Category Archives: writing

Meta-post: Revising my post on emptying one’s cup

I’d been thinking about my blog post on “Getting started with Emacs? Empty your cup. There was something that didn’t quite feel right about the original draft.
flickr
2015-01-16 Tempering advice to Emacs beginners -- index card #emacs #beginner #teaching

2015-01-16 Tempering advice to Emacs beginners – index card #emacs #beginner #teaching

Since I’m also getting used to asking for help, I asked folks on Twitter to help me figure this out. @wobher suggested splitting it up into two approaches: diving in at the deep end, and wading in gradually. In an e-mail, Mike Hall suggested simplifying the post, sketching out what the post was trying to do and how that might be spread over several chunks.

Reflecting on the post some more, I realized that not only was Mike right that the post trying to do too much, but I also felt weird about the tone of the post. It didn’t feel… sympathetic enough. I’d written it in response to someone’s frustrated e-mail. But if I imagined myself in the same situation – annoyed with Emacs, tempted to switch back to a tool that I was more used to – I didn’t feel like that post would help me either learn Emacs or feel better. In fact, it would probably feel worse. “You need to empty your cup” almost feels like “You’re learning this the wrong way,” and attacks put people on the defensive.

Part of this challenge, I think, is that I’m more used to encouraging people who respond like I do. When I’m faced with something I have a hard time figuring out, I tend to blame myself, and so I look for ways to get better. When I meet people who struggle with learning Emacs and who might be tempted to translate that into an “I’m just not good enough to learn this,” I share what works for me: breaking it down into small chunks and learning those, building both skill and confidence at the same time. My cup is not full at the beginning, but I sometimes worry about it being too small.

2015-01-18 Digging into my thoughts about emptying one's cup -- #emacs #writing

2015-01-18 Digging into my thoughts about emptying one’s cup – #emacs #writing

I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with people’s frustration. I think there are times when Emacs is just not a good fit for someone, and that if they understand that, they might still be open to revisiting Emacs instead of writing it off entirely.

2015-01-12 When is Emacs a good fit -- index card #emacs #beginner

2015-01-12 When is Emacs a good fit – index card #emacs #beginner

But I know a little bit of that frustration with one’s slowness, so maybe that’s how I can connect. After all, I have the same flaws.

So I revised the post, cutting out the distracting parts and adding a little identification. The current draft feels a little better now: less like a distracted hamster trying to cram ideas into its pouches, less like a white-bearded sensei handing down wisdom from a remote mountain. I have a slightly better grasp on the weird feeling when a post is trying to do too much, and that other weird feeling when a post creates too much distance.

If you have more suggestions for improving that post (or any of these other posts), please share them. Your perspective can point out something in my blind spot or help me clarify what I really mean. There’s so much I have yet to learn about writing and sharing, and I hope you’ll help me with your feedback!

(By the way, can anyone recommend a service for sharing drafts and revisions publicly so that people can see previous revisions and word-level differences with arbitrary commits? Sometimes I use Github’s diff or git diff --color-words, but the matching isn’t always correct. I can’t figure out how to get Draftin.com to do this nicely. Maybe I’ll just have to get used to writing one sentence per line, like I’ve seen some Org Mode users do. Or maybe it’s time to use the one-Org-file-for-post pattern that other people do, so that’s easier to preview and diff…)

Learning from artists: making studies of ideas

When people are starting out with sketchnoting, it’s helpful to remember that sketchnoting’s about “ideas, not art” (as Mike Rohde says in The Sketchnote Handbook). It’s easy to get intimidated by the visually-impressive sketchnotes people post, so the reminder is useful.

I’ve been using sketchnotes to explore my own thoughts instead of recording other people’s content. I like flipping things around, so that got me thinking: What can I learn from the way artists work, and how can I apply that to learning and drawing?

Here are a few ideas:

2015-01-05 What can I learn from artists about learning -- index card
2015.01.05 What can I learn from artists about learning – index card

  • Collect: Artists collect inspiration. They fill sketchbooks, make moodboards, clip reference photos, and so on.
  • Emulate: Artists develop their skills by emulating masters.
  • Observe: Artists draw what’s there, not what they think is there. They also analyze the techniques other artists use and the effect of these techniques on the piece.
  • Imagine: Artists aren’t limited to what they see. They can draw what isn’t there. They can draw the essence of a thing.
  • Transform: Great art transforms the way people see.
  • Experiment: Artists try different techniques and styles to figure out what works for them.
  • Craft: Artists refine their work and improve their tools.
  • Sketch: Artists do quick studies to try several views or focus on different aspects before making the commitment of paint on canvas.

I was particularly curious about this idea of making studies or sketching things in order to experiment with different views or to focus on small parts before composing the whole, so I dug into that further.

