainty. Be open to new ideas but do not accept anything uncritically.
      • Synthesize interdisciplinary information and laterally connect similarities which are not immediately apparent, discovering new models and procedures.
      • Evaluate different methods, models, and procedures while effectively ranking them for utility, and picking the best one while recognizing the pertinence of other methods. Pursue relevant and correct knowledge persistently and consistently. Master the fundamentals.

      This! I want to get better at all of these things. Based on feedback from my clients, I do pretty well already, prioritizing requests and potential resources, quickly cobbling together a tool from different pieces, and connecting the dots.

      But what would even better look like, and how do I inch closer to that?

      The more you know–the broader and deeper relevant knowledge you have–the easier it is to learn, since you have more resources for understanding and remembering new information. So the more I read and the more I try, the easier it is to learn.


      • Figuring out what's relevant
      • Making sense of things
      • Figuring out how the pieces fit together
      • Recognizing the right nail when you have a hammer
      • Thinking about thinking
      • Connecting the dots
      • Choosing among strategies
  • Making better use of time
    • STARTED Choosing what to think about on my subway commute
      • about 50 minutes
        • I often try to take this off-peak, so that I can avoid the rush and grab a seat.

      One of the ideas I'm picking up from How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (Arnold Bennett, 1910) is:

      When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what, to begin with). … By the regular practice of concentration (as to which there is no secret—save the secret of perseverance) you can tyrannize over your mind (which is not the highest part of you) every hour of the day, and in no matter what place. The exercise is a very convenient one. If you got into your morning train with a pair of dumb-bells for your muscles or an encyclopedia in ten volumes for your learning, you would probably excite remark. But as you walk in the street, or sit in the corner of the compartment behind a pipe, or “strap-hang” on the Subterranean, who is to know that you are engaged in the most important of daily acts?

      The idea is to practise concentration. Bennett suggests a little bit of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, who are both quite agreeable to me. =)

      What kinds of questions lend themselves well to being thought about while walking or taking the subway?

      • Base
        • Review my values, priorities, and actions
        • Review or make decisions
          • Non-trivial decisions with medium-term effects
        • Observe the world around me
          • Interesting products/services/needs/thoughts?
      • When I can read
        • Read technology resources in order to learn more about tools I can use
        • Review my sketchnotes and blog posts in order to revisit thoughts
        • Review other people's sketchnotes in order to build my visual vocabulary and develop my eye
        • Read and save blog posts from my subscriptions
      • When I can write
        • Write a journal entry observing what happened that day, and then reflect on it
        • Play around with blog post ideas
          • Not outlining because of difficulty of text manipulation
          • Maybe coming up with titles and some rough notes
        • Answer quick e-mails

      Find myself spinning unless I have a way to slow down my thoughts

      • writing

      Some things you may want to do:

  • Integrate your learning into other things you know
  • Application
    • Put your learning into practice
  • Scale
    • Invest the time to get to the point where you can get paid to learn


  • Improve your memory with the peg system
  • Remember things in order by making them part of a journey
  • Remember better with spaced repetition systems

Don't be afraid to make mistakes

Broaden your learning

Practice before passion

Feeling overwhelmed? Focus on just-in-time learning

When you're not the best

Get more value from the time you spend learning

Manage your energy

Deal with discouragement

Use the 80/20 rule

Let your mind wander in order to come up with ideas and solve problems

Spring-clean your learning goals

Learn how to fix things

You don't have to live big to learn lots

Expensive to cheap: Many different ways to learn the same thing

Go back to step one

Talent is overrated

Keep a beginner's mind

Combine learning

Listen and watch at twice the speed

Growth mindsets and fixed mindsets: Why what you think about learning can affect how well you can learn

The learning cycle

Build, measure, learn

Critical thinking

Know your learning styles and make the most of it

Adjust your previously-held beliefs


  • The First 20 Hours
  • The 4-Hour Chef

Learning from things I like

  • How It Should Have Ended

CANCELLED Improving my input speed

  • Currently type ~108wpm on Dvorak
    • Type faster and rely on autocorrect and editing to fix errors?
    • Use speech recognition?
      • Easiest startup, extra benefits for dictating book notes and transcribing my own stuff
      • Highest frustration
    • Learn Colemak for same-hand optimization?
      • Closest to Dvorak in terms of how I use my computer
      • Because it's close, I get the most confusion; sigmoid curve?
      • Colemak FAQ says stick with Dvorak if you're already happy with it
      • Maybe I should play with this incremental approach?
      • Hah, maybe I should see about making my Dvorak home row close to
      • Big selling point of Colemak: similar to QWERTY, common shortcuts stay the same.
        • Emacs has different shortcuts anyway
        • and I've gotten used to where things are
        • and also, normal Ctrl-x, Ctrl-c, Ctrl-v suck because you get tempted to do them on the same hand
      • No
    • Learn Plover (stenography) and much higher WPM?
      • My keyboard doesn't handle some of the chords well
      • Phonetic, so…
    • Draw pictures instead (work on getting even better at communicating concisely?)
    • Bottleneck is not typing speed; improve thinking speed somehow?
  • Three cases
    • Outlining
      • Uses a lot of keyboard shortcuts, so Dvorak or Colemak would be better than Plover or speech recognition
      • Pictures - mindmap?
        • Computer
        • Paper
    • Turning an outline into a blog post
      • Current workflow involves a lot of editing and deleting, so speech recognition and Plover are less useful
      • Speech/Plover might be more useful if I'm typing into a separate buffer
    • Capturing notes from books (quotes, outlines)
  • Decision
    • Focus on improving speech recognition accuracy by dictating book notes
    • Try more tweaks to current keyboard layout (ex: mapping left control to Backspace)
    • Experiment with using speech recognition to draft e-mails and blog posts
    • Revisit Plover after speech recognition is part of my workflow (or shelved)
    • Revisit Colemak after Plover is part of my workflow (or shelved)
  • CANCELLED Learning the Colemak keyboard layout
    • Background
      • Grew up with a computer
      • Learned how to type long before I had computer or typing classes
      • Bad habits
      • One summer, I decided to learn Dvorak. dvorak7min
      • More than ten years ago
      • I type faster and more comfortably in Dvorak than in QWERTY.
      • Also, it keeps people off my laptop and adds to my reputation for geek weirdness.
    • Why
      • Curious about computer-based optimization
        • Rolls
      • Keep my brain flexible
      • Learn about learning
      • Possibly get faster?
        • Trade-offs
    • Nudged by
    • Experience
    • Day 1 (Sept 20, 2013) - two hours
      • Went through the first six lessons of Learn Colemak (I still need to learn the bottom row)
      • Tried out keybr's random words level 1 - dismal 14wpm
      • 23wpm on lesson 1 for Type Faster - a slightly more encouraging 23wpm

DONE Breaking down what people mean   learning

I'm fascinated by the challenge of understanding what people mean. I realized this while looking at it from two different directions:

  • When someone give an excuse like "It takes too much time," what's the excuse behind the excuse, and how can we address that?
  • When someone gives a compliment like "Thank you for sharing an inspiring post," what kind of inspiring was it, and how can I get better at that?

Let me start with the example of inspiration, because it's something I want to translate into concrete feedback and action. I thought about the different responses I have to things that inspire me.

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration – index card #inspiration #breakdown

  • Idea: Inspiration might mean coming across something I didn't even know I wanted. Now that I know it's possible, I can work toward it. (This happens a lot with Emacs, which is why I like reading Planet Emacsen)
  • Clarity: Seeing other people who have reached my goals (or who've travelled further down the path) helps me understand those goals better. What do I really want? What are some ways I can get there? I can see that more clearly thanks to other people who have illuminated the path. (Talking to executives helped me realize I don't want to be one.)
  • Alternatives: Inspiration can help me see different ways of doing something. For example, I looked at ways other people coloured their sketchnotes and picked several techniques to try.
  • Beginning: Inspiration can show me that something is less intimidating than I thought it was. It can help me figure out a good place to start and give me the courage to do it. Programming tutorials help me get through the initial challenges of a new framework.
  • Action: Inspiration can move me to act on something. I already know it's a good idea and I've been meaning to do it, but sometimes I need that extra push. Comments with questions and suggestions help me a lot.
  • Perseverance: Sometimes I can feel lost or discouraged. Remembering that other people have dealt with bigger challenges helps me address my anxiety, focus on my goals or my progress, and keep going. Anecdotes are easy to find.
  • Hero worship: I often come across stuff that looks so awesome, I don't think I could ever do anything like it. This is the type of "inspiration" we tend to get bombarded with. This is the least useful kind of inspiration, I think. It takes a little work to transform it into the kind of inspiration I can use: I need to reflect on what part of it resonates with and how I can incorporate a little of that into my life.

In what ways do I want to inspire others? How can I get better at that?

  • I like inspiring with ideas, playing with what's possible. I can get better at that by sharing more of these little tweaks.
  • I think out loud in order to help people with clarity. I sketch out the reasons and consequences of my choices so that other people can learn without necessarily having to make all those choices themselves.
  • I explore and summarize alternatives so that people can use that to figure out

what might fit them. I can get better at that by researching what other people have done, generating a few new ideas (possibly by combining other ideas), and testing things out so that I can share my experiences.

  • I break things down to help people with beginning. This is why I like addressing the "Yeah, but…"s, the excuses, the things that get in people's way. This is also why I like sharing ideas, because that can help pull people forward.
  • I'd love to get better at moving people to action. I haven't given this as much thought yet, but I think it's the most important.
  • I don't have much to share in terms of perseverance - I've been very lucky and privileged.
  • I definitely don't want to be in the region of hero worship. It creates too much distance and can shut down action.

Breaking a general statement down into more specific statements helps me learn a lot. I ask myself: "hat would I or someone say that captures a different aspect of this?" and I write that down. When I split off different aspects, I can understand those aspects better, and I can understand the whole thing better too.

This technique is good to use for excuses, too.

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses – index card #excuses #breakdown

I'm getting better at catching myself when I give an excuse, drilling down with "Why?" and splitting it out into different excuses. (I guess, thanks to my parents' patience, my inner toddler never stopped asking questions.) Then I can check if those excuses match what's getting in my way, or if they don't resonate with me.

A technique I often use is to imagine other people giving those excuses, since sometimes my mind is perfectly willing to ascribe weakness to others even when it gets defensive about itself. ;)

I like sharing these excuses because that might help other people get over theirs. It's often easier to recognize one of your excuses instead of trying to articulate it yourself. "That's it! That's what's getting in my way!" you might say. Or even if you don't find something that completely fits, you might find something close, and then you can ask yourself: "What's missing here?"

For example, what does it mean when someone says something "takes too much time"? What's really getting in their way? Here are some ideas I came up with:

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time – index card #excuses #breakdown

"Too much time" is too vague to address. On the other hand, if you think something takes too much time because you're trying to do something complicated, you might be able to ask yourself: "What do I really need? Can I get away with doing something simpler?" and then reduce the task to something small enough for you to get started with.

Break things down. Find the statement behind the statement or the excuse behind the excuse, and you'll have more to work with. Instead of getting frustrated because you can't come up with one specific answer, come up with lots of them, and then see if you recognize yourself in any of them. Almost there, but not quite? Come up with more answers, maybe combining aspects of the ones you already have. This will not only help you understand yourself, but also understand others–and help others understand themselves and you.

DONE Read business books more effectively through application, visualization, or reviews   learning reading

This Quora question on "What is the most effective way to read a book and what can one do after reading?" got me thinking about how I read business books and what I do to make the most of them.

2015.01.08 How to use what you read – index card

Application: The best way to get value from a book is to apply it to your life. Reading The Lean Startup is one thing. Using its Build-Measure-Learn loop to run a business experiment is another. Reading Your Money or Your Life is one thing. Calculating your true hourly wage and using that to evaluate your expenses is another. Do the work.

As you apply an idea, you'll probably want to refer back to the details in the book, so it's good to keep the book itself handy. Write notes about your questions, ideas, TODOs, experiences, and follow-up questions.

Visualization: Not ready to do the work yet? Slow down and think about it. Imagine the specific situations where you would be able to apply the ideas from the book, and how you would do so. What do you need to learn or do in order to get there? See if you can get closer to being able to act on what you've learned.

Spend some time thinking about how the ideas in the book connect to other books you've read or ideas you've explored. What do they agree with or disagree with? Where do they go into more detail, and where do they summarize? What new areas do they open up?

Think about specific people who might be able to use the ideas in the book. Get in touch with them and recommend the book, explaining why they might find it useful. Imagine what kind of conversation the book might be relevant to so that you'll find it easier to recognize the situation when it arises. (This is a tip I picked up from Tim Sanders' Love is the Killer App, which I often recommend when people want to know more about how reading helps with networking.)

Review: Can't act on the book yet, and can't think of specific people or ideas to relate it to? Take notes so that you can review them later, and maybe you'll be able to think of connections then.

I don't like writing in books. Here's why:

  • Most of my books come from the library, and I'd never write in those. This lets me get through lots of books without the friction of committing money and space to them.
  • Highlighting is an easy way to make yourself think that you're going to remember something. Also, it's hard to decide what's important the first time through, so you might end up highlighting too much. When everything's important, nothing is.
  • There's rarely enough room in the margins for notes, and you can't review those notes quickly.

2015.01.09 Take notes while you read books – index card

I prefer to write my notes on an index card or a piece of paper. If I'm near my computer, I might draw my notes on a tablet or type quotes into a text file. Keeping my notes separate from the book lets me review my notes quickly without thumbing through the book. I want to be able to refer to my notes while reading other books or while writing my reflections. Index cards, pages, and print-outs are easy to physically rearrange, and text files can be searched. Even if I read an e-book, I take my own notes and I copy highlights into my text files.

The best way to remember to review a book is to schedule an action to apply an idea from it. The second-best way is to connect it to other ideas or other people. If you don't have either of those hooks, you can review on a regular basis - say, after a month, six months, and a year, or by using a spaced repetition system. You might even pull a book out at random and review your notes for inspiration. When you do, see if you can think of new actions or connections, and you'll get even more out of it.



  • Extrinsic: Financial success, fame, appealing image
  • Personal growth, affiliation, community contribution
  • competence, autonomy, relatedness

"Individuals in cluster with low both intrinsic and extrinsic goals have the lowest satisfaction with life and vitality. "


Logical flow - permut Right-size chunk Words that don't get in the way Empathy Expressiveness Organization Learning Memory Summarization

STARTED Getting better at writing other-directed posts   writing

Would you like to help me get better at helping you through blogging? I'd love to hear your feedback. =)

I'm working on writing more posts that people might find useful instead of filling every week with my ruminations. One of my challenges is that posts make sense to me (of course), but I'm sure there are many people for whom the posts don't make sense. Sometimes there are unanswered questions, or extraneous material that I could move to a separate post. Maybe the flow doesn't make sense to other people.

How can I learn how to step outside myself and read my writing with a stranger's eyes? One way is to ask for help: if you can share your thoughts (both content and style) on my posts through comments or e-mail, that would be great. (Consider it an open invitation!) Another way is to pay for help, especially if I can be clear about the kind of feedback I want. (More logic than typos, please!) A third way is to develop a list of questions that I can use to evaluate my own work.

Since this list of questions is useful for both paying for assistance and editing things myself, I worked on drafting this list:

  • Title
    1. Does the post title start with a verb? Can you think of a more vivid verb to start it with?
      • Bad: "Do stuff"
      • Good:
    2. Does the post title help people decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: specific problem or tip
      • Bad: generic or mysterious post title; title not clearly related to content
  • Body
    1. Is the first paragraph focused on "you" (the reader)?
    2. Does the first paragraph or two help the reader quickly decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: Can tell right away whether this will be too introductory, too advanced, or covering something they already know
    3. Do I share my background (context, etc.) in a way that helps the reader understand what I've learned or how I can identify with them?
    4. Do I share a useful tip that I have researched or personally experienced?
    5. Is the next step clear for the reader?
  • How it's said
    1. In your own words, what is the key point of this post?
    2. Is the key point sufficiently supported by the post? What kinds of questions would a reader have about this post?
    3. Is there anything here that does not support the key point and that can be removed?
    4. After reading this, what questions will the reader likely have? What will they want to know next?
  • Bonus
    1. Do I include research or links to other sources (not my blog)?
    2. Are there related links, and do they look interesting or useful?

2015.01.13 Evaluating posts written for others – index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015.01.11 What makes a good other-focused post – index card #writing

This particular post does not count as an other-directed post. It's me trying to figure things out. =) The other-directed version of this might be called something like "Use checklists to get better at writing posts that other people will find useful" or "Pay for perspective by hiring editors for your blog". My other-directed posts start with a verb, and I usually schedule them for Thursdays. But if you've got some ideas on how I can write better, I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!

DONE Help your readers discover more posts by organizing your content with a reverse outline   writing

You've written lots of blog posts, and maybe you've even organized them using categories and tags. But your readers are still getting lost. They like the posts they've found using search engines, but they don't know where to go next. If they click on your categories or tags, they see your newest posts, but they might not find your most useful ones or figure out a good order to read posts in. Sure, if you wrote all your posts according to a well-planned editorial calendar, people can follow that sequence. (If only we could all be so organized!)

I know what that's like. I've got thousands of posts in my archive, and even I find it hard to navigate through them. I've tried all sorts of plugins for suggesting related posts, but I didn't find any that could suggest good relevant content quickly.

How can we help people find the posts they need? Adding a "Popular Posts" widget to the sidebar is one way to help people discover your posts, but it only shows a handful of entries. A better way to help lost readers is to put together a page with links to your recommended posts. You can call it Resources, Start Here, or a similar title, and add a prominent link to your menu or sidebar. Off the top of your mind, you can probably think of a few blog posts to include on a resources page. Add those to the page and start helping your readers.

When you have a little more time, gradually incorporate more links into that page. You'll still want to highlight the key posts people should begin with, but after that (short) list, you can add more lists of recommended posts by topic. Choose your most important category and review the posts within it. Copy the titles and links from your blog posts and arrange them in a logical order, using either a list or an outline. For example, you might go from a list like:

  • Post 1
  • Post 2
  • Post 3
  • Post 4
  • Post 5

to an outline like:

  • Subtopic 1
    • Post 1
    • Post 3
  • Subtopic 2
    • Post 2
    • Post 4
    • Post 5

As you get an overview of your posting history, you might find opportunities to summarize several posts into a longer guide, update and improve previous posts, and fill in the gaps with additional posts. Add these ideas to your editorial calendar or idea notebook, and use those ideas the next time you sit down to write.

2015.01.12 Reverse outlining – index card #writing #organization #outlining

For example, when I looked at what I'd written in my blogging category, I realized that I could organize these posts by the excuses they addressed. Then it was easy to turn those excuses into a short guide, which became something I could offer on my resources page. In fact, I've been working on organizing all of my recent posts into a massive reverse outline or blog index.

Building this kind of a "reverse outline" from your existing posts helps you reuse what you've already published instead of starting from scratch. Good luck!

DONE Clear out your drafts by writing Minimum Viable Posts   blogging writing

Do you have dozens of drafts languishing on your blog or on your computer?

I sometimes hear from other bloggers who say they just don't think their posts are good enough. Maybe they've written a few paragraphs before fizzling out. Maybe they've already written a full post, but it's missing… something.

Are you holding off because you're a perfectionist? Although research shows that perfectionists actually procrastinate less than other people do, since blogs don't have deadlines, it's easy to dilly-dally. You can always make something better.

Me, I am definitely not a perfectionist. I'm generally happy if I get 80% of the way to where I want to go. But I know what it's like to hold a post back because I'm not sure if I'm expressing myself clearly enough.

As I write this, there are nineteen drafts in my Wordpress interface and countless more on my computer. The oldest draft I have in Wordpress is from February 2014. Come to think of it, the time for that topic has passed. Eighteen drafts now.

Do you want to know something that works better for me than drafting posts?

Scheduling them.

In Lean Startup, there's this idea of a "Minimum Viable Product" - the smallest thing you can build so that you can test your business assumptions and get feedback from real customers. You can use this in writing, too.

Instead of finely crafting and endlessly polishing each blog post, I write a blog post that I'm reasonably–not completely, just reasonably–happy with. I schedule it a few weeks out. You can do that from the Wordpress edit screen - click on Edit near Publish immediately and change it to the date you want. It's even easier with the Editorial Calendar plugin, which lets you spread posts over weeks.

So then I have this imperfect post that will be published even if I forget about it. My mind keeps working on it in the meantime. (Now that I've learned about the Zeigarnik effect, I see it everywhere.) Sometimes I come up with a thought I'd like to add. I might share a scheduled post using the Share a Draft plugin. Maybe I'll re-read the post and find a typo to fix or a gap to fill.

And hey, even if it isn't the height of perfection when it finally gets published, at least it's out there. Then people can tell me what they found interesting or ask questions about what they didn't understand.

You don't get that feedback if your thoughts are stuck in your drafts.

But what if you make a mistake? Edit your post. Even if you've already published it, you can still edit it. (Many people add the date and a description of what they changed.)

What if you turned out to be completely wrong about something? At least you learned you were wrong.

What if you skipped over some things that you could have explainedq? Let someone ask questions and pull that information from you.

Write (and schedule!) minimum viable posts: the simplest, roughest cut of your ideas that will move you towards learning. You can treat the schedule as your new deadline for improving the post.

Resist the temptation to reschedule posts again and again. If the deadline is here and you still can't quite settle on your post, publish it as is. Then listen to your dissatisfaction for clues to how you can improve the next post.

Get stuff out there. Good luck!

Account for your time

Unpacking how I feel about blogging

  • Context
    • The problem that's making me think about this
    • Why I'm looking for a different solution
  • Desired resolution
  • What don't I care about right now? Where's the dissonance?
    • Heebie-jeebies
    • "Monetizing my blog audience"
    • Building an e-mail list so that I can "monetize my blog audience"
    • I don't want to think of people as an audience; ongoing conversation
    • Parsing it out
      • Is it because I'm underselling myself? Impostor syndrome?
      • Is it because I want something else?
  • What do I care about?
    • Organizing what I know and what I'm learning
    • Keeping track of people's questions and encouraging people to ask
    • Making useful, visually engaging guides
  • What's worked well in the past?
    • Search: 57.4% - visual metaphors turn up here, surprisingly
    • Referral: 19.3% - mostly Emacs-related
  • What I really want my blog to grow into over the next ten years
    • Continue to keep the same feel of someone learning and sharing along the way
    • Continue to write bottom-up (based on questions/interests), but periodically add more organized guides
    • Continue to relate to individuals and invite them into life
  • Considerations
    • Will locked-up information become difficult to find later on?
      • I don't want ideas to evaporate
      • I gain so much more from the conversation
    • Do people value what they get for free?
    • Tying this into the experiment
  • My next steps
    • Practise outlining
    • Draw more
    • Pick a topic and do a deep dive into it
      • Map the resources I already have
  • Update on experiment
  • Posts


Some plans don't work out.

Writing helps me make sense.

Write more useful weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews by thinking about your goals

  • yearly
    • many people take time to reflect
    • hard to remember each month
      • pictures
      • notes
    • why
      • revisit your predictions and decisions
  • monthly
    • if you work at an organization with an annual performance review, it's good to take notes on your achievements and skills
  • weekly
    • clear your mind

I love how a calendar change gets so many people in the mood for reflection, tallying up the past year and looking ahead to the new one. A year is enough distance to look at your past self and notice things that aren't obvious day to day. You can revisit your predictions and the outcomes of decisions that unfold over time, as suggested by Peter Drucker in "Managing Oneself". It's a good time to celebrate any progress you've made and gently bring yourself back on track where you've drifted off it. With time and attention, you can guide your awareness to the things you want to accomplish and question the things you've glossed over.

If I've been doing my weekly and monthly reviews well, there should be no surprises. But still, I forget so many things - my unknown knowns. An annual review won't save them from the fog, but it might help me connect more ideas. And I can think deliberately about the things I want to learn and the kind of person I want to grow into, which makes it easier to ask questions and gradually transform my day-to-day life.

Taking a step back lets you see how far you've come – and how much other people have helped. Sharing your steps forward might help you bump into co-adventurers so that you can swap tips. And then there's the public commitment of saying, "Hey, this is what I'm doing this year." Sometimes that's enough to push you into actually doing it.

So reviews are great for past and future, and they're good for capturing the present, too: a snapshot of life, a sketch of your routines and thoughts to help you look back after decades blur. Other people take pictures. I like writing.

It's good for being able to empathize with people; otherwise, it can be hard to remember that you were ever anything but who you are now.

Start your titles with a verb to make them stronger; or reflections on titles, filler phrases, and my life as a gerund   writing

Instead of using a generic title (ex: Top 10 Ways to …), pick your strongest point and put that in the title as a clear recommendation.

Now that I've gotten that promised tip out of the way, here's the reflection that prompted this post.

Many bloggers focus on improving their titles as a way to encourage people to click or share. Having repeatedly run into the limitations of my blog searches and index, I've been thinking about blog post titles as a way to make my blog posts more memorable - both in terms of retrieval (remembering what to look for) and recognition (recognizing it when I come across it).

That's why many of the usual title-writing tips don't appeal to me, even if they're backed by A/B testing. List posts? A focus on new or exclusive information? Mysterious headlines? While writing a post called "10 New Emacs Productivity Tricks That Will Make Vim Users Hate You - #2 Will Save You Hours!" is tempting to consider as an April Fool's Joke, that kind of title is useless for me when I'm trying to find things again. Any title generic enough to come out of a blog post title generator is too generic for me to remember.

Fortunately, there are plenty of role models on the Web when it comes to writing clear, specific blog post titles. Lifehacker somehow manages to do this well. Most of its posts start with a verb, even when linking to a post that doesn't, and yet it doesn't feel overbearing.

Here's a sample of Lifehacker titles for posts that summarize and link to other posts (ignoring posts that were original guides, product links, or fully-reposted blog posts):

Lifehacker title Original post
Re-Read Old Books After a Few Years to Gain New Perspective How you know
Agree On a Special Signal So Your Colleagues Can Reach You On Vacation 11 Valuable Tips for Handling Emails While on Vacation
Find the Best Thrift Stores Near You Using Zillow and Google Maps How to Find the Best Thrift Stores in Your Area
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Conduct a "Nighttime Audit" to Sleep Better How to Spend the Last 10 Minutes of Your Day
Get Your Ideas Out of Your Head to Start Improving Them 6 Lessons from Pixar that Will Set You Up for Success
Focus on Discipline More Than Motivation to Reach Financial Goals Forget Motivation, This is the Key to Achieving Your Goals This Year
Give Yourself a Creative Game Each Day to Boost Inspiration The Importance of Personal Projects
Fix Your Bluetooth Audio in Yosemite With This Terminal Command Commands to Make Yosemite Suck Less

Fascinating. Of the nine posts I looked at, all of them rewrote the titles from the original blog posts so that they started with a verb, making the titles more specific in the process. This makes sense in the context of it being a lifehack, of course. The concept has action at its core.

I like the new titles more. I can imagine that remembering and linking to the Lifehacker-style titles would be easier than linking to the original ones.

Most of my posts don't quite feel like those, though. I noticed that most of my titles start with gerunds: thinking about, building, learning, exploring, experimenting. I think it's because I write in the middle of things, while I'm figuring things out. I don't feel comfortable telling people what they should do. I share my notes and let people come to their own conclusions. Starting a post with a verb seems to be too direct, as if I'm telling you to do something.

That said, filler phrases like "Thinking about…" aren't particularly useful as part of a title, since the reflection is a given. But changing "Thinking about how to make better use of Yasnippet in my Emacs workflow" to "Save time with dynamic Yasnippets when typing frequently-used text in Emacs" doesn't seem to accommodate the exploratory bits, although it could be a good follow-up post. Changing "Minimizing upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes" to "Minimize upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes" feels like I'm making a value judgment on skewed sketchnotes, when some people might like the fact that an upward skew tends to feel happy and optimistic.

So I use nouns or gerunds when reflecting (which is self-directed), and verbs when I'm trying to put together other-directed advice. This helps me differentiate the types of posts in my index and in my editorial calendar admin screen, and it also signals the difference to people as they browse. You might not be interested in my reflections and prefer to focus on tips, for example, or you might be tired of tips and want journal entries instead.

That works because those types of posts are generally quite separate. When I want to help someone learn a technique such as sketching quick ribbons, I don't go on an extended tangent about how I learned how to do that or how I want to improve. When I'm thinking about how I can improve my delegation skills, I don't expect someone to patiently go through all of that in search of three concrete tips to help them improve. I think that as I gain experience and become more opinionated (the latter probably being more related to this), I'll write more advice/instruction posts, possibly linking to those personal-experience-and-reflection posts instead of going on internal tangents.

In this post, I'm experimenting with a verb title while doing extensive self-reflection. It feels a little odd, as if you started a conversation with someone and then proceeded to talk to yourself, idly musing out loud. You'll have to tell me if I should never do that again, or if there's a way to manage the balance.

I figure there are plenty of other people out there who want to tell you what to do with your life, and I'm not completely fond of that approach anyway.

But I want to do something with my titles so that I don't end up with lots of "Thinking about …" and "Exploring …" and "Deciding between …" in my index. My ideal for these reflection posts, I think, would be a clear, concise summary of the key insight (perhaps saving it as an excerpt). If I followed that up with an other-directed post with a crisp title that started with a verb, made the recommendation, brought in some research and observations, and linked to my reflection, that would give me a good, logical, memorable, useful chunk that I could share with other people.

Right. That makes sense to me. If I address you with a direct verb or "How to …", I should deliver a post that requires minimal mental translation for you to get good tips out of it. If I clearly mark something as a reflection, you know what to expect. I tend to remember them as actions I decided to take ("The time I resolved to…") or the particular new thing I came to understand. I can take a few minutes to update the titles and summaries accordingly, which could help me years later when I'm trying to make sense of things again.

In Buckminister's rather odd book I Seem to Be a Verb (1970), he wrote:

I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

A verb seems too definite for me. I'm a gerund in at least two senses, I think: reflexive, the way "I read" is an act but "reading" is a noun that lets us talk about itself; and in the process of doing, not done.

Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness   writing

I think I've written about something before, but I can't find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I've tried countless keywords and synonyms. I've skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven't found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else's post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It's a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you're better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it's better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you're learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you've moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn't mention blogging at all. "Share while you learn" didn't quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen's Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don't have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

I even took it one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn't stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn't demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forget the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it in Plato's The Phaedrus:

…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I've forgotten the words; and now I can't find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I've stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can't find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I'm doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn't enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people's explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I'll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I'm looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It's an acceptable trade-off, I think. I'll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I've probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I've heard similar accounts from others. Me, I've been re-reading this year's blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I've come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I'm inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who've come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.

DONE Figuring out what to read by figuring out what you want to become or make or do   learning reading plans writing

If you know what you want to do, you can figure out what you need to read to get there.

This tip might be obvious to other people, but I'm not used to planning my reading so that the books are aligned with an overall goal.

I make lots of learning plans, with various degrees of following through. Those plans tend to go out the window when I browse through the monthly new release lists on the library website or come across mentions from bibliographies and blog posts.

Books are my equivalent of impulse purchases at the supermarket checkout, the pull of slot machines, the intrigue of Kinder eggs. I think that's how I resist temptations like that. The library is where I let that impulse out to play.

We've checked out more than 400 books from the library this year. I've skimmed through most of them, although I've taken notes from a much smaller collection.

Since there's such a trove of free resources I can go through, I find it difficult to spend on books. The last time I bought a book was November 2013. I suspect this is silly. The cost of a book is almost always less than the cost of taking the author out to lunch for discussion and brain-picking (and that's pretty much Not Going to Happen anyway). It's certainly less than the cost of figuring things out myself.

My reluctance often comes from an uncertainty about whether there'll be enough in the book, or whether it'll be the same concepts I've already read about, just given new clothes. I have to remember that I can get more out of a book than what the author put into it. A book isn't just a collection of insights. It's a list of questions to explore. It's a bibliography. It's a link in the conversation and a shorthand for concepts. It's an education on writing style and organization. It's sketchnoting practice and raw material for blog posts. It's fuel for connection.

Phrased that way, books are a bargain. Even not particularly good ones. Hmm. Maybe I should take the "Connection" part of my budget - the part that I'm supposed to be forcing myself to use for taking people out to coffee or lunch, the part that I never end up using all that much anyway - and experiment with using it for books.

I'm more comfortable when I use my money deliberately, so I also want to be deliberate about the books I buy. All books are bought - some with money, but all with time. This requires a plan, and this requires follow-through.

There are holes in the way I learn from books, the pipeline from acquisition to reading to notes to action to review. I want to become a better reader. My inner cheapskate says: practise on free books. But money can be a useful form of commitment too.

Anyway. A plan. It seems logical to decide on what I should proactively seek out and read by thinking about what I want to do. It also seems logical to require proof of my learning through writing blog posts and resources and maybe even books, the way students focus on final projects and consultants are measured by deliverables.

Here are some ideas for things I want to create out of what I want to learn:

  • An approach for learning intermediate Emacs: After you've gotten the hang of the basics, how can you keep learning more about using and tweaking this text editor? This will probably take many forms: small weekly tips for constant improvement, Emacs Lisp and Org Mode courses, and so forth.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be an even better user of Emacs. I want to work more efficiently and fluently, and I want to have more fun with it too.
    • Who might find it useful? People who want to keep tweaking how they use Emacs. Mostly developers, but probably also writers and people interested in personal information management
    • To do this, it would be good to read:
      • Archives of Emacs blogs (ex: the ones featured on
      • Manuals for Emacs, Emacs Lisp, and popular packages
      • the (small) collection of existing Emacs books
      • Related technical books for taking people beyond the beginner stage
      • Books about technical writing and learning design
      • Source code
  • A guide for creating your own personal knowledge management system: I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution will work, at least not with our current understanding. But I want to learn more about different approaches, I want to make mine totally awesome, and I want to help people build their own from the pieces that are already out there.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a wonderfully organized system that lets me easily capture, review, make sense of, and share what I know. I also want to have the vocabulary and concepts to be able to critically examine this system, spot gaps or opportunities for improvement, and make things better.
    • Who would find this useful? Fellow information packrats, writers, bloggers, self-directed learners
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Personal knowledge management and personal information management
      • Guides to using various tools
      • Information architecture
      • Library science
      • Writing and sense-making
  • Tips for self-directed learning and experimentation: How to structure your time and learning, how to recognize and explore interesting questions, how to take notes, how to make sense of things, and so on. I want to learn more effectively, and I want to help other people learn more effectively too.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be able to structure courses of study for myself, take great notes, build useful resources, and accumulate new knowledge.
    • Who would find this useful? Self-directed learners who want something more than online courses
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Quantified Self, experimentation
      • Note-taking and sense-making
      • Self-directed learning
  • More notes on working out loud: particularly addressing the excuses and barriers that get in people's way. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a smooth workflow for learning and sharing. I want to have a wide network of people who can build on the stuff I'm learning about, and who get manageable updates that are scoped to their interests.
    • Who would find this useful? Individual practitioners interested in building their skills and network; social business advocates; bloggers who are also working on building personal insight and shared knowledge
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Social business, social learning, working out loud, personal learning networks, and personal knowledge management
      • Collaboration, team communication
      • Writing at work
  • Visual thinking: particularly in terms of using it to clarify your thoughts, remember, and share. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be more fluent in using visual tools to explore thoughts and figure things out. I want to improve in terms of visual organization, technique, clarity, explanation, integration into my self-directed workflow, and so on.
    • Who would find this useful? People who've already started doodling (or who are picking up the hang of it) and who would like to use it for more things
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Mind mapping and other forms of visual organization
      • Sketchnoting
      • Planning
      • Blogging and other forms of personal publishing
      • Journaling
      • Information organization and sense-making
  • Something about how to follow the butterflies of your interest, because I rarely see this perspective in productivity books and because it's something other people might find helpful.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? I want to get better at going with the grain of my energy, doing what I want to do (and doing the work that helps me want what is good to want).
    • Who would find this useful? People with many interests - scanners, multi-potentialites, Renaissance-people-to-be.
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Career and life planning, especially unconventional paths
      • Productivity
      • Writing, note-taking
      • Psychology, cognitive limits, distraction

Hmm. I've done literature reviews before, collecting quotes and references and connecting things to each other. I can do that again. It doesn't mean giving up my impulse reads, my openness to serendipity and surprise. It simply means choosing something I want to learn more about and then taking it all in, with more awareness and less evaluation, so that I can get a sense of the whole. This will help me find the things that have already been written so that I don't have to write them again. This will help me collect different approaches and ideas so that I can springboard off them.

I like books with references more than I like books without them. Books without references feel like they float unanchored in a conversation. I recognize ideas but feel weird about the lack of attribution. There are no links where I can explore a concept in depth. On the other hand, too many references and quotes make a book feel like a pastiche with little added, a collection of quotes glued together with bubblegum and string. A good balance makes a book feel like it builds on what has gone before while adding something new. I want to write books and resources like that, and if I'm going to do so, I need notes so that I can trace ideas back to where people can learn more about them, and so I can make sense of that conversation as a whole. Looking forward to this.

What topics will you read about in 2015, and why? What are the changes you want to make in yourself, what are the resources you can build for others, and what books can you build on to get there?

Possibly related:

Writing into the future

Writing into the future

Why Spread out posts for consistency Get feedback and revise Right-sized chunks Themes Answering email Ideas for revisions

Downsides Out of date

How Share A Draft Editorial Calendar Organize Series

Expand my understanding through metaphors

TODO Make a list of differences

DONE Envy and other people's writing   writing

Have you felt envy as a writer?

I often come across blog posts or books that I wish I'd written. They explain, clearly and in depth, ideas that I've been noodling about writing.

I want to have written Aaron's "What's better than reading? Re-reading". Jon Snader (Irreal)'s summaries of Emacs chats, like this one with Karl Voit. Kate Stull's guide to taking notes at work.

And that's just from three days of blog posts.

My inner critic goes, "What have I been doing with my life?" and "How do I get there from here?" After I remind it that I'm learning, I feel okay. A little. I don't feel like a complete waste.

And I haven't been scooped. I haven't lost an opportunity to explore that thought for myself and create something possibly useful for people. One look at the library shelves or my blog reader, and I remember that there is room in the world for many people writing about the same things.

When the frustration fades, only delight is left.

I get to benefit from other people's perspectives, research, experiences, and styles. I get to write the next step, linking to what's already been written instead of explaining it myself. I get to learn what I like without the hard work of writing and revising it myself.

Here's what I've learned from recognizing the self I want to be in other people's words:

I like short paragraphs and short words. I like practical application. I like specifics and personal experiences. I like flows.

There will always be a gap between what I can do and what I want to do, and that's a good thing.

Packaging/sharing   focus

Working out loud when your work is technical

What awesome content creators can delegate

Listening to your future self

How can I become a better writer?

  • Goal for this post
    • Break writing down into smaller skills. Identify ways I can deliberately practise writing so that I can become a better writer
    • Invite other people to learn along with me
    • Share resources I've come across
  • Resources
    • David Fryxell: How to Write Fast While Writing Well
    • William Zinsser: On Writing Well
  • Key points to focus on
    1. Interesting idea

      Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interesting. That's almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I've used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education.

      • William Zinsser, On Writing Well
      • Why
      • Flush out:
        1. Shared curiosities
        2. Differences
        3. Counter-intuitive ideas, things that surprised me
        4. Time-saving tips
        5. Collections and summaries; pointers to people
        6. Behind the scenes; working out loud
    2. Research, learning, and summarization
      1. Learning from other people's experiences, saving people time
        1. quotes from books or visual summaries, so people can go and find out more
        2. links to blog posts, so people can explore
      2. Learning from my own experiences
        1. start (groundwork)
        2. middle (preliminary observation)
        3. end (wrap-up, next step)
    3. Right-size chunk, especially in terms of blogging
      1. Too small: no action to take, no movement forward
      2. Too big: massive, hard to remember, intimidating to act on
      3. Just right: clear action and useful discussion
    4. Logical flow, permutations <- worth a blog post focusing on just this?
      • Breaking down the skill of outlining
      • Why
        1. Not just about linking verbs - tried looking for resources on improving logical flow.
          1. Looks promising: Structure & Flow: How to Focus, Organize and Unify All Types of Magazine Articles to Hold Your Reader from the Lead to the End (David A. Fryxell, 1996)
        2. Things that don't have obvious structure
        3. What do I mean by "hangs together beautifully"? Where can I find examples of this? Hmm, let me review.
          1. Do I save a lot of blog posts because they are well-written, or do I care about the idea first?
          2. Okay. I mostly care about the idea and less about the structure, so maybe this is less important to me.
          3. Slate Star Codex has long blog posts that are more structured than mine. Scott H. Young, too.
        4. I make jumps because I take things for granted
        5. Feels more coherent, more polished
        6. Minimize cognitive load
        7. Encourage people to read and to apply thoughts
      • Why not
        1. Magnitude of the benefit? Other places to focus on, like inter-post organization
      • Mediocre: List posts, posts I write mostly linearly
      • Average: Posts I write with an outline
      • Good: Posts where I've tested the flow with other people to see if it makes sense to have one connect to the other and to see what I'm missing
        1. I'll always be missing something, because people will have different experiences and background knowledge.
        2. But it's good if I can address one person's gaps; expectation if I write something in response to someone?
        3. Fixing gaps
          • Small gaps: Add a little more text, or remove dangling strings
          • Larger gaps: Use links to fill in the details
      • Logical orders - managing information overload?
        1. Random
        2. Importance - but I don't often know what's important
        3. Alphabet
        4. Chronology / prerequisites. Tip from On Writing Well (I think it's from that one) - working backwards from questions
        5. Alphabetic pattern or abbreviation - Hard to pull off well. Can seem artificial, consultant-y (where's that lovely blog post I saw about that?)

          Management consulting stories are always divided in 3 or 5 components (optimally starting with the same letter), and each of these is then divided into 3 sub components as well. Connect, communicate, control. And to achieve connect we need to aggregate, accumulate, and accelerate. … Using too many words that start with a C make you sound like a consulting report, not like a genuine speaker.

          sounds too contrived, like you spent some time with a thesaurus trying to figure out a good fit.

      • Tools
        1. Practice: Reassembling sentences from model essays - Benjamin Franklin; computer tool for doing so? Maybe something in Emacs?
          1. How would I implement this in Emacs? Take text and split it up into sentences. Use diff to compare it against the checked-in version. Can sort lines to reorganize. Org lets you transpose lines easily.
            1. TODO: Pick sample: Stoicism, or On Writing Well, or blog posts I really like from my round-ups? Probably from blogs, since they have a different format and rhythm compared to nonfiction books.
            2. TODO: Write blog post about this
            3. Ah. Quotes are too small. Maybe I should keep track of tables of contents in my notes.
        2. Permuting my own?
        3. Feedback?
          1. How can I get more developmental feedback from readers?
          2. Outsourced editing feedback tends to be copyediting instead of logical flow
        4. Outlines
          1. content outlines, transforming outline, another example
        5. Reverse outlines
    5. Clarity and confidence - revision
      1. Fuzzy, talking to myself
      2. Clear, speaking to other people
      3. Collect paragraphs that tickle my brain and analyze them
    6. Organization? Flow across posts; this is tough <– worth attention
      1. Why
        1. Organizing logical flow
          1. Next steps
          2. Drill-down
          3. Zooming out
        2. Seeing the gaps, opportunities to write
        3. Keeping found things found
      2. How I do it
        1. Describing my personal knowledge management routines with Harold Jarche’s Seek-Sense-Share framework (March 2014)
        2. More notes on managing a large blog archive: 17 things I do to handle 10+ years of blog posts (March 2014)
        3. Mapping my blog archives (March 2012)
        4. Maintaining a manual topical index for my blog using Emacs (May 2012)
        5. How to manage a large blog archive (July 2013)
        6. Personal knowledge management, morgue files, capture systems (Jan 2010)
        7. Thoughts in context: Connecting posts to my blog post index
      3. Tools and techniques
        1. Outline, planning ahead
        2. Categories and tags
        3. Linking to previous posts
        4. Internal links, especially for old posts that people comment on
        5. Search
        6. Outline
        7. Series
        8. Summary posts
    7. What would I like to learn from other people?
      1. Archive management strategies
      2. Behind-the-scenes organization (outlines, etc.)
    8. Keeping found things found
    9. Look for people who do this well? Blog to book, but good ones (not just chronology or rough categorization)
      1. Maybe technical authors
  • Note-taking
    1. Index cards indexing, map
    2. Zettel notes, connecting
  • Wrap-up

Writing for yourself is a powerful search mechanism: there's no better way to find out who you are and what you know and what you think.

  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Writing / blogging / sharing knowledge

DONE Writing for myself

:Effort: 2:00

Sometimes, when I feel my mind filling up with thoughts of other people (tasks, questions, ideas for helping), I take a step back and focus on something more selfish. It's important to me that I sometimes write mainly for myself. If it so happens to benefit other people, wonderful, but it's got to be stuff that I need too.

What are the kinds of things I write about when I'm writing for myself?

  • Notes on things that I'm figuring out
    • Idiosyncratic interests that hardly anyone will find useful
    • Puzzling through the tangles of life
    • Straightforward questions and the journey towards answers, including research and backtracking
    • Plans, scenarios
    • Data analysis
    • Things I'm learning, in case other people want to help out (and sometimes people can learn from it too, which is nice)
  • Things I want to remember
    • Reasons for decisions and expected outcomes
    • What this experiment feels like
    • The influences on my life

Based on a quick scan of the blog posts this year, I'd say that around 25% of my blog posts have been mostly for me rather than other people (excluding weekly and monthly reviews from the count). This is higher than I thought it would be, and I think that's good. It's probably just the buzz from e-mail and from a recent experiment tilting my blog towards more technical topics.

Month Mostly-reflections
Jan 6
Feb 6
March 8
April 5
May 3 so far

Based on my time records, drawing has been on a decline (62.6h in Jan, 34.7h in Feb, 18.2h in March, 12h in April), while Emacs has been on the increase. In fact, the correlation is -0.86 over five months. Interestingly, the only negative correlation for sleep in my top 10 activities is with Emacs: -0.43. Pretty strong positive correlations for sleep with work and writing. I probably like a balance like March, where I mixed things up a bit more with personal reflections. Hmm…

Okay. So maybe I dial back a little on the Emacs side, and do more drawing and writing as an experiment to see how that affects buzz. That probably means that Wednesdays and maybe a bit of Friday will be for Emacs (course, e-mail, blog posts, tinkering). Mondays and a bit of Friday will be for planning. Ideally, we'll get to the point where I don't feel a smidge of guilt for my inbox or limited ability to explain things, so it's all upside. =)

If I set the expectation that I mostly care about my inbox only every 2-3 days (and that I sometimes take a week to reply), I think that will un-buzz-ify my brain enough. It'll be interesting to see if I can still run an engaging e-mail course with those bounds. I like the conversation. I don't want to give that up. =) I just want to make sure my brain has the quiet it needs for other things, too.

What's the quiet for? I want to be able to catch myself being confused, to see the gaps, to say, "Hmm, that's a good question," and to dig into things further. What am I likely to find interesting after ten years? Easy enough to compare April 2014 with April 2004 (technical posts, snippets, links, teaching, flash fiction), March with March, and so on. I like the mix of March 2014 mix more than April's. More exploratory, maybe? Hmm…

  • Posts for others and posts for myself
    • Things I've tried
    • Posts for other people and posts for myself

        Mostly for others Mostly for me Total % others Comments Comments per post Visits Unique visits
      July 9 22 31 29% 75 2.4 24,540 18,282
      June 12 18 30 40% 93 3.1 23,833 17,364
      May 12 21 33 36% 135 4.1 47,185 38,711
      April 8 22 30 26% 96 3.2 21,400 15,700
      March 15 14 29 51% 74 2.6 19,679 14,396
      February 8 15 23 34% 31 1.3 14,457 11,434
      TOTAL 64 112 176 36% 504 2.9    

    There's a strong correlation (0.84) between the number of visits and the number of comments, which makes sense. There is, however, practically no correlation between the percentage of posts I write for other people and how many posts or visits I get. My Feedburner stats show that my other-focused tend to get clicked on more, although some of my reflective posts are also popular. Anecdotally, I see my other-focused posts shared on Twitter more often, which makes sense too.

    Google Analytics lets me look at stats for individual pages, so I analyzed the stats for July. This doesn't count the times when people read the entirety of the post on the homepage, just when they view the individual post by clicking on the link. I looked at the top 100 pages in terms of number of visits. I classified 70 of those as "other-focused" and 12 of those as "self-focused". The top self-focused posts got an average of 143 views per page, while the top other-focused posts got an average of 233 posts per page. People also spent an average of 1.7 minutes longer on those pages (5 minutes vs 3.3 minutes).

    SELECT DATE_FORMAT(post_date, '%Y-%m') AS month, COUNT(id), SUM(comment_count) FROM wp_posts WHERE post_type='post' AND post_status='publish' GROUP BY month;

    What makes good posts like that?

    • The posts that spread widely tend to be the ones that are visual: the Shy Connector, a Teacher's Guide to Web 2.0 at School, How to Learn Emacs, sketchnotes, sketchnoting tips, and visual book reviews.
    • The posts that are surprisingly popular over a long period of time are my technical notes: Emacs, Drupal, Rails, Lotus Notes, and so on. You'd expect them to be superseded by better documentation or changing technology (and sometimes they are), but they tend to endure.
    • Sometimes my personal thinking-through-stuff posts unexpectedly resonate with people, and people share their comments and insights. (Ex: Passion and uncertainty)
    • I don't have to write advice posts from a position of authority ("You should do this, you should do that") in order to be useful. I can create value by:
      • Describing what's out there (sketchnotes, visual book reviews)
      • Sharing my technical troubleshooting notes, work-arounds, hacks, or discoveries from reading documentation/code
      • Applying advice to my life and sharing my experiences
    • What would success look and feel like?
      • I'm going to be selfish about this because I can. =)
        • Is it okay to say that I blog more for myself? Because I do. Although your comments, shares, and links are nice. I feel like I should say that I write for readers. Attention is a gift. Many people would say that attention is valuable, and then turn around and try to sell you something.
        • Someday, perhaps, when I have something I want to tell people, and I acquire a Voice of Advice, then I'll write more for other people.
          • When would I feel good about that?
          • Is there something I feel good about?
            • I feel comfortable giving people advice on learning, reading, making better decisions, trying things out, and sharing.
            • I feel comfortable helping people learn more about Emacs, Wordpress, and a little Excel.
            • I feel comfortable that drawing is another way to create value.
        • In the meantime
          • If I want to invest more time in writing…
            • I would write about things that few people write about
              • Emacs? Visual thinking? What it's like to make blogging such a part of your learning?
            • Drawing, right… Although Sketchnote Army does pretty well.
            • Something else.
          • False dilemma. (Trilemma?) I know. The choice isn't really between these options, and I don't have to make one choice. I can write about all these things in the course of a week. But I wanted to figure out, if I wasn't keen on the first two options, what am I leaning towards, so I can intentionally work on it?
    • A post that makes me a better person
      • Change
      • The posts I write make me at least a teensy bit better
      • Better
        • Better at learning and sharing
        • Better at making decisions
        • Better at resilience and positivity
      • In terms of outcome
        • Blog posts that represent larger chunks of growing (going from 0.01% to 0.1%)? Improving by 0.01% every day means getting 4% better in a year, if you're fine with simplified math. Improving by 0.1% every day means getting 44% better in a year!
        • One way to do this is to write less, to sit on posts longer until they develop, to start with a hundred ideas and tweak them for days or weeks (or longer!) until they're deep and insightful and useful.
          • Write less? No, I like writing almost every day, and I forget if I don't write things down. –verbose Stuff gets lost in my private notes. Here, we might have conversations.
            • Arguing against myself: reasons for posting earlier rather than later
              • Learn from the conversation
              • Get feedback
                • Is it something unusual worth digging into?
              • Flesh things out on demand (in response to people's questions, etc.)
              • Get good value from time (diminishing returns?) - 80%
              • Throw more pots
                • Deliberate practice, engagement
        • Another way to get a feel for what these deeper posts would be like would be to summarize experiences and update them with lessons learned
          • For example, things I've learned in the past ten years, like cooking.
          • This will give me a feel for what deeper posts might feel like.
          • Then I can play with timeframes
        • It would be worth getting the hang of this for new ideas, though.
        • So I need to get better at getting better.
        • Well, maybe an order of magnitude is ambitious. (0.01% to 0.1% is 10 times!) What would "a little better" look like?
        • Grow more
          • Ask better questions
            • Know what "better" looks like and what direction it's in
            • Ask the questions behind the questions
            • Ask different questions
            • See and question assumptions
          • Research
            • Books, blog posts, other resources
            • Reaching out to people (!)
          • Observe
            • Notice
            • Describe
            • Be less worried
          • Try things out
        • All that considered, I still want to write in small increments
          • Behind the scenes
            • It's like the way I take sketchnotes. I try to capture as much as I can instead of summarizing it, because you can summarize based on your notes but it's hard to go the other way around.
          • I love being able to link to posts from years ago when I was still figuring something out
          • There are plenty of people who'll share advice – the results of their experiences – without sharing (or remembering!) much of the journey along the way.
        • So what's next for me then?
          • Getting better at getting better
          • Letting outlines steep
            • I think I like leaving outlines hanging - it gives me something to focus on while doing the dishes or other chores
      • But not too navel-gazey
    • Something I want to remember
    • … but not too much pressure here, mind you, or I'll probably be unable to write anything. So it doesn't have to Measurably Improve the Human Condition.

Learning from blog posts I like

  • The pile of index cards system efficiently organizes tasks and notes: I like this because marking the top of a gridded card is a neat hack, particularly in terms of marking an open loop as two dots that eventually get filled in. I wonder if I can get quadrille index cards here. I usually prefer plain because I can draw on them easily, and I don't feel guilty about squeezing in more or less than a card should usually hold.

OUTLINED Balancing "useful" and "personal" on my blog

Lower-priority: I can wait until it seems more likely that my balance will change, or I can transform this into a post about blog role models and getting closer

  • Good balance
  • What kind of balance do I want to have?
  • I'm thinking about this because this balance might change
  • As an introvert, I don't want to impose on other people
    • I'm somewhat okay with blog reading being completely voluntary
    • This is why I haven't gotten around to e-mail newsletters yet, even though reading is voluntary too.
    • Maybe I don't have to?
  • I want most of my posts to be useful.
  • I don't want to be generic. What's the point of writing something you could just find on Lifehacker? So I tell stories about what I'm learning.
  • What I want to avoid:
    • Article mills
    • Me-me-me-blah-blah-blah
  • But there are good examples
    • Lifehacker tends to be impersonal
    • The Simple Dollar is a little closer to the impersonal side of things, but is sprinkled with personal stories
    • Penelope Trunk and Mel Chua write more personally than I do
      • What makes their blogs feel more personal?
        • Penelope Trunk writes about more stresses and difficulties.
      • Mel's writing communicates her excitement and passion
    • Mr. Money Mustache is a great mix of useful + personal.

Other post

Also, another note from 2004: My notes were shorter and more plentiful back when I didn't think of it as a blog, just my notebook. That could be handy to bring back. But I like the depth of exploring an idea in a longer post, and I like the way sketches help me build up to more complex ideas too. Perhaps a tidbits category that's not included in the stream, a combination of a web log and features à la BoingBoing (although not as awesome)? One thing I've learned in the past ten years is that if it isn't public, it's hard to remember or keep.

A massive outline and an editorial calendar: How I manage my blog post pipeline

DONE Setting up a development environment that doubles as a backup

  • make dev should copy my database and Wordpress installation, except for my theme directory and my wp-config.php.

