November 28, 2007

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Optimizing your action loop

If you want to be radically more effective at doing things, get better
at deciding what to do. Few things are more personal than figuring out
what you’re going to do with your life: at this moment, for this day,
for the next few years. Few decisions are made as frequently. If you
can improve the way you make that decision, you’ll reap the benefits

We’ve all developed some ways of coping. We all have our quirks.
One of mine is that I can’t settle on one way of planning my tasks.
Some days, I’m all strategic and top-down, connecting my life goals
with the tasks I plan to do that day. Other days, I just need to get a
crucial task out of my head so that I don’t forget it while hunting
for my keys. Some days, I block out time to work on my priority
projects. Other days, I have to work around other people’s schedules,
so it’s all about cramming whatever I can into whenever I’ve got.

Now think of all the other geeks out there, and you’ll understand how
to-do list programs might outnumber programmers. Despite the
collective efforts of companies like Microsoft and IBM, despite the
coolness of Web 2.0 services like Remember the Milk, despite the
renaissance of paper-based planners such as the Hipster PDA, I have
never found anything as powerful as a plain text file in terms of
personal productivity: a plain text file with shortcuts that are
form-fitted to the way I work.

Here’s what my workday looks like:

  • I do a _quick_ scan of e-mail to see if any tasks have come in. I copy those into my inbox. I resist the urge to reply right away, as that turns e-mail into a huge timesink.
  • 5-10 minutes are enough to schedule and prioritize my tasks for the day. I see both my calendar and my task list at the same time, and I can estimate my load. I leave plenty of space for things that come up. I feel better when I finish my scheduled tasks and then cross off a few more, than when I don’t finish everything I planned and I have to postpone tasks to the next day.
  • I work on my highest-priority task for the day.
  • _Then_ I respond to e-mail.
  • Then I work through everything else in roughly 45-minute chunks, with some downtime in between to recharge my brain and take care of routine tasks.
  • My computer is set up to encourage me to take 10-second breaks every 5 minutes and 2.5 minute breaks every hour. The numbers are arbitrary, but the result feels good. This works out even better when I work from home: 2.5 minutes is just enough time to clear the sink, or to empty the dishwasher, or to start some tea…

A plain text file keeps me all organized, thanks to the Org module for
the Emacs text editor. The text file shows me what’s on my horizon and
what’s on today’s schedule. The text file helps me deal with
interruptions because it keeps track of what I was working on and what
I need to do.

The text file even helps me learn more about myself and my skills
through detailed time-tracking. Every time I start a task, the clock
starts. Every time I mark a task as waiting or done, the clock stops,
and the elapsed time is stored in the task. This helps me tune my time
estimates and report time at the end of the week.

And it’s just amazing. I don’t feel that I waste a lot of time. I have
a sense of progress. I can see the big picture, and things almost
never fall through the cracks. (When they do, that’s because I hadn’t
gotten around to putting them in my text file yet.) Sure, this still
doesn’t give me enough time to do everything I want to do, but I don’t
feel stressed out about it because I’m working well. From now on, most
of the performance improvement will come from improving my skills and
learning more.

If I can do this much as a new hire with a pretty nifty task
management system, think about what you can do with all your
experience. What _could_ you do if you spent less time fighting with
your memory or with your TODO system, and more time making the
difference you want to make?

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Random Emacs symbol: edebug-stop – Command: Stop execution and do not continue.

Add joy to your job title

Over at Matt’s Idea Blog, Matthew Cornell has listed some of the
coolest job titles he’s seen. Not only that, he links to the people who’ve given themselves those job titles. Check those out for inspiration, and add joy to your own job description. Passion Catalyst! Continuous Self-Improvement Guru! =) How can you not want to get to know people like that?

What’s my title? I’m somewhat in between titles. I’m moving away from being a tech evangelist because it doesn’t capture my focus on processes and practices. I help companies help people connect. I want to get really good at spotting and telling great stories, refining and sharing best practices, and exploring new tools and new ways of doing things. I want to help companies enable more connection, more conversation, more collaboration… and more innovation. And I want to do all that and make it _fun._ Fun the way discovering how small the world is when you discover that the other person in the elevator with you also reads tons of books and you end up chatting about great reads all the way to the cafeteria and all throughout lunch. Connection is fun. Networking is fun. I want to make it easy.

Connection catalyst?

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Random Emacs symbol: calendar – Command: Choose between the one frame, two frame, or basic calendar displays. – Group: Calendar and time management support.

Learning how to tell stories

Thanks to Michael Nielsen and Jennifer Dodd for highly recommending
Made to Stick, a great book about storytelling. It arrived at the same
time as The Elements of Persuasion, which made a terrific
complementary read. Book notes to follow. =)

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Random Emacs symbol: radians-to-degrees – Macro: Convert ARG from radians to degrees. – Variable: Radian to degree conversion constant.

