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.

Learning, writing, visual notetaking, sharing knowledge, and constant improvement

  • If you can get better at learning, everything else gets better
  • What does better mean?
    • Make time to learn
    • Ask better questions
    • Find resources
    • Apply what you learn
    • Remember what you learn
  • Why do I care?
  • What can you expect from this blog?


Self-directed learning   book

How to apply educational theory to your life

  • How can I choose and prioritize things to learn about?   question learning

    When you have the freedom to choose what you want to learn, how can you choose more effectively? When students are picking courses or majors in school, they typically balance career prospects and personal interests. What if you've got more latitude in picking something to learn for fun?

    • Health and fitness
      • Exercise
      • Nutrition
      • Gardening
    • Practical use
      • Skills
  • Reflective learning
  • Action-based learning
  • Problem-based learning


I notice I have cyclic interests :my-learning:

I learn about some topics in sprints, then let them go for a bit, and then come back to them. For example, my time logs for Emacs show:

  • June 2012
  • Mid-March to mid-April 2013
  • April-June 2014

Oh. Actually, that's an interestingly seasonal pattern. I hadn't realized that the months lined up like that. (Although to be fair, I probably wasn't tracking it as a category before May 2012.) I wonder what it is…

Now I feel myself shifting temporarily to other things. I know I'll be back, but it's just not at the forefront of my mind.

What am I thinking about instead? What am I learning more about? What am I spending more time on? Oh, the sparklines are surprisingly useful. I can just scroll down looking for patterns. Non-Emacs coding, apparently. Learning about other things. Playing video games, relaxing. Gardening. I'm spending nowhere near as much time biking as I used to, but I do spend more time walking.

Where would I like to direct my shifting interests and attention? I want to focus on building solid habits around health and fitness. That's probably 15-30 minutes of exercise a day and preparing even better food (salads, variety). Once I've internalized those, I think I might circle back to Latin (I can mostly remember the declensions now, although I still make errors), and maybe either Japanese (so I can read and listen) or Cantonese (so that I can chat with W- and with the fellow gardener up the street). There's drawing practice, too. Time to swing non-technical or non-computer-based for a bit? Hmm…

OUTLINED 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
    • 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
    • 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?)
  • 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)

Taking notes

  • Why

    What's your favourite excuse to NOT take notes? Ex: "I don't need to take notes because I'll get the slides or recording."

    • No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks!
    • "I don't want to be rude or distracting."
    • "I don't want to get distracted from what the speaker is saying."
    • "I don't need to take notes. I can just get the slides or recording."
    • "I can't keep up and I don't want to miss anything."
    • "I tried taking notes, but I never used them."

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

DONE The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts   requested

The post is now available at

This outline is available at

  • @gozes was curious about my workflow for transforming my notes and lessons learned into blog posts
  • Many people struggle with this
    • "I don't have time to blog."
    • "No one will read it, so it's not worth it."
    • "I'm not an expert."
    • "Knowledge is power."
  • The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process
    • I can spend three hours solving a technical problem or learning more about a skill, but the thing that makes it really worth it is the 30 minutes I spend writing about what I learned.
    • If I don't write it down, I forget. I waste that time. If I don't publish it, I'm probably going to lose it.
    • More subtle benefit: I think I know something, but when I try to explain it to other people, I discover the holes. Even if it's obscure and I think no one else will find it useful. (The Internet being the Internet, surprisingly, people do.)
      • Writing helps me relate what I learn to what I know.
    • Sharing lets me help others, even if I'm not an expert.
    • More selfishly, sharing helps me learn from others.
  • What and when
    • I try to write a blog post as soon as possible instead of waiting until I can write a longer one
      • One blog post answers one question or shares one thought - easier to link to, keeps it short, gets it out there
      • I want to write down the details so that I can re-solve the problem if I run into it again
      • or so that other people can learn (or at least ask follow-up questions)
  • How
    • Quick link if the post has already been written
    • Sometimes start with the question and then just write
    • Usually start with rough outline or technical notes
    • In terms of tools
      • I really like Org Mode for Emacs because of its great outlining support
        • Plain text, so I can trust it
        • I can collapse or expand parts of my outline
        • I can organize my post ideas into a larger outline
        • I can export to HTML and share it with others
        • And it supports TODOs and integrates with my other tasks, so I can set deadlines, track TODO states, or even clock in/out to see how long something takes…
    • So I have this detailed outline
      • the sections and paragraphs are there, and I often include the points I want to make inside the paragraphs as well
    • Copy the outline and then start transforming it into my blog post
      • Not starting with a blank page
      • Can leave it alone, think about it for a few days, and come back and improve it
    • Editing
      • Sometimes I cut out snippets and stash them back into my outline, or in a snippets area
      • I sometimes have a temporary title, but I usually don't know what the title could be until I've written the post
    • When it's ready to post:
    • Then I schedule the blog post using the Editorial Calendar plugin for Wordpress, using the Share A Draft plugin to give people a sneak preview
      • Great for answering people's questions right away while managing the volume on my blog
      • Can update with new information: ex: Org troubleshooting post
        • handy because I schedule posts for the future, so there's time to make it better for everyone
    • Follow-up ideas go into my outline, and the cycle continues
  • Getting better
    • Practice structuring in terms of questions, logical flow
      • Fix flow in the outline instead of just in prose
    • Make posts more "scannable" with illustrations, headings, and emphasis
    • Organize higher-level outlines
      • Outline at the level of individual blog posts right now
      • Want to get better at exploring and organizing larger topics
    • Learn how to work with other people to flesh out my blog posts?
      • Other perspectives?
      • Other resources?
  • Share your thoughts: What's getting in your way when it comes to sharing what you learn?

Requested by @gozes

  • DONE The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts

    @gozes was curious about my workflow for transforming my notes and lessons learned into blog posts.

    Why it's worth taking the time to share

    Many people struggle with sharing what they know. "I don't have time to blog." "No one will read it anyway, so why bother." "I'm not an expert." "Knowledge is power, so I should keep it to myself - job security!"

    Let me tell you this: The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process.

    I can spend three hours solving a technical problem or learning more about a skill, but the thing that makes it really worth it is the 30 minutes I spend writing about what I learned. The biggest benefit is being able to refer back to my notes. If I don't write it down, I forget, and I've wasted the time spent learning. If I don't publish my notes, I'm probably going to lose them. It makes sense to invest a little time now so that I can save time later. I can't tell you how many times I've searched for something and ended up at a blog post I'd completely forgotten I'd written.

    There's a more subtle benefit, too: Explaining things to other people exposes holes in my understanding. It's easy to think that I know something. When I start writing about it, though, I stumble across things I don't quite know how to explain. Filling in those gaps helps me learn even more. Even if I think no one's going to find my explanation useful because I'm working on something so quirky or obscure, the process of explanation helps. (And the Internet being the Internet, I'm often surprised by people who turn out to be working on similar things.)

    Sharing lets me help other people, even if I'm not an expert. In fact, the best time to write is when you're a beginner, because you run into all the things that other people take for granted. More selfishly, sharing helps me learn from other people. People ask questions that help me learn more. They point out where I've made mistakes. They share better ways to do things. And because we’re building these connections, they also pass along professional and personal opportunities. Sharing is an excellent way to learn and grow.

    When and what to write

    Write early, write often. Don't wait until you've figured everything out. I try to write a blog post as soon as possible instead of waiting until I can write a more comprehensive one. I try to keep my blog post focused on answering a single question or sharing one thought. This makes the post easier to link to, keeps it (relatively) short, and gets rid of any excuse that would let me procrastinate putting it out there.

    Write enough to help you remember. When I write posts, I want to include enough details so that I can re-solve the problem if I run into it again, place myself back into the situation if I'm reflecting on how things worked out, or share what I've learned so that other people can figure things out (or at least ask follow-up questions). I don't need to answer everything. Sometimes I'll skip explaining things because people can always ask me to go deeper if they're interested. You don't have to write a complete guidebook to everything, you just have to add more guideposts to the trail.


    I love it when other people have already done the hard work of writing something up. Then I can just link to what they've said, adding some thoughts of my own. If I can't find a great explanation within the first few pages of a web search–or if I want to dig into something myself so that I understand it better–then I write my own post.

    Sometimes I can start with just a question and then I go from there. I write paragraph after paragraph as if I was e-mailing someone the answer or talking to them in person. I jump around here and there to edit the text or add links. I write quickly, and then I post.

    Most times, I start with a rough outline or my technical notes. When I explore something I want to learn, I jump around an outline, gradually filling it in with what I come across. When I research, troubleshoot, or try to figure something out, I copy links and ideas into my notes. I've learned that it can be difficult to backtrack your steps to remember the things you tried, or remember the resources that were particularly helpful. It's better to take notes and update them along the way, even if you find yourself sometimes going down dead ends.

    In terms of tools, I really like Org mode for Emacs because of its great outlining support. My notes are in plain text, so I can search or work with my notes easily. I can collapse or expand parts of my outline, and I can easily reorganize items. I can organize my post ideas into a larger outline. I can export to HTML and share it with others, like I did with the outline for this post. My outline also supports TODOs and integrates with my other tasks, so I can set deadlines, track TODO states, or even clock in/out to see how long something takes.

    When I'm happy with the outline, I start turning it into text. I write detailed outlines that include sections and the key points I want to make in paragraphs. (If you're curious, the outline for this post can be found at .) When I'm happy with how the outline flows, I copy the outline and start transforming it into my blog post. It's much less intimidating than working with a blank page, and I don't have to flip back and forth between my outline and my blog post editor. Working with an outline gives me an overview of where I want to go with the post, and it can also hold my thoughts when I go on tangents.

    The outline doesn't always completely translate into the blog post, of course. Sometimes I cut out snippets and stash them in a different place in my larger outline, for use in a future blog post. Sometimes I move things around, or add more explanations to glue paragraphs together. I sometimes have a temporary title, but I usually don't know what the title could be until I've written the post.

    When I'm ready to post the entry, I add categories and sometimes tags to make posts easier to discover. See When I blog with Emacs and when I blog with something else for a more detailed discussion of the tools I use for publishing. I often add images because that's good practice for developing my visual vocabulary, either drawing stick figures or picking stock photos. Besides, the images break up otherwise-intimidating text.

    I'm learning a lot, but I don't want to overwhelm people, so I try to keep it to at most one post a day. (Although sometimes I get excited and post anyway.) I schedule blog posts using the Editorial Calendar plugin for Wordpress, and I use the Share A Draft plugin to give people a sneak preview. This lets me answer people's questions with links to future blog posts. That way, they get the info they want, and everyone else will get it eventually.

    Writing about what I learned and reading people's feedback often gives me plenty of follow-up ideas. I put those ideas back into my outline or TODO list, and the cycle continues.

    How I'm working on getting better (continuous improvement for the win!)

    I really like the way sharing helps me learn more effectively, and I want to get even better at it. Here are some things that I think will help:

    I'm working on getting better at tweaking the structure of my posts before writing them. As in programming, it makes sense to fix logical errors or flow issues earlier rather than later. Working with outlines can help me get better at thinking in terms of questions and the flow from one point to another, and it's much easier to see and reorganize things there than when everything's written up.

    I'm working on making posts more "scannable" with illustrations, headings, and emphasis. One of the tips I picked up from Beyond Bullet Points is that when designing presentations, your slide titles should make sense in sequence. I remember reading similar advice applied to writing. Paragraphs should also make sense when you're quickly scanning the starting sentences, and people who want more detail can read the rest of the paragraph or section. I've still got a long way to go here, but I think I'm getting better.

    I'm working on organizing higher-level outlines. I'm getting more used to with outlining individual blog posts. The next step is to be able to explore and organize larger topics so that I can guide people through a series of chunks, perhaps with blog posts series or e-books. This will also help me plan my learning and build resources that guide people step by step.

    I'm curious about delegation or outsourcing, but I haven't really made the jump yet. Would it be worth learning how to work with other people to flesh out these blog posts? For example, working with an editor might help me find ways to make these posts clearer, more concise, or more approachable. Can article writers or blog researchers add other perspectives or resources to these posts so that we're learning from more people's experiences, not just mine? I have to work through a couple of my concerns before I can make the most of this, but I think it might be worth exploring.

    Share your thoughts: What's getting in your way when it comes to sharing what you learn? What could help?

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 Save time by browsing through blogs in a reader

  • Blogs are great for tips and experiences, but reading all those blogs can take a lot of time.
  • E-mail subscriptions can clutter your inbox.
  • Solution: subscribe to the blogs in a feed reader.
  • I use Feedly.
  • If you have a smartphone, you can read there.
    • Headlines and excerpts
    • Categories
    • Can read offline
  • Can also read on your computer. Synchronized.
  • To try it with this blog

DONE Want to learn more effectively? Get over your embarrassment and share what you're learning

Learning Latin

How I taught myself to speed-read in grade school: no magic involved

This weekend: Learn how to cook

Learning from video games

My evolution as a learner and the tips I learned along the way

Integrate your learning into other things you know

Before you learn something, plan how you're going to apply it

Improve your memory with the peg system

Remember things in order by making them part of a journey

Put your learning into practice

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

Ask "stupid" questions

Learn holistically by organizing your thoughts

How to find resources for learning

"I don't have time to learn"

Dealing with distractions

Remember better by making things visceral

Make your own metaphors

The power of habits

The power of routines

How to understand what you're thinking

Untangling your emotions from what you're learning

Get over your learning fears

Build your personal learning network (PLN)

Build your imaginary board of advisors

Learn faster by breaking skills down

Learn on the go: 5 tips for using your smartphone

Write about what you learn

Get more value from the time you spend learning

Keep a learning journal

Read at different rates depending on your goals

Learn more efficiently by asking yourself questions

What's getting in your way? 9 excuses not to learn and how to deal with them

Build on your strengths

Remember better with spaced repetition systems

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

Analyze your reading

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

Invest the time to get to the point where you can get paid to learn

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

Packaging/sharing   focus

What awesome content creators can delegate

Listening to your future self

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


TODO Reflections on Thoreau

To be a philosopher, is not merely to have subtle thought, or 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 - See more at:

  • Thoreau

Personal finance

TODO 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

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

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

    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. =)

5-year experiment

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


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

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).

