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Personal knowledge management, morgue files, capture systems

How do you organize what you know so that you can use it for inspiration later?

Here’s what I have:

Input:

  • Experience
  • Conversations
  • Books
  • Blogs
  • Ideas
  • Experiments

Capture and sharing:

  • Words, sketches, brainstorms – paper and pen
  • Mindmap on my iPod Touch and laptop
  • Quick tips through microblogging and bookmarks
  • Longer thoughts in my blog and on wikis
  • Generally useful information – slides, presentations
  • Book notes – scanned pages, text files; this needs to be integrated into my system and set up for regular review
  • One big text file organized with outlines and keywords for life, and another big text file for work

Navigation:

  • Search
  • Indexes in my notebooks
  • Randomness, similarity, and on-this-day in my blog
  • Hyperlinks
  • Summaries
  • Outlines and keywords

Index cards are useful for brainstorming too (especially for life planning or when I’m sketching a big talk that doesn’t have an obvious structure), but I don’t use them for long-term storage yet. My blog includes first drafts as well as more polished posts. I need a place to braindump. =) If you want less volume and more thought, just check out the highlights.

I love the idea of a morgue file. I’d love to eventually build myself a good random-access information management system. I currently stuff most things into my blog, and am slowly figuring out how to organize things more. I used to use howm, which was pretty cool too (if very geeky). I may go back to building a personal wiki. W- uses Tiddlywiki. =) Digital works well for me because I like being able to access things from anywhere. I don’t interact with enough paper to have a full-blown paper system, and would rather go digital instead of printing things out to integrate them with a paper system.

I love mapping things out. Mapping helps me navigate, see gaps, and plan. It’s also a good way to make it easier for other people to discover interesting things.

Next steps for me:

  • Digitize paper
  • Build indices
  • Build online and offline naming conventions for linking
  • Flesh out map
  • Learn more

More to come as I figure out and improve my system. =)

Thanks to Eric Blue for the inspiration!

Still looking for an awesome calendar management system

One of the things I do very badly is manage appointments. I can manage tasks.  I can manage time. But every so often, I write down the wrong times for a meeting, get frustrated by scheduling, or double-book myself. This is all the more embarrassing because people are involved. This should be something I can fix.

That’s why I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to manage my calendar and how to do it better. Web-based systems like Tungle, TimeBridge, and AgreeADate make it easy to find available times for meetings, although I still haven’t found the perfect tool.

  • I love AgreeADate‘s interface for handling appointments with multiple attendees and multiple timeslots, but it lacks integration with my Google calendar, and it cannot detect conflicts.
  • I love TimeBridge‘s integration with my calendar and tracking of tentative slots, but it displays too many pop-ups and pushes the social networking feature too strongly.
  • I love Tungle‘s interface for selecting slots and its integration with my Google contacts, but there’s no way to add slots to a meeting after an attendee says that none of the slots are convenient.

Every service is just a little bit off. My ideal calendar management system would make it easy for me to propose meeting times, and reschedule them to a something else comes up. I’d also love to be able to give people a link to my schedule, so that they can sign themselves up. Maybe someday. I can outsource the fiddly things to a virtual assistant, but it makes sense that this stuff should be mostly automated. For the peace of mind of knowing my calendar’s correct, I’d pay maybe $5-10 a month…

UPDATE: TimeBridge handles most of my cases, so I guess I’ll go with that.

Tungle for the win: kaizen and calendar management

Life just keeps getting better and better. =) So after I posted that quick note about Timebridge, Aidan Nulman nudged me about Tungle. I asked Ana to look into it, updating the calendar management process along the way. Based on a little exploration, I think Tungle wins in terms of calendar management. =) It can synchronize with my multiple Google Calendars, show all of my Google Contants on the left side, and automatically avoid double-booking. I’m in love. (TimeBridge, AgreeADate, I hope you’re listening – keep up with the competition!)

So in the spirit of sharing, here’s our newly refined calendar management process. Ana even went to the trouble of adding screenshots – how cool is that?

