Category Archives: sharing

Breaking down the skill of outlining

What do I mean when I say that I want to get better at outlining? What can outlining help me with, anyway?

Outlines are good for:

  • Capturing thoughts quickly: You don’t have to write full sentences. You can add keywords or phrases in any order, and you can flesh them out later.
  • Writing non-linearly: You don’t have to write one paragraph after another. You can jot down your key point, come up with a few supporting points, and then think about your introduction or conclusion.
  • Organizing your thoughts: You don’t need to always go from topic to detail. You can capture random thoughts and then group them afterwards.
  • Deciding on depth and coverage: How much detail should you include? What subtopics do you want to cover, and what will you save for another post? What can you cut, and what’s missing? An outline can help you discover these things before you spend a lot of time writing.
  • Rearranging topics for a more logical flow: Does it make sense to discuss one idea before the other? Fixing the flow in your outline saves you from rewriting all the transitions.
  • Writing quickly: If you’ve mapped out what you want to talk about, you don’t have to worry as much about writer’s block – all you have to do is follow the trail.
  • Picking things up where you left off: If you’re writing something that you can’t finish in one sitting (or if you want to be able to revise it easily even after some time), an outline helps you remember what you want to say and see what you need to do next.

Let me break outlining into sub-skills and think about different ways I can practise each of them.

  1. Outlining a single blog post
  2. Reverse outlining
  3. Outlining link-heavy posts or summary posts
  4. Outlining larger resources and books
  5. Outlining lifelong learning

1. Outlining a single blog post

I tend to write short blog posts focusing on a single question I want to explore or a point I want to make. This results in posts that are usually somewhere between 400 and 2,000 words. Although I’m comfortable with this way of working, I think outlining can help me organize my posts more effectively. Writing in paragraphs sometimes gets in the way of seeing the post as a whole or tweaking its flow easily. If I make an outline and then transform it into text, I find it easier to keep the whole post in mind as I write.

Because I use Org Mode for Emacs to write, it’s easy for me to work with outlines. I can hide and show parts of my outline using keyboard shortcuts. I can also keep a copy of the outline in one part of my window while I rewrite another copy of the outline into the actual text.

In addition to practising by outlining posts like this one, I can double-check the flow of a post while it’s in outline form, and I can also try different permutations of the order.

2. Reverse outlining

To create a reverse outline, start with an existing text. Identify the key points of each paragraph, and create an outline based on that. Organize those points into a more complex structure as needed.

I sometimes use reverse outlines with my own posts or drafts if I get the sense that things are a little out of order, but I can’t pin down why. With Org Mode, I can add list items before each paragraph, summarizing their key points. Then I can manipulate those list items with keyboard shortcuts, hiding the paragraphs or moving them around. When I’m happy, I can remove the outline structure and go back to working with paragraphs.

Reverse outlines are also useful when studying other people’s writing for content or for structure. They help you see the text as a whole instead of getting lost in paragraphs. I don’t do as much of this as I could. If I spent more time reverse-outlining posts that appealed to me, I could probably learn more about techniques for writing.

In addition to practising by creating reverse outlines for my posts and other people’s writing, I might find it useful to tweak Emacs for reverse outlining. I could write a function that automatically structures paragraphs into list items, and another function that extracts the paragraphs from the outline. Hmm…

3. Outlining link-heavy posts or summary posts

This is one step up from posts that deal with a single thought.

It can be challenging to write a blog post that links to lots of other blog posts. I find myself wondering where I want to go into more detail, how to avoid restating so much, how to bridge the different topics, and how to reconcile various types of writing.

I find outlines helpful for thinking about the structure of the post.

  • Should I bring in background information and then focus on a single question, exploring that in the body of the post?
  • Are the links tangential to the post, pointers for further exploration?
  • Am I trying to explain something to someone, and can I use links to let them dive down to the level of detail they want?

Outlines help me keep track of possible ideas to add and how to connect the different topics.

I write many posts that use links for background information or tangents, and the process for these is similar to the one for outlining a single blog post.

