I was half-tempted not to write this. Many people are coming out with their annual reviews and the usual flood of New Years Resolutions – why add another? I do another yearly review around my birthday anyway, which is a milestone that makes more sense to me. Someday I’ll figure out whether it makes sense to do multiple yearly reviews or just keep one, but in the meantime, I might as well. =) Besides, it’s easier to make a summary while you still remember.
Click on the image for a larger version:
At the beginning of the year, I focused on consulting and sketchnoting. It was a lot of fun sketching different events. Then I experimented with focusing on my own content. That turned out to be lots of fun, so I shifted towards doing more of that while keeping consulting. Our month-long trip to the Philippines was a lot of fun too. It was great to spend all that time with family and friends.
By the numbers:
Hmm… My routines don’t change much, aside from the swapping between business and discretionary time. That’s great! It means I can plan for roughly 8.5 – 9 hours of sleep a night and roughly 10 – 10.5 hours of time each day that I can use for business or discretionary activities, or almost 72 hours a week. Somehow it balances out almost perfectly evenly over the long run.
The most popular blog posts I published in 2013 were almost all related to Emacs, except for two visual posts and another tech post:
Overall, there were 210k unique visitors over the year, and more than half a million page views… Boggle. Although the tech-related posts are the most popular on my blog, I like writing about a variety of topics, so I’m going to let my curiosity take us where it will.
If you’re curious, here’s last year’s summary:
I thought I’d focus on regular exercise, healthy eating, business growth, great relationships, and continued happiness. Yay to all of the above! And onward…
Next year, I want to work on a smooth transition for my consulting project, and do even more drawing and writing on my own. I’m looking forward to sharing tips, answering questions, and learning from other people. Google Helpouts, podcasts, online hangouts, blog comments, and e-mail will help me collect questions and come up with thoughts, and I’ll draw and write and record what I’m learning along the way. Here we go!
If I don’t think about colour, I tend to not use it. I draw with whatever’s handy: blue pens, black pens, anything I’m carrying around. So one day I talked myself into being okay with this. (Click on images for larger versions.)
Figure 1: I’ve decided to stop caring about pen colour
I think this is just me compromising with myself, though. I think there’s more that I can do, more that I can learn.
On the computer, different colours are just a click away, so I use them. Here’s something I coloured in while waiting for the speaker to get through a very long line of people who wanted to talk to him. It’s nowhere near as colourful as the graphic recordings on OgilvyNotes.com or @agentfin’s sketchnotes, but I like it.
Figure 2: How to Live an Amazing Life (C.C. Chapman, Third Tuesday Toronto)
Actually, colour is a lot of fun. It goes a long way towards making the sketches more approachable, less intimidating, easier to visually distinguish. That’s handy when I’m looking at my Flickr photostream or through my print-outs. Besides, the coloured sketches feel more polished. They make me feel better. (Then I worry that they become intimidating… So maybe the mix is all right – coloured sketches and plain ones, all jumbled up.)
How can I colour more? How can I make it part of my workflow? How can I practise and get good enough at it that it becomes a habit?
Figure 3: What would it take to make colour part of my workflow?
After drawing that, I started experimenting with switching pen colours. Red and black are classic combinations. This one was fun to do, and it didn’t take that much more thought compared to a plain black one. No post-processing, too.
Figure 4: Google Helpouts: Imagining an ideal session
Drawing on the computer still produces more confident lines and colours, though. Maybe it’s the pen width, and the ease of switching between background highlights and pen colours?
Figure 5: Helpers Helpout #2: Communicating with customers before and after Helpouts
So… Hmm. How can I make drawing with colour more habitual?
Did you teach yourself to use colour? How was that process for you?
Update 2014-01-03: Here’s a related post about different colouring styles I’ve used
An extended vacation is a great opportunity to examine the routines that you take for granted. You stop doing some things and postpone others. It’s surprising how flexible day to day life is, how much you can put on hold.
We were away for a month. For a month, I didn’t schedule appointments or conversations. For a month, I postponed e-mails and decisions. For a month, I had no library books on the go, no projects to work on, no focused topics for learning and exploration.
Now we’re back home and slowly returning to our normal life. I started cooking in bulk again, freezing 14 chicken curry lunches to save us time in the weeks ahead. The cats are back from the boarding place, so there’s that 15-30 minute daily commitment to pet care. I have quiet time for myself again, truly discretionary time. What routines and activities do I want to restore? What do I want to put back slowly, carefully, intentionally? What do I want to lessen or reconsider?
Click on the image to view a larger version.
I drew during the vacation as an aid to thinking, but not as much as I did at home. I’m back to my normal rhythms of drawing and writing, although it will take me a little time to ramp up to the same kind of buffer I enjoyed. I like this and will do more of it.
Being picky and guiltless about e-mail seems to work out fine. I answered almost all my mail, although some replies took weeks. The world didn’t end.
Work feels less urgent, too. Good transition. No emergencies. I’ll work on this for another couple of months, and then we’ll plan again from there.
Less time reading, perhaps. I reviewed the list of new business books from the library and didn’t feel called by any of the titles. There’s so much I want to learn, but maybe I’ll try more targeted searches – reading specific books or websites, perhaps, instead of just picking through what’s new.
Sometimes I look at how little time I’ve spent directly writing code and wonder if I’m slipping into that vicious cycle of rustiness and impostor’s syndrome. I remind myself that I’ve felt that way about Emacs and Rails and WordPress before, and still there are ideas and projects that lead me back. I don’t have to waste energy on second-guessing myself. I’ll come back to this in time. For now, I’m focusing on learning how to share what I’m learning. When I return to focusing on coding, I can use these skills to share even more. The important thing is for me to keep that confidence that I can learn what I want to learn – as long as I have that, I can pick things up again.
I miss biking. I want to set up a winter exercise routine to get me through those cold and dangerous months. Maybe something I can do at home, so I have no excuse. We have weights, I have an exercise partner, I should be able to make this work.
A vacation is an excellent excuse to disrupt routines, since people automatically understand. I wonder how I can do this even during a staycation. Perhaps a vague “I’m taking a break and will get back to you in a month?” It’s useful to interrupt your life so that you can see what you take for granted and be deliberate about what you put back.
Are you returning from an extended break? What have you learned about your everyday life?
We’re back in Toronto and settling into regular life. I’ll resume consulting next week, although I might keep it to 2.5 days a week instead of sliding up to 4 days a week. I really like these days for drawing and contemplation. Anyway, we’ll see how things work out!
Focus areas and time review
[ ]Earn: Consulting – E1 – Thursday
[ ]Earn: Consulting – E1 – Tuesday
[X]Set up test mailing list subscriptions
[ ]Reset the TF700
[ ]File T4 for myself
[ ]Connect: Discuss Emacs chats
[ ]Connect: Have lunch with Carsten
[X]Connect: Draw notes for easy ways to track time
[X]Connect: Draw notes for staying on the time-tracking wagon
[X]Connect: Prepare plan for time-tracking workshop
[X]Go on road trip: Banaue, Bontoc, Sagada, Vigan
[X]Pack for return trip
[X]Reset passwords for my mom
[X]Set up lock screen password for my mom
[X]Set up offline e-mail for my mom
[ ]Reflect on how to ask good questions
[ ]Reflect on what I do with my time and what my balance will be like for the next two months
[X]Write annual review
It’s surprisingly easy to step away from everyday life for a month. We went to the Philippines to visit family and friends. It was an memorable trip: helping cook meals for the typhoon refugees at Villamor, talking about plans with family, hanging out with friends, taking care of paperwork, attending a friend’s wedding, going on a 5-day road trip through Northern Luzon, getting lots of little IT things sorted out for my parents… It was wonderful being there for an extended period of time. It felt more like being home.
Quantified Self Toronto is organizing a conference on self-tracking in February. Whee! I’ve promised to put together a small workshop on time-tracking, since a number of people are interested in collecting and analyzing their time data.