Posts versus pages

  • I want pages to show up in categories too

CANCELLED Improve your writing skills by copying other people

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Witty sayings
  • Sales

    from: Timothy Kenny nudge

TOBLOG How to sell a PDF once in a while without being tied to your e-mail

:Effort: 4:0

Nudge: Timothy Kenny

  • It usually doesn't make sense to automate something you do rarely
    • In the 4-Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferriss
    • xkcd also has a guide to automation
  • What about PDFs and other digital content that you might sell once in a blue moon?
    • Manual way: Set up PayPal. Check your e-mail and reply with the link.
    • Better way: Use a digital fulfillment service. There'll be a small cost
    • Got lots? Look into setting up your own membership site
  • A friend of mine went away on vacation for three days. One of his readers had bought an e-book from his site. Since he was manually replying - Gumroad

OUTLINED Blogging-related skills   skill

Here's my evolving break-down of blogging-related skills, including notes for future blog posts. I'm currently working on getting better at outlining (from high-level down to chunks of ~100 words) and synthesizing (especially combining other people's insights with my experiences). I'm using this outline to think of ways to deliberately practise certain aspects of blogging, to plan posts that will help people learn, and to clarify what I would like to delegate to assistants or work with coaches for.

See also

  • Manage your time and energy
  • Plan what to write
    • more: list, more: another list, more: yet another list
    • Brainstorm ideas to explore or questions to answer
    • Outline topic more, more (with fractals!)
    • Choose a subtopic for a blog post more, more
    • Ask for and respond to requests
    • Brainstorm follow-up topics for future posts more
    • Follow up on past entries
    • Review your metrics more
    • Make creative associations more
    • Check out related blogs more
    • Collect questions and ideas from other sources
      • Internet: blogs, forums, Q&A sites more
      • Life more
      • Publications more
    • Research keywords outline, more more
    • Test ideas on Twitter or other networks in order to get different perspectives and check for resonance
    • Set up editorial calendar so that people know when to come back for content more
  • Research
    • Identify good blog posts and articles to refer to
    • Identify good books to read
    • Identify full-text research papers
    • Take notes
      • Summarize a blog post or article
      • Summarize a book
      • Summarize a research paper
      • Organize notes for easy reference
    • Synthesize information
  • Write
    • Brainstorm titles more, more (fill in the blanks)
    • Choose a format more
    • Draft blog post based on outline
    • Draft blog post starting with an idea or a question
    • Write a technical post
      • Explain how something works
      • Share trouble-shooting experiences
      • Teach people about a useful feature
    • Write about news and other topical events
    • Write a list post
    • Write a debate post
    • Write a summary post that links to several articles
    • Write a link round-up
    • Ask a question or run a poll more,
    • Plan longer articles more
    • Find and share interesting things
      • Role model: Boingboing
    • Share personal stories
      • Role models: Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk, Mel Chua
    • Set up experiments and share experiences
      • Role models: A.J. Jacobs
    • Share resources that other people might not have access to (ex: summarize a book or presentation)
    • Write a business post
      • Help people identify a need for your services
      • Help people make better use of your services
      • Share complementary services or tips
  • Format your post
  • Make posts more engaging
    • Choose stock photo or illustration, and attribute it properly - post
      • Modify the image and make a title more
    • Add relevant quotes or epigraphs more more
      • Watch out for frequently mis-attributed quotes
    • Draw an illustration
    • Make a short presentation
    • Make a short animation
    • Record a podcast
    • Record video
  • Proofread and revise
    • Strengthen first paragraph (you-focus, question or contradiction, promise)
    • Strengthen last paragraph (conclusion, call to action, question)
    • Read post out loud
    • Check if the post answers a question or addresses a need
    • Check if the post makes sense
    • Determine what can be removed from a post
    • Determine what needs to be added to a post
  • Revisit old posts to see how they can be improved
  • Organize
    • Organize and review drafts
    • Organize previously-published resources
  • Reach out
    • Identify blog posts with similar topics
    • Write thoughtful, insightful, and not overly self-promotional comment
    • Identify target blogs for guest posts
    • Pitch target blog for guest posts
    • Identify related blogs in niche
    • Share your posts on social media
    • Invite and work with guest bloggers
  • Work with your blogging platform
    • Set up or improve your blog
    • Experiment with plugins and add-ons
    • Experiment with blog editors
    • Analyze metrics
    • Back up and restore
  • Study
    • Identify the differences between writing styles
    • Imitate other people's writing styles
    • Get feedback and use it appropriately
    • Create and work with checklists/templates more

OUTLINED How to blog, five minutes at a time: Making the most of little chunks of time   writing

see the possibilities

  • This is good for your blogging! more
  • This makes writing less intimidating. Transitions can be awkward, but you can fix that while editing. more
  • Get rid of your rituals and requirements (must do this first, can't have that…). Stop in the middle of a sentence so that you'll find it easier to resume. more
  • Don't edit as you write. Save that for another day. more
  • … or edit as you go. Whichever way works for you. more
  • People write books on commutes, lunch hours, ferry rides, etc. Plan ahead so that you always know what the next task is. That way, when you find yourself with a moment of spare time, you can make the most of it. more
  • don't give yourself excuses more
  • break it down into tasks more
  • Outline all the way down to chunks of 100 words more
  • Brainstorm things you can do in 15 minutes more
  • Use those little chunks of time to get ahead more
  • Write and publish a little at a time more
  • Brainstorm ideas and questions: Keep a text file and add to it whenever something inspires you.
  • Brainstorm titles: Come up with three or more possible titles. Note: this is a separate step from brainstorming ideas, so you don't have to come up with an idea and an awesome title right from the start
  • Make a rough outline: Outline topics (one line per post idea) or outline posts (one line per paragraph) to speed up writing.
  • Research your topic and clip the pages: See what else is out there. Don't forget to bookmark or save the pages so that you can refer to it easily. Better yet, add links to your outline right away.
  • Write a few sentences:
  • Proofread
  • Edit
  • Look for an image

OUTLINED What could I do if I spent four or more hours on a single blog post?

:Effort: 4:00

  • What happens if I spend four or more hours on a blog post? :TODO:
  • New superpower - I can take more time to do things than I used to.
    • Cooking. Reading.
    • And it pays off.
  • Also why: too much
  • Spending more time on each blog post
    • Why? It's not just a blog post, it's the learning
    • No time pressures anyway
      • I've written far enough ahead that I'm not worried about running out of posts any time soon
      • I'm surrounded by ideas
    • I don't want to write a massive, useful, linkbait post that disappears from my brain after I write it. Like cramming for a school exam and then moving on.
  • What can I improve?
  • Now that I've confessed my primary motivation for writing a blog, I should also say that I get warm and fuzzies when people find my notes useful.
  • Adjusting the slider; nudge it up a little, play with it
  • Now
    • Half an hour to an hour, effective rate 30wpm
    • Some posts come out of technical learning or troubleshooting, so the time doesn't count the time I spent solving the problem.
    • Other posts, I start from scratch, do some research, think about stuff, dig deeper.
    • Outline helps a lot with that.
      • It was hard to do this before outlining because I couldn't see and manage my drafts as well.
    • Easy for me to track, especially if I'm writing it in Emacs.
      • I can track how much time I spend outlining a specific post and which days I worked on it.
      • I can set a target effort (ex: at least two hours4 hours) and compare the total time against that.
  • Four hours is around the time I usually take to plan a presentation
    • Who
    • What do I want people to remember or act on
    • What do I need to share to help them get from A to B
    • Illustrations
  • Oh, maybe that will be my reason to split off sub-blogs
    • If I wrote like other people
      • I would include less "I" and more "You", giving people advice
      • I would emphasize the categories more
      • More lists and stats?
      • 1% better.

OUTLINED Think about your blogging goals and how your posts align with them   data

:Effort: 4:00

I've been thinking about my goals for blogging because I want to get better. I write almost every day, fueled by habits of reading and experimenting. I have time to learn things, and I can learn more effectively if I learn deliberately. Here's what I'm learning about being clear about your goals and analyzing how your actions match up with them.

  • 1. Clarify your goals

    It's good to know what your goals are and how the different approaches serve those goals so that you can choose the ones that are the most effective. You can also look at each approach to see how you can improve it.

    After some reflection, I came up with this list of goals for my blog:

    1. Learn more effectively by thinking through complexity or explaining what I'm learning
    2. Explore assumptions and possibilities; become more aware of them myself, and help other people see them
    3. Improve core skills through practice: making decisions, explaining ideas, organizing thoughts, etc.
    4. Save myself and other people time spent re-solving the same problems or learning the same things
    5. Build a long-term archive that I can use to remember what I'm learning and see differences over time
    6. Learn from other people through questions, comments, and conversations

    Your list of goals will probably look different. Many people have goals such as building a business by promoting their products or services, educating clients or readers, keeping family members up to date, working through difficult issues by writing anonymously, and so on. Take a moment to think about and prioritize your goals.

    If you're having problems expressing your goals, you can also take a look at your recent blog posts and ask yourself, "Why did I write this?" What results did you want to get? What purpose did it serve? One blog post might work towards several different goals.

  • 2. Analyze the ways you approach those goals

    Different actions support different goals to different extents. Think about the different types of blog posts you write. Score them against each of your goals on a scale of 1 to 5, where a score of 5 means that type of post helps a specific goal a lot, while 1 means it does very little or even nothing for that particular goal.

    Here are some of the types of posts I share and how they line up with the goals I listed above:

      Goal 1: Learn Goal 2: Explore Goal 3: Improve Goal 4: Save time Goal 5: Build Goal 6: Learn from others Total
    T1: Draw original stuff 5 5 5 5 5 3 28
    T2: Draw book reviews and events 5 2 5 5 5 5 27
    T3: Think out loud 5 5 5 1 5 3 24
    T4: Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code 5 5 3 4 2 4 23
    T5: Review longer spans of time (yearly, decisions) 5 4 5 1 5 3 23
    T6: Write tips that few other people can cover 4 2 3 3 4 3 19
    T7: Write tips that other people can also cover 3 1 2 2 2 2 12
    T8: Review recent posts (weekly, monthly) 1 1 4 1 4 1 12

    Sorting the table by the total score makes it easy to see which approaches you value more. If some goals are much more important to you than others, you can also weight those goals in your calculations. For example, if building a long-term archive was twice as important to me, I could double that column when calculating the total score.

    Anyway, this ranking makes it clearer why I feel good about original drawings and sketchnotes, and why I skew towards decision reviews and "thinking through things"-type posts even if they don't feel focused enough on saving other people time. Most of the blogging advice tends to focus on writing tips, but they don't motivate me as much.

    How about you? Do your post types match up with your goals? Are there clear winners that you should focus on? You can write lower-value posts from time to time because they address different needs. For example, I post weekly reviews because they're useful to me even if they're less useful for others.

  • 3. Adjust your priorities based on feedback

    Of course, since these values are subjective, it helps to adjust them based on your website analytics or feedback from your readers. For example, if you think a type of post saves people a lot of time, you'll probably see a lot of visits or comments on it. If you have Google Analytics, you can export the Content - Site Content - All Pages table to a spreadsheet, classify the top X links, and then see what types of posts people spend their time on. For example, I analyzed the top 500 pages visited in July 2013, classified each by type, calculated average views and time per page, and sorted it by average views to get a sense of which posts tend to be more popular.

    Post type Number of pages Number of views Average page views per page Average minutes per page view Average bounce rate
    T1: draw original 23 2875 125 3.4 67%
    T4: share tech 149 12468 84 5.8 74%
    T2: draw book / event 41 2346 57 2.3 64%
    T3: think out loud 62 2452 40 3.4 72%
    T5: review long / decision 14 504 36 2.7 73%
    T6: write tip (few) 41 1392 34 3.1 72%
    T8: review 9 283 31 1.0 61%
    T7: write tip (many) 24 461 19 4.7 73%

    My sketchnotes are more popular by far. My technical notes are surprisingly durable over time, even though you'd expect them to be superseded by bugfixes, technical changes, better documentation, and so on. Posts as old as 2004 still turn up. Because people still get a lot of value from my old tech posts, I adjusted the "Save time" rating for tech tips from my original value of 3 to 4. (I had started with a lower value because I figured that not a lot of people would probably have run into the same issues I did, but it turns out that time makes up for audience size and the long tail works.) As I expected, tips that few other people have written about get more pageviews than tips that more people have written about, although I'm surprised that people tend to spend more time on the common tips. My "thinking out loud" posts are more popular than I expected. (Limitations: This only looks at single-page views in a single month.) Also, people tend to click on my weekly reviews if I add a brief description to the title, so that's something.

    Anecdotally speaking, I get a lot of comments and links to my sketchnotes. I'm also delighted by the conversations that occasionally grow out of the "thinking out loud" posts, and how sometimes people will share even better solutions when I post my technical notes.

  • 4. Identify ways to improve each approach

    Now that you've looked at what makes each type of post different, you can focus on how to improve each type by building on its strengths or compensating for its weaknesses. Here's what I'm planning for the kinds of posts I write:

    Draw original stuff: It takes me 2-4 hours to make one of these. I like making technical notes (ex: Emacs), sketchnote tutorials (to help people draw more), and other drawings related to life and planning. I'm getting used to drawing them with less up-front planning. Even though I end up moving things around, I think it's useful to just get started. Drawing involves a trade-off because images are not as searchable as text. I can fix that by including the text, but it's a little awkward and it takes more time. Still, people like the drawings a lot, and I like them too.

    Draw book reviews and events: I go to fewer events these days, but I'm reading a lot more books. It takes me two hours to read a typical business book in depth, drawing notes along the way. I tend to draw book reviews only when I've already gotten a sense that a book is worth reading in depth. One way to increase my frequency is to draw book notes based on the skimmed parts of books that I'm not reading deeply - perhaps breaking out just the chapter or idea that resonates with me, and using that to illustrate a blog post reflecting on it. I can also work on getting more high-quality books into my pipeline, or practise by drawing more books with fewer value judgments.

    Think out loud: I can improve the "Save time" score by stashing the notes in my outline, adding observations, until I've fleshed it out enough for preliminary findings and advice. It means that the output will be more concise in its reasoning and I'll have to do more learning on my own instead of opening up the conversation early, but then the posts will be useful for other people as well as for me. Mr. Money Mustache is a good example of a blog that mixes personal stories and useful observations. The main thing that was holding me back from doing this before was losing track of my drafts, but my outline is a good step.

    For example, this post started as a rough outline, thinking out loud about what kinds of posts I wanted to write. Now I'm going back and filling it in with other information that might be useful for people. If it ends up too long, I might have to trim it. We'll get there!

    Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code: The limiting factor here is that I'm not working on any professional projects that I can write about, so I'm forced to run into and resolve fewer issues. I can replace that with working on my own projects or on open source projects, or helping people with questions. I often tweak or work on things related to Emacs, Wordpress, or data visualization, so there's that. If I set aside time and find a good source of small bugs so that I can ease my way into a habit of contributing to open source again, then that will also help me with my life goal to keep my technical skills sharp.

    Review longer spans of time: I can increase the frequency of decision reviews by scheduling them so that I don't lose track of items. Because I manage my outline in Org Mode, that should be relatively easy to do. I can also bootstrap this by reviewing last year and last decade's monthly reviews (if available), or the blog posts if not. I have an advantage here because I have a lot of public notes over the years.

    Write tips that few other people can cover: There are lots of information gaps to fill. Sometimes it's because people don't have the time, inclination, or confidence to write about something. Sometimes it's because I have a useful combination of skills or I can bring a different perspective. If I can't find information, that's a good reason to write it.

    Write tips that other people can also cover: The world doesn't really need another "how to find the time to blog" tutorial. If I can filter through search results for a good one and make it more findable, that beats writing one from scratch–unless I can add something special or relate different types of advice to each other.

    Review recent posts (weekly, monthly): These are low-value in the short term (mostly lists of links, plus the nudge to do my weekly planning process), but I've found them to be surprisingly useful over the years. They also help keep my large blog archive manageable. That's why I keep posting them. I've started using the weekly and monthly reviews to give people less-frequent subscription options (daily can be a little overwhelming), so that's helpful too.

  • Wrapping up

    "Get better" is a vague goal. If you can identify the specific goals you would like to work toward, different ways to move towards those goals, and specific actions you can take to improve those approaches, you'll have a lot of flexibility in terms of growing. You'll find it easier to recognize or create opportunities to grow, and you can track your progress along the way. You might also be able to identify counter-productive approaches and replace them with ones that move towards more of your goals. Good luck and have fun!

OUTLINED Blog models: Learning from Mr. Money Mustache

  • Why I like Mr. Money Mustache's blog
    • Excellent balance of useful and personal
    • topic is interesting as well, of course
    • frugality - not just pinching pennies or juggling finances, but living well
  • What are some of the things that Mr. Money Mustache does differently?
    • Writing
      • The alias is nifty and amusing.
      • He's more frank about finance (naturally).
      • He's great at poking fun at himself. more
      • He uses stronger language, including more intense adjectives and some swearing. He also uses a wider vocabulary and more wordplay. more I should totally give myself permission to use less common words. =)
      • He uses more stats, calculations, and case studies. more
      • He's more confident about giving advice.
    • Formatting
      • He doesn't always emphasize the key points in his paragraphs, but they're readable anyway.
      • His posts tend to be longer.
      • He uses shorter paragraphs.
      • His tables are formatted more prettily. Hey, sometimes it's the small stuff… =)
    • Organization
      • He's focused on financial blogging and the frugal lifestyle, while I blog about whatever I'm interested in.
    • He gets a lot of input from readers
      • People share their situations and give each other advice
    • Layout
      • His front page uses a summary layout with larger visuals.
      • He has large graphical ads in the sidebar.
      • He uses a serif font and a visually divided background
      • His links are underlined in the post body, although not elsewhere.
      • Links open in a new window. (Hmm, I've got mixed feelings about that…)
      • He has a large post footer which has a blog, a new reader welcome, a random link, subscription/social media instructions, a community forum, and a subscription form, previous/next links with titles, and then comments, trackbacks, and the comment form.
      • He has a large page footer with a blog roll, popular posts, stats, selected categories, and tags.
      • He has a "Start Here" and a menu item for various how-tos.
      • He has a recommendations page with links to posts.

OUTLINED Learning how to outline   imagine learn

:Effort: 1:00

Objectives for this post

  • Be more effective at outlining my blog posts
  • Help other people improve their writing
  • Share a list of things I'd like to write about
  • Breaking skills down into their components
    • Writing -> learning
  • Why outlining?
    • Pseudocode and prototypes
    • Some moments of discipline to keep fleshing things out
    • More about the freedom to make slow and steady progress, knowing that a plan keeps me roughly on track
    • Freedom to cut and rearrange
  • What I'm doing
    • Tracking outlining time separately; butt-in-chair time
    • Sharing my outline
    • Tracking versions
  • Tools
    • Org Mode workflow
      • Outline
      • Lists
      • Navigation
        • C-c j (org-goto) to jump around
      • Filtering
        • C-c v (org-show-todo-tree) shows the ones that have been marked with a status (good to see which ones I've outlined)
        • Tags
      • Refiling?
      • Publishing and archiving
    • Github
  • Imagining wild success
    • Outline of things I want to share
    • The feel for how things flow together
    • People can easily review the outline - maybe with org-info?
    • People can tell me what they're interested in - maybe with a way for me to note who I should follow up with, but in a way that doesn't require me to keep a private repository? Maybe tied in with e-mail…

Get "Thinking on Paper" first?

OUTLINED Update: What I want my blog to become

  • I took a month off from my two-days-a-week consulting gig so that I could experiment with focusing on writing.
  • I want to be all-the-way-retired. There's a chance I might be. I'm not sure.
  • Most writers don't even have this luxury: to write about whatever they want to write, without worrying about whether the book will be picked up by a publisher or whether the magazine will accept the article.
  • The M word: Monetization
  • So this is what's going to happen for as long as I can do it.
    • I'm going to learn lots of things.
      • Curious
      • What people ask me about
      • From time to time, I may even dust off my outlines for future books
      • but I'd rather publish things bit by bit
      • Eventually I'll get good enough at writing from outlines (or slotting things back into them) that I can put together larger resources, like articles and books

DONE What's your favourite excuse to NOT take notes?

DONE Writing while tired

  • Sleeping a lot lately
  • Not quite as alert or energetic as I'd like to be
  • Good as a dry run; there will be more times that I'll be sleepy or sick or tired
  • Options
  • How to write when tired
    • Outline
    • Don't have to be brilliant
    • Do more research

DONE Get better at choosing stock photos for your blog posts   skill

  • Brainstorm nouns and adjectives
  • People?
    • Pay attention to gaze
  • Cliché
  • Metaphor
  • Abstract
  • Role models

DONE Thinking about stock photos

  • Featured image
    • Blog readers
    • Magazine theme
    • Visually break up a page
  • Many blogs use photos to make the posts more visually interesting
  • Lifehacker does this well
  • Inhibitors
    • I don't like the way stock photos of people feel staged. I don't identify with the people.
    • Stock photos without people feel a little cold.

The advice these days is to include a large image in your blog post, somewhere “above the fold”, so that it can attract attention, visually break up the page, and make your blog post more interesting.

I’m still trying to get the hang of how this might work. Other blogs do this pretty well – Lifehacker, for example. More often, though, stock photos look fake. Too posed. Too perfect. I could never quite get the hang of


  • I can get better at visually communicating if I learn how to use stock photos effectively.
  • What does it mean to effectively use stock photos?

DONE Thinking about how I can use Evernote more effectively

It took me a couple of hours, but I finally cleared the 700+ items that had piled up in my Evernote inbox. Every so often, I go on a tagging and filing spree. I was thinking about this because Timothy Kenny told me how he has a virtual assistant file the notes in his Microsoft OneNote notebooks.

Is my filing really worth it? Is it something I value enough to pay someone else to do? Could I explain what I wanted clearly enough so that other people could do it? Could I benefit from organization even if I'm not the one organizing things myself?

Before I dig into that, I should probably examine this question: What do I use Evernote for, and what could "better" look like?

Here's a quick summary of the different reasons I use Evernote:

Type of note Description Organization Improvements
Sketchnotes Collection of my sketchnotes for easy searching Shared notebook, tagged by type Fine the way it is
Inspiration Interesting sketchnotes, images, and web designs Notebook, tagged by technique Tag and file when clipping, identify key areas of focus
Visual library Visual thesaurus / sketches of abstract and concrete stuff Notebook, titles updated, duplicates merged Improve workflow - delegate titling?
E-mail archives Keep important information no matter which e-mail inbox it's from None at the moment; notebook and tags Tag and file when forwarding
People, conversations Quick notes from my mobile Notebook Add full names; consider Evernote Hello for mobile input?
Ideas and thoughts Quick notes from my mobile Notebook Should have weekly task to review and act on; separate from main Inbox?
Actions Quick notes from my mobile, when I'm away from Org Notebook Should have weekly task to review and act on / copy into my Org file
Cooking Recipes, usually with pictures Notebook, tagged by technique or dietary considerations Review periodically; update when cooked
Wishlist Resources to buy after more consideration None at the moment; tags, probably Tag and file when clipping
Reference books Books held by the Toronto Reference Library, to request next time I'm there Notebook, search Go to the library more often
Letters Scanned letters so that I can review correspondence Notebook, tagged by person Fine the way it is
PDFs Makes PDFs more searchable Inbox, occasionally tagged Use Web Clipper to specify tags and file in Notes right away
Blog posts / casual browsing Interesting things that might be useful someday, especially for related items Notebook Use Web Clipper to file in Notes right away
Other sketches Scanned sketchbook pages so that I can review Notebook Fine the way it is
Private notes Things that I might want to remember or write about someday, but not yet Notebook Have an outline?
Blog post ideas Inspiration, drafts, links, images, checklists Notebook, some tags Add links to outline?
Business and personal receipts Back up business and personal receipts; possibly be able to search through them Notebook; tags, or just use folders on my drive? Decide where to do the organization; have an assistant retitle before import?
Blog research? Clipped pages so they'll show up in Google Search and related notes, and so that I can review them even if the source disappears (payoff > 2 years) No organization; search by keywords or sourceurl: Clip, but remove from inbox quickly

I have different types of clipping activities:

  • A. Researching a topic, which results in lots of clips related to a single topic. Usually in preparation for a blog post or as a way to answer a question.
  • B. Casual browsing and clipping based on blog posts, news items, or other things I come across; roughly topical (ex: skill development), although may be tagged and filed in different places
  • C. Saving reference material from email or websites, which should be filed
  • D. Adding notes on the go using my phone, which should be reviewed and acted on or filed when I get back to my computer
  • E. Automatically clipping things based on external input, using services like IFTTT to archive my blog posts.

There are several strategies I could use to manage my Evernote collection. I can choose different strategies based on the results that I want. Here are some possibilities:

  • A. Spend a few extra seconds tagging and filing things when I clip them. Advantage: I touch something once, so I don't have to recall the context of an item.
  • B. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then file shortly after clipping. Advantages: I can select multiple entries and tag them give them the same tags, and copy all the note links in one go.
  • C. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then file weekly. This is my current strategy. This isn't working out too well - things pile up.
  • D. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then teach someone to file.

I think strategy B will give me a good improvement in performance without me needing to bring in someone else.

One of the areas that I could generally improve in is integrating the notes into my outlines and plans. Instead of just collecting the information, maybe I can use Copy Note Link and then spend some time adding those links to my outline. Alternatively, I can copy the source URL right then and there, find where it fits into my outline, and paste the link. If org2blog respects comments, I could even use that as part of my workflow.

So if I were to outsource more tasks in order to improve my effectiveness at learning, I think I'd gain more value from finding someone who can speed-read like I do, filtering through lots of cruft on the Internet to find high-quality resources. They could then clip those pages into Evernote for my review. That might be worth an experiment or two… Let's find out how that works!

DONE Poll: Planning a weekly topic-focused blog - what would you like to read more about?   planning blogging

"Your blog is so eclectic," said someone recently. In one week, I can write about deep geekery, business, blogging, drawing, decision making, and cooking. I deliberately shuffle my posts around so that you get a variety of topics each week. (When I didn't do this kind of planning, you sometimes got long stretches of geeky posts that went over everyone else's heads…)

My blog has a lot of different topics because I have a lot of different interests. The only challenge with posting daily is making myself stick to it instead of publishing two or three posts because I get carried away. There's always so much to learn and share, and if I don't write about it, I tend to forget it.

I think it's time to experiment with different ways to write. The variety is fine for other people with wide-ranging interests. The frequency is a little overwhelming, so I've started directing people to weekly and monthly updates.

Please help me plan a new blog that's more focused on a set of topics. =) One that's updated weekly, so it's more manageable in terms of reading. One that's written for readers first, instead of being mostly personal notes that might be useful for other people. I'm still going to update my personal blog ( with all these notes, but once a week, I want to post a focused, well-written, illustrated, "I spent 4-10 hours making something useful for you" post that saves you time or money.

I'm going to focus on general-interest topics so that I can write posts that might be useful for years and years to come. Tech-related posts can be difficult to keep current - people come across Emacs blog posts from 2008, and it can be hard to figure out what needs to be changed. General topics tend to be longer-lasting.

Here is where I need your help and feedback: What do you want to read about? There's a poll in this blog post. If you don't see it, please check it out at TODO. If you give me your e-mail address (optional), I can invite you to check out the blog when it starts out. =) (Sneak previews!)

I'll probably branch it out under the "" domain name - maybe in a subdirectory for ease of expansion later on?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Writing into the differences

  • What do I do differently?
    • Learning, writing, visual notetaking, sharing knowledge, and constant improvement
    • Planning, deciding, and tracking
    • Personal finance, semi-retirement, cooking, frugality, and household life

Stuff that works for me

  • Writing works better than interviews or speaking
    • Outlines, links
    • Even though I say a lot more words in an interview
    • Things I like about interviews
      • Other people's questions
      • Back and forth

Managing a daily blog

:Effort: 4:00

  • There's so much to learn and so much to write about.
    • Read books, blog posts, and manuals
    • Try something new
    • Learn at least one thing a day.
  • One complete thought per post
  • Not everyone is interested in everything.
  • Arrangement
    • I write posts in advance
    • I move posts around so that a variety of interests are covered each week
      • Emacs, visual thinking, blogging, life, productivity, learning
      • Things I want to write more about
        • Books: I read faster than most people do, and I have an awesome library nearby. Summaries?
        • Learning
    • When I've got several posts lined up in a weekly series, I link them together and add a note to help people anticipate the next one.
  • Categories
    • Category feeds
  • Syndication, Planet Emacsen
  • Making this better
    • Series?
    • Visualizations?
    • Highlight
      • What is a good essay?
        • Montaigne's Essays
        • Start with a question or something I want to learn
        • Both geeky and personal
        • Point to other people's perspectives
          • Books
          • Blog posts
      • How about a series every month or every two months, wrapped up in a PDF?
        • Weekly post

Once you're there, how can you make it better?

  • Why
  • How I work
    • Gigantic outline helps me remember what I wanted to write about so that I don't forget while I'm in the middle of research.
    • I use a feed reader to quickly skim updates from hundreds of blogs.
  • Ideas
    • Outline
  • Editorial calendar
    • Shuffle posts around to cover a variety of interests
  • Challenges
    • People are interested in different things
  • When you blog every day

What would it take to become comfortable with giving people advice?

Return on time   data

It took me around two hours each to create the two images in

It took me four hours to create

It takes me about two hours to read a business book in depth, creating a visual summary on the go.

Sketching a 1-hour talk generally takes 2-4 hours, including time to get there and a schedule that usually includes networking.

Shorter talks tend to be lighter-weight unless they've been rigorously planned and rehearsed.

Sneak peeks

  • One post a day, unless I'm sketchnoting an event or I'm super-excited
  • Share A Draft and Editorial Calendar
  • makes it possible to spread posts out while giving people links to the resource
  • Windows Live Writer doesn't pick up the date, so I need to make sure I set the date again

Blogging advice that I'm not planning to follow

  • keyword optimization
  • e-mail list
  • linkbait
  • RSS feed summaries
  • summaries on front page

Blogs and e-mail newsletters

  • conversation with Timothy Kenny, who has just started experimenting with daily e-mail newsletters
  • I suggested public archive
  • I've been thinking about e-mail newsletters because Timothy Kenny has just started with his.
  • Typical advice for growing and (dare I say it?) monetizing your blog.
    • Offer an incentive for people to sign up for your mailing list.
      • PDF
      • exclusive content
    • Put people on an autoresponder.
    • Mail people regularly to build the relationship
      • Sell them stuff later on
  • I don't even send friends or family e-mail normally
    • Hmm, maybe I'm not used to the grammar of it?
  • also, it takes me an average of 6 minutes to reply to an e-mail.
    • Oddly,
  • RSS is mostly dead. Only geeky people use it. outline
  • Automatic e-mail newsletters
  • I want to sell things only if they save you a lot of time
  • Forget that. I want to give away so much that you almost feel obliged to help.
    • and since I don't need that much money for my lifestyle (I think)
  • I'm very good at planning inexpensive experiments. Besides, that makes it easier for other people to replicate.

Why: because there are people who send e-mail, but don't blog

  • why don't they blog?
    • self-conscious: only the "best content" out there


Blogging excuse-buster: I don't want to blog because I want to put my best foot forward

This is something I hear a lot from people. "I don't want to blog because I might be embarrassed."

Thoughts on growing an audience

  • Sometimes I wonder if I should do more of the "Right Things" when it comes to building a blog.
    • Focus on one or two topics so that people will subscribe because you're consistent and reliable.
    • Research keywords so that you can optimize for search engines queries and write content that will bring people in.
    • Reach out to new audiences with guest posts.
    • Send e-mail newsletters so that you can build relationships and so that you can sell to people later on.
  • Why
    • Can save other people time
    • Can learn from more people
    • Scale up - create more value for each unit of time I invest
  • Sometimes I'm envious of blogs with hundreds of comments. On sites like that, people learn a lot from each other, not just me. But I remember that reading and responding to comments takes time, and I'd want to filter through them for spam, and that other people glaze over when they see pages and pages of comments and end up not reading them. It's okay. I like the in-depth conversations we have in comments. I'm not entirely sure if I'm sour-graping, but it seems to make sense.
  • Sometimes I wonder if this should be more like other blogs. But then that's a well-travelled path, with lots of other people exploring it. I have this amazing opportunity to try something different. I should.
  • Actually, I already know what I should do–what works for me, what I should do more.
    • The enduring posts on my blog are either tech notes (Emacs, Drupal) or sketches.
  • The clearer my "no", the less I'm distracted from the things that I can do.
  • Like the way I hack around my introversion
    • Write about whatever I'm learning about - variety of interests, and let more focused people use search results and category links
    • Look at other people's questions and failed search results to nudge me to write about certain topics if I'm curious about them too
    • Read good blogs and write about what inspires me, linking. Invite people who don't have blogs to share their tips and lessons learned on mine.
    • Build relationships through comments. Give away as much as I can of what I know. Let people show their appreciation if they want to. Money is nice, but there are other ways too.
  • Risks in getting too big
    • Internet has a seamy underside
  • Introvert
  • The time I would spend in pitching guest posts, etc.
    • versus making things
  • Drawing
    • Nearly 39,000 people visited in May, when I published
    • Plenty of blogs
    • Lots of infographics
    • Not that many useful, non-marketing drawings
  • It's okay
  • Are there low-effort, high-benefit things I can do to make this better?
    • Might get to the point where people are learning from each other
      • You can do this elsewhere on the Internet
      • So it would have to be a particularly interesting combination of people

Why and how to subscribe to blogs

  • since not everyone knows about this
  • why
    • i read a lot of blogs
    • i skim a lot of blog headlines and excerpts, and I read maybe 3-5 posts a day
    • i mostly read on my phone
  • how
    • my favourite: feedly
    • there are a number of alternatives, so it mostly depends on what you like

How to manage a free-ranging blog

Role model:

How to research keywords for blog posts

Writing while you're doing and learning: the power of the gerund

  • stats

Unexpected benefit of outlining

  • More research, because I'm not worried about losing my thought!
  • Longer time, book research
  • Sub-outlines

Mapping skills and prerequisites

  • Limitations of outlining
    • which I came across while browsing examples of D3.js visualizations
  • Reminds me of the Civilization skill tree
  • Pieces, but if I define prerequisites and recommended next steps

Building a resources page

"It's not enough for a blog post"   challenge

  • Tidbits go in my weekly review

Brainstorming outlines

Following the butterflies of your interest

Hangout experiment

How I got started

  • Taking notes for myself

Writing through resistance and self-doubt


  • Windows Live Writer
  • Editorial Calendar
  • Share a Draft

How to write a lot

Writing is a way to think

Blogging is a way to remember

Things I don't write about (yet) - should I write about them?

  • Semi-retirement

    Don't want to gloat or attract unwanted attention

There's always something to write about

If you're not the writing type…

Finding writing topics in conversations

A platform for helping others

Writing blog posts by starting with titles

Other titles:

  • Titles make blog posts easier to write
  • Braindump titles to break through blogging bottlenecks

The freedom of pay what you can

Give away advice

Breaking down the skills for writing

What to teach

I miss teaching. I had tons of fun teaching computer science when I was in the Philippines, coming up with different analogies and exercises.

Stephanie Diamond suggested making a sketchnotes course on Udemy. People have asked me about teaching Emacs, or blogging, or Quantified Self tracking and analysis.

  • What would you want to learn for free?
  • What would you value at $49?
  • What would you value at $99?

Help me figure out a good curriculum that could help you!

It's okay to be wrong

At an applied rationality meetup in Toronto, the guest speaker confessed to being afraid of blogging because she didn't want to be pinned down to words.

People think of writing as final. The fuzziness of conversation in memory might let you argue, "That's not what I said," but writing leaves you no wiggle room.

It's okay to be wrong.

  • What people are afraid of
    • Not being able to adjust
    • Misunderstandings
    • Unexpected audience
  • Being wrong
    • Inevitable
    • Story about class
    • Story about blog
    • Story about comics
    • Keeps me honest
  • Going forward
    • Not an expert
    • Conversation
    • Modeling it

What I like writing about

Writing everywhere

Collecting stories and quotes

Improving my writing system

The power of long lists

Organizing what I know

Flipping through my notes

Getting the hang of passing everything through Evernote

E-book tips

Embracing the resistance in terms of writing

The resistance is a symptom that you're on the right track. /The resistance is not something to be avoided; it's something to seek out./ … The artist sees out the feeling of the resistance and then tries to maximize it. The cog, the day laborer, the compliant student–they seek to eliminate the feeling instead.

  • Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Psychology, etc.

Confirmation bias

Constant improvement

Weekly reviews - schedule everything, think of people, analyze what didn't happen

DONE Sketched Book: Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action - Simon Sinek :visual-book-notes:purpose:

When you sell (and we're always selling), do you talk about what you do and how you do it? Or do you start with why you do the things you do and why this matters? In Start With Why (2009), Simon Sinek writes about how great companies have a clear purpose and identity that inspires employees and earns customer loyalty. Here's my sketch of the key points from the book.

Click on the image to view or download a high-resolution version that you can print or reuse.

What are my whys?

  • Visual thinking
    • My selfish reason for visual thinking is because I want to be able to learn, think, and remember more effectively, so that I can live a better life.
    • My altruistic reason for sharing visual thinking is because there are lots of people who enjoy learning from drawings more than text or audio or video. I want to share how I'm learning, but more than that, I want to inspire people to take these techniques and use them for their own. From the resources I share, people can see that you don't need to draw particularly well in order to use doodling as a way to explore the world or untangle your thoughts.
  • Emacs
    • My selfish reason for Emacs is because I have fun tweaking my editing environment and doing so helps me work better. It tickles my brain. In addition, helping the Emacs community thrive contributes to the longevity of Emacs, which means it will keep growing, which means I probably won't have to switch to some other tool in the future. (Planning-ahead Sacha plans ahead!)
    • My altruistic reason for Emacs is because I think something incredible happens when you take control of your tools, shaping them to fit your needs, expanding your imagination along the way. I want to help people become intermediate users and power users because I'm curious about what they'll build for themselves and what they can share with other people. Also, the Emacs community has awesome people. =)
  • Experimenting
    • My selfish reason for experimenting (lifestyle, semi-retirement, business, ideas, etc.) is so that I can figure out what works well for me.
    • My altruistic reason for sharing my experiments is to encourage other people to question their assumptions, look for ways to test their hypotheses, and gradually shape a life that fits them well. Come to think of it, it's similar to why I like helping people personalize Emacs. If I can help people explore the possibilities in their life, we might come across interesting ideas along the way.

What are your whys? Why do you do what you do, and why does that matter?

Get "Start With Why" on Amazon (affiliate link) or from your favourite book source.

Like this sketch? Check out for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

Visual thinking: sketchnotes, mindmaps, models, etc.

DONE Drawing thoughts on index cards   drawing blogging

I'm drafting this blog post on January 16, even though I'll publish it much later. I can't wait until I get through my backlog of posts I want to publish. I want to think about how I can make the most of this new index card habit, and whether I should reconsider that voluntary bottleneck of publishing one post a day.

For the past two weeks, I've drawn at least five index cards each day. Each card explores a single thought. I like the way this lets me briefly capture what I'm curious about. I've included many of them in blog posts, grouping several thoughts into a larger chunk that's easier to link to.

Still, at the present rate, my monthly review for January will link to well over 150 sketches. Perhaps I'll change the monthly review section to list only the sketches that haven't made it into blog posts yet. I've been keeping a digital equivalent of the roughly-sorted piles of index cards on my desk. It helps me see growing clusters of ideas and choose ones I want to develop with additional sketches or summarize into blog posts.

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory – index card #writing

Also, at the present rate of writing 1-3 blog posts a day (except for Thursdays, when I focus on consulting, and the weekends, when I focus on household life), I will keep accumulating scheduled posts. At some point, this will become unwieldy. It doesn't make sense to schedule posts a year in advance. Even a backlog of three months seems too disconnected.

I can spend less time writing, but I've firmly wired it into the way I learn, so that's hard. Alternatively, I could spend more time writing, developing thoughts over more time and packing denser experiences into a post. This approach might work.

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory – index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

I can also get ideas out in other ways. My blog is the main archive I trust, but I can give myself permission to share one-off sketches on Twitter. For example, this sketch about keeping your drink safe from cats: it's not quite a blog post and I don't think I'll develop the thought further, but it might be okay to share it on its own.

So, if I write blog posts for the thoughts that are already developed and tweets for the one-offs that won't be developed further, that leaves the ideas that are waiting to be developed. They wait because I'm still figuring things out, or because they aren't quite connected to other thoughts, or because my attention has moved on to other things. In Toyota Production System terms, they are muda - waste because of waiting or possible over-production.

I want to do better. What are some ways I can improve at this?

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards – index card #thinking #drawing 2015.01.13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively – index card #drawing

One way to reduce waste is to reduce quantity. Is five a good number for index cards, or should I reduce it to three? I think five works well for me. It forces me to dig deeper into a topic or to capture some of the other thoughts I have floating around.

Another way to reduce the waste in this process is to be more focused. If I think about and articulating 2-3 key questions for the week, that might guide most of my index cards. But then interesting ideas come up during the week, and I draw lots of cards for those as well. I turn many of my index cards into blog posts on the same day, so within each day, there's focus. If I try to use any "extra" index cards to build on a previously-drawn thought, that helps me connect.

A third way is to reduce my attachment and let things go. Perhaps I might decide that after I make a monthly index of unblogged cards, I'll clear that index and archive the physical cards. That way, each month starts fresh, but I still have the ability to go back and look for those roughly-categorized cards in case I have an idea that's strongly connected to that. I don't have to worry about visualizing this archive, tracking my statistics, using all the dangling threads, or getting to 100% use.

So that can help me deal with index cards, but what about blog posts? The benefits of limiting my blog to one post a day are:

  • I occasionally add to or revise a scheduled post, especially with feedback from sharing drafts
  • I can schedule different kinds of posts for a week, turning my sprint-type learning into a variety that helps readers
  • People don't get as overwhelmed (although daily posts are already more frequent than most other blogs do, and I'm pleasantly boggled that this is the most frequent option chosen by people subscribing to the mailing list)

The downsides are:

  • If I write something useful, whoever searches for it while it's in hidden draft mode won't come across it, but I guess that's almost the same as if I hadn't written it at all
  • It delays the feedback cycle
  • Sometimes posts get out of date

One option is to go back to publishing on Sundays. Maybe another thinking-out-loud/reflection post, since that's the one that has the most surplus.

Another option is to post two times a day. I'm a little less keen on that, although it might be doable if I can keep my main archive but split off specific, lower-traffic, topic-focused views that people can subscribe to.

A third option is to write longer posts. I find my constraints on chunk size to be helpful, so maybe not.

Hmm. Maybe I'll publish on Sundays and then revisit this when I find myself scheduling three months out… =)

Get better at web design by analyzing contrasts and improving your vocabulary   tip

  • How can you develop your design skills?
  • "Interesting" "nice"
  • Idea books and blogs

Learning from artists: making studies of ideas   learning writing drawing

When people are starting out with sketchnoting, it's helpful to remember that sketchnoting's about "ideas, not art" (as Mike Rohde says in The Sketchnote Handbook). It's easy to get intimidated by the visually-impressive sketchnotes people post, so the reminder is useful.

I've been using sketchnotes to explore my own thoughts instead of recording other people's content. I like flipping things around, so that got me thinking: What can I learn from the way artists work, and how can I apply that to learning and drawing?

Here are a few ideas:

2015.01.05 What can I learn from artists about learning – index card

  • Collect: Artists collect inspiration. They fill sketchbooks, make moodboards, clip reference photos, and so on.
  • Emulate: Artists develop their skills by emulating masters.
  • Observe: Artists draw what's there, not what they think is there. They also analyze the techniques other artists use and the effect of these techniques on the piece.
  • Imagine: Artists aren't limited to what they see. They can draw what isn't there. They can draw the essence of a thing.
  • Transform: Great art transforms the way people see.
  • Experiment: Artists try different techniques and styles to figure out what works for them.
  • Craft: Artists refine their work and improve their tools.
  • Sketch: Artists do quick studies to try several views or focus on different aspects before making the commitment of paint on canvas.

I was particularly curious about this idea of making studies or sketching things in order to experiment with different views or to focus on small parts before composing the whole, so I dug into that further.

2015.01.05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts – index card

The limits I want to address are:

  • When I start with a large sheet, I sometimes peter out halfway through because I've dug to the bottom of that idea (at least for now, with the tools and time I have).
  • If I work with large sheets, it's not as easy to keep all the relevant ones in view at the same time. I need to summarize more frequently.
  • I often zig-zag between topics, leaving sheets unfinished. Half-sheets are awkward to post.

2015.01.05 Quick idea studies – index card

Using index cards for "studies" of an idea might be a useful technique. Each card is a small chunk, quick to capture, complete in itself, and yet linkable with others. The cards are easier to rearrange. If each card represents one idea or summary, I can keep more ideas in view.

There are trade-offs, naturally. Sometimes the desire to fill a large sheet makes me to sit with a question longer, letting me discover more. Large sheets gives me the ability to draw and describe relationships between ideas. If I have many small chunks, I need to invest more time in summarizing and filing in order to make the most of them.

2015.01.05 Managing my idea pipeline – index card

Artists might make studies in preparation for a specific work, or they might make studies just because. If I have a specific question in mind, it's easy to sketch my way around the topic and then organize those thoughts into a whole. I'm not as good at managing fragments over an extended period of time, although I'm getting better at linking to and building on previous blog posts.

What can I learn from the way artists keep working on something? Artists might work on a piece for weeks or more, keeping it visible on an easel, taking a step back from time to time, looking at it in different light. They might have several such pieces on the go. I still prefer publishing early instead of waiting until something is a masterpiece. Feedback is great, and even small chunks can be surprisingly useful.

If I improve the way I manage my studies, though, I might get better at refining ideas. I think it's like the way an artists might clip photos or sketch things that have caught their eyes, and then return to that inspiration years later when they think of something that needs it.

Speaking of archives: I've written about index cards before as a way to develop thoughts (2014; much like this post), plan my life (2007), and prevent boredom by writing (2005!). I haven't quite mastered this yet, but I'm getting somewhere. What can I add to this based on this reflection on artists?

I don't do enough zoomed-in focus or variations on a theme yet, I think. Studies aren't just about capturing the gist of a thing so that you can reproduce it later in your studio. They let you minutely observe a specific aspect, and they let you experiment with different ways to portray something.

What would that look like, if I could do it really well? For observation, I might have index cards that focus on sub-topics, like the way I've built up this post from the sub-questions in the illustrations. For variety, I might experiment with visual vocabulary and metaphors, improving my creative expression.

There's also something to be said about sheer practice in exploring thoughts, like the way artists might sketch for sketching's sake. James Altucher recommends coming up with ten ideas a day (also related: his post from 2012). I've been experimenting with setting myself a minimum of five index cards a day. I write the dates for all of them before I start on the first one so that the desire to fill in the blanks pushes me to complete all of them. This usually leads to even more cards as the first set of ideas sparks more questions.

Actually, the challenge isn't generating ideas. Artists never run out of things to sketch - they can look around and find more! I have an archive of ideas I haven't exhausted and a cornucopia that generates more every day.

2015.01.05 Thinking about my archive – index card

This leads me back to skills that I think might be good to borrow from the art world and adapt to what I want:

  • Observing what's in front of me - really seeing it, capturing it better, evoking its essence
  • Looking at something from different angles, and developing opinions about the alternatives I can pick - like the way artists learn about composition and light
  • Retrieving subsets of my archive - like the way artists might pull out the relevant studies or reference photos when they're working on a piece
  • Comprehending the whole - the way people can step back and talk about impressionism, Picasso's Blue Period, and other things that require zooming out

What would masters of this be like, and how can I emulate them? I think of Leonardo da Vinci's studies, asking and observing. I think of writers who name and describe things, and in so doing, they help me see better - the way the light behind an object separates it from the background. I may never draw or write a thousandth as well as they do, but I can grow through emulating the way they slow down and pay attention, the way they turn things over and over instead of rushing on.

Visual notetaking

Another year of drawing thoughts

In 2013, I decided to focus on drawing my own content instead of sketchnoting other people's talks. I drew 379 sketches exploring my questions, and I wove those into my blog posts so that I could think in bigger chunks.

In 2014, I continued this habit.

OUTLINED Organization

  • How I organize and publish my sketches
  • Workflow (draw) - maybe a separate post?
    • paper
      • Pilot Hi-Tec C4, also Pilot Techpoint V5
      • ScanSnap
      • fix

        mogrify -format png *.jpg
        pngquant *.png --ext .png --force
        move *.jpg backup
        start .
      • rename
    • or draw using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 7 on Windows 8 (Lenovo X220 tablet PC)
      • start with base.psd
      • save as png with appropriate filename
    • filename: YYYY-MM-DD Title - keywords.png
    • copy to public sketchbook
      • sync with photosync to Flickr
      • import with Evernote
    • move to To blog folder
    • delete when blogged
  • What works well
  • Haven't been doing
    • Flickr tags or Evernote tags - filenames are more persistent
    • Fewer Flickr searches; I usually check my blog instead
    • Filename, not much tagging either
    • Why? Hmm, maybe because I've been using my blog instead; also, categorization happens afterwards, when I see the big picture?
      • Back to Org Mode! flexible, can add other notes, plain text, fast
    • improving art style
  • Want
    • Follow up and track
      • Blog
      • Actions and updates
    • Zoom out, chunk bigger thoughts: Update: Developing thoughts further
    • Also, zoom in occasionally: follow up on loose threads
    • Plan ahead
  • Next
    • Tracking? Table instead of deleting, maybe integrating with my writing outline. thinking outline?
    • Ooh. I like that. An outline is similar to a regular map, actually (zooming in and out). Plus hyperlinks?
      • More than flat categories
    • It might be interesting to have a map like so:
      • Blog post: __
        • Sketch: __
        • Sketch: __
        • Link: _
        • TODO: _ (here there be dragons)
      • Keeping track of sketches = ability to "zoom in"?
    • and also the relationship between sketches and ideas

TODO Running the numbers on my sketches

  • Goals:
    • Follow up on sketches
    • Think about my pipeline
  • Stats: percent of sketches blogged ~60% of the ~366 sketches I posted in 2014 (separate post)
    • I want to use sketches to build up bigger thoughts
    • Update: Developing thoughts further
    • Because I am a geek, curious about stats
      • customized Wordpress theme for bulk view (no sidebar, etc; just post titles and text)
      • Emacs code to filter and match up blog posts with their images

        (defun sacha/org-map-blog-and-image-urls ()
          "Extract and map blog post / image URLs."
          (goto-char (point-min))
          (keep-lines "h2\\|img")
          (goto-char (point-min))
          (while (re-search-forward
                  "^.*?h2.*?a href=\"\\(.*?\\)\".*$" nil t)
            (replace-match "\\1"))
          (goto-char (point-min))
          (while (re-search-forward
                  "^.*?src=\"\\(.*?\\)\".*$" nil t)
            (replace-match "\\1"))
          (let (last-post current-url result)
            (goto-char (point-min))
            (while (re-search-forward "http://\\(.*\\)" nil t)
              (setq current-url (match-string 0))
              (if (string-match "/\\([^/]*?\\)\\(_thumb\\|-640x.*\\)?.png" current-url)
                  (setq result (cons (concat (match-string 1 current-url) "\t" last-post) result))
                (setq last-post current-url)))
            (kill-new (mapconcat 'identity result "\n"))))
      • Microsoft Excel formula to convert original filename into Wordpress upload filename, with some manual massaging of data

        =SUBSTITUTE(SUBSTITUTE(SUBSTITUTE(SUBSTITUTE(SUBSTITUTE(B1," - ", "-")," ","-"),"'", ""),"#",""),",","")
      • VLOOKUP
      • 2014-11-28 21_48_43-Microsoft Excel - flickr.xlsx_1.png
      • 2014-11-28 21_49_35-Microsoft Excel - flickr.xlsx_1.png

2x2 matrices

Two-dimensional graphs

Mindmapping a book

Planning your life

DONE Trying on common goals   planning life

I've been thinking a lot about goals lately, thanks to a few discussions with friends. I don't feel particularly driven by big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs). Instead, I focus on small wins and low-hanging fruit, accumulating progress. I don't have a clear picture of exactly where I'd like to be in 40 years. Instead, I have a multiplicity of posibilities.

But maybe I'm not a special snowflake, and I can learn from the kinds of goals many people have. It's fun to put on a different hat and try things out. By trying on common goals instead of rejecting them off-hand, maybe I'll figure out more about what I really want and how to get there.

2015-01-21 What if I tried on common goals – index card #popular-goals

Aristotle says that happiness is the ultimate goal.

2015-01-21 Playing with popular goals - Happiness -- index card #popular-goals.png 2015-01-21 Playing with popular goals - Happiness – index card #popular-goals

I find it helpful to think of happiness as a response to life instead of as an external state to pursue, so this goal feels a little odd to me. But it's interesting to imagine a happy 90-year-old Sacha and what that life would be like. I think it involves building specific warm-and-fuzzy memories, maintaining a good perspective, and minimizing stressors.

Let's take a look at other typical goals: wealth, power, fame, and knowledge/experiences.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Wealth – index card #popular-goals

This might be the easiest of goals to desire, since it's popular and measurable. Based on my reading, I imagine that conspicuous wealth will bring more problems than I'd like, so I don't aspire to high-flying lifestyles. I value freedom, so it makes sense to have a financial buffer and to avoid becoming too accustomed to luxuries. That increases my security, which allows me to do more experiments. (I'm already privileged as it is!) Tools can be good investments, and it's great to be able to strategically use money to make a bigger difference. Money also makes decisions easier: instead of worrying about cutting into your safety margin, you can try things out and see what happens.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Power – index card #popular-goals

Power includes determining your life and influencing other people's lives. I definitely care about having power over myself, but I'm not driven by the idea of making big decisions that affect thousands of people's lives.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Fame – index card #popular-goals

I think I care more about depth of connection (tribe) than about breadth of fame (celebrity). I'm not sure about legacy. On one hand, it's good to do things that are remarkable enough to help or inspire people throughout the years. On the other hand, what do we do that will matter after a century, and how can we get things to even be remembered for that long? I'll think about this a little more while reading history. What makes essays resonate with me even after all that time, and how can I also reach across the years?

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Knowledge or experience – index card #popular-goals

I like the goal of learning more so that I can appreciate life better, maintain my independence, contribute meaningfully, and make better decisions.

I focus more on knowledge in the sketch above, but I think the popular approach to this goal is to focus on experiences. Bucket lists are practically all about experiences: seeing this country, climbing that mountain. That's why travel is so big, I guess. What kinds of experiences would I like to have if I were to travel more?

2015-01-24 Thinking about collecting experiences – index card #goals #experiences

I currently don't like traveling, but it'll probably be less of a hassle once I get my Canadian passport sorted out.

2015-01-23 What would help me enjoy travel – index card

Still, with J- in school and three cats at home, it's hard to plan. Maybe this will be something for later.

2015-01-25 On the other hand - travel – index card #travel #learning #cooking

Besides, I'm not totally convinced that travel is the best way to learn these things. It was fun being immersed in a language and going to local shops. But traveling to learn more about cooking seems a little wasteful, since airfare alone will buy lots of ingredients (and even personalized cooking classes). Staying home means I focus on cooking dishes I can enjoy long-term, and I can take advantage of our kitchen setup. So there's an advantage to staying home, too.

What about other intrinsic goals?