Setting up appointments:

  1. Login to http://www.tungle.com, see Accounts and Passwords section for the login information.
  2. The screenshot below shows an example of a personal Tungle Page. To set up an appointment, click on Schedule a meeting at the upper left side of the screen.
  3. Fill in the fields.
    1. Subject of the Event
    2. Choose from the dropdown list for the duration of the meeting/appointment.
    3. Meeting Location (Note unless specifically specified on Sacha’s meeting details, here are Sacha’s Venue Preferences:
      • Lunch during weekdays
        • Ichiriki – Japanese – 120 Bloor Street E, Toronto Hours: 11:45 – 2:30?
        • Camros Eatery (http://www.camroseatery.com/) – Vegan – Hours: M-F 11:30am to 7:30pm (no travel time necessary)
      • Weekends: Linux Caffe (http://www.linuxcaffe.ca) – 326 Harbord Street, Toronto. Hours: M-F: 7am to 11pm, Sat 10am to 11pm, Sun 10am to 5pm
    4. Click Add for every person added in the list of Invitees.
    5. The calendar on the lower part of the page is linked to Sacha’s Google Calendar so you will know which hours and days she is available. Highlight available times or as instructed by Sacha.
      Additional Information in selecting time:

      • Offer 3-5 choices, conflicts and double bookings will not be a problem with Tungle since it is synchronized with the Google Calendar.
        1. For in-person meetings, I prefer lunch (12:00 PM – 1:00 PM) or coffee/tea/hot chocolate (any time between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM), preferably on a Thursday or Friday
        2. For phone meetings, I prefer calls on Saturday or Sunday (9:00 AM – 9:00 PM), preferring Saturday afternoon
      • Sacha’s Google Calendar will be automatically updated as soon as invitees send back their confirmations.
    6. Click the RIGHT arrow beside Step 1 of 3.
  4. Step 2 shows a summary of the tentative dates you are proposing to the invitees. Click on X if you have entered an incorrect entry and go back to Step 1. If the details are all correct, click on the RIGHT arrow button to proceed to Step 3.
  5. For personal message refer to instructions below. Then click PREVIEW.
    • For phone appointments, include the following segment in the Personal Message box:

      Times are in your current time zone by default. If the timezone is incorrect, use the “Change” link above the calendar.

      Sacha Chua’s contact information
      Skype ID: XXX
      Mobile number: XXX
      Work number: XXX
      E-mail: XXX

    • For in-person appointments, include the following segment in the Personal Message:

      Sacha Chua’s contact information
      Mobile number: XXX
      Work number: XXX
      E-mail: XXX

  6. Check meeting details. Send invitation.
  7. A confirmation box will be shown to you after sending invites. See screencap below. Close.

Taking book notes

It turned out that our newest team member, Tom Plaskon, is also a bookworm. Over lunch last Wednesday, we chatted about how we keep track of what we’re learning from books. My system hasn’t changed that much sinceI described it in February, but I thought I’d post an updated blog post about it, just in case writing about it prompts ideas.

How I get books:

I still read lots of books. I usually order books from the Toronto Public Library system or pull them off the library shelves when I go on a library run, but sometimes I’ll pick up books from the bookstore or order them online. I occasionally get book recommendations from other people, too.

I tend to read in sprints, focusing on a single subject. I’m currently revisiting personal finance, and I’ve read about comics and graphic novels, sketching, storytelling, writing, leadership, time management, Javascript, CSS, relationships, communication, management, consulting, entrepreneurship, photography, cooking, presentation skills, education, reading, economics, parenting (yes, I read my mom’s parenting books when she was raising me – made for an interesting childhood!), social networking, quarter-life crises, career planning, learning, creativity, self-defense, exercise, romances (particularly classic Regency ones) gardening, and other topics that slip my mind at the moment. Reading in sprints allows me to get through books quickly (few non-fiction books are packed with new ideas) and see the interconnections between ideas in books. Sometimes I’ll go for variety when I’m raiding the library shelves.

This is a pattern of reading that practically requires a well-stocked public library, as there’s no way I’m going to spend all that money doing a reading sprint by buying books from Chapters or Amazon. I’d be limited by my book budget and I’d end up with too many books full of too much filler. Using the public library allows me to get value from books I might not ordinarily buy and books that are mostly fluff except for one or two good insights. (Or books that have one good idea and just keep hammering it in.)

