August 2013

Sketchnote Lessons: Banners and ribbons

August 1, 2013 - Categories: drawing, sketches, visual
This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

Banners and ribbons are a quick way to emphasize parts of your drawing. Instead of drawing the banner and then trying to fit the text into it, try drawing the text first and then drawing the banner around it. Here’s a step-by-step example.

1. Draw the text with plenty of space around it

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2. Draw a box around the text.

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3. Add two small triangles below the box.

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4. Draw horizontal lines extending beyond the triangle, and another set of lines the same distance from the top of the box.

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5. Add a ribbon edge if you want, or use a straight line.

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Want to get fancy? Add some shading, add more folds, and so on.

Here are some examples that you can practise with:

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Check out Kevin Dulle’s tutorial for other ways to emphasize things with shadows. Enjoy!

My evolution as an “artist”, or why there’s hope for you yet

August 2, 2013 - Categories: drawing, sketches

Although my mom had enrolled me in a couple of art camps and classes when I was a kid, I was definitely not one of those instinctively drawn to it. I had classmates who spent all their free time (and much of class) doodling in sketchbooks. I immersed myself in text, reading books, writing notes, programming computers. Well, I’d been mindmapping since grade school, so visual thinking was already part of my life – but it didn’t captivate me as much as text did.

Here’s how I rediscovered drawing.

2007. J- had been looking forward to getting a Nintendo DS. Since there were some interesting games with cooperation modes and one of the stores had a decent sale on Nintendo DSes, I bought myself one as well. I immediately loaded it up with an application called Colors DS, which let me draw using the Nintendo’s stylus. It was a lot of fun.

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This was fun, so I started drawing on paper too. It wasn’t nearly as awesome, but it was a good mental challenge.

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I got into drawing my presentations on a whim. In 2008, I was a technology evangelist and web developer at IBM Canada. I was passionate about how social business systems like internal blogs and communities could transform the way organizations worked. An IBMer in New York told me that whenever she went on campus tours, the students she talked to simply couldn’t grasp the idea of why anyone would want a social network at work. To help her out, I put together a presentation.  I figured – why not make my rough storyboard the actual presentation? So I drew it on my DS and made this:

The Gen Y Guide to Web 2.0 at Work from Sacha Chua

People liked it. A lot. And they wanted to know how I made it, so I made this:

How to sketch with the Nintendo DS from Sacha Chua

And then I started sketching most of my presentations, because it turns out you can get away with stick figures instead of bullet points even at IBM:

Web2.0@work: In Pursuit Of Passion from Sacha Chua

I had some space in my opportunity fund. Since I was drawing a lot more than I used to, I decided it was time to invest in tools. I didn’t think I had the hand-eye coordination for working on a Wacom tablet attached to the monitor, so it was a toss-up between getting a tablet PC or a Cintiq tablet that lets you draw on a screen. I sprung for the Cintiq 12WX, reasoning that it would let me keep upgrading the computer it was attached to instead of locking me into something with limited upgrade capability. Using it with Inkscape was great, because I could tweak my drawings until they kinda looked like what I had in mind.


stick-figure-studies

When Slideshare organized a Best Presentation Contest, I thought, why not? I didn’t think I stood a chance in the “serious” categories, so I went for the self-introduction one instead.

Hello, I’m Sacha Chua! from Sacha Chua

I won, which was a little mind-boggling. My prize was an iPod Touch, which I immediately used for more drawing.

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In 2009, I made a couple of other presentations that got pretty popular: The Shy Connector:

The Shy Connector from Sacha Chua

and A Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0 at School.

A Teacher’s Guide To Web 2.0 at School from Sacha Chua

I helped organize lots of innovation workshops at IBM. I started drawing there too. It turned out this is called graphic facilitation. I took notes at other people’s presentations. This one is from Gary Vaynerchuk’s talk at DemoCamp in Toronto:

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Getting a tablet PC made a huge difference in how I drew. The Lenovo X61 was my first tablet PC. I bought it second-hand in 2010 and started drawing right away. For the first time, I could draw digital notes at meetups.

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In 2011,  I switched to using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. I even started giving presentations using it.

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I looked at other people’s work for inspiration, and I played around with my own. I really liked how Exploding Dog and Hyperbole and a Half managed to say so much with simple figures and vibrant colours, so I tried that out.

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I still don’t feel particularly confident about colour, though. Seriously, I have the computer figure out complementary colours for accessorizing. So I draw mostly in black and white, like in this three-word life philosophy.

20121102 Three Word Life Philosophy - Sacha Chua

If you compare how I draw now (black and white stick figures, with some colour for accents/highlights) and how I drew in 2007 or 2008… there’s not that much difference. I still draw stick figures. I still don’t have a lot of depth or fancy layouts. I still don’t use pressure sensitivity. My lines are still a little wobbly. I use fewer colours, even. I like the colourful explosion of my Katamari drawing! I should make stuff like that again.

The main difference is that I know my tools more, I guess. I know how to set up a grid so that my text is mostly straight. I work with brushes so that my lines look clean and confident. I work with layers so that I can redraw or erase or move things around. I know that digital drawing works out much better for me than paper does. I know that I don’t have to be an “artist” and I don’t have to make art – I just have to make something that makes me smile.

From time to time, I’m a little bit envious of friends who doodled and drew their way through years and years of practice, and who can now make these beautiful drawings just from their imagination. It’s okay. I can draw well enough for my purposes, even if I probably draw worse than my 7-year-old self could. =)

So that’s my “evolution”. I haven’t actually made much progress in terms of drawing skills, because I haven’t needed to. Simple stick figures turn out to be enough. In fact, I probably won’t try to draw amazingly well, because I want to keep things approachable for people. I want people to look at this and say, “Hey, I can do that.” If anything, I’ve probably only grown in terms of vocabulary, confidence, and understanding. That’s just a matter of practice, and I’m looking forward to getting even better.

Weekly review: Week ending August 2, 2013

August 3, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Taking it easy. =) Writing a lot!

Blog posts

Quick notes

  • This was a while ago, but just in case you missed it, I added a transcript to my chat with Bastien Guerry
  • There’s a web app for calculating sag for lengths of wood, appropriately named the Sagulator.
  • When creating multiples of components in SketchUp, you need to press ENTER after typing in “x5” or whatever you’re multiplying it by.
  • After we finished making our first stringer, we celebrated by going out for Vietnamese bun. Pho Nho was a delightful discovery.
  • Woodworking is more fun with two people than with one.
  • WordPress: the_widget lets you display a widget using PHP in a page template. Get the widget name from the class definition for it.
  • New welcome page: http://livinganawesomelife.com
  • Excel: You can repeat rows or columns in Microsoft Excel print-outs by choosing Page Layout – Print Titles.
  • Excel: SUMIFS is a great function for conditionally summing items in a tabse.
  • Excel: Tables make your formulas much more readable. To convert the current data into a table, press Ctrl-T.

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (19.3h – 11%)
    • [X] [#A] Call CRA to clarify HST – Busy
    • Earn (2.8h – 14% of Business)
      • [X] Sketch municipal view
    • Build (8.4h – 43% of Business)
      • [X] Make Share a Draft easier
      • [X] Make redirections easier
      • Quantified Awesome (0.0h)
      • Drawing (3.5h)
      • Paperwork (0.8h)
        • [X] [#A] Call CRA to clarify HST
        • [ ] File Brock Health claim
    • Connect (8.1h – 41% of Business)
      • [X] Chat with Timothy Kenny about learning
      • [X] Evaluate Awesome Foundation Toronto experiment
      • [ ] Go to Damian Conway’s talk, or go to Hacklab?
  • Relationships (17.3h – 10%)
    • [X] Work on E for project P
    • [X] Work on T for project P
    • [ ] Hang out with Mel
    • [ ] Bring Mel to HackLab
    • [ ] Check results for experiment
    • [ ] Make plans for 30th birthday party during the last weekend in August?
    • [ ] Send notes to people who bought my blog compilation
    • [ ] Work on gratitude map for 30th birthday
  • Discretionary – Productive (28.6h – 17%)
    • [X] Follow up with consulate regarding police report (should have been faxed)
    • [X] Have chip filled
    • Writing (19.7h)
      • [ ] Work on my outline
  • Discretionary – Play (7.1h – 4%)
  • Personal routines (16.3h – 9%)
  • Unpaid work (14.2h – 8%)
  • Sleep (66.3h – 39% – average of 9.5 per day)

Thinking about how to celebrate my 30th birthday

August 4, 2013 - Categories: life

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I’m looking forward to my thirties – a third of the way to my goal of being a totally awesome 90-year-old! I’m almost done with reviewing the past ten years and updating my collection of blog highlights, and I’m looking forward to getting some clarity on what’s coming up next too.

Birthday celebrations are an excellent excuse to get together with people. I feel a little weird inviting people to come and spend a few hours with me and a bunch of other people I know. I tend to get stressed out by the process of getting other people gifts (or guiltily donating things people have given me), so I’d rather not receive gifts. But I’ve been part of wonderful parties before, so I can think about what made those parties awesome, and what I can learn to have even better parties.

My favourite parties were the ones I had with my closest friends back home. We never needed an excuse. Sometimes I’d invite people over to hang out, or to watch a movie, or to play a game. I really liked those because my friends were all good friends with each other, so there were lots of crazy conversations and in-jokes. Even after I moved to Canada, I loved how they’d sometimes have ice cream parties and other get-togethers, patching me in through Skype. I miss them a lot.

When I lived at Graduate House, I often invited people over for a barbecue. There was a large outdoor party area with plenty of seats. Since many of my friends were also in graduate school, we had relaxed conversations under the stars. Graduate House was really convenient because most of the people I knew lived there or close by, and it was a short walk from a downtown subway stop.

I moved to my first apartment and celebrated my 24th birthday there. I didn’t have chairs and the bare walls echoed the noise, but people sat on cushions on the floor and we had a lot of fun.

After I moved in with W-, it took me a while to get around to having parties. Still, I had the occasional tea party – a casual, conversation-filled open house that was usually my excuse to bake far too many goodies. I had one of these every 2-3 months, which felt pretty infrequent (but it’s still more often than people invite me over, so I guess that counts for something). My favourite of these was when the conversation gelled and I got to learn all sorts of interesting things about my new friends.

I’ve had larger parties here as well. I remember scrambling to wash extra saucers! =) We set out mats and cushions on the deck, and people hung out there as well as in the kitchen.

Our home has more space than my first apartment. (The kitchen’s about the size of the main living area I had back then!) We have two bathrooms. So why am I not having more people over? Let me think about my excuses and how to work around them.

  • It’s cluttered. Having people over is a good excuse to declutter and clean up, and people are fine with a lived-in home. Besides, moving things around can work wonders for opening up space. Maybe we can move the kitchen table outside, for example? That requires disassembly, but it might be worth it. People can stand around in the kitchen or hang out on the deck.
  • There’s not enough seating. In a pinch, we manage to fit ten people around the kitchen table. Now that we’ve rebuilt the deck stairs (I helped!), we can put a few more chairs on the deck as well. Maybe we can get extra chairs and store them in the shed when they’re not in use.
  • The cats might get in the way. You’d expect the cats to hide with unfamiliar company – except Luke loves attention and Neko’s curious (but still tetchy, so guests sometimes get nipped if they get too close to her). And then cat hair! We’ve thought about keeping them in the basement with some food and water during parties, although some of our guests like playing with the cats, so maybe they can join us at the end.
  • Food. I like cooking, although sometimes it’s hit-or-miss, and I’m never quite sure about inflicting my experiments on people. (Although I guess that’s how you know who your friends are! Winking smile ) Since I don’t get firm RSVPs, I tend to prepare things that we can enjoy throughout the week even if no one shows up. I should stop worrying about filling everyone up. I’ve gone to fun parties that had mostly chips to snack on. People are used to pot luck or barbecue. I can always pick up party platters or order in.
  • Drink. Neither W- nor I drink alcohol (or intend to any time soon), so I’m pretty clueless about something that a lot of people enjoy or expect at parties. BYOB can help, I guess, especially if we can get someone to take stuff home afterwards. (Alternatively, we could cook with the remaining alcohol, I guess…) I rarely drink anything other than water, so I don’t have a good handle on
  • Frugality on behalf of others. I keep projecting my frugality onto other people, especially as other people might be in more difficult situations. =) It’s much cheaper to cook rather than to eat out, so I don’t want to organize a party at a restaurant where everyone will be eating out – I’d rather cook for everyone, or have a potluck dinner.
  • Timing. I asked a friend for advice, and he said many good parties run until 2 AM or something like that. I’m usually in bed by midnight. So… maybe I’m an afternoon or dinner party sort of person, even if it means not being able to join the deep discussions that often happen late at night.
  • Don’t want to accidentally offend someone. Sleeping Beauty’s problem? Her parents forgot to invite one fairy, who then threw a fit. While I don’t think anyone’s going to be quite that vindictive (or magical), I still worry about forgetting to invite someone and accidentally sending the wrong message.

A good number of excuses… I have to remember that even though I regularly feel insecure about hosting, I still have get-togethers pretty frequently, and people come. (Even though I’m usually semi-anxiously twiddling my thumbs at 1pm – maybe I should move to a 2pm start time?) I live ten minutes from the subway station, even if it’s a subway station a bit far from downtown.

I think it will help to reflect on why I want to bring people together in the first place. What are my reasons for having birthday parties and other get-togethers?

