Category Archives: kaizen

Leaning into absent-mindedness

From time to time, I notice a spike in the number of small mistakes I make due to inattention. It’s a good sign to slow things down, rejig systems and habits, and figure out how to make things better. For example, noticing that I often lost track of small things I was carrying around, I switched to a belt bag in summer and a vest in winter.

There are still quite a few slips I haven’t figured out how to work around, like the occasional times I put the oven mitts on the opposite side of the stove from where they usually are (I must have absentmindedly thought “Aha! An empty hook!”), or the time I tucked the sesame oil into the fridge. (“I’m holding a bottle; many bottles go into the shelves on the fridge door; this probably goes into the shelves on the fridge door.”)

2015-05-28b Absent-mindedness -- index card #research #fuzzy

2015-05-28b Absent-mindedness – index card #research #fuzzy

It turns out that there are lots of forms of absent-mindedness. Cheyne, Carierre, and Smilek (2005) defined a scale for attention-related cognitive errors (ARCES) that goes like this:

  1. I have absent-mindedly placed things in unintended locations (e.g., putting milk in the pantry or sugar in the fridge).
  2. When reading I find that I have read several paragraphs without being able to recall what I read.
  3. I have misplaced frequently used objects, such as keys, pens, glasses, etc.
  4. I have found myself wearing mismatched socks or other apparel.
  5. I have gone into a room to get something, got distracted, and left without what I went there for.
  6. I fail to see what I am looking for even though I am looking right at it.
  7. I begin one task and get distracted into doing something else.
  8. I have absent-mindedly mixed up targets of my action (e.g. pouring or putting something into the wrong container).
  9. I make mistakes because I am doing one thing and thinking about another.
  10. I have gone to the fridge to get one thing (e.g., milk) and taken something else (e.g., juice).
  11. I have to go back to check whether I have done something or not (e.g., turning out lights, locking doors).
  12. I go into a room to do one thing (e.g., brush my teeth) and end up doing something else (e.g., brush my hair).

I find that I tend to be okay at broad strokes (intentions), but sometimes I miss finer details. I’ve walked out of the house in inside-out or back-to-front clothing before (technical shirts feel the same either way!), although usually W- helps me catch those situations.

It’s not that bad, though. Although I sometimes don’t remember what I walked into a room for (especially if I get distracted by a conversation part way), I can almost always recall what I intended to do, and what was before that (if I hadn’t finished that yet). It also helps to have the habit of writing down quick notes and consulting my agenda for tasks to work on, but mental rehearsal is usually enough for me to “pop the stack”.

Fortunately, all this appears to be normal human experience. I might be a smidge more absent-minded than some folks, but it doesn’t get in the way of life, and even W- forgets a mug of hot water in the microwave occasionally. Besides, I enjoy working around the limitations of my brain by taking notes and tweaking the way I live.

This is probably why I enjoy reading research into the brain. It turns out that there are many possible explanations for absent-mindedness. There are different ways to measure it, and even a few ways to play around with it.

2015-05-28c Different models of absent-mindedness -- index card #fuzzy #research

2015-05-28c Different models of absent-mindedness – index card #fuzzy #research

When I read through the research, I feel oddly optimistic. Even though I know I’m likely to get more absent-minded as I grow older, I also know that experience, mindfulness, more deliberate responses, and good habits using external-memory systems can help a lot.

2015-05-24d Accept or hack fuzziness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-24d Accept or hack fuzziness – index card #fuzzy

I notice that I respond to the fuzziness in my brain with curiosity instead of frustration. I like this attitude, and I hope to keep it as I go through life. Instead of getting frustrated with myself, I get a good laugh out of the little mishaps (oh hey, I’ve put the plates where the saucers usually go; I can see how that happened!), and I explore it to learn more. So a bit of both, I guess: accept the fuzziness and hack around it.

Besides, the incidents aren’t that frequent. They’re just more prominent in my memory because I pay attention to them. =)

2015-05-28e Sneak previews of life -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-28e Sneak previews of life – index card #fuzzy

Actually, it works out really nicely that I’m thinking about this at this time. I know people around me also experience absent-mindedness, so I don’t have to have a hypochrondiac’s worry about early-onset diseases. (Although if we get to the point where this does actually get in the way of an awesome life, I’ll be sure to ask for help.) Instead, since I keep my life relatively smooth (low stress, plenty of sleep), I have a baseline of feeling good. That lets me notice changes more clearly, instead of the changes getting obscured in the noise of perpetual sleep deprivation or constant background stress. It also means that I can think of fuzzy-brain moments as temporary, local, and impersonal, and I can use my non-fuzzy times to figure out how to make the fuzzy times even better.

What are some things that could make absent-minded moments better?