How I read books

While I’ll slow down and enjoy a dense, well-written book, most books are worth cursory scans. Sometimes I’ll look at the table of contents to get the lay of the land. Other times, I’ll just plunge right into it, skimming the book for good quotes, interesting insights, or good explanations.

I read books on the subway, over breakfast or dinner, while walking (except across intersections), on evenings and weekends, and whenever I can steal a moment. I try to always have a book or two in my bag.

How I take notes

The first step is to mark the passages I want to keep. I don’t like writing in books (and absolutely abhor the idea of writing in a library book!), so I have to keep track of the passages I want to put into my book notes system. I must confess that I’ve resorted to dogearing pages. Post-It flags feel wasteful and torn slips of paper are inconvenient. I’d be happy to switch to a better method for remembering pages if it was something I could do while walking around (rules out scanning text with a digitizing pen) and it allowed me to keep track of any number of pages (rules out bookmarks, unless I carry a whole stack of them).

After I’ve gone through a book once, it’s time to put the passages into my book notes system. If I have time, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate the book details, page numbers, and relevant passages to my computer. It’s fun, it reinforces my memory, and it helps me train the speech recognition engine. If I’m pressed for time, I scan the relevant pages, then and use Tesseract Optical Character Recognition to convert the scans into text.

I currently keep my book notes in a large text file with a little markup to make it easier for Emacs to display it as an outline. (Hooray org-mode!) Each book is an outline item, and each quotation starts with the page number. I also add my own notes.

How I review my books

The human brain is good at associative memory. When a conversation topic reminds me of something I’d read, I can usually come up with a few titles or keywords from the quotations. My book notes allow me to send not only the book details but also the relevant quote, which helps other non-bookwormish people zero in on the part they might want to check out. So far, my text file has been working well.

I occasionally review my book notes by flipping through my book notes on the computer or on my Nintendo DS, jumping to a random note, or searching for certain keywords. I also reread particularly good books to see if I’ll get even more insight this time around. This helps me keep the content fresh, and it also prompts me to think about who I know would benefit from the book I’m reviewing.

How I can make this system better

I think I’ll start using LibraryThing to keep track of the books I’ve read. This allows me to take advantage of social recommendations. I used to use Amazon for that, but it’s also nice to run into fellow bookworms with similar interests and to see what else they’re reading.

It might be good to capture diagrams neatly. I’ve got the scanner, so I just need to work out a good image storage thing.

I want to be able to link related quotations and books with each other. Blog posts would be a good way to do that. I just need to make sure I save my post locally, too.

I need to think about which new books are worth acquiring. =) There are a few presentation-related books I’m going to order (Back of the Napkin, Presentation Zen, Slideology).

Optimizing your action loop

If you want to be radically more effective at doing things, get better
at deciding what to do. Few things are more personal than figuring out
what you’re going to do with your life: at this moment, for this day,
for the next few years. Few decisions are made as frequently. If you
can improve the way you make that decision, you’ll reap the benefits
everywhere.

We’ve all developed some ways of coping. We all have our quirks.
One of mine is that I can’t settle on one way of planning my tasks.
Some days, I’m all strategic and top-down, connecting my life goals
with the tasks I plan to do that day. Other days, I just need to get a
crucial task out of my head so that I don’t forget it while hunting
for my keys. Some days, I block out time to work on my priority
projects. Other days, I have to work around other people’s schedules,
so it’s all about cramming whatever I can into whenever I’ve got.

Now think of all the other geeks out there, and you’ll understand how
to-do list programs might outnumber programmers. Despite the
collective efforts of companies like Microsoft and IBM, despite the
coolness of Web 2.0 services like Remember the Milk, despite the
renaissance of paper-based planners such as the Hipster PDA, I have
never found anything as powerful as a plain text file in terms of
personal productivity: a plain text file with shortcuts that are
form-fitted to the way I work.

