June 2013

Drawing, blogging, and semi-retirement: Weekly review: Week ending May 31, 2013

June 1, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Good week for drawing and writing! I put together a collection of my sketchnotes, drew notes at a workshop (that we printed right then and there), and wrote a lot about what I was learning along the way. Looking forward to more drawing next week, and more experiments too! (Latest experiment: using MapLib’s simple Google Maps API interface to provide a zoomable, pannable view of the one-page guide to learning Emacs… =) This is promising! )

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Good influences in partnerships

June 2, 2013 - Categories: family, kaizen, life

I used to worry that relationships would distract me from what I want or need to do, but it turns out that marriage can be a wonderful influence. For example, my life is healthier than it probably would have been without W-. His experience as a bike courier and the trips we took together helped me gain the confidence to make biking my regular commuting method. (In city traffic, even!) I’ve graduated to thinking of rain as no barrier to biking, especially bundled up in my rain jacket, rain pants, and rain boots. (Not thunderstorms or snow yet; those are still scary.)

Yogurt was one of those things I never really liked eating before, although W- likes plain yogurt. Now we have a daily habit of eating yogurt. We started with packages of fruit-bottom yogurt, and now I’ve graduated to a bowl of plain yogurt swirled with home-made apricot syrup. Someday I might even grow to like unsweetened yogurt.

There are all sorts of skills I’d never try out on my own, too. We’ve built ourselves Adirondack chairs and a cage around our vegetables. I’ve helped patch and repaint things inside and outside the house. We recently poured a concrete post to support the deck (one of the posts was rotting). Now we’re learning how to properly lay patio stones on a bed of gravel.

W- is helping me build my exercise habits, too. The krav maga classes are a bit intimidating for me, so we’re working on building up my strength and confidence through workouts at home. I feel a little self-conscious about it being slow going, but he says it’s worth the time investment for him to help me turn it into a self-sustaining habit. 

As for me, I influence him to take notes, track his finances, and make frugal decisions. I’m good at wording things, too. He’s older than I am, so in the beginning I wasn’t sure if there was anything I could help him learn or improve, but it turns out that I have things to share too.

I don’t know if my friends could influence me in these ways. I don’t see people often enough, I think, and it would be weird for friends to nudge me into, say, eating yogurt more often. W- and I are in it for the long haul, so it makes sense to invest in skills and habits that make it better over time.  Why does it work?

Good habits rubbing off on each other: I can see W- regularly exercising and getting a kick out of it, and he can help me start getting the hang of it. I talk about decisions and my decision-making processes, and he asks me questions about investing.

Encouragement and positive reinforcement: I enjoy biking, but other forms of exercise are still in the “this is hard work, a little scary, and not at all fun!” phase. I am totally fine with hacking my motivation by turning it into a social thing, an “exercise date” at home.

Consistency: The other night, I was the one who reminded him that he skipped the previous night’s yogurt. We remember things for each other, and we can cheer each other on.

Maybe this is one of the things that partnerships are about. It’s pretty cool!

It might be interesting to get better at the meta-skill of getting better together. The better we get at being good influences for each other, the more we can improve our lives. This probably means being more conscious and deliberate about things we want to learn or habits we want to pick up, improving the way we communicate with and motivate each other, and maybe tracking the consistency and success of these changes so that we can celebrate or course-correct.

Onward and upward!

Monthly review: May 2013

June 3, 2013 - Categories: monthly, review

Last month, I wrote:

It’s almost a third of the way through May already! I’m looking
forward to more consulting, sketchnoting, and illustrating. The
weather’s warmed up, so friends are starting to organize more
get-togethers. Then there’s planting the front and back garden,
studying Japanese (my goal for May: 500 lines in my spaced-repetition
deck), and drawing some more… May’s shaping up to be terrific.

Consulting/sketchnoting/illustrating: Lots of this for work, and some personal projects too. The one-page guide I drew for learning Emacs turned out to be a big hit. I want to put together guides like that maybe once a quarter (or even once a month if I get the hang of doing things)… I also compiled my 2012 sketchnotes in a collection, complete with a table of contents. It was fun working on things of my own!

I found an accountant who could review my books and answer my questions, yay! I amended my tax returns again, and I hope this time it’s final.

Friends: Failed on this one – completely forgot about a party that I was invited to because I was caught up in doing house-related stuff instead. I did co-host a couple of meetups, so there’s that.

Garden: The peas are doing wonderfully. The bok choy is starting to bolt (already!), and the tomato plants are still pretty small. The bitter melon plants are hanging in there, and the bell peppers are too. The pansies in the front are doing okay, although we’ve had one casualty. The lavender is growing like crazy. Hooray!

Japanese: I ended up using the pre-made Japanese decks for AnkiDroid instead of making my own, at least in terms of starting out with the vocabulary. I like the way that the listening decks include clear audio recordings. I also loop over audio from some of the anime that I like, and I’m starting to understand more and more of it. Yay!

Coding: I spent some time updating Quantified Awesome to use a newer version of Rails (all these security updates!), and setting up a Vagrant VM for easier coding. I’m looking forward to spending some time working on my technical debt by writing tests and getting the old tests to pass.

June promises to involve a lot of consulting and professional sketchnoting, lots of gardening and biking, and some big personal decisions. Let’s see how it works out!

Announcing this 2012 Sketchnotes collection! (free/PWYC)

June 4, 2013 - Categories: drawing

I really like quickly flipping through my sketchnotes as a way to refresh my memory. I thought I’d collect them into a PDF to make it easier for people to learn more and remember. I labeled all the sketches and made a manually-hyperlinked table of contents to make it easier for you to browse. =)

2013-05-31 14_04_54-Sketchnotes 2012 by Sacha Chua v3.pdf - Nitro Reader 3

As an experiment, I’m sharing it as free / pay what you can. See Sketchnotes 2012 by Sacha Chua for details!

Using Google’s In-Page Analytics to understand how people use a site

June 5, 2013 - Categories: blogging, wordpress

If you use Google Analytics to get some insight into how people use your webpages, be sure to check out Content > In-Page Analytics. It gives you an idea of what people click on, and that can influence your design decisions.

The posts on my blog homepage change roughly every week, so I used the drop-down in the top right to change the reporting date. Here’s what the overall stats look like for the main page of my blog:

image

Let’s look at the breakdown throughout the page:

2013-05-31 11_39_58-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

It looks like I should spend some time improving my About page, since a lot of people go to it.

2013-05-31 11_40_19-In-Page Analytics - Google AnalyticsSome blogs recommend removing the Recent Comments widget from the sidebar because people don’t find it useful. I find it handy for seeing what people are talking about, though, and it seems that other people do too. (21% of clicks to see older comments!) I switched to using the Better WordPress Recent Comments plugin in order to show comment previews. There’s a slight delay because I’m using the external Disqus commenting system which still needs to synchronize with WordPress, but I like it overall.

2013-05-31 11_40_37-In-Page Analytics - Google AnalyticsSome blogs recommend manually selecting Top Posts & Pages instead of leaving it up to the computer. This one is automatically selected based on recent views, which is great because it comes up with recommendations I wouldn’t have remembered or thought about (like that Drupal one!). I should make a Resources page, though.

2013-05-31 11_40_59-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

I include links to blog posts in my weekly reviews. This is surprisingly useful for both personal memory-jogging and for helping other people jump to things quickly.

2013-05-31 11_41_15-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

I have a hard time getting the hang of “Next page” and “Previous page” navigation on blogs. (Am I going forward or backward in time?) I changed my theme to make it easier to figure out which direction you’re going in, and I have these paging links at the beginning (near a table of contents) and at the end of the page.

2013-05-31 11_41_23-In-Page Analytics - Google Analytics

This is all the way near the bottom of the page.  It has the same numbers as the ones up top, so I think Google Analytics might be getting confused about the links because they go to the same place.  (Same with the Older Posts link.) I can probably disambiguate the links by changing the tracking code.

So, TODOs for me: spruce up my About page, figure out where to add a Resources page, look into asynchronous tracking, and see if there’s a way I can set up WordPress to experiment with different layouts…

Check out Google’s In-Page Analytics if you have it on your site!

Note: Got an error while trying to use In-Page Analytics? Make sure you’re properly calling the Google Analytics code on the site. I use a Wordpress plugin to make sure that my visits aren’t tracked when I’m logged in (no sense in throwing off the stats with obsessive refreshing! Winking smile ), so I needed to log out of my site before checking In-Page Analytics.