Here are some rough plans for the time-tracking workshop:
I need to figure out what pieces people need to learn and what I can fit into the workshop time. Some of the pieces may have to be for follow-up or individually-paced study. Here are the pieces I probably need to put together. It still feels too large for a two-hour course, so I’ll need to trim it even more – maybe make iOS, Android, and RescueTime/ManicTime more cursory mentions than in-depth explorations.
Here are some thoughts on one of the pieces, transforming your time data.
More pieces: Easy ways to track time
Staying on the time-tracking wagon
I was offline during most of our trip to the Philippines, so it was a good test of how I could track without a Web connection to QuantifiedAwesome.com. I tried writing timestamps and activities in a small notebook that I kept in my beltbag, and I also tried using a timestamping application on my smartphone. (KeepTrack on my Android phone, if you’re curious.) The smartphone was much more convenient and less obtrusive, oddly enough. When I wrote timestamps down on paper, people commented on that as an unusual activity, but people are used to people checking their screens. Since I could easily backdate entries, I could postpone pulling my phone out until I wasn’t worried about safety or distractedness. When I got back online, I simply used the batch entry interface to add several days of entries at once.
I don’t have any iOS devices, so I might have a bit of a challenge putting together recommendations for people with iPhones. I’ve also gotten spoiled by the time-crunching capabilities I built into QuantifiedAwesome, so I’ll work on fleshing out spreadsheet-focused analyses instead.
I’d like to put together some resources to help people get started during the workshop, with follow-up materials. I’ll also turn the info into an online course (most likely free). Would you like to help me make it happen? I’d love to hear from people who are doing similar things and have workflow tips/observations, and I’m also happy to test the material and do Q&A with people who want to apply the ideas to their life.
I’ve been coming to terms with the quirks of my learning preferences. =) I think I should be better at focusing, but really, I’m all over the map, so I should just learn how to make the most of the fact that I learn bits and pieces and then move on. It turns out that’s okay. In fact, people design curricula that way.
Learning in spirals
I’m not the only geek who learns like this. It’s a pretty common pattern, apparently. Here are Sadique Ali’s thoughts on going through the spiral of learning. =) Good to see how other people deal with it! See HackerNews for interesting comments.
So what are the different areas I’m currently learning about? I started by listing the categories that came to mind. Then I wrote down what I was already comfortable with (celebrate your successes and starting point!). I wrote down the next things I wanted to explore. Then I picked ONE of those things and filled in more details for my current focus (or at least, what I’m likely to focus on the next time I come back to the topic).
This is great. It gives me “next actions” to focus on when I feel the urge to explore a particular category. Leaving myself a note about what’s next makes it easier for me to hit the ground running instead of spending time trying to figure out what to do. I can still change it, of course, but at least I have a reasonable default.
I have the freedom to follow my interests. I also nudge myself to explore specific topics further, because sometimes all you need is to sit down and start, and then you’re motivated to continue. The themes I’ve picked for each day influence me a lot. I don’t set aside each day exclusively for one topic, but I notice where the holes are when I haven’t thought about something in a while. My blog post calendar makes those holes visible, and that encourages me to pick either something I’m comfortable explaining or a question I’m curious about exploring.
What’s a good way for me to keep this table convenient and up to date? Hmm… Adding it to my mindmap or outline, maybe? That way, I can stash resources related to future topics. An Org Mode outline might be easiest to manage as it grows in size, since I can track status and export my notes. Here it is: http://sach.ac/my-learning
Do you learn in a spiral too? How do you make the most of it?
Maybe there are writers who sit down at their keyboards and type out their thoughts in one straight sitting. Maybe there are people who can focus on one project and see it to the end. I’m not one of those people (yet?) – I move from interest to interest, and somehow it works out anyway. It turns out lots of people are like this, too.
I was talking to a writer who felt scattered because she wrote about lots of different topics in bits and pieces. Here are some tips on planning, organization, writing, and improvement. Hope they help!
Click on the image for a larger version.
I’d love to learn from your tips too! Please share them in the comments. =)
Because it’s good to experiment and play.
I think I’ll focus on black text with colour for emphasis when I’m drawing on paper, with some light yellow or light blue highlighting added on the computer if the sketch needs it, and maybe some shading too. I don’t like highlighting on paper, as the colour is uneven and I’m worried about the ink smearing. On the computer, I’ll use brand-based colours if I’m matching a logo and the colours make sense. If not, I might play around with non-black text, just because I can do that on the computer easily. =)
If I use colour for structure and black for text, the balance feels right (and it would be wrong the other way around). Maybe that means darker boxes (more prominent) and lighter text, when I’m working with non-black text? It makes the visual hierarchy jump out more than it would with a light structure.
Hmm… Drawing on paper with red and black is annoying because red scans as pinkish (maybe the scanner’s trying to correct for off-white paper?). Blue survives the scanner better. Comparison:
Okay, let’s see what it’s like with this as my default workflow!
Shopping for and buying things is stressful for me. There are so many decisions to make, and so few things that fit my life well. When I look for shoes or clothes, it’s difficult to find simple, practical styles. When I look for gadgets or games, I wonder if I’ll really use them. I think about not only the hours of my life that the dollars represent, but also the need for storage, use, maintenance, and disposal. I try to postpone purchases until I understand what I need, and even then, I buy grudgingly. (Do I really need it? I’ve survived thus far, haven’t I? How do other people manage? What kinds of benefits do I expect? What are the costs? What can I learn from previous decisions? Can I wait a month or two for a good sale?)
I’d like to become the kind of person who cares for things without caring about things—to keep my things in order, but to not get so attached to them that I lose my equanimity. Time to grow up. Time to learn how to maintain what I have, and how to choose new purchases well. Time to embrace repair and modification. Time to embrace the hours of research as an opportunity to geek out about something, like the way that W- knows a lot about kitchen knives and shoes. Time to spend for quality (but not over-engineering, or more quality than I can use).
I want to know I can take care of nice things before I buy a lot of nice things. This can be a little difficult, because cheap things are often cheap because they’re not designed to be durable. I can practise some habits even before I upgrade stuff to see whether the habits are sustainable and useful.
For example, several of my sweaters have small holes in them. Moths? Cats? Rips? Laundry? Not sure. I’ve already frozen my sweaters to help kill insects; the recent ice-storm-caused power outage probably took care of the rest. Step 1: Stop tossing my sweaters into the washing machine, even on the delicates/hand-wash cycle, because of detergent and agitation. Instead, air, then hand-wash. Step 2: Hang up all my sweaters to air. Step 3: Prepare my own lavender sachets next year, when the lavender in the front yard flowers again, and clean all the drawers. Sand the cedar blocks, too. Step 4: Figure out my long-term sweater solution. (Still have to decide on the colour anyway, since black doesn’t work well with cats… Maybe browns and argyles? Maybe non-wool, even though wool is warmer?)
I’m gradually going to rotate out the things that I hadn’t taken care of so well, depending on whether I feel like upgrading them. But I’m also going to limit the things I care about upgrading. I don’t particularly feel the need to be part of the cashmere-and-pearls set. In terms of office wear, I can switch to blazers for now. Even moth-eaten sweaters are still warm around the house. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll learn how to felt.
Part of it is accepting that my life is a messy and imperfect one: ink stains on my cuff, scratches on my shoes, sweater pills on my shoulder due to cats digging in their claws. (“No, don’t go back to writing yet! Cuddle me more!”)
I can learn to optimize for durability, though. I can learn to spot things that are worth the cost. I can learn to get better at squeezing out more from the things I have, so that they wear out properly. A stitch in time, and all that. I’ll figure this out eventually!
Notes from the Helpout creation process:
Title: (This is the last thing you write!)
First sentence: What’s the primary benefit/outcome I can deliver in the Helpout itself?
Add a sentence about why this matters. “I”)
(IMPORTANT: You have to teach people how to get the most from your Helpout. Sample questions/topic help. People might not know the questions to ask. Help them define the real problem.)
Here are some topics we can cover depending on your goals: … (Put them in charge; give 4-5 prompts)
or: Common problems we can resolve:
(Use active statements or questions: “How do I…?”)
