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Make the most of a day of lectures

Intense learning can be exhausting. Here are some tips to manage your energy and make the most of a long day of lectures. Click on the images for larger versions!

Energy is the first part of the equation. If you’re not alert, you’ll have a harder time understanding and remembering important topics.

2013-11-08 Manage your energy when learning a lot in one day

Full disclaimer: In university, I fell asleep in many of my classes because I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of these things. (Also, I had to sign up for a 7:30 AM class once. The topic was fun, dragging myself out of bed wasn’t.) Learn from my experience and manage your energy well. =)

Okay, now that you’re in the lecture, how can you deal with common challenges? Here are some ideas.

2013-11-06 Make the most of lecture classes

Review is where learning really happens. That’s when you fill in any gaps and connect what you’ve learned to what you need to remember and what you’ve learned before.

2013-11-08 Structure your notes for easy review

Hope these tips help!

Think about your delta: increasing the difference you want to make

What kind of difference do you want to make? How can you make an even bigger difference?

I can’t remember where I picked up this idea—a book? a podcast?—but lately I’ve been thinking about my delta (D or d). In math and science, delta represents change. What kind of difference do I want to make in this world? Then I started thinking about calculus and derivatives, because that’s what delta reminds me of. How could I increase my rate of change? How could I accelerate? And then another order of derivatives: how can I increase the rate at which I increase my rate of change?

Here’s what I understand so far. I care about learning and sharing. I want to affect the way that people learn. I want to help them (I want to help you!) learn more effectively, be inspired, get encouraged to share, and have fun along the way. I’m doing just fine now, but there are many things I can learn or try that could help me make a bigger difference later on.

2013-11-09 What difference do I want to make

For example, let’s look at learning and sharing:

2013-11-09 What would bigger be like

I was content with my progress before I started exploring this. Now I’m more excited about the possibilities. It’s a little scary – more opportunities to fall flat on my face! – but imagining what “bigger” would be like helps encourage me to go for it.

What do you want your delta to be? What could help you increase it?

How I review my notes

I’ve been trying to figure out how to improve my processes for reviewing my notes. Writing things down and drawing things (more often now!) are great ways to remember, but imagine if I could get even better at keeping track of current information and digging up things from my archive. My weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews have been really helpful even for just the decade I’ve kept them. I think they’ll be amazing to extend over a lifetime.

My processes for reviewing info

Come to think of it, my review needs probably fall into these categories:

  • A. Open loops: I need to be able to review my notes for things I’m working on, especially if they go beyond a few pages or what my memory can hold. I can make this easier by keeping an index or map of things I’m currently thinking about so that important topics don’t fall through the cracks.
  • B. Growth / review: I like reviewing how far I’ve come, checking that against my plans and thinking about what I want to do next. Progress is hard to see day by day, so records help.
  • C. Topics I’m thinking about in depth, especially over time: I can simplify review by organizing things into larger and larger chunks, like the way that writing subroutines makes programs easier to understand and remember.
  • D. Archived information: Book notes, experiences, topics I’m not actively thinking about, and so on. I don’t refer to these regularly, although I occasionally need to dig them up. It’s great if these are publicly viewable and searchable, because then other people can look up stuff without being limited by what I remember. (Don’t ask me for book recommendations when I’m walking around; blog comments and e-mails are better channels because I can refer to my notes.)

In particular, I’m working on getting better at thinking about topics that are beyond what I can hold in my head (C). Combining mind-mapping with sketches looks like a promising approach, and making summary sketches/blog posts can help me chunk things better too.

I also want to get better at tracking decisions so that I can review them 9-12 months later (or at a suitable review date), which is one of the tips from Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself (see my sketchnote). I’ve posted decision reviews before, but it would be good to make the process more reliable. Making decision analysis part of my daily drawing practice will help with documenting larger decisions, and then I can use Evernote or Org reminders to schedule the review.

Reviewing what I’ve been learning can also help me see what I want to learn more about next. If I can keep my main topics in mind and focus on exploring subtopics that are near those, then I can take notes that are more useful for myself and other people. It’s different from a scattershot approach because it lets me build up more competency or understanding in different areas, and it’s different from a tightly focused approach because this way I don’t overspecialize or get bored, and I can play with the connections between ideas.