Back to the joys of coverage testing: Vagrant, Guard, Spork, RSpec, Simplecov

June 6, 2013 - Categories: rails

Tests are important because programmers are human.  I know that I’m going to forget, make mistakes, and change things that I didn’t mean to change. Testing lets me improve my chances of at least noticing. Coverage tools show me how much of my code is covered by tests, improving my chances of seeing where my blind spots are.

In one of my last projects at IBM, I convinced my team to use coverage testing tools on a Rails development project. It was great watching the coverage numbers inch up, and we actually reached 100% (at least in terms of what rcov was looking at). I occasionally had to fix things when people broke the build, but sometimes people added and updated tests too. Although coverage testing has its weaknesses (are you testing for edge cases?), it’s better than nothing, and can catch some embarrassing bugs before they make it to the outside world.

Although I’m not currently taking on any web development work (I’m saving brainspace for other things), I have a few personal projects that I enjoy working on. For example, QuantifiedAwesome.com lets me track different measurements such as time. I had written some tests for it before, but since then, I’d been adding features and making changes without updating the tests. Like the way that unpaid credit card balances turn into financial debt (very bad habit, try to avoid this if possible), unwritten or out-of-date tests contribute to technical debt.

It was a little daunting to sit down and slowly work my way through the knots of out-of-date tests that had accumulated from haphazard coding. Here’s how I made the task more manageable:

image

(… 21.5 hours of coding/development/infrastructure…)

New things I learned:

I use Mechanize to work with the Toronto Public Library’s webpage system so that I can retrieve the list of due books, renew items, or request holds. I wanted to test these as well. FakeWeb lets you intercept web requests and return your own responses, so I saved sample web pages to my spec/fixtures/files directory and used FakeWeb to return them. (ex: toronto_library_spec.rb)

Paperclip also needed some tweaking. I replaced my Paperclip uploads with File assignments so that I could test the image processing. (ex: clothing_spec.rb)

Always remember to wrap your RSpec tests in an it “…” instead of just context “when …” or describe “…”. I forgot to do this a few times and got confused about why stuff got left in my database and why the error messages weren’t formatted like they normally are.

Progress! Next step: Update my Cucumber tests and add some more integration tests…

I like this part of being a developer, even though writing new code is more fun. Testing is one of those time-consuming but powerful tools that can reduce frustration in the long run. I’ve experimented with applying automated testing techniques to everyday life before. I wonder what it would be like to take that even further… Any thoughts?

Turn your unfair advantages into more unfair advantages

June 7, 2013 - Categories: kaizen

I’ve been thinking about unfair advantages in the process of planning my first virtual course experiment. What are the things I do well, and how can I teach other people those skills? It turns out that recognizing your unfair advantages is great for making better use of them—and for turning those unfair advantages into even more advantages. No matter who you are, there’s bound to be some things you can do better than many people, and combinations of those things can open up more possibilities.

How can you turn an unfair advantage into more advantages? You can use your strengths to help you develop new skills. You can use the confidence you get from doing something well to get you through the frustrating parts of learning something new. You can use your unfair advantages to build trust and relationships that will support you as you take more risks.

Over at The Smart Passive Income Blog, Pat Flynn gives seven examples of unfair advantages that can help you with business and life:

  1. Your Rolodex – the people you know
  2. Your experience – what you’ve been through
  3. Your story – and how you tell it
  4. Your hustle – how much you put in and where
  5. Your personality and your ability to connect with others
  6. Your ability to listen, build, measure, and learn
  7. Your specialization – who you serve and your ability to do so

If you think about your unfair advantages, chances are that you’ll see how different unfair advantages are tied together. Learning helps you gain experiences and specialize in something, which leads to developing a network and being able to tell a story that’s supported by the strength of your personality. Hustling helps you make the most of those advantages.

Here are some of my unfair advantages and how I used them to create more advantages:

I read quickly, and I enjoy reading. This lets me blast through search results, technical manuals, blog posts, business books, and more. I don’t remember everything (that would be an awesome superpower!), but I can speed-read to filter through cruft and zero in on what I should read in depth.

I turned my reading into experiments. Reading lots of people’s experiences and tips inspired me to tinker with my life. Reading personal finance books and blogs encouraged me to be frugal, which gave me the space and freedom for bigger experiments. Reading about tools and techniques gave me ways to improve the way I work, including through programming and automation.

I turned my experiments into writing. Reading and experimenting gave me plenty of things to write about, and writing helped me remember and learn even more. Experimenting helped me build a life that supports writing and learning. I started by typing my notes into my laptop, and then I moved to publishing most of my notes online in this blog. (More searchable!)

I turned my writing into conversations. Writing helped me explore thoughts so that I could contribute more to conversations. Writing also helped me have more conversations, thanks to people who found my blog through search engines or stayed in touch after connecting for the first time.

I turned my conversations into presentations. I found myself sharing some things again and again, and I turned those into presentation submissions for conferences. All that writing practice and all those conversations helped me polish the presentations into useful resources, which led to even more presentations.

I turned my presentations into drawings. Tired of bullet points, I started drawing my presentations. People really liked them, so I drew more and more. Since I enjoyed drawing my presentations and people liked them, I started drawing my notes for other people’s books and presentations as well. And that’s how I got to this point!

Next up: I want to turn my reading, experimenting, writing, conversations, presentations, and drawings into teaching. =) I want to get really good at organizing ideas step by step so that people can build small unfair advantages that turn into bigger ones. I want to get really good at helping people be inspired, and to help them follow those motivations to their goals. Let’s see how that works out!

How do your unfair advantages connect with each other? What’s the next unfair advantage you want to develop? I’d love to learn from your experiences so that we can get even better at making the most of unfair advantages.

Do I have any unfair advantages that you would like to develop? Are there other unfair advantages you want to try?

Sketchnotes, life – Weekly review: Week ending June 7, 2013

June 9, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Blog posts

Lots of coding, meeting people, and writing about life. =) And lots of illustration, too – new client! It’s fun to draw, and I’m becoming more and more comfortable with my evolving style.

After doing a lot of research, I finally decided on some things that are coming up ahead. We’ll see how it works out over the next year. I’m gradually getting used to making bigger decisions. This is good!

I’m making steady progress learning Japanese. I regularly review my AnkiDroid flashcards over breakfast and before going to bed. The listening decks are much easier for me to work with than the straight vocabulary decks, and they’re more fun too.

W- and I have been working on our backyard. We ordered 2.5 tonnes of gravel and 0.5 tonnes of limestone screenings, which will be delivered tomorrow. We’re taking the day off to shovel and compact gravel, which should be an interesting experience. I have a sketchnoting gig on Tuesday morning, so I have to make sure that I’m not too tired.

This week will be pretty busy with meetings and other commitments. I want to spend my extra time tweaking the way I plan and work so that I can make better progress on my projects and on my SOMEDAY/MAYBE list. The projects I’m doing well on (writing, drawing, coding, learning Japanese, gardening) are the ones that I tend to work on every day or so. There are some projects that I tend to postpone (Learn You an Emacs for Great Good?)–maybe I don’t care about them strongly enough yet, and that’s okay. I wonder if it’s because my main projects are the kinds of things that will absorb as much time and attention as I want to throw at them, and I like open-ended exploration instead of setting myself goals like “Draw a hundred faces.” Hmm. It might be fun to experiment with that other approach.

I also noticed that I’m not reading as much now. I’m not particularly energized by the books I’ve been getting out of the library or from publishers/publicists looking for visual book reviews, although I still flip through them looking for interesting nuggets. Something to reflect on and dig into. I wonder if I go through these cycles, and what I replace reading nonfiction with…

We were planning to visit the Philippines in August to celebrate my birthday with family, but for various reasons, we’ll probably postpone the trip to December instead. So August might be more of a staycation or focused month for personal projects. It’s tempting to make it the same as a regular work month (two days a week of consulting, and then other things), but it’s important to play with longer chunks of time too. So I’m gearing up to make the most of that time – maybe I’ll use it for lots of coding!

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Unstructured time, shaping your wants, and giving yourself permission

June 10, 2013 - Categories: life, productivity

I was talking to a couple of other Quantified Self Toronto members about the management of unstructured time, since one of them was taking a gap year from school and the other one had just wrapped up regular employment. “How do I make sure I don’t waste my time?” they asked.