Teaching myself to prefer what's good for me

Planning little achievements

  • 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

Anticipating experiment outcomes

  • How would I live if the outcome of this experiment is "I probably don't have to work again"?
    • Writing, drawing, coding based on my own interests
    • Sharing as much as possible
    • Open to receiving payment from other people as a way of funding more experiments - maybe tie value directly to experiments in a micro-Kickstarter sort of way?
  • How would I live if the outcome of this experiment is "I want to 'lean in' in terms of business?"
  • How would I live if the outcome of this experiment is "I don't have to work a regular job again"?
  • How would I live if the outcome of this experiment is "I want to go back to a regular job?"
    • Rebuild my network and dust off my resume
    • Probably go back to a technical position in a good team

Experimenting with semi-retirement :PROJECT:book-idea:

  • How long
  • Preparation
  • Transition
  • Leaving familiar shores
  • Onward
  • Other people's stories


Designing habits

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

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!


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 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.


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…


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 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

Using Emacs to figure out where I need to improve in order to type faster   emacs kaizen geek

I've been thinking about how to type faster than 110wpm, and digging into the specific factors that I could improve. In particular, I wanted to get a sense of:

  • my theoretical top speed
  • whether alternates or rolls are better for me
  • how quickly I can twitch, measured by single-key repeats or two-key alternations

By using totally artificial typing tests (ex: type "thththth…") instead of word-based ones, I can explore the relationships between character combinations and speed without worrying about hitting SPC, sounding out words, correcting errors, and so on. Since I can do the tests in short sprints, I can rest enough in between to minimize my risk of RSI.

Using Emacs to test my typing speed

I haven't come across an online typing test that gives the kind of stats I want, or even a per-character or digram breakdown. I thought about writing a Javascript-based typing timer, but I figured it would be less work to cajole Emacs into measuring what I wanted.

Here's the code:

(defun sacha/timer-go ()
  "Quick keyboard timer."
  (insert "GO\n")
  (run-with-timer 3 nil (lambda () (insert "\n")))  ; for warmup
  (run-with-timer 15 nil (lambda () ; 12 seconds + the 3-second warmup
                           (let ((col (- (point) (line-beginning-position))))
                             (insert (format " | %d | \n" col)))
(local-set-key (kbd "<f7>") 'sacha/timer-go)

This prints "GO" to show you that it's running. You have three seconds to warm up, so you don't have to worry about wasting any milliseconds after M-x sacha/timer-go (or F7, the keyboard shortcut I bound mine to). After the warmup, Emacs adds a newline and the "race" is on. There's a 12 second period of actual typing, and then Emacs adds the number of characters you typed. When you see that, you can stop.

Twelve seconds is a useful number for estimating typing speed because the conversion from characters per minute (CPM) to words per minute (WPM) usually uses a factor of 5: CPM / 5 = WPM. So the number of characters you can type in 60 seconds / 5 is probably the number of "words" you could type in a minute. Testing your speed on trivial patterns (ex: ththththththththth)

Note: L and R refer to left and right hand. I've also numbered the fingers with 1 being the thumb and 5 being the pinky. The patterns I used are based on a Dvorak keyboard, but that doesn't matter as much. Just figure out what the equivalent patterns are on your preferred keyboard layout.

Limitations: I didn't do any special calculations to deal with errors (there were many doubling or transposition errors multi-character sequences), so the actual CPM will be lower. Also, repeated character sequences are definitely not normal and have quirks of their own. It's interesting to establish the range and see the kinds of errors that show up when I go faster than I'm comfortable with, though.

Pure speed

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 379
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 379
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 354
R side mashing -none- (mashing) 245
L side mashing -none- (mashing) 217

If you don't care what you're typing, it's easy to type quickly. This is just about how fast my hands go if I don't have to think about which finger to activate. This mostly ended up as alternating left- and right-hand rolls (ex: aoeusntoahuesnto). Because I didn't have to precisely alternate, two-handed mashing resulted in more characters than one-handed mashing. Interestingly, my right hand is slightly faster than my left.

Alternates versus rolls

4-key combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R-side 4-key roll snthsnth 232
L-side 4-key roll aoeuaoue 201
L 3 & 2, R 3 & 2 eutheuth 164

3-key combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 187
L 5, R 4 & 2 andand 184
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 182
roll R 3 nthnth 176
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 170
roll L 3 oeuoue 166
roll L 3 oeuoeu 164
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 159
roll R 3 nthnth 152
R 3, L 4 & 3 toetoe 140

I expected rolls to be faster than alternates, but it turns out that alternating works out fine too ("the" and "and" on a Dvorak keyboard). Same-hand rolls had fewer errors than alternates, though - timing can be tricky when doing high-speed repeats. That can be partially handled by autocorrecting "teh" to "the" and similar transpositions. I use an AutoHotkey-based autocorrect script, but it screws up the typing tests I like, so I can't take advantage of it then. A roll-optimized keyboard layout might be more effective.

3- and 4-character rolls like the ones I tested aren't that common in actual typing, but it might be possible to find keyboard layouts that are better-optimized for the languages I use. I've read that Arensito, Capewell, and Colemak focus more on rolls and alternating rolls, so they might be worth a look.

Two-character pairs

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
alt L and R 1 uhuh 139
L 5, R 5 asas 137
R 2 & 3 chch 135
R 2 & 3 thth 134
L 2, R 3 tutu 130
R 3, L 4 toto 129
L 2, R 2 uhuh 128
R 1 & 5 xsxs 126
L 2 & 3 eueu 124
R 2 and 5 shsh 115

Two-character patterns are slower than three-character patterns, probably indicating that there's a small delay as I think about repeating things. Alternates and same-hand two-character pairs seem to work okay. Even for same-hand two-character pairs, I get the occasional doubling or transposition error.

Single-finger twitching

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 2 hhhh 79
R 3 tttt 76
R 1 mmmm 75
R 4 nnnn 74
L 2 uuuu 73
R 5 ssss 71
L 3 eeee 71
L 4 oooo 65
L 1 kkkk 64
L 5 aaaa 61

Single-finger keypresses (no automatic repeats) are slow. Good thing I don't have to do them that often. If this represents the speed at which I can send an impulse to my finger and have it do something, this might be a limiting factor for my typing speed, which is compensated for by alternates and rolls.

Three characters with repositioning

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 3, L 2, L 2 cupcup 67
R 3, L 5, R 3 catcat 66
R 2, L 4, R 2 dogdog 64

Moving my fingers takes time too. Also, did you know that there are typing equivalents of tongue-twisters? I can't type "ranranranran…" a long time without it turning into rna and other permutations. Maybe my brain gets hiccups.

Interrupted combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 4, L 4, R 3 notnot 63
L 4, R 4, L 3 oneone 57
L 5, R 4, L 3 areare 55

Alternating hands is actually pretty tough if you have to care about timing. Oddly, this is slower than repositioning. Maybe it's because the repositioning helps me remember where I am in the word when I'm repeating it, so natural typing will be a different case.


Chunking seems to make a big difference for me. 4-character combinations tend to beat 3-character combinations and those tend to beat 2-character combinations, unless there's some timing involved. Common combinations (the, and) are easier to type. If I can get better at chunking words into syllables, that might help. The most common digraphs are TH, HE, AN, IN, ER, ON, RE, ED, ND, HA, AT, EN, ES, OF, NT, EA, TI, TO, IO, LE, IS, OU, AR, AS, DE, RT, and VE (source), so that might be good to look at next.

Twitching or moving individual fingers are slow operations, so being able to "look ahead" and move my fingers to the right spots while I'm typing the first few characters helps. Muscle memory also helps minimize errors.

Also, maybe finger dexterity and agility exercises?

I'm probably in the region of Diminishing Returns here. I could spend hours inching up my typing speed… or I could spend that time doing other things. Now that I've identified specific areas to look into, though, I might be able to set up exercises to take advantage of interstitial time. For example, while I'm reading a book, I could do finger dexterity exercises (pausing, of course, if I feel any hint of strain - I'd like to avoid RSI if I can).

On another note, testing my theoretical speed in this way reminded me a little of how we used to play Decathlon on the computer as kids. (Was it Microsoft Decathlon? The screenshots look familiar…) Somehow our keyboard survived the rampage back then. =)

Have you analyzed your typing? What did you learn?

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

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?

Planning and decisions

CANCELLED Write about planning for reasonable safety   @writing

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.

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.

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(DATEFORMAT(logged, '%Y-%m-%d'))) from accesslog where cardid='123-3149'; SELECT MIN(logged) FROM accesslog WHERE cardid='123-3149';

  • DONE Decision review: Seven months at HackLab   decision review connecting

    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

"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

  • 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.

Applied rationality

DONE Balancing scheduled and unscheduled tasks

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

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

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

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?

Productivity and time

STARTED Fuzzy brain

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.

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

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

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

"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


STARTED Emacs geek, but not Lisp geek?

  • Goal: Figure out what's going on with my perceptions, and see what I can do to hack around that
  • I think of myself as an Emacs geek, but I don't think of myself as a Lisp geek.
    • Even though I write lots of Emacs Lisp
    • And I'm comfortable with parentheses and list process
    • And even macros, although I haven't been using them
  • Why not a Lisp geek?
    • "not a real Lisp"
    • CL, Scheme, Clojure
    • Sanity-checked
  • Consequences?
  • What would help me get over this?
    • Practical projects?
      • The stuff I want tends to be things I can do with Emacs
        • Ex: Autoresponder
        • Something like 4clojure?
    • Learn Clojure and ClojureScript

DONE Summarizing the last meeting dates in Org Contacts   emacs org

Steffan Heilmann wanted to be able to quickly see the last time he interacted with someone if he tracked interactions in org-contacts. That is, given something like this:

* John Smith
** DONE Conversation
** DONE E-mail
* Jane Smith
** DONE Conversation

… we want to see the latest timestamps for each contact entry.

Here's the code that I came up with. It scans backward for timestamps or headings. Whenever it finds a timestamp, it compares the timestamp with the one that it has previously stored and keeps the later timestamp. Whenever it encounters a level-1 heading, it sets the property and clears the stored timestamp.

(defun sacha/org-update-with-last-meeting ()
  "Update each level 1 heading with the LASTMEETING property."
  (goto-char (point-max))
  (let (last-meeting)
    (while (re-search-backward
            (concat "\\(" org-outline-regexp "\\)\\|\\("
                    org-maybe-keyword-time-regexp "\\)") nil t)
       ((and (match-string 1)
             (= (nth 1 (save-match-data (org-heading-components))) 1)
        ;; heading
        (save-excursion (org-set-property "LASTMEETING" last-meeting))
        (setq last-meeting nil))
       ((and (match-string 2))
        (if (or (null last-meeting) (string< last-meeting (match-string 2)))
            (setq last-meeting (match-string 2))))))))

Scanning backwards works well here because that makes it easy to add information to the top-level heading we're interested in. If we scanned it the other way around (say, with org-map-entries), we might need to backtrack in order to set the property on the top-level heading.

The result is something like this:

* John Smith
,  :LASTMEETING: [2014-01-20]
,  :END:
** DONE E-mail
** DONE Conversation
* Someone without a meeting
* Jane Smith
,  :LASTMEETING: [2014-01-07]
,  :END:
** DONE Conversation

You can then use something like:

#+BEGIN: columnview :maxlevel 1
,| ITEM                        | LASTMEETING  | TAGS | PRIORITY | TODO |
,| * John Smith                | [2014-01-20] |      |          |      |
,| * Someone without a meeting |              |      |          |      |
,| * Jane Smith                | <2014-01-07> |      |          |      |

… or even use M-x org-sort to sort the entries by the LASTMEETING property (R will reverse-sort by property).

DONE Share picking up workflow tips by reading other people's configs

(global-smartscan-mode t)

Hmm, what's smartscan?

(setq set-mark-command-repeat-pop t)

Oh, what's that? C-h v set-mark-command-repeat-pop - hmm, that looks useful too. Great way to move around.

git-gutter-mode? What's that? Hmm… That looks interesting

DONE Getting R and ggplot2 to work in Emacs Org Mode Babel blocks; also, tracking the number of TODOs   emacs org quantified

I started tracking the number of tasks I had in Org Mode so that I could find out if my TODO list tended to shrink or grow. It was easy to write a function in Emacs Lisp to count the number of tasks in different states and summarize them in a table.