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Health – index card #popular-goals

Health makes sense, since your enjoyment of many things can be curtailed by poor health. I probably won't strive for buffed-up awesomeness, though. I'm mostly focusing on functioning all right, with maybe a little effort here and there to do a bit better.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Meaning – index card #popular-goals

People want to make a difference at work and in their relationships. Many people feel that their work doesn't matter a lot. Despite the abstraction of my work (I move bits around? I crunch numbers and questions? I write tools for a tiny, tiny fraction of the world?), I'm pretty good at convincing myself I have a small impact. =) Do I want to trade up by focusing on work that has a bigger impact (either for more people, or deeper in people's lives? I don't know yet.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Tranquility, equanimity – index card #popular-goals

I like this goal the most. Stoicism tells me that it's the one thing under my control. It transforms the ups and downs of life into opportunities for growth. It doesn't mean that I can't enjoy things, I just shouldn't get so attached to them that I become afraid. It doesn't mean that I can't be sad, it means I can try to take a different perspective on things.

Hmm. Trying on popular goals helped me take advantage of the collective centuries (millennia?) of thought that have gone into those goals. I still have to come up with my own specifics, but it's good to be able to quickly test what resonates with me instead of trying to formulate everything by myself. If tranquility, happiness, and knowledge are my major goals (with health as the goal I know I should have), I can focus on coming up with specific ways I want to explore those areas.

Do you resonate with some common goals? What are they, and what are you learning from that?

Looking at the combinations

Keeping a visual journal

Hobonichi techo

Making sense of a big topic

Organizing what you learn from books

Working through your feelings

Coaching yourself

Visual brainstorming

Your personal board of directors

Collect and visualize your data for better decisions

Making a one-page summary

Reasoning with drawings

Visual thinking and writing

Visual thinking and problem-solving

Drawing meditation

Imagining futures


Draw it so that you can see it

Sorting cards

Lay it all out where you can look at it

Dan Roam

Collect everything you can

Dan Roam

Visual triage

Dan Roam

Establishing coordinates

Dan Roam

Seeing your journey

Make your own calendar

Don't break the chain

Maps of your inner life

Use visual thinking to improve your creativity

Figuring out the root causes with fishbones

Making decisions with graphs


TOBLOG Accelerate Your Learning with Sketchnotes :book-idea:PROJECT:

Audience: Entrepreneurial visual thinkers who would like to learn more effectively

Outcome: People have taken their first few sketchnotes and are ready to use it for learning

OUTLINED Sketchnotes and digital color

  • Black and white
  • Color change
  • Highlighter
  • Shading
  • Eyedropper tool
  • Quick color schemes
    • 10%, 90%

OUTLINED Thinking about a virtual meetup for sketchnoters

  • Kevin Dulle organizing tweetchats
  • It would be great to go over different techniques
  • Finding speakers is always a challenge
  • But it's a great learning experience, so even if I sketch out a "curriculum" and prepare many of the talks, that's fine.
  • Also, people can always step forward and volunteer.
  • Next steps:
    • Experiment with Google Hangout

DRAFTED How to get started with sketchnoting :one-pager:

Draw this

  1. Take notes
  2. Why
  3. Take hand-written notes
  4. Slow down and write legibly You don't have to write everything Leave yourself space, then come back and fill things in later A good ink helps: find one that's readable and doesn't smear Tip: stash pens everywhere so that you're never without one!
  5. Emphasize important concepts Boxes, highlighter, color pencils, etc (Test the highlighter - sometimes ink can get messed up!)
  6. Use simple shapes. Star - important point Box, check - TODO Arrow - next step Speech bubble - quote Thought cloud - what you were thinking Lightbulb - idea

    Make rough copies of diagrams

  7. Have fun by drawing faces. This is a surprisingly good way to remember an event, and it's also a good way to settle in if you're early. (Being early is great for grabbing good seats.)

    Write down the topic title and the speaker name, then spend a few minutes sketching the person's face. You can start with a simple rectangle with roughly the right proportions. Hair style? Glasses or eyes? Nose? Facial hair? Smile? Doesn't have to be perfect.

  8. Draw other icons. People often repeat themselves or say things you don't have to write down, so you can doodle during those parts. Draw simple images related to what people are talking about. (Or draw things that are completely unrelated - up to you!) Listen for visual metaphors and try to draw them. Leave yourself space, and then come back and doodle when you have time.


Storyboards and rough layouts

DONE Drawing illustrations for my blog posts

  • Tools and simple workflow
    • Autodesk Sketchbook Pro
    • Windows Live Writer
  • How to choose an image
    • Metaphors
    • Google Images
    • Other blogs

DONE Drawing banners/ribbons

  • Draw the text first
  • Draw the part that encloses the text
  • Draw the scrolls
  • Shade it if desired

DONE Quick digital lettering

  • Printed letters are the easiest to read
  • Thick letters
  • Square caps
  • Serifs
  • Doubled letters
  • Broad nibs
  • Outlines
  • Shadows
  • 3D letters

DONE Quick connectors

DONE Drawing cheats: Working around the limitations

Aug 20 2013:

  • Digital drawing
    • Can't see the big picture
      • Grid
      • Zooming
      • Leaving plenty of space
      • Rearranging as needed
      • Use simple layouts
    • Tools take up space
      • Figure out a good layout
    • Battery life can be an issue
      • I bought an extra battery
      • For longer events, I try to be near a power outlet, or I find one during lunch
    • Heavy
      • Bike
      • Padded backpack
    • Can lose data if it crashes
      • Reliable application
      • Saving multiple versions
    • Can't flip through sketches as easily

DONE Visual metaphors for planning your life   requested

  • Arrow to goal
  • Journey
  • Tree and fruit

Send to Marty Pauschke [2013-07-25]

DONE Thinking about the Visual Thinkers Toronto meetup structure

  • Goals
    • Encourage people to share their work
    • Be inspired by techniques and approaches
    • Help people stretch and improve their visual thinking skills
  • Current structure
    • Drawing game
    • Speaker
    • Open space
    • Recap
  • Challenges of current approach
  • Proposed structure
    • Share your work
      • E-mail submissions or Flickr
    • Game or exercise
    • Presentation
      • Technique: Maybe plan a calendar of topics, and see if we can recruit specific speakers?
    • Open space
    • Challenge
  • Do you run a visual thinking meetup?
  • Next theme: Emotions
  • Survey

DONE Drawing emotions   link

:Effort: 1:00

  • Why draw
    • Quick way to spice up your drawing and add interest
    • More communicative: instant, visceral feeling
    • Can help you get better at reading other people's expressions
    • Fun, great way to doodle
  • Facial expressions
    • Easy to start with
    • Basic vocabulary
      • Eyebrows
      • Eyes
      • Mouth
    • Joy, sadness, anger, fear, trust, distrust, surprise, anticipation (Plutchik)
    • Show the degree of an emotion
      • Pleased, happy, delighted
      • Annoyed, angry, furious
      • Anxious, afraid, terrified
    • Can communicate a lot
      • Envy
      • Pleading
  • Combinations
    • Anger + joy
    • Sadness + anticipation
  • Express with icons and stereotypes
    • Aha!
    • Confusion
    • Drunk
      • Happy drunk
      • Sad drunk
    • Impatient
    • Hopeful
    • Star-struck
  • Express with the whole body - physicality
    • Not just the face
    • Posture
    • Minimal ways to indicate gestures
    • Proud vs insecure
    • Relaxed vs fatigued
  • Express with relationships to each other
    • Related to each other
    • Confusion
    • Betrayal
    • Schadenfreude
  • Express with metaphors
    • Burning with passion
    • Floating on air
    • Sneaking around
    • Looking daggers
    • Nose in the air
    • Seeing red
    • Carrying a grudge
    • Worship the ground she walks on
    • Walking on egg shells
  • Other applications for visual emotions
    • Empathizing with others
    • Untangling your own
  • Learning more
    • Emoticons
    • Bikablo
    • Comics
    • Mr. Men and Little Miss, children's books
    • Actors
    • Metaphor and Emotion (Kovecses), Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson)?
    • Wikipedia, Bikablo, Google Image Search
  • Exercise The emotion annotation and representation language (EARL) proposed by the Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion (HUMAINE) classifies 48 emotions (Wikipedia, July 2013)

Sorry, your browser does not support SVG.

DONE Thinking out loud about how to help other sketchnoters go professional and how to help people get their ideas sketched   business connecting

Whenever I sketchnote an event, people tell me that they love my work. They ask if I'd be interested in sketching other events, podcasts, books, presentation designs, blog post illustrations, and so on. People love the informal, informative style of sketchnotes, and they want to use it to spread more ideas. Terrific!

But you know what would be even awesomer? It would be fantastic if more people could get into sketchnoting - pro-bono, for barter, or professionally. There are a lot of great ideas out there that are missing their potential because they get forgotten or people's eyes glaze over when confronted by lots of text or slides. More sketchnoters, more possibilities.

Many sketchnoters and graphic recorders refer work to people they know when they're too busy themselves. I want to refer as much as possible to other people, especially people I don't know. I want to broaden the network and bring more people in. I want my default to be referring work to other people, accepting work myself only if it's something I really care about and I'm the only one who can make it happen. (Which is probably never, because lots of people can draw!)

It makes sense to have lots of sketchnoters sharing the opportunities instead of a few sketchnoters drawing most of the work. When a topic lines up with your interests or background, everything is better. You have a richer visual vocabulary. You learn a lot more from the content. You can keep up with speakers more easily. And when there are lots of active sketchnoters, we can learn a lot from each other's styles.

I think it would be interesting to have a gig board where people can post opportunities and other people can contact them if interested. This is different from a job board because jobs tend to be longer-term commitments, while sketchnoting might just be a few hours. I don't mind routing everything through my e-mail first.

So, what's getting in people's way now, and how can we address that?

  • A slowly growing market: Although some event organizers have been taking advantage of graphical summaries as a way of reaching out to attendees and prospects, graphic recording is still pretty limited in terms of conferences and corporate events. Sketchnoting is still pretty novel.

    I'm not going to focus on event organizers who don't know about sketchnoting yet. It's helpful to have a place where organizers who want sketchnotes can connect with sketchnoters.

    Many events have limited budgets, especially in this economy, so they might not be able to afford professional sketchnoting. However, if a pro-bono or barter event matches up with a sketchnoter's interests, maybe the sketchnoter will do it anyway. Besides, I want to encourage organizers to think of more creative bartering opportunities: links? sponsorship? feedback over lunches? ticket giveaways? introductions? testimonials?

    How is this different from, say, simply showing up at an event and taking notes? Connecting with the organizers beforehand makes it easier for the organizers and the sketchnoters to make the most of the sketches. The organizers might be able to arrange complimentary tickets, perhaps including an extra ticket that the sketchnoter can raffle off or trade with someone else. The organizer can help publicize the sketchnotes, and the sketchnoters can get a wider audience.

  • The power law: Sketchnoters who post their notes publicly get lots of requests, which lead to more sketches, which lead to more requests. There are even more sketchnoters who haven't made that jump. Maybe they're not comfortable posting their work online or their website isn't popular, but they'd be fine with e-mailing an organizer samples of their work.
  • Sketchnoters might be too intimidated to make the leap. I remember being nervous the first time I committed to sketchnoting an event for a fee. What if things fell through? What if I wasn't good enough? It turns out that an excellent way to deal with risk is to offer a guarantee, which is good for the client and good for you. As for worrying I wasn't good enough–I figured the client was grown-up enough to make decisions based on my online portfolio. If they thought my stick figures were awesome, then okay!

    I can help sketchnoters get over their intimidation by talking through their concerns and helping them mitigate them. For example, I sometimes worry about my tools failing on me, so I bring backups. There are lots of things you can plan for or around.

    Also, if you're intimidated, you might pair up with another sketchnoter, especially at a pro-bono event. Connecting with the organizer and the other sketchnoter(s) beforehand will make it easier to, say, sit together with the other person or swap URLs afterwards.

I have a couple of requests that I'd like to refer to other people. What would be a good way of sharing them?

  • A. Post them on my regular blog in a new category, coordinating with the people who want them posted. Tag with keywords. List open opportunities in the sidebar. Continue doing this until I start receiving requests from other people, then split it off into a separate blog.
    • Advantage: No need to maintain a different site.
    • Disadvantage: Blog clutter, and people may find it difficult to see just those posts.
  • B. Create a new site. Post the current requests there after coordinating with the people who want them posted, tagging with keywords. List open opportunities in the sidebar. Tweet announcements and link to them from my main blog; spread the word. Accept requests by e-mail or contact form. Eventually look into job board plugins if there's a lot of interest. It should also have a newsletter that people can sign up for. Eventually this might even have people's profiles.
    • Advantage: Uncluttered. Can customize display.
    • Disadvantage: May go stale. Probably a good idea to create it on one of my domains first (maybe somewhere under Sketchnote Index?). Need to maintain another site.

I like option B more. So let's run it as a little experiment… Here are some possible outcomes:

  • Okay: If I post my current requests there and I don't find anyone, well, at least I have a place to post future requests, and I can say I've tried.
  • Good: If I match people to my current requests and have a handy place for me to refer future requests, that's fine even if I don't get external requests.
  • Better: If other people subscribe to it and are interested in hearing about opportunities, that's a double-win.
  • Best: If people start submitting requests and it gets to the point where it makes sense to build a job post submission interface or a geolocated search, that's a triple win.

I'm not going to invest a lot of time into it in the beginning, so I might start with a simple theme and no development work. As we see the response, I can make it better.

Sounds like a plan! Any thoughts or suggestions?

DONE How I prepare for sketchnoting sessions

  • Information
    • Speaker name and talk title (confirm spelling, order if multiple speakers)
    • Confirm whether I can publish right away
    • Confirm hashtag and event URL
    • Twitter username to CC if I'm publishing right away (this makes it easier for them to retweet)
  • Template (bottom up)
    • Grid layer
    • Event name and date
    • Sponsor logos if any
    • Talk titles and speaker names/pictures (multiple talks: layers instead of separate files - split into files using Save As)
  • Other setup
    • Confirm agreement and invoice
    • Set up palette with event colours (if any)
    • Set up filenames so that Save As can override them (date - event - title - speakers.png)
    • Set up ClipMate collection to minimize typing (tweet-ready: title, speaker, collection URL)
  • Gear
    • Fully charged laptop, everything else closed
      • Clear disk space for recording
    • Backup battery
    • Backup stylus
    • Phone with tethering
  • When I get to the event
    • Check in with the organizer
    • Obtain
  • Before the talk
    • Switch off WiFi to preserve battery
    • Close other apps
    • Start Camtasia screen recording with audio
    • Start backup audio recorder if needed
    • Convert to tablet mode
  • After each talk (~5 minutes)
    • Hide grid layer
    • Save main file
    • Save as PNG
    • Turn on WiFi
    • Publish using Windows Live Writer (single talks) or publish using NexGen Gallery (multiple talks; WinSCP is better for uploading than the web interface)
    • Tweet
  • At the end of the event
    • Go back and fill in the metadata for each talk
    • Publish talk collection and tweet the URL
    • E-mail the organizer links

Drawing tutorials   series

stick figure styles, colour, word forms, depth, hierarchy…

  • Layouts


  • Visual hierarchy
    • Weight
    • Emphasis
    • Space
    • Color
    • Size
  • DONE Finding the forms in words

    :Effort: 1:00

    • make the letters feel like the word
      • thin
      • thick
      • fast
      • shaky
    • replace or modify a letter
    • wrap the word around an image
    • wrap an image around the word
    • add an image next to the word
  • Quick layouts and connectors
    • Boxes
    • Ribbons
    • Arrows
    • Shaped arrows
    • Clouds
    • Shadows
    • Radial layouts
  • Layout samples
  • Adding depth
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Business
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Technology
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Science
  • Building your visual vocabulary: The Web
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Math
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Art
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Life
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Health
  • DONE Talk bubbles and thought bubbles
  • Building your visual vocabulary: Metaphors

Draw like other people


  • Flickr
  • Blog
    • Wordpress, NextGen Gallery etc.
  • Pinterest

Cleaning up your sketch

  • Analog
    • Taking a good picture
  • Move things around
  • Fix errors
  • Remove anything unnecessary

Sketching cheats

  • Draw a little, then come back later
  • Cover up mistakes
  • Fill in space
  • Reorganize
  • Use layers

Digital tools

Paper tools

Space management

Planning your life with and Evernote

Drawing your future: Graphic organizers for planning and brainstorming

  • Templates

How I got started drawing

Not about drawing better

Not better drawing

better use of what I draw

better inspiration for others

Planning a sketch on index cards

Building your visual vocabulary

Printing sketchnotes

I printed many of my sketchnotes and put them in a binder. That way, I can easily flip through them, and I can also spread them out. It was a good thing I did, because I found myself frequently referring to them in conversation. It was much more natural to flip through pages than to jump through images on a tablet, even with a tablet's enhanced search capabilities. If I find a binder that can double as a landscape presentation stand, I think that will be solid.

Colour would make this much better. Highlights jump out more with colour. Different events are easier to distinguish with colour schemes. We have more of a visceral reaction to colour. The ING Orange coworking space has an a

I should always keep black and white printing in mind, though, because that's what many people will have. Observations: foreground colour isn't enough of a distinguisher. Bright red becomes a dark gray, which recedes compared to black (or the darkest tone I use). A plain white background works best, then a dot grid, then a line grid.

Landscape is harder to work with in compilations, but it's better for viewing on-screen - how do other people handle this well? Must prototype with binder…

How to draw abstract concepts

Better digital sketchnoting animations

Revising sketchnotes

Sketching faces on the go

Reviewing my book notes

Animating drawings with Artrage Studio

Experimenting with stock

Organizing my sketchnotes



  • digital workflow: grids and templates,can adapt in real-time, can colour-match logos


  • Autodesk Sketchbook Pro; Artrage Studio Pro
  • paper for personal brainstorming, when I want to see the big picture
  • large pieces of paper, blackboards, or whiteboards for group facilitation


  • add credits
  • add a light blue dotted grid for lines and proportions
  • write the event header (name, hashtag, date)
  • write the title and speaker name
  • draw the speakers' faces
  • the talk itself

Keywords Capture more detail, can always edit later Duplicate and erase as needed







Animation workflow

How to listen and draw at the same time

How to listen and draw at the same time

When people see the sketchnotes I post right after presentations , they often ask me: “How do you listen and do all that at the same time?” Let me let you in on a little secret: I don’t. Not all at the same time. Mostly because during live presentations, I have no idea where the presenter might go. Depending on how quickly the speaker talks and how much interesting content they pack into their sentences, I might be scrambling to quickly jot down some keywords. When they pause for breath or transition to a new topic, I’ll go back and add stick figures and diagrams. As I figure out which points are important, I move parts of my drawing around or erase and refine what I’ve written. To help you see the process, here’s a recording of my screen as I sketchnote an hour-long presentation. I don’t draw that fast in real life - I’ve condensed the video to three minutes for your convenience. Enjoy!

Learning with Sketchnotes :book-idea:PROJECT:

Audience: Teachers, homeschoolers/unschoolers/parents who want to teach more engagingly and help their students develop notetaking skills Outcome: Ready to practise on their own, and possibly teaching others how to sketchnote in their classes

  • Why sketchnote?
    • Understand things better?
    • Share more effectively
    • Engage students
    • Model note-taking skills by example
  • Examples
  • Common challenges
  • Getting started
  • Sketchnote basics
    • Annotating printed text
    • Starting with hand-written notes
    • Adding emphasis
    • Starting with stick figures
    • Drawing symbols
    • Drawing abstract concepts
    • Organizing the page
  • Sketching your preparatory notes
  • Sketching your lesson
  • Sketching worksheets
  • Teaching others how to sketchnote
    • A one-page guide
  • Drawing practice
    • Stick figures
    • Emotions
    • Symbols
      • Science
      • Technology
      • Math
      • History
      • Art
      • Language
      • Music

Personal finance, semi-retirement, cooking, frugality, and household life


DONE Becoming comfortable with simplicity and even discomfort   philosophy

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:eb7acf93-5f59-4c05-be69-918888324cce

:POST_DATE: [2014-08-09 Sat 21:32]

:POSTID: 27419

:BLOG: sacha

Here's an excerpt from Seneca's Epistles (Letter 18) that made me think about voluntary simplicity:

Such is the course which those men I have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

… Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfied his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby fell short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount be fell short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort.

… For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one's needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

I'm careful with my finances because I don't want to end up in the kinds of situations that I see play out around me and on the Internet. I know I can't eliminate those risks (no one is immune to bad luck!), but I can try to minimize the risks.

I'm pretty insulated from everyday troubles. I'm not often hungry or thirsty. I usually bring a bottle of water and a snack in my bag, and in the city, there are always places to go. We have what we need and want, and we don't worry about where our next meal is coming from or how we can keep a roof over our heads.

Sometimes when I talk to people a little further ahead in life, I'm reminded that prosperity can lead to complacency. Some people tell me they wish they could do something like this experiment of mine with semi-retirement, but on the other hand, they like their current lifestyle a lot too. I like keeping my life simple and my budget almost student-ish. I check out thrift stores for clothes. I shop for groceries with a list, do the math when it comes to prices, and enjoy home-cooked meals more than restaurant steaks. It's a way of minimizing risks and increasing safety, I guess. If I don't get used to the good life – if I fight lifestyle inflation and hedonic adaptation – then I can more easily weather any downturns in markets or luck.

How can I get even better at this? In terms of food, it's good to practice with simple ingredients and simple techniques. Then the main differentiator would be skill in choosing, combining, and cooking. I can still enjoy the things that I'm not very skilled at. I might even skip a meal, or eat lightly. In terms of transportation, maybe I should walk long distances once in a while, so I don't get too accustomed to taking transit or biking. In terms of things, I can give more things away, or box things up temporarily.

It's good to get pleasure from the small stuff. I can drink tap water here in Toronto, which still boggles me no end. I can read hundreds of books from the library. I can walk and feel the sun shining. I can breathe and feel my lungs inflate. What do I need richer pleasures for, if these simple ones can be enough?

Learning philosophy at the right time   philosophy

:Effort: 2:00

:ID: o2b:69b0e632-e5ad-4817-add2-715f66add5f8

:POST_DATE: [2014-08-07 Thu 23:09]

:POSTID: 27410

:BLOG: sacha

When I took the required philosophy courses in university, I was too young for it. We all were; inarticulate adolescents with little life experience. Perhaps a brilliant teacher would have been able to teach it anyway, and perhaps for some of my classmates our teachers were brilliant. I struggled with the courses, though. The topics seemed abstract and impractical. We read Plato's Republic and were quizzed on his ideal society. We read the Nichomachean Ethics and differentiated among types of friendship. We read Hannah Arendt's thoughts on totalitarianism and discussed terror. But nothing really made an impact on my everyday life, aside from the unexpected oddness of being comfortable with–even enjoying–the hopelessness and despair described by Sartre when it seemed, based on how we were taught and how my classmates responded, that I should have had more philosophical discomfort with the concept.

Hence the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book 1 - 1095a)

The normal course of events, perhaps, might be that I'd revisit these topics later in life. Much later, the way people conscious of mortality tend to think about life. I think this 5-year experiment of mine nudged me to think about the best use of time, and from there to wonder about Aristotle's recommendation of the contemplative life. Time and patience

I'm not quite at the point of understanding Heidegger and similar thinkers. I don't need to get there, I think, in order to get some benefit from applying philosophy to life. I want to train my mind to see clearly, want the right things, not want the wrong things, act on these right judgments, and be able to explain what I'm learning to myself and to others. Starting this early makes sense, because then I can avoid bad habits (or unlearn them before they get ingrained) and enjoy the benefits for longer.

Keep on as you have begun, and make all possible haste, so that you may have longer enjoyment of an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. Doubtless you will derive enjoyment during the time when you are improving your mind and setting it at peace with itself; but quite different is the pleasure which comes from contemplation when one's mind is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 4

In a later letter, Seneca also tells us that we don't have to put this kind of thinking off until we are comfortably settled. This reminds me of how people set these constantly moving goalposts for themselves ("I just need to make $XXX,000" - and then higher, and higher), and why it made sense to me to risk jumping earlier rather than later. We'll see how this works out.

Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: "I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy." And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: "I wish to acquire something to live on." Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 17

Now is a good time, I think. I can train my thinking and inspire my writing with classic, clear texts, and I can work on learning things that are common to more people than my other niche interests are.


:Effort: 1:00

Golden mean

:Effort: 1:00

In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers virtue as the ideal balance between two vices (one type of deficiency and one of excess). For example, courage is between cowardice and foolhardiness. This is the idea of the golden mean. Virtue is a little closer to one end than the other, so we should err on the side of the lesser evil. We also naturally skew to one side, so we should try to counteract our biases.

Therefore he who aims at the mean should make it his first care to keep away from that extreme which is more contrary than the other to the mean; just as Calypso in Homer advises Ulysses,

"Clear of this smoke and surge thy barque direct;"

because of the two extremes the one is always more, and the other less, erroneous; and, therefore, since to hit exactly on the mean is difficult, one must take the least of the evils as the safest plan; and this a man will be doing, if he follows this method.

(from D.P. Chase's translation)


We ought also to take into consideration our own natural bias; which varies in each man's case, and will be ascertained from the pleasure and pain arising in us. Furthermore, we should force ourselves off in the contrary direction, because we shall find ourselves in the mean after we have removed ourselves far from the wrong side, exactly as men do in straightening bent timber.

(also D.P. Chase)

Of the ranges he describes, I think I lean towards:

  • cowardice, COURAGE, recklessness
  • stinginess, LIBERALITY, prodigality
  • parsimony, MAGNIFICENCE, vulgarity and crassness
  • unirasciblility/slavishness, GENTLENESS, irascibility

These vices of mine are a set. Despite knowing that people tend to regret inaction more than action and that in the grand scheme of things, there is nothing to fear, I make decisions carefully and anticipate more pain than I should. Still, I'm pretty good at hope. I prefer to save money so that I can maintain my freedom. I give a little to charities and to people when it could make a big difference. I tend to think that people usually benefit more from time and attention more than money, so I rarely have clear decisions between noble action and money. I'm definitely not good at using large sums for worthy work, and more habituated towards accounting for the small things. I keep myself a little distant from the world, minimizing anger. There are many things that perhaps I should be angrier at, but I prefer to move on.

  • insensibility, MODERATION, licentiousness
  • irony/understatement, PLAIN DEALING, boastfulness

I am generally good at not being pained by the absence of pleasures and not taking more pleasure in things than they're worth. Possibly I err on the side of insensibility, since I don't get as much pleasure from things that I probably should appreciate better. I also tend to be good at disclaiming my limitations instead of pretending to be better than I am.

  • boorishness, WITTINESS, buffoonery

I enjoy wordplay. Still, I don't recognize myself in Aristotle's descriptions here. I guess it's just not developed enough to be a virtue (even a virtue-in-training?) and not extreme enough to be a vice.

  • quarrelsomeness, FRIENDLINESS, obsequity

I skew towards finding things and people agreeable (or at least letting them make their own decisions). I probably don't challenge people enough, not the way a good friend would call you out if you're doing things wrong.

With that in mind, how can I improve? It's pretty difficult to take Aristotle's suggestion for counteract my biases by aiming for the opposite vice. Examples of consequences are too easy to recall. The Internet is full of stories of recklesness, prodigality, crassness, irascibility, licentiousness, and buffoonery. No one enjoys quarrelsomeness. Irony/understatement recedes into the background.

There are some other ways that have been working for me, though. Maybe building on these approaches will help me do even better. Aristotle says that you can develop virtue by practising virtuous acts, so maybe there's hope for me yet. Here are some workarounds for my biases:

  • Towards courage, liberality, and magnificence - setting aside money and time beforehand: Pre-allocating a small portion of my savings for trying things out helps me reduce the mental cost of choices. Setting aside a small charity budget (both time and money) makes it easier to say, yes, this is something I can help with. I don't have to limit myself to formal channels for generosity, either. Even listening, cleaning, or cooking can be acts of generosity, done with the right heart.
  • Towards courage - Keeping learning in mind: If I'm conservative about choices because I don't want to mess up really badly, remembering that I can learn even from messing up may help. Besides, I can practice on choices with smaller consequences, and I can remember all those times when making similar choices worked out okay.
  • Approaching life with the question "How wonderful can it be?" : I'm reluctant to be too ambitious because I've seen so many stories of people who get carried away by their passions, dealing with the ups and downs of having a business or following their goals. I'm not keen on having that kind of narrative. However, if I start with a good foundation of happiness and then constantly expand by learning more, doing more, and helping more, I think I can enfold larger and larger things in my ambition without taking the other kind of greed or desire into me.
  • Learning about the little differences: Knowledge sharpens appreciation. A tiny example - I now have a preference for the blueberries we grow (however scant the handful) over the blueberries we buy at No Frills because I know that blueberries can be tastier than what we get at the supermarket. This doesn't stop me from appreciating blueberry muffins made with supermarket berries, but it allows me to take greater pleasure when we do have berries at home. Likewise, learning about the little distinctions can help me enjoy other things better, and I can be careful about not turning into a snob who can't enjoy simpler things.
  • Focusing on the good:
  • humility, MODESTY, pride
  • secrecy, HONESTY, loquacity
  • moroseness, GOOD HUMOR, absurdity
  • quarrelsomeness, FRIENDSHIP, flattery

We've been trying

and we occasionally succeed, but more often than not, we end up going for a yummy home-cooked dinner instead.

CANCELLED Reflections on a philosophy of life   reflection philosophy

I remember struggling with the required philosophy classes in university. Some concepts came easily. Others remained abstract. My teachers were generally animated and good educators, but lectures tend to lull me into sleep. Fortunately, 19-year-old me had a laptop, tolerant teachers, the work-around of transcribing as much as she could before trailing off into unintelligibility.

More than a decade

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.


DONE What's in your handbook?   philosophy reflection

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:a085bdae-57d0-49c9-911d-d4565acd9a02

:POST_DATE: [2014-07-22 Tue 20:16]

:POSTID: 27394

:BLOG: sacha

Ancient philosophy was designed to be memorized, so that it could be "at hand" when we are confronted with tumultuous situations like the one Stockdale found himself in. … The students wrote these maxims down in their handbook, memorized them, repeated them to themselves, and carried them around–that's the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or "close at hand."

Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans (2013) - p116

Oh! Hence handbook - something small that you carry with you to guide your actions or remember principles when the craziness of life messes up your mind. This got me thinking about what might be the beginnings of my handbook: the little ideas that run through my life. Here are some.

  • Happiness is a response. Happiness isn't something you buy or pursue, nor is it something that happens to you or that someone gives to you. This feeling of well-being comes from how you decide to respond to the world.
  • It's just stuff. A common refrain when we're donating things to the thrift store, passing up on purchases, cleaning up after something breaks, and so on.
  • Life is short. Before, nothingness. After, nothingness. We know people for such a short time. This is okay; in fact, it makes life sweeter.
  • Life is long. There's lots of things to learn, and you're going to run into similar situations again and again. You don't need to sweat over making the absolute best decisions, since you'll probably be able to try out different options. Still, giving things a little thought helps, because you can reap the benefits over time.
  •  "Enough" is in the mind. You have enough.
  • Celebrate small steps. Because they're fun!
  • Everything is part of the story. Especially the tough parts. They make the story interesting.
  • Build on your strengths. Situations can often be transformed into similar situations that take advantage of your strengths instead of hitting your weaknesses. Likewise, you can translate your strengths into new ones.
  • See the third way. When you think something is the only way, or when you're stuck with the dilemma of one or another, step back and see even more approaches. You don't have to accept the way the problem is framed; look for creative solutions.
  • Choose what to assent to. Be careful about what you let into your brain. For example, just because advertising is compelling doesn't mean you have to be compelled.
  • It's okay to be weird. Life is a grand experiment. If you zig when other people zag, you might feel weird, but don't worry - there are lots of people zigging in the grand scheme of things, too.
  • Everyone's learning. Everyone messes up. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has awesome moments. Practise loving kindness.
  • Share. Your memory is fuzzy and life is short. Get things out of your head and in a form that might help other people, and you could be pleasantly surprised by how it comes back.
  • A safety net helps you fly. It's worth weaving a strong net so that you can take risks.
  • Everything will be okay. Things always work out, although sometimes it takes some time, action, or perspective.
  • Cats will be cats. There is no point in getting upset over out-of-the-litter-box thinking, throwing up, etc. Just tidy up and enjoy the purring and the fluffy cat-ness. The same can be said of much of life.

Ask me again in five years and I'll probably have added a few more. What's in your handbook?

Applying 'learn, share, scale' to philosophy

:Effort: 1:00

"Learn, share, scale" were the three words I picked in 2012 to describe what I want to do. It's a useful framework for looking at my different interests and figuring out how I can learn, what I can share, and how I can scale up beyond the limits of 24 hours in a day and only one life. By breaking things down into those components, I can look for more effective approaches. By seeing them as a whole cycle, I can try to move more through each stage instead of getting stuck in one or the other.


I've been learning about philosophy over the past few weeks. I like the way Thoreau frames it:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

So I'm more interested in ethical philosophy rather than, say, phenomenology.

What would that look like in this framework of "learn, share, scale?"

Learn: I read a lot of books

Share: i

Scale: This one's a little harder to think about.

Things I don't know how to describe yet


:Effort: 1:00

We've been looking at cellphones lately, since W-'s thinking about replacing his (if he doesn't repair the screen). We browsed through the shops at the Eaton Centre. There were all these new models of phones and all these people oohing and aahing over them, but he didn't end up choosing any of the phones. Me, I have the Samsung Galaxy S3 that I got two years ago, and

  • Fashion
  • Upgrade
  • Increment
  • Opportunity fund, trying things out

One day closer

:Effort: 1:00

We've been watching episodes of How It Should Have Ended lately. One of them led to Stan's Rants, so we watched Stan Lee rant about a few things. His rant about birthdays was particularly interesting for me because of our reflections on Stoicism, negative visualization, and the idea of memento mori - remembering your mortality.

W- and I don't celebrate the way it seems other people do. We're not really into going to a bar with friends, having people over for a party, or going to a fancy restaurant. We did end up going for dimsum with his family yesterday, since his mom insisted, but otherwise we would have probably stayed home.

I like treating these occasions as an opportunity to account for how I used the previous year, reflect on (and celebrate!) the changes, and think about how my priorities might shift for the upcoming year. Doing this kind of annual review around this time makes more sense to me than New Year's Day, since New Year's Day has all that noise around holidays and resolutions. I used to do annual reviews a few times a year, but I found myself covering the same ground and getting slightly confused about the timespans. I do like checking in with myself on an infrequent basis, though. You might not see day-to-day changes, but when you look back over a longer period of time, you can appreciate the distance you've covered.

Still, there's something to be said about celebrating milestones, creating opportunities for shared experiences, and thanking people who are part of my life. Perhaps I'll revisit it sometime, or find a different way.

But I'll still wish my parents a happy birthday, since after all, my mom did all that hard work. =)

Striking the balance between what works and what might be better

:Effort: 1:00

DONE That moment when time comes together   philosophy

I reflect on mortality pretty frequently; at least every week, and probably much more often than that. If you do it just a few times each year, you'll hardly get used to it. I think it makes life sweeter, knowing that life's so short.

I used to clearly separate this meditation from other things because I sometimes cried. Now I sometimes find myself simultaneously aware of it as I play with the cats, hang out with friends, talk to my parents, or spend time with my husband. Those moments feel oddly grace-ful, like I'm seeing one of our cats as a kitten, at the end of her life, and beyond, all super-imposed. It's interesting to imagine who someone was before you knew them, and to trace their impact on your life by seeing their absence–or even non-existence, "It's a Wonderful Life" sort of not-existed-at-all-ness.

When I feel this way, it's easier to be appreciative and grateful for the gift that was given. It's easier to feel safe, oddly enough, knowing that I can look on without clinging too much.

I'm not always like this, of course. I am often less thoughtful, more immediate. I think it would be interesting to be in that kind of moment more often, though. Perhaps writing about it like this will help me remember what it's like, and how to do things with that perspective–even in those normal moments when time is separate and not all together.

DONE Stoic impressions: Weebles wobble but they don't fall down

:Effort: 1:00

I'm with the Stoics rather than the Aristotelians on this one (or at least based on how I understand things): all you need for a good life is you. I'm not wise enough to know whether that's true, but I think that it's better for me to live as if that's the case instead of thinking that happiness can be that much influenced by luck and external events. Challenge accepted!

I'm starting to understand what I'd like to aspire to be when I've infused whatever wisdom I can get from philosophy into my reflexive responses to life's situations.

I'm not trying to get through life completely unruffled and serene. Stuff happens. I get sad. I get excited. I get scared. I get delighted. I react to the world around me.

At the same time, I like this ability to step outside of these impressions. I can see myself even as I laugh or cry. I can enjoy the ups and downs and yet not get carried away by them. I can be happy that something I cooked turned out well and that people liked it; and I can know that in the grand scheme of things, it's insignificant (but worth doing anyway). I can be scared about the possible downsides of something I'm going to try anyway; and I can know that in the grand scheme of things, it's insignificant (but worth doing anyway).

Whatever life throws at me, I can choose to respond and not just react. Sure, the first few moments might be more instinctive–pain hurts, joy elates, sometimes I say the wrong thing–but what happens after that is up to me.

I'd like to avoid getting carried away by stuff, the way people get consumed by grudges or misled by temptations. I think that's what the Stoics meant in their focus on ridding themselves of passions–not "passion" in the modern sense of "things I feel awesome about and enjoy doing," but rather the kind of "passion" that takes over your reason and leads to suffering.

I guess I'd like to continue to be like a roly-poly toy, like the egg-shaped Weebles of the slogan "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down." Then the Stoic idea of a passion would be wobbling so much and not quite being the shape that you need to be, and ending up so far off your center of mass that you stay down. Or at least until other people help you get back up. Because really, sometimes people do get wobbled more than they can handle, and that's an opportunity for other people to help out.

So far, I've been extraordinarily lucky. It's been easy to return to normal from the little things I've come across so far. You know how some video games are designed to gradually help you learn different skills and others throw you in the deep end? So far my life has been like the former. When things come, they're within my range and I have the support structure that makes them easier to deal with. So I guess that's like I'm playing a game where you get just enough wobbling so that you can correct your mass distribution or egg-shaped profile in order to wobble back better. Which is sort of Stoicism, I think. Stoicism helps with adjusting so that you can deal with bigger and bigger wobbles if you need to. Stoicism reminds you that you are not the wobble that pushes you. You don't control the wobble, so why bother stressing out about it? You can get better at bouncing back. You can work on becoming the weebliest Weeble.

I sometimes hear from people who are playing a much harder game, where they have to deal with pretty darn big wobbles before they've been able to sort things out. I'm not sure I have much to offer. Newbie tips aren't as useful for people stuck playing life on the "hardcore" setting, I guess! I can say that I'm working on being a better roly-poly toy and that it seems to be working out so far, but I definitely haven't wobbled as much as other people have. But maybe reflections from someone living an easier version of the game can help people think about little aspects of their own games, either from the actual thoughts or even just the process itself.

One of the thoughts that helps me is this: wobbling's what makes Weebles fun. So as much as I'm sure people wish for care-free lives, I'm okay with there being some wobbling in mine. I might not actively seek out really wobbly situations, but if they're there, they're there, and they can help me be better.

Anyway, wobble on.

DONE Living like you're old   philosophy

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:ca2be33a-3cd0-463a-97a7-4f5324dc772b

:POST_DATE: [2014-07-30 Wed 17:40]

:POSTID: 27403

:BLOG: sacha

There's a saying that you should live each day as if it were your last, which is supposed to help you fully enjoy each moment. I've been recently thinking about another way of looking at it: living each day as if yesterday was your last. What do I mean by this? Well, let me explain how I got around to thinking about this in the first place.

I am a bit of a pessimist when planning, which is perhaps a little surprising to people who know me in person because I'm generally cheerful and positive. I think it's precisely because I think about risks and safety nets that I can easily focus on the bright side. Now, thinking about what can go wrong often leads to dealing with ultimate consequences. (I can't be the only one who routinely thinks about death before biking in city traffic, am I? But I bike anyway.)

From time to time, I reassure myself that hey, life so far has been pretty darn awesome, actually, so even if it were abruptly cut off or made significantly more challenging, things are on the whole pretty good. I might not have worked on things of lasting significance (and what could really be significant, anyway, in a universe probably heading towards heat death in gazillions of years?) and there may be more awesomeness ahead of me, but even after the thirty years I've been around so far, people have sent me e-mail and commented on my blog and told me that some of my thoughts have been useful. In any case, I'm happy with what I've been learning so far. That's as good a start as any, and anything else is icing on the cake. Instead of accepting the common view that life is incomplete unless you do X, Y, and Z, I like to think that life is pretty good, actually, and that things just get even more wonderful. (This is why I haven't quite gotten the hang of bucket lists–I don't have that burning sense of urgency and incompleteness.)

While chasing down some notes about hypomnemata (those personal notes I wrote about while thinking about my handbook), I came across Michel Foucault's The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2001, translated by Graham Burchell in 2005; you might be able to read it online). Here's the segment that got me thinking about this particular reflection:

With regard to our life, and this is the central point of this new ethics of old age, we should place ourselves in a condition such that we live it as if it is already over. In fact, even if we are still young, even if we are adult and still active, with regard to all that we do and all that we are we should have the attitude, behavior, detachment, and accomplishment of someone who has already completed his life. We must live expecting nothing more from our life and, just as the old man is someone who expects nothing more from his life, we must expect nothing from it even when we are young. We must complete our life before our death. The expression is found in Seneca's letter 32: "consummare vitam ante mortem." We must complete our life before our death, we must fulfill our life before the moment of death arrives, we must achieve perfect satiety of ourselves. "Summa tui satietas": perfect, complete satiety of yourself. This is the point towards which Seneca wants Lucilius to hasten. You can see that this idea that we must organize our life in order to be old, that we must hasten towards our old age, and that even if we are young we should constitute ourselves in relation to our life as if we are old, raises a series of important questions to which we will return.


Aha! People smarter than me have thought about the same thing, but more eloquently and more deeply than I could have. In the same section, he writes about how society typically thinks old age is not as awesome as youth, but actually, old age is pretty cool because that's when all of your philosophical work comes to fruition and you're safe from many of the things that disturb other people. This reminds me a little of how my mom is slowly making peace with growing old. She is not quite there yet. Sometimes it makes her sad. Oddly, sometimes I feel older than other people; old in the sense of accepting the shortness of life and embracing whatever we've lived so far. Granted, I am only turning 31 next month, so it's quite possible that I don't know what I'm talking about. We'll see in forty or sixty years. But if Foucault and Seneca say something along those lines with the advantage of quite a few years of experience (Foucalt was maybe 55 when he gave those lectures on hermeneutics that were later transcribed and translated for that book), maybe I'm onto something, or maybe I can take advantage of the springboard that they're offering.

The nice thing about reading philosophers (especially classic ones!) is that they've often come up with short, clear ways to say things that you've been trying to untangle. Like this, from Seneca's 12th letter ("On old age"):

When a man has said: "I have lived!", every morning he arises he receives a bonus.'

Every day above ground is a good day. This is already more than I could have asked for, and what I have is already enough. Anything beyond this is icing on the cake and fudge on the brownie. =)

DONE Writing incomplete thoughts   writing

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:dd778e0e-0e01-4ca2-b94e-e26cab0d9514

:POST_DATE: [2014-08-06 Wed 19:19]

:POSTID: 27408

:BLOG: sacha

Writing helps me make myself. In a quiet, considered moment, I can think through things and figure out how I'd like to respond or act. Most of the time, I don't end up referring to my old blog posts; writing is itself enough to help. Sometimes I do link back so that I can trace the development of a thought, build on what I've written, or share that moment in time with someone else who's figuring out similar things.

Sometimes I have all these little thoughts that don't quite gel into a single post. I'm still attached to the idea of having some kind of question, some kind of realization, or at least a little progress in a post. Sometimes I have two or more threads and I feel there's some kind of connection between them, but I can't quite articulate it coherently. I'm getting better at writing regardless, but I keep the notes until they make a little more sense. I've been saving those snippets in an ever-growing outline, but maybe I should just post things. After all, present-Sacha has found the time machine of a blog archive to be unexpectedly interesting reading, so maybe future-Sacha will be able to make sense of all this. As Steve Jobs said (in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford), "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

Today I thought about chronos and kairos, clock-time and personal-time. I thought about Aristotle's golden means and the vices that my nature tends towards. I thought about our almost-daily habit of watching movies borrowed from the library, and what we did before this became our routine; and similarly, what were those long-ago weekends like? Maybe I should write more about everyday life so that future-Sacha can see the changes.

Here is what our lives are like at the moment. Mondays and Wednesdays are quiet days at home. I skim a stack of books, taking notes on a few. Because my consulting client needs a little extra help, I usually interrupt my reading and writing with an hour or two of work, responding to e-mail and dealing with quick, important requests. Tuesdays and Thursdays are more focused on consulting. On Tuesday evenings, I go to Hacklab to cook and hang out. Fridays I go out, meet friends, and experiment with a change of scene. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do laundry, groceries, cooking, and chores; the other weekend day is for outside errands or other forms of relaxation, although sometimes W- uses it to catch up on work.

I spend a lot more time reading and writing than I did when I worked full-time. (From about 5 hours a week to about 19 hours!) I enjoy it immensely. I'm beginning to feel more of a sense of the authors I encounter through their works, both ancient and modern; their voices, their ideas, the conversations that thread their way through the books I read.

There's always that need to combine learning, doing, and sharing. Book-learning isn't enough; I have to try things in real life. Doing something is good, but sharing what I'm learning from it is even better. My writing this year is a lot more self-focused than it was last year, but in the grand scheme of things, a little exploration should be all right. (Who knows, it might even be useful.)

DONE Balancing virtues

It got me thinking: What happens if you look for a good balance between two (or more) virtuous positions instead? Philosophers throughout the ages have illuminated very different ways of life, and it's interesting to see what might resonate with you. What are some of the contrasts I've learned about, and where do I stand?

  • Life is suffering vs. life is pleasurable: Detachment would keep me safer, I guess, but I like the idea of appreciating the little we have - to take pleasure in existence.
  • Gadflies vs. guides and co-learners: Some philosophers sting us out of complacency with criticism and questions; others gently help us untangle tough topics for ourselves.
  • Abstract

Personal finance

Eating out and eating in

W- and I have been taking advantage of the summer weather by biking around the city during weekends. We're working on being more adventurous, and have so far discovered a Japanese curry place that we like. What tends to happen, though, is that we end up talking ourselves out of going out to eat (expensive; can be less healthy; besides, it's all the same at the end)

Working on ignoring thresholds

Isn't it funny how we end up being pulled by round numbers and thresholds?

I calculate my net worth every month, and sometimes more often out of curiosity. It goes up and down with the markets. This is gratifying when it's going up (look! I didn't have to do anything special for that!). Oddly, it's still reassuring even when it goes down, since I'm not drawing down the money yet. I don't really change my decisions based on this information. I'm just curious about the growth.

Still, I've been checking my finances more recently because my 31st birthday is coming up, and I'm this close to reaching one of those arbitrary savings thresholds.

CANCELLED Building an opportunity fund

Sometimes I hear from people who are stuck. They want to try something that could result in more earnings, but they don't have the time to do so because they need to focus on paid work. For freelancers, this bind can be particularly tight if you don't have good savings or you've exhausted your resources.

If you have savings, it's easier to take risks and try things out. You're less worried about messing things up. If you have savings that are dedicated for exploring opportunities in addition to a general emergency fund, it's even easier to experiment. It's a good idea to set aside a portion of your income for an opportunity fund. You can use your opportunity fund to pay for tools, education, coaching, services, or other time-savers. You can also use it as a safety net when you want to spend more time and energy on your personal projects. False starts hurt less, so you can try more. You become a capitalist, an entrepreneur, examining the opportunities and deciding where to deploy your money. You work on getting the best return, because you want to feed those profits back into your opportunity fund.

I'm a natural saver, so it was easy for me to keep my wants simple and set aside a small percentage of my income for an opportunity fund. I remember being excited about watching the balance grow. One time, I used my opportunity fund to buy a Nintendo DS partly for entertainment and partly for drawing. I used that to draw my presentations, which resulted in invitations to conferences, connections with mentors, and a boost to my career. I took the results and confidence from that and saved up for a professional drawing tablet, which I used to put together something that won a competition. That success encouraged me to take the next step of getting a tablet PC, which led me to sketchnoting, which led to even more opportunities. Small investments compound. I've used the opportunity fund for things that didn't work out as well as I hoped, too, but since I limit myself to small bets before making bigger ones, things have been okay.

But what if you don't have those savings yet?

Frugality can help you widen the gap between your income and your expenses so that you can keep more money and build up your savings. The more savings you have, the easier it is to save. For example, if you live on the edge, it's hard to wait for sales or buy in bulk. If you have a little more capital, though, you can take advantage of the occasional sale on essential items, and equip yourself with the tools and skills you need to make the most of them. Aside from finding more cost-effective ways to do things, you might take a look at your expenses and trim things that you'd been paying out of inattention or limit the luxuries you enjoy. Frugality might not make you that much richer, but it can give you breathing room.

Widen your work options. If your freelancing income is unpredictable and this is wreaking havoc on your finances, consider taking a stabler job (even if it's less exciting). Build up your savings and work on your passion projects in your off hours. Then, when you've got the safety net you need in order to do well, make the jump again. Many people rule out certain types of jobs as beneath them, but if you shift your perspective, you might be able to make it work for you.

Learn to sell. Let's say that you want to keep freelancing and working on your own projects because you're worried that you might forget your dreams if you're distracted by a regular job. Learn to sell, then. Find out how to communicate more value so that you can earn more. See if you can break your project down into smaller parts and sell those. Instead of waiting until you find the time to finish an entire book, try to publish shorter guides and resources. If there's a project you really want to work on but you can't carve out enough time to work on it, see if you can pre-sell the idea to people who might find it useful and who are willing to contribute to its development.

I think the best thing of all is to build yourself that safety net– usually a combination of savings and a frugal lifestyle–so that you can

Want that freedom more than you want a moment's entertainment, convenient food, or other comforts.

DONE Learning from frugal lives of years past   experiment finance

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:6c99f252-ce12-4f28-96d4-e43978f3af1c

:POST_DATE: [2014-07-11 Fri 20:14]

:POSTID: 27385

:BLOG: sacha

I've been reading a lot about early frugal living. I read Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), and I followed a link in a blog post to Ralph Borsodi's This Ugly Civilization (1929) and thence to his Flight from the City (1933, during the Great Depression - particularly poignant bits in the chapter on security versus insecurity). Both authors provided detailed breakdowns of their expenses and descriptions of their methods, fleshing out philosophies of simple living. There's much that I don't agree with, but there are also many ideas that I recognize and can learn even more from. I'd probably get along with the authors, and their mental voices will be handy to keep in my mind. I found both of them somewhat more relatable than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essays, but I'm sure Emerson will yield additional insights on re-reading.

Both Thoreau and Borsodi emphasized the freedom you get (or keep!) by minimizing your wants. Thoreau wrote, "… for my greatest skill has been to want but little." Borsodi points out the artificiality of many desires as products of a factory-oriented culture that must have people buy the things that factories produce. By questioning your wants and becoming as self-sufficient as you can be, you free yourself from the restrictions many other people have. In a way, it's a follow-up from what I'm learning from Epictetus. I like how the Greeks tend to be more about living in society instead of going away from it, though.

Homesteading is a big thing for both Thoreau and Borsodi. I'm not particularly curious about exploring homesteading at the moment. City bylaws ban keeping chickens, and I still struggle with garden productivity. The city is all I know so far. W- and J- both have reasons to be here. Besides, the Toronto Public Library system and a decent, reliable connection to Internet are doing amazing things for my learning at the moment. Perhaps someday, but not now. In the meantime, despite Borsodi's disdain for the stock market, I like the fact that it's doing well. The gains are much less than Virginia Woolf's five hundred a year (about US$45,000 these days), but I don't need that much to live well, anyway. Still, I'm going to keep working on some skills for independent living (cooking, sewing, repairing, making, etc.), since I can do that wherever I am.


DONE Baby steps towards investing   finance

When you're learning something complex, it can help to break it down into small steps and figure out what sequence is right for you–especially if there are lots of other people who want to influence your decision.

Let's take investing, for example. There are all sorts of businesses built around making you want to earn more, all sorts of complex instruments that seem to enrich advisors more than clients, and all sorts of decisions that you can make that can either help you or screw up your life. Me, I'm trying to learn slowly.

I'm a conservative investor. I don't need to beat the market. In fact, I'd like to stay as close to average as I can. I don't need to be smarter than other people who are buying and selling. Even if I have plenty of time, I don't want to spend that time and attention on tracking financial news. Baby steps - one lesson at a time.

I started by saving up. Then I opened up an investing account with TD and started with their e-series funds, since those had low management expense ratios and no commissions. After years of annually stashing money into TD e-series index funds, I'm now relatively confident about my ability to not panic based on the ups and downs of the market. The stock market has been practically all up since I started, actually. I've been investing at the rate I previously set for myself. I haven't figured out the best way of transferring larger amounts from the corporation yet, but that can wait. In the meantime, it's a good buffer for emergencies, and it means I can think of corrections as a good thing.

Over the past two years, I've gradually learned to think of my TFSA + RRSP + locked-in RRSP + non-registered investments as one big bucket to manage instead of having multiple allocations in multiple accounts. I sold some units (for the first time!) in order to shuffle my allocation around, simplifying my paperwork a little. I still have some duplicates because there's only so much each account can hold, but ah well. I've only ever sold units within tax-sheltered accounts, so I still haven't gone through the exercise of calculating my adjusted cost base for the e-funds in my non-registered account.

I briefly considered real estate, but I don't think real estate is the right fit for me (yet? at all?). It's a big commitment that I don't know enough about. Sure, there are probably upsides, but there are also scary downsides–especially with Ontario's tenant laws, which make it difficult to evict people if there are problems.

I've also thought about ETFs. After crunching the numbers, I don't think my portfolio size is large enough to justify switching. I'd probably save a little in fees, but it adds complexity.

For me, the next step is probably to sell a token amount from my non-registered holdings so that I can practice calculating the adjusted cost basis (and so that any tax penalties are also pretty small in case I totally mess up). Slowly leveling up!

