Category Archives: planning

When it comes to juggling multiple interests, it helps to limit your expectations

imageI have a lot of ideas, and it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that I’m not making progress on as many of them as I want to. It’s simple math. If I make progress on two projects but let eight languish, I tend to feel guilty about those eight.

So I’m borrowing an idea from just-in-time delivery: the kanban method. The ideas are (according to Wikipedia):

  • Visualize: See what you’re working on and where it is in the workflow. Also, keep track of where you’re approaching the limits.
  • Limit work in process: My limit is probably two projects in focus. I work on one at a time. The other is there for switching to if I hit a snag or need to change things up. (See also: Managing Oneself) Everything else is on the back burner, the someday/maybe list, or the “nifty idea but probably not for me” list.
  • Manage flow: I’m not paying much attention to this yet. It would be interesting to track how things move from current to back burner. I have some of that data through my timetracking.
  • Make policies explicit: What gets a project onto my someday/maybe list, onto my back-burner, or into focus? There are lots of ideas that I’m happy to let other people explore; I pick up only projects that I’m personally motivated by and that I see value in. Of those, I identify which ones I can actually make some progress towards today. I focus on 1-2 things that I like the most (especially if other people want them too). I don’t stop myself from working on back burner things, but I no longer have to feel guilty about letting them lapse. If it turns out that I don’t actually spend time on back burner items in a month or two, that’s usually a good sign it’s a someday/maybe thing due to lack of present motivation or capability.
  • Implement feedback loops: I haven’t paid much attention to this yet. Usually, people nudge me if I let some projects take too much of my attention.
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally (using models and the scientific method): Tweaking my mindset to minimize guilt-friction is a good, small improvement. Looking forward to other small improvements!

Strict kanban would probably mean not even starting until I’d cleared off at least one work in progress, I think. I’m not that strict. I’m happy to switch back and forth, but it’s good to be clear about what I’m focusing on. That way, I don’t feel pulled in ten different directions.


Writing is my key project. Drawing, Quantified Awesome, and Emacs swap in and out of the #2 slot. Delegation tends to be more on the back burners. Someday/maybe? More business stuff, getting better at gardening, learning sewing, and so on. If I were better at delegation, I might be able to increase my capacity to do more, but it’s a lower priority at the moment (I appreciate the extra cushion that frugality gives me). I’m cheating with “Writing” and the books on my list – I’m planning to write them in short segments, one blog post at a time.

Knowing this helps because when requests come in for things that I’m not focused on, I can happily and guiltlessly refer them to other people. It makes decisions easier. Do I spend $X to attend a conference or course on Y? No, that’s on my someday/maybe list. It’s good to know what you can say no to in order to say yes to other things.

I might be able to make more progress if I focused on driving 1-2 things to completion, not switching them on and off the back burner. In that case, I would eliminate writing from my list of projects (it’s never done!) and move up the book projects. I tried that kind of intensive writing with Wicked Cool Emacs and it burned me out a little, but maybe I’ve learned since then. I like the interplay of interests, though. Maybe I can experiment with “week on, week off” patterns – there’s value in immersion as well…

Anyway, the point of this post is: I can’t do everything at the same time, so I’m learning to not stress out about it. =) If that’s something you struggle with too, then you might find that clearly identifying the things you are focusing on and gently letting go of the other things (at least for now) might help. Good luck!

What’s on your back burner?

It’s easy to get discouraged by the vague feeling that you’re ignoring lots of things that you wanted to work on: hobbies that fall by the wayside, projects gathering dust on your shelves, Someday/Maybe lists that grow and never shrink. I’m learning that thinking about what’s on your back burner can help you make your peace with it, deliberately choosing what you want to work on during your discretionary time and letting go of the rest.

I’m focusing on consulting this October and November. Assuming all goes well, December will be taken up by a vacation: wrapping up consulting, going on vacation, and recovering from the whirlwind. I’m going to be less “retired” than I thought I’d be at this point, so I want to be deliberate about what I’m putting on the back burner and what I should keep doing.


Consulting leaves me with one or two days a week when I can focus on other projects. I also have little bits of time here and there, and some time in the evenings. What do I want to fit into those opportunities?

Daily drawing: I really like this practice of thinking about ideas or questions on paper, and I plan to continue doing this. Since I’ve made it a warm-up and cool-down activity, I don’t need a lot of separate focused time for it. I draw to start and end my day, and I spend a little time filing new sketches. Decision: Continue doing this in small pieces.

