Category Archives: writing

Working with fragmented thoughts

Some days it’s hard to hold a single thought and dive deeper into it. Sometimes it’s because I get distracted by other shiny thoughts. Sometimes my interest peters out. Sometimes I bump into the limit of what I can think about on my own, without experiments or research.

I’ve come to really like the way index cards let me capture ideas that aren’t quite blog-post-sized. Technically, I haven’t drawn a physical index card since early February, but the digital index cards I draw are calibrated to that scale.

Still, some days it takes me a really long time to draw five index cards. I catch myself wondering if I’ve picked a good question. Sometimes it takes a while to find the next step in the thought. Sometimes it’s easier to let my attention drift to other things.

On the other hand, there are some days when my mind is overflowing with little thoughts. It’s pretty easy for me to switch to another index card, scribble down part of a thought, and then come back to it later.

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing -- index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing – index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

I’ve been figuring out a better way to work with fragmented thoughts. I tried flipping my habit by writing before drawing. Sometimes that’s a good way to clear my backlog, but sometimes it means I don’t get around to drawing.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with quickly capturing text fragments – a chunk even smaller than index cards. A few taps on my phone bring up a single-line prompt. Whatever I type into that dialog gets saved to a timestamped file named something like yyyy-mm-dd timestamp - keyword.txt, and that’s synchronized over Dropbox to my computer. I have some code in Emacs to read those files and add them to a date-based outline, and I’ve included the code at the end of this blog post just in case it’s handy.

I’ve found myself capturing more and more of these snippets these days. When a possibly interesting thought occurs to me while I’m walking around, it’s easy enough to take a moment to unlock my phone and add a note. My Emacs-based workflow fits me a bit better than the Evernote-based one I used to use, but that’s the benefit of customization.

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts -- index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts – index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

There’s still the challenge of bringing those thoughts together, of course. The text titles and fragment keywords are often enough to remind me of what I was thinking and how the different thoughts might be connected to each other, and I can always open the sketches in a new window if I want to refer to them. I have an ever-growing outline of sketches that haven’t yet been chunked into blog posts, and now I have a chronological tree of these little fragments. I have another bit of Emacs Lisp that lets me quickly get a montage of the sketches listed in part of my outline. Maybe I could use that more often – perhaps even randomly picking an outline node, coming up with a montage, and prompting me to either glue the chunks together into a blog post or draw whatever’s missing.

So this is what the index card workflow looks like as a whole:

2015-05-08b My index card management system -- index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

2015-05-08b My index card management system – index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

and then the text fragments feed into the beginning of that thinking process.

It’s been almost six months of thinking with index cards. I sometimes feel pretty fragmented, but there are confounding factors so I don’t know whether that’s a side-effect of this way of thinking. But I think it’s unlikely that my past self was that much more coherent and better at concentrating. Remembering what it was like to write my notes before and what it’s like to write my notes now, I think I like this way a lot. I feel like I’m getting better at writing about the small things, not just the big things, and I’m gradually getting better at tying things together.

What might be some interesting next steps for this system?

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards -- index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards – index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

It might be cool to visualize how much has been chunked and what’s still isolated, in a way that’s more engaging than my outline. I’m also curious about the time separation of thoughts. For example, this post brings together four cards spread over a little more than a month, a set of connections I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow without these notes.

The fragment code I mentioned:

(defun my/read-phone-entries ()
  "Copy phone data to a summary Org file."
   (lambda (filename)
     (let ((base (file-name-base filename)) contents timestamp category encoded-time date)
       (when (string-match "^[^ ]+ [^ ]+ \\([^ ]+\\) - \\(.*\\)" base)
         (setq time (seconds-to-time (/ (string-to-number (match-string 1 base)) 1000))
               encoded-time (decode-time time)
               date (list (elt encoded-time 4) (elt encoded-time 3) (elt encoded-time 5))
               category (match-string 2 base))
           (insert-file-contents filename)
           (setq contents (s-trim (buffer-string))))
             (find-file "~/dropbox/tasker/summary.txt")
           (org-datetree-find-date-create date)
           (unless (save-excursion (re-search-forward (regexp-quote base) nil t))
             (goto-char (line-end-position))
             (insert "\n")
             (insert "**** " contents "  :" category ":\n" base "\n")
             (insert (format-time-string "[%Y-%m-%d %a %H:%M]\n" time))