  • To thank people. People are awesome and helpful and inspiring. Feeding them and sharing what I’ve learned from them are small things I can do to say thanks. I don’t have one-on-one lunches or coffees with people nearly enough because I don’t want to impose on their schedule (although maybe that’s something else I should practise), but an open house is voluntary. I’m working on a big gratitude map thanking people for various ways they’ve helped me over the past ten years, and I’m looking forward to having that printed at a large scale. =) (That’ll also answer the “How do you know Sacha?” question!)
  • To hear from people. People don’t blog nearly as often as I do, so if I want to find out what’s going on in their lives, I have to ask, or I have to give them an opportunity to tell me. Sometimes I can help out, sometimes I learn things, sometimes it’s just interesting to find out what’s going on with other people.
  • To bring awesome people together, and to learn from their conversations. Maybe it’s weird, but I’m usually the quiet one at my own parties. =) I like listening, especially as people bring out aspects in other people that I might never come across myself. I sometimes prompt people with questions if I know they know something that other people might find useful.
  • To pick people’s brains for ideas and next steps. It’s good to let people know what you’re planning, since they’ll often have great ideas and tips. =)
  • To celebrate with lots of good food. Salads! Fruits! Baked yummies! Things that people would probably not make for themselves (or things I might not make on my own)! Many of my friends are single, so cooking can be difficult, but we enjoy cooking and are set up well for it. If there’s anything left over, I can always pack it up and stash it in the freezer.

What would it look like if I could get better at having parties?

  • I have a flexible plan for having parties. I know where the table and chairs go, where I’m going to put food, where to put drinks and snacks so that conversations flow, what some go-to snacks are so that I can get that sorted out easily. I have checklists so that I don’t forget things in the scramble. (Must remember to get ice next time…)
  • I have parties more regularly. Maybe once every two months, and maybe with a core group that also hosts during the other times?
  • I trust people more. I don’t have to worry too much about keeping conversations balanced or food flowing. I trust that people will adapt, taking care of newcomers and bringing them in without pushing them too hard.
  • We have a few more seats available, and can sustain conversation in another seating area – maybe on the deck, with the deck chairs that we built. We tend to crowd the kitchen because the living room is too dark, although maybe we can sort that out with better lighting (must replace the bare light that’s in that room).

I want to have virtual parties too, like the ones we had back then… I wonder what that would be like, especially with something like Google Hangout.

So, party. =) I don’t know what life will quite be like in the next couple of weeks, but maybe if I’m ambitious, I could try having an in-person party near my birthday. More conservatively, I could have it closer to the end of the month. Summer, so we can snack on plenty of fruits, and the barbecue will be handy too.

Thoughts? Tips? Does everyone else just Get It when it comes to parties, and am I the only one geekily trying to figure stuff out? =)

Planning what to do at home, thinking about pull-driven systems for blog posts, and outlining books I want to write

August 5, 2013 - Categories: life, writing

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I’m going to be at home for the next couple of weeks, which will incidentally be my first experiment with living a mostly “retired” life (no focusing on business). Since it always helps to have a list of activities that I can choose from instead of trying to make decisions all the time, I thought I’d brainstorm things that I can do:

  • Read lots of books from the library, taking notes or making visual book reviews for good ones
  • Write and draw blog posts, articles, and e-books based on my outlines and on people’s requests
  • Practise drawing
    • Draw people, emotions, hands, and other common subjects again and again
    • Expand and organize my visual vocabulary
    • Add more sketchnotes to the Sketchnote Index
    • Build more resources for people who are interested in learning more about drawing
  • Learn more about WordPress plugin development by building little conveniences for myself
  • Learn more about Rails, Javascript, and data visualization by extending Quantified Awesome
  • Build more resources for people who are interested in self-tracking

If I’m going to reduce my commuting, connecting, and socializing time, I should do something amazing with the extra time. I’ve been thinking about applying some of the ideas from the 12-Week Year, which focuses on making planning and measurement tighter by ditching the yearly cycle and focusing on quarters instead. It might be interesting to define a month-long or quarter-long goal and sprint towards that. Mm. Books.

One of the ideas I picked up from The Lean Turnaround: How Business Leaders Use Lean Principles to Create Value and Transform Their Company (affiliate link – Amazon) was the importance of a pull system. In a lean company, things don’t get built until someone asks for them, minimizing waste and inventory. How would I apply that to blogging and creating books? My current workflow is to write about whatever I’m interested in, and also to write in response to people’s questions. It might be interesting to work with an explicit outline so that I can gradually fill in the gaps to create a coherent, cohesive book that helps people get from point A to point B. How can I involve people in the process so that we can come up with something that meets people’s needs? Here’s a draft workflow that I proposed to a potential collaborator:

Announce the idea and a potential outline on our blogs, with a link to the Leanpub site where people can indicate how much they would be willing to pay for this book. Use this to test interest and pricing.

  1. Post some content (enough to justify a low price). Show which parts of the outlines have been drafted, and encourage people to “buy into” the book/course at a nominal fee (substantial discount from the published price, maybe $2.99?)
  2. Start with this kind of offer: if people have questions or would like to learn about particular parts of the outline, I’m happy to invest some time in explaining things until they get the hang of it (either through blog posts or in recorded one-on-one sessions). This means that we can build content in response to people’s questions, probably revising the outline along the way.
  3. I publish posts on my blog, and you’re welcome to repost them on yours. I add them to the outline, and we tweak the chapters based on feedback from you and other readers.
  4. We might periodically re-publicize the book in progress, possibly raising the price as well.
  5. Then we publish and promote! =)

It’s more important to me that ideas spread widely than for me to make this a solid stream of income, so I want to make sure that the resources are entirely or mostly also available for free, and that people can set their own price so that they can pay what they want to. I experimented with this with my Sketchnote Collection 2012, and I was happy with the results.

So, here are the draft outlines for three topics I’m considering building a short e-book for:

Accelerate Your Learning With Sketchnotes
For: Entrepreneurial visual thinkers who would like to learn more effectively
Outcome: people have taken their first few sketchnotes and are ready to use it for learning
Possible collaborator: Timothy Kenny

Thinking with Emacs
For: Beginner to intermediate Emacs users (non-technical backgrounds are okay) who want to use it for organizing what they know/think and learning more
Outcome: People can use this incredibly powerful although somewhat intimidatingly technical tool to aid their learning
Possible collaborator: Bill Zimmerly

Quantified Self: Tracking Your Time
For: Semi-technical people who are interested in tracking their time and asking questions about how they invest their time
Outcome: People are comfortable collecting and analyzing their time data with a variety of tools, and may even build themselves personal dashboards so that they can monitor their time use on an ongoing basis

Stories From My Twenties (already exists, but needs to be updated with the latest stories)
For: Me, mostly, but also for blog readers who want to quickly get a sense of the highlights of the past ten years without reading all those blog posts
Outcome: I remember significant events; other people get a sense of my defining moments; bloggers get an idea of what it’s like to grow through your blog

Do any of these book ideas tickle your fancy? Click on the links to see the draft outlines, and sign up for updates and conversation as I figure out this writing thing.

(This is in addition to my huge outline of blog ideas, which I’m experimenting with! =) )

On making big, scary decisions, and how I left an awesome job to do my own thing; or how to be a Builder Lemming

August 6, 2013 - Categories: decision, experiment

imageFollowing up on my Accelerated Learning chat with Timothy Kenny, where someone asked how I made the decision to go on this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement:

It might surprise you, but I consider myself pretty risk-averse. I don’t bungee jump. I don’t ski. I don’t even drive. I spend hours and days analyzing decisions. I make contingency plans. I take small steps.

So, how does someone like me end up taking a left turn away from a promising career (great ratings, wonderful opportunities) for a 5-year gap in employment as an experiment with semi-retirement?

I’d been thinking about something like that ever since I started working. I knew I wanted to learn about starting businesses someday. My parents built their own advertising photography studio, and although they worked long hours, they were happy. I grew up reading books about management and accounting—ever since I was tall enough to pull them off my mom’s bookshelf.

When I graduated with my master’s degree and started working, I consciously resisted the pull of lifestyle inflation. My expenses were much like the one I had as a student: I rarely ate out, and I bought my clothes on sale and second-hand. An excellent public library meant I could keep my book and entertainment budget under control.

I was excited by the idea of being able to finally apply the advice I’d read in personal finance books. I maxed out my Registered Retirement Savings Plan contributions and put a tidy amount away for other long-term investments. I knew my tendency was to scrimp and save, so I also made room in my budget for two things: a play fund, and an opportunity fund. The opportunity fund would be for learning how to make better decisions and take better risks.

Many of the decisions I made with the opportunity fund paid off, encouraging me to try more. I bought a tablet, and then a tablet PC. I bought books, went to events, tried out stuff, treated people to lunch so that I could pick their brain. As I gained confidence, I wondered: how can I make the opportunity fund even more liberating?

I redoubled my focus on saving, channeling more into the opportunity fund. I looked at my expenses, too. I’d been tracking my finances since 2005, so I had a good idea of how much I spent on average. I started learning more about businesses. I came across the statistic that ~80% of businesses fail within the first five years. If I could free myself from worrying about cashflow for five years, I’d probably do all right – and even if I messed up and had little to show for it, I’d still be doing about average. If I totally messed up? Well, I’d probably still be ahead of where I should be at my age.

Besides, I hadn’t read about a lot of other people giving this kind of experiment a try. If I could muster the time, space, and guts, I might as well learn what I could with the opportunity.

It was not an easy decision. I knew many people who were struggling to find work, or who were unhappy with the work that they had. Technology companies tend to discriminate against older people. Would I waste the prime years for building an amazing career? Would I find it difficult to re-enter the workforce if I wanted or needed to, such as if something happened to W- and we needed a steady income?

I talked to W- again and again, threshing out the possibilities and risks. W- supported the idea. It made sense to try this out, and this was as good a time as any to do so. We didn’t rely on my income for mortgage payments or other constraints. We have a decent public healthcare system, and he had extended health benefits through IBM. We didn’t have any young kids or sick family members who needed care. It was better to learn now than to wait until I had to.

The bigger risk would be to not learn how to create value on my own. If I could learn how to make stuff that other people found valuable, if I could learn how to use my time and energy even more effectively—to learn, share, and scale up—then I could help W- learn these things if his situation changed. And it would probably change someday, so it’s better to prepare for that.

What were the real risks, anyway? I have a lot of fun learning and tinkering. I figured I’d be able to keep my technical skills sharp, and maybe I might even pick up a few other marketable skills along the way.

Sure, the employment gap might turn off some employers. Some of my freelancing friends were going through rough patches, and they told me how employers looked at them askance (“Is this guy going to take off and start his own company again in a couple of years?”) I figured that if I really needed to re-enter the workforce, I could probably come up with a coherent story for these five years. I knew I’d take notes along the way, and I had a lot of practise using weekly reviews to remember what I learned or accomplished. The brain is excellent at rationalization, and I’m sure that in 2017, I’ll be able to explain my experiment in a way that makes sense.

One of the lessons I learned as a teenager was not to get paralyzed by the thought of my “potential”. Sure, if I leaned in with all I had, I might reach the corporate or entrepreneurial stratosphere. But really, I don’t need that much. I just need enough, and enough can be incredibly liberating.

My opportunity fund approached my 5-year target, and I firmed up my plans. I considered ratcheting down work: maybe 75% part time, then 50% part time, then 25% part time, then fully “retired”. With IBM’s intellectual property agreements, it was easier to just make a clean cut. (I ended up doing the ratcheting-down with consulting anyway… funny how life works!)

At the one-one-one meeting with my manager where he shared the results of my annual performance review (yay, top ratings!), I told him I was planning to leave the company and experiment with other things I wanted to learn. Since I gave a few months’ notice, we had plenty of time to cleanly wrap up projects. And then I was off on my own.

This experiment gets less and less scary the more I get into it. Sometimes I look at my numbers and wonder whether I can actually take bigger risks than I currently feel comfortable with. I’m getting better at thinking my way through decisions with greater uncertainty or impact, turning to research, role models, and reflection to get myself through it.

If you’re thinking about making a similar decision yourself, these tips might help:

Think about the real risks you’re worrying about. How can you mitigate them? What are the worst-case scenarios, and how can you work around them?

How can you create a safety net for yourself? What can you do to build your confidence and rescue you from some of those worst-case scenarios?

What are some small steps you can try? I didn’t jump straight into semi-retirement. I started by taking smaller risks and learning from them.

Even now, I take very few risks: I overpay my taxes in order to minimize the impact of calculation errors, I don’t claim tax credits I’m not sure about, I’m conservative about my business commitments and contracts.

If it looks like I’ve come far, it’s only because I go one small step at a time. It’s… kinda like the builders in Lemmings, building steps until you get to where you want to go? =) And then other people can go up those steps and reach their goals more easily, or be inspired and build steps of their own.

2013-07-29 16_27_02-Lemmings! 

(screenshot from http://tomato17.tripod.com/gameroom/fun07.html)

Related posts I think you might like:

Good luck!

(Hah, my current hack for coming up with blog post titles is to just squish many potential titles together. Sorry. Maybe you can give me feedback on which sub-title you liked most! Winking smile )

Sketchnote: Fun With Dead Languages: Damian Conway

August 6, 2013 - Categories: geek, sketchnotes

Here are my notes from Damian Conway’s talk “Fun With Dead Languages”. =) I heard him give an older version of this talk years ago, and I’m amused to find that my Latin dabbling gave me a much deeper appreciation of this talk.

As always, click on the image to view a larger version, which you can print out if you want.

20130806 Fun with Dead Languages - Damian Conway

Please feel free to share this under the Creative Commons Attribution License! =)

If you like this, check out Damian Conway’s site or this paper on Lingua::Latina::Perligata. Like these sketches? Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book reviews.