I don’t write many summary posts, though, and that’s something that I could practice. To do this well, I could pick more things that people want to learn (such as Emacs and Org) and write high-level overviews that link to more details.

One of the things getting in my way when it comes to working on summary posts, I think, is that it’s easy to pick the immediate benefit of moving myself forward a little, over the long-term benefit of teaching others (whom I could eventually learn from too). I can remind myself that I have plenty of time to write those exploratory posts, and that writing summary posts helps me consolidate, test, and share what I know.

4. Outlining larger resources and books

This is quite a few steps up from writing summary posts. I am not at all good at this yet, and will probably take a few years (at least!) to get the hang of it.

I practised a little this year by:

I tend to focus on writing the parts that are most interesting for me, so outlines sometimes make me feel guilty about the gaps. It turns out that working with existing material or committing to small chunks helps me get around challenges with motivation. I also do much better developing things in the open, getting feedback from people and revising things on the fly.

I’m looking forward to practising with 12-week courses, which make sense as the next small step to take.

5. Outlines for lifelong learning

Outlines can help with more than books and blog posts. I think they can help me learn overall, too. I think they might give me a way to place what I’m learning in context, connect things with other things I’ve learned or that I’m working on learning, capture threads that I’m not planning to investigate at the moment, and let me follow up with those threads when I want to revisit them.

I periodically update my learning plans, but I could give this more attention. Most of my learning notes are in my other Org files: rough notes by date in my journal, blog posts by topic in my index, outlines for things to write about in my sharing outline, and a high-level overview of evil plans.

There’s probably a better way to do this – perhaps incorporating my learning outline into my weekly and monthly review? I haven’t quite figured out how to combine past, present, and future in outlines in a way that makes sense to me while still making it useful to other people, like the way my blog index is useful because it’s not cluttered with other irrelevant points. Hmm.

Next steps

I hadn’t realized it before writing this post, but writing summaries and tiny guides (post-length, not book-length) would be a good in-between step for learning more about outlining before trying to tackle larger projects like books. A 12-week course of short tips might be interesting to do, too.

If you’re curious, you can find the outline for this post at https://gist.github.com/a69de5549d66694b387d . =)

How about you? What are the specific sub-skills you’re working on, and how?

Improving my evil plans for Emacs

Mwahahaha. My evil plans are yielding results, or at least that’s the impression I get because I’m learning so much from people who tell me that they found my blog helpful years ago. Even more recent experiments bear fruit: punchagan checked out Memacs because of my Emacs Chat with Karl Voit, and ended up writing a blog post about using the Emacs profiler.

2015-01-17 My Evil Plans for Emacs are yielding results -- index card #emacs #sharing

2015-01-17 My Evil Plans for Emacs are yielding results – index card #emacs #sharing

This makes me curious: What am I doing right, and how can I do it even better?

Looking at my Emacs posts, it seems I mostly write about figuring things out (and occasionally about cool things I’ve come across). People like the enthusiasm, and they sometimes pick up cool ideas too. The Emacs Hangouts and Emacs Chats are my way of working around my limitations; I don’t particularly like travel and I’m not up to organizing in-person meetups, but virtual meetups let me reach out to more people (and we can record the conversations more easily, too).

What are my goals?

  • I want to get better at using Emacs, because it’s useful and it tickles my brain
  • I want to help more people become intermediate and advanced users of Emacs, because then I get to learn from them (and also Emacs thrives as a community). I can do this by:
    • Showing people the benefits and possibilities of customization
    • Working out loud, showing my thought processes and the tools/libraries I use
    • Helping people develop a good mindset and handy skills
    • Sharing little tips and neat functions

How can I get even better at helping the Emacs community?

2014-04-26 Helping the Emacs community #emacs

2014-04-26 Helping the Emacs community #emacs

I really like the way (or emacs has daily Emacs snippets and Rubikitch describes Emacs packages in Japanese. I think I’ll slowly ramp up from once-a-weekish Emacs posts to maybe twice or three times a week. I have more posts already scheduled, but I just spread them out so that my non-geek readers don’t get overwhelmed.

