Category Archives: plans

Figuring out what to read by figuring out what you want to become or make or do

If you know what you want to do, you can figure out what you need to read to get there.

This tip might be obvious to other people, but I’m not used to planning my reading so that the books are aligned with an overall goal.

I make lots of learning plans, with various degrees of following through. Those plans tend to go out the window when I browse through the monthly new release lists on the library website or come across mentions from bibliographies and blog posts.

Books are my equivalent of impulse purchases at the supermarket checkout, the pull of slot machines, the intrigue of Kinder eggs. I think that’s how I resist temptations like that. The library is where I let that impulse out to play.

We’ve checked out more than 400 books from the library this year. I’ve skimmed through most of them, although I’ve taken notes from a much smaller collection.

Since there’s such a trove of free resources I can go through, I find it difficult to spend on books. Before last week, the last time I bought a book was November 2013. I suspect this is silly. The cost of a book is almost always less than the cost of taking the author out to lunch for discussion and brain-picking (and that’s pretty much Not Going to Happen anyway). It’s certainly less than the cost of figuring things out myself.

My reluctance often comes from an uncertainty about whether there’ll be enough in the book, or whether it’ll be the same concepts I’ve already read about, just given new clothes. I have to remember that I can get more out of a book than what the author put into it. A book isn’t just a collection of insights. It’s a list of questions to explore. It’s a bibliography. It’s a link in the conversation and a shorthand for concepts. It’s an education on writing style and organization. It’s sketchnoting practice and raw material for blog posts. It’s fuel for connection.

Phrased that way, books are a bargain. Even not particularly good ones. Hmm. Maybe I should take the “Connection” part of my budget – the part that I’m supposed to be forcing myself to use for taking people out to coffee or lunch, the part that I never end up using all that much anyway – and experiment with using it for books.

I’m more comfortable when I use my money deliberately, so I also want to be deliberate about the books I buy. All books are bought – some with money, but all with time. This requires a plan, and this requires follow-through.

There are holes in the way I learn from books, the pipeline from acquisition to reading to notes to action to review. I want to become a better reader. My inner cheapskate says: practise on free books. But money can be a useful form of commitment too.

Anyway. A plan. It seems logical to decide on what I should proactively seek out and read by thinking about what I want to do. It also seems logical to require proof of my learning through writing blog posts and resources and maybe even books, the way students focus on final projects and consultants are measured by deliverables.

Here are some ideas for things I want to create out of what I want to learn:

  • An approach for learning intermediate Emacs: After you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, how can you keep learning more about using and tweaking this text editor? This will probably take many forms: small weekly tips for constant improvement, Emacs Lisp and Org Mode courses, and so forth.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be an even better user of Emacs. I want to work more efficiently and fluently, and I want to have more fun with it too.
    • Who might find it useful? People who want to keep tweaking how they use Emacs. Mostly developers, but probably also writers and people interested in personal information management
    • To do this, it would be good to read:
      • Archives of Emacs blogs (ex: the ones featured on http://planet.emacsen.org/)
      • Manuals for Emacs, Emacs Lisp, and popular packages
      • the (small) collection of existing Emacs books
      • Related technical books for taking people beyond the beginner stage
      • Books about technical writing and learning design
      • Source code
  • A guide for creating your own personal knowledge management system: I doubt that a one-size-fits-all solution will work, at least not with our current understanding. But I want to learn more about different approaches, I want to make mine totally awesome, and I want to help people build their own from the pieces that are already out there.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a wonderfully organized system that lets me easily capture, review, make sense of, and share what I know. I also want to have the vocabulary and concepts to be able to critically examine this system, spot gaps or opportunities for improvement, and make things better.
    • Who would find this useful? Fellow information packrats, writers, bloggers, self-directed learners
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Personal knowledge management and personal information management
      • Guides to using various tools
      • Information architecture
      • Library science
      • Writing and sense-making
  • Tips for self-directed learning and experimentation: How to structure your time and learning, how to recognize and explore interesting questions, how to take notes, how to make sense of things, and so on. I want to learn more effectively, and I want to help other people learn more effectively too.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be able to structure courses of study for myself, take great notes, build useful resources, and accumulate new knowledge.
    • Who would find this useful? Self-directed learners who want something more than online courses
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Quantified Self, experimentation
      • Note-taking and sense-making
      • Self-directed learning
  • More notes on working out loud: particularly addressing the excuses and barriers that get in people’s way. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to have a smooth workflow for learning and sharing. I want to have a wide network of people who can build on the stuff I’m learning about, and who get manageable updates that are scoped to their interests.
    • Who would find this useful? Individual practitioners interested in building their skills and network; social business advocates; bloggers who are also working on building personal insight and shared knowledge
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Social business, social learning, working out loud, personal learning networks, and personal knowledge management
      • Collaboration, team communication
      • Writing at work
  • Visual thinking: particularly in terms of using it to clarify your thoughts, remember, and share. To do this, it would be good to read about:
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? After doing this, I want to be more fluent in using visual tools to explore thoughts and figure things out. I want to improve in terms of visual organization, technique, clarity, explanation, integration into my self-directed workflow, and so on.
    • Who would find this useful? People who’ve already started doodling (or who are picking up the hang of it) and who would like to use it for more things
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Mind mapping and other forms of visual organization
      • Sketchnoting
      • Planning
      • Blogging and other forms of personal publishing
      • Journaling
      • Information organization and sense-making
  • Something about how to follow the butterflies of your interest, because I rarely see this perspective in productivity books and because it’s something other people might find helpful.
    • What is the change I want to make in myself? I want to get better at going with the grain of my energy, doing what I want to do (and doing the work that helps me want what is good to want).
    • Who would find this useful? People with many interests – scanners, multi-potentialites, Renaissance-people-to-be.
    • To do this, it would be good to read about:
      • Career and life planning, especially unconventional paths
      • Productivity
      • Writing, note-taking
      • Psychology, cognitive limits, distraction

