Category Archives: blogging

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 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…