Visual vocabulary: Someone asked me if I could share my visual vocabulary with people. I had figured out a good workflow for building my visual vocabulary using other people’s sketches, but I didn’t want to share my 1,000+ term collection because it’s based on other people’s sketches (copyright, you know!). So I started building a new visual vocabulary using only my own sketches. So far, I’ve processed all of my sketchnotes from 2013.

The next step is to process my personal sketches (including my daily sketches) from 2013, and then start going backwards in time. Although the work was simple and not challenging, it was a lot of fun reviewing my past sketches and remembering what the talks were about. Decision: I’ll spend a little time on this each week. I thought about outsourcing parts of it, but it’s probably going to be easier, faster, and more useful if I do this myself.

Topic-focused blog/book: I’ve been playing around with the idea of spinning off a separate blog focused on a small set of topics. The poll results were tied between learning/writing/notetaking/etc. and visual thinking/mind mapping/planning/etc., so I’m planning to focus on learning/writing/notetaking/etc. first because that will let me do all the rest even more effectively. Decision: I probably won’t split it off into a separate blog yet, though. I’ll use some of my daily drawing time to explore topics and flesh them out into a series of blog posts – possibly hitting two birds with one stone. =)

Quantified Awesome: I have bugs to fix, features to add, analyses to run… Well, the bug fixes come first. I’m going to set aside some of these focus days or weekends to get token authentication and a few other things working again. I’m curious about my groceries data now that I have more than a year of it, so I’m looking forward to crunching the numbers. Just how much rice do we go through in a year? How can we organize our space to allow us to stock up even better? Decision: Coding benefits from long periods of focus time, so I should use my free days for this. Once I get past the bugs, though, I’m okay with scaling back on this a little.

Server administration, learning new tech skills: My web server isn’t set up optimally. It’s probably slower and more conservative than it needs to be. There are configuration options I haven’t dug into, performance limits I haven’t tested, and so on. Still, my server hasn’t fallen apart recently, and it should be fine for now. Learning new programming languages, frameworks, or platforms might also help me in the long run, but that’s something I can guiltlessly postpone for this quarter. Decision: Postpone, revisit next year.

Delegation and automation: I keep wondering about how I might be able to take advantage of other people’s skills and experiences in order to learn more or do more, but I’ve been slacking off in terms of actually delegating things to people. I’ve been digging into why that’s the case (what are my excuses? am I missing some quick wins?), so you’ll probably see a blog post about that shortly. Still, I don’t want to delegate for the sake of delegating. I want to make sure that I specify work clearly and can pay enough attention to give good feedback as well as learn from the experience. This takes time and brainspace. I’ll dig into this if the opportunity comes up, but I don’t mind waiting until later.

As for automation, I’ll probably learn more about that on the way to doing other things. For example, AutoHotkey looks like it will repay further study. I’ll use some of my focus days to tweak things here and there, but I don’t need to push too hard on this. Decision: Postpone or do opportunistically.

Sketchnote lessons: This is where I teach myself (and other people!) more about sketchnoting by drawing different variants of common techniques. It helps broaden my visual vocabulary. I currently publish a sketchnote lesson every Thursday. If I make it less formal and more playful, I might be able to fold it into my daily drawing / doodling sessions. For example, I might try drawing people in different professions or in different situations as a way of expanding my visual vocabulary. This does require a bit more research, though, because I need to look at other people’s sketchnotes and reference photos. If I relax my expectations of publishing and make it, say, once a month, then I don’t have to worry about scraping the bottom of the barrel. (I should do one just about metaphors… =) ) That way, if I end up ramping up my drawing/doodling so that I have something publishable once a week or once every two weeks, that’s awesome. Decision: Scale back a little, and focus on doodling different categories?


When I started thinking about what’s on my back burner, I felt a little overwhelmed. There was too much to fit into my week, not to mention the stuff on my Things I want to learn list that I haven’t gotten around to even starting. As I thought about what I could fit into small pockets of time, what needed more focus, and what I could postpone, things felt more manageable. Now I have a few things I can focus on, and I don’t have to feel bad about temporarily letting go of some of the things I was curious about. We’ll see how this works!

There will always be more things you want to do than time to do it in. You can get stressed out by your limitations, or you can exercise your ability to choose. Good luck!

Growing authority

It’s good to think about the kind of life you want to grow so that when everything comes together – knowledge, skills, character – you can make the most of it.