Slim pickings from the garden, and that’s all right

August 7, 2013 - Categories: gardening

Timothy Kenny and I were chatting about blueberries. He wanted to plant enough blueberry plants to be able to make blueberry pie. As it turns out, blueberries ripen gradually and not all at once, so… no.

I told him that you can get a lot of enjoyment out of one blueberry at a time.

My blueberry story started when W- and I were joking about planting blueberries and attracting random bears. (We live in Toronto. Probably the only time I’ll see a bear is if I go to a zoo.) When I saw the blueberry plants on sale at the end of the season a few years ago, I scooped them up. We planted six in the front yard – small bushes, not even very bushy.

This is a picture of our first blueberry “harvest” from 2011:

We haven’t gotten more than a handful of blueberries this year, but that isn’t the point. When we notice two or three have ripened, we eat them: tiny explosions of flavour, and then they’re gone.

It’s not the same as digging into a fruit salad or baking a pie, but it’s a different sort of enjoyment. It keeps me in tune with the passage of time. I see the bushes awaken from dormancy, bud leaves, flower, fruit. And the fruits are a nice bonus, a reminder that the supermarket doesn’t give us everything.

We also have cherry tomatoes in the backyard. We don’t buy cherry tomatoes at the supermarket. They’ve always felt like a bit of a luxury, and I tend to buy whatever has the lowest unit price. The cherry tomatoes that grow in our yard hide the cost of compost and water and soil, so I get to enjoy them guilt-free – again, one or two at a time, always a treasure hunt.

Our garden isn’t nearly as productive as Mrs. Wong’s front yard down the street She has a veritable farm in front of the apartment building. It’s in full sun and full growth. Last year, she grew these huge squashes that hung pendulously from the vines. She works hard on it, though. She waters seedlings by hand, frames the plants with twigs from High Park, breaks up pumpkin shells after Halloween, and adds what we will politely refer to as night water. Our garden is shaded by pine trees, so our plants tend to get a little straggly. I’m not as conscientious as Mrs. Wong, although I do try to water when it doesn’t rain.

Other gardening notes: Having realized that I really enjoy the part where seedlings are breaking out of the ground (even if they don’t end up growing to their full potential), I’ve started the second batch of snow peas, another round of lettuce, and a round of beets. (At least I think they’re beets. I forget.) The bitter melon is gamely trying to grow, although it’s nowhere near fruiting. The zucchini isn’t as prolific as gardening blogs let me think – we haven’t gotten any yet. We’re letting the strawberries rest this year. Next year we’ll plant more.

Maybe someday I’ll learn how to supplement more of our food budget with home-grown vegetables. People figured out victory gardens, and maybe I can too. In the meantime, even these slim pickings are scrumptious meditations.

Sketchnote Lessons: Quick Lettering

August 8, 2013 - Categories: drawing
This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

Here are some examples of different lettering styles that you can try. Some of them (like Chisel or Reverse) may be easier to do digitally than on paper. Click on the image to view or download a larger version, and have fun practicising. Enjoy!

image

I write in print instead of cursive because this is easier to read. Computers seem to be better at understanding printed letters instead of cursive. (I use Evernote to search my notes.) For emphasis, I sometimes use Multiple (draw the same letter twice), or Bold if I can anticipate the need to switch pens.

Got any favourite quick lettering techniques? I’d love to see them! Post links below, or e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com .

Quantified Awesome: Analyzing my non-fiction reading, and why I don’t mind paying taxes

August 9, 2013 - Categories: quantified

Update Aug 22 2013: See presentation at the end of this post.

imageI built library-book tracking into Quantified Awesome in October 2011, hard-coding the patterns used by the Toronto Public Library system. I regularly hit the 50-book checkout limit and sometimes have to check items out on my husband’s account, so it really helps to have a system that can tell me what’s due and when on all the library cards that we have.

Crunching the numbers

In the 668 days (or 95.5 weeks) between October 1, 2011 and the time I exported my data for number-crunching, we checked out 1,252 items, or an average of 13 items a week. That included 250 movies and 44 other videos (TV series, documentaries, and so on). I’m boggled to find out that I checked out only 8 science fiction books. There were 152 other fiction books, including graphic novels and manga.

… 250 movies borrowed from the library results in saving of $150+ a month assuming we snag DVDs at $15. Not that we would watch 2.6 movies a week if we had to pay for them. In November 2011, I tracked the retail prices and page count of the books I read: $1,075 and 10,671 pages in a month, boggle. I don’t read all of those pages thoroughly, mind you; I tend to skim books looking for just what I need. Still, there’s no denying that the Toronto Public Library saves me a heck of a lot of book and entertainment money.

I figured I’d probably want to take a look at my reading list at some point, so I had programmed the system to record titles and Dewey Decimal System classifications as well. Fiction books and feature movies tend to have generic codes, but nonfiction books show me interesting patterns in my reading habits.

Here are my top categories:

Dewey Decimal Classification Number of items
650 – Management & auxiliary services 328
330 – Economics 82
150 – Psychology 59
740 – Drawing & decorative arts 45
800 – Literature, rhetoric & criticism 38
000 – Computer science, knowledge & systems 33
640 – Home economics & family living 30
610 – Medical sciences; Medicine 22
300 – Social sciences, sociology & anthropology 18
340 – Law 14

Here are my top sub categories:

Dewey Decimal Classification Number of items
658 – General management 213
650 – Management & auxiliary services 92
332 – Financial economics 45
808 – Rhetoric & collections of literature 37
741 – Drawing & drawings 28
158 – Applied psychology 24
153 – Mental processes and intelligence 22
641 – Food & drink 19
005 – Computer programming, programs & data 18
613 – Personal health & safety 15

Here they are, broken down by Dewey decimal group:

Dewey Decimal Classification Number of items
650 – Management & auxiliary services 328
658 – General management 213
650 – Management & auxiliary services 92
657 – Accounting 9
659 – Advertising & public relations 5
651 – Office services 4
652 – Processes of written communication 3
653 – Shorthand 2
330 – Economics 82
332 – Financial economics 45
338 – Production 15
331 – Labor economics 10
330 – Economics 9
339 – Macroeconomics & related topics 2
333 – Land economics 1
150 – Psychology 59
158 – Applied psychology 24
153 – Mental processes and intelligence 22
155 – Differential and developmental psychology 11
152 – Perception, movement, emotions, and drives 1
150 – Psychology 1
740 – Drawing & decorative arts 45
741 – Drawing & drawings 28
743 – Drawing & drawings by subject 10
745 – Decorative arts 7
800 – Literature, rhetoric & criticism 38
808 – Rhetoric & collections of literature 37
809 – Literary history & criticism 1
000 – Computer science, knowledge & systems 33
005 – Computer programming, programs & data 18
006 – Special computer methods 12
001 – Knowledge 2
003 – Systems 1
640 – Home economics & family living 30
641 – Food & drink 19
646 – Sewing, clothing, personal living 5
640 – Home economics & family living 3
647 – Management of public households 1
644 – Household utilities 1
643 – Housing & household equipment 1
610 – Medical sciences; Medicine 22
613 – Personal health & safety 15
616 – Diseases 4
612 – Human physiology 3
300 – Social sciences, sociology & anthropology 18
306 – Culture & institutions 7
303 – Social processes 4
305 – Social groups 3
302 – Social interaction 3
304 – Factors affecting social behavior 1
340 – Law 14
346 – Private law 8
343 – Military, tax, trade, industrial law 4
349 – Law of specific jurisdictions & areas 2
490 – Other languages 13
495 – Languages of East & Southeast Asia 13
690 – Buildings 12
690 – Buildings 8
695 – Roof covering 2
696 – Utilities 1
692 – Auxiliary construction practices 1
170 – Ethics (Moral philosophy) 9
170 – Ethics (Moral philosophy) 5
174 – Occupational ethics 2
171 – Ethical systems 2
370 – Education 6
371 – School management; special education; alternative education 5
372 – Elementary education 1
720 – Architecture 5
729 – Design & decoration 2
728 – Residential & related buildings 2
720 – Architecture 1
810 – American literature in English 5
813 – Fiction 2
818 – Miscellaneous writings 1
819 – Puzzle activities 1
814 – Essays 1
680 – Manufacture for specific uses 4
684 – Furnishings & home workshops 2
688 – Other final products & packaging 1
686 – Printing & related activities 1
770 – Photography & photographs 4
775 – Digital photography 2
779 – Photographs 1
778 – Fields & kinds of photography 1
470 – Italic languages; Latin 4
478 – Classical Latin usage 4
910 – Geography & travel 4
915 – Asia 4
420 – English & Old English 3
422 – English etymology 2
428 – Standard English usage 1
510 – Mathematics 3
519 – Probabilities & applied mathematics 3
400 – Language 3
401 – Philosophy & theory 3
070 – News media, journalism & publishing 3
070 – News media, journalism & publishing 3
620 – Engineering & Applied operations 3
629 – Other branches of engineering 2
620 – Engineering & Applied operations 1
390 – Customs, etiquette, folklore 2
398 – Folklore 2
160 – Logic 2
160 – Logic 2
360 – Social services; association 2
362 – Social welfare problems & services 2
020 – Library & information sciences 2
025 – Library operations 1
021 – Library relationships 1
750 – Painting & paintings 2
759 – Geographical, historical, areas, persons treatment 1
751 – Techniques, equipment, forms 1
380 – Commerce, communications, transport 2
381 – Internal commerce (Domestic trade) 2
970 – General history of North America 2
977 – General history of North America; North central United States 1
974 – General history of North America; Northeastern United States 1
700 – Arts 2
709 – Historical, areas, persons treatment 1
700 – Arts 1
190 – Modern Western philosophy 1
191 – Modern Western philosophy of the United States and Canada 1
030 – Encyclopedias & books of facts 1
031 – Encyclopedias in American English 1
780 – Music 1
786 – Keyboard & other instruments 1
290 – Other & comparative religions 1
296 – Judaism 1
210 – Natural theology 1
210 – Natural theology 1
520 – Astronomy & allied sciences 1
523 – Specific celestial bodies & phenomena 1
950 – General history of Asia; Far East 1
952 – General history of Asia; Japan 1
710 – Civic & landscape art 1
712 – Landscape architecture 1
630 – Agriculture 1
635 – Garden crops (Horticulture) 1
500 – Sciences 1
501 – Philosophy & theory 1
Grand Total 776

I read a lot of management, personal finance, and psychology books. I enjoy reading them. I read them at breakfast, over lunch, before bed, on weekend afternoons. I’m not surprised by the proportions, although I’m a little surprised by the number – have I really checked out an average of eight nonfiction books a week? Gotten through more than 300 management-related books? Neat.

Time

The time data in my current system goes back to November 29, 2011. Excluding the nonfiction books that were returned before then (although still including the books I currently have checked out that I haven’t read yet), there are 727 nonfiction books checked out. Let’s assume I’ve read or skimmed through 80% of those (I’m probably closer to 90%) – that’s ~580 books. I’ve tracked 123.3 hours as “Discretionary – Productive – Nonfiction”. This undercounts the number of hours because I tend to read things over meals and during subway commutes, so let’s double that time to be in the right ballpark for multitasking. That’s a little less than half an hour per book… which is actually quite reasonable, considering I skim through most books in 10-15 minutes each and spend maybe two hours reading selected books in depth (the ones that I take notes on, for example).

This is what my nonfiction reading habit looks like, with the dark boxes indicating when I read more. (This doesn’t take into account reading while doing other things.)

image

That’s interesting… I read a lot more frequently when I was starting up my business in January/February 2012 (although I wonder what happened in April!). I read more sporadically now. I think it’s because I’m re-figuring-out my strategies for taking notes and applying ideas to my life.

How do I pick books to read?

The library releases lists of new books on the 15th or 16th of every month. I’ve written a small script that extracts the titles, authors, and IDs of the book into a text file that I can review. I delete the lines that I’m not interested in, and my script then requests the books that remain on the list. I monitor the new releases because I don’t want to wait for the usual press

When I ‘m learning about a topic, I tend to check out six or more books related to it. A wide variety of books lets me see different viewpoints, and I can focus on books of better quality.

I occasionally look at Amazon’s recommendations for other ideas, although the books are often not yet available at the library.

Sketchnoting a new release can have high impact, which is another reason why I monitor the new releases. I sometimes reach out to publishers for review copies as well.

The library doesn’t carry everything. I usually add other interesting releases to my Amazon wishlist. I rarely buy books, though, because there’s just such an interesting backlog that I haven’t yet gotten through. I buy books if there are clever illustrations that I’d like to use for ongoing inspiration, or if I want to give the book to a friend, or if it’s an older book that someone has recommended to me and the library doesn’t stock it. Now that I have a business, I usually file those books as business expenses.

So much for quantity. If I’m reading all that, what am I doing with it?

I use books to:

  • Learn about different viewpoints and approaches, especially scenarios that I might not anticipate on my own
  • Learn how to organize and communicate complex ideas
  • Get shortcuts on explaining ideas – for example, I don’t have to explain outsourcing from scratch, because I can point people to the 4-Hour Work Week for starters

Many of the ideas I pick up from books resurface in my blog posts and experiments. Books help me recognize what’s going on in real life, because the authors have already come up with words for them. I also like applying the advice from books – much to learn.

I frequently recommend books to other people. Visual book reviews make that easier. I try to slow down and recognize books that I’ll probably recommend to others so that I can make visual book reviews of them while I have the book. Sometimes I’ll take quick text notes for myself and then use that for reference. If I find myself recommending the book frequently, then I’ll check it out again and make better notes.

