Category Archives: tips

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How I review my notes

I’ve been trying to figure out how to improve my processes for reviewing my notes. Writing things down and drawing things (more often now!) are great ways to remember, but imagine if I could get even better at keeping track of current information and digging up things from my archive. My weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews have been really helpful even for just the decade I’ve kept them. I think they’ll be amazing to extend over a lifetime.

My processes for reviewing info

Come to think of it, my review needs probably fall into these categories:

  • A. Open loops: I need to be able to review my notes for things I’m working on, especially if they go beyond a few pages or what my memory can hold. I can make this easier by keeping an index or map of things I’m currently thinking about so that important topics don’t fall through the cracks.
  • B. Growth / review: I like reviewing how far I’ve come, checking that against my plans and thinking about what I want to do next. Progress is hard to see day by day, so records help.
  • C. Topics I’m thinking about in depth, especially over time: I can simplify review by organizing things into larger and larger chunks, like the way that writing subroutines makes programs easier to understand and remember.
  • D. Archived information: Book notes, experiences, topics I’m not actively thinking about, and so on. I don’t refer to these regularly, although I occasionally need to dig them up. It’s great if these are publicly viewable and searchable, because then other people can look up stuff without being limited by what I remember. (Don’t ask me for book recommendations when I’m walking around; blog comments and e-mails are better channels because I can refer to my notes.)

In particular, I’m working on getting better at thinking about topics that are beyond what I can hold in my head (C). Combining mind-mapping with sketches looks like a promising approach, and making summary sketches/blog posts can help me chunk things better too.

I also want to get better at tracking decisions so that I can review them 9-12 months later (or at a suitable review date), which is one of the tips from Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself (see my sketchnote). I’ve posted decision reviews before, but it would be good to make the process more reliable. Making decision analysis part of my daily drawing practice will help with documenting larger decisions, and then I can use Evernote or Org reminders to schedule the review.

Reviewing what I’ve been learning can also help me see what I want to learn more about next. If I can keep my main topics in mind and focus on exploring subtopics that are near those, then I can take notes that are more useful for myself and other people. It’s different from a scattershot approach because it lets me build up more competency or understanding in different areas, and it’s different from a tightly focused approach because this way I don’t overspecialize or get bored, and I can play with the connections between ideas.

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Most of the note-taking tips out there focus on school, of course. I wasn’t sure how useful those tips would be once you’re done with exams and final projects, but they might be handy after all. It’s easy to convince yourself that you know enough about something, but the real test is using that knowledge to do something new or become someone different. How will learning something change me? What will I be able to do?

Reviewing what you've learned

In addition to learning something from the way school structures reviews, maybe I can learn from people who have kept journals for decades, and authors who do extensive research (maybe nonfiction books in the same area?). I’d love to learn more about how prolific note-takers organize and review their information. I’m not interested in perfect memory or people for whom this is easy. I’d love to learn from people who have thought about it, tried different things, and found ways that worked better for them. Thoughts?

How to cheat when animating sketches

I’ve been working on some animations for my consulting engagement. My new “green-screen” workflow involves Camtasia Studio’s Replace a Color feature, a large secondary motor, and the Cintiq 12 WX (although any USB tablet will probably do fine). It works really well! I re-rendered my 4-minute video because I wanted to use the WAV export as the audio instead of the MP3 export – better audio quality.

My old workflow (Artrage Studio Pro script recording and then some text manipulation to get it to save frames) ran about 4 hours per audio minute. This one’s at about two hours per audio minute, and it could take even less of my time if I could delegate the editing and synchronization to someone else. (Not for this one because of the contract, but maybe next time!)

Here are some other ways to cheat when animating sketches. Click on the image for a larger version.

2013-11-08 How to cheat when animating sketches

No samples, sorry, but maybe I’ll plan my own animations after this consulting project is finished.

