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Small talk tweaks

… though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

After three successive weekends (three!) with parties, I want to think about small talk and how I can tweak it. Small talk is unavoidable, but there are things you can do to nudge it one way or another. I like having conversations that move me or other people forward, even if it’s just by a little bit.

So, what do I want to do with small talk?

  • Help other people feel comfortable enough to open up about some memorable interest or quirk
  • Find topics of common interest for further conversation
  • Find a way to help or a reason to follow up

We could do the ritualistic weather/profession/how-do-you-know-the-host conversations, or we could change the level of the conversation so that it goes beyond the repetitive gestures that only skim the surface. I could chat as a way of passing time (possibly bumping into interesting thoughts along the way), or I can more deliberately check for things I’m interested in while staying open to the serendipity of random connections. What do I want to be able to frequently do through conversation?

  • Identify possible meetup or global community members – reassure them that this is a thing and that lots of people are interested in it; point people to resources (Emacs, QS, visual thinking)
  • Talk shop with other geeks to find out about tech and business things worth looking into
  • Other geeks (non-tech): learn more about different fields
  • Non-geeks: See if there’s anything I can help with easily (books? ideas?)

I could either dig into people’s interests or be memorable enough so that people look me up afterwards. Many people open up about their interests only when they feel comfortable. What makes people feel more comfortable? It helps to establish a sense of similarity and shared understanding.

People have different strategies for establishing similarity. I know a few people who use the “You look really familiar…” approach (even if the other person doesn’t) because rattling off schools, companies, associations, and interests tends to reveal something in common.

I like building on stuff I’ve overheard or asking questions about common context. That’s one of the reasons why I like events with presentations more than events that are focused only on networking – the presentation gives us something to start talking about.

In terms of helping people get to know me and find topics of shared interest, I use short disclosures with high information value.

Consulting: “I’m a consultant” has low information value: it’s vague and it wouldn’t establish much similarity even if the other person was also a consultant. I rarely use it unless I’m tired, I want to shift the focus back on the other person quickly, or I sense they’re also going through the motions. (Or I want to see at what point their eyes glaze over…)

Emacs: “I’m working on some Emacs projects” has high information value when talking to tech geeks, almost like a secret handshake that lets us shift the conversation. (I talk faster, go into more detail, and use more jargon when talking to fellow geeks, so it’s almost like the 56kbps modem handshake.) I’m female, I don’t wear geeky T-shirts, and I don’t work for a technical company or in a technical position, so it helps to verbally establish geek cred quickly without making a big deal out of it.

Data analysis: For geeks of other fields, Emacs is low-information, but Quantified Self and data analysis seems to be a good way to establish that similarity quickly. It works well with people who are interested in science, tech, engineering, math, or even continuous improvement. Litter box analysis is surprisingly engaging as a cocktail party topic, or at least it’s easy to for people to ask follow-up questions about if they want to.

Sketchnoting: People (including most of the ones who don’t identify as geeks) tend to be curious about my sketchnoting, since it’s visual, easy to understand, and uncommon. That said, I need to get better at handling the usual follow-ups. People tend to say things like “You draw so well” or “I could never do something like that.” I want to nip that in the bud and get people to realize that they can do this too. Pointing out that I draw stick figures like a 5-year-old doesn’t seem to do the trick (“Ah, but you know what to leave out” and “But you’re doing this while listening – that’s hard”). Maybe a little humour, poking fun at the idea of going to an art school that specializes in stick figures or learning how to not fall asleep in presentations? About one in fifty people I talk to recognizes this as something they do on their own or that they want to do, and it’s good to link them up with the global community. For most people, though, I feel slightly more comfortable focusing on ideas they want t olearn more about and sending them sketchnotes if there’s a fit.

Semi-retirement: This experiment with semi-retirement can be a good conversational hook for prompting curiosity. It usually follows this sequence: semi-retired -> “aren’t you a little young? what do you mean?” -> tracked, saved up, experimenting. It tends to be too detached from people’s lives, though – many people don’t think they can pull it off, even experienced freelancers who are doing most of it already.

