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Developing opinions

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?

I notice I have cyclic interests

I learn about some topics in sprints, then let them go for a bit, and then come back to them. For example, my time logs for Emacs show:

  • June 2012
  • Mid-March to mid-April 2013
  • April-June 2014

2014-06-23 20_42_29-Emacs - quantified awesome

Oh. Actually, that’s an interestingly seasonal pattern. I hadn’t realized that the months lined up like that. (Although to be fair, I probably wasn’t tracking it as a category before May 2012, and it’s only very roughly lined up.) I wonder what it is…

Anyway, I feel myself shifting temporarily to other things. I know I’ll be back, but it’s just not at the forefront of my mind.

What am I thinking about instead? What am I learning more about? What am I spending more time on? Oh, the sparklines are surprisingly useful. I can just scroll down looking for patterns. Non-Emacs coding, apparently. Learning about other things. Playing video games, relaxing. Gardening. I’m spending nowhere near as much time biking as I used to, but I do spend more time walking.

Where would I like to direct my shifting interests and attention? I want to focus on building solid habits around health and fitness. That’s probably 15-30 minutes of exercise a day and preparing even better food (salads, variety). Once I’ve internalized those, I think I might circle back to Latin (I can mostly remember the declensions now, although I still make errors), and maybe either Japanese (so I can read and listen) or Cantonese (so that I can chat with W- and with the fellow gardener up the street). There’s drawing practice, too. Time to swing non-technical or non-computer-based for a bit? Hmm…

Fortunately, taking lots of notes along the way helps. I’m sure I’ll be back to this someday!

Mental hacks for slower speech

When I’m excited, I say about 200 words per minute. The recommended rate for persuasive speech is in the range of 140-160wpm, although studies differ on whether faster speech is more persuasive or if slower speech is. (Apparently, it depends on the context and whether people are inclined to agree with you…) It’s good to be flexible, though. I’m getting used to speaking slower. In the videos I’ve been making, I experiment with a lower voice, a slower pace, a more relaxed approach. When I record, I imagine the people I know who speak at the rate I want to use. I “hear” them say things, and then I mimic that.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people because of Google Helpouts and other online conversations. I help them with topics that they’re not familiar. Sometimes there are network or technical issues. I’ve been learning to slow down and to check often for understanding.

I think the biggest difference came from software feedback, though. I did the voiceovers for a series of videos. My natural rate was too fast, even when I tried reading at a slower rate. I adjusted the tempo in Audacity and found that I still sounded comfortable at 90% of my usual speed. The sound quality wasn’t amazing, but it was interesting to listen to myself at a slower rate and still recognize that as me.

It’s funny how there are all sorts of mental hacks that can help me play with this. I find it fascinating when a person’s normal pace is faster than the average pace I’ve been nudging myself towards. I’m not used to being the slower conversationalist, but it’s kinda cool.

I still like speed. I do some bandwidth-negotiation in conversations. I ramp up if other people look like they can take it. But it’s nice to know that I don’t have to rule out podcasting or things like that. I can slow down when it counts, so that what I’m saying sounds easier to try, seems less intimidating. It’s the auditory version of sketchnoting, I guess. Sketchnotes help me make complex topics, so it makes sense to do the same when speaking.

Hmm, maybe I can transcribe my recent videos and recalculate my words per minute…

Small talk tweaks

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

Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. What changes can I make?

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

Hmm. That actually looks doable.

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

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

Describing my personal knowledge management routines with Harold Jarche’s Seek-Sense-Share framework

I spend much of my time learning, making sense of things, and sharing what I’ve learned. I like connecting with other people who think about how they do this. I chatted with Harold Jarche about how he manages his 10-year blog archive. We thought it might be good to describe our knowledge management processes in more detail. Here are more details on mine!

2014-03-03 How I work with knowledge - seek, sense, share #pkm

2014-03-03 How I work with knowledge – seek, sense, share #pkm

Seek

One of the things I’m working on as part of this 5-year experiment is to be more proactive about learning. It’s easy to fall into relying on client requests or a serendipitous stream of updates to teach me interesting things. It takes more work to observe what’s going on and come up with my own questions, ideas, and experiments. I think learning how to do that will be more interesting.

