December 2014

Recording from Emacs Hangout #2

December 1, 2014 - Categories: emacs, podcast

Thanks to Cameron Desautels for hosting this one! =D I totally like Emacs Hangouts. We should have more of them.

  • tips for showing people how awesome magit is: partial staging, history browsing, diff viewing and jumping to the source file
  • org-present, org-babel, org inline images, source code highlighting
  • themes
  • magit new version, dealing with problems, history browsing, subcommands (:), remoting (M), interactive rebase (E), new features, Wazzup – shows you branch differences (w)
  • magit workflows, customization (ex: full-screen), fun with bisecting
  • use-package, delaying configuration
  • Dvorak, keyboard customization
  • evil-mode
  • selective display – folds everything beyond an indentation depth
  • managing large screens – folding, follow mode, etc.
  • projectile-mode
  • flx ido
  • ace-jump-mode – binding to C-0
  • Emacs on Mac OS X, terminal Emacs, sharing clipboard (pbcopy)
  • binding things to C-number; M-number, prefix arguments

Learning slack

December 2, 2014 - Categories: experiment

Amy Hoy’s post “Don’t write 1000 words a day” goes:

What would bring a person to ask, “How do you motivate yourself?” … This question presumes that You are not a single entity, but a split one: a cart driver, and a donkey.

The cart driver is trying to flog the donkey and the donkey is digging in its heels. If only the cart driver can figure out how to overcome the stubborn donkey, Writing Will Ensue.

This reminded me of what I wrote about word counts and chunks, and thinking in terms of ideas instead of an arbitrary number of words. I want to learn at least one new thing or share at least one thought, whether that takes lots of words or just a few. My goal isn’t to write, and it definitely isn’t to Become a Writer. It’s to learn, and I learn so that I can have more fun and live an awesome life. (You can see how everything fits into my evil plans. ;) )

On a different note, what Amy said also reminded me of this post I wrote in January 2014 about a conversation about writing, and reflections on taskmasters. I had resolved to let myself explore, instead of setting myself firm deadlines and concrete goals like all the productivity and entrepreneurship books tell you to do. I coded whenever I felt like it and didn’t when I didn’t. I reduced my consulting hours and spent more time writing, reading, and drawing. I went to parks with friends and hung out in the afternoon sun.

This is the story so far of my 5-year experiment:

  • Hitting the ground running, working more than I did before, trying out lots of different business ideas
  • Settling into a good rhythm, gradually decreasing commitments
  • Now, prioritizing flexibility, enjoying the journey

danceSlack turns out to be a powerful thing. These past few weeks I’ve been very much under the weather, almost out-sleeping our cats. It was great to be able to ride it out without getting too annoyed or frustrated at the changes in my energy. I told my clients about my limited availability. I turned over all my commitments to other people. I gave myself even more permission to nap, to read, to relax. Occasionally, as life permitted, I worked on little things that could help people (but whose absence wouldn’t hurt them). The world went on, and it was wonderful.

I found out that when I gave myself permission to do anything I wanted, my decisions worked out mostly like this:

  • Am I tired? If so, sleep.
  • Am I fuzzy-brained? If so, consider taking a nap, or relax with some light reading.
  • Do I feel semi-okay, and am I tired of reading? If so, practise drawing by copying other people’s sketches.
  • Am I somewhat coherent? If so, write.
  • Do I feel alert and logical? If so, code.

And even spending almost half the time in bed, I still feel pretty good about the things I did manage to do:

  • pick up recursive SQL queries and use them to create even better Tableau reports for my consulting client
  • coach team members on development and analytics
  • write a lot, and get better at working with outlines
  • work on Quantified Awesome a little bit
  • play around with Emacs and swap tips with other people

Things are slowly returning to normal. I can feel my mind becoming more alert, although it’s still a little squirrelly from the protocol I need to follow. But it was great to be able to explore what trusting myself more with time looks like.

I’m so glad that I could do something like this instead of having to force myself through the usual routines, or pretend to energy I didn’t have, or meet commitments I couldn’t shake. It’s a privilege and other people get through a lot worse. But hey, I’m here, so I might as well learn from what I can learn and share what I can share.

I’m not quite a slacker, but the word intrigues me. It might be interesting to be a slack-er, a master of slack, someone who knows how to create just the right kind of balance between tension and space, someone who can pay attention to the shifts in energy. If there’s just enough play, you can feel where things want to take you. If you pull too hard, you lose that sense. If you hold too loosely, you don’t pick up that difference either. Oh! Perhaps like dance.

I like the tips in J. B. Rainsberger’s “Productivity for the Depressed” (handy even if you aren’t). In particular, I resonate with:

  • Either work and feel terrible or avoid work and feel good, but don’t let yourself avoid work while feeling terrible.
  • Go with your energy.
  • Avoid commitments. Refuse commitments when others try to force them on you. Look for self-contained opportunities to contribute where completing the work helps people but not completing the work does not hurt them.
  • Look for any opportunity to build more slack into your life: money slack, time slack or energy slack.

surfAnother metaphor here that makes sense to me: energy comes in waves, and you can ride them. For me, it’s not just a single channel, not just a single beach to surf to. I can go lots of different ways. I don’t have to work with just the big waves either. I can take the small ones for a little bit of adventure. (Oh, that reminds me of this March 2014 post about having a buffet of goals, and this Oct 2014 post about wandering through parks.)

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (Shane Snow, 2014; Amazon affiliate link) has a chapter on catching waves. The best surfers look at patterns and decide things like:

  • Where should you position yourself to catch a good wave?
  • Which wave will you catch? (It doesn’t have to be the next one that’s coming.)
  • How can you paddle in order to catch it?
  • What will you do with it?

You can’t force a wave. (Okay, maybe you can engineer one.) If you’re out there, you just have to learn how to read the energy. There are waves going in different directions, and sometimes they combine to make pretty good ones. Even if nothing’s coming for a bit, you can still enjoy the view.

I’m reminded of how my sister kept a close eye on weather forecasts back when she was into the scene. Storms can lead to good surf, and calms can have their own charm. In life, too.

I like those metaphors. Not taskmaster/slave, but dancer, surfer. Let’s see where this goes.

(In real life, I was terrible at surfing: never keen on water, and with too much of a healthy appreciation for possibly poisonous or otherwise dangerous things in the sea. But that’s why metaphors are metaphors.)

Improving how I organize notes with Org Mode

December 3, 2014 - Categories: emacs, kaizen, org

Let me think about how I organize my Org Mode files, and how I might improve that. =)

Separate files

You can put different things in different files, of course. I use a few large Org files instead of lots of small ones because I prefer searching within files rather than searching within directories. Separate files make sense when I want to define org-custom-agenda-commands that summarize a subset of my tasks. No sense in going through all my files if I only want the cooking-related ones.

What would help me make better use of lots of files? I can practise on my book notes, which I’ve split up into one file per book. It’s easy enough to open files based on their titles (which I put in my filenames). But I don’t have that overall sense of it yet. Maybe #+INDEX: entries, if I can get them to generate multiple hyperlinks and I have a shortcut to quickly grep across multiple files (maybe with a few lines of context)? Maybe a manual outline, an index like the one I’ve been building for my blog posts? I can work with that as a starter, I think.

Okay. So, coming at it from several directions here:

  • A manual map based on an outline with lots of links, with some links between topics as well – similar to my blog outline or to my evil plans document
  • Quick way to grep? helm-do-grep works, but my long filenames are hard to read.
  • Links between notes and to blog posts
  • TODOs, agenda views

Outlines

Within each file, outlines work really well. You can create any number of headings by using *, and you can use TAB to collapse or expand headings. You can promote or demote subtrees, move them around, or even sort them.

I generally have a few high-level headings, like this:

* Projects
** One heading per current project
*** TODO Project task
* Reference
Information I need to keep track of
* Other notes
* Tasks
** TODO Lots of miscellaneous tasks go here
** TODO Lots of miscellaneous tasks go here
** TODO Lots of miscellaneous tasks go here

Every so often, I do some clean-up on my Org files, refiling or archiving headings as needed. This makes it easier to review my current list of projects. I keep this list separate from the grab-bag of miscellaneous tasks and notes that might not yet be related to particular projects.

I use org-refile with the C-u argument (so, C-u C-c C-w) to quickly jump to headings by typing in part of them. To make it easy to jump to the main headings in any of my agenda files, I set my org-refile-targets like this:

(setq org-refile-targets '((org-agenda-files . (:maxlevel . 6))))

How can I get better at organizing things with outlines? My writing workflow is a natural place to practise. I’ve accumulated lots of small ideas in my writing file, so if I work on fleshing those out even when I don’t have a lot of energy–breaking things down into points, and organizing several notes into larger chunks–that should help me become more used to outlines.

Tags

In addition to organizing notes in outlines, you can also use tags. Tags go on the ends of headings, like this:

** Heading title     :tag:another-tag:

You can filter headings by tags using M-x org-match-sparse-tree (C-c \) or M-x org-tags-view (C-c a m).

Tags are interesting as a way to search for or filter out combinations. I used tags a lot more before, when I was using them for GTD contexts. I don’t use them as much now, although I’ve started tagging recipes by main ingredient and cooking method. (Hmm, maybe I should try visualizing things as a table…) I also use tags to post entries under WordPress blog categories.

How can I get better at using tags? I can look for things that don’t lend themselves well to outlines, but have several dimensions that I may want to browse or search by. That’s probably going to be recipe management for now. If I figure out a neat way to add tags to my datetree journal notes and then visualize them, that might be cool too.

Links

Org Mode links allow me to refer not only to web pages, files, headings, and text searches, but to things like documentation or even executable code. When I find myself jumping between places a lot, I tend to build links so that I don’t have to remember what to jump to. My evil plans Org Mode file uses links to create and visualize structure, so that’s pretty cool, too. But there’s still a lot more that I could probably do with this.

How can I use links more effectively? I can link to more types of things, such as Lisp code. I can go back over my book notes and fill in the citation graph out of curiosity. Come to think of it, I could do that with my writing as well. My writing ideas rarely fit in neat outlines. I often feel like I’m combining multiple threads, and links could help me see those connections.

In addition to explicit links, I can also define “radio targets” that turn any instance of that text into a hyperlink back to that location. Only seems to work within a single file, though, and I’ve never actually used this feature for something yet.

Properties

You can set various properties for your Org Mode subtrees and then display those properties in columns or filter your subtrees by those properties. I’ve used Effort to keep track of effort estimates and I have some agenda commands that use that. I also use a custom Quantified property to make it easier to clock into tasks using my Quantified Awesome system.

I could track energy level as either tags or properties. Properties allow for easier sorting, I think. Can I define a custom sort order, or do I have to stick with numeric codes? Yeah, I can sort by a custom function, so I can come up with my own thing. Okay. That suggests a way I can learn to use properties more effectively.

There are even more ways to organize Org Mode notes in Emacs (agenda views, exports, etc.), but the ones above look like good things to focus on. So much to try and learn!

Monthly review: November 2014

December 4, 2014 - Categories: monthly, review

I wrote last month that in November, I planned to:

  • Get team members up to speed with prototype designs and reporting tips
  • Experiment with Emacs hangouts and learn more about functionality
  • File my corporate tax returns
  • Dust off my delegation processes

I’m glad I invested time in writing things down, building standardized reports, and coaching team members, since I ended up spending November mostly working from home (whenever I wasn’t asleep).

We experimented with casual Emacs Hangouts and those were awesome. I hosted the first one and Cameron Desautels hosted the second one. Great way to pick up tips and hang out with folks. I’m looking forward to doing more of them in December and in 2015.

I filed my corporate tax returns, yay! This year, I learned how to file HST using the quick method (which isn’t really all that quick), and I also found a bookkeeper who could help me answer some of my tax questions. Nice to get the paperwork out of the way.

Delegation-wise, I continue to be really bad at assigning tasks to my virtual assistants. On my consulting engagement, though, I’m getting better at asking team members to do stuff (providing notes and help along the way) instead of giving in to the temptation to have fun doing things myself.

