Category Archives: reflection

Less Wrong meetup notes: Goal factoring, fight-or-flight, and comfort zones

This week, I attended my first Less Wrong meetup in Toronto – a meandering conversation about applied rationality over coffee in a Tim Hortons café tucked into Dundas Square just east of Yonge. Here are my rough notes:

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Goal factoring is a process of mapping your goals and the underlying needs that they address so that you can identify complementary or conflicting goals and alternative approaches that will also address your needs. Start by listing your goals, then organize them in relation to each other, and examine them to see which needs they meet. You can learn more about your implicit needs by looking at your evaluations of alternatives.

Fight, flight, or freeze: We talked about the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, or the body’s response to stress. We also talked about the sympathetic nervous system (which stresses out when f/f/f kicks in), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with non-urgent things. One of the effects of stress is that the blood flow to some parts of your brain is restricted in favour of the blood flow to other parts of your brain, which is why it’s easy to make stupid decisions when you’re stressed out.

Comfort zone expansion: We also discussed the process of growing your comfort zone gradually by imagining scenarios, using de-stressing techniques, and working with a safe space.

In order to practise applying rationality techniques to real life, we agreed to spend the next week studying our fight/flight/freeze reactions and to share our observations with the group next week. I’ll reflect on this a little more later – I want to post these brief notes first before I forget! =)

Looking back and looking forward

Have you ever felt unsure about whether you’re moving forward or where the time went? A friend called me up and asked for help on being able to see the progress in her life. I walked her through the process of doing a weekly review using a Google Docs document.

A weekly review is really simple. Write down the dates you’re talking about, and then write down what you did. Look at your calendar, e-mail, and to-do list for hints. Don’t worry about pinning things down to a specific day; just write down what you remember. Set yourself a reminder to do this again next week – it might be a calendar appointment, it might be an item on your to-do list. Lather, rinse, repeat.

When she got to the end of the things she remembered about last week, I asked her some questions about relationships and life, and we turned up quite a few more things to celebrate.

She was surprised by how long the list was. People do a lot, but it’s hard to remember what you’ve done. You make progress an inch at a time, and you don’t see the miles.

I can remember about a week back, and that only with the help of my notes. Any further back, and I know I’ll be missing important things. I write so that I can remember. Daily blog posts roll up into weekly reviews, which roll up into monthly and yearly reviews. I can tell you where the last ten years went: where I’ve gone forward, and where I’ve lost something along the way.

It’s good to celebrate the little wins, though, and that’s part of why a weekly review is so useful. We forget where life goes.

It’s also good to see the gaps, to come a little closer to what you really want. Writing down your ideas for the next period keeps you from forgetting. You can move away from the plan, especially if other opportunities come up, but the plan is a useful default.

Reviews are so useful that I do several yearly reviews, even though that can be a little confusing. The New Year holiday is a natural time to do an annual review, one synchronized with other people. My birthday is another review point. It’s useful to summarize life as a 28-year-old or 29-year-old. It helps people relate across the years. My experiment anniversary is February and my fiscal year ends in September; both are occasions for a mini-review. So I’m regularly looking at a sliding window of time, figuring out how far I’ve come and what I want to do with the next year. Sometimes this confuses me, but still, it’s handy to periodically check. (See my previous reviews.)

I also regularly look forward. When I analyzed the phrases I used on my blog in 2012, “I want to” and “so that I” were my top two phrases. I write about what I want to do. I mindmap and draw my ideas. This looking-ahead is part of my regular weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews. Thinking about the future pulls me forward so that I don’t get stuck in the past. It makes the present more vivid, more real.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions (or at least that’s what Wikipedia says he is). He looks towards the past and the future, and so do we.

See also:

Delegation: Being clear about what you value

In Spousonomics (now retitled as It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes), I came across a brief explanation of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Economically speaking, it can make sense to trade with other parties even if you can do something faster yourself, because trading frees you up to focus on higher-value work as long as the transportation and transaction costs are not prohibitive.

