Connecting to previous thoughts and covering more ground

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! =)