Category Archives: learning

How can I make better use of my index card drawing process?

I really like this practice of working with index cards, especially now that I’ve sorted out a sweet digital workflow for them.

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow -- index card #drawing #workflow

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow – index card #drawing #workflow

I started with a straightforward workflow:

  1. Think of a question.
  2. Draw it on a paper index card.
  3. After I complete 5+ index cards, scan the cards.
  4. Convert and process the cards (colouring, etc.).
  5. Rename the cards.
  6. Upload the cards.
  7. Add them to my Flickr set (and to blog posts and so on).

I replaced my Flickr uploading process with a script. Then I replaced the paper index cards with digital index cards. I wrote another script to make renaming files easier. Then I built an outline of questions and used that to create index card templates. So now my workflow looks like this:

  1. I use Org Mode in Emacs to collect and organize questions. I use TODO states to track ones that need further research, ones that are ready to be drawn, and ones that are ready to be blogged.
  2. When I switch to tablet mode, I can select questions to draw using a custom pen-friendly Emacs interface that sets up the template for me.
  3. I upload the images using another script and add the links to my outline.

After I draft the blog post, I use another bit of code to move the relevant images out of my “To blog” directory and into another directory so that I can easily upload them (since I still haven’t tweaked the all-Emacs way of doing things the way I want them).

An index card is a good size for a chunk. It’s smaller than a blog post, so I can accelerate my learn-do-share-review cycle. If I invest more time into creating, organizing, and sharing them, I think they’ll pay off well. Other people report that their Zettelkasten (index card organization systems) become almost like conversational partners and collaborators. I already feel that way about my blog archive, and it will probably be even more

Hmm… Should I add a unique identifier to sketches so that I can refer to them more concisely than giving the full link? This mostly matters for referring to sketches in the drawing itself, since I can use links in text or metadata. For example, I can assign codes to each chunk, possibly differentiating between sketches (letters?) and blog posts (numbers?). So, maybe “2015-01-01a” for the first sketch on January 1, and “2015-01-01-1″ for the first blog post? I could omit the dashes, but then searching requires that mental translation, so we’ll keep the dashes in there. The downside is that there’ll be a little additional clutter, but it might be interesting to experiment with – adding a reference line, and maybe even adding the info to the filename. It gives some linking capability that can survive the disparate systems I publish sketches to (my blog, Evernote, Flickr), even for sketches that don’t get turned into blog posts.

What about my 5-cards-a-day target?

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target -- index card #drawing #reflection

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target – index card #drawing #reflection

Sometimes making five cards feels like a stretch, since I have to Think Interesting Thoughts. Using templates can help – I could make four cards and a journal entry, for example. I expect the awkwardness will subside as I build up my question store and do more research/experimentation.

Colour slows me down if I think about it too much or worry about becoming too repetitive. It might be fine to just quickly highlight things most of the time and save the development of colour sense for sessions of deliberate practice.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process -- index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process – index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

In terms of thinking, spending the extra few minutes to think about and capture the next questions or actions for a card can make a big difference in my focus. I can also relax my chunking guidelines so that a single sketch can be fleshed out into a quick blog post instead of waiting until I accumulate several sketches related to the topic – taking my own advice to schedule Minimum Viable Posts. If I phrase my outline in terms of questions instead of keywords, I’ll probably find that more motivating and easier to scope.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop -- index card #tech

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop – index card #tech

That will probably also help me with some of the bottlenecks I identified while contemplating how I can make better use of my laptop. I’m doing okay at generating questions and drawing index cards, but I can do better at translating those ideas into research, experiments, and blog posts. So, I can clear out more of my backlog of index cards that I want to share (probably ending up with two months of scheduled blog posts, or maybe even more!). Then I can research and try out more ideas, so I’m not just drawing questions that I can answer with what’s currently in my head. =)

Onward!

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 sketchedbooks.com for more. Feel free to share – it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution License, like the rest of my blog. Enjoy!

Somewhat related:

Shrinking my learn-do-share-review cycle

Sometimes I read too much without doing anything about what I learn. By the time I get around to applying ideas, my memory is fuzzy and I have to dig up my notes anyway. Sometimes I never get around to applying what I’ve learned.