I’m slowly learning to let go of more and more tasks in terms of delegation and outsourcing. For example, I’ve been working with someone on developing marketing materials for this business idea around sketchnoting. We want to put together a leave-behind that can help event/conference organizers learn more. The person I’m working with has a lot of experience in graphic design and illustration, although I’m probably more comfortable with the copywriting and sketchnoting aspects of it.

She set this up as a fixed-price project. I’ve worked on similar illustration projects at fixed price, and I’m always careful to specify the number of rounds of revisions included. For revisions beyond that, I work at a specified rate, although I might throw in minor revisions for free. I do this because I know people in both software development and illustration who have gotten burned in an endless revision cycle because of client expectations, but I guess many illustrators do open-ended fixed-price projects instead.

When I hire people to do work for me, I want to make sure that I’m doing right by them as well. I don’t want people to get tired of working on this never-ending project. I want to build on people’s strengths and their career interests instead of running into their gaps. I want to focus on the highest-value activities, going for about 80% awesome instead of spending all the time trying to chase down 100%.

One of the things that I’m learning to do is to be explicit about what I value and what I’m looking for. For example, we were going back and forth on the copy for this leave-behind. It can take a while to get to copy that feels right. The discussion does help me clarify what style I’m looking for (now I have a “Goldilocks style guide” with examples of what’s too formal, what’s too informal, and where I want to be), but copywriting isn’t the key value I want to get out of this arrangement. I’d rather have her focus on the parts where I hope she can really make a difference.

I suggested using filler text like “Lorem ipsum” so that we can play with the layout and the feel of the piece without getting distracted by the words. It’s important to have an idea of the rough structure of the text – short paragraphs? a bulleted list? – but we don’t have to finalize it just yet, and I don’t want her to spend hours wrestling with it if there are better things she can do.

What are those things? Well, let’s think about what I really need help with in terms of a leave-behind. The final form factor is probably something like a half-sheet of cardstock. I want something that I can print at home if I’m in a rush, or have printed elsewhere for extra oomph. It should probably be double-sided for efficiency, but it has to accommodate the imprecise nature of printing on home-office equipment. It should look good in black-and-white, and extra-nice in colour. It should be something I can easily edit. There are a whole lot of things that need to be figured out: layout, font selection (must be a Google Web Font that I can use on my website as well), visual balance, what needs to be drawn.

So, what does mini-success for this project look like? Maybe an Adobe InDesign file (ideally, something that I can also convert to an Inkscape SVG!) with some text boxes in a selected font… I’ll probably need to do the final drawing of any illustrations, so maybe there are just boxes where the images go, too.

It’s a bit different from other things she’s worked on, then, where she designs the piece, writes the copy, and draws the illustrations. It can be odd working on something that seems like something you’ve done before, but isn’t quite the same equation. I know I’ve felt insecure about working on projects like that! If I’m clear about what I value, maybe that will help us make the most of the time we spend working on this project.

So I said:

If you’re worried that it’ll be too close to "Well, I drew these boxes on this InDesign file and tweaked them a few times until they lined up, and then you sweated over the copy and the illustration and all of those things I usually work on," I’m sure you’ll find other ways to create enough value to feel good about it. For example:

  • "I looked at X fonts and shortlisted A – E. I recommend B because ______, but C is another good fit for you because _______. Both pair well with D if you need to use a different font for emphasis."
  • "While working on this, I found some examples of marketing materials that you might like. _____ is interesting because of _____, _____ because _____, and _____ because ______."
  • "You’re trying to say too much here. People only need to know ____, _____, and _____. We can save the rest for the website."
  • "You’re not answering enough questions here. We need to bring back that point about ______."
  • "Here are some sketches of what this could look like."
  • "That sketch is unclear – doesn’t communicate ____ to me. How about these versions?"
  • "I checked this with ______ and _____ and they understood it, too."