             (if (member category '("Think" "Do"))
                   (org-back-to-heading t)
                   (if (looking-at org-outline-regexp) (goto-char (1- (match-end 0))))
                   (unless (looking-at org-todo-regexp)
                     (org-todo "TODO"))))
             (if (string-match "^Energy \\([0-9]\\)" contents)
                 (org-set-property "ENERGY" (match-string 1 contents)))))
         (delete-file filename))))
   (directory-files "~/dropbox/tasker/data" t "\\.txt$")))

What do I want instead of or in addition to advice roundups?

I occasionally get requests for advice to include in an “expert roundup.” It’s one of those quick content generation / search-engine optimization techniques, and often goes something like this:

  1. Cold-email a bunch of famous and not-so-famous people who likely have opinions on something.
  2. Ask them for a quick answer to a simple question. Famous people probably already have soundbites ready to go, so it’s easy for them to reply.
  3. Reach out to more people and name-drop the famous people who have already responded.
  4. Other people feel flattered to be included in that kind of company, and add their own perspectives.
  5. Paste and format the quotes, add pictures or relevant stock images, and use a list-type headline.

If you’re lucky, those people will drop by your blog, read other posts, and maybe even comment or subscribe. If you’re really lucky, they’ll link to your post (“Look! I’m featured over here!”), which is good for broadening your audience and improving your reputation with search engines. Besides, your other readers will be able to read a post that indirectly demonstrates your social capital (“I got Bigname Expert to reply to me”) while possibly offering something to think about. (Although I don’t think it’s really the lack of advice that holds people back…)

On the plus side, at least an e-mail-based soundbite survey requires a little bit more effort than making a grab-bag of quotes harvested from one of the categories of those popular quotation marks (often misattributed and almost never with source links). So there’s something to be said for that. I still prefer posts that have more of the self infused into them, though, whether they’re the products of personal research and interpretation or (better yet) personal experience and insight.

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice -- index card #blogging #advice #sharing

2015-05-13k Fleshing out advice – index card #blogging #advice #sharing

But it’s much easier to write the first two types of posts rather than the third and fourth type of post. It takes less time. It seems less self-centred. It’s more generally applicable. You could even write books following that formula.

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me -- index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

2015-05-14b How are short quotes or excerpts useful for me – index card #blogging #sharing #perspective

And if I think about it from the reader’s perspective, I can actually work to extract a little bit of value from stuff like that. Sometimes, when reading lists or blog posts, I come across an interesting name for a concept I’ve been having a hard time defining or expressing. The keywords help me search more. Other times, a short paragraph is enough to get me considering a different perspective, or thinking about the difference between what it says and what I want to say. Pithy sayings get me thinking about what makes something a memorable maxim. Noticing a collection of intriguing thoughts from one person can lead me to dig up more details on that person. And then there’s always the satisfaction of finding unexpected resonance or an authority you can enlist on your side (the more ancient, the better)…

Still, I want to see people apply the ideas and share their experiences. I want people to share what they struggled with and how they adapted things to fit their situation. Sure, it’s interesting to hear what Aristotle’s purported to have said (although that collection certainly does not include “Excellennce, then, is not an act, but a habit” – that’s Will Durant ccommenting on Aristotle), but it’s also interesting–possibly even more so–to hear what thoughts people distill from their own lives.

Most advice (especially for generic audiences) sounds pretty straightforward. Things like: Spend less than you earn. Live mindfully. Get rid of unnecessary tasks and things. But the challenge of change is hardly ever about hearing these things, is it? I think, if we want to make it easier for people to grow, it’s better to help people flesh out who they want to be, feel they can become that, and see how they can set themselves up for success and appreciate their progress.

A reflection on reading advice: I notice that I’ve grown to like books that dig into personal experience (especially if they avoid the trap of generalization) and books that interpret results from large research studies, but I feel less enlightened by books that rely on anecdotes (cherry-picked, possibly even modified). Since it seems pretty difficult to nail down reliable effects in psychological studies and it’s tempting to cherry-pick research too, that probably indicates that I should dig deeper into finding people with similarly open, experimental approaches to life, which probably means focusing on blogs rather than books. Hmm…

So that’s what I’ve been thinking as a reader. On the other side of the page, as a writer and a learner, what do I think about sharing advice?