I also learned more about building flexible reports using Tableau and PostgreSQL, wireframing before implementing, testing. I picked up Minna no Nihongo and started working my way through it. I learned how to make a really simple LEGO ball contraption. I mentored a young developer. I dealt with fuzzy brain, squirrel brain, and other challenges, and I figured out a few things that work well for me. (Getting things ready for good-brain time, for example.)

Also, having a process journal is great! I updated each entry by summarizing it in the headline, and now I can look at my date outline and get a quick sense of how the month went. =) Pretty well, actually, despite having lower energy than usual.

In December, I plan to:

  • Continue helping my consulting client with prototyping and analytics
  • Dive into Emacs improvement
  • Help out with family projects
  • Do a calendar-year annual review

Blog posts:

Sketches:

Time:

% Avg h per week Avg h per day
Sleep 41.3 69.4 9.9
Personal care 14.4 24.2 3.5
Business 14.3 24.0 3.4
Discretionary – Play 9.0 15.1 2.2
Discretionary – Productive 9.4 15.8 2.3
Discretionary – Family 6.5 10.9 1.6
Unpaid work 5.0 8.4 1.2

I’m trying a new thing in this review – I’m also using it to mark items for follow-up, like sketches that haven’t been blogged yet (0% this month, yay!) or actions to take. We’ll see if this helps me build momentum and connect the threads!

 

Emacs Chat: Karl Voit

December 5, 2014 - Categories: emacs, Emacs Chat, org, podcast

Org Mode, Memacs, lazyblorg, .emacs, Yasnippet, tags . http://karl-voit.at , http://twitter.com/n0v0id , http://github.com/novoid.

Check out Karl’s notes for more details. (Or at least, you can check them out when his server is up again!)

Thanks, Karl!

Got an interesting Emacs workflow? Please share. =) Happy to bring on more people for Emacs Chats. Also, check out the upcoming Emacs Hangout on Dec 17 (8 PM Toronto)!

Check out TRANSCRIPT here!

Weekly review: Week ending December 5, 2014

December 7, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

A combination of being mostly asleep and feeling out of sorts meant that I ended up writing this review on Tuesday instead of Sunday, but I’m backdating it so that it falls into its rightful place in the endless march of posts.

It was a good week, though! I had a great Emacs chat with Karl Voit, picking up lots of ideas for Org Mode and knowledge management. I sketchnoted a book and experimented with colour schemes. I learned more about network analysis and visualization. I helped people on my consulting gig. I made Japanese curry from scratch (I think I’ve pretty much gotten the hang of that recipe). I finished reading the Minna no Nihongo I textbook out loud, and am now looking for a good source for the second set of books.

One of my personal projects fizzled out, but oh well. C’est la vie. Can’t learn unless you take risks. Anyway, the next few weeks should have better momentum!

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (24.6h – 14%)
    • Earn (6.8h – 27% of Business)
      • Prepare invoice for E1
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (15.0h – 60% of Business)
      • Drawing (10.6h)
        • Collect and catalogue different colour techniques
        • Try different approaches for colouring sketchnotes
          • Accent text
          • Background
          • Flood
          • Decorations
          • Toned text
          • Form an opinion about colour techniques
        • Colour “Inner Game of Work” sketchnote
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (1.4h)
        • Actually submit tax return
        • Revisit accounting changes
        • Review CRA message
      • Quantified Awesome
        • Investigate library renewal error
        • Review pull request simplifying Quantified Awesome setup
        • Add deletes back
        • Doublecheck that I can add note fields to a record category
      • Blog
        • Add Javascript for locating a blog post in my outline
        • Modify WordPress theme so that TOC links use permalinks but still permit efficient scrolling
        • Draw Sketchnote Army Interview response
        • Figure out how to reimport comments into Disqus
        • Fix HTTP upload error on my blog
    • Connect (2.8h – 11% of Business)
  • Relationships (1.4h – 0%)
    • Make gift
  • Discretionary – Productive (22.3h – 13%)
    • Emacs (3.1h – 1% of all)
      • Emacs Chat: Karl Voit
      • Learn about edebugging macros
      • Revise transcript for Emacs Chat: Karl Voit
    • Japanese
      • Work through Minna no Nihongo I
      • Minna no Nihongo Chapter 21
      • Minna no Nihongo Chapter 22
      • Minna no Nihongo Chapter 23
      • Minna no Nihongo Chapter 24
      • Minna no Nihongo Chapter 25
    • Writing
      • Revise post about prioritization based on Alan’s feedback
      • Sketch idea for blog link graph
      • Thinking about how to make better use of Yasnippet in my Emacs workflow
      • Visualize the connected components in my blog
    • Writing (12.6h)
  • Discretionary – Play (15.1h – 8%)
  • Personal routines (28.1h – 16%)
  • Unpaid work (12.2h – 7%)
  • Sleep (64.3h – 38% – average of 9.2 per day)

Emacs configuration and use-package

December 8, 2014 - Categories: emacs

Watching the second Experimental Emacs Hangout nudged me to improve how I use use-package in my Emacs configuration.

I had been using use-package‘s :init and :config keywords as a more readable and less-error-prone versions of eval-after-load. (Well, technically, :init happens before it’s loaded, and :config is evaluated after it fully loads.) I also used :bind for global keybindings.

I didn’t know about :ensure and :diminish. Adding :ensure let me get rid of my custom sacha/package-install function, and :diminish let me remove a few lines related to my modeline.

One of the benefits of sharing my configuration is that other people pick up ideas, and then I pick up more ideas from their ideas. I get an excuse to revisit packages that may have added features since the last time I checked them out. I learn from other people’s combinations and customizations.

There’s so much to learn about Emacs, even just in terms of the packages that I’ve already configured. Sometimes I start with just the basics and settle into a routine, forgetting that there are even more things I can do. Sometimes people make incompatible changes, and I have to figure out how to adapt. Sometimes packages become unmaintained, and eventually replacements emerge. Always, always, people write more code, add more features, extend Emacs to do more things. It’s never just about what new things I can do. It’s also about this community of people who tickle their brains by building cool stuff, who follow “What if?” to interesting places.

Anyway. :ensure and :diminish, and a few improvements to my config. (Also because I just switched to the 64-bit binary for Emacs 24.4, how exciting…)

Hat-tip to @gozes for nudging me to write about this – back in April!

Sketchnote Army Interview: Sacha Chua

December 9, 2014 - Categories: drawing, visual

Mauro Toselli sent me a few questions for the Sketchnote Army blog, which has been running a series on featured sketchnoters. Naturally, I decided to sketch my answers. ;)

2014-12-04 Sketchnote Army Interview - Sacha Chua

2014-12-04 Sketchnote Army Interview – Sacha Chua

If you’re curious, you can check out some of these relevant blog posts:

Emacs: M-y as helm-show-kill-ring

December 10, 2014 - Categories: emacs
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Emacs Kaizen

After realizing that I barely scratched the surface of Helm’s awesomeness (really, I basically use it as an ido-vertical-mode), I made a concerted effort to explore more of the interesting things in the Helm toolkit. helm-show-kill-ring is one such thing. I’ve bound it to M-y, which I had previously configured to be browse-kill-ring, but helm-show-kill-ring is much cooler because it makes it easy to dynamically filter your kill ring. Also, Kcode>M-y works better for me than C-y does because I know when I want the last thing I killed, but going beyond that is a little annoying.

That said, browse-kill-ring does make it easy to edit a kill ring entry. Maybe I should learn how to modify Helm’s behaviour so that I can add an edit action. There’s already a delete action. Besides, I haven’t used that feature in browse-kill-ring yet, so I can probably get by even without it.

ido fans: you can use helm-show-kill-ring without activating helm-mode, if you want.

On a related note, I like how rebinding M-x (execute-extended-comand) to helm-M-x shows me keybindings as I search for commands. You do have to get used to the quirk of typing C-u and other prefixes after M-x instead of before, but I haven’t had a problem with this yet. This is mostly because I haven’t dug into just how many commands do awesome things when given a prefix argument. I know about using C-u C-c C-w (org-refile) to jump to places instead of refiling notes, but that’s about it. I haven’t gone anywhere close to C-u C-u. Does anyone have a favourite command they use that does really smart things when given that prefix? =)

This Helm intro has animated GIFs and a few other useful commands. Check it out!

Where am I in terms of design?

December 11, 2014 - Categories: design

I’m working on learning more about design. I don’t think about it all the time, but sometimes I check out design blogs like Little Big Details and CSS Tricks. I’m getting the hang of sketching several variants instead of jumping straight into the first idea I have, and sometimes I even show those wireframes to other people before coding it up.

Someone asked me where I’d rate myself on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s hard to do that without thinking about what 1 and 10 are and what’s in the middle. Besides, I know that the scale will keep shifting anyway. I’ll never ever get to 10, and this is good. There’s always more to learn.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with. Which, on reflection, might be overstating it. Sometimes I feel like I’m still throwing everything in including the kitchen sink. But at least this gives me a map, a You Are Here, and more usefully, a sense of what the next step on the path might be.

2014-11-29 Where am I in terms of design

There are at least three components to this, I think. TECHNICAL SKILLS–the CSS and Javascript, the code and the fiddly bits–that’s actually the smallest part, and probably the easiest. I’m not too worried about that. I can learn it when I need to, following the tutorials that other people have written. For the few things that aren’t covered by Javascript polyfills and StackOverflow answers, I can use trial-and-error to bodge my way through (at least until I understand things better).

DESIGN SENSE–now that’s tough. I can read all the usability books I want. I can study the key principles of visual hierarchy or grouping. I can take a master’s degree in human-computer interaction. (Wait, I did!) I know I’m supposed to keep the end users in mind, either by talking to people directly or by keeping personas in front of me. I know I’m supposed to keep things simple and discoverable, with affordances that encourage you to use things in the right way.

I can mostly find my way down well-worn roads. (Want a real-time status update visualization? A mosaic of news items on the front page? A multiple choice survey? Gotcha.) I am often asked to come up with something new, though. Sometimes it’s just new to the group, so we figure out what people want after a little back-and-forth. Sometimes it’s new to me, and I have to do some research. Sometimes, I suspect, I’m trying to come up with something a little new to everyone. Or at least it requires a lot more translation to find something familiar to draw on.

But there’s still so much more to learn before I can confidently sift through conflicting feedback, before I can guide people from vague ideas to that flash of recognition: “Ah, yes, this is what I wanted.”

I don’t know if it’s just a matter of experience. I’ve worked with designers on web projects and I’ve disagreed with them. (Gradients? Really? And you want that to do what?) I’ve also worked with designers I got along really well with, especially the ones who weren’t coming from a print background and who knew the difference between what looked flashy and what was easier to do on the Web.

So. Design sense. This is the part that intrigues me the most. I’m working on developing opinions. It’s not just about memorizing a bunch of principles or applying the latest fads (from skeumorphic to flat, from static to parallax, etc.). I think it involves being able to see, understand, and recommend. Browsing through design blogs doesn’t really help me with this. I have to slow down and think about why something works, why it doesn’t, what other variants I might try, why I like something or another. And then, beyond opinion, there’s also measurement: revealed preferences often go against what we think we want.

This is where WORKFLOW comes in. I’ve been working on resisting the temptation to jump in and start coding things right away. Instead, wireframing possible designs means I can play around with how something looks and behaves, changing it with less friction. (It also means I can turn ideas over to team members in case they want to use that for development practice.) Getting the hang of wireframing will also help me try different variations while being less invested in them.

Research can help me quickly find different types of the same idea, so I can broaden my horizons. For example, looking at a few support communities (Adobe, Apple, and Skype) gave me a better sense of what I liked about each of them and why.