I used to get most of my information through reading. I love being able to slurp a book and take advantage of someone else’s experience. I turn to the Web for more current or on-the-ground information. I read social network updates and blog posts to find out about things I didn’t even think of searching for.

I’m learning more about asking people. There’s a lot written down, but there’s also a lot of knowledge still stuck in people’s heads. Asking helps me pull that out into a form other people can learn from.

Trying things myself helps me test knowledge to see if it makes sense to my life. I learn how to adapt things, too, and I might even come up with my own ideas along the way.

Sometimes I get interesting questions through e-mail, comments, or other requests. Those are worth exploring too, since explaining helps me understand something better. I fill in gaps in my understanding, too.

(Make) Sense

Many of my blog posts are reflective. I think out loud because that helps me test whether I make sense. Sometimes other people help me learn or think my way through complex topics. A public archive is helpful, too. I can search my thoughts, and I’m relatively confident that things will continue to be around.

Chunking

The main challenge I’m working on is getting better at “chunking” ideas so that I can think bigger thoughts. I’m comfortable writing my way through small questions: one question, one blog post. As I accumulate these posts, I can build more complex thoughts by linking to previous ones.

Sketches help me chunk ideas. Like blog posts, each sketch addresses one idea. I can combine many sketches into one blog post, and then use a sketch to map out the relationships between ideas.

I’m learning how to organize my posts into series. A better writer would plan ahead. Me, I usually work backwards instead, organizing existing posts and tweaking them to flow better. When I get the hang of series, I’ll be able to start thinking in chunks of short books.

Reviews

I have a regular review process. I do weekly reviews of my blog posts, sketches, reading, and time. I do monthly reviews and yearly reviews, rolling the summaries upward.

I’ve written some scripts to simplify this process. For example, I read blog posts with the Feedly reader. If This Then That imports my Feedly saved items into Evernote. I have an Emacs Lisp function that reads Evernote exports and formats them for my blog, and then I annotate that list with my thoughts.

Archive hacks

Even with this review process, I can’t remember everything I have in my archive. Fortunately, I’m a geek. I like building and tweaking tools. I’ve written about the different things I do to make it easier to go through my archive. I can find things faster thanks to little things like having a browser search keyword for my blog. Recommendations for similar posts help me find connections that I might not have thought about myself.

Delegation

One of the unusual things I’ve been experimenting with is delegation to a team of virtual assistants. I ask people to research information, summarize what they find, and draft posts. I can find things faster myself, and I can write pretty quickly. Still, it’s a useful way to learn about things from other people’s perspectives, and I hope it pays off.

Share

My website is the base for all my sharing. Having seen so many services come and go, I don’t trust anything I can’t back up and control. I keep most things in a self-hosted WordPress blog. I also use Google Drive for easy, granular sharing (such as my delegation process folder), and Dropbox for other features.

I keep a copy of my sketchnotes in Evernote for convenience, and I share those notebooks as well. See my sketchnotes, sketchbook, and visual vocabulary.

Google Hangout on Air is great for recording podcasts and video conversations. The broadcast is available as a live stream, and it’s automatically recorded too. I’ve been moving more of my conversations to Hangouts on Air so that other people can learn from them.

I don’t want to clutter my main Twitter account with automated posts. I use @sachac_blog for blog post announcements. On occasion, I’ll post links or sneak previews with my main Twitter account, @sachac.

For free/pay-what-you-want resources, I use Gumroad. I like the way that it lets me offer digital resources while giving people a way to show their appreciation.

I’m also experimenting with paper books using CreateSpace. I’m looking forward to releasing some sketchnote collections through that.

How about you? How do you work with what you know?

Check out Harold Jarche’s post, too: What is your PKM routine?. Want to watch our conversation about large blog archives? See Youtube video below.