Variety: If I don’t know how someone identifies, it’s fun to answer the “What do you do?” question (which tries to pigeonhole someone into a neatly understandable job title) with a sense of variety: “I do a lot of different things! This week, I …”

Going forward

For the next few events, I think I’ll experiment with doing the tech/non-tech/non-geek identification earlier, or going into that with an opening based on variety. I could name an example each for tech, non-tech, and non-geek, and see which one they dig into. As for digging into people’s interests, maybe an open-ended survey-type question would be an interesting way to help people open up while still collecting data in case people haven’t thought about how to make themselves easier to get to know. Hmm…

Small talk might be small, but if I have thousands of conversations over the years, I might as well keep learning from it. How have you tweaked how you do small talk?

Digging into my limiting factors when it comes to interviewing people for podcasts

The world is full of interesting people, the vast majority of whom don’t share nearly as often as I do. If I interview people, I give people a more natural way to share what they’ve learned in a way that other people can easily learn from. I also get to learn about things I can’t find on Google. Win all around.

I am better-suited to interviewing than many people are. I’m comfortable with the tech. I have a decent Internet connection. I have a flexible schedule, so I can adapt to guests. I use scheduling systems and can deal with timezones. I’ve got a workflow that involves posting show notes and even transcripts. I am reasonably good at asking questions and shutting up so that other people talk. I often stutter, but no one seems to mind. I usually take visual notes, which people appreciate. I’m part of communities that can get more value from the resources I share.

So, what’s getting in the way of doing way more interviews?

interview

I feel somewhat self-conscious about questions and conversations. The Emacs Chats have settled into a comfortable rhythm, so I’m okay with those: introduction, history, nifty demo, configuration walkthrough, other tidbits. Frugal FIRE has a co-host who’s actively driving the content of the show, so I can pitch in with the occasional question and spend the rest of the time taking notes. It’s good for me to talk to other people out of the blue, but I don’t fully trust in my ability to be curious and ask interesting questions.

Hmm. What’s behind this self-consciousness? I think it could be that:

  • I don’t want to ask questions that have been thoroughly covered elsewhere. – But I know from my own blog that going over something again helps me understand it better, so I should worry less about repeating things. Judgment: IRRATIONAL, no big deal
  • I worry about awkward questions and making questions that are really more like statements. What are awkward questions? Closed-ended questions or ones that lead to conversational cul-de-sacs. — But the people I talk to also want to keep the conversation going, so between the two (or three) of us, we should be able to figure something out. And really, once we get going, it’s easy enough to ask more. So I’m anxious about being curious enough, but once we’re there, it’s easy. Judgment: IRRATIONAL, just get in there.
  • I worry about not being prepared enough, or being too forgetful. – But when did I ever claim to have an excellent memory or to be great at doing all the research? Maybe it’s enough to have the conviction that people have something interesting to share, and help them have the opportunity to share it. (And possibly warn interviewees about my sieve-of-a-brain in advance, so they’re not offended if I confuse them with someone else.) Judgment: IRRATIONAL
  • I’m not as used to the flow of an interview as I could be. It’s similar to but not quite the same as a regular conversation, which is something I’m not as used to as I should be. Oddly, it’s easier when I’m occupied with taking visual notes, because I can use my notes to remember interesting things to ask about (and the other person can watch it develop too). So maybe I should just always do that, and then the drawing is a super-neat bonus.
  • I hesitate to ask questions unless I have an idea of what I’m going to do with the answers. Why are the questions interesting? What do we want to explore? Who am I going to share this with, and why? I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on Emacs Chats, so that makes it easy to keep going, but the one-offs can be harder to plan. Maybe I should just become more comfortable with asking in order to explore. Besides, I’m good at rationalization, so I can make sense of it during or after the conversation. And the kinds of interviews I do are also about letting people share what they think would be useful for other people, so I can follow their lead.