Sometimes the tasks on my TODO list are too big to fit into a single session of thinking-about or doing, so I end up procrastinating them. Or sometimes I do them, but I feel like I’m wandering around.

Sometimes I let myself focus too much on learning and doing, moving onward. By the time I want to share what I’ve learned, I feel like there’s just so much background I need to cover before people can get to the point of being able to do things. Or I’ve forgotten what those first crucial steps were.

Sometimes I get so caught up in learning, doing, or sharing, that I forget to spend time thinking about how I’m doing things. I’ve been keeping a journal, but the entries are often very short – just keywords that describe what I did, without notes on how I might do it better.

Have you felt like that too? Tell me I’m not the only one who has to think about the balance. =)

I’ve been working on reducing waste by shortening this learn-do-share cycle. Instead of spending a week reading five books about a topic, I might spend a couple of hours reading one book, extracting the key points from it, and identifying one or two actions I can try. Instead of doing an exhaustive search to find the best tool for what I want to do, I’ll do a quick search, pick one, try it out, and then use that experience to help me learn. Instead of waiting until I feel confident about a topic (or even until I’ve worked out all the bugs), I’ll share while I learn. Instead of trying to fill in all the gaps between where a beginner might start and where my post ends up, I write just the part that’s fresh in my memory, and then I might fill in other gaps when people ask.

2015-02-04 Shrinking my Learn-Do-Share cycle -- index card #sharing #learning

2015-02-04 Shrinking my Learn-Do-Share cycle – index card #sharing #learning

In fact, I’ve been moving towards posting more of my rough notes using index cards. That way, I don’t even have to wait until I’ve summarized the cards into a more coherent blog post. They’re out there already, easy to link to or share in conversations. I still suspect it’s a bit of a firehose of incoherence, but I’m pleasantly surprised that some people actually find them interesting. =)

2015-02-03 Benefits of sharing my index cards -- index card #sharing #drawing

2015-02-03 Benefits of sharing my index cards – index card #sharing #drawing

A fast learn-do-share cycle results in a new challenge: What do you do with all these little pieces? This matters for both organizing your own notes and making it easier for other people to learn.

I’ve been refining my workflows for organizing my index cards, snippets, and posts into outlines. Picking descriptive titles definitely helps. Fortunately, other people have given this challenge of personal knowledge management much thought. Zettelkasten looks like an interesting keyword to research, and I’m looking forward to picking up ideas from other people’s techniques.

When it comes to organizing notes for other people, I’m still rather haphazard, but I’m planning to braindump a large outline of questions and use that to create maps for people.

As for the actual division of time, the pomodoro technique isn’t part of my habitual workflow yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. Maybe I’ll experiment with a pomodoro-based schedule: one for learning, one for doing, and one for sharing. But my learning cycle’s actually a lot more intertwined. At its best, I’m learning as I’m doing (flipping between windows as needed), and the notes that I take while I’m learning and doing (thanks to Org Mode and literate programming!) can easily be shared as a blog post. So maybe each chunk of time represents a topic instead, and I can track whether I’m successfully getting things all the way through to the sharing stage.

Sure, some topics require deeper reflection and integration. For instance, you can’t expect instant results from philosophy. But it might be interesting to shorten the distance from learning to action and from action to sharing.

I like the tips in Christian Tietze’s “Use a Short Knowledge Cycle to Keep Your Cool” on how to figure out a good “size” for your research tasks so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by them. It’s a good reminder to iterate: you don’t have to research everything before you start trying things out, you don’t have to know everything before you start writing, and you don’t have to have a perfect process – you can keep improving it.

So we’ll see how this works out. For example, this post took me half an hour to research/think about, and another half-hour to write. It could be more interesting if I researched some more (found similar techniques, contrasting opinions, etc.), and it could be richer with more experiments and experiences, but here it is. I can always add to it in the future, or write another post and link to the previous one.

Tell the difference between diminishing returns and compounding growth when it comes to investing in skills

When is it worth improving a skill you’re already good at, and when should you focus on other things?

I started thinking about this after a conversation about what it means to master the Emacs text editor. Someone wondered if the additional effort was really worth it. As I explored the question, I noticed that skills respond differently to the investment of time, and I wondered what the difference was.

For example, going from hunt-and-peck typing to touch-typing is a big difference. Instead of having to think about typing, you can focus on what you want to communicate or do. But after a certain point, getting faster at typing doesn’t give you as much of a boost in productivity. You get diminishing returns: investing into that skill yields less over time. If I type a little over 100 words per minute, retraining bad habits and figuring out other optimizations so that I can reach a rate of 150 words per minute isn’t going to make a big difference if the bottleneck is my brain. (Just in case I’m wrong about this, I’d be happy to hear from people who type that fast about whether it was worth it!)

Some skills seem shallow. There’s only so much you can gain from them before they taper off. Other skills are deeper. Let’s take writing, for instance. You can get to the point of being able to competently handwrite or type. You can fluently express yourself. But when it comes to learning how to ask questions and organize thoughts I’m not sure there’s a finish line at which you can say you’ve mastered writing. There’s always more to learn. And the more you learn, the more you can do. You get compounding growth: investing into that skill yields more over time.

I think this is part of the appeal of Emacs for me. Even after more than a decade of exploring it and writing about it, I don’t feel I’m at the point of diminishing returns. In fact, even the small habits that I’ve been focusing on building lately yield a lot of value.

No one can objectively say that a skill is shallow or deep. It depends on your goals. For example, I think of cooking as a deep skill. The more you develop your skills, the wider your possibilities are, and the more enjoyable it becomes. But if you look at it from the perspective of simply keeping yourself fueled so that you can concentrate on other things, then it makes sense to find a few simple recipes that satisfy you, or outsource it entirely by eating out.

It’s good to take a step back and ask yourself: What kind of value will you get from investing an hour into this? What about the value you would get from investing an hour in other things?

Build on your strengths where building on those strengths can make a difference. It can make a lot of sense to reach a professional level in something or inch towards becoming world-class. It could be the advantage that gets you a job, compensates for your weakness, opens up opportunities, or connects you to people. On the other hand, you might be overlearning something and wasting your time, or developing skills to a level that you don’t actually need.

When you hit that area of diminishing returns – or even that plateau of mediocrity – you can think about your strategies for moving forward. Consider:

  • What kind of return are you getting on your time? (understanding the value)
  • Is there a more effective way to learn? (decreasing your input)
  • Can you get more value out of your time from this skill or other skills? (increasing your output)
  • If you learn something else first,
    • will that make more of a difference in your life?
    • will that help you when you come back to this skill?

These questions are helping me decide that for me, learning more about colours is worthwhile, but drawing more realistic figures might not be at the moment; learning more about basic Emacs habits is better than diving into esoteric packages; and exploring questions, doing research, and trying things out is likely to be more useful than expanding my vocabulary. I’ll still flip through the dictionary every now and then, but I can focus on developing other skills.

How about you? What are you focusing on, and what helps you decide?

Related:

Break down what people mean so that you can learn from the specifics

People are vague. You are vague. I am vague. We say things without digging into the details; we often use the first word that comes to mind. This makes sense — otherwise, we’d spend all our time clarifying.

You can learn a lot from digging into things and making them more specific. (… she writes, self-conscious about the use of the vaguest word of all: “things.”)

I’m fascinated by the challenge of understanding what people mean. I realized this while looking at it from two different directions:

  • When someone give an excuse like “It takes too much time,” what’s the excuse behind the excuse, and how can we address that?
  • When someone gives a compliment like “Thank you for sharing an inspiring post,” what kind of inspiring was it, and how can I get better at that?

Let me start with the example of inspiration, because it’s something I want to translate into concrete feedback and action. I thought about the different responses I have to things that inspire me.

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration -- index card #inspiration #breakdown

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration – index card #inspiration #breakdown