Ideas: Video with some topic info? (Good for paid Helpouts, for example)
Validate the decision to schedule the Helpout, don’t distract them. Lead them back to the Helpout (ex: embedded video)
A confused mind always says no. Focus on getting people to schedule.
Get a second look! Search for Ramon’s copywriting Helpout and ask for help. (Free right now!)
Technical details = message
What keeps coming up? What do people keep talking about all the time? What are people frustrated by? – see forums, other people, etc.
Write with empathy. Step into their shoes. Not about you. See from their perspective. Talk to a lot of your prospective clients. Go to events! People lie online. They don’t tell you what’s really going on. (Even with surveys.) At dinner tables at conference, you get truth. Give up attachment to what it should be.
Create personas for your three most ideal clients. Include pictures (ex: Google Images). What do they care about? What’s their background? You want to get to know these people like family. Look into their eyes (in the photo) when writing, so you’re clear.
Different order = different results. Don’t start with the title first!
Start with the description. Go ahead and be raw. Prompt the person to click and open it. Remember that people see a small box.
Three bullet points. Ex:
X years of experience in ____.
Author of such and such. (You should write a book or a video course or a special report or something.)
Training in something specific. What makes you credible?
Awards Clients? Be careful about saying who, especially if it’s a sensitive topic
I survived hosting a podcast, interviewing a guest, managing a Hangout on Air, and drawing notes, all at the same time! Boggle.
Also, my citizenship exam has been scheduled for January 21. I should be okay (I typically get 90% on practice tests), but it’s a good excuse to practise remembering trivia.
The next few weeks are probably going to be packed. That means I’ll need to be extra careful about having enough quiet time for myself!
Focus areas and time review
[X]Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
[X]Follow up on cheque
[ ]Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
[X]Reset the TF700
[ ]Plan what I would do as my own client
[ ]Make collection of 2013 sketchnotes
[X]File T4 for myself
[X]File payroll return
[X]Connect: Discuss Emacs chats
[X]Connect: Have lunch with Carsten
[ ]Talk to Globe and Mail about Quantified Self
[X]Chat with Eric about friendship
[X]Help clean computer of viruses
[X]Check on PH implications and cross-border planning
[X]Follow up on citizenship test
[X]Look for Audacity way to automatically remove silence – truncate
[X]Pick up books from Runnymede
[X]Reflect on how to ask good questions
[X]Reflect on what I do with my time and what my balance will be like for the next two months
[ ]Study for citizenship exam
When I learn something new, I always find myself wishing there was some kind of map to help me figure out where to start, how to track progress, and what to learn next. So now I’m making them. Here’s one for learning Org Mode, a popular outline/TODO/everything-else mode for the Emacs text editor. You can probably figure out the relevant manual sections to read based on the keywords, but feel free to ask in the comments if you need more help.
Map for Learning Org Mode for Emacs
Here’s another short guide with suggestions for evolving your Org file organization:
Tips for organizing your Org-mode files
And here’s the one-page cheat sheet I made before helping someone dig into tracking time with Org. It’s a great way to measure your time on specific tasks.
Tracking time with Org Mode
Eventually I’ll get around to writing/drawing a book on thinking with Emacs. If you want it to happen, keep asking questions! =)
(Images are shared under the Creative Commons Attribution license, so reshare/reuse/remix away! Click on the images for larger versions.)
Books are great, but they’re not for everyone. If you find it hard to get through a book, figure out what your personal learning style is, and adapt to that instead. Do you prefer listening to audio or watching presentations? The Internet has plenty of resources, and many libraries carry audiobooks and DVDs as well. Do you prefer doing things with your hands? Experimenting is getting easier and easier.
That said, reading is a skill you can get better at. If you can become more comfortable with reading–or at least, with getting the most important points from a book or a summary of it–you can access a treasure trove of people’s knowledge through the ages. Here’s a sketch of mine from 2012 on How to Read a Book (Adler and van Doren)
Still, if you’ve got a choice of learning formats, why not pick one that follows your learning style? =) Good luck and have fun!
2014-01-24: Added text from images
Don’t wait to feel like an expert before you share what you’ve learned. The world needs more beginners.
So there’s value in whatever you can share, even if you’re just starting out.
But you probably weren’t waiting for that reassurance. Maybe there’s something else holding you back. The more I think about this, the more I recognize (in myself and others) the fear, sometimes, of being less experienced and less knowledgeable than other people think you are.
I find myself adopting these coping mechanisms when the impostor syndrome intersects with my professional life:
With others, I minimize the chance of impostor syndrome by giving them as much information as they need to make their own decisions. As for me, I think the best strategy for me is to throw myself into being a beginner, to embrace that figuring-out, to be delighted by the gaps and the mistakes, and to share the journey – especially the detours.
People often ask me how much time I take to draw notes of someone else’s presentation. I tell them it usually takes me maybe a few minutes more than it takes the person to talk, since I just have to save and post it afterwards.
It may be easier to understand if you see it in action. Over at HelpersHelpOut.com, a few people and I run this weekly live show with tips and tricks for Google Helpout providers. (Small community at the moment!) Last Friday, I hosted a session on copywriting for your listing, with Ramon Williamson as the guest. I was a little worried about whether I could juggle managing the Hangout on Air, interviewing the guest, and drawing the notes all at the same time, since one of my co-hosts backed out and the other was missing in action. Plus I’d just come back from a month-long vacation and hadn’t fully caught up on the topics from the previous shows. Anyway, it worked out reasonably well:
Here’s the image:
People also often ask me if they can hire me to do this sort of thing for podcasts and videocasts. The answer is no, although I’ll be happy to refer you to other people you can hire. Me, I really like being able to add my own questions and learn about the things I’m curious about too. =) So I might consider co-hosting if it’s a topic I’m really curious about, but I’m not going to simply illustrate. I’d rather spend the time drawing my own stuff.
The guest on that show and someone else I had lunch with that same day both said they liked the fact that I draw simple stick figures. I don’t draw as well or as elaborately as other sketchnote artists do (see Sketchnote Army for lots of examples), and apparently this makes the sketches less intimidating, more “Hey, I can do this too.” Awesome! Well, now you know how it’s done. Rock on.
More behind-the-scenes notes:
UPDATE 2014-01-31: In case you’re curious, I used Google Hangouts On Air for the web conference, with the Q&A module, Hangout Toolbox, and Cameraman (for controlling the view). For drawing, I used Autodesk Sketchbook Pro on Windows 8.1 with a Cintiq 12WX display/tablet acting as a second screen. See how I set up Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for sketchnoting.
Coming back to cold weather was not particularly fun, but I’m learning to deal with it. I’ve got the thermals, the sweaters, the jackets, the scarves… There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to figure out how to cope with winter. =) Anyway, here are some tips for people who are new to Canada or other cold places:
If you like this, you might like my 2009 blog post with some more notes on what makes winter better.
Other winter notes: My insulated winter boots have sprung a leak. I still have a pair of leather boots and a pair of rubber boots (in bright red!), so I think I’ll make it through this winter. I shopped around for a replacement pair this weekend and didn’t find anything I liked, despite the sales. I was thinking about whether I should get a pair for when these boots wear out, but I’ll probably move away from wearing insulated boots and move towards thick socks and hiking shoes or regular boots instead. It’s also a good time to see if I can repair the boots I have. Oh well!
UPDATE 2014-01-18: Stephan Bollenger -> Stephan Bollinger
Click on the image for a larger version. Feel free to reuse/share it under the Creative Commons Attribution License. – Sacha Chua
Check out http://helpershelpout.com/5 for Ramon’s tips on adding frequently asked questions to your listing.
Google+ event page <– more comments, link to Q&A
This week: Set up a custom domain for your Helpouts. You can redirect the domain to a particular listing, or you can click on your name in Google Helpouts to see the page with all of your listings and then link to that URL. Have you registered your own domain? Reply with a comment below!