Here’s what I’ve been learning from semi-retirement: it can be easy to make good use of your discretionary time. (And to feel like you’re making good use of it!)

When I was planning for this experiment, I worried that I would end up frittering away the time on frivolities that people frown on: vegetating on the couch, playing games, getting sucked into the blackholes of social media and random Internet browsing.

It turns out that when you fill your life with so many more interesting possibilities, it’s easy to choose those instead. It reminds me of something I’ve learned about finances, too. Many activities make me just as happy as other activities do, so I might as well pick activities that are free or inexpensive and that align with my values. Likewise, I might as well pick activities that give me multiple benefits or that align with how I want to spend my time. A movie is diverting and it’s also good for learning about emotions and storytelling, but watching a movie while folding laundry is more useful than watching a movie in the theatre. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating out. I enjoy writing, drawing, or spending time with W- more than I enjoy playing games.

So I don’t fill my days with plans or box myself in with calendared intentions. I look at the week ahead and list tasks that I need to remember, promises and appointments I’ve made, and maybe make space for one or two personal projects or ideas that I don’t want to forget about. I have a regular client engagement on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which I do because I like the client and what I get to help them with. Sometimes I take a week or an entire month off, to re-set my sense of time. Even during my regular weeks, I try to leave plenty of space.

It’s important to have space to follow where your interests and energy take you. 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. That way, if I don’t feel like writing, I don’t. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll code. Maybe I’ll work in the garden. Maybe I’ll tidy the house. Maybe I’ll read. Maybe I’ll plan.

I make exceptions for conversations. 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 to handle my scheduling, and I ask her to space some of the optional ones apart (maybe one a week?) so that I have room for focusing on my things. It’s a little weird scheduling three or more weeks in advance, but space is important.

The rest of the time goes to whatever I feel like doing the most at that moment. It helps that I feel good about the things that I want to do, like writing, coding, and drawing, and that many of the things I do are also valued by others. I remember coming across in some book (was it Early Retirement Extreme? I should dig that up again) the idea that you can raise your skill in some activities or hobbies to the point that people are willing to pay you for it (now or in the future). Other things like exercise or cleaning the kitchen have their own rewards.

Did I luck into wanting these things by nature, or did I shape my wants to fit what I wanted to do? It’s hard to say. Most of it feels natural, but I do consciously tweak my motivations. Here’s an example of where I’m deliberately working on hacking my wants: exercise. W-‘s been helping me build a strength training habit through lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. I also remind myself that the time I spend exercising will pay off both short-term and long-term, and that helps me get better at picking it over other alternatives (ex: bike to work and get some exercise versus work from home). It’s like what Mel wrote about digging out a path of least resistance so that it goes where you want to go. The other day, I was on my bike for almost 4 hours: 6 short trips, back and forth, covering mostly the same ground. I might not add as much to my “Done” list, but it’s good for me.

One of the benefits of choosing to spend my time this way is that it’s easy to say no to the common time-wasters that people often beat themselves up about. You don’t feel that need to escape because you haven’t been trying to keep yourself disciplined all day long. This also means that you aren’t wasting the emotional energy you’d otherwise use to beat yourself up about bad decisions. =) There are tasks that I postpone or don’t get around to, but it’s not because I suck. it’s just that I wanted to do other things instead, and I may get around to those tasks someday.

Even leisurely activities become experiments. I spent one Monday watching animé practically the whole day. I’m studying Japanese, so I watched the episodes with the original soundtrack and English subtitles. It was fun hearing the sounds start resolving themselves into intelligible words… and it was interesting feeling that barrier of “Oh, I should be doing productive things because it’s a weekday morning!” start to erode as I learned more about giving myself permission to follow my interests. (It turned out that watching those animé episodes was great for helping me follow along with the audio and the script. I often listen to just the audio as a way to immerse myself in the language and enjoy commuting or working… Bonus!)

Maybe the trick to managing an unstructured schedule isn’t to get better at discipline, but to get better at wanting good things, to get better at seeing the value in different activities. Then you can trust in yourself, with a little review and feedback so that you can tweak your course and make better decisions. At least that’s what seems to be working for me, and it might be something that would work for you too. =)

So that’s what three tons of stuff looks like…

June 10, 2013 - Categories: life

2013-06-10 09.58.58

Our major summer project is the fixing up of our backyard. The deck stairs had rotted and needed replacement. When W- ripped out the planks, he found that the stringers needed to be replaced too. It turned out that the deck wasn’t supported by enough posts. One of the posts it was supposed to be supported by was floating in mid-air, since the post had been placed on a patio stone that had since then sunk a little. So we poured a concrete post, and he redid the wooden post above it. Now we’re working on the patio stones so that the stringers for the stairs could sit on a stable surface, which means digging enough to lay 4” of gravel, 1” of limestone screenings, and patio stones.

This was our first time doing a bulk order of material: 2.5 tons of gravel and 0.5 tons of limestone screenings from Islington Nurseries. The truck dropped both off at 10am on Monday, onto the two tarps we’d laid out on the boulevard. We had looked for pictures to get an idea of just how much three tons of material would be like, and fortunately there were a few pictures that included dogs / shovels / other scales.

Three tons is a lot to think about (that’s almost an elephant!), but it was less intimidating in person. W- and me spent the better part of the day moving, leveling, and compacting the gravel, with frequent breaks for home-made pizza and brownies. We shoveled the gravel into buckets and dollied it over to the backyard, where we poured it out onto the area we’d dug up. Three neighbours offered to lend us wheelbarrows, but the bucket + dolley system worked out well for us because it kept the weight manageable.

It was our first time renting a power tool from Home Depot. This is W- with the vibratory tamper, and I took it for a few spins as well.

2013-06-10 17.56.35

One of the nice things about doing this together was that it turned into relationship and exercise time. Definitely counts as a strength workout, and now we have new in-jokes too. To wit: two new measures of comparison (how many tons of gravel something costs, and the sheer mass of a ton of rock), and a different spin on my sister and her husband’s catchphrase “Keep digging.”

Level up! Next step: lay more landscaping fabric (should’ve bought the biggest roll, oh well), shovel the limestone screenings on top, level that, and then lay the patio stones again. W- wants to replace the patio stones so that the backyard looks like we’ve done something to it. I’m fine with anything, with a slight preference for simple things that will get us closer to finishing this project. =)

This is definitely down the path of an Alternate Universe Sacha – when I was growing up, I never thought I’d be learning these things. I assumed I’d be living in an apartment someplace in the Philippines, probably close to a university… I’ve definitely travelled down a different pants-leg from what I imagined in high school. It’s good, though!

Now, the tricky part: will I be able to wake up in time for an early-morning sketchnoting engagement tomorrow? But first: dinner out, to celebrate. =)

Animating things in Emacs

June 11, 2013 - Categories: emacs

Some years ago, I came across M-x animate-birthday-present (and therefore animate-string and animate-sequence) while reading through the output of M-x apropos-command RET . RET, which lists all of the interactive commands. (Well worth exploring! The Emacs Manual also lists a few unusual things under “Amusements.”) It’s one of my favourite examples of odd things you can find in Emacs, like M-x doctor and M-x tetris. I use animate-string to create the title sequences of Emacs chats like this one with Bastien Guerry.

It turns out that lots of people use the Emacs text editor for animating things. Andrea Rossetti (from Trieste, Italy) e-mailed to share this little thing he put together to simulate typing in Emacs. And, boggle of boggles, someone even taught a course on Emacs Lisp Animations.

Next: Maybe someone can make an onion-skin animation mode to go on top of artist-mode so that we can make Emacs flipbooks? Winking smile

Sketchnotes: How to Live an Amazing Life (C.C. Chapman, Third Tuesday Toronto)

June 11, 2013 - Categories: life, sketchnotes

C.C. Chapman was in town to share insights from his latest book, Amazing Things Will Happen. Here are my sketchnotes from his talk tonight at Third Tuesday Toronto. =) Click on the image for a larger version, which should also print nicely on 8.5×11” in landscape mode. (Or even 11×17”!)

20130611 How to Live an Amazing Life - C.C. Chapman - Third Tuesday Toronto

Feel free to share this! (Creative Commons Attribution License – enjoy! Links are not required, but are welcome.)

For more about C.C. Chapman, check out his blog, podcast, or Twitter feed.

If you like this, you might also want to check out my other sketchnotes and visual book reviews, or download my collection of sketchnotes from 2012 (free/PWYC). It’s always fun helping good ideas spread!

