Category Archives: reflection

Past, present, and future

It’s moving more slowly than I might like, but I’m learning how to live in the present. I spend a little more time in the future than I probably should and I’m less comfortable in the past than I’d like to be, but those can wait.

2015-06-15e Past-present-future balance -- index card #balance

2015-06-15e Past-present-future balance – index card #balance

I tend to do a lot of planning and anticipation: rough sketches of just-in-case scenarios, extrapolations of ideas and potential decisions. There’s a lot of waiting for some experiments, too. Can’t rush the seeds growing in the garden, can’t accelerate the learning, can’t jump ahead to see the results.

In a sense, I could, if I let the time in between blur instead of slowing it down even more with experiences and reflections. I get the sense that “passing time” is what leads to people waking up and wonder where their life went, though. Better to kick off more parallel experiments and explore more questions.

I’m making myself keep a list of things that I’m not thinking about yet: things that are too far-off or uncertain, things that are waiting for other things. It’s tempting to spend time thinking about those things – that seems more useful than simply playing games – but it can be counterproductive.

Better to live each moment, then, even if it makes life feel slow, too. It’s good to learn how to be, instead of just distracting myself with juggling as many plans as I can.

What is it like? Napping when I’m sleepy, eating when I’m hungry, cooking for the joy of it, reading for pleasure, even playing games. Stretching out on the deck in the sunlight. Enjoying the seedlings for what they are, instead of wondering if they’ll make it all the way to becoming vegetables in a garden of caterpillars and squirrels. This present will pass, too, so I may as well enjoy it.

Besides, the present might be all I have someday, when the future is short and the past is fuzzy. Might as well learn how to live it!

Moving past getting things done

2015-06-19a Moving past getting things done -- index card #present #mindset #being

2015-06-19a Moving past getting things done – index card #present #mindset #being

When I have a lot of energy, it’s easy to do good things for my consulting clients or on my personal projects. This energizes me further, and so on. This is a good cycle.

When I’m feeling blah, or when I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing interesting things, I tend to feel even more blah – even if I know that the difficulties are temporary, local, and impersonal.

I realized that my feelings about my days tend to be influenced by whether I made progress. This makes sense; there’s even a book about it.

2015-01-07 Sketched Book - The Progress Principle - Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work - Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer

2015-01-07 Sketched Book – The Progress Principle – Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work – Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer

While it’s useful to be motivated by progress, I wonder if I can tweak my mind to get better at enjoying life even when it feels cyclic and mundane. Instead of noting just the new, non-routine tasks of the day, I could reflect on whether I’m getting better at routine stuff like self-care – to enjoy being, not just doing.

2015-06-19c The gap between who I am and who I wish I was -- index card #gap #mindset

2015-06-19c The gap between who I am and who I wish I was – index card #gap #mindset

I find it a little difficult to relax into this mindset, though. Part of me is pulled towards the satisfaction of making progress, and I find myself wishing I could be better at that. I could improve my skills. I could make things better at home. I could be more energetic. I could cover more ground.

2015-06-19d Maybe the delta is okay -- index card #gap #mindset

2015-06-19d Maybe the delta is okay – index card #gap #mindset

But then again, maybe the outcomes of this hypothetical self and my current self are not that different. Sure, it would be nice to make all the progress a hypothetical me could make. But whatever’s important can be handled by other people, and whatever’s not important isn’t worth stressing out over. Besides, this path can also be interesting.

So, back to this curious thought. What’s beyond getting things done? I’m learning things that are hard to check off a list: how to forget annoyances and frustrations, how to enjoy ripe fruits and sunshine, how to listen to the moment and the silence. How to embrace squirrel-brain, fuzzy-brain, and foggy-brain, and how to gently fan a spark of interest.

It will be worth it, I think, learning how to sit still. “Don’t just do something, sit there!”, as the flipped phrase go.

When the check-things-off part of myself gets antsy, I code or read for an hour or so. Once it’s satisfied, I explore things with payoffs that are less straightforward.

Another thing I used to be antsier about: The thought “Will I ask good-enough questions? Will I think good-enough thoughts?” intrudes less and less these days. I trust that when I sit down to draw, I’ll notice something I want to explore; and if not, it might be a good time for a walk.

2015-05-10d The best thing I can do with my time -- index card #experiment

2015-05-10d The best thing I can do with my time – index card #experiment

It might be interesting to decide, even if it’s temporary and on faith, that this is the best thing I can do with my time.

