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On “Hell, yeah! or No” and other approaches

If you find yourself overcommitted, the “Either ‘Hell Yeah!’ or ‘No’” approach suggested by Derek Sivers (among others) might be a good fit. The idea is that if you rate things on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being awesome), ditch the things that are less than 9 instead of wasting your time and energy.

2014-10-22 On Hell Yeah and other approaches

2014-10-22 On Hell Yeah and other approaches

I can see the merits of this approach. Reflecting on it, though, I noticed that I prefer to do things a little differently, and I wanted to dig into the reasons why.

When it comes to requests from other people, I’m pretty good at sticking to the “Heck, yeah!” range. After all, whatever I say no to might be a good fit for someone else, or it could be an opportunity to help someone pick up new skills. Besides, if I make few promises, I have more flexibility when it comes to choosing what to work on at the moment.

For myself, though, I’m okay with working on things that aren’t an immediate “Heck, yeah!” I think it’s because I see a lot of value in the range of things you would rate from 3 to 8 on that 10-point scale, so it can be good to deliberately carve out time to work in that range instead of spending most of your time at 9 or 10.

When I look at the skills and interests that have become big parts of my life, very few of them were instant passions. I’ve always liked reading. I think I fell in love with programming immediately, but I’m not sure because I don’t remember enough about the beginning. On the micro-scale, though, there’s often a little bit of awkwardness and mediocrity when I’m learning something new. I liked personal finance and analytics as soon as I learned about them, but statistics took me longer to wrap my mind around.

Most of the things that enrich my life grew slowly. It took me years and years and years to get to the point of enjoying writing, drawing, or cooking. I didn’t look at W- across a crowded room and feel my world come into focus; I got to know him as a friend before growing to love him. Canada made me sad and homesick before it slowly became a second home. Biking was something limited and a little scary before it became freeing. I’m still working on enjoying exercise and picking up DIY skills.

Sometimes my goals for learning something burn brightly enough to keep me going, but sometimes I start something trusting that it’s good for me and that I might eventually enjoy it more. It can be difficult getting through the plateau of mediocrity, but it might be worthwhile.

I might not often rate deliberate practice and improvement as a 9 or 10 on the excitement scale, either. Sometimes I get impatient or distracted. But it’s good for me too, and it helps me do even better. So I’ll spend time on that, even if I feel a little blah about getting started. Sometimes momentum creates its own energy.

Still, it might be interesting to get more of my activities to that “Heck, yeah!” level of energy, when you’re jazzed up about things and you’re in the flow. It’s fun to have those happy-dance-“I rock! I rock! I rock!” moments. How can I amp up the things that I do, moving them up the scale, now that I understand my motives a little better?

2014-10-22 What kinds of activities do I want to fully enjoy

2014-10-22 What kinds of activities do I want to fully enjoy

  • Coding: If I’m coding on my own, I can encourage more “I rock!” moments by coming up with lots of little ideas for personal projects, investing time into improving my workflow, and practising in other ways.
  • Writing, drawing, packaging: This is tricky, since the “I rock!” moment isn’t as clear as in coding. Maybe if I come up with questions and explore them all the way to the point of packaging a resource…
  • Sewing: If my main challenges are patience and skill, maybe I can start with tiny projects and gradually work my way up, learning how to enjoy the process.
  • Exercise: Even small exercises have their own “I rock!” moments, and I can track my progress to enjoy this more.
  • Learning: Maybe progress tracking, speed, and practical application? Hmm…
  • Talking to people: Can I build up a stronger interest in people’s stories and lessons learned? Also, if I accept silences and the occasional awkward bit as normal, that reduces the downsides of conversations.
  • Committing to stuff: Actually, maybe I’ll continue to minimize this for now. =)  

Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it’s not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-‘s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far – although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Developing opinions

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?

Thinking about what I want to do with my time

Every so often, I spend time thinking about what I want to focus on. I’m interested in many things. I like following my interests. Guiding them to focus on two or three key areas helps me avoid feeling split apart or frazzled.

I balance this thinking with the time I spend actually doing things. It’s easy to spend so much time thinking about what you want to do that you don’t end up doing it. It’s easy to spend so much time doing things that you don’t end up asking if you’re doing the right things. I probably spend slightly more time on the thinking side than I could, but that will work itself out over time.

I balance thinking with moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I might be going in the wrong direction, because movement itself teaches you something. You discover your preferences: more of this, less of that. You get feedback from the world. For me, moving forward involves learning more about technology, trying experiments, making things, and so on. Taking small steps helps me avoid spending lots of time going in the wrong direction.

(And are there really wrong directions, or just vectors that don’t line up as well?)

What do I want to do with my time?

Fitness: The weather’s warming up, so: more biking, more raking, more compost-turning, more carrying water to the garden. It would be good to be fitter and to feel fitter. I like the focus on fitness rather than exercise – not exertion for its own sake, but practical application.

Coding: I like coding. Coding might be a perfectly acceptable answer to the question “What do I want to do with my life?”, at least currently. I’ve been doing a lot more Emacs coding, and I’m digging into other technologies as well. I like it because I can build stuff – and more importantly, learning helps me imagine useful stuff to build.

I think I want to get better at making web tools that are useful and that look good, but I’m not sure. Lots of other people can do this, and I haven’t come up with strong ideas that need this. (Back to the need for a well-trained imagination!) I can wait to develop this skill until I have a stronger idea, or I can learn these skills to lay the foundation for coming up with ideas. I’ve been thinking about getting better at working with APIs, but that’s even more like digital sharecropping than creating content on other people’s platform is. APIs, pricing models, and all sorts of other things change a lot. I’m wary of investing lots of time in things that I have very little control over.