Hmm. I’ve done literature reviews before, collecting quotes and references and connecting things to each other. I can do that again. It doesn’t mean giving up my impulse reads, my openness to serendipity and surprise. It simply means choosing something I want to learn more about and then taking it all in, with more awareness and less evaluation, so that I can get a sense of the whole. This will help me find the things that have already been written so that I don’t have to write them again. This will help me collect different approaches and ideas so that I can springboard off them.

I like books with references more than I like books without them. Books with few references feel like they float unanchored. I recognize ideas but feel weird about the lack of attribution. There are no links where I can explore a concept in depth. On the other hand, too many references and quotes make a book feel like a pastiche with little added, a collection of quotes glued together with bubblegum and string. A good balance makes a book feel like it builds on what has gone before while adding something new. I want to write books and resources like that, and if I’m going to do so, I need notes so that I can trace ideas back to where people can learn more about them, and so I can make sense of that conversation as a whole. Deliberate study helps with that.

What topics will you read about in 2015, and why? What are the changes you want to make in yourself, what are the resources you can build for others, and what books can you build on to get there?

Possibly related:

What could I do if I showed up in a bigger way?

I’m reading Ben Arment’s Dream Year: Make the Leap From a Job You Hate to a Life You Love (2014), and there’s a reminder in here about the choice between the fear of failure and the fear of insignificance. “Choose the fear of insignificance,” the author says. And I think: Hmm, actually, I’m okay with insignificance (or minor minor minor significance, in any case). Stoicism reminds us that after thousands of years, very little of this will matter. But maybe I should care a little bit. Since I’ve done all this work to minimize the fear of failure anyway. I might as well play on that side of the equation.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’m wondering whether I should take this experience in social business and make something bigger out of it. I could probably negotiate something with my main consulting clients so that we could get ideas or even code out in the wider world, or I could independently develop something that they and other people would be welcome to use. I haven’t quite sorted out what that would be like yet, but I imagine it would start off as open source components, then possibly consulting and product development once I’ve established a reputation in that community.

Of social business, Emacs, and blogging, though, I like Emacs the most. There’s something about it. I like the community a lot: interesting people doing interesting things, and a remarkably flexible platform that has kept me curious and fascinated for years. If I were to show up in a bigger way, I suppose that would involve writing more guides, and maybe understanding enough of the core of complex things like Org and Emacs itself so that I could contribute to the codebase. I tend to focus on workflow more than bugfixes or new features, though… I think there’s something interesting in how people use the same things in such different ways. Maybe I’ll write more about my evolving workflow, using that and personal projects as excuses to keep tweaking.

