Category Archives: writing

What do I want from an annual review?

I’ve got most of the pieces for an annual review: monthly reviews in visual and text form, my time records, and a recent flip-through of all of my sketches. I’d like to bring my ledger of income and expenses up to date, finish reading all of my blog posts, and draw a couple of yearly summaries (monthly events, differences between 2015 and 2016, analyses). I want to make the most of my computer time, so I should think about what I want from my annual review and how I can get that more efficiently.

Highlights of the year
A month-by-month list of highlights is good for reminding me of events and getting around the fogginess of memory. There’s so much to celebrate and appreciate. This also simplifies longer-term reviews, like the 10-year review I did when I turned 30.
Differences
What did I learn? What did I forget? It can be easier to see the differences when you compare across a longer time period. This can help me solidify growth, revisit things I’ve left behind, watch out for drifting, and choose what to focus on next year.
Patterns and trends
Taking a look at the data can sometimes turn up things I wouldn’t have guessed. Time, finances, and A-‘s data too – so much to explore! This might take a little longer, since it involves code.
Decision review
This is probably better broken up into separate posts, maybe even decoupled from my annual review.
What worked well? Why? How can we make things even better?
Good for continuous improvement. Might not go into as much depth as the decision reviews.

My overall goals are to:

  • remember and celebrate the journey
  • keep improving; remember what I’ve learned and revisit what I might have shelved
  • make it easier for my future self (or other people reading my archive) to get an overview of the year
  • maybe have conversations that grow out of the updates (notes on things I’ve tried, ideas for stuff that might help)

I’ll probably end up doing my annual review in chunks instead of waiting until it’s all done, since otherwise it might take me a few months.

Thinking about my frequency of annual reviews

I’ve been doing annual reviews a few times a year: my birthday in August, the new year in January, and experiment-related reflections in February. It’s a little excessive, perhaps. My weekly and monthly reviews make it easy enough to summarize events over 12 months, so it’s not that much more effort to do a new review with a slight offset.

The experiment review has different guide questions, so that’s useful. The birthday and new year reviews have a lot of overlap, though. What happened? How am I different? What did I learn? What did I forget and want to relearn? What worked well? What do I want to focus on next? What could make this even better? The two reviews cover the same ground, especially since I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. I like the birthday review because it’s anchored on things that are meaningful to me, and paced according to my life.

The new year review would probably be better suited to reflecting on external influences, since that’s synchronized with other people’s reviews, but external events don’t seem to matter that much to me when I reflect on my year.

People often use the Christmas/New Year break to send out family updates and pictures. Both my family and W-‘s family like taking family pictures, so we’re covered there. I feel somewhat odd about the idea of announcing things on behalf of W- or A-, or getting W- to contribute. I’m more comfortable capturing the changes in my own life, noting the occasional highlight from theirs – but with my individual voice, not a collective We. I think of it more for personal note-taking and celebration (and maybe the occasional acquaintance catching up through my archives) rather than pushing updates to a list of people whom I think should hear about our year. Opt-in is more comfortable for me than opt-out. I’m probably making it more complicated than it needs to be, but I wonder if there’s a thought in here that’s worth untangling…

I wonder how I mentally chunk my memories. Do I think of them in terms of ages: my 20s, etc.? Do I think in terms of calendar years? Years come to mind more easily than ages do when I think about milestones such as coming to Canada. So maybe that’s an argument for keeping the new year review…

There’s also the benefit of being able to send people a link to a tidy summary when they wish me a happy new year, although that happens more around birthdays anyway.

Hmm. I guess I’ll try to squeeze another annual review in this month, and then I can reconsider the question in August. More writing is good, anyway.

Posting more thoughts

I can write on my phone while nursing, which is probably a far better occupation for my mind instead of scrolling through Facebook or Reddit for the nth time. It’s not my ideal writing setup – I can see around a paragraph or two on the screen at a time, and I don’t have the outlining/linking/figuring-out tools I’m used to on my computer – but it gets me writing in full sentences instead of just jotting down lists. I can capture more thoughts this way, and I don’t have to stay up late to get through my drawing backlog.

It’s important to me to be able to flesh out thoughts a little despite the interruptions of life with a baby. With a place to store these half-finished thoughts, I can make some progress. I’m not trying to write a great novel (or that Emacs book I planned a long time ago) – just exploring thoughts and questions and ideas, and storing hooks for associative memories.

A- nurses a lot, which we’re okay with. More sustenance and comfort for her, and our lives are flexible enough to accommodate it. I focus on her when she wants interaction, and I keep my phone handy for when she seems to be nursing to sleep. It’s a practice I could probably help her get out of, but things are also fine the way they are. I’ll probably let her take the lead on this one, at least for now.

What do I want to think about during these moments?

  • For the present: task lists, decisions, questions, research
  • For weekly and monthly reviews: highlights, memories
  • For future Sacha: sketches of daily life, thoughts, things I’m learning
  • For other people: things I figured out the hard way; counter-intuitive or alternative experiences; ideas and thoughts
  • For family and friends: stories

There are lots of things I can think through and write about, even in small chunks and without tools for structure. I’ll experiment with writing about and posting more of them. After all, my blog started with a few years of random snippets and thoughts. I don’t mind spending a few more years writing about mundane things and incomplete thoughts that might not be of much interest to other people, just in case it might be of interest to my future self. I’ve already set up categories and filtered mailing lists, so people can choose what to read. I can write more for myself, and enjoy what serendipitous conversations come my way. :)

Fixed paragraph breaks in WordPress, no more wall of text

While trying out the “after” filter I just added to my blog, I noticed that my paragraph breaks were missing. I hadn’t noticed it for a while because I’ve been building up my weekly and monthly reviews from sketches instead of blog posts. How embarrassing!