Guides

Because I’m interested in things that tend to be idiosyncratic (workflows, customizations, etc.), I have a hard time making clear recommendations or putting tips into logical order. That’s probably why I do a lot more “thinking out loud”-type posts instead. I can experiment with identifying who might find a tip useful, extract the tips from my thinking-out-loud explorations, and gradually build up sets of related tips that way.

2015-01-16 Hmm – not guides but explorations – index card #sharing #packaging

I did actually manage to put together one guide (How to Read Lisp and Tweak Emacs) and half of another A Baby Steps Guide to Managing Your Tasks With Org. The sketches for How to Learn Emacs and Tips for Learning Org Mode are high-level guides, too.

Microhabits

I’ve been going back to the basics, working on developing even better Emacs microhabits. I’ve focused on two so far: abbreviating text and switching windows.I think there’s plenty of space to improve even in terms of taking advantage of what’s already out there (with minimal configuration along the lines of setting variables and keyboard shortcuts). And then there are even bigger opportunities to improve through customization and Emacs Lisp.

Helping people directly

I’ve mentioned coaching a few times. Bastien Guerry and a few other folks offer coaching as a service. Me, I’m not particularly familiar with the kinds of issues people run into or are curious about (ex: Mac OS X, programming mode setup). I’m mostly curious about workflow, and I’m happy to talk to people about that. It could be a good source of ideas for blog posts.

2015-01-08 Imagining coaching or guiding others -- index card

2015-01-08 Imagining coaching or guiding others – index card

When I ran my Google Helpouts experiments, I turned many of those tips into blog posts. I think that would be even more effective if people wrote up those tips themselves (it’ll reinforce their learning and it will bring them into the community), so I’ve been playing with the idea of strongly encouraging or even requiring write-ups.

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward -- #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

2015-01-15 What if I required people to pay it forward – #workingoutloud #sharing #teaching

Unrealistic, but one can dream. Or one can focus on helping people who are already sharing their questions and ideas in blog posts or discussion forums, so that’s another approach. There’s no shortage of questions, that’s for sure.

Hangouts

I like Emacs Hangouts more than one-on-one coaching. Hangouts are public and recorded automatically, so people can learn from them even if no one has posted notes. It’s shaping up to be a wonderful peer-coaching sort of thing, which is good because I don’t have to be so worried about not being able to help at all. I wonder what this would be like with a bit of a mastermind group structure; maybe we each pick a microhabit or idea to work on for the month (or for two weeks), we help each other out, and then we report back at the next one. That way, there’s casual conversation and discovery, but there’s also purpose and motivation.

2015-01-08 Imagining Emacs hangouts - index card

2015-01-08 Imagining Emacs hangouts – index card

2015-01-16 Emacs community -- index card #emacs

2015-01-16 Emacs community – index card #emacs

Connecting with more parts of the Emacs community

Evil-mode users are a growing part of the Emacs community. Maybe I should try it out to get a better sense of what the experience is like for people who are coming into Emacs via evil-mode. Besides, composability might be an interesting mental tool to add to my toolkit.

2015-01-18 Thinking about evil-mode and Emacs -- index card #emacs

2015-01-18 Thinking about evil-mode and Emacs – index card #emacs

Wrapping up

Maybe I can get better at helping the Emacs community by:

  • Focusing on those micro-habits and sharing what I learn (good for helping intermediate users develop a better appreciation of Emacs)
  • Playing with more workflow improvements and sharing them
  • Writing about how to tinker with popular packages like Org
  • Reaching out through blog comments and Emacs Hangouts to help people learn (in a publicly recorded way)
  • Bringing out what people know through Emacs Hangouts and Emacs Chats (especially if people know cool things but haven’t gotten around to writing about them)

Helping me get better at helping the Emacs community (my selfish reason: so that I learn more from people) can also support your evil plans (your selfish reason: so that you can learn more from me and from other people). Any suggestions? Tell me what I’m doing right and should do more of / better at, or tell me about somewhat adjacent things that are easy to do – low-hanging fruit! =)

Minimizing upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes

When drawing without rules or grid lines, you might find your writing skew a little upwards or downwards. I tend to skew upwards, like the way I do in the image below:

2014-11-12 What are the things I want to learn more quickly, and what would that look like?

