Category Archives: planning

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!

blogging-and-goals

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!

Visual metaphors and layouts for planning your life

Marty Pauschke was interested in sketchnoting/drawing as a way of planning your own life. I find drawing to be really useful in making sense of my life and planning ahead, because it allows me to see the bigger picture. Here are some types of diagrams and visual metaphors that I use. I’d love to see yours!

Life as a journey

image

You can think of life as a journey. Imagine what the destination looks like, and think about the milestones you’d like to see along the way. You can draw obstacles and think about ways around them. This is great for celebrating your progress so far and seeing what’s next.

Example: 2012 as a sketch

Arrows

Here’s another way to look at it: as a target that you’re reaching with an arrow. Sometimes it helps to think about the goal first, then work backwards: what needs to happen in order for you to reach your goal? What needs to happen for that to happen? Continue until you get to actions you can take today.

image

Crossroads

image

Of course, life isn’t a simple journey – it’s full of decisions. Sometimes it helps to think about what some different possible outcomes are, and what you like or dislike about each one. Then you can figure out what you’re leaning towards.

If you’re looking at multiple decisions, a simple diagram might be easier to make and read.image You can see the branching-off points and think about what information you need in order to make the best decisions at each stage.

Mindmaps and other diagrams

image

Great for branching out into detail. Example: Imagining the next five years and planning 2013. You don’t have to stick with having one central idea. Play around.

Charts are handy, too – make up your own labels and chart types! Example: Mapping my work happiness

Timelinesimage

Timelines are good for remembering because you end up filling in the blanks.

image

I like making spiral timelines because they give me different amounts of space for things that are more important to me (ex: more recent memories). Spirals can go the other way, too – zeroing in on a goal.

 

Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

imageThe SWOT analysis is used a lot in management schools and in consulting, and it’s useful for personal growth as well. I like focusing on my strengths and finding workarounds for my weaknesses.

 

Pre-mortem and post-mortem analyses

imageSpeaking of weaknesses, I like doing pre-mortems – anticipating ways something could go wrong. Gravestones are a nice touch. Example: Experiment pre-mortem

These are just some of the ways I use drawing to help me remember and plan. How do you draw your life?

What do I want to do right now? Understanding my algorithm for discretionary time

Noorul asked, "How do you generally begin your day and how does it span? Do you plan for each hour or do you plan a task across many days/weeks?"

I have three kinds of days:

  • Weekends are reserved for spending time with W- or friends, helping out around the house, cooking, and getting ready for the next week. I take an hour for my weekly review, and I often have more time to write or read, but I don’t count on it – people get first dibs.
  • Consulting days – Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually, although I’m planning to take all of August off. I wake up, have breakfast, get ready, bike, work from about 10 to 5 (earlier or later, depending on attention and need), bike back, and then go to a meetup or spend the rest of the day at home.
  • Discretionary days – Wide-open and wonderful, these are the days when I follow my interests freely: writing, coding, drawing, learning… Sometimes I punctuate them with meetings—I’m practising talking to people. 

I briefly experimented with planning my life in detail before, assigning tasks to specific days or even blocking off hours in my calendar. I wanted to make sure that important tasks didn’t fall off my radar and that I didn’t overcommit my day. It didn’t really work for me – I kept moving things around depending on how I felt.

What works for me now? Minimizing commitments, thinking in terms of weeks, making decisions moment by moment, and always having good things to choose from (it helps to keep track of good ideas). Not wasting energy in beating myself up about what I haven’t done; instead, I celebrate the things I do.

Here’s what my decision process looks like when I ask myself, "What do I want to do right now?" It’s roughly in terms of priorities, although I might pick something lower on the list if that’s what I really want, and I save chores for downtime.

  1. Does W- need my help with any projects?
  2. Have I promised anything urgent to anyone?
  3. Are there chores to be done?
    1. Is the kitchen clean?
    2. Is there laundry to be done?
    3. Does the garden need watering?
    4. Do the litter boxes need to be cleared?
    5. Do things need to be tidied a little?
    6. Have I gotten a bit of exercise?
  4. Do I want to work on my computer?
    1. Do I have something to write about? What am I curious about?
    2. Do I feel like coding?
    3. Do I feel like drawing?
      1. Do I want to draw my own things? 
      2. Do I want to work on a book review?
  5. Are there books I want to read?
  6. Do I have Japanese flashcards to review?
  7. Is there e-mail I need to reply to?
  8. Are there stories I want to read?
  9. Do I want to reach out to anyone and brighten their day?
  10. What else do I want to do?

I prioritize things based on happiness, relationships, energy, what I’ve been doing recently (momentum!), what I haven’t done recently, whatever else comes to mind…

E-mail and social networks are pretty far down my list. Sometimes I trawl my inbox for blog post ideas, and once in a while, I go through my inbox to reply to as much as I can. (I try to do this every week, although sometimes it stretches.) TV and movies are background activities, to be saved for sessions of laundry-folding or coding – almost always DVDs checked out of the library, so that we can watch with subtitles and rewinds. In the interstitial time between activities, I do flashcards or read blog posts on my phone.

Commitments go on my planner (Org Mode in Emacs, for flexibility); all the rest are unscheduled tasks that I can review by context or look up by project depending on what I’m interested in or drawn to. There are things that I plan to do that I don’t end up doing, but that’s because they get preempted by things that are more important to me.

So that’s the discretionary stuff. What about our routines?