Who knows, maybe it will include answering specific questions about Illustrator and InDesign in case there are little tweaks I can’t figure out myself! That would be useful too. =)

In particular, the key values I think I’m getting from working with you are:

  • Because you focus on graphic design, you’re probably exposed to lots more input and inspiration than I am. I’m counting on you to be able to pull out examples and ideas from your stash.
  • For similar reasons, you may be better able to differentiate between things and explain why something is a better or worse fit. Think of the way people who are versed in colour theory can explain why certain combinations work and what they can communicate, or how someone who’s interested in typography can discuss different styles
  • Because you aren’t me, you can push back if I’m giving too much or too little detail, using too much jargon, coming across with the wrong tone, or drawing something that people would find hard to understand. ("I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t look anything like an elephant inside a snake…")
  • You’re more familiar with the Adobe suite of tools than I am. You know what things are called and where they are. So you can get the basics in place faster, and you can help me figure out how to do things (especially if I don’t know what those things are called, or which approaches are easier than others).

Part of learning how to delegate is about figuring out where the task boundaries are, so that people feel good about working on and completing various chunks. I’m open to making the copywriting a separate project, and possibly even working with someone else for that. It’s tough, but if I learn how to break things down into projects that tap people’s strengths, and we figure out what makes sense to focus on, that’ll probably work out to a good thing.

There’s so much to learn, and it takes work to learn about delegation this way. I wish I could learn faster or more effectively, but I can’t imagine learning all these things in a class or seminar. Practical experience and mindfulness, then!

One to three, that’s all

One to three good pieces of work each day. That’s all I want to check off my list, and anything else is a bonus. On a day-by-day basis, this seems unambitious. Sometimes I wonder if I’m wasting this opportunity of an experiment – but I’m slowly feeling my way around, and it’s good to take my time.

This week’s accomplishments:

  • Monday: business planning, and a meeting with a potential client.
  • Tuesday: book sketchnotes, the book club, and halfway through putting together an e-book follow-up for my talk
  • Wednesday: lunch with another entrepreneur; coffee with Quantified Self organizers and brainstorming; ENT101 sketchnote; finishing the e-book
  • Thursday: digital sketchnoting podcast with Mike Rohde; on a personal note, survived another fitness class
  • Friday: first coworking session at ING Direct; more business planning; brainstormed business marketing with someone

I am so glad I stumbled across the power of writing and review. It’s much too easy to forget about where the time has gone, and to forget to celebrate the small wins.

While I waited for W- to finish his krav maga class, I mapped different emotions and the situations in which I feel them. The predominant emotion for this week has been a little hard to pin down. It’s not quite the thrill of developing code and closing tickets, or the happiness of having everything line up. It’s more amorphous. I think it’s more of a patient, deliberate preparation.

One thing at a time, one step in front of the other. If I accept this as the normal, it’ll probably be much better for me than assuming that normal is a whirlwind of activity.

Then I can hack this pace, bit by bit. I can experiment with breakfasts and other starts. I can write down more challenges and worries, and I can get better at working with other people to make things happen. I can figure out what my “treats” are – those small, productive tasks that give me a thrill – and sprinkle them through my week.

I’ve played with the “manic productivity” setting in life. Let’s see if I can get the hang of “steadily increasing strength.”

Sketchnote reflection: conference intensity

Still a little tired from two intense days of sketchnoting: 62 2-minute pitches from Sunday’s AngelHack Toronto, and then a 12-hour sprint involving 33 talks and 11 startup demos for Monday’s Lean Startup Day. Focused listening is tough – squeezing through hundreds of people to find a seat at AngelHackTO, straining to hear pitches despite the back-of-room chatter competing with weak sound; dealing with a quick succession of topics with a livestream that shows only brief glimpses of slides; tweeting with one hand while drawing with the other.

Although I had to shift writing positions a few times, my hands didn’t cramp up once. The breaks were just enough time for me to shake out any tiredness, drink some water, dash to the facilities, munch my way through three energy bars and a sandwich, and answer questions from curious onlookers. After the conference and a short time at Quantified Self Toronto’s pub night, I gratefully slid into the quiet of solitude, and I slept for eleven hours once I got home.