Getting started with blogging when no one’s reading

June 12, 2013 - Categories: blogging, writing
This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

“So I’m planning to start a blog… How do I do it? How do I build an audience?”

It’s okay. Don’t worry. Write anyway.

Write notes for yourself, because writing can help you think and remember. Write about what you’re learning. Write about your answers to other people’s questions. Write about your own questions, and write about the answers you find.

At some point—and earlier than you think you’re ready—make it easy for people to come across your blog. Add it to your e-mail signature. Add it to your social media profiles. Let people find you, read you, and learn more about you.

Look for more questions to explore. Share your notes on your blog. Answer them where you found the question, too, and share a link. Soon you’ll find yourself saying in conversations, “Oh yeah! I wrote about that recently and…”

Read blogs, news, books, whatever you enjoy. Blog your questions, your thoughts, your lessons learned. Name-drop liberally: link to the person who wrote the post you’re thinking about, and maybe they’ll follow that back to find you. (Lots of people regularly search for their names, and many bloggers look at their analytics to see incoming links.) Comment on other people’s blogs, too – share what you’re learning from them and what questions you may have.

You find your community, person by person. But you can start by building your blog for yourself, this ever-growing accumulation of things you’re learning and things you’re curious about, this time machine that’s going to be an amazing resource when it’s 2023 and you’re wondering what you were like ten years ago. The conversations are icing on the cake.

My early blog posts are almost unintelligible. That’s because they were my class notes and computer notes, back when I was trying to figure out how to get a text editing program to publish web pages and maybe this newfangled idea of a “web log.” Your first blog posts don’t have to be ready for the New York Times. Just start, and don’t worry if no one’s reading. You can get plenty of value out of writing even on your own. (But post in public anyway, because the conversations are a lot of fun and you’ll learn a lot from people’s questions and insights.) Enjoy!

You might also like this: Six Steps to Sharing

Quantified Awesome: Analyzing time data–the questions I ask and how I answer them

June 13, 2013 - Categories: quantified

I track my time using QuantifiedAwesome.com because I’ve built an interface that fits the way I work (mobile/web, lets me backdate entries, lets me disambiguate categories with text), but you can use whatever works for you – even a paper notebook where you write down the time and the category.

Here are some of the questions I ask about time and how I slice the data to answer them.

First level of analysis

There are a lot of things you can quickly analyze based on time, particularly if you have durations already pre-calculated. Here’s what I often look at:

How much sleep am I getting? To answer this question, I split my time records by midnight so that I can easily get the sum of sleep durations per day. This accounts for naps and late nights much better than just looking at the starting timestamp does. I can quickly check my sleep length by looking at my dashboard, which shows me how much sleep I got the previous day. I also have some Emacs Lisp code that gets the data from QuantifiedAwesome using an API and calculates my average sleep for a week, which I include in my weekly reviews.

Am I working too much? I want to keep my “Business – Earn” total to less than or equal to 20 hours per week (50%), and my total business-related hours to be less than 44 hours per week. I do this because otherwise work can be tempting to focus on, and I want to remind myself to do other things as well. This is reported on my dashboard, and I also see it in my weekly reviews.

How much discretionary time do I have? How much time do I have for hobbies, socializing, and other activities outside work, chores, personal routines, and sleep? This helps me appreciate the freedom I have in each day and to focus on making the most of it. I can quickly see this by looking at the “Discretionary” row in my time review, or by adding categories and summing up the times in my spreadsheets. This is particularly mind-boggling to look at over a year. I had 1563 hours of discretionary time in 2012 – that’s a decent-sized time for developing skills or building relationships.

What do I spend my discretionary time on? How much am I using for socializing, productive interests, and relaxation? I answer this question by looking at my time review or by creating pivot tables in my spreadsheet. It turns out that I spend more time on social things than I expected, so I don’t feel as guilty about blocking off time to work on my own things. I also have a lot of productive hobbies, so I can give myself more permission to play with less productive things or give myself downtime.

Second level of analysis

This might involve throwing your data into a spreadsheet and playing around with it. Here’s where I start digging into patterns and correlations.

If I spend more time on some activities, where do I spend less time? I looked at correlations for time spent on various activities per day.

How consistently do I do things? I’m curious about whether my sleep times, bedtimes, workload, etc. vary wildly from week to week or if they’re fairly stable and predictable. It’s easy to get a sense of this by looking at graphs and calculating standard deviations.

How does my bedtime affect my wake-up time? I compared starting timestamps with ending timestamps, discarding naps and differentiating between weekdays and weekends. (I should rerun this analysis now that I have more control over my wake-up times…)

How frequently do I write? I extracted the date from each timestamp and visualized it using a heatmap.

How consistently do I bike, and when’s the earliest I started biking this year? How much have I saved by biking? I review my bike time or visualize it as a pivot table, a bar graph, or a heatmap in order to see patterns. (I biked in January! =D) Since most bike trips replace public transit trips (currently $2.60 per trip), I can also use my time data to estimate how much I’m saving. (259 trips in 2012 = ~$670+, 122 trips so far in 2013.)

Do I need longer chunks of time to concentrate? I looked at discretionary activities and counted how many took 4+ hours, 3 hours, 2 hours, 1 hour, or less than an hour. I look at the character of the activities, too, so that I can figure out what I might not be working on if I only have short periods of time. It turns out that I get a lot of things done even in 1-2 hour chunks, and I tend to not take advantage of longer chunks even if I have them. (Hmm, I should do an analysis to see the longest chunks of straight discretionary time I have…)

Does waking up early give me more discretionary time or longer chunks of time to work with? It turns out that I actually have a lot of “me” time even if I wake up at ~8 AM. Since this meshes well with my sleep needs if I stay up to 11 PM or 12 midnight, I can guiltlessly sleep in knowing that I’m not missing out on a lot of productivity.

How does bulk cooking affect our time? How often do we do it? I look at sparklines and pivot tables to get a sense of when we’re doing lots of bulk cooking. (I should analyze this to find out how much time we actually save and where it goes to…)

How do my patterns shift over time? What hobbies did I pick up or let go? How does my life adapt to external events and other commitments? Pivot tables, sparklines and line graphs are great for looking at the patterns in my data.

How much time does it take me to get somewhere compared to, say, the estimates from Google Maps? I can figure this out by looking at the estimate before the trip and then comparing it with the time I’ve logged (door to door ). For example, a recent bike trip that was 32 minutes in Google was actually more like 43 minutes (including waiting for downtown traffic lights and finding someplace to lock up my bike). My morning commute is 36 minutes according to Google and around 48 minutes by my clock.

Third level of analysis: What do I want to do with my life?

This is where I take a step back and check: Am I happy? Is W- happy? Do I need to shift the way that I spend my time? What would I like to move my time towards? Am I getting the kind of value that I want to get out of my time? Then I can experiment. For example, I’m currently experimenting with increasing the time I spend exercising, and I’m curious about how that affects other parts of my life.

Wrapping up…

You can get a ton of information out of simple time tracking, even without anything else to correlate it with. Durations, start and end times, frequencies… There’s a lot you can do with a spreadsheet, some charts, or your own tools.

It gets even more interesting when you start matching it up with other data. One day I should try comparing my bike data with temperature and wind, or time spent cooking with how many portions we produce and at what cost per portion. =)

I get a lot of value out of my time-tracking. It helps me stay focused and be aware of the moment. I like reviewing and analyzing my data, too. I’m experimenting with ways to capture short sprints of more detail so that I can ask even more questions, and I love comparing notes with other people who track their time.

Check out more posts about my Quantified Self tracking!

Priming the idea pump

June 14, 2013 - Categories: idea

I really like Sumana Harihareswara’s post on ‘From “sit still” to “scratch your own itch”’ because she shares great tips for people who don’t feel like they have big ideas of their own. I’ve been learning more and more about building things based on my own ideas. I often hear from people who struggle with coming up with ideas and who don’t feel like they fit in, or who are waiting for that one great idea before they go ahead and explore their dreams. There are lots of ways to get started even without that clear spark, though, and it’s great to read about some things you can pay attention to.