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Most of the note-taking tips out there focus on school, of course. I wasn’t sure how useful those tips would be once you’re done with exams and final projects, but they might be handy after all. It’s easy to convince yourself that you know enough about something, but the real test is using that knowledge to do something new or become someone different. How will learning something change me? What will I be able to do?

Reviewing what you've learned

In addition to learning something from the way school structures reviews, maybe I can learn from people who have kept journals for decades, and authors who do extensive research (maybe nonfiction books in the same area?). I’d love to learn more about how prolific note-takers organize and review their information. I’m not interested in perfect memory or people for whom this is easy. I’d love to learn from people who have thought about it, tried different things, and found ways that worked better for them. Thoughts?

Finding the right balance between thinking, learning, doing, and reviewing

Do you overthink things? Do you read a lot about productivity instead of actually doing things? Do you get so caught up in doing things that you don’t know where the time went? Do you focus too much on the past instead of moving on? It can be tricky to find the balance among all these things – to plan and learn and do and review just enough so that you can get to the next stage, and to keep going through that cycle instead of getting stuck. It’s all about staying focused on action.

I struggle with this sometimes too. It’s so easy, so tempting to keep learning abstract ideas. But the real learning happens when you act on it.

2013-11-01 How can I keep my learning focused on action

You can also think of this in terms of a pipeline. If you’re thinking about too much but your plans aren’t making it to the next stage, you’ve got lots of floating ideas. If you’re learning a lot from other people but you’re not putting what you learn into practice, it stays abstract. If you’re doing a lot but you don’t have time to review or adjust your plans, you might end up doing the wrong things. And if you’re reviewing a lot without thinking about how to move forward, you get stuck.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about this balance. I haven’t figured it out yet. I want to find just the right mix so that I’m not overloading my memory or my capacity to learn from things.

How can I find the right balance of thinking, learning, doing, and reviewing

Thinking and planning: If I rush in, I waste time backtracking. If I spend too much time thinking without doing things, I go around in circles. If I do this just right, then I would think about something just enough to let me identify some resources to learn from and experiments to try. Right now, I tend to spend more effort thinking than I probably should. I can tell because I find myself writing down the same TODOs in my sketches. One of the reasons why I’m focusing on thinking so much is because I’m sorting out this new workflow, so once it settles down, I’ll move forward faster. Current: Too much

Learning from other people: If I do too little of this, I waste time figuring things out myself. If I spend too much time doing this, I read and listen without actually trying things. If I do this just right, then I would learn enough to get me to the point of trying things out. I used to spend way more time learning from other people compared to thinking on my own, so I’ve been pulling back. I might have pulled back excessively, though. I’ll get to this after I get into the swing of doing things, or as part of my efforts to learn how to ask better questions. Current: Not enough

Doing things: Coding, building, trying things out… If I do too little of this, my notes stay abstract. If I do too much of this, it’s usually at the expense of good notes, and that makes it difficult to review what I’ve done or reuse my solutions. If I do this just right, then I’ll be working in tight, time-limited, focused chunks that make it easy to review and re-plan along the way. (Although since I’m focusing on learning at the moment, does my thinking and planning count as doing? Hmm…) Current: Not enough

Reviewing: This involves writing about what I’ve learned and figuring out the next steps. If I do too little of this, the days blur together. If I do too much of this… Can I do too much of this? Maybe if I write more than what I and other people would find valuable (well, the cost-benefit equation considering number of people and value). For example, it doesn’t make sense to spend days thinking about a meal (Proust notwithstanding), although spending half an hour to write up a technical solution is probably worth it. Current: All right

So my plan for the next few months is to settle into these new “habits of mind” for thinking, gradually check off more tasks, and then work on getting better at learning from other people. I’m also curious about efficiency improvements for reviewing, such as dictating my blog posts or building up Flickr as a quick way for people to follow or comment on my notes.

How about you? What’s your balance like, and how would you like to tweak it?

Thinking about how to get better at asking questions

I tend to learn most things by trying them out or by reading. That’s because I speed-read like nobody’s business, having taught myself the technique as a way of getting out of grade-school reading periods and into the computer lab. =) The downside of being really fast at reading is that I tend to neglect other ways to learn, so I made this sketch to remind me that there are other ways to learn things.