I don’t review my book notes much, relying instead on situations to trigger my memories. When I come across something that’s related to a book I’ve read, or I talk to someone who could benefit from a book recommendation, I dig through my visual and text-based notes.

Next steps

“Better” isn’t about reading more books – it’s about being able to apply, organize, and share what I’m learning from those books. I want to learn more about doing good research: identifying a topic to explore, synthesizing insights from multiple sources, and adding personal experiences or ideas. The process might look like this:

  • Outline a topic for research
  • Search the library catalogue for resources; also check bibliographies, Amazon, and other recommendations
  • File properly-cited notes so that I can give credit later on
  • Compare and organize ideas from different sources
  • Test ideas in small experiments
  • Write blog posts, then articles, then e-books

Visual book reviews are another way for me to grow. In addition to making visual book reviews of interesting new releases, I’d like to revisit the books that were a big influence on me in order to make visual reviews of them too.

Yay for Quantified Self and tracking. Onward!

(Also, if you’re curious about tracking your own library use: I can probably extend Quantified Awesome to support other libraries with online interfaces, but you’re going to need to walk me through how your library works.)


Update from August 22, 2013: Here’s a presentation I’m putting together for Quantified Self Toronto.

Weekly review: Week ending August 9, 2013

August 10, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Blog posts

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (16.3h – 9%)
    • Earn (0.7h – 4% of Business)
    • Build (9.9h – 60% of Business)
      • Quantified Awesome (0.0h)
      • Drawing (2.9h)
      • Paperwork (2.6h)
        • [ ] File Brock Health claim
    • Connect (5.8h – 35% of Business)
      • [X] Evaluate Awesome Foundation Toronto experiment
      • [X] Go to Damian Conway’s talk, or go to Hacklab?
  • Relationships (9.1h – 5%)
    • [X] Fix formatting in compilation
    • [X] Send notes to people who bought my blog compilation
    • [X] Hang out with Mel
    • [ ] Work on gratitude map for 30th birthday
  • Discretionary – Productive (8.8h – 5%)
    • [X] Submit my passport application
    • [X] Work on my outline
    • [ ] Scan receipts
    • Writing (5.1h)
  • Discretionary – Play (18.8h – 11%)
  • Personal routines (29.5h – 17%)
  • Unpaid work (15.2h – 9%)
  • Sleep (70.9h – 42% – average of 10.1 per day)

Turning 30: A review of the last decade

August 11, 2013 - Categories: life, sketches

Thirty is an excellent milestone birthday. The twenties involved tons of change—and unlike my teenage years, I can actually remember and reflect on what I learned during my twenties. (This is not entirely true. I can remember bits and pieces of high school and university. I don’t have good notes, though.)

At thirty, I’m at the threshold of even more changes. I don’t know what the next ten years hold. There are at least two excellent but wildly divergent paths I could take. We’ll just have to see.

Hollywood movies tell me that I should be lamenting my happy-go-lucky twenties or trying to squeeze in that last hurrah before I settle down. When was the last time I listened to them, anyway? I’ve long since swapped my New Year’s Eve staying-up for my now-traditional tuck-into-bed-long-before-the-fireworks-go-off. I survived my twenties without going clubbing or getting bitten by the travel bug, so I’m already well outside the Hollywood playbook.

I’m looking forward to turning thirty. And forty. My real goal is to get to ninety and more with an awesome life, so I’m just a third of the way there. Plenty more to go.

A blog is an awesome time machine. It’s a little mind-boggling, but I’ve been blogging for almost twelve years. Last year, I made a compilation of my favourite blog posts: not necessarily the most useful or the most commented, but the ones that I wanted to remember for decades. I rated all my posts on a scale of 1-5, and kept only the ones that I rated 5. I called the compilation Stories From My Twenties (although I cheated and threw in a handful of blog posts from my late teens). As an experiment, I had the cheek to charge for it. (Not much, just the rough equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate. Now it’s pay-what-you-want, so you can treat me to lunch if you feel particularly nice.)

Good thing I did that, because it made reviewing the past decade much easier. Here’s my twenties in one page: (Click the image for a larger version)

20130717 Stories From My Twenties - colored

Things I do better or more often now than when I was 20:

  • Learning and sharing interesting things
  • Planning, taking calculated risks, making decisions
  • Dealing with life, business, paperwork, etc.
  • Drawing and visual thinking
  • Reviewing the past and imagining the future
  • Tracking data and analyzing it, managing finances, and so on
  • Building tools and learning technologies
  • Being more independent

Things I probably do worse or less often:

  • Asking for help
  • Hanging out with friends or family
  • Teaching
  • Travelling

Here’s what I want to do for my thirtieth year:

  • Learn about all sorts of interesting things in life, tech, visual thinking, and more.
  • Share: Get into the habit of creating resources, like these drawing tutorials and blog posts based on my outline. Release the resources with the pay-what-you-want model so that the ideas can go as widely as possible while still allowing people to show their appreciation or vote with their dollars.
  • Scale by organizing my site so that people can find good stuff, even if I’m not awake to help people find things.
  • Oh, and get back to working on those relationships with people outside the house, as tempting as it will be to spend all my time at home. =)

Year in review: Life as a 29-year-old

August 12, 2013 - Categories: life, yearly

imageThe interesting thing about blogging is that you have a public record of how your life matches or diverges from the goals that you set. Here’s what I wrote at the beginning of my 29th year, imagining what I’d like to be true on the eve of my thirtieth birthday. I’ve included updates below each item.

I have even more wonderful relationships with family and friends.
I’m a little more distant than I used to be. Early retirement and a growing dislike of travel have certainly put a crimp in visits home. I’m also reluctant to make schedule commitments, although maybe that will relax in a few years. That said, Hacklab turned out to be a totally awesome choice and I’m glad I’m hanging out there.
I regularly stay in touch, and have good notes on what people are interested in and are up to.
I tend to respond when people reach out to me, although I don’t feel guilty about not reaching out first.
I survived my first business tax return, yay! I’m now investing in building skills while giving back to the community, eventually turning that into income from mobile apps, illustration/animation, and other ways to create value.
I did my own taxes, and I only had to amend my returns twice. Winking smile I’m looking forward to my second fiscal year end, which is coming soon! I ended up shelving mobile apps, but illustration, sketchnoting, and writing look like great ways to create engaging content.
I’ve got lots of sketchnotes of meetups, books, and product reviews. I’ve organized them into a blog and an e-book. My sketchnotes have colour and depth and interesting layouts. =) I help people find out about useful stuff and good get-togethers.
I published a collection of my 2012 sketchnotes on a free/pay-what-you-want basis, and people have actually bought it (for more than I would’ve asked for, yay!). I still don’t do fancy things with colour, depth, or layout, but I’m okay with that. =) Instead, I’ve been focusing on building resources to help people learn.
I’ve updated my Stories from my Twenties e-book with what I’ve learned from my 29th year, and I’ve shared the updates with the people who bought the book and sent me their receipts.
Done! See sachachua.com/blog/twenties . If I haven’t sent you the update because I misplaced your receipt or you didn’t send it to me, e-mail me and I’ll send you the new one.
I’ve gone through Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, and I understand it. =) I’m also picking up Cantonese.
No progress on either Latin or Cantonese, although I’ve been learning Japanese instead.
I’ve been having fun gardening. We’re growing more greens and have actually gotten into the habit of eating them. (I know!)
Cherry tomatoes and blueberries, mostly. =) I’m growing some more lettuce, although haven’t gotten around to making salad with them yet!
My finances are on track for my 5-year experiment; this might even be extended at least a few more years.
Yup! Business was unexpectedly good, and my expenses have stayed within my budgeting parameters.
I’m ready to rock my thirties!
Looks like it!

What were the highlights this year?

  • August: Switched to a phone with a data plan, which actually does make a difference in my looking-up-stuff-and-finding-my-way-around capabilities.
  • September: Attended Quantified Self conference in the US. Spent time with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law.
  • October: Filed corporate taxes!
  • November: Lots of sketchnoting.
  • December: Came up with a name and logo for my company: Experivis.
  • January: Sketched different business ideas.
  • February: Played with more sketchnoting and art.
  • March: Went to the Emacs conference in London.
  • April: Sketched more conferences.
  • May: Posted “How to Learn Emacs.”
  • June: Experimented with Google Hangouts, started working on Quantified Awesome some more, helped work on the patio.
  • July: Made some resources for learning more about sketchnoting; lots of coding and consulting. Oh, and I fixed a rice cooker! =D

Hmm. All this time I’ve been feeling conflicted because I just want to stay home and not travel. It turns out I’d travelled twice in the past year, which could be why I’ve got a slowly-rebuilding travel budget (… and the high fees for replacing a lost passport certainly didn’t help!). Righto. Funny, the things you forget when you’re looking at life day to day.

So, how am I different from the person I was last year?

  • I draw more for myself than for events or presentations. I make little guides like “How to Learn Emacs” or the tutorials I’ve been putting together for sketchnotes. It can be more fun and less frustrating than working on other people’s content, although working on other people’s content is simpler. I like drawing stuff for my own explanations, and I look forward to doing more of that next year. On a related note:
  • I’m more hesitant to make commitments. Scheduling appointments with people? Maaaybe. Committing to professional gigs months in advance? Not if I can find someone else to refer the work to. Committing to cook next week’s open house meal at HackLab? No, although I’m happy to assist. I’ll accept the occasional invitation to sketchnote a pro-bono event, but I make it clear that I might not go depending on whatever comes up. =) It’s partly due to semi-retirement (I’m starting to get addicted to this ability to follow my interest!) and partly because of some other things I want to plan around. I anticipate being even more commitment-avoidant in the near future. Which is all right – people managed to hang out in college and other unstructured environments before, so we can probably figure out how to do so now.
  • I write longer posts more frequently, and I illustrate them. I decided to take all of August off from consulting (month-long staycation for my birthday gift to me!). I’m not using the time for more event sketchnoting or business experiments. Instead, I’ve been using it to write and learn, which is fantastic – more time to think and research. Since I’m still keeping a one-post-a-day-unless-I-get-super-excited-and-want-to-publish-something-NOW limit, this means I’ve written practically all of this month already, and I’ve been shuffling posts around to see what I can postpone to September. It’s fun to doodle on my blog posts, too.
  • I spend more time with W- or with the HackLab people than with other friends. I naturally spend lots of time with W-, and I try to make it out to HackLab once or twice a week. I see HackLab people more often than I see my other friends. I have to admit: it’s temptingly easier to hang out with people who are used to hanging out with each other. I don’t have to set up individual plans or worry about holding up my end of the conversation. The drop-in structure of HackLab means I don’t have to commit to being there at a specific time – I can just show up (usually after checking the door bot) and see who’s around.
  • I live an even simpler life. We’ve given away things that we haven’t been using. We’ve passed up movie theatres in favour of watching DVDs from the library. We repair things as much as possible instead of throwing them away.

Hmm. Let me think about what I’d like my thirties to be like. This is pretty cool, actually, because “thirties” has slightly more credibility (if slightly less gee-whiz potential) than “twenties” does, so I should use it well. Sure, I probably won’t make it to a list of “30 under 30” within the next couple of days, but that’s all right. (They don’t really make lists like “90 over 90”, do they, although they should…)

When I look back at this year on the eve of turning 31, I’d like to say:

  • I’ve learned and shared a lot. This next year will probably be a year of intense learning in terms of life and work and Making Things Happen. As tempting as it always is to go full speed ahead, I think the result will be even better if I slow down and take notes along the way.
  • I’ve gotten very good at making decisions under lots of uncertainty. The outcomes might not always be good, but at least the processes will be well-reasoned and I’ll have notes to help me (and other people) learn more.
  • I’ve expanded my freedom and abilities in this 5-year experiment. I’ve focused on building up skills, knowledge, and relationships out of curiosity (“What if?” “How can we make this better?”) instead of fear (“Will I be able to hit the ground running if I decide to go back to the workforce?”). I find creative ways to deal with constraints, and those ideas help others. Writing, drawing, and coding continue to be a large part of my life.
  • I’ve gotten better at asking questions. This is tough, because I tend to want to dig into things myself, Google+books+experiments give me so much information, and advice can get a little weird if you don’t take it. Maybe if I start asking people questions through this blog, I might elicit interesting perspectives or encourage people to teach something (especially if they don’t have blogs of their own).
  • I live a simple and frugal life. Lifestyle inflation is the enemy. If I can keep my wants and needs the same–or even reduce them–then that helps us be even more free.
  • I think this will be a lot of fun. =)

Writing, drawing, and coding while tired

August 13, 2013 - Categories: life, writing
This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Thanks to a bad cold and a bit of a sore throat, I’ve been under the weather lately. Fortunately, I can adjust my schedule to rest as much as I want to. Besides, this is a good opportunity to figure out how to write and do things while tired, because I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last time I feel fuzzy.

shutterstock_57890992

Image by Eric Fahrner, courtesy of Shutterstock

The easiest thing to do is to sleep. There are all sorts of other activities that don’t require creative thinking: tidying up around the house, watching movies, reading books, answering e-mail. But I’d really like to get better at writing, drawing, and coding even when I don’t feel alert and awesome. These are skills that get better with practice and rust with disuse. If I can get the hang of making things in suboptimal situations, then fewer and fewer excuses can get in my way.

WRITING

I want to keep up the rhythm of publishing a post a day. There’s so much to learn and share, and so much gets forgotten if I don’t write. I want each post to share at least one useful point, although the occasional rambly life snapshot works fine too.