2014-11-12 What are the things I want to learn more quickly, and what would that look like?

Minimizing skew gives you a more polished sketchnote, and you don’t end up with awkward space at the upper right or bottom right corner. It’s usually better to correct for this while drawing, since rotating images can result in fuzziness or the need to move things around to fit.

Here are some general tips for minimizing skew.

In general, it helps if you write narrower columns of text, since skew becomes more noticeable the longer your lines get. If you write in narrow columns or with short phrases, you can correct for skew by making part of the next line a little larger.

If you want, you can also mix angles so that the variety is an intentional part of your design.

If you draw on small sheets of paper or in notebooks, you can:

  • Rotate the paper so that it’s perpendicular to your usual writing angle. With experience, you’ll get a sense of how much you normally skew and how much you need to rotate what you’re drawing on in order to compensate for that.
  • Look at the edges of the paper as a guide. If you write your first line while looking at the top edge of your paper, you might find it easier to keep that perpendicular to the edge. Then you can use that as the guide for the next line, and so on.
  • Look at everything as a whole. Every so often, take a step back and look at your drawing in progress. This will help you spot skew, imbalance, and other things you can tweak while you’re drawing.
  • Draw with a guide sheet underneath your paper. If your paper is thin enough, you might be able to see lines or grids printed on a sheet slipped underneath what you’re drawing on. If so, you can use it as an invisible guide.
  • Consider using paper with very light grids or lines on it. You can leave the grid or lines as is, or you might be able to remove the grid or lines after scanning.

If you draw on large-scale rolls of paper, you can:

  • Stand up straight and use your body as a guide. With practice, you can get the hang of drawing perpendicularly to your body. Good posture helps. Of course, when you tape up your paper, make sure that it’s parallel to the floor.
  • Look at the top or bottom edge of the paper as a guide. Looking at a straight line while writing can help you write in a straight line too.
  • Step back and look at everything. This is a good time to check for balance, skew, and other things you can fix while drawing.

If you draw on a tablet or on a computer, writing in straight lines is much easier. If your drawing program supports layers, you can use one layer to show a light grid while you draw on another layer. This also helps you keep your sizes consistent even if you’re working zoomed in. Lock your grid layer so that you don’t accidentally draw on it. I use a dot grid when sketching. You can download the template I use, if you want.

Hope that helps you minimize skew in your sketches!

Drawing thoughts on index cards

I’ve got quite a backlog of posts I want to publish, but I’ll squeeze this one in first. I want to think about how I can make the most of this new old (2011!) index card habit, and whether I should reconsider that voluntary bottleneck of publishing one post a day.

For the past two weeks, I’ve drawn at least five index cards each day. (You can find them on Flickr.) Each card explores a single thought. I like the way this lets me briefly capture what I’m curious about. I’ve included many of them in blog posts, grouping several thoughts into a larger chunk that’s easier to link to.

Still, at the present rate, my monthly review for January will link to well over 150 sketches. Perhaps I’ll change the monthly review section to list only the sketches that haven’t made it into blog posts yet. I’ve been keeping a digital equivalent of the roughly-sorted piles of index cards on my desk. It helps me see growing clusters of ideas and choose ones I want to develop with additional sketches or summarize into blog posts.

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory -- index card #writing

2015-01-14 Projecting my writing trajectory – index card #writing

Also, at the present rate of writing 1-3 blog posts a day (except for Thursdays, when I focus on consulting, and the weekends, when I focus on household life), I will keep accumulating scheduled posts. At some point, this will become unwieldy. It doesn’t make sense to schedule posts a year in advance. Even a backlog of three months seems too disconnected.

I can spend less time writing, but I’ve firmly wired it into the way I learn, so that’s hard. Alternatively, I could spend more time writing, developing thoughts over more time and packing denser experiences into a post. This approach might work.