(defun sacha/org-count-tasks-by-status ()
  (let ((counts (make-hash-table :test 'equal))
        (today (format-time-string "%Y-%m-%d" (current-time)))
        values output)
     (lambda ()
       (let* ((status (elt (org-heading-components) 2)))
         (when status
           (puthash status (1+ (or (gethash status counts) 0)) counts))))
    (setq values (mapcar (lambda (x)
                           (or (gethash x counts) 0))
                         '("DONE" "STARTED" "TODO" "WAITING" "DELEGATED" "CANCELLED" "SOMEDAY")))
    (setq output
          (concat "| " today " | "
                  (mapconcat 'number-to-string values " | ")
                  " | "
                  (number-to-string (apply '+ values))
                  " | "
                   (round (/ (* 100.0 (car values)) (apply '+ values))))
                  "% |"))
    (if (called-interactively-p 'any)
        (insert output)

I ran this code over several days. Here are my results as of 2014-05-01

Date DONE START. TODO WAIT. DELEG. CANC. SOMEDAY Total % done + done +canc. + total + t - d - c Note
2014-04-16 1104 1 403 3 1 104 35 1651 67%          
2014-04-17 1257 0 114 4 1 171 107 1654 76% 153 67 3 -217 Lots of trimming
2014-04-18 1292 0 74 4 5 183 100 1658 78% 35 12 4 -43 A little bit more trimming
2014-04-20 1305 0 80 4 5 183 100 1677 78% 13 0 19 6  
2014-04-21 1311 1 78 4 4 184 99 1681 78% 6 1 4 -3  
2014-04-22 1313 2 75 4 4 184 99 1681 78% 2 0 0 -2  
2014-04-23 1369 4 66 4 5 186 101 1735 79% 56 2 54 -4 Added sharing/
2014-04-24 1371 3 69 4 5 186 101 1739 79% 2 0 4 2  
2014-04-25 1379 3 60 3 5 189 103 1742 79% 8 3 3 -8  
2014-04-26 1384 3 65 3 5 192 103 1755 79% 5 3 13 5  
2014-04-27 1389 2 66 3 5 192 103 1760 79% 5 0 5 0  
2014-04-28 1396 3 67 3 5 192 103 1769 79% 7 0 9 2  
2014-04-29 1396 3 67 3 5 192 103 1769 79% 0 0 0 0  
2014-04-30 1404 4 70 4 5 192 103 1782 79% 8 0 13 5  
2014-05-01 1413 4 80 3 4 193 103 1800 79% 9 1 18 8  

Here's the source for that table:

#+NAME: burndown
|       Date | DONE | START. | TODO | WAIT. | DELEG. | CANC. | SOMEDAY | Total | % done | + done | +canc. | + total | + t - d - c | Note                       |
| 2014-04-16 | 1104 |      1 |  403 |     3 |      1 |   104 |      35 |  1651 |    67% |        |        |         |             |                            |
| 2014-04-17 | 1257 |      0 |  114 |     4 |      1 |   171 |     107 |  1654 |    76% |    153 |     67 |       3 |        -217 | Lots of trimming           |
| 2014-04-18 | 1292 |      0 |   74 |     4 |      5 |   183 |     100 |  1658 |    78% |     35 |     12 |       4 |         -43 | A little bit more trimming |
| 2014-04-20 | 1305 |      0 |   80 |     4 |      5 |   183 |     100 |  1677 |    78% |     13 |      0 |      19 |           6 |                            |
| 2014-04-21 | 1311 |      1 |   78 |     4 |      4 |   184 |      99 |  1681 |    78% |      6 |      1 |       4 |          -3 |                            |
| 2014-04-22 | 1313 |      2 |   75 |     4 |      4 |   184 |      99 |  1681 |    78% |      2 |      0 |       0 |          -2 |                            |
| 2014-04-23 | 1369 |      4 |   66 |     4 |      5 |   186 |     101 |  1735 |    79% |     56 |      2 |      54 |          -4 | Added sharing/    |
| 2014-04-24 | 1371 |      3 |   69 |     4 |      5 |   186 |     101 |  1739 |    79% |      2 |      0 |       4 |           2 |                            |
| 2014-04-25 | 1379 |      3 |   60 |     3 |      5 |   189 |     103 |  1742 |    79% |      8 |      3 |       3 |          -8 |                            |
| 2014-04-26 | 1384 |      3 |   65 |     3 |      5 |   192 |     103 |  1755 |    79% |      5 |      3 |      13 |           5 |                            |
| 2014-04-27 | 1389 |      2 |   66 |     3 |      5 |   192 |     103 |  1760 |    79% |      5 |      0 |       5 |           0 |                            |
| 2014-04-28 | 1396 |      3 |   67 |     3 |      5 |   192 |     103 |  1769 |    79% |      7 |      0 |       9 |           2 |                            |
| 2014-04-29 | 1396 |      3 |   67 |     3 |      5 |   192 |     103 |  1769 |    79% |      0 |      0 |       0 |           0 |                            |
| 2014-04-30 | 1404 |      4 |   70 |     4 |      5 |   192 |     103 |  1782 |    79% |      8 |      0 |      13 |           5 |                            |
| 2014-05-01 | 1413 |      4 |   80 |     3 |      4 |   193 |     103 |  1800 |    79% |      9 |      1 |      18 |           8 |                            |
#+TBLFM: @3$11..@>$11=$2-@-1$2::@3$13..@>$13=$9-@-1$9::@3$14..@>$14=$13-$11-($7-@-1$7)::@3$12..@>$12=$7-@-1$7

I wanted to graph this with Gnuplot, but it turns out that Gnuplot is difficult to integrate with Emacs on Microsoft Windows. I gave up after a half an hour of poking at it, since search results indicated there were long-standing problems with how Gnuplot got input from Emacs. Besides, I'd been meaning to learn more R anyway, and R is more powerful when it comes to statistics and data visualization.

Getting R to work with Org Mode babel blocks in Emacs on Windows was a challenge. Here are some of the things I ran into.

The first step was easy: Add R to the list of languages I could evaluate in a source block (I already had dot and ditaa from previous experiments).

 '((dot . t)
   (ditaa . t) 
   (R . t)))

But my code didn't execute at all, even when I was trying something that printed out results instead of drawing images. I got a little lost trying to dig into org-babel-execute:R with edebug, eventually ending up in comint.el. The real solution was even easier. I had incorrectly set inferior-R-program-name to the path of R in my configuration, which made M-x R work but which meant that Emacs was looking in the wrong place for the options to pass to R (which Org Babel relied on). The correct way to do this is to leave inferior-R-program-name with the default value (Rterm) and make sure that my system path included both the bin directory and the bin\x64 directory.

Then I had to pick up the basics of R again. It took me a little time to figure out that I needed to parse the columns I pulled in from Org, using strptime to convert the date column and as.numeric to convert the numbers. Eventually, I got it to plot some results with the regular plot command.

dates <- strptime(as.character(data$Date), "%Y-%m-%d")
tasks_done <- as.numeric(data$DONE)
tasks_uncancelled <- as.numeric(data$Total) - as.numeric(data$CANC.)
df <- data.frame(dates, tasks_done, tasks_uncancelled)
plot(x=dates, y=tasks_uncancelled, ylim=c(0,max(tasks_uncancelled)))
lines(x=dates, y=tasks_uncancelled, col="blue", type="o")
lines(x=dates, y=tasks_done, col="green", type="o")


I wanted prettier graphs, though. I installed the ggplot2 package and started figuring it out. No matter what I did, though, I ended up with a blank white image instead of my graph. If I used M-x R instead of evaluating the src block, the code worked. Weird! Eventually I found out that adding print(...) around my ggplot made it display the image correctly. Yay! Now I had what I wanted.

dates <- strptime(as.character(data$Date), "%Y-%m-%d")
tasks_done <- as.numeric(data$DONE)
tasks_uncancelled <- as.numeric(data$Total) - as.numeric(data$CANC.)
df <- data.frame(dates, tasks_done, tasks_uncancelled)
plot = ggplot(data=df, aes(x=dates, y=tasks_done, ymin=0)) + geom_line(color="#009900") + geom_point() + geom_line(aes(y=tasks_uncancelled), color="blue") + geom_point(aes(y=tasks_uncancelled))


The blue line represents the total number of tasks (except for the cancelled ones), and the green line represents tasks that are done.

Here's something that looks a little more like a burn down chart, since it shows just the number of things to be done:

dates <- strptime(as.character(data$Date), "%Y-%m-%d")
tasks_remaining <- as.numeric(data$Total) - as.numeric(data$CANC.) - as.numeric(data$DONE)
df <- data.frame(dates, tasks_remaining)
plot = ggplot(data=df, aes(x=dates, y=tasks_remaining, ymin=0)) + geom_line(color="#009900") + geom_point()


The drastic decline there is me realizing that I had lots of tasks that were no longer relevant, not me being super-productive. =)

As it turns out, I tend to add new tasks at about the rate that I finish them (or slightly more). I think this is okay. It means I'm working on things that have next steps, and next steps, and steps beyond that. If I add more tasks, that gives me more variety to choose from. Besides, I have a lot of repetitive tasks, so those never get marked as DONE over here.

Anyway, cool! Now that I've gotten R to work on my system, you'll probably see it in even more of these blog posts. =D Hooray for Org Babel and R!

#+r-plot.png wpid-r-plot.png #+r-graph.png wpid-r-graph.png #+r-graph-2.png wpid-r-graph-2.png

DONE Making my Emacs-related blog posts available for offline reading   emacs packaging

Deepak Tripathi wanted to know how to download all of my Emacs-related posts for offline reading. It makes sense to put together something like that. Xah Lee even charges for an organized ZIP copy of his site (and he's put together a lot of resources). I like putting together free/pay-what-you-want things, so I figured I'd add my blog posts to my git repository of Emacs notes.

My blog runs on Wordpress. It has a whole bunch of other posts in it, so a straightforward Jekyll import wouldn't do the trick. I had previously modified my Wordpress theme to add a special ?dump=1 parameter for single post pages so that I could use it to archive pages. The first thing I needed to do was to come up with a list of Emacs-related blog posts.

Fortunately, already lists all the pages in the Emacs category. I copied the HTML source for the list and started tinkering with the text. It was a good excuse to try the visual-regexp package - the vr/replace command made working with match groups much easier. Eventually I ended up with a list that looked like this:

wget -p
wget -p
wget -p
wget -p

This downloaded the posts and included images. Next, I wanted to process the downloaded HTML pages and turn them into Org files, since I'm more familiar with Org than with Markdown. Pandoc to the rescue! I took the output of find -name \*.html\* and processed it with lots more vr/replace

dos2unix ./; (echo "<html><body>"; cat ./; echo "</body></html>") > test.html; pandoc test.html -o
dos2unix ./; (echo "<html><body>"; cat ./; echo "</body></html>") > test.html; pandoc test.html -o
dos2unix ./; (echo "<html><body>"; cat ./; echo "</body></html>") > test.html; pandoc test.html -o
dos2unix ./; (echo "<html><body>"; cat ./; echo "</body></html>") > test.html; pandoc test.html -o

This is a pretty long command line because I didn't bother with writing a shell script to process files. When I tried running pandoc on the HTML snippets, it choked because the file didn't have html or body tags, so I ended up adding them with echo before processing them with pandoc.

Anyway, now I had a lot of Org files. I wanted to rename them and clean up the titles. I used this totally hackish bit of code to process all the files in the directory, changing the header to a title and adding the day to the filename (just in case I want to move to Jekyll someday).

(defun sacha/process-blog-posts ()
  (mapcar (lambda (x)
            (find-file x)
            ;; Set the title
            (goto-char (point-min))
            (when (looking-at "\\(\\*\\*\\)")
              (replace-match "#+TITLE:"))
            ;; Rename the file
            (when (re-search-forward "\\([0-9]+\\)\\(th\\|nd\\|st\\|rd\\), \\([0-9]+\\)")
              (let ((day (match-string 1)))
                  (concat "/processed\\&" day "-")
          (directory-files "." nil ".org$")))

I also wanted to change the image references to use the images that wget had downloaded into my uploads directory. This time I used wgrep, which is awesome. The wgrep package makes grep results editable if you use wgrep-change-to-wgrep-mode (bound to C-c C-p by default, but you can change wgrep-enable-key). If you combine that with vr/replace from visual-regexp or some keyboard macros, you can edit a whole lot of things quickly. Save the changes with C-x C-s (wgrep-finish-edit), and you're done!

So now I had a bunch of Org files that were in reasonable shape. I wanted to regenerate the HTML pages so that people could browse them even if they weren't familiar with Org. I set up the relevant org-publish-project-alist entries in a build-site.el that a Makefile could use, and I published the project.

Going from HTML to Org to HTML meant losing some information and lots of my blog posts need reviewing, but it's a good start. Since I draft many of my Emacs-related blog posts in Org anyway, I can copy the Org source into my emacs-notes repository going forward.

Anyway, there you have it for your grepping pleasure!

TOBLOG Write about ten episodes of Emacs chats   emacs

I've posted ten Emacs Chat episodes so far, and the transcripts for the most recent ones are coming soon. These are hour-long conversations with Emacs geeks about how they got started with Emacs, why they like it, and how they use it. We usually go through people's config files, too, since that often leads to interesting tips.

I started this because it was so much fun meeting Emacs geeks in person at the Emacs Conference in London last year. (When are we having another one? I'm happy to sponsor a reasonable venue.) You pick up lots of tips when you watch how someone else uses Emacs, but not everyone has the luck of working near other Emacs geeks. (I don't!) I also wanted to get to know other Emacs geeks so that I could "hear" their voices when reading mailing list messages and code snippets. I wanted other people to get that feeling of knowing people in the community - other real people who use Emacs.

I was pretty anxious about it in the beginning. Would I be able to ask interesting questions, or would there be dead silence? What if I hadn't researched people well enough? Would asking people about their beginnings get repetitive after many episodes? I feel a little more relaxed now. It turns out that it's easy to invite people to be on one of these conversations, and I always find the conversation interesting. People are so enthusiastic about Emacs. Yay!

It's been great hearing stories from people who've been using Emacs for ages (like Iannis Zannos and Tom Marble) and people who've gotten into Emacs fairly recently (like the way Magnar Sveen only seriously started using it a few years ago). Org Mode frequently pops up in conversation. I've learned about lots of other interesting packages as well, like redshank and erefactor.

People tell me that they enjoy listening to the episodes. The episodes are still on the long side (an hour or so, versus short-and-punchy 15- or 30-minute chats), but they're good for picking up odd tips.

Of the little podcast experiments I've been running, the Emacs Chats series is my favourite. Other experiments were easier to sketchnote (which people also really enjoyed), but I like the Emacs community the most. =)

From these experiments, I've learned that Google Hangout on Air is a convenient way to create an audio/video show with guests. With a little bit of work, you can turn these conversations into podcasts that people can download and subscribe to, transcripts that people can read, and so on.

I wanted to learn how to delegate a smoothly-running process. That worked out really well. Now, when I finish an episode, I simply add a card to my Trello board with the URL and my assistants will post the show notes and the transcript for me.

I could probably make this even better by following up. I can spend more time editing the transcripts, adding links, and summarizing key points. Maybe I'll convert the transcripts to Org Mode and then structure things more from there.

In terms of scheduling, picking times that are a month or two away seems to be working well. I like proposing specific times with Boomerang Calendar. It feels more proactive than asking people to check for meeting times, although both ways still involve a bit of work for the other person since they have to check their calendar. If I suggest the times and do the timezone conversions myself, that means we can set the time with fewer clicks required from the other person. It doesn't feel as stand-offish as cc-ing an assistant who may or may not be able to quickly reply. (Although perhaps I should train my current assistants to do this, since they seem to be fairly responsive…)

I mostly find people through recommendations, so if you want to hear from someone, suggest them or introduce us by e-mail. I'd love to interview more women who use Emacs (maybe Amelia Andersdotter?), but I'm happy to chat with all sorts of folks about Emacs. You don't have to be famous. =) If you've got an interesting demo to share, I'd love to hear from you too.


DONE Reinvesting time and money into Emacs   emacs experiment

Write about use-package

Why? Benefits How do I use it?

Follow up with @gozes -

DONE How to learn keyboard shortcuts

<agumonkey> - heres a shortcut: C-x C-f, you can quit C-g, or complete TAB and then validate RET. C-h m lists all the defined shortcuts. The End.