I’ve been really ramping up my delegation. =) (See the series of sketches regarding being my own client for the motivation.) Promising. One of my goals is to outsource practically all of the parts of my podcasting process so that all I have to do is suggest some names, prepare for the interview, show up, chat and take notes, and save the file somewhere. This will require me to actually trust someone else with my Google account, so we’ll see how well that works…
Funny, I thought I’d been drawing less because I was spending the time focusing on specifying delegated tasks instead, but when I looked at the list of sketches, I actually still drew quite a lot. Most of that was from Wednesday’s drawing sprint of thinking through some coaching-related questions before the session I have with Ramon Williamson in a couple of weeks.
Next week is my Canadian citizenship test. I think it will be all right.
Focus areas and time review
[ ]Build: Document post-podcast process
[ ]Build: Fill pipeline with other delegatable tasks
[ ]Connect: Chat about writing
[ ]Connect: Get in touch with people regarding Helpouts
[ ]Connect: Go to Quantified Self meetup
[ ]Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
[X]Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
[X]Build: Draw headers for my mailing lists
[X]Build: Switch Mailchimp mailing lists to use straight blog feeds instead
[X]Build: Switch website to use straight blog feeds
[X]Plan what I would do as my own client
[X]Reset the TF700
[X]File T4 for myself
[X]File payroll return
[X]Connect: Confirm schedule with Jeff Bond
[X]Connect: Discuss Emacs chats
[X]Connect: Have lunch with Carsten
[X]Connect: Help Joel find computer
[X]Talk to Globe and Mail about Quantified Self
[X]Chat with Eric about friendship
[X]Contact pptstar regarding copyright complaint from Papa
[X]Helped clean computer of viruses
[X]Look for Audacity way to automatically remove silence – truncate
[X]Study for citizenship exam
[ ]Prepare photocopies and documents needed for citizenship exam
[ ]Study for citizenship exam
[ ]Take citizenship exam
When I started this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement, I fully intended it to be a learning experience in entrepreneurship. I wanted to learn how to create value. I wanted to learn how to sell, how to build systems. Mission accomplished. I have the confidence that if I need to work, I can help people and earn money in return. I can deal with the paperwork required by the government. I can negotiate and make deals.
The more I learn about freedom and space and creating my own things, though, the more I think that this should be my real experiment, not freelancing or entrepreneurship. It is not difficult to freelance. Millions of people do it. There’s plenty of information about entrepreneurship too; no end to aspirational books encouraging people to break out of their cubicles and follow their dreams. But far fewer people have the space to simply create and share things for the sheer joy of it. Even the authors of those books on freedom work for their rewards.
It’s an interesting experiment to try. I could focus on working on my own things, going forward. I’ve been winding up my commitments and avoiding new ones. I still have a little bit of consulting to wrap up eventually. I’ve been telling myself that the money I earn increases my safety net so that I can take those future risks. Besides, I like the people I work with. I like the feeling that I am helping them out and making a difference. (And there, taking a step back, I can see that the desire for a clear sense of accomplishment may be distracting me from more difficult self-directed work.)
Really, nothing can buy time. Probably even if I stopped consulting now — or if I had stopped a while back, or never started — I could still spend an appreciable amount of time making things happen. Postponing this doesn’t make me live any longer. It doesn’t mean that I have more core time, those hours when I’m alert and creative and happy.
I hadn’t noticed for a long time because I had set too low standards for myself. I set trip-wires to trigger reflection: if I missed a commitment or started misplacing things, I knew I was overscheduled, and I cut back. The rest of the time, it was enough that family life was happy, blog posts were written, sketches shared. It was too easy to meet these conditions, so I didn’t notice.
What would I work on? Visual guides to complex topics look like the most unique contribution I can make, and there have been quite a few updates for my blog (both technical and written) that I’ve been postponing for lack of attention.
Details help me visualize what that might actually mean:
I should treat myself as a client and as a contractor. If I were delegating this work to other people, would I be happy with vague specifications and without milestones? I wouldn’t hire someone to maybe possibly think about something that could help people learn. I would spend the time to come up with a clear vision and the steps to make it happen, and then I would make regular progress that I would report on. The high-energy hours I have are best used for this long-term work; everything else can go into the non-core hours.
So I’ll keep my existing consulting commitment to Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus whatever non-core time I can spare to help them get over this hump, and then we’ll see if we’ll continue or not. In the meantime, any consulting of mine will be with the commitment to replace all the hours I spend earning with at least the same amount of time in delegated work (plus whatever time I need to manage the delegation). The end result won’t be as awesome as having the same amount of core time (and to be fair, my consulting involves non-core time too), but it should:
In fact, just for kicks, I’m going to backdate the experiment–to replace my original 5-year experiment with it instead of starting just from this point onwards. Since I don’t actually have a time machine, an easy way to make that commitment is to calculate all the time that I have spent earning so far. Fortunately, this is yet another question that time-tracking allows me to answer. The numbers in the sketches below are a little bit out of date now; the current ones are:
So my ratio is about 1 hour of management to 4 hours of other people’s work. A ratio of 1.3 hours should be enough to account for delegating the work, managing the delegation, delegating the time to cover my management, etc. That means that if I want to replace about 1874 hours, my goal is to delegate a total of 2437 hours. So far, I’ve delegated 208, so I have 2,229 to go. (Ignore the math in the sketch; this is the updated version.) That’s a little more than a full-time employee. I’m not quite at the point of having streamlined, documented processes that can take full-time assistance over a year (or enough faith in my hiring abilities!), but I’ll work up to it. (My first goal: delegate as much as I can of this podcasting process.)
It’s a little scary delegating so much, especially since I’m normally quite careful about costs – but I think it will be worth it. In fact, I’ve been giving some virtual assistants raises to challenge them to think of themselves as people who can earn that. It’s a little scary projecting the expenses, but if I commit to it and then focus on making the most of it, I’ll gain more than I would if I kept waffling on the commitment. The work can start by replacing the routine, but it would be interesting to use it to support new projects someday.
I’ve been ramping up my delegation through oDesk, and I’ve also experimented with micro-task-outsourcing through Fiverr (with quite good results!). We’ll see how it goes.
It would be great to share processes with other people. Timothy Kenny gave me a glimpse of his growing process library. I’ve posted a number of my processes at http://sachachua.com/business, but haven’t updated it in a while. I’ll share more as I hammer them out. I wonder what my end-state would look like. Maybe I’d just share this Google Drive folder, and people can copy from it into their own libraries.
Anyway, plenty of stuff to figure out. =)
Books tend to be better-organized and more in-depth, but these days, I get more current information and insights from blogs. Reading lots of blogs can take time, though. Worse, it’s easy to get distracted by the interesting links and ideas you’ll come across. Next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you haven’t even started working on your project.
Here are the tools and strategies I use to read blogs. I hope they help!
I subscribe to blogs I regularly read, and I read them using a feed reader. Some blogs are great for inspiration and serendipity. Other blogs are written by people I’d like to learn more about, and I don’t want them to disappear in my forgetfulness. Instead of subscribing by e-mail, I use a feed reader to organize the blogs I want to read in different folders, so I can prioritize which folder I want to read first.
You might not have come across feed readers yet, or you may already be using one without knowing what it’s called. Feed readers (also known as aggregators) are tools that go to all the blogs you’ve subscribed to and get a special version of the blog updates formatted so that computers can easily understand it. The tool then displays the information in a form you can easily read.
Many feed readers allow you to organize your subscriptions into folders. For example, I have an “AA Skill Development” folder for professional development blogs that I skim when I find myself with a moment of time. I add “AA” to the beginning of folders that I’d like to see first in the list, since the folders are alphabetically sorted. Organizing your subscriptions into folders is great because that allows you to quickly read through lots of similar topics together.
I read most blog posts on my phone, quickly paging through headlines and excerpts. I rarely read blogs when I’m at my computer. After all, I could be doing something more productive instead, and I don’t want to get distracted by the links. The Feedly app isgreat for this because it can synchronize across devices. Many feed readers even let you read while you’re offline, which is great for learning things when I’m on the subway. Lately I’ve been skimming through everything, newest posts first. It doesn’t take me a lot of time to do so, and it means that I don’t forget to read the folders down the list.
