Category Archives: learning

Deliberately making sense

When it comes to connecting the dots between ideas, would you rather be methodical or inspired?

We prize the flashes of genius, the intuitive spark. We idolize inventors who bring together ideas from different fields in a brilliant moment. The tortoise wins in children’s books, but history belongs to hares.

I would rather be methodical, I think. I’d rather get better at taking lots of small steps instead of counting on big leaps. I plan assuming mediocrity, not talent, and then I try to build towards excellence.

Just relax and the ideas will come to you, people sometimes say. Yes, I do some of that, but I’m more interested in conscious, deliberate action. The sparks will come when they want, but in the meantime, why not get better at preparing the groundwork or making progress? I think you can get better at making sense of things, coming up with ideas, seeing gaps. This is a skill you can develop. You’re not limited to waiting for a fickle muse or wishing you’d been born a hare.

The aha! moments of unconscious connection seem to come more readily when you keep more thoughts in your head, because you have more opportunities to connect the dots. I try to keep very little in my head, as I’m both forgetful and distractable. (I suppose this self-image is something I can change, but it has useful consequences, so I keep it.) I write down as much as I can, which frees me up to remember only hooks and summaries that let me look up more information as I need it.

In fact, I often choose slow exploration instead of a whirlwind of insight. I’d rather take notes as I think instead of jumping from one topic to the other, even if observation changes the nature of thoughts. After all, there are plenty of times when I can think but I can’t write, so I can let my mind meander then. When I’m near a computer or notepad, I may as well take advantage of those tools. If I can capture a thought, then I can remember it, and this helps me build up knowledge over time.

Instead of relying on my brain to trigger an aha! moment out of the blue, I usually reflect on a single topic and see what other associations it brings up. I might link to other blog posts or sketches, include book excerpts, or dig through my private notes for more thoughts. Most of these reflections take small steps forward. Others bring together two or more streams of thought.

I’m often limited by my forgetfulness. I may remember a few relevant references, and I search my blog and my notes for more. However, I don’t always cast a wide enough net. There’s a difference between knowing you’ve forgotten something, and not even thinking that you’ve forgotten something. The first is annoying, but the second is a bigger missed opportunity.

The best way around the associative limitations of my brain seems to be other people. I love it when people tell me how something I’ve written reminds them of a book or someone else’s blog post (sometimes one I’d read and forgotten, sometimes completely new to me), or even how it reminds them of another post of mine.

I can’t count on people to suggest the missing links for most things, though. Fortunately, computers are getting better at suggesting associations. Search engines help when you know what you’re looking for. When you don’t, other tools can analyze what you’re working on and suggest items that are similar in content. I often use Amazon’s book recommendations to find other books I should read. I’ve played around with Remembrance Agent before, and have often envied Devonthink’s ability to suggest related notes. Evernote just released a new Context feature that’s supposed to do something similar. I prefer Emacs for writing anyway, and I don’t have something quite like that set up yet.

The more manual approach of keeping a categorical index of my blog posts lets me get a quick overview. When a category grows too large, I usually break it down into smaller groups. I also take advantage of the juxtaposition of posts in my blog archive when I do my monthly and yearly reviews. Taking a step back helps me see the patterns in my thinking.

Other aspects of connecting the dots also lend themselves to deliberate practice, focusing on one sub-skill at a time. For example, when I read a book, I can practise taking a few moments to place it in the context of other books I’ve read about the topic. With which other books does it agree, and where does it diverge? Thinking about this process lets me isolate and get better at one specific aspect at a time, and that helps me improve as a whole.

Another benefit of using explicit processes to help me make sense of things is that other people can try what I’m learning. I care less about idiosyncratic leaps dependent on individual talent and more about improvements that other people can experiment with. For me, it makes less sense to tell someone, “Be more creative!” and more sense to say something like, “Forced associations are a way to enhance your creativity” and share examples. If I think about how I do things–how my processes are similar to others’, and where it diverges–I can describe them to other people, who can pick up ideas and give me feedback.

So that’s why I choose to be a slow thinker, making sense through process rather than intuition. But I’m getting faster at slow thinking, and that’s opening up more possibilities. I grew up speed-reading and touch-typing, which is a good pair of advantages. To that, I’ve added programming, automation, writing, and different types of note-taking. I’m working on getting the hang of outlining, indexing, reviewing, and synthesizing. There’s a lot to learn, but I’m confident that I can keep improving.

I love swapping notes with other people who’ve made similar choices–the slow thinkers, the methodical ones, the ones who have thought about how they do things and how they think about how they do things. I’m not looking for fast fixes or magic solutions, just ideas for little experiments to try.

Hares might make for better stories, but tortoises have more tricks to share.

Possibly related:

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow feels a little related to this thought too, but it’s not quite the right fit.

Do you have any favourite tricks for slow thinking? Are there any tricks I use that you’d like to learn more about?

Learning a little more quickly

Sometimes I feel like I learn more slowly than I used to. Maybe my brain is a little fuzzier than before. That’s what it tries to tell me as an excuse, but I soundly reject that, because too much belief in that can lead to accepting more excuses. It’s more likely I’m spending time slogging through the plateau of mediocrity instead of playing on the slopes of awesomeness, and my brain is unfairly comparing the experiences of the two. Being aware of it means I can accept it as normal and deal with it.

I suspect this is happening because a quick antidote for the “Grr, my brain is so fuzzy” feeling is to hang out in help channels and answer people’s questions, or work on client projects and help them with their requests. Then I usually feel like I learn pretty quickly, especially when speed-reading and knowing what to search for and being able to combine different things means delighting people with how rapidly we can get stuff done. It’s ego-gratifying, but I shouldn’t do it all the time. It’s better for me to sit with my occasional frustration and get better at learning things on my own.

So it’s not that my brain is being particularly bleah, but that it wants to snack on small questions and quick wins instead of eating its vegetables.

This is where I stretch the metaphor and start thinking of ways to swap out some of the less-favoured vegetables for ones that are more palatable but just as nutritious, maaaybe letting it pick out a few things it doesn’t like and offering it options so that it thinks it’s choosing. Or something like that.

wpid-2014-11-12-What-are-the-things-I-want-to-learn-more-quickly-and-what-would-that-look-like.png

Hmm. That is an interesting metaphor, actually. It’s like I know there’s value in chewing your vegetables and all sorts of other good stuff, but I just want to start with dessert, or if I have to eat the rest of the stuff, maybe I can just pick the good parts and be off to the next thing. And I’m all, like, “I’ve already tried the green beans! Why do I have to eat them again?” (Actually, in real life, I get along fine with green beans. But you probably get the idea.)

So maybe the trick is to eat those vegetables and make “Mmmmmm!” noises until my brain gets the hang of it. Maybe even pretending that vegetables are coveted prizes. (“Good girl! Have a carrot / read an e-book.”)

Huh. Metaphors. Fun to play with. Surprisingly useful.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read through a yummy Rails tutorial. Mmm. Fun. =)

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

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:

Learning more effectively by exploring various unknowns

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!

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! =)

Improving how I organize notes with Org Mode

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!