Writing from my own life, I realize that I can hardly generalize from my life to other people’s lives: no “You should do this”, but rather, “This seems to work pretty well for me. You might want to consider it, but maybe something else will work even better for you. If so, I’d love to hear about that!” So I don’t have much in the way of generic advice that I can contribute to these advice round-ups.

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at -- index card #advice #yeahbut #different

2015-05-14a What do I do that people often balk at – index card #advice #yeahbut #different

In fact, thinking about some of the things I do that people have both expressed an interest in doing and have struggled with – even when I’m talking one-on-one with people who are half-open to the idea, it’s difficult to help them get over that first hump. Blogging, Emacs, tracking, mindsets… There’s some kind of an activation threshold. People tell me that sometimes hearing from people like me or others about what it’s like helps them resolve to go for it, but that’s not the majority of the push. Anyway, once people get past that, I like swapping notes: not really as a teacher, but as a peer.

Mm. Trade-off, but I think I can deal with it. I can write as a way to bring out the people who resonate. I can skip doling out advice until much later (if at all). Questions from other people are good ways to prompt further reflection, and ongoing blog relationships with people who post their thoughts are even better. It might take time to build that, but it’ll probably be interesting!

Shifts in my writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squirrel brain

I’m dealing with squirrel brain at the moment. It’s different from fuzzy brain in that squirrel brain feels like I have lots of thoughts that don’t yield much depth or connection, while fuzzy brain is like finding it difficult to think or concentrate in the first place.

(This is cool! I’m developing the ability to distinguish among suboptimal states, like the ones I sketched in September last year. Squirrel brain is a little like “buzzy,” I guess, but it has a slightly different feel to it. More diffuse, but not diffuse-as-in-fog. More like scattered, maybe? A different scattered state would be if I knew there were interesting sets of thoughts to explore, but I was too jittery to follow one through. This one is more like… I’ve got the seeds of possibly-interesting ideas, but they haven’t grown enough yet.)

Anyway, since I’m probably not the only one who’s dealt with squirrel brain and I will most likely run into it again in the future, here are some notes. The self-compassionate approach of accepting it is what it is seems to work out better than trying to push myself to come up with something deep and insightful.

2015-04-13c Squirrel brain -- #squirrel-brain

2015-04-13c Squirrel brain – #squirrel-brain

Come to think of it, my favourite writing times are when I’ve been noodling my way around a topic for a while (through sketches and other blog posts), so when I write, I can see the connections, and I can share results from little experiments. So this here – this squirrel brain – might just be because I’m wrapping up some things that have occupied my brain for a while. (Maybe I should do more of the mental equivalent of succession planting…) Anyway, if I keep finding, collecting, and organizing the jigsaw pieces of my thoughts – or, to return to the previous metaphor, planting lots of seeds – it will probably come together later on.

2015-04-13f Drawing and the squirrel brain -- index card #squirrel-brain #zettelkasten #index-card

2015-04-13f Drawing and the squirrel brain – index card #squirrel-brain #zettelkasten #index-card

Index cards work well for those. They’re small chunks, so I don’t feel like I need to think big or deep thoughts. If I make myself draw five or more index cards, I tend to find myself revisiting some thoughts, which is good. The first shallow pass clears my mind and gets things out there. Then I can see what I’ve been thinking and develop it in a second or third or fourth pass. Working digitally is great. I don’t even have to worry about wasting paper or keeping things organized for scanning.

As for writing – I feel a slight urge to be helpful and say useful things in blog posts. I tell people not to be intimidated by that in their own blogs, so I should remember to treat my blog as a personal thinking and learning tool. (If other people find value in it, that’s icing on the cake.)

From time to time, I might post more thinking-out-loud things like this. Not quite stream of consciousness… I tried dictating to my computer earlier, while I was pinning up the bias binding for my gingham top, and I think dictation makes me feel even more fragmented. Anyway, this sort of semi-stream-of-consciousness writing – launching off some drawings, trying to quickly capture an idea – that might be a way for me to work around squirrel brain. The important thing is to plant those seeds, keep collecting those jigsaw pieces, keep writing and drawing. If I forget or I let things blur together, I won’t get to those moments when things click.

