Category Archives: reflection

Thinking about changing interests

I’ve gone through quite a lot of interests. Sometimes they combine in useful ways, like the way coding and writing are imbued into practically all the other interests I have. Sometimes they last for years, and sometimes they’re over in months. From other people’s stories, I get the sense that this will likely continue throughout my life. =)

I want to do this better – the cultivation of interests, and the occasional letting go. Why do I want to do it better? I want to minimize the risk of being in the following situations:

  • When I overcommit to an interest:
    • Spending more money, time, or space than an interest needs
    • Making long-term promises (ex: speaking, organizing) that I might feel weird about
  • When I find myself in a lull because I haven’t cultivated my interests enough:
    • Recognizing temporary interest distance and accepting or working around it
    • Accepting the feeling of being a beginner and getting to the point of enjoyment
    • Letting go at the apppropriate point

In addition to those downsides, I want to make better use of the upsides:

  • During the initial period of fascination, I want to take unselfconscious notes
  • As my interest matures, I want to get better at seeking and organizing information, and then coming up with my own thoughts
  • I want to get better at drawing connections between interests and taking advantage of the combinations

So I’d like to learn more about how I think and learn. What kinds of things am I interested in? Why do my interests change? What stages do I go through? How can I make just the right level of commitment, feeding fledgling interests without adding too much weight to them, building on mature interests without stretching them too far, and taking breaks or letting go gracefully without flaking out? Should I focus on developing interest persistence, or get better at going with the flow?

Here’s an example of an interest I’m thinking through: I like Emacs and its community. I seem to get into Emacs cyclically. For a few months each year, I spend a lot of time looking closely at how I use Emacs and learning from what other people do. I hang out in Emacs communities, pay attention to mailing lists, tweak my config, write blog posts, sometimes create resources. (My Emacs geekery really is quite oddly rhythmic. Here’s the data by month since Nov 2011.)

Then other things take my attention, and I drift off. I haven’t tweaked my configuration or written an Emacs-related blog post in a while. I’ll get back to it at some point, I know – the oddest thing will bring me back: some idea or question – but in the meantime, I’m fine with letting it be for now.

But I’ve set up monthly Emacs Hangouts on my calendar and in Google+ events, because precommitting to those means that they happen. And there’s some kind of an Emacs Conference that I think would be an excellent idea, but I haven’t been able to muster the energy to do the kind of social outreach that I think would be needed in order to get the schedule sorted out. And there are the occasional requests for help that come in, even though I don’t feel I can contribute even a fraction of what or the relevant mailing lists could.

I feel like it would be good for me to be closer to that interest, but there are other things on my mind at the moment, so I leave things hanging. I’ll be there for the Emacs Hangouts I’ve set up, but I haven’t felt like doing anything else lately: lining up people for Emacs Chat podcasts, writing or drawing a review of Mastering Emacs, exploring the awesome new packages that are out there…

On the other hand, I know that sometimes all it takes is a little time immersing myself in it: checking out StackExchange questions or IRC conversations, reading source code, going through my long TODO list of Emacs things to learn. Likely that will kickstart my interest.

In the meantime, this lull itself is curious and interesting, because I rarely get to pay attention to feelings like this. It feels odd to be a little bit distant from Emacs and reading books, two of my long-term interests. Writing, drawing, coding, and data analysis continue to be interesting. My sewing is on hold; I think keeping myself to one type of garment a year seems like a good way to avoid burnout. Gardening has been slowed to the pace that nature keeps. I notice a fledgling interest in cognitive research and psychology.

I’m taking it easy, fanning interest when I can and relaxing when I feel like doing that instead. A mix of routine and freedom helps, I think. I like writing and coding in the morning. Sometimes it takes a little effort to get started, especially with writing, but then I get going. In the afternoon, it’s okay to relax.

I don’t think that my values and the things that tickle my brain have changed, so I’ll probably return to my long-term interests once my new interests settle down and get integrated. They’ll be richer for it too, like the way coding got better when I added writing, and writing got better when I added drawing. In the meantime, I’m curious about charting the shifts in my focus and making the most of them.

Hmm, I wonder if this is related to my hesitation around the Quantified Self talk we’re planning for November: I’m not sure if I’ll be able to give the enthusiastic performance that I imagine newcomers would find helpful…

Aha! I think that might explain it. By myself, I’m okay with the shifts in my interests. I just try to take good notes and share them along the way. Social commitments add friction to interest-changing because I don’t want to flake out and I don’t want to fake things, which is why I’m reluctant to make plans even if I miss out on opportunities because I don’t want to do so. However, it would probably be good for me to know how to work with this, because social commitments are a good way to help make things that are bigger than yourself. If I remind myself that (a) at the core, I’m still likely to enjoy the things that drew me to that interest in the first place, and (b) it’s not the end of the world even if I mess up, that might help me reduce the anxiety around essentially making a promise that future me will still have the same passions that people are drawn to in the present. So I’m likely to still avoid making big commitments (say, no convincing people to quit their jobs and start a company with me), but I can practise with the small ones I have.

At the moment, I think I’ll still want someone else to take point on organizing the Emacs Conference speaker schedule, but I can re-evaluate that in two weeks, and we can always move it further out if needed. I should be able to handle the Quantified Self talk – worst-case scenario is I don’t manage to inspire and connect with people, but I don’t expect a small 1-hour talk to change people’s lives that much anyway. So it’s okay even if I don’t feel 100% there in terms of the interests right now. I have enough good memories to know I’ll probably feel that way about those interests again soon, so I can plan accordingly.

It’s a little odd teasing apart temporary factors and long-term factors in my mind, but I’m glad I can sit and write my way through it. In the meantime, I’ll focus on keeping my experiences of those interests pleasant, tickling my brain whenever I can. There’s so much depth to each interest that I don’t really need to add more. But on the other hand, the combinations can be quite interesting, so I’ll explore away. =)

A constant observer

I notice that even when I’m fuzzy-brained, there’s a part of me that observes it curiously. Even when I move slowly, tired, there’s a part of me that savours it. Even when it’s like there’s a big fuzzy blanket on my mind, there’s a tiny part that looks forward to being able to think about it.

I like having that little observer, the one who turns all sorts of things into learning experiences. I wonder how I can get even better at this.

In terms of drawing: Sometimes I feel a little odd circling around similar thoughts, like what to do when I’m fuzzy. But it’s okay to do so, especially if doing so clears away the surface thoughts so that I can notice little things to be curious about.

In terms of writing: If I have a bunch of posts scheduled, then I tend to skip writing when I’m fuzzy. But maybe that’s when I should write, so that I can remember what that fuzziness is like and dig into it deeper. There’s plenty of information out there already, so it’s okay for me to take some time to explore the things I haven’t figured out myself – even if they’re simple for other people.

In terms of learning: I like reading research. I pick up tools for understanding, and I can place my experiences within a bigger context. The more I read research, the easier it gets. I tend to be more interested in research than in popular science books or other non-fiction these days. Maybe it’s because the abstracts for research are so concise, and the occasional full-text article that I get to read goes into more detail than books usually do. Hmm, maybe I should learn more about the library’s research resources…

In terms of self-observation: Stoicism talks a fair bit about this. It might be interesting to make myself a reflection guide to use especially when I’m fuzzy. Even if it means reviewing the same thoughts, that should be fine. After all, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius works well despite – perhaps even because of – the repetitive exercises.

What would it be like to have this part of me even further developed? I imagine being able to keep my calm in trying situations, and to appreciate life as it comes. I imagine being able to notice the tiny new things in each rotation. Even when I walk in circles, I can go somewhere new.

Shifts in my writing

Sometimes, when I sit down to draw my five index cards of the day, I have a hard time delineating five interesting thoughts – things I want to remember or share. They often seem so inward-turned.

I was thinking about the shape of my blog, too. I feel like I’ve shifted from a lot of technical posts to a lot of reflective posts. Possibly less interesting for other people, but useful to me. It’s hard to tell. These are the kinds of posts I’ve been starting to find useful in other people’s blogs, anyway, so who knows? Maybe these things are interesting for other people too.

It’s wonderful to be able to flip back through my archive and see the patterns over time. Of the 2,800+ posts in my index as of April 2015, I’d classify around 170 as mostly reflective. (Totally quick classification, just eyeballing the titles and categories in my index.) Here’s the breakdown:

Year Reflections
2008 4
2009 9
2010 20
2011 7
2012 25
2013 20
2014 59
2015 25
Grand Total 169

While writing a recent post, I searched my archives to trace the evolution of my understanding of uncertainty over several years. I can remember not having these snapshots of my inner world. When I reviewed ten years of blog posts in preparation for compiling Stories from My Twenties in 2013, I was surprised by how many technical and tip-related blog posts I skipped in favour of keeping the memories and the questions, and the sense of things missing from my memories. Maybe that’s why I wrote almost three times the number of reflective posts in 2014 as I did in the previous year. 2014 was also the year I switched the focus of my experiment from other-work to self-work, and that might have something to do with it too. I’m glad I have those thinking-out-loud, figuring-things-out posts now.

The end of April was around 33% of the way through the year, so I’m slightly ahead of last year’s reflective-post-density (expected: 20 posts, actual: 25). Comments are rare, but I’ve learned a lot from them.

I’m fascinated by the ten-year journals you can buy in bookstores. They give you ways of bumping into your old selves, noticing the differences. I like the way blogs give me a little bit more space to write, though. =) Here’s a slice of my life going through May 14:

I have shifted. I focus on different things. I like the direction I’m going in. I can imagine, years from now, getting very good at asking questions, describing and naming elusive concepts, and exploring the options. If it seems a little awkward now, that’s just the initial mediocrity I have to get through. Hmm…

Cultivating coping mechanisms

2015-04-20b Cultivating coping mechanisms -- index card #self-care #coping

2015-04-20b Cultivating coping mechanisms – index card #self-care #coping

I’m not sure if other people do this, but I figured I’d write about how I deliberately cultivate certain coping or self-soothing behaviour, in case it resonates with anyone.

Whenever I come across a mildly stressful situation, I use that as an opportunity to practice and reinforce ways to deal with it. For example, I like getting hugs, so I’ve learned to create that feeling for myself and I’ve learned to ask people for hugs when I need it. I associate hot chocolate with comfort and self-care instead of having it as a regular luxury, so it’s there as a treat when I really need it. I tell myself that it’s impossible for me to stay sad when I’m eating ice cream, and that becomes the case. I practise elucidating what I’m feeling, accept it, and experiment with ways to improve the situation. I give myself permission to stop trying to do things that require a lot of thinking and energy, and to instead focus on cooking and other easy ways to create value for myself and others. I figure out good walks and relaxing forms of exercise. I guiltlessly spend time cuddling the cats.

Sometimes I’ll focus on remembering what it feels like to be comforted and happy and safe while, say, mind-mapping thorny feelings, and eventually it becomes easier and easier to do so.

When more stressful situations come, I have some idea of what works for me, and I have positive associations around those techniques. I wonder if it’s a little like clicker-training yourself… =) Anyway, I’ve been finding it easier and easier to deal with life’s little curveballs. I don’t know the magnitude at which things will start to overwhelm me again, but it’s nice to know that I can handle more and more. In the meantime, even obstacles can be fuel for greater happiness and equanimity. =)

Alternatives to sitting meditation: How I clear my mind

The Lifehacker article “Try a Writing Meditation If Sitting Still Isn’t Working For You” reminded me of how I’ve never quite resonated with the popular advice to clear your mind, meditate, and be mindful. When people ask me if I meditate, the word makes me think of doing yoga or sitting zazen or taking deep breaths – none of which I do. Maybe I’ll come around to those ways eventually, but in the meantime, let me share a few of the ways that work for me just in case they might help you too. =)

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don't meditate -- index card #reason #meditation

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don’t meditate – index card #reason #meditation

I generally keep my life low-stress. Frugality gives me a buffer from most of life’s financial stressors. Low expectations and personal responsibility make happiness easier. Stoicism helps me focus on what I can control.

I do like relaxing and being more appreciative. Everyday activities like doing the dishes, cuddling cats, spending time with W-, and following my curiosity give me that sense of abundance and fortune. They also help me slow down my thoughts and bump into interesting ideas. This reminds me of the relaxing side of meditation.

As for becoming aware of and addressing my self-talk or my thoughts, writing and drawing do a great job of bringing those thoughts out there so that I can acknowledge them or do something with them. I think this is like the self-awareness side of meditation.

Still, sometimes something perturbs my calm more than I’d like. When I’m miffed at something, that’s really more about me than about something else. It’s a good opportunity to take a look at my thoughts to see where I was lax or mistaken. This is like the clarifying side of meditation.

So I guess I do meditate, but I don’t do it in the stock-photography-meditation sort of way. Here are some other tools I use to shift my mental state:

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state -- index card #emotions

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state – index card #emotions

Activities that move my body or my mind make it easy for me to move my thoughts, too. For example, walking gets me breathing fresh air and looking around. Cooking immerses me in tastes and lets me enjoy doing something tangibly productive. Reading takes me inside someone else’s experiences. Helping someone shifts my focus from myself to someone else.

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park -- index card #relax

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park – index card #relax

(In particular, walking to a nearby park will almost certainly result in seeing lots of really happy dogs. There’s something about seeing a dog with a big grin and an even bigger stick.)

What is it that I’m really doing when I choose these activities? I think I’m quieting my brain enough so that I can think with less distraction. Then I can pay attention to the thoughts that I find odd or that I’d like to address, to see if I can resolve them.

In addition to responding to life as it comes, I sometimes think ahead about the way I’d like to respond to life. This is because my life has so far been pretty awesome. I don’t want to take it for granted, and I also don’t want to be blindsided by challenges. From time to time, I think about more difficult situations that I could find myself in so that I can try out different responses. This is the contemplative side of meditation, I think.

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair -- index card #stoicism

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair – index card #stoicism

So that’s how I “meditate,” I guess. No relaxing music, no super-deep thoughts. Mostly just everyday activities and the occasional bit of reflection. Seems to be working for me so far. =)

If you don’t meditate with a capital M, what do you enjoy doing instead? =)

Start your titles with a verb to make them stronger; or reflections on titles, filler phrases, and my life as a gerund

Instead of using a generic title (ex: Top 10 Ways to …), pick your strongest point and put that in the title as a clear recommendation.

Now that I’ve gotten that promised tip out of the way, here’s the reflection that prompted this post.

Many bloggers focus on improving their titles as a way to encourage people to click or share. Having repeatedly run into the limitations of my blog searches and index, I’ve been thinking about blog post titles as a way to make my blog posts more memorable – both in terms of retrieval (remembering what to look for) and recognition (recognizing it when I come across it).

That’s why many of the usual title-writing tips don’t appeal to me, even if they’re backed by A/B testing. List posts? A focus on new or exclusive information? Mysterious headlines? While writing a post called “10 New Emacs Productivity Tricks That Will Make Vim Users Hate You – #2 Will Save You Hours!” is tempting to consider as an April Fool’s Joke, that kind of title is useless for me when I’m trying to find things again. Any title generic enough to come out of a blog post title generator is too generic for me to remember.

Fortunately, there are plenty of role models on the Web when it comes to writing clear, specific blog post titles. Lifehacker somehow manages to do this well. Most of its posts start with a verb, even when linking to a post that doesn’t, and yet it doesn’t feel overbearing.

Here’s a sample of Lifehacker titles for posts that summarize and link to other posts (ignoring posts that were original guides, product links, or fully-reposted blog posts):

Lifehacker title Original post
Re-Read Old Books After a Few Years to Gain New Perspective How you know
Agree On a Special Signal So Your Colleagues Can Reach You On Vacation 11 Valuable Tips for Handling Emails While on Vacation
Find the Best Thrift Stores Near You Using Zillow and Google Maps How to Find the Best Thrift Stores in Your Area
Find a Hobby by Rekindling Your Childhood Passions 7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose
Conduct a “Nighttime Audit” to Sleep Better How to Spend the Last 10 Minutes of Your Day
Get Your Ideas Out of Your Head to Start Improving Them 6 Lessons from Pixar that Will Set You Up for Success
Focus on Discipline More Than Motivation to Reach Financial Goals Forget Motivation, This is the Key to Achieving Your Goals This Year
Give Yourself a Creative Game Each Day to Boost Inspiration The Importance of Personal Projects
Fix Your Bluetooth Audio in Yosemite With This Terminal Command Commands to Make Yosemite Suck Less

Fascinating. Of the nine posts I looked at, all of them rewrote the titles from the original blog posts so that they started with a verb, making the titles more specific in the process. This makes sense in the context of it being a lifehack, of course. The concept has action at its core.