In the meantime, here’s a quick glimpse of how to use Remove a Color in Camtasia Studio:

Test what you know by sharing

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

In grade school, I discovered the power of testing what I knew, even at the risk of embarrassment. I was that kid who always had her hand raised in class—and I’d raise the other one when my hand got tired. Think Hermione without the restraint. (And often without the encyclopedic knowledge, but who’s counting?)

Later, after I caught on to the fact that the teacher wasn’t going to call me every time (even when mine was the only hand raised), I still kept doing it. I figured I might as well. After all, if other students didn’t want to take advantage of this part of the education that their tuition had already paid for, that was their loss. I wanted to see if I understood something well enough to explain it. (As a teacher, I winced slightly at recognizing my younger self in the eager hand-wavers who probably intimidated their classmates like all heck – but I sympathized, although I still prodded the quieter ones.)

There are no more teachers and no more exams, but I still share as much as I can. There’s a saying that goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Me, I’d rather know when I’m being a fool. How can you find bugs in your code unless you look for them? How can you find flaws in your understanding unless you test what you think you know?

Duncan Mortimer saw the following similarities between sharing and test-driven development:

  • Both provide you with tight feedback loops — the first person you’re sharing with when you write something up is yourself. I guess that’s a bit like getting a test to pass in TDD.
  • Both help you to avoid ‘regressions’ — if you’ve got a permanent record of what you’ve done, what’s worked, what hasn’t, then perhaps it’s easier to get a sense for when an action you’re considering will cause problems.
  • Both offer a form of ‘documentation’. Sharing, for your life: for your actions; for your situation. It shows what you were thinking at the time.

I like that. It’s why I blog. I get to find out whether I understand something enough to explain it, and if that explanation makes sense, and if I can answer the questions that other people might ask. I get a record that I can refer to and reminders of my fallability. Sharing helps me learn.

One of the tips that Timothy Kenny shares in Accelerated Learning for Entrepreneurs (e-book, $16.77) is assigning yourself a final project when you want to learn something well. Map the ideas, blog what you learn, create a checklist, write a report or a book, teach a class… create some kind of tangible proof  that you’ve learned something. With that final project in mind, you’ll find—as Duncan also points out—that you study more deeply and more effectively.

Duncan wraps up with this thought:

Perhaps deliberately sharing your life and reflecting on that experience ultimately helps you to live a life that’s worth sharing?

image… and I think there’s something to that. I’m learning a lot about life, and one of my ongoing projects is to have an amazing blog by the time I’m 60 or 90. That nudges me to learn things and do things that are worth sharing. It challenges me to share what I’m learning while I’m learning it, because later on the fuzziness of memory and the curse of expertise will make the details disappear.

How about you? What can you share, and how can sharing help you learn and live?

What keeps you from taking notes? 9 excuses and how to get past them

How do people get away without taking notes at presentations and conferences? Slides are rare and recordings practically non-existent, so… Do other people just remember?  It boggles. I find it hard to remember stuff from two days ago, much less last week or last month.

taking-notes

Note-taking is such a big part of learning. It helps you stop wasting your time. Notes help you remember not only the key points, but also the questions and ideas you had and the actions you wanted to take. And yes, this goes for you even if you’re more of an auditory learner than a visual learner. Notes can help you remember where the interesting bits were, triggering your memory.

Not that people need to be convinced of the value of taking notes… It’s like exercise. Everyone thinks exercise is great, but not that many people do it. If I want to help people learn how to take better notes, then I have to help people get over their excuses. We are very good at making excuses for things we don’t do. I’m amazing at making excuses when it comes to exercise! At least I can help with the excuses you might make for note-taking.

Here are some perfectly reasonable reasons you might use to explain why you DON’T take notes—and some ideas for working around them.

1. “I’m not in school any more!”

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Many people probably got so burned out in school that they don’t want to do anything remotely related to it, including reading books and taking notes. I understand. I didn’t get along with many of my classes. I nearly flunked some of them. But really, why let seething resentment left over from your grade school years get in the way of learning more effectively now?

(Just to clarify: I liked school. Mostly.)

2. “Taking notes makes me look stupid.”