Outlines seem to help a lot. The mental effort it takes to outline things seems to be different from the effort it takes to write a post. I can outline when I don’t feel like writing. When I’m writing, I can follow the signposts of my outline.

When I’m tired, my inner editor is even more tired. Since I’m okay with letting the occasional typo escape into the wild and I don’t expect to make sense with every post (that’s what revisits are for!), perfectionism isn’t a problem.

I’m not as bubbly in my blog posts as I might otherwise have been. This is okay. It means that I sound normal. This could even be better, because then people can relate with me more.

DRAWING

I haven’t been going to as many events. I even skipped sketchnoting a friend’s talk because I didn’t feel like wandering too far from my stash of handkerchiefs and water bottles. There are still plenty of things I can do to get better at drawing even when I feel sick.

It’s a good time to practise the basics: drawing simple shapes again and again until I can do them quickly and confidently. The kind of stuff that might be boring if I felt more alert, but which needs to be done anyway in order to build skill.

I can also organize and classify. Every so often, I go through other people’s sketchnotes, clipping elements for my visual vocabulary. It’s boring but useful work.

Book reviews are good, too. Reading books is a great way to learn while passing the time, and doing more visual book reviews means I stand a chance of remembering what I learned once the sniffles are gone.

CODING

This one’s the hardest. With limited brainspace, debugging can get pretty frustrating, and I can end up adding more bugs when I try to fix something. Still, here are some things I can do:

Write more tests. These will help catch future bugs and make it easier for me to develop things even when my brain is fuzzy.

Read more documentation and source code. It’s harder for me to absorb new information when my brain is fuzzy, but sometimes things are interesting enough to inspire me to tinker. Emacs and Org source code, CSS tutorials, D3 visualization examples… There’s plenty to learn from.

Work on bugs? I might not feel like writing new code, but if there are bugs that I can investigate, then at least I’ve got the social payoff of making someone’s day.

Work on my TODO list. I always keep a list of small development tasks to work on. Even though I feel dreadfully slow when working while sick, I can still get stuff done.

OTHER STUFF

When I’m sick, my desire for social interaction goes way down. I don’t want to go to events. I don’t want to talk to people on the phone. I’m not even particularly keen on e-mail. This is okay. I compensate by checking people’s social network updates and occasionally clicking on “Like.”

Fortunately, stuffing our freezer full of food means that we’re well-fed even during blah days.

Hanging out with cats means I don’t feel at all guilty about napping in the middle of the day. =)

How do you deal with not quite being at your best?

Thinking about how I can use Evernote more effectively

August 14, 2013 - Categories: kaizen, notetaking

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

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

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

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

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

I have different types of clipping activities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sketchnote Lessons: Arrows and Connectors

August 15, 2013 - Categories: drawing
This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

You can use use arrows or connectors to guide people through your sketchnote/drawing. Here are some samples:image

For more drawing tips, check out the other sketchnote lessons!

Learning how to work with stock photos: Can you help me?

August 16, 2013 - Categories: blogging, photography, sketches, visual

The advice these days is to include a large image in your blog post, somewhere “above the fold”, so that it can attract attention, visually break up the page, and make your blog post more interesting. That way, blog themes that use featured images can include that as the thumbnail, and magazine-style feed readers (I use Feedly) can make your posts look cool. The image should be relevant. If you’re using someone else’s image, observe copyright and attribution requirements.

There can never be too many cat pics on the Internet.I like cats, so I’m going to bend the rule about relevance and add a cat picture here.

If I want to learn more about visual language, stock photos and Creative Commons images might be good ways to do that. Less work than taking pictures of things myself, and more realistic than drawing.

One of the reasons I dislike stock photos is that they can feel fake. You know, the bunch of all-white (or, rarely, obviously diverse) business people who are way too excited about a meeting. See Corey Eridon’s post on 13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography. I don’t think the examples are awful, but you’ll recognize the clichés.

What does “good” look like? Of the blogs I read, which ones use images consistently, and what do I prefer?

Lifehacker uses images well, and it looks like they customize their photos or make original ones too. Dumb Little Man, Priceonomics, Wise Bread, Blueprint for Financial Prosperity, and Under30CEO include images with every post, although sometimes the images look a bit… stock-y. So I have role models.

What do I want to learn from using stock photos?

I want to be inspired by the way human emotions and situations can be translated into different contexts. I want to expand my collection of visual metaphors. I want to get the hang of matching ideas with comics (or making my own).

What’s getting in my way?

Thinking of the right keywords, and being happy with the search results. For example, let’s say that I want to express the concept, “being frustrated with search results.” Needle in a haystack? Frustrated person?

This is kinda what I mean. Sometimes it’s easier to draw than to search.

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It’s this odd combination of too many choices, and yet not quite what I’m looking for – but I think that has more to do with skills I need to develop, ways I need to learn how to see and think.

image

 

How do you learn how to use images anyway? Most of the blog posts and web pages I’ve seen just harp on copyright, assuming you’ve got the sense to pick out images on your own. If I want to get better at this, I need to get better at brainstorming concrete images for abstract concepts, coming up with keywords for more efficient searching, piling up sheer exposure – stuffing lots of stock photos into my head until I build my “stock photo vocabulary,” or my visual vocabulary in general.

TIPS

I filtered through more than a hundred pages of Google search results related to how to choose stock photos. Here are the best resources I’ve come across so far:

WAYS I CAN LEARN

A. Write the post first, then look for images.

More topical and closer to my existing workflow, but can be frustrating because of my criteria. I don’t want fake-looking models or situations. I don’t want meaningless fluff or

On the plus side, if I spend half an hour searching for an image and still can’t find it, I probably have a better idea of what I want and how it’s different from what I’ve seen. Then I can draw it.

B. Browse for images first, then follow the inspiration to write posts (maybe with my outline).

Possibly fun, possibly a time-suck. Randomness is my friend. There’s always plenty to write about, so I’m not too worried about finding a topic – although I do want to make sure that each post is fleshed out enough so that it’s not just an excuse to share an image.

Have you taught yourself how to work with stock photos and blog posts? Can you help me figure out how to build my stock photo vocabulary?

Cat image based on this one by vita khorzhevska, Shutterstock
Stream of images based on this one by kangshutters, also Shutterstock

Update 2013-08-16: One of the ways I’m coming to terms with stock photos is to mix them up in some way – add speech bubbles, doodle, and so on. It’s fun. It turns it into a game. If you use stock photos on your blog, what do you do to stop making it look generic?

Weekly review: Week ending August 16, 2013

August 17, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Blog posts

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (10.7h – 6%)
    • Earn (0.0h – 0% of Business)
      • [ ] Check E1 mail
    • Build (6.8h – 63% of Business)
      • Quantified Awesome (2.4h)
        • [X] Add View all categories
        • [X] Add day summary and week summary to category view
        • [X] Add the ability to make goals inactive
        • [X] Fix refresh for library
      • Drawing (1.3h)
        • [ ] Sketchnote a book
        • [ ] Draw guide to sketchnoting
      • Paperwork (1.9h)
    • Connect (3.9h – 36% of Business)
  • Relationships (11.1h – 6%)
    • [X] Check results for experiment
    • [X] Hang out with Mel
    • [X] Hang out with barkada for virtual birthday party
    • [ ] Make plans for party?
  • Discretionary – Productive (22.8h – 13%)
    • [ ] Go through Latin Made Simple chapter 1
    • [ ] Scan receipts
    • Writing (9.3h)
      • [ ] Write about blogging skills
  • Discretionary – Play (12.6h – 7%)
    • Got Portal 2
  • Personal routines (20.4h – 12%)
  • Unpaid work (7.8h – 4%)
  • Sleep (83.4h – 49% – average of 11.9 per day)

Monthly review: July 2013

August 18, 2013 - Categories: monthly, review

Last month, I wrote:

July will be about gearing up for more changes, getting better at
writing blog posts and making videos, and working on more projects
around the house. I like this. =)

No videos, but plenty of blog posts and drawings. Goodness, August is almost done. Anyway, the rest of August will be about planning ahead, and also squeezing the most out of this wonderful span of discretionary time.

Thinking about how to type faster than 110wpm

August 19, 2013 - Categories: kaizen

shutterstock_127525793What would typing faster be like? What would help me get there?

10fastfingers.com says that my average typing speed is 104 wpm (over 13 tests), with a peak of 112wpm. This is on Dvorak, which I taught myself in 2003. On QWERTY, I’m slower (85-90wpm) and definitely not as happy. I like the way Dvorak alternates hands. I learned QWERTY instinctively and Dvorak properly, so I have much better finger-use on Dvorak.

Having recently discovered the typing practice feature on 10fastfingers, I’ve been working on getting rid of the backspace instinct. This is one of the keys to typing faster: increase your speed beyond accuracy, and then let accuracy catch up. Incidentally, the same trick works with speed-reading, where you need to push yourself to read faster than you can comprehend.

I could use AutoHotkey to make my backspace key useless. Hah! For good measure, I’ll disable my left Control as well, since I need to get used to using Caps Lock instead. I tried setting Backspace to SoundBeep before, but that got in the way of mapping something else to Backspace. That’s why the keyboard shortcuts are playing musical chairs.

Backspace::F13
F13::SoundBeep
LCtrl::SoundBeep
Capslock::Control
F12::Backspace

Shut down that typing inhibitor and you’ll type faster, or at least that’s how the theory goes.

I’m somewhat concerned that this will result in Training The Wrong Thing. After all, practice is just as good at solidifying mistakes as it is in improving performance. ;) (Practice Perfect is an excellent book – have you read it?) Still, since I’m supposed to reread my blog posts for typos anyway, I guess it can’t hurt.

Typing speed isn’t my bottleneck, though. It’s thinking speed. But since that seems to be harder to improve (maybe games? improv?), I can work on other aspects instead.

I occasionally experiment with speech recognition as a way of speeding up input and making phrases more natural. So far, I’ve discovered I’m definitely not used to talking my way through a topic, although I’m sure that’ll yield to practice. Dragon’s model of my speech is getting good enough that I can use it to dictate notes from books with minimal editing, which comes in handy when I’m taking notes on books that aren’t interesting enough to sketchnote in full. (I didn’t dictate this blog post because my headset is still recharging.)

Outlining is going to be a big help too, I think. I’ve got blog posts scheduled up to September. It’s now super-easy for me to sit down and start writing, knowing where the post fits in the grand scheme of things. A number of people have expressed interest in the Accelerated Learning with Sketchnotes idea, so I might go ahead and prototype parts of it to see how that works out. =)

As for code (the other place where typing speed really pays off), I find that the more I learn, the less I need to write. Increasing my productivity is more about understanding the problem or idea, knowing about (and applying!) good practices, and making the most of available tools and libraries.

But it’s still fun inching up one’s typing speed, just because. I know people who type at 120wpm+, so clearly, it’s possible. Still, RSI is a real danger (I know people who’ve mostly had to stop typing, although this is a different set of people!). Don’t optimize this too much. ;)

It might be fun to spend a few weeks seeing if this is a skill that yields to deliberate practice. Do you want to try the deliberate practice experiment with me so that we can combine our results? It probably looks like a 10-15min daily practice session (10 minutes of typing practice, and a few tests).

I’m also curious about the Colemak layout, which is supposed to have better rolling. I’ll learn that eventually. =)

First, I have to get used to the weirdness I’ve imposed on myself (no Backspace key, no left Control key). Then it’s off to the races!

Image credits: Training (CartoonResource, Shutterstock)

What’s your typing speed? Have you steadily increased your speed, or have you broken through plateaus? How?
Update – August 19, 2013: Mel Chua suggests stenography (http://plover.stenoknight.com/). That looks promising, especially once Stenosaurus becomes available. Things to start learning next month!

Working around the limits of digital sketchnoting

August 20, 2013 - Categories: drawing

“I could never draw on a computer – I like paper too much.” Lots of people shy away from drawing on a tablet or tablet PC because they feel limited by the technology. I like sketchnoting on my tablet PC – I feel like I can do so much more than I can do on paper! =) Here are some of the limitations I’ve come across and how I’ve worked around them.

It’s hard to see the big picture

When I draw on an 8.5×11 or a 9×12 sketchbook – or when people do graphic recording on 4’ rolls of paper – it’s easy to see the big picture. On a tablet PC, I usually work zoomed-in so that I can write and draw neatly, but this means that I don’t get a sense of how everything fits together.

This limitation depends on the tools that you use. I’ve tried using the “Views” feature in ArtRage 4 and the “Navigator” feature in Adobe Illustrator, but neither program was responsive and reliable enough for me to use for sketchnoting. Aside from a tiny thumbnail photo, Autodesk Sketchbook Pro doesn’t have that kind of overall preview (yet?). Instead, I work around this limitation by frequently zooming in and out. The pen-based controls make it easy to do so, although it means that screen recordings are a little “bouncy”.

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Another way I work around this limitation is to use a grid and pre-set brush sizes to keep sizes consistent. This means that even if I’m zoomed in, I don’t have to worry about accidentally drawing one part much bigger than the other, and the whole image still hangs together.

Since I don’t have a sense of how the page is laid out when I’m zoomed in and working on details, I usually leave plenty of whitespace around each of the sketchnote’s elements. If I need to visually balance the page, I can use the lasso tool to move things around.

Tools take up valuable screen space

Because I don’t see the entire image all at once and the toolboxes reduce how much screen estate I have available, I need to constantly pan or zoom. I get around this by organizing the user interface components in a compact, consistent configuration.