Lost some comments in the shuffle

One of the downsides of posting code on your blog is that you tend to
confuse your blogging software. In this case, some stray tags that I
used in my RSS dumping code resulted in lots of errors in my blog. In
a tizzy over the bug, I forgot about the first two public comments
ever posted on my WordPress blog, and I accidentally deleted them
while trying to refresh my blog posts. This is a pity, as they were
particularly nice comments too.

Ah, life. That’s okay.

Just wanted to let you know what happened to them. And kids, if you’re
going to do this kind of shuffling around… save your data somewhere!

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Random Emacs symbol: Custom-goto-parent – Command: Go to the parent group listed at the top of this buffer.

I’m too lazy not to program

Yesterday, I imported five years of blog posts into WordPress through
RSS. This would have been _painful_ if I wasn’t comfortable with
programming. With 4587 posts in 2596 files, I wouldn’t have even
thought about copying them over manually. Instead, I would have just
started with a clean slate. I didn’t think anyone’s really going to
want to go back and see everything I’ve written on my blog. ;) Who was
going to notice?

But five years of blog posts—reflections, ideas, notes, interesting
links—might still be worth something, so I decided to give it a shot.
Initially, I wrote a function which visited files, searched for notes,
and added the note to one big RSS feed. However, this slowed down too
much when I hit megabytes, so I changed it to dump each note to a
file in a directory.

;(sacha/planner-dump-rss "~/public_html/blog-dump/" nil nil)
(defun sacha/planner-dump-rss (directory from to)
  (let ((pages (planner-get-day-pages from to))
        (planner-rss-feed-limits nil)
        (planner-rss-initial-contents "")
    (while pages
      (condition-case err2
            (planner-find-file (caar pages))
            (setq buffer (current-buffer))
                  (goto-char (point-min))
                  (while (re-search-forward "^\\.#\\([0-9]+\\)" nil t)
                      (condition-case err
                            (let ((inhibit-read-only t)
                                  (file (concat directory
                                                (caar pages) "-"
                                                (match-string 1))))
                              (planner-rss-add-note file)
                              (find-file file)
                              (save-buffer 0)
                              (kill-buffer (current-buffer))))
                         (message "Problems processing note on %s: %s"
                                  (caar pages)
                                  (error-message-string err)))))))
              (kill-buffer buffer)))
        (error (message "Problems processing %s: %s"
                        (caar pages)
                        (error-message-string err2))))
      (setq pages (cdr pages)))))

I then concatenated all of these files using

cat header 200* footer > dump.rdf

This file was still much too big, so I manually split it by year,
copying and pasting text into different files. I used to check for errors. After Feedvalidator
verified that the files were all valid RSS, I tried to import them
into Feedwordpress. Nope, still too big. I needed to trim them to
around 400k, so I used the following code on the server:

(defun sacha/split-dump ()
 (goto-char (min 400000 (point-max)))
 (let ((counter 0)
 (base-name (file-name-sans-extension buffer-file-name)))
 (while (not (eobp))
 (re-search-backward "<item>") 
 (kill-region (match-beginning 0) (point-max))
 (insert "</channel></rss>")
 (save-buffer 0)
 (find-file (format "%s%d.rdf" base-name counter))
 (goto-char (point-min))
 (insert "<?xml version=\"1.0\" encoding=\"UTF-8\"?>
<rss version=\"2.0\">
    <title>M-x plan :: sachachua's blog</title>
    <description>Sacha Chua's blog about Emacs, personal information management, open source, and random stuff</description>")
      (setq counter (1+ counter))
      (goto-char (min 400000 (point-max))))))

This program looks complicated, but it really isn’t. In fact, I could
have probably done something just as powerful with keyboard macros,
not writing a single line of code. But the code was easy to write, and
I figured that I’d keep it around just in case I needed to do
something like this again.

After a little bit of manual tweaking, I got all the entries into .

The ability to write short programs quickly and interactively has not
only saved me so much time, but it’s also made it possible for me to
even _think_ of doing some things. =) I could probably have written
the same snippets in Perl or Ruby, but being able to combine manual
editing and automated operations in the text editor made it just so
much faster. I really like being able to scan back and forth in
buffers easily in Emacs, instead of thinking in terms of
file streams as in other programming languages.

If you work with lots of text, I definitely recommend learning Emacs
Lisp, or whatever language your editor can be programmed in. I started
by reading other people’s source code and the Emacs Lisp Intro and
Emacs Lisp info files. I reread them countless times, picking up a
little more each time I went through. Now Emacs Lisp is one of the
first things I turn to whenever I want to save time doing something
complex and repetitive on the computer, such as adding everyone’s
pictures to a wiki page. (That’s a story for next time!)

Emacs is awesome stuff. More than 20 years old, it’s the most advanced
program I’ve ever used. What makes it special? It’s _definitely_
optimized for the power user, and it provides so many reasons to
become one.

Random Emacs symbol: gnus-summary-goto-last-article – Command: Go to the previously read article.