Taking notes makes you look like you’re paying attention and that you care enough to learn. It makes you look smart. (Read Ben Casnocha: Experts Take Notes)

People generally feel flattered—unless they’re saying things that are sensitive or that they may want to deny later, in which case they’ll feel uncomfortable and might ask you to stop.

3. “I’m not fast enough to keep up while people are talking.”

Write down key words or phrases instead of whole sentences. Shamelessly abbrv. You don’t have to write down everything. (No more quizzes or final exams!) Focus on the stuff that matters to you.

If you’re taking notes on a computer, learn how to touch-type. That way, you don’t have to think about typing, you just take notes.

4. “My handwriting is hard to read.”

Slow down and write less. Bigger letters can be easier to read and write. Print block letters instead of using script. Legible is better than fast.

5. “I’m smart. I can remember this easily.”

Sure. While you’re there. Tomorrow, who knows? Your notes aren’t for your current self. They’re for your pre-coffee future self who’s frazzled and fighting fires but needs to follow up.

Also, if you need to share what you’ve learned with other people (which, by the way, is an excellent idea if you’re doing this on your company’s dime and you want your company to send you to other events), notes help.

6. “I get distracted.”

You’ll get even more distracted without notes. At least with notes, you can quickly review what was discussed and come back.

7. “I might miss something while I’m taking notes.”

Worried that writing will distract you from listening, or that looking down will mean that you miss an important slide? Start by writing less – you just need enough to remind you, and you can fill in more details later. As you practise taking notes, you’ll get better at storing things in your working memory. Most speakers repeat themselves at some point, so that’s a good time to go back and add more notes.

8. “When I look down to take notes, I can’t lipread the speaker.”

Mel Chua points out that touch-typing helps, especially if you can’t write legibly without looking. Also, in her experience, getting a good hearing aid opens up all sorts of possibilities.

9. “I never review my notes anyway.”

Taking notes will help you pay attention and remember things better, even if you don’t review your notes. You’ll get extra value if you review, though. Reviewing a large block of text can be overwhelming. Right after a talk (or shortly after, when you have time), go back and highlight key points. A highlighter or a coloured pen works well on paper. If you’ve only got one pen, go ahead and draw boxes or arrows instead. The Cornell note-taking method is great for adding keywords and summaries. On the computer, you can make things bold or change the background. That way, when you review things afterwards, you can easily jump to important information.

What else gets in the way of your note-taking? Let’s see if we can blast those excuses and get you going!

Image credits: Pen with notebook, Mikael Cedergren (Shutterstock), Burnt notepaper, Monchai Tudsamalee (Shutterstock)

Thanks to gozes, John Dietrich, Mich W., Mel Chua, and Richard Manriquez for feedback through Twitter!

Write about what you don’t know: 5 tips to help you do research for your blog

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Blogging should expand your brain. It’s a great tool for learning things, so why limit yourself to what you think you’re an expert on? I want to write about things I don’t know. Then I can help other people get started, and other  people can help me learn. (Hence the preponderence of “Thinking about…” and “Learning…” posts on my blog versus “How to…” posts.)

Research lets you jumpstart your learning by building on other people’s experiences. Fortunately, you have access to more information than you could ever read, thanks to the wonders of the Internet.

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I’ve been re-learning how to research and how to synthesize that information for blog posts. It’s much more useful when you’re no longer trying to pad a school report with three to five reliable sources. Did you come across an interesting post on a blog? A great message on a forum? Go ahead and link to them, no PhDs required.

1. Make an outline of the questions you want to answer or ideas you want to explore.

You’ll be reading a lot. It helps to have a framework that shows you what you’ve covered and what you need to look for next. Here are some outlining tips from Journalistics. Here’s an example: my outline for blogging skills.

2. Search for “good enough” resources.

Don’t worry about finding the absolute best resource. Look for good-enough resources, and prioritize as you find more. Don’t link just for the sake of linking. Every link should add more insights or details.