Here’s what my workday looks like:

  • I do a _quick_ scan of e-mail to see if any tasks have come in. I copy those into my inbox. I resist the urge to reply right away, as that turns e-mail into a huge timesink.
  • 5-10 minutes are enough to schedule and prioritize my tasks for the day. I see both my calendar and my task list at the same time, and I can estimate my load. I leave plenty of space for things that come up. I feel better when I finish my scheduled tasks and then cross off a few more, than when I don’t finish everything I planned and I have to postpone tasks to the next day.
  • I work on my highest-priority task for the day.
  • _Then_ I respond to e-mail.
  • Then I work through everything else in roughly 45-minute chunks, with some downtime in between to recharge my brain and take care of routine tasks.
  • My computer is set up to encourage me to take 10-second breaks every 5 minutes and 2.5 minute breaks every hour. The numbers are arbitrary, but the result feels good. This works out even better when I work from home: 2.5 minutes is just enough time to clear the sink, or to empty the dishwasher, or to start some tea…

A plain text file keeps me all organized, thanks to the Org module for
the Emacs text editor. The text file shows me what’s on my horizon and
what’s on today’s schedule. The text file helps me deal with
interruptions because it keeps track of what I was working on and what
I need to do.

The text file even helps me learn more about myself and my skills
through detailed time-tracking. Every time I start a task, the clock
starts. Every time I mark a task as waiting or done, the clock stops,
and the elapsed time is stored in the task. This helps me tune my time
estimates and report time at the end of the week.

And it’s just amazing. I don’t feel that I waste a lot of time. I have
a sense of progress. I can see the big picture, and things almost
never fall through the cracks. (When they do, that’s because I hadn’t
gotten around to putting them in my text file yet.) Sure, this still
doesn’t give me enough time to do everything I want to do, but I don’t
feel stressed out about it because I’m working well. From now on, most
of the performance improvement will come from improving my skills and
learning more.

If I can do this much as a new hire with a pretty nifty task
management system, think about what you can do with all your
experience. What _could_ you do if you spent less time fighting with
your memory or with your TODO system, and more time making the
difference you want to make?

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Random Emacs symbol: edebug-stop – Command: Stop execution and do not continue.

Task management with Emacs: Text files

With the wealth of code available for Emacs and the ease of
customization it provides, you’re certain to find a task management
tool that fits the way you think. Over the next few days, I’ll provide
a quick run-through of the methods I’ve tried out.

The simplest way to get started with Emacs for task management is to
keep your TODOs in a plain text file, like ~/TODO. You can keep this
text file in any format you want. To make it easier for you to see
what you need to do, you can keep active TODOs near the top and
completed tasks near the bottom.

If you load your TODO file every time you start up Emacs, then you’ll
be sure to check it every day. Put the following line in your ~/.emacs
to have it automatically loaded when you start:

(find-file "~/TODO")

You’ll also want to make it easy to open during an Emacs session. If
your TODO file is just a keyboard shortcut away, you’ll find it easier
to keep all of your reminders in the file. Here’s a snippet that shows
the TODO file in the current window.

(defun my/todo ()
 "Bring up the TODO file."
 (interactive)
 (find-file "~/TODO")
 (goto-char (point-min)))

;; Now bind it to a convenient shortcut key
(global-set-key (kbd " ") 'my/todo)

Now you can hit F5 F5 to show your TODO. If you want your TODO file to
show up in another window, remove that and use this snippet instead:

(defun my/todo ()
 "Bring up the TODO file."
 (interactive)
 (find-file-other-window "~/TODO")
 (goto-char (point-min)))

;; Now bind it to a convenient shortcut key
(global-set-key (kbd " ") 'my/todo)

If you want to be able to add stuff to your TODO without getting
distracted from your work, add this to your ~/.emacs:

(defun my/add-todo (task)
 "Add a line to the TODO file."
 (interactive "MTask: ")
 (with-current-buffer (find-file-noselect "~/TODO")
   (goto-char (point-min))
   (insert task "\n")
   (save-buffer)))
(global-set-key (kbd " t") 'my/add-todo)

See? Emacs is fun and easy to configure. You can store your tasks in a
plain text file and then add keyboard shortcuts to make your tasks
easier to manage.

There are many sophisticated task management packages for Emacs. I’ll
write about one of them tomorrow. In the meantime, if you want to find
out what task manager I _really_ like using, you can check out
PlannerMode! =)

何社製のコンピューターをお使いですか。 What make of computer do you use?

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