Keep opportunity costs in mind

Enjoy the free things in life

Discretionary expenses

Investing in making the pie bigger

(rough thoughts) My default approach is to save Where am I not investing

Saving versus spending

OUTLINED Reinvesting in business and in life

  • Motivating conflict
    • My conflict: default is saving, lots of uncertainty, want security
    • also, technical skills/general interests; see the value in developing the skills myself, so tempted to do everything
    • BUT if I invest, I can learn more, and I can be better-prepared for opportunities + shifts in time/energy/capabilities
    • The trick is to focus on enduring benefits and constant improvement
  • Imagining wild success
    • Set aside enough to calm my lizard brain and feel reasonably safe (
    • Earmarked funds for things that are important to me (ex: opportunity fund, flights home, helping out around the house)
    • Good sense for value
    • Structured review process
  • Understanding my goals and how I can invest in them
    • Business
      • Consulting: Help people connect and collaborate better at work through internal social networking
      • Sketchnoting: Help more people see sketchnoting as a great way to take and share notes
        • Help it become a well-known option for events, and make it easier for organizers to connect with sketchnote artists
        • Help people get started with sketchnoting on their own
      • Life
        • Quantified: Make better decisions through data, and build tools to simplify data collection and analysis
        • Knowledge-sharing: Share what I'm learning - blog posts, drawings, screencasts, e-books, courses, and so on
        • Living: Live an awesome life: relationships, health, happiness
  • What are some general categories that I can use to brainstorm investments?
    • Experiments
    • Tools and technologies
    • Education and skill development
    • People and skills
  Experiments Tools and technologies Education and skill development People and skills
Consulting (Social business)   Data analysis tools, Javascript libraries for charting, Tools for drawing and video Microsoft Excel, Javascript, CSS, statistics n/a due to contract
Sketchnoting Webinars, print book, stickers Adobe Creative Cloud (for Illustrator and Photoshop?), iPad + Jot Pro + apps so that I can write about that, Microsoft Surface Pro?, supplies/materials Books, drawing workshops, lettering workshops, art classes, museum visits Critique and improvement, image processing, illustration, comic writing
Quantified Self / self-tracking Webinars Gadgets, ScanSnap Statistics, data visualization, Excel workshops Research (find comparable numbers), transcripts, data visualization, infographics, statistics coaching, Excel wizardry, data entry
Knowledge-sharing Webinars, webinars, video camera, better webcam, audio, larger SSD Workshops Social media (improve consistency, keep an eye out for opportunities to engage), transcripts, writing/editing coach, voiceovers, video, copywriting, e-book formatting and publishing, indexing, pay for guest posts
Living   Larger saddlebags, 21-speed bike, blackout curtains, messenger bag Sewing classes, Japanese games/books/media Edible landscaping, gardening advice, tutors, massage
Connecting, relationships Mailing list Business cards, passport, visas, flights, conferences, network reminder tools, social media monitoring, home projects, lunch/coffee, grocery delivery Cooking lessions Menu planning

What would you do with more money?   link

One of the downsides of building a really good frugality muscle (that reflexive reaction of "Oh, I don't really need this, do I?") is that

I’ve been reading through Mr. Money Mustache’s blog archive, and his blog post on What would you do with WAY MORE money? made me think about what I value and what I would change. Like him, I’m comfortable with the way things are. I like eating at home. I like getting books and movies from the library instead of buying them. (No storage or waste issues, wide selection, and the satisfaction of boosting library circulation statistics…) I like my hobbies and interests. I like my freedom from the endless hedonic treadmill. Not even the latest apps or gadgets, aside from the occasional experiment. (Shh! I hope they don’t take away my geek card. ;) ) About the only thing that would be awesomer would be to make more frequent trips to the Philippines (maybe every year! or on a whim!) or to join family and friends on their vacations. Although that’s constrained by other things too, like the fact that I like spending time with W- and he needs to be here in Toronto for J-.

Living an off-peak life   link

It’s finally spring in full force, and I’ve been biking whenever I can get away with it. The bike ride is a little faster than the subway commute to my client, and I like not have to squeeze into the crowded train. Free exercise along a well-maintained trail with plenty of flowers and trees…

Substituting pleasures

It’s been easier and easier to substitute pleasures. A $12 bowl of pho is yummy, but a $2 banh mi sandwich will do just fine. Why buy a DVD (even a used one) if there are so many unwatched ones at the library? I have clothes I haven’t worn in ages.

Managing my personal and business finances

Time and gadget tradeoffs

What's worth spending on?

I'd been contemplating this question for the past four years.

What's worth spending on? I invest for the future, save for unexpected expenses, and support causes and people - but it's good to have that discretionary part of my budget which I can use to enjoy life and learn how to make better decisions.

Many people care about stuff. I apporeciate that. There are many examples of things that have enabled me to enjoy and learn from life so much more, such as my tablet PC.

Many people care about experiences. I appreciate that, too. I like how experiences can lead to deeper relationships.

Many people know something else that I'm just beginning to figure out. You can spend on people, on time, on making things happen. This is awesome! There's a candy store of talent out there - a world full of people with unique experiences, skills, and passions.

Like the way I've learned about what works well for me in terms of spending on stuff and experiences, I want to learn how to spend on making things happen. And who knows? If I can get good enough at it, maybe I can learn how to create so much value that it becomes a self-perpetuating machine.

Life without a job

STARTED Reflecting on patronization, liberality, prodigality, meanness

:Effort: 1:00

Every so often, we hear about projects that are raising funds through Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

to be a patron

Household life

Use baking soda and vinegar to clean sinks and tubs and food containers

Get started with cooking

Eat simple food

Live simply

  • Thrift stores

    W- and I were browsing through books at the thrift store.

    W- and I sometimes drop off donations at the thrift store. We browse a while. W- looks through the CDs. I

    At the end of the day, it's stuff.

    We've been donating stuff to the thrift store or getting rid of it in the trash. I've trimmed my clothes down to a set that I wear fairly frequently. I could probably reduce things further by

    I've gotten rid of lots of little knick-knacks, and even many of my books. (Spoiled by the library and my notes…) The wagon with busted wheels is earmarked for the next garbage run to the depot.


  • This is the year I'm going to build an exercise habit   life

    :Effort: 1:00

    :ID: o2b:f78fcd6b-44fc-4a1d-838b-a63600c8ea98

    :POST_DATE: [2014-06-25 Wed 18:57]

    :POSTID: 27318

    :BLOG: sacha

    This year, I am going to become the sort of person who exercises regularly. I'm not particularly concerned about reaching a certain weight, but I'd like to improve my strength and endurance. W- is helping me ease into the learn-to-run program he did at work. I'm also starting from the first rung on the fitness ladder from The Hacker's Diet. Small activities like these don't take a lot of time, and the gradual progression will help me build confidence.

    I'd also like to turn more exercise activities into ones that W- and I can share. Krav maga isn't my cup of tea, but I think I'll like jogging and walking with W-. We can stretch or do some weight-training while watching videos. Biking is fun, too.

    What does making fitness part of me mean? I think it means being in tune with how things work, paying attention to the details and the changes. It's probably like the way daily gardening has changed my experience of the backyard compared to when I dabbled in it. I'm looking forward to trying more things and learning more.

    Identity is a big factor when it comes to maintaining good habits. When you make something part of who you are, it's easier to keep doing it, and it's harder to neglect it. Here are some of the other identity changes I've gone through:

    • I changed from someone who takes transit all the time to someone who bikes whenever she can.
    • I changed from someone who hated writing for school to someone who enjoys writing for this blog.
    • I changed from someone who grew up around household staff (cook, maids) to someone who cooks practically all her meals and takes care of her own chores.

    I have the time, space, and support I need, and it's good for me. I can see the results of good habits and the consequences of poor ones. And I'm going to do it without gym memberships or other things like that. We already have all the tools I need, so I just have to do it. =)

DONE Dealing with uncertainty one step at a time   life

Sometimes it's hard to plan ahead because there are just too many factors to consider, too many things I don't know, too many divergent paths. I can come up with different scenarios, but I can't figure out a lot of things that would make sense in all the likely scenarios. Some of the scenarios are exciting, but some of them are also scary. They're hard to hold in my mind. They fight my imagination. I can't plan straight for these. I can't come up with step 1, step 2, step 3. At best, I can come up with if-then-elses, but I still have to wait and see how things turn out.

Sometimes it's easier to take life one day at a time, because if I think about too large a chunk, I start getting lost. Sometimes it's better to not focus on everything that's needed, just what's needed right now.

2014-11-11 Dealing with uncertainty one step at a time.png

It rattles me a little bit because I'm more used to seeing clearer paths. Or do I only think that I'm used to that?

Let me try to remember when I felt that sense of clarity and certainty. I was certain about taking computer science; I loved programming even as a kid. I was certain about teaching after graduation; I loved helping people learn. I was certain about taking a technical internship in Japan; it was an interesting thing to do. I was certain about taking my master's degree; it was a logical next step, necessary for teaching, and the research was interesting.

I was not certain about being in Canada, and I was often homesick during my studies. But I was certain about W-, and now this place also feels like home. I was certain about IBM and about the people and ideas I wanted to work with. I was certain about saving up an opportunity fund so that I could explore other things someday. I was certain about starting this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement.

So I'm familiar with what it's like to plan for a chunk of certainty - half a year, four years, decades. It feels good when a plan comes together, when I can see how each step leads to a future I've already lived in my head.

I am certain, now, that I'm going in roughly the right direction. I don't know exactly how it will work out, but I know that it will be interesting.

Ah! There it is, I think, the thing I'm trying to grasp. The future Sacha of this five-year experiment is fuzzy in my head. That evaluation point is only two years away now, and I should be able to imagine her more clearly. But aside from a few abstract characteristics (future Sacha is a better developer and writer, future Sacha continues to be happy, future Sacha gets to work on what she wants), I don't have a good sense of her yet - not with the same solidity of past futures. I'm not sure what to put on that Conveyor Belt of Time (as Mr. Money Mustache puts it) aside from generically-useful gifts to my future self: decent finances, relationships, skills.

Circling back to the metaphor that emerged while I was drawing and writing my way through this question, I suppose this is like the difference between hiking along a trail with a view - or even unmarked ground, but with landmarks for orienting yourself - versus exploring the woods. Not that I know much of the latter; I've never been lost in the woods before, never strayed from the safety of a trail or the sight of a road. (Well, except maybe that one time we were hiking along the Bruce Trail and got turned around a little bit, and we ended up scrambling up a slope to find the trail we really wanted to be on.)

I can learn to enjoy exploring, knowing that in the worst-case scenario, I've got the figurative equivalent of supplies, a GPS, emergency contacts, backup batteries and so on. I can learn to enjoy observing the world, turning questions and ideas over, noticing what's interesting about them, perhaps cracking things open in order to learn more. I can learn to take notes, make maps, tidy up trails, and leave other gifts for people who happen to wander by that way.

Ah. That might be it. Let's give that a try.

DONE Figuring out how my temporary sleep schedule interacts with programming, writing, and drawing   kaizen time productivity

I've been out-sleeping our cats, I think, which is really saying something. I don't expect this to be a permanent change in my schedule, but it's interesting to think about how I could adapt to it if I anticipate being like this for several months or longer.

Based on my time data from six days (which is totally long enough to draw conclusions, for sure), I've been awake for an average of 5.2 hours before going back to bed, with a median of 4.4 hours and a pretty-hard-to-plan-for standard deviation of 2.9 hours. So that means I can sometimes stay up for a normal day, and sometimes I'm out after 1.6 hours. (Although some of that is because I allow myself to nap instead of pushing myself harder, I'm sure.)

So I'm awake in spurts. Sometimes I have plenty of energy during those times (like now), and sometimes I feel pretty bleah (but usually still okay enough to, say, go through my Japanese flashcards). I've been catching up on reading technical documentation. I'm pretty good at picking sleep over video games if I'm feeling really out of it. I've also been practising drawing, since it amuses me to be able to sketch my memories of our cats in awkward situations. (Like that time Leia was going to jump over a cable and misjudged it, ended up swaying gently in mid-air…)

I was thinking about how I can use these snippets of time to improve in programming, writing, and drawing. I realized that although I can easily imagine how other people can write or draw using fragmented time (writers scribbling in notebooks on top of washing machines, artists doodling on the subway), programming seems a lot less tractable. It doesn't feel like you can break it up and squeeze it into different parts of your day as much.

It is generally accepted that context switching is evil when it comes to programming. So I've been carrying around this idea that Real Programmers are people who can pull all-nighters hacking on tough problems, holding elaborate structures in their heads. Your standard hero programmer stereotype, with the pinnacle being someone either building complex, cool stuff, possibly maintaining large and useful open source software.

Hence this little mental disconnect. I'm pretty certain I can get there someday if I really want to, but probably not if I extrapolate from current circumstances. Even maintaining a tiny piece of software sounds like more commitment than I want at the moment. (Heck, I might go a week without responding to e-mail.)

Fortunately, I spent my first few working years in a corporate environment, where mentors showed me that it's totally possible to be an Awesome Geek while still working a roughly 9-to-5 job, having families and hobbies, and getting plenty of sleep. Thank goodness. So I have this alternate model in my head, not of a Hero Programmer, but rather of solid contributors who keep making gradual progress, help teams of people become more productive, and who enjoy solving interesting challenges and expanding their skills.

So let's say that I want to play with my assumption that programming is the sort of thing that's hard to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of one's day, at least not the way writing and drawing can. I know that I can go through technical documentation and design resources even if my mind isn't completely awake, and I can still pick up useful things.

What is it about writing and drawing that make them suitable even in small doses, and how can I tweak programming? Writers can think about stuff during other activities. I can reflect on ideas while walking or cooking, for example. When I program, I still need more of that back-and-forth with a computer and an Internet connection, but maybe I'll need less of that as I develop more experience. I can set pen to paper during any spare moment, sketching a quick line and seeing where it takes me from there. I might not be able to do that with implementation, but I can use that same playfulness to explore design. Behavior-driven development makes it easier to break projects down into tiny, clear steps, and have a way of verifying progress (without too much backsliding!). Getting deeper into frameworks and tools will help me do more with less effort when I do sit down at a computer.

Okay. I can do this. Worst-case scenario, I just move slowly until I get past this particular phase. I've seen role models who've pulled that off well, so that's totally cool. Best-case scenario, I figure out how to hack around some of my current cognitive limitations, and maybe that might help other people who find themselves in the same situation too.

This could work.

5-year experiment

The 5-year experiment: A conversation with my anxious side, and how giving me time might be better than giving me money   experiment

Having resolved to learn how to work on my own things, I'm experimenting with reducing my consulting to one day a week (from last year's routine of two days a week). I spend most of the week reading, drawing, writing, experimenting, and coding.

2015.01.09 What do I do on my non-consulting days – index card

It's not a big change in terms of hours. I already have plenty of time for personal projects. But I feel the shift in the balance. I can hear that inner self-doubt saying, "Is this real work? Is it worthwhile? Is it sustainable? Are you undermining your safety by goofing off?"

2015.01.07 Real Work – index card

It's okay. I expected this resistance, this anxiety. It's just one of those mental barriers I have to break. Fortunately, all those Stoic philosophers are there to remind me that it's just a negative impression, not reality, and the truth is that I have nothing to fear.

I'm getting better at telling that anxious part of my mind: "Look. Even though I offer all those resources for free, people willingly pay for it. And other people write wonderful comments and send me e-mail telling me that I've inspired them to learn more and that they want to help, so that counts too. Yeah, there's a chance I might need to go back to Regular Work if the stock market crashes or a catastrophe happens, but in the meantime, just give this a chance. And really, that scenario isn't the end of the world. Other people do okay. I can too. Besides, that's why we have safety nets, right?"

2015.01.06 Planning my safety nets – index card 2015.01.06 Safe, a little better, comfortable – index card

And then my anxious side goes, "Okay, you've probably got the basics covered. But what if your expenses grow, or W- gets tired of living frugally and wants to upgrade lifestyles a little bit?"

2015.01.06 Is this enough for me – index card

And then I say, "We'll probably have some time to adjust our plans for that, and I can always go back to doing Real Work that satisfies you. Besides, if we want to upgrade our life experiences, learning the skills to make stuff for ourselves often works out better than buying things. Like cooking!"

(It's true! It's even called the IKEA effect.)

Then my anxious side goes, "Fine. Maybe you have enough space to experiment right now. You want to learn things and help people. But look at your blog! It's so self-centred. You talk about your questions and reflections, and you rarely give people tips they can directly apply to their lives."

Then I say, "I'll get better at writing for other people. In the meantime, this seems to be working okay so far. People translate my reflections into stuff that they can use."

2015.01.04 What kind of difference do I want to make, and for whom – index card

Here's how I think my blog helps other people at the moment. Maybe you come across my blog because of a search. You find something that saves you a little time. You browse around a little and learn about things you didn't even think about searching for. Maybe you come back once in a while for more of those ideas. You bump into other topics you're curious about, and you explore. You might subscribe, even though you know I post practically every day. You skim the headlines for things that interest you, and you dive into stuff you like. Sometimes you might even feel moved to comment, e-mail, invest time, or even send some money.

My anxious side grumbles, "Okay. I'm not sure your blog counts as Real Work, but I'll grant that people seem to find some value in it. I'd feel better if you were more serious about building a business around it - if you could cover more of your expenses with this instead of consulting income or dividends."

To which I say, "You know, I'm not sure any amount of money would get you to the point of not worrying. Besides, it's good that you worry, because that helps keep us safe. This stream will grow as I figure out how to make things that are truly valuable to people. I bet you I can pull it off while still keeping the free/pay-what-you-want aspect, because that's important to me. Given that you tend to squirrel away additional money to build up safety instead of getting better at investing it to build up capabilities, what we really should be thinking about is if we can make better exchanges of time instead of money. That will probably make a bigger difference anyway."

My anxious side is sufficiently boggled by that idea and can't come up with a good rejoinder. This is promising. Let me dig into it further, then.

One of the concepts I picked up from Your Money or Your Life (Dominguez and Robin, 1999) is that you can think of money in terms of the time it took you to earn it, a sobering thought when you apply it to your expenses.

I can apply that idea to other people, too; if other people pay money for something I made, it represents the chunk of their life that they spent earning it (and the opportunity cost of anything else they could've bought or invested in, including saving up for their own freedom).

I'm frugal (bordering on being a cheapskate), having gotten very good at making the most of inexpensive resources. Because of the typical mind fallacy, I tend to think that other people should be frugal as well so that they can save up for their own freedom. I suspect that people might get marginally more value from saving that money than I would get from them giving it to me, since their stress reduction or freedom expansion will likely outweigh my slightly increased feeling of safety. On the other hand, people do get value from feeling generous and from patronizing something that they would like to see flourish, so I can agree with that.

If we translate it back to time, though, I'm more comfortable with the exchange.

I already have enough time for the priorities in my life, while many people feel that they don't have enough time for the priorities in theirs. Adding more money to my life doesn't easily translate into additional or more effective time (aside from transcripts and tools, which I already budget for), while translating that money back into time might make more of a difference in other people's lives. So a direct swap doesn't make sense.

However, if we can exchange time in an apples-and-oranges sort of way, that might make sense. That is, if someone gives me 15 minutes of their time that translates to much more than 15 minutes of my time or might even be something I could not do on my own, that would be fantastic. This could be something that takes advantage of someone's:

  • experience or particular mix of interests
  • ideas, knowledge
  • perspective (writing, coding, and all sorts of things can be improved with the perspective of someone who is not me)
  • questions
  • connections

Technically, delegation is supposed to help me translate money into time that is qualitatively different from my time, but my anxious side has not been very good at evaluating, trusting, or making the most of learning from people who know different things than I do.

Figuring out a way to effectively receive other people's gifts of time might be what I need to break through this barrier.

2015.01.04 Thinking in terms of an exchange of time – index card

In fact, receiving time might be more effective than receiving money. Not only could that get around my difficulty with finding and paying other people for the qualitatively different time that I want, but if we structure it right, people will gain from the time that they give. If someone asks me a good question that prompts me to learn, reflect on, or share something, we both gain. If they invest more time into experimenting with the ideas, we gain even more. I can't actually buy that on any of the freelancing or outsourcing marketplaces. There's no way for me to convert money into that kind of experience.

So, how can people can give me 15 minutes of time in a way that helps them and helps me? Let me think about different things I'm learning about:

2015.01.09 Time is greater than money – index card

2015.01.09 What am I learning more about, and how can people help – index card

It makes sense to organize this by interest instead of by action.

  • Emacs: Ask a question, pass along a tip, share a workflow. Also, I really appreciate people showing up at Emacs Hangouts or being on Emacs Chats, because my anxious side is always firmly convinced that this will be the day when no one else shows up to a party or that conversation will be super-awkward.
  • Coding in general: There are so many ways I want to improve in order to become a better programmer. I should set up continuous integration, write more tests, refactor my code, learn more frameworks and learn them more deeply, write more idiomatic code, improve performance and security, get better at designing… I find it difficult to pay someone to give me feedback and coach me through setting things up well (hard to evaluate people, anxious side balks at the price and argues we can figure things out on our own, good programmers have high rates), but this might be something we can swap. Or I could work on overriding my anxious side and just Go For It, because good habits and infrastructure pay off.
  • Writing: Comments, questions, and links help a lot. A few of my posts have really benefited from people's feedback on the content and the structure of ideas, and I'd love to learn from more conversations like that. I don't worry a lot about typos or minor tweaks, so the kind of editing feedback I can easily get from freelancers doesn't satisfy me. I want to get better at writing for other people and organizing more complex thoughts into resources, so I could benefit a lot from feedback, questions, as well as advice on what to learn and in what order.
  • Drawing: I'm not focused on drawing better (I can probably get away with stick figures for what I want to do!), but rather on being able to think more interesting thoughts. What would help with this? Hearing from people about which thoughts spark ideas in them, which ones I should flesh out further. Book recommendations and shared experiences would help too.

So: Paying for free/pay-what-you-want-resources is great at helping me tell my anxious side, "Look, people find this valuable," and that's much appreciated. But giving me time works too. If we can figure out how to do this well, that might be able to help me grow more (at least until I sort out a way to talk my anxious side into letting me invest more in capabilities). Shifting the balance towards time is probably going to make my anxious side more anxious, but I might be able to tell it to give me a year or two to experiment, which is coincidentally the rest of this 5-year span.

Wild success might look like:

  • Thanks to people's gifts of time and attention, I'm learning and doing stuff that I couldn't do on my own or with the resources I could get in marketplaces
  • Thanks to people's gifts of money (and maybe teaching), I've addressed more of my anxious side's concerns and am getting better at experimenting with the resources I can get in marketplaces
  • I can incorporate people's feedback and revealed preferences in my prioritization so that I work on things that other people find valuable

I could use your help with this. =) Shall we figure it out together?

Filling in the occupational blanks   experiment

Following up on an interview, a journalist asked:

If I were to say that you freelance as [blank] consultant, what would be the word that fills that blank?

2015-01-14 Filling in the occupational blanks – index card #experiment #occupation

Tricky question. "Freelance" is definitely the wrong word for it, since I doubt I'll be taking on any more clients and the word obscures my current fascination with a self-directed life. It might make sense to use the word "independent" if we really need to contrast this with stable employment.

Technically, I spend a fraction of my time consulting, and I can define the kind of consulting that I do in a compact phrase. But based on my 2014 numbers, that's only 12% of my time. This is much less than the 37% of the time I spend sleeping, or even the 18% of the time I spend on discretionary projects or the 15% of the time I spend taking care of myself (not including the 7% of the time I spend on chores, errands, and other things).

Since no one gets introduced as a sleeper even though that's what we mostly do with our lives, maybe my discretionary projects will yield a neat occupational description for people who need to have that introductory phrase.

  • Am I a writer (3%)? ("Author" is a smidge more self-directed and respectable, maybe, but I still don't feel like I've written Real Books since all my resources are compilations of blog posts). A blogger? This is a category so large, it could mean anything.
  • A sketchnoter (3%)? Alternatively: a sketchnote artist or a doodler, depending on whether I'm making it sound more respectable or more approachable. But the popular understanding of sketchnotes (if there is one) is that of recording other people's thoughts, and I'm focusing on exploring my own questions.
  • An Emacs geek (2%)? Too obscure; it doesn't provide useful information for most people. Maybe an open source developer, which also includes the 1% of the time I spend coding – but I do more writing about software than writing actual software or contributing to projects. An open source advocate? But I don't push it on people or try to change people's minds.

In the rare meetups I go to, I usually mention a bunch of my interests (drawing, writing, coding, experimenting), and people pick whatever they're curious about. But most times, I try to preempt the "What do you do?" question with something more interesting for me, like what people are learning about or interested in. It's so much easier when someone recognizes me from my blog, because then we can jump straight to the interests we have in common.

From time to time, I come across people who persistently ask, "But what do you do? What's your day job?" I confess it's a bit fun to tweak the box they want to put me in. One approach I've heard other people use is to playfully acknowledge the difficulty of categorization. "On Mondays, I _. On Tuesdays, I _. On Wednesdays, I___. …" Others gleefully embrace descriptions like "I'm unemployed."

But I'm missing the purpose of that introductory phrase or that short bio here. It's not about shaking up the other person's worldview. At its best, that occupational association helps the listener or reader quickly grasp an idea of the other person's life and where the other person is coming from. An accountant probably has a different way of looking at things than a primary school teacher does. One's occupation provides the other person with the ability to contextualize what one says ("Oh, of course she thinks of things as systems and processes; she works with code all day."). During small talk, it gives people easy things to talk about while they're waiting for a more interesting topic of conversation to appear: "What kinds of things do you write?"

Let's say, then, that my goals for this phrase would be:

  • to help people understand my context quickly, and how that might differ from their perspective
  • to make the other person more comfortable by:
    • being able to associate me with a stereotype that adds information, possibly fleshing out this mental profile with differences later on
    • in conversation, letting them easily think of questions to ask, addressing the phatic nature of small talk (we're not actually talking, we're making polite noises)
  • to branch off into more interesting conversations, avoiding the dead-end that often comes up after the ritualistic exchange of "What do you do?"

Of these goals, I like the third (interesting conversations) the most.

Here are a few of my options:

  • I can accept convention and pick one aspect of what I do, especially if I tailor it to their interests. For example, at a business event, I might introduce myself as a social business consultant who helps really large companies improve internal collaboration through analytics and custom development for enterprise social network platforms (well, isn't that a mouthful). At visual thinking events, I might introduce myself as a sketchnoter focusing on exploring my own ideas.
  • I can waffle by introducing several aspects, still within the vocabulary of regular occupations: a consultant and a writer, for example.
  • I can say, "It's complicated!" and explain my 5-year experiment, self-directed living, and learning/coding/writing/drawing/sharing.

Anyway, circling back to this writer and his likely use of some kind of occupation as a way to introduce and contextualize me:

  • It might be interesting to play with no occupational categorization. Some context may be provided by age (31) - it's common enough in newspapers and books. The editor might send it back with a question, "Yes, but what does she do?", but there it is.
  • It might also be interesting to play with my difficulty of categorization. "Sacha Chua, who couldn't come up with a single phrase to describe her occupation, …"
  • Or, since it's no skin off my back if this is not fully representative, I could just let him write whatever he wants to write. Freelance consultant. Blogger. Sketchnoter. Amateur experimenter. Independent developer. "Consultant" is a very small part of my identity, actually, so developer or blogger might be interesting. A possible missed opportunity here is that the wrong frame might result in people not being able to identify with and learn from stuff ("Of course she can deal with this, she's a coder"; "Bah, another blogger, is that all she does?"; "Why should I listen to her? Freelance is just a fancy word for unemployed."). But it'll do under time pressure. =)

I'm writing this on January 14 and posting this in the future (because I limit posts to one a day), so the article will likely be out by now. If I remember, I'll update this with what he actually used. =) But I needed to think about it out loud, and I'm sure the situation will come up again in the future. Perhaps by then I'll have a more compact way to describe myself.

Since other people have figured this out before, I can learn from them. (And possibly from you!) After all, I'm nowhere near as interesting as Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci, and somehow they managed to settle down into a sequence of nouns. Here's the one from Wikipedia's entry for Leonardo da Vinci:

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519) was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.

People can pick whatever aspect they want. I am multi-faceted and growing. =)

DONE Learning to work on my own things   experiment

My annual review showed me that despite my resolution to reduce consulting and focus more on my own stuff in 2014, I actually increased the amount of time I spent working on client projects than I did in 2013 (12% vs 9%). Sure, I increased the amount of time I invested in my own productive projects (15% of 2014 compared to 14% in 2013) and the balance is still tilted towards my own projects, but I'd underestimated how much consulting pulls on my brain.

This is the fourth year of my 5-year experiment, and I'm slowly coming to understand the questions I want to ask. In the beginning, I wanted to know:

  • Do I have marketable skills?
  • Can I find clients?
  • Can I build a viable business?
  • Can I get the hang of accounting and paperwork?
  • Can I manage cash flow?
  • Can I work with other people?
  • Can I deal with uncertainty and other aspects of this lifestyle?
  • Can I manage my own time, energy, and opportunity pipeline?

I'm reasonably certain that I can answer all these questions with "Yes." I've reduced the anxiety I used to have around those topics. Now I'm curious about other questions I can explore during the remainder of this experiment or in a new one.

In particular, this experiment gives me an rare opportunity to explore this question: Can I come up with good ideas and implement them?

I'm fascinated by this question because I can feel the weakening pull of other people's requests. It's almost like a space probe approaching escape velocity, and then out to where propulsion meets little resistance and there are many new things to discover.

The most worthwhile thing I'm learning from this experiment, I think, is to sit with myself until the urge to work on other people's project passes.

2015.01.05 Developing my imagination and initiative – index card

I found it easy and satisfying to work on other people's requests, and harder to figure out what I wanted to do. It's like the way it's easier to take a course than it is to figure things out on your own, but learning on your own helps you figure out things that people can't teach you.

What's difficult about figuring out what I want to do and doing it? I think it involves a set of skills I need to develop. As a beginner, I'm not very good, so I feel dissatisfied with my choices and more inclined towards existing projects or requests that appeal to me. This is not bad. It helps me develop other skills, like coding or testing. Choosing existing projects often results in quick rewards instead of an unclear opportunity cost. It's logical to focus on other people's work.

One possibility is to build skills on other people's projects until I run into an idea that refuses to let go of me, which is a practical approach and the story of many people's businesses. The danger is that I might get too used to working on other people's projects and never try to come up with something on my own. In the grand scheme of things, this is no big loss for the world (it'll probably be all the same given a few thousand years), but I'm still curious about the alternatives.

The other approach (which I'm taking with this experiment) is to make myself try things out, learning from the experience and the consequences. If I'm patient with my mediocrity, I might be able to climb up that learning curve. I can figure out how to imagine and make something new - perhaps even something that only I can do, or that might not occur to other people, or that might not have an immediate market. Instead of always following, I might sometimes be an artist or even a leader.

What would the ideal outcome be? I would get to the point where I can confidently combine listening to people and coming up with my own ideas to create things that people want (or maybe didn't even know they wanted).

How can I tell if I'm succeeding? Well, if people are giving me lots of time and/or money, that's a great sign. It's not the only measure. There's probably something along the lines of self-satisfaction. I might learn something from, say, artists who lived obscure lives. But making stuff that other people find remarkable and useful is probably an indicator that I'm doing all right.

What would getting this wrong be like? Well, it might turn out that the opportunity cost of these experiments is too high. For example, if something happened to W-, our savings are running low, and I haven't gotten the hang of creating and earning value, then I would probably focus instead on being a really good follower. It's easy to recognize this situation. I just need to keep an eye on our finances.

It might also turn out that I'm not particularly original, it would take me ages to figure out how to be original in a worthwhile way, and that it would be better for me to focus on contributing to other people's projects. This is a little harder to distinguish from the situation where I'm still slowly working my way up the learning curve. This reminds me of Seth Godin's book The Dip, only it's less about dips and more about plateaus. It also reminds me of Scott H. Young's post about different kinds of difficulty.

As a counterpoint to the scenario where I find out that I'm not usefully original and that I'm better off mostly working on other people's things, I hold up:

  • my Emacs geekery, which people appreciate for both its weirdness and their ability to pick out useful ideas from it
  • the occasional mentions in books other people have written, where something I do is used to illustrate an interesting alternative

So I think it is likely that I can come up with good, useful ideas and I can make them happen. Knowing that it's easy to get dissatisfied with my attempts if I compare them with other things I could be working on, I can simply ignore that discomfort and keep deliberately practising until either I've gotten the hang of it or I've put in enough effort and must conclude that other things are more worthwhile.

If you find yourself considering the same kind of experiment with freedom, deciding between other people's work and your own projects, here's what I'm learning:

It's easy to say yes to other people's requests, but it might be worthwhile to learn how to come up with your own.

Choosing what to do: impact and motivation vs. understanding   experiment quantified productivity purpose

Someone asked:

One issue I have is prioritization. I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time on low-impact activities. How do you tackle this in your life? What's the most important thing you're working on right now?

How much time do you actually have?

It's easy to feel that most of your time is taken up with trivial things. There's taking care of yourself and the household. There are endless tasks to check off to-do lists. There's paperwork and overhead.

I track my time, so I know I spend a lot of my time on the general running of things. November was weird, so let me analyze October 2014 instead. A quick summary from my time-tracking gives me these numbers. Out of the 744 hours in October, I used:

Hours Activity
255.0 sleep
126.3 consulting
91.9 doing other business-related things
80.5 chores and other unpaid work
86.2 taking care of myself
38.3 playing, relaxing
30.4 family-related stuff
12.6 socializing
10.3 writing
7.4 working on Emacs
1.5 gardening
1.0 reading
0.5 tracking
1.7 woodworking

Assuming that my consulting, writing, and working on Emacs are the activities that have some impact on the wider world, that's 144 hours out of 744, or about 19% of all the time I have. This is roughly 4.5 hours a day. (And that's a generous assumption - many of the things I write are personal reflections of uncertain value to other people.)

Even with tons of control over my schedule, I also spend lots of time on low-impact activities.

And this is okay. I'm fine with that. I don't need to turn into a value-creating machine entirely devoted to the pursuit of one clear goal. I don't think I even can. It works for other people, but not for me. I like the time I spend cooking and helping out around the house. I like the time I spend playing with interesting ideas. I like the pace I keep.

So I'm going to start with the assumption that this is the time that I can work with instead of being frustrated with the other things that fill my life. This is different from the mindset that I find in many productivity and time management books, I think, where the rest of your life is often treated as something that gets in the way of your Real Work. (Are you kidding? The time that I spend snuggling with W- or the cats - that's Real Life right there, for me, and I'm often all too aware of how short life is.) This low-impact stuff is what grounds me and makes me human.


And when I'm alert and I have the time to dig into something deeply? (Which I often do, since I keep my schedule relatively uncluttered by commitments.) Then I want to have stuff ready to work on and ideas to explore. That way, I can work on whatever I feel like working on. Why waste energy fighting yourself and forcing yourself to work on one important thing, when you can choose from a buffet of good options? (March 2014)

This sounds like a recipe for procrastination, an easy way for near-term pleasurable tasks to crowd out important but tedious ones.

But I also ask myself:

  • Why do I feel like doing various things? Is there an underlying cause or unmet need that I can address? Am I avoiding something because I don't understand it or myself well enough? Do I only think that I want something, or do I really want it? I do a lot of this thinking and planning throughout my life, so that when those awesome hours come when everything's lined up and I'm ready to make something, I can just go and do it.
  • Can I tweak how I feel about things by emphasizing positive aspects or de-emphasizing negative ones? What can I enjoy about the things that are good for me? What can I dislike about the things that are bad for me?
  • What can I do now to make things better later? How can I take advantage of those moments when I'm focused and everything comes together? How can I make better use of normal moments? How can I make better use of the gray times too, when I'm feeling bleah?
  • How can I slowly accumulate value? How can I scale up by making things available?

I don't really work with a grand vision or a sense of importance. I don't need to make big jumps. I'm delighted (and somewhat mystified) when other people tell me that they found my blog posts or resources useful. Even if I proceed at my current pace–for example, accumulating a blog post a day–in twenty years, I'll probably be somewhere interesting.

What that usually works out to is that I use my time to learn something, writing and drawing along the way. I've been blogging for the past twelve years or so. It's incredible how those notes have helped me remember things, and how even the little things I learn can turn out to be surprisingly useful.

I might never do anything Important Enough to show up in the history books or get a Wikipedia page. But hey, if I help people save a little time, tickle their brains, or help them learn stuff, maybe they will. =)

And I'm really curious about what, say, learning out loud for 50 years can tell us. I love reading about how people kept journals and commonplace books of the things they learn, but what we can do now is so different from those personal notes back then. Now we can open up our notes for other people to search or learn from or be inspired by. Now we have conversations that grow out of notes we've forgotten writing. So maybe that's the Important Thing that I'm working on, but I won't know what the results are like until decades have passed.

Hmm. I think how I deal with prioritization is to:

  • Embrace your limits. Don't stress out about not being 100% productive or dedicated. Accept that there will be times when you're distracted or sick, and there will be times when you're focused and you can do lots of good stuff. Accepting this still lets you tweak your limits, but you can do that with a spirit of loving kindness instead of frustration.
  • Understand yourself and play with what you think about things. Instead of fighting motivation head-on, approach it sideways by asking questions and choosing what to focus your awareness on.
  • Prepare. You can get a decent amount done normally, and sometimes you can get a lot more done because you have a lot more energy or concentration. Even when you don't feel on top of the game, you can prepare so that you can make the most of the moments when you do (and get some things done even when you don't). For a writer, that might mean keeping lots of outlines and ideas around. For a developer, that might mean reading documentation and sketching out plans. There's so much you can do to lay the groundwork.
  • Accumulate gradual progress. Sometimes you only feel like you're not making any progress because you don't see how far you've come. Your memory is fuzzy and will lie to you. Take notes. Better yet, share those notes. Then you can see how your journey of a thousand miles is made up of all those little steps you've been taking - and you might even be able to help out or connect with other people along the way.

Hope that helps!

Getting out of your own way when you learn

Learning early

Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: "I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy." And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: "I wish to acquire something to live on." Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

DONE Figuring out my own path to awesomeness   purpose

Following up on a previous reflection about working within my current constraints, I was thinking about multiple models of awesomeness.

  • There's the 10X Hero Programmer idea of someone who can brilliantly cut through the clutter and write just the code that's needed to solve the problem you didn't know you had. Awesomeness might involve being able to perceive the true need, bring together different components, and create something solid.
  • There are architects and team enablers who can work within organizations (both formal and informal) to make bigger things happen. Awesomeness might involve balancing multiple trade-offs, keeping track of complex structures, and using soft skills to get stuff done.
  • There are people who envision products and services, bringing them to the people who need them. They might create things themselves, or they might invest in forming a team to create things.
  • There are people who create bridges for other people so that they can get started or they can develop their skills. Awesomeness might involve presenting things in a clear, logical, inspiring, and useful manner. Plenty of role models doing cool stuff in this area, and lots of ways to grow.

Oh, that's interesting. That makes sense to me. I can see myself growing into that last one. It fits the things that tickle my brain.

I don't have to worry about doing Clever Things or Big Things. As I get better at doing what I already enjoy doing, sharing what I'm learning and helping other people along the way, I'll find my own path to awesomeness.

DONE Experimenting my way to an awesome life   quantified life purpose

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:b2c9ae9d-df1e-49c8-ac1a-e5e65274d813

:POST_DATE: [2014-11-10 Mon 14:44]

:POSTID: 27604

:BLOG: sacha

"The question I really want to answer is: How can I live a fuller life, a happier life, a more productive life?" said someone in a recent e-mail about Quantified Self.

This made me think: The ideal life differs from person to person. *What kind of awesome life am I moving towards? What motivates my choices and experiments, and how can I explore and learn more effectively?*

I have role models for this, so I can imagine what it looks like. I can look at the differences between our lives to get a better understanding of the gaps and divergences.

My parents have full, happy, productive, and significant lives (although I think my mom thinks that what she's doing isn't as awesome or as significant as what my dad does). They make things happen. In particular, my dad touches lots of people's lives. He has this really big scope.

W- lives a full, happy, productive life. I think he focuses on doing a good job at work, doing the right thing, knowing (and applying!) all sorts of good knowledge, and being a great husband and dad. We're probably not going to get added to any tribal epics or history books, but that's okay. I tend to think of his scope as smaller, more local, and he's totally awesome within it. He sometimes reaches beyond that scope to support interesting things, like Kickstarters for well-designed products.

I think I live a decently full, happy, and productive life as well. Definitely yes to the happy bit; yay for high genetic set-points for happiness, good coping mechanisms, and a tremendous amount of luck. I keep some slack in my life, so I don't feel like it's super-full or super-productive. But people tell me that I do a lot, so maybe this is like the way my mom's not as sure about her own contributions. I could probably do more, but this is as good a start as any.

My scope tends to be similar to W-'s, focusing on our little world. But I also have these odd outgrowths for things like Emacs, visual thinking, social business, Hacklab… These aren't as driven as my dad's initiatives or my friends' startups. They're more… curiosity-based, maybe? I enjoy exploring those playgrounds and sharing what I'm learning. I think W- is like this too - he follows his curiosity into new areas.

So, if that helps me understand a little of who I am now, what does that tell me about the future Sacha I'm gradually inching towards, and what experiments can help me learn more?

I imagine Awesome Sacha to be this capable, curious person with lots of skills, including practical DIY stuff. Her equanimity and optimism lets her handle whatever life throws at her (and learn from it!). Maybe she's more involved in the community now, helping her favourite causes, but probably more from a position of lifting people up rather than going on crusades. She takes plenty of notes and shares them, helping other people learn faster and see the connections among different ideas.

If that's a potentially interesting Future Sacha I could become, what can I track to measure my progress along the way, and what kinds of experiments could stretch me a little bit more towards that?

  • I can pick up and practise more skills: Cooking, sewing, electronics, DIY repair, etc. I can track this through journal entries, blog posts, comfort level, and decisions to do things myself versus asking or paying someone else to do things. For example, I now feel comfortable cooking, and I remember feeling a lot more uncertain about it before. I feel moderately okay about repairing small appliances and doing simple woodworking, but could use more practice. I have hardly any experience with plumbing or tiling.
  • I can observe more, and write about more of what I'm learning: The little hiccups and challenges in my life feel so much smaller than the ones that other people go through, and I usually don't write about them. Keeping a journal (even for the small stuff) might result in interesting reading later on, though. I already bounce back pretty quickly. It might be interesting to see how I respond to larger and larger changes, though, so deliberately taking on more commitments and more risks can help me develop this part of my life.
  • I can help out more. I think it's okay even if I don't try to maximize utility on this for now. I'll start with the things that resonate with me. It's easy enough to track hours and money for this; maybe later I can add stories too.
  • I can get better at taking, organizing, and sharing my notes. I can see the gap in my note-taking by noticing when I'm annoyed that I can't find my old notes (either because I hadn't written them up properly or I didn't make them findable enough). As for organizing and sharing my notes, perhaps I can track the number of longer guides I put together, and whether I can get the hang of working with outlines and pipelines…

Most of my little experiments come from looking at ideas that are close by and saying, "Hmm, that's interesting. Maybe I can explore that." Sometimes it helps to look a little further ahead–to sketch out an ideal life, or even just a slightly-better-than-this life–and to plan little steps forward, going roughly in the right direction. Some ideals fit you better than others do, and some ideals just won't resonate with you. For example, I currently don't wish to be a highly-paid jetsetting public speaker. Thinking about this helps you figure out what kind of future you might want, and maybe figure out a few ways to try it on for size and track your progress as you grow into it.

What kind of person would Awesome You be like, and how can you inch a little closer?

OUTLINED Experiment review: Income and expenses

  • Preparation
    • Projecting my expenses
    • Main costs: $10k a year
    • GIC ladders
  • As expected
    • Frugal lifestyle
    • Delegation still worthwhile
  • Unexpected
    • Consulting
    • Easier and easier to substitute pleasures
    • Embracing uncertainty and reducing income
  • Dealing with the unknown
  • Monthly reviews
    • Ledger
  • Investment results

Laying the ground work


Choosing the Aristotelian way

A day at leisure

Two of my friends were hanging out at a park, so I decided to join them. It was a leisurely afternoon of sunshine, idle conversation, and ice cream. In the evening, we watched a movie–which turned out to be free because of projector issues.

Come to think of it, I rarely choose a pace as slow as that, but sometimes I enjoy it. Weekends, we do chores and get ready for the next week, with some time for reading and writing and other interests. During my non-consulting weekdays, I'm often writing or learning or trying something new. Even the long walks I occasionally take feel a little purposeful.

Sometimes the time I spend with W- is like that, like when we go for bike rides or movies or dinner. Most of the times, we relax through activity.

With friends, I tend towards slow time rather than active time. But I catch myself being occasionally hesitant about spending time with other people, because sometimes I want to be fast instead of slow, or I want to do something else, and I'm not sure if people will take it the wrong way.

Anyway, when things line up, that feels good.

Is ambition necessary for a good life?

More reflections on Aristotle: Temperance and intemperance

:Effort: 1:00

In Creating a Good Life: Applying Aristotle's Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness (O'Toole and Isaacson, 2005), the authors suggest the following questions for reflection:

  • To what extent do I behave in intemperate ways?
  • How can I build the habits of temperance and right desire?
  • What activities do I currently find pleasurable, but which prevent me from becoming happy in the long term?
  • What activity do I engage in with others that gives me so much pleasure that I lose my intemperate desires in the process?

I have time data going back to November 2011. This helps me review my day objectively, seeing the times when

What activities do I engage in for short-term benefits, but which might be taking time away from other things I could do for my long-term happiness if I let them run away with me?

What else am I sometimes intemperate in? I sleep a lot - about 8.6 hours a day, and not always because I need it. Sometimes I stay in bed mentally running through different scenarios. It's still within the healthy range, though.

Sometimes I have bursts of watching videos or reading comics.

Aristotle splits up leisure into amusement (passive entertainment), recreation (active exertion), and contemplation (building understanding).

Planning little achievements

:Effort: 1:00

  • Gamification
  • What are some small goals that I can work towards?
    • Complete the novice Latin vocabulary flashcard deck
    • Be able to read jyutping notation for Cantonese


On Saturday, we cleared the fridge and vacuumed its coils. Today we mopped the floor and

Moving up the value chain

  • writing -> website management

Enough time

  • Occasionally people write to me saying that they'd love to try certain things, but they don't have enough time
  • Time abundance
  • Need help - has anyone made the switch?
    • Why someone who has made the switch from time scarcity and time abundance
  • How did I get here?
    • My parents were always busy, but they also always had time for us
    • There's time
    • Splash Mountain?
      • Return
  • Acceptance
    • If I'm doing what I'm doing, it's because I feel I get enough benefit out of it
    • If it isn't, then I can use that room to work on more important things
    • See the value in everyday activities
  • Analogy with money
    • Not wealthy, but…
    • Emergency fund takes off the stress
    • Opportunity fund lets me experiment and learn
  • Still want something to help people bridge the gap
    • Comparison with other blog posts
  • Need help - has anyone made the switch?

Don't worry about your story

  • Worry
    • Identity
    • Different interests
    • Zigzag
  • Quote

    Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

    Steve Jobs in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford

  • The brain is good at patternicity
    • Too good, in fact
  • Use this to your advantage
  • Come up with a coherent story

Thanks: Trevor Lohrbeer for the quote

Planning business

Choosing how to spend my time

  • value of time
    • not just what people will pay for it, but also what else I want to do with my time
  • I've been thinking about it because people want me to do things
    • of the response to sketchnotes
      • "I love your work"
      • events
      • book reviews
      • illustrations for blog posts and podcasts
    • consulting
      • analytics
      • development
      • testing
      • writing
      • design
        • tallying up the hours in consulting. I work less than the budgeted hours. I work probably 6-7 hours instead of 8
  • August experiment with proper retirement, now back to consulting
  • how I spent my time
    • Jan-Aug 2013

      37% sleep (~8.8 hours a day)
      22% discretionary (8% productive, 5% family, 5% play, 2% social, 1% travel)
      21% work
      13% personal
      8% unpaid work (chores, commuting, etc.)

      I just love being able to pull actual numbers!

    • Good feeling about balance
  • do I want to do more work?
    • reasons
      • money: keep same lifestyle, but create more of a safety buffer and help W- (esp. planning for ageism in tech)
      • skills: take advantage of external motivation and feedback
        • judging by my blog posts, I learn more about web development when I work on client projects than when I'm working on my own. Team skills, client validation, even though it includes more stress; if so, focus on long-term client relationships
        • sales, negotiation, other useful skills. worth adding one area of professional interest, maybe illustration?
      • make hay while the sun shines: I should take on all the work I can now, because there'll be time for other things later
        • If I want to do that, I can max out consulting before digging into things that require more marketing and paperwork
      • keep myself current
    • reasons to keep the current balance
      • "business - earn" is the easy answer; spending time on "discretionary - productive" and "business - build" takes more thinking, but I think it will pay off in the long run
    • good to plan for the next balance, anyway, so I know where to direct extra time
  • what kind of work?
    • consulting?
    • other people's requests?
      • sales, negotiation, relationship-building
    • my own: writing, drawing, coding
    • vs learning and skill-building (sewing, exercise)
      • and fun!
    • and relationship building through delight and gifts - using reciprocity to build my network for 10 years down the line
  • How would I increase the work that I do?
    • What are my limiting factors for consulting, and how would I want to work around them?
      • I pass on work because I'm conscious of my rate and we're working with the budget
        • If someone else can do it (ex: a student on our team), then it's better for them to have the learning opportunity.
      • I try to stay close to what I know or can help with instead of building up skills during client time. So, yes to troubleshooting or looking up API details, but no to longer-term improvements such as going through web design courses. (I can do that on my own time.) If I invest time in building those skills, then I'll feel all right doing more work.
      • I say yes to work when my teammates need help with their workload. I'm okay with weekends and holidays because I get plenty of discretionary time during the week. This probably means I can take on more work if my teammates feel overloaded, if they think it's good value. (Happiness is worth it.)
    • Do I want to increase my sketchnoting or illustration work?
      • Small gigs
      • Moving away from events because I'm minimizing commitments
      • More interested in helping other people start earning through their sketchnoting
        • Let a thousand flowers bloom
    • Do I want to increase other kinds of work?
      • Create more PWYC resources - yes!
      • More control over what kinds of skills I build and when I work
      • What would awesome be like?
        • Create courses for people to go through so that they can learn things one step at a time
          • Sketchnoting? Emacs? Writing?
        • Income from books and articles that save people time and help people learn
        • First to 12 deep, evergreen articles
        • First to 52 evergreen tips
  • How would I use extra income? :toblog:
    • Save more: make our safety buffer bigger, start working on W-'s retirement. Easy path.
    • Live more: replace activities we don't particularly like doing with more discretionary time, or add more relaxation/life stuff (massages)
      • Most of my tasks give me personal benefit, and I don't want to get used to lifestyle inflation
      • It feels wasteful to pay for chores (ex: washing the dishes, cooking food), especially as I get a lot of enjoyment out of those activities too (washing dishes = creative downtime, cooking food = family)
      • Not likely to pursue this path
    • Earn more: replace activities we don't particularly like doing with more work time
      • I earn more than I would pay someone for the tasks I would replace
      • If I could, say, work one hour and hire out or accelerate three hours (net gain of two hours)
      • but my limiting factor isn't really time, and the things I want to invest in don't have an immediate time=money result, so it blends into the next category…
    • Learn more: replace activities with more learning and making
      • Do I get more value out of building those life skills now instead of earning money to buy the time later?
        • Three steps: work more, delegate more, and then fill that time with something productive
        • versus working less (or the same) and directly filling the time with something productive
      • comparative advantage if
        • working more lets me give myself permission to invest in more tools and education, speeding up learning/doing by 2-3x
        • working 1 hour lets me free up 2-3 hours with minimal admin overhead.
    • Actually, I would want to bank at least half of any extra. So I should make a business plan that looks for twice the ROI.
      • Oh, there's an idea there… Maybe I should make a "business plan" for my learning, and identify where I can accelerate it.
  • How would I invest in specifics?
    • What are the activities I could reduce?
      • Grocery shopping and library errands - revisit my online grocery shopping experiment?
        • Social time with W-
        • 15% premium for 1 hour per week; time spent shopping online, so maybe 45 min saved per week?
      • Litter-box cleaning: ~15min/day. Tried paying J- to do it, but offer not motivating enough for her. Doesn't make sense to have someone else come in and do it. Should take on other chores to offset…
      • Weekly laundry: pretty easy. Social time with W-, and watching movies.
      • Weekly or bi-weekly cleaning
      • Offset some of W-'s activities, such as working on the deck?
      • Video games?
      • Actually, my life is pretty trim
    • What are the activities I could invest in? TODO Post this as a quick question - what would people like me to invest more into?
      • Writing: Buy recent books instead of relying on the library. Give stuff away. Invest time in formatting, or pay someone to format. Interview people and send them gift certificates. Go for a course. Get a coach. Experiment with writing topic-focused blogs and delegation. Buy premium plugins or themes. Pay a designer, coder, editor, or social media person. Get things transcribed. Learn how to work with writers?
        • Platform University? Copyblogger? ProBlogger Academy? Firepole Marketing?
        • Let's say that I want writing to become a larger stream of income. What would I need to do?
          • Plan content
          • Reach out to people (bloggers, potential community)
          • Create, organize, and format content
          • Put content up for sale
      • Drawing: Get and learn how to use Illustrator, maybe once we've got a Windows desktop set up. Learn 3D modeling, buy models. Learn animation, buy tools.
      • Coding: Buy premium plugins, scripts or themes. Experiment with digital delivery systems when Gumroad volume gets large enough. Have someone I can send technical questions to with payment or gifts of appreciation? Maybe indirectly through my blog - send more gift certificates?
      • Connecting: Treat people to food (either at home or outside) - maybe outside so that I don't feel self-conscious about home. Visit family and friends in the Philippines. (Don't want to trade off time with W-, though.) Learn how to make or buy gifts. Buy stamps. Buy ingredients and make HackLab dinners. Schedule more get-togethers with people.
      • Making: Take a class (cooking, sewing, home maintenance)
        • Take a cooking class? I can buy a lot of ingredients with that money.
        • Sewing class? Took one. YouTube is amazing and convenient. Class interactivity wasn't that compelling. Other people have learned this before, and I can too.
        • Home maintenance skills? Checking for workshops
      • Fitness: Sign up for classes. Rotate through classes/gyms a month at a time until I find something I love. Make biking in winter safer and more comfortable.
  • It's easier to think of investing time rather than money. I've got lots of ideas for investing time.
    • So maybe it makes sense to keep my surplus as time instead of converting it into money…
  • What's another approach?
    • Keep my unpaid work and earning time the same
    • Plan for a reduction in earning time, so I know what activities will take the surplus time and I can direct it instead of frittering it away
    • Minimize external commitments; refer work to other people instead of taking on time=money trades
    • Force myself to double-down on creating content that's useful for other people
    • Reinvesting needs to beat what I can get elsewhere. Good test: profit, inexpensive test, greater return of profit.


  • I'll probably step up consulting a little because things are working well. Maybe 2.5 days a week instead of 2, maybe even 3 if the balance keeps and the budget holds.
  • I'll refer other time=money swaps to people, doing only what I need to do. This builds a network of skills.
  • I'll save surplus money instead of making myself use it.
  • As consulting winds down, I'll assign the surplus time to creating content, getting really good at writing and drawing and reaching out.
  • I'll start "banking" evergreen posts until I reach enough that it makes sense to create a topic-focused blog. This gets around my worry that it will be a stale one. Maybe 12, 26, or 52? Likely candidates: sketchnoting, blogging, personal finance.
  • I won't throw money at the problem. I'll pretend that I'm bootstrapping content. I'll use my opportunity fund for small experiments or good wins, gradually scaling it up.

I predict that these decisions will:

  • Give me a comfortable safety buffer
  • Keep me hungry and creative instead of letting me make lazy decisions about tools or delegation
  • Limit my growth a little, but keep it manageable
  • what are my decision criteria?
    • in line with my interests, focus areas, and desired skills
      • scalable, public
    • low commitment
    • focus on creating? get paid to learn by helping?
  • what would I do if I weren't doing that?
    • write
    • draw
    • code
    • play
    • spend time with people
    • read
  • I have enough time for those things. I don't feel time-starved. Transform cognitive surplus?
  • More money, same lifestyle
    • more safety
    • help W- get closer to "retirement" too
  • What does this allow me to do?
    • Be picky
    • Dig into the business case
  • Some thoughts
    • What if I can create more value by helping other people rather than trying to dig up or make things on my own?
      • Maybe. But other people can also help, and I can build relationships by referring
    • What if I can improve my skills faster with external requests instead of internal motivation?
      • I want to get better at internal motivation anyway
    • Where do I offer value that is difficult to substitute?
      • Drawing: particular style, technology; early adopter for digital sketchnoting, although I hope it will become more popular
        • I'd rather encourage people to draw than make them reliant on my drawings
          • Can I channel requests to That would be the best, I think. Start with job posts, get more people handling virtual or in-person requests.
        • I'd rather build relationships than sell, sell, sell. (Although I'm open to being compensated.)
          • Build the network for 10 years down the road.
    • How do I feel confident about business?
      • Do the accounting
      • Keep on consulting while it makes sense and I can create value
      • Write, draw: build resources instead of trading time for money
        • Even if I start off creating less value
    • Arguing the opposite

from consulting or significant benefit from illustration

  • Benefit from illustration: learn about interesting topics? plenty to do on my own
  • Build a professional network
  • Some options
    • No unless compelling case
  • Reconsider as I get closer to my experiment re-evaluation date
  • what do I want to do more of?