I usually go through the first five to ten pages of Google search results. If people quote an even better source, I follow that link. Sometimes I’ll try different search queries based on the titles of blog posts I like.

You can quickly get a sense of whether a blog post is better than other things you’ve read. Does it give specific, punchy, perhaps unexpected advice illustrated with personal experiences, or is it your run-of-the-mill link-building blahblahblah? Speed-reading can pay off a lot here.

Want to go into greater depth? Look for relevant books and read them, summarizing the key points for your readers. Google Book Search is great for searching inside books, and Amazon’s recommendations are handy too. I sometimes check out seven or more books on a single topic, read them all over a week, and pick out key points for a blog post. This is an excellent way to add value, because most people won’t have the time to read the same books.

You can also check out other channels: podcasts, Twitter conversations, online Q&A sites, magazines, research papers… Go beyond blog posts when looking for resources, and you’ll find plenty of relevant material.

Good news – you can’t lose. If you find excellent resources right away, then you don’t have to write a big blog post. Just learn from those resources, and maybe write a post with your question and links to the best resources you found. If you spend an hour searching and you can’t find anything you really like, that’s fine too. Chances are that other people are frustrated by it too. Take that as a cue to write the blog post you wish you’d read.

3. Add key points and links to your outline.

By adding to your outline along the way, you’ll see how ideas are related to each other and where the gaps are. If you’re copying an exact quote, add quotation marks so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize it when rereading your notes. Better yet, paraphrase it right away. To make citations easier, add attributions or links. That way, you don’t have to chase down references.

Here are Cal Newport’s tips on how to use an outline to write papers quickly: outline the topic, find solid sources, capture quotes, and then turn that outline into your paper. Works for blog posts too.

4. Reorganize your outline and notes.

Take another look at your outline and reorganize it until the flow makes sense. The order in which you find resources is rarely the order in which you want to share them. For example, you may want to categorize the tips you’ve picked up, combine similar items, and arrange them in a logical order. You can also compare different viewpoints and line up the arguments for each alternative, then conclude with recommendations. With a little paraphrasing, you might be able to fit the tips into a creative mnemonic. Play around with the structure before you start writing your post.

5. Add value through summaries, insights, and personal experiences.

While searching for resources, you might have noticed an intimidatingly large number of results. For example, searching for how to do research for your blog gets more than a billion search results. Why add one more?

You’ve probably also noticed that many results are missing something. Maybe you didn’t find a single post that answers the exact question you wanted to explore (or if it did, the answer was buried in an intimidatingly long post). Maybe most of the search results are fluffy self-promotional pieces. Maybe they’re badly formatted and hard to read.

There’s room for you to add something of value, even if it’s just a good summary. Other people could spend a few hours reading all those search results and books, and trying to map out the insights from various resources… but if you’ve already done the work, why not save them some time and share what you’ve learned so far?

Add your own tips. While researching, you’ll probably think of a few points that you can’t find in the pages that you’ve seen so far. Write them down. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because they’re more experienced than you and they took that for granted, but other beginners will find those tips useful. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because you’re more experienced than they are (or at least you’ve made different mistakes). Add your thoughts.

Tell personal stories. Instead of just sharing advice, share your experiences in applying that advice. What worked well for you? What could have gone better? This is a great way to learn more, too – you’re not just passing on advice, you’re trying things out and adding your own perspective. A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin do this really well in their books on life experiments, and are definitely worth reading.

I hope these five steps will help you learn new things while writing blog posts. You don’t have to limit yourself to what you know. You can use your blog to help you learn. Good luck and have fun!

How do you research ideas for your blog posts?

Image credits: Stack of books by discpicture (via Shutterstock) 

Author’s note: I feel like this post should have more links in it, given the subject. I’m not particularly impressed with most of the posts I came across in my research, though (see the last point in step 2). Do you have any favourite resources along these lines?