Thanks: agumonkey, aidalgol, Fuco, ijp, JordiGH, nicferrier, pkkm, rryoumaa, webspid0r Emacs newbie: Tips for learning keyboard shortcuts

The tutorial (C-h t) is useful and well worth going through several times. Getting used to marking a region with C-SPC versus using shift- takes some doing, but it’s really quite powerful once you get the hang of it – mainly because you can then use all sorts of navigational commands without getting RSI.

Incidentally, you may want to look into mapping your Caps Lock to Control. Many people like the way it makes keyboard shortcuts easier to type.

I find it hard to remember keyboard shortucts too, so I use M-x a lot. M-x lets you call a command by its name. You can use C-h k to find out more about which function is called by a given keyboard shortcut, and then you can use M-x to call it by name if you don’t remember where it is. For example, if you don’t remember where split-window-vertically is bound, you can use M-x split-window-vertically.

Incidentally, M-x where-is will tell you the keyboard shortcuts if you know a function name, and C-h f (describe-function) will give you more information if you give it a function name.

Writing-wise, Org Mode ( is totally awesome. I use it to write some of my more structured blog posts and web pages, and I also use it to keep this gigantic outline of things I’m planning to write about: . People have used it to write technical books and other lengthy documents. It’s also a fantastic planner for running your daily life. =)

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I want to help make Emacs easier to learn!

Oh, another tip: use M-x icomplete-mode to turn on incremental completion, which will then show you hints when you start typing M-x [command-name]. You can use TAB to complete as far as you can, and then type in a few more characters to disambiguate. To turn this on by default whenever you start Emacs, add the following to your ~/.emacs.d/init.el (you might need to create this file):

(icomplete-mode 1)

  • Conventions
    • C-...
    • M-...
    • SPC
  • Tutorial
    • C-h t (help-with-tutorial)
    • Learn basic commands
  • Call commands by name
    • M-x
    • What if you don't remember what the command is called?
      • TAB
      • read the tutorial again
      • apropos-command
      • check out the manual
  • Get help
    • C-h f (describe-function)
    • C-h k (describe-key)
    • C-h m (describe-mode)
    • ... C-h at the end of a long keyboard shortcut
  • Find out what the command's name is
    • apropos-command
      • more than one word: matches anything with at least two of the keywords
  • Ergonomic tips
    • Caps as Control
    • ESC for Meta
    • holding down keys
    • changing keyboard shortcuts
      • C-c <lowercase letter>
      • function keys

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

DONE How I organize my Org files   requested emacs

Requested by Michael Jones,

Michael Jones wanted to know how I organized my Org Mode files. Here's how I do things!

Org Mode for Emacs is an outliner that lets you add a little structure to plain text files. Not only can you use it to move around, hide, and show sections of your outline, but you can also:

  • schedule tasks and mark them as complete,
  • add hyperlinks and formatting,
  • estimate effort and track time,
  • export to HTML and other formats,
  • and even include code that you can run in-line.

I started with a single Org Mode file (appropriately called, but I've gradually fleshed this out into a number of files. My goals for organizing my files this way are to be able to:

  • Publish some files while keeping other files private,
  • Add or remove groups of tasks from my agenda, or focus my agenda/search on the current file,
  • Simplify processing my weekly review (categorizing accomplishments/tasks),
  • Get a quick overview of important things, and
  • Have file-specific options, like columns.

I often use Org agenda custom commands to jump around. For example, one agenda command lists projects, and pressing RET on an agenda line will take me to that project. I also use org-capture to take a note from anywhere, and I use org-goto to navigate my files. For finding specific files, I use ido-find-file.

I use several Org Mode files. The five files below have a little more than 1.3MB of text in total - tiny! - but they help me tremendously. I also have lots of other Org files like my Emacs configuration and my blog index (I often use Org for publishing), but these are my main files.

Personal tasks and notes:

This is the catch-all for any tasks or notes that don't belong to the files below. Here's the rough structure:

  • Quick notes: Tidbits that might not make it into their own blog posts, but which can be included in weekly reviews
  • Reference: Hours, license keys, etc.
  • Open loops: Anything I need to check on every so often
  • Projects: High-level things I'm focusing on
  • Financial goals: Things to save up for
  • Someday/maybe: Projects to do someday
  • Weekly review: Divided by year
  • Monthly review: More summaries
  • Plans: Personal plans
  • 2011, 2012, 2013…: I use org-capture to quickly jot down notes. The datetree option automatically files them by day, which makes older ones easier to archive.
  • Tasks: A bucket for miscellaneous tasks

Anything to do with business:

I organize these by the types of tasks I focus on and the notes I want to keep.

  • Earn
    • Clients
    • Leads
  • Build
    • Projects
    • Research
    • Business ideas
    • Blog
    • Delegation
    • Planning
    • Business hygiene (accounting, etc.)
    • Learning
  • Connect
    • Meetups
    • Hangouts
    • Other
  • Reference
  • Tasks

I organize these by relationships so that I can remember who's out there.

  • Family
  • Extended family
  • Canada friends
  • Hacklab
  • Barkada
  • Letters
  • Meetups
  • Bloggers
  • Family friends
  • Other tasks

I organize these by frequency and omit the tasks from my weekly review. This also contains my "In case of…" scenarios and my backup documentation.

  • Every day
  • Once a week
  • Once a month
  • Once a quarter
  • Once a year
  • When…


I organize this by topic. See for the published version!

I organize these by status. I also use org-choose markers (ex: CHOSEN, MAYBE) inside the categories, but the headings make it easier to review.

  • Pending
  • Current
  • For review
  • Someday / maybe
  • Archive

How do you organize your Org files?

Everyone's got different ways of organizing outlines, and people also also change over time. How do you organize yours?

How to learn Emacs Lisp

Interactive exploration with edebug

Getting started with configuring Emacs

Cooking with Emacs   requested


Org Mode: Open all links in region

(defun sacha/open-all-links-in-region (beg end) "Open all the links." (interactive "r") (save-excursion (save-restriction (narrow-to-region beg end) (goto-char beg) (while (re-search-forward org-any-link-re nil t) (backward-char 1) (save-excursion (save-restriction (org-open-at-point)))))))

Tracking people with org-contacts

Ledger and Org Mode

Ledger tutorial

  • requested by henders254 on June 28, 2013

Reorganizing Org-Mode files

Why learn Emacs

DONE When I blog with Emacs and when I blog with Windows Live Writer   org blogging

I would love to be able to write all of my blog posts within Emacs. I like the outline tools and simple markup of Org Mode. Org Mode and org2blog are invaluable when I'm writing a post with lots of code or keyboard commands, because it's easy to set up syntax highlighting or add teletype text. Here's an interesting self-referential example of org2blog's power - using #INCLUDE to include the Org blog post source in the post itself.

If I expect that a post will have lots of images, I tend to use Windows Live Writer because it takes care of resizing and aligning images, linking to the original size. Because it uses my blog's stylesheet, I can get a sense of how the text will flow around it. I can quickly draw an idea in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, copy and paste it into Windows Live Writer, and then resize it until it feels balanced on the page. Sometimes I draft a post in Emacs and then open it in Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire so that I can add images.

Org Mode also supports images, but it's not as easy to resize things there. If I wrote a function that used ImageMagick to save the clipboard image to a file, resize it to the appropriate dimensions, and link it to the full-size image, maybe that would do the trick. Still, that sounds like it would be a fair bit of work. Maybe someday. Hmm - any chance someone reading this blog happens to already have that snippet handy? =)

CANCELLED Save time with keyboard macros

Handled fine by and other pages

  • Why/when?
  • Thinking ahead
  • Start
  • End
  • Running the macro
  • Apply macro to region lines
  • Counters
  • Interactivity
  • Saving your macros

How to change the background color in Emacs   search

Previously answered:

  • customize-face
  • theme, packages

DONE Write about Emacs coaching

I asked people on Twitter how much they might pay for 30-60 minutes of Emacs coaching. Based on replies and e-mails, the general consensus seems to be about $25-30 for 30 minutes and $35-50 for an hour, depending on the level of tweaking.

This is how I imagine it might work and why it might be worth it:

You could spend days (or weeks!) posting and replying to mailing lists or StackOverflow, or you could spend an interactive session quickly digging into what's wrong and how to work around or fix it. In addition, you'll probably pick up lots of tips by watching someone's problem-solving or debugging process. This probably works as a quick e-mail describing the problem, a 30-60 minute troubleshooting session over screen sharing or SSH/tmux, and possibly a free or paid-for follow-up if more investigation is needed. Probably a good idea to have a satisfaction guarantee, since some problems are harder to solve than others.
Guidance, pair programming, or coding
You've got an idea for an Emacs customization or major mode, but it requires more Emacs Lisp geekery than you're comfortable with or you don't know how to go about implementing it. A few high-level pointers might get you going: check out these examples, use this function to do that, etc. Or you might want to write most of the code yourself while having someone around so that you can ask questions if you get stuck - maybe a lower rate for the virtual equivalent of hanging out in a cafe together while working on separate things? Alternatively, a code review can point out how you can debug or improve things. Lastly, there's also the option of handing off most of the coding, with some interactive sessions as you nail down exactly how you want it to behave.
I think this is where incredible is, actually - getting help when you don't even know what you don't know. Emacs is really big. It can be difficult to get a sense of what's possible or what's surprisingly easy, so you might be plodding along with an inefficient workflow that could be tweaked with a little configuration or a few changed practices. A good coach can discuss your goals, watch how you do things, demonstrate better ways to work, and help you implement those changes.
Gradual learning
On a related note, it's also easy to get intimidated by how much there is. It can help to have a gradual learning path. I've talked to quite a few people who found Org Mode task management overwhelming and had hundreds of tasks piled up in their text files. Ditto for Emacs Lisp learning! Imagine having the Emacs equivalent of a personal trainer who can help you come up with an individualized program of learning so that you're focused on one small chunk at a time. =)

Plot twist! This is actually for Bastien Guerry (Org Mode maintainer, also, not for me. I've been doing Emacs-related Helpouts for a token fee and I'm happy to chat with people about Emacs gratis as well, but I think it would be even awesomer to see if someone as wonderful as Bastien can build a nice little business out of it.

How wonderful is Bastien? Well, if you've seen my Emacs Chat with him or read his posts on the Org Mode mailing list, you know that he's smart, experienced, and friendly. In fact, the more I think about what Emacs consulting might be like, the more I want to sign up too. I use Org a lot and I'm generally comfortable tinkering with the source code, but there are a few things that I haven't quite wrapped by mind around yet: more export tweaks, more Babel/tangling, a better capture workflow… And I have yet to get around to setting up proper autocomplete and other development tools, too!

Bastien's travelling at the moment, but wouldn't it be lovely if he got back to a bunch of e-mails to with requests or suggestions? =) E-mail him if you're interested, and help him figure out what's a good way to help you. He mentioned being open to pay-what-you-want pricing. If money is tight, reach out to him anyway - and if you want to donate more as a way of thanking him for all the other stuff he does, that's also a great excuse to ask him to help improve how you use Emacs.

Hey, if there are Eclipse consultants… Surely we can get even more value out of Emacs consulting!

Other tech notes

Stuff I use

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.

How to use Drush to download and install a Drupal module   search

After a year: Logitech H800 review

Business and career

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.

"How can I switch from testing to development?"

Anticipate exit interview questions and prepare your answers   search

Adapting my business to a changing life

  • Focus on people to help
  • Build up skills and content
  • Make useful and valuable things

Selling prints online

CANCELLED Best tools for pay-what-you-can digital goods   delegate


Planning for uncertainty   better


Planning ahead in terms of people

Paying myself

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

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

Brock Health review: Setting up your own HSPA

Visual thinking: sketchnotes, mindmaps, models, etc.

2x2 matrices

Two-dimensional graphs

Mindmapping a book

Planning your life

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

  • 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
    • 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

Writing / blogging / sharing knowledge

DONE Writing for myself

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

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?

  • 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

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

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

  • 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?


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


TODO Hacklab open houses and connecting through service   connecting

I joined Hacklab (a small makerspace here in Toronto) early in 2013. I thought of it mostly as a way to meet people who are working on interesting projects, hang out, and learn together. It's been working out well, and I'm gradually getting into helping the community more.

Hacklab hosts an open house every Tuesday evening. It's a good opportunity for prospective members to check out the place and chat with people about their projects. We usually put together a vegan dinner donated by the person cooking it so that it's free for the members and guests (although sometimes people pitch in for groceries). There's no fixed schedule; people just volunteer to cook whenever they want. When I'm there, I often volunteer. I treat it as a vegan cooking lesson / soup kitchen / party. Sure, I'm teaching myself, but it's still an excuse to try new recipes. I think the people there are worth supporting, and cooking is a much more efficient use of money than having people go out to dinner. Besides, other people often help with preparing the ingredients, and we can chat while doing so.

Here are some easy dishes that we can make with ingredients from nearby grocery stories:

  • Gazpacho: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Pasta salad: peas, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers
  • Curry: potatoes, carrots, green beans, tofu, onions; there are plenty of spices in the cabinet
  • Ratatouille: potatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic; serve with bread
  • Lentil dal: tomatoes, lentils, ginger, garlic, onions

I think I'll make recipe cards with serving numbers and cost estimates. That will probably make it easier to come up with dinners on the fly, and it might encourage other people to cook too.

We've been slowly improving the Hacklab kitchen. The addition of pots, a rice cooker, and lots of cutlery helped a lot. (It was difficult to cook and serve before those things!) Last week, I replaced the rather ineffective and hadn't-been-washed-in-ages kitchen towels with two sets I'd made from some fabric we had at home. I'll add the towels to our weekly laundry cycle, so things actually get washed. Storage is still an issue. The fridge is used mostly for drinks, so we try to not have any left-over ingredients or servings.

I'm not currently working on super-geeky projects that involve other members or the equipment that's there. (It would be interesting to do more with the laser cutter, 3D printers, or the new mill!) But cooking gives me a way to help other people, so that's something.

I think I like this approach of taking responsibility for making Hacklab a little bit better for people. You get as much out of a community as you put in, and these little domestic touches can help make a place feel more like home. (I'm going to keep nudging people to put their dishes in the dishwasher, though! ;) )

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

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. Ditch the clichés, too. Sympathy, encouragement, support, and maybe even a little distraction are apparently the way to go.