When I come across something I find interesting, I use the Save for later feature in Feedly. I can then follow up on it when I get back to my computer by checking my Saved for later folder. I usually save this for my weekly review. In fact, I have an If This Then That recipe that copies my saved items into Evernote, and I have an Emacs Lisp script that exports that list and makes it part of my weekly review. That’s probably the geekiest part of my setup, so don’t worry if that makes you gloss over. =)
You don’t have to read everything. You don’t even have to skim through everything. Feel free to use the Mark all as read feature, or to ignore the unread count.
Most feed readers can autodetect the feed for the site you want to subscribe to. For example, if you want to add this site to your Feedly, you can try putting in http://sachachua.com/blog and it should show you the recent posts. I write about a lot of different topics, so if you want, you can subscribe to just one category. For example, if you only want my learning-related posts, you can subscribe to http://sachachua.com/blog/category/learning/feed .
I like using the free Feedly reader, and there are many other options out there. I hope you find something that works for you!
I’m interested in videocasting/podcasting as a richer and more interactive way to get stuff out of people’s heads and into other people’s heads. I’ve come to terms with the fact that most people don’t write anywhere near as much as I do, but that they know all sorts of things that they might not have realized yet. Talking to people seems to be a good way to help them share that, because many people find it easier to answer questions than to share on their own. Likewise, podcasts recorded live make it easier for me to bring in other people’s questions (bonus: I learn more in the process!). So, podcasting, even though actually talking to people is hard. Maybe if I do enough of it, I’ll get desensitized to the anxiety and I’ll get better.
Along those lines, I’ve been doing a weekly show for Google Helpouts providers. It’s a community of maybe a thousand people, which is a tiny niche in the Internet. I used to have co-hosts, but they’re on hiatus for various personal/business reasons. I did my first solo show the other week, and my second was last week. So far, I have managed to survive. I like it because Google Helpouts is a new platform and everyone’s still figuring things out. I’m fine with talking tech and maybe a little online marketing/customer service, but other people know so much more than I do about business and education, so interviews are a natural fit. I’m getting settled into a decent workflow involving Hangouts on Air, the Q&A module, MP3s, and even drawing sketchnotes while the conversation progresses.
Sketchnoting is oddly calming. I had done it from the very first show, when I had a co-host handle all the niceties of reaching out to people, introducing them on air, and asking questions. For a kick, I tried seeing if I could do it even when hosting solo, and it worked out fine. You’d think adding one more thing to do during the show would drive me crazy from multi-tasking, but actually, drawing keeps me not-stressed-out enough to listen well, ask follow-up questions (since I have my notes handy!), and help people follow along with the conversation or catch up afterwards. Besides, it’s a good excuse to swap out my webcam image for the screenshare, so I don’t have to be “on” all the time.
So the interview itself is fine, and it will get better as I pick up more experience.
Then there’s all the rest of the processes around that. I typically stay up about two hours after the end of the show. I chat with participants off-air for 30-45 minutes (this is usually the most fun segment!) and then handle all the post-work, since I like it when the resources are posted right away. That way, I don’t have to go back and work on it again. Although it’s certainly possible to just let the video be automatically posted on my YouTube channel and be done with it, I like putting together the video, my visual notes, an MP3 download (for the people who prefer to listen to the podcast while, say, doing chores or walking around), and eventually a transcript. If I’m going to do something, I might as well use it as an opportunity to explore what awesomeness look like. =)
That said, wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to document my processes so that I can do them without worrying about missing a step, and so that other people could take care of making things happen? I’d love to worry less about identifying, inviting, and coordinating potential guests, too. Someday.
Since many of the things I do involve my Google account, this probably means building trust carefully. I was thinking about what sequence of activities might make sense in terms of trust.
Come to think of it, I can improve my post-podcast process by parallelizing some of the tasks that take a long time to do. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to automate some of those tasks, like perhaps getting the ID3 information from a spreadsheet.
Here’s a list that’s roughly in order of trust:
The biggest risk, I guess, is that someone goes rogue with my Google Account. Goodness knows enough people have had that kind of problem with people breaking into their accounts. Working with assistants I pick myself (since I work with people who have a good reputation) and making an effort to be an excellent client could lower that risk. I’ve also separated my domain administration account from my regular e-mail account. At some point, I’ll just have to trust (and verify).
I read widely and voraciously. Every month, I check the list of new releases at the library and request the titles that interest me. From time to time, I’ll pull other books off the shelves. When I have a new research interest, I borrow 7-10 books about it. Most of the time, I skim tables of contents and jump to the specific chapters I’m interested in. Few books deserve a close reading and lots of notes. For example, out of the twenty-seven books I lugged home a few weeks ago, I took notes on three:
I was thinking about why I read a lot of books and when it might make sense to adopt a different strategy. One of the nuggets I picked up from Too Much to Know was this viewpoint from Seneca:
Instead Seneca recommended focusing on a limited number of good books to be read thoroughly and repeatedly: “You should always read the standard authors; and when you crave change, fall back upon those whom you read before.”
- Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)
Restricting myself to a small canon feels slightly claustrophobic, but I can see the point of rereading, absorbing, enacting, experimenting, digging deeper. After all, the limiting factor is rarely knowledge. More often, our growth is limited by action and reflection. For personal growth, it’s not a matter of reading more books — although sometimes the right book can unlock some more understanding through a different perspective. I still like the way that reading lots of different books leads to interesting connections between diverse ideas, though, so I don’t think I’ll quite give that up. Maybe I’ll just reread particularly good books (or at least my notes of books!) more often, as I set up, go through, and review exercises and experiments associated with them.
Why do I read books, anyway? What do I get out of them? If I’m clearer about what I value, then maybe I can get better at choosing promising books, and also at understanding how I feel about various books. I had been looking forward to reading this social media book for a while, but I found myself a little disappointed in it. It was thorough and probably very useful, but it felt… dry. Another book was vibrant with stories, but didn’t translate into actions I was moved to take. Why do I read? What resonates with me?
I started by writing down different reasons, and then I ranked them in terms of importance. The results surprised me.
It turns out that I read primarily to find different approaches that I can consider or try out. This probably explains why books that proclaim the One True Method rub me the wrong way. I prefer books that lay out several strategies and describe the situations where each strategy may be more appropriate. I can use those strategies myself, and I can also pick up ideas to share with others. I can still read single-strategy books, but I have to do more of the comparison myself, and there’s always the suspicion of confirmation bias and cherry-picked stories.
On a related note, I like the way that books present a collection of ideas. When I search for information on the Net, I often end up with a zoomed-in view and little context. It’s understandable. That’s how I write on my own website – in disconnected chunks. With a well-structured book, I can learn from the related ideas that the authors include. That said, I prefer it if the authors actually worked on figuring out logical connections instead of throwing everything together in a grab-bag of miscellany.
Books are also handy for chunking ideas in a mental shorthand. For example, having read Taleb’s book, I can use the “black swan” as a mental shortcut for thinking about the certainty of unpredictable events. Reading books about communication makes it easier for me to see patterns and work with them. The danger is that I might oversimplify, smooshing real-life observations into these neat pigeonholes – but it’s probably better than not knowing what to even look for.
There are probably books that suit me better and others that suit me less. I can’t tell all these things from the titles and I refuse to be limited to bestseller recommendations, but I can get a sense of what a book is like from a quick read of a chapter. I’ll still read books outside this model once in a while, but it’s nice to know why some books end up dogeared and others skimmed.
As for closer, repeated reading, I think it comes down to being moved to action, identifying the triggers for change and the new actions I want to take, keeping notes on the experiment, and circling back to the book to check my observations against the author’s notes. There’s also this idea of not just being driven by my own questions (since I’m still learning how to ask good questions myself), but to very very carefully pick good teachers and sit at their feet (virtually, of course). Epictetus comes highly recommended throughout the ages, so he might be a good one to start with.
I’ve been reading all my life, and there’s still so much more to learn. =)
The more I can master myself, the less I need, and the freer I am.