2015-01-05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts -- index card
2015.01.05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts – index card

The limits I want to address are:

  • When I start with a large sheet, I sometimes peter out halfway through because I’ve dug to the bottom of that idea (at least for now, with the tools and time I have).
  • If I work with large sheets, it’s not as easy to keep all the relevant ones in view at the same time. I need to summarize more frequently.
  • I often zig-zag between topics, leaving sheets unfinished. Half-sheets are awkward to post.

2015-01-05 Quick idea studies -- index card
2015.01.05 Quick idea studies – index card

Using index cards for “studies” of an idea might be a useful technique. Each card is a small chunk, quick to capture, complete in itself, and yet linkable with others. The cards are easier to rearrange. If each card represents one idea or summary, I can keep more ideas in view.

There are trade-offs, naturally. Sometimes the desire to fill a large sheet makes me to sit with a question longer, letting me discover more. Large sheets gives me the ability to draw and describe relationships between ideas. If I have many small chunks, I need to invest more time in summarizing and filing in order to make the most of them.

2015-01-05 Managing my idea pipeline -- index card
2015.01.05 Managing my idea pipeline – index card

Artists might make studies in preparation for a specific work, or they might make studies just because. If I have a specific question in mind, it’s easy to sketch my way around the topic and then organize those thoughts into a whole. I’m not as good at managing fragments over an extended period of time, although I’m getting better at linking to and building on previous blog posts.

What can I learn from the way artists keep working on something? Artists might work on a piece for weeks or more, keeping it visible on an easel, taking a step back from time to time, looking at it in different light. They might have several such pieces on the go. I still prefer publishing early instead of waiting until something is a masterpiece. Feedback is great, and even small chunks can be surprisingly useful.

If I improve the way I manage my studies, though, I might get better at refining ideas. I think it’s like the way an artists might clip photos or sketch things that have caught their eyes, and then return to that inspiration years later when they think of something that needs it.

Speaking of archives: I’ve written about index cards before as a way to develop thoughts (2014; much like this post), plan my life (2007), and prevent boredom by writing (2005!). I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I’m getting somewhere. What can I add to this based on this reflection on artists?

I don’t do enough zoomed-in focus or variations on a theme yet, I think. Studies aren’t just about capturing the gist of a thing so that you can reproduce it later in your studio. They let you minutely observe a specific aspect, and they let you experiment with different ways to portray something.

What would that look like, if I could do it really well? For observation, I might have index cards that focus on sub-topics, like the way I’ve built up this post from the sub-questions in the illustrations. For variety, I might experiment with visual vocabulary and metaphors, improving my creative expression.

There’s also something to be said about sheer practice in exploring thoughts, like the way artists might sketch for sketching’s sake. James Altucher recommends coming up with ten ideas a day (also related: his post from 2012). I’ve been experimenting with setting myself a minimum of five index cards a day. I write the dates for all of them before I start on the first one so that the desire to fill in the blanks pushes me to complete all of them. This usually leads to even more cards as the first set of ideas sparks more questions.

Actually, the challenge isn’t generating ideas. Artists never run out of things to sketch – they can look around and find more! I have an archive of ideas I haven’t exhausted and a cornucopia that generates more every day.

2015-01-05 Thinking about my archive -- index card
2015.01.05 Thinking about my archive – index card

This leads me back to skills that I think might be good to borrow from the art world and adapt to what I want:

  • Observing what’s in front of me – really seeing it, capturing it better, evoking its essence
  • Looking at something from different angles, and developing opinions about the alternatives I can pick – like the way artists learn about composition and light
  • Retrieving subsets of my archive – like the way artists might pull out the relevant studies or reference photos when they’re working on a piece
  • Comprehending the whole – the way people can step back and talk about impressionism, Picasso’s Blue Period, and other things that require zooming out

What would masters of this be like, and how can I emulate them? I think of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies, asking and observing. I think of writers who name and describe things, and in so doing, they help me see better – the way the light behind an object separates it from the background. I may never draw or write a thousandth as well as they do, but I can grow through emulating the way they slow down and pay attention, the way they turn things over and over instead of rushing on.

Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness

I think I’ve written about something before, but I can’t find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I’ve tried countless keywords and synonyms. I’ve skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven’t found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else’s post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It’s a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you’re better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it’s better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you’re learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you’ve moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn’t mention blogging at all. “Share while you learn” didn’t quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don’t have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

In fact, I took closing loops one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn’t stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn’t demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forgot the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it, quoting an ancient Egyptian king in Plato’s The Phaedrus:

“…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I’ve forgotten the words; and now I can’t find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I’ve stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can’t find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I’m doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn’t enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people’s explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I’ll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I’m looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It’s an acceptable trade-off, I think. I’ll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I’ve probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Me, I’ve been re-reading this year’s blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I’ve come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I’m inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who’ve come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.

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?

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: