Category Archives: sharing

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Questionnaires from people

As part of blog series or e-book compilations, people sometimes ask me to answer questionnaires they’ve put together. Sometimes they mention the size of their audience. Sometimes, they focus on our shared interests.

On one hand, it’s good that other people are putting together resources, and sometimes these things lead to interesting new conversations. On the other hand, grist for another’s mill, and I generally don’t enjoy reading short, too-standard answers.

So if I’m going to do stuff like that, I want to focus on the things I like. I never promise to write answers, and I don’t commit to a specific date. I mull over the questions and cherrypick the ones I find interesting. Not very generous of me, I suppose, but it keeps me happy. <laugh>

People are usually curious about the past: how one got started, what was helpful, what would you change. I tend to focus more on present and near-future, since that helps me a lot, and I’m not quite ready to hold my life up as an example that other people should be inspired by or follow. It’s good to take notes along the way, though, since it’s hard to reconstruct from memories afterwards.

So I’m okay with describing things and I can see the value of having a gallery of different approaches… What’s the core of this, then? Maybe I’m not keen on the Q-and-short-A format. Might as well be a sketch so that I can practise that. Might as well try to wring out ideas for the future, notes to self – which don’t make as much sense outside the context of my blog, I guess.

Hmm. I think there might be something there. In the context of my blog, it’s clearer that life is a work in progress, and people can come across updates. I can link to things back and forth, and it’s easier for me to keep track of comments.

I like it when people link to or excerpt my blog posts, since most of the time, bloggers make it easy to get back to the context. They put more of themselves into the post, too, sharing what they liked or what they think. It’s different from having a short bio at the end.

Oh! Maybe that’s something else that’s playing into this… I tend to feel meh about most of the guest posts I read, the generic-ish articles with short bios written for link-building and audience-building purposes. We might be a small tribe, but it’s okay for us to grow slowly through remarkable ideas rather than from exposure.

So I’ll still take people’s questions under advisement, but I’ll reflect on those questions on my own schedule and to the extent that I want to, and I’ll share those reflections on my blog. If people want to excerpt/link back, they’re welcome to do so. Let’s try that out…

Index cards

I’ve been drawing more on index cards than in sketchbooks lately. I keep a stack of index cards on my bedside table, and I have a few more in my belt bag. Index cards are great because they really can contain only one thought, so they’re not at all intimidating to start. I know I’ll finish the card. Index cards are also sturdier than the small notepad I carry around, and since I’m not tearing off pages, I don’t have to worry about fiddly little paper bits. Compared to index cards, a 8.5×11″ sheet feels like such a generous expanse. Although the extra space of a sketchbook lets me get deeper into a topic, it also sometimes results in half-drawn pages when I’m distracted by another thought or something that I need to do.

2014-09-10 Index cards

2014-09-10 Index cards

So maybe that suggests a new workflow for developing ideas. I can start by brainstorming topics on an index card. Then I can pick some ideas to flesh out into index cards of their own, and from there, to sketchbook pages. Blog posts can explain one sketch or collect several sketches, and they can link to previous posts as well.

2014-09-10 Possible workflow for developing ideas

2014-09-10 Possible workflow for developing ideas

This should help me think in bigger chunks

Tweaking the way I write

Through writing, I want to:

  • Learn more effectively and efficiently by taking notes and chunking my thoughts
  • Understand and be able to articulate what I’m thinking
  • Keep notes for future reflection and time travel
  • Connect with people who have similar interests
  • Help other people save time

I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing this so far, although it would be even better if I could write more efficiently and effectively. What would that look like, and how could I move towards that?

I pick up a lot of information from reading and from trying things out. If I spend more time reviewing notes and experimenting with concepts, that will help me get more out of the time that I spend reading. Wouldn’t be neat if my personal stash of quotes (my digital commonplace books) linked each note with a blog post reflecting on what I found interesting about it, how I’ve applied it, and what it’s related to? I think that would be handy.

Sometimes I find myself particularly interested in an idea, and writing is easy. Other times, the spark isn’t quite there, or the kindling is scattered. I have a massive outline/list of things to write about. Sometimes it seems a little odd writing about stuff, though. Lackluster? But maybe giving myself different recipes for blog posts can help (a personal story, a book quote, etc.). I can also look at it as practice. I have years and years to write, and I can learn a lot when I practise deliberately and dispassionately.

For reflection and review, I can write regular snapshots of what’s going on in my life and what I’m trying to figure out. These usually give me enough anchors to remember more.

To make it easier to connect with other people, I can ask people if they blog, and I can post more of my personal stories on my blog.

I’ve been writing more selfishly rather than focusing on saving people time, but I’m sure that balance will shift at some point too. I tend to find it easy to blog helpful things when I’m immersed in projects or in answering people’s questions, so it’s probably just a matter of focusing on open source again.

As I write more, I’ll get faster, and I might even get clearer. :) I can build on what I’ve previously written. I’ll get a better sense of what I like and don’t like in writing, and I’ll experiment with the influences of other writers.