  • Idea: Inspiration might mean coming across something I didn’t even know I wanted. Now that I know it’s possible, I can work toward it. (This happens a lot with Emacs, which is why I like reading Planet Emacsen)
  • Clarity: Seeing other people who have reached my goals (or who’ve travelled further down the path) helps me understand those goals better. What do I really want? What are some ways I can get there? I can see that more clearly thanks to other people who have illuminated the path. (Talking to executives helped me realize I don’t want to be one.)
  • Alternatives: Inspiration can help me see different ways of doing something. For example, I looked at ways other people coloured their sketchnotes and picked several techniques to try.
  • Beginning: Inspiration can show me that something is less intimidating than I thought it was. It can help me figure out a good place to start and give me the courage to do it. Programming tutorials help me get through the initial challenges of a new framework.
  • Action: Inspiration can move me to act on something. I already know it’s a good idea and I’ve been meaning to do it, but sometimes I need that extra push. Comments with questions and suggestions help me a lot.
  • Perseverance: Sometimes I can feel lost or discouraged. Remembering that other people have dealt with bigger challenges helps me address my anxiety, focus on my goals or my progress, and keep going. Anecdotes are easy to find.
  • Hero worship: I often come across stuff that looks so awesome, I don’t think I could ever do anything like it. This is the type of “inspiration” we tend to get bombarded with. This is the least useful kind of inspiration, I think. It takes a little work to transform it into the kind of inspiration I can use: I need to reflect on what part of it resonates with and how I can incorporate a little of that into my life.

In what ways do I want to inspire others? How can I get better at that?

  • I like inspiring with ideas, playing with what’s possible. I can get better at that by sharing more of these little tweaks.
  • I think out loud in order to help people with clarity. I sketch out the reasons and consequences of my choices so that other people can learn without necessarily having to make all those choices themselves.
  • I explore and summarize alternatives so that people can use that to figure out what might fit them. I can get better at that by researching what other people have done, generating a few new ideas (possibly by combining other ideas), and testing things out so that I can share my experiences.
  • I break things down to help people with beginning. This is why I like addressing the “Yeah, but…”s, the excuses, the things that get in people’s way. This is also why I like sharing ideas, because that can help pull people forward.
  • I’d love to get better at moving people to action. I haven’t given this as much thought yet, but I think it’s the most important.
  • I don’t have much to share in terms of perseverance. I’ve been very lucky.
  • I definitely don’t want to be in the region of hero worship. It creates too much distance and can shut down action.

Breaking a general statement down into more specific statements helps me learn a lot. I ask myself: “What would I or someone say that captures a different aspect of this?” and I write that down. When I split off different aspects, I can understand those aspects better, and I can understand the whole thing better too.

This technique is good to use for excuses, too.

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses -- index card #excuses #breakdown

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses – index card #excuses #breakdown

I’m getting better at catching myself when I give an excuse, drilling down with “Why?” and splitting it out into different excuses. (I guess, thanks to my parents’ patience, my inner toddler never stopped asking questions.) Then I can check if those excuses match what’s getting in my way, or if they don’t resonate with me.

A technique I often use is to imagine other people giving those excuses, since sometimes my mind is perfectly willing to ascribe weakness to others even when it gets defensive about itself. ;)

I like sharing these excuses because that might help other people get over theirs. It’s often easier to recognize one of your excuses instead of trying to articulate it yourself. “That’s it! That’s what’s getting in my way!” you might say. Or even if you don’t find something that completely fits, you might find something close, and then you can ask yourself: “What’s missing here?”

For example, what does it mean when someone says something “takes too much time”? What’s really getting in their way? Here are some ideas I came up with:

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time -- index card #excuses #breakdown

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time – index card #excuses #breakdown

“Too much time” is too vague to address. On the other hand, if you think something takes too much time because you’re trying to do something complicated, you might be able to ask yourself: “What do I really need? Can I get away with doing something simpler?” and then reduce the task to something small enough for you to get started with.

Break things down. Find the statement behind the statement or the excuse behind the excuse, and you’ll have more to work with. Instead of getting frustrated because you can’t come up with one specific answer, come up with lots of them, and then see if you recognize yourself in any of them. Almost there, but not quite? Come up with more answers, maybe combining aspects of the ones you already have. This will not only help you understand yourself, but also understand others–and help others understand themselves and you.

If you find my posts inspiring, would you consider helping me understand more about what kind of inspiration you get and how I can get better at it? If you’re reading this because you recognize one of your excuses in it, would you mind figuring out what your more specific reasons are and what could address them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Thanks!

Learning from people

I have a friend who’s focusing on learning how to ask better questions. Actually, he realized his goal is probably to ask more questions in the first place, since even simple questions (“Where did you come from?”) can lead to interesting stories.