Different methods for (assisted) learning

I’m getting better at listening to podcasts and watching videos, although I still listen to them at 2x speed whenever I can change that setting. Before I can make better use of classes or coaches, though, I probably need to work on asking questions.

Come to think of it, I didn’t ask a lot of questions when I was in school. I usually raised my hand to answer questions, but I rarely took advantage of teachers’ office hours. I read, I wrote programs, I struggled with tests, but I didn’t ask. Even now, when I’m debugging problems or figuring stuff out, I tend to push through on my own instead of asking.

I should learn how to ask better. It’s useful. It can save me time, and it can encourage other people to share what they know. I wonder what’s keeping me from asking, and how I can work around it.

Thinking About Getting Better at Asking Questions

Part of the reason why I seldom ask questions, I guess, is that I tend to follow Eric S. Raymond’s advice on How to Ask Questions the Smart Way. I don’t want to waste people’s time by asking questions that have been asked before or that can be answered with a little digging, so I investigate things first. It might take me a few hours or even a couple of days, but I can often solve things on my own. Then I blog about it so that the answer becomes a little more searchable for other people.

How to Ask Questions the Right Way (Eric S. Raymond)

Maybe I should adopt a rule like this one from Akamai: You Must Try, and Then You Must Ask. When you’re about to give up, push on for fifteen minutes. Document your work so far. Take notes. Then you must ask. Call for help. Share your notes. You can keep digging afterwards, but you should ask, because otherwise you’re wasting time.

I feel self-conscious about asking, but I should work around that because asking people for help builds relationships and encourages them to share what they know. So I’m going to practise asking: first on Twitter because it’s quick and optional and in the stream, then maybe on Quora or Stack Overflow or Facebook, and then more thoughts and questions on my blog.

Good question-asking is probably the ability to concisely express a question that invites people to answer it. When I get the hang of asking, then I can make better use of other ways to learn. Interviews, webinars, courses and coaching are more effective for people who ask good questions.

If I spend a lot of time crafting questions, that makes it difficult to go to a presentation or a webinar and come up with new questions on the fly. Clearly, I should be coming to those with prepared questions that I can tweak based on the presentation contents. If I can keep a list or map of the questions I’m exploring, then I can pull out the ones that are related to a topic and ask them if the speaker covers material that’s related or tangential to my questions. Hmm…

What about teaching people how to ask me better questions? One of the nifty things that I’m learning from doing all these Google Helpouts sessions is that there’s a world of difference between vague questions and focused, prepared questions. When people ask me good questions, we’re off and running, and we pack so many things into a 15-minute conversation. When people ask me vague questions, I have to work a little bit harder to dig up something good.

Teaching people with vague questions_thumb

I don’t want to just focus on people who already know how to ask good questions. It’s good to help people learn how to ask better questions, and I’ll learn a lot about asking better questions myself.

2013-11-10 How can people ask me good questions_thumb

When people can identify their goals and share their experiences with things that have or haven’t worked for them, that makes it so much easier to help – especially if they also identify something they want to learn from me. This speeds up the conversation tremendously, because we can jump right into the middle. Even starting with expectations and differences can help. I’m getting better at guiding people through vague questions, but it’s a real joy to help people with great questions.

Have you worked on asking better questions? What did you learn? Are there great resources I should check out?

Mapping what I’m learning

I want to learn about more than I can fit into my working memory, so I need to take notes and I need to relate those notes to each other. My sketches, blog posts, and Evernote entries are great for remembering things, but I also want to see overviews so that I don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is where mapping comes in. Mapping is about organizing topics so that I can see the relationships, find the gaps, and keep moving forward.

Mapping what you know

For example, I mapped out what I wanted to learn about learning, and I frequently refer to it while planning my next steps. 2013_10_09_17_05_50_005

I also have a few other maps at lower levels of detail. For example, this is a rough map of topics related to taking notes:

Note-taking techniques

Mapping helps me look ahead, and it also gives me a framework for connecting what I learn to what I’ve learned before.