Really, what’s the point of being self-conscious when interviewing people? After all, I’m doing this so that the spotlight is on other people, and listeners can survive inexpertly-asked questions. Hey, if folks have the courage to get interviewed, that’s something. Like the way that it’s easier to focus on helping other people feel more comfortable at parties, I can try focusing on helping guests feel more comfortable during interviews.

And it’s pretty cool once we get into it. I end up learning about fascinating Emacs geekery, connecting with great people, and exploring interesting ideas along the way. Well worth my time, and people find the videos helpful.

So I think I can deal with some of  those tangled emotions that were getting in the way of my interviews. (Look, I’m even getting the hang of calling them interviews instead of chats!)

What’s getting in the way of reaching out and inviting people on? I should be able to reach out easily and ask people to be, say, a guest for an Emacs Chat episode. I have good karma in the community, and there are lots of examples now of how such a conversation could go. How about Quantified Self? I’ve been thinking about virtual meetups or presentations for a while, since there are lots of people out there who aren’t close to a QS meetup. What’s stopping me?

  • I generally don’t think in terms of people when it comes to cool stuff or ideas: This makes it difficult for me to identify people behind clusters of interesting ideas, or recognize names when they come up in conversation. Still, it shouldn’t stop me from identifying one particular idea and then looking for the person or people behind that. If I discover other things about those people afterwards, that’s icing on the cake. Hmm… So maybe I should update my confederate map (time to Graphviz-ify it!), interview those people, and then branch out to a role model map. Oh! And I can apply Timothy Kenny’s idea of modeling people’s behaviours beforehand as a way to prepare for the interview, too. Judgment: CAN FIX
  • It would be easier to reach out if I’ve already written pre-psyched-up snippets I can add to my e-mail. Aha, maybe I should write myself an Org file with the reasons why this is a good thing and with snippets that I can copy and paste into e-mail. There are a lot of blog posts and podcast episodes on how to get better at requesting podcast interviews, and there are also resources for getting better at interviewing itself. I can change my process to include psyching myself up and sending a bunch of invitations. Judgment: CAN FIX
  • I’m slightly worried about pre-committing to a time - but really, Google+ events make it pretty easy to reschedule, and I haven’t needed to reschedule most things for my part. Judgment: IRRATIONAL.

All right. So, if I want to learn from people and share useful stuff, I can work on being more actively curious about people, and at inviting them to share what they know. I don’t have to ask brilliant New York Times-y questions. I just have to start from the assumption that they know something interesting, and give them an opportunity to share it with other people.

Why would people take the time to do interviews? Maybe they find themselves explaining things to people a lot, so a recording (plus visual notes! plus transcript!) can save them time and give them something to build more resources on. Maybe they’re looking for other people to bounce ideas off. Maybe it helps them understand things better themselves. I shouldn’t say no on their behalf. I can ask, and they can decide whether it makes sense for their schedule. Right. People are grown-ups.

Okay. What changes can I make?

  • Write an Org file psyching myself up with a condensed version of the reasoning above, and include snippets to copy and paste into e-mail invitations.
  • Map topics/questions I’m curious about, and start identifying people. Identify the tactics I think they use, and model those.
  • Trust that the future Sacha will sort out the questions and the flow of the conversation. And hey, even if it’s super awkward, you don’t get to “interesting” without passing through “meh” first. So just book it, and be super-nice to guests for helping out.

Hmm. That actually looks doable.

Have you gone through this kind of mental tweaking before? Any tips?

Thanks to Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule for the nudge to write about this! Yes, I should totally pick their brain about Quantified Self, applied rationality, and other good things. Check out their blog at Messy Matters for awesome stuff. Oh, and Beeminder, of course. (Look, I’m even using Messy Matters as a nudge to play around with more colours and brushes! =) )

What do I want to learn about learning?

Although the project of writing a topic-focused blog/book is temporarily on the back burner, I’ve been thinking about what I want to learn about learning so that I can squeeze it into little bits of time here and there. This way, I can keep an eye out for learning opportunities, questions, and books that would be worth exploring.