I recently turned thirty. This is great. Being a thirty-something carries a little more gravitas than being a twenty-something. It’s not a magic bullet, but I think it will help. Maybe in my thirties, I’ll get better at using the Voice of Authority. Maybe I’ll figure out how to stop sounding like I’m five years old. Maybe I’ll stop hedging my blog posts and conversations with maybes and probablys.

I checked the mirror the other day. Still no crow’s feet. Gotta work on those. Every so often, I think about the way I want my face to wrinkle and age. Smile lines, yes. Frown lines, anger lines, not so much. Do you think it would be weird to find someone who can retouch one of my photos so that I’m more crinkly? Usually people want to go the other way around.

Anyway. Growing older has its perks. While I wait for the aura of respectability to settle in, I’m working on accumulating knowledge and skills. They’ll come in handy someday.

I was going to say, this girl looks like she’s 16, what does she know? … but she says she’s 29. A little better. :)

from a forum post

I think it’s about deliberately growing my circles of authority: understanding my limits and then gradually expanding them. Here’s a snippet from a recent HackerNews article that made me think about this concept of “authority”:

3. I built a bigger product than I had authority for

I started up Happy Bootstrapper in April with no followers or authority. I planned to write a book about metrics first. The reason is simple – I know my metrics, but I’m not a growth consultant or a SaaS owner. Starting with simple info-products would have bought me time to grow my authority at the same speed with my products.

Then I just happened to stumble into a problem/pain that I knew I could help people with. I didn’t stop to think if I had the authority to actually sell the product. And if you aren’t selling something trivial then you’d better have something to prove people that you know your topic. Teaching people about the topic does the job, but it requires time.

3 Lessons From My Almost Failed Launch

Authority isn’t just for selling things. It can help when asking questions or sharing thoughts. It’s like the way open source mailing lists strongly encourage people to show their work when asking a question. Don’t just ask a question out of the blue, show how you’ve tried to find an answer on your own. Experience (even a little bit) earns you conversation.

It’s also about making it easier for people to identify with you, which is essential if they’re going to listen. I did a lot of technology evangelism as a consultant, coaching teams and communities on social business and internal collaboration platforms. It was always about finding a few people within the group or in a similar group with whom people could identify. Few people were going to listen to me say that something was easy to learn. In many cases, I was the same age as their sons or daughters, and they were used to being confused by stuff that their kids found easy. If the advocate was someone in their group – especially someone who’s not always the first adopter of new things – it was much more effective. One of the most useful techniques for influencing people is Feel, felt, found: I know how you feel. I felt that way when… I found that… You can tell it with other people’s stories, but it’s more effective with your own.

As I go through life, I’ll probably collect more experiences that can help me identify with people and vice versa. I’ll probably also diverge (like with this semi-retirement experiment thing!), but with experience, I can get better at emphasizing similarities. It’s the ethos of rhetoric’s logos, pathos, and ethos: character is part of persuasion.

And I’ll learn more, too. I’ll learn things worth sharing. I’ll learn things that can save other people time or money, make ideas easier to explore, and so on. Here’s what I’m a semi-authority on (based on what people have asked me about) and my current limits:

  • Emacs: getting started, playing around with it, some coding – but not yet working with Emacs core or doing lots of Emacs Lisp wizardry
  • Sketchnotes: getting started, working digitally, publishing, learning from others, using in presentations and blog posts – but not paper, and not graphic recording/facilitation
  • Quantified Self: tracking time, analyzing data, working with Excel, basic stats – but not R, and only a few types of measures
  • Blogging: learning through writing, blogging about tech and life, working with a large archive, adding sketches – but not yet e-books or other information products
  • Bulk cooking: filling the freezer with individual meals (with an Asian slant), cooking frugally – but not vegetarian and not large-scale
  • Hacking around introversion: connecting, taking notes, following up, speaking in public – but not networking events

I don’t want to turn into the “I know what’s best for you” sort of authority. I think good authority is more along the lines of being able to:

  • empathize with people because you’ve been through something similar, and make it easier for them to understand where you’re coming from
  • ask the right questions to help people think through things, share their experiences, and come to their own conclusions
  • share experiences and pitfalls so that other people can avoid your mistakes or explore the secret bonus levels you’ve discovered
  • enrich the conversation

What kinds of authority do I want to build?

I want to get really good at learning and sharing. I want to grok things and share what I understand. I want to inspire and help lots of people learn and share more effectively.