2015-05-28d Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness -- index card #fuzzy

2015-05-28d Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness – index card #fuzzy

I might need to wait for better technology for some of these ideas, but most of the ideas are ready to go. Putting things in the wrong places is a minor inconvenience, and safety hasn’t been a big issue for me yet. I’ll probably focus on fuzzy memory and observation, looking for ways to take notes on or automate the things I do. For example, I’ve added notes on how to find and deploy code to the TODO lists for my personal projects, since I might go a few months without thinking about them. Notes also help with checking and monitoring. As I gain more experience and develop those systems and habits, that will help with brain fog as well. I trust my lists to help me with task disruption, and I keep lots of buffers in my life to soften the impact of forgetting. It’s a fascinating balance between taking things slowly and keeping things interesting enough so that my brain doesn’t go into too much of an automatic mode.

It’s odd how taking this kind of perspective changes how I experience forgetfulness. Instead of thinking to myself, “Where did I put those keys? I suck!”, I find myself thinking, “Oh look! I wonder what I’ll learn from this one…” We’ll see!

Sketched Book – The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right – Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009) emphasizes the power of checklists for improving reliability. Errors creep in when we forget things entirely or skip over things we should have done. In medicine, these errors can be fatal.

Gawande draws on his experience as a surgeon, the research he conducted with the World Health Organization, and insights from construction, finance, and other industries that take advantage of checklists to improve processes.

The book discusses ways to address the cultural resistance you might encounter when introducing a checklist. It recommends making sure that checklists are precise, efficient, short, easy to use, and practical. You need to develop a culture of teamwork where people feel that they can speak up as part of a team. You may even need to modify supporting systems to make the checklist doable.

I’ve sketched the key points of the book below to make it easier to remember and share. Click on the image for a larger version that you can print if you want.

2014-12-31 Sketched Book - The Checklist Manifesto - How to Get Things Right - Atul Gawande

I like the reminders that you should design your checklists around logical “pause points,” keep checklists focused on the essentials, and treat people as smart instead of making the checklist too rigid.

The book distinguishes between “Do-Confirm” checklists, which allow experienced people to work quickly and flexibly with a confirmation step that catches errors, and “Read-Do” checklists, which walk people step-by-step through what they need to do. I’m looking forward to applying the book’s tips towards systematizing my sharing. For example, I’m working on a YASnippets in Emacs that will not only display a “Read-Do” checklist for doing these sketched notes, but will also assemble the links and code to do the steps easily. Sure, no one will die if I miss a step, but I think discipline and thoroughness might yield dividends. I also want to develop a good “Do-Confirm” process for writing and committing code; that could probably save me from quite a few embarrassing mistakes.

I’m interested in the diffusion of ideas, so I was fascinated by the book’s coverage of the eight-hospital checklist experiment the WHO conducted. The book discussed the challenges of getting other people to adopt checklists, and adapting the checklists to local conditions. Here’s an excerpt:

… By the end, 80 percent reported that the checklist was easy to use, did not take a long time to complete, and had improved the safety of care. And 78 percent actually observed the checklist to have prevented an error in the operating room.

Nonetheless, some skepticism persisted. After all, 20 percent did not find it easy to use, thought it took too long, and felt it had not improved the safety of care.

Then we asked the staff one more qusetion. “If you were having an operation,” we asked, “would you want the checklist to be used?”

A full 93 percent said yes.

There’s a comparison to be made between the reluctance of doctors to accept checklists and the committed use of checklists by pilots and builders. I came across a quote from Lewis Schiff’s Business Brilliant in this comment by Rich Wellman:

The following quote sums up the essential difference between a checklist for a doctor and a checklist for a pilot.

“How can I put this delicately? Pilots are seated in the same planes as their passengers. Surgeons are not under the same knives as their patients. To paraphrase an old joke, surgeons may be interested in safety, but pilots are committed.”

So checklists are a good idea when you’re dealing with people’s lives, but what about the rest of us? Checklists are good for catching errors and building skills. They’re also great for reducing stress and distraction, because you know that the checklist is there to help you think. That’s why packing lists are useful when you travel.

Already a fan of checklists? Tell me what you have checklists for

Want the book? You can buy it from Amazon (affiliate link).

Like this sketch? Check out for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog. Enjoy!

Somewhat related:

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


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.


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.


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.


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!

Figuring out how my temporary sleep schedule interacts with programming, writing, and drawing

I was thinking about how I can use these snippets of time to improve in programming, writing, and drawing. I realized that although I can easily imagine how other people can write or draw using fragmented time (writers scribbling in notebooks on top of washing machines, artists doodling on the subway), programming seems a lot less tractable. It doesn’t feel like you can break it up and squeeze it into different parts of your day as much.