It got me thinking about different purposes for conversation, and how to match someone's purpose better. Mismatches can lead to frustration on both sides, like when you're really looking for advice and different perspectives and someone fobs you off with "You can do it!", or when you're feeling like this situation will never end and someone passes on a piece of trite advice that you'd already tried on day 1, or when someone just wants to talk and you jump in with a problem-solving mindset.

It feels a little weird to explicitly talk about what people are looking for in a conversation, but what if clarifying that up front can lead to a more effective exchange? You could minimize those mismatches or even direct people onward if you're not in the right space for a conversation. For example, although people have told me that they appreciate how positive I am (which is good for when people need encouragement), I catch myself becoming impatient if people just want to vent without taking action. I'm much better with breaking down big challenges, finding alternative approaches, and celebrating small steps forward (even if they're minuscule). I read extensively, so I can tell people some common approaches to different life challenges, but I don't have a lot of personal experiences because my life has been pretty straightforward.

There are so many different kinds of conversations, so I'll keep the scope of this reflection manageable by focusing only on the conversations where someone has started by describing a problem. What are some of the things people look for, and how do I want to respond?

Advice (rarely): "You should…" is a common response when people share what they're going through. People rarely need additional information, but oddly enough, they get spades of it (even unsolicited). It's not like it's difficult to search the Internet or find books about different life challenges… and yet it's so tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that just a little more knowledge will help people solve their problems.

I've been curbing the impulse to give advice by reminding myself that people are generally smart and usually try everything before asking for help. Instead of "You should…", I often phrase things as "You've probably …. How did that go?" If they hadn't done it yet, I ask what's been getting in their way. I rarely have experience with the particular situation they're in, but barriers tend to be common, so I can share how I've dealt with those - not in a "You should" way, but rather "Here's what I tried and what worked for me."

Acknowledgement: Sometimes people just want someone to see them and know what they're going through. This is the "Oh, you poor dear; let's have some ice cream and you can tell me all about it" sort of thing, I think. Active listening techniques (restating, etc.) can help here. I'm not particularly good at this yet, but I might get better at this by focusing on the interestingness of people.

Distraction: Sometimes you just want to have fun and take your mind off stuff. Like acknowledgement, but this time you're having ice cream and watching your favourite movies or something like that. I'm not particularly good at this yet, but I can get better at this by asking people what they want to do.

Encouragement and celebration: "I'm in a sucky situation, but I'm working on it. I'm making slow progress, but I'm making progress!" "Woohoo! You can do it!" is sort of how this conversation goes. It's like acknowledgement, but people are moving forward instead of getting stuck. I like cheering people on, and I might be able to do even better by helping people track their progress so that they can see how they're doing over time.

Thinking out loud: I often find myself understanding things better when I explain them either to myself (through blogging) or to other people. Conversation is great for making sense of and making peace with things. People can ask questions to probe your reasoning and direct your thinking, helping you deepen your understanding.

Active listening and thoughtful questions can help. For my part, I can see it as a way to learn from other people's lives and thought processes, so there's a lot of benefit in doing this too. Learning about therapy might help here.

Poking holes (rarely): "I'm going to …" "That might not work because of …. Have you thought about …? What about …?" It's mind-boggling how many people have this as their default reaction, actually - probably second to advice. My parents used to struggle with this a lot, because my dad would come up with wild ideas and my mom would immediately have her "How would we make this actually work?" hat on. I hardly ever do this with other people, although I do this myself to test scenarios: come up with ideas, then put on the "What could go wrong?" hat and poke holes, then update the plans to address those holes.

It's probably better to assume people are not looking for this unless they explicitly ask for it. If people do want this, I like approaching it from a "Let's make the plan better" perspective rather than the "You suck at planning" perspective.

Accountability: It can be easier to take action or change habits when you publicly commit to that, and having a friend follow up with you and keep you accountable can help a lot. I do okay with this, although I don't actually enforce anything in case people miss their goals. (Perhaps I should start insisting on some kind of consequence - maybe ice cream.) Learning about coaching techniques might help here too.

Different perspectives: "I'm in this situation and I think you've been in something similar. How did you solve it?" is the gist of this conversation. Sometimes knowing that something is possible (because someone you can identify with succeeded at it!) is enough to give you the strength to get through the situation.

Requesting help: This is where you're asking for help. Requesting specific favours do well, I think, because that makes it easier for other people to recognize situations in which they can help you. That's why it's good to describe your ideal client and ask friends to keep an eye out for people matching that description, describe your ideal contact and ask people to check their networks, etc.

I feel like my network is not as plugged-in as it could be in terms of business owners and potential clients for friends. I probably need to meet more people who need stuff! Hmm, actually, the input part works pretty well in terms of sketchnoting/graphic recording - I get the occasional request that I can forward to other people. In other areas, I can usually point people to other people who have experience in the kinds of things they want to do and the meetups to check out, so I guess that's something. There's room to work on this, though! Time to go to more events and connect with more people. Although come to think of it, that's not actually the thing that worked for me in sketchnoting - maybe I'll focus more on creating useful stuff, and go to a few events for serendipity.

Acknowledgement, distraction, encouragement, thinking out loud, poking holes, accountability, different perspectives, requesting help… What other purposes have you noticed when you talk to people about life's challenges?

DONE Tweaking small talk responses

… though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

After three successive weekends (three!) with parties, I want to think about small talk and how I can tweak it. Small talk is unavoidable, but there are things you can do to nudge it one way or another. I like having conversations that move me or other people forward, even if it's just by a little bit.

So, what do I want to do with small talk?

  • Help other people feel comfortable enough to open up about some memorable interest or quirk
  • Find topics of common interest for further conversation
  • Find a way to help or a reason to follow up

We could do the ritualistic weather/profession/how-do-you-know-the-host conversations, or we could change the level of the conversation so that it goes beyond the repetitive gestures that only skim the surface. I could chat as a way of passing time (possibly bumping into interesting thoughts along the way), or I can more deliberately check for things I'm interested in while staying open to the serendipity of random connections. What do I want to be able to frequently do through conversation?

  • Identify possible meetup or global community members - reassure them that this is a thing and that lots of people are interested in it; point people to resources (Emacs, QS, visual thinking)
  • Talk shop with other geeks to find out about tech and business things worth looking into
  • Other geeks (non-tech): learn more about different fields
  • Non-geeks: See if there's anything I can help with easily (books? ideas?)

I could either dig into people's interests or be memorable enough so that people look me up afterwards. Many people open up about their interests only when they feel comfortable. What makes people feel more comfortable? It helps to establish a sense of similarity and shared understanding.

People have different strategies for establishing similarity. I know a few people who use the "You look really familiar…" approach (even if the other person doesn't) because rattling off schools, companies, associations, and interests tends to reveal something in common.

I like building on stuff I've overheard or asking questions about common context. That's one of the reasons why I like events with presentations more than events that are focused only on networking - the presentation gives us something to start talking about.

In terms of helping people get to know me and find topics of shared interest, I use short disclosures with high information value.

Consulting: "I'm a consultant" has low information value: it's vague and it wouldn't establish much similarity even if the other person was also a consultant. I rarely use it unless I'm tired, I want to shift the focus back on the other person quickly, or I sense they're also going through the motions. (Or I want to see at what point their eyes glaze over…)

Emacs: "I'm working on some Emacs projects" has high information value when talking to tech geeks, almost like a secret handshake that lets us shift the conversation. (I talk faster, go into more detail, and use more jargon when talking to fellow geeks, so it's almost like the 56kbps modem handshake.) I'm female, I don't wear geeky T-shirts, and I don't work for a technical company or in a technical position, so it helps to verbally establish geek cred quickly without making a big deal out of it.

Data analysis: For geeks of other fields, Emacs is low-information, but Quantified Self and data analysis seems to be a good way to establish that similarity quickly. It works well with people who are interested in science, tech, engineering, math, or even continuous improvement. Litter box analysis is surprisingly engaging as a cocktail party topic, or at least it's easy to for people to ask follow-up questions about if they want to.

Sketchnoting: People (including most of the ones who don't identify as geeks) tend to be curious about my sketchnoting, since it's visual, easy to understand, and uncommon. That said, I need to get better at handling the usual follow-ups. People tend to say things like "You draw so well" or "I could never do something like that." I want to nip that in the bud and get people to realize that they can do this too. Pointing out that I draw stick figures like a 5-year-old doesn't seem to do the trick ("Ah, but you know what to leave out" and "But you're doing this while listening - that's hard"). Maybe a little humour, poking fun at the idea of going to an art school that specializes in stick figures or learning how to not fall asleep in presentations? About one in fifty people I talk to recognizes this as something they do on their own or that they want to do, and it's good to link them up with the global community. For most people, though, I feel slightly more comfortable focusing on ideas they want t olearn more about and sending them sketchnotes if there's a fit.

Semi-retirement: This experiment with semi-retirement can be a good conversational hook for prompting curiosity. It usually follows this sequence: semi-retired -> "aren't you a little young? what do you mean?" -> tracked, saved up, experimenting. It tends to be too detached from people's lives, though - many people don't think they can pull it off, even experienced freelancers who are doing most of it already.

Variety: If I don't know how someone identifies, it's fun to answer the "What do you do?" question (which tries to pigeonhole someone into a neatly understandable job title) with a sense of variety: "I do a lot of different things! This week, I …"

Going forward

For the next few events, I think I'll experiment with doing the tech/non-tech/non-geek identification earlier, or going into that with an opening based on variety. I could name an example each for tech, non-tech, and non-geek, and see which one they dig into. As for digging into people's interests, maybe an open-ended survey-type question would be an interesting way to help people open up while still collecting data in case people haven't thought about how to make themselves easier to get to know. Hmm…

Small talk might be small, but if I have thousands of conversations over the years, I might as well keep learning from it. How have you tweaked how you do small talk?

  • After three successive weekends (three!) with parties, I want to spend a little time thinking about small talk and how I can tweak it.
  • Goals
    • Help other people feel comfortable enough to open up about some memorable interest or quirk
    • Find topics of common interest
    • Find a way to help or a reason to follow up
    • Shift the conversational register
      • Why?
        • I can have repetitive making-time conversations
        • or I can dig into people's interests
          • learn about theirs (after establishing similarity)
          • or be interesting enough that they want to check out my blog
            • cascade of quirky choices
              • ex: project -> semi-retirement -> tracking
          • What do I want to reliably do or identify?
            • Possible meetup or global community members: validate that this is a thing and that lots of people are interested in it; point people to resources
              • Editor geeks; Emacs in particular
                • So that I can learn from them and potentially organize meetups
              • People who might be interested in QS -> direct to Quantified Self Toronto
              • People who are interested in visual thinking -> direct to
            • Talk shop with other geeks to find out about tech and business things worth looking into
            • Other geeks (non-tech): learn more about different fields
            • Non-geeks: See if there's anything I can help with easily (books, usually)
      • Technical geek
        • Geek cred handshake so that we can increase the level of the conversation
          • I don't "scan" as a geek (female, tend to not wear witty T-shirts, don't work for a tech company or in an obviously tech role)
          • Emacs is an effective code word for the geek cred handshake
      • Geek of other persuasion
        • Quantified Self or automation works well
      • Non-technical
        • Business books and ideas
        • Drawing
        • Other topics
  • Evaluate recent tactics, plan next things to try
    • "What do you do?"
      • Consultant: too vague, wastes a conversational "beat" as I explain what I do. Social business stuff is too abstract for people (and me! =) ).
      • Semi-retired: can be interesting. Usual sequence: semi-retired -> aren't you a little young? what do you mean? -> tracked, saved up, experimenting. Doesn't hook into people's lives enough, though.
      • Sketchnoter: needs explanation / example. Also see sketchnotes section below.
      • Emacs evangelist: quick connection with tech geeks, need more explanation for non-tech geeks (perhaps move that check earlier?)
      • Varied - "I do a lot of different things! This week, I …"
    • "What have you been up to lately?"
      • Raspberry Pi Litter Box cam
        • Geeky, fun, clearly a hobby project; good for relating to fellow geeks
      • Drawing? Writing?
    • When other people mention my sketchnotes
      • "You draw so well" / "I could never do something like that"
        • Clearly, pointing out that these are 5-year-old-level sketches isn't working
        • Maybe redirect this with humour to poke fun at it and make it more accessible?
      • "People should pay you to do this"
        • Yes, it's a thing. But I don't necessarily want to build up this part of the business, so I can refer work to other people instead.
        • Redirection
      • "This is like what I do on my own!"
        • Awesome! Connect with global community

DONE On Aristotle and talking to people about troubles   connecting

After reflecting on how I'd like to respond to people who want to talk about their challenges and how I want to discuss mine, I've been thinking a little bit more about the approaches that I favour and why.

Despite my faith in friends and availability of support groups or forums for pretty much any situation one can find yourself in, I tend to work through things independently. Sometimes I talk to W-. Even then, it's often retrospective: "I worked through this-and-this dilemma. This is the decision I've come to because of these reasons, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in case I missed something." I'd rather talk to people about the good stuff.

When it comes to other people talking to me about stuff they're going through, I assume they're smart and have tried things, so I ask questions about the obstacles they've run into. I like focusing on getting over barriers because this is one thing that other people can actually help with. You might get stuck on something because you don't know where to start, don't have the skills or experience for it, or because it intimidates you. Other people might be able to map out an easier way for you, directly help you (hooray for comparative advantage), or share how it's really not that scary if you focus on doing X, Y, and Z.

While reading D.P. Chase's translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, I came across this passage on what to share with your friends when you're going through challenges:

But [friends'] presence has probably a mixed effect: I mean, not only is the very seeing friends pleasant, especially to one in misfortune, and actual help towards lessening the grief is afforded (the natural tendency of a friend, if he is gifted with tact, being to comfort by look and word, because he is well acquainted with the sufferer's temper and disposition and therefore knows what things give him pleasure and pain), but also the perceiving a friend to be grieved at his misfortunes causes the sufferer pain, because every one avoids being cause of pain to his friends. And for this reason they who are of a manly nature are cautious not to implicate their friends in their pain; and unless a man is exceedingly callous to the pain of others he cannot bear the pain which is thus caused to his friends: in short, he does not admit men to wail with him, not being given to wail at all: women, it is true, and men who resemble women, like to have others to groan with them, and love such as friends and sympathisers. But it is plain that it is our duty in all things to imitate the highest character.

