Category Archives: thinking

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 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."
   (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))
           (insert-file-contents filename)
           (setq contents (s-trim (buffer-string))))
             (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"))
                   (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$")))

A deeper dive into absent-mindedness and misplacing things

I haven’t misplaced anything today, but I know I will at some point. This week? This month? Definitely this year, and probably more and more as the years go by. It got me thinking about misplacing things, and what I might be able to do about that.

When or why do I misplace things?

  • Active
    • Putting something down in one of many frequent places
    • Putting something down in an infrequent place
    • Getting distracted half-way and putting something down somewhere I don’t remember
    • Putting something down because my hands are full and I need to pick up something else
    • Putting something in a place that’s similar to but not the same as the place it should be, and not catching the mistake
    • Putting something somewhere near it should be instead of where it should be because that place is occupied or inaccessible
    • Putting something away for the long term, then forgetting where it is
    • Putting something away, then forgetting whether I have it or not
    • Putting aside something in progress or waiting for something else, then forgetting where it is or when I need to get back to it (ex: mismatched socks)
    • Shuffling things into similar things (ex: papers)
    • Making a mental note of where I put something, but not remembering it well enough
  • Passive
    • Someone moving or dislodging something from where I expect it to be
    • Forgetting to check for things that have accidentally fallen or been left behind (ex: gloves, scarves, things in pockets)
    • Leaving things in an opaque container for convenience, and then not taking them out and putting them away (ex: gloves)
    • Things falling out of pockets or through linings, un-noticed
    • Familiar tasks in familiar environments lead to automatic thinking and reduced attention
    • Forgetting to prepare or take something
    • Gaps when retracing steps
  • Retrieval
    • Skipping over something because something else is covering it or obstructing my view
    • Looking at something but not recognizing it
    • Limiting my field of view unnecessarily
    • Misremembering things that are similar to things I remember getting rid of, so I don’t look for them
    • Not searching in a systematic manner
    • Having a false memory of putting something away in a different place
      • Confusing with previous memory
      