I like the new titles more. I can imagine that remembering and linking to the Lifehacker-style titles would be easier than linking to the original ones.

Most of my posts don’t quite feel like those, though. I noticed that most of my titles start with gerunds: thinking about, building, learning, exploring, experimenting. I think it’s because I write in the middle of things, while I’m figuring things out. I don’t feel comfortable telling people what they should do. I share my notes and let people come to their own conclusions. Starting a post with a verb seems to be too direct, as if I’m telling you to do something.

That said, filler phrases like “Thinking about…” aren’t particularly useful as part of a title, since the reflection is a given. But changing “Thinking about how to make better use of Yasnippet in my Emacs workflow” to “Save time with dynamic Yasnippets when typing frequently-used text in Emacs” doesn’t seem to accommodate the exploratory bits, although it could be a good follow-up post. Changing “Minimizing upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes” to “Minimize upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes” feels like I’m making a value judgment on skewed sketchnotes, when some people might like the fact that an upward skew tends to feel happy and optimistic.

So I use nouns or gerunds when reflecting (which is self-directed), and verbs when I’m trying to put together other-directed advice. This helps me differentiate the types of posts in my index and in my editorial calendar admin screen, and it also signals the difference to people as they browse. You might not be interested in my reflections and prefer to focus on tips, for example, or you might be tired of tips and want journal entries instead.

That works because those types of posts are generally quite separate. When I want to help someone learn a technique such as sketching quick ribbons, I don’t go on an extended tangent about how I learned how to do that or how I want to improve. When I’m thinking about how I can improve my delegation skills, I don’t expect someone to patiently go through all of that in search of three concrete tips to help them improve. I think that as I gain experience and become more opinionated (the latter probably being more related to this), I’ll write more advice/instruction posts, possibly linking to those personal-experience-and-reflection posts instead of going on internal tangents.

In this post, I’m experimenting with a verb title while doing extensive self-reflection. It feels a little odd, as if you started a conversation with someone and then proceeded to talk to yourself, idly musing out loud. You’ll have to tell me if I should never do that again, or if there’s a way to manage the balance. But it also feels odd to use my part of the conversation to tell you to do stuff, solely drawing on other people’s research or recommendations, without sharing my context so you can tell if something that makes sense for me might make sense for you. I figure there are plenty of other people out there who want to tell you what to do with your life, and I’m not completely fond of that approach anyway. And it also feels odd to natter away about my life like a self-absorbed ninny, making you do all the hard work of translating ideas into things that you can actually use. I still haven’t completely figured out how to make personal blogs more useful for other people.

Could I make an idea sandwich: summary and research at the top, personal reflection in the middle, call to action at the end? Maybe that could work.

Still, I want to do something with my titles so that I don’t end up with lots of “Thinking about …” and “Exploring …” and “Deciding between …” that blur in my memory. My ideal for these reflection posts, I think, would be a clear, concise summary of the key insight (perhaps saving it as an excerpt as well, if it doesn’t fit in the title). If I followed that up with an other-directed post with a crisp title that started with a verb, made the recommendation, brought in some research and observations, and linked to my reflection, that would give me a good, logical, memorable, useful chunk that I could share with other people.

Right. That makes sense to me. If I address you with a direct verb or “How to …”, I should deliver a post that requires minimal mental translation for you to get good tips out of it. If I clearly mark something as a reflection, you know what to expect. I tend to remember them as actions I decided to take (“The time I resolved to…”) or the particular new thing I came to understand. I can take a few minutes to update the titles and summaries accordingly, which could help me years later when I’m trying to make sense of things again.

In Buckminister’s somewhat strange book I Seem to Be a Verb (1970), he wrote:

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

A verb seems too definite for me. I’m a gerund in at least two senses, I think: reflexive, the way “I read” is an act but “reading” is a noun that lets us talk about itself; and in the process of doing, not done.

Do you write other-directed posts that offer advice or instruction? Consider lopping off “How to …” and “Top 10 ways to…”. Start with a verb and give one clear recommendation. Do you write self-directed reflections? See if you can harvest the ideas for other-directed posts, and perhaps invest a little time into making your posts easier for you to remember. Do you write a mix of both, and have you figured out a good flow? I’d love to hear what works for you.