So if you're sad, it can help to have company in your sadness, but that might cause your friends to feel sad as well. Be strong, if you can.

It would seem, therefore, that we ought to call in friends readily on occasion of good fortune, because it is noble to be ready to do good to others: but on occasion of bad fortune, we should do so with reluctance; for we should as little as possible make others share in our ills; on which principle goes the saying, "I am unfortunate, let that suffice." The most proper occasion for calling them in is when with small trouble or annoyance to themselves they can be of very great use to the person who needs them.

That's probably going to be my approach to getting by with a little help from my friends: to figure out, perhaps, if there are small things people can do that could have a big impact, and to focus on those instead of on commiseration. As for when people approach me, or when I notice friends in difficult situations, I will try to keep this in mind:

But, on the contrary, it is fitting perhaps to go to one's friends in their misfortunes unasked and with alacrity (because kindness is the friend's office and specially towards those who are in need and who do not demand it as a right, this being more creditable and more pleasant to both); and on occasion of their good fortune to go readily, if we can forward it in any way (because men need their friends for this likewise), but to be backward in sharing it, any great eagerness to receive advantage not being creditable.

… to see the opportunity to be kind, where kindness might be cooking a good meal, giving a person a hug, or helping out in ways that take advantage of our different skills and experiences.


Five things I'm learning from playing Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

  • solo Japanese RPG

Family pictures

Frozen lunches

Freezer cooking - lunches

  • Some considerations
    • Needs to be pre-cooked so that it can just be reheated in a microwave
    • Tomato-based sauces can stain or pit plastic containers
    • Fried stuff tends to get soggy

Chicken and pork adobo


Japanese croquettes

Beef bulgogi


  • Coming back from India - Did you miss me?
  • Homesickness in Toronto
  • Acceptance


The X tools I use to blog

  • Wordpress
  • Linode
  • Windows Live Writer
  • Autodesk Sketchbook Pro

31 Wordpress plugins I use and why they're worth the memory for me   wordpress

One of the advantages of setting up Wordpress on my own server (I use Linode at $30/month) is the ability to add plugins that make my blogging life easier. Each plugin takes a little bit of extra memory, but I think they're worth it. Here are 31 of the plugins I use on my blog at .

Every so often, I go through my list and remove plugins I don't use as much in order to reduce memory use and improve security. Still, with thousands of plugins available on, there are always more ways to make blogs better. (Come to think of it, I should probably add a SEO-focused plugin too. WordPress SEO by Yoast seems popular…) Hope this list of favourites helps!

What Wordpress plugins do you use?

The X tools I use for sketchnoting and drawing

The X tools I use for writing

The X tools I use for learning

Services I use and recommend

  • Linode
  • Namecheap
  • Odesk



  • positive person
    • cheerful
  • careful about accepting that definition
  • careful about what I take on as part of my identity
    • identity is a powerful thing
  • i do think about myself as positive
  • maybe a different sense
  • what do I mean by being a positive sort of person?
    • seeing the silver lining?
    • responsibility for my response to the world
      • stoicism
      • perception
      • not that things are positive or negative in themselves
    • focused on appreciating the moment and moving forward
      • not focused on blame
      • now what?
  • responding to other people
    • model the behaviour
    • but don't become a crutch
  • growing myself
    • negative visualization, fire drills
    • explicitly applying the skill to more situations
    • minimizing or observing contrary behaviour


  • Is contentment a bad thing?
  • How I think of myself
    • Story about teacher in first year university
    • Biggest underachiever he had ever seen
    • Had topped the entrance exam, well on my way to barely getting a D in his class
    • English literature
  • Ambition
  • Underachiever: what do you compare yourself against?
    • Potential: Learned to not compare myself with others based on age
    • Personal finance: Learned to not compare myself with others on appearances
    • Philosophy: Learned to not compare myself with others based on goals
  • Pareto efficiency:
    • Impossible to make this better without making something worse?
  • What is the good life?

  • Enough
  • Well, if I'm like this, how can I embrace it?
    • How wonderful can it be?

DONE It's okay to clear the garden and start again   gardening

Around this time each year, with the heat of summer sending the lettuce to seed and sending us indoors, I usually fall out of love with gardening. I don't feel like cooking, so the herbs go unharvested. The lettuce, spinach, and other greens bolt, going bitter and sending up more flowers than I can pinch off.

Having neglected to harvest as much as I could have, I tell myself I'll just let them go to seed so that I can collect and replant those seeds. But then the garden becomes dry, overgrown, and scraggly, and slugs and other pests decimate the leaves. Only the tomatoes keep me interested throughout the season. If I'm lucky, I remember the rest of the garden in time to plant lettuce and peas for the fall.

This year, I'm trying something different. Seeds are inexpensive and plentiful. Instead of waiting for my lettuce to go to seed, I'll simply pull them up and start new plants. This keeps the garden feeling more orderly, and gives me more sprouting to enjoy and look forward to. Maybe I'll even walk to the florist at the corner and buy more seedlings to take advantage of the warmth and sun. Maybe beets or zucchini? I'm clearing a few squares at a time so that I can stagger the planting and keep things manageable. Perhaps the rest of the lettuce and the peas will have fully developed their seeds by the time I get around to pulling them up. I think this will be better than waiting for the whole box to finish. At least I'll always have something on the go.

Someday, when I'm more of a gardener–perhaps when I have heirloom variants that are hard to find and easy to enjoy–I'll look into saving seeds again. In the meantime, I'm still working on developing that summer-long habit of gardening, and I enjoy the exciting days of sprouting.

Where else in my life am I letting things go to seed unnecessarily? What else would benefit from pulling things up and starting fresh? Sewing, perhaps. I have a lot of scraps and patterns I haven't looked at or used. Writing, too - lots of snippets and outlines that I haven't fleshed out. Sometimes it's good to clear things out and start again (perhaps with a smaller goal, perhaps with more deliberate attention). That way, the remnants of past decisions don't weigh down enthusiasm.

How about your garden? How about your life?

TODO Gardening and learning to see the small differences

I'm in the garden every other day, sometimes more often. I pull weeds, test the soil, water the plants. I'm paying closer attention this year, trying to learn the differences, trying to get a sense of things growing (as slow as they do). 

DONE Started gardening - April 2014   gardening

The weather finally warmed up last weekend. W- and I raked the back yard, and I started planting seeds that would likely survive just in case we get another frost. Spinach, peas, lettuce… I don't know how well the seeds will do, but I want to get things growing again. I can't grow anything indoors because the cats love nibbling on greens, so I'll just have to buy my tomato and basil starts from the garden centres. In the meantime, though, I can experiment with seeds.

The soil feels better now than the sandy mix we started with, although there's always room for improvement. We've added lots of compost to it over the years – mostly manure, but there was a year that our compost heap was active enough to steam. Toronto gives away leaf compost every Saturday, so we might check that out too. We're thinking about ordering compost in bulk this year instead of getting bagged manure from the store. I'll probably put in the compost around the time that we clear out the peas and get started with tomatoes, so I can get some sprouts going while waiting to sort all of that out.

What am I going to change this year? Here are my notes from October 2013:

Gardening notes

I changed my mind about irrigation. I think I'll start by hand-watering the plants. It's not that hard to do, and I've marked the rows a little more clearly now so I know what to expect. I probably won't pay for a landscaping or gardening company. Maybe I can share more notes on our garden and ask folks for tips. I'm looking forward to growing more greens and herbs, and giving bitter melon yet another shot.

I planted the first batch of seeds this weekend, going through many of the leftover seeds from 1-2 years ago. After all, the seeds aren't going to get any fresher, so I may as well plant them and see what sticks. Some of them germinate in a week, so let's see if there'll be any progress.

Yay growing things! (Well, eventually. =) )

New Game+

I recently finished playing The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. I started on September 4 and finished on October 2. I logged 41.5 hours playing it as my primary activity, and probably another 25 hours playing while on the subway or while waiting for something else.

Less social

I've been feeling less social these days. I don't know what my energy levels will be like, so it's hard to make social commitments.

I get some exercise by walking around.

How to wear a malong

Celebrate the small things: monthsaries

Tracking and dealing with mental fog

  • you know how your brain blanks out for a moment and then you've misplaced something, or gotten on the wrong train, or
  • working memory
  • why
  • how I keep track of these
  • changes
    • keys

Thanks to Timothy Kenny for the nudge to write about a mistakes journal!

Library, language learning


Bike flat

I patched a big pinch flat in my front tire yesterday. Apparently not well enough, or maybe there's another leak (even though I checked the tire with water). The bike was flat again this morning. Ah well. I can write just as well from home as I can from Hacklab or other places. Besides, there are several libraries nearby if I want airconditioning and ambient noise.

The etymology for the Dutch word for bicycle (fiets) apparently has something to do with it being a "substitute horse" (source: Dutch friend, although this says something similar too). I think about that every time I maintain my bike. It amuses me to think of this as taking care of my substitute horse, minus expenses of feed and livery and the chores of mucking things out. It's also a darn sight cheaper than car insurance, not to mention gas.

I bought this bicycle in 2009. Since then, I've saved more than its cost in public transit tokens.

Amping up this homebody lifestyle

W- and I are both homebodies. We like spending time at home instead of going out to eat, shop, or be entertained, although we do go out occasionally. There's so much to try and learn and do even at home, though. We're nowhere near the limits of what's possible.

If I'm more inclined towards the homebody lifestyle by nature, how can I make the most of it? What would an amazing homebody life be like for us?

Shelter: I've been helping with more of the household maintenance tasks. That way, W- can have more free time in the future, and I can pick up some practical skills. I'd like to work on my fitness a bit more (maybe make good progress on the introductory rungs of the Hacker's Diet exercise ladder), and then maybe I'll try volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in order to pick up more DIY skills there too.

We finally moved our Adirondack chairs (the ones we made ourselves! =) ) out of the shed and onto the deck. I think I'll enjoy dinners on the deck, and maybe some reading and drawing out there as well. Plenty of light, and the chairs are wonderfully comfortable.

Food: We're pretty happy with our cooking repertoire, but it would be good to learn more recipes and to get even better at preparing the ones we know. I made gazpacho recently (super-easy with the food processor!) and that was perfect for the summer heat. If I look into more vegetable-focused dishes, I can use those recipes for Hacklab open houses too.

In terms of cooking,

Reading: I can start by reading all the books in the house, since W- has quite a few that I haven't even opened. I also have quite a few books that I haven't taken detailed notes on yet. Then I can pick one of those "Books You Should Read" lists and go through them all. In some fields, I'm starting to get a sense of the conversation that happens among authors, and I like that.

DONE Homebody

Saturday afternoon. It had started raining, so W- put away his tools and stopped working on the deck stairs. He asked if I wanted to go out and do something fun – maybe watch a movie, or have pho?

I checked the movie listings. Nothing particularly worth watching on the big screen instead of on our television, and we had food in the fridge. So we stayed home, watched one of the movies we’d checked out from the library, and enjoyed some home-made pizza.

We haven’t been to a movie theatre in ages (ever since I decided that actually, even superhero blockbusters are just fine on the small screen). The library is the source of a constant stream of DVDs. While there are long waits for the latest releases, there are plenty of old movies we can go through. I’ve gotten accustomed to watching with subtitles and the ability to pause or rewind, which is great since many movies involve at least one mumbly moment. Besides, if we watch at home, we can make jokes.

I am such a homebody. My default is to spend time at home, and I enjoy it. I love reading, writing, drawing, coding. Tidying up is slightly less fun, but it’s also useful. We’re not hermits – we go to the supermarket, the library, the hardware store – but we don’t often go out just for recreation.

I go out occasionally – more often than W- goes out. I go to the clients’ offices. I go to HackLab to hang out with other geeks and learn from them. I go to friends’ get-togethers. And then I come home and recharge.

Back when I lived at home, my parents took me and my sisters out a lot: eating at restaurants, strolling through the malls. I hardly go shopping here, aside from the occasional stressful sprint when I need to restock my shoes or clothes. I hardly go to restaurants, either. When I get together with friends, it’s usually in someone’s kitchen.

I think the trick is to embrace it instead of wondering what other people are doing.

