Category Archives: reflection

Sketchnote reflection: conference intensity

Still a little tired from two intense days of sketchnoting: 62 2-minute pitches from Sunday’s AngelHack Toronto, and then a 12-hour sprint involving 33 talks and 11 startup demos for Monday’s Lean Startup Day. Focused listening is tough – squeezing through hundreds of people to find a seat at AngelHackTO, straining to hear pitches despite the back-of-room chatter competing with weak sound; dealing with a quick succession of topics with a livestream that shows only brief glimpses of slides; tweeting with one hand while drawing with the other.

Although I had to shift writing positions a few times, my hands didn’t cramp up once. The breaks were just enough time for me to shake out any tiredness, drink some water, dash to the facilities, munch my way through three energy bars and a sandwich, and answer questions from curious onlookers. After the conference and a short time at Quantified Self Toronto’s pub night, I gratefully slid into the quiet of solitude, and I slept for eleven hours once I got home.

It was intense work, but worth it. Visually summarizing the pitches and talks during the event itself meant that the sketchnotes could be part of the conversation instead of an afterthought, and people appreciated it both here and elsewhere.

Every time I sketch an event, I learn something. Here’s what worked well:

  • I set up custom templates before the event. MaRS wanted partner logos on the template, so I created that PNG beforehand, and I added a light grid from my own drawing templates. This meant that the sketchnotes were consistently branded.
  • I saved my sketchnotes using Autodesk’s automatic numbering feature and a shared Dropbox folder. This came in really handy during the Lean Startup Day conference, as the talks were quick with very few breaks in between. Automatic numbering meant that I didn’t have to spend time changing the filename, while using Dropbox meant that my files were synchronized with my phone and easy to publish on the web.
  • I switched devices instead of switching screens. One of the advantages of using an all-digital workflow is that I can publish my sketchnotes during the event itself. My tablet PC is great for drawing, but switching windows and sharing notes on Twitter is hard when it’s in tablet mode. By saving the files in Dropbox and synchronizing with my phone, I could avoid switching applications – my tablet PC was dedicated for drawing, while the phone was great for posting links to Twitter.
  • Dropbox also made it easy to update files. If I wanted to correct an image, I could simply save a new version. The old links would continue to work seamlessly. This was much better than my previous workflow of using Twitpic or WordPress – replacing old images is so much easier now.
  • I kept the clutter off my blog. When covering single talks, I’ll often publish the sketchnotes directly to my blog. I didn’t want to post twenty separate entries for a conference, though! Using Dropbox+Twitter allowed me to publish sketchnotes immediately without cluttering up my blog. At the end of the event, I created a blog post recap with all the sketchnotes for easy access.
  • I stocked up on supplies. I tucked a few Clif bars and two water bottles into my backpack, and they came in really handy during the conference. Concentration makes me hungry!
  • I added some light shading. Using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6.0.1’s new Color Puck, I picked a shade that was related to the logo colours. Whenever I had time, I added subtle shading on a different layer. (Ex: panel) It was fun, and I’m looking forward to revisiting past sketchnotes and using that technique.
  • I set aside a day for recovery. Introvert overload – energy management required! =)

Here’s how I’m thinking of making things even better next time:

  • I might be able to automate the Dropbox > Twitter publishing process with WappWolf, if I can figure out how to add some information without needing to type it in using my laptop.
  • Alternatively, I can use an external keyboard (or even dust off my Twiddler!) in order to speed up data entry while I’m in tablet mode.
  • I can see if there’s a way to use Microsoft Powerpoint’s Photo Album feature to insert high-resolution images instead of having them downsampled. Inserting them one by one and changing the “Compress Pictures” setting to use the document resolution seems to work, though. You can see or download the results on Slideshare.
  • I can identify frequently-used nouns and build a visual thesaurus so that I’m not drawing boxes all over the place.

Next on my sketchnoting calendar: today’s talk by Dan Roam on “Blah Blah Blah”, the Wednesday lectures on Entrepreneurship 101, and next week’s book club on “Best Practices are Stupid”. People tell me these sketchnotes are valuable. I’m getting better and better at making them!

Coming up with a three-word life philosophy

Because people like my sketchnotes so much, I’ve signed up for the Rockstar Scribe course to see if I can learn how to sketchnote even better. I’m curious about layout and figure and colour, and I’m sure this will be a good skill to develop over the next twenty years. I could probably learn a lot practising on my own, but I promised myself that I’d invest more in tools and education, so here I am!

