Category Archives: organization

Making the most of paper notes

I’ve been drawing a lot more on paper lately, so I should update my Sketching Tools page. It is nice as a way to quickly get my thoughts down without the tiring brightness of the computer screen or the distractions of the Internet. Here’s what I’ve been learning about the differences between drawing on paper and drawing on my computer:

2013-10-28 Drawing on paper versus drawing on my computer

There’s always room to make things better, of course. How can we think on paper more effectively? The mindmap that I’ve been working on gives me a useful overview, letting me see when I’ve accumulated several sketches in a particular area so that I can put them into a blog post. I’ve also figured out how to include the sketches in my review process, thanks to this Flickr metadata downloader (Python). Speech recognition still hasn’t made its way into my toolkit, though…

2013-10-21 How can I think on paper more effectively

Now that I’ve got a decent archive of paper notes, the next challenge is making these easy to search and organize. I’ve put together some tips for making your paper notes more searchable here:

2013-11-11 Make your paper notes more searchable (low-tech and hi-tech tips)

… and getting them into your computer so that you can organize them along with the rest of your notes.

2013-11-14 Integrating paper and digital notes  

Lately I’ve been using Flickr for sharing and tagging images and Evernote for the occasional hand-written search. Let’s see how this works out…

I’m really curious about how other people manage their paper notes. I’ve been trying to find more details on how Isaac Asimov organized his notes – filing cabinets, apparently, but it would be great to get more detail! Do you have a large paper archive? How do you manage it? Do you know anyone who does this really well?

How I organize and publish my sketches

In a recent blog post, Mel Chua wrote: “I’m still trying to figure out how to best store/catalogue my (growing) collection of sketches so it’s easy for people to access it.” So, here’s how I handle mine!

How I organize and publish my sketches

I have three types of sketches:

  • A1. Public: Sketches I can publish (and usually that I want to write about someday)
  • A2. Public, blogged: Sketches I have written about
  • B. Private sketches to help me think

My goals are to:

  • Support my writing: Blogging, naturally.
  • Search my sketches: Evernote’s fantastic for this, since I can have my public and private sketches in one place
  • Make my sketches publicly searchable: Evernote shared folders are great for that; Flickr and my blog are useful too. I often use Evernote to give someone a keyword search or tag search through my sketchnotes, sketchbook, or visual vocabulary. (Evernote users can join these notebooks and get updates automatically!)
  • Publish most of my sketches: Blogging can take me a while, so I try to get public sketches out there as soon as possible so that they don’t get lost. Flickr and Evernote help.
  • Flip through my sketches: Great for doing reviews and triggering memories. =) Can’t beat paging through local files manually or in a slideshow.
  • Organize my sketches by topic: Evernote, Flickr, and my blog let me tag things with keywords, while a mindmap lets me give my sketches more structure.
  • Share sketches widely: My blog and Twitter seem to be the best ways to do this, although Flickr is useful too.
  • Open sketches for discussion: My blog is the best place for that, although Flickr and Twitter are handy as well.
  • Update my sketches: Whether I’m colouring things in or checking off boxes, I want an easy way to get to a sketch and update it in Evernote and Flickr. If I’ve blogged about it, I’m okay with the blog post having the archived version of the image.
  • Archive my sketches: I want to back up digital copies in several places so that I can recreate my collection if needed. Blogging, Flickr, Dropbox/file backups, PDF collections…

Stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work out so well:

  • Referring to external services in my blog posts: Flickr? The Gallery2 instance I installed? Problematic if code changes, services go down, accounts are discontinued, or (in one annoying case) my self-hosted Gallery2 gets compromised. Disk space is cheap, so I just re-publish images using WordPress’ upload mechanisms (most blogging tools handle this automatically).
  • Picking just one way to publish stuff: Flickr is better for volume and some discussion, Evernote is better for search, my blog is better for sharing and long-term search. Since no tool has everything I need, I’ll just have to put up with the hassle of replicating information.
  • Just using automatic organization: For the last few years, I relied on Dropbox folders and Evernote items. Dropbox folders are fine for organizing by date and Evernote’s great for tags, but I want manual organization as well – organizing things by topics and subtopics, tracking things in progress, and so on. That’s why I’m experimenting with mindmaps now.