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Picking the right thing to compare it with helps a lot. If I compare it with the full screen size or an 8.5×11” sheet of paper, I feel like I’m missing out. If I compare it with a pocket-sized notebook, on the other hand… I get about as much space, but a ton more functionality. =)

Autodesk Sketchbook Pro has shortcuts for hiding toolboxes and you can customize a small menu for quick access, but I haven’t used them. When I’m drawing, I want to minimize how much I need to think about drawing, and I want my frequently-used tools to be one click away (not two, not three).

Battery life can be an issue

Although tablets can last almost a full day of drawing, powerful tablet PCs like the one I use can run out of juice pretty quickly. No power, no drawing!

If I’m going to sketchnote a 1-2 hour event, I can usually get by with my regular battery. I switch to low-power mode, turn off wireless, and dim the screen. If I want to upload the sketchnote right after the event, I turn wireless back on just before I’m ready to upload. This usually gets me through.

For longer events or for events where I want to make sure that I don’t run out of power, I bring an external battery. With the external battery, I can get through a day of sketchnoting without needing to look for a power supply. If I’m sketchnoting a conference, I try to scout out power outlets (either in the presentation room or in the staff lounge) so that I can recharge the battery over lunch, just in case.

Tablet PCs are heavy

The power and performance come at a price: my laptop/tablet PC is 1.76kg on its own, and 2.7kg total with the extended battery. Then there’s the charger, a backup sketchbook, a water bottle, some snacks… My bag gets pretty full and heavy!

If I can bike to the event, I usually load up my saddlebags and fasten things securely. If not, I’ll take a padded backpack with chest and waist straps. I might look like I’m going camping, but at least I’m ergonomically sorted out.

You can lose data if the computer crashes or if you make mistakes

… and believe me, this has happened before. I’ve had problems with Microsoft OneNote and Adobe Illustrator on my tablet PC, and with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on my Android tablet. That’s why I’ve settled on using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on a tablet PC, which seems to be a much more reliable

I’ve also made silly mistakes like accidentally moving instead of panning, which meant that some of my drawing went “off-screen” and was lost. To guard against this, I use Camtasia Studio to record my screen during important sketchnoting sessions. That way, I can export selected images from my recording, or I can use the audio to help me redo the sketch.

After the event, I back up, back up, and back up. I save sketchnotes to Dropbox, and I back up my computer weekly to an external drive. I also e-mail or publish sketchnotes as soon as I can, so then the event organizer has a copy.

It’s easier to forget about your sketches because you can’t flip through them as easily

One of the nice things about sketchbooks is being able to quickly flip through it and rediscover old sketches. You can lose track of digital sketchnotes on your computer and you don’t have those physical encounters to remind you of them. I get around this by saving my sketchnotes to Evernote (so that they turn up whenever I search my notebooks or Google). I also publish as many as possible on my blog, so that I come across them when reviewing my archive or when other people link to or comment on them.

How do you work around the limitations of the tools that you use? What other limitations are holding you back? Please share comments or links below!

Alex M. Chong (Visual Thinkers Toronto co-organizer) suggested that we share our experiences in overcoming limitations. Here’s my contribution!

My next delegation experiment: coaching and editing

August 21, 2013 - Categories: delegation, writing

Reinvesting for the winI’ve been thinking about how I can reinvest profits back into this blog. My default is to save, save, save. There’s time to learn through trial and effort However, investing in help and tools has paid off before, and maybe I can get even better at making those decisions. Besides, if I’m going to scale back consulting and focus on other ways to create value, then it makes sense to invest in creating more advantages.

So I’m planning to find an assistant for this blog – someone who can work part-time on an as-needed basis, probably through Odesk.com. This is definitely not about hiring someone to “spin” keyword-stuffed content for me in order to boost SEO, nor do I need someone to keep me accountable when it comes to writing. I want more than that.

I want someone who can help me deliberately improve my blogging skills. I’ve been working on doing this on my own, and that’s going well. I’m getting the hang of outlining. The next thing I want to get better at is synthesizing information (making lists, describing alternatives, etc.) in a smooth, coherent, and non-plagiaristic way, bringing everything together with recommendations or a conclusion. After that, I want to learn how to:

  1. Write better headlines
  2. End strong: conclusion, call to action, question
  3. Start strong: improve first paragraph, regularly set excerpts
  4. Pick better post topics (research, feedback, etc.)
  5. Send e-mail newsletters, perhaps gathering ideas and feedback for upcoming blog posts
  6. Update, organize, and package information resources regularly

I also want to learn how to take advantage of feedback and coaching. Although I have many mentors, I don’t have a lot of coaching experiences. The last time I had a coach was for school programming competitions. Our coaches taught us algorithms and strategies. They selected problem sets for exercises so that we could see the concepts in action, and they also simulated contests so that we could learn how to work as a team. I learned a lot more than I did on my own.

PLANNING THE WORK

Let's try it once without the parachuteThe ideal coach is someone who’s good at what I want to learn and good at teaching it. That way, they can model excellence—while explaining what they do and why they’re doing it. They can help me identify gaps in my understanding and give me feedback as I improve. They know when to push me beyond what I think I’m comfortable with.

This is what my ideal scenario for a blogging coach would look like:

  1. We pick a skill to focus on, such as synthesizing information.
  2. They recommend some of their favourite role models.
  3. We come up with exercises or challenges (for example, I’m currently working on making sure I have at least one list a week, and that most new posts have images).
  4. I outline the post, and they help me improve the logical organization.
  5. I draft the post, and they help me improve it further.

Even if I can’t find someone who is clearly more awesome at the skill I want to learn, a different perspective can also be useful. Someone can help me check whether something makes sense, perhaps suggesting alternatives. Eventually, I want to learn how to put my editing hat on.

In addition to the coach role, there’s also value in the assistant role. It would be interesting to see what help with research and editing would be like. People use different keywords, so we might be able to find different resources. Maybe they can help me sift through and prioritize lots of results. The main question is that of relative advantage. I read pretty quickly and I get some value from reading the sources myself, so either they need to do that better than I do, or I need to shift the time I spend reading into something of even higher value.

An ideal scenario for writing assistance could be: I send them an outline and some notes. They send back summaries of the best resources with citations and links. I add personal stories. (This step comes after the research because I may want to apply the advice we find, and besides, that stops me from just looking for confirmatory evidence.) We draft, edit, proofread, and publish.

Besides, it would be nice to have someone turn transcripts into blog-ready content. (Or maybe I need to look around for another transcriber who gets blogging…)

I’m curious about the tools and processes that more experienced writers use, but those can be difficult to transfer. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find someone who does a lot of reflective practice.

In addition to getting better and working more effectively, I also want to prepare for situations when I might be more frazzled. It’ll happen. That’s just part of life. I could do what other people do and not blog, but it’s more fun to take notes and learn from the conversation. It makes sense to build that capability now, before I need it. When I’m stressed or sleep-deprived, someone else can check that I’m making sense and that I’m still following a good balance between “useful” and “personal”.

JUSTIFYING THE VALUE

I always try to talk myself out of expenses to make sure that I’ve considered my options. What are some alternatives to paying a coach/assistant?

I can learn on my own based on people’s voluntary feedback. Yay comments! I’m doing all right, and I plan to learn for a long, long time. There are plenty of great tips out there. I’m nowhere near the limit of what I can learn for free or from experience. Books and role models can give me passive, general guidance.

I can find or start a blogging mastermind group. Peer-learning may be slower, but I’ll benefit from different perspectives, stronger relationships, and shared goals. A facilitated mastermind group with a coach can be more cost-effective, and I can learn from the advice that other people get. I have good informal relationships with a number of other bloggers, although they aren’t connected with each other yet.

The alternatives are pretty good, so what advantages can working with a coach/assistant offer to make it worthwhile? Paying someone to help me learn can mean getting targeted, skilled, and consistent feedback. In addition, I can learn more about delegation and coaching, which will be useful for growing my other capabilities.

So it’s worth at least an experiment. What could that experiment look like? It probably looks like 2-3 hours of work once a week for at least a month, focusing on applying the skills to one post a week. That way, we can go deep instead of wide. We’ll use Google Docs or Draft to share work in progress, maybe with e-mail notifications so that we don’t have to check it all the time. E-mail and Google Hangouts can help us clarify or discuss things as needed.

The main risk is that I might forget to assign work, so I should prepare for that by structuring the first month up front and committing to a regular schedule.

At the end of the experiment, I’d like to be more comfortable synthesizing key points from my research and stitching them together in a smooth, coherent, non-plagiaristic way that adds value. Assuming that’s the skill we decide to focus on; we could focus on headlines, intros, or conclusions instead. I’m okay with working with different coaches for different things. It makes sense to play to people’s strengths, after all.

I’d like to be in the position of wanting to continue the experiment, and being able to justify continuing. I did a similar delegation experiment in 2009 (nearly six years ago!), hiring a number of different editors to give me feedback. At the time, I didn’t think it was worth repeating that experiment. (I’ve grown as a writer, but in different ways – outlining and illustrating have really helped!)

What will be different this time around? I think we’ll be less focused on wordsmithing and more focused on developing specific skills. I’d feel better about continuing if I get deep feedback instead of superficial feedback combined with reflective explanations of what’s going on. For example, reorganizing a post and explaining why that could make more sense is much better than making tiny word changes. (Unless they’re truly awesome tiny word changes!)

I may need to try a few experiments before I learn how to properly set up the instructions and the process, and I may need to work with different people to take advantage of different strengths. I should also experiment with signing up for a for-fee facilitated mastermind group, although maybe I should check if I have the commitment to get through online courses first. (I’ve been very bad at this in the past.) Lots of different things to try.

In terms of justification, it would be great if I can continue to treat it as a business expense. To keep the Canada Revenue Agency happy, I need to be able to demonstrate that it’s directly related to a business with an expectation of income. If I can point to how it will help me sell information products or courses (maybe on a pay-what-you-want basis so that I also feel good about making information widely available), then that will probably be enough for the CRA. If not, I just have to make room for it in my after-tax budget. It’s a trade-off between investing in increasing capabilities versus increasing my safety margin for being properly retired, but I think it will be worth it.

What’s in it for the assistant/coach? In addition to paying the agreed-on fees, I’m happy to share before/after comparisons and link to people in posts. Naturally, there’ll be plenty of process reflections and updates along the way. Teaching someone else how to improve their skills is a great way to improve your own, so that’s always nice.

Next steps: I’ve got one promising candidate, so now that I’ve fleshed out what I have in mind, I might reach out to her and start the interview process. And hey, if you happen to be a writer-type who’s interested, you can check out the job post – working with someone who reads my blog already would be even better. I’m open to hiring more than one person on an as-needed basis (experiments!), so go ahead!

Do you work with a coach or an editor? Can you share any tips for making the most of the relationship?

Image credit: Piggy bank (Oliver Hoffman, Shutterstock); Comic (CartoonResource, Shutterstock)

Resources for getting started with sketchnoting

August 22, 2013 - Categories: drawing

Updated 2014-01-13: Added sketches
Updated 2013-11-29: Added video tutorials

Lots of people want to learn more about how to sketchnote, so I’m working on building some resources for learning through sketchnotes (a book? a course?).

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Here are some excellent resources for getting started:

I’ve been putting together some drawing/sketchnoting tutorials too – check them out!

If there are gaps that you’d like to learn more about, or if you have any questions that the above resources haven’t answered, I want to hear from you! Comment below or e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com , and help me figure out what should go into this book/course/thing. =)

Write about what you don’t know: 5 tips to help you do research for your blog

August 23, 2013 - Categories: blogging, research, tips, writing
This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Blogging should expand your brain. It’s a great tool for learning things, so why limit yourself to what you think you’re an expert on? I want to write about things I don’t know. Then I can help other people get started, and other  people can help me learn. (Hence the preponderence of “Thinking about…” and “Learning…” posts on my blog versus “How to…” posts.)

Research lets you jumpstart your learning by building on other people’s experiences. Fortunately, you have access to more information than you could ever read, thanks to the wonders of the Internet.

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I’ve been re-learning how to research and how to synthesize that information for blog posts. It’s much more useful when you’re no longer trying to pad a school report with three to five reliable sources. Did you come across an interesting post on a blog? A great message on a forum? Go ahead and link to them, no PhDs required.

1. Make an outline of the questions you want to answer or ideas you want to explore.

You’ll be reading a lot. It helps to have a framework that shows you what you’ve covered and what you need to look for next. Here are some outlining tips from Journalistics. Here’s an example: my outline for blogging skills.

2. Search for “good enough” resources.

Don’t worry about finding the absolute best resource. Look for good-enough resources, and prioritize as you find more. Don’t link just for the sake of linking. Every link should add more insights or details.

I usually go through the first five to ten pages of Google search results. If people quote an even better source, I follow that link. Sometimes I’ll try different search queries based on the titles of blog posts I like.

You can quickly get a sense of whether a blog post is better than other things you’ve read. Does it give specific, punchy, perhaps unexpected advice illustrated with personal experiences, or is it your run-of-the-mill link-building blahblahblah? Speed-reading can pay off a lot here.

Want to go into greater depth? Look for relevant books and read them, summarizing the key points for your readers. Google Book Search is great for searching inside books, and Amazon’s recommendations are handy too. I sometimes check out seven or more books on a single topic, read them all over a week, and pick out key points for a blog post. This is an excellent way to add value, because most people won’t have the time to read the same books.

You can also check out other channels: podcasts, Twitter conversations, online Q&A sites, magazines, research papers… Go beyond blog posts when looking for resources, and you’ll find plenty of relevant material.