Not busy

People sometimes get the impression that I'm this super-busy, super-productive person. I'm not. Thanks to this experiment with semi-retirement, I'm probably the least busy person I know, at least in terms of people less than 60 years old. I try to get one or two good things done each day. The difference, I suppose, is that I write about it, so the days don't blur together and I can actually tell you where the time went.

I try hard to not be busy. I minimize the number of commitments I make. I still occasionally turn down invitations or requests, but I'm up front about my reasons. It's not that I'm busy, I've just got other priorities. It's not that I'm busy, it's that I'm tired and want to sleep in. It's not that I'm busy, it's that I don't feel up to it right now. (Introvert mode strikes again.) It's not that I'm busy, I just want to keep the time open so I can follow where my interests lead me.

There are two types of balance that I pay attention to. One is my bank balance, of course. As long as it remains comfortably high, I'm okay.

The other balance, the more important one, is the balance of how W- feels about this experiment. He works long hours, although he's also got great work-life balance and enjoys the occasional walk to the library while his code compiles.

I work more than I estimated I needed. I'm keeping the same frugal lifestyle, but the excess can go towards our safety buffer and possibly his early retirement too.

Sometimes I give myself permission to play video games most of the afternoon, after learning interesting things and writing several blog posts along the way.

Learning practical skills

  • Around the house
    • Cooking
    • Cleaning
    • Organization
    • Drywall patching
    • Painting
    • Plumbing
  • Physical fitness
    • Biking
    • Strength
  • Survival
    • Lighter, fire steel
    • Physical fitness
    • Food storage
    • Foraging for food

Learning how to be

This is probably the hardest part of semi-retirement: learning how to be. Learning to let go of the need to check things off a list or do things that I consider productive. Learning how to ignore the clock and follow the flow.

Look, I'm writing a blog post instead of staring off into space. This time, I'm not starting with an outline. We'll just see where this post goes.

It's not all "work." I sleep in, and I go for walks, and I get on my bike and go to places even if I don't need to. I cook and I read and I garden. I tidy. I play video games.

They're still all verbs. That's okay. The goal isn't to do nothing, the goal is to be where I am: unhurried, present, not frustrated, not judging myself for what I do or don't do.

Pretty good, actually.

To have enough

What I'm learning from my 5-year experiment

  • Rat race
  • Discretionary time is a wonderful thing
  • It's okay to not optimize everything
  • There are lots of things I can learn (even without books or the Internet!)

Starting your own 5-year experiment

Learning about business, learning about life

  • Why it's five years
  • Throw myself into it - learning how to build a business?
  • Keeping my needs small
  • Lifestyle business
  • More curious about life, creation - the things people can't pay you to do
  • Backup plan

Preparing for uncertainties

DONE Anticipating experiment outcomes   experiment

I'm almost half-way through this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Every so often, I like reflecting on the possible outcomes and whether I want to influence things one way or another. (Totally unscientific here!) Thinking about this will also help me figure out what I need to try so that I can properly discriminate among the options. Here are some of the ways this experiment could work out.

  • A. "I want to go back to a regular job." Let's say that at the end of five years, I've learned what I want to learn to have a smoothly-running, wonderful life, and I want to go back to working within someone else's business so that I can take advantage of its scale and infrastructure. I'd rebuild my network and dust off my resume, likely working my way back into a technical position in a team I enjoy working with. Life would be pretty similar to what life was like at IBM, except perhaps I'd be fitter, cook better, and write more.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Possible job satisfaction, scale, learning experiences, team I like; also, if W- downshifts to part-time or takes a break
    • What would a typical week look like? Work, cook, read, write. I might use the extra cash to outsource chores or buy conveniences. Hmm, danger of lifestyle inflation here?
  • B. "I want to keep freelancing." Let's say that I like the flexibility and usefulness that consulting a few days a week gives me. I'd probably expand my consulting practice slightly so that I don't have to worry about being classified as a personal services business. During my free days, I might continue to do the kinds of things I'm doing now: writing, learning, tinkering with stuff.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Happy clients, continued growth; also, if W- downshifts to part-time
    • What would a typical week look like? Much like my current weeks, but maybe consulting for different companies for a good balance.
  • C. "I want to build a lifestyle business." This would be if I'm curious about building other types of businesses. Maybe I'd learn more about web marketing, for example. I'd still keep it low-key so that I can do other things with the rest of my time.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Curiosity about businesses that go beyond time-for-money exchanges; commitment to make products or automated services
    • What would a typical week look like? Responding to people's questions, creating new things, improving old stuff. Occasionally learning new skills and trying them out.
  • D. "I want to 'lean in' in terms of business." This would probably be the next stage after building a small lifestyle business that's focused on products or automated services. Assuming I've got the rest of my life sorted out, I might channel my curiosity and energy into building the business so that I can help more people and apply what I've been learning from business books.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: Finding a good market that I really want to help
    • What would a typical week look like? I'd probably learn how to manage a small team, do lots of research and customer service, and make stuff happen.
  • E. "I probably don't have to work, at least for a while." Stock market growth and savings might mean that I'll have lots of flexibility, so I could choose to work or not. Depending on our circumstances, I might decide to focus on building up skills, making our lives easier, learning things, and sharing whatever I can. It'll be an interesting challenge figuring things out. I'd like to get really good at writing. I'd still be open to going back to work (even in a non-tech job) if the market plummets or W- needs me to cover things.
    • Factors that would nudge me towards this: ~3% withdrawal rate, good cash buffer for market corrections, productive things to do with my time, questions to explore
    • What would a typical week look like? Read, write, garden, exercise, cook. Occasionally get together with other people.

I'm the most curious about E (financial independence plus writing), but C (lifestyle business) that might eventually transition to D (larger business) could be interesting too.

Experimenting with semi-retirement :PROJECT:book-idea:

  • How long
  • Preparation
  • Transition
  • Leaving familiar shores
  • Onward
  • Other people's stories


Contemplating the temptations that would draw me out of this experiment

:Effort: 1:00

People occasionally ask me what it would take for me to consider stopping my experiment early and go back to full-time work. On reflection, I think the answer is: unfortunate circumstances, depleted savings, or other family needs. (I don't recommend setting me up for this!)

It's a little odd realizing that I can't think of any positive things that would tempt me away from this path for the next few years, not even being offered another job tailored to my interests and skills. If people offered a ridiculously high salary, I would question the sanity and longevity of the company; if they offered a more reasonable one, I'd pick the freedom and the flexibility of the experiment. We have enough for our needs and few wants.

It's natural for people to want to help people, like the way

Besides, as Benjamin Franklin noted, sometimes the best way to build a relationship


:Effort: 1:00

I have a few 8 AM meetings this week. I don't really have to go, but I think it would be useful and good for the team, so I go and contribute as much as I can. The downside is that my brain is fuzzy the rest of the day, although a short nap or break is remarkably restorative. I can nap easily when I'm at Hacklab. When I am with my consulting client, napping is harder to arrange, so I typically head home early.

I experimented with going to a breakfast meetup. I made it there early and was alert enough to take notes, but found myself mentally drifting afterwards. I read some nonfiction, then idled a while reading blogs, and then finally gave in to my better judgment and took a half-hour nap. Post-nap I can read and understand bigger thoughts, and now I can write.

I find that having less than eight hours of sleep the night before generally leads to this sort of fuzziness, which could be avoided, perhaps, if I just went to bed earlier. Despite efforts, somehow the rhythms of our household life lead to me going to bed some time between 11:30 PM and 12:30 PM unless I am very tired. (Otherwise, if I go to bed too early, I often end up fidgeting.) I get up between 8 to 9 AM, sometimes even 10 or 11. The morning's routines take me an hour, which means I can have brunch, then settle in for a few hours of writing or reading. The occasional early morning is easier to accommodate as a one-off than to shift my routines earlier in general.

DONE Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure   life philosophy

What are the ends I pursue, and how do I pursue them?

I agree with Aristotle in that my ultimate end is happiness. For me, happiness is more along the lines of equanimity or tranquility: being able to appreciate the good parts and being confident that I can weather the tough parts. From stoicism, I understand that things aren't good or bad in themselves; it's more about my responses to those things. So for me, a good life is one where I can respond as I want to and as I should.

More specifically, what would that good life look like, and what are the goals I want to strive towards?

One easy goal to plan for is a good financial foundation. It's easier to act freely when you're not worried about food or shelter. I also work on keeping frugal, moderate tastes and a detachment from things. "It's just stuff," W- and I say as we drop things off for donation or resist buying more things.

I value learning, too. I like feeling concepts click together, learning how to build more complex things. I particularly like it when I can use what I'm learning to save time, especially when I help other people avoid repetitive, mechanical work.

I enjoy learning and working the most when I can create something distinctive that takes advantage of an unusual combination of skills or experiences. For example, I like the social business consulting that I do because it's uncommon for people to be interested in large organizations, collaboration, workflow, change management, data visualization, programming, and design. I enjoy working on Emacs or on self-tracking because both lend themselves well to idiosyncratic questions and personal curiosities.

I've been self-consciously writing about leisure for what feels like too many days now. I'm trying to figure out how I want to spend my time, since that's a decision I'm going to make repeatedly over decades. My answers will change over the years, too, but if I think about it a little, I might be able to make better decisions.

Most of the time, we think of relaxation and recreation as ways to recharge ourselves so that we can get back to work with more energy. Aristotle prizes the contemplative life, where you use your leisure time not just to amuse yourself, but to improve.

What does that mean to me, though? For example, I could spend some time learning languages, or developing my drawing skills, or picking up a new technology. There's so much more to learn about all sorts of other subjects. An easy answer to the question "What shall I do with my time?" might be to volunteer, but I would also want to do that with deliberation. What will help me grow, and what's just a nice-to-have?

Let's say that I don't know enough to choose those topics from the beginning. How can I get better at observing myself and learning from how I use my leisure time? What would make a difference when I look back over a long life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot and that I'd like to get very good at is the ability to notice (as the Less Wrong community phrases it) that I am confused, and to explore that confusion. Reading helps me notice the gaps and find words to describe things, and writing helps me start to untangle the knots. If I keep getting better at this, then when I'm much more experienced, I might be able to spot opportunities for growth, catch myself before I make mistakes, and also help friends think through their own lives.

Learning various skills (tech, DIY, cooking) helps improve my self-efficacy. I can make more things myself, and I can imagine more things too. Besides, it's fun, and occasionally economically useful.

I'm still not as keen on conversation and friendship as I probably should be, at least according to Aristotle. I enjoy conversations with W- most of all. I like the mix of practicality, growth, and whimsical puns. On occasion, I enjoy conversations with other people, especially those I think well of and want to support. Other times, I talk to people for variety and social exercise. I'm comfortable with that because I'm not trying to be popular, entertaining, or entertained. I don't mind taking my time with the slow collection of interesting people I can learn from and help.

I can use my leisure time to learn how to prefer things that are good for me. For example, I'm working on that exercise habit. I'm sure that once I've gotten into the swing of things, I'll be able to enjoy it - I just have to stick it out until then. I have much to learn about music, art, design, and literature, too.

I think a good life is one where I have the space, awareness, and control to respond to life the way I want to, and that I've learned to want what's good for me. I'd like to be able to say, looking back, that I've deliberated on how I wanted to live and that I've lived pretty darn close to what I decided. We'll just have to see how it all works out!

DONE A long, long weekend   life

How do I want to spend my leisure time? I've been thinking about that a bit because we're halfway through a long weekend, and I have much more discretionary time during the week than most people do.

W- and I are both homebodies. During normal weekends, we typically spend a day focused on cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and taking care of other little things around the house. That still leaves some time for walks, gardening, reading, writing, and watching the videos that we borrow from the library. During long weekends, we usually take advantage of the extra time and energy by working on household projects or doing a deeper clean. W- tends to work long hours, so when he's not busy with work or gym classes, I prefer to spend the time with him instead of hanging out with other friends. Life is short, after all.

I also have some time during the week, when most people are busy working. I've been using that time to read, learn, exercise, and explore. From time to time, I hang out with friends. Last Friday, two of my friends were hanging out at a park, so I decided to join them. It was a leisurely afternoon of sunshine, idle conversation, and ice cream. In the evening, we watched a movie which turned out to be free because of projector issues.

I'm not always keen on conversation, so I don't particularly like scheduling things and I can be reluctant to meet up or chat. If I can guiltlessly change plans - to wander in and out as I want - I feel much better about it.

Then there's discretionary time when I'm alone, too. I usually spend this reading, coding, writing, or drawing. I've been feeling a little scattered lately. It's hard to latch onto a question and follow it. Focusing on building habits around exercise and gardening seems to be helping, and exploring recipes is fun too. Fortunately, there's a lot to keep making slow progress on while cultivating curiosity…

DONE Risk aversion

I'm more careful about risks than I was at the beginning of this experiment. I see more negative consequences when projecting the results of decisions, and I perceive more volatility. I tend to overestimate the probability and impact of negative possibilities, and I'm conservative about taking advantage of opportunities.

This is interesting to me because I expected the opposite result when I started this experiment. A safety net should enable me to feel comfortable with taking more risks. In particular, I would probably have expected to take more risks in terms of:

  • Tools: get better at seeing the possible improvements or new capabilities opened up by tools
  • Education: learn faster with other people's helps
  • Networking: connect with and help more people
  • Creation: make and ship more things
  • Delegation: working with other people to get even more done
  • Commitment, schedule: plan for larger things, and hustle in order to get more things done

Hmm. Come to think of it, even my perception about increased risk aversion is perhaps inaccurate. Over the past two years, I've learned a lot from taking risks in terms of business models, sales, delegation, and so on. Let me take a closer look at the categories I mentioned to see if I can come up with counterpoints:

  • Tools: Small hardware, software, and network upgrades have worked out well.
  • Education: I've learned that I can learn a lot from books, experimentation, and connecting online, which is why paid courses and conferences haven't really been on my radar.
  • Networking: The Emacs Chat podcast is a new thing for me, and I'm slowly getting the hang of it. I've been moving to getting to know people online instead of focusing on in-person connecting, and I like connecting with peers or people I can help rather than trying to connect with high-flying celebrities. I think I like the direction I'm going, actually.
  • Creation: PDFs, guides, and e-mail courses are new for me. That's working well. Free/PWYW helps me reduce risk and avoid being anxious about satisfaction.
  • Delegation: Not as good as I could be when it comes to assigning tasks, but still better than nothing.
  • Commitment, schedule: This is probably where the biggest difference is. I'm less inclined to schedule things, and I try to minimize my commitments in terms of time and energy. Every so often, I think about whether I should be hustling more, but I like my current pace.

Oh, that's interesting. I think I'm surprised by the way I'm getting better at saying no, which is apparently a very useful skill. I'm getting better at not feeling guilty about it, too. I want to make sure I'm saying yes to some things, what I'm saying yes to is worth it for me, and that I'm not prematurely closing off things that do want.

How do I want to tweak this? I'd still probably minimize the number of commitments. I might take more notes on decisions. That would give me a better handle on risks that worked out well and risks that didn't, because what I recall is biased by my mood. What I take notes on is biased by mood as well, but it'll be easier to find contrary examples.

Also, when I find myself possibly overestimating the likelihood or impact of negative possibilities, I can sanity-check my perceptions with research and with other people. Hmm…

It's kinda fun noticing when your brain is acting a little weird. =) We'll see how I can work around things!

DONE Help me figure out what I should reinvest business profits into   planning business decision review

When I incorporated a company for my experiments with semi-retirement, I chose a September 30 year-end following the advice of the Internet. (That way, you avoid the overcrowded post-Dec 31 scramble.)

It's the end of my second fiscal year. I thought I'd review my decisions for reinvesting profits, plan ahead, and ask for feedback. Here's how I reinvested some of my profits this year:

  • Tools and education:
    • I bought $289 worth of books, including pricey but useful books on drawing emotions and stick figures (Bikablo, from Neuland). I've made the most of them by reading, taking notes, and sharing what I've learned, so this was definitely worth it.
    • I also took the AlphaChimp Rockstar Scribe course (CAD 298.66, it's now USD 497; affiliate link). I picked up a few tips on digitizing scanned sketches (lesson 6: digital documentation). The exercises also prompted me to put together my 3-word life philosophy and my 5-year plan.
  • Connecting with people:
    • The biggest chunk here was flying to London for the Emacs Conference, which was a great way to connect with people, create resources, and develop skills.
    • I also signed up for HackLab ($51.75 a month) as a way to connect with other geeks and have a place to work at when I'm downtown.
    • I attended networking events ($170.45). AndroidTO was less useful than I expected because I hadn't actually been developing stuff then, although it was good sketchnoting practice. The Third Tuesdays Toronto events were definitely worth it for me. Rotman events were okay.
    • I met four people for lunches/dinners and had lots of tea with others, talking about mentoring or business opportunities.
  • Delegation:
    • I greatly increased my delegation budget compared to last year. I subcontracted $1,333.34 of my work. I delegated an additional $2,030.30.
    • Hiring a virtual assistant to help with scheduling really helped me get past the hassles of booking people. Worth it.
    • Hiring a transcriber for my podcasts and presentations worked out well, too.
    • Hiring a local consultant to help me brainstorm was okay, but not amazing. It was a helpful nudge to work on my marketing, though.
    • Hiring another on-shore consultant to give me feedback on my website and e-books was also okay but not amazing. It was great for pushing me to add more hand-drawn elements to my website, though.
    • Hiring a developer to work on Rails prototypes gave me a leg up on dealing with various APIs, although I ended up not pursuing the projects.

I made $90 in e-book sales in FY 2013, which absolutely delights me. It's a tiny fraction of what I make in consulting or even sketchnoting or speaking, but it's a start. I've been moving towards a Pay What You Want model so that everyone can get access to the resources and people can show their appreciation by funding future experiments. My experiment-related savings take care of my living expenses, so everything goes to Making Stuff. I want to focus on making more things.

For this coming year, I'm planning to focus on consulting until it winds down. I'm also going to ramp up creating content: blog posts, drawings, articles, e-books, courses, and more. I often get requests to sketchnote events or other people's content, and I'd like to refer those to other people instead of handling them myself. That way, I can help other people grow, and I can make myself learn more about creating my own content.

Ideally, by September 2014, I'll have:

  • a separate topic-focused weekly blog with evergreen posts and useful, well-formatted, illustrated articles
  • several e-resources for that blog
  • a mailing list that I've learned how to use
  • and possibly a course that includes tips, worksheets, checklists, animations, and video

I may also want to keep a "Wanted" board on my site so that I can funnel other requests to it. That way, instead of simply telling people no, I can help them a little further along the way and help other people grow their businesses too.

Here's my plan for getting there:

  1. Brainstorm headlines and article ideas to help me choose which topics I want to start a weekly topic-focused blog around.
  2. Get feedback on which topics people would like to read about first. Start collecting e-mail addresses for launch.
  3. "Bank" 4-8 good articles (write two months ahead). Invite early readers.
  4. Publicize it a bit more widely once I've gotten into the rhythm of publishing on the blog and I know that the rate is sustainable.
  5. Plan an outline for a brief e-book and gear my articles towards that.
  6. Reach out and find guest posting opportunities once the blog is more established.

To make the blog different and useful, I plan to illustrate the ideas with one-page cheat sheets / references. This will also make a handy collection.

With that in mind, what are some ways I can reinvest some of my profits in order to make things better, and which ways make more sense than others?

  • Buy premium plugins, scripts, or themes to make navigating the blog or content easier.
  • Buy books, read them, and give them away. That way, I'm not limited to the library's selection. The library has lots of books and it could take forever for me to get through the backlog, but learning from and sharing tips from newly-published books may create more value for readers. Plus, if I set aside a budget for shipping (which is expensive in Canada!), I can give lightly-read copies away. I've had publishers send me copies of books to review, so maybe I can ramp that up also.
  • Buy domain names and learn how to set up landing pages.
  • Work with copywriters and editors and get better at writing.
  • Sign up for a good mailing list service, possibly with an autoresponder or digital delivery mechanism
  • Get an assistant to help me with e-mail.
  • Buy SEO tools or work with a reputable company. Sometimes little tweaks make things more findable or discoverable.
  • Find a system administrator who can help me review my config and who can answer questions from time to time
  • Learn how to work with article writers or pay for excellent guest posts
    • Worst-case scenario: They write the first draft, and I end up rewriting it extensively because I have a better idea of what I don't want.
    • Best-case scenario: I give them a topic to write about, they come up with insights or research I might not have come across myself, and then I can personalize it with more stories or experiences.
  • Invest in better web planning and design, maybe for the topic-focused blog
  • Experiment with richer media: animations, podcasts, video. Buy tools. Possibly delegate editing.
  • Hire someone to format e-resources. They can help develop the template and lay things out nicely.
  • Go through a course like the ones offered at Platform University, CopyBlogger, or ProBlogger. Apply the lessons and write about my experiences. Draw notes.
  • Hire a coach to help me learn more about planning posts, creating resources or courses, building a community, and so on.
Do you have any suggestions on where you think I should invest more money, business-wise? Are there things on my blog where a little money can have high impact? Please share your comments below, or e-mail me at!

DONE Planning my next little business   experiment

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:56ba768f-644e-4a34-9231-84fcb7bc8358

:POST_DATE: [2014-07-09 Wed 13:09]

:POSTID: 27378

:BLOG: sacha

I've been holding back from experimenting with new businesses. I'm not sure how the next few months are going to be like, and I don't want to make commitments like sketchnote event bookings or additional freelance contracts. Besides, focusing on my own stuff has been an interesting experiment so far, and I want to continue it.

Still, from time to time, I get the itch to build systems and processes for creating value for other people. For example, when I talk to people who are struggling to find jobs or having a hard time building freelance businesses, I want to support and encourage them by helping them see opportunities. Talking about stuff can feel a bit empty, but actually doing stuff–and showing how to do it–is more helpful, especially since I seem to be more comfortable with sales, marketing, and business experimentation than many people are.

So, depending on how these next few months turn out, what are the kinds of businesses that I'd like to build?

  • E-books and other resources: I like the way free/pay-what-you-want information makes it easy for people to learn without friction and still be able to show their appreciation through payment, conversation, links, or other good things. I also like the scale of it: I can spend some time working on a resource, and then people can come across it when they need it. No schedule commitments, either.
  • Software, maybe?: Someday. The upsides of working on stuff that other people use: feature suggestions, warm-and-fuzzies. The downside: dealing with bugs. I think the first step would be to build tools for myself.
  • Visual book reviews?: People seem to like these, and I enjoy reading.

Let me take a step back here and break that out into the specific characteristics I like. If I identify those characteristics, I might be able to recognize or imagine other businesses along those lines. What attracts me?

  • Scale: Build once, help many. I don't mind lower sales at the beginning if I'm working on the kinds of things that people will find useful over a long period of time.
  • Accumulation: I like collecting building blocks in terms of content and skills because I can combine those in interesting ways.
  • Generosity: I like free/pay-what-you-want because it allows me to reach the most people and feel great about the relationships.
  • Flexibility: I like minimizing schedule or topic commitments because that reduces stress and lets me adapt to what's going on. Self-directed work fits me well.
  • Distinction: I like doing things that involve uncommon perspectives or combinations of skills. I feel like I can bring more to the table.
  • Value: I like things that help people learn more, understand things better, save time or money, share what they know, or be more excited about life.
  • Other things I care about: I care about making good ideas more accessible, which is why I like transcripts, sketchnotes, writing, and websites. I also care about helping good people do well, which is why I help friends with their businesses.

Writing fits these characteristics pretty well. If I can help friends through process coaching and things like that, I can learn more about things that other people might find useful too. It's entirely possible to build good stuff around just this learn-share-scale cycle. Anything else (spin-off businesses? software? services) would be a bonus.

I have a little more uncertainty to deal with. I can see the timeline for it, so I'm okay with giving myself permission to take it easy for the next couple of months. After that, I'll probably have a clearer idea of what the rest of this experiment with semi-retirement (and other follow-up experiments! =) ) could be like.

What would more focused writing or content creation look like? I might:

  • Pick a subject people are curious about and write a series of blog posts that I can turn into e-books
  • Revisit that outline of things to write about and flesh it in
  • Organize blog posts and other content into downloadable resources
  • Create courses so that people can go through things at a recommended pace and with multimedia content
    • Ooh, more animations

I think that would be an interesting life. =)

I still want to do something to help all these awesome people I come across who are having a hard time finding jobs or building businesses for themselves, though. It's odd hearing about their struggles while at the same time watching the stock market keep going up - businesses seem to be doing okay, but it's not trickling down? Maybe I'll spend more time listening to people and asking what could help. Maybe I can spend some time connecting with business owners and seeing if I can understand their needs, too. Knowledge, ideas, and encouragement are easy, but there are probably even better ways to help. Hmm… That gives me a focus for networking at events. Looking forward to helping!

DONE The power of no: being completely* unhireable until 2017 (and possibly longer)

How to say no to opportunities

(Needs more work)

  • When I started this 5-year experiment, I didn't know if I could stick with it. My track record for sticking with interests is not that good. I'm delighted to report that (semi-)retirement gets easier and easier. I am learning to say no.
  • By coincidence, two of my mentors (who had moved on to separate companies after IBM) got in touch with me recently to find out if I was interested in some upcoming job opportunities. Good stuff. Right up my alley. Wonderful people.
  • I said no. Actually, I said something along the lines of: Thank you for reaching out! That sounds fantastic. However, I am semi-retired and completely* unhireable for at least the next few years, so I'll just have to wish you good luck on your search. I'm sure you'll find someone awesome out there.
  • (Of course, if a significant financial need comes up, I have no qualms about suspending this experiment and returning to the wonderful world of work. I enjoyed working with excellent teams. I'd love to do it again.
  • Learning how to say no is incredibly amazing.
    • It helps to remember that there are other awesome people out there who can make things happen.
    • Sure, they might not bring my particular configuration of skills, but they'll bring other useful combinations.
  • I don't even have a tiny internal voice of dissent
    • because the part that might've been afraid about the future has been neatly shut up by a good if…then…else… that postpones consideration
  • fine print
  • in the meantime
    • pre-made decision tree
      • while things
  • comparative advantage
    • other people can do that work
    • not that many people can explore these opportunities
      • what: learning, sharing, following my curiosity, building a small and simple life
    • also, life is uncertain
      • so I should take advantage of this time
  • took all of August off
    • not travelling, not trying to build a business
    • learning skills: outlining, illustrating my posts
    • I like it.
  • a year and a half into my experiment
  • living expenses since 2012/03/01: average of $827 per month, or $801 if I ignore travel - slightly below predictions, even!

DONE Books about applying advice to your life   writing

I'm fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. "Stunt memoir" seems to be the phrase for it. Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure - the storyteller's craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won't see changes, and not so long that you'd get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what's easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone's going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone's just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There's also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as "Ack, there's so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)" rather than "Here, learn from my life."

So… I don't know. On one hand, I like the "I'm figuring this out too" approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I'm not keen on the "My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better."

What's at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There's a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it's hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we'll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of "Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here's how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too."

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I'm not thinking of these as radical changes to my life ("Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year"), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people's entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we'll see where it goes. =)

DONE Quiet days   reflection experiment philosophy

I set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for consulting. Fridays are for meetings and getting together with people. Saturdays are for spending time with my husband or having the rare party, and Sundays are for cooking and chores.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are discretionary time. I could spend those days working. My consulting clients would love to have more time, and there are all sorts of other things I could work on as well.

I've been making myself find good uses of that time on my own, though. Depending on the projects I'm focusing on, I might spend those days coding, drawing, reading, or writing. Lately, I've been working my way through a stack of philosophy books from the library. Histories give me overviews and show me the relationships between thinkers, while treatises give me the context for all these quotes that have been floating around.

Hmm. Maybe that's what fascinates me about philosophy at the moment. I've picked up bits and pieces of wisdom through quotes and summaries. Now I want to learn more about the context of those sound bites and the thought processes behind them. I want to reflect on the maxims, choose the ones I want to apply to life, and learn how to observe and improve. At some point, I'll probably feel that I can learn more from experience than from books, and then I'll jump back into the fray. In the meantime, it's amazing to be able to condense centuries of thought into afternoons of reading. Not that I fully understand everything, but there's enough to spark awareness and recognition.

I'm not particularly interested in the big questions of metaphysics, epistemology, or logic. Ethics, maybe–small "e" ethics, not as much the Ethics of What Everyone Ought To Do. I want to get better at choosing what's good for me and doing it. The ancient Greeks have a lot to say about that, and some of the later philosophers also do.

I'm not an entrepreneur, or at least not yet. I'm using this space and capital to improve myself (or at least theoretically improve myself) instead of building a business. I'm not even focused on learning a marketable skill that I can list on my résumé, although I'm sure my interests will turn towards that at some point. In the meantime, it feels good to lay the groundwork for more clarity and better decisions.

What's the next step? Well, since I'm interested in applied philosophy, that probably means testing these ideas out in everyday life. On the personal side, there's living simply and thoughtfully. On the social side, maybe practising more loving-kindness. I don't think I'm cut out to be a pure philosopher, so I'll likely use my time to learn, code, write, and draw. I wonder what I'll be curious about after I build a good foundation in this area. Useful skills, perhaps? Design and aesthetics? Business? We'll see.

In the meantime, I'll give my mind enough space to unfold questions and learn from the notes that people have left for us.

DONE Teaching myself to prefer what's good for me   kaizen

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:c36bdac6-751b-431f-97b7-6765a47e5b1a

:POST_DATE: [2014-07-28 Mon 10:22]

:POSTID: 27397

:BLOG: sacha

One of the ideas I'm mulling over from this study of ancient Greek philosophy is this: Instead of using willpower to get through things you don't like, you can learn to appreciate the things that are good for you or gradually move up through activities that you enjoy and that are a little better for you than what you were doing before.

I've been trying this idea in terms of exercise. Having decided that I would be the type of person who exercises, I've been keeping up this habit for a little over a month. I usually run with W-. He treats those sessions as recovery runs (he's much fitter than I am and can run circles around me), and I treat them as "extra time with W- and an occasion for smugness." I'm not yet at the point of experiencing the runner's high, but I do feel somewhat pleased by this ability to keep up with the heart rate thresholds that should help me build up endurance. I've even gone for runs on my own, propelled by growing custom and the knowledge that I'm going to be able to celebrate whatever progress I'm making. Gradual progress through the Hacker's Diet exercise ladder is fun, too.

In terms of food, I'm finally beginning to appreciate the sourness of yogurt, the peppery taste of radishes, and other things I'm still not particularly fond of but can deal with.

As for substitution, keeping a range of nonfiction books in the house means I'm less inclined to spend time playing video games. Latin and Japanese flashcards on my phone mean less time reading fiction. A file full of writing ideas means less time spent browsing the Web.

We change a little at a time. It's good to pay attention to your changing tastes, and to influence them towards what's good for you. Sometimes you can kick it off with a little bribery or willpower, if you use that temporary space to look for more things to appreciate. Sometimes you can encourage yourself by making better activities more convenient. Good to keep growing!

DONE Thinking about leisure activities: noble, advantageous, pleasant

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:84892f0c-4096-4ca3-8dd3-bd5ec2743325

:POST_DATE: [2014-08-07 Thu 22:39]

:POSTID: 27409

:BLOG: sacha

As an experiment (and because the timing works), I have a three-month break coming up. It'll be quite a different experience from the 1-month breaks I've been taking so far, probably as different as the way that having an entire weekday to yourself is different from squeezing your activities into an evening. So I have a few questions to think about:

  • How can I make the most of that time?
  • With the answers to that question in mind, how can I make the most of the weekdays I have until then? How do those activities compare with working a little more from August to September?
  • Considering the most likely situations, how would I like to adjust my work/discretionary-time balance?

It got me thinking about what I actually do during my leisure time, and why. Oddly enough, despite the ability to spend lots of time reading and writing, I still end up writing at roughly the same rate I did back when I was working full-time. Some days the words flow freely and I queue up a few posts, other days I'm casting about for ideas. My reading has shifted a little, and for the better (I think). I doubt I'd have had the patience to read philosophy and reflect on it slowly back when I read in the evenings and the occasional weekend.

Aristotle writes in the Nichomachean Ethics on the topic of why we choose what we choose:

But that [virtue and vice] are concerned with the same things might become manifest to us also from these considerations: there being three objects of choice and three of avoidance–the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant together with their three contraries, the shameful, the harmful, and the painful–in all these the good person is apt to be correct, the bad person to err, but especially as regards pleasure. (1104b30)

It might be useful, then, to reflect on these leisure activities and figure out how they stack up against Aristotle's objects, along with some notes on how adding more time to these activities makes sense. This will help me make a decision about the months leading up to November, and for after the break (depending on how things turn out).


  • T: Well-served by additional time
  • N: Noble
  • A: Advantageous
  • P: Pleasant
T N A P Activity and notes
T N A P Work so that I can develop my skills and reputation, help people out, make a difference, and enjoy excellence; More time = better skills, more help, more appreciation
T N A P Write or draw what I'm learning so that I can understand, remember, and share; More time = more application and sharing, and better skills too
T N A ? Spend time with people (online/offline) so that I can appreciate other people's interestingness; More time = more opportunities to get to know people
T N A   Copy, review, and apply my notes so that I can learn more; More time = deeper understanding and application, more connections among ideas
T   A P Tidy up, take care of chores/errands, and cook so that we have a smoothly running household and so that W- feels wonderful; More time = cleaner and smoother-running household, but possibly diminishing returns
T   A P Learn Latin so that I can read and enjoy older works, and so that I can enjoy learning; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T   A P Learn Japanese so that I can enjoy listening to anime/podcasts and reading tech news/blogs; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T   A P Bike so that I can exercise, get somewhere, and save money; More time = more explorations
T   A ? Go to meetups and talks so that I can learn and meet people; More time = more knowledge and connections
T   A ? Build simple furniture or fix things around the house so that I can make/repair things that suit us (haven't done this in a few years, but worth revisiting); More time = better DIY skills
T   A ? Work on Emacs so that I can learn more, customize it better, and help others learn; More time = more knowledge and resources
T   A   Finish projects so that I can reduce mental clutter; More time = more stuff done
? N A P Exercise so that I can become healthier; More time = fitter, but constrained by gradual training program
? N A   Read nonfiction books so that I can recognize and articulate ideas, and so that it prompts thinking / writing. More time = more reading, but application may be better
?   A P Have a massage so that I can learn more about my muscles; More time = more relaxed and more aware
?   A P Draw what I'm watching or reading so that I can practise drawing people and so that I get more out of the movie; More time = better drawing skills
?   A ? Read social media updates and interact with people online so that I can maintain connections and learn from people's lives; More time = more interaction
?   A   Read and write e-mail so that I can help or learn from more people; More time = prompter replies
?   A   Balance my books and plan my finances so that I can make better decisions; More time = better prepared, but possibly diminishing returns
?   A   Sew so that I can make or fix things suited for us; More time = projects, better attention to detail, improved skills
?   A   Research and buy things to improve our quality of life; More time = wider awareness and better decisions
?     P Play with the cats so that I can be amused and so that I can appreciate them; More time = happier cats
?     P Garden so that I can slow down and enjoy watching things grow; More time = more attention, but limited by knowledge and conditions
  N A P Cook at Hacklab so that I can connect with people and learn new recipes; More time = more elaborate or consistent meals, but limited by frequency
  N A   Simplify our things so that I can practise detachment and resourcefulness; More time = simpler life
    A P Read blogs so that I can get a sense of other people's lives and challenges; More time = greater awareness and possible interactions
    A   Do paperwork and plan ahead so that we can minimize risks; More time = better organization, but diminishing returns
      P Watch movies so that I can spend time with W-, accumulate more in-jokes, and enjoy other people's work; More time = more shared experiences
      P Watch amusing videos and read fiction/blogs/analyses online so that I can appreciate other people's brilliance; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
      P Play video games so that I can appreciate other people's brilliance and enjoy figuring things out; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
      P Sleep so that I am well-rested; More time = an excess of sleep

Hmm. Tabulating and sorting it like this is actually pretty useful. I can see why work is so tempting for me, despite the opportunity to do other things. It is an opportunity to work towards and practise nobility/excellence through work; it is advantageous in terms of resources and reputation, which contributes to safety; and it's pleasant, especially when I get a chance to do some rapid-prototyping magic or some custom analytics.

Writing and drawing are less clear and more self-directed. But they are useful techniques for working towards nobility; they are advantageous both in terms of the content and the skills I develop; and both the process and the results of figuring things out are pleasant. If I spend more time and attention on these things, I can improve my ability to observe and articulate. It may take me years to get the hang of these skills, but they are good to develop.

I can develop both writing and drawing in the afternoons and evenings, but I do notice a difference in attention. I usually watch movies in the evening as a way of spending time with W-. This is okay for slow and light writing, but does not lend itself well to study, deep reflection, or application. When I worked full-time, I generally wrote in the evenings (sometimes before dinner, sometimes shortly after) or on one of the weekend afternoons. I like writing on weekday afternoons, now. I like the pace. Would I pick that over consulting? Yes, actually, depending on what kinds of tasks I'd work on. I can put off writing when there are important and time-sensitive tasks to be done, but writing is also important to me long-term, and I'm willing to take on a little risk in order to experiment with it.

Hmm. If I do two to three days of work a week–maybe even four–from now to October, while leaving at least one full day for writing, that's probably good. I can front-load the writing, since that's important to me. If I feel it could use more time, I might adjust what I work on. I'll spend the usual time cooking and taking care of house-things, although I might spend a little more time during the week to cook fresh dinners. I can use the three-month break to experiment with more writing and drawing. In the meantime, I can avoid getting used to the additional income by stashing it all in a safety net, opportunity fund, or similar budget. If we keep our lifestyle the same, it's easy to evaluate work for its own sake.

Are there some smaller-value activities that I should spend more time on instead of reading, writing, and drawing? Spending time with people is nice, but it can be a little iffy in terms of energy, so I might take the occasional opportunity and use the rest of the time on other things. I can review my notes instead of reading lots of new books, and use those notes for material for blog posts and experiments. When I find myself looking for non-writing activities, this table might be handy to review.

Let's see how this works out.

DONE Reducing my consulting   experiment business

I've been gradually scaling down my consulting. I started with a plan for consulting 3-4 days a week. Then I shifted to 2-3 days. Now I'm planning to target a regular schedule of one day per week, with extra for when there are important projects. I've been helping other team members pick up my skills, so I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with that. I think consulting one day a week will be a good next step in terms of giving me a deeper experience of self-directed time while still building on excellent client relationships.

What would be different if I work one day a week? I think this might be a new tipping point, since I'll have a larger block of focused time - up to four days, compared to the bursts of single discretionary days of a Tue/Thu schedule. I'll find out whether I can keep enough context in my head to make the most of spread-apart days, and if the mental leakage is worth it. Alternatively, I might experiment with working two afternoons a week, which still breaks up the week but allows for more responsiveness and momentum.

At the moment, I find it easier and more fun to work on specific people's ideas and challenges rather than come up with my own solutions for the gaps I see. That said, I'm starting to branch out and make things that I think people will like, and these have turned out to be surprisingly helpful. Still, I've got a fair bit more to learn before I can be one of those idea-slinging entrepreneurs.

What do I gain from consulting?

  • The impetus to solve specific problems (learning a lot along the way)
  • The fulfillment of working on larger achievements
  • Taking advantage of other people's skills without having to do the coordination myself
  • Feedback and ideas from other people
  • Interaction with a good team
  • A bigger safety net (financial and professional)

What other experiment modes do I want to try?

  • Active leisure: learning, writing, drawing, cooking, exercising, etc.
  • Product development: using writing, drawing, and coding to practise creating things outside the time=money equation
  • Open source contribution/maintainership: learning boost from commitments?

I suppose I could toss myself in the deep end and try a 0% schedule earlier rather than later. I'm planning to take a few months to look into this add-on development thing, and that should give me some more information on what I need to learn and whether I can get the hang of it. =)

Much to try…


The garden is becoming part of my daily life   garden

I'm in the garden almost every day. Almost 40 hours in total since the beginning of April. It's my new favourite transition activity before dinner. I plant, water, pick off bugs. I'm beginning to learn what leaves feel like when they haven't gotten enough water and when they have. The oregano, mint, cilantro, basil, and lettuce are growing much better than they did in previous years. None of the snow peas have made it indoors yet, since I've been eating them off the vine. The tomatoes, zucchini, winter melons, and bitter melons haven't hit their stride yet, but maybe during the hotter months.

I like filling the salad spinner with cut-and-come-again leaves. I should let some of the plants go to seed so that I can collect them for the next batch, but it's too tempting to snip off the flowers in order to keep the current batch going. I planted a salad mix, so I have no idea what some of these are. I know bok choy, spinach, arugula. Peppery and red-veined? Probably beet greens. I'm relying on frequency here. If there's a lot of a type of plant, it grows in a somewhat regular formation, and I don't already conclusively know it's a weed, it's probably okay to eat. So far, so good.

I have salad every other day or so. Today I had three small bowls of salad all by myself (W- had the other bowl). I shook up a quick Asian-style dressing in a small mason jar and sprinkled sesame seeds on top. We don't normally buy those boxes of salad mix, since I feel guilty about not finishing them before they have to go. If it's still growing, I don't mind, although I try to harvest leaves before the slugs and leaf-miners get to them.

The salad garden is doing so much better this year compared to last year. Frequent watering and frequent harvesting, that's probably the ticket. I should make pesto this week. Maybe Wednesday. Basil likes being harvested often, too. =) I've been picking flowers off every day, but there are definitely enough leaves here to make a good-sized batch of pesto.

Nom nom nom nom nom…


DONE Japanese curry at Hacklab, curry udon at home   cooking

We were planning to make roasted cauliflower for the Hacklab open house dinner, but the cauliflowers were CAD 4.50+ each. Instead, we made vegan Japanese curry (roux recipe), which has become one of my favourite recipes. It's a great way to cook carrots, potatoes, green beans, daikon, bell peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, peas, and other vegetables you might have.

At home, I made another huge pot of Japanese curry, but with chicken instead of tofu, and with a non-vegan roux recipe. We tried it with udon instead of rice. Udon gives it a chewier texture and it works well too. I also made quickly-pickled cucumber-daikon-carrot salad, which balanced the taste nicely. Not counting the rice, I think the cost per portion worked out to be around $1.

2015-01-24 Curry udon – index card #cooking

J- loves Japanese food, so it's great to be able to make things at home. Next time, I think I'll try making udon from flour, water, and salt. It doesn't require a pasta roller, just patience. On the other hand, frozen udon is around CAD 4 for a pack of five and it takes one minute to cook, so there's something to be said for that.

2015-01-25 Planning how to level up in cooking – index card #cooking #learning #plans

While I occasionally play with the idea of going on a cooking vacation so that I can try local markets and learn from cooking classes, there's so much that I haven't yet explored here. There are all these ingredients I haven't yet looked up and tried. (Thank goodness for such a diverse city!) Maybe someday I might even try out cooking lessons or private instruction.

For now, I'm focusing on cooking with more vegetables. I liked the balance of meat to vegetables in that curry we made - about three chicken thighs of meat in one of our biggest pots. It would be great to increase vegetable volume and variety. Looking forward to exploring the rest of the produce section!

DONE Cooking at Hacklab: Coconut barfi   cooking

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:5c39d0a1-3300-4d72-a8a2-bda46380843a

:POST_DATE: [2014-11-05 Wed 19:15]

:POSTID: 27595

:BLOG: sacha

It took me an hour to get from downtown to Hacklab on a stop-and-go Queen streetcar. Next time, I should probably take the King streetcar instead, or even go all the way north to Bloor and then south on the Dufferin bus. Anyway, I'd given myself enough of a buffer to not feel horribly guilty about being late meeting people who were expecting me there around 6-ish anyway, and that was when I made it. Max was already there when I arrived, and Gabriel joined us when we were at the supermarket picking up groceries.

Chris and Alaina were busy making two courses (korma and hot-and-sour soup), so I figured we'd go with an Indian vegan dessert to accompany the korma. Some rapid Googling turned up this Coconut Barfi recipe from Diwali Sweets (by way of Veg Recipes of India's review). We tripled the following recipe:

  • 1/2 cup semolina flour (we used medium, but this might be better with fine)
  • 1/2 cup dry coconut flakes (we used shredded)
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cashew pieces (got roasted cashews from the bulk bin so that we could snack on them while cooking)
  • pinch of salt

For the sugar syrup:

  • 1/2 cup ground raw sugar (we used turbinado sugar, couldn't find anything raw)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder (we ended up grinding our own, since the nearby supermarket doesn't stock powdered cardamom)

It took longer to make the sugar syrup than expected, but then again, I'm pretty new to syrup making, so I wasn't quite sure what "one thread consistency" meant. Anyway, it still turned out as nicely cardamom-scented nibble, crunchy without being jaw-breaking.

Gabriel generously remarked that the amount of salt I added made it remind him of salted caramels. I think perhaps a smaller pinch would do next time.

It was lots of fun cooking with both old friends and new acquaintances, and the kitchen at Hacklab supports having multiple people quite nicely (aside from a bit of stove coordination when we had three things on the go). Yay cooking!

DONE Notes from cupcake-making   cooking hacklab

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:b1ba5e12-7151-46fb-9828-b601fbc505ff

:POST_DATE: [2014-10-25 Sat 21:51]

For the Hacklab grand re-opening party, I made 58 vegan chocolate cupcakes using about four batches of this Basic Vegan Chocolate Cupcake. Each batch called for:

  • 1 cup soy milk
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

mixed and baked in a 400F oven for 18-20 minutes (20 minutes at Hacklab). Once cooled, we decorated them with this Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting, which called for:

  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup vegan margarine
  • 3.5 cups icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup soy milk

Fortunately, Eric had donated an electric mixer (hand), so whipping up the frosting was easy. The cupcakes were not too sweet, so the frosting was a nice balance.

I also made 12 non-chocolate, non-vegan, gluten-free cupcakes from a boxed mix, since some Hacklab members have those dietary restrictions. Eric iced those with a different recipe.

It was actually pretty fun making dozens of cupcakes. Because they're in liners, it's easy to make large batches of them and set them cooling on whatever surfaces are handy. I started at 4ish and spent the whole afternoon cooking. I also had fun using the simple cake decoration kit to pipe letters and icing on it, although my hands were a smidge shaky. I actually forgot to add the soy milk and extract the first time around, but I caught it after icing the first ten cupcakes with something that was mostly sugar. After I beat in the soy milk, icing was a lot easier.

We don't really make a lot of desserts at home because we'd like to eat more healthily, but since J-'s friends are often over, maybe I should look into making more snacks to keep around the house. Probably not chocolate cupcakes - maybe something healthier? - but it's definitely baking season, so some kind of baked good. Then again, W- reminds me that a box of cookies on sale is pretty cheap, so we might as well use the time for other things.

I don't quite remember making cupcakes before the party. Maybe I've made cupcakes before, but just forgot about it? Anyway, they're not intimidating after all. =) And with vegan recipes, I can taste the batter a little to see if I'm on the right track!

DONE Leveling up in cooking   cooking

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:8a295870-fe77-4bad-bc58-25e856f7fd6f

:POST_DATE: [2014-10-08 Wed 20:55]

:POSTID: 27528

:BLOG: sacha

I made sweet potato and miso soup yesterday, with popped wild rice and Caesar salad on the side. W- made garlic bread with the baguette I bought. It was yummy. The other day, I helped make butternut squash and sweet potato soup at Hacklab, and that was well-received as well. Yay!

Five years ago, before we discovered bulk cooking and bought a chest freezer, W- used to cook every 1-2 days. I didn't know a lot of dishes that I could confidently cook and he was so much better at cooking than I was, so I was the sous chef. I helped prepare ingredients, make rice, and cook simple recipes. He'd come home early to make dinner, and we packed leftovers for lunch the next day.

Now I cook most of our experimental meals, trying new recipes in the search for future favourites. I also enjoy refilling the chest freezer with time-tested meals like chicken curry and shake-and-bake chicken. Our next goal is to work out a good rotation of known favourites, sprinkling in new recipes here and there.

It feels great to be able to cook–and to take charge of the kitchen, which is an interesting experience. I'm usually trying recipes for the first time, or experimenting with a new variant of a recipe that we've had before. I'm never quite sure how it will work out, but since we have backups (hooray for leftovers and low expectations!), it's okay to stretch and learn. Besides, with all these years ahead of me (probably), the more exploration I do now, the more it will pay off in terms of skills and knowledge.

So probably every Tuesday or so, I'll be learning a new recipe (helping out at Hacklab). Two or three times a week, I'll also try a new recipe at home - maybe Wednesday and Sunday, or something like that. I'm also working on rediscovering old favourites and writing them down in the shared Evernote notebook I've set up with W-, and maybe transitioning to a grocery/recipe system I'm building for the two of us.

Nice to have a kitchen and the time to cook! =)

Emacs   emacs

Getting data from Org Mode tables   emacs org

Org Mode is an amazingly powerful package for Emacs. I've been learning a lot about how to use its support for plain-text tables and spreadsheet calculations.

Using table data in Emacs Lisp with the :var argument

For example, I wanted to be able to define my abbreviations in an Org Mode table in my config. I remembered coming across this technique a few weeks ago, but I couldn't find the webpage with the code. It turned out to be simple to write from scratch. Here's the plain text I added to my config.

#+NAME: abbrev
| Base  | Expansion                             |
| bc    | because                               |
| wo    | without                               |
| wi    | with                                  |
| ex    | For example,                          |
| email |                   |
| dote  |         |
| web   |                 |
| blog  |            |
| ec    | |

#+begin_src emacs-lisp :exports code :var data=abbrev
(mapc (lambda (x) (define-global-abbrev (car x) (cadr x))) data)

The :var data=abbrev argument to the Emacs Lisp source block is where all the magic happens. Here, it takes the data from the table named "abbrev" (which I set using #+NAME: before the table) and makes it available to the code. Emacs evaluates that data when the code is tangled (or exported) to my configuration. The code that's in my Sacha.el looks like this:

(let ((data (quote (("bc" "because")
                    ("wo" "without")
                    ("wi" "with")
                    ("ex" "For example,")
                    ("email" "")
                    ("dote" "")
                    ("web" "")
                    ("blog" "")
                    ("ec" "")))))
  (mapc (lambda (x) (define-global-abbrev (car x) (cadr x))) data) )

Looking up data with org-lookup-first, org-lookup-last, and org-lookup-all

You can do more complex things with Org tables, too. Inspired by Eric Boyd's talk on his Epic Quest of Awesome (which he based on Steve Kamb's), I started putting together my own. I made a list of little achievements, guessed at the years, and assigned arbitrary experience points.

The achievements table had rows like this:

Approximate date Category XP Description ID
2014 Life 50 Became a Canadian citizen - link L_CAN
2014 Programming 20 Used NodeJS and AngularJS for a client project - link P_NOD
2014 Programming 5 Pulled information out of Evernote  

I wanted to summarize the points by year: points gained, total points, level (according to a lookup table based on D&D experience points), and description. The lookup table was structured like this:

#+TBLNAME: levels
| Total XP | Level | Adjective             |
|        0 |     1 | trained-initiate      |
|     1000 |     2 | experienced           |
|     2250 |     3 | savvy                 |
|     3750 |     4 | veteran               |
|     5500 |     5 | unusually experienced |

Now for the summary table. I created rows for different years, and then I used Org Mode to fill in the rest. (Org Mode! Wow.)

| Year | Points gained | Cumulative points | Level | Adjective        |
| 1997 |             0 |                 0 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 1998 |            10 |                10 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 1999 |            50 |                60 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2000 |            50 |               110 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2001 |           100 |               210 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2002 |            60 |               270 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2003 |           245 |               515 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2004 |           115 |               630 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2005 |           140 |               770 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2006 |            60 |               830 |     1 | trained-initiate |
| 2007 |           270 |              1100 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2008 |           290 |              1390 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2009 |           205 |              1595 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2010 |           215 |              1810 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2011 |           115 |              1925 |     2 | experienced      |
| 2012 |           355 |              2280 |     3 | savvy            |
| 2013 |           290 |              2570 |     3 | savvy            |
| 2014 |           350 |              2920 |     3 | savvy            |
| 2015 |            45 |              2965 |     3 | savvy            |
#+TBLFM: $2='(calc-eval (format "vsum(%s)" (vconcat (org-lookup-all $1 '(remote(accomplishments,@2$1..@>$1)) '(remote(accomplishments,@2$3..@>$3))))))::$3=vsum(@2$2..@+0$2)::$4='(org-lookup-last $3 '(remote(levels,@2$1..@>$1)) '(remote(levels,@2$2..@>$2)) '>=);N::$5='(org-lookup-last $3 '(remote(levels,@2$1..@>$1)) '(remote(levels,@2$3..@>$3)) '>=);L

The TBLFM (table formula) line is very long, so let me break it down.

Points gained:

 (format "vsum(%s)"

This uses org-lookup-all to look up the value of the first column ($1) in the accomplishments table, from the second row to the last row @2..@>, looking in the first column ($1). It returns the values from the third column of the matching rows ($3). This is then passed through calc's vsum function to calculate the sum.

Cumulative points: vsum(@2$2..@+0$2) is the sum of the second column $2 from the second row @2 to the current row @+0.

Level: This uses org-lookup-last to find the last value where the operator function returns true. In this case, testing the level from column $3 against each of the values in the levels table's column $1 while the given level is greater than or equal to the value from levels. When it finds the last matching row, it returns the $2 second column from it. ;N means treat everything as a number.

org-lookup-first is like org-lookup-last, but it returns the first matching row.

Adjective: This one works like Level does, but it returns the value from column $3 instead. I found that it converted the return values to 0 if I used ;N, so I used ;L instead.

Passing data to R or other external programs

Of course, you're not limited to things that Emacs can do. I wanted to summarize the data in graphs, so here's what I did.

#+RESULTS: category_analysis

#+name: category_analysis
#+begin_src R :var data=accomplishments :exports both :results graphics :file quest_category.png :height 300
categories <- ddply(data, c("Category"), summarize, Points=sum(XP))
cat_sorted <- transform(categories, Category=reorder(Category, Points))
plot <- ggplot(data = cat_sorted, aes(x = Category, y = Points))
plot <- plot + geom_bar(stat="identity")
plot <- plot + geom_text(aes(label = Points, x = Category, y = Points + 10, hjust=0))
plot <- plot + scale_y_continuous(expand=c(0,70))
plot <- plot + coord_flip()

I like including source code in published pages for fellow geeks, but having the results come first gives people more context for the source block. So I named the source block using the #+name: directive and defined a #+RESULTS: directive before it. The source block used the :var argument to bring the data in from the accomplishments table. With R blocks, the data becomes available as a data frame that you can then do interesting things with. I used the :file argument to save the output to quest_category.png.

