External brains – current state

Being the primary caregiver for a toddler means I’m distracted, often interrupted, and somewhat sleep-deprived, so using external brains (paper, phone, laptop) helps a lot. Here are a few things I rely on them to keep so that I can declutter my mind, worry less, and be more present:

  • Daily journal: This lets me tell W- stories about A-, appreciate A-‘s progress, and feel good about where the time went. I use Memento Database on my Android phone to add datestamped, categorized text notes to a Google Sheets spreadsheet.
  • Weekly/monthly review: This lets me appreciate progress over a longer period and plan for the next one. I edit the daily journal entries in Memento to set their importance (1: weekly highlight, 2: monthly), then filter, sort, group, and export the entries. I copy the text into Tasks Free (which synchronizes via Google Tasks) and then edit the text on my phone while A- nurses and sleeps. If I manage to have computer time, I might use Emacs to fill in more of my weekly or monthly review.
  • Tasks (next actions, inbox, waiting, thoughts, and assorted other lists): Tasks Free on my phone, since I can check it or add to it any time. I jot ideas/thoughts down here too, since I can write while nursing A- in bed. If I run out of battery, I charge my phone and move to W-‘s old phone, so I can keep writing. After I draft a thought that might be a good blog post, I copy it into the WordPress app and post it so that I can find it again later. (And so that other people might chime in with insights!) If I have time, I might copy a thought into Emacs, flesh it out further, and post it with org2blog.
  • Calendar: Google calendars – one for appointments, one for activity options. This way, I can hide all the optional stuff quickly.
  • Longer-term reminders, notes, work in progress: Org files. It’s so nice to be able to schedule tasks and have detailed notes on how to complete those tasks. I also really like being able to break things down with outlines and think out loud with code snippets. The weekly agenda review helps me catch reminders.
  • Photos and videos: I sync a Wi-Fi-enabled camera with my phone, then erase everything off the camera. Google Photos automatically uploads everything and shares them with W-. I post selected things to a Facebook closed group for kiddo updates.
  • Time and activity log: I track my time for curiosity. I made my own tracker (quantifiedawesone.com), and I made another button-based interface for easier tracking on my phone. That interface also lets me quickly log data to baby-connect.com, where I track A-‘s sleep, nursing, and potty use. I made my own visualizations, too.
  • Reference info: Org. Document scans in Dropbox or Owncloud, some GPG-encrypted.
  • Book notes: I’ve been reading mostly e-books from the library, so I take screenshots on my phone and they go through my photo workflow. I use Tasks Free to capture quick notes about paper books. I’d like to get back to sketchnotes when I have more focused time.
  • New words: I’m tracking this out of curiosity. She has said 350+ different words, and she’s not even 2 years old yet. :) Many of the words come from songs and books, so it helps to think of concrete experiences she can associate them with.
  • Scenarios, just-in-case notes: Org. Good for managing risks and worrying less.
  • Processes: Org. Good for step-by-step instructions when I’m sleep-deprived or doing something infrequently.
  • Finances: Ledger-cli. Text-based accounting, yay! I have some reports in ledger-mode and some in an Org file. I update this monthly or so.
  • Cooking: We manage our grocery list in OurGroceries because of the multiuser real-time sync. Recipes tend to be looked up on the Internet and then copied into a paper notebook or onto an index card when we like them. Meal plan is written on scrap paper and stuck to the front of the fridge.

I want to get better at structuring my observations of A-‘s progress, planning follow-up activities, and keeping the overall picture in mind. Since I’m roughly categorizing the daily journal entries in Memento / Google Sheets, I can probably create a table that will make it easy to see if there are neglected areas, and then extend that to plan ideas. Or, well, as much planning as one can do with a toddler, really – more like keeping an eye out for opportunities to build on A-‘s interests. So far it’s been okay, though. I’ve been learning about basic principles and skill components from textbooks on early childhood education, and that makes it a bit easier for me to improvise. I have a rough outline of areas to think about on a regular basis, and a few ideas to explore over the next few months.

I also want to get better at managing my book notes and other ideas I want to revisit at the appropriate time. I’m a little lacking on the review side, since most of my writing time is taken up by capturing observations and the occasional reflection. So far, this has also been okay. I just have to trust that whatever I’m writing down will still make sense to me in a few months or years, and the most important stuff will turn up on my radar at the appropriate time. Schedule-based reminders are easy, but things wait for all sorts of other factors. For example, there are lots of practical life skill exercises I picked up from the Montessori education books that will be a better fit when A-‘s fine motor skills improve.

I’d like to get back to drawing someday, although it may have to wait until I have more dedicated time. Whenever I start sketching out a thought, A- likes drawing on my paper or asking me to draw stuff for her. It’s all good, though, since it encourages us to scribble. It just means that I can’t take a picture and reuse the drawing – I have to type it up anyway, so I may as well explore the thought on my phone unless I want to think nonlinearly.

I’ll experiment with using timestamped notes in Memento to help me with offline logging when we go on our trip. I might also just spring for Internet access once we’re off the plane, since that’s useful for other things as well.

I’ve got a fair bit of clutter in my Org files, but I trust that the outlining tools will help me reorganize as needed. I tend to do just-in-time organizing: instead of starting with an outline and drilling down, I might capture a bunch of thoughts, refile them as the structure becomes clearer, and then work up and down from there.

I don’t spend nearly as much time on the computer as I might want to for optimal external-brain management, but the current system is surprisingly workable. Shifting more of my writing to my phone (including the weekly/monthly summaries) made a difference, since I don’t have to keep as much in my head or get constrained by computer time. I look forward to tweaking how things work as A- becomes more independent and as I learn more.

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