It got me curious about getting better at learning from people. I think this will help me learn about the stuff that I can’t find in books because:

  • New things often aren’t in books
  • There’s a lot of tacit knowledge that’s difficult to capture
  • Sometimes I don’t understand something well enough to research it
  • Talking to people can help me come across things I didn’t know to ask about

2015-01-20 Asking better questions -- index card #asking

2015-01-20 Asking better questions – index card #asking

I think getting better at asking questions and learning from people involves figuring out:

  • what to ask about (spotting opportunities or following curiosities)
  • who to ask
  • how to build rapport
  • how to pick the right time/place/sequence
  • how to frame the question (level of detail, phrasing, etc.)
  • how to follow up

So that gives me specific things to focus on in terms of learning from others and trying things out myself.

I’ve been thinking about two aspects of learning from people: working with mentors/coaches/trainers, and having casual conversations with other people.

2015-01-24 Imagining awesomeness at learning from people -- index card #learning #people

2015-01-24 Imagining awesomeness at learning from people – index card #learning #people

Mentors/coaches/trainers

I’ve been lucky to have many mentors (both formal and informal) who helped me learn how to navigate organizations, find opportunities, build skills, and so on. But I haven’t been as deliberate about learning as I could have been. I periodically consider finding a coach for my writing or coding, but haven’t taken the leap.

I’ve heard from people who weren’t sure if therapy was working out for them; they couldn’t evaluate their progress. I think I’m hesitant for similar reasons. I’m uncertain about choosing candidates, asking useful questions, evaluating the results, and balancing the value and the opportunity cost.

This is precisely the sort of situation for which an opportunity fund is useful, because it pushes me to Just Try Things Out. I’m slowly warming up to that idea, hence all the blog posts thinking out loud.

Here are some areas I’m considering:

2015-01-19 Imagining an editing experiment -- index card #delegation #writing #editing

2015-01-19 Imagining an editing experiment – index card #delegation #writing #editing

For example, an editing experiment might help me develop a better mental model of an editor, forcing me to search for more specific vocubulary (down with “stuff”!), testing to see if something I’ve written makes sense, and checking for gaps.

2015-01-24 How can I learn from observation feedback -- index card #learning #people

2015-01-24 How can I learn from observation feedback – index card #learning #people

In addition to directly asking for specific help, I might learn a lot from general observation. A friend suggested Atul Gawande’s Better for its approach to learning: a surgeon inviting other surgeons to observe him and give feedback, even though this technique was mostly used by people with less experience. It makes sense to do that even when you’re more experienced, and it’s probably even more useful because people can swap tips or explain things they unconsciously do.

Other people

2015-01-24 Mixed feelings about learning from people -- index card #learning #people

2015-01-24 Mixed feelings about learning from people – index card #learning #people

I noticed that I have a strong bias towards online conversations instead of offline ones. Sure, online conversations might be lower-bandwidth or not as nuanced. But blog posts and comments expand the conversations to include other people, and it’s easier to follow up on threads of ideas. I think this preference is among the reasons why, compared to several years ago, I now spend much less time going to parties or meetups. Instead, I focus on writing and connecting online.

But I get plenty of writing time already, so maybe I should mix more offline conversations into my life. This would follow the principle that I shouldn’t always do what’s fun and easy. It makes sense to develop skills and routines in other areas as well. For example, I can imagine getting better at cultivating acquaintances through shared activities like cooking at Hacklab and hosting board game afternoons. I can test and refine several quick stories for small talk, which frees me up to focus on learning more about the other person through questions. It’s like the way foreign language learners can boost their feeling of fluency by anticipating common questions (“Where are you from?” “What do you do?”) and practising answers to those.

I think that getting better at asking questions and learning from people starts mostly from getting to know people as individuals. What makes them different? What’s interesting about their lives? There’s always something to find. The next step after that is to gradually build the acquaintance or the friendship through things like lunches or get-togethers. It makes sense to open my world so that I can come across good people. I enjoy their company, I grow in helping out, and I learn from the conversations with them and the mental models of them.

More thoughts

2015-01-25 Learning from people -- index card #learning #people

Thinking about this, I realized that I’m not bad at learning from people. I’m pretty good at learning from books, blogs, and online conversations, which is why I rely on those so much. But there are some aspects of learning from people that I can improve, and I can play around with those without cutting too much into the time I spend learning in other ways.