Stuff I’m working on next:

  • Monthly and quarterly PDF packages of my sketches, organized by date or topic: for ease of printing and review
  • Letting people know about available resources (my Flickr stream or Evernote notebooks) so that they can search/discuss/subscribe

See my drawing workflow for other notes about my process. Hope this helps!

Emacs: How I organize my Org files

Michael Jones wanted to know how I organized my Org Mode files. Here’s how I do things!

Org Mode for Emacs is an outliner that lets you add a little structure to plain text files. Not only can you use it to move around, hide, and show sections of your outline, but you can also:

  • schedule tasks and mark them as complete,
  • add hyperlinks and formatting,
  • estimate effort and track time,
  • export to HTML and other formats,
  • and even include code that you can run in-line.

I started with a single Org Mode file (appropriately called organizer.org), but I’ve gradually fleshed this out into a number of files. My goals for organizing my files this way are to be able to:

image

  • Publish some files while keeping other files private,
  • Add or remove groups of tasks from my agenda, or focus my agenda/search on the current file,
  • Simplify processing my weekly review (categorizing accomplishments/tasks),
  • Get a quick overview of important things, and
  • Have file-specific options, like columns.

I often use Org agenda custom commands to jump around. For example, one agenda command lists projects, and pressing RET on an agenda line will take me to that project. I also use org-capture to take a note from anywhere, and I use org-goto to navigate my files. For jumping to a specific file, I use ido-find-file.

I use several Org Mode files. The six files below have a little more than 1.3MB of text in total – tiny! – but they help me tremendously. I also have lots of other Org files like my Emacs configuration and my blog index (I often use Org for publishing), but these are my main files.

Personal tasks and notes: organizer.org

This is the catch-all for any tasks or notes that don’t belong to the files below. Here’s the rough structure:

  • Quick notes: Tidbits that might not make it into their own blog posts, but which can be included in weekly reviews
  • Reference: Hours, license keys, etc.
  • Open loops: Anything I need to check on every so often
  • Projects: High-level things I’m focusing on
  • Financial goals: Things to save up for
  • Someday/maybe: Projects to do someday
  • Weekly review: Divided by year
  • Monthly review: More summaries
  • Plans: Personal plans
  • 2011, 2012, 2013…: I use org-capture to quickly jot down notes. The datetree option automatically files them by day, which makes older ones easier to archive.
  • Tasks: A bucket for miscellaneous tasks

Anything to do with business: business.org

I organize these by the types of tasks I focus on and the notes I want to keep.

  • Earn
    • Clients
    • Leads
  • Build
    • Projects
    • Research
    • Business ideas
    • Blog
    • Delegation
    • Planning
    • Business hygiene (accounting, etc.)
    • Learning
  • Connect
    • Meetups
    • Hangouts
    • Other
  • Reference
  • Tasks

Relationships: people.org

I organize these by relationships so that I can remember who’s out there.

  • Family
  • Extended family
  • Canada friends
  • Hacklab
  • Barkada
  • Letters
  • Meetups
  • Bloggers
  • Family friends
  • Other tasks

Regular tasks: routines.org

I organize these by frequency and omit the tasks from my weekly review. This also contains my “In case of…” scenarios and my backup documentation.

  • Every day
  • Once a week
  • Once a month
  • Once a quarter
  • Once a year
  • When…

Outline for future blog posts: sharing/index.org

I organize this by topic. See http://sach.ac/outline for the published version

Decision review: decisions.org

I organize these by status. I also use org-choose markers (ex: CHOSEN, MAYBE) inside the categories, but the headings make it easier to review.