Good news – you can’t lose. If you find excellent resources right away, then you don’t have to write a big blog post. Just learn from those resources, and maybe write a post with your question and links to the best resources you found. If you spend an hour searching and you can’t find anything you really like, that’s fine too. Chances are that other people are frustrated by it too. Take that as a cue to write the blog post you wish you’d read.

3. Add key points and links to your outline.

By adding to your outline along the way, you’ll see how ideas are related to each other and where the gaps are. If you’re copying an exact quote, add quotation marks so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize it when rereading your notes. Better yet, paraphrase it right away. To make citations easier, add attributions or links. That way, you don’t have to chase down references.

Here are Cal Newport’s tips on how to use an outline to write papers quickly: outline the topic, find solid sources, capture quotes, and then turn that outline into your paper. Works for blog posts too.

4. Reorganize your outline and notes.

Take another look at your outline and reorganize it until the flow makes sense. The order in which you find resources is rarely the order in which you want to share them. For example, you may want to categorize the tips you’ve picked up, combine similar items, and arrange them in a logical order. You can also compare different viewpoints and line up the arguments for each alternative, then conclude with recommendations. With a little paraphrasing, you might be able to fit the tips into a creative mnemonic. Play around with the structure before you start writing your post.

5. Add value through summaries, insights, and personal experiences.

While searching for resources, you might have noticed an intimidatingly large number of results. For example, searching for how to do research for your blog gets more than a billion search results. Why add one more?

You’ve probably also noticed that many results are missing something. Maybe you didn’t find a single post that answers the exact question you wanted to explore (or if it did, the answer was buried in an intimidatingly long post). Maybe most of the search results are fluffy self-promotional pieces. Maybe they’re badly formatted and hard to read.

There’s room for you to add something of value, even if it’s just a good summary. Other people could spend a few hours reading all those search results and books, and trying to map out the insights from various resources… but if you’ve already done the work, why not save them some time and share what you’ve learned so far?

Add your own tips. While researching, you’ll probably think of a few points that you can’t find in the pages that you’ve seen so far. Write them down. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because they’re more experienced than you and they took that for granted, but other beginners will find those tips useful. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because you’re more experienced than they are (or at least you’ve made different mistakes). Add your thoughts.

Tell personal stories. Instead of just sharing advice, share your experiences in applying that advice. What worked well for you? What could have gone better? This is a great way to learn more, too – you’re not just passing on advice, you’re trying things out and adding your own perspective. A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin do this really well in their books on life experiments, and are definitely worth reading.

I hope these five steps will help you learn new things while writing blog posts. You don’t have to limit yourself to what you know. You can use your blog to help you learn. Good luck and have fun!

How do you research ideas for your blog posts?

Image credits: Stack of books by discpicture (via Shutterstock) 

Author’s note: I feel like this post should have more links in it, given the subject. I’m not particularly impressed with most of the posts I came across in my research, though (see the last point in step 2). Do you have any favourite resources along these lines?

Weekly review: Week ending August 23, 2013

August 24, 2013 - Categories: weekly

Blog posts

Quick notes

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (19.6h – 11%)
    • Earn (1.5h – 7% of Business)
      • [X] Check E1 mail
    • Build (10.9h – 55% of Business)
      • Quantified Awesome (4.0h)
      • Drawing (1.7h)
        • [X] Sketchnote a book
        • [ ] Sketchnote a book
      • Paperwork (0.5h)
    • Connect (7.3h – 37% of Business)
      • [ ] Post QS Toronto notes
      • [ ] Process and upload another QS Toronto video
  • Relationships (17.4h – 10%)
    • [C] Make plans for party?
  • Discretionary – Productive (25.5h – 15%)
    • [X] Write about blogging skills
    • [ ] Draw guide to sketchnoting
    • [ ] Go through Latin Made Simple chapter 1
    • [ ] Scan receipts
    • Writing (8.8h)
  • Discretionary – Play (9.9h – 5%)
  • Personal routines (24.3h – 14%)
  • Unpaid work (13.2h – 7%)
  • Sleep (61.1h – 36% – average of 8.7 per day)

Reflecting on a month of experimenting with Proper Retirement

August 26, 2013 - Categories: experiment

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When I started on my 5-year experiment, I hedged my bets by thinking of it as semi-retirement. I was open to working part-time on a flexible basis. Consulting worked out well for that. People also wanted me to work on illustrations and sketchnotes, and I figured that was a great way to spread visual thinking while being paid to learn. I earned more than I expected, creating a good safety margin for my experiment and making it easier to plan continuing it.

Because I didn’t want to settle into too much of a familiar pattern, I interrupted my experiment with month-long sub-experiments. One month, I travelled for a conference and spent time with my family. Another time, I focused on building a sketchnoting business.

This August, I experimented with my idea of Proper Retirement: living with minimal commitments, following my interests. I didn’t do anything billable, aside from the occasional check-in with my existing consulting clients when they raised the bat signal. I didn’t look for new work. I slept in without guilt. It gave me the time to work on some personal projects and build some skills.

I didn’t get around to everything, but I like the progress I made. I wrote a lot, learning more about outlining and illustration. I drew a series of sketchnoting tutorials. I outlined book ideas. I updated my archive of favourite posts. I learned more about researching. I reached out and chatted with people online. It was good. And I actually earned a smidge of income from the pay-what-you-can e-resources on my site, so yay that!

I like this focus on self-directed projects. No clients means no easy source of feedback, no built-in challenges, and no direct transactions for income–but it also means less stress, less commitment, less chasing down of accounts receivables. If I get better at planning what to work on and getting feedback from people through Twitter and blog posts, I can be my own client.

Besides, this arrangement forces me to get better at planning for different circumstances. I anticipate that life is going to get even more variable, not less, and that it will be harder to make commitments, rather than easier. It makes sense to learn how to manage my time and create value instead of being comfortable with the guidance that client projects give me in terms of schedule and initiative.

So now what? I want to experiment more with taking the initiative. I’m probably going to wind down my consulting over the next four months. My clients are doing well, which is exactly what should be happening. Although people sometimes ask me to sketchnote events, I might wind that down as well, referring the work to other people I know in Toronto and elsewhere. It’s interesting, but it’s also an hours-for-money swap, and I tend to get better information density from books. (And less performance anxiety?) I’ll take care of my existing clients’ needs, and I’ll pass other opportunities on. It feels a little weird to say no to things, but that’s part of the experiment: to learn how to be less afraid of closing doors and moving on, knowing that in many cases, I might be able to reopen those doors if I need to.

What could this look like if I focused on doing things that I chose? Writing and drawing still have their place. Writing lends itself to packaging, of course. I get the occasional unexpected bonus from Amazon affiliate links or Gumroad sales. Maybe someday I’d even make my peace with advertising, although I’m not sure about that. As for drawing, perhaps I’ll make stock images and more interesting guides. Maybe writing and drawing will come together in course development. Maybe I’ll take the occasional professional writing or illustration gig. Maybe I’ll learn how to pitch freelance articles to magazines and blogs. Maybe we’ll see how the next few years changes the landscape.

There’s some benefit to staying in business, and some costs too. I have a corporation, and that’s been very useful. I’ll keep it around as I slowly disburse what I need from it in the form of dividends (or a salary, if I can justify that). Having a corporation involves some ongoing costs for paperwork and things like that, which I’ve been fine with doing so far. The benefits for working under the umbrella of a corporation include a little tax flexibility (which was really helpful when I was going full-tilt as a consultant) and some tax savings involving business expenses.

My income’s probably going to be a fraction of what it used to be. There might even be years when it would be negligible, perhaps below expenses. The CRA bulletin IT504R2 has this to say about visual artists and writers:

In the case of an artist or writer, it is possible that a taxpayer may not realize a profit during his or her lifetime but still have a reasonable expectation of profit. However, in order to have this "reasonable expectation of profit" the artistic or literary endeavours, as the case may be, of the artist or writer must be carried on in a manner such that, based on the criteria in ¶ 5above, they may be considered for income tax purposes to be the carrying on of a business rather than, for example, a hobby.

The criteria mentioned are:

    (a) the amount of time devoted to artistic or literary endeavours,

    (b) the extent to which an artist or writer has presented his or her own works in public and private settings including, but not limited to, exhibiting, publishing and reading as is appropriate to the nature of the work,

    (c) the extent to which an artist is represented by an art dealer or agent and the extent to which a writer is represented by a publisher or agent,

    (d) the amount of time devoted to, and type of activity normally pursued in, promoting and marketing the artist’s or writer’s own works,

    (e) the amount of revenue received that is relevant to the artist’s or writer’s own works including, but not limited to, revenue from sales, commissions, royalties, fees, grants and awards which may reasonably be included in business income,

    (f) the historical record, spanning a significant number of years, of annual profits or losses relevant to the artist’s or writer’s exploitation of his or her own works,

    (g) a variation, over a period of time, in the value or popularity of the individual’s artistic or literary works,

    (h) the type of expenditures claimed and their relevance to the endeavours (e.g., in the case of a writer there would be a positive indication of business activity if a substantial portion of the expenditures were incurred for research),

    (i) the artist’s or writer’s qualifications as an artist or writer, respectively, as evidenced by education and also by public and peer recognition received in the form of honours, awards, prizes and/or critical appraisal,

    (j) membership in any professional association of artists or writers whose membership or categories of membership are limited under standards established by that association,

    (k) the significance of the amount of gross revenue derived by an artist or writer from the exploitation of that individual’s own works and the growth of such gross revenue over time. In applying this factor, external influences such as economic conditions, changes in the public mood, etc., which may affect the sale of artistic or literary works will be taken into consideration, and

    (l) the nature of the literary works undertaken by a writer. It is considered that a literary work such as a novel, poem, short story or any non-fictional prose composition that is written for general sale or syndicated distribution would normally have a greater profit potential than a work undertaken for restricted distribution.

I think I can do this. And if I can’t, then it can be a hobby. As hobbies go, it’s pretty frugal. Besides, I should be able to figure out how to create enough value.

I can do longer and longer experiments with this, easing into it. I’ve committed to consulting for the next four months, so I should do that. I have some illustration clients with ongoing relationships too, so I’ll take care of those needs. I might not take on additional commitments, even for short-term engagements. Then I’ll give this Proper Retirement experiment a try for a quarter, evaluate, and then try it for longer.

What warning signs should I keep an eye out for? If my savings dip below X years of expenses, time to reconsider. If I find myself falling out of touch with my networks, time to focus on reaching out to and helping people I know. If something happens to our financial situations change, I can invest some time in re-skilling and get back into full-time technical work.

The key difference for me is the jump from people saying “This is what I want and I will pay you $X for it,” to me saying “I think it might be interesting to make Y. Let’s see if other people will find it useful.” I’m not really used to that. I’m okay, but I want to be even better at it. Now is an excellent time to learn.

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Emacs: How I organize my Org files

August 27, 2013 - Categories: emacs, org, organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal tasks and notes: organizer.org

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

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

Anything to do with business: business.org

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

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

Relationships: people.org

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

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

Regular tasks: routines.org

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

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

Outline for future blog posts: sharing/index.org

I organize this by topic. See http://sach.ac/outline for the published version

Decision review: decisions.org

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

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

Personal finance: ledger.org

I use John Wiegley’s command-line Ledger program to manage my finances. My financial data is in separate ledger-mode files, and I use an Org file with org-babel to make it easier for me to answer some questions about my finances. For example:

  • Given my average monthly expenses and the amount of money I’ve set aside, how long can I sustain my early-retirement experiment?
  • Am I ahead or behind in terms of household contributions?
  • What did I spend on last month?
  • Are my virtual envelopes balanced?

How do you organize your Org files or outlines?

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

Making bulk cooking easier

August 28, 2013 - Categories: cooking

Jenn Turliuk’s thinking of organizing a bulk cooking lesson/party. Whee! I thought I’d pass on some things W- and I have been learning about bulk cooking:

Standardize your food containers! The importance of this cannot be overstated. You’ll thank me later when you don’t have to shuffle around for matching lids, and when your containers stack beautifully in the shelf. Consider the maximum capacity of your freezer and how much of it will likely be taken up by other things like ice cream. Get as many sets of food containers as you think you need, and then get some more for replacements or fridge leftovers. We like the Rubbermaid TakeAlong containers, which are just the right size for us. Note: tomato-based sauces and fat/oil will etch plastic if heated, so transfer pasta and similar things to bowls before heating.

imageMake a shopping list, but be flexible. This will save you from having to run back to the store frequently. We make our list based on the sales, but we also keep an eye out for things that have discount stickers. Meat at 30% off on the last day of sale is just fine cooked, frozen, and turned into delicious lunches or dinners. (I recently bought five pounds of ground beef on sale so that I can turn it into meatballs.) Sort your shopping list by rough location so that you can check things off easily. We write our shopping lists on the back of envelopes, and we usually organize it like this: produce, bread, meat, dairy, other.

imageRice and frozen veggies are good fillers. Most of our frozen meals are rice/some other starch + frozen veggies + some kind of meat. If people don’t like rice, you can substitute other things like potatoes instead. Frozen veggies help cool the meal down quickly, so you can store it in the freezer faster. Also, they give you more variety. (Don’t add too much hot food to the freezer at one time.)

imageWe like storing individual portions of cooked meals so that they’re super-easy to microwave at work. Most once-a-month cookbooks focus on preparing casseroles and other things that you can freeze uncooked for later "fresh meals", but they might have good ideas. (We tend to not do the usual once-a-month-cooking strategies because we don’t like going through that many freezer bags, even if we wash and reuse them.) For more inspiration, take a look at the frozen dinners aisle. Chances are that you’ll be able to duplicate some of those at home. You can also look at those batch cooking places like Supper Solved. Another way to increase your freezer cooking repertoire – freeze a portion of leftovers from the meals you make to see if they survive the freeze-thaw process.