Here are Sumana’s tips and how I can relate to them from my own life:

  1. Embrace boringness. It’s good to know you don’t have to create something new and wonderful all the time. It’s okay to not always be breaking new ground. I spend time writing about everyday things and trying out things that lots of other people have figured out before, like cooking, and sometimes I find interesting ideas along the way.
  2. Embrace silliness. It’s okay to play instead of always trying to solve big problems. Drawing is starting to become play for me, and coding can be fun and silly too. (Like the time I made a smiley-face generator…) One of the things I love about W- is that we can be silly together. The other week he made funny sounds by patting his cheeks, which boggled and delighted me, so I had to go and figure out how to do that too. =)
  3. Find someone else’s pain point. I like doing this a lot. I get a kick out of writing a small tool or creating a script that automates a painful or repetitive part of someone else’s work.
  4. It’s fine to take a class. I’m not as good at doing this because I often talk myself out of spending money on in-person classes and I haven’t really engaged much with online classes. That said, I enjoyed my sewing class, and I learned a lot from my Japanese lessons. Maybe I should give this another try!
  5. Work with scraps. I like doing this with writing. I pick up scraps of ideas from books, blog posts, questions, and experiences, and I combine them into new blog posts. When coding, I pick up scraps of API functionality and write something that glues them together. There are so many good things out there. I could probably spend the rest of my life connecting the dots instead of adding new ones, and that would still be a good life.

If you’ve ever told yourself, “But I don’t have any good ideas!”, you may want to check out Sumana’s blog post:

From “sit still” to “scratch your own itch”

Backyard work; Weekly review: Week ending June 14, 2013

June 15, 2013 - Categories: weekly

W- and I spent all of Monday shoveling three tons of gravel and limestone screenings. The backyard is slowly taking shape. Whee! I like spending time with W-, and it’s good to get stuff done.

I’ve been experimenting with keeping my weekly plans pretty loose, putting down only my commitments instead of including optional tasks that I end up postponing anyway. I give myself plenty of space in my schedule, and then I work on whatever projects I’m interested in. My Emacs Org text file keeps a lot of TODOs and ideas to work on, and there are always things to learn. My interests tend to go in phases. These days, I lean more towards writing and coding than drawing visual book reviews, so my book backlog is piling up. C’est la vie!

Blog posts

Accomplished this week

Plans for next week

Time review

Web experiments this week: Webinar on “How to Improve Your Visual Thinking” and a Google Hangout on blogging; would love to connect with you!

June 17, 2013 - Categories: blogging, connecting, visual

This Wednesday, I’m experimenting with two virtual ways to connect, and I hope you’ll join me in figuring things out!

From 3 PM EDT to 4 PM EDT on June 19 (Wed), I’m joining Augustin Soler and Chuck Frey to give a visual thinking webinar organized by Matt Tanguay. We’re each giving a 15-minute presentation with Q&A. Augustin will talk about Lean UX Process at Mural.ly, Chuck will talk about 5 Brainstorming Tasks You Can Manage with Mindmapping Software, and I’ll talk about How to Use Evernote to Improve Your Visual Thinking. There’s a nominal fee of $5, but you can register for free with the promotional code “sachachua”.

Spoiler alert! Here are my notes. Winking smile 

image

By the way, you can find my public Evernote notebook of sketchnotes at https://www.evernote.com/pub/sachac/sketchnotes .

I’ll do a quick demo of my Evernote setup and processes, and I hope people will pick up lots of timesavers and interesting ideas from the short talk. It builds on my previous blog post about how I use Evernote to support my sketchnoting. Since a lot of people don’t know that you can use Evernote to search image notes or publish notebooks of your sketches, it’s good to share these tips.

15 minutes each is not much time for demo/Q&A, but if people ask lots of questions in the webinar chat, I’d love to answer those questions in follow-up blog posts and conversations. I’ll be recording it on my side, and Matt will probably record it on his side as well. Looking forward to sharing the notes afterwards too!

In addition to the webinar, I’m also experimenting with an open Google Hangout about blogging from 8PM to 9PM EDT on Wednesday, June 19. I’ve been thinking about where we can take this blog and what I can do to make it better, and I’d love to hear from people. Google Hangout seems like an interesting way to connect. =) If I can get to know people through that – what are you here for? what would you like to learn more about? – and get lots of questions either over video or in the text chat, I think that would totally rock. Shall we give it a try?

To give you a sense of what it’ll be like, here’s a rough sketch that I’ll use at the start of the hangout:

20130619 Living an Awesome Life - Hangout 1

I’m really interested in virtual meetups and communities because I don’t want good ideas to be limited to geographic locations. I want to help figure out ways that people can connect and share—visual thinking, sketchnoting, Quantified Self, Emacs, blogging… Although Toronto has a very active in-person meet-up scene, there are all sorts of interesting people around the world, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to bump into each other online. Can you help me experiment with these ways and figure out how to do even better?

If you’re interested, you can register for the visual thinking webinar (again, free with the promotional code sachachua, but paying for admission helps the organizer defray the cost of the online meeting service) or sign up for the Google Hangout (when it’s time for the event, just click on the “Hangouts” link to join the call!). I’d love to hear your questions and suggestions about the topics, and your meta-feedback about these ways to connect online!

Oooh, Camtasia Studio 8.1 now has green-screening–which means awesome sketch videos just got easier!

June 18, 2013 - Categories: drawing, geek

When I got today’s e-mail announcement of Camtasia Studio 8.1, I was super-excited. You see, one of the new features is Remove Colour, which is also known as green-screening (although you can use other colours if you want). This is great for people who want to splice video with other video, like dropping in another background or placing your video on top of your screenshots. Getting an evenly-lit, well-coloured background can be a challenge when doing green-screening…

… but if you’re drawing digitally, it’s a piece of cake. =) And it lets you do cool stuff! See below:

In the past, I’ve done a few short animations using digital sketches. To keep things on track without running out of space, I pre-draw my sketches, then trace over them. I used Artrage Studio Pro for this because it allowed you to record and replay drawing strokes, so I could draw everything, start recording, and then redraw the image. I like Autodesk Sketchbook Pro much better, though. I’d been thinking about buying a separate video editing program to handle greenscreening, but having it built into Camtasia Studio is even better.

Here’s how I did this video:

  1. I drew an image using a color I knew I wasn’t going to be using in the final image. For fun, I used non-photo blue (rgb: 164, 221, 237), which is one of the colours that artists use when sketching on paper because it practically disappears when the drawing is scanned in grayscale.
  2. I started the Camtasia recording and drew over my image using a different color.
  3. I edited the Camtasia recording, splitting the tracks and turning on Remove Color for some parts. I also added some text callouts.

Tada!

You can find the Remove Color option under Visual Properties (select More > Visual Properties if you don’t see it). Enjoy!

Visual Book Review: Customer CEO: How to Profit from the Power of Your Customers (Chuck Wall)

June 19, 2013 - Categories: visual-book-notes

Chuck Wall’s book Customer CEO: How to Profit from the Power of Your Customers (Bibliomotion, 2013) is all about listening to the customer, with plenty of examples from established companies. While the tips may seem obvious (of course it makes sense to listen!), the chapters, examples, and advice make it easier to focus on each aspect of listening to customers so that you can shape your business around them.

Click on the image to view or download a larger version of my visual book summary/review.

20130618 Visual Book Review - Customer CEO - How to Profit from the Power of Your Customers

Feel free to share this visual book review! (Creative Commons Attribution – I’d love it if you link back to this site and tell me about it. =) ) It should print out fine on letter-sized paper, too.

For more information or a free chapter, see Customer CEO Consulting (their blog has lots of examples).

Intrigued by the ideas? You can check your local library to see if they have a copy, or buy your own copy below (hardcover / Kindle).

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review, and I’ll get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon using the link above.

Check out my other visual book reviews!

Here’s the recording from “How to use Evernote to improve your visual thinking”

June 19, 2013 - Categories: process, visual

Check out my Evernote resource page for the one-page summary and Q&A. Enjoy!

Getting to know people who read this blog–hooray for hangout experiment #1!

June 20, 2013 - Categories: blogging, connecting, learning

Quick link to details of upcoming hangouts: http://sachachua.com/hangout

*squee!* It turns out that virtually hanging out with people–no pre-planned presentation, not even a fully-tested understanding of the platform, and only the roughest idea of an agenda–can be totally awesome. Not at all as scary as I’d imagined, and more fun than I thought it could be!

It felt amazing, like having a bunch of friends over for tea, except without the temptation to keep cooking. People were freely chatting with each other, and I didn’t have to worry about filling in the silences. In fact, the combination of a voice/video/text chat worked out wonderfully – I could listen to people share their insights, and I could chime in without interrupting. I picked up lots of ideas for things I want to learn more about or share, and I learned all sorts of interesting things about people who participated.