One way to practise mapping is by mapping what you know. This helps you review your notes, identify any gaps, see how far you’ve come, and connect ideas (and discover interesting relationships you might not have come across before). Your maps can also help other people learn.

To map what you know, you can start from the bottom level (detailed notes answering specific questions) and work your way up to overviews. Alternatively, you can start from the top (an outline) and then work your way down to the specifics. Combining these strategies can help you get around mental blocks.2013_10_14_23_12_00_003

I’ve been working on mapping what I know. I’m still trying to find a good set of tools to help me do this. Instead of getting intimidated by the task, I’ve decided I’m going to start in the middle, mapping out things I recently learned and things that I’m learning next. Once I get the hang of doing that, I can start adding older entries like my blog posts.

I haven’t quite found the perfect tool yet. Evernote is great for personal notes, but even though it has public notebooks (see my sketchbook and my sketchnotes), people aren’t used to following or discussing new notes there. Flickr is good for exposure and a little discussion, but it’s not as easy to search or back up. Neither tool is good for overall non-linear organization.2013_10_15_21_39_36_004

Most note-taking systems focus on indexes for paper notes, either with straightforward tables of contents or mindmaps that refer to pages by IDs. Evernote and OneNote have been around for a long time, so I’ll probably be able to find people who have thought about how to organize lots of information using those systems. In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with using mindmaps to organize hyperlinks and next actions. I’m testing Mindjet MindManager, Xmind, and Freeplane. So far, I like Freeplane the most because:

  • the GTD add-in lets me quickly get a list of next actions
  • customizable keyboard shortcuts let me tweak the interface
  • filtering lets me focus on a selected branch
  • and hey, it’s free and open source

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To make this, I added each item in my current public and private sketchbooks to my map, creating nodes when necessary. I don’t have a lot of topics in my sketchbook yet, but if I find myself with more than twenty or so items in a single category, it’s probably time to split that. I’ve split the categories in my blog index a few times, and I’m long overdue for splitting some of the others. It’s much easier to reorganize things in a map instead of editing each item, although I should come up with some kind of bulk interface so that I can update the categorizations.

The arrows are hyperlinks to either my blog posts or my Evernote entries (using evernote:// URLs from Copy Note Shortcut). I included private notes as well, so the map works only for me. Sorry! In the future, I’d love to make a version of this that omits private URLs and information. Freeplane supports lots of export formats, so maybe I’ll be able to process XML or HTML and make something that’ll help people browse too.

I’d like to get to the point of having a smooth workflow for drawing, scanning, publishing, organizing, browsing through, and following up on these thoughts. Do you know of anyone who’s doing something similar to this? This kind of visual thinking isn’t quite like the visual recording that most sketchnoters do. There are plenty of mindmaps at Biggerplate, but they look more like templates rather than thoughts-in-progress.

Reaching further back, parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are online, and Prof. Carlo Pedretti’s introduction to the Codex Arundel has some notes on the structure: unnumbered loose sheets, usually one page per thought. That’s encouraging, although it doesn’t tell me much about overall structure. Part of Galileo Galilei’s notebooks are online, too. He numbered his pages and usually left plenty of whitespace. There are plenty of examples of note-takers throughout history, but it’s hard to find ones explicitly talking about how they map the connections between ideas. How to Read a Book briefly mentions building a syntopicon, so I checked out the resulting volume (A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas). It’s a huge project, but it didn’t give me a lot of clues about the process of building such a thing. More recently, there’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which described the process of making and updating a global subject map of contents. Books on study skills also talk about how to condense a lesson into successively smaller cheat sheets until you can fit everything onto one page (or an index card, or whatever the teacher permits), and that’s somewhat related to the kind of summarization and overview I want to do.

On the non-graphical front, I’ve also had fun making a huge outline of blog posts I want to write (and therefore things I want to learn about). Org Mode outlines work better than Freeplane maps for large amounts of text or fine-grained detail, so I’ll probably switch over to outlines when I’m drafting the post and then update the map with the hyperlink to the post when I’m done. It’s all tied together.

Anyway, here we are. I think the sketches and maps I’m making are promising, and I’m looking forward to digging deeper. If you happen to have put a lot of thought into a similar system, I’d love to hear from you!