Our first assignment was to draw a visual introduction. Among the guide questions was this one: What is your life philosophy in three words?

20121102 Three Word Life Philosophy - Sacha Chua

So this is me, at least right now. =) Learn, share, scale.

Rockstar Scribe (from Alphachimp University) – affiliate link, non-affiliate link

A long reflection on getting more out of each hour

One of the people I met through the MaRS Entrepreneurship 101 course asked me what brought me to the sessions, since it looked like I was doing well already.

I like going to tech and business meetups that have talks. I get so much more than most people do out of them, I think. For many people, presentations are like lottery tickets. Sometimes the talks are directly relevant to their work, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re at the right level of experience, and other times, talks are too basic or too advanced for them. Sometimes an hour’s talk more than pays for itself. Many times, though, it’s an hour that they won’t get back. Their return on investment is highly variable.

I like getting multipliers of value out of my time. I spend the same hour that everyone spends listening. By taking notes, though, I make myself listen more actively, create something that I can use to trigger my memories, share with other people, and add more to my blog archive. I used to take a lot of text notes. Over the past two years, I’ve switched to taking more sketchnotes because:

  • drawing is quieter than typing (no distracting clackety-clack noises!), and it’s obvious I’m not doing e-mail
  • drawings are easier to quickly review than text notes – you can get an almost visceral reminder of things in a glance
  • drawings are easier to share with other people who might not take the time to read a liveblogged post, but who’ll find drawings interesting

So that gives me even more ways to get value from the time I have. Here’s the Evil Plan I shared in my e-mail response about why I go to the entrepreneurship course:

…I mainly attend for sketchnoting practice and long-term network building. Every session gives me exactly what I want: better real-time drawing skills, an excuse to delight and follow up with experts, stronger connections with event organizers and business resources, serendipitous encounters with potential entrepreneurs in person and online, the ability to give something to a pretty large audience, and material for blog posts and compilations. :) All for maybe two hours’ total investment of attention and a few subway tokens… As far as Evil Plans go, I suspect it’s a good one. ;) Five, ten, twenty years down the line, it will probably lead to something wonderful.

Some people are more productive because they require less sleep – my dad belongs to this category. Me, I like getting between 8-9 hours of sleep each night, averaging 8.3 hours over the past 321 days (standard deviation of 1.6 hours/day). That means I just have to get more value out of the time I have – not so much multi-tasking, but getting multiple kinds of value.

Right now, it’s easy to squeeze out more value from the dish sponge of life. I’m in the awesome part of the learning curve, where I’m getting tons of value out of going to things because I learn so much. When I hit the plateau of mediocrity, things might be different – or maybe I’ll get better and better at structuring things so I’m always getting lots of different kinds of value from the same hour: learning, skill-building, relationship-building, knowledge-sharing… In 2009 I wrote about how my interests complement each other, and the new ones I’m picking up – drawing, publishing, learning how to build a business – snap right into that framework. But there’s so much more to learn about learning and living. What can I possibly know even now, at 29, with so much more of life ahead? This is nothing, a tiny fraction of what’s possible. It’ll be wonderful to keep learning, to find out what it’s like to get even better at making the most of time. I’m looking forward to it. Any tips? Anything I can help other people learn?


My first full day back at consulting after a month-long vacation, and it felt great. I started digging into the REST API for the system we were using, and I figured out how to build a simple command-line client to get data. I’d built a similar community analysis tool while at IBM, and that one saved lots of people hours and hours of work. Since we were starting to need similar reports, it made sense to build a tool instead of manually crunching the numbers. This time,

I decided to build the tool using Ruby instead of Java, packaging it into an .exe with Ocra. I found Ruby to be much easier to write in. The interactive mode made it easy to prototype my ideas. Gems meant that I didn’t have to hunt all over for packages and figure out how to make them work together. It was fun to come up with more ideas and add them to the tool.

I love making tools. I like digging into the wires behind web-based services and making up new ways to use stuff. The value isn’t as visible or as easy to appreciate as, say, web design work, but it’s much easier to build something quick and then tweak it to fit specific people. I like that part a lot – tailoring tools to specific ways of working.