My main challenges for design and workflow are:

  • How can I apply what I’m learning within the constraints that I have? For example, it’s one thing to know that testing is good. It’s another to think about how I might do A/B testing without proper analytics and without hundreds of thousands of views.
  • In the absence of stronger metrics, how can I work with conflicting feedback? Can I get better at generating different variants to help people find something they agree on? Can I get faster at working with low-fidelity prototypes or in-browser code?
  • How can I recognize familiar aspects in new ideas, and get better at cobbling together well-tested ideas from different places? Hmm. Come to think of it, it’s a little like those Master Builders in the LEGO Movie, isn’t it? There’s something about that ability to look at something and say, “Oh, that looks unfamiliar, but it’s really like A and B and C.” I do this kind of connecting-the-dots outside design. I can learn how to do it here too. (Analogies are another way to practise this. =) )

I’ll probably be able to get the hang of the tech along the way, so I’m not worried about it.

I think this will help me learn the kind of design I want. I’m not really interested in the kind of design that involves following fairly well-sorted out paths making snazzy websites for other people, like WordPress theme customization or development or things like that. I can pick that up if I need to, probably.

I’m more curious about getting better at designing new(ish) things, the kind where I can’t just pick a few sites for design inspiration, the kind where I’m making something I haven’t seen before and I have to decide what to show and how it behaves.

Oh! Here is another version of that sketch, in case you want to fill it in yourself. =)

2014-11-29 Where am I in terms of design - blank

Building a better time machine

December 12, 2014 - Categories: blogging, writing

I’ve written before about how a blog is like a time machine, reflecting on my growth as a speaker or looking back over the past decade. It’s wonderful having all these notes. I often find myself referring to things from years ago – many of the technical posts are still useful, surprisingly – and then I bump into other memories nearby.

What can I do now to build a better time machine for me to use in another ten years or more? How can I tweak what I’m sharing and how I’m sharing it so that I can make the most of it? Let me think about how this has worked in the past, so that I can build on what’s been working well.

People like the tech posts, the workflow posts, the reflection posts where they recognize something they’ve been thinking about themselves. So those are all good. I also like point-in-time descriptions to help me remember what it was like. Maybe I’ll take those process journal entries and copy them in periodically so that they’re available somewhere.

I wonder: what other people have learned about writing for their futures? Here’s a snippet from Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing (2014):

p98. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, [Joan] Didion describes what her notebook isn’t. It isn’t “an accurate factual record” because our recollection of an event might be vastly different from someone else’.s It isn’t to “dutifully record a day’s events” because that task inevitably becomes boring, and such a record conveys little or no meaning. Nor should we necessarily expect that we might one day open our notebooks and find “a forgotten account” of an event we can pluck for our work.

Instead, Didion believes that the notebook’s value lies in its record of “How it felt to be me” at a particular time. This, she says, is the notebook’s truth. Although we might imagine using it to fix our impressions of others, instead, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point” of the notebook. Part of a writer’s education is “to keep on noding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Reading our notebooks helps us to keep in touch with those past selves, and a record of “How it felt to be me” can be extraordinarily useful in writing memoir, creating fictional characacters, or writing poetry.

p100. Didion remarks on the fact that we change over time but that we forget the people we were: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be,” she says. Without a notebook record, these selves are lost to us. For a writer, “keeping in touch” with our past selves is helpful. … As Didion reminds us, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

So, maybe the occasional snapshot of “How it felt to be me,” a way to remember that there are selves to remember. Otherwise the time blurs.

From that essay of Joan Didion:

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

I think that might be part of it, a little bit of that worry (not a lot, but it’s there, lurking in the background) that I might forget (no, will!) large chunks of my life, because even last month is a little fuzzy without notes and last year gets condensed into a few highlights. But no, that isn’t quite it either, since I don’t really hang on to the memories tightly even with my notes and my archive; I don’t reread, I don’t memorize.

Ah. I think this is it: my blog lets my past selves connect with other people who are looking for this stuff here and now (or in the future, as the case may be). So even if I am a different self–focused on other projects, learning about other interests–those past selves are there to nod at other people and share a little of what we’ve learned along the way. Mostly I leave things as snippets and blog posts, but on occasion, I consolidate things into summaries and documents – a clearer guide, a past self updated with a little present knowledge.

Hmm…

Sketched Book: Just F*cking Ship – Amy Hoy, Alex Hillman

December 12, 2014 - Categories: entrepreneurship, productivity, visual-book-notes

Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman wrote, published, and launched Just Fucking Ship in 24 hours, using a Trello board and an outline to quickly whip up this short reminder to stop procrastinating and get something out the door. They’re halfway through editing it and will post updates through Gumroad, so if you buy the book, you can watch it evolve.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image to view or download a high-resolution version that you can print or reuse.

2014-12-12 Sketched Book - Just Fucking Ship - Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman

The principle I’m focusing on is #7: Start with atoms. I’m comfortable with making small pieces now: an outline, a blog post, a sketch. I’m working on getting better at assembling those pieces into molecules, and eventually I’ll be able to turn those molecules into rocketships. Eventually. But in the meantime, I can push more things out there.

I’ve been sorting out my EPUB/MOBI workflow by putting stuff up on Gumroad, like the Emacs Chat transcript collection. (Incomplete, but that’s what updates are for.) This will help me Ship More Stuff.

Today I noticed an opportunity for wordplay. The domain was available, so I jumped on it. Shipped.

Ship. Get your stuff out there, incomplete and in progress, because you’ll learn more from the feedback than you will from stewing on it by yourself. And if it flops? Don’t worry. You’ll do another one, and another one, and another one, and you’ll learn.

Want the e-book? You can buy it at Just Fucking Ship (Amy Hoy, Alex Hillman; 2004). You’ll get a PDF and updates. (Amusingly, no physical shipping involved.)

Like this sketch? Check out sketchedbooks.com for more. For your convenience, this post can be found at sketchedbooks.com/jfs. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog.

(Incidentally, I’ve quoted Amy Hoy before – see my post on Learning slack for another reflection on writing, productivity, and motivation.)

Weekly review: Week ending December 12, 2014

December 13, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

This was a good week for programming and packaging. On my consulting gig, I got back into the swing of making small prototypes on the social business platform we use. I’ve been practising writing short Javascript functions, and they make my brain much happier. I also coached the other developer on our team over lots of instant messages and a few WebExes, and she’s picking up things nicely. I made progress on an annoying bug that has been plaguing us for a few months, too.

I’ve been working on getting more stuff out the door, too. I packaged the Emacs Chat transcripts as an EPUB/MOBI and sorted out a good workflow for publishing them. (Come to think of it, I should consider making a PDF version too.) While sketching a book, I noticed that “sketched book” is a fun way to refer to those visual book notes; since the domain was available, I registered sketchedbooks.com and set it up.

I want to get the hang of publishing things in chunks that are larger than a blog post. Collections are easy to start with. The next step would be to work on things with outlines and chapters and flows.

My energy’s slowly starting to return, yay! Slept more than normal – average of 9.3 hours a day – but that was because I was in bed for about 17 hours (!) last Sunday. I should be back to my regular ~8.3 hours of sleep a night soon.

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

… good haul this week. =)

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (34.5h – 20%)
    • Earn (17.5h – 50% of Business)
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (13.1h – 38% of Business)
      • Drawing (7.7h)
        • Sketch JFS book
        • Make cover image
      • Paperwork (0.3h)
        • Actually submit tax return
      • Packaging
        • Format Emacs Chat transcripts as EPUB and sort out Org to EPUB workflow
        • Set up mailing list for sketchedbooks.com
        • Set up sketchedbooks.com – temporary site for now
        • Set up proper redirection so that I can do clever things with the URLs
        • Figure out EPUB workflow for publishing Emacs Chat transcripts
        • Set up EPUB workflow for Read Lisp, Tweak Emacs
      • Set up Authenticator
      • Set up app password so I can read Gmail from Gnus again
      • Fix OAuth login for Google – Quantified Awesome
      • Add Javascript for locating a blog post in my outline
      • Clean up disk space
      • Re-enter comments into Disqus
    • Connect (3.9h – 11% of Business)
  • Relationships (7.3h – 4%)
    • Chat with Sahil Sinha
  • Discretionary – Productive (18.3h – 10%)
    • Emacs (4.4h – 2% of all)
      • Finish transcript for Emacs chat
      • Revise transcript for Iannis Zannos
      • Revise transcript for Emacs Chat: Karl Voit
      • Patch https://github.com/jwiegley/use-package to mention :ensure t
    • Writing (10.1h)
      • Write about skewed notes
  • Discretionary – Play (6.6h – 3%)
  • Personal routines (29.9h – 17%)
  • Unpaid work (6.5h – 3%)
  • Sleep (64.9h – 38% – average of 9.3 per day)

Sketched Book: The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results – Tom Morris

December 15, 2014 - Categories: philosophy, visual-book-notes

Tom Morris’ The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results (2004) collects easy-to-read quotes from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The author glues the quotes together with commentary, providing context and suggestions for interpretation.

2014-12-10 Book - The Stoic Art of Living - Inner Resilience and Outer Results - Tom Morris

I like the author’s quotes from ancient philosophers, as other translations can feel stuffy. It’s a decent overview of interesting thoughts, and you can follow the ideas to their sources. The book can feel a little light, though. There’s something about the succession of quotes and topics that makes me feel like I’m bobbing up and down on a surface.

For comparison, I feel that William Braxton Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life (2009) goes into greater depth for fewer concepts. Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way reads more like a modern self-help book inspired by Stoicism, without as many quotes as this book.

If you’ve read a lot about Stoicism (and especially from the three philosophers featured here), you probably won’t find a lot of new ideas here. However, you might pick up some good phrasings and ways to think about those ideas. As Pierre Hadot wrote in Philosophy as a Way of Life: “Ancient philosophy was designed to be memorized, so that it could be ‘at hand’ when we are confronted with tumultuous situations.” Maybe you’ll find the quotes in this book easy to hang on to. Enjoy!

If you want, you can check out the books on Amazon:

I get a small commission if you buy the books through those links, but getting them from the library is totally okay too. =) Have fun!

Connecting to previous thoughts and covering more ground

December 16, 2014 - Categories: learning

Sometimes I think I go around in circles, trying to figure out a recurring topic. Like this! I’ve written about this before. I want to get better at writing my way towards understanding. It’s like when I write, I’m so focused on adding just one more square foot to what I know. But I might not be spending enough time zooming up to make sure I’m going in interesting directions and that I’m not backsliding.

Maybe I need to pick up that pattern from programming with user stories: “As a …, I want to …, so that ….” As a learner, I want to get better at expanding on previous thoughts so that I waste less time repeating myself.

What is it, really? Let me dig around a little.

  • Not enough context/review: Is it that I write something, and then I discover I wrote something like it recently? No, I tend to be pretty good at finding 1-3 past posts related to what I’m thinking about.
  • Background : new thoughts ratio: Is it that I work in too small steps? What’s a good ratio? Background : thoughts : resolution : connection with others? Hmm, this might be interesting to quantify. Let me sample a few posts:
    • Post 1: 1 paragraph background, 4 paragraphs thinking, 2 paragraphs resolution
    • Post 2: 1 paragraph background, 7 paragraphs process description, 2 paragraphs resolution, 1 paragraph translation
    • Post 3: 1 paragraph background, 4 paragraphs thinking, 1 paragraph resolution.

    Oh, okay, that’s not too bad, actually. I do tend to have a certain “shape” to my blog posts: I think about stuff, and then I decide to try one or two new things. Also, my word count is nowhere near as high as I thought it used to be, which is good. My blog posts have a median of 500 words or so. Sometimes, if I remember, I’ll add a paragraph or two to help people translate things to their own experiences.

  • Not enough follow-up: Is it that I decide on something, but it doesn’t stick? I’m generally good at identifying one or two actions to try, and actually doing them (even if just for a short while). I’m not as good at following up on, say, books not stocked by the Toronto Public Library, because I’m lazy and my free backlog is infinite. I can learn to change that.
  • Not enough updates: Is it that I do stuff, but I don’t reflect on the update and share more notes? Hmm, possibly this; I do end up writing about things again, but it can be quite a while afterwards. Maybe I can schedule TODO items to update, and get back to keeping track of active experiments in my learning.org? That was useful. Why did I stop that? Agenda clutter? Worth revisiting. Also, sometimes I lose the references to interesting comments/conversations that recommended something. I’m generally good at looking up blog posts where I decided to do something, but I don’t track conversations as much. I’ve been trying to keep track of who recommended a book so that I can get back to them when I finally read it, which could be weeks later.
  • Not enough focus or structure: Is it that my posts are too scattered and don’t build up? A little of this, yeah, but I think that might be just how I work for now. I still have a hard time staying motivated enough to work to a larger outline. I talk about making little pieces that I could collect into larger things, but that’s passing it off to some smarter, more organized future self since I currently don’t do that kind of harvesting. This is something I could experiment with.
  • Not enough focus on helping other people: Is it that I feel self-conscious about focusing on internal discussions? Yeah, but it feels a little weird to tell other people what to do with their lives. Internal discussions seem to be helpful, and working out loud does help me get things done. I can be more didactic when I’ve earned it with experience, when I have the knowledge and reputation to back it up.

Hmm. Maybe it would help to imagine what awesomeness would look like, and then look into the differences between that and where I am now. Would it involve writing longer blog posts with larger insights, maybe aha!s that require significant non-writing time, so that there are bigger pay-offs for the reader? It’s the difference between

  • three posts that go, “Hmm, I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ll try this;” “I’m trying this, and this is what I’m seeing;” “I tried it and this is what I learned.” and
  • one post that says, “So last year I did this long experiment and this is what I learned.”

Nah, I like showing the in-between steps. It helps me think more clearly, and people often have great suggestions.

So small steps are okay, as long as they stick. Sometimes I review year-old posts and go, “Oh, yeah, I meant to look into that!” Other times, I look at those posts and go, “Yep, I did that and that definitely worked out well. That gives me new ideas…” I think awesomeness is more of the latter.

How can I get better at covering ground?

Part of this is getting better at remembering previously-covered ground (and keeping it covered).

  • I’m pretty good at searching my blog for posts I remember writing about the same topic, although there have been a few occasions when people have reminded me of things that I’d completely forgotten writing about.
  • I could make better use of my blog index by reviewing the general topic as well, which is a good excuse to refine the categorization.
  • Then there’s integrating those links to previous posts into my writing outline, building up bigger chunks.
  • And there’s also the power of the old-fashioned chronological review – simply re-reading old posts, maybe based on time. For example, when I do my monthly review, it might be interesting to reread the posts for that month, the month before, and the month one year before (or more). I might even challenge myself to schedule some of those posts for processing/updates so that I get practise in organizing and polishing previous posts.

Part of this involves clearly phrasing the question so that I can see the new ground to be covered. I’m not just thinking about a topic. I want to figure out something I didn’t know before. Here, for example, the central question that emerged after lots of outlining was “How can I get better at covering ground?” I learned more about the question while contrasting what I do now with what I’d like to be able to do. Working with outlines rather than prose for as long as possible seems to help, since it’s easier to cut and move around points, and it’s easier to see the bones of the post that I’m writing.

So that gives me a couple of things to try.

I know a few people who’ve made blogging part of the way that they learn, so I can learn from their examples as well. And there are non-blogging approaches, like the way W- keeps a professional notebook. So much to learn, and so many ways to do that better! =)

Learning more effectively by exploring various unknowns

December 17, 2014 - Categories: learning

I’ve been thinking about how to learn better. Questions are a big part of that, I think. I enjoy learning the most when I have a question to explore instead of just aimlessly wandering around. Questions give me a sense of progress. Even difficult questions tend to have within them the seeds of their answers. I’d like to get better at this. After all, better questions get you better answers.

Brief update: What have I learned since my 2013 post on getting better at asking questions? I’ve gotten better at using outlines to map out my questions. I actually managed to sit through a couple of Coursera courses instead of losing steam mid-way, although I ended up skimming lectures and focusing on the homework. I’m still really bad at asking questions, whether it’s in a community like StackOverflow or asking specific people directly. I still read a lot, but my podcast-listening has dropped off the map due to impatience and to swapping this for playing video games during the rare commute. I still have a hard time sitting still for videos, although maybe this will come in handy for learning Japanese (videos with exact Japanese subtitles, perhaps?). I’m getting pretty good at taking notes along the way, untangling and keeping track of the little questions that pop up while I’m figuring things out.

There’s still a lot more to learn about asking better questions, though. I want to get better at asking small, concrete questions that yield some handholds and help move me (and other people) a little bit forward. Sometimes I find myself getting intimidated by questions that are too large or vague. Sometimes I catch myself retreading the same ground with no new insights or questions. (I sometimes get the sneaky suspicion I’ve blogged about something recently, but my searches don’t turn things up.) I’m fine with exploring questions that might only be relevant to me, but it would be even better if I can ask the question or phrase my answer in a way that other people can apply those ideas to their lives as well.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about getting better at asking questions so that you can learn more effectively. I listed a few approaches that I use or that I want to explore, and I organized them into four categories:

  • learning about things I know I don’t know
  • learning about things I don’t know I don’t know
  • learning about things I thought I knew, but didn’t
  • learning about things I didn’t know I knew
2014-11-25-Getting-better-at-asking-questions.png

2014-11-25-Getting-better-at-asking-questions.png

I even came up with analogies! =) (Analogies are great. You can stretch them and figure out even more.)

Things I know I don’t know

Getting better at this will help me gradually expand what I know. This is the easiest category to work with. It’s like seeing a mountain in the distance and saying, “I want to go there!” There might be forests in the middle and you might have to turn back a few times to try a different route, but you have an idea of where you want to go and how you might get there.

I learn a lot in the context of projects I’m working on or things I’m curious about. I can get even better at this by:

  • Choosing goals or projects so that they build on top of each other, and asking questions that are aligned with those goals or projects
  • Going on learning sprints that focus on one topic, so I can take advantage of momentum
  • Reviewing my lists of previous questions and ideas, so that old questions don’t fall through the cracks

Things I don’t know I don’t know

This covers all the stuff other people take for granted that I just haven’t come across yet, and it also includes all the new stuff that we haven’t gotten around to creating or discovering. It’s like wandering around in the woods, not knowing that there’s buried treasure a few steps over there (or, alternatively, a nicely-shaped tree just perfect for afternoon reading). I can spend the rest of my life focused on the things I know I don’t know and that will be enough, but I like being pleasantly surprised by the things I wouldn’t even think of looking for.

The best way I get this is by reading comments on my blog, since people know about all sorts of stuff I haven’t come across yet and they generously share these tips. (You wonderful people, you!) I also read blogs, communities, source code, books, and indices as a way of stumbling across things that might be handy someday.

I can also get better by:

  • spending more time reading question-and-answer sites like Quora and StackOverflow
  • finding more blogs that ask interesting questions
  • getting the hang of using other people’s maps (courses, books, tutoring, etc.)

Things I thought I knew, but didn’t

You know that feeling when you start explaining something to someone and then you stop halfway through to look up the details? It’s surprisingly fun. =) It’s a little like when you’re asked to draw a map of your neighbourhood, or perhaps like writing a guidebook section about a few square blocks.

I can get better at this by:

  • Answering questions (either ones directly asked of me or in support communities)
  • Explaining things to myself and other people, discovering the gaps along the way
  • Reviewing old posts (things I used to know)

Things I didn’t know I knew

This is another fun category: the stuff that makes you go, “Huh. I didn’t know other people would find that useful.” Just like other people take stuff for granted (things you didn’t know you didn’t know), you take stuff for granted too. It’s like when someone asks you to recommend a place, and then you start explaining why you like this particular cafe, and in the process of explaining your recommendations, you realize all sorts of things that you appreciate about it but that you’d never actually thought about before.

Getting better at learning from the things I didn’t know I knew will help me get more out of my experiences, and it’ll also help me learn more deeply. Plus I get to help other people, too.

I can get better at this by:

  • Noticing what I do differently and explore why
  • Describing what I do and answering people’s questions; also, answering people’s questions in communities
  • Sharing more stuff

There are even more kinds of unknowns out there, and you can use different strategies to explore them. Taxonomies of the unknown has a fascinating list. I figure these four might be a good place for me to start, and I can’t wait to try out even more!

Emacs Hangout #3: Emacs can read your mind

December 18, 2014 - Categories: emacs

We’ve been organizing these Emacs Hangouts as an informal way for folks to get together and swap tips/notes/questions. You can find the previous Hangouts at http://sachachua.com/blog/tag/emacs-hangout/ . In this hangout, we shared tips on Emacs configuration, literate programming, remote access, autocompletion, and web development. And then Jonathan Arkell blew our minds with, well, his mind, demonstrating how he got Mindwave working with Emacs and Org Mode. The next one is scheduled for Jan 9, 2015 (Friday) at 7 PM Toronto time (12 AM GMT) – https://plus.google.com/events/cv3ub5ue6k3fluku7e2rfac161o . Want a different time? Feel free to set up an Emacs Hangout, or contact me ([email protected]) and we’ll coordinate something.

Approx. time Topic
0:08 describe-variable
0:12 cycle-spacing
0:14 quelpa, better-defaults
0:18 https://github.com/KMahoney/kpm-list
0:19 org-babel
0:24 noweb
0:27 Beamer, org-present
0:30 Emacsclient
0:32 TRAMP, vagrant, X11 forwarding, git
0:40 Evangelism, Emacs defensiveness
0:42 Code organization
0:47 Cask, Quelpa, el-get
0:54 paradox for listing packages
0:58 Helm, helm-git
1:02 Projectile
1:03 More helm, autocomplete
1:06 Autocomplete and company
1:16 Writing packages, flycheck
1:18 Moving to git, working on Emacs
1:22 Gnus, mu4e, notmuch
1:27 Eww, web browsing
1:28 Web dev tools: skewer-mode, slime, swank-js, web-mode
1:32 o-blog static site generator
1:38 orgaggregate
1:41 EEG data. Emacs can read your mind!

Chat, links:

me 8:07 PM Thanks!
Zachary Kanfer 8:10 PM A description of Emacs’s “describe variable” is here: Examining.html#Examining
JJ Asghar 8:11 PM zachary: thanks! wait wait wait, org-bable can take over your .emacs.d/*.el files?
me 8:18 PM JJ: Yeah, totally! It’s so useful.
JJ Asghar 8:19 PM i need to dig into that
Jacob MacDonald 8:19 PM https://github.com/KMahoney/kpm-list
jay abber 8:23 PM Org mode has functionality for LaTeX/TeX it appears Am I wrong, any ppl here using Emacs for ReST or LaTeX??
jay abber 8:27 PM it is
Jacob MacDonald 8:27 PM I used the PDF export in Org for notes in a math class, since it exports LaTeX nicely.
jay abber 8:27 PM https://www.cs.tufts.edu/~nr/noweb/
me 8:27 PM I’ve been using Org to export ta LaTeX for Beamer output
jay abber 8:27 PM np
jay abber 8:28 PM yeaaah up yup
Jonathan Arkell 8:29 PM Time for a restart.
jay abber 8:29 PM I think it would nice to know who uses emacs mainly graphically or in a terminal?? me = lurker sorry
jay abber 8:30 PM im trying to use it more in a terminal but always go graphic
Jacob MacDonald 8:31 PM emacs –daemon; emacsclient -c
jay abber 8:31 PM yosmiate yosmite me homebrew
jay abber 8:31 PM 24.4
jay abber 8:32 PM I like that
Christopher Done 8:32 PM audio sounds very trippy
jay abber 8:32 PM w/daft punk poster rockiin
Jonathan Arkell 8:33 PM heh! It’s signed too.
JJ Asghar 8:34 PM Sorry guys I have to go! Thanks so much for this!
me 8:34 PM See you!
jay abber 8:34 PM peace or vnc but thats alot of overhead make sure you lock down you sshdconfig files with sane sec practice Emacs over TMUX?????
Christopher Done 8:38 PM https://github.com/chrisdone/chrisdone-emacs/blob/master/packages/resmacro/resmacro.el unrelated, thought i’d share that =p
me 8:38 PM jay: Good suggestions. Want to speak up?
jay abber 8:38 PM lm lurking tonight
Jacob MacDonald 8:38 PM That audio .
jay abber 8:38 PM next one I promise His voice is awesome
Jacob MacDonald 8:40 PM http://www.emacswiki.org/Rudel
jay abber 8:40 PM Well for me sometimes I hate to confess but I just type vi/vim Noone I know uses any type of editor except word hahahaha
Jonathan Arkell 8:40 PM K, i am going to try audio again. Hopefully it will help Was that better?
jay abber 8:41 PM Can emacs do stuff like mpsyt or youtubedl somehow? yes!!!!
Jacob MacDonald 8:42 PM elisp interface to a shell script should work at a bare minimum.
Jacob MacDonald 8:42 PM I mean, there’s a web browser/mail reader/IRC client built in already…
me 8:42 PM I play MP3s in Emacs using emms and mplayer
jay abber 8:43 PM you know what
Jacob MacDonald 8:43 PM There was a Spotify plugin using dbus a while back, I believe.
jay abber 8:43 PM I think mysyt will be fine
Christopher Done 8:43 PM i was thinking of writing an emacs client to gmail via gmail’s API…
jay abber 8:43 PM its is a just a python script and mpv very suave and minimalist both python
Christopher Done 8:45 PM i stick all my own packages and ones i’m using in my repo https://github.com/chrisdone/chrisdone-emacs/tree/master/packages as submodules
me 8:45 PM Christopher: Gmail client might be nice. I use IMAP occasionally, but I miss the priority inbox.
Christopher Done 8:46 PM yeah. i used offlineimap for a while with notmuch.el, that was pretty good. but i’m tempted by the idea of a “light-weight” approach replacing the browser with emacs, requesting emails/search on demand. might be nice their API looked super trivial to work with
Jonathan Arkell 8:48 PM Sorry Yea Is qwelpa (sp?) native emacs? (elisp) Stupid mic. works great for music.
Jacob MacDonald 8:50 PM lol
Jonathan Arkell 8:50 PM I do all my configuration and packages in Org mode
Christopher Done 8:50 PM i just use git for everything =p
me 8:51 PM Jonathan: Oh, maybe you’re doing some kind of audio processing that removes noise or other odd things? </wild guess>
Jonathan Arkell 8:51 PM Ironically not. I am Launching my DAW now to try and sort it ot.. heh err out … not ot…
jay abber 8:53 PM M=x list-packages now installing org-mode
me 8:53 PM Jay: If you’re installing Org from package, be sure to do it in an Emacs that has not loaded an Org file. because Org 8 (package) and Org 7 (which is built into Emacs) have incompatibilities
jay abber 8:55 PM hmm i installed 24.4 via homebrew
Jonathan Arkell 8:58 PM Okay, I am switching to the built in mic, so hopefully it works. Let me know…
Zachary Kanfer 9:11 PM http://emacsnyc.org/videos.html#2014-05
me 9:12 PM https://github.com/aki2o/emacs-plsense ?
jay abber 9:15 PM Im trying to become a ninja using the shell from w/in Emacs but sometimes I have issues with my ENV and PATH
Jonathan Arkell 9:15 PM OS?
Jacob MacDonald 9:15 PM It’s a thing.
Zachary Kanfer 9:15 PM http://emacs.stackexchange.com/
jay abber 9:15 PM Yosmite like pyenv or rubyenv in HomeBrew yes yes
Jacob MacDonald 9:16 PM Depends on if you use emacs like from brew or Emacs.app.
jay abber 9:16 PM I got cha will find it
Jonathan Hill 9:17 PM great package for handling env variables in and so forth in OSX: exec-path-from-shell
jay abber 9:18 PM jonathan: thanks man
Jonathan Hill 9:18 PM just after (package-initialize), do (exec-path-from-initialize) oops (exec-path-from-shell-initialize)
jay abber 9:18 PM jh: ok
Jonathan Arkell 9:19 PM (setenv “PATH” (concat (getenv “HOME”) “/bin:” “/usr/local/bin:” (getenv “PATH”))) That’s waht i do… (add-to-list ‘exec-path “/usr/local/bin”)
me 9:21 PM http://lars.ingebrigtsen.no/2014/11/13/welcome-new-emacs-developers/
Jonathan Arkell 9:22 PM ERMERGERD +1 +1
Jacob MacDonald 9:32 PM Link please?
Bob Erb 9:33 PM What’s it called?
me 9:33 PM https://github.com/renard/o-blog ?
Jacob MacDonald 9:33 PM Thanks.
me 9:34 PM http://renard.github.io/o-blog/ – docs
jay abber 9:34 PM hey
jay abber 9:34 PM sorry I got side tracks I blog in my posts in REST for pelican static blog generator
jay abber 9:35 PM omg
me 9:35 PM Pretty!
jay abber 9:35 PM elisp for static blog oh know
John Wiegley 9:36 PM Hello
jay abber 9:36 PM https://github.com/renard/o-blog you should never shown that to me
Jacob MacDonald 9:37 PM John, somehow I think I’ve seen you before…
me 9:40 PM https://github.com/tbanel/orgaggregate
Jonathan Arkell 9:44 PM https://github.com/jonnay/mindwave-emacs
jay abber 9:44 PM Hey I have to go now
John Wiegley 9:44 PM Bye Jay
me 9:44 PM See you! Thanks for joining!
jay abber 9:44 PM This was awesome I will be on the next one I have to study precalc
me 9:44 PM Yay!
jay abber 9:45 PM take care
me 9:49 PM Oooh… I wonder how to make coloured graphs like that too. Neat! I should practise using overlays…
Jonathan Arkell 9:53 PM https://github.com/jonnay/mindwave-emacs Here is the Display Code: https://github.com/jonnay/mindwave-emacs/blob/master/mindwave-display.org So wait… C-u C-u C-p takes you… uup?
me 9:59 PM Hah! UUP! Brilliant!
Bob Erb 10:01 PM You’re a treasure, Sacha!

Figuring out what to read by figuring out what you want to become or make or do

December 19, 2014 - Categories: learning, plans, reading, writing

If you know what you want to do, you can figure out what you need to read to get there.

This tip might be obvious to other people, but I’m not used to planning my reading so that the books are aligned with an overall goal.

I make lots of learning plans, with various degrees of following through. Those plans tend to go out the window when I browse through the monthly new release lists on the library website or come across mentions from bibliographies and blog posts.

Books are my equivalent of impulse purchases at the supermarket checkout, the pull of slot machines, the intrigue of Kinder eggs. I think that’s how I resist temptations like that. The library is where I let that impulse out to play.

We’ve checked out more than 400 books from the library this year. I’ve skimmed through most of them, although I’ve taken notes from a much smaller collection.

Since there’s such a trove of free resources I can go through, I find it difficult to spend on books. Before last week, the last time I bought a book was November 2013. I suspect this is silly. The cost of a book is almost always less than the cost of taking the author out to lunch for discussion and brain-picking (and that’s pretty much Not Going to Happen anyway). It’s certainly less than the cost of figuring things out myself.

My reluctance often comes from an uncertainty about whether there’ll be enough in the book, or whether it’ll be the same concepts I’ve already read about, just given new clothes. I have to remember that I can get more out of a book than what the author put into it. A book isn’t just a collection of insights. It’s a list of questions to explore. It’s a bibliography. It’s a link in the conversation and a shorthand for concepts. It’s an education on writing style and organization. It’s sketchnoting practice and raw material for blog posts. It’s fuel for connection.

Phrased that way, books are a bargain. Even not particularly good ones. Hmm. Maybe I should take the “Connection” part of my budget – the part that I’m supposed to be forcing myself to use for taking people out to coffee or lunch, the part that I never end up using all that much anyway – and experiment with using it for books.

I’m more comfortable when I use my money deliberately, so I also want to be deliberate about the books I buy. All books are bought – some with money, but all with time. This requires a plan, and this requires follow-through.

There are holes in the way I learn from books, the pipeline from acquisition to reading to notes to action to review. I want to become a better reader. My inner cheapskate says: practise on free books. But money can be a useful form of commitment too.

Anyway. A plan. It seems logical to decide on what I should proactively seek out and read by thinking about what I want to do. It also seems logical to require proof of my learning through writing blog posts and resources and maybe even books, the way students focus on final projects and consultants are measured by deliverables.

Here are some ideas for things I want to create out of what I want to learn:

  • An approach for learning intermediate Emacs: After you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, how can you keep learning more about using and tweaking this text editor? This will probably take many forms: small weekly tips for constant improvement, Emacs Lisp and Org Mode courses, and so forth.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be an even better user of Emacs. I want to work more efficiently and fluently, and I want to have more fun with it too.
    • Who might find it useful? People who want to keep tweaking how they use Emacs. Mostly developers, but probably also writers and people interested in personal information management
    • To do this, it would be good to read:
      • Archives of Emacs blogs (ex: the ones featured on http://planet.emacsen.org/)
      • Manuals for Emacs, Emacs Lisp, and popular packages
      • the (small) collection of existing Emacs books
      • Related technical books for taking people beyond the beginner stage
      • Books about technical writing and learning design
      • Source code
  • A guide for creating your own personal knowledge management system: I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution will work, at least not with our current understanding. But I want to learn more about different approaches, I want to make mine totally awesome, and I want to help people build their own from the pieces that are already out there.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a wonderfully organized system that lets me easily capture, review, make sense of, and share what I know. I also want to have the vocabulary and concepts to be able to critically examine this system, spot gaps or opportunities for improvement, and make things better.
    • Who would find this useful? Fellow information packrats, writers, bloggers, self-directed learners
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Personal knowledge management and personal information management
      • Guides to using various tools
      • Information architecture
      • Library science
      • Writing and sense-making
  • Tips for self-directed learning and experimentation: How to structure your time and learning, how to recognize and explore interesting questions, how to take notes, how to make sense of things, and so on. I want to learn more effectively, and I want to help other people learn more effectively too.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be able to structure courses of study for myself, take great notes, build useful resources, and accumulate new knowledge.
    • Who would find this useful? Self-directed learners who want something more than online courses
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Quantified Self, experimentation
      • Note-taking and sense-making
      • Self-directed learning
  • More notes on working out loud: particularly addressing the excuses and barriers that get in people’s way. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a smooth workflow for learning and sharing. I want to have a wide network of people who can build on the stuff I’m learning about, and who get manageable updates that are scoped to their interests.
    • Who would find this useful? Individual practitioners interested in building their skills and network; social business advocates; bloggers who are also working on building personal insight and shared knowledge
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Social business, social learning, working out loud, personal learning networks, and personal knowledge management
      • Collaboration, team communication
      • Writing at work
  • Visual thinking: particularly in terms of using it to clarify your thoughts, remember, and share. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be more fluent in using visual tools to explore thoughts and figure things out. I want to improve in terms of visual organization, technique, clarity, explanation, integration into my self-directed workflow, and so on.
    • Who would find this useful? People who’ve already started doodling (or who are picking up the hang of it) and who would like to use it for more things
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Mind mapping and other forms of visual organization
      • Sketchnoting
      • Planning
      • Blogging and other forms of personal publishing
      • Journaling
      • Information organization and sense-making
  • Something about how to follow the butterflies of your interest, because I rarely see this perspective in productivity books and because it’s something other people might find helpful.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? I want to get better at going with the grain of my energy, doing what I want to do (and doing the work that helps me want what is good to want).
    • Who would find this useful? People with many interests – scanners, multi-potentialites, Renaissance-people-to-be.
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Career and life planning, especially unconventional paths
      • Productivity
      • Writing, note-taking
      • Psychology, cognitive limits, distraction

Hmm. I’ve done literature reviews before, collecting quotes and references and connecting things to each other. I can do that again. It doesn’t mean giving up my impulse reads, my openness to serendipity and surprise. It simply means choosing something I want to learn more about and then taking it all in, with more awareness and less evaluation, so that I can get a sense of the whole. This will help me find the things that have already been written so that I don’t have to write them again. This will help me collect different approaches and ideas so that I can springboard off them.