2013_10_09_17_05_50_005

Making a high-level map of what I want to learn helps me keep it in mind. A one-page visual summary like this catches my eye more than a simple text list or outline. There are twelve items here, so I might focus on one area per month. Let me think about what each area means and how I can learn it…

  1. Map a good path/course for learning (guide questions, sequence, …): It usually makes sense to learn things in a particular order. This is part of the value offered by teachers and coaches. A good curriculum organizes ideas so that they build on previous ones, and individualized learning plans can focus on the most useful things to learn first. Like the way a curriculum includes recommended reading, a good map also includes the resources that can help people learn the specific topics.
    • Success: I can organize learning maps for things I know (ex: how to learn Emacs or Org). I can plan learning maps for the things I want to learn, with feedback from more experienced people who can help me make sure the sequence makes sense and that I’m using the best resources.
    • How: I can learn this through practice, especially if I can compare the maps I make with other people’s versions. I can learn this through feedback from coaches.
    • Explore: What are some ways you can “tinker” with a new topic? How can you recognize when you’re trying to climb a cliff that’s too steep and find alternative routes, versus dealing with something that will yield to persistence?
  2. Find and use the appropriate resources: There are different kinds of resources, and resources can be of varying quality or appropriateness. Effectiveness is learner-dependent, too. For example, I do well with books, but I have a harder time with video or audio, and I have a lot to learn about working with people. Using the right resources can accelerate learning, while using poor resources can set me back.
    • Success: I can quickly identify key resources based on other people’s experiences and recommendations, adjusting the list depending on availability and my  preferences.
    • How: I can work on getting better at preliminary research. I can estimate how useful a resource will be and what I aim to get out of it, and then compare that with the results. I can work on getting more effective at learning through different channels through practising, reflecting, identifying weaknesses, and building on strengths.
    • Explore: How can I learn from a coach? How can I get better at learning from free courses? How can I make the most of what I can learn from books?
  3. Take more effective notes: Notes are a great way to condense and personalize knowledge as well as integrate what I’ve learned with other things I’ve learned before.
    • Success: I keep different levels of notes: details, summaries, and maps that integrate ideas with other topics. I can review my notes easily, refreshing my memory and following up on questions or ideas. I might not remember everything, but I can usually find things again, and I can see where the gaps are.
    • How: The Cornell method looks interesting, so I might try that for detailed notes. I also want to get better at organizing and reviewing my electronic notes, and at mapping the connections between ideas.
    • Explore: How can I manage different levels of notes well, so that I can dive deep or get the overview as needed?
  4. Integrate new knowledge with old: It’s one thing to learn, and it’s another thing to integrate what you learn into what you know so that you can see where the gaps, conflicts, or synchronicities are.
    • Success: I note follow-up questions and ideas after learning something. I fill those in with further study and cross-references. I have a syntopical index like the one mentioned in How to Read a Book.
    • How: Practice, practice, practice.
    • Explore: How can I map what I know and what I want to learn, and then connect that with the building blocks?
  5. Improve working memory and concentration: This is useful when learning complex topics like programming because I have to hold different chunks of information in my head. Also good for popping the stack in terms of tasks, conversations, and so forth.
    • Success: Dual n-back test performance? Less task-switching? Oh, finishing more stuff instead of getting distracted mid-way…
    • How: Practice, mnemonics.
    • Explore: How can I get better at remembering sequences and dealing with distractions?
  6. Improve long-term memory and retention: My associative memory is pretty good, so if I can remember a hook into something, I can usually get enough information to find it again. I’d like to get better at remember
    • Success: I’ve memorized key information such as phone numbers, basic recipes, and important skills.
    • How: Spaced repetition, mnemonics.
    • Explore: What’s important to store in my own memory? How can I get better at doing that?
  7. Recognize learning opportunities: Squeezing more learning out of every moment! Even in routines, there’s always room to learn more.
    • Success: I can recognize and take advantage of learning opportunities, getting over the barriers of boredom (for routine tasks) or emotion (for difficult moments).
    • How: Process improvement for routine tasks, reflection for difficult times
    • Explore: How can I improve my routines? What can I do to handle difficult times even better? Where do I run into diminishing returns or over-optimization, and where should I move on?
  8. Translate learning into changes: Book knowledge isn’t everything. I’ve got to do something with it too. That way, I don’t just take a book’s word for it. Instead, I can find out whether something really works for me, and I can annotate it with my experiences.
    • Success: I’ve slowed down my learning pace so that I test and integrate more of the knowledge that I pick up. I define clear objectives and commitments before learning something so that I know the time will be worth it.
    • How: Practice, reflection, scheduled decision/learning reviews.
    • Explore: What small actions can I take to integrate what I learn into how I live? How can I keep track of what I’m learning and what the results are?
  9. Observe and reflect: Life has a lot to teach me if I remember to look. Noticing what’s unusual–or what’s absent, which is harder–can lead to lots of learning.
    • Success: W- is a great role model: he’s more observant than I am, and he follows his curiosity in learning about lots and lots of things.
    • How: Practice and feedback. Spot-the-difference games in real life? Asking more questions, too. Coaching, perhaps?
    • Explore: How can I look at my life with an outsider’s eyes? How can I become more attentive and observant using visual thinking or other skills?
  10. Recognize and test assumptions, differences: When I make decisions or learn about things, it helps to see what I’m taking for granted.
    • Success: I can articulate my assumptions and devise simple tests. When learning something, I can use critical thinking to think about what assumptions are embedded in the learning and identify situations where the lesson may not be valid.
    • How: Practise by analyzing and testing my decisions, and then reviewing the results. Read critically.
    • Explore: Can I find or come up with a framework that will help me identify more of my assumptions? How can I do small tests?
  11. Adapt to changes: This is related to recognizing assumptions and differences. Real life can sometimes change too slowly for me to notice when my assumptions are no longer valid. Learning includes getting a sense for when things may have changed so much that I need to reconsider things.
    • Success: I have “tripwires” that trigger re-evaluation and additional learning. I periodically practise zero-based thinking.
    • How: Practice and reflection.
    • Explore: What scenarios should I watch out for, and what early warning signs can trigger re-evaluation? How do I make sure I don’t miss those signs?
  12. Share what I’m learning: I learn a lot in the process of sharing what I’m learning, and I can help other people learn as well.
    • Success: I have a smooth process for sharing what I’ve learned and what I’m learning. I incorporate people’s feedback and ideas into my learning process.
    • How: Blogging, drawing, putting together presentations, etc.
    • Explore: How can I make sharing more efficient or more effective?