It was a great shared learning experience, too. People talked me through dealing with the platform’s technical limitations – changing the Hangout to a Hangout on Air, remembering to start the broadcast… We played around with some of the features of Google Hangout. Hangout Toolbox’s “Lower Third” adds a newscast-like attribution to your video, which makes it easier to see who’s speaking. Google Drive’s shared documents and sketchpad real-time editing sparked ideas about collaboration.

NEXT STEPS IN TERMS OF HANGING OUT

So this was fun, and we should definitely do an experiment #2. =) I’m so glad people joined me in this experiment, and I’m looking forward to the next one! Which will be… hmm… I’ve promised to organize ones in other timezones as well, so July 3 9 PM PHT / 1 PM GMT / 9 AM EDT, and another one on July 17  at 8:30 PM EDT.  =) I think a fun way to make this work is to sort out the scheduling details with at least one other person who can be there. That way, even if no one else shows up and it’s a short conversation, I won’t feel like I’m talking to myself. Winking smile 

For the next virtual hangout, I want to try using AnyMeeting so that people don’t get turned away at the (virtual) door. Google Hangouts are limited to ten people, although more people can watch the video stream. (They don’t have access to the text chat, though!) I can imagine that audio/video gets chaotic past a certain number of people, but if people can toggle their audio/video on as needed and we use the text chat to let any number of people ask and answer… I think that would be a great possibility to explore.

In the meantime, people can discuss topics or connect with each other through Google+ or other channels. Once the recording is up there, it’ll be easier for people to remember what we talked about. Since it’s difficult to take notes and listen and talk and type all at the same time, my memory’s all fuzzy until I get a chance to review the recording, too! I look forward to digging into some of the ideas (see “Next steps in terms of blogging” below for the ones I remember), and maybe people can connect with other people to follow up on things that sparked their interest.

Maybe I’ll inch my way up towards regularly doing this every month, every two weeks (or even every week!) in various timezones. I like the idea of hanging out, getting to know people, hearing what’s on people’s minds and what’s going on in people’s lives, and watching people connect with others. I’ve learned so much from people through blog comments and e-mail through the years. Maybe it’s like an open house, like the way I structure my get-togethers so that people can come any time they want and leave any time they need to. I can just sit down with a cup of tea and hear from whoever wants to share what’s going on in their life – maybe anchored with one conversation that I know I’m going to have, but opened up to anyone who wants to drop by. I don’t know whether public recording or unknown participation will get in the way of sharing, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Another way to look at it—probably an even better way—maybe this is about creating more opportunities to learn from people, and by learning from people, I can help those people learn even more. Most people don’t blog, or they feel self-conscious about writing when they don’t know who’s reading. One of my favourite ads is this IBM Linux one from 2003, where lots of people teach this young boy about life. I often feel that my life is like that, except maybe with more facial expressions and sound effects. ;) If you help me (or the other people who come to these hangouts), you help lots of other people, and maybe those tips get turned into blog posts or visual notes too. So maybe we pick things we want to learn about together, and people volunteer to share what they’ve learned, and we all move forward while also telling stories and swapping tips… =)

NEXT IN TERMS OF BLOGGING

More collaboration: It might be interesting to put my to-blog list out there in a form that other people can add to—maybe a Google Doc? And maybe if I develop closer connections with people reading this blog, then people will feel comfortable pushing back when I don’t explain something clearly or I take something for granted so that I can learn how to write better. =) Maybe I can collaborate with people on outlines and questions for things that I should write or make: that Emacs book that I ended up passing to someone else (who also procrastinated it)? a guide to sketchnoting? tips on how to live an awesome life?

I’d love to learn more about speech recognition. I’ve been thinking about it as a way to make my posts sound more conversational. (I read much more than I talk, so I tend to sound bookish.) Because I need to train the speech recognition model, I’ll probably be slower in the beginning. If I can get it to be reasonably accurate, it might be a good way to get thoughts out quickly someday.

Helping people get better at blogging: While I don’t have the One Right Answer, I can share what’s working for me, and I might be able to help people—especially if they can figure out what kind of help they need, like a little bit of social accountability or a friendly person they can ask when they have questions. =)

Onward and upward! I’ve created a new page at sachachua.com/hangout that will include details for upcoming hangouts. Looking forward to more experiments!

How hacking my wants helped me experiment with early retirement

June 21, 2013 - Categories: experiment, finance, life

During his Third Tuesday Toronto talk on How to Live an Amazing Life (see notes), C.C. Chapman saw me sketchnoting near the front and called it out as an example of a creative and unusual profession. He asked (probably rhetorically) how I explain it to other people. I said that I usually told people I was retired, which boggled even more people. He said I should tell my story more.

So this is where I am, how I got here, and what I’m learning along the way. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, so this is definitely not a recipe for how you should live your life. (Hard to plan for luck!) But maybe it helps show some of the possibilities, and maybe that will shape some of your decisions, and maybe that will lead you to living an even awesomer life than I do. (Please share your notes!)

How I prepared for this phase

It helped that I had never been buried in debt. I graduated without student loans, thanks to scholarships, assistantships, and my parents’ financial support. My mom had drilled into us the importance of never carrying a credit card balance and of living within our means. I’ve never had a car, so I’ve never had a car loan. W- owns the house we live in, so I’ve never had a mortgage. My parents are doing all right, and so far they haven’t had any major health issues. This gives me a lot more space than most people have, and I’m grateful for this excellent start.

I had saved the majority of my income ever since I started working at IBM. I grew up reading personal finance books, so when I started working, I was excited by the opportunity to practise good habits and resist lifestyle inflation. I knew I wanted to try other things someday, and a good nest egg would help me with that. I remembered how my sister saved up for her trip to South Africa. She told us how she would say to herself something like: "One hamburger here, or one more day in Africa?" That made it easier for her to make frugal decisions. I also learned how to think about expenses in terms of how much time it took me to earn the money to pay for them. Was that purchase really worth several hours or even days of my life? Usually, the answer was no.

Keeping my wants simple meant that I didn’t feel deprived. I kept the same lifestyle I had enjoyed as a graduate student, aside from occasional new expenses like buying office clothes. I still enjoyed home-cooked meals, books from the library, and taking public transit or my bicycle; I didn’t need to swap those out just because I was earning more. I didn’t buy designer handbags, perfume, or makeup. W- and I agreed that we wouldn’t buy each other gifts. Stuff was just stuff, after all. Reading books like A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy helped me realize that a lot of luxuries that other people might consider part of happiness are entirely optional and could easily be substituted by inexpensive or free activities that I enjoy. I’m a happy person by default, and I’d learned early on that happiness doesn’t come if you chasing after it. That and growing up in an advertising photography studio probably helped me gain a resistance to marketing, which made it easy for me to focus on simple joys.

I’d learned from Early Retirement Extreme and Mr. Money Mustache that reducing your expenses can drastically increase the rate at which you earn your freedom. A penny saved is more than a penny earned. If you spend $2 for every $4 you earn, you free up a year for every year you work. If you reduce that to $1 for every $4 you earn, you free up three years for every year you work. This gave me even more incentive to shift my spending to the things that really mattered to me instead of frittering it away.

After I filled up a decent-sized emergency fund, I split my savings among long-term investments as well as a short-term opportunity fund. The long-term investments were for peace of mind, while the opportunity fund was for learning how to make better decisions. I figured that as long as I was saving at least 10-20% for the long term, I’d be well ahead of where most people would be at my age. In practice, I ended up saving much more than that, and it was liberating.

Following Tim Ferriss’ advice in the 4-Hour Work Week to figure out the actual costs of your ideal lifestyle, I realized that I didn’t actually need that much money to support the modest lifestyle that I wanted. After tracking my expenses for more than seven years, I had a good idea of what my core and discretionary expenses were. When I estimated how much I needed, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was practically there in terms of my opportunity fund. I set aside what I needed for five years using laddered GICs, and I left my long-term investments alone as a safety net.

As I was building up that opportunity fund, I started planning what I could do with it. I wanted to learn about building businesses that could fit into the kind of lifestyle I wanted: plenty of time at home with family and other interests. I talked to many mentors about their careers – consulting, web development, startups, small companies, large corporations. Many people wished they had more time, but they were handcuffed by their financial commitments: a mortgage, college educations, private schools, expensive hobbies, and so on. If I kept my expenses low and saved up enough, I could free myself (even temporarily), and then explore from there.