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory -- index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

2015-01-14 Projecting my trajectory – index card #writing #sharing #pipeline

I can also get ideas out in other ways. My blog is the main archive I trust, but I can give myself permission to share one-off sketches on Twitter. For example, this sketch about keeping your drink safe from cats: it’s not quite a blog post and I don’t think I’ll develop the thought further, but it might be okay to share it on its own.

So, if I write blog posts for the thoughts that are already developed and tweets for the one-offs that won’t be developed further, that leaves the ideas that are waiting to be developed. They wait because I’m still figuring things out, or because they aren’t quite connected to other thoughts, or because my attention has moved on to other things. In Toyota Production System terms, they are muda – waste because of waiting or possible over-production.

I want to do better. What are some ways I can improve at this?

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards -- index card #thinking #drawing

2015-01-16 Reflecting on reflecting with index cards – index card #thinking #drawing

 

2015-01-13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively -- index card #drawing

2015.01.13 How can I do morning index cards more effectively – index card #drawing

One way to reduce waste is to reduce quantity. Is five a good number for index cards, or should I reduce it to three? I think five works well for me. It forces me to dig deeper into a topic or to capture some of the other thoughts I have floating around.

Another way to reduce the waste in this process is to be more focused. If I think about and articulating 2-3 key questions for the week, that might guide most of my index cards. But then interesting ideas come up during the week, and I draw lots of cards for those as well. I turn many of my index cards into blog posts on the same day, so within each day, there’s focus. If I try to use any “extra” index cards to build on a previously-drawn thought, that helps me connect.

A third way is to reduce my attachment and let things go. Perhaps I might decide that after I make a monthly index of unblogged cards, I’ll clear that index and archive the physical cards. That way, each month starts fresh, but I still have the ability to go back and look for those roughly-categorized cards in case I have an idea that’s strongly connected to that. I don’t have to worry about visualizing this archive, tracking my statistics, using all the dangling threads, or getting to 100% use.

So that can help me deal with index cards, but what about blog posts? The benefits of limiting my blog to one post a day are:

  • I occasionally add to or revise a scheduled post, especially with feedback from sharing drafts
  • I can schedule different kinds of posts for a week, turning my sprint-type learning into a variety that helps readers
  • People don’t get as overwhelmed (although daily posts are already more frequent than most other blogs do, and I’m pleasantly boggled that this is the most frequent option chosen by people subscribing to the mailing list)

The downsides are:

  • If I write something useful, whoever searches for it while it’s in hidden draft mode won’t come across it, but I guess that’s almost the same as if I hadn’t written it at all
  • It delays the feedback cycle
  • Sometimes posts get out of date

One option is to go back to publishing two posts during the weekend: a weekly review, and maybe another thinking-out-loud/reflection post, since that’s the one that has the most surplus.

Another option is to post two times a day. I’m a little less keen on that, although it might be doable if I can keep my main archive but split off specific, lower-traffic, topic-focused views that people can subscribe to.

A third option is to write longer posts. I find my constraints on chunk size to be helpful, so maybe not.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll publish two posts during weekends, and then revisit this when I find myself scheduling three months out… =) Suggestions?

Think more effectively by typing to yourself

Whenever I need to think, I often switch to my text editor and start typing. Whether I’m coding, debugging, making decisions, or simply figuring things out, I find that typing helps a lot.

Typing keeps a record of your thoughts, which is invaluable when it comes to untangling complexities or picking up where you left off after interruptions. Typing feels more socially acceptable than talking to yourself out loud. You don’t interrupt other people’s thoughts. You might even look like you’re doing serious work – which thinking is, but it’s sometimes less obvious when you’re just staring into the distance. You feel a sense of progress, and you can stop yourself from endlessly retreading the same topics.

I sketch my thoughts on paper if I want to play around with visuals or if I want the big picture, but typing feels more useful for having internal conversation, including links and references, and covering lots of ground.