I like books with references more than I like books without them. Books with few references feel like they float unanchored. I recognize ideas but feel weird about the lack of attribution. There are no links where I can explore a concept in depth. On the other hand, too many references and quotes make a book feel like a pastiche with little added, a collection of quotes glued together with bubblegum and string. A good balance makes a book feel like it builds on what has gone before while adding something new. I want to write books and resources like that, and if I’m going to do so, I need notes so that I can trace ideas back to where people can learn more about them, and so I can make sense of that conversation as a whole. Deliberate study helps with that.

What topics will you read about in 2015, and why? What are the changes you want to make in yourself, what are the resources you can build for others, and what books can you build on to get there?

Possibly related:

Weekly review: Week ending December 19, 2014

December 21, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

W- and I have been preparing the concrete floor in the laundry area, scraping off paint and old flooring. We’ve also been mudding and sanding the drywall in the downstairs bathroom. It’s tiring work, but also good exercise and a good use of vacation time. Next week will be

Oh! This week was great for packaging. I copied my Makefile for EPUB and PDF generation, tweaked it a little bit, and published Emacs Chat transcripts. I also exported my 2014 blog archive (at least so far) as an EPUB so that I could re-read all of it in preparation for my yearly review. The format worked really well. I should tweak it and release it, just in case people feel like flipping through that. Besides, it’ll be handy for my archives anyway.

Next week will be more flooring and drywall, I think. So less drawing and writing, more family time, but that works too. =)

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (31.9h – 18%)
    • Earn (11.4h – 35% of Business)
      • Look into IE8 Standards Mode-related bug
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
      • Earn: E1: 1-2 days of consulting
    • Build (14.1h – 44% of Business)
      • Drawing (10.2h)
        • Sketchnote Write Faster Write Better
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (1.4h)
        • Convert blog to EPUB
        • Package EPUB
        • Package ZIP
        • Review transcript for Carsten Dominik
        • Convert How to Read Emacs Lisp to nicely-formatted EPUB
        • Set up EPUB workflow for Read Lisp, Tweak Emacs
        • Revise transcript for Magnar Sveen
      • Paperwork (0.9h)
      • Request Writing on Both Sides of the Brain
      • Clean up disk space
    • Connect (6.4h – 20% of Business)
  • Relationships (5.0h – 2%)
    • Bring bubble wrap to Hacklab
    • Buy LG WH16NS40 internal BluRay drive for W-
  • Discretionary – Productive (19.9h – 11%)
    • Emacs (7.9h – 4% of all)
      • Set up Emacs tools for sketchedbooks
    • Japanese
      • Collect words and examples from tweets about Emacs
      • Go through Basic Japanese
      • Go through Japanese for Busy People II
      • Write about my goals for studying Japanese
    • Writing (4.4h)
  • Discretionary – Play (12.0h – 7%)
  • Personal routines (26.1h – 15%)
  • Unpaid work (11.3h – 6%)
  • Sleep (61.8h – 36% – average of 8.8 per day)

Exploring sketchnote colour styles

December 22, 2014 - Categories: drawing, sketches, visual

I’m working on expanding my sketchnote colour vocabulary. I want to go beyond tweaking colour schemes and the occasional coloured sketch (both from Jan 2014). Since comparing different examples is a great way to develop opinions (July 2014), I figured I’d review the Evernote clippings I’d tagged with technique:colour in order to roughly classify them by type of technique.

2014-12-01 Colouring inspiration guide - drawing

2014-12-01 Colouring inspiration guide – drawing

Here’s the list of links to the sketches themselves:

I thought about the different styles, and I picked five to practise with: decorations, accent text, toned text, background, and flood. I took this black-and-white sketchnote draft I made of The Inner Game of Work (W. Timothy Gallwey, 2000; Amazon affiliate link).

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work - base

and I coloured it in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro with liberal use of layers. Here are the results:

Of the styles I tried, I think I like the toned text one the most. It feels the most put-together while still being different from my usual highlighting style. I should play around with this a bit more to see whether blue/red makes a difference here, though.

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work - W. Timothy Gallwey

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work – W. Timothy Gallwey

This is also a handy way to practise nonjudgmental awareness, as suggested by the book. =) If I pay attention to how other people do things and how I do things, I can’t help but learn more along the way.

I hope other people find this useful!

Making personal blogs useful for other people too

December 23, 2014 - Categories: blogging, writing

When people ask my advice on starting a blog, I encourage them to start a personal one. I don’t mean that they should focus on writing about what they had for lunch or ranting about something that frustrates them, although they can, if they want to. I mean that it’s okay to let their blog reflect them – the quirks of their interests and personality, the little things about them that make them different. I think it’s because I hate reading those generic articles of passed-on advice that could have been written by anyone (and indeed, are often churned out a dozen at a time by low-paid freelancers). Our biases show in our advice.

On this blog, I tend to lean very firmly on the side of personal reflections – things I haven’t quite figured out enough to clearly explain. When you know something, you can explain it in a way that makes sense, and people see that logic and immediately get that you get it. This is why a well-structured course or book is a thing of beauty. It straightens out the path of learning and helps you get to your goal faster.

When you’re still making sense of something, you go in stops and starts. You wander down cul-de-sacs and dawdle along trails. You circle around something, trying to see it from different angles. This is me when I write, following the butterfly of a question somewhere. Perhaps with more editing and more planning, I can hide all of it and present you with just the polished end. But that goes against what I want to encourage.

When someone writes a tutorial with the reader in mind – like drawing a map for someone else to follow – you need to do very little to adapt it to your situation. You can see yourself in it, and you can see how to apply what you want to learn. On the other hand, personal reflections require more translation. It’s like the difference between reading a guidebook that someone has written for tourists and a travel journal with observations that sometimes slip into shorthand. You take the guidebook when you go places; you read the journal if you want the feel of someone else’s feel of a place.

There’s a middle ground here between guidebook and travel journal: a travelogue, written for yourself but also with an eye to other people reading it. In a travelogue, you might take a little more time to explain why a place matters to you instead of simply jotting down a few cryptic references to things that only you know. You might try a little harder to capture the local flavour. You might point out things that perhaps you’re not personally interested in but that other people might find interesting.

I think that’s what I’d like this blog to grow into over the years and years ahead. I’d like to write a travelogue of life. Far away from the “Top 10 Things to See in __“-type lists, but more than just a photo album of snapshots or a scrapbook of tickets and brochures. Something in the middle.

And I think that feeling one gets when you read a good account–not “Oh, that sounds exotic,” or “I wish I could go,” but rather something that hovers between a new appreciation for unfamiliar things and the familiarity of recognizing home in a strange place–that might be something good to learn how to evoke in readers (you and my future, forgetful self).

Coming back from this extended metaphor – on this blog, the kinds of things that seem to have evoked that kind of a response are:

  • Sketchnotes and other visual summaries/thoughts – interesting and easy to share
  • Emacs tips and other technical tidbits – useful
  • Decisions, reasons, experiments, reflections – sometimes they lead to things like “I feel like that too!” “Mm, that’s interesting.” “Have you considered…?”

So here are some things I might try in order to help this personal blog be more useful to other people (not just me):

  • Harvest more from notes, and organize them better.
    • Make skimming easier by creating more structure with summaries, paragraphs, lists, and formatting. If people can skim faster, that saves them time and lets them focus on what’s more relevant to them.
    • Think of other people more when writing; translate “I” to “you” occasionally so that other people don’t have to
  • Do more research and summarize the results. Bringing in other people’s experiences and insights can help me learn faster and it also gives me more to share with others.
  • Try more experiments. This is like going more places. I don’t think I’ll ever be patient enough to hold off writing until the end of the journey; I’m more of a write-along-the-way sort of person. But here’s a structure that can make it better:
    • Initial post: Share the plans and invite people along
    • Middle post: Share preliminary observations and progress, link back to initial post, connect with any others who’ve joined
    • Conclusion: summarize findings, link back to previous posts and to co-adventurers

If you have a personal blog, would any of these ideas work for you as well? Tell me how it’s going!

Emacs kaizen: ace-jump-zap lets you use C-u to zap to any character

December 24, 2014 - Categories: emacs
This entry is part of 4 in the series Emacs Kaizen

I’m perpetually using M-z to zap-to-char and then typing the character back in, because I really should be using zap-up-to-char instead. But if I’m going to get the hang of fiddling with my muscle memory so that I do things the Right Way, I might as well use this opportunity to practise using ace-jump-zap instead. The ace-jump-zap-up-to-char-dwim and ace-jump-zap-to-char-dwim functions behave like their normal equivalents, but if you C-u them, you get ace-jump type behaviour allowing you to quickly zap to any character you see. And since I mentally think of M-z as not including the character, I may as well map it so that M-z behaves that way.

Now I just have to remember that C-u does cool stuff…

(use-package ace-jump-zap
  :ensure ace-jump-zap
  :bind
  (("M-z" . ace-jump-zap-up-to-char-dwim)
   ("C-M-z" . ace-jump-zap-to-char-dwim)))

Relaxed routines

December 25, 2014 - Categories: experiment, productivity

I do a lot of things that productivity books and blogs tell you that you shouldn’t do, and I don’t do a lot of the things they prescribe. I wake up late. I read e-mail, but I don’t respond to it for a week or two. I go for variety instead of focus. I don’t try to motivate myself to reach time-bound goals or follow pre-set plans. Instead, I figure out what I want to do at the moment, and I go and do that.

What does that look like, day-to-day? Here’s what a typical day might be:

2015-01-16 Morning routines -- index card #life #routines

I wake up at around 8 or 9 after an average of 8.3 hours of sleep (although in November, the average was much higher). I stay in bed another twenty minutes or so, easing myself into wakefulness. During this time, I might do a quick scan of blog posts, Hacker News, Reddit, Facebook, and my e-mail. Sometimes I think of a few ideas I would like to explore that day, and I type that into Evernote on my phone so that I don’t forget.

Eventually, I leave the warmth of the duvet, slip into a fuzzy bathrobe, and head downstairs for breakfast. I feed the cats, too. After breakfast, I head back upstairs to brush my teeth and take care of other morning routines. I return to the kitchen (often still in pajamas), open my computer, and think: What do I want to think about today? What do I want to learn about? I look at my lists and outlines for ideas.

Depending on what I feel like doing, I might spend some time programming or writing. If I don’t feel particularly creative, I might read instead. I review my Org Mode agenda in Emacs to see what I need to take care of today, and I check my other lists for unscheduled tasks that might be good to do too. I keep my notes in large, lightly-structured text files so that I always have something to work on.

Here’s the important part of my routine, I think: I’m almost always taking notes. I keep a text file open on my computer as I program or debug, writing down the things I’m considering or where I’m getting stuck. I write, and I write about writing. Even when I’m away from my computer, I try to write brief notes on my phone.

People often think that taking notes takes too much time and slows you down. I find that notes help you cover more ground. When I don’t take notes, I get frustrated because I can feel my brain trying to jump from one topic to another too quickly. I forget. I have to figure things out again. Notes help me a lot. They don’t even have to be complete notes. Sometimes a phrase or two is enough to help me get back from interruptions or pick up loose threads.

I publish as many of my notes as I can. They often help other people, and I get to learn even more from the conversations on my blog. Publishing my notes also makes them easier to back up and search.

Back to my daily routines. At some point in the afternoon, I might respond to e-mail. I usually try to do this at least once a week, although sometimes I let it slip for longer. Sometimes I nap or take a break. Then I check in with myself again: What do I feel like working on now? There’s often a little time to get another chunk done before dinner.

We go to the library and the supermarket a few times each week. Sometimes we cook; sometimes we have left-overs. Evenings are for tidying up, taking care of things, and relaxing. Sometimes I read books I’ve borrowed from the library, or spend some more time writing, or play video games, or practise sketching.

When I go to bed, I catch up with W- and then read a little: often something unproductive but fun, like fanfiction with a rational bent.

After we turn out the lights, I wrap up by thinking a little about how I would like the next day to turn out: What do I need to do? What do I want to learn? What would make things even better? I dream my way into the next day.

I think I do less than many people do. I feel like I live at a more relaxed pace. Still, my weekly reviews show me more crossed-off tasks than I expected. My monthly reviews show that I keep moving forward on my plans. Whenever I do my annual reviews, I can see some difference between the past and the present. So maybe it’s not that I’m particularly efficient at doing things, but I’m good at keeping track of the progress.

I share my time data publicly, so if you’re curious, you can dig into it and find out more about what a typical day is like.

I don’t think I have any awesome productivity secrets. I live on the same 24 hours as everyone else. But I enjoy asking questions, taking notes, looking for opportunities for little improvements, and sharing what I learn along the way, and I think that’s what people respond to. If I can do this with a fairly relaxed pace, you can probably do something similar with your life too. =)

Related:

When you feel like you’re spending a lot of time on low-impact activities

December 26, 2014 - Categories: experiment, productivity, purpose, quantified, time

Alan Lin asked:

One issue I have is prioritization. I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time on low-impact activities. How do you tackle this in your life? What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

It’s easy to feel that most of your time is taken up with trivial things. There’s taking care of yourself and the household. There are endless tasks to check off to-do lists. There’s paperwork and overhead. Sometimes it feels like you’re making very little progress.

Here are some things I’ve learned that help me with that feeling:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action by understanding yourself.
  3. Act in tune with yourself.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress.

1. UNDERSTAND AND EMBRACE YOUR CONSTRAINTS

Many productivity and time management books seem to have the mindset where your Real Work is what matters and the rest of your life is what gets in the way. Sometimes it feels like the goal is to be able to work a clear, focused 60-hour or 120-hour week, to squeeze out every last bit of productivity from every last moment.

For me, the unproductive time that I spend snuggling with W- or the cats – that’s Real Life right there, for me, and I’m often all too aware of how short life is. The low-impact stuff is what grounds me and makes me human. As Richard Styrman points out in this comment, if other people can focus for longer, it’s because the rest of their lives don’t pull on them as much. I like the things that pull on me.

Instead of fighting your constraints, understand and embrace them. You can tweak them later, but when you make plans or evaluate yourself, do so with a realistic acceptance of the different things that pull on you. Know where you’re starting from. Then you can review commitments, get rid of ones that you’ve been keeping by default, and reaffirm the ones that you do care about. You might even find creative ways to meet your commitments with less time or effort. In any case, knowing your constraints and connecting them to the commitments behind them will make it it easier to remember and appreciate the reason why you spend time on these things.

One of my favourite ways of understanding constraints is to actually track them. Let’s look at time, for example. I know I spend a lot of my time on the general running of things. A quick summary from my time-tracking gives me this breakdown of the 744 hours in Oct 2014, a fairly typical month:

Hours Activity
255.0 sleep
126.3 consulting, because it helps me make a difference and build skills
91.9 doing other business-related things
80.5 chores and other unpaid work
86.2 taking care of myself
38.3 playing, relaxing
30.4 family-related stuff
12.6 socializing
10.3 writing, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
7.4 working on Emacs, because it helps me learn and connect with great people
1.5 gardening
1.0 reading
0.5 tracking
1.7 woodworking

Assuming that my consulting, writing, and working on Emacs are the activities that have some impact on the wider world, that’s 144 hours out of 744, or about 19% of all the time I have. This is roughly 4.5 hours a day. (And that’s a generous assumption – many of the things I write are personal reflections of uncertain value to other people.)

Even with tons of control over my schedule, I also spend lots of time on low-impact activities. And this is okay. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to turn into a value-creating machine entirely devoted to the pursuit of one clear goal. I don’t think I even can. It works for other people, but not for me. I like the time I spend cooking and helping out around the house. I like the time I spend playing with interesting ideas. I like the pace I keep.

So I’m going to start with the assumption that this is the time that I can work with instead of being frustrated with the other things that fill my life.

An average of 4.5 hours a day is a lot, even if it’s broken up into bits and pieces. It’s enough time for me to write a deep reflection, sketch one or two books, work on some code… And day after day, if I add those hours up, that can become something interesting. Of course, it would probably add up to something more impressive if I picked one thing and focused on that. But I tend to enjoy a variety of interests, so I might as well work with that instead of against it, and sometimes the combinations can be fascinating.

Accepting your constraints doesn’t mean being locked into them. You can still tweak things. For example, I experiment with time-saving techniques like bulk-cooking. But starting from the perspective of accepting your limits lets you plan more realistically and minimize frustration, which means you don’t have to waste energy on beating yourself up for not being superhuman. Know what you can work with, and work with that.

You might consider tracking your time for a week to see where your time really goes. You can track your time with pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or freely-available tools for smartphones. The important part is to track your time as you use it instead of relying on memory or perception. Our minds lie to us about constraints, often exaggerating what we’re dealing with. Collect data and find out.

2. LAY THE GROUNDWORK FOR ACTION BY UNDERSTANDING YOURSELF

When I review my constraints and commitments, I often ask myself: “Why did I commit to this? Why is this my choice?” This understanding helps me appreciate those constraints and come up with good ways to work within them.

My ideal is to almost always work on whatever I feel like working on. This sounds like a recipe for procrastination, an easy way for near-term pleasurable tasks to crowd out important but tedious ones. That’s where preparing my mind can make a big difference. If I can prepare a list of good things to do that’s in tune with my values, then I can easily choose from that list.

Here are some questions that help me prepare:

  • Why do I feel like doing various things? Is there an underlying cause or unmet need that I can address? Am I avoiding something because I don’t understand it or myself well enough? Do I only think that I want something, or do I really want it? I do a lot of this thinking and planning throughout my life, so that when those awesome hours come when everything’s lined up and I’m ready to make something, I can just go and do it.
  • Can I deliberately direct my awareness in order to change how I feel about things by emphasizing positive aspects or de-emphasizing negative ones? What can I enjoy about the things that are good for me? What can I dislike about the things that are bad for me?
  • What can I do now to make things better later? How can I take advantage of those moments when I’m focused and everything comes together? How can I make better use of normal moments? How can I make better use of the gray times too, when I’m feeling bleah?
  • How can I slowly accumulate value? How can I scale up by making things available?

I think a lot about why I want to do something, because there are often many different paths that can lead to the same results. If I catch myself procrastinating a task again and again, I ask myself if I can get rid of the task or if I can get someone else to do it. If I really need to do it myself, maybe I can transform the task into something more enjoyable. If I find myself drawn to some other task instead, I ask myself why, and I learn a little more about myself in the process.

I plan for small steps, not big leaps. Small steps sneak under my threshold for intimidation – it’s easier to find time and energy for a 15-minute task than for a 5-day slog.

I don’t worry about whether I’m working on Important things. Instead, I try to keep a list full of small, good things that take me a little bit forward. Even if I proceed at my current pace–for example, accumulating a blog post a day–in twenty years, I’ll probably be somewhere interesting.

In addition to the mental work of understanding yourself and shifting your perceptions by paying deliberate attention, it’s also good to prepare other things that can help you make the most of high-energy, high-concentration times. For example, even when I don’t feel very creative, I can still read books and outline ideas in preparation for writing. I sketch screens and plan features when I don’t feel like programming. You can probably find lots of ways you can prepare so that you can work more effectively when you want to.

2014-12-03 Motivation and understanding 3. ACT IN TUNE WITH YOURSELF

For many people, motivation seems to be about forcing yourself to do something that you had previously decided was important.

If you’ve laid the groundwork from step 2, however, you probably have a list of many good things that you can work on, so you can work on whatever you feel like working on now.

Encountering resistance? Have a little conversation with yourself. Find out what the core of it is, and see if you can find a creative way around that or work on some other small thing that moves you forward.

4. ACCUMULATE GRADUAL PROGRESS.

So now you’re doing what you want to be doing, after having prepared so that you want to do good things. But there’s still that shadow of doubt in you: “Is this going to be enough?”

It might not seem like you’re making a lot of progress, especially if you’re taking small steps on many different trails. This is where keeping track of your progress becomes really important. Celebrate those small accomplishments. Take notes. Your memory is fuzzy and will lie to you. It’s hard to see growth when you look at it day by day. If you could use your notes (or a journal, or a blog) to look back over six months or a year, though, chances are you’ll see that you’ve come a long way. And if you haven’t, don’t get frustrated; again, embrace your constraints, deepen your understanding, and keep nibbling away at what you want to do.

For me, I usually use my time to learn something, writing and drawing along the way. I’ve been blogging for the past twelve years or so. It’s incredible how those notes have helped me remember things, and how even the little things I learn can turn out to be surprisingly useful. Step by step.

So, if you’re feeling frustrated because you don’t seem to be making any progress and yet you can’t force yourself to work on the things that you’ve decided are important, try a different approach:

  1. Understand and embrace your constraints. Don’t stress out about not being 100% productive or dedicated. Accept that there will be times when you’re distracted or sick, and there will be times when you’re focused and you can do lots of good stuff. Accepting this still lets you tweak your limits, but you can do that with a spirit of loving kindness instead of frustration.
  2. Lay the groundwork for action. Mentally prepare so that it’s easier for you to want what’s good for you, and prepare other things so that when you want to work on something, you can work more effectively.
  3. Act in tune with yourself. Don’t waste energy forcing yourself through resistance. Use your preparation time to find creative ways around your blocks and come up with lots of ways you can move forward. That way, you can always choose something that’s in line with how you feel.
  4. Accumulate gradual progress. Sometimes you only feel like you’re not making any progress because you don’t see how far you’ve come. Take notes. Better yet, share those notes. Then you can see how your journey of a thousand miles is made up of all those little steps you’ve been taking – and you might even be able to help out or connect with other people along the way.

Alan has a much better summary of it, though. =)

To paraphrase, you start by examining your desires because that’s the only way to know if they’re worthwhile pursuits. This thinking prepares you and gives you with a set of things to spend time on immediately whenever you have time, and because you understand your goals & desires and the value they add to your life, you are usually satisfied with the time you do spend.

Hope that helps!

Related posts:

Thanks to Alan for nudging me to write and revise this post!

Weekly review: Week ending December 26, 2014

December 28, 2014 - Categories: review, weekly

A little less DIY-ing this week (waiting for tools, trying to figure out what to do with the floor, hours of browsing in Home Depot and Rona). Aside from that: family get-together, interesting conversations at Hacklab, revamping the Tableau reports at work.

Next week, I finally get to do my annual review. =) Looking forward to it!

Blog posts

Sketches

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (18.4h – 10%)
    • Earn (7.0h – 38% of Business)
    • Build (4.5h – 24% of Business)
      • Drawing (3.9h)
        • Post Take Charge of Your Talent to blog
        • Sketchnote Take Charge of Your Talent
        • Update collection
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (0.3h)
        • File payroll return
      • Fix random link on blog
      • Fix forgot password process
      • Fix link to introvert stuff on about page
    • Connect (6.9h – 37% of Business)
  • Relationships (30.5h – 18%)
    • Buy LG WH16NS40 internal BluRay drive for W-
  • Discretionary – Productive (14.3h – 8%)
    • Emacs (0.0h – 0% of all)
      • Revise transcript for Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson
    • Draw yearly review for 2014
    • Visualize the connected components in my blog
    • Collect words and examples from tweets about Emacs
    • Writing (11.0h)
      • Work on Think like an Emacs Geek
  • Discretionary – Play (11.5h – 6%)
  • Personal routines (21.1h – 12%)
  • Unpaid work (10.3h – 6%)
  • Sleep (61.9h – 36% – average of 8.8 per day)

Sketched Book: The Inner Game of Work – W. Timothy Gallwey

December 29, 2014 - Categories: visual-book-notes

So I was reading through J. B. Rainsberger’s site because I liked his blog post on Productivity for the Depressed, which I mentioned in my post on learning slack. His about page had this nugget that made me stop and think. He wrote:

I have found over the years that many companies request training when they need coaching, and request coaching when they need training. Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Work makes the distinction very well:

  • training focuses on increasing capacity
  • coaching focuses on reducing interference
  • performance is capacity minus interference.