Those are a few ways that you can get data out of Org Mode tables and into Emacs Lisp, other Org Mode tables, or external programs. As I learn more about Org Mode, I find myself using it for more of the things that I used to use Microsoft Excel for - tracking, analyzing, and even graphing. I found it a little difficult to piece together what I needed to do from the manuals and examples on the Web, so I hope this explanation will help you (and that it'll help me when I forget the syntax, as I'm sure I will). If you come up with something really neat that uses Org Mode tables, tell me what you've figured out!

DONE Meta-post: Revising my post on emptying one's cup   writing editing

I'd been thinking about my blog post on "Getting started with Emacs? Empty your cup. There was something that didn't quite feel right about the original draft.

2015-01-16 Tempering advice to Emacs beginners -- index card #emacs #beginner #teaching
2015-01-16 Tempering advice to Emacs beginners – index card #emacs #beginner #teaching

Since I'm also getting used to asking for help, I asked folks on Twitter to help me figure this out. @wobher suggested splitting it up into two approaches: diving in at the deep end, and wading in gradually. In an e-mail, Mike Hall suggested simplifying the post, sketching out what the post was trying to do and how that might be spread over several chunks.

Reflecting on the post some more, I realized that not only was Mike right that the post trying to do too much, but I also felt weird about the tone of the post. It didn't feel… sympathetic enough. I'd written it in response to someone's frustrated e-mail. But if I imagined myself in the same situation – annoyed with Emacs, tempted to switch back to a tool that I was more used to – I didn't feel like that post would help me either learn Emacs or feel better. In fact, it would probably feel worse. "You need to empty your cup" almost feels like "You're learning this the wrong way," and attacks put people on the defensive.

Part of this challenge, I think, is that I'm more used to encouraging people who respond like I do. When I'm faced with something I have a hard time figuring out, I tend to blame myself, and so I look for ways to get better. When I meet people who struggle with learning Emacs and who might be tempted to translate that into an "I'm just not good enough to learn this," I share what works for me: breaking it down into small chunks and learning those, building both skill and confidence at the same time. My cup is not full at the beginning, but I sometimes worry about it being too small.

2015-01-18 Digging into my thoughts about emptying one's cup – #emacs #writing

I haven't quite figured out how to deal with people's frustration. I think there are times when Emacs is just not a good fit for someone, and that if they understand that, they might still be open to revisiting Emacs instead of writing it off entirely.

2015-01-12 When is Emacs a good fit – index card #emacs #beginner

But I know a little bit of that frustration with one's slowness, so maybe that's how I can connect. After all, I have the same flaws.

So I revised the post, cutting out the distracting parts and adding a little identification. The current draft feels a little better now: less like a distracted hamster trying to cram ideas into its pouches, less like a white-bearded sensei handing down wisdom from a remote mountain. I have a slightly better grasp on the weird feeling when a post is trying to do too much, and that other weird feeling when a post creates too much distance.

If you have more suggestions for improving that post (or any of these other posts), please share them. Your perspective can point out something in my blind spot or help me clarify what I really mean. There's so much I have yet to learn about writing and sharing, and I hope you'll help me with your feedback!

(By the way, can anyone recommend a service for sharing drafts and revisions publicly so that people can see previous revisions and word-level differences with arbitrary commits? Sometimes I use Github's diff or git diff --color-words, but the matching isn't always correct. I can't figure out how to get to do this nicely. Maybe I'll just have to get used to writing one sentence per line, like I've seen some Org Mode users do. Or maybe it's time to use the one-Org-file-for-post pattern that other people do, so that's easier to preview and diff…)

DONE Improving my evil plans for Emacs   emacs 

Mwahahaha. My evil plans are yielding results, or at least that's the impression I get because I'm learning so much from people who tell me that they found my blog helpful years ago. Even more recent experiments bear fruit: punchagan checked out Memacs because of my Emacs Chat with Karl Voit, and ended up writing a blog post about using the Emacs profiler.

2015-01-17 My Evil Plans for Emacs are yielding results – index card #emacs #sharing

This makes me curious: What am I doing right, and how can I do it even better?

Looking at my Emacs posts, it seems I mostly write about figuring things out (and occasionally about cool things I've come across). People like the enthusiasm, and they sometimes pick up cool ideas too. The Emacs Hangouts and Emacs Chats are my way of working around my limitations; I don't particularly like travel and I'm not up to organizing in-person meetups, but virtual meetups let me reach out to more people (and we can record the conversations more easily, too).

What are my goals?

  • I want to get better at using Emacs, because it's useful and it tickles my brain
  • I want to help more people become intermediate and advanced users of Emacs, because then I get to learn from them (and also Emacs thrives as a community). I can do this by:
    • Showing people the benefits and possibilities of customization
    • Working out loud, showing my thought processes and the tools/libraries I use
    • Helping people develop a good mindset and handy skills
    • Sharing little tips and neat functions

How can I get even better at helping the Emacs community?

2014-04-26 Helping the Emacs community #emacs

I really like the way (or emacs has daily Emacs snippets and Rubikitch describes Emacs packages in Japanese. I think I'll slowly ramp up from once-a-weekish Emacs posts to maybe twice or three times a week. I have more posts already scheduled, but I just spread them out so that my non-geek readers don't get overwhelmed.


Because I'm interested in things that tend to be idiosyncratic (workflows, customizations, etc.), I have a hard time making clear recommendations or putting tips into logical order. That's probably why I do a lot more "thinking out loud"-type posts instead. I can experiment with identifying who might find a tip useful, extract the tips from my thinking-out-loud explorations, and gradually build up sets of related tips that way.

2015-01-16 Hmm - not guides but explorations – index card #sharing #packaging

I did actually manage to put together one guide (How to Read Lisp and Tweak Emacs) and half of another A Baby Steps Guide to Managing Your Tasks With Org. The sketches for How to Learn Emacs and Tips for Learning Org Mode are high-level guides, too.


I've been going back to the basics, working on developing even better Emacs microhabits. I've focused on two so far: abbreviating text and switching windows.I think there's plenty of space to improve even in terms of taking advantage of what's already out there (with minimal configuration along the lines of setting variables and keyboard shortcuts). And then there are even bigger opportunities to improve through customization and Emacs Lisp.

Helping people directly

I've mentioned coaching a few times. Bastien Guerry and a few other folks offer coaching as a service. Me, I'm not particularly familiar with the kinds of issues people run into or are curious about (ex: Mac OS X, programming mode setup). I'm mostly curious about workflow, and I'm happy to talk to people about that. It could be a good source of ideas for blog posts.

2015-01-08 Imagining coaching or guiding others – index card

When I ran my Google Helpouts experiments, I turned many of those tips into blog posts. I think that would be even more effective if people wrote up those tips themselves (it'll reinforce their learning and it will bring them into the community), so I've been playing with the idea of strongly encouraging or even requiring write-ups.

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward – #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

Unrealistic, but one can dream. Or one can focus on helping people who are already sharing their questions and ideas in blog posts or discussion forums, so that's another approach. There's no shortage of questions, that's for sure.


I like Emacs Hangouts more than one-on-one coaching. Hangouts are public and recorded automatically, so people can learn from them even if no one has posted notes. It's shaping up to be a wonderful peer-coaching sort of thing, which is good because I don't have to be so worried about not being able to help at all. I wonder what this would be like with a bit of a mastermind group structure; maybe we each pick a microhabit or idea to work on for the month (or for two weeks), we help each other out, and then we report back at the next one. That way, there's casual conversation and discovery, but there's also purpose and motivation.

2015-01-08 Imagining Emacs hangouts - index card

2015-01-16 Emacs community – index card #emacs

Connecting with more parts of the Emacs community

Evil-mode users are a growing part of the Emacs community. Maybe I should try it out to get a better sense of what the experience is like for people who are coming into Emacs via evil-mode. Besides, composability might be an interesting mental tool to add to my toolkit.

2015-01-18 Thinking about evil-mode and Emacs – index card #emacs

Wrapping up

Maybe I can get better at helping the Emacs community by:

  • Focusing on those micro-habits and sharing what I learn (good for helping intermediate users develop a better appreciation of Emacs)
  • Playing with more workflow improvements and sharing them
  • Writing about how to tinker with popular packages like Org
  • Reaching out through blog comments and Emacs Hangouts to help people learn (in a publicly recorded way)
  • Bringing out what people know through Emacs Hangouts and Emacs Chats (especially if people know cool things but haven't gotten around to writing about them)

Helping me get better at helping the Emacs community (my selfish reason: so that I learn more from people) can also support your evil plans (your selfish reason: so that you can learn more from me and from other people). Any suggestions? Tell me what I'm doing right and should do more of / better at, or tell me about somewhat adjacent things that are easy to do - low-hanging fruit! =)

Emacs micro-habits

TODO Emacs microhabit 1/52: Automate repetitive text. (Skeleton, Keyboard macros, Yasnippet, Emacs Lisp…)

DONE Emacs microhabit: Switching windows with windmove, ace-window, and ace-jump   emacs tip

When I work with a large monitor, I often divide my Emacs frame (what most people call a window) into two or more windows (divisions within a frame). I like this more than dealing with multiple Emacs frames, even if I could spread those frames across multiple monitors. I find it easier to manage the windows using keyboard shortcuts than to manage the tiling and display of frames.

One of the Emacs micro-habits I'm working on is getting better at switching between windows. When there are only two windows, C-x o (other-window) works just fine. However, when there are three or more, it can take a few repetitions of C-x o to get to where I want. I could get around that by binding other-window to M-o instead, replacing the default keymap for that. Or I could try to get the hang of other ways to move around.

Here's an 8-minute video showing windmove, ace-window, and ace-jump:

Here's the relevant code snippet for Windmove - I changed this to use define-key instead of bind-key.

(defvar sacha/windmove-map (make-sparse-keymap))
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "h" 'windmove-left)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "t" 'windmove-up)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "n" 'windmove-down)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "s" 'windmove-right)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "[left]" 'windmove-left)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "[up]" 'windmove-up)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "[down]" 'windmove-down)
(define-key sacha/windmove-map "[right]" 'windmove-right)
(key-chord-define-global "yy"     sacha/windmove-map)

Here's the cheat sheet I made for myself:

2015-01-12 Emacs microhabit - window management – index card #emacs

And here's a simpler reference that you can personalize for your own:

2015-01-18 Emacs microhabit - Switching windows – index card #emacs #microhabit

Naturally, after recording the video, I thought of a better way to manage my windows, taking advantage of the def-repeat-command that abo-abo posted on (or emacs. I modified the function to accept nil as the first value if you don't want the keymap to run a command by default, and to use kbd for the keybinding definitions.

  (defun sacha/def-rep-command (alist)
    "Return a lambda that calls the first function of ALIST.
It sets the transient map to all functions of ALIST,
allowing you to repeat those functions as needed."
    (lexical-let ((keymap (make-sparse-keymap))
                  (func (cdar alist)))
      (mapc (lambda (x)
              (when x
                (define-key keymap (kbd (car x)) (cdr x))))
      (lambda (arg)
        (interactive "p")
        (when func
          (funcall func arg))
        (set-transient-map keymap t))))

Here's my new binding for yy. It lets me bounce on y to use other-window as normal, use the arrow keys to move between windows thanks to windmove, and use ace-window as well: h is the regular ace-window, s swaps, and d deletes.

(key-chord-define-global "yy"
         ("<left>" . windmove-left)
         ("<right>" . windmove-right)
         ("<down>" . windmove-down)
         ("<up>" . windmove-up)
         ("y" . other-window)
         ("h" . ace-window)
         ("s" . (lambda () (interactive) (ace-window 4)))
         ("d" . (lambda () (interactive) (ace-window 16)))

Neat, eh?




DONE Org Mode publishing workflow for Sketched Books collection   emacs org publishing

I want to publish things in chunks that are bigger and more logical than blog posts, so I've been experimenting with my ZIP/PDF/EPUB/MOBI workflow.

Org Mode, Calibre, and Vagrant are terrific tools. Org Mode lets me write easy-to-modify source that I can export to different formats, like HTML and LaTeX (with the Beamer package), which lets me use PdfLatex to convert to PDF. Calibre converts HTML to EPUB and MOBI. Since tools can be difficult to set up on Windows, I use Vagrant to set up a virtual machine running Linux and I share my working directory with it.

Multiple-cursors was so useful when I was wrangling the directory listing into the right format for Org. I'm glad I learned how to use it!

Here's a Makefile I put together that simplifies the process for me:

View this file on Github

all: Sketched\ index.html sketched-books.epub ebook.pdf

	rm -f *.dvi *.log *.nav *.out *.tex *.snm *.toc

distclean: clean
	rm -f Sketched\ index.html *.epub *.pdf *.mobi

Sketched\ *.png index.html
	(cd ..; zip Sketched\ Books/Sketched\ Sketched\ Books/* -i *.css -i *.png -i *.html)

	emacs --batch -l build.el -f org-html-export-to-html --kill
	cp index.html index.tmp
	sed -e "s/org-ul/org-ul small-block-grid-3/" -e 's/div id="content"/div id="content" class="columns"/' -e 's/class="status"/class="status columns"/' index.tmp > index.html
	rm -f index.html~ index.tmp

	emacs --batch -l build.el -f org-html-export-to-html --kill

	montage *Sketched*.png -geometry -30-30 -thumbnail x400 -tile 6x5 cover.png

sketched-books.epub: ebook.html
	ebook-convert ebook.html sketched-books.epub --cover cover.png --authors "Sacha Chua" --language "English" ebook.html
	ebook-convert ebook.html --cover cover.png --authors "Sacha Chua" --language "English"

	emacs --batch -l build.el -f org-beamer-export-to-latex --kill

ebook.pdf: ebook.tex
	pdflatex ebook.tex
	cp ebook.pdf sketched-books.pdf
	rm ebook.pdf

And here's a very simple build.el:

(require 'package)
(require 'ox-beamer)
(setq org-html-validation-link nil)
(setq org-export-with-section-numbers nil)
(setq backup-directory-alist '(("." . nil)))

This assumes I've already set up the environment by installing the latest Org from MELPA.

You can check out the and I use, too.

I'm not quite sure about the MOBI output yet. I have to test it on a Kindle, or in the app on my tablet. Most of the things display fine on my computer, though. Hooray!

Neat, huh? I want to get into the habit of making and also making it easy for me to update these things. You can check out the results at .

Someday I might even figure out how to use the Gumroad API to publish updated resources automatically. Wouldn't that be neat? In the meantime, I'll just have to replace them myself.

I like giving people the ability to choose which files to download. If I get annoyed with replacing multiple files, though, I might change this to one large ZIP that has the images, PDF, EPUB, and MOBI.

View the source on Github


DONE Thinking about how to make better use of Yasnippet in my Emacs workflow   emacs

One of the awesome things that Karl Voit demonstrated in this Emacs Chat was how he used YASnippet and Org Mode to quickly create projects with several related tasks, such as when organizing a group to attend an event. He selected the snippet and filled in different fields like the artist name and the event date, and Emacs generated all these sub-tasks and e-mail templates with the information already filled in.

I've used YASnippet once or twice, but mostly I've been using org-capture and org-capture-templates instead. YASnippet looks like it might be more flexible because you can fill in fields in a non-linear order and you can re-evaluate Emacs Lisp expressions as you type.

Lots of people do cool things with YASnippet. For example, it's popular for programming because it lets people quickly expand short sequences into longer syntax. Check out this Emacs Rocks episode on YASnippet to get a sense of what it can do. (Note: YASnippet has changed its naming convention slightly, so things like yas/text have been replaced with yas-text.) People have used it for e-mail templates and to fill in metadata for blog posts.

I'd like to use YASnippet more. Where can I integrate it into my workflow? Probably wherever checklists and templates make sense. I've been thinking about checklists and templates as a way to improve how I do things.

Checklists are good for making sure that you complete tasks more consistently, not missing any important steps. You can work faster when there's a guide, since you don't have to keep thinking of the next step each time. The simple act of checking things off can encourage you to put in more effort, since the list shows you your progress. It also makes it easier to remember to follow up.

Templates help you improve the structure of your work. You can make sure you cover all the important parts. If you use similar structures for many things, then people get used to finding information in the same logical places. This doesn't mean that you're stuck with cookie-cutter formats. You can still adapt the format to your needs.

I'm particularly interested in using checklists and templates to improve in three areas:

  • Programming: I'd like to write with less friction and use best practices like testing
  • Helping the Emacs community: Checklists can help me make sure I do all the steps to prepare for and make the most of Emacs Hangouts and Emacs Chats. They might also lower the intimidation factor so that I end up scheduling these more often.
  • Writing: I think checklists and templates will help me invest more time into developing thoughts, relationships, and structure.


As mentioned, YASnippet's popular for programming. You can take advantage of existing collections of snippets for different programming modes (ex: AndreaCrotti's collection), or you can define your own.

I'd like to get better at developing single-page applications using AngularJS, Twitter Bootstrap / Zurb Foundation, and NodeJS. YASnippet might let me quickly put together short applications and test suites. If I get my workflow smooth enough, I might even be able to do an app-a-week (or app-a-day) sprint for deliberate practice. There are often lots of fiddly little syntax or keyword things that I look up while writing code. While practising typing those things in again and again will help me memorize them, there's also some value in automating that part with snippets so that I can focus on the core skills of designing and implementing small web applications.

YASnippet might also be able to help me use Org Mode to keep track of ideas for features or small web applications throughout the implementation process. I wonder if I should implement this using lots of subtasks or using TODO states with logs. TODO states might be easier to filter or visualize with the kanban package for Org Mode. Maybe I'll try both approaches. In any case, checklists will help me remember to think about designs and tests before implementing the code, and maybe I can keep track of deployment notes, lessons learned, and follow-up tasks.

Emacs Community

I find checklists to be really helpful when setting up live videocasts. I'm usually too frazzled to think of all the steps I need to do at the last minute. Paper checklists are good because I can refer to them while keeping my screen ready to be recorded. Still, an Org Mode-based checklist (possibly with dynamic date fields and e-mail templates provided by YASnippet) might go a long way towards standardizing the before- and after-event process, and that might in turn reduce the friction enough for me to do more of them. Both Emacs Chats and Emacs Hangouts seem to be popular, so it would be good to get more of these on the go.

The process would be something like:

  1. Reach out to the person who's going to be featured on the Emacs Chat, or at least one other person who's willing to be there for the Emacs Hangout (so that I don't end up talking to myself for the first ten minutes, which is Awkward)
  2. Figure out what will be discussed (for Emacs Chats)
  3. Set up a time, considering timezones
  4. Set up the Google+ event page
  5. Update the Google Calendar
  6. Post a notice on Twitter and on my blog (I've been forgetting to do this step)
  7. On the day of the event
    1. Do the last-minute push (I've been forgetting to do this as well)
    2. Create the Google Hangout on Air
    3. Set it up for Q&A
    4. Invite the other person in for Emacs Chats, or post the URL for Emacs Hangouts
    5. Host the video chat
    6. Remind people where the recording can be found
    7. Update the Google+ page with the link to the next thing
  8. Extract the MP3 from the video, change the properties, and upload it to
  9. Post a blog post with the embedded video, podcast audio, and quick notes
  10. Transcribe the video or pay for transcription
  11. Edit the transcript
  12. Update the post with the transcript
  13. Update the Google+ event page with the link to the transcript, post to social networks (I've been forgetting this)
  14. Update, too (yet another thing I've been forgetting)

I think it would be totally awesome to get to the point where I can call an Emacs Lisp function that would Do The Right Thing at that point, like posting to Twitter or using something like org-trello to make a Trello card and assign it to the person who does my transcriptions.


I'm getting the hang of using outlines to write (and I should post a video about this soon), but it might be even cooler if I can get the hang of writing with more structure. For example, Michael Hyatt posted this blog post checklist that he had been using with Evernote. I like it because:

  • The template asks you to be explicit about the post's objective and subject.
  • It encourages you to add more illustrations, links, and stories.
  • It reminds you to take steps that you might otherwise skip, and you might spend several days revising the post.

I might not use it for every post, but it's good to flesh out some ideas further, especially the ones where I think I'm onto something particularly interesting.

It would be even cooler if I could take advantage of YASnippet's dynamic Emacs Lisp evaluation to remind me of relevant links from my blog post outline given the category. I remember playing around with the Remembrance Agent, which monitored a few hundred words around your cursor and brought up files that had similar words. Matching on category isn't going to be anywhere as sophisticated, but it still might be a good way to refresh my memory. Even if I had a quick Emacs Lisp interactive function that read whatever category property I'd set (chosen from the org-refile-able targets) and displayed the section from my blog post index in another window, I think that would be a pretty neat start.

I tend to draft posts within my sharing outline (which I sporadically publish at When I'm done, I delete the subtree, sometimes replacing it with a link to the post to help me follow up on it in the future. This means losing that metadata, though. It might be interesting to keep the metadata so that I can review the goals and backstory of a blog post.

YASnippet can also help me keep track of the TODOs related to a post as well. For example, I might want to come up with sketches, tweet links, or follow up on ideas. If I use a YASnippet to plan my blog post in the first place, then I can create a TODO (possibly with a link back to the blog post) that I could leave in place or refile to the appropriate location in my regular Org Mode files.

I don't think YASnippet dynamic fields persist after the file is saved and reloaded, though. How would that work if I need to change things? Maybe I can use multiple-cursors to mark all the matching text in the subtree, or do other clever things with it…

Next steps

Okay. It looks like setting up YASnippet for Emacs checklists would probably give me the quickest win. Programming is also pretty straightforward. Writing might be interesting too, if I can get the hang of working with that kind of structure. Let's see how that goes. Once I figure out what those snippets will be like, I'll post them on Github somewhere. =)

Is YASnippet part of your workflow? Have any thoughts, suggestions, or neat stories?

DONE Getting started with Emacs? Empty your cup   emacs beginner

Frustrated with Emacs because you're just not as productive as you are with your old editor? Copying configuration snippets from the Web in order to force it to work like what you're used to, but running into problems with conflicting code or obscure error messages?

Here's something I've realized. To learn Emacs well, you need to empty your cup. This is the story as told on the C2 wiki:

A master was trying to explain something to a student. Now this student was not a brand new student, but a senior student who had learned many things. He had knowledge and experience aplenty to draw upon. But each time the master tried to explain something new to the student, the student kept trying to hold it up against his own notions of the way the world is and how it ought be, and he was unable to see the lessons in what the master was trying to teach him.

Finally, the master poured a full serving of tea into his own cup, and into the cup of the student. Then he told the student he wanted to give to him some of the tea from his own cup. He began pouring tea from his cup into the student's cup, but the student's cup was already full, and all the tea from the master's cup spilled out over the cup onto the surface below.

The student said, "Master, you can't pour anything into my cup until I empty it to make room for what you are trying to give me.", and the master replied "Yes I know." "And I can't give you any new thoughts or ideas or perspectives on life's lessons until you clear out some thoughts that are already teeming in your mind to make room for what I have to teach you." Then the master paused for a brief moment, meeting the student's eyes with his own knowing look and calmly but sternly said: " If you truly seek understanding, then first, empty your cup!"

The student pondered for a moment with a look of absolute bewilderment. Then a look of enlightenment came over him, followed by a smile, and a look of receptiveness. The master started to explain again, and this time the student saw what the master was trying to say.

2015-01-13 Emacs and the beginner's mind – index card #emacs #beginner

Emacs beginners often grumble about the strange keyboard shortcuts and terminology. "Why can't I use Ctrl-X to cut? Why is it called 'killing text'? Why doesn't it work like __?"

Some of those differences seem easy to fix with code you can get on the Net. But if you do that – if you give in to your initial discomfort – you may find yourself fighting more and more of Emacs as you go along, without the skills to properly integrate your changes. Packages that significantly change the behaviour of Emacs to make it more similar to another editor can make it harder to get help from the main Emacs communities.

It's better, I think, to approach Emacs as a beginner. Pretend this is your first editor. Go through the tutorial. Start with the basics. Try doing things the Emacs way.

In the beginning, you might feel agonizingly slow. You may need to do this in your discretionary time instead of when everyone is counting on you to deliver a time-sensitive project. It's okay to open up Vim or your previous editor so that you can get something done, while you keep learning Emacs in the background.

As you become familiar with the system, you learn how to work within it. Slowly configure things. Get used to the changes before you introduce more. Eventually, you'll understand the configuration snippets that other people post. Reading Emacs Lisp is the first step to being able to modify Emacs Lisp, and from there you can learn how to write Emacs Lisp. But you don't have to start knowing that right away; many people use Emacs for years before moving to that point, and many people use it without customizing it.

But if you start learning Emacs by getting frustrated with it and trying to force it to be what you want, you might never get to the point where you can enjoy it and work with it. Be a beginner. Give yourself time and space to learn, even if you feel you're learning slowly. Then, as you improve your understanding and skills, you'll learn how to coax Emacs to fit you even better.

DONE Emacs kaizen: ace-jump-zap lets you use C-u to zap to any character   emacs

I'm perpetually using M-z to zap-to-char and then typing the character back in, because I really should be using zap-up-to-char instead. But if I'm going to get the hang of fiddling with my muscle memory so that I do things the Right Way, I might as well use this opportunity to practise using ace-jump-zap instead. The ace-jump-zap-up-to-char-dwim and ace-jump-zap-to-char-dwim functions behave like their normal equivalents, but if you C-u them, you get ace-jump type behaviour allowing you to quickly zap to any character you see. And since I mentally think of M-z as not including the character, I may as well map it so that M-z behaves that way.

Now I just have to remember that C-u does cool stuff…

(use-package ace-jump-zap
  :ensure ace-jump-zap
  (("M-z" . ace-jump-zap-up-to-char-dwim)
   ("C-M-z" . ace-jump-zap-to-char-dwim)))

TODO Getting started with configuring Emacs

TODO Cooking with Emacs   requested


  • menu planning

TODO Tracking people with org-contacts

TODO Ledger and Org Mode

TODO Ledger tutorial

  • requested by henders254 on June 28, 2013

TODO Reorganizing Org-Mode files

OUTLINED How to learn Org Mode

Here's one tip for learning

  1. Get the hang of using Org as an outliner. See
  2. Learn how to search and browse around.
  3. Learn how to use Org to track TODO states. See
  4. Use C-c [ to add Org files to your agenda list, and learn how to schedule tasks. See and
  5. Set up org-capture so that you can save notes to your Org file.
  6. Learn how to archive, now that your Org file is getting pretty big.
  7. Learn how to use tags and search.
  8. Customize your Org agenda even further (org-agenda-custom-commands).

Thinking with Emacs :book-idea:PROJECT:

The basics



Remembering and organizing

Planning your life

Working with numbers

Saving time with shortcuts

How to learn Emacs Lisp

Interactive exploration with edebug

DONE How I can improve how I organize notes with Org Mode   org emacs kaizen

Let me think about how I organize my Org Mode files, and how I might improve that. =)

Separate files

You can put different things in different files, of course. I use a few large Org files instead of lots of small ones because I prefer searching within files rather than searching within directories. Separate files make sense when I want to define org-custom-agenda-commands that summarize a subset of my tasks. No sense in going through all my files if I only want the cooking-related ones.

What would help me make better use of lots of files? I can practise on my book notes, which I've split up into one file per book. It's easy enough to open files based on their titles (which I put in my filenames). But I don't have that overall sense of it yet. Maybe #+INDEX: entries, if I can get them to generate multiple hyperlinks and I have a shortcut to quickly grep across multiple files (maybe with a few lines of context)? Maybe a manual outline, an index like the one I've been building for my blog posts? I can work with that as a starter, I think.

Okay. So, coming at it from several directions here:

  • A manual map based on an outline with lots of links, with some links between topics as well - similar to my blog outline or to my evil plans document
  • Quick way to grep? helm-do-grep works, but my long filenames are hard to read.
  • Links between notes and to blog posts
  • TODOs, agenda views


Within each file, outlines work really well. You can create any number of headings by using *, and you can use TAB to collapse or expand headings. You can promote or demote subtrees, move them around, or even sort them.

I generally have a few high-level headings, like this:

* Projects
** One heading per current project
*** TODO Project task
* Reference
Information I need to keep track of
* Other notes
* Tasks
** TODO Lots of miscellaneous tasks go here
** TODO Lots of miscellaneous tasks go here
** TODO Lots of miscellaneous tasks go here

Every so often, I do some clean-up on my Org files, refiling or archiving headings as needed. This makes it easier to review my current list of projects. I keep this list separate from the grab-bag of miscellaneous tasks and notes that might not yet be related to particular projects.

I use org-refile with the C-u argument (so, C-u C-c C-w) to quickly jump to headings by typing in part of them. To make it easy to jump to the main headings in any of my agenda files, I set my org-refile-targets like this:

(setq org-refile-targets '((org-agenda-files . (:maxlevel . 6))))

How can I get better at organizing things with outlines? My writing workflow is a natural place to practise. I've accumulated lots of small ideas in my writing file, so if I work on fleshing those out even when I don't have a lot of energy–breaking things down into points, and organizing several notes into larger chunks–that should help me become more used to outlines.


In addition to organizing notes in outlines, you can also use tags. Tags go on the ends of headings, like this:

** Heading title     :tag:another-tag:

You can filter headings by tags using M-x org-match-sparse-tree (C-c \) or M-x org-tags-view (C-c a m).

Tags are interesting as a way to search for or filter out combinations. I used tags a lot more before, when I was using them for GTD contexts. I don't use them as much now, although I've started tagging recipes by main ingredient and cooking method. (Hmm, maybe I should try visualizing things as a table…) I also use tags to post entries under Wordpress blog categories.

How can I get better at using tags? I can look for things that don't lend themselves well to outlines, but have several dimensions that I may want to browse or search by. That's probably going to be recipe management for now. If I figure out a neat way to add tags to my datetree journal notes and then visualize them, that might be cool too.


Org Mode links allow me to refer not only to web pages, files, headings, and text searches, but to things like documentation or even executable code. When I find myself jumping between places a lot, I tend to build links so that I don't have to remember what to jump to. My evil plans Org Mode file uses links to create and visualize structure, so that's pretty cool, too. But there's still a lot more that I could probably do with this.

How can I use links more effectively? I can link to more types of things, such as Lisp code. I can go back over my book notes and fill in the citation graph out of curiosity. Come to think of it, I could do that with my writing as well. My writing ideas rarely fit in neat outlines. I often feel like I'm combining multiple threads, and links could help me see those connections.

In addition to explicit links, I can also define "radio targets" that turn any instance of that text into a hyperlink back to that location. Only seems to work within a single file, though, and I've never actually used this feature for something yet.


You can set various properties for your Org Mode subtrees and then display those properties in columns or filter your subtrees by those properties. I've used Effort to keep track of effort estimates and I have some agenda commands that use that. I also use a custom Quantified property to make it easier to clock into tasks using my Quantified Awesome system.

I could track energy level as either tags or properties. Properties allow for easier sorting, I think. Can I define a custom sort order, or do I have to stick with numeric codes? Yeah, I can sort by a custom function, so I can come up with my own thing. Okay. That suggests a way I can learn to use properties more effectively.

There are even more ways to organize Org Mode notes in Emacs (agenda views, exports, etc.), but the ones above look like good things to focus on. So much to try and learn!


Wordpress Stats: Your Site in 2014

  • Number of views
  • Busiest day of the year, most popular post on that day
  • Number of new posts, best day for posting, Calendar heatmap
  • Post with the most views
  • Referring sites
  • Map

The X tools and Wordpress plugins I use to manage a daily blog

  • Why
    • Writing helps me learn, so I end up writing a lot.
      • My goal is to learn something new practically every day.
      • … and to remember it for years.
    • Most of those notes make their way onto this blog.
  • Feedly
  • Toronto Public Library
  • Internet news sites

Editorial Calendar

Share a Draft

Emacs and Org Mode

Windows Live Writer


The X tools and Wordpress plugins I use to manage a 6,000+ blog post archive

The X tools and Wordpress plugins I use to manage an eclectic, wide-ranging blog

Other geekery

DONE Upgrading from Rails 3 to Rails 4; thank goodness for Emacs and rspec   coding rails emacs

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:60bfbb7f-ca6e-49c4-bf10-3dcf6dd5935d

:POST_DATE: [2014-10-25 Sat 21:48]

:POSTID: 27562

:BLOG: sacha

I spent some time working on upgrading Quantified Awesome from Rails 3 to Rails 4. I was so glad that I had invested the time into writing enough RSpec and Cucumber tests to cover all the code, since that flushed out a lot of the differences between versions: deprecated methods, strong parameters, and so on.

rspec-mode was really helpful while testing upgrade-related changes. I quickly got into the habit of using C-c , m (rspec-verify-matching) to run the spec file related to the current file. If I needed to test specific things, I headed over to the spec file and used C-c , s (rspec-verify-single). Because RSpec had also changed a little bit, I needed to change the way rspec-verify-single worked.

(defun sacha/rspec-verify-single ()
  "Runs the specified example at the point of the current buffer."
     (rspec-spec-file-for (buffer-file-name))
               (number-to-string (line-number-at-pos))))

(sacha/package-install 'rspec-mode)
(use-package rspec-mode
    (setq rspec-command-options "--fail-fast --color")
    (fset 'rspec-verify-single 'sacha/rspec-verify-single)))

C-c , c (rspec-verify-continue) was also a handy function, especially with an .rspec containing the --color --fail-fast options. rspec-verify-continue starts from the current test and runs other tests following it, so you don't have to re-run the tests that worked until you're ready for everything.

I should probably get back to setting up Guard so that the tests are automatically re-run whenever I save files, but this is a good start. Also, yay, I'm back to all the tests working!

Test coverage didn't mean I could avoid all the problems, though. I hadn't properly frozen the versions in my Gemfile or checked the asset pipeline. When I deployed to my webserver, I ran into problems with incompatible changes between Rails 4.0 and 4.1, and Bootstrap 2 and Bootstrap 3. Whoops! Now I'm trying to figure out how to get formtastic-bootstrap to play nicely with Bootstrap 3 and Rails 4 and the latest Formtastic… There are some git repositories that claim to do this correctly, but they don't seem to work.


Fine, I'll switch to simple_form, since that seems to be sort of okay with Bootstrap 3. I ended up using this simple_form_bootstrap3 initializer along with

# You can wrap a collection of radio/check boxes in a pre-defined tag, defaulting to none.
config.collection_wrapper_tag = :div

# You can define the class to use on all collection wrappers. Defaulting to none.
config.collection_wrapper_class = 'collection'

and this in my style.css.sass:

    @extend .form-group
    @extend .col-sm-2
  .control-group > .form-control, .form-group > .form-control, .form-group > .collection
    @extend .col-sm-10
    @extend .col-sm-offset-2
    text-align: left
    font-weight: normal
    @extend .col-sm-offset-2
    font-weight: normal

which is totally a hack, but it sort-of-semi-works for now.

More changes to come, since I've got to get it sorted out for Rails 4.1 too! Mrph.

DONE Dealing with SIGSEGV in php5-fpm and Nginx   geek

I screwed up my self-hosted Wordpress blog three ways in one evening.

First, I had an infinite loop thanks to Display Post Shortcode and include_content in a post that had the same tag that I was looking for. Right. Don't do that. Remember to remove include_content or exclude the post right before publishing.

Then I published a post without checking several times that my site was still up. I checked twice, which was apparently not enough. I should probably check five times. Or ten. Or at least a few times after restarting PHP. Since I hadn't checked, I spent a couple of hours playing a video game with W- instead of, say, stressing out about my site. Could've solved the problem sooner.

And then when I stressed out about my site, I "fixed it" in entirely the wrong way. I reduced php5-fpm's max_children instead of increasing it. This made it worse.

I had been worrying about running out of memory when I should've been worrying about running out of processes.

I felt that panic-induced haze setting in, scrambling through Google and adding all sorts of bits to my config, ripping out all sorts of plugins, and wondering how I could get a coredump. When I noticed I was making things worse, I made myself stop. I took a deep breath, and started untangling what was going on. I tried the opposite of what I had been trying. That worked.

Good timing, actually. Well, it could have been better timing, but that's one of the nice things about minimizing commitments and making good stuff for free; it lowers the risk of trying things out and learning something new.

I'm still getting SIGSEGV errors. It happens even if there are few active server processes. But at least it's sporadic instead of constant, and 1:59 AM is not the best time to dig into something like that. After sleep and reading, perhaps.

I'm a little bit nervous about my setup, and I'll probably set aside some time this week to dig into system administration and build my skills. I really should have a good plan for downtime, and a better plan for learning the essentials outside of a fire. But mistakes are great because they show you multiple holes in your system, so this is not too bad. Better now than when I'm managing a client site.

On the plus side, I did have the presence of mind to temporarily redirect to the static URL, switching it back after the PHP issues seemed to have cleared. Good strategy. Should do that first in the future.

With any luck, the blog is still up today. If you're reading this, yay!

I'm still happy that I self-host, even if I make mistakes like this. =) Good time to make mistakes and learn from them.

So, what am I going to change for next time?

  • Prepare a contingency plan for Stuff Happening, possibly involving throwing up a quick maintenance page that collects e-mails so that I can send abject apologies and link updates. Make this static so that it loads quickly, and have an external copy (ex: Dropbox) just in case my server is down and I have to redirect at the domain level.
  • Check several times after restarting PHP. Just because it loads once doesn't mean it's going to load again.
  • Consider redirecting URLs to static sketchnotes or external pages. Links and comments are nice, but viewing is essential.
  • Start screen right away instead of trying to juggle different commands. Set up logs and go to different configuration directories in order to minimize typing.
  • Don't panic. Yes, website failures are embarrassing, but the nice thing about making this a gift is that I don't have to worry about racking up the business losses. When I notice that I'm panicking (making wild guesses in terms of changes, for example), I should slow down and remind myself that This Is Not The End of The World.

Everything's going to be all right.

Setting up dynamic DNS with Tomato and Namecheap, and limiting SSH   geek linux

We have a computer downstairs with backups of files, and I've been using it to explore Vagrant and development using virtual machines as well. It can be useful to be able to SSH into it from outside our network, so I spent some time setting up a dynamic domain name, port forwarding, and new limits for the SSH server.

Namecheap (the domain name registrar that I use) supports dynamic domains, so it was easy to enable.

  1. Enable dynamic domains: Manage Domains, choose the domain, and then choose Dynamic DNS. Enable it and copy the password.
  2. Create an A record: Choose All Records and add a subdomain with a temporary address (ex: and type A. Save the settings.

Our router uses the Tomato firmware, which has built-in support for Namecheap and other dynamic DNS provider.

  1. Click on Basic - DDNS.
  2. Fill in the details for Dynamic DNS 1.

Before I forwarded the ports, I wanted to make sure that SSH permitted password authentication on our local network but required passphrases for external connections. OpenSSH: requiring keys, but allow passwords from some locations (Michael W. Lucas) was really helpful. I edited /etc/ssh/sshd_config, set PasswordAuthentication no, and added the following lines to the end of the file:

Match Address
  PasswordAuthentication yes

(I had some problems in the beginning because I typed this as Yes instead of yes… Case matters!)

I restarted the SSH server with service ssh restart and confirmed that I could still SSH in.

Back to Tomato. Port Forwarding lets you set up forwarding rules. The port for SSH is 22, so I filled in a row with the port I wanted, the internal port, and the internal IP address of the server. I clicked Save (forgot to do this a few times because the button was near the end of the page) and that was that.

On Windows, I walked W- through generating a DSA public key with PuttyGEN, loading it in Pageant, and copying it to his .ssh/authorized_keys2 file.

Posting this here because I'm probably going to want to do this again someday, and it took some searching around. Besides, someone might find it handy!

Emacs and Ruby   requested

ruby-end / smartparens rinari and inf-ruby haml-mode toggle hash syntax Robe and Rubocop - rdg

Making my own URL shortening Wordpress plugin   wordpress code

RMagick and data-based photo mosaics

Tablet development

APIdventures: Evernote

APIdventures: Meetup

APIdventures: Flickr

Using the Ledger command-line tool to manage your finances

  • Why
  • Basics
  • Register
  • Balance
  • Virtual transactions

Synchronizing video tracks

Dragon NaturallySpeaking and NatLink

Planning, deciding, tracking, productivity, time management, delegation

TODO Write about blogging and marketing and answering potential customers' questions

  • outline and delegate this myself
  • Situation: Tech person. Introvert, even. Would rather code.
  • But there's this funny thing called business
  • Blogging = Marketing = Selling without talking to people as much
  • E-mail templates and text expanders
  • Recycle your e-mail
  • Take notes from your conversations
  • Plan ahead
  • Saving time
    • Keep expectations low
    • Virtual assistants

Delegation   focus

A No-Excuses Guide to Delegation   book

Breaking through the barriers of micro-task outsourcing

  • I haven't delegated anything new in a while.
  • Why not?
  • I've been curious about task-based outsourcing like Fiverr.
    • Quick "hire", low commitment
  • What are my goals?
    • Learn more effectively
      • The limiting factor is not the lack of articles or reading material
      • Usually plenty out there
    • Add more depth to my learning and writing
      • Take advantage of other people's perspectives
      • Find resources I might not have come across myself, or that I don't have time to look for
    • Keep things going even if I'm not paying active attention to them
      • Momentum
      • For example, while I'm consulting
  • What's been stopping me? I'm worried that it will be a waste of time and money.
    • I'm worried that I'll choose badly.
      • Well, I'm not going to learn how to choose until I choose.
    • I'm worried that I don't know how to specify the work that I want. I'm worried that there'll be a mismatch of expectations. I want clear, non-self-promotional, useful articles, and the provider might think I want some search-engine optimizing fluff.
      • I can work on being clear and providing examples. Besides, getting what I don't want teaches me how to specify what I do.
    • I'm worried that it will be inauthentic.
      • Always personalize
    • I'm worried that the price point is too low.
    • I'm worried that I can't fit it into my writing workflow.
    • I'm worried that it will be a waste of time because I'll end up rewriting things anyway.

OUTLINED How I (want to) use outsourcing to help me learn more effectively

Goal: Learn, share, scale

  • Package lots of e-books on a pay-what-you-can basis, or whatever people would like (support/subscription?)
  • Learning from people
    • Identify interesting people to learn from
      • Hmm… is there a way I can do this more efficiently? Scanning the first 50 Google Blog Search results gets me 5 high-quality resources, which I could probably filter just based on the titles alone.
      • Huh. This could be harder than I thought, because I'm not that happy with the resources that are out there. Maybe I should figure out a better strategy.
      • What do I want in terms of learning from people?
        • Write blog posts with links to other people's interesting perspectives
        • Slowly collect interesting people to follow in my feed reader
        • Keep in mind the specialties of my blog readers and other people who don't blog on their own
      • Possible outsourcing approach
        • SPEC: Given a topic, give me an outline or spreadsheet highlighting bloggers who have written good blog posts about the topic
          • well-written (good English, few grammar or spelling mistakes, good paragraph separation, maybe uses bold/color/italics for emphasis)
          • includes personal experiences, not just generic advice or reblogging
          • includes action items or recommendations
          • includes links to other resources (and not just selling content or promoting a business)
          • discussed: has at least two comments, one of which should be a reply from the author (unless the post is less than a week old)
          • active: at least 1 post a month, and has posted recently
        • Rubric:
          • Excellent:
            • Went through ~10 pages of Google search results and narrowed it down to 5-10 excellent items
            • Highlighted bloggers or websites who wrote repeatedly about a topic, browsing through categories or tags to find related posts
            • Added a short description of how the pages differ from each other differ from each other
          • Good:
            • Went through ~5 pages of Google search results and narrowed it down to 5-10 good articles
            • Organized the list of articles to put excellent/insightful blogs at the top
          • Mediocre:
            • Sends a list of URLs with no explanations
            • Includes blog posts that are generic, self-promotional advice
    • Topics I want to learn more about
      • Content marketing / information products
      • Connecting through blogs
      • Visual thinking
      • Making decisions
      • Personal time tracking
      • Delegation, outsourcing, how to make the most of virtual assistance
    • Tips
      • Look at the posts that good blog posts link to
    • Prepare talking points / questions / links
      • Review past blog posts looking for related items
    • Schedule interviews
    • Draft show notes with links
    • Export to MP3
    • Transcribe (so that I can turn it into blog posts)
    • Post to blog
    • Update previous posts
    • Find a tutor
    • Tutor me on a topic
  • Learning from books and other resources
    • Identify resources
    • Request books (partially automated)
    • Comparison-shop for books
    • File notes
  • Learning from the Web
  • Learning by sharing
    • Identify related blog posts
      • Clip into Evernote
      • Map links onto my outline
    • Ask questions
    • Edit for clarity and brevity
    • Bring several posts together in an outline
    • Improve my Excel workbook or dashboard
    • Scrape data for analysis
    • Research comparable statistics
    • De-um audio
    • Categorize old posts
      • Bayesian probabilities?
    • Add PWYC buttons / turn PDFs into PWYC products
    • Format documents as beautiful PDFs
    • Cross-post to Pinterest and Flickr
  • Learning from conversation
    • Identify new referrers and blog search results
    • Send people links as things are published
  • Learning by making
    • Build the bones of a web application (especially one that uses APIs)
    • Sketch out a Wordpress plugin
    • Fix CSS or JS issues
  • Learning through virtual meetups
    • Set up Google Event
    • Publicize event
    • Moderate questions
    • Set up Hangout On Air and post links
    • Trim recorded video
  • Learning through meetups
    • Set up meetup
    • Publicize meetup
    • Post follow-up notes
    • Post meetup reminder
  • Learning by experimenting
    • Structure an experiment and its measures
    • Review related literature and examples
    • Enter data
    • Analyze data
    • Strengthen my conclusions (make sure they make sense)
    • Tutor me in statistics
    • Create visualizations
    • Put everything together in a blog post
  • Learning by delegating
    • Identify opportunities to delegate
    • Document process
    • Anticipate exceptions
    • Draft job specs
    • Find comparable samples of work
    • Identify promising ODesk or Fiverr candidates
    • Do cost-benefit analysis


Nudged by Timothy Kenny

What services should I be taking advantage of?

DONE Getting some help with blogging

  • I'm thinking of investing more in my blog, maybe experimenting with.
  • NOT
    • having someone "spin" keyword-laden content for me
    • someone to keep me accountable re: writing - it's already a habit =)
  • Why
    • I want to get better at writing
    • One way: Identify and deliberately practice blogging skills
      • Current focus areas
        • Outlining (mostly comfortable; need to get to the point of calibrating outline to ~100 words?)
        • Synthesizing information (lists, etc.), bringing everything together with a conclusion or recommendations
      • Next steps
        1. Write better headlines
        2. End strong: conclusion, call to action, question
        3. Start strong: improve first paragraph
        4. Pick better post topics (research, feedback, etc.)
        5. Get into the habit of sending newsletter e-mail, maybe for upcoming blog posts
        6. Get into the habit of updating, organizing, and packaging information resources
      • Doing this, having fun, making progress.
        • Hmm, might be interesting to think about how to measure this progress
    • Another way: coaching
      • Ideally, someone with better skills
        • Model excellence and call their shots
        • Give feedback on gaps
        • Help me teach others
        • Ideal scenario?
          • We pick a skill to focus on, like synthesizing information
          • They recommend some of their favourite role models
          • We come up with exercises or challenges (I'm currently listify-ing at least one post per week; ditto stock photos)
          • (We might be able to skip the research part for now, as that's time-consuming and lower-value than planning/editing.)
          • They help me improve the logical organization of the outline
          • They help me improve the transitions and organization of the draft post
          • We brainstorm better headlines and calls to action / questions for the audience
            • Also, related Twitter post?
      • Even a different perspective is useful
        • Check whether something makes sense
          • I don't care about typos if the meaning stays the same
          • I care about good headlines and saying clear, useful, time-saving, non-obvious things
          • I care about explaining things that people might find confusing
            • I might write a blog post for an advanced audience, but it would be good to flag what needs to be explained for intermediate audiences etc. and then fill that in with blog posts later on
              • How to map this out?
          • I care about tightening things up and making transitions smooth
        • Need more precise feedback than "It doesn't work." I want to see alternatives.
        • Learning how to put my editing hat on
    • Brainstorming/planning stage?
      • Outline, notes, quotes, examples, questions
      • Follow-up blog posts
    • Also possibly useful: research and editing help
      • People will search using different keywords and sources than I might
      • Good for prioritizing lots of resources
        • Value depends
          • Do I read faster than they do? Can I filter through resources faster?
          • Do they have similar or better prioritization functions? Am I wowed by their choices?
          • Comparative advantage?
        • Is the following the ideal scenario for that? This is some time in the future, though, after I get used to working with other people while writing.
          • I send the person an outline and some notes, and he or she sends back summaries of the best resources with citations and links. I add personal stories (this comes after research because I want to apply advice and it's better than just searching for confirmatory evidence) and publish.
      • Good for editing transcripts and misc. documents too, possibly handling some of the regular publishing (ex: sketchnotes or updates)?
    • Process tips?
      • Tools and processes are harder to transfer
      • Metacognition?
  • Good to have a safety net: at some point, I anticipate being more frazzled. This is part of life.
    • I could do what other people do and not blog, but it's more fun to learn from the conversation.
    • Good to have someone doublecheck that I'm making sense
    • Make sure that I'm writing useful stuff instead of focusing too much on my life
      • Yes, it's a personal blog, but I may as well be useful at the same time =)
      • And also check that I'm not too impersonal, because that would be boring
    • Do some of that research, maybe?
    • Investment in ongoing learning and connection
      • May need to prioritize
      • or may just need to learn how to put my editing hat on
  • Justifying value
    • Competing options
      • Options
        • Do it myself
          • I'm doing pretty well
          • Lots of great tips out there
          • I'm nowhere near the limit of what I can learn for free or from experience
          • Use books and role models for passive guidance
        • Learn from people's feedback
          • This is great! People comment and share
        • Find or start a blogging mastermind group
          • Group insight, more perspectives
          • Group plans, support; building relationships
            • Casual examples: Mel Chua, Trevor Lohrbeer, Timothy Kenny - no formal connections between them, but good conversations
        • Advantages of coach/assistant
          • Opportunity for targeted, skilled, consistent feedback
          • Learn more about delegation and coaching
    • Justifying investment
      • Worth an experiment
        • How long? Extent?
          • As-needed basis
          • Risk: I might forget to assign work
            • I should prepare and assign work up front
          • Once a week, at least a month?
            • What does this look like?
              • Google Docs or Draft, e-mail notifications
                • … because I'm unlikely to find someone who can commit straight to Github ;)
              • Google Hangout chat for clarification/discussion if needed
              • Probably 2-3 hours a week, picking one post to focus on
                • make it awesome and link-worthy!
                  • although the easiest way to do that is to go and sketchnote something (book review, talk, resource, etc.)
                  • goal is to learn how to do this with just writing, or with a combination of writing and some graphics
        • How does this compare with previous experiment with editing?
        • What would be worth it?
          • At the end of the experiment
            • Good: I'm more comfortable synthesizing key points from research and stitching them together in a smooth, non-plagiaristic way that adds value
            • Awesome: I wrap up the post with a good conclusion, a call to action, and a question
            • Amazing: I have a better sense of headlines, and a plan for testing/improving
              • Okay with needing different coaches - work with people's strengths
      • How to continue justifying the experiment
        • Canada Revenue Agency: must be business-related expense with expectation of income
        • Deeper feedback versus superficial feedback, explaining what's going on
          • Ex: reorganizing the logic of a piece and explaining why, instead of making tiny word changes (remove "just", etc. - useful, but not as useful as the other kind of feedback)
        • Sell information products or courses, maybe on a pay-what-you-can basis
        • Use as a regular weekly sanity-check for batch processing
          • Grant access to Wordpress?
          • Work out a different workflow, maybe Evernote? (Evernote doesn't paste well)
  • Acknowledgements
    • Happy to share before/after views and a link in posts
    • and naturally, lots of process reflections and updates!


  • How to use Fiverr for blog research (?)
    • Challenge
      • Want to write a blog post, but
        • Want to build on what's already been said
        • Want to show different perspectives
        • Want to say something different
      • Lots of results on Google
        • Generic articles written for search engine optimization
        • People promoting paid courses or products
    • What could help you?
      • Full article?
      • More of a control freak? (Like me!)
        • Prioritized list of 3-10 links with descriptions?
    • Tips

    Hmm… Would I pay $5 to replace an hour of going through search results?

Quantified Self

Planning a mini-guide for Quantified Self   planning 

Mark suggested that I put together some tips for Quantified Self. I think that it might be good to put together a mini-guide on how to take small steps and learn from them. This is not new advice, but considering the obstacles and excuses I frequently hear from people ("I don't know where to start"; "I get discouraged"; "I never stick with things"; "I don't know how to analyze data"), there might still be a need for it.

Here's how I got to that conclusion. First, I thought about some of the ideas Mark suggested.

2015.01.12 Considering ideas for QS mini-guide – index card #quantified #planning

  • How to run personal experiments: formulating small, testable hypotheses; researching ideas; collecting data; analyzing data (and minimizing errors); figuring out the next step
    • Useful for people who want to try something new, but many people will find this intimidating and they'll benefit from getting started with easier frameworks like pre-built apps
  • Small wins: small things to measure/try, setting yourself up for success, celebrating progress
    • Useful for people who are being blocked by their excuses. Probably the most practical (and personally interesting for me).
  • Mindset shifts for Quantified Self: experiments, curiosity, testing
    • Possibly interesting, but needs to be translated into practical action
  • Why track: benefits, working around limits, learning more
    • People who aren't open to the idea won't be convinced quickly. People who are into it don't need to be sold on it. Are there people on the fence?

Okay. Small wins. Actually, small steps, since we may want to play around with the definition of a win anyway.

I jotted down some ideas and started connecting them.

2015.01.12 Quantified Self and small steps – index card #quantified

If I put together a guide, I could synthesize insights from the following books:

  • The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012): the habit loop, triggers, rewards, and replacing habits
  • The Progress Principle (Amabile and Kramer, 2011): small wins, daily progress on meaningful tasks, and how to nourish and catalyze
  • The Inner Game of Work (Gallwey, 2001): nonjudgmental awareness
  • Either The 4-Hour Chef (Ferriss, 2012) or The First 20 Hours (Kaufman, 2013): breaking down skills and changes

Oh! There are also some books and resources about tiny habits, mini habits, or micro habits. I vaguely remember reading a paperback book from the library on the same topic some years ago, but it's not in my book notes. Hmm.

Aside from the key points from these books and other research I've come across, though, what else can I add to the conversation? I prefer not to write something already capably expressed somewhere else. It makes more sense to link to that and then build up from there. So, if I'm going to spend time and attention on this, what can I bring to it, and what do I want to get out of it?

  • I'm not an expert in improving my habits, but paying attention to the details and analyzing my successes/failures can help me grow.
  • I've learned something from consistently blogging and from doing regular weekly/monthly/yearly reviews for years. I've also learned something from the small decisions of my opportunity fund, figuring out productivity advice that works for me, and reducing energy I used to waste in being frustrated or self-recrimination.
  • If I write small chunks of research, insights, and tips related to the key excuses, I'll have a resource that I can share the next time I hear those excuses get in someone's way.

As I wrote down my thoughts related to taking small steps, I got clearer on the challenges people face and the excuses that get in our way.

2015.01.12 More thoughts about QS mini-guide – index card #quantified #planning

Despite the occasional exhortation to set audacious stretch goals (like registering for a marathon when you're more of a couch potato), I think most people understand the value of taking small steps and making small goals. Popular goals tend to be outcome-focused instead of process-focused; I find process-focused goals to be better for me, and research tends to say the same too. So that's something more people can benefit from learning about. (Ooh, possibly interesting research to explore: age-related differences and positive effects for process focus; shifting from process to outcome, self-regulated learners, etc.) Also, people tend to give up without realizing that they can get value from even very short, simple experiments. They get discouraged by noise and lack of progress.