I dug into a collection of Epictetus’ discourses to learn more about Stoicism. While I’ve never been much worried about death and I’m unlikely to run into issues with jail, exile, or hemlock (!), I have a lot to learn about dealing with aversion and negative emotions. I live a happier and luckier life than most people do, and I wonder what it would be like with even more understanding.
How can I learn more about this through practice? I can start with negative feelings, then move to attachments, and then get even better at understanding what I do and don’t control.
When do I feel negative emotions? What situations disrupt my feelings? Mostly these emotions are directed at things or at myself: frustration with . I’m getting pretty good at not being perturbed by people, even though sometimes other people think I’m annoyed with them when I’m more annoyed with the situation. That said, I’m becoming less inclined to do the emotional work of reassuring people that it’s not about them, so sometimes I just take responsibility for what I can control and let them be responsible for their feelings.
Hmm. Frustration and annoyance tend to be outward-directed, while anxiety and embarrassment are internal. I can deal with frustration and annoyance by accepting that the world is what it is. Anxiety can be addressed by faith that things will work out, and embarrassment is just ego in disguise.
So what are those anxieties about, anyway? Let me dig into those further.
Come to think of it, there’s not much to be afraid of. I don’t have to worry about missing out. Life is pretty darn good even like this, and the rest is icing on the cake. Likewise, I don’t have to worry about falling short of expectations, since proper expectations are other people’s responsibilities. Messes and mistakes can teach me a lot. As for the fear that pressure or other forces might sway me into making bad decisions… Being able to recognize the warning signs will help me slow down, and mistakes are good for learning anyway.
The fear of falling short is at the root of the impostor syndrome, something I’ve written about a few times before. I remember reading about the impostor syndrome when I was in school, and recognizing myself in it. You might think that the validation of programming competitions, newspaper articles, and personal projects would boost my belief in myself, but that often made me feel even less like the image I thought people had of me.
But the impostor syndrome, too, might be ego disguised: part desire for validation, part aversion to embarrassment. If I can let go of both, I’ll be more free to concentrate on the things worth thinking about, and I can take better risks. So out to the curb they go.
As for the fear of missing out, of not quite doing enough… I’ve been thinking about how to learn more and how to increase the difference I want to make in this world. In particular, I want to get better at learning from people, which includes learning from coaches. I hear coaches are good for accelerating your growth. I’m careful about how I frame this to myself, because it’s much too easy to become unhappy with how you’re growing and to want more, more, more.
I realized that I could actually get a pretty good sense of what my life might look like in thirty to forty years, even if I continue in my current trajectory. My parents are in their sixties and I have other mentors around that age, so I know roughly what to expect. Assuming that my skills and tools stay roughly the same, I’m probably going to end up with an even bigger archive of ideas and notes. However, I already know what it’s like to have more notes than I can remember and more sketches than I can grasp. Even if I continue with the same strategies, things will probably already be wonderful. If I learn from experience, adapt to the changes in technology and society, and explore new ways of doing things, then it will be even better.
This means that I can probably let go of the fear of missing out, of not living up to my potential or not maximizing awesomeness. Life is already wonderful.
I like thinking through this in advance, when I can reason about them with a clear mind. When situations come up, at least I’ll have rehearsed some options. The real tests are when I’m tired or hungry or sleepy, or when something major happens. We’ll see. =) In the meantime, it’s good to look at the things I might unconsciously avoid looking at, to see what I can do to let them go.
A short episode taking a quick look at the Settings screen
This post is available at http://helpershelpout.com/7
I’m almost two years into my 5-year experiment, and I’m starting to realize that self-direction is difficult, interesting, and well worth learning. I most likely have the space I need–more than the space, I need, actually–to explore this, so I should do that instead of getting distracted by the satisfaction and immediate feedback of working on other people’s goals. So I’ve been cutting back on consulting and ramping up delegation (to retroactively buy back my time), but I still have a lot to figure out. Philosophy seems to be a good place to start learning about liberal arts versus servile arts, and other things.
In other news: I got 20/20 on my citizenship test, hooray! However, my lost passport means that the application needs to be manually reviewed, and my travel records will need to be requested from the border agency. That’s okay. I can wait.
Focus areas and time review
[X]E2: Add some white boxes for script 1
[X]E2: Redraw trailer for script 1
[X]Earn: E1: Consulting
[ ]E2: Draw TODOs for script 3
[ ]E2: Resync trailer for script 1
[ ]Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
[X]Build: Draw headers for my mailing lists
[X]Build: Switch Mailchimp mailing lists to use straight blog feeds instead
[X]Build: Switch website to use straight blog feeds
[X]Fix mailing list subject lines
[X]Replace sidebar mailing list subscription
[ ]Build: Fill pipeline with other delegatable tasks
[ ]Build: Rethink website design (esp. responsiveness)
[ ]Draw the next step for Emacs-related sketches
[X]Connect: Chat about writing
[X]Connect: Get in touch with people regarding Helpouts
[X]Connect: Go to Quantified Self meetup
[X]Connect: Help Joel find computer
[ ]Connect: Attend Visual Thinkers meetup
[ ]Connect: Chat about blogging
[ ]Connect: Handle lots of Helpouts
[ ]Connect: Talk to Ramon regarding coaching
[ ]Chat with Mel
[ ]Attend party
[X]Prepare photocopies and documents needed for citizenship exam
[X]Study for citizenship exam
[X]Take citizenship exam
[ ]Listen to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
[ ]Reflect on life without deadlines
Since I decided to become my own client, I’ve been thinking about the things I think of as work and the things I do out of my own volition. Work is shaped by other people’s goals, priorities, and directions. When it comes to the things I do for myself, I am responsible for figuring all of that out. I haven’t truly delved into entrepreneurship yet, small publishing experiments notwithstanding. I haven’t said, “This is something I believe is worth making and selling,” and I haven’t matched that to people who need it. I’ll learn how to do that someday. First, I want to learn how to direct myself.
In drawing these notes, I thought that this self-directed work – focused on my own needs and curiosity – might be more limited in effect, but also that it might benefit me more through compounding. When I choose my own work, I can build things up instead of getting pulled in different directions. (Or at least, if it seems like I’m scattering my attention over different topics of my own choosing, the logic might emerge later.) Everything I work on benefits both other people and me, but sometimes other people more than me, and sometimes me more than other people.
Or is that really what I’m balancing? In the margins, I poked at that assumption. Was it really a spectrum between other-focused work and self-focused work? What if other-focus and self-focus were actually orthogonal? What if you could do things that were very useful for yourself, but also pretty useful for other people? That sounded like a more interesting possibility. I’m probably not quite there yet, but if I get better at doing things that I find useful, I might also get better at making those things useful for other people.
I thought about whether I wanted to postpone that kind of self-exploration until after I wrap up my consulting engagement, but I decided that doing it in parallel was better. It is always tempting to postpone vague, self-directed work in favour of clearly-defined, other-directed paying work, but is it ever truly profitable to do so? I should use my uncommitted core hours for growing, even if it feels slow.
Something useful to myself AND to others… Blogging would probably be a good way to practise. I noticed that although the daily themes helped me make sure I didn’t overlook different topics, I sometimes found myself writing blog posts that were helpful for other people but didn’t make me learn as much. I hadn’t been challenging myself to learn something new either about the topic or about the way I could share. If I focus more on stretching my understanding, would my blog become less useful to others? What kinds of things could I write that might be useful for me now and later, and which might also be helpful for other people? Reflections, perhaps, if other people resonate with them and use them to think through their own lives. My notes on things I’m figuring out; solutions to technical problems; tips and other resources. Reviews, perhaps, as a summary of things I’ve shared and an update on things I’ve learned. I don’t know how helpful these things will be, although I’m encouraged by comments that seem to indicate they’re interesting to read.