I want to get really good at working around my limits. That’s where Emacs, sketchnotes, Quantified Self, blogging, cooking, and introversion all fit in, I think. Emacs gets around the limitations of the tools I use. Sketchnotes and blogging help me get around the limitations of memory and introversion. Bulk cooking helps me get around the limitations of time. Quantified Self helps me get around the limitations of irrationality and forgetfulness. Not perfect, but useful.

I want to get really good at living life with equanimity. I want to weather the ups and downs and sidewayses of life. Frugality is a subset of this, I think – the ability to resist the temptations of consumption and desire.

So how can I build that kind of authority over the next few decades?

shutterstock_111523355Primary insights come from doing things. As Washington Irving said: “One of the greatest and simplest tools for learning more and growing is doing more.”

Secondary insights come from reading, talking to people, and learning from other people’s lives. I can make the most of being close to a library and speed-reading like crazy. Decent fill-in while I don’t have much experience.

At some point in time, maybe everything will come together. I wrote once:

If I can get a decade or two of great writing out right around the time I should have tons of experiences to write about, that should be fine.

Quantified Awesome: Time and building mastery

Let’s see how this works out. =)

Image credits: Brain tree: Christos Georghiou (Shutterstock), Book tree: Cienpies Design (Shutterstock)

What kind of authority are you building? How are you going about it?

Poll: Planning a weekly topic-focused blog – what would you like to read more about?

Your blog is so eclectic,” said someone recently. In one week, I can write about deep geekery, business, blogging, drawing, decision making, and cooking. I deliberately shuffle my posts around so that you get a variety of topics each week. (When I didn’t do this kind of planning, you sometimes got long stretches of geeky posts that went over everyone else’s heads…)

My blog has a lot of different topics because I have a lot of different interests. The only challenge with posting daily is making myself stick to it instead of publishing two or three posts because I get carried away. There’s always so much to learn and share, and if I don’t write about it, I tend to forget it.

I think it’s time to experiment with different ways to write. The variety is fine for other people with wide-ranging interests. The frequency is a little overwhelming, so I’ve started directing people to weekly and monthly updates. I’ve tried category feeds, but they’re still a little difficult to focus on if people just care about one or two topics.

Please help me plan a new blog that’s more focused on a set of topics. =) One that’s updated weekly, so it’s more manageable in terms of reading. One that’s written for readers first, instead of being mostly personal notes that might be useful for other people. I’m still going to update my personal blog ( with all these notes, but once a week, I want to post a focused, well-written, illustrated, “I spent 4-10 hours making something useful for you” post that saves you time or money.

I’m going to focus on general-interest topics so that I can write posts that might be useful for years and years to come. Tech-related posts can be difficult to keep current – people come across Emacs blog posts from 2008, and it can be hard to figure out what needs to be changed. General topics tend to be longer-lasting.

Here is where I need your help and feedback: What do you want to read about the most? There’s a poll in this blog post. If you don’t see it, please check it out at If you give me your e-mail address (optional), I can invite you to check out the blog when it starts out. I’m going to brainstorm some headlines, fill in outlines, write posts, draw sketches, and get things going maybe a month or two in advance before I tell most people about it. Vote and tell me how to contact you, and you can help shape the way the blog evolves. =) Please fill in the poll by October 4, 2013 (next Friday) - I’d love to get things going quickly!

2013-10-07 09_25_14-All Polls ‹ sacha chua __ living an awesome life — WordPress

I know there are a lot of blogs like those out there. Here’s how I want to make a difference:

  • You can benefit from summarized insights from books and blog posts. I speed-read and have access to an amazing library, so I can grab ideas from books you don’t have the time to read, summarize them in neat one-page graphical notes, and help you learn faster.
  • Instead of generic advice, you can learn from stories and experiences. There are lots of platitudes out there: “Follow your passion.” “Spend less than you earn.” “Make something useful.” I don’t want to write generic run-of-the-mill link-building articles. I’ll tell you what it’s like to apply the advice to real life and what I learned along the way. I’ve got a lot of practice in thinking about what I’m thinking (including identifying and questioning assumptions), so I’d be happy to take you behind the scenes.
  • You can explore interesting perspectives with me as we combine different experiences. There’s plenty of advice on how to make better decisions, but that’s even more fun when you can bring Quantified Self-type tracking and metrics to measure the results. Writing is a useful tool for learning, and it gets even better when you can tweak the software you use. Learning complex topics can be difficult, but sketchnoting can make the ideas more approachable. I’m a geek, and that spills over into everything I do.