This will be fun. If there’s anything you’d particularly like to learn more about, or if you can help me learn some of these things more effectively, please feel free to comment!

If you want to follow my journey so far, check out my learning-related notes on Flickr and on my blog. Enjoy!

Using Emacs to figure out where I need to improve in order to type faster

I’ve been thinking about how to type faster than 110wpm, and digging into the specific factors that I could improve. In particular, I wanted to get a sense of:

  • my theoretical top speed
  • whether alternates or rolls are better for me
  • how quickly I can twitch, measured by single-key repeats or two-key alternations

shutterstock_145785482

By using totally artificial typing tests (ex: type “thththth…”) instead of word-based ones, I can explore the relationships between character combinations and speed without worrying about hitting SPC, sounding out words, correcting errors, and so on. Since I can do the tests in short sprints, I can rest enough in between to minimize my risk of RSI.

Using Emacs to test my raw typing speed

I haven’t come across an online typing test that gives the kind of stats I want, or even a per-character or digram breakdown. I thought about writing a Javascript-based typing timer, but I figured it would be less work to cajole Emacs into measuring what I wanted. Here’s the code:

(defun sacha/timer-go ()
  "Quick keyboard timer."
  (interactive)
  (insert "GO\n")
  (run-with-timer 3 nil (lambda () (insert "\n")))  ; for warmup
  (run-with-timer 15 nil (lambda () ; 12 seconds + the 3-second warmup
                           (let ((col (- (point) (line-beginning-position))))
                             (insert (format " | %d | \n" col)))
                           )))
(local-set-key (kbd "<f7>") 'sacha/timer-go)

This prints “GO” to show you that it’s running. You have three seconds to warm up, so you don’t have to worry about wasting any milliseconds after M-x sacha/timer-go (or F7, the keyboard shortcut I bound mine to). After the warmup, Emacs adds a newline and the “race” is on. There’s a 12 second period of actual typing, and then Emacs adds the number of characters you typed. When you see that, you can stop.