Try to store cooked meals rather than raw ingredients. Raw ingredients take up too much space and can get forgotten in the freezer. Ready-to-go meals are much more convenient.

imageLabel. Always. Skip the fancy labeller. Masking/painter’s tape + Sharpie marker works fine. Label it before steam, condensation or freezing makes the lid un-stickable. We usually write down the initials of the item and the number of the month we made it, so chicken curry made in August is CC8. If you have time and space, you can write down the name of the food for easier recall. Labeling makes eating a variety of things much easier and avoids freezer fatigue.

imageRotate your stock. If possible, put freshly-prepared containers at the bottom of the stack, or in a separate stack. That way, you can go through the old stuff before it gets freezer burn. This may involve taking everything out of the freezer and then stacking everything up neatly again. Gloves can help.

If you have a kitchen scale, you can use it to make your meals more consistent. Figure out what makes you just the right level of full at lunch.

If you can make room for a chest freezer, it is a totally awesome buy. It saves us lots of time. (Plus it will save you from fighting over fridge/freezer space.)

imageGood knives make a difference. Sharp knives are less dangerous and less frustrating than dull ones. Take good care of your tools: no throwing them in the dishwasher, no sticking them in a drawer without at least a knife guard.

imageAprons make you feel more official and less worried about messing up your clothes. Ponytails are great for keeping hair out of the way. It may make sense to give your hair a good brushing before you start cooking, or even do the hairnet thing.

Plan your groceries so that you can cook lots of food on that day. Hard-core once-a-month cooks usually stock up on groceries on one day, then cook on the second day. If you cook in smaller batches (say, a week or two at a time), you can fit it into one day without getting too tired. This means not having to cram all that stuff in your fridge.

Batch your ingredients and parallelize your recipes. Review your recipes to see where you can combine ingredient preparation, or when you can do something while stuff marinates. Chop all the garlic together, etc. I don’t like chopping onions, so if I can chop everything else and then do four or five onions all together at the end, I’m all for that. Especially if I can get W- or a food processor to chop them instead.

An easy way to fill up your freezer is to double or triple your recipe whenever you cook. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing too much extra work, since you’ve got the chopping board and the pots out anyway.

Frozen sauces and soups are easier to transport than defrosted ones. Allow for expansion when freezing. Don’t fill your containers to the brim, because liquid expands when freezing. Allow plenty of space. If you’re taking these to work, don’t defrost these the night before unless you trust your food container and lunch bag well, although you can defrost them in the morning.

When reheating, you may have to microwave in two steps. Microwave it for a couple of minutes, then stir it and microwave it some more. Check for a cold centre – not fun to eat! It’s usually a good idea to let things defrost overnight (in the fridge) or all morning.

imageIt’s encouraging to calculate the cost-per-portion. You can make lots of great meals for much much less than they would cost at a restaurant or even as take-out. For example, I think our cost per portion for chicken curry was around $2.50, and our cost per portion for lasagna or lamb korma was around $4-5. If you enjoy cooking (especially if you’re cooking with people you like, which turns it into a bonding activity instead of a chore), you might even consider the labour a benefit instead of a cost.

Assembly lines are good for packaging the meals. We usually pack each meal with rice (sometimes we measure this). Then we add the main part of the meal. Then we pour frozen vegetables. We secure the lids, add all the tape (for labeling it), then write all the labels. If the meal is too hot, we stick it in the fridge to cool down. When it’s ready, we clear out space in the freezer and stack things up properly.

Here are our favourite bulk meals:

  • Chicken curry: three bags of chicken quarters, two packs of curry sauce; fuss-free and frugal – pot
  • Shake-and-bake chicken: the no-name powder works just fine; easy to do this with two club packs of chicken drumsticks. – oven
  • Pasta with sausages – pot
  • Pasta with meatballs – oven
  • Lasagna: two pans are just as easy to make as one pan of lasagna, and can cook simultaneously – oven
  • Japanese croquettes: a little soggy after microwaving, but still yummy; if you have time to fry, freeze uncooked to make it crisper – skillet
  • Lamb korma: pricy, but yummy – pot, food processor
  • Bubble and squeak: great way to get rid of cabbage – skillet
  • Okonomiyaki: freeze before topping with sauce; take sauce and bonito flakes separately – skillet (small is okay)
  • Chicken tikka masala: watch out for the tomato in the sauce; heat in a bowl – pot
  • Tonkatsu: a little soggy after microwaving, but yummy – skillet
  • Rice and lentils: simple and frugal – rice cooker
  • Rice and beans – pot
  • Pinakbet: W- loves bitter melon – pot
  • Beef stew – pot
  • Japanese curry – pot
  • Souvlaki – grill
  • Barbecue chicken – grill
  • Ham steaks – skillet or raw
  • Hamburger steak – skillet
  • Roast chicken – oven
  • Yakisoba / yakiudon – wok
  • Pad thai – wok
  • Stir fry – wok
  • Fried rice – wok, needs cold rice
  • Congee – pot, can probably do this in a rice cooker
  • Beef bulgogi: can be a lot of effort especially if you make plenty of appetizers (banchan) as well, but it feels totally indulgent to dig into a 10-course meal at work – skillet
  • Wontons: movie marathons are a great time to wrap hundreds of wontons. Cook and freeze each batch instead of waiting until you finish them all, so that they don’t dry out or get soggy. Control portions – we find that 15 wontons is just about right for us (measure a decent portion, then use the scale to make this consistent by weight). This is important because if you stuff 30 wontons into the container just because they fit, people will eat 30 wontons per serving. – pot

There are probably lots of great vegetarian freezer meals out there, but I haven’t looked into them.

What a bulk cooking party could look like:

  • A. Bulk cooking swap
  • People choose recipes (keeping dietary restrictions in mind) and then bring stacks of cooked meals on the day itself (possibly already frozen).
  • Swap 1:1, to increase variety and try different tastes.
  • B. Bulk cooking together
    • People choose recipes, keeping dietary restrictions and cooking methods in mind. Ex: one large skillet, one or two large pot meals, one quick oven recipe (~20 minutes), one long oven recipe (~ 60 minutes or more)
    • Bring extra knives and chopping boards, or prepared ingredients.
  • C. One big recipe with lots and lots of appetizers
    • Bulgogi is great for this: one or two people in charge of cooking all the meat, and then lots and lots of people making little appetizers. Try to marinate the meat overnight. Ex: seaweed, soy potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, green onion pancakes, meatballs, noodles… May require coordination.

    Ideal bulk cooking party space:

    • plenty of counter space for lots of people preparing ingredients while chatting
    • multiple sets of knives, measuring cups, liquid measures, and chopping boards
    • food processor
    • one or two large pots
    • a couple of 9×12 pans (foil is probably okay too) or other oven things
    • dishwasher, so it’s not such a chore afterwards
    • snacks
    • mixing bowls and lots of regular bowls for prep (we use rice bowls, cereal bowls, and soup bowls)

    Bulk cooking is fun and a great time/sanity-saver. We use this to make work lunches frugal and hassle-free. Since W- and I enjoy cooking, we often make dinners from scratch, but it’s nice to know that lunch is in the freezer. Hope this helps!

    Sketchnote Lessons: Speech bubbles and thought clouds

    August 29, 2013 - Categories: drawing, sketches
    This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Sketchnote Lessons

    Here’s an assortment of speech bubbles and thought clouds. They’re great for indicating when someone has said something – and there’s always plenty of talking at presentations, panels, and events.

    Click on the image for a larger version. Feel free to print this out (or draw on it on your tablet, if you have one)! =)

    20130805 Speech balloons and thought clouds

    Have fun drawing! Check out my other sketchnote lessons, and e-mail or comment if you have any suggestions/requests!

    Helping someone get started with Emacs and Org Mode through Org2Blog and LaTeX; troubleshooting steps

    August 30, 2013 - Categories: emacs, org

    Update 2013-08-30: By the way, here’s the link to Christopher Olah’s first post using org2blog. Neato!

    The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX

    The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Org2Blog is an awesome geek-friendly way of writing posts and publishing them to a WordPress-based blog. When Christopher Olah told me that he’d gotten convinced to try Org Mode thanks to the enthusiastic recommendations from Michael Nielsen and me, we figured that getting him sorted out with taking notes in Org and publishing them through Org2Blog to his WordPress.com-hosted blog would be an excellent way to start – especially with inline images and LaTeX.

    Chris has promised to write a blog post about what he’s learned, but he’ll probably find these notes useful. Here’s what we ran into when getting org2blog working on Ubuntu.

    Need to install the files and set up the load paths

    We downloaded the following and added them to an ~/.elisp directory

    We also set up his ~/.init.d/emacs.el to load the libraries, set the blog list, and load ido-mode and icomplete-mode.

    Emacs / Org too old

    Metaweblog and Org2blog didn’t work well with Emacs 23 and Org 6. We upgraded to Emacs 24 with apt-get install emacs24 in order to get Org 7.

    Can’t find library org

    It turns out that you also need to apt-get install emacs24-el in order to include those libraries.

    Org still too old for org2blog

    We were having some problems with the version detection of org2blog, so we replaced the org2blog he downloaded with the version I forked at https://github.com/sachac/org2blog , which I’ve been using with Org 7.

    Then we tested it with org2blog/wp-post-subtree, and that worked. Inline images with org-toggle-inline-images worked too, yay!

    Next step: viewing LaTeX fragments, since Chris does a lot of math.

    dvipng required

    org-preview-latex-fragment wanted dvipng to be installed, so we apt-get install dvipng.

    LaTeX fragment preview showed blank images

    We looked at the *Messages* buffer and found that the .tex files in /tmp could not be rendered by dvipng because marvosym.sty could not be found. We fixed that with apt-get install texlive-fonts-recommended.

    (Doing this on my own, I found that I also needed apt-get install texlive-latex-extra .)

    … and then we could see and publish LaTeX fragments, which was awesome. =D

    WordPress.com double-interpreted LaTeX fragments

    Chris was having problems with LaTeX fragments when org-export-with-LaTeX-fragments was set to dvipng. It turns out that WordPress.com also interprets LaTeX, so it was getting confused by the alt tags. To solve this, use M-x customize org-export-with-LaTeX-fragmentsand choose Leave math verbatim. Then the LaTeX fragments are passed to WordPress, which renders them as PNGs.

    Hope that helps!

    Emacs, link roundup, books, and more – Weekly review: Week ending August 30, 2013

    August 31, 2013 - Categories: weekly

    Blog posts

    Quick notes from this week

    • Emacs
      • C-x 8 <RET> (insert-char) lets you insert Unicode characters by name. Here’s the snowman ☃
      • C-x z (repeat) repeats an Emacs command each time you press z. Might replace some of my simpler keyboard macros…
      • You can use Lisp expressions when replacing regexps – \,(...) will take \& and \N, and also \# (number of already-completed replacements)
      • You can use C-u F3 (kmacro-start-macro-or-insert-counter) to insert a counter without incrementing it. (Thanks, Fuco!)
      • C-m is the same as RET
    • Other notes
      • Linux: Building a package from source on Ubuntu or other Debian-based systems? Use apt-get build-dep to install its dependencies.
      • Made potstickers from scratch(ish) this week!
    • Things I’ve clipped from around the Web
    • Book recommendations
      • Show me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten – Illustrates each idea with several variations so that you can see how design choices can make tables and charts more effective or less effective.
      • Early Retirement Extreme: Not a personal finance book as much as it’s a philosophy book. Good stuff, influenced me a lot when it came to planning my experiment. This is my third time through the book and I just noticed the author uses Emacs too… =)
      • Positivity: Interesting research into positivity, resilience, etc. Useful guide questions to help you reflect on what gives you joy, serenity, and so on.
      • How to Retire the Cheapskate Way: Practical tips and interesting anecdotes.
      • The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking: Small, visual, idea-packed book. Nifty.
    • Movie recommendations
      • The Magic of Belle Isle: W- picked this one. Nice find. Yay for writers. =)
      • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: =)
      • 12 Monkeys: Going through my classic sci-fi backlog…

    Focus areas and time review

    • Business (9.9h – 5%)
      • Earn (3.3h – 33% of Business)
        • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
        • [ ] Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
      • Build (4.9h – 50% of Business)
        • Quantified Awesome (0.0h)
        • Drawing (2.1h)
          • [X] Sketchnote a book
          • [X] Draw Emacs guide – keyboard shortcuts
        • Paperwork (0.0h)
          • [ ] File payroll return
          • [ ] Sketchnote a book
      • Connect (1.6h – 16% of Business)
        • [X] Post QS Toronto notes
        • [ ] Process and upload another QS Toronto video
    • Relationships (5.1h – 3%)
    • Discretionary – Productive (25.3h – 15%)
      • Research
        • [X] Ask D.G.
        • [X] Check CMT
        • [X] Check SGM
        • [X] Try to reschedule appointment
        • [ ] Call MA
        • [ ] Follow up with CMT
      • Writing (9.7h)
        • [X] Think about blog goals
      • [ ] Go through Latin Made Simple chapter 1
      • [ ] Scan receipts
    • Discretionary – Play (8.3h – 4%)
    • Personal routines (23.3h – 13%)
    • Unpaid work (15.3h – 9%)
    • Sleep (81.6h – 48% – average of 11.7 per day)