So that’s why I’m thinking of adding a topic-focused blog to the abundance of content already on the Internet. I’ll probably branch it out under the “” domain name – maybe in a subdirectory for ease of expansion later on.

Also, since it’s good to question one’s assumptions: Is there a better way to improve navigation and reduce overwhelming volume than a topic-focused blog? Have you come across other wide-ranging blogs that make it easy for you to focus on just the topics you want, while discovering “neighbouring” topics if you’re interested? What do those blogs do differently?

Got any additional thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Help me figure out how I should reinvest business profits

image_thumb20I’m approaching the end of my second fiscal year. (Hooray!) I thought I’d review my decisions for reinvesting profits, plan ahead, and ask for feedback. Here’s how I reinvested some of my profits this year:


  • Tools and education:
    • I bought $289 worth of books, including pricey but useful books on drawing emotions and stick figures (Bikablo, from Neuland). I’ve made the most of them by reading, taking notes, and sharing what I’ve learned, so this was definitely worth it.
    • I also took the AlphaChimp Rockstar Scribe course (CAD 298.66, it’s now USD 497; affiliate link). I picked up a few tips on digitizing scanned sketches (lesson 6: digital documentation). The exercises also prompted me to put together my 3-word life philosophy and my 5-year plan.
    • Next steps: My laptop should be good for another year or two, so I have no major upgrades planned there. I may invest more into courses. These tend to be bigger commitments, but I think the experience might be worthwhile. I can test this by seeing if I can improve my retention in free or low-cost courses (Coursera, Udacity) before going on to more expensive courses. Gotta build up those study habits! If I find that I’m hitting the limits of what I want to learn in group classes and I’m already making the most of the Q&A or mentoring that courses tend to offer, then I can look into getting a one-on-one coach.
  • Connecting with people:
    • The biggest chunk here was flying to London for the Emacs Conference, which was a great way to connect with people, create resources, and develop skills.
    • I also signed up for HackLab ($51.75 a month) as a way to connect with other geeks and have a place to work at when I’m downtown.
    • I attended networking events ($170.45). AndroidTO was less useful than I expected because I hadn’t actually been developing stuff then, although it was good sketchnoting practice. The Third Tuesdays Toronto events were definitely worth it for me. Rotman events were okay.
    • I met four people for lunches/dinners and had lots of tea with others, talking about mentoring or business opportunities.
    • Next steps: I want to focus on virtual connections, because there are lots of interesting people out there. This means ramping up my scheduling, inviting people to reach out, and reaching out myself (possibly appreciating people with gift certificates or donations to charity)
  • Delegation:
    • I greatly increased my delegation budget compared to last year. I subcontracted $1,333.34 of my work and delegated an additional $2,030.30.
    • Hiring a virtual assistant to help with scheduling really helped me get past the hassles of booking people. Worth it.
    • Hiring a transcriber for my podcasts and presentations worked out well, too.
    • Hiring a local consultant to help me brainstorm was okay, but not amazing. It was a helpful nudge to work on my marketing, though.
    • Hiring another on-shore consultant to give me feedback on my website and e-books was also okay but not amazing. It was great for pushing me to add more hand-drawn elements to my website, though.
    • Hiring a developer to work on Rails prototypes gave me a leg up on dealing with various APIs, although I ended up not pursuing the projects.
    • Next steps: Virtual assistance gives me a low-cost way to experiment with and learn more about delegation. In addition to ODesk, I should experiment with Fiverr, Guru, and other sites.

I made $90 in e-book sales in FY 2013, which absolutely delights me. It’s a tiny fraction of what I make in consulting or even sketchnoting or speaking, but it’s a start. I’ve been moving towards a Pay What You Want model so that everyone can get access to the resources and people can show their appreciation by funding future experiments. My experiment-related savings take care of my living expenses, so everything goes to Making Stuff. I want to focus on making more things.

For this coming year, I’m planning to focus on consulting until it winds down. I’m also going to ramp up creating content: blog posts, drawings, articles, e-books, courses, and more. I often get requests to sketchnote events or other people’s content, and I’d like to refer those to other people instead of handling them myself. That way, I can help other people grow, and I can make myself learn more about creating my own content.

Ideally, by September 2014, I’ll have:

  • a separate topic-focused weekly blog with evergreen posts and useful, well-formatted, illustrated articles
  • several e-resources for that blog
  • a mailing list that I’ve learned how to use
  • and possibly a course that includes tips, worksheets, checklists, animations, and video

I might keep a "Wanted" list on my site so that I can funnel other requests to it, like people looking for sketchnoters. That way, instead of simply telling people no, I can help them a little further along the way and help other people grow their businesses too.

Here’s my plan for getting there:

  1. Brainstorm headlines and article ideas to help me choose which topics I want to start a weekly topic-focused blog around.
  2. Get feedback on which topics people would like to read about first. Start collecting e-mail addresses for launch.
  3. "Bank" 4-8 good articles (write two months ahead). Invite early readers.
  4. Publicize it a bit more widely once I’ve gotten into the rhythm of publishing on the blog and I know that the rate is sustainable.
  5. Plan an outline for a brief e-book and gear my articles towards that.
  6. Reach out and find guest posting opportunities once the blog is more established.

To make the blog different and useful, I plan to illustrate the ideas with one-page cheat sheets / references. This will also make a handy collection.

With that in mind, what are some ways I can reinvest some of my profits in order to make things better, and which ways make more sense than others? These are ordered in terms of how useful I think they will be, with the best ones on top. I’d love your feedback and suggestions!

  • Find a system administrator who can help me review my config and backup plans, and who can answer questions from time to time. As someone said, good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement. I can learn things on my own, but it’s probably really good to take advantage of other people’s hard-won experience too. That way, I have a solid platform to grow on.
  • Go through a course like the ones offered at Platform University, CopyBlogger, or ProBlogger. I can get multiple levels of value out of this. First, there’s the lessons themselves. Even if I know most of the basics because I’ve been blogging for more than ten years, it will be good to deliberately go through them. I can turn them into blog posts about my experiences applying those tips. I can turn them into sketchnotes and references. Along the way, I’ll also learn about the structure of courses and communities – what I like or don’t like, and what other people seem to respond to.
  • Sign up for a good mailing list service, possibly with an autoresponder or digital delivery mechanism. This will give me more control than simply using FeedBurner to give people e-mail updates.
  • Sign up for survey tools so that I can get better feedback. Provide giveaways or incentives for survey completion.
  • Experiment with richer media: presentations, animations, podcasts, video. Buy tools and hardware. Possibly delegate editing. Podcasts and screencasts might be a good way to work myself up to doing webinars regularly.
  • Pay for a web conferencing service, and set up regular web conferences or webinars. Monthly webinars might justify paying for a premium service so that I’m not constrained by Google Hangout or AnyMeeting’s limitations. I can also use this to interview people. Any recommendations for a cross-platform webinar service that allows all participants to chat with each other?
  • Work with a reputable SEO company to avoid penalties for duplicate content and to learn more about doing keyword research. Sometimes little tweaks make things more findable or discoverable.
  • Invest in better web planning and design, maybe for the topic-focused blog. I might start off with a basic template, fill it in with content, add some resources, and then go for a more professional design when the topic and audience for the blog has firmed up a little. That way, I can get feedback from people too.
  • Buy premium plugins, scripts, or themes to make navigating the blog or content easier. A responsive theme and a good gallery can make a lot of difference.
  • Buy books, read them, and give them away. That way, I’m not limited to the library’s selection. The library has lots of books and it could take forever for me to get through the backlog, but learning from and sharing tips from newly-published books may create more value for readers. Plus, if I set aside a budget for shipping (which is expensive in Canada!), I can give lightly-read copies away. I’ve had publishers send me copies of books to review, so maybe I can ramp that up also.
  • Hire someone to format e-resources. They can help develop the template, lay things out nicely, and make sure it fits in well with the blog.
  • Learn how to work with article writers or pay for excellent guest posts. I have the time to write and I enjoy writing, but I’m curious about the perspectives that other people might bring.
    • Worst-case scenario: They write the first draft, and I end up rewriting it extensively because I have a better idea of what I don’t want.
    • Best-case scenario: I give them a topic to write about, they come up with insights or research I might not have come across myself, and then I can personalize it with more stories or experiences.
  • Work with copywriters and editors and get better at writing.
  • Hire a coach to help me learn more about planning posts, creating resources or courses, building a community, and so on.
  • Buy domain names and learn how to set up landing pages.

Image credit: Piggy bank (Oliver Hoffman, Shutterstock)

4 steps to a better blog by planning your goals and post types

This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Here’s what I’m learning about being clear about your goals and analyzing how your actions match up with them. I’ve been thinking about my goals for blogging because I want to get better. I have time to learn things, and I can learn more effectively if I learn deliberately. It might work for you too!