How I learn: 16 things I’ve learned about mindset and process

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How do you learn? What’s your process like? What helps you learn more effectively? Timothy Kenny put together this learning profile based on almost 30 of my blog posts and pages throughout the years. Some of his observations are still true today, while others are a little out of date or incomplete. (For example: I’m back to feeling a visceral horror at the thought of marking up my books, and I don’t use a special keyboard.) Since quite a few people are interested in learning about learning, I thought I’d write about what I find helpful and how I want to improve.

MINDSET

1. It starts with attitude

I learn better when I’m learning something I care about and I can celebrate small successes. I can see this difference more clearly by looking at where I’ve had problems. I’ve struggled with learning when I didn’t start off with that engagement and feeling of possible competence. In my English literature classes, I felt like a fake trying to write critical essays. (“Irony? I don’t do irony, I’m a programmer!”) In calculus, I fell behind in memorizing and understanding different principles, so it was harder and harder to catch up. Most of my consulting engagements were fun, but I hated dealing with enterprise software stacks or Microsoft SQL Server administration because feedback was slow and I didn’t have that small kernel of confidence to build on.

Sometimes, when I’m trying to figure out something complex (say, statistical analysis, D3 Javascript visualizations, tax rules in Canada), I remind myself: other people have figured this out before, so I’ll probably be able to do so too. That helps.

When I catch myself making excuses why I’d have a hard time learning something, that’s useful information. I’m avoiding it for a reason, sometimes several reasons. What are those reasons, and what can I do about it? I don’t allow myself to say that I can’t learn something. I have to face the facts. Either I haven’t broken it down into a small enough chunk to learn, or I don’t care about it enough. If I don’t care about it enough, then I look for ways to work around it. I don’t have to learn everything, but I need to believe that I can learn what I need to.

Tip: Watch out for your excuses. Deal with them, or be okay with dropping things you don’t care about.

2. Work with your brain, not against it

We learn in different ways. I find it difficult to sit still and listen, so I fell asleep in many of my university lectures, and I’m not really into online courses or podcasts. My memory is fuzzy, so taking notes and searching them helps a lot. I can find it tiring to concentrate on one thing for more than four hours, so I keep a list of things to learn more about. I love reading, and I love trying things out for myself. Spaced repetition seems to work well for me in terms of memorizing, while small tasks work well for me in terms of learning something new.

Tip: Know your brain’s quirks and limitations, and work with them.

3. Embrace uncertainty and intimidation

It’s hard to learn when you don’t know where to start, what’s involved, or what’s possible. I’m learning to embrace that uncertainty. Uncertainty is awesome. It means there’s lots to learn. You don’t have to completely resolve uncertainty – small experiments can give you plenty of information.

Intimidation can be good, too. Even if a topic looks too large to handle, if you can break it down into smaller chunks that you can learn and you celebrate that progress, it can feel fantastic.

Tip: The important thing here is not to avoid the topic just because you don’t know enough about it. Get your teeth into it and start chewing. That’s the point of learning, after all.

4. See learning opportunities at many levels

If you can get better at recognizing learning opportunities, then you can wring more learning out of the same 24 hours we get in a day. This is mostly about mental friction. For example, Canada Post recently lost my passport. I could spend time and energy getting really annoyed about that (which wouldn’t do anything), or I could focus on learning from it. Everything is a learning opportunity.

It gets even better when you can recognize multiple levels of learning opportunities. The same experience can teach you many different things. For example, attending presentations can be a hit-or-miss experience. Sometimes I go to an event and the presentation covers something I already know, or the speaker isn’t engaging, or there’s not enough time for Q&A. Many people would think that’s a waste of time. But I get a lot of value even if the talk doesn’t meet my expectations: drawing practice, connection opportunities, raw material for blog posts and communities, reflections on what would make the presentation more effective… It’s like getting several hours’ worth out of one hour.

Tip: See each experience as a learning opportunity, and wring out of it as much as you can.

5. Think about thinking, learn about learning – observe and improve your processes

If you can reflect on and observe yourself, it’s easier to improve how you work. Words help you understand and communicate. I read books and research papers on thinking, and recognizing my processes helps me articulate them and tweak them.