Twelve seconds is a useful number for estimating typing speed because the conversion from characters per minute (CPM) to words per minute (WPM) usually uses a factor of 5: CPM / 5 = WPM. So the number of characters you can type in 60 seconds / 5 is probably the number of “words” you could type in a minute.

Note: L and R refer to left and right hand. I’ve also numbered the fingers with 1 being the thumb and 5 being the pinky. The patterns I used are based on a Dvorak keyboard, but that doesn’t matter as much. You can probably figure out what the equivalent patterns are on your preferred keyboard layout.

Limitations: I didn’t do any special calculations to deal with errors (there were many doubling or transposition errors multi-character sequences), so the actual CPM will be lower. Also, repeated character sequences are definitely not normal and have quirks of their own. It’s interesting to establish the range and see the kinds of errors that show up when I go faster than I’m comfortable with, though.

Pure speed

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 379
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 379
keyboard mashing -none- (mashing) 354
R side mashing -none- (mashing) 245
L side mashing -none- (mashing) 217

If you don’t care what you’re typing, it’s easy to type quickly. This is just about how fast my hands go if I don’t have to think about which finger to activate. This mostly ended up as alternating left- and right-hand rolls (ex: aoeusntoahuesnto). Because I didn’t have to precisely alternate, two-handed mashing resulted in more characters than one-handed mashing. Interestingly, my right hand is slightly faster than my left.

Alternates versus rolls

4-key combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R-side 4-key roll snthsnth 232
L-side 4-key roll aoeuaoue 201
L 3 & 2, R 3 & 2 eutheuth 164

3-key combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 187
L 5, R 4 & 2 andand 184
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 182
roll R 3 nthnth 176
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 170
roll L 3 oeuoue 166
roll L 3 oeuoeu 164
R 3 & 2, L 3 thethe 159
roll R 3 nthnth 152
R 3, L 4 & 3 toetoe 140

I expected rolls to be faster than alternates, but it turns out that alternating works out fine too (“the” and “and” on a Dvorak keyboard). Same-hand rolls had fewer errors than alternates, though – timing can be tricky when doing high-speed repeats. That can be partially handled by autocorrecting “teh” to “the” and similar transpositions. I use an AutoHotkey-based autocorrect script, but it screws up the typing tests I like, so I can’t take advantage of it then.

A roll-optimized keyboard layout might be more effective. 3- and 4-character rolls like the ones I tested aren’t that common in actual typing, but it might be possible to find keyboard layouts that are better-optimized for the languages I use. I’ve read that Arensito, Capewell, and Colemak focus more on rolls and alternating rolls, so they might be worth a look.

Two-character pairs

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
alt L and R 1 uhuh 139
L 5, R 5 asas 137
R 2 & 3 chch 135
R 2 & 3 thth 134
L 2, R 3 tutu 130
R 3, L 4 toto 129
L 2, R 2 uhuh 128
R 1 & 5 xsxs 126
L 2 & 3 eueu 124
R 2 and 5 shsh 115

Two-character patterns are slower than three-character patterns, probably indicating that there’s a small delay as I think about repeating things. Alternates and same-hand two-character pairs seem to work okay. Even for same-hand two-character pairs, I get the occasional doubling or transposition error.

Single-finger twitching

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 2 hhhh 79
R 3 tttt 76
R 1 mmmm 75
R 4 nnnn 74
L 2 uuuu 73
R 5 ssss 71
L 3 eeee 71
L 4 oooo 65
L 1 kkkk 64
L 5 aaaa 61

Single-finger keypresses (no automatic repeats) are slow. Good thing I don’t have to do them that often. If this represents the speed at which I can send an impulse to my finger and have it do something, this might be a limiting factor for my typing speed, which is compensated for by alternates and rolls.