Getting better at writing other-directed posts

Would you like to help me get better at helping you through blogging? I’d love to hear your feedback. =)

I’m working on writing more posts that people might find useful instead of filling every week with my ruminations. One of my challenges is that posts make sense to me (of course), but I’m sure there are many people for whom the posts don’t make sense. Sometimes there are unanswered questions, or extraneous material that I could move to a separate post. Maybe the flow doesn’t make sense to other people.

How can I learn how to step outside myself and read my writing with a stranger’s eyes? One way is to ask for help: if you can share your thoughts (both content and style) on my posts through comments or e-mail, that would be great. (Consider it an open invitation!) Another way is to pay for help, especially if I can be clear about the kind of feedback I want. (More logic than typos, please!) A third way is to develop a list of questions that I can use to evaluate my own work.

Since this list of questions is useful for both paying for assistance and editing things myself, I worked on drafting this list:

  • Title
    1. Does the post title start with a verb? Can you think of a more vivid verb to start it with?
      • Bad: Do stuff
    2. Does the post title help people decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: specific problem or tip
      • Bad: generic or mysterious post title; title not clearly related to content
  • Body
    1. Is the first paragraph focused on “you” (the reader)?
    2. Does the first paragraph or two help the reader quickly decide whether this post is relevant to them?
      • Good: Can tell right away whether this will be too introductory, too advanced, or covering something they already know
    3. Do I share my background (context, etc.) in a way that helps the reader understand what I’ve learned or how I can identify with them?
    4. Do I share a useful tip that I have researched or personally experienced?
    5. Is the next step clear for the reader?
  • How it’s said
    1. In your own words, what is the key point of this post?
    2. Does each paragraph have a key point? Do the paragraphs flow logically?
    3. Does each sentence flow logically to the one following it?
    4. Is the key point sufficiently supported by the post? What’s missing?
    5. Is there anything here that does not support the key point and that can be removed?
    6. After reading this, what questions will the reader likely have? What will they want to know next?
  • Bonus
    1. Do I include research or links to other sources (not my blog)?
    2. Are there related links, and do they look interesting or useful?
    3. What else would you suggest to improve this post?

This particular post does not count as an other-directed post. It’s me trying to figure things out. =) The other-directed version of this might be called something like “Use checklists to get better at writing posts that other people will find useful” or “Pay for perspective by hiring editors for your blog”. My other-directed posts start with a verb, and I usually schedule them for Thursdays. But if you’ve got some ideas on how I can write better, I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!

Related sketches:

2015-01-13 Evaluating posts written for others -- index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015.01.13 Evaluating posts written for others – index card #writing #questions #blogging

2015-01-11 What makes a good other-focused post -- index card #writing

2015.01.11 What makes a good other-focused post – index card #writing


Sketched Book: Write Faster, Write Better – David A. Fryxell

David A. Fryxell’s Write Faster, Write Better (2004) is a journalist’s collection of tips that might help you write faster. Fryxell focuses on eliminating waste: wasted research, wasted interviews, wasted notes, wasted words, wasted drafts. You can do this by organizing, planning ahead, keeping your focus in mind, and writing a good-enough draft the first time around (instead of revising loose drafts that run too long or circling around a never-finished perfectionist draft).

I’ve sketched the key points of the book to make them easier to remember and share. Click on the image to get a high resolution version that you can print if you want.

2014-12-14 Sketched Book - Write Faster Write Better - David A Fryxell

One of the things that I struggle with is that I often don’t have a clear idea of what I want to write when I start writing it. I don’t have a focused high-concept phrase that explains my angle and the surprise twist. I don’t have a clear outline that tells me what kind of research I need to do, who I should talk to, and how everything fits together. I don’t have an editor who’ll force me to come up with a clear concept.

Maybe I’ll get there with experience. It might be okay to do this kind of exploratory writing – a little like journaling in public – and then apply Fryxell’s techniques to extract and polish a chunk that would be useful to other people.

Curious about the book? You can get it from Amazon or other places if you like. (Affiliate link)

Like the sketch? Find more at They’re under the Creative Commons Attribution License (like the rest of my blog), so feel free to share it with people who might find this useful. Enjoy!