I was thinking about the different things I might like to be really, really good at in twenty years’ time. My current shortlist: writing, drawing (mostly sketchnotes), and toolmaking. I think writing and drawing are like toolmaking for me too. They’re about making tools for the mind, helping people learn faster or more effectively or about more things. =) Maybe if I practise and learn more about writing and drawing — the way I’ve spent most of my life programming — I’ll be able to make wonderful little things too.

It’s okay if you don’t do everything

People often tell me that they feel frustrated because they don’t have the time to explore their interests or build new skills. I understand where they’re coming from. I have many interests. I like digging into new topics and new skills, feeling the concepts start to click together. There are many, many more things I want to learn than I have the time to do in one lifetime. There’s everyday life to deal with, too.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned is how to not be discouraged by the limitations of time. We set ourselves these deadlines (“I want to be a millionaire by thirty!”) and we get frustrated because we aren’t getting there fast enough because of all the things in the way. An oft-repeated piece of advice is that your goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. While time-bound goals are useful in many situations, they’re not the best fit for everything. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities and frustrated by the fact that you can be in only one place at one time, paying attention to one thing and forgetting others. If you have too many goals, you don’t have any.

It’s good to know when to let that go. It’s good to give yourself permission to explore in a general direction but not necessarily force yourself to arrive at your destination by a specific time or date. Then any obstacles in your path just mean that you’ll take the scenic route, and sometimes you might discover interesting side-paths along the way.

I know that I may not get to do everything, but I can do the things that matter the most, and I can slowly explore other interests in the time and space that I have. It’s like the way that I think about savings. I may not be able to buy everything I want, but I can save up for the things that matter. If something is more expensive than others, that simply means that it will take me a little longer to save up for it. Likewise, I may be curious about what it’s like to have certain kinds of skills or experiences, but I can probably get there even if I go slowly.

It’s a different kind of ambition, perhaps. For many people, ambition is about getting somewhere. My goal is to have a good journey along the way, and to share that with others.

Letting go of deadlines makes it easier for me to scale back some things in order to make space for other interests. I keep a list of things that I say “no” to in order to make space for this I want to say “yes” to. My mother observed that I haven’t been writing about sewing lately. It’s on my “no” list, just as playing the piano is. Both are good hobbies and many people enjoy them, but I’ve moved the time and focus to other things at the moment, and that’s okay. Right now, I’m focusing on writing, drawing, and learning how to develop mobile applications.

Frugality helps a lot, too. If I don’t spend so much, then I don’t need to earn so much, and I can work less and use the extra time to experiment. The other approach is to earn more so that I can free up more time in the future, but that can be dangerous. Work can be addictive, and postponing exploration means missing out on some things that are better when they mature over time. A hybrid approach that’s working out well: work less and earn more, then use the extra time to learn how to make things even better…

There’s time enough for the things that matter, and a little more for exploring.

Quantified Awesome: Blogging, WPM, and the speed of reflection

The combination that I use to write most of my blog posts (Emacs, Org Mode, and org2blog) automatically keeps track of the time that it takes me to write a post, making it easy to calculate my actual words per minute rate. I created a table with data from 32 of my previous posts, discarding posts that didn’t have any time data.

It turns out that my median is actually around 16 wpm when writing blog posts, far lower than the 110wpm that I clock during typing tests and the 180wpm that I speak at when excited. This accounts for thinking, writing, research, and editing. For example, this post has 388 words and was written in 23 minutes – a rate of around 16wpm (hah!), including a little bit of research but excluding the tabulation of data (which I did before starting the blog post).

I talk slower in my head when I’m writing than when I speak, testing the words out and trying to figure out where I’m going to go. There are a number of ways I can write faster. I can experiment with outlining more of my posts, like the way a list of blog ideas helps me sit down and write a lot without idling between thoughts. I can try out dictation using Dragon NaturallySpeaking and my new headset, to see whether the shift from from writing to speaking also changes my baseline speed.

And then there’s accepting that I write a lot already, and decently quickly too, so I could focus on other improvements. Organizing or illustrating my notes, for example, or revising old posts.

This is good, though. I want to write and explore and share as much as I can. I think the bottleneck isn’t:

  • having enough writing time
  • being able to type fast enough
  • knowing the tools well enough
  • being able to express myself through words

The bottleneck is probably more about my own speed of understanding and learning. That’s an entirely different area of hacking – and it looks like there are ways to tweak that, too. The visualization and peg techniques from memory books will help me absorb and retain more. Experience will help me get better at making sense of what’s going on. I wonder how I can come up with comparable numbers.