So let’s say that it takes me about an hour or two to follow a thought and write it down. I’m not really looking for speed here. I don’t need to be able to crank one out in fifteen minutes. It might be good to be able to work in small chunks (headline, outline, snippets) to take advantage of the moments that come up during a day. It would also be good to be able to work coherently – to build up to more complex thoughts, to untangle harder questions. That’s probably what better writing looks like for me. As for beauty form and flow, I can probably pick that up through analysis and practice, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that people can think (and share) complex thoughts despite being inelegant writers. (Almost impenetrable, even!)

How do I want to change how I write? Well, I can use my phone more, writing instead of reading when I have a free moment on the go. If I feel a little blah when writing at my computer, I can open my book notes and expound on a passage. I can also pick something from my outline and sketch out the next level, tell a story, or look for ways to test it in life (and add a reminder to come back and write about the results). I can embrace the way that many of my blog posts are more like “here’s where I am, there’s where I’d like to go, here’s what I’m going to try” rather than fonts of wisdom. Hey, maybe it will be amusing (or even useful) looking back, forty years from now. We’ll see!

Writing incomplete thoughts

Writing helps me make myself. In a quiet, considered moment, I can think through things and figure out how I’d like to respond or act. Most of the time, I don’t end up referring to my old blog posts; writing is itself enough to help. Sometimes I do link back so that I can trace the development of a thought, build on what I’ve written, or share that moment in time with someone else who’s figuring out similar things.

Sometimes I have all these little thoughts that don’t quite gel into a single post. I’m still attached to the idea of having some kind of question, some kind of realization, or at least a little progress in a post. Sometimes I have two or more threads and I feel there’s some kind of connection between them, but I can’t quite articulate it coherently. I’m getting better at writing regardless, but I keep the notes until they make a little more sense. I’ve been saving those snippets in an ever-growing outline, but maybe I should just post things. After all, present-Sacha has found the time machine of a blog archive to be unexpectedly interesting reading, so maybe future-Sacha will be able to make sense of all this. As Steve Jobs said (in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford), “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Today I thought about chronos and kairos, clock-time and personal-time. I thought about Aristotle’s golden means and the vices that my nature tends towards. I thought about our almost-daily habit of watching movies borrowed from the library, and what we did before this became our routine; and similarly, what were those long-ago weekends like? Maybe I should write more about everyday life so that future-Sacha can see the changes.

Here is what our lives are like at the moment. Mondays and Wednesdays are quiet days at home. I skim a stack of books, taking notes on a few. Because my consulting client needs a little extra help, I usually interrupt my reading and writing with an hour or two of work, responding to e-mail and dealing with quick, important requests. Tuesdays and Thursdays are more focused on consulting. On Tuesday evenings, I go to Hacklab to cook and hang out. Fridays I go out, meet friends, and experiment with a change of scene. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do laundry, groceries, cooking, and chores; the other weekend day is for outside errands or other forms of relaxation, although sometimes W- uses it to catch up on work.

I spend a lot more time reading and writing than I did when I worked full-time. (From about 5 hours a week to about 19 hours!) I enjoy it immensely. I’m beginning to feel more of a sense of the authors I encounter through their works, both ancient and modern; their voices, their ideas, the conversations that thread their way through the books I read.

There’s always that need to combine learning, doing, and sharing. Book-learning isn’t enough; I have to try things in real life. Doing something is good, but sharing what I’m learning from it is even better. My writing this year is a lot more self-focused than it was last year, but in the grand scheme of things, a little exploration should be all right. (Who knows, it might even be useful.)

Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There’s a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we’ll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of “Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here’s how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too.”
  • Connects with people who are even more dedicated to the topic: Some books sprinkle in quotes from researchers and authors. Some books include conversations with specialists. Some books delve into subcultures of people who are even more passionate about the principles and have lots of insights to share. I like the last type most of all; it’s like having an excuse to meet and learn from geeks of other persuasions.

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)

How to draw a visual summary of a book

People often ask me how I do my book notes. I’m not really sure how to explain it, since it seems straightforward: read a book, take notes? Maybe these tips can help, though.

2014-05-16 How to draw a visual summary of a book #drawing

2014-05-16 How to draw a visual summary of a book #drawing

Reading the table of contents helps me figure out the structure of a book. Then I just go through it section by section, writing down things that other people might find useful or that I’d like to remember. It helps that I speed-read and that I’ve read a lot of books – I can skip large chunks if I prefer another book’s explanation of that topic.

I like drawing my book notes digitally because I can use colours that match the book and because I can erase or move things around on the computer, but drawing on paper is okay too.

I like thinking about how I can improve my workflow. The next step for me is probably to get better at picking books that I care enough about to draw (or conversely, to draw books anyway, because practice is good). I could also use it to practise colour and imagery, since my notes tend to be mostly text. =)

Here are some more notes on how I read books:

I might be able to explain more if people have specific questions. =)

I’d love to see more visual book notes. They’re a great way to condense a book’s key points for your personal review and for sharing with others. Here are some other people who have shared their visual book notes:

Enjoy!