  • Pending
  • Current
  • For review
  • Someday / maybe
  • Archive

Personal finance: ledger.org

I use John Wiegley’s command-line Ledger program to manage my finances. My financial data is in separate ledger-mode files, and I use an Org file with org-babel to make it easier for me to answer some questions about my finances. For example:

  • Given my average monthly expenses and the amount of money I’ve set aside, how long can I sustain my early-retirement experiment?
  • Am I ahead or behind in terms of household contributions?
  • What did I spend on last month?
  • Are my virtual envelopes balanced?

How do you organize your Org files or outlines?

Everyone’s got different ways of organizing outlines, and people also also change over time. How do you organize yours?

How to manage a large blog archive

image

I’m celebrating my 30th birthday this August. Milestone birthdays are great excuses to look behind and look ahead. I don’t know how other people do it. I can barely remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago. Me, I cheat. I have blog archive, which 18-year-old me had the foresight to experiment with (although back then, I was just looking for a way to remember all those class notes and Emacs tidbits I was picking up). I’ve written more than six thousand blog posts in the last eleven years. (See Quantifying my blog posting history for a nifty visualization of my blog posting history.) My published posts probably include well over two million words. This is awesome.

Since not a lot of people have the same experience of blogging consistently over more than a decade, I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning along the way.

Have your own domain name. One of my first websites was on Geocities. Another was on Veranda.com.ph (hosted by I-Manila, which was our ISP then). Both services are long gone. I registered sachachua.com in 2006 and moved everything over to that. Since my name can be hard to spell, I registered LivingAnAwesomeLife.com in 2008. I‘ve started experimenting with my own URL shortening domains, sach.ac and liv.gd . While domain names are a recurring expense, they’ve been well worth it.

Move your data instead of starting from scratch. I changed blogging platforms (Emacs Planner Mode to WordPress) and moved web hosts, but I’d taken pains to move my data instead of starting fresh. Now I’m enjoying the benefits of having that archive handy.

Back up, back up, back up. I want this to be around in another sixty years. I like backing up the data in many different ways: database, files, HTML dumps, PDFs, even paper. I lost a bunch of photos and drawings when my Gallery2 setup got hacked, but I restored a number of them from files I found elsewhere. I look forward to being able to review decades and decades of notes.

Weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews go a long way towards making it easier to remember what happened. Day-to-day living makes it hard to see what’s important. A week seems to be the most natural chunk of time for my reviews. I wrote a little bit of code that auto-summarizes my task list and accomplishments. Every month, I

Search is your friend. If it takes a lot of digging to find something, make it more findable. I often use Google Search or my blog’s built-in search to find posts based on keywords that I remember. If it takes me a while to find something, I edit the post and add categories or tags to make it easier to find in the future. I sometimes write a new post that shares what I’ve learned since then, linking to the previous post for history.

Comments on older posts are awesome. Search engines are a wonderful, wonderful thing. I love it when people comment on old posts – it’s nice to know those posts are still helpful. Sometimes people comment on things I’ve completely forgotten writing, so it’s a great way to refresh my memory as well.

Check your analytics once in a while. I don’t really care about the number of visitors or the bounce rate, but I’m curious about what people are reading and where they’re coming from.

Indexes are good, too. Every month, I update this categorical index of my blog posts. I probably should go back and make sure that the WordPress categories match this as well, although in WordPress, I tend to use categories more like tags (I file a post in multiple categories).

Cultivate synchronicity and randomness. WordPress plugins help recommend similar posts, other posts that were written on the same day, and random posts. It might mean that my pages are overloaded with links… but it might also spark an aha! or an interesting conversation with someone browsing around, so I think it’s worth it. Besides, at this point, a computer will often be better than I could be at recommending other things that people should check out, so I use those features myself when I’m browsing my blog.

Write about the small stuff. I used to wonder whether the weekly reviews were worth posting on my blog, seeing as they’re mostly my task lists. Reviewing my blog years later, I was surprised to find that the weekly reviews were excellent at helping me remember what was going on. They were also great for filling in the blanks in my records – When did I fly out? What did I do? Whatever happened to that thing? Hooray for the small stuff.

Revise and summarize. It’s okay to write about something you’ve written before. In fact, it can be a great excuse to learn more and get closer to understanding the big picture.

If you’re starting out today, don’t worry. Stick with it, and in ten years, you’ll have something pretty darn awesome too.

Out of curiosity, do I know anyone else who’s got a big archive? How do you manage yours?

Quantified Awesome: Taking inventory of stuff in closets and drawers

“Did I buy that aviator hat, or was I just thinking about it? Did I give it away?” “Have you seen my Twiddler one-handed keyboard?” “Now where did I put those markers…”

Sometimes I find it hard to remember where I’ve put stuff, or even if I bought the stuff in the first place. I think so carefully and so vividly about whether I want to buy some things that I can find it difficult to distinguish between memories of buying and using that thing versus my imagined tests of whether I would use it if I bought it.

It’s useful to know what stuff you have and where. It means not needing to buy things again. It means not wasting time turning the house upside down. It means being able to cut down on clutter instead of letting it invisibly pile up.

I’m no stranger to using external tools to get around the limitations of my brain. Since my Quantified Awesome dashboard includes some support for tracking stuff, I spent 45 minutes adding a bulk-entry interface and making sure it updated my main list.

image 

With my newly-improved stuff tracking system, I spent two hours taking inventory of various things stashed in drawers, tucked away in cabinets, and otherwise placed in forgettable locations. Along the way, I tossed out old business cards, miscellaneous electronics, and other clutter. I consolidated things so that there was one place for all the index card containers I had. I tallied a total of 207 items – not everything in the house, but a good start.

It turns out that I didn’t buy that aviator hat after all, or if I had, I donated it. I found the Twiddler keyboard in basement drawer #4. The markers were in my backpack.

Having answered those questions, I can rest – or at least, until another half-memory sends me searching.

Taking stock of the way I take notes

One of my friends was surprised that I use both Evernote and Microsoft OneNote. Many people are fervently in love with one or the other, as they’re both excellent notetaking tools. I like them both, and I also add Emacs OrgMode to the mix. I figured it would be a good idea to write about how I manage my notes so that I can think about ways to make it even better. Besides, other people might find it useful, or they might share a few good tips!

I take most of my text notes using the Emacs text editor. In particular, I use Org Mode because org-capture totally rocks. It’s easy for me to quickly take a timestamped note. I share most of my notes on my blog, but some stay in my private notes – post drafts, sensitive information, random tidbits. I save sensitive information to an encrypted location as needed. Every week, I review my inbox of notes, filing them under the appropriate headings in a large outline file.

Org is great for text. It can handle attachments too, but I want a more graphical way to manage the visual notes and reference pictures that I take. Evernote’s handwriting recognition gives me a way to search for words in my sketchnotes, which is awesome for digging up sketchnotes or book notes (and for wowing people; yes, the future is here). OneNote is better at capturing screenshots and snippets, though, so I use it to collect elements from sketches and pictures that I like. I also use OneNote for Latin studies because it feels the most like a paper notebook.

I share as much as possible on my blog so that I can have more ways to get to what I know. Google searches occasionally lead me back to blog posts I’ve completely forgotten about, which is pretty nifty. Besides, people often comment and share even more information, and that’s awesome.

I’m still trying to figure out better ways to get to what I’ve stored in all these places. I’ve been going back and adding more posts to this topical index. I’m thinking of reviewing the 6,000+ posts in my archive and rating them on a scale of 1-5 so that I can filter them for the highlights view of my blog. So much in the past, and that’s just ten years of writing – imagine what the archive will be like when I’ve been writing and drawing for decades. =)

I picked up this quote recently. It’s from Carl Sagan:

“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

  • Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Writing, drawing, and photography are all miniature time machines. They’re amazing and fantastic, but you’ve got to have a way back into them in order to make the most of them.

How do you manage your notes?