OUTLINED Learning more about learning

  • Mind
    • It starts with attitude
      • Can do it
        • I remind myself that other people have figured it out
      • Watch out for your excuses
      • Be okay with dropping things you don't really care about
    • Be curious
      • Ask questions
      • Notice the unusual
    • Work with your brain, not against it
      • How do you like learning?
        • I fall asleep in lectures
      • Energy and focus
      • Top down or bottom up?
    • Embrace uncertainty and intimidation
    • See learning opportunities at many levels
    • Think about thinking, learn about learning; observing and improving your processes
  • Process
    • Break things down into small chunks
      • Map things with other people's help
      • Relate to other things you know
    • Reduce friction
    • Ask questions, try experiments
    • Take advantage of other people (in a good way)
    • Do something with what you learn
    • Relate what you're learning to what you know
    • Share
    • Practise continuous improvement
  • Take notes along the way
  • Celebrate progress
  • Make predictions and test them
  • Look for ways to get quick feedback
  • Skills for learning
    • Identify something to learn
      • Identify a possible gap, opportunity, or goal
      • Identify the next steps towards a goal
      • Identify the next steps from what you know
      • Ask for or receive advice from other people
      • Identify learning concepts based on other resources
      • Recognize learning opportunities
      • Recognize multiple opportunities to learn from the same experience
      • Follow up with questions
      • Anticipate learning needs based on scenarios
      • Observe what's different, unusual, or unexpected
    • Break learning down
      • Identify prerequisites and synergies
      • Identify the smallest meaningful chunk
      • Identify what you know and what you need to know
      • See learning in context
        • Keep your goals in mind
        • Make a map
    • Prioritize
      • Estimate costs and benefits
      • Deal with uncertainty
      • Get advice from others
      • Make time and space
      • Let go
    • Prepare
      • Manage your energy and motivation
      • Choose strategies and sources for learning
        • Understand your learning styles
        • Identify and connect with people
        • Identify and learn from books or other resources
        • Plan how to learn from experience
          • Try things out
          • Plan experiments
        • Combine different strategies
        • Observe and improve your learning skills
      • Set aside time
      • Prepare the things you need in order to learn
    • Learn
      • Learn from experiences
        • Explore
        • Deepen
        • Drill
      • Learn from people
        • Identify potential people
          • Learn from one-off connections
          • Learn from regular connections
          • Learn from peers
          • Learn from mentors
          • Learn from role models
          • Learn from coaches or other professionals
        • Connect with people
        • Ask questions
        • Listen actively
        • Share your context
        • Check your understanding
        • Accept feedback or advice
        • Share results
      • Learn from resources
        • Identify and learn from relevant resources
          • Search
          • Browse
          • Follow "information scent"
        • Understand research
        • Understand and use models
        • Research multiple perspectives
        • Read critically and evaluate information for reliability
      • Get your thoughts out of your head
        • Take notes
          • Phrase it in your own words
          • Capture key information
          • Highlight and review
          • Identify action items
        • Keep a journal or notebook
        • Organize your learning
          • Map what you are learning
            • Create outlines
            • Create diagrams
          • Identify further gaps
          • Resolve conflicts
        • Examine processes, habits, assumptions, and conclusions
      • Correct your course
        • Set up feedback loops
          • Get internal feedback
          • Get feedback from people
        • Evaluate your strategy
        • Tweak your strategy
    • Remember what you learn
      • Review your notes
      • Recognize situations to use your learning
      • Associate other things you know
      • Look up what you have learned
      • Recall what you have learned
      • Use memory aids
        • Use spaced repetition study systems
        • Use memory hooks
    • Apply what you learn
      • Plan how to successfully apply what you learn
      • Apply what you learn in a similar context
      • Apply what you learn in a different context
      • Examine and evaluate previous knowledge
      • Combine with other things you know
    • Share what you learn
      • Summarize what you have learned
      • Share resources
      • Create resources
      • Translate for less experienced learners
        • Map your learning
        • Reorganize your learning
        • Simplify
      • Translate for a different audience
  • Tools
    • Phases
      • Collect
      • Organize
      • Synthesize
      • Create
    • Index
    • Outlines
    • Index cards
    • Evernote
    • Org Mode
    • org-capture
    • Source code
    • Interactive consoles - Ruby
    • Chrome inspector and console
    • Sketchnotes
    • Mindmapping
    • Scenario planning
    • Spreadsheets
    • Visualizations
    • Blog posts
    • Internet
      • Searching
      • Browsing
      • Subscribing
    • Rough drafts
    • Clip file
    • Map
    • Diagram
    • Model
    • Sketchnotes
      • Ideal outcome: People are inspired to take visual notes for their own use
      • What are sketchnotes
      • Why sketchnotes
      • How
        • Pen and paper
        • I use a tablet PC because I like it
        • Doesn't matter how you take it; find your style
      • How I use sketchnotes
        • Learning and reviewing presentations and books
          • One-page summary if possible
        • Understanding your thoughts
        • Sharing what you know
        • Connecting with people
      • How to learn more
        • Sketchnote Handbook
        • Sketchnotearmy
        • Look at examples
        • Most important: Try it yourself!
    • Making the most of your blog through the years
      • Ideal outcome: People are encouraged to blog for the long term; people who have been blogging a while are inspired to organize their work
      • Weekly, monthly, yearly reviews
      • Indexes
      • Other people as part of your memory
      • Collections
      • Backups
    • Tracking and experiments
      • Ideal outcome: People are inspired to make better decisions by tracking
      • Time
      • Money and an opportunity fund
      • Clothes, decisions, etc.
      • 5-year experiment with retirement
    • How it all fits together
      • Ideal outcome: People see how the different techniques can support each other, and they are motivated to take the next step
      • The flow of learning
      • How different techniques work together
      • Getting started
      • Getting better
      • Going from strength to strength
    • Continuous improvement in everyday life
      • Ideal outcome: People examine their processes
      • Understanding your processes
      • Handling weaknesses
      • Building on strengths
      • Learning from experiments

OUTLINED Happiness

What makes me happy?

  • Family
    • Kisses, hugs, and snuggling
    • Taking care of house, life stuff
    • Wordplay and fun
    • In-jokes from shared experiences
    • Hearing stories
  • Cats
    • Neko sitting on my lap, especially when asking for head scritches; kneading fuzzy things like my bathrobe; Neko sitting on W's lap
    • Leia wanting cuddles, or playing with the brush
    • Luke purring really, really loudly while sitting on my lap
  • Learning
    • Trying out new things and sharing what I'm learning
    • Being able to turn a challenging situation into a learning opportunity
    • Picking up interesting ideas from friends and other people; sharing my own
    • Getting through flashcard decks
    • Making discernable progress, especially with a map
    • Feeling a skill become more automatic
    • Feeling things snap together
    • Building on things I'm learning
  • Autonomy
    • Being able to do what I think I want the most
    • Minimizing commitments and possibilities for embarrassing failures
    • Being able to choose what to learn
  • Coding
    • Aha! Getting stuff done
    • Tweaking things to fit me
    • Automation
    • Hearing from people building on or using my stuff
    • Saving time
  • Writing
    • Untangling something
    • Being able to answer a question with a link
    • Hearing from people who have come across my posts
    • Answering follow-up questions in areas I also want to explore
  • Tracking
    • Being curious about something, and trying it out
    • Seeing patterns over days, weeks, months, or years
    • Questioning my assumptions
    • Inspiring other people to ask questions
  • Drawing
    • Untangling what I think
    • Playing with drawing
    • Condensing a topic to one or two pages
    • Being able to dig up my notes and remember
    • Warm and fuzzies from inspiring other people to sketchnote or draw
  • Cooking, food and drink
    • Filling the freezer
    • Trying a new recipe
    • Making our favourites
    • Having my standard breakfast: brown rice and a fried egg (even two eggs!)
    • Enjoying a yummy lunch at work
    • Having a scoop or two of ice cream
    • Being able to come up with varied recipes based on the sales
  • Finances
    • Updating my books and getting things to balance
    • Having a good buffer
    • Trying small experiments
    • Preparing for various possibilities
  • Gardening
    • Eating something from the garden
    • Cooking with herbs from the garden
    • Watching things grow
  • Health and exercise
    • Biking, especially in cool, overcast weather
    • Doing poi
    • Dancing and tango were fun
    • Waking up at the right time for me
  • Other
    • Watching a movie at home with W-
    • Clearing my inbox
    • Doing regular weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews
    • Preparing for various possibilities
    • Checking progress against my plans

OUTLINED No good or bad, just different

  • Canada Post lost the passport that was sent through Xpresspost, so I need to go through the process of filing for a lost passport: official statement, police report, affidavit of loss, a rather high lost passport replacement fee, and another two months of waiting.
  • I was not happy to find out they had lost my passport. I pouted and indulged in getting a few hugs from W-, who happened to be working from home at the time.
  • Cheering up, I said, "I've never lost a passport before. Well, at least I get to learn how the process works!" I started singing, "Always look on the bright side of life…"
  • "Okay, that's a bit of a stretch," W- said. But I think he was happy that I could bounce back easily. I know I was.
  • Here is something I'm starting to learn about life: situations aren't bad or good, they're just different.
  • Different is okay. I can deal with different.
  • There's always something to be thankful for and something to learn from. In this case, I'm glad that we didn't book an August trip that we would have to cancel, and I'm glad that we have the space to deal with issues like this.
  • There will be bigger challenges than this, so this is good preparation.
  • wring out the most from it
    • go through the process
    • learn about it
    • write notes
    • take advantage of the wait

Creating space for myself

Making my own opportunities


Learning on your own

(snippet from life) Since she doesn’t like taking classes or workshops, she can use that time to get better at teaching herself. I don’t like taking classes either, so I know what that’s like. I should probably hack my way around that, though. There are many things that might be more cost- or time-effective for me to learn in a class than on my own or from books.

Learning Japanese with Anki flashcards

Learning Cantonese

Things I don't like about providing support - assumptions to question?

Waiting for a response, and wanting to be able to respond quickly - maybe setting expectations?

Living an awesome life

Figuring out what you want

Keeping it simple




The difference between what you do and who you are: a reflection on skills, talents, and identities

Dried fruits and nuts

Making my own things

When I project my current paths out to their peaks, I learn a lot about where I want to go and how I want to get there. For example, I'm currently learning about sales by selling sketchnoting services. I'm starting with that because it's relatively easy to appreciate (yay visuals!), there are established companies in other geographies that have tested the business model and value proposition, and people want it. There's a lot of room to grow. If I imagine being a super-sketchnoter or a super-illustrator, though, I feel like there's something missing. I feel like the focus is on interpreting someone else's ideas instead of creating something marvelous and new. Artists create new things, and there's something fascinating in that.

Meditations in everyday moments

How I read

Getting ready for transitions

Taking more pictures

Helping people get started

Turning 30

Planning for emergencies

Deep prizes

(and marathons)

Tweaking emotions through music

Death and stoicism

Memento mori

Negative visualization

Take away the fear of losing people

Dealing with power outages

[2013-07-08] Object

  • Record rainfall, flooded power plant, rolling blackouts
  • Power's back to normal, I think
  • What I do in case of a power outage
    • Get the hand-cranked radio/flashlight from my emergency bag
    • Listen to AM radio while drawing or reading
    • Munch on shelf-stable food, like Skyflakes and hazelnut-chocolate spread
  • Drawing from comic books and from life
  • A little odd not looking things up on the Internet
  • When I draw on paper, my hand gets tired faster.
  • Checked out nearby library, but there were lots of people. Didn't need to eat out.
  • Childhood: lots of power outages during the Cory Aquino administration in the Philippines
  • I remember my mom would try to make sure we could sleep in the heat
    • sometimes fanning us herself
    • battery-operated fan, but she would still stay up and take care of us

DONE Setting e-mail expectations   requested

Requested by David Achkar

  • Why
    • I don't want to spend a lot of time answering e-mail
    • Pavlovian stimulus-response
    • Actually, not many things are urgent
  • What kind of e-mail do I get
    • Quick questions
      • Links to blog posts, or
    • In-depth questions
      • Answered by blog posts
  • How I process my e-mail
    • I check every so often on my phone
      • Objective
        • Get rid of stuff I don't need to pay attention to
        • Find out if anything needs to be handled today, or if things can wait until Friday
      • When
        • Waking up
        • Walking around
        • Waiting in line
  • Friday is my "catch up" day
    • Balance my books, follow up on waiting tasks, and respond to e-mail
  • I use Boomerang to remind me about important messages if I need to follow up
  • Other people's advice
    • Touch it once: Check mail only when I'm at my computer and ready to respond to things
      • Have to set aside time each day to respond to e-mail
    • Be strict about checking only at specified times (ex: once a week)
      • Sounded too… well… distant
  • So if you've written to me
    • No need to apologize if it takes you a few weeks to reply

DONE Replacing a lost Philippine passport (Part 1)

1021 words, 32 minutes (/ 1021 32.0) 31.90625

  • Renewing my passport
    • Application form
    • Lost passport
  • Started worrying around July
    • Tracking it down
  • Canada Post lost my passport
  • Oh noes!
    • Annoyed, but that's not going to stop me
    • I'd thought about
    • Well, I'd never lost a passport before. I can learn from this.
  • Replacing a lost passport
    • Birth certificate (thank goodness I had an extra)
    • Other proof of Philippine citizenship (time to dig up those high school transcripts!)
    • Police report
    • Application fee (hooray for travel budget)
    • Affidavit of loss
  • Filing a police report
    • Not at police headquarters
    • Police station is fine
    • Need information for new passport
      • Called the consulate, they couldn't find the record in my new system
      • The usual challenges of spelling my name and confirming it when people have strong accents… G A E N? No, J E A N. … J as in Michael Jackson…
    • Probably safer to get official copy of police report
      • 7-10 business days
      • processed every Thursday

Disputing my cellphone bill

Oddly, WIND Mobile was under the impression that I spent at least three minutes in Ottawa last month - one minute on July 11, and another two minutes on July 25. The funny thing is

DONE Ten years of learning how to cook   cooking review

A few of my friends want to learn more about cooking, going beyond eating out or occasionally making a bowl of pasta at home. It’s a welcome change, and I’m looking forward to more and more people making that shift.

For some people, it seems a point of pride to not know how to cook: they’re too busy to sit down and do that, or there are so many good restaurants out there, or cooking is just plain not enjoyable. For us, cooking is part of our way of life. We can cook most meals for much cheaper than we can buy them, and our weekday meals are more convenient than eating out. I love being able to have my favourite foods at any time of day. Despite the occasional drudgery, I’ve grown to enjoy cooking – especially when W- and I spend a few hours putting together something delicious.

I thought I'd reflect on past 10 years of learning how to cook to see what I learned and how I learned it. When I started, I struggled with the basics: burning pancakes, trying to figure out how to use ground beef in different recipes. Now we can make lists based on the grocery fliers, adjust our plans based on what's marked down for quick sale, and stock our freezer with meals to last us through the week.

B.C. - Before Cooking

Growing up, I hadn't imagined being this comfortable with cooking. My sister was the cook in the family, the one with an intuitive sense of what went with what. She took whatever was in the fridge and made something delicious with it, no recipe required. We enjoyed the occasional meal she prepared for us, and she told us stories of how cooking helped her make friends while travelling. The rest of the time, we were spoiled by the fact that family business–advertising photography–retained a cook to feed clients, staff, and us.

I wasn't totally hopeless. I helped in the kitchen, and I loved making lasagna together with my mom. I took cooking lessons one summer. I mainly learned that following recipes produced reasonable results. At home, I occasionally made myself instant noodles or reheated pork and beans, but I didn't really have the motivation to cook.

Cook or Die

That changed a few months after I graduated from university. I had just turned twenty, and I was teaching computer science at my alma mater. To cut down on the commuting time, we found an apartment-style dormitory near the campus. Each unit was shared by two people, and there was an unfurnished kitchen. My parents outfitted it with a hot plate (a single electric burner, which was all the dormitory allowed), a toaster oven, a microwave, and a compact fridge. There were a number of fast food restaurants in walking distance that I'd frequented as a student, but I resolved that my grown-up life shouldn't involve KFC every lunch and dinner. There was a supermarket a bit of the way up the street. To force myself to learn how to cook, I decided that I would eat out for at most one meal a day. If I didn't cook, I'd go hungry. Cook or die. (Well, that was an exaggeration, but it was a good project name.)