I type at ~120 words per minute, which lets me keep up with my thoughts. I think faster than this, or at least I think I do. But when I think without typing, I often feel my mind jitter between topics like a squirrel on a sugar rush. Handwriting is too slow, talking out loud too ephemeral. Typing is just right. It slows me down just enough to keep my thoughts coherent.

(And really, when I measured how fast I type when I’m copying something and how fast I type when I’m coming up with something from scratch, the result was clear: thinking is the slow part of this process, not typing.)

I often use typing as a way of talking to myself, much like you would talk to someone over social media or instant messaging. I ask myself questions. I explore my uncertainties. I tell myself things that I know or that I want to find out. I put on different hats, adopt different perspectives. I make progress, and I can see that progress. Sometimes it almost feels like I’m simply transcribing a conversation that I’m observing. I can focus on typing and let my thoughts go where they want.

Typing lets me write and think non-linearly. I jump around, fleshing out points, following up on thoughts. Sometimes I organize my thoughts into outlines or link between ideas. As I type, I notice interesting questions or ideas and mark them as TODOs. I can flag them without losing my train of thought or worrying that I’ll forget about them.

At the end, when I’ve written my way towards understanding or resolution, I can step back to get a better look at the choices I’ve considered and my reasons for choosing. I’ve got something that I can extract TODOs from or even neaten up into a blog post. I keep the rough notes in my journal, which is part structured review and part brain-dump of whatever I’m thinking about. That way, I can review these notes, months later, to improve my understanding, see if I made the right decision, and think about what else I would like to learn or do next.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my journal entries:

What’s good to do now, after the sketchnote?

I should focus on other things, I think – limiting flow to encourage balance and planning ahead instead. Besides, I already have three sketchnotes queued. I don’t need to draw my way into February, and I can learn from people’s feedback in order to improve the next sketch. So it’s okay to spread it out to one sketch every other day or so. I’ll try a two-week publishing frequency first, and then I’ll up it to weekly if I manage to queue enough. (Editorial Calendar is handy!)

I think it would be interesting to tweak Emacs to make this sketchnoting workflow even more effective.

How would I do that?

Well, for starters, I can write some Emacs Lisp that copies my basic template, renames it appropriately, adds the date, adds the property, and links to the file. Wouldn’t that be cool?

I wonder if i can drive the redirection from Emacs Lisp as well. I don’t have to do it in WordPress, after all. I can get a snippet that I can copy and paste into the Nginx site configuration for sketchedbooks. Mwahahaha.

Typing to yourself is even more effective when you’re trying to write or debug code. I use Org Mode for Emacs, so it’s easy for me to include links to StackOverflow answers that I’m trying to apply, source blocks with code I’m experimenting with, descriptions of approaches I want to try… If the comic “This is why you shouldn’t interrupt a programmer” resonates with you, then you know how useful it is to have notes on what you’re trying to figure out.

If you’re frustrated when you can’t pin down your thoughts, if you find yourself circling topics but not making much progress, consider typing to yourself. If you don’t type fast enough and you find yourself getting annoyed, invest the time in learning how to type faster so that you can reduce the friction. If you type fast enough to keep up with your thoughs, try using a conversational approach, talking to yourself with different perspectives. Might be a handy way to think more effectively. Good luck, and tell me how that works out for you!

Related:

Deliberately making sense

When it comes to connecting the dots between ideas, would you rather be methodical or inspired?

We prize the flashes of genius, the intuitive spark. We idolize inventors who bring together ideas from different fields in a brilliant moment. The tortoise wins in children’s books, but history belongs to hares.

I would rather be methodical, I think. I’d rather get better at taking lots of small steps instead of counting on big leaps. I plan assuming mediocrity, not talent, and then I try to build towards excellence.

Just relax and the ideas will come to you, people sometimes say. Yes, I do some of that, but I’m more interested in conscious, deliberate action. The sparks will come when they want, but in the meantime, why not get better at preparing the groundwork or making progress? I think you can get better at making sense of things, coming up with ideas, seeing gaps. This is a skill you can develop. You’re not limited to waiting for a fickle muse or wishing you’d been born a hare.