1. Clarify your goals

It’s good to know what your goals are and how the different approaches serve those goals so that you can choose the ones that are the most effective. You can also look at each approach to see how you can improve it.

After some reflection, I came up with this list of goals for my blog:

  1. Learn more effectively by thinking through complexity or explaining what I’m learning
  2. Explore assumptions and possibilities; become more aware of them myself, and help other people see them
  3. Improve core skills through practice: making decisions, explaining ideas, organizing thoughts, etc.
  4. Save myself and other people time spent re-solving the same problems or learning the same things
  5. Build a long-term archive that I can use to remember what I’m learning and see differences over time
  6. Learn from other people through questions, comments, and conversations

Your list of goals will probably look different. Many people have goals such as building a business by promoting their products or services, educating clients or readers, keeping family members up to date, working through difficult issues by writing anonymously, and so on. Take a moment to think about and prioritize your goals.

If you’re having problems expressing your goals, you can also take a look at your recent blog posts and ask yourself, “Why did I write this?” What results did you want to get? What purpose did it serve? One blog post might work towards several different goals.

2. Analyze the ways you approach those goals

Different actions support different goals to different extents. Think about the different types of blog posts you write. Score them against each of your goals on a scale of 1 to 5, where a score of 5 means that type of post helps a specific goal a lot, while 1 means it does very little or even nothing for that particular goal.

Here are some of the types of posts I share and how they line up with the goals I listed above:

Goal 1: Learn Goal 2: Explore Goal 3: Improve Goal 4: Save time Goal 5: Build Goal 6: Learn from others Total
T1: Draw original stuff 5 5 5 5 5 3 28
T2: Draw book reviews and events 5 2 5 5 5 5 27
T3: Think out loud 5 5 5 1 5 3 24
T4: Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code 5 5 3 4 2 4 23
T5: Review longer spans of time (yearly, decisions) 5 4 5 1 5 3 23
T6: Write tips that few other people can cover 4 2 3 3 4 3 19
T7: Write tips that other people can also cover 3 1 2 2 2 2 12
T8: Review recent posts (weekly, monthly) 1 1 4 1 4 1 12

Sorting the table by the total score makes it easy to see which approaches you value more. If some goals are much more important to you than others, you can also weight those goals in your calculations. For example, if building a long-term archive was twice as important to me, I could double that column when calculating the total score.

Anyway, this ranking makes it clearer why I feel good about original drawings and sketchnotes, and why I skew towards decision reviews and “thinking through things”-type posts even if they don’t feel focused enough on saving other people time. Most of the blogging advice tends to focus on writing tips, but they don’t motivate me as much.

How about you? Do your post types match up with your goals? Are there clear winners that you should focus on? You can write lower-value posts from time to time because they address different needs. For example, I post weekly reviews because they’re useful to me even if they’re less useful for others.

3. Adjust your priorities based on feedback

Of course, since these values are subjective, it helps to adjust them based on your website analytics or feedback from your readers. For example, if you think a type of post saves people a lot of time, you’ll probably see a lot of visits or comments on it. If you have Google Analytics, you can export the Content – Site Content – All Pages table to a spreadsheet, classify the top X links, and then see what types of posts people spend their time on. For example, I analyzed the top 500 pages visited in July 2013, classified each by type, calculated average views and time per page, and sorted it by average views to get a sense of which posts tend to be more popular.

Post type Number of pages Number of views Average page views per page Average minutes per page view Average bounce rate
T1: draw original 23 2875 125 3.4 67%
T4: share tech 149 12468 84 5.8 74%
T2: draw book / event 41 2346 57 2.3 64%
T3: think out loud 62 2452 40 3.4 72%
T5: review long / decision 14 504 36 2.7 73%
T6: write tip (few) 41 1392 34 3.1 72%
T8: review 9 283 31 1.0 61%
T7: write tip (many) 24 461 19 4.7 73%

My sketchnotes are more popular by far. My technical notes are surprisingly durable over time, even though you’d expect them to be superseded by bugfixes, technical changes, better documentation, and so on. Posts as old as 2004 still turn up. Because people still get a lot of value from my old tech posts, I adjusted the “Save time” rating for tech tips from my original value of 3 to 4. (I had started with a lower value because I figured that not a lot of people would probably have run into the same issues I did, but it turns out that time makes up for audience size and the long tail works.) As I expected, tips that few other people have written about get more pageviews than tips that more people have written about, although I’m surprised that people tend to spend more time on the common tips. My “thinking out loud” posts are more popular than I expected. Also, people tend to click on my weekly reviews if I add a brief description to the title, so that’s something.