2015-06-15g Re-evaluating my experiment failure mode -- index card #experiment #failure #equanimity #premortem #narrative

2015-06-15g Re-evaluating my experiment failure mode – index card #experiment #failure #equanimity #premortem #narrative

On a larger scale, I might even become comfortable with this as the general flavour of my experiment. In the beginning, I identified “5 years and nothing to show for it, not even a good story” as one of my potential issues in my experiment pre-mortem. I feel myself starting to let go of the need for a neat story.

Getting things done is good. There are also other things that are good. I wonder what it’s like to live an awesome life, or better yet: live a life awesomely.

Working with fragmented thoughts

Some days it’s hard to hold a single thought and dive deeper into it. Sometimes it’s because I get distracted by other shiny thoughts. Sometimes my interest peters out. Sometimes I bump into the limit of what I can think about on my own, without experiments or research.

I’ve come to really like the way index cards let me capture ideas that aren’t quite blog-post-sized. Technically, I haven’t drawn a physical index card since early February, but the digital index cards I draw are calibrated to that scale.

Still, some days it takes me a really long time to draw five index cards. I catch myself wondering if I’ve picked a good question. Sometimes it takes a while to find the next step in the thought. Sometimes it’s easier to let my attention drift to other things.

On the other hand, there are some days when my mind is overflowing with little thoughts. It’s pretty easy for me to switch to another index card, scribble down part of a thought, and then come back to it later.

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing -- index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing – index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

I’ve been figuring out a better way to work with fragmented thoughts. I tried flipping my habit by writing before drawing. Sometimes that’s a good way to clear my backlog, but sometimes it means I don’t get around to drawing.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with quickly capturing text fragments – a chunk even smaller than index cards. A few taps on my phone bring up a single-line prompt. Whatever I type into that dialog gets saved to a timestamped file named something like yyyy-mm-dd hh.mm timestamp - keyword.txt, and that’s synchronized over Dropbox to my computer. I have some code in Emacs to read those files and add them to a date-based outline, and I’ve included the code at the end of this blog post just in case it’s handy.

I’ve found myself capturing more and more of these snippets these days. When a possibly interesting thought occurs to me while I’m walking around, it’s easy enough to take a moment to unlock my phone and add a note. My Emacs-based workflow fits me a bit better than the Evernote-based one I used to use, but that’s the benefit of customization.

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts -- index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts – index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

There’s still the challenge of bringing those thoughts together, of course. The text titles and fragment keywords are often enough to remind me of what I was thinking and how the different thoughts might be connected to each other, and I can always open the sketches in a new window if I want to refer to them. I have an ever-growing outline of sketches that haven’t yet been chunked into blog posts, and now I have a chronological tree of these little fragments. I have another bit of Emacs Lisp that lets me quickly get a montage of the sketches listed in part of my outline. Maybe I could use that more often – perhaps even randomly picking an outline node, coming up with a montage, and prompting me to either glue the chunks together into a blog post or draw whatever’s missing.

So this is what the index card workflow looks like as a whole:

2015-05-08b My index card management system -- index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

2015-05-08b My index card management system – index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

and then the text fragments feed into the beginning of that thinking process.

It’s been almost six months of thinking with index cards. I sometimes feel pretty fragmented, but there are confounding factors so I don’t know whether that’s a side-effect of this way of thinking. But I think it’s unlikely that my past self was that much more coherent and better at concentrating. Remembering what it was like to write my notes before and what it’s like to write my notes now, I think I like this way a lot. I feel like I’m getting better at writing about the small things, not just the big things, and I’m gradually getting better at tying things together.

What might be some interesting next steps for this system?

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards -- index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards – index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

It might be cool to visualize how much has been chunked and what’s still isolated, in a way that’s more engaging than my outline. I’m also curious about the time separation of thoughts. For example, this post brings together four cards spread over a little more than a month, a set of connections I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow without these notes.

The fragment code I mentioned:

(defun my/read-phone-entries ()
  "Copy phone data to a summary Org file."
  (interactive)
  (mapc
   (lambda (filename)
     (let ((base (file-name-base filename)) contents timestamp category encoded-time date)
       (when (string-match "^[^ ]+ [^ ]+ \\([^ ]+\\) - \\(.*\\)" base)
         (setq time (seconds-to-time (/ (string-to-number (match-string 1 base)) 1000))
               encoded-time (decode-time time)
               date (list (elt encoded-time 4) (elt encoded-time 3) (elt encoded-time 5))
               category (match-string 2 base))
         (with-temp-buffer
           (insert-file-contents filename)
           (setq contents (s-trim (buffer-string))))
         (with-current-buffer
             (find-file "~/dropbox/tasker/summary.txt")
           (org-datetree-find-date-create date)
           (unless (save-excursion (re-search-forward (regexp-quote base) nil t))
             (goto-char (line-end-position))
             (insert "\n")
             (insert "**** " contents "  :" category ":\n" base "\n")
             (insert (format-time-string "[%Y-%m-%d %a %H:%M]\n" time))

             (if (member category '("Think" "Do"))
                 (save-excursion
                   (org-back-to-heading t)
                   (if (looking-at org-outline-regexp) (goto-char (1- (match-end 0))))
                   (unless (looking-at org-todo-regexp)
                     (org-todo "TODO"))))
             (if (string-match "^Energy \\([0-9]\\)" contents)
                 (org-set-property "ENERGY" (match-string 1 contents)))))
         (delete-file filename))))
   (directory-files "~/dropbox/tasker/data" t "\\.txt$")))

Growth, experiments, and shifting my preferences

I’ve been thinking about how to respond to e-mails from former virtual assistants who are looking for additional work. I remember what it was like to feel that the world was a candy store of talent. My experiments with delegation led to interesting experiences. But at the moment, I can’t really think of tasks that I want to specify or how much I would value someone else doing them.

Besides, I tend to get rid of tasks or write programs before I consider paying people to do things, so that tends to get in the way of delegation experiments. I find it more difficult to give instructions to people than to computers.

2015-02-03 Delegation and dreaming small dreams -- index card #delegation

2015-02-03 Delegation and dreaming small dreams – index card #delegation

I tried thinking about ways I want to improve my life at the moment, and how I might want to accelerate those improvements. Compared to my answers from 2013, my current ideas feel closer to where I am, less of a stretch.

2015-06-12a Questions to revisit -- index card #kaizen #experiment #delegation

2015-06-12a Questions to revisit – index card #kaizen #experiment #delegation

Considering various ideas, I catch myself thinking, “Well, that would be nice to experience/be/have and I can imagine being happy with that, but I can also imagine being happy without that.” I wondered whether that detachment came came out of avoidance or peace, and whether I wanted to tweak my balance of detachment and desire – ambition can also be quite a handy thing.

I know that a fuzzy brain dampens my ability to plan and anticipate. This is normal. I also know the fuzziness is temporary, so I’m not too worried about it. Still, I find it interesting to explore.

2015-06-12b Finding my own balance between desire and detachment -- index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

2015-06-12b Finding my own balance between desire and detachment – index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

2015-06-12c Exploring this distance -- index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

2015-06-12c Exploring this distance – index card #stoicism #philosophy #detachment #desire

On reflection, I think it’s less about avoidance / running away from, and maybe more about not preferring something as much as I think I should. Consciously developing your preferences is an idea from Stoicism that I’d like to explore a little more.

2015-06-12d When I don't prefer something as much as I think I should -- index card #stoicism #philosophy #preference

2015-06-12d When I don’t prefer something as much as I think I should – index card #stoicism #philosophy #preference

“Should” is a funny word, anyway. I avoid using that word with other people, but I sometimes still slip up and use that word for myself. So maybe it’s more like I think it might be interesting if I had stronger, clearer preferences for things that were generally acknowledged to be good, but if I don’t, that’s more of an opportunity for learning than a personal failure.

In addition to general fuzziness, I think that gap happens when I have conflicting factors or motivations, and when I underestimate benefits or overestimate costs. I can untangle conflicting factors with reflection and honesty, even if sometimes that leads to uncomfortable realizations about my current self. I tend to overestimate costs more than I underestimate benefits, especially in terms of energy. In any case, my perception of one affects the other. I can work around this by giving things a shot, like the way skills often become more enjoyable the better you get at them.

Even when I have a good idea of the benefits and costs of different choices, sometimes it would be better for me to prefer things that have a lower short-term value than other things I could do.

A tangent: This might be pretty similar to how startups disrupt incumbent companies, actually. An incumbent company initially has lower marginal costs because of its investments. It would be more expensive for that company to shift to a new technology. On the other hand, a start-up doesn’t have those sunk costs, so it’s easier to invest in new technologies. Some startups succeed, getting to the point where they can beat the old technology in terms of return on investment. Other startups fail. But it’s hard to tell which is which until you try, so it makes sense to have a bunch of start-up-like experiments even in larger companies.

2015-06-12e Thinking about disrupting myself -- index card #experiment #disruption

2015-06-12e Thinking about disrupting myself – index card #experiment #disruption

So, what would it be like to use these tools to develop my preferences? There’s the slow evolution of my preferences through reflection and incremental improvement. At the same time, it might be interesting to mentally budget X% of my time for exploring things even if I feel a little meh about them: not just “Hell, yeah” or No, but also things I still feel mediocre at. (‘Cause you don’t get to awesome without being mediocre first!) Doing those small experiments to play with my understanding and preferences might even be easier during fuzzy times than during sharp times, since my opportunity costs are lower.

I might keep my goals and experiments a little close to myself at the moment, focusing on elimination and automation rather than delegation. Maybe I’ll branch out again when I have a little more brainspace to manage and train people, since I don’t want to get to the point where I resent other people because of the consequences of my own mediocrity in delegation. In the meantime, little by little, I’d like to get better at understanding my preferences, and maybe shifting them ever so slightly.

Thinking about changing interests

I’ve gone through quite a lot of interests. Sometimes they combine in useful ways, like the way coding and writing are imbued into practically all the other interests I have. Sometimes they last for years, and sometimes they’re over in months. From other people’s stories, I get the sense that this will likely continue throughout my life. =)

I want to do this better – the cultivation of interests, and the occasional letting go. Why do I want to do it better? I want to minimize the risk of being in the following situations:

  • When I overcommit to an interest:
    • Spending more money, time, or space than an interest needs
    • Making long-term promises (ex: speaking, organizing) that I might feel weird about
  • When I find myself in a lull because I haven’t cultivated my interests enough:
    • Recognizing temporary interest distance and accepting or working around it
    • Accepting the feeling of being a beginner and getting to the point of enjoyment
    • Letting go at the apppropriate point

In addition to those downsides, I want to make better use of the upsides:

  • During the initial period of fascination, I want to take unselfconscious notes
  • As my interest matures, I want to get better at seeking and organizing information, and then coming up with my own thoughts
  • I want to get better at drawing connections between interests and taking advantage of the combinations

So I’d like to learn more about how I think and learn. What kinds of things am I interested in? Why do my interests change? What stages do I go through? How can I make just the right level of commitment, feeding fledgling interests without adding too much weight to them, building on mature interests without stretching them too far, and taking breaks or letting go gracefully without flaking out? Should I focus on developing interest persistence, or get better at going with the flow?

Here’s an example of an interest I’m thinking through: I like Emacs and its community. I seem to get into Emacs cyclically. For a few months each year, I spend a lot of time looking closely at how I use Emacs and learning from what other people do. I hang out in Emacs communities, pay attention to mailing lists, tweak my config, write blog posts, sometimes create resources. (My Emacs geekery really is quite oddly rhythmic. Here’s the data by month since Nov 2011.)

Then other things take my attention, and I drift off. I haven’t tweaked my configuration or written an Emacs-related blog post in a while. I’ll get back to it at some point, I know – the oddest thing will bring me back: some idea or question – but in the meantime, I’m fine with letting it be for now.

But I’ve set up monthly Emacs Hangouts on my calendar and in Google+ events, because precommitting to those means that they happen. And there’s some kind of an Emacs Conference that I think would be an excellent idea, but I haven’t been able to muster the energy to do the kind of social outreach that I think would be needed in order to get the schedule sorted out. And there are the occasional requests for help that come in, even though I don’t feel I can contribute even a fraction of what http://emacs.stackexchange.com/ or the relevant mailing lists could.

I feel like it would be good for me to be closer to that interest, but there are other things on my mind at the moment, so I leave things hanging. I’ll be there for the Emacs Hangouts I’ve set up, but I haven’t felt like doing anything else lately: lining up people for Emacs Chat podcasts, writing or drawing a review of Mastering Emacs, exploring the awesome new packages that are out there…

On the other hand, I know that sometimes all it takes is a little time immersing myself in it: checking out StackExchange questions or IRC conversations, reading source code, going through my long TODO list of Emacs things to learn. Likely that will kickstart my interest.

In the meantime, this lull itself is curious and interesting, because I rarely get to pay attention to feelings like this. It feels odd to be a little bit distant from Emacs and reading books, two of my long-term interests. Writing, drawing, coding, and data analysis continue to be interesting. My sewing is on hold; I think keeping myself to one type of garment a year seems like a good way to avoid burnout. Gardening has been slowed to the pace that nature keeps. I notice a fledgling interest in cognitive research and psychology.

I’m taking it easy, fanning interest when I can and relaxing when I feel like doing that instead. A mix of routine and freedom helps, I think. I like writing and coding in the morning. Sometimes it takes a little effort to get started, especially with writing, but then I get going. In the afternoon, it’s okay to relax.

I don’t think that my values and the things that tickle my brain have changed, so I’ll probably return to my long-term interests once my new interests settle down and get integrated. They’ll be richer for it too, like the way coding got better when I added writing, and writing got better when I added drawing. In the meantime, I’m curious about charting the shifts in my focus and making the most of them.

Hmm, I wonder if this is related to my hesitation around the Quantified Self talk we’re planning for November: I’m not sure if I’ll be able to give the enthusiastic performance that I imagine newcomers would find helpful…

Aha! I think that might explain it. By myself, I’m okay with the shifts in my interests. I just try to take good notes and share them along the way. Social commitments add friction to interest-changing because I don’t want to flake out and I don’t want to fake things, which is why I’m reluctant to make plans even if I miss out on opportunities because I don’t want to do so. However, it would probably be good for me to know how to work with this, because social commitments are a good way to help make things that are bigger than yourself. If I remind myself that (a) at the core, I’m still likely to enjoy the things that drew me to that interest in the first place, and (b) it’s not the end of the world even if I mess up, that might help me reduce the anxiety around essentially making a promise that future me will still have the same passions that people are drawn to in the present. So I’m likely to still avoid making big commitments (say, no convincing people to quit their jobs and start a company with me), but I can practise with the small ones I have.

At the moment, I think I’ll still want someone else to take point on organizing the Emacs Conference speaker schedule, but I can re-evaluate that in two weeks, and we can always move it further out if needed. I should be able to handle the Quantified Self talk – worst-case scenario is I don’t manage to inspire and connect with people, but I don’t expect a small 1-hour talk to change people’s lives that much anyway. So it’s okay even if I don’t feel 100% there in terms of the interests right now. I have enough good memories to know I’ll probably feel that way about those interests again soon, so I can plan accordingly.

It’s a little odd teasing apart temporary factors and long-term factors in my mind, but I’m glad I can sit and write my way through it. In the meantime, I’ll focus on keeping my experiences of those interests pleasant, tickling my brain whenever I can. There’s so much depth to each interest that I don’t really need to add more. But on the other hand, the combinations can be quite interesting, so I’ll explore away. =)

Shifts in my writing

Sometimes, when I sit down to draw my five index cards of the day, I have a hard time delineating five interesting thoughts – things I want to remember or share. They often seem so inward-turned.

I was thinking about the shape of my blog, too. I feel like I’ve shifted from a lot of technical posts to a lot of reflective posts. Possibly less interesting for other people, but useful to me. It’s hard to tell. These are the kinds of posts I’ve been starting to find useful in other people’s blogs, anyway, so who knows? Maybe these things are interesting for other people too.

It’s wonderful to be able to flip back through my archive and see the patterns over time. Of the 2,800+ posts in my index as of April 2015, I’d classify around 170 as mostly reflective. (Totally quick classification, just eyeballing the titles and categories in my index.) Here’s the breakdown:

Year Reflections
2008 4
2009 9
2010 20
2011 7
2012 25
2013 20
2014 59
2015 25
Grand Total 169

While writing a recent post, I searched my archives to trace the evolution of my understanding of uncertainty over several years. I can remember not having these snapshots of my inner world. When I reviewed ten years of blog posts in preparation for compiling Stories from My Twenties in 2013, I was surprised by how many technical and tip-related blog posts I skipped in favour of keeping the memories and the questions, and the sense of things missing from my memories. Maybe that’s why I wrote almost three times the number of reflective posts in 2014 as I did in the previous year. 2014 was also the year I switched the focus of my experiment from other-work to self-work, and that might have something to do with it too. I’m glad I have those thinking-out-loud, figuring-things-out posts now.

The end of April was around 33% of the way through the year, so I’m slightly ahead of last year’s reflective-post-density (expected: 20 posts, actual: 25). Comments are rare, but I’ve learned a lot from them.

I’m fascinated by the ten-year journals you can buy in bookstores. They give you ways of bumping into your old selves, noticing the differences. I like the way blogs give me a little bit more space to write, though. =) Here’s a slice of my life going through May 14:

I have shifted. I focus on different things. I like the direction I’m going in. I can imagine, years from now, getting very good at asking questions, describing and naming elusive concepts, and exploring the options. If it seems a little awkward now, that’s just the initial mediocrity I have to get through. Hmm…