The aha! moments of unconscious connection seem to come more readily when you keep more thoughts in your head, because you have more opportunities to connect the dots. I try to keep very little in my head, as I’m both forgetful and distractable. (I suppose this self-image is something I can change, but it has useful consequences, so I keep it.) I write down as much as I can, which frees me up to remember only hooks and summaries that let me look up more information as I need it.

In fact, I often choose slow exploration instead of a whirlwind of insight. I’d rather take notes as I think instead of jumping from one topic to the other, even if observation changes the nature of thoughts. After all, there are plenty of times when I can think but I can’t write, so I can let my mind meander then. When I’m near a computer or notepad, I may as well take advantage of those tools. If I can capture a thought, then I can remember it, and this helps me build up knowledge over time.

Instead of relying on my brain to trigger an aha! moment out of the blue, I usually reflect on a single topic and see what other associations it brings up. I might link to other blog posts or sketches, include book excerpts, or dig through my private notes for more thoughts. Most of these reflections take small steps forward. Others bring together two or more streams of thought.

I’m often limited by my forgetfulness. I may remember a few relevant references, and I search my blog and my notes for more. However, I don’t always cast a wide enough net. There’s a difference between knowing you’ve forgotten something, and not even thinking that you’ve forgotten something. The first is annoying, but the second is a bigger missed opportunity.

The best way around the associative limitations of my brain seems to be other people. I love it when people tell me how something I’ve written reminds them of a book or someone else’s blog post (sometimes one I’d read and forgotten, sometimes completely new to me), or even how it reminds them of another post of mine.

I can’t count on people to suggest the missing links for most things, though. Fortunately, computers are getting better at suggesting associations. Search engines help when you know what you’re looking for. When you don’t, other tools can analyze what you’re working on and suggest items that are similar in content. I often use Amazon’s book recommendations to find other books I should read. I’ve played around with Remembrance Agent before, and have often envied Devonthink’s ability to suggest related notes. Evernote just released a new Context feature that’s supposed to do something similar. I prefer Emacs for writing anyway, and I don’t have something quite like that set up yet.

The more manual approach of keeping a categorical index of my blog posts lets me get a quick overview. When a category grows too large, I usually break it down into smaller groups. I also take advantage of the juxtaposition of posts in my blog archive when I do my monthly and yearly reviews. Taking a step back helps me see the patterns in my thinking.

Other aspects of connecting the dots also lend themselves to deliberate practice, focusing on one sub-skill at a time. For example, when I read a book, I can practise taking a few moments to place it in the context of other books I’ve read about the topic. With which other books does it agree, and where does it diverge? Thinking about this process lets me isolate and get better at one specific aspect at a time, and that helps me improve as a whole.

Another benefit of using explicit processes to help me make sense of things is that other people can try what I’m learning. I care less about idiosyncratic leaps dependent on individual talent and more about improvements that other people can experiment with. For me, it makes less sense to tell someone, “Be more creative!” and more sense to say something like, “Forced associations are a way to enhance your creativity” and share examples. If I think about how I do things–how my processes are similar to others’, and where it diverges–I can describe them to other people, who can pick up ideas and give me feedback.

So that’s why I choose to be a slow thinker, making sense through process rather than intuition. But I’m getting faster at slow thinking, and that’s opening up more possibilities. I grew up speed-reading and touch-typing, which is a good pair of advantages. To that, I’ve added programming, automation, writing, and different types of note-taking. I’m working on getting the hang of outlining, indexing, reviewing, and synthesizing. There’s a lot to learn, but I’m confident that I can keep improving.

I love swapping notes with other people who’ve made similar choices–the slow thinkers, the methodical ones, the ones who have thought about how they do things and how they think about how they do things. I’m not looking for fast fixes or magic solutions, just ideas for little experiments to try.

Hares might make for better stories, but tortoises have more tricks to share.

Possibly related:

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow feels a little related to this thought too, but it’s not quite the right fit.

Do you have any favourite tricks for slow thinking? Are there any tricks I use that you’d like to learn more about?