What would a few possible futures look like? I could be a toolmaker, building lots of little tools for niche audiences. technomancy and johnw are great role models for this. I could be a contributor or maintainer, building up part of something like Org or Emacs, or perhaps one of the modern Web stacks. If I need to keep a path back into the workforce, maybe back-end development would be a good way to do that. I like talking to fellow geeks anyway, so it’s okay if I don’t focus on front end–that way I won’t have to deal with fiddly browser differences or client tweaks.

Writing: Writing helps me learn more and understand things better. It saves other people time and tickles their brains. It’s also a great use of my time, although sometimes I feel like coding has more straightforward value.

Lots of people write. I want to write about things things that are not already thoroughly covered elsewhere. I want to be myself, not some generic blogger – to write (and draw!) things that are geeky and approachable. I like writing about Emacs (goodness knows how we need more documentation!), self-tracking, experiments, technology, and learning.

What’s on the backburner for now, then?

  • Sketchnoting other people’s content: Useful and easy to appreciate, but potentially distracting from the other stuff I want to do. I may make an exception for books, since I like reading anyway.
  • Spreading sketchnoting: I can leave this in the capable hands of Mike Rohde, Sunni Brown, and Dan Roam. I’ll still use sketchnoting to think through things, though, and I’ll share them on my blog and on Flickr.
  • Spreading alternative lifestyles (semi-retirement, portfolio careers, etc.): Jeff Goins, Pamela Slim, and Mr. Money Mustache are doing fine with this. I tend to stay away from giving advice, and I don’t want to inadvertently feed wantrepreneurship as a substitute for actually taking action. I’ll still write about my experiments and decisions, though.
  • Spreading blogging in general: I’ll answer people’s questions and encourage people along, but I won’t dig into this as much as I could. I might make an exception for tech blogging, because I have a vested interest in getting more geeks to blog – more search results to come across and more posts to learn from! ;)
  • Drawing better: I draw well enough for my purposes, and I want to keep things approachable.

What does this reflection teach me about what drives me?

  • I like the feeling of figuring things out and of contributing to something that will build over time.
  • I like positive feedback, but I can move away from it if I want. For example, people always ask me about sketchnotes, but I like Emacs stuff more even though it’s hard to explain in regular conversation.
  • If I don’t have a particularly strong idea for something I want to build, I can spend the time learning more about the capabilities of the tools I use. Along the way, I’m sure to run into lots of small gaps. I can fill those in to demonstrate my learning.
  • I tend to build things for my own convenience. I open it up if I think a web interface will be handy, and if other people find it helpful, that’s icing on the cake.

For amusement, you can check out my list of back-burner things from October 2013. Back then, I wanted to focus more on drawing and writing. This time, I’m geeking out. Yay! =)

Making decisions that don’t matter that much to me

I minimize the number of decisions I care about. What I’m going to do with my life? Big decision worth spending time on. Is something worth it? I can spend hours analyzing the trade-offs. What do I want to eat? I don’t particularly care. I’m trying to avoid decision fatigue. Decisions take up time and willpower. Also, I’m trying to minimize attachment. Everything’s going to be okay.

W- asked me what colour I would like the deck to be. I looked at the dozens of swatches all neatly laid out, and I boggled at him. It’s like when people ask me where I want to eat. Beats me. At least there, I can use a rule of thumb: closest $-$$ place rated at least 3.5 stars on Yelp that’s still open at this time of day and that satisfies everyone’s dietary restrictions.

shutterstock_118213816If I don’t care about the outcome of a decision – if multiple alternatives are not significantly different in terms of their value to me – I’ll tell people I don’t care strongly enough to decide. That way, they don’t mistake a casual opinion for a strongly-held opinion and end up regretting being overruled. If people really want me to participate, I’ll support whatever people suggest, and I’ll help people remember their reasons for or against something. I’ll also ask questions to draw out reasons and make off-the-wall suggestions to add humour.

This is probably not quite what people are looking for. Usually, when people ask for your opinion on something, it’s because they want it.

My default is to not have an opinion. Maybe I should. It’s pretty easy to pick something and then let your brain fill in the reasons for it. People learn more about their choices in the negotiation.

Or maybe I should just have a more structured approach when people ask me about things I don’t have an opinion about. List alternatives, costs, benefits; make diagrams; graph arguments. That way, even if I don’t have an opinion, I can contribute value.

We discussed a few stain options. W- picked one and painted the deck with it. He thought it looked too gray in the sunlight. He stripped it back down and started looking for a different colour. (While I’m easily distracted from finishing my tasks and a big fan of getting things 80% okay, W- is awesome at persistence, and is working on getting around the sunk costs fallacy.)

I don’t mind. It gives me more opportunities to be supportive of projects and experiments, even though I am probably not yet filling the more useful role of the Voice of Reason. I think being able to use the Voice of Reason needs experience anyway. (They say good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. Not that this was a bad decision; it’s just a different outcome.)

I’m going to be asked for my opinion of or recommendation for many many things in life, especially as I move into my thirties. People assume twenty-somethings don’t know very much, except maybe about tech. Thirty-somethings probably don’t know much either, but are expected to have Opinions. Might as well learn.

How do you handle being asked for your opinion when you haven’t given something much thought?

Comic: Cartoonresource via Shutterstock

What’s on your back burner?

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

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

2013_10_08_22_46_28_002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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