I think other- versus self-focus might be the reason why I find myself much more interested in new questions than in the connective work of filling in the gaps of a book outline for a potential audience. I get different pay-offs from different types of sharing. When I answer other people’s questions (things I know implicitly but haven’t explained yet), I get the satisfaction of thanks and interaction. When I answer my own questions a small step at a time, I get a kick out of learning something. When I make a map of unknown territory and start learning about it, I enjoy the thrill of learning. When I’m writing tutorials and I’m not sure if they’re going to be useful or if other people are already fine with perfectly good resources out there, it’s a bit more of a struggle. I’d rather not duplicate information or write for the sake of leaving my fingerprints on it. Might as well write about something unknown that I’m figuring out, or at least help a specific person who has already tried other resources and can tell me what’s missing.
So what does that mean? I’ll probably focus on the right side of the quadrant above – the things that I don’t know. Possibly my blog may become more boring; on the other hand, it might become more interesting. But even if it does get a little more boring, I have to get through the boringness in order to figure out how to be more useful. =)
What can I do? I can share the questions that I’m asking, and maybe people will find themselves surprised by the insights they can share. I can show my work, and maybe people will consider reasons or approaches that wouldn’t have otherwise come to mind. I can connect the dots through links, because those will be handy later on.
I hope I learn to write with more depth of understanding, less fear of embarrassment; more clarity of thought, less attachment to fads and fancies; more initiative, less intellectual laziness. And then, eventually, to come full circle: to write with a focus on other people’s needs, but to be better at observing and celebrating the hidden fascinations of even familiar topics.
I’m fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of systems that we build for ourselves over decades. I’m particularly interested in what people find weird about themselves and their systems; what they do the most differently compared to other people. When John Allemang picked my brain about a piece on the Quantified Self, I jumped at the opportunity to pick his brain right back. Here are the notes I drew to summarize the thoughts from our conversation:
It was reassuring to know that one could build a life on a variety of interests, accumulating notes and interviews along the way. I don’t have to specialize in a narrow set of topics. I don’t have to build expertise in a specific field. There’s a lot to learn about how to organize your thoughts and structure your words, but that’s not the only thing that experience gives you — it also gives you the confidence that you can do things. Where inexperienced writers let their egos and insecurities get in the way of good interviews and good writing, experienced writers can let go, confident that it will all come together somehow. It reminds me a little of trapeze practice. If you hesitate, if you cling to the bar, you’ll never get the thrill of flight. I wonder if I can fool my brain into believing I have all that experience to draw on–to compartmentalize that belief and use it deliberately.
It was also good to know that I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. Discarding details is essential. I sometimes imagine that I’d go through life with virtual file cabinets stuffed with clippings and drafts, but then I might drown in irrelevant notes and unfinished possibilities. I asked John if he had a process for managing his archives. He told me that he doesn’t particularly worry about it. It’s okay to discard. It’s okay to let go.
While the historian may bemoan the loss of evidence from these temporary notes, discarding has always been a central feature of effective note-taking. Discarding enhances the utility of notes that are saved by removing materials that have been superseded.… Discarding and forgetting are crucial to effective information management.
Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Blair, 2010, p.65)
Talking to John gave me a clearer idea of what it might be like to be an experienced writer: to have the clarity of mind to focus on the story, and to have the confidence in yourself so that your self doesn’t get in the way of taking risks, learning, and sharing.
We talked a little about freedom and self-direction, which I’ve been curious about. John sounded skeptical; he values editors and deadlines. Reflecting on our conversation, I wondered what I’d be missing by writing outside the world of work. I’ve experimented with hiring editors. The editors I found on oDesk and other freelance sites gave me feedback on form, but they don’t fulfill the other crucial roles of an editor: choosing a vision for a piece, setting constraints, pushing back on fit, coaching improvement. Writing coaches may be able to do a little more of that, but I’m not sure if the client relationship throws off the dynamic.
I saw in this the same idea I had in becoming my own client - to see if I could enjoy some of the benefits of workplace structure by deliberately stepping into that role. Could I as editor challenge myself the writer to stretch with more difficult topics, more explicit constraints? How could I step outside my writing and coach myself to improve? (You can pay a writing coach, and I’ll experiment with that someday, but it also pays to coach yourself – no one could be more devoted and more consistent than you.)
Later that evening, thinking about deadlines and freedom and the liberal arts, I caught myself wondering if this path–easy and familiar as it is, falling back into the structures of the workplace–if this path is really the only way. After all, if I put on the hat of the client or editor or capitalist, and then remove that hat and put on the hat of the worker, am I setting myself up for internal conflict and waste? Wouldn’t it be better to be one self, doing the right thing at the right time?
Giving myself directions and deadlines might be useful for avoiding decision fatigue–the cost of making too many decisions–but it is also good to be able to adapt. I do this a little by thinking through scenarios beforehand, so I know what I can do with low-energy and high-energy opportunities. The specific actions I take are influenced by my TODO list, which helps because I don’t have to brainstorm good things to do each time. But I rarely commit to doing specific items, and I allow myself space to go off plan.
It would be easy to be my own taskmaster, to set up that rider and elephant dynamic (rational and irrational, logical and emotional). It’s understandable. It’s productive. Everyone has tasks. Everyone has deadlines. I can even use it to masquerade as normal in cocktail party conversations, griping about an unreasonable boss. (No need to tell them I’m imposing those conditions.)
It’s easy to adopt that structure, which is why I’m curious about alternatives. What does good self-direction look like? What would it mean to be good at that? Can I run fast without the whip?
I haven’t figured this out yet. It sounds promising, though. At the very least, it’s an experiment worth exploring.
So, three things:
I think I’m coming close to the end of this research into other people’s writing systems, at least for now. I’ve seen a lot of common patterns. If I run across an interesting tip, I’m happy to pick it up. But I’m worried less about making a mistake now that I’ll regret in thirty years (such as not archiving every little note, or not having enough associative hooks for memory), and I’m not looking for the one tip that will make me an order of magnitude more effective. There’s still a lot to learn, but I can learn that through practice, observation, and small improvements.
Still, so much to learn, and (probably) decades ahead of me… Let’s see where this goes!
Committing to delegating 2,000+ hours turned out to be the key to blasting through those conflicting thoughts about delegation. I don’t have to think about whether or not I’m going to delegate. I have a box of 30-40 hours a week for a little over a year, and I want to fill it with as many good tasks as possible. It’s actually pretty easy to find things to delegate when I’m not arguing with myself about whether delegation is worth it. I’ve set up a backlog of tasks for people to work on while I document other processes.
It’s easier to figure out what I need to do if I imagine what awesomeness looks like. What would it be like if I were fluent at delegation? I’d have a process library with detailed instructions. That would be useful for assistants, but also for me (process improvement) and for sharing with other people who are curious about delegation. I’d also feel confident about choosing people and helping them grow, and I would have a consistent stream of work so that my assistants don’t have to worry about my sudden disappearance. We would track the status of these tasks so that important things don’t fall through the cracks. I’d be good at sharing my vision so that they could see the bigger picture. I would be confident about the return on investment, and I’d have a safety net for mistakes.
More specifically, what would this 2,000+ hour experiment look like if it succeeded? What would encourage me to continue delegating beyond the parameters I’ve set for it, beyond the budget I’ve carved out? Self-funding is the obvious answer: if I use this assistance to create resources that I wouldn’t otherwise have, and people value these resources and vote with their wallets, then it’s easy to keep creating. Even if I don’t have that sorted out, though, it might still be worth the additional reach. People often say that it’s better to spend on experiences than stuff. I wonder… It might be worth spending on scale, on other people’s capabilities. Like the way I have more stuff than I need, I haven’t even wrung out all that I can from the experiences that I’ve had. Scale sounds like a completely different category, one worth investing in.
What could get in the way of getting there? Trust is a big deal. It’s probably the biggest limiting factor for the things I can delegate. If I can get better at choosing people, trusting them, and keeping that safety net for myself, then I’ll learn more from this experiment with delegation. One of the things that I can do to make it easier is to separate my accounts so that I can see which tasks can be delegated at lower levels of trust. For example, I can share a Dropbox or Google Drive folder without granting access to the rest of my data, while other accounts (like Google) are intertwined with more of my digital life.
I can also think about a sequence of tasks that allows me to build up trust in someone. For example, I’d previously written about mapping a strategy for outsourcing my podcasting process. If I set up the right sequence of tasks, I can give people more and more work to do, and eventually remove myself from most of the process.