It is generally accepted that context switching is evil when it comes to programming. So I’ve been carrying around this idea that Real Programmers are people who can pull all-nighters hacking on tough problems, holding elaborate structures in their heads. Your standard hero programmer stereotype, with the pinnacle being someone either building complex, cool stuff, possibly maintaining large and useful open source software.

Hence this little mental disconnect. I’m pretty certain I can get there someday if I really want to, but probably not if I extrapolate from current circumstances. Even maintaining a tiny piece of software sounds like more commitment than I want at the moment. (Heck, I might go a few weeks without responding to e-mail.)

Fortunately, I spent my first few working years in a corporate environment, where mentors showed me that it’s totally possible to be an Awesome Geek while still working a roughly 9-to-5 job, having families and hobbies, and getting plenty of sleep. Thank goodness. So I have this alternate model in my head, not of a Hero Programmer, but rather of solid contributors who keep making gradual progress, help teams of people become more productive, and who enjoy solving interesting challenges and expanding their skills.

So let’s say that I want to play with my assumption that programming is the sort of thing that’s hard to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of one’s day, at least not the way writing and drawing can. I know that I can go through technical documentation and design resources even if my mind isn’t completely awake, and I can still pick up useful things.

What is it about writing and drawing that make them suitable even in small doses, and how can I tweak programming? Writers can think about stuff during other activities. I can reflect on ideas while walking or cooking, for example. When I program, I still need more of that back-and-forth with a computer and an Internet connection, but maybe I’ll need less of that as I develop more experience. I can set pen to paper during any spare moment, sketching a quick line and seeing where it takes me from there. I might not be able to do that with implementation, but I can use that same playfulness to explore design. Behavior-driven development makes it easier to break projects down into tiny, clear steps, and have a way of verifying progress (without too much backsliding!). Getting deeper into frameworks and tools will help me do more with less effort when I do sit down at a computer.

Okay. I can do this. Worst-case scenario, I just move slowly until I get past this particular phase. I’ve seen role models who’ve pulled that off well, so that’s totally cool. Best-case scenario, I figure out how to hack around some of my current cognitive limitations, and maybe that might help other people who find themselves in the same situation too.

This could work.

Planning little improvements

I like re-planning when things are a little bit clearer and when things change. It’s nice to take a look at where I am, where I might get to, and maybe what I can do with more reinvestment.

wpid-2014-11-01-Baselines-and-possible-improvements-part-1.png wpid-2014-11-01-Baselines-and-possible-improvements-part-2.png

A year still feels a little abstract. A 12-week span might be interesting for concrete goal-setting and momentum; maybe something to experiment. In any case, here’s a small achievement list I can work towards…

  1. Development
    • Propose a calendar of prototypes with business-value descriptions
    • Design prototype and help team members write it instead of coding it myself
    • Think syntactically
  2. Reporting
    • Make Tableau reports snappy
    • Identify business questions for a valuable regular report
    • Analyze my own data in R
  3. Writing: Put together the intermediate Emacs config guide
  4. Drawing: Sketch people quickly
  5. Cooking: Map the families of recipes I want to try, and try them
  6. Learning: Map the things I know and what I want to learn, and maybe find a coach
  7. Tracking: Do grocery tracking in Quantified Awesome
  8. Making: Sew those box cushion covers
  9. Organizing house stuff
    • Simplify wardrobe
    • Tile floor
  10. Biking: Maybe bike in winter
  11. Pet care: Get Luke used to the toothbrush
  12. Exercise: Do the exercise ladder for twelve weeks
  13. Relationship: Work on more projects together
  14. Community:
    • Set up Emacs hangout experiment
    • Hang out at Hacklab during winter

Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking

We’d been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I’ve been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here’s how we now cook in bulk.

During the weekend, we review the past week’s leftovers and freeze them as individual meals. We packaging food in individual lunch-sized containers (~500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the fridge leftovers are done. I label the containers using painter’s tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

I prepare one or two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what’s on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, soup, etc. I start a large pot of rice, too, since I’m likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week. We’re more likely to enjoy the variety if it’s spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

After the food is cooked, I put portions into our large glass containers. That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For some meals that are inefficient to portion out, I just keep the entire pot in the fridge. If there’s more, I’ll freeze the rest as individual portions. If the freezer is full, I’ll keep the extras in the fridge.

When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can’t be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you account for the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there’s labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower electricity rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we’re working on getting even better at it.

Aside from reducing spoilage, I’m also working on increasing variety, maybe cooking smaller batches and cooking more often during the week. I’d still like to use the freezer to spread out meals over an even longer period of time so that we can enjoy different tastes. Getting the hang of spices, ingredient combinations, and cooking techniques will help me with variety, too. So much to learn! =)