I've learned that it helps to start by building awareness (without being overly judgmental). That will help you come up with tiny tweaks. As you learn from the experiment-, you can absorb some changes into your daily routines.

That suggests a structure for this potential mini-guide on Quantified Self and small steps:

2015.01.12 Structure for QS mini-guide on small steps – index card #quantified

If I can connect with the excuses that people often get stuck at and address them with a few practical tips, that might help people move from feeling overwhelmed (or casually dismissive) to feeling that there might be something worthwhile that they can try.

What will this guide look and feel like?

2015.01.12 What will this QS guide look and feel like – index card #quantified #planning

Ideally, I'd be able to condense the key tips onto a single page, like the one-page summary of A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging. Since the tips would be more effective with research, examples, and links, it makes sense to flesh them out into a blog post with illustrations. There's probably enough material for more detailed blog posts for each of the excuses or stages. How about a presentation? Blog posts are quicker to put together or break apart for linking, but a short presentation with links might be worth creating because it's easy to share.

I don't think I'll get all the way to that point in one week, though. =) I can probably quickly sketch out my thoughts. I might be able to back up a few points with research. I don't feel that I can speak authoritatively about it yet, but if I prioritize the excuses I want to address, I might be able to find things that will help dislodge people and get them going.

Hmm. Possibly interesting?

Planning and decisions

Decision review: Starting my own business

  • Ending my second fiscal year
  • So far, excellent!
    • Consulting
      • Developing my skills further
      • Know what I'm good at
      • Work well with the team - I know what I can pass on to other people and what I'm better at handling
    • Sketchnoting as a business
      • Can create a lot of value at events, but don't like the commitment
      • Focusing on my own content
  • Next year
    • Focus on writing and drawing content
    • Business models?
      • Don't want to lock exclusive content behind a paywall
        • Why?
          • I've been that credit-card-less student
          • Besides, I'm probably better off than most people
            • I have discretionary time and income
      • Reasons to earn
        • Increase safety margin, especially if the stock market is going to be iffy
        • Reinvest and grow?
          • But I'm really frugal
            • Past couple of weeks, I've been focused on choosing ways to reinvest in my business
            • I ordered the Fujitsu ScanSnap IX500 because I want to scan more sketches, documents, and receipts quickly, which will also encourage me to work on paper more. It has good reviews, and I've been thinking about the purchase for a year.

Thinking of myself as an organization

Oliver Burt

I'm having this odd mental tangle around trying to frame my plans as though they were the plans of a corporation, a non-profit, or even a conglomerate. It's a strange thing and I'm looking forward to digging into it further. Something about non-transactional models, exploration, long-term views, tribes instead of markets or audiences… I suspect my current metaphor might be closer to science than it is to business, with a dash of music thrown in. Not that this explanation makes sense, but I think it will if I explore it a bit further. Thanks for the nudge to think about it!

Keep opportunity costs in mind

Testing your assumptions

Decide on your criteria in advance


  • Trevor's story about finding a house
  • Planning a menu (patterns)
  • Choosing a computer


  • The difference between maximizing and satisficing more
  • Why
    • Make decisions quickly
      • Discard choices that are obviously worse
      • Jump on opportunities
    • Make decisions more reasonably
      • Esp. if you anticipate poor decision capability
        • "Your ability to think rationally may be impaired. It is therefore suggested that you avoid making any important decisions until the effects of the medications have fully worn off." - from pre-procedural sedation instructions
      • Don't forget important criteria; value of a checklist
    • Make decisions consistently over time
      • Ex: hiring decisions
    • Get other people to help you look
  • How
    • Decide on your criteria in advance
    • Prioritize
      • You probably won't be able to get everything
      • What's good enough?
      • Weighted scoring helps

more: Decision-making

Pre-mortems and wild success stories

Do you have conflicting goals?

Tag clouds for planning

Making decisions with emotions

Planning my next mini-experiments

Growing outwards

  • diagram

OUTLINED What I want

  • What I want in terms of visual thinking
    • People know about sketchnotes and are encouraged to make them
    • People are encouraged to share their sketchnotes, and they know how to do that effectively
    • Event organizers know about sketchnotes and look for people who can provide this service
    • People value sketchnotes
    • I learn more effectively by capturing sketchnotes
    • I connect more effectively by sharing sketchnotes
  • What I want in terms of Emacs
    • People learn Emacs a small bit at a time instead of getting intimidated by it
    • I learn about interesting things that are out there
  • What I want in terms of blogging
    • I learn more effectively through blogging
    • I can find things again
    • I live an interesting life and share my notes
  • What I want in terms of Quantified Self
    • Challenge myself to measure and interpret more
    • Create resources to help other people learn
    • Improve my personal dashboard
  • What I want in terms of living
    • Have a fun exercise habit so that I feel alert and healthy
    • Be mindful, organized, and good at remembering
    • Live an awesome life


  • Goal: Understand how I want to make good decisions and what I want to write down
  • Getting more comfortable making decisions that shape my life
    • Contrast: master's degree in Canada
    • Experiment
    • Skills, focus
  • What makes a good decision?
    • Goal: Maximize payoffs and minimize risks
  • Don't judge decisions by outcomes, but by processes
    • Not about regretting the outcome, but the process
    • Canada Post losing my passport: not a terrible decision, but not the best one, although it reminds me that I should test more assertive approaches like seeing if it's a real requirement
  • Scenario planning
  • Recognize and work around biases
    • Confirmation
    • Availability
    • Loss aversion
  • Plan fire drills
  • Create space
  • What do

Something I want to get better at: Planning my way through uncertainty

  • I don't know what next month will be like, or the months beyond that.
    • cloud of possibilities
  • Scary
    • Why
      • Uncomfortable making and possibly renegotiating commitments
      • In limbo about some plans
  • Uncertainty is good
    • Learning how to deal with it
    • Learning
  • Good outcome
    • Not blindsided by unknown risks; have a flexible contingency plan
    • Comfortable with decisions even if they turn out badly
    • Documented decisions so that I can review and improve my decision-making process
    • Fire drill so that I have something in place
  • How I deal with uncertainty
    • Minimize commitments
      • Unexpected perks of semi-retirement: I can be open about uncertainty
    • Scenario planning
      • Research
        • What's out there?
        • Which outcomes are more likely? less likely?
      • Plan for the negative scenarios
      • Plan for possibilities
  • Lessons from other places
    • Lean
      • No forecasts, less waste

…deliberate attempt to separate what we do and do not know about the future, and to use that as a basis for exploring many possible futures … "A better approach now is to embrace uncertainty and examine it in detail to discover where the hidden opportunities lurk."

  • Paul J. H. Schoemaker (, in
  • Kristel van der Elst (World Economic Forum)
    • Identify central question
    • Identify driving forces and systemic changes that will transform the playing field (social, technological, economic, environmental, (geo)political)
    • Look at things that could happen, not just extensions of the present
    • Determine critical uncertainties (impact vs certainty)
    • Back into decision-making process - strategy that creates value in several scenarios, backup plan

The point of scenario planning, after all, is not to be right, which is such a human inclination that we find it hard to overcome—the point of scenario planning is to see the future from perspectives we would have a difficult time forcing ourselves to imagine because of our bias toward rightness, and therefore imagine new possibilities or see threats we might otherwise miss. The trick is to know we will always be wrong as we speculate about the future .!C07907DBA0E3BEA6!1399.entry Yet, the purpose of scenario planning is not to pinpoint future events but to highlight large-scale forces that push the future in different directions. It's about making these forces visible, so that if they do happen, the planner will at least recognize them. It's about helping make better decisions today. Identify early warning Personal scenario planning 2x2, implications and actions,

  • fixed schedule, fixed scope; success not always possible, add buffer
  • fixed schedule, adjustable scope
  • no schedule, unknown scope; kanban, limit work in progress,%20change%20and%20uncertainty.pdf

  • basic internal dynamic
  • external influences
  • human factors and strategies
  • chance

known/unknown means/ends (Christensen, 1999, 143)

  • positive power of negative thinking

Foxman, P. (1976). Tolerance for ambiguity and self-actualizing. Journal of Personality Assessment, 40, 67-72 Table 1: Issues Linked to Tolerance of Uncertainty People with High Tolerance for Uncertainty Tend to People with Low Tolerance for Uncertainty Tend to · Be less dogmatic · Be less ethnocentric · Be less "generally" conservative · Perceive ambiguous stimuli as desirable and challenging · Rely less on authorities for opinions · Be more self actualized · Be more flexible · Prefer objective information · Be more dogmatic (Bochner, 1965) · Be more ethnocentric (Block & Block, 1950) · Be more "generally" conservative (Sidanuis,

· Avoid ambiguous stimuli (Furnham, 1995) · Rely more on authorities for opinions (Bhushan, 1970) · Be less self actualized (Foxman, 1976) · Be more rigid (Budner, 1962) · Prefer information supportive of their views (McPherson, 1983) Process, outcome, perceptual

  1. I’m comfortable making a decision on my gut instincts. .80
    1. I’m comfortable using my intuition to make a decision. .75
  2. I’m willing to make a decision based on a hunch. .71
  3. I’m comfortable deciding on the spur-of-the-moment. .69
    1. When I start a project, I need to know exactly where I’ll end up. (-) .76
  4. I need a definite sense of direction for a project (-) .73
  5. I need to know the specific outcome before starting a task. (-) .72
  6. I don’t need a detailed plan when working on a project. .67
  7. I actively try to look at situations from different perspectives. .78
    1. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas to address problems. .64
    2. I actively look for signs that the situation is changing. .63


  • Desired benefits
    • Scan double-sided documents (infrequent)
    • Scan larger pieces of paper (up to 11x17, infrequent)
    • Scan long pieces of paper
      • Includes Adobe PDF for making pretty articles
  • Options
    • ScanSnap iX500 Deluxe (520.98)
    • ScanSnap S1100 Delux (230.99)
    • ScanSnap S1300i (482.60)
      • Automatic document feeder
    • Continue with my scanner

What makes a good decision

Process, not outcome

  • What makes a decision a good decision?
  • Good decision or bad decision - process, not outcome
  • Good process more, more
    • Understand likely possibilities
    • Reasonably estimate cost/benefit/risk/reward
    • Make a decision you're willing to commit to (versus passing the buck)
    • Base decision on accurate information (and keeping sources in mind - credibility, bias)
    • Aware of the situation
    • Have contingency plans
    • Address the real issue
    • Not flipflopping on the decision (reduce uncertainty)
    • Aware of assumptions, have tested some of them
    • Have considered a number of solutions
    • Can explain decision
    • I use effective decision tools
    • more
    • more
      • Establishing a positive decision-making environment.
      • Generating potential solutions.
      • Evaluating the solutions.
      • Deciding.
      • Checking the decision.
      • Communicating and implementing.
  • See more at:
  • Process != outcome
    • Good process, good outcome - invisible, but celebrate it
      • ex: experiment (so far)
    • Good process, bad outcome - is it still the decision you would make knowing what you knew then? What did you fail to consider?
      • ex: buying the Cintiq? unexpected outcome
    • Bad process, good outcome - luck, chance of superstition
      • choosing Ateneo
    • Bad process, bad outcome - double regret
      • lost passport
  • But if you’re consistently getting bad outcomes, maybe you need to rethink your process

WIND Mobile

Tablet PC


41 days between 2013-09-25 and 2013-02-15 (inclusive) 223 days (/ 223 41) 5 days between visits (/ 223 7) (* 2 31) expected 62

(* (/ 51.75 30.0) 223) $384.675 (/ 385 62.0) 6.209677419354839 (/ 385 41.0) 9.390243902439025

  • Currently underusing my Hacklab membership compared to my goals
    • As of 2013-09-25, 223 days since I joined (~ $385 in fees)
    • Original goals twice a week (~ 62 visits, $6 per visit)
    • Actual visits 41 days out of 223 days (~ 5 days between visits, $9) 66% of goal, which is actually okay
  • Why not
    • The easiest thing in the world is to stay in introvert mode
    • Inertia both ways
      • At home
      • Momentum
    • Waking up late, thinking "Is it really worth biking down there for a few hours of hanging out or working?"
    • Distraction from conversation versus socialization - focus on different benefits, keep audio handy?
      • It's okay to work more slowly but with more serendipity; I have the time for this
    • Commitment to work on consulting things a couple of extra half-days a week
  • Open house useful - vegan cooking lessons and inspiration, socialization, excuse to bring together
    • Can do that even as a non-member
  • Expected benefits
    • Ambient socialization with interesting people
    • Ambient exposure to interesting things
    • Possible support for learning stuff (ex: hardware, electronics, 3D printing, Javascript, Haskell, neural nets)
  • Hacking my motivation
    • Commit to the exercise. At least once a week (Fridays), I will bike for at least 1.5 hours including a mailbox check. I might as well use that biking time to end up at Hacklab, do some stuff, and then take the other 45 minutes on the way back.
    • Make Hacklab the centre of my socialization. Instead of setting up separate get-togethers with people, I will funnel people to HackLab's open house (which I will attend whenever I don't have other events). If I'm in introvert mode, I will treat the open house as cooking lessons. If I'm in socialization mode, I will catch up with people.
    • Consider small-scale cooking on regular days. Afternoon snacks, merienda, etc. Better with a full kitchen and a fridge.
    • On Hacklab days, do not open the computer at home in the morning. This gets around the momentum issue. Checking things on the phone is okay, as is working on the computer if something urgent comes up.
  • What about winter?
    • Suspend membership?
    • Take TTC
      • Worth membership + $6 per day?
    • Bike on non-snowy days?
    • Mental accounting for 9 months instead of 12?
      • Less work for the treasurer, opens up possibility of dropping in
      • (/ (* 51.75 12) 41) $15 per day even with my current use. I think that's worth it considering (a) yummy vegan dinner, and (b) other coworking spaces are $20

SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT(DATE_FORMAT(logged, '%Y-%m-%d'))) from access_log where card_id='123-3149'; SELECT MIN(logged) FROM access_log WHERE card_id='123-3149';

  • DONE Decision review: Seven months at HackLab   decision review connecting

    :Effort: 0:30

    :ID: o2b:28258c6a-6cba-4900-bc12-6c39578fe73c

    :POST_DATE: [2013-09-25 Wed 19:31]

    :POSTID: 26177

    :BLOG: sacha

    It's been a little over half a year since I signed up for a membership at HackLab, a makerspace and coworking area in Kensington Market. Before I signed up, I thought about the things I would like to be true at the evaluation point for my experiment, which I set at nine months after I signed up (so November 2013). I figured it would be good to do a quick check so that I can adjust things. Here's what I wrote in February, and how it has matched up so far with my experience:

    I know more about other geeks in Toronto thanks to ambient conversations and helping each other out
    HackLab is full of interesting people. I like dropping by and hanging out at the open houses or during regular days.
    I’m better at asking people for help when I get stuck, and at setting myself tougher challenges knowing that people can help
    I've done this a couple of times (keyboard layouts, business questions, web stuff, system administration), although I still need to work on that.
    I’ve dug into some of the more difficult things that are easier to learn with other people who can help me. For example: web development, mobile development, electronics
    Web development and system administration might be good things to focus on. There are lots f other people who are working on similar things.
    I’ve gotten better at sketching ideas, asking other people for feedback, and fleshing out the ones that get people interested
    I drew How to Learn Emacs while I was at HackLab. That was fun. =) I've drawn some of the sketchnote lessons here, too.
    I’ve improved serendipity (test different laptop cues to talk? talk to people about what they’re working on?)
    Overhearing stuff works well.
    I go to HackLab 1-2 times a week, and sometimes more often if the weather is great.
    See analysis below
    I’m good at managing my focus (do not disturb / yes, talk to me)
    Background conversations interfere with things like typing practice (Plover/Colemak), but I'm okay with listening to conversations while typing (Dvorak), coding, or drawing. Headphones help a little.
    I’m good at talking to new people and hanging out with the regulars
    Getting there. I feel comfortable around HackLab members and I often have interesting conversations at open houses, particularly over food.

    In general, the benefits I'm looking for are:

    • Ambient socialization with interesting people
    • Ambient exposure to interesting things
    • Possible support for learning stuff (ex: Javascript, system administration, Haskell, Python, neural nets, hardware, electronics, 3D printing)

    My initial goal was to go to HackLab 1-2 times a week. As of 2013-09-25 (~31 weeks after I joined; I was doing this analysis before the members' meeting), I have been to HackLab on 41 distinct days. This is within my target range of 31 to 62 visits, and works out to 1.3 visits a week. This is a pleasant surprise, because I started this analysis thinking that I was underusing my HackLab membership compared to my goals. Based on my current attendance, this costs a little less than $10 per visit, which is worth the awesome vegan cooking opportunities / lessons / dinners (Tuesday open houses) and overheard conversations with interesting geeks.

    I'm at 66% of the top part of my goal range. What are my current limiting factors, and how can I work around them?

    Inertia is powerful and works ways: when I'm home, it's easy to stay home; when I'm in the middle of working on something interesting on the kitchen table, I don't want to pack up and bike over. I often sleep in during my non-consulting days, and sometimes I think: "Is it really worth biking downtown for a few hours of hanging out or working?" I've also offered to do a couple of extra half-days of consulting each week during September and October, so that limits the number of days when it makes sense to go to HackLab. Besides, introvert mode is pretty comfortable - no distracting conversations, and plenty of good food in the fridge.

    So, what could help me make even better use of HackLab? How can I hack my motivation and reward structure to get me out the door?

    • Commit to the exercise and treat HackLab as a bonus. At least once a week (Fridays), I will bike for at least 1.5 hours including a mailbox check. I might as well use that biking time to end up at Hacklab, do some stuff, and then take the other 45 minutes on the way back.
    • Make Hacklab the centre of my socialization. Instead of setting up separate get-togethers with people, I will funnel people to HackLab's open house (which I will attend whenever I don't have other events). If I'm in introvert mode, I will treat the open house as cooking lessons, catch up with people briefly, and relax knowing that people can always chat with other people. If I'm in socialization mode, I will catch up with people.
    • Consider small-scale cooking on regular days. Have fun by cooking at HackLab even on non-open house days: merienda? This might be easier once we've moved to the new location, with a larger kitchen and a non-drinks fridge.
    • On HackLab days, do not open the computer at home in the morning. This gets around the momentum issue. Checking things on the phone is okay, as is working on the computer if something urgent comes up.

    What about winter? I'm going to face some motivation challenges when snow makes biking more dangerous and the cold encourages me to stay home. On mild days in winter, I might be able to bike down or TTC down. I can use that as a context switch to write or code. Is it worth $6 to take the TTC down here at least once a week, bringing it to a total cost of $16 or so? Maybe, especially if I move things around so that I'm at HackLab instead of consulting on Tuesdays (or I work remotely on Tuesdays). If I discount winter and consider my membership based solely on my attendance so far, it works out to roughly $15 per day, which is still worth it considering other co-working spaces are $20 for a day pass and don't offer 24h access, not that I've been here at 3 AM. Besides, HackLab does cool things. So yes, I'll continue throughout winter, and I'll see if I can get past the activation costs of getting down here by TTC. (Reading time on the subway/streetcar, and travelling during off-peak hours?)

    Incidentally, here are the queries that I used to check how many times I've been in HackLab:

    SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT(DATE_FORMAT(logged, '%Y-%m-%d'))) from access_log where card_id='123-3149';
    SELECT MIN(logged) FROM access_log WHERE card_id='123-3149';

Surface Pro 2?

  • like USB (current: headphones (wideband good for dictation) and mouse (can be Bluetooth); occasional keyboard). Docking station? Projector.


DONE Thinking about hard commitments and soft commitments, and adapting my life accordingly   business decision

In the process of experimenting with different types of businesses, I've been learning a lot about different types of commitments. There's a spectrum of commitment-hardness, from very hard (take a loss if you have to, but Make This Happen) to very soft (it's nice to have, but no big deal if it doesn't work out).

An example of a very hard commitment is speaking. If I commit to giving a talk at event, I need to prepare the talk, and I need to be there. Doesn't matter if I have a cold. Doesn't matter if I'm running late because of another meeting and have to hop into a cab. Doesn't matter if I'm feeling out of it. I need to show up and be professional, which means energy and connection. I can collapse afterwards.

An example of a hard commitment is sketchnoting an event. I promise to be at the event on a certain date, and if I miss that, the opportunity is gone forever. It's not as big a deal as speaking, since sketchnoting is usually an extra. I write my agreements so that I'm only responsible for refunding the client's payment if something falls through instead of being liable for loss of business or other costs. I've never had to invoke this clause, but I've turned down gigs because of uncertainty.

An example of a medium commitment is freelance development. If I'm working with other developers, then I usually need to work at specific times or at a specific pace, but there's often some leeway in what I can do and when.

Conversations are also medium commitments. They're scheduled in the calendar, but we can reschedule if necessary.

An example of a softer commitment is illustration. Someone is counting on the images, and sometimes there's a deadline. I'm free to do the work at a time of my choosing, though, aside from the occasional meetings that are more like hard commitments.

The kind of consulting I've settled into is another example of a soft commitment. I have a few meetings (usually mid-day or early afternoon), but I have a lot of flexibility in terms of how many hours I work each week. We keep a long, prioritized list of things to work on, so I can usually choose what I want to work on at a particular time.

Writing is a very soft commitment. No one cares when I do it, so I can write whenever I want. I can write a whole bunch of posts in one day and spread them out for consistency and variety. I can slowly accumulate thoughts or resources for books. I care about writing at least a little bit each week, but that push comes from me.

Oddly enough, compensation isn't always proportional to the hardness of the commitment. Most of it has to do with the underlying skills rather than how strict the commitment is.

I vastly prefer softer commitments over harder ones. Some of the things I'm working on have unpredictable schedules, and I'd rather be able to reschedule or move things around if something comes up. I minimize the number of hard commitments (business or personal) I need to plan for, and keep a stock of soft commitments that help me take advantage of spare moments. Soft commitments make it easier to match interest or energy with choice of activity, so it's easier to focus and get things done.

I've been taking on fewer events, working on consulting and writing instead. After all, if I can get away with it, why not work with less stress and more happiness? =)

What's the mix of commitments in your life? Do you want to shift it one way or the other?

Starting my own business

DONE Things to do when you aren't sure what to do with your life   planning

:Effort: 2:00

:ID: o2b:e2f9cf87-0be5-4b50-b34e-f17084a8ca22

:POST_DATE: [2014-05-05 Mon 14:27]

:POSTID: 27226

:BLOG: sacha

"What should I do with my life?"

When you have the freedom to set your own TO-DO list, it can be difficult to decide what goes on it. Should you focus on one project or juggle a few? Why one goal instead of another? How much time should you spend on something new, and how much time on polishing something old?

It's easy to get stuck in rumination. You can end up spending so much time and mental energy worrying about what you should do with your life that you don't actually get things done.

Here are some things I'm learning about learning from constant progress and setting limits on second-guessing.

I keep a list of tasks that I can work on even when I feel the twinges of doubt. I organize this by project and type of task. For example, I feel like coding, I can quickly pick a task related to that. This means that if I don't feel inspired, I can trust that the Sacha who made this list came up with tasks that would be a pretty good use of my time. It might not be the best use, but it won't be a complete waste either. These unscheduled tasks give me a baseline of productivity. If I don't want to work on something, I have to justify that by coming up with another task that would be even better.

For example, I know that I will generally get good value out of:

  • writing 1,000 to 2,000 words to answer a question or help people learn more
  • learning more about a specific programming language or platform by reading tutorials, source code, or blog posts, by working through tutorials, or by coding
  • writing tests and code
  • sketchnoting a video or book
  • exercising or cooking
  • braindumping thoughts

You probably have a list like that too: types of tasks that tend to work well for you, especially if they leave you feeling awesome.

Even a good list of tasks wouldn't help much if I'm switching projects all the time. I'd keep getting started on different things, with very little to show for it. To deal with this second-guessing, I try to publish or share things as early as possible. That way, even if I switch focus, my notes are out there for other people to build on. This also opens it up for feedback and appreciation, which is great for encouraging me to work on something even more.

I also limit when I plan. During the week, I might decide to focus more on one project instead of another, but I don't dump all my previous projects. If I come up with an idea I'm curious about, I add it to my list for later review. Every month, I look at my goals and evaluate my projects, checking which ones are still relevant. Every year, I look at my values and evaluate my goals.

When I catch myself procrastinating a task, I often use that as an opportunity to evaluate my projects and goals as well. Am I procrastinating because other projects have become more important? Great, I can replace the task with one for a higher-priority project. On the other hand, am I procrastinating because I overvalue immediate rewards over my long-term goals? The project/goal review reminds me why something matters and helps me get back on track. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about whether I should come up with new projects instead. The time for that is when I review my goals and plan my month, not when I feel like procrastinating things.

Another thing that helps me box in my tendency to over-plan is reminding myself that I'm not trying to decide the absolute best thing to do with my time. Good enough is good enough. If I move forward, even if it's not quite optimal, I can learn more than I would standing still. If I feel I'm slightly off-track, that can teach me about where the track is.


So it's worth spending a little time making sure I'm pointed in roughly the right direction, but it might not make to spend four hours trying to figure out how I can get 100% instead of 80% value out of an afternoon.

It's good to periodically check if I'm going the right way. I'm probably doing okay if:

  • I can tell how I'm different or what I learn week to week, month to month
  • My projects include several things that excite me, and I'm learning from my experiences working on different tasks
  • Other people tell me that what I share or work on is useful
  • Things build up; scale or network effects happen

If those are true, then I'm probably not wasting my time. I might even be able to get away without worrying about better ways at all. I can wait for people to suggest better ways to spend my time, and I can listen for suggestions that resonate with me.

What do you do to avoid getting stuck in the question "What should I do with my life?"

Related: Thinking about what I want to do with my time

#+optimal.png wpid-optimal.png

DONE Figuring out what to do with one's life

:Effort: 1:00

  • why
    • a friend's to-do list included thinking about his priorities
    • what are mine?
  • too much time thinking about it = not enough progress
  • movement helps you understand
    • more of this, less of this
  • biking, raking, turning compost, carrying water
  • coding
    • doing more Emacs coding and other tech stuff (Node, Python, Ruby, CSS3)
    • why: because I can build stuff (and more importantly, imagine cool stuff)
    • wild success: I can come up with ideas and make tools
      • for example, this little beeminder.el thing
      • I want to get better at making web tools that are useful and that look good
        • do I really? lots of people out there can do this
        • and I haven't really come up with ideas that need this yet
        • back to the lack of imagination!
        • wait until I have a stronger idea? learn so that I can get ideas?
        • hmm, integration with APIs
          • warning: digital sharecropping; even more transient than trusting my data elsewhere. TOBLOG: 10 years of blogging, trust that things will be around
      • let's investigate some possible futures
        • toolmaker
          • lots of little tools for niche audiences
            • role models: technomancy, johnw,
        • one big tool with a community behind it
          • role models: carsten, bastien, matt mullenweg
        • hmm. I like working with Emacs more than I like working with the web.
          • maybe I'll dig into backend things instead (clojure? node?) if I need to maintain a path back into the workforce
          • I like talking to fellow geeks anyway, so it's okay if I don't focus on front end (and I won't have to deal with fiddly browser differences or client tweaks)
  • writing
    • why: because I learn and understand things, and because it saves other people time / tickles other people's brains
    • what about?
      • things that are not already thoroughly covered elsewhere
      • geeky and approachable
  • what's on the backburner for now?
    • sketchnoting other people's content
      • yes, it's useful and easy to appreciate
      • I may make an exception for books, since I like reading anyway.
    • spreading sketchnoting
      • Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown, and Dan Roam are taking good care of this
      • I can focus on showing by doing
    • spreading the idea of alternative lifestyles (semi-retirement, portfolio careers, etc.)
      • Jeff Goins, Pamela Slim, and Mr. Money Mustache are doing fine with this
      • I don't want to inadvertently feed wantrepreneurship
    • spreading blogging in general
      • might make an exception for tech blogging, because I have a vested interest in getting more geeks to blog ;)
    • drawing better
  • What I understand about what drives me
    • I like the feeling of figuring things out and of contributing to something that will build over time
    • I like positive feedback, but I can move away from it if I want
      • ex: lots of people want more sketchnotes, but I like Emacs stuff more
    • If I don't have a particularly strong idea for something I want to build, I:
      • learn more about the capabilities of the tools I use
      • fill in small gaps along the way
    • Some examples of past ideas
      • Advertising on back of laptop: Quickly implemented for experiment, done.
      • SketchnoteIndex: Built, populated; shelved as my interest had moved on
      • Visual vocabulary: Populated; added to sporadically
      • Quantified Awesome: Built, populated; continue adding to
    • I tend to build things for my own convenience. I open it up if I think a web interface will be handy, and if other people find it helpful, yay

DONE Don't worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization   productivity decision

"What tools should I buy?" "What platform do I start with?" "What's the best option out there?" Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here's what I'm learning: In the beginning, you're unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don't bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that's when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can't do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it's not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-'s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far - although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don't worry about what the "best" is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That's a sign that you've run into your choice's limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you'll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

CANCELLED Write about planning for reasonable safety   @writing

:Effort: 1:00

POSTPONED - feel like writing about something else. What? Maybe about figuring out what to do with one's life.

There's only so much you can plan ahead. You can save

I like using cFireSim to check my numbers against history.

Applied rationality

DONE Balancing scheduled and unscheduled tasks

:Effort: 1:00

Now that I've set up my Org agenda commands to easily review unscheduled tasks, I've been cutting down on the number of tasks I schedule during my weekly review. I'm still in the habit of checking my projects and scheduling at least one task for each of them, so that I make sure to think about those projects at least twice during the week–during my weekly review, and then again when I do (or procrastinate!) that week's project task.

Is it time to tweak that? Hmm…

What would it be like to schedule fewer tasks and pick more from my project list?

Possible negative outcomes:

  • I focus too much on work because the TODOs there are clearer
    • Getting pretty good at working on personal projects, actually.
  • I focus too much on routine tasks because things aren't scheduled
    • No, I'm doing pretty okay at finishing my routine tasks and picking interesting things to work on
  • I neglect some projects because I'm focused on others.
    • This is not too bad, actually, because things that don't get done are usually less important anyway.
    • On the other hand, just because I like working on some things in the short term doesn't mean I shouldn't keep making steady progress on other tasks.

Possible positive outcomes:

  • I procrastinate less (and feel less guilty about procrastinating) because things aren't scheduled
    • The tasks that I procrastinate tend to be associated with projects that I don't care about as much as the projects I'm focused on. So, if I don't schedule them but I review the project list when I'm looking for something to work on, I could get a better picture.
  • I do sprints when it comes to projects, so I build up momentum.

Hmm. Maybe that's something I can try - going back to the schedule as a reflection of commitments instead of mixing commitments and intentions.

Oh. There's an interesting idea there. Commitments and intentions.

I like leaving lots of space in my schedule. It feels good to cross tasks off, and it feels good to get even more done than I had planned. If I plan less, is that just artificially increasing my satisfaction? If I reduce the friction from moving tasks around, will that smooth the way for even more awesomeness, or am I just giving in? Hmm. What test can I use to tell the difference?

Hypothesis: If I schedule fewer tasks, I will still manage to make good progress on projects that are important to me. No, that's still not quite testable. What are the specific warning signs that would make me feel like I'm spending my time less effectively than before?

  • I identify missed opportunities that I would've retrospectively preferred.

Let's backtrack, clarify…

Right now, I notice that I reschedule some tasks - sometimes multiple times. I do this because:

  • The task is probably useful, but not a priority. For example: redesigning business cards
  • The task is for one of my projects, but I'm focused on other projects at the moment.
    • Ex: box cover cushion - current system sorta works, and I don't get a lot of enjoyment out of sewing. However, it would be good to finish that, I guess.

When I postpone a task, I feel a momentary doubt, a lessening of myself. Yes, it's because I choose to work on other things. But it also means that I and my past self disagree about how to spend my time, even if my past self makes only the slightest of suggestions and never means to guilt-trip. So, should my past self (actually my current self, planning a week in advance) still make suggestions? In which situations are past-self decisions more useful than present ones?

I know that present-self Sacha tends to over-value immediate consequences compared to future ones, based on psychology research. This manifests as a desire to work on fun things instead of, say, things that are longer-term but still useful.

Past-self Sacha doesn't ask much. Ten projects, 8-10 scheduled tasks, thirty minutes to an hour each. That's still between half a day to a day that's spoken for. Most of it gets done. Other things, I end up going "meh."

Hmm. Maybe I should just mark those projects as non-current. How do I really feel about the projects I keep postponing?

  • Delegation: process library
    • I'm not particularly interested in broadening my delegation, but maybe more like going deeper. So we're fine where we are, I think. Although thinking about what I can delegate might bring up other possibilities, which would be good because the team I have could use more work. Or really, I can try dreaming bigger dreams.
  • Sketchnoting books: I'm pretty meh about books these days. Why? Mm, other people's content, and I feel like it's iffy.
  • Emacs Basics: Seems like other things are more useful at the moment, such as organizing the content out there.

I think what's happening is that I've kept these projects on my list just in case, but really, I care less about them than I care about other projects. So I should update my project list.

Hmm. What if I prioritized my project list? So I do regularly review things, but some things are higher priority than others. I commit to doing at least one task each week for my top-priority projects.

So, what's the actual blog post in this?

  • current practice
    • review projects (10)
    • schedule tasks for the coming week, creating tasks as needed
  • downside
    • 10 projects
    • some of them I don't care about as much as others
    • precommitting 4 hours to a day each week
    • which is okay, really
    • but some tasks get procrastinated
      • which ones?
        • projects that are less relevant to me
        • tasks unassociated with projects
    • most of my tasks are routine
  • possible approaches
    • review and schedule only 2-3 tasks?
      • keep the projects in view and continue to commit to a number of them
    • don't schedule any?
      • no commitment

Okay, let's try that, and let's write about it after.

One day at a time

:Effort: 1:00

Thanks to gardening and working on other personal projects, I'm learning how to live one day at a time. Or at least, how to combine my usual scenario-based planning with the acceptance that I can't plan ahead or control some things. I pick leafminer eggs off the sorrel and flower buds off the lettuce, I water (unless it's rained), and I wait. Can't speed it up. The season will pass soon enough. Can't really slow it down, either. I just have to check the boxes day by day.

I mostly live in a mix of the future and the present. Part of me lives in the future that I'm saving and investing for, occasionally checking how the possibilities change. Part of me is learning to live

And then there's sideways: the time I spend playing games or reading fiction. It's neither here nor there.

The past surfaces in in-jokes, but I don't spend much time in it aside from the occasional review where I notice


CANCELLED Blog about user-visible improvements, Beeminder commit goal

:Effort: 1:00

There's power in constant progress, even if it's small. You can motivate yourself in different ways. Don't break the chain" is a popular model: keep track of the days that you work on something, count the number of consecutive days in your current streak, and eventually it will build up into a number that you're proud of. If you miss a day, you start back at 0. This works for a lot of people, but it's a bit harsher than I'd like.

Daniel Reeves, Bethany Soule, and I were chatting

  • constant progress
  • limitations of a chain-based approach
    • starting from 0
    • harder and harder
    • danger of internalizing "I am the sort of person who breaks the chain"
  • I like the fact that you can build up a buffer in advance in case you know things are going to be hectic
  • beeminder and stickk - financial commitment
    • a little meh on this because of my inherent cheapskateness ;)
    • akrasia horizon - look at least a week in advance
  • I like consistency date heatmap: github, QuantifiedAwesome
  • how do I feel about this
  • sample goals I might want
    • sketchnote a book every two weeks

DONE Update on time tracking with Quantified Awesome and with Emacs   quantified

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:53cc9eff-a3fb-42db-9347-74151291c070

:POST_DATE: [2014-04-14 Mon 23:33]

:POSTID: 27180

:BLOG: sacha

With another Quantified Self Toronto meetup in a few weeks and a conversation with fellow self-trackers, it's time for me to think about time again.

I've been fixing bugs and adding small pieces of functionality to Quantified Awesome, and I spent some time improving the integration with Emacs. Now I can type ! to clock in on a task and update Quantified Awesome. Completing the task clocks me out in Emacs and updates Beeminder if appropriate. (I don't update Quantified Awesome when finishing a task, because I just clock into the next activity.) This allows me to take advantage of Org's clock reports for project and task-level time, at least for discretionary projects that involve my computer. I'm not going to get full coverage, but that's what Quantified Awesome's web interface is for. It takes very little effort to track things now, if I'm working off my to-do list. Even if I'm not, it still takes just a few taps on my phone to switch activities.

Most of my data is still medium-level, since I'm still getting the hang of sorting out my time in Emacs. Looking at data from 2014 so far, dropping partial weeks, and doing the analysis on April 14 (which is when I'm drafting this), here's what I've been finding.

  • I sleep a little more than I used to: an average of 8.9 hours a day, or 37% of the time. This is up from 8.3 hours last year.
  • It takes me about an hour to get ready in the mornings. If I have a quick breakfast instead of having rice and fried egg, I can get out the door in 30-45 minutes.
  • It takes me 50-60 minutes to get downtown, whether this is by transit or bicycle. Commuting takes 3% of my time.

Little surprises:

  • I've spent almost twice as much time on business building or discretionary productive activities (19%) as I have earning (11%) - good to see decisions in action!
  • I've spent more time drawing than writing this year (5% vs 3%). Next to writing, Emacs is the productive discretionary activity I spend most of my time on (2%).
  • I've spent 10% of my time this year on connecting with people, a surprisingly high number for me. E-mail takes 1% of my overall time.
  • It turns out that yes, coding and drawing are negatively correlated (-0.63 considering all coding-related activities). But writing and drawing are positively correlated (0.44), which makes sense - I draw, and then I write a blog post to glue sketches together and give context. Earning is slightly negatively correlated with building business/skills (-0.15), but connecting is even more negatively correlated with time spent building business/skills (-0.35). So it's probably not that consulting takes me away from building skills. Sleep is slightly negatively correlated with all records related to socializing (-0.14), but strongly negatively correlated with productive discretionary activities (-0.55). Hmm. Something to tinker with.

Some things I'm learning from tracking time on specific tasks:

  • Outlining doubles the time I take to write (and drops me from about ~30wpm to about 9wpm), but I feel that it makes things more structured.
  • Drawing takes longer too, but it makes blog posts more interesting.
  • Trying to dictate posts takes me way more time than outlining or typing it, since I'm not as used to organizing my thoughts that way.
  • Encoding litter box data takes me about a minute per data point. So spending a lot of time trying to figure out computer vision and image processing in order to partially automate the process doesn't strictly make sense, but I'm doing it out of curiosity.
  • I generally overestimate the time I need for programming-related tasks, which is surprising. That could just be me padding my estimates to account for distractions or to make myself feel great, though.
  • I generally underestimate the time I need to write, especially if I'm figuring things out along the way.

This post took me 1:20 to draft (including data analysis), although to be fair, part of that involved a detour checking electricity use for an unrelated question. =)

TOBLOG Decision review:

TOBLOG How do you find the time to …

  • Thinking about how you spend your time
    • Track individual activities
      • ex: watching TV, buying groceries
  • Track your time
    • Start with paper, easy to come up with categories
    • Spreadsheet
    • Android / iOS

Data visualization

  • Visualizing hierarchical data
    • What questions do you want to ask?
      • How do the categories compare with each other?
      • Within the categories, how do things break down?
      • And then within that, I'm curious - how does it shift and change over time?
    • Sunburst charts
      • Angles are hard to interpret
    • Icicles
    • Treemap
    • Small multiples
      • Pie charts
      • Bar charts
    • Bubble tree
    • Exploring my data
      • Time
      • Groceries
    • Partitions
    • D3

Naming your time


When do I take longer?

Done with enough e-mail for now. I wonder why it took me nearly six hours… Median 6 min/e-mail, mean 12 min - opinions/links take longer.

18:10 Count Minutes  
17:53 1 17 party notes
17:43 1 10 technical notes
17:42 1 1  
17:36 1 6 time tracking, needed to add a link to someone else's site)
17:31 1 5 sketchnoting, added a link to my site (checked that it still worked)
17:30 1 1  
17:29 1 1  
17:28 1 1  
17:27 1 1  
17:24 1 3  
17:15 1 9 responded to keeping-in-touch mail about consulting
17:11 1 4  
17:03 1 8  
16:44 1 19 technical tips
16:38 1 6  
16:36 1 2  
16:13 1 23 technical tips
15:42 1 1  
15:26 1 16 blogging
15:11 1 15 event
15:10 1 1  
13:40 1 6  
13:18 1 22 feedback on startup
13:03 1 15 introduction
12:48 1 15 good discussion about decisions; based on draft
11:27 1 81 fixed problem in Wordpress site; also spent time drafting a different message
11:21 1 6  
10:43 1 38 delegation, other stuff
10:40 1 3  

How does tracking affect your happiness?

Time-tracking workshop :book-idea:PROJECT:

  • Session 1: The Whys and Hows of Tracking Time

    Discuss objectives and motivations for tracking time. Plan possible questions you want to ask of the data (which influences which tools to try and how to collect data). Recommend a set of tools based on people’s interests and context (paper? iPhone? Android? Google Calendar?). Resources: Presentations on time-tracking, recommendations for tools, more detail on structuring data (categories, fields); possible e-mail campaign for reminders Output: Planning worksheet for participants to help people remember their motivations and structure their data collection; habit triggers for focused, small-scale data collection, buddying up for people who prefer social accountability

  • Session 2: Staying on the Wagon + Preliminary Analysis

    Checking in to see if people are tracking time the way they want to. Online and/or one-on-one check-ins before the workshop date, plus a group session on identifying and dealing with obstacles (because it helps to know that other people struggle and overcome these things). Preliminary analysis of small-scale data. Resources: Frequently-encountered challenges and how to deal with them; resources on habit design; tool alternatives Output: Things to try in order to support habit change; larger-scale data collection for people who are doing well

  • Session 3: Analyzing your data

    Massaging your data to fit a common format; simple analyses and interpretation Resources: Common analysis format and some sample charts/instructions; maybe even a web service? Output: Yay, charts!

  • Session 4: More ways you can slice and dice your data

    Bring other questions you’d like to ask, and we’ll show you how to extract that out of your data (if possible – and if not, what else you’ll probably need to collect going forward). Also, understanding and using basic statistics Resources: Basic statistics, uncommon charts Output: More analyses!

  • Session 5: Making data part of the way you live

    Building a personal dashboard, integrating your time data into your decisions Outcome: Be able to make day-to-day decisions using your time data; become comfortable doing ad-hoc queries to find out more

  • Session 6: Designing your own experiments

    Designing experiments and measuring interventions (A/B/A, how to do a blind study on yourself) Outcome: A plan for changing one thing and measuring the impact on time

  • Session 7: Recap, Show & Tell

    Participants probably have half a year of data and a personal experiment or two – hooray! Share thoughts and stories, inspire each other, and figure out what the next steps look like. Outcome: Collection of presentations

Looking for patterns

Learning how to analyze data

Learning R

Looking at my application use

Grocery update

Building a price book

Reviewing my clothing data

Virtual Quantified Self Show-and-Tell

Excel: SUMIFS   excel

I've used Microsoft Excel's SUMIF function to conditionally add up values before. For example, SUMIF is handy when you have a table of use cases and you want to sum the points for all the use cases with priority 1. SUMIFS (Microsoft Excel 2007 and later) is even more powerful - it allows you to specify multiple criteria.

Excel: INDEX and MATCH   excel

Excel: Table magic   excel

Excel: Pivot tables   excel

Excel: Working with dates and times   excel

Quantified Time: Consulting Days vs. Open Days

Does work really get in the way of living?

Analyzing cooking

Over a few months that we'd been tracking our grocery spending, we spent an average of $375 each month on groceries (17% meat, 14% fruit, 13% dairy, 11% vegetables, 7% poultry). With the two of us and J- in the household (who usually spends weekends with her mom), that works out to roughly 240 meals a month, or an average of $1.88 per meal. Let's add another $1 to account for utilities, cleaning supplies, and miscellaneous expenses, and round it off to a total of $3/meal for materials + miscellaneous.

Between November 2, 2012 (which is when I started tracking grocery-buying separately and somewhat reliably) and January 13, 2013, my time logs show:

  • 44:50 cooking – this doesn't include breakfast unless I'm putting together something special, as I often lump regular breakfasts with all the rest of my morning routines
  • 38:24 tidying – let's assume that a third of that is related to cooking, so we'll use 12:48 as our number
  • 13:06 buying groceries

Assuming that W- spends an equal amount of time doing the same (we often cook together, and he sometimes cooks during the week while I'm fine with having leftovers), that comes to an average of 2 hours a day related to preparing food – usually a weekend afternoon, and occasional weekday cooking.

What do we get for that?

  • Yummy, healthy food (well, usually)
  • Couple-time while planning our week, buying groceries, chopping ingredients, and preparing dishes; might save us expensive relationship therapy time later on
  • Many of our favourite meals practically any day we want them (especially as the nearby restaurants don't make these meals or don't sell them for the same cost)
  • The satisfaction of learning new skills and new recipes
  • Shared experiences and memories

The replacement cost for our labour would probably be $15-25/hour, which are the rates I see on Craigslist. Picking $20 as a reasonable number and assuming optimistically that the person would be a drop-in replacement, that's a replacement labour cost of ~$1,200 for the privilege of having someone else shop for groceries, prepare food, clean up. If we include the cost of materials and miscellaneous expenses, that's around $8 a meal.

Let's look at selectively replacing parts of what we do. In a previous analysis, I found my GroceryGateway bill was around 10% higher than what it would have been at our neighbourhood supermarket, and in addition, there's a $11.95 delivery fee. Assuming things worked out perfectly and we could replace all our grocery shopping time (~11 hours a month), that would be like paying $85 to get 11 hours back, or buying time at $8 an hour. Except it isn't really, because we'll still walk two thirds of the way in order to get because we go to the library.

If our time is valued at least at minimum wage for homeworkers in Ontario ($11.28 / hour), then each meal has an labour cost of $3.64. Add another $1 for utilities, cleaning supplies, and miscellaneous costs, and that comes out to roughly $8 per meal (materials + labour + production). This doesn't count the amortization of our investment in knives, pans, and other tools.

  • SCENARIO: Having our groceries delivered would save us 2 person-hours, although we would then have to make a separate library trip: net gain 80-100 person-minutes, for a cost of roughly $21/week ($16/hour).
  • SCENARIO: Having SupperSolved assemble and deliver the meals (/ (+ 304 45) (* 12 4.0)) - $7.27/meal, still needs cleanup; saves roughly 11 hours.
  • SCENARIO: Making the meal at SupperSolved: 2 hours + 1 hour walk + $304 (/ 304 (* 12 4.0)) $6.33 plus time, still needs cleanup

:Effort: 1:00

Productivity and time

DONE Fuzzy brain

:Effort: 1:00

My brain has been fuzzier than normal these days. I've been sleeping about the same amount of time, although I suppose that there have been more interruptions lately (early morning wake-ups, neighbourhood construction). But it is apparently A Thing, so I just have to work around it.

DONE Morning, afternoon, evening, commute: thinking about what to do when   productivity time

My days have regular rhythms, as yours probably do. In the morning, I'm usually fresh and energetic. The afternoons are sometimes a little slower, but they're often solidly productive. In the evenings, my mind is a bit tired, but it's a good time to catch up on chores.

I'm slowly learning about the quirks of my rhythms and choices. I've been thinking about what's good to do when so that I can find better ways to use my time.

  • If I commute off-peak, I can sit down and write or play games. It's easy to time this in the mornings. I often plan to avoid the evening rush, but I get stuck in it anyway. This is because I get distracted by cool things to work on or learn. Maybe I should set an alarm.
  • If I sit on the couch, one of the cats will usually settle onto my lap. This makes typing on a laptop inconvenient. But I enjoy spending time with the cats, so I don't mind giving up a little productivity. It's relaxing to focus on the cat instead of multitasking, and sometimes ideas float into my head. When I want to work on something, my phone can be more convenient than my laptop.
  • If I do a coding sprint close to midnight–say, from 9:30 PM to 11:30 PM–I have a harder time falling asleep, even if I'm no longer thinking about code. If I spend the same time writing, even on my computer, I'm fine.

Geeking out with W- is a good way to spend evenings. Brush up tech skills, spend time together, make the house a little smarter.

I hadn't realized how similar cat-couch-time is to commuting time. I should be sure to keep my phone handy. Differences: drawing on my tablet PC is something that makes decent use of cat-couch-time that I wouldn't do while commuting, and I can listen to podcasts while commuting but I'd rather listen to purring when with the cats.

Hmm. This gives me a way to practise using my time better during each phase of my day. I might print this and keep it handy, or bookmark it and refer to it often.

What would your chart look like?

Dealing with the doldrums   life

I'm not always a cheerful, energetic ray of sunshine. Sometimes I feel meh, too. Whether it's due to the disruption of routines or momentum, frustration with uncertainty, or factors beyond my control, it happens. During these doldrums, it's harder to work on creative tasks. It's harder to move, even. There's the temptation to spend the time browsing the Web or playing games instead–tempting activities that don't require a lot of thinking and have a false sense of progress.

Instead of getting stuck in the doldrums–or pretending it doesn't happen–I'd rather think about how I can hack my way around it. Sometimes it's good to just relax into it, relying on the buffer from good relationships and good finances. After all, I don't often give myself permission to take a long afternoon nap, or read fiction, or watch a movie. It can actually be quite satisfying to see things chugging along even if I don't feel like I'm my usual self. We still keep the house running smoothly, the financial markets still do well. (I hope that if any "meh" periods coincide with market corrections, I'll have the presence of mind to think, "Oh, stocks are on sale!")

Sometimes little things I do can dislodge me enough from the Sargasso sea of suckitude. One of the things I find helpful is to think about the difference between how this feels and other ways I've felt before. Sure, I might feel meh at the moment, but there have also been moments when I've felt awesome, accomplished, productive, energetic, and even smug (in a good way =) ). Thinking about those different feelings helps me remember that meh-ness is temporary, and it also helps me figure out some things I can do that might move me closer to other feelings. For example, I feel awesome when I learn interesting technical things that help me save time or make tools. I feel accomplished when I finish a large batch of cooking or I cross off plenty of items on my TODO list. I feel energetic when I exercise and when I solve problems. I feel an extra burst of smugness when I bike, especially if it's been raining.

It can be hard to get over that activation threshold, though. Many things that give me that positive buzz are creative in nature (programming, writing, etc.). Fortunately, there are a few activities that I can do even if my mind's wandering. Walking is a great use of meh-brain time. I feel somewhat proud of myself because of the exercise. I went for a 1.5-hour walk the other day, and that felt much better than sitting at home playing video games. Tidying is another good use of meh-time, and paperwork is like that too. I can practise drawing, too - copying figures or slowly untangling my thoughts.

Writing this, I'm already starting to feel that usual sense of "Actually, things are pretty awesome." =) I don't expect myself to be 100% on, and it makes no sense to beat myself up for not being on all the time. But it's nice to know that the occasional "meh"-ness in my life is temporary, and I can choose to either relax and enjoy it or play around with some ways to nudge myself out of it.

DONE How Org Mode helps me deal with an ever-growing backlog

:Effort: 2:00

:ID: o2b:62c49204-b065-49a7-8b96-71fa74c6c5a9

:POST_DATE: [2014-04-16 Wed 13:20]

:POSTID: 27181

:BLOG: sacha

If you're like me, you probably have a to-do list several miles long. I like thinking of this as the backlog from agile programming. It's a list of tasks that I could choose to work on, but I haven't committed to doing everything on the list.

I tend to add tasks faster than I cross tasks out. (Hmm, I should track this!) This is okay. In fact, this is a good thing. It means that I'll always have a variety of tasks to choose from, which lets me choose good tasks.

People manage tasks in different ways. For my personal tasks, I use several large text files in Org Mode for Emacs. Org Mode is an outline-based tool, which makes it easy for me to organize my tasks into projects and projects into themes. It also supports tagging, links, agendas, dynamic views, and all sorts of other great ways to slice-and-dice my task list. Here's how I deal with some of the common challenges people face with a large task backlog:

  • Making sure important, urgent tasks don't fall through the cracks
  • Making sure you don't neglect important but not urgent tasks
  • Keeping track of what you're waiting for
  • Catching procrastination
  • Making sure important, urgent tasks don't fall through the cracks

    If something has a deadline, I add the deadline in Org using C-x C-d (org-deadline). This means that reminders will appear on my daily agenda for the 14 days before the deadline, counting down to the deadline itself. (The number of days is controlled by org-deadline-warning-days.) In addition, I usually schedule the task for a day that I want to work on it, so that I can get the task out of the way.

    I'm careful about what I commit to, erring on the side of under-committing rather than over-committing. I'm selective about my client work and my volunteering. I keep my schedule as open as I can, and I'm not afraid to reschedule if I need to. Hardly anything I work on could be considered urgent. If an urgent request does come in, I ask questions to determine its true urgency, including potential alternatives and consequences of failure.

    You might not have as much choice about what to work on, but you might also be surprised by how much you can push back. Be careful about what you allow to be urgent in your life.

  • Making sure you don't neglect important but not urgent tasks

    I have plenty of space to work on things that are important but not urgent because I manage my commitments carefully. This means that I can usually finish a few important-but-not-urgent tasks every day.

    Which tasks do I consider important? I like thinking in terms of projects. Important tasks tend to be associated with projects instead of standing in isolation. Important tasks move me toward a specific goal. I have many goals and projects, but because they're fewer than the number of tasks I have, I can prioritize them more easily. I can decide that some projects are in the background and some are in focus. Important tasks are the tasks that help me make more progress on the projects I consider important.

    Because I like having two or three projects on the go, it helps to make sure that I make regular progress on those projects instead of getting carried away on just one. Tracking my time helps me stay aware of that balance. I also review my projects every week and schedule specific tasks for each of them, so I can make a little progress at least. Once I switch context and start thinking about a project, it's easy to pick another couple of tasks in that area and get even more done.

    If you're struggling with creating enough space to work on important but not urgent tasks, you might be able to partner up with someone so that you can block off time to work on non-urgent things. Many teams have a rotating schedule for dealing with customer requests or urgent issues. One person covers the requests for a day, allowing the rest of the team to focus. Then the next person takes on that duty, and so on.

  • Keeping track of what you're waiting for

    One of the useful tips I picked up from David Allen's Getting Things Done book was the idea of marking a task as WAITING. I usually add a description of what I'm waiting for, who's responsible, and when I want to follow up. This makes it easier to follow up. When I'm waiting for a specific date (ex: the library makes a DVD hold-able after a certain date), I schedule the task for then.

    I use the Boomerang for Gmail extension when I'm waiting for an e-mail reply. Boomerang lets me pop the message back into my inbox if I haven't received a reply by a specific date, so I don't have to keep track of that myself.

  • Handling less-important but still useful things

    There are tasks on my to-do list that have been on that list for years. This is okay. I'm getting better at noting names and contact information in my tasks so that I can follow up with people even after some time. This is particularly useful for book recommendations. I get a lot of book recommendations and I get most of my books from the library, so there's usually a delay of a few weeks. Because Org Mode lets me add notes and links to the body of a task, I can look up information easily.

    I work on less-important tasks when I don't feel like working on my major tasks, or when I'm looking for small tasks so I can fill in the gaps of my day. Org Mode gives me plenty of ways to look up tasks. I usually look for tasks by projects, navigating through my outline. I can also look for tasks by effort estimate, so I can see everything that will probably take me less than 15 minutes. Context is useful too - I can search for various tags to find tasks I can do while I'm on the phone, or out on errands, or when I feel like writing or drawing.