It was intense work, but worth it. Visually summarizing the pitches and talks during the event itself meant that the sketchnotes could be part of the conversation instead of an afterthought, and people appreciated it both here and elsewhere.



Every time I sketch an event, I learn something. Here’s what worked well:

  • I set up custom templates before the event. MaRS wanted partner logos on the template, so I created that PNG beforehand, and I added a light grid from my own drawing templates. This meant that the sketchnotes were consistently branded.
  • I saved my sketchnotes using Autodesk’s automatic numbering feature and a shared Dropbox folder. This came in really handy during the Lean Startup Day conference, as the talks were quick with very few breaks in between. Automatic numbering meant that I didn’t have to spend time changing the filename, while using Dropbox meant that my files were synchronized with my phone and easy to publish on the web.
  • I switched devices instead of switching screens. One of the advantages of using an all-digital workflow is that I can publish my sketchnotes during the event itself. My tablet PC is great for drawing, but switching windows and sharing notes on Twitter is hard when it’s in tablet mode. By saving the files in Dropbox and synchronizing with my phone, I could avoid switching applications – my tablet PC was dedicated for drawing, while the phone was great for posting links to Twitter.
  • Dropbox also made it easy to update files. If I wanted to correct an image, I could simply save a new version. The old links would continue to work seamlessly. This was much better than my previous workflow of using Twitpic or WordPress – replacing old images is so much easier now.
  • I kept the clutter off my blog. When covering single talks, I’ll often publish the sketchnotes directly to my blog. I didn’t want to post twenty separate entries for a conference, though! Using Dropbox+Twitter allowed me to publish sketchnotes immediately without cluttering up my blog. At the end of the event, I created a blog post recap with all the sketchnotes for easy access.
  • I stocked up on supplies. I tucked a few Clif bars and two water bottles into my backpack, and they came in really handy during the conference. Concentration makes me hungry!
  • I added some light shading. Using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6.0.1’s new Color Puck, I picked a shade that was related to the logo colours. Whenever I had time, I added subtle shading on a different layer. (Ex: panel) It was fun, and I’m looking forward to revisiting past sketchnotes and using that technique.
  • I set aside a day for recovery. Introvert overload – energy management required! =)

Here’s how I’m thinking of making things even better next time:

  • I might be able to automate the Dropbox > Twitter publishing process with WappWolf, if I can figure out how to add some information without needing to type it in using my laptop.
  • Alternatively, I can use an external keyboard (or even dust off my Twiddler!) in order to speed up data entry while I’m in tablet mode.
  • I can see if there’s a way to use Microsoft Powerpoint’s Photo Album feature to insert high-resolution images instead of having them downsampled. Inserting them one by one and changing the “Compress Pictures” setting to use the document resolution seems to work, though. You can see or download the results on Slideshare.
  • I can identify frequently-used nouns and build a visual thesaurus so that I’m not drawing boxes all over the place.

Next on my sketchnoting calendar: today’s talk by Dan Roam on “Blah Blah Blah”, the Wednesday lectures on Entrepreneurship 101, and next week’s book club on “Best Practices are Stupid”. People tell me these sketchnotes are valuable. I’m getting better and better at making them!

Coming up with a three-word life philosophy

Because people like my sketchnotes so much, I’ve signed up for the Rockstar Scribe course to see if I can learn how to sketchnote even better. I’m curious about layout and figure and colour, and I’m sure this will be a good skill to develop over the next twenty years. I could probably learn a lot practising on my own, but I promised myself that I’d invest more in tools and education, so here I am!

Our first assignment was to draw a visual introduction. Among the guide questions was this one: What is your life philosophy in three words?

20121102 Three Word Life Philosophy - Sacha Chua

So this is me, at least right now. =) Learn, share, scale.

Rockstar Scribe (from Alphachimp University) – affiliate link, non-affiliate link