I decided that instead of waiting until I had sorted everything out, I would take a risk and move some years from my "retirement," like the way Stefan Sagmeister interrupts his work with year-long sabbaticals. But I wanted more time than that, and five years seemed like a good chunk of time to work with. Statistically speaking, most businesses fail within their first five years. If I gave myself at least five years without worrying about cashflow, I probably had a decent chance of learning enough about business to build something that can last me a while. Besides, five years would be longer than my high school, longer than the time I spent in university, longer than the time I worked at IBM… If I could learn so much and grow so much during those periods, I should be able to make good use of five years too. I figured that if I could give myself the space to explore these possibilities, I should, since not many people get a chance to do so.

Like the way I get ready for other risks, I plumbed the possibilities of failure. What if I ended up with nothing to show for the five years? I’d probably have at least a story, though – people are really good at rationalization. What if something happened to W-? If I kept in touch with people and I kept my skills sharp, I could probably go back into web development or consulting easily. What if? What if? What if? When I was comfortable with the downsides as well as the upsides, I gave myself the go-ahead.

The timing worked out wonderfully. I had a one-on-one meeting scheduled with my manager to discuss the results of the yearly performance review. He told me that once again, I’d received a top rating. I told him that was fantastic – and that I was planning to leave in order to start on this experiment. I really liked working with IBM and was happy to leave at a convenient time for the team, so they asked me to stay on for a couple of projects that needed my web development skills. A few months later, I wrapped up all my work, and I started my experiment in February 2012.

So far, it’s awesome

Thanks to amazing people, I hit the ground running. I had expected to flounder around a little trying to find ways to create value, but people stepped forward right away with suggestions. A former colleague had read my blog posts preparing for the experiment and wanted to know if I was interested in working with his team, so I had my first consulting client lined up. Another friend needed help with Rails development, so I experimented with that as well. I picked the brains of mentors who helped me spot opportunities and avoid pitfalls. I read forum messages and blog posts. There’s so much out there to learn from.

I tried out different business models and found ones resonated with me. I got better at floating ideas and getting to that first sale. I dove deeper into skills that I wanted to improve, like sketchnoting and programming. If this is what I can learn in a little less than a year and a half, I can’t wait to see how the rest of the experiment will unfold.

If things work out really, really well, this is how I imagine this five-year experiment succeeding: I’ve learned and shared a ton, and I’m ready for more. I could easily see it extending to a lifetime. Wouldn’t that be neat?

After C.C. Chapman’s talk on how to live an amazing life, the people I chatted with told me they didn’t pick up anything particularly new, although they enjoyed his talk. Likewise, there’s very little that’s new in what I do, if there’s anything new at all. I just want to illuminate possibilities and show that you can get there in small, non-scary steps. I want to help people explore these paths, whether it’s experimenting with life, quantifying/analyzing your decisions, sketching your notes and plans, writing code for fun… I work on this by learning, writing, drawing, and making things, and I’m going to get even better at this learn-share-scale cycle as we go on.

If you want to do this too…

Hack your wants. I have simple wants, and what I want the most is time. I deliberately dig into what I want and what I can give up. Wants are more changeable than you might think, and letting go of attachments can actually be pretty fun. Frugality follows naturally from this, and savings follow frugality. I think it’s easier to shape your wants than it is to force yourself to be frugal if you don’t want to be. Then save, save, save, because that safety net makes all sorts of interesting things possible (and less stressful).

Have a supportive partner. This is a huge part of what makes it possible, and I often thank W- for helping me explore this experiment. He thinks it’s a good experiment and could possibly pay off well for us in terms of the decisions we want to make in life, and that means a lot to me. We have a simple lifestyle and are both frugal. It’s super-helpful to have a spouse who’s on the same financial page. It’s easy to imagine how this could’ve gone differently. If W- had disapproved of the idea or if we had a two-income mortgage, it would be much harder to explore this, or I might not even have tried it. I could probably have done this on my own, but it would have been more difficult to save up, the jump would have been much riskier, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

It’s a little difficult to tell people, "Oh, make sure you have a supportive partner," so this is not really advice. But if you do happen to have a supportive partner, work on making the most of life together. Be that supportive partner, too. Investing in relationships pays off a lot.

Get help from other people, and help others. I learn a ton from people’s experiences as shared in books, blog posts, forum messages, e-mail, Skype / Google Hangout / phone / in-person conversations, and so forth. I get opportunities from people who are willing to take a bet on me. I always learn a lot while answering questions or helping people out. I’m amazed by the results of betting on other people, too – the world is a candy store of talents.

There’s a lot that I’m forgetting to explain because I take it for granted or because I don’t know that it’s missing, so please ask! =)

Webinars and hangouts; Weekly review: Week ending June 21, 2013

June 22, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Lots of recordings this week: a quick demo of a new Camtasia Studio feature, a webinar I gave on Evernote and visual thinking, and an experimental hangout. =) Check out the links in the list below!

Blog posts

Focus areas and time review

I’m experimenting with a different way of doing my weekly reviews. I want to see if this makes it easier to identify next actions for each area of focus. I’m trying to find a good balance between adding things that I’ll just end up postponing, and losing sight of stuff I want to make progress on. If I make sure there are built-in entries for the things I care about, that’s a good reminder. Then I might tweak my Org task management and agenda to make it easier to review tasks for personal projects.

Quick question: What would you prefer for shorter URLs?

June 24, 2013 - Categories: blogging

UPDATE 2013-06-27: All right, we’re going with sach.ac as the URL shortener. Thanks for your input! =D

shortener

I draw a lot of notes, and I want to give people an easy way to find out more. URLs can get really long to type in, and sometimes the sketches are displayed for only a short period of time. I’ve been using the j.mp URL shortener (bonus: statistics!), but I don’t want to rely on a third-party service which could disappear and break links down the road. Besides, j.mp/bit.ly/etc. are sometimes blocked from corporate networks.

So I decided to register my own short domain. This adds to my yearly blog-related expenses, but I think it will make it much easier for people to learn more. After searching for lots of alternatives, it turns out that sach.ac and liv.gd were still available as domains. I like sach.ac because it’s based on my nickname, although people are going to mentally punctuate my name oddly (it’s actually Sacha C.). People frequently misspell “Sacha” as “Sasha”, so I also registered Liv.gd as a shortcut for LivingAnAwesomeLife.com, which is an alternate domain name for this site. (I use that when I don’t have the opportunity to spell my name out for people, or if I want people to smile and remember.) Liv.gd = “Live Good”… which is ungrammatical but fun.

So… Any thoughts on which to choose? (If you don’t see the poll, please check out this post on my website!)

[poll id=”3″]

I might even shift to using one of those short URLs as my “main” domain (the one that gets shown in links and in the address bar)…

[poll id=”4″]

Here are some sample URLs for this post, to give you an idea of what the shortened URLs will look like:

sach.ac/shortener – liv.gd/shortener

Technical notes, if you’re interested:

I registered liv.gd with names.gd for 25 USD a year, and sach.ac with nic.ac for 60 GBP a year. If you’re registering an .ac domain, check resellers to see if you can get it cheaper – I should’ve gotten the domain from hexonet.net instead (27 GBP). Pricey experiment, but that’s what the opportunity fund is for!

After I registered the domains, I configured them to use Linode’s nameservers and added them to my Nginx web server configuration. I’m using WordPress’ Redirection plugin to handle custom redirects, so that all of my blog post URLs are automatically available as sach.ac/… and I can define custom ones as needed. =)

So, what do you think?

Mohiomap: A visual way to browse your Evernote notebook

June 25, 2013 - Categories: geek

Evernote is a great tool for taking notes, but sometimes searching and browsing those notes can get unwieldy if you have thousands of items. For example, searching my notebooks for “evernote” gets me >130 results, which look a little like this in Evernote’s desktop application:

image

This is great if I can narrow things down with notebooks, keywords, and tags, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to explore better?

Christian Hirsch (who has been working on quite a few visual interfaces to wikis and knowledgebases) reached out to me about Mohiomap, which links up with your Evernote notebook and lets you see it as an interactive map.

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You can click on notes to navigate further and to see a preview in the left sidebar.

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You can expand items without closing the previous ones, so it’s a handy tool for exploration. I like the way that they indicate number of other entries with both a thicker line as well as a larger circle – the thicker lines are easier to follow when you’re starting from a node.