(Then A- woke up and it was time for lunch, so I was a bit frazzled. But W- stepped in and took care of her, hooray!)

I saw the paragraph breaks in WordPress’ visual editor, but not the exported HTML, which just kept whitespace in between the paragraphs instead of breaking them up with tags. It happened even when I created a new post through the web interface, so it wasn’t org2blog’s fault.

I checked if the paragraph issue happened on a new install. It didn’t.

I checked if the paragraph issue happened with all the plugins deactivated. It didn’t. Aha! (Note to self: I really should set up a dev environment again…)

I turned the plugins on one by one, and I narrowed it down to the NextGen Gallery plugin. It worked after I updated that.

Anyway, things should be readable again. Hooray!

What do I want from my review process?

I’ve just finished reviewing 2015. I reread my blog posts, reviewed my photos, analyzed my time, and wrapped it up in a summary that surprised my recency-biased brain. It turned out to have been a pretty good year, even though I had felt a little bit lost and frazzled at times.

It got me thinking about what I want from my daily/weekly/monthly/yearly review process. What would I like to tweak for next time?

2016-01-02e What do I want from my yearly review -- index card #writing #review

This year, my index cards turned out to be an convenient graphical way to roll up everyday notes into larger and larger chunks. I even have some code to make it easier to create montages of lower-level sketches (for example, the daily sketches when I’m doing a weekly review) and include them as a layer in my drawing program so that I can choose the highlights for redrawing. Some days, I didn’t have much to draw. Other days, I overflowed with things I wanted to remember. Being able to quickly jot a few keywords or make a quick card kept me rolling even when my mind was too fuzzy to write a blog post, so that worked out wonderfully.

I think next year will be pretty similar. With that in mind, I’d like to get better at using my reviews to:

  • See the connections that aren’t obvious: Sometimes a thought weaves its way in and out of my mind over a long period of time, or sometimes several ideas are fascinating when juxtaposed. My working memory tends to be more limited when I’m fuzzy-brained, so it’s hard to see those connections. If I reread a bunch of posts in quick succession or I shuffle my index cards somewhat randomly, though, that can help me see those links. This tends to kick in for the monthly and yearly reviews. It might be interesting to see if I can get this working longer-term, too.
  • Use data to adjust for biases: I notice I have a strong recency bias when I’m fuzzy-brained. Recent experiences colour my perception and make certain things easier or harder to remember. Both analyzing data and reviewing archives can help me counteract that bias and get a better view of what happened. In general, I’ve tended to underestimate progress and be pleasantly surprised during review. I wonder if that means I tend to pessimistically evaluate day-by-day progress, and if tweaking that would result in a positive effect on motivation and momentum.
  • Get a sense of progress and direction: This is good for celebrating progress and catching drift. I tend to not have fixed goals as much as general directions, so drift could be a little harder to notice. It’s still interesting to play spot-the-differences with my past selves, though.
  • Summarize chunks for easier review: I don’t need to remember all the details from each day. It’s nice to have memory hooks for the highlights, though. Reviewing and chunking periods of time helps me make sense of longer and longer periods. I wonder if it makes sense for me to do quarters or seasons as a step in between months and years…
  • Remember and follow up on ideas, decisions; consider what’s coming up: Sometimes the review reminds me of something I want to follow up on, a decision I want to revisit, or an idea I’d like to try. I could get better at this by explicitly calling out things to revisit and scheduling reminders for myself. That’s one of those tips for managing oneself, after all.
  • Revisit and archive memories: I’m not particularly sentimental, and there are few memories that I deliberately revisit outside the context of a conversational reference. That might be something worth playing with, though – maybe as a way to understand life more, maybe as a source of ideas for future experiments, and maybe something that can eventually become another source of happiness or satisfaction? Hmm.
  • Capture a snapshot of life at this moment: Related to archiving memories: sometimes it’s helpful to capture the everyday, ordinary things, since that can be unexpectedly interesting when looking back.
  • Place things in larger contexts: I don’t do nearly enough of this, I think: seeing things in a larger context, with a longer-term perspective. I occasionally check things against 5- or 10-year periods, and sometimes against expected lifespan, but there isn’t that sense of deep understanding yet, and it’s still mostly limited to my own scope. I do some wider reflections from time to time, borrowing the Stoic practice of remembering that things are transitory and insignificant. I think a larger perspective will probably develop over time; might be a wisdom thing.

Practically speaking, that probably translates to:

  • Continue drawing daily/weekly/monthly index cards, possibly with more details and observations.
  • Consider drawing a quarterly round-up too: maybe the previous quarter + three monthly cards.
  • Organize my notes on decisions for review, including predicted consequences and reasons for choosing, and schedule reminders for them.
  • Write or draw memories, maybe organizing them by person/trigger, and reflect on them from time to time.
  • See if I can get better at explicitly linking small day-to-day steps with my bigger picture, and celebrating those small steps instead of waiting for the monthly or yearly review to make sense of them.

Hmm….

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 hh.mm 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."
  (interactive)
  (mapc
   (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))
         (with-temp-buffer
           (insert-file-contents filename)
           (setq contents (s-trim (buffer-string))))
         (with-current-buffer
             (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"))
                 (save-excursion
                   (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$")))