    I like thinking in terms of low-hanging fruit, so I often choose tasks that require little time or effort and have good impact. It can be overwhelming to look at a long list of tasks and decide which ones have good return. It's easier to tag these tasks when you create the task, or to think in terms of projects instead.

    Some tasks grow in importance or urgency over time. If I want to make sure that I revisit a task on a certain date, I schedule it for then.

  • Catching procrastination

    I still end up scheduling tasks multiple times. (I've been putting off redoing my business cards for a few months now!) I've noticed that there are different kinds of procrastination, including:

    • Procrastinating because you don't have time today: It's easy to reschedule things a few weeks or a month in advance. In fact, Org has a built-in command for bulk-scattering tasks. From the agenda view, you can type m to mark multiple tasks, then type B and then S to scatter tasks randomly over the next N days. (Call it with a prefix argument as C-u B S to limit it to weekdays.) If I catch myself procrastinating because I don't have enough time, that's usually a sign to be more cautious about my estimates and commitments, so I adjust those too.
    • Procrastinating because it's less important than other tasks: This is related to the time reason. I have no qualms about pushing less-important tasks forward.
    • Procrastinating because you don't feel like working on it: Is the task actually important? If it's not, I usually get rid of it without feeling guilty. If it's still useful, I might unschedule it so that I see it only if I'm looking for tasks in that project or in that context. Alternatively, I can just mark the task as CANCELLED or SOMEDAY. If the task is important, I think about whether I'm likely to feel like working on it at some point in the future. If I'm likely to not feel any different about it, I might delegate it, or I might just sit down and do it since procrastination doesn't add value. On the other hand, if I'm likely to feel like working on it at some point, then I tag it with that context and push it out to some other date.
    • Procrastinating because you forgot about it: I usually check my agenda every day and Org shows forgotten things in a different colour, so I catch these quickly. If the tasks are more important than the tasks I've already scheduled, I might work on those first. Alternatively, I might schedule it for sometime later.

    I procrastinate based on my to-do list, not based on my inbox. The inbox is a terribly unstructured way to manage your tasks. I use Boomerang for Gmail to defer some mail to a later date, but that's usually so that I can pop it back into my inbox the day that I meet someone so that I have context and so that I don't have to copy the link into the calendar entry or my TO-DO list.

  • Wrapping up

    So that's how I deal with having a large backlog. I focus first on the stuff that I need to do, and I make sure that shows up on my agenda. Then I make it easy to look for stuff that I want to do using Org's support for projects, tags, time estimates, and so on. I don't feel guilty about having lots of tasks to choose from. I view my backlog positively. It lets me do good stuff without worrying too much about how I spend my time.

    How do you deal with your backlog? =)

DONE Thinking about my TODO keywords   productivity emacs

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:259e6f68-29e0-4cdf-a428-0b11196f4691

:POST_DATE: [2014-04-18 Fri 15:04]

:POSTID: 27184

:BLOG: sacha

It's been twelve years since David Allen published Getting Things Done, with its geek-friendly flowcharts and processes for handling tasks in an interrupt-driven life. The way I manage my tasks is heavily influenced by GTD. I think in terms of next actions, waiting, and someday, and I have weekly reviews. I modified the TODO states a little to reflect what I need. It's time to think about those states again to see what I can tweak and what reports I could use.

I use Org Mode in Emacs to manage my tasks and my notes. I can customize it to give me different kinds of reports, such as showing me all of my unscheduled tasks, or all tasks with a specific category, or even projects that are "stuck" (no next actions defined). Thinking about my processes will help me figure out what reports I want and how I want to use them.

Here are different types of tasks and how I track them:

  • Things I can work on right now (next actions): TODO
  • Things that I can work on after a different task is finished: currently WAITING, but probably better to implement with org-depend
  • Things I will revisit at a certain date, but I don't need to think about them until then: TODO, scheduled (I used to use POSTPONED)
  • Things that would be nice to do someday, but maybe are incompletely specified or understood: SOMEDAY
  • Things I have decided not to work on: CANCELLED
  • Things I have asked someone else to do: DELEGATED
  • Things I can ask someone else to do: TODELEGATE
  • Things I am waiting for (usually not based on date) and that I need to follow up on: WAITING
  • Things I can write about: TOBLOG. These are pretty optional, so I don't want them in my TODO list…
  • If something is a duplicate of something else - remove TODO keyword and add link?

I use the following code for an agenda view of unscheduled tasks:

(defun sacha/org-agenda-skip-scheduled ()
  (org-agenda-skip-entry-if 'scheduled 'deadline 'regexp "\n]+>"))

(add-to-list 'org-agenda-custom-commands
   '("u" "Unscheduled tasks" alltodo ""
     ((org-agenda-skip-function 'sacha/org-agenda-skip-scheduled)
     (org-agenda-overriding-header "Unscheduled TODO entries: "))))

So the to-do process looks like this:

  • Every week, review my evil plans and projects. Check my agenda without the routine tasks to see what new things I'm working on. Schedule a few tasks to encourage me to make regular progress.
  • Every day, go through my Org agenda (C-c a a) and do all the tasks that are scheduled.
  • When I'm done or if I feel like working on something else:
    • What do I feel like doing? If there's a specific activity that I feel like:
      • Go to the relevant project/section of my TODO list, or check the TODOs by context (drawing, writing, etc.)
      • Clock in on that task.
    • If there's a specific task I feel like working on:
      • Find the task, maybe with C-u C-c C-w (org-refile) and work on it.
    • If there's a new idea I want to work on:
      • Use org-capture to create the task, file it in the appropriate project, and then clock in.
  • If I have an idea for a task, use org-capture to create the task and file it in the appropriate project.

How do I want to improve this?

  • Maybe get more used to working with contexts? I have all these Org Agenda commands and I hardly ever use them. I tend to work with projects instead. Actually, working with projects makes sense too, because that minimizes the real context shift.
  • Get better at reviewing existing tasks. I started tracking the number of tasks in each state (DONE, TODO, etc.), which nudged me to review the tasks and cross old tasks off. If I streamline my process for capturing tasks, filing them, and reviewing them by project/context/effort, then I can get better at choosing good tasks to work on from my existing TODO list.
  • Estimate effort for more tasks, and use that more often I have some reports that can filter or sort by estimated effort. I don't use effort that much, though. Does it makes sense to get into the habit of choosing tasks by estimated time as an alternative approach? I usually have fairly large, flexible blocks of time…
  • Tag things by level of energy required? I want to take advantage of high-energy times. So, when I feel alert and creative, I want to focus on coding and writing. I can save things like paperwork for low-energy times. I can tag some tasks as :lowenergy: and then filter my reports.


DONE Realistic expectations, ruthless elimination, and rapid exploration

:Effort: 1:00

"You're pretty organized, right? Do you have a system for productivity that I could use?" someone said to me. She sounded frustrated by her lack of progress on some long-standing projects. I shrugged, unsure how to help.

I don't consider myself super-productive. I am, however, less stressed than many people seem to be. I've been learning to keep realistic expectations, get rid of less-important tasks, and work in quick, small, useful chunks.

Realistic expectations: We tend to overestimate how much we can do, particularly if we're looking a week or two ahead. Even if last week was derailed by interruptions, we hope next week will be a smooth ride. I'm guilty of this myself. I compensate by expecting little of myself - just one to three important tasks each day, moving forward a little bit at a time. If I find myself with spare time and motivation, I check my other tasks for something to work on. It's okay if I end up procrastinating something. That usually means I spent the time on something I valued more.

Ruthless elimination: "But how do I motivate myself?" This is another thing that people often struggle with. I use different strategies depending on what I need. For example, I'm currently working on a project with a high risk of failure and a fair bit of work. For me, it helps to amplify the perceived benefits, downplay the small pieces of work that I need to do (it's just a small task), and downplay the risks (failure isn't all that bad). On some other projects, I might decide that my lack of motivation is a clue that I should just wrap up the project, get rid of specific tasks, delegate work, or transform those tasks into things I might enjoy more.

Rapid exploration: After I adjust for realistic expectations and get rid of tasks through ruthless elimination, I think of tiny tasks that will help me move towards my goals. That way, I can explore and get feedback faster. Then I try to get as much value as I can from those steps, usually ending up with blog post ideas and lessons learned in addition to the thing itself. This also means that I can squeeze work into 15- to 2-hour chunks instead of waiting for a 4-hour span of uninterrupted, energetic time.

There are a bunch of other things that help me out (keeping outlines of projects and tasks in Org Mode, documenting as much as I can, knowing my tools well), but those three behaviours above seem to be different from the way many people around me work. Hope that helps!

How to make a time log

Getting over my procrastination by deferring value judgments

Other titles:

  • Getting over my procrastination by getting rid of optimization
  • Optimization: Procrastination by any other name…

Becoming more attentive: My quest to stop doing things half-way

Other titles:

  • Becoming more mindful: My quest to stop doing things half-way
  • Easily distractable: My quest to stop doing things half-way

It's about time

(personal motivation) More than anything, I wanted time. Ever since I was a kid, I had always been acutely aware of how short a time we actually have. (Can I blame this on reading about Raistlin's hourglass eyes in Dragonlance, which I suppose was my first introduction to Stoic negative visualization?) Being halfway around the world from family is hard enough. I see the time pass for my parents in their Facebook pictures and on our Skype calls. As for here, W- is much older than I am, and I want to make the most of the time that I have with him.

Not optimizing for productivity

One of the people I was chatting with was interested in measuring productivity. As I started thinking about it, I realized that I care about making sure I’m not breaking many promises. Sometimes I slip up, and then I know I have to slow down and take my time. I’m curious about some things that might improve my effectiveness (dictation or podcasting for these posts, to make the words flow better? automated tests for my coding? visual vocabularies for my drawing?), but they tend to be more qualitative than…

Not optimizing for productivity

but reliability



Rediscovering the renaissance life   link

"It must be nice

But my own favorite part of the book was in the description of the “Renaissance Man ideal”. This is the idea that you will have the most enjoyable life, AND the best chance at very early financial independence, by developing a whole load of interesting skills. The amazing part is that these skills don’t just sit independently in your mind like a bunch of unused kitchen appliances in a pantry. They start to reach out and connect to each other in unexpected ways, and start solving all of your problems for you. They build your curiosity and start sucking in still more skills that you can’t help acquiring. And before you know it, you are able to live a superb life on only a tiny fraction of the spending that a normal person does, even while you might end up accidentally earning money even more easily than before you embraced the Renaissance Ideal.

Mr. Money Mustache, Book Review: Early Retirement Extreme

Open loops   link

It’s been more than ten years since David Allen published Getting Things Done. I still haven’t come up with a fully trustable system, but Emacs + Org + Evernote is getting there. I’m glad I’m back to using Org. I’m starting to run into the reminders I set for important business paperwork last year, and I might have missed that if I was relying on my memory or my calendar.

From time to time, when I catch myself feeling frazzled, I stop and write down all of my open loops: the things that tug on my attention. Some of them must be ruthlessly demoted to “someday/maybe,” or even let go. And then I can methodically go through the others, crossing them off as I finish them. Getting it all down on paper helps me make sense of things and stops me from feeling overwhelmed.


Tool talk: Clipboard managers

Clipboard managers

Ditto - want more of a collection view ClipMate - does not keep transparent backgrounds, but otherwise interesting collection management. Fixed transparency by enabling DIB and TIFF! Okay, we're good to go.

Decision criteria:

  • must be able to organize clips into collections that don't get buried under new clips (can select collection)
  • pen-friendly
  • always-on-top

Stuf: transparent, good previous, but doesn't seem to have an always-on-top view

Clipboard Master: not transparent

Clipboard Fusion - can't handle images, I think

Try ClipMate because of the interface for selecting clips

Intended uses:

  • Text for filenames
  • Clipped images for pasting into a layer; not transparent, so darken only?

Things I use

OUTLINED Write down your processes

  • Why
    • Repeatability
      • Value of checklists
    • Easier to improve something when you can look at it
    • If you share your processes with other people, they might have suggestions
    • Allows delegation
  • How
    • Outlines
    • Flow charts
    • Special cases

Take notes

Without the excuse of time

Improving my commute

Turning distractions into interruptions and vice versa

Taking it slowly

I'm giving myself permission to take long walks, to draw for the sake of drawing, to write reflections, to be in silence. I want to find out what emerges from stillness. I recognize this fidgeting, this

Getting better at learning from online courses

Find people who are smarter than you


DONE What could I do if I showed up in a bigger way?   experiment plans

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:fbaceb64-e8ce-4604-bc38-eb7101fd4a74

:POST_DATE: [2014-11-02 Sun 12:51]

:POSTID: 27588

:BLOG: sacha

I'm reading Ben Arment's Dream Year: Make the Leap From a Job You Hate to a Life You Love (2014), and there's a reminder in here about the choice between the fear of failure and the fear of insignificance. "Choose the fear of insignificance," the author says. And I think: Hmm, actually, I'm okay with insignificance (or minor minor minor significance, in any case). Stoicism reminds us that after thousands of years, very little of this will matter. But maybe I should care a little bit. Since I've done all this work to minimize the fear of failure anyway. I might as well play on that side of the equation.

2014-11-02 What could I do if I showed up in a bigger way.png

I've been thinking about this recently because I'm wondering whether I should take this experience in social business and make something bigger out of it. I could probably negotiate something with my main consulting clients so that we could get ideas or even code out in the wider world, or I could independently develop something that they and other people would be welcome to use. I haven't quite sorted out what that would be like yet, but I imagine it would start off as open source components, then possibly consulting and product development once I've established a reputation in that community.

Of social business, Emacs, and blogging, though, I like Emacs the most. There's something about it. I like the community a lot: interesting people doing interesting things, and a remarkably flexible platform that has kept me curious and fascinated for years. If I were to show up in a bigger way, I suppose that would involve writing more guides, and maybe understanding enough of the core of complex things like Org and Emacs itself so that I could contribute to the codebase. I tend to focus on workflow more than bugfixes or new features, though… I think there's something interesting in how people use the same things in such different ways. Maybe I'll write more about my evolving workflow, using that and personal projects as excuses to keep tweaking.

As for blogging, there are bucketloads of people who are happy to give other people advice on what to do and how to do it. I'm interested in keeping it unintimidating and useful for personal learning, but I'm more excited about and curious about those other two causes. Still, I can show by example, and I can offer advice and encouragement when people ask.

What are the differences between this slightly bigger life and my current one? I think part of it is related to the way that I've been minimizing my commitments during this 5-year experiment, being very careful about what I say yes to and what I promise my time towards. Part of it is taking the initiative instead of waiting for requests or sparks of inspiration. Part of it is working more deliberately towards a goal. It's not going to be a big big life, but it might be interesting to experiment with.

DONE Baselines and possible improvements   kaizen learning plans

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:9843ca27-0c73-47d9-9975-c734b3000e81

:POST_DATE: [2014-11-01 Sat 22:50]

I like getting a head start on new year plans. No, that's not true. I like re-planning when things are a little bit clearer and when things change. It's nice to take a look at where I am, where I might get to, and maybe what I can do with more reinvestment.

2014-11-01 Baselines and possible improvements - part 1.png 2014-11-01 Baselines and possible improvements - part 2.png

A year still feels a little abstract. A 12-week span might be interesting for concrete goal-setting and momentum; maybe something to experiment. In any case, here's a small achievement list I can work towards…

  1. Development
    • Propose a calendar of prototypes with business-value descriptions
    • Design prototype and help team members write it instead of coding it myself
    • Think syntactically
  2. Reporting
    • Make Tableau reports snappy
    • Identify business questions for a valuable regular report
    • Analyze my own data in R
  3. Writing: Put together the intermediate Emacs config guide
  4. Drawing: Sketch people quickly
  5. Cooking: Map the families of recipes I want to try, and try them
  6. Learning: Map the things I know and what I want to learn, and maybe find a coach
  7. Tracking: Do grocery tracking in Quantified Awesome
  8. Making: Sew those box cushion covers
  9. Organizing house stuff
    • Simplify wardrobe
    • Tile floor
  10. Biking: Maybe bike in winter
  11. Pet care: Get Luke used to the toothbrush
  12. Exercise: Do the exercise ladder for twelve weeks
  13. Relationship: Work on more projects together
  14. Community:
    • Set up Emacs hangout experiment
    • Hang out at Hacklab during winter

Multiple interests

Move your goalposts to get around an inability to finish projects   productivity

I hardly ever finish projects. I start them with a burst of enthusiasm, and then I trail off when something else catches my attention. I've learned to work with this instead of beating myself up about it. On some days, I might even consider it a good thing. Here's one of the things I've learned:

You can trick your brain by moving the goalposts.

Let's say that you're working on a project. Toward the end of the project, you catch yourself losing steam. You've gotten 80% of the way there, and the remaining 20% of the work will take four times as much time. The itch to start a different project is pulling you away.

Don't think of yourself as nearly done. Think of yourself as getting started on another new project that just happens to overlap with the previous one.

In fact, mentally set the beginning of that project to include some of the work you've just completed, to take advantage of the Endowed Progress effect (research PDF).

Tada! Goalposts moved. You might find that the newly-reframed project is now novel enough to be included in the list of new projects you enjoy working on, and it might even tempt you away from other distractions.

Moving the goalposts is usually a bad thing. It's why many people never feel rich, because whenever they reach what used to be unimaginable wealth, they find that the amount of money needed for them to feel happy has gone up. (Solution: don't anchor happiness to amounts of money.) Moving the goalposts has led to many a logical fallacy in heated arguments. But if you don't like playing a close-quarters game, moving the goalposts further away can help.

I often use this technique for life-long learning, especially for things that you can't really declare finished. Can one ever finish learning how to write or draw or program? No, but you can keep moving your targets a little forward as you learn.

You might think, "I won't be able to celebrate achieving my original goal!" You can still celebrate milestones. Better yet, celebrate even the tiny, tiny steps that you take towards your (constantly-moving) goal. Look behind you once in a while and celebrate the progress you've made.

It can be hard to see progress if you don't have anything tangible. Invest time in looking for useful chunks that you can extract even from work in progress. It's surprising how few projects are truly all or nothing. If you can share drafts, prototypes, alpha or beta versions, or even blog posts about the journey, you don't have to worry about the whole thing being a complete waste of time if you get distracted from the project before you finish it. If you always wait until you've finished something, you might end up leaving a mess of incomplete projects around.

Worried that your mind will see through this technique and lose interest even earlier in the process? Try being playful about it instead of being too serious. Yes, it's a mental trick (and not even a particularly complex one), but if your mind likes novelty and beginnings, it can hardly fault you for giving it what it likes.

This technique doesn't solve everything - I haven't been able to write a 200-page Emacs book yet, and our couch still doesn't have a slipcover. But it helps me from time to time, and maybe it will help you too!

Other tech notes

Windows: Pipe output to your clipboard, or how I've been using Node, Emacs, and Org Mode for awesomeness

It's not easy being on Windows instead of one of the more scriptable operating systems out there, but I stay on it because I like the drawing programs. Cygwin and Vagrant fill enough gaps to keep me mostly sane. (Although maybe I should work up the courage to dual-boot Windows 8.1 and a Linux distribution, and then get my ScanSnap working.)

Anyway, I'm making do. Thanks to Node and the abundance of libraries available through NPM, Javascript is shaping up to be a surprisingly useful scripting language.

After I used the Flickr API library for Javascript to cross-reference my Flickr archive with my blog posts, I looked around for other things I could do with it. photoSync occasionally didn't upload new pictures I added to its folders (or at least, not as quickly as I wanted). I wanted to replace photoSync with my own script that would:

  • upload the picture only if it doesn't already exist,
  • add tags based on the filename,
  • add the photo to my Sketchbook photoset,
  • move the photo to the "To blog" folder, and
  • make it easy for me to refer to the Flickr image in my blog post or index.

The flickr-with-uploads library made it easy to upload images and retrieve information, although the format was slightly different from the Flickr API library I used previously. (In retrospect, I should've checked the Flickr API documentation first - there's an example upload request right on the main page. Oh well! Maybe I'll change it if I feel like rewriting it.)

I searched my existing photos to see if a photo with that title already existed. If it did, I displayed an Org-style list item with a link. If it didn't exist, I uploaded it, set the tags, added the item to the photo set, and moved it to the folder. Then I displayed an Org-style link, but using a plus character instead of a minus character. (Both + and - can be used for lists in Org.)

While using console.log(...) to display these links in the terminal allowed me to mark and copy the link, I wanted to go one step further. Could I send the links directly to Emacs? I looked into getting org-protocol to work, but I was having problems figuring this out. (I solved those problems; details later in this post.)

What were some other ways I could get the information into Emacs aside from copying and pasting from the terminal window? Maybe I could put text directly into the clipboard. The node-clipboard package didn't build for me and I couldn't get node-copy-paste to work either,about the node-copy-paste README told me about the existence of the clip command-line utility, which worked for me.

On Windows, clip allows you to pipe the output of commands into your clipboard. (There are similar programs for Linux or Mac OS X.) In Node, you can start a child process and communicate with it through pipes.

I got a little lost trying to figure out how to turn a string into a streamable object that I could set as the new standard input for the clip process I was going to spawn, but the solution turned out to be much simpler than that. Just write(...) to the appropriate stream, and call end() when you're done.

Here's the relevant bit of code that takes my result array and puts it into my clipboard:

var child = cp.spawn('clip'); child.stdin.write(result.join("\n")); child.stdin.end();

Of course, to get to that point, I had to revise my script. Instead of letting all the callbacks finish whenever they wanted, I needed to be able to run some code after everything was done. I was a little familiar with the async library, so I used that.

See this on Github

 * Upload the file to my Flickr sketchbook and then moves it to
 * Dropbox/Inbox/To blog. Save the Org Mode links in the clipboard. -
 * means the photo already existed, + means it was uploaded.

var async = require('async');
var cp = require('child_process');
var fs = require('fs');
var glob = require('glob');
var path = require('path');
var flickr = require('flickr-with-uploads');
var secret = require("./secret");
var SKETCHBOOK_PHOTOSET_ID = '72157641017632565';
var BLOG_INBOX_DIRECTORY = 'c:\\sacha\\dropbox\\inbox\\to blog\\';
var api = flickr(secret.flickrOptions.api_key,
var result = [];

function getTags(filename) {
  var tags = [];
  var match;
  var re = new RegExp('#([^ ]+)', 'g');
  while ((match = re.exec(filename)) !== null) {
  return tags.join(' ');
// assert(getTags("foo #bar #baz qux") == "bar baz");

function checkIfPhotoExists(filename, doesNotExist, existsFunction, done) {
  var base = path.basename(filename).replace(/.png$/, '');
  api({method: '',
       user_id: secret.flickrOptions.user_id,
       text: base},
      function(err, response) {
        var found = undefined;
        if (response &&[0].photo) {
          for (var i = 0; i <[0].photo.length; i++) {
            if ([i].photo &&[0].photo[i]['$'].title == base) {
              found = i; break;
        if (found !== undefined) {
          existsFunction([0].photo[found], done);
        } else {
          doesNotExist(filename, done);

function formatExistingPhotoAsOrg(photo, done) {
  var title = photo['$'].title;
  var url = ''
        + photo['$'].owner
        + '/' + photo['$'].id;
  result.push('- [[' + url + '][' + title + ']]');

function formatAsOrg(response) {
  var title =[0].title[0];
  var url =[0].urls[0].url[0]['_'];
  result.push('+ [[' + url + '][' + title + ']]');

function uploadImage(filename, done) {
    method: 'upload',
    title: path.basename(filename.replace(/.png$/, '')),
    is_public: 1,
    hidden: 1,
    safety_level: 1,
    photo: fs.createReadStream(filename),
    tags: getTags(filename.replace(/.png$/, ''))
  }, function(err, response) {
    if (err) {
      console.log('Could not upload photo: ', err);
    } else {
      var newPhoto = response.photoid[0];
          function(done) {
            api({method: '',
                 photo_id: newPhoto}, function(err, response) {
                   if (response) { formatAsOrg(response); }
          function(done) {
            api({method: 'flickr.photosets.addPhoto',
                 photoset_id: SKETCHBOOK_PHOTOSET_ID,
                 photo_id: newPhoto}, function(err, response) {
                   if (!err) {
                     moveFileToBlogInbox(filename, done);
                   } else {
                     console.log('Could not add ' + filename + ' to Sketchbook');
        function() {

function moveFileToBlogInbox(filename, done) {
  fs.rename(filename, BLOG_INBOX_DIRECTORY + path.basename(filename),
            function(err) {
              if (err) { console.log(err); }

var arguments = process.argv.slice(2);
async.each(arguments, function(item, done) {
  if (item.match('\\*')) {
    glob.glob(item, function(err, files) {
      if (!files) return;
      async.each(files, function(file, done) {
        checkIfPhotoExists(file, uploadImage, formatExistingPhotoAsOrg, done);
      }, function() {
  } else {
    checkIfPhotoExists(item, uploadImage, formatExistingPhotoAsOrg, done);
}, function(err) {
  var child = cp.spawn('clip');

Wheeee! Hooray for automation. I made a Windows batch script like so:


node g:\code\node\flickr-upload.js %*

and away I went. Not only did I have a handy way to process images from the command line, I could also mark the files in Emacs Dired with m, then type ! to execute my up command on the selected images. Mwahaha!

Anyway, I thought I'd write it up in case other people were curious about using Node to code little utilities, filling the clipboard in Windows, or getting data back into Emacs (sometimes the clipboard is enough).

Back to org-protocol, since I was curious about it. With (require 'org-protocol) (server-start), emacsclient org-protocol://store-link:/foo/bar worked when I entered it at the command prompt. I was having a hard time getting it to work under Node, but eventually I figured out that:

  • I needed to pass -n as one of the arguments to emacsclient so that it would return right away.
  • The : after store-link is important! I was passing org-protocol://store-link/foo/bar and wondering why it opened up a file called bar. org-protocol://store-link:/foo/bar was what I needed.

I only just figured out that last bit while writing this post. Here's a small demonstration program:

var cp = require('child_process');
var child = cp.execFile('emacsclient', ['-n', 'org-protocol://store-link:/foo/bar']);


2015-01-13 Using Node as a scripting tool – index card #javascript #nodejs #coding #scripting

Web development

First steps towards Javascript testing   geek javascript

I know, I know, it's about time I got the hang of this. Better late than never, right? =) Anyway, I spent some time going through tutorials for QUnit and Jasmine. For QUnit, I followed this Smashing Magazine tutorial on Javascript unit testing. I modified the code a little bit to add the Z timezone to the test data, since my tests initially didn't pass.


<!DOCTYPE html>
    <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />
    <title>Refactored date examples</title>
    <link rel="stylesheet" href="" />
    <script src=""></script>
    <script src="prettydate.js"></script>
     test("prettydate.format", function() {
       function date(then, expected) {
         equal(prettyDate.format('2008/01/28 22:25:00Z', then), expected);
       date("2008/01/28 22:24:30Z", "just now");
       date("2008/01/28 22:23:30Z", "1 minute ago");
       date("2008/01/28 21:23:30Z", "1 hour ago");
       date("2008/01/27 22:23:30Z", "Yesterday");
       date("2008/01/26 22:23:30Z", "2 days ago");
       date("2007/01/26 22:23:30Z", undefined);
     function domtest(name, now, first, second) {
       test(name, function() {
         var links = document.getElementById('qunit-fixture').getElementsByTagName('a');
         equal(links[0].innerHTML, 'January 28th, 2008');
         equal(links[2].innerHTML, 'January 27th, 2008');
         equal(links[0].innerHTML, first);
         equal(links[2].innerHTML, second);

     domtest("prettyDate.update", '2008-01-28T22:25:00Z', '2 hours ago', 'Yesterday');
     domtest("prettyDate.update, one day later", '2008-01-29T22:25:00Z', 'Yesterday', '2 days ago');
  <div id="qunit"></div>
  <div id="qunit-fixture">
      <li class="entry" id="post57">
        <p>blah blah blah…</p>
        <small class="extra">
          Posted <span class="time"><a href="/2008/01/blah/57/" title="2008-01-28T20:24:17Z">January 28th, 2008</a></span>
          by <span class="author"><a href="/john/">John Resig</a></span>
      <li class="entry" id="post57">
        <p>blah blah blah…</p>
        <small class="extra">
          Posted <span class="time"><a href="/2008/01/blah/57/" title="2008-01-27T22:24:17Z">January 27th, 2008</a></span>
          by <span class="author"><a href="/john/">John Resig</a></span>

For practice, I converted the QUnit tests to Jasmine. The first part of the test was easy, but I wanted a clean way to do the HTML fixture-based tests for prettydate.update too. Jasmine-JQuery gives you a handy way to have HTML fixtures. Here's what my code ended up as:


describe("PrettyDate.format", function() {
    function checkDate(name, then, expected) {
        it(name, function() {
            expect(prettyDate.format('2008/01/28 22:25:00Z', then)).toEqual(expected);
    checkDate("should display recent times", '2008/01/28 22:24:30Z', 'just now');
    checkDate("should display times within a minute", '2008/01/28 22:23:30Z', '1 minute ago');
    checkDate("should display times within an hour", '2008/01/28 21:23:30Z', '1 hour ago');
    checkDate("should display times within a day", '2008/01/27 22:23:30Z', 'Yesterday');
    checkDate("should display times within two days", '2008/01/26 22:23:30Z', '2 days ago');
describe("PrettyDate.update", function() {
    function domtest(name, now, first, second) {
       it(name, function() {
           var links = document.getElementById('qunit-fixture').getElementsByTagName('a');
           expect(links[0].innerHTML).toEqual('January 28th, 2008');
           expect(links[2].innerHTML).toEqual('January 27th, 2008');
    domtest("prettyDate.update", '2008-01-28T22:25:00Z', '2 hours ago', 'Yesterday');
    domtest("prettyDate.update, one day later", '2008-01-29T22:25:00Z', 'Yesterday', '2 days ago');


  <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8">
  <title>Jasmine Spec Runner v2.0.2</title>

  <link rel="shortcut icon" type="image/png" href="lib/jasmine-2.0.2/jasmine_favicon.png">
  <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="lib/jasmine-2.0.2/jasmine.css">

  <script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>
  <script type="text/javascript" src="lib/jasmine-2.0.2/jasmine.js"></script>
  <script type="text/javascript" src="lib/jasmine-2.0.2/jasmine-html.js"></script>
  <script type="text/javascript" src="lib/jasmine-2.0.2/boot.js"></script>
  <script type="text/javascript" src="jasmine-jquery.js"></script>

  <!-- include source files here... -->
  <script type="text/javascript" src="prettydate.js"></script>

  <!-- include spec files here... -->
  <script type="text/javascript" src="spec/DateSpec.js"></script>



I'm looking forward to learning how to use Jasmine to test Angular applications, since behaviour-driven testing seems to be common practice there. Little steps! =)

Stuff I use

:Effort: 1:00

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Sacha Chua, and I'm a little over two years into a 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Mostly that means that I spend my time working on open source, helping people out, writing, drawing (thoughts, book summaries, tutorials, etc.), and doing a little consulting. has a more detailed breakdown of my time.

DONE The Google Chrome extensions I use   geek

:Effort: 0:30

:ID: o2b:7058ef97-8575-4bd9-a404-962f49618c2a

:POST_DATE: [2014-11-10 Mon 11:14]

:POSTID: 27601

:BLOG: sacha

Richard wanted to know which Google Chrome extensions I use. Here's the list:

  • AdBlock: I still see ads, but I probably see fewer ads than before.
  • AngularJS Batarang: Great for debugging AngularJS applications.
  • Extension: I use this on my phone. Still thinking about how I can get something working with Org Mode and my phone. Might replace this with MobileOrg.
  • Application Launcher for Drive (by Google): I hardly use this, but it seems like a good idea.
  • Boomerang Calendar: Recognizes dates in e-mails and makes it easy to create appointments. Might not need it after Google improves its interface some more.
  • Boomerang for Gmail: Great for delaying replies, following up in case of non-response, or getting things to turn up in your inbox after a specified delay.
  • Capture Webpage Screenshot - FireShot: Can come in handy for full-page screenshots.
  • CSS Reloader: Handy during development.
  • Don't track me Google: I use this mainly to remove the annoying Google redirection that happens when you copy links from search results without clicking through them. This way, I can copy and paste cleaner URLs.
  • Dragon Web Extension: Theoretically allows me to use speech recognition to control Chrome. I still haven't gotten Dragon Naturally Speaking to be part of my workflow.
  • Evernote Web Clipper: Evernote is a great way to stash things I may want to refer to later.
  • Feedly: The extension lets me quickly subscribe to blogs. I prefer reading them on my phone, though.
  • Google Docs: Handy for sharing documents and editing them online.
  • Hangouts: I use this for video chats.
  • LastPass: Free Password Manager: Handy for storing and sharing passwords.
  • RescueTime for Chrome & ChromeOS: Tracks the sites I visit. I'm not doing anything with this data yet.
  • Rikaikun: Helps me learn Japanese when I hover over kanji.
  • RSS Subscription Extension (by Google): Displays a feed icon in the address bar if the site has alternate links to feeds. This way, I don't have to hunt around for the right link.
  • Send from Gmail (by Google): Makes Gmail the default handler for e-mail addresses.
  • Tampermonkey: For injecting the Javascript that Skewer needs so that I can interact with webpages from Emacs. Could probably get away with using a bookmarklet instead. This tends to slow down Chrome, so I enable it only when I'm planning to develop.

How to use Drush to download and install a Drupal module   search

After a year: Logitech H800 review


:Effort: 1:00

When I worked as a consultant at IBM, I generally worked on short-term projects One of the things I

DONE Back to drawing digitally, thanks to Wacom drivers   geek

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:509fef5f-2d68-4891-921b-966d5c41524c

:POST_DATE: [2014-08-10 Sun 11:52]

:POSTID: 27421

:BLOG: sacha

I upgraded to Microsoft Windows 8 in January 2013 mainly primarily because I noticed myself resisting the change. For the most part, I adapted easily. I liked using Win-q to launch applications, and I even got the hang of the complicated procedure for shutting down.

Still, the upgrade was a step backwards in terms of drawing on my tablet PC. On Windows 7, I had disabled the touchscreen in order to make stylus use easier; on Windows 8 (and later 8.1), I couldn't reliably disable the touchscreen. The option had disappeared from the built-in Pen & Touch configuration dialog, and disabling it through the hardware devices list sometimes didn't work.

This meant that I either had to wear something to insulate my palm from the screen in order to avoid accidental touches (even my thinnest glove was still warm and unwieldy), or I had to occasionally erase stray dots. Both got in the way of drawing on my computer, so I didn't do much of either.

While upgrading various pieces of software (Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, Dragon Naturally Speaking), I thought to check if Lenovo or Wacom had released new drivers yet. Wacom had! Woohoo. I insntalled the Wacom Feel driver, rebooted my computer, and found the Wacom Pen & Touch dialog had a checkbox for disabling touch.

It's funny how these little inconveniences can add just enough friction to make something feel annoying, and how smoothening those inconveniences over can make a big difference in how you work and how you feel about it. I'm looking forward to playing around with the new features in Sketchbook Pro now. Glad I checked for updates!

DONE Tablet thoughts   geek

:ID: o2b:8f2975a5-f0de-4c17-b1cb-5caac9adb156

:POST_DATE: [2014-09-26 Fri 13:22]

:POSTID: 27514

:BLOG: sacha

I have an Asus Transformer Pad Infinity (TF700T), which I got shortly after its release because I was curious about exploring tablets as a sketchnoting option but I was adamantly opposed to getting an Apple product. I should probably have waited for the reviews to come in, since the TF700T turned out to be a lemon (apparently the processor wasn't quite up to the task of driving the display) and by the time I sat down and focused on getting past all the excuses and all the potential configuration options for speeding things up, the return window had passed. I suppose I could try to sell it, but it doesn't seem right to inflict the same problem on someone else.

Anyway, I've reflashed it to CROMBi, which the Internet says is supposed to be much better. While I'm waiting for everything to be set up again, I want to think about how a tablet could fit into my life and make things better. That way, I can decide if it's worth spending the time fixing this up, spending the money to upgrade to a newer tablet, or leaving well enough alone.

What do other people use their tablets for, and what other uses might I want to explore?

  • Business
    • Reading could be handy, especially as a second screen for technical references.
    • Lightweight device for writing in cafes? My laptop isn't that heavy, but I could give it a try.
    • Browsing? Maybe, if I can get performance up.
    • E-mail? My phone is more convenient.
    • Reviewing my sketches? Maybe, if I can fix the lag issue.
    • Drawing on this tablet? Frustrating because of the lag.
  • Personal
    • Cooking? It might be handy to have large copies of recipes and maybe even a digital shopping list.
    • Browsing? The attentional separation of doing casual browsing on a separate device might be good for training my mind.
    • Learning? Flashcards, perhaps?
    • Watching stuff? I rarely watch movies, and when I do, I watch them on the TV so I can hang out on the sofa with W-.
    • Gaming is popular, but I don't often play games (and when I do, I have the Vita or the PS3).
    • Some kind of home console, with weather, calendar, and a shopping list? Maybe, but it seems like overkill.

Meh. I'm possibly even at the point where I wouldn't consider buying it from my own business. It's a pity, but sometimes I make bad decisions. Just stick it in a drawer (or donate it) and let it depreciate over time, writing it off as a learning experience? Hmm…

I'm going to try to revive it as a business tablet first, seeing if I can get to the point where I'd feel comfortable leaving my laptop behind. If that doesn't work out, I'll experiment with personal applications before buying it from my business. If that still doesn't work, I think I'll wait a little for future crops of tablets - I'd want something that responds quickly and has a proper stylus.

Ah, tech!

DONE Beginner web dev tip: Use Inspect Element to learn more about HTML and CSS on a page   geek web

:Effort: 0:30

:ID: o2b:16ba488a-1517-4f58-becb-d72bbf1c0b05

:POST_DATE: [2014-11-10 Mon 15:43]

:POSTID: 27607

:BLOG: sacha

One of the neat things about learning web development is that the Web is full of examples you can learn from. You can use your browser's View Page Source or View Source command (available from the right-click menu in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Internet Explorer). An even better way to explore, though, is to use the Inspect Element action from the right-click menu in those browsers. If you right-click on the item you want to learn more about, you'll be able to see the HTML and the current CSS applied to the page.

I use Google Chrome most of the time, so I'll show you Inspect Element screen from that browser.

2014-11-10 15_37_06-CSS-Tricks.png

You'll see the HTML on the left side and the CSS on the right. You can check or uncheck different CSS rules, and you can double-click on things to edit them. Check out the right-click menus for even more options.

Sometimes you may need to click on a different element in order to see the CSS rules that are relevant to what you're curious about. As you hover over different elements, you'll see them highlighted on the page.

If you click on the Console tab, you can experiment with Javascript too. If you want to view both the inspect element information and the Javascript console at the same time, click on the icon that looks like a > on the right side. This is particularly handy if you have a large screen.

Hope that helps!

Business and career

Earning value

A man who knows he's making money for other people ought to get some of the profits he brings in. Don't make any difference if it's baseball or a bank or a vaudeville show. It's business, I tell you. There ain't no sentiment to it. Forget that stuff.

  • Babe Ruth; On his demand for $52,000 a year in his 1922 contract, as quoted in The Rivals : The Boston Red Sox Vs. the New York Yankees; An Inside History (2004) by Dan Shaughnessy, p. 40

What makes you happy? Priorities and planning your life

Other titles:

  • Fit for You: How a corporate career tool is an excellent way to improve your life
  • Happiness update: What makes me happy at work and in life?


  • Flexibility
  • Leverage
  • Helping people be happier

"How can I switch from testing to development?"

Anticipate exit interview questions and prepare your answers   search

CANCELLED Best tools for pay-what-you-can digital goods   delegate


Planning for uncertainty   better


DONE Rethinking delegation   delegation

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:83ddc6ae-beff-4645-8d71-881bb5829cdf

:POST_DATE: 20141102T21:57:00+0000

:POSTID: 27593

:BLOG: sacha

:Published: No

I've been distracted for the past two months, since I've been focusing on consulting more than on my personal projects. Now that things are stable again, I'd like to see if I can make better use of delegation as a way to expand my capabilities, learn more, and spread the opportunities. There are so many people with talents and skills out there, and there must be a way that I can get the hang of this.

What's getting in my way?

Mostly it's that I haven't sat down and thought about:

  • The projects I'm willing to invest money into, in addition to time - although maybe I should just treat my time as fungible and delegation as a skill that's worth learning anyway, so I should open up all my personal projects for consideration
  • Specific processes that I want to delegate, although I do have a decent-sized process library that I even share publicly
  • How I can reduce my involvement in things that are tied to me personally, and focus more on things where I can bring in other people

I also have some guilt about the distinction between tasks I can definitely defend as being business-related, and tasks that are much more personal. For example:

  • Reviewing my accounting records and draft tax return - Definitely business.
  • Transcribing Emacs Chat sessions and recorded presentations - Well… Technically, people sometimes pay me for Emacs-related things and I'm working on packaging some things up as pay-what-you-can guides, so that's okay, I guess?
  • Filling in recipes from Hacklab cooking nights - Definitely personal

The main benefit of claiming things as a business expense is saving roughly 15% in tax, but if that's mentally getting in the way of my just taking advantage of this, I should totally switch the contracts over to my personal credit card and just go for it until I've gotten the hang of this again. I'm nowhere close to my target of fully replacing the hours I've spent earning during this experiment (2829.6 hours worked, 486.8 hours delegated through oDesk, plus more through Paypal). But on the flipside, I don't want to assign makework that I really should just automate or eliminate. Although maybe I should challenge myself to find something useful, since that gives people an opportunity to work and to improve their skills.


2014-11-01 More thoughts on delegation.png

Stuff I don't particularly enjoy doing, but that could help:

  • Setting up events, coordinating with people, etc.
  • Comparison-shopping
  • Data entry
  • Organizing

What would "getting the hang of this" look like? Future Sacha would:

  • Have these beautifully documented step-by-step processes for consistently getting stuff done, with enough volume and throughput that things happen consistently
  • Work with people who are also improving their skills and doing well

Hmm. One of the things I'm looking forward to learning at work is the ability to sketch out a design or give some tips on how to do a report (which tables, what existing report to build on, etc.) and have someone else learn by doing it.

Maybe what I need is something like that for my personal projects, too. If I get better at sketching out what I want, then I or someone else can make it happen. For example, with Emacs Chats and Emacs Hangouts, I'd like to eventually get to the point of:

  • Having a list of questions or topics I'm working my through
  • Having a page where people can see the things I'm curious about and volunteer to chat with me about them
  • Coordinating with those people about when we're both available
  • Sharing a calendar and events where people can see upcoming entries
  • Getting everything recorded, processed, summarized, transcribed, and blogged about
  • Harvesting interesting snippets for a guide

And for Quantified Self Toronto:

  • Picture of sign-up whiteboard + copy of videos = processed videos uploaded and blogged about

For Hacklab and cooking:

  • Picture of food + links to recipe = blog post draft with recipe ingredients, photo, links to recipes = updated wiki page

And a few experiments with Fiverr and other micro-outsourcing sites, too, just because.

You know, even if I don't end up feeling comfortable with calling those business expenses, I'm fine with it being a personal donation, since the communities are awesome. And it's stuff I would probably end up doing anyway because it's the Right Thing to Do.

Planning ahead in terms of people

Paying myself

What I feel brilliant at

Learning flexible skills

Narrating your work

  • Benefits of a social business platform
  • Weekly reviews
  • Activity stream

Combinations of skills

Delegating your calendar

So, what is it that you do?

Defining the problem

Imagining wild success: delegation   imagine

Imagine I have amazing assistants and a smoothly-running team. What am I doing with those capabilities?

2 days a week, I'm focused on talking to people. I'm booked efficiently; tea, lunch, tea, second tea. Some of these meetings involve walks instead of food. The meetings cluster in various locations in order to minimize travel time. I might have one day for face-to-face meetings and one day for virtual meetings.

After each meeting, I have at least half an hour to define next actions and get the ball rolling. It's easy to prioritize based on time and importance. We get the first actions out right away, impressing people, and then we follow up with depth. My assistant fills in the time with other tasks from the next actions list. I have at least 20 hours of work for people, so it's easy for them to focus.

Types of things I delegate: Scheduling - I forward them emails and get back neatly formatted calendar entries Email response handling - they read my mail, prioritize, send me action items, and work on tasks. Web research - I send them questions and get back summaries of the top ten resources I should read. I suggest search queries, and they add their own. Illustration - I have backup illustrators who can sketchnote things that I can't get to, or who can share different styles and metaphors. Development - When I have an idea about Rails or Wordpress, I can work with someone to make it happen. Web design - themes, tweaks, beautifully HTMLized pages… Copywriting and copyediting - I send things over and get polished, engaging content Calls - Assistants can take care of calling businesses when they're open and following up if needed, such as when setting appointments or making reservations. Layout - I share a Dropbox folder with a bunch of graphics or documents. The assistant lays things out so that they're well-balanced in terms of whitespace and size. Transcription - I save webinars and interviews (or set people up to record) into a Dropbox shared folder, and I send an email. I get a well-formatted blog post or document with the cleaned-up transcript. Outlining and writing - someone helps me brainstorm blog post topics and outlines, fleshing them out with research, and organizing the topics into books Video - editing, synchronizing sound, adding transitions, etc. …

I also have recurring tasks for projects and initiatives I care about. Things just work smoothly. I get confirmations.

I have this lovely web-based process manual and a visual overview of tasks.

I'm always collecting people for my pipeline. Hiring is not stressful - I have good onboarding and offboarding processes. I hire shortly before I really need to, so that I can ramp up people.

DONE Year 2 Review

Learning from how other people delegate

Is your podcast a good fit for sketchnotes?

Do you produce "evergreen" content that people regularly want to refer to? You'll get lasting value from sketchnotes about topics that are perennially interesting or useful, while time-sensitive or news updates have limited benefits.

Do you have a large, social-media savvy audience in terms of blog readers, website visitors, or social media followers? Sketchnotes can help you convert them to podcast listeners or get them to check out a specific podcast. It can also get more value out of other resources such as blog posts and e-books. Newsletter subscribers and podcast subscribers don't get as much immediate value from sketchnotes because they don't see them right away. If you're active on Twitter or Facebook, you'll be able to get more value out of the sketchnotes because of embedded images in the news stream as well as RTs and CCs.

Is your podcast a source of revenue? What kind of business benefit do you anticipate? What kinds of increases in readership or other benefits would you consider worth different levels of investment (knowing there's no such thing as a guarantee… =) )? Sketching an episode that already has an edited transcript can be more cost-effective, because transcripts allow the sketchnote artist can get an quick overview of the podcast's structure and confirm the spelling of important words.

  • Why
    • Marketing and shareability
    • Engage people and draw them into listening to your podcast
    • Other options
      • Show notes: Time codes and short descriptions to help people jump to a specific part of your podcast
      • Transcript: Best for searchability, may need editing, can be overwhelming for people
  • Audience:
    • Social-media savvy - great for sharing on Twitter or Facebook
    • Lots of blog readers, website visitors, or social media followers - sketchnotes can help you convert them to podcast listeners or reach out to their networks for new audiences. Newsletter subscribers get limited benefits as well.
    • You provide information that people regularly refer to. Sketchnotes are great for printing out and keeping as "cheat sheets."
    • Your podcast is sponsored or is a major contributor to your business marketing or outreach.

Passing on skills

:Effort: 1:00

It's been a little over two years since I started consulting for this one client of mine. Come to think of it, it's the longest I've ever spent working on the same project. I like the team and what we work on, so I continue to do this even though I'm slowly nudging the balance of my time closer to retirement/leisure. I want them to be able to do cool stuff even when I've moved all the way over

Both analytics and rapid prototyping

Selling prints online

Adapting my business to a changing life

  • Focus on people to help
  • Build up skills and content
  • Make useful and valuable things

DONE Thinking about rewards and recognition since I'm on my own   career experiment business

One of the things a good manager does is to recognize and reward people's achievements, especially if people exceeded expectations. A large corporation might have some standard ways to reward good work: a team lunch, movie tickets, gift certificates, days off, reward points, events, and so on. Startups and small businesses might be able to come up with even more creative ways of celebrating success.

In tech, I think good managers take extra care to recognize when people have gone beyond the normal call of duty. It makes sense. Many people earn salaries without overtime pay, might not get a bonus even if they've sacrificed time with family or other discretionary activities, and might not be able to take vacation time easily.

It got me thinking: Now that I'm on my own, how do I want to celebrate achievements–especially when they are a result of tilting the balance towards work?

When I'm freelancing, extra time is paid for, so some reward is there already. I like carving out part of those earnings for my opportunity fund, rewarding my decision-making by giving myself more room to explore.

During a sprint, the extra focus time sometimes comes from reducing my housework. When things relax, then, I like celebrating by cooking good meals, investing in our workflows at home, and picking up the slack.

I also like taking notes so that I can build on those successes. I might not be able to include a lot of details, but having a few memory-hooks is better than not having any.

Sometimes people are really happy with the team's performance, so there's extra good karma. Of the different non-monetary ways that people can show their appreciation within a corporate framework, which ones would I lean towards?

I definitely appreciate slowing down the pace after big deliverables. Sustained concentration is difficult, so it helps to be able to push back if there are too many things on the go.

At work, I like taking time to document lessons learned in more detail. I'd get even more of a kick out of it if other people picked up those notes and did something even cooler with the ideas. That ranks high on my warm-and-fuzzy feeling scale. It can take time for people to have the opportunity to do something similar, but that's okay. Sometimes I hear from people years later, and that's even awesomer.

A testimonial could come in handy, especially if it's on an attributed site like LinkedIn.

But really, it's more about long-term relationships and helping out good people, good teams, and good causes. Since I can choose how much to work and I know that my non-work activities are also valuable, the main reasons I would choose to work more instead of exploring those other interests are:

  • I like the people I work with and what they're working on, and I want to support them,
  • I'll learn interesting things along the way, and
  • It's good to honour commitments and not disrupt plans unnecessarily.

So, theoretically, if we plunged right back into the thick of another project, I didn't get the time to write about stuff, I didn't feel right keeping personal notes (and thus I'll end up forgetting the important parts of the previous project), and no one's allowed to write testimonials, I'd still be okay with good karma - not the quid-pro-quo of transactional favour-swapping, but a general good feeling that might come in handy thirty years from now.

Hmm, this is somewhat related to my reflection on Fit for You - which I thought I'd updated within the last three years, but I guess I hadn't posted that to my blog. Should reflect on that again sometime… Anyway, it's good to put together a "care and feeding" guide for yourself! =)

DONE Brock Health and setting up my own health plan   business

I still get a kick out of walking into and out of a clinic without paying anything, just providing my Ontario health card at the appropriate moments. Canada's public health system covers a lot of stuff. Not everything, though! W-'s extended health plan from work covers a large portion of many expenses, like dental care and massages.

For the expenses that W-'s health plan doesn't cover, I looked into setting up a private health services plan (PHSP) so that I can pay for the remainder through my business. After some quick research, I found Brock Health was a popular choice for small corporations in Canada. The way that it works is that you send them the paperwork for the claim, and your corporation pays them the amount of the claim plus an administration fee. They then send you (as the employee or corporation owner) a reimbursement of the expenses without the admin fee. This is tax-free on your personal income, and is paid with before-tax business dollars. So you pay a little more because of the admin fee, but it works out.

I set up an account last fiscal year. Based on my calculations, claiming expenses on our tax forms first made more sense last year, so I didn't have any transactions. This year, my calculations showed that the PHSP might be a better way to do things. I sent in my first claim with a couple of void cheques in order to It turned out that one of the expenses was partially refunded. I called Brock Health to update the claim, and they updated it before processing the cheques.

I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works out in this year's business tax return. If it's as simple as I think it might be, my personal health plan might include more massages… =)


TODO Write about keeping in touch with other people's lives


The house where friends gather

:Effort: 1:00

J- often has friends over. Sometimes she and a friend will disappear into her room to hang out playing games and chatting. Other times, they'll take over the living room with its television and PS3. We help with the occasional study group. One time J- showed up with thirteen other kids and two pies, and they celebrated Pi Day on the deck.

We encourage this with food, space, patience.

I like being introverted   snippets

Sometimes people tell me that they can’t believe I’m introverted. You organize meetups, they say. You share a lot online. You can’t possibly be introverted. Not only do I need to recharge after conferences or other intense social interactions, I like being introverted – it’s good to be comfortable with yourself. That said, you learn a lot when you bump into other people, so I’ve been experimenting with ways to have more of those serendipitous conversations.

I like group conversations more than one-on-ones because I get to learn from the intersections of people’s interests. I see different aspects of people than I might bring out on my own. Group conversations also reduce the pressure to carry the conversation myself – people bring their own questions and tips and ideas to the table.

I’m particularly interested in virtual meetups because there are so many wonderful people out there whom I will probably never be in the same city with. Toronto is a great meetup city because there’s always something going on, but there’s no reason why knowledge-sharing should be unnecessarily privileged or limited by geographic proximity. If people are curious about blogging, drawing, Emacs, Quantified Self, or whatever we have in common, maybe we can have virtual show-and-tells instead of relying on the probability of finding critical mass for a meetup in our own areas.

— I get my energy from a quiet and simple life. I’ve learned to say no when I need more space: no if I need quiet instead of networking (even if there could be someone who could change my life or vice versa just over there); no if I need silence instead of a taxi cab conversation; no to people’s requests in favour of spending time with W- or on my own projects.

It’s hard to learn how to say no, or even to learn that you can. “Say yes to everything,” the advice goes. Seize the day. Grab those opportunities.

But there’s a lot of power in being able to listen to your needs and carve out the time and space that you need—to meet the world on your own terms, and to be happy to give because you’re ready to do so.

Hacking my way into meeting people

I try to minimize the number of things I’ve promised to other people so that I have the flexibility to follow opportunities when they come up. Conversations are an exception. It’s hard to not schedule those if I want to make sure they happen at some point. Left to my own devices, I might never get around to talking to people. So I pay someone a small amount to handle my scheduling, which neatly removes me from the back-and-forth hassles of coordinating times and also (useful and possibly more important!) prevents me from giving myself excuses not to do it. Then I remind myself that getting to and from these appointments is either reading time or free exercise (for in-person meetings), or possible podcast or blog material (if online). Introvert hack. =)

Staying in touch

Learning more about friends

Spending on people

My meetup workflow

How to follow up after an event

Working on being more social

Sending more letters

Choosing your events

Making the most of meetups

Things to do with friends

Learning more about communication

Planning meetups

Connecting through code: Software as conversation

OUTLINED Experimenting with virtual meetups

  • Motivation
    • Lots of interesting people out there
    • Prime the pump: Get the hang of doing it
  • See what's out there
  • Ramping up: content
    • Blog posts
    • YouTube
  • Building an audience
    • Visual: Visual Thinking Hub, I Sketchnote
    • Self-tracking: Quantified Self Toront, Quantified Self Labs
    • Emacs: My blog, Planet Emacsen, Org mailing list
  • Next steps:
    • Upcoming virtual meetups in August

DONE What are people looking for when they talk about challenges?   connecting communication

:Effort: 1:00

:ID: o2b:8ce28f59-77ce-401b-8f90-581aac7e6660

:POST_DATE: [2014-07-14 Mon 11:05]

:POSTID: 27387

:BLOG: sacha

Sometimes I hear from people who are having a hard time finding a job or clients for their business, working on establish healthier habits, or sorting out their finances. The Internet tells me that people who are struggling generally don't need more advice, since they've been told by everyone else around them to apply to jobs, go to events, exercise, lose weight, stop eating junk food, stop buying coffee, etc. In fact, we should probably stop asking how things are going and stop trying to solve people's problems for them.