Limitations: This only looks at single-page views in a single month. Also, I picked July because I started drafting this post in August.

Anecdotally speaking, I get a lot of comments and links to my sketchnotes. I’m also delighted by the conversations that occasionally grow out of the “thinking out loud” posts, and how sometimes people will share even better solutions when I post my technical notes.

4. Identify ways to improve each approach

Now that you’ve looked at what makes each type of post different, you can focus on how to improve each type by building on its strengths or compensating for its weaknesses. Here’s what I’m planning for the kinds of posts I write:

Draw original stuff: It takes me 2-4 hours to make one of these. I like making technical notes (ex: Emacs), sketchnote tutorials (to help people draw more), and other drawings related to life and planning. I’m getting used to drawing them with less up-front planning. Even though I end up moving things around, I think it’s useful to just get started. Drawing involves a trade-off because images are not as searchable as text. I can fix that by including the text, but it’s a little awkward and it takes more time. Still, people like the drawings a lot, and I like them too.

Draw book reviews and events: I go to fewer events these days, but I’m reading a lot more books. It takes me two hours to read a typical business book in depth, drawing notes along the way. I tend to draw book reviews only when I’ve already gotten a sense that a book is worth reading in depth. One way to increase my frequency is to draw book notes based on the skimmed parts of books that I’m not reading deeply – perhaps breaking out just the chapter or idea that resonates with me, and using that to illustrate a blog post reflecting on it. I can also work on getting more high-quality books into my pipeline, or practise by drawing more books with fewer value judgments.

Think out loud: I can improve the “Save time” score by stashing the notes in my outline, adding observations, until I’ve fleshed it out enough for preliminary findings and advice. It means that the output will be more concise in its reasoning and I’ll have to do more learning on my own instead of opening up the conversation early, but then the posts will be useful for other people as well as for me. Mr. Money Mustache is a good example of a blog that mixes personal stories and useful observations. The main thing that was holding me back from doing this before was losing track of my drafts, but my outline is a good step.

For example, this post started as a rough outline, thinking out loud about what kinds of posts I wanted to write. Now I’m going back and filling it in with other information that might be useful for people. If it ends up too long, I might have to trim it. We’ll get there!

Share tech tips, troubleshooting notes, or code: The limiting factor here is that I’m not working on any professional projects that I can write about, so I’m forced to run into and resolve fewer issues. I can replace that with working on my own projects or on open source projects, or helping people with questions. I often tweak or work on things related to Emacs, WordPress, or data visualization, so there’s that. If I set aside time and find a good source of small bugs so that I can ease my way into a habit of contributing to open source again, then that will also help me with my life goal to keep my technical skills sharp.

Review longer spans of time: I can increase the frequency of decision reviews by scheduling them so that I don’t lose track of items. Because I manage my outline in Org Mode, that should be relatively easy to do. I can also bootstrap this by reviewing last year and last decade’s monthly reviews (if available), or the blog posts if not.

Write tips that few other people can cover: There are lots of information gaps to fill. Sometimes it’s because people don’t have the time, inclination, or confidence to write about something. Sometimes it’s because I have a useful combination of skills or I can bring a different perspective. If I can’t find information, that’s a good reason to write it.

Write tips that other people can also cover: The world doesn’t really need another “how to find the time to blog” tutorial. If I can filter through search results for a good one and make it more findable, that beats writing one from scratch–unless I can add something special or relate different types of advice to each other.

Review recent posts (weekly, monthly): These are low-value in the short term (mostly lists of links, plus the nudge to do my weekly planning process), but I’ve found them to be surprisingly useful over the years. They also help keep my large blog archive manageable. That’s why I keep posting them. I’ve started using the weekly and monthly reviews to give people less-frequent subscription options (daily can be a little overwhelming), so that’s helpful too.

One way I can increase the value of the weekly reviews is to add more quick notes to them. For example, in my most recent weekly review, I included an annotated list of links I clipped and books/movies I liked from this week’s haul. I think it will provide additional value, and it’s a good way for me to review them as well.

Wrapping up

“Get better” is a vague goal. If you can identify the specific goals you would like to work toward, different ways to move towards those goals, and specific actions you can take to improve those approaches, you’ll have a lot of flexibility in terms of growing. You’ll find it easier to recognize or create opportunities to grow, and you can track your progress along the way. You might also be able to identify counter-productive approaches and replace them with ones that move towards more of your goals. Good luck and have fun!