Did I mention that my apartment didn't have Internet access? I know. Boggle.

It was… interesting. I loaded up on kid- and singles- and microwave-oriented cookbooks, and occasionally made things up just as an experiment. You may find my blog posts from that time amusing. Here's a summary of the first two weeks:

As you can see, I was a bit of a slow learner. ;)

Eventually I graduated to being confident enough in a few recipes that were ready for company. I was living in an exclusive girls' domitory, so no guys were allowed inside the units. That meant my friends could help me with groceries and give me tips, but they couldn't actually help me learn how to cook unless I was home for the weekend. The dormitory did have a garden with picnic tables and some shelter, though, and both male and female guests were welcome there. We worked out this weekly rotation, and I had dinner with someone practically every day. I particularly enjoyed being able to prepare individual-sized portions of lasagna rolls using the recipe in one of my microwave cookbooks. Even in pouring storms, friends would come and join me. It was wonderful.

I enjoyed teaching, but I left that to take advantage of a technical internship that the Japanese government was offering. In the in-between months, I stayed at home. In Japan, I stayed at a hotel-type dormitory with a cafeteria. There was hardly any cooking, although I did develop an appreciation for the sheer variety of ramen (instant or otherwise) available in Japan.

Graduate student life

When I moved to Canada for graduate school, I made sure I was in an apartment-style residence with a kitchen and a small shared living room. I shared my unit with three other people, and the mix changed each semester or so. There was a 24-hour supermarket within walking distance (somewhat expensive, but convenient) and other markets available a long walk or a short streetcar ride down the street.

I made friends: some students who lived in the building, and other people I met in my studies or research. I often invited a couple of friends over for dinner, usually something experimental - a stir-fry, or chicken breast and sauce, or whatever recipe intrigued me. From time to time, I took advantage of the large common outdoor party/barbeque area. At some point, I decided I was grown-up enough to want my own set of plates instead of the mismatched hand-me-downs, so I headed over to Walmart and splurged on a set of Corelle, a rice cooker, a teapot, and other essentials.

There were occasional group cooking lessons in the residence, open to whoever signed up. I liked them. We split up into small groups and prepared different recipes such as roasted red pepper soup, and then we got to enjoy the tastes of all the recipes together.

The administration decided on the mix of roommates based on the questionnaires we submitted. I didn't always get along with my room-mates, one of whom tended to abscond with my dishes without returning them. (I lost a couple of cereal bowls this way.) When I had finished most of my research and lined up a job at IBM, I decided it was time to look for my own apartment. Of all the ones I looked at, my favourite was a one-bedroom apartment across the street. The rent was a little high and the kitchen was tiny, but I was looking forward to cooking without squabbling over fridge space or dishes in the sink.

Cooking with W-

I was a relative newcomer to Canada, so the building management didn't want to prepare a lease without a co-signer. Of all my friends, W- was probably the stablest and most respectable. He knew I managed my finances well and had the year's rent set aside, so he didn't have to worry about being on the hook for it. In preparation for the move, I'd boxed up my kitchen tools and resolved to live on peanut butter sandwiches like my mom had done in university. W- took pity on me and invited me over for dinner. These scrumptious home-made meals became a regular occurrence.

We signed the paperwork and moved my stuff (easy across the street, especially with a skateboard), I feathered my nest and set up my tiny kitchen. As a housewarming present, W- gave me Happy Bunny socks with witty slogans, since I'd mentioned my sister's trick of happy socks. As a kitchen-warming present, he gave me a basic set of Wusthof Classic knives. (Embarrassed by the generosity of the gift, I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted that good tools make all the difference.)

They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Apparently, this is true for women too. Even though the paperwork was done, W- kept inviting me for delicious meals: crushing basil in a mortar and pestle for pesto, pinakbet (which he had learned how to make long before meeting me, so it was fun to encounter this familiar dish), a comparison of two lasagna recipes. I assisted, of course: chopping, stirring, learning more about cooking. Sometimes I invited W- or other people over to my place for whatever simple dishes I could prepare with my minimal kitchen setup; the knives made preparation a joy even in the cramped space.

Eventually we realized we were in love. I sublet my apartment and moved in. I brought my cherished knives and selected kitchen tools, leaving the rest for my tenant.

After my tiny kitchen, W-'s kitchen was a real treat. Cast-iron skillets, a decent-sized wok, two rice cookers (large and small), a low-cost supermarket up the street, a garden to grow herbs in, a large kitchen table that we ended up spending most of our time at… I volunteered to be the sous chef as often as I could. Over time, I took the lead in making more meals. I learned family favourites and we discovered new ones together. Cooking with W- made learning fun - we could celebrate successes and gamely finish anything that wasn't an absolute failure.

Cooking was part of W-'s way of life, and I was delighted to make it part of mine too. We rarely ate out. It just wasn't convenient during schooldays, and cooking was more frugal anyway. From March 2007 to August 2009 (30 months), I logged $145/month for groceries for 2.5 people (85%) and $25/month for dining out (15%). The actual numbers are different because W- picked up some groceries and usually treated me when dining out, although we set up this system where I contributed a fixed amount to household expenses so it worked out anyway.

We periodically tweaked the kitchen to improve the way we worked. We moved the canned goods from the basement into an industrial-style shelving unit. We moved the microwave to a custom shelf and freed up the rolling table it had been on, which turned out to have an excellent cutting surface on top of it - more counter space! Little tweaks like that made cooking more efficient and more fun.

I'd been reading about the benefits of a chest freezer on frugality blogs. We weren't sure if we had the space or if we could make it part of our lifestyle, so we dithered. In 2009, W- and I finally decided to take the plunge. We bought a 5.3 cu-ft freezer and started stocking it with sale items, filling the extra space with water jugs to improve efficiency. Eventually we learned the basics of bulk cooking, discovered which of our favourites froze well, and standardized our food containers for easier organization.

We also experimented with community-supported agriculture. It was a good way to get through lots of vegetables, and Internet recipes were really helpful. (All that zucchini! All that cabbage!) We eventually decided to buy our own vegetables, but it was a good experience.

Now I've gotten to the point where a 30% markdown on pork tenderloin makes me think of tonkatsu, I can make a stir-fry with whatever vegetables look okay, and cooking is more like fun than a chore.

What I learned along the way

People make cooking much more fun

Cooking by myself was a drag. Cooking for other people was better, because we could enjoy the good stuff and laugh about the dishes that didn't go as well. (You can tell who your friends are - if they eat your experimental cooking, they're good friends!) Cooking with other people was the best, because then you can chat while chopping (carefully) and watch out for each other (looks like the eggs are done!). W- helped me learn so much more about cooking than I probably would have on my own.

Good tools really do matter

A sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one because a sharp knife won't slip. W- periodically sharpens the knives, and I try to remember to use the steel before I use the chef's knife. I've also come to really appreciate the convenience of a dough scraper, Microplane graters, and other little kitchen things. That said, we try to minimize the number of unitaskers we have: no egg poachers, no slot toasters, no corn cob holders… This means our drawers are easier to organize and keep uncluttered.

The Internet is awesome

The Internet has a gazillion recipes. I used to feel a little intimidated by the variety, but I realized that it meant that recipes are (mostly) just guidelines. Can I skip a spice that I don't normally stock? Can I substitute an ingredient for something I don't have? Do I want to adjust the temperature so that I can bake two different things at the same time? Chances are that someone has a recipe that calls for that, so it should be fine. It might not be amazing, but it will be okay.

Absolute failures are very rare

There was the time I put the yeast in water that was too hot. My lump of pizza dough didn't rise, and I had to throw it out and start over. Sometimes I burn things and have to scrape off bits. One time I was learning about seasoning cast-iron pans and I heated one for so long that the season flaked off. I broke a rice cooker and repaired it by replacing the thermal fuse. Most of my cooking failures were salvageable, though. It turns out that it's difficult to Completely Mess Things Up, so you should worry less and just go ahead and try it.

Chest freezers and bulk cooking make everything easier

Cooking in bulk lets us minimize the number of left-over ingredients, especially if we adjust the recipes. Having meals in the freezer is an amazing way to reduce the risk of cooking experimental recipes: if it's an absolute failure, well, there's a guaranteed meal all ready to go. Freezing is also great for dealing with leftovers. If I don't feel like eating the same thing for the rest of the week, I can package it as individual lunches in the freezer for when I feel like having it again.

Next steps for me

There's plenty more to learn, and I look forward to getting even better at this over the next ten years. Here are some of the skills that would be fun to improve:

Regular menu planning and a broader repertoire of recipes

You know how some households run on predictable patterns? We do a little of this: soups and baking on the weekends because of time-of-use electricity charges; stir-fries to take advantage of fresh vegetables from our grocery shopping; maybe a vegetarian meal sometime during the week… It would be good to get even better at planning what we're going to have, perhaps based on a two-week cycle of themes that's adjusted by what's on sale, and to introduce new recipes within that framework.

Recycling leftovers into new dishes

I tend to be pretty happy eating the same thing again and again (or freezing the leftovers if they've been around a while), but recycling left-overs into new dishes would extend their fridge-life and encourage people to eat them. There are books that focus on cascading one recipe into another, and it seems like a good skill to learn. It's also a quick way to get more variety out of the same cooking effort.

Working with different spices and sauces

We have a lot of spices in the cabinet. I should make an inventory of them and organize them for easy reach. Sauces are also good ways to give the same basic dish different tastes. If I learn more about flavour, I can stock the freezer and fridge with a wider range of tastes.

So that's my cooking story!

I've written a lot about bulk cooking and other things I've learned, so check out those blog posts for more tips. You can also read the posts in chronological order if you want to see all the steps along the way. If you're learning how to cook, good luck and have fun - I hope my story helps!

DONE Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking   cooking kaizen

We'd been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I've been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here's how we now cook in bulk.

During the weekend, I prepare two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what's on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, okonomiyaki, soup, etc. I start a 10-cup pot of rice, too, since I'm likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week.

After the food is cooked, I put three-person portions into our large glass containers, setting aside four meals total (two of each type). That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For prepared meals that are inefficient to portion out (ex: pasta sauce), I just keep the entire pot in the fridge.

The rest of the food is packaged in individual lunch-sized containers (at least 500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the pots are empty. I label the containers using painter's tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

If the freezer is full but there's still some food left, I pack the rest and refrigerate them. If I still have rice left, I might pack individual portions that I can add to the freezer as we use up our supply. If I'm out of rice, I'll pack larger portions that we can use for dinner or that I can split up into individual portions later on.

Sometimes we mix things up by having pizza or cooking lots of fresh dinners during the week. If there's still food in the fridge by the following weekend, I pack them up as frozen lunches. There'll be space in the freezer by then, and we're more likely to enjoy the variety if it's spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can't be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you count the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there's labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we're working on getting even better at it.

Aside from reducing spoilage, I'm also working on increasing variety. Getting the hang of spices will help me with that. I enjoyed making curry from scratch, and am looking forward to exploring the different curries of the world. We have a 5.3 cu.ft. Haier chest freezer (fortunately not one of those affected by the recall) and probably won't be upgrading it until it conks out, since it's enough for us to cook every two weeks or so. There's still room for improvement in terms of freezer organization and getting through ingredients/processed stuff, anyway. So much to learn! =)

Other snippets

How can you design a good "Help and Support" page?

Design seems like magic, but it's probably a skill that I can develop. If I just focus on coding, the things I build can end up looking like an accumulation of little ideas designed by committee. If I learn more about design and develop my own opinions, I can make recommendations that simplify the experience and make it more coherent. For example, on one of my consulting engagements, I could probably take the initiative in redesigning the help and support community for a better user experience. I have to work with the technical limitations of the platform, but as a coder, I have a little more latitude than most people do. By looking at how other people have structured their support experiences, maybe I can pick up ideas that I can try.

What are the key ingredients?

  • Tutorials for new users
    • Not just how, but why
  • Other self-help resources for intermediate and advanced users
  • Questions and answers for people who can't find what they need
  • Quick links and resources for the support team

Planning a presentation 20 seconds at a time


I stuff as much as possible into my blog - it seems to have the only notes that last. I have a shelf full of half-used paper notebooks. I've lost text files with notes on hard drives that have long since vanished. I've encrypted messages to myself and, years later, discovered I hadn't kept the key around. (Duh.) My blog has my most long-lived notes, having survived several transfers between blog hosts and a few backups. I've probably gotten the hang of this "blog backup and migration" thing, and I trust it more than I trust third-party services like Evernote.

Finding what different things have in common

E-mail newsletter

Welcome (day after sign-up)

Thanks for signing up! I'm looking forward to sharing the things I've learned and to learning from you along the way. There's a lot of stuff on my blog, but I thought I'd start with an introduction:

Hi, I'm Sacha Chua, and I'm interested in lots of things.

It's a little weird to not have one of those "I'm a <job title goes here>" introductions, but I'm starting to get used to it. I'm in the middle of a 5-year experiment with semi-retirement, which is really an excuse for me to learn more about entrepreneurship, consulting, writing, drawing, coding, and all those other things that were hard to squeeze into evenings and weekends back in my corporate life. (I had really liked working with a big company and an excellent team, but I wanted to learn these other things too.)

I started this blog when I was in university as a way of taking notes and sharing what I was learning. It turned out to be a great way to learn from other people too. I hope it will help you, and I'm looking forward to discovering what we can learn together.

What can you expect from me?

You'll get weekly blog updates with links to the posts I've read in the past week and some interesting things I learned about elsewhere on the Internet. I post on my main blog daily, which can be a little overwhelming for people. But if you're an e-mail ninja or a feed reader fan, you can subscribe to the daily feed at .

Over the next few weeks, I'll also be sending you a few e-mails to help you find out about things you might like in my past posts. I might also write with the occasional question that I want to pick people's brains on before I write blog posts, maybe even with sneak previews of what I've been learning.

Some stuff worth reading

If you're new to my blog, you might want to check out some of my older posts. Here are some of the most popular ones.


Sacha Chua

P.S. Tell me a little bit about you: who you are, how you came across this blog, what would make it worth reading for you, what you'd like to read more about. Just reply to this message and share your story - can't wait to hear from you!

Book ideas / plans

Back to top | E-mail me