Three characters with repositioning

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 3, L 2, L 2 cupcup 67
R 3, L 5, R 3 catcat 66
R 2, L 4, R 2 dogdog 64

Moving my fingers takes time too. Also, did you know that there are typing equivalents of tongue-twisters? I can’t type “ranranranran…” a long time without it turning into rna and other permutations. Maybe my brain gets hiccups.

Interrupted combinations

Key description Pattern Estimated WPM based on CPM/5
R 4, L 4, R 3 notnot 63
L 4, R 4, L 3 oneone 57
L 5, R 4, L 3 areare 55

Alternating hands is actually pretty tough if you have to care about timing. Oddly, this is slower than repositioning. Maybe it’s because the repositioning helps me remember where I am in the word when I’m repeating it, so natural typing will be a different case.

Wrap-up

Chunking seems to make a big difference for me. 4-character combinations tend to beat 3-character combinations and those tend to beat 2-character combinations, unless there’s some timing involved. Common combinations (the, and) are easier to type. If I can get better at chunking words into syllables, that might help. The most common digraphs are TH, HE, AN, IN, ER, ON, RE, ED, ND, HA, AT, EN, ES, OF, NT, EA, TI, TO, IO, LE, IS, OU, AR, AS, DE, RT, and VE (source), so that might be good to look at next.

Twitching or moving individual fingers are slow operations, so being able to “look ahead” and move my fingers to the right spots while I’m typing the first few characters helps. Muscle memory also helps minimize errors. Also, maybe finger dexterity and agility exercises?

I’m probably in the region of Diminishing Returns here. I could spend hours inching up my typing speed… or I could spend that time doing other things. Now that I’ve identified specific areas to look into, though, I might be able to set up exercises to take advantage of interstitial time. For example, while I’m reading a book, I could do finger dexterity exercises (pausing, of course, if I feel any hint of strain – I’d like to avoid RSI if I can).

On another note, testing my theoretical speed in this way reminded me a little of how we used to play Decathlon on the computer as kids. (Was it Microsoft Decathlon? The screenshots look familiar…) Somehow our keyboard survived the rampage back then. =)

Next steps

Because alternation can lead to typing errors or slowness for me, I might look into Colemak, which optimizes for single-hand rolls. Still, I’m pretty happy with Dvorak, and the Colemak FAQ warns that the switch might not be worth it. Another thing I’m looking into is Plover, which lets you do stenography using a regular keyboard. My laptop keyboard can’t easily do some of the combinations and I’m more visual than phonetic when it comes to words, so it might be a challenge to learn.

The easiest win will probably come from training my speech recognition software to recognize my words more accurately. I’ve been dictating book notes to my computer. This is great because it reinforces the key points of the book in my memory, trains the computer, and helps me practice clear diction. I’ve gotten to the point of using speech recognition to take notes during my first pass through a book, editing after each paragraph. I feel that the accuracy is gradually improving. I make fewer edits as I learn how to speak the way the computer wants me to and I teach the computer to understand the way I speak.

Besides, an average of 107 wpm on Dvorak is fast enough to let me get words out of my head and onto my computer, and I can focus on what I want to say instead of how to type.  There’s plenty more to learn about how to write efficiently. Time to go back to David Fryxell’s How to Write Fast (While Writing Well)! So it’s interesting to dig into what my rate-limiting factors are when it comes to typing faster, but it’s even better to focus on how I can think faster (although speech recognition will still be useful for the benefits mentioned above).

Have you analyzed your typing? What did you learn?

Image credits: Keyboard with time (Cienpies Design, Shutterstock)

Thinking about how to type faster than 110wpm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credits: Training (CartoonResource, Shutterstock)

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

Thinking about how I can use Evernote more effectively

image

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

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

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

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

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

I have different types of clipping activities:

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

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

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

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

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

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