I wake up at 8 or 9, snoozing if I feel sleepy. I use the bathroom, wash my mouth guard, let the cats drink from the faucet. Downstairs, I have our "standard breakfast": one fried egg with brown rice, sometimes even two eggs as a weekend luxury. I head upstairs to brush my teeth and dress up. Then I pack my lunch and whatever I need (if I’m going outside) or settle into working on my own projects on our kitchen table or at our standing desk. W- leaves for work, J- leaves for school. If I’m at home, I have a simple lunch (salad? home-made frozen food?), and then I move on to whatever I want to do next. J- comes home, W- comes home. We have dinner, and then it’s time for chores or exercise or a little more writing. I tidy up, shower, brush my teeth, and go to bed at roughly midnight, although sometimes I stay up later.

I’m lucky. We keep our lives simple so that we have time.

How do you decide what to do?

See also: How I use Emacs Org Mode for my weekly reviews

Use the weekly review to give yourself permission to do things you want to do

One of the habits I’ve formed through my blog is the practice of doing a weekly review. This is where I celebrate what I accomplished and get a heads-up on what’s next. I do this almost every Saturday, which turns out to be a great day for reflecting and preparing.

I also use the weekly review to make sure I spend time on things that I want to do. It’s easy to forget that in the endless ping-pong game of responding to other people’s requests, or to scatter your attention among lots of interests and not feel like you’re making progress in any particular one. Give yourself permission to work on something you want to do, and carve out space for it in your to-do list or calendar. I divide my to-do list into three categories: work, relationships, and life. The work category is easy to fill. Relationships take a little more thought, but other people make it easy by asking. Life, on the other hand—the skills I want to develop, the hobbies I want to explore—that requires me to step up and choose to do something instead of having my time filled by things that other people have chosen for me.

Lots of things are interesting, but I try to pick one or two things to focus on during each week. For example, I’ve been focusing on planting the garden and studying Japanese. I might explore other ideas during the week, but it’s good to make slow and steady progress in my focus areas.

I make that space by managing my commitments. It’s easy to get used to a hectic, time-starved status quo, and it’s gratifying as well—busy-ness helps you feel valued. For me, “normal life” includes time to breathe and time to play. I avoid being busy. When I notice I’m starting to make mistakes because my calendar is too full, I slow down and see what I can say no to.

I add “want-to”s to my to-do list instead of just keeping it to the “must-do”s, and I remove or change other tasks until things look like they’ll fit. It makes reviewing and planning more fun, and it gives me something to look forward to during the week.

Might be something that can help you establish that habit. =) Happy to hear your thoughts and to read your weekly reviews!

Related: On the practice of a weekly review

Squishing my excuses: idea edition

I’ve been trying to figure out what intimidates me about this new idea every month challenge. I guess it’s because each business idea feels like a fresh opportunity for the impostor syndrome. I deal with the impostor syndrome by being up front about what I can do, assuming people are responsible for their decisions, by offering a satisfaction guarantee.

Fortunately, other people are exploring that path, and I can learn from their experiences. I’m a little envious of the folks over at Ridiculo.us, who’ve not only set a goal of 12 projects in 12 months but have also figured out how to quickly whip up prototypes. David Seah is another person I look up to, and he’s been working on designing a new product every day. It’s clearly something you can still do solo if you’ve got the skills to back it up.

I’d be more comfortable with committing to make something new every month if:

  • I had more practice in creating and supporting stuff, which is a catch-22 because you don’t get practice in creating stuff until you create stuff, so I should just go ahead and do it.
  • I knew more people with well-defined needs that happened to match up pretty well with what I want to create, which is easier if I talk about the things I want to build.
  • I set aside a monthly business budget in terms of money and time, which is entirely under my control and therefore something I should just go ahead and do.
  • I clearly define the parameters of the experiment so that I have multiple ways to succeed or I get more comfortable with the idea of failure.
  • I brainstorm a bunch of ideas that I can work on even when I’m not feeling particularly creative, and I break them down into smaller steps so that I can reduce the time between coming up with an idea and testing it out.
  • I remind myself that this is about practice and experimentation. It’s low risk, and this is as good a time as any to try things out.

Managing uncertainty

I’ve been doing a lot more introspection lately. I think it’s a spill-over from stuffing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality into my brain, and in the process, discovering LessWrong’s treasure trove of rationality materials. I’ve been slowing down to observe when I’m confused and then dissecting it, because I think it’s useful to be able to see and articulate what’s going on. (“Articulate” is an interesting word for this, actually; to express it, but also something about forming joints and rotating them…)

I am dealing with a lot more uncertainty than I’m used to. Which is good and proper and precisely on track, because one of the goals of this 5-year experiment is to get better at handling uncertainty. So I’m where I wanted to be last year: learning how to make decisions with less information, sketching out the probabilities and planning the scenarios. I used to get really stressed out by uncertainty and lack of control, and I’ve been getting a lot better at planning ahead and being nimble.

Things I am not certain about:

  • Timing: mitigated by conservative planning, creating plenty of buffer
  • Optimum actions: mitigated by focusing on satisficing instead of maximizing
  • Prices: mitigated by budgeting and price comparison
  • Side effects and their probabilities: mitigated by research and conservative planning
  • Not knowing: mitigated by research and analysis
  • How much I really want various things: mitigated by generally choosing among good options and by making forecasts/backcasts

What would being even better at dealing with uncertainty look like?

  • More spontaneity because I’d know that I can handle it, which means being able to jump on more opportunities
  • Better-documented decisions and decision criteria, so that open decisions don’t take up a lot of brainspace and I don’t forget important considerations
  • A better understanding of the decision space, mapping out the possibilities
  • Stronger foundations / safety-nets for the kinds of things I want to do