Reducing interference. Huh.

I’ve been curious about coaching. I haven’t quite made the jump because I’m a cheapskate who’s accustomed to introspection and who’s flexible about motivation. I figured I might as well see how far I can get exploring on my own, yeah?

But I know there are times I get in my own way, and I know that I probably don’t know even half of the times that happens. Interference.

So here’s what W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Work says:

2014-12-01 The Inner Game of Work - W Timothy Gallwey

I like this book. The author shares many examples of how paying attention to tiny details can help you learn more effectively, and how a coach’s role isn’t to provide answers but rather to help draw the student’s awareness to the right things and encourage them to trust in their own learning process. The book is useful not only for individual change but also for group change.

The Self 1 / Self 2 distinction resonated with how I’ve been thinking about motivation. It reminds me a little of the driver (Self 1) / elephant (Self 2) metaphor used in Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The answer to internal conflict isn’t “try harder,” it’s to understand better and give yourself the time and attention you need.

I’m paying closer attention to the skills I want to develop. I’m practising more deliberately and with more focus. And when my Self 1 pipes up with “Shouldn’t you be doing something else instead?” or “Let’s go find someone with all the answers who can tell us what to do!”, I tell it, “It’s okay. Self 2’s got this. We’re learning how to learn, and everything is going to be okay.”

This still leaves me uncertain about getting an actual coach instead of asking myself questions from books. Since I can see big areas for improvement even on my own, I figure I’d go for the low-hanging fruit and keep going until I hit diminishing returns. Maybe someday. In the meantime, this book has given me a few things to think about.

If you’re curious, you can check out more reviews of this book on Amazon: The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility (affiliate link)

Start your titles with a verb to make them stronger; or reflections on titles, filler phrases, and my life as a gerund

December 30, 2014 - Categories: reflection, writing

Instead of using a generic title (ex: Top 10 Ways to …), pick your strongest point and put that in the title as a clear recommendation.

Now that I’ve gotten that promised tip out of the way, here’s the reflection that prompted this post.

Many bloggers focus on improving their titles as a way to encourage people to click or share. Having repeatedly run into the limitations of my blog searches and index, I’ve been thinking about blog post titles as a way to make my blog posts more memorable – both in terms of retrieval (remembering what to look for) and recognition (recognizing it when I come across it).

That’s why many of the usual title-writing tips don’t appeal to me, even if they’re backed by A/B testing. List posts? A focus on new or exclusive information? Mysterious headlines? While writing a post called “10 New Emacs Productivity Tricks That Will Make Vim Users Hate You – #2 Will Save You Hours!” is tempting to consider as an April Fool’s Joke, that kind of title is useless for me when I’m trying to find things again. Any title generic enough to come out of a blog post title generator is too generic for me to remember.

Fortunately, there are plenty of role models on the Web when it comes to writing clear, specific blog post titles. Lifehacker somehow manages to do this well. Most of its posts start with a verb, even when linking to a post that doesn’t, and yet it doesn’t feel overbearing.

Here’s a sample of Lifehacker titles for posts that summarize and link to other posts (ignoring posts that were original guides, product links, or fully-reposted blog posts):

Lifehacker title Original post
Re-Read Old Books After a Few Years to Gain New Perspective How you know
Agree On a Special Signal So Your Colleagues Can Reach You On Vacation 11 Valuable Tips for Handling Emails While on Vacation
Find the Best Thrift Stores Near You Using Zillow and Google Maps How to Find the Best Thrift Stores in Your Area
Find a Hobby by Rekindling Your Childhood Passions 7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose
Conduct a “Nighttime Audit” to Sleep Better How to Spend the Last 10 Minutes of Your Day
Get Your Ideas Out of Your Head to Start Improving Them 6 Lessons from Pixar that Will Set You Up for Success
Focus on Discipline More Than Motivation to Reach Financial Goals Forget Motivation, This is the Key to Achieving Your Goals This Year
Give Yourself a Creative Game Each Day to Boost Inspiration The Importance of Personal Projects
Fix Your Bluetooth Audio in Yosemite With This Terminal Command Commands to Make Yosemite Suck Less

Fascinating. Of the nine posts I looked at, all of them rewrote the titles from the original blog posts so that they started with a verb, making the titles more specific in the process. This makes sense in the context of it being a lifehack, of course. The concept has action at its core.

I like the new titles more. I can imagine that remembering and linking to the Lifehacker-style titles would be easier than linking to the original ones.

Most of my posts don’t quite feel like those, though. I noticed that most of my titles start with gerunds: thinking about, building, learning, exploring, experimenting. I think it’s because I write in the middle of things, while I’m figuring things out. I don’t feel comfortable telling people what they should do. I share my notes and let people come to their own conclusions. Starting a post with a verb seems to be too direct, as if I’m telling you to do something.

That said, filler phrases like “Thinking about…” aren’t particularly useful as part of a title, since the reflection is a given. But changing “Thinking about how to make better use of Yasnippet in my Emacs workflow” to “Save time with dynamic Yasnippets when typing frequently-used text in Emacs” doesn’t seem to accommodate the exploratory bits, although it could be a good follow-up post. Changing “Minimizing upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes” to “Minimize upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes” feels like I’m making a value judgment on skewed sketchnotes, when some people might like the fact that an upward skew tends to feel happy and optimistic.

So I use nouns or gerunds when reflecting (which is self-directed), and verbs when I’m trying to put together other-directed advice. This helps me differentiate the types of posts in my index and in my editorial calendar admin screen, and it also signals the difference to people as they browse. You might not be interested in my reflections and prefer to focus on tips, for example, or you might be tired of tips and want journal entries instead.

That works because those types of posts are generally quite separate. When I want to help someone learn a technique such as sketching quick ribbons, I don’t go on an extended tangent about how I learned how to do that or how I want to improve. When I’m thinking about how I can improve my delegation skills, I don’t expect someone to patiently go through all of that in search of three concrete tips to help them improve. I think that as I gain experience and become more opinionated (the latter probably being more related to this), I’ll write more advice/instruction posts, possibly linking to those personal-experience-and-reflection posts instead of going on internal tangents.

In this post, I’m experimenting with a verb title while doing extensive self-reflection. It feels a little odd, as if you started a conversation with someone and then proceeded to talk to yourself, idly musing out loud. You’ll have to tell me if I should never do that again, or if there’s a way to manage the balance. But it also feels odd to use my part of the conversation to tell you to do stuff, solely drawing on other people’s research or recommendations, without sharing my context so you can tell if something that makes sense for me might make sense for you. I figure there are plenty of other people out there who want to tell you what to do with your life, and I’m not completely fond of that approach anyway. And it also feels odd to natter away about my life like a self-absorbed ninny, making you do all the hard work of translating ideas into things that you can actually use. I still haven’t completely figured out how to make personal blogs more useful for other people.

Could I make an idea sandwich: summary and research at the top, personal reflection in the middle, call to action at the end? Maybe that could work.

Still, I want to do something with my titles so that I don’t end up with lots of “Thinking about …” and “Exploring …” and “Deciding between …” that blur in my memory. My ideal for these reflection posts, I think, would be a clear, concise summary of the key insight (perhaps saving it as an excerpt as well, if it doesn’t fit in the title). If I followed that up with an other-directed post with a crisp title that started with a verb, made the recommendation, brought in some research and observations, and linked to my reflection, that would give me a good, logical, memorable, useful chunk that I could share with other people.

Right. That makes sense to me. If I address you with a direct verb or “How to …”, I should deliver a post that requires minimal mental translation for you to get good tips out of it. If I clearly mark something as a reflection, you know what to expect. I tend to remember them as actions I decided to take (“The time I resolved to…”) or the particular new thing I came to understand. I can take a few minutes to update the titles and summaries accordingly, which could help me years later when I’m trying to make sense of things again.

In Buckminister’s somewhat strange book I Seem to Be a Verb (1970), he wrote:

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

A verb seems too definite for me. I’m a gerund in at least two senses, I think: reflexive, the way “I read” is an act but “reading” is a noun that lets us talk about itself; and in the process of doing, not done.

Do you write other-directed posts that offer advice or instruction? Consider lopping off “How to …” and “Top 10 ways to…”. Start with a verb and give one clear recommendation. Do you write self-directed reflections? See if you can harvest the ideas for other-directed posts, and perhaps invest a little time into making your posts easier for you to remember. Do you write a mix of both, and have you figured out a good flow? I’d love to hear what works for you.

Org Mode publishing workflow for Sketched Books collection

December 31, 2014 - Categories: emacs, org, publishing

I want to publish things in chunks that are bigger and more logical than blog posts, so I’ve been experimenting with my ZIP/PDF/EPUB/MOBI workflow.

Org Mode, Calibre, and Vagrant are terrific tools. Org Mode lets me write easy-to-modify source that I can export to different formats, like HTML and LaTeX (with the Beamer package), which lets me use PdfLatex to convert to PDF. Calibre converts HTML to EPUB and MOBI. Since tools can be difficult to set up on Windows, I use Vagrant to set up a virtual machine running Linux and I share my working directory with it.

multiple-cursors was so useful when I was wrangling the directory listing into the right format for Org. I’m glad I learned how to use it!

Here’s a Makefile I put together that simplifies the process for me:

all: index.html sketched-books.epub sketched-books.mobi ebook.pdf sketched-books.zip

clean:
	rm -f *.dvi *.log *.nav *.out *.tex *.snm *.toc

distclean: clean
	rm -f Sketched\ Books.zip index.html *.epub *.pdf *.mobi

Sketched\ Books.zip: *.png index.html
	(cd ..; zip sketched-books/sketched-books.zip sketched-books/* -i *.css -i *.png -i *.html)

index.html: index.org
	emacs --batch -l build.el index.org -f org-html-export-to-html --kill
	cp index.html index.tmp
	sed -e "s/org-ul/org-ul small-block-grid-3/" -e 's/div id="content"/div id="content" class="columns"/' -e 's/class="status"/class="status columns"/' index.tmp > index.html
	rm -f index.html~ index.tmp

ebook.html: ebook.org
	emacs --batch -l build.el ebook.org -f org-html-export-to-html --kill

cover-base.png:
	montage *Sketched*.png -geometry -30-30 -thumbnail x400 -tile 6x5 cover.png

sketched-books.epub: ebook.html
	ebook-convert ebook.html sketched-books.epub --cover cover.png --authors "Sacha Chua" --language "English"

sketched-books.mobi: ebook.html
	ebook-convert ebook.html sketched-books.mobi --cover cover.png --authors "Sacha Chua" --language "English"

ebook.tex: ebook.org
	emacs --batch -l build.el ebook.org -f org-beamer-export-to-latex --kill

ebook.pdf: ebook.tex
	pdflatex ebook.tex
	cp ebook.pdf sketched-books.pdf
	rm ebook.pdf

And here’s a very simple build.el:

(require 'package)
(package-initialize)
(require 'ox-beamer)
(setq org-html-validation-link nil)
(setq org-export-with-section-numbers nil)
(setq backup-directory-alist '(("." . nil)))

This assumes I’ve already set up the environment by installing the latest Org from MELPA.

You can check out the index.org and ebook.org I use, too.

I’m not quite sure about the MOBI output yet. I have to test it on a Kindle, or in the app on my tablet. Most of the things display fine on my computer, though. Hooray!

Neat, huh? I want to get into the habit of making and also making it easy for me to update these things. You can check out the results at http://sketchedbooks.com/collection .

Someday I might even figure out how to use the Gumroad API to publish updated resources automatically. Wouldn’t that be neat? In the meantime, I’ll just have to replace them myself.

I like giving people the ability to choose which files to download. If I get annoyed with replacing multiple files, though, I might change this to one large ZIP that has the images, PDF, EPUB, and MOBI.

View the source on Github