The trick with new tools is to figure out how you want to fit them into your workflow. Right now, Mohiomap is a visualization and search tool. What new questions can I ask with this interface? How can I use it to learn more?

It looks like the first use (browsing through related notes) might be the most relevant for me. Let’s see how well Evernote’s recommendation algorithm works!

Other thoughts: Plus points for making the back button work and keeping graphs individually bookmarkable. =) I’d love to be able to add more search results, like viewing 50 or 100 at a time – or viewing a graph of the tags in my entire Evernote knowledgebase, which would be nifty. Dynamic force-directed networks can be disconcerting because of the motion. It might be great to have different views of it in addition to the current interface – maybe something more constrained like the way FreeMind or thebrain.com work?

UserVoice appears to be the place for suggestions related to Mohiomap. Looking forward to seeing this grow, and any other apps that visualize your data!

How I use Emacs Org Mode for my weekly reviews

June 26, 2013 - Categories: emacs, geek

Summary: I use a custom Emacs Lisp function to extract my upcoming tasks and logged tasks from my Org agenda, and I combine that with data from QuantifiedAwesome.com using a JSON interface.

I use Emacs Org Mode to keep track of my tasks because of its flexibility. It’s difficult to imagine doing the kinds of things I do with a different task management system. For example, I’ve written some code that extracts data from my Org Mode task list and my QuantifiedAwesome.com time log to give me the basis of a weekly review. Here’s what my workflow is like.

Throughout the week, I add tasks to Org Mode to represent things that I plan to do. I also create tasks for things I’ve done that I want to remember, as I find that I forget things even within a week. I track my time through QuantifiedAwesome.com, a website I built myself for tracking things that I’m curious about.

On Saturday, I use M-x sacha/org-prepare-weekly-review, which:

Here’s what the raw output looks like:

image

I like including a list of blog posts so that people can click on them if they missed something during the week. Besides, my blog posts often help me remember what I did that week. I customized my WordPress theme to give me an org-friendly list if I add ?org=1 to the date URL. For example, here’s the list for this month: sachachua.com/blog/2013/06/?org=1 . I copy and paste the relevant part of the list (or lists, for weeks near the beginning or end of a month) into the *Blog posts section*. I could probably automate this, but I haven’t bothered.

Then I organize the past and future tasks by topic. Topics are useful because I can see which areas I’ve been focusing on and which ones I’ve neglected. I do this organization manually, although I could probably figure out how to use tags to jumpstart the process. (setq org-cycle-include-plain-lists 'integrate) means that I can use TAB to hide or show parts of the list. I use M-<down> and M-<right> for most of the tasks, and I also cut and paste lines as needed. Because my code sorts tasks alphabetically, I’m starting to name tasks with the context at the beginning to make them easier to organize.

If I remember other accomplishments, I add them to this list. If I think of other things I want to do, I add them to the list and I create tasks for them. (I should probably write a function that does that…)

The categories and time totals are part of the weekly review template inserted by sacha/org-prepare-weekly-review. I use my smartphone or laptop to track time whenever I switch activities, occasionally backdating or editing records if I happen to be away or distracted. If I’m at my computer, I sometimes estimate and track time at the task level using Org Mode’s clocking feature. Since I’m not consistent with task-based time-tracking, I use that mainly for investigating how much time it takes me to do specific things, and I don’t automatically include that in my reports.

When I’m done, I use org2blog/wp-post-subtree to publish the draft to my blog. I preview it in WordPress to make sure everything looks all right, and then publish it.

It’s wonderful being able to tweak your task manager to fit the way you work. Yay Emacs, Org Mode, WordPress, and making your own tools!

Thinking about small talk at networking events

June 27, 2013 - Categories: connecting, kaizen

There’s always something happening in Toronto, and I go to one or two events each week. Most events have a social portion where people network. I’ve found this part difficult in the past. I tend to treat events as mainly opportunities to catch up with people I already know from the Internet or previous interactions, with the occasional introduction to someone new or a serendipitously overheard conversation that leads to more thoughts.

When it comes to meeting new people, I find it easier to focus on what people are interested in or what people need, and to promise to send them my notes from the event. That’s what I wanted to share in the The Shy Connector. Now that I’m moving even further away from the standard model of people who go to these events, it would be great to figure out how to structure the conversation in order to give the most value. If I let the conversation take the path of least resistance to the “So, what do you do?” question, it seems to end up going nowhere particularly useful.

Basic thoughts I can focus on:

What do I really want out of these small-talk conversations? I’ve enjoyed it the most when people recognize me from previous events’ sketchnotes or my blog, and we can launch into a conversation with a clear, common interest. I can’t always have that, and I should take the initiative to make other people feel more comfortable. What do I want?

For the next few events I’m going to, I’ll try these conversational approaches:

Planning a Quantified Self workshop on time tracking

June 28, 2013 - Categories: quantified, teaching

image

The other Quantified Self Toronto organizers and I have been thinking about following up on the “slow data” workshop idea from the QS Conference in Europe this year, which Eric Boyd is really keen on. The idea is that self-tracking takes time to plan, to get data, to get back into collecting data after you’ve fallen out of the habit, to analyze data, to revise your experiment based on what you learned… so although 15-minute bursts of inspiration are great for showing people what people are working on, wouldn’t it be nice to go through an extended workshop with support at just the right moments? Based on our survey results, people might even be willing to pay for monthly or semi-monthly workshops.

I’m interested in tracking time much more than I’m interested in health or other popular self-tracking topics, so I’d love to experiment with building resources and workshops for people who are interested in tracking time as well. The payoff? I’d love to be able to compare questions, data, and conclusions.

Here’s what that workshop might look like:

Session 1: The Whys and Hows of Tracking Time

Session 2: Staying on the Wagon + Preliminary Analysis

Session 3: Analyzing your data

Session 4: More ways you can slice and dice your data

Session 5: Making data part of the way you live

Session 6: Designing your own experiments

Session 7: Recap, Show & Tell

Does that progression make sense?

Eric thinks this would work out as a local workshop here in Toronto. I’m curious about what it would be like as a virtual workshop, too. We might even be able to experiment with both. Is this something you might be interested in? If you’re a QS organizer, would you like to give it a try in your own meetup?

I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below, or sign up with your e-mail address so that we can talk about it in e-mail. =)

[contact-form subject=’Quantified Time Workshop’][contact-field label=’Your e-mail’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Where would you like the workshop?’ type=’radio’ options=’Toronto-based,Online’/][contact-field label=’Is there anything else you%26#039;d like to learn about in terms of time tracking?’ type=’textarea’/][/contact-form]

Tools and tracking: Week ending June 28, 2013

June 29, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Blog posts

Other things I learned this week

Focus areas and time review

Wonton movie marathon

June 30, 2013 - Categories: cooking, family, life

imageJuly 1 is Canada Day, so we have a three-day weekend. No big plans, aside from cooking enough to fill our freezer and spending some time hanging out with W-‘s family.

Yesterday, we biked to three libraries to see what they had in stock, picking up books and movies to help us pass the time during the long weekend. The haul included eight movies and one TV series, a bucketload of business books, and a number of comic books.

As the librarian scanned the last item in my pile (the 40th anniversary edition of Mary Poppins), she told me: “That’s going to put you over the 50-item limit.”

I puppy-dog-eyed my husband, who dutifully handed over his library card so that the remaining item could be checked out under his name. (Technically, we have access to each other’s account, so I could’ve checked it out without him. It’s easier to use his physical card, though.)

We unloaded the books, then headed over to stock up on groceries. Our favourite wonton wrappers were back, so it was settled: a wonton-making marathon.

We moved the dining table into the living room. We had to disassemble the table in order to fit it through the narrow door, but it was worth it. Last time we made a ton of wontons, we sat on the couch and leaned forward to work on the coffee table. The dining table was much better, ergonomically speaking. No back aches or neck aches.

The packages of wonton wrappers we get usually contain 74 wrappers each, although some have as few as 62 usable ones. We filled each wrapper with a teaspoon of the meat mix (pork, shrimp, green onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, pepper), sealed it with a dab of water, and folded it into the characteristic wonton shape. We boiled each set in two batches, cooled the wontons in water, and then scooped the wontons into our standard food containers: 15-16 wontons, roughly 260 grams. Naturally, we had to test some from each batch for quality control.

We used to cram the containers full before, but our consumption rate was way too high. (No one ever leaves extra wontons in the container.)

This is what we do with our long weekends. =) Fun!