As for blogging, there are bucketloads of people who are happy to give other people advice on what to do and how to do it. I’m interested in keeping it unintimidating and useful for personal learning, but I’m more excited about and curious about those other two causes. Still, I can show by example, and I can offer advice and encouragement when people ask.

What are the differences between this slightly bigger life and my current one? I think part of it is related to the way that I’ve been minimizing my commitments during this 5-year experiment, being very careful about what I say yes to and what I promise my time towards. Part of it is taking the initiative instead of waiting for requests or sparks of inspiration. Part of it is working more deliberately towards a goal. It’s not going to be a big big life, but it might be interesting to experiment with.

Planning little improvements

I like re-planning when things are a little bit clearer and when things change. It’s nice to take a look at where I am, where I might get to, and maybe what I can do with more reinvestment.

wpid-2014-11-01-Baselines-and-possible-improvements-part-1.png wpid-2014-11-01-Baselines-and-possible-improvements-part-2.png

A year still feels a little abstract. A 12-week span might be interesting for concrete goal-setting and momentum; maybe something to experiment. In any case, here’s a small achievement list I can work towards…

  1. Development
    • Propose a calendar of prototypes with business-value descriptions
    • Design prototype and help team members write it instead of coding it myself
    • Think syntactically
  2. Reporting
    • Make Tableau reports snappy
    • Identify business questions for a valuable regular report
    • Analyze my own data in R
  3. Writing: Put together the intermediate Emacs config guide
  4. Drawing: Sketch people quickly
  5. Cooking: Map the families of recipes I want to try, and try them
  6. Learning: Map the things I know and what I want to learn, and maybe find a coach
  7. Tracking: Do grocery tracking in Quantified Awesome
  8. Making: Sew those box cushion covers
  9. Organizing house stuff
    • Simplify wardrobe
    • Tile floor
  10. Biking: Maybe bike in winter
  11. Pet care: Get Luke used to the toothbrush
  12. Exercise: Do the exercise ladder for twelve weeks
  13. Relationship: Work on more projects together
  14. Community:
    • Set up Emacs hangout experiment
    • Hang out at Hacklab during winter

Good enough, good, awesome: Thinking about what I want to get to

You don’t have to be awesome in everything. I’m not even sure you can. Time spent one thing is time not spent doing everything else.

I like deliberately deciding that I’m going to be okay but not stellar in a particular field. Then I don’t beat myself up about the gap between what I can see and what I can do.

2014-02-27 Art #goals #drawing

2014-02-27 Art #goals #drawing

Drawing / Art
Goal: Good enough
Currently: Mediocre / good enough

I don’t need to draw realistic, impressive drawings. In fact, simplicity helps me make things less intimidating. As I tell people, I want to draw just good enough so that people think, “Hah! I can do better than this!”

Some ways I can improve are:

  • Practise lettering and playing with letter forms
  • Get better at showing visual hierarchy through space, size, weight, and decorations
  • Practise drawing everyday objects
2014-02-27 Automation #goals #automation

2014-02-27 Automation #goals #automation

Automation
Goal: Awesome
Currently: Good enough; better than people around me

Life is too short to waste time on boring, repetitive actions. Besides, it’s fun turning a task into a program or process. If I can’t eliminate time-consuming tasks, I may as well figure out how to automate them.

Some ways I can improve are:

  • Really dig into AutoHotkey and other tools
  • Learn more about Python for scripting
  • Explore Ruby gems for dealing with various APIs
  • Look into using Selenium to automate more browser actions
2014-02-27 Delegation #goals #delegation

2014-02-27 Delegation #goals #delegation

Delegation 
Goal: Awesome
Currently: Good enough; better than people around me

I also want to get really good at working with other people to make stuff happen. I think this involves having a great process library, building a team, breaking through my hang-ups and excuses, and setting up systems that require less attention. I’m particularly curious about using delegation to improve my skills by exposing and experimenting with differences.

2014-02-27 Design #goals #design

2014-02-27 Design #goals #design

Design
Goal: Good
Currently: Mediocre / good enough

I don’t want to be awesome at design, but being good at it would be nice. I want people to feel like I’ve thought about them and taken their needs or interests into account. I want people to feel at home here.

There are lots of things I can experiment with in terms of improving my blog, so that’s one way I can learn more about design.

2014-02-27 Development #goals #coding

2014-02-27 Development #goals #coding

Development
Goal: Good
Currently: Good enough; possibly falling behind to mediocre

I probably won’t be one of those rockstar build-worldchanging-framework-from-scratch developers, but good development skills can save me a lot of time and frustration. I like making tools, and I want to get better at that. Being more organized and professional about development will also pay off.

Ways to improve:

  • Do more documentation and testing.
  • Learn new frameworks or go deeper into the ones I know.
2014-02-27 Learning from people #goals #my-learning

2014-02-27 Learning from people #goals #my-learning

Learning from people
Goal: Good / Awesome
Hmm. Actually, I might downgrade this to “Goal: Good enough”…
Currently: Mediocre

If I want to learn more than I can fit into my own lifetime, I’ve got to learn from other people. Besides, other people know lots of interesting things, but they struggle to share those things with other people. Since I’m comfortable with writing, trying ideas out, and now podcasting, maybe I can help people get good ideas out into a form other people can learn from.

2014-02-27 Writing #goals #writing

2014-02-27 Writing #goals #writing

Writing
Goal: Awesome
Currently: Good enough

I want to help people learn faster and do more effective stuff. Writing is a good time-saver. If I get the hang of organizing and editing my writing, people can learn without wading through all the text.

Becoming my own client; also, delegation

When I started this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement, I fully intended it to be a learning experience in entrepreneurship. I wanted to learn how to create value. I wanted to learn how to sell, how to build systems. Mission accomplished. I have the confidence that if I need to work, I can help people and earn money in return. I can deal with the paperwork required by the government. I can negotiate and make deals.

The more I learn about freedom and space and creating my own things, though, the more I think that this should be my real experiment, not freelancing or entrepreneurship. It is not difficult to freelance. Millions of people do it. There’s plenty of information about entrepreneurship too; no end to aspirational books encouraging people to break out of their cubicles and follow their dreams. But far fewer people have the space to simply create and share things for the sheer joy of it. Even the authors of those books on freedom work for their rewards.

It’s an interesting experiment to try. I could focus on working on my own things, going forward. I’ve been winding up my commitments and avoiding new ones. I still have a little bit of consulting to wrap up eventually. I’ve been telling myself that the money I earn increases my safety net so that I can take those future risks. Besides, I like the people I work with. I like the feeling that I am helping them out and making a difference. (And there, taking a step back, I can see that the desire for a clear sense of accomplishment may be distracting me from more difficult self-directed work.)

Really, nothing can buy time. Probably even if I stopped consulting now — or if I had stopped a while back, or never started — I could still spend an appreciable amount of time making things happen. Postponing this doesn’t make me live any longer. It doesn’t mean that I have more core time, those hours when I’m alert and creative and happy.

I hadn’t noticed for a long time because I had set too low standards for myself. I set trip-wires to trigger reflection: if I missed a commitment or started misplacing things, I knew I was overscheduled, and I cut back. The rest of the time, it was enough that family life was happy, blog posts were written, sketches shared. It was too easy to meet these conditions, so I didn’t notice.

2014-01-12 Being my own client - part 1 of 4

What would I work on? Visual guides to complex topics look like the most unique contribution I can make, and there have been quite a few updates for my blog (both technical and written) that I’ve been postponing for lack of attention.

2014-01-12 Being my own client part 2 - Projects

Details help me visualize what that might actually mean:

2014-01-12 Being my own client part 3 - Emacs, blog

I should treat myself as a client and as a contractor. If I were delegating this work to other people, would I be happy with vague specifications and without milestones? I wouldn’t hire someone to maybe possibly think about something that could help people learn. I would spend the time to come up with a clear vision and the steps to make it happen, and then I would make regular progress that I would report on. The high-energy hours I have are best used for this long-term work; everything else can go into the non-core hours.

So I’ll keep my existing consulting commitment to Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus whatever non-core time I can spare to help them get over this hump, and then we’ll see if we’ll continue or not. In the meantime, any consulting of mine will be with the commitment to replace all the hours I spend earning with at least the same amount of time in delegated work (plus whatever time I need to manage the delegation). The end result won’t be as awesome as having the same amount of core time (and to be fair, my consulting involves non-core time too), but it should:

  • build up a good library of procedures so that I can either delegate tasks to other people or work more consistently when I’m on my own (plus the benefits of process improvement and sharing)
  • help me learn how to take advantage of other people’s time — and better yet, how their skills and experiences differ from mine
  • allow me to support people as they build up their own businesses and the local economy

In fact, just for kicks, I’m going to backdate the experiment–to replace my original 5-year experiment with it instead of starting just from this point onwards. Since I don’t actually have a time machine, an easy way to make that commitment is to calculate all the time that I have spent earning so far. Fortunately, this is yet another question that time-tracking allows me to answer. The numbers in the sketches below are a little bit out of date now; the current ones are:

  • 1874.4 hours spent earning since 2012-02-19
  • 208.1 hours delegated through oDesk so far
  • 55.1 hours spent managing the delegation (including documenting processes, interviewing, etc.)

So my ratio is about 1 hour of management to 4 hours of other people’s work. A ratio of 1.3 hours should be enough to account for delegating the work, managing the delegation, delegating the time to cover my management, etc. That means that if I want to replace about 1874 hours, my goal is to delegate a total of 2437 hours. So far, I’ve delegated 208, so I have 2,229 to go. (Ignore the math in the sketch; this is the updated version.) That’s a little more than a full-time employee. I’m not quite at the point of having streamlined, documented processes that can take full-time assistance over a year (or enough faith in my hiring abilities!), but I’ll work up to it. (My first goal: delegate as much as I can of this podcasting process.)

2014-01-12 Being my own client part 4 - buying back time

It’s a little scary delegating so much, especially since I’m normally quite careful about costs – but I think it will be worth it. In fact, I’ve been giving some virtual assistants raises to challenge them to think of themselves as people who can earn that. It’s a little scary projecting the expenses, but if I commit to it and then focus on making the most of it, I’ll gain more than I would if I kept waffling on the commitment. The work can start by replacing the routine, but it would be interesting to use it to support new projects someday.

2014-01-17 How can I assign 30 hours of work a week

As always, it helps to keep the end in mind.2014-01-17 Thinking about delegation goals

I’ve been ramping up my delegation through oDesk, and I’ve also experimented with micro-task-outsourcing through Fiverr (with quite good results!). We’ll see how it goes.

2014-01-14 Ways to increase my delegation-fu

It would be great to share processes with other people. Timothy Kenny gave me a glimpse of his growing process library. I’ve posted a number of my processes at http://sachachua.com/business, but haven’t updated it in a while. I’ll share more as I hammer them out. I wonder what my end-state would look like. Maybe I’d just share this Google Drive folder, and people can copy from it into their own libraries.

Anyway, plenty of stuff to figure out. =)

Planning my learning; It’s okay to learn in a spiral

I’ve been coming to terms with the quirks of my learning preferences. =) I think I should be better at focusing, but really, I’m all over the map, so I should just learn how to make the most of the fact that I learn bits and pieces and then move on. It turns out that’s okay. In fact, people design curricula that way.

Learning in spirals

2014-01-03 Learning in spirals

I’m not the only geek who learns like this. It’s a pretty common pattern, apparently. Here are Sadique Ali’s thoughts on going through the spiral of learning. =) Good to see how other people deal with it! See HackerNews for interesting comments.

So what are the different areas I’m currently learning about? I started by listing the categories that came to mind. Then I wrote down what I was already comfortable with (celebrate your successes and starting point!). I wrote down the next things I wanted to explore. Then I picked ONE of those things and filled in more details for my current focus (or at least, what I’m likely to focus on the next time I come back to the topic).

2014-01-03 What are my current learning areas

This is great. It gives me “next actions” to focus on when I feel the urge to explore a particular category. Leaving myself a note about what’s next makes it easier for me to hit the ground running instead of spending time trying to figure out what to do. I can still change it, of course, but at least I have a reasonable default.

I have the freedom to follow my interests. I also nudge myself to explore specific topics further, because sometimes all you need is to sit down and start, and then you’re motivated to continue. The themes I’ve picked for each day influence me a lot. I don’t set aside each day exclusively for one topic, but I notice where the holes are when I haven’t thought about something in a while. My blog post calendar makes those holes visible, and that encourages me to pick either something I’m comfortable explaining or a question I’m curious about exploring.

What’s a good way for me to keep this table convenient and up to date? Hmm… Adding it to my mindmap or outline, maybe? That way, I can stash resources related to future topics. An Org Mode outline might be easiest to manage as it grows in size, since I can track status and export my notes. Here it is: http://sach.ac/my-learning

Do you learn in a spiral too? How do you make the most of it?