I’ve been thinking about sequences of tasks to help people build their skills. One of my assistants would like to improve his written English. Aside from assigning ESL exercises, can I come up with practical tasks that will help him learn on the job? How can I help him immerse himself in lots of good English and gradually improve his writing skills with feedback, while still meeting my own goals for delegation? Data entry and web research might be good starting points; then summaries, more complex questions, transcripts, and maybe writing…
While thinking about how I can organize tasks to help my assistants grow, I realized that I actually get a whole lot more out of delegation than the usual benefits listed in books and blogs. This is good. It means that I can transform the dollars, time, and attention I invest in delegation into things I can’t buy. Delegation is an excellent excuse to build and test a process library. I like the way that other people can take care of back-and-forth discussions as well as provide me with ways to work around resistance or things I don’t enjoy. (Doing something repetitive can be boring, but writing good instructions is fun like the way automation is fun… =) ) I can take advantage of other people’s skills, experiences, and perspectives, and their questions can help me clarify what I want. I get the satisfaction of helping people grow, and I grow as well through these uncommon experiments. Describing my processes and lessons learned is also a great way to meet people who are interested in delegation. The time leverage that’s supposed to be the main benefit of delegation is actually just a small part of the picture.
I think delegation will be worth the time I spend in ramping things up. I’m looking forward to building a massive process library that other people can learn from and use to build their own. I’ve met a few people who have process libraries of their own, but I haven’t come across any that are publicly shared. (Maybe people think of them as competitive advantages?) I think I’ll gain even more from the conversations than from holding these processes close, and I’ll eventually figure out how to make the processes even easier to search and access.
Who wants to pick my brain about delegation? Who wants to share their insights? Let’s figure this out together. E-mail me at email@example.com and we’ll set up a chat, or leave a comment with your thoughts!
I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think. I had been feeling a little… lost? inarticulate? trying to figure out how I learn how to learn on my own. Of course I had been learning on my own since forever, teaching myself programming out of books and through trial-and-error, learning writing outside the classroom, picking up drawing and sketchnoting by following my curiosity. But I hadn’t thought about it much until maybe 2013. I’m better at describing what I do and what I’m trying to figure out. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I’m learning even more now, so I’m still in the process of making sense of it all. =)
Sometimes it is easy to start with the challenges. I listened to those small, doubtful voices in my head, those knee-jerk reactions, and I wrote down the excuses they offered. They were surprisingly easy to prioritize for me. I simply asked myself which excuse made the least sense, dealt with it, and then moved up from there. Here is the list in order of importance, with the bigger challenges first.
Looking at the gaps helped me see the ways I worked around them. Here’s what that process looks like. I start with a general question, and then I read or talk to people in order to get a sense of what’s out there. That gives me the vocabulary and the concepts I need to ask a better question, a more specific one. With that question in mind, I can then try things out in real life (everything has to come down to a change, after all). When I do this right, there’s also reflecting and following up. There are challenges for each step, but fortunately, there are also ways I can get better at each of them.
Fortunately, a conversation about English skills and delegation serendiptously led to a side-conversation about educational theory around reflective learning and experiential learning, which gave me even more ways to think about and understand my process. (See! The lens of literature is great for naming and finding the general elements in things that look idiosyncratic!) I have even more learning about learning ahead of me. In particular, I wonder if structured debriefing can make my reviews/reflections even better…
It seems all very circular, this learning about learning. Abstract. Ivory-towerish. I think it’s a phase, like the way I probably had to think about typing when I was learning to type, and now I just type. I’ll probably want to keep learning about learning, of course, and I can probably keep learning about learning forever, but I’ll also learn a lot by applying it to something outside itself. I can practise by learning about something that isn’t learning. Delegation, perhaps. Maybe Emacs, too. =)
In particular, identifying specific experiments or actions to take for the different areas I’m curious about will make it easier to actually do them, instead of just spending time planning. =) If I’m curious about whether strength and flexibility exercises can be an enjoyable part of my routine, I can borrow a yoga DVD and do a half an hour every other day for a month, and I can also try signing up for a class series. (I’ve already requested the DVD from the library.) If I want to learn from people, I can start by identifying the key topics and questions I’m curious about, sharing them, and connecting with people. If I’m curious about cooking with spices, I can choose two spice combinations and try them out.
Once I have a general curiosity about something, it’s easy to do a survey. Once I do a survey, it’s usually easy to pick a specific question and an experiment to try - if I slow down and make myself do so. Otherwise it’s tempting to just skim through the books and feel like I know something, without actually having a proper opinion on it and without letting it influence my life. If an idea isn’t going to change my life (at least in some way), it’s still marginally useful as something to pass on to other people in case it could change their lives, but it’s still a little bit of a waste. So: more experiments, especially for ideas that I think are valuable.
And really, they can be tiny experiments – let’s try this for one day, or let’s try this three times. I just have to make sure I’m conscious of them. I might as well always have something on the go. I probably always have something on the go, actually. In that case, I might as well take credit for them, and properly reflect on what I’m learning.
So this is where I am now. More experiments, more notes, more tracking, more development of ideas over time… Looking forward to sharing those notes with you.
How do you make sure you translate ideas into action? How do you keep track of the little changes you make?
If I want to learn about more than I can explore in my own life, I’ll need to learn from other people. The easiest way to learn is from people who are already teaching: books, courses, and so on. Although I could probably spend my entire life doing so, it might be interesting to go beyond what I can learn from books and classes. That’s because books and classes have to be written for a certain kind of audience, and learning is further restricted by the time it takes to create these resources and the kind of people who can do so.
I can learn from coaches and mentors as well. Coaches may have explicitly thought about what they want to teach and how they want to teach it, but they customize the approaches and tips for each person (at least good ones do). Mentors might not have thought about the topics as much, so if I want to make the most of mentorship, I should get better at asking questions as well.
An interesting challenge is to learn from people who might not step forward as coaches or mentors. Some people have thought a lot about what they do as they improve it, but they might not have realized that other people would find that useful, or they might not have gotten around to sharing. Finding them is probably the key challenge; once we make the connection, we can have a geek-to-geek conversation. Other people do good stuff without having thought about how they do it – unconscious competence. In addition to the challenge of finding them, there’s also the challenge of articulating how and why they do things, maybe through interviews and observation.
I’m pretty decent at learning from books. I’m working on getting better at tracking how I came across a book so that I can thank people, and so that I can see the book in the context of the great conversation. I’m also working on translating ideas into actions and experiments. Books are familiar and well-understood.
Coaching, on the other hand… I could probably make better use of coaching, if I find good matches. Essentially, I’d be investing in faster insights and more effective learning. Could be worthwhile. What would make me say, “Yes, that was totally worth it. I grew in ways I couldn’t have done alone. Let’s continue.”? Path-finding, I think – a quick way to sort through decades of experience and all these resources.
What am I generally curious about? Systems, paths, estimates of effort and reward, other people to learn from, blind spots…
So that’s for formal coaching relationships. For informal learning, like the conversations we have over years of blog posts and the serendipitous connections we make on Twitter, I’m curious about getting stuff out of people’s heads and helping them share that with other people. People are learning all sorts of cool stuff, but (a) few people slow down and write about them, and (b) sometimes you really do need someone else to ask questions, so if I share what I’m curious about, maybe I can connect with people who have spent some time thinking about these things too.
Mel Chua and I were talking about interview techniques, and she mentioned how instant replays are great for helping people break things down. You watch people do something, you do an instant replay as you try to explain what they’re doing, they say “No, no, no, I did it because ____”, and you iterate until both of you have a clearer understanding. Sounds interesting. I wonder how we can do that online… Timothy Kenny‘s approach is like that too, except not in real-time. He analyzes the behaviour, and then discusses the model with people to see if it can be corrected or clarified.
Anyway, that’s my plan for getting better at learning from people – more conversations, and then eventually regular conversations. I think that will help me get to a more awesome place than I can on my own. =)
Have you deliberately worked on learning from people?