PROCESS

6. Break things down into small chunks, and write down your questions

You have to start somewhere, and besides, it’s more fun when you can celebrate along the way. A question is a good unit to work with. You can break large questions down into smaller questions. I try to get things down into questions that I can answer within four hours. Questions give you focus, and they often suggest ways to answer them as well.

Writing down your questions helps a lot. It means you never run out of things to learn, you don’t have to worry about forgetting an interesting idea while you’re focused on something else, and you can review your progress as you go along.

7. Reduce friction

Make it easy to learn. For me, annoyance, frustration, and intimidation cause mental friction, so I try to avoid them unless I can use those emotions to fuel my motivation. It’s worth reducing environmental friction, too. Make it easy to get started and keep on going. For example, I’m learning Japanese. I have Japanese flashcards on my phone so that I can learn anywhere instead of needing to be at home with a textbook. Set things up so that learning is the path of least resistance.

8. Experiment

It can be surprisingly easy to try something out with minimal risk and see what happens.

I like thinking about the grand experiment of life. Worst-case scenario, even if one of my experiments turns out badly, my notes might be able to help someone else make a better decision.

9. Notice the unusual

Getting into the habit of making small predictions will help you notice when things are different from what you expect. More learning opportunities there!

It’s also useful to look at familiar things in a new light. Anything can be amazing if you look at it from the right perspective. I’m working on learning how to fix a rice cooker, and rice cookers are pretty darn cool.

10. Build in feedback

Learning is faster when you have quick, reliable feedback. This is one of the reasons why I like programming so much: you can do something, see the results, change it a little, and see the new results. Whenever possible, build short feedback loops into how you learn. (Hmm; I should see about experimenting with having an editor again…)

11. Take advantage of other people (in a good way)

Other people have probably learned what you’re trying to learn, so learn from them if possible. This is why I like reading books and blog posts, having mentors, and asking questions. One of the surprising benefits of having a blog is that other people help you remember really old posts, too.

12. Do something with what you learn

It’s not yours until you do something with it. You can start by summarizing it in your own words, but the best thing to do is to apply it to your life or make something with it. Then you’ll have better questions and you’ll understand it more.

13. Relate what you’re learning to what you know

The human brain is really good at association. If you start a sentence with “_(thing that you’re learning)_ is like _(something you know)_ because…”, chances are that you can finish the sentence easily. Seeing the connections helps you build your confidence and lets you take advantage of transferrable skills.

Don’t believe it? Here are some examples from my life: sketchnoting is like computer programming because they’re both about simplifying concepts so that I can communicate them with a limited vocabulary and a logical layout. Writing is like biking because it helps to have a map of where you’re going, but you can take different routes to get there, and you can make some interesting discoveries if you try different routes.

Analogize away.

14. Take notes and review them (and share them, if you can!)

People’s brains are terrible at remembering things. I can’t remember the details of what I did last week, much less what I learned four years ago. Take notes so that you can remember. This applies even if you can easily go back to the original material, like books, presentation slides, or videos. Sure, you might have a copy of the content, but you might not remember what you felt, what you decided to do about it, what you learned, what you were surprised by, and so on.

Writing notes that other people will read forces you to understand things better. I find that visual notes capture less detail, but are faster and more fun to review, so I take lots of them.

15. Practise continuous improvement

Tiny improvements can lead to big changes over time. Experiment. Try things out. Notice where you’re doing well, and where you can improve. Tweak the way you learn.

For example, I’m learning more about outlining now. Looks promising!

16. Celebrate progress

This makes the journey fun. Notes and plans help here too. Every so often, take a look back and see how far you’ve come, and plan a little ahead so that you know where you want to go next.

So those are some things I’ve learned about learning. I’ll write about specific tools and techniques in a future post. More about reading, outlines, sketchnotes, mindmaps, transcripts, asking, and so on – next time!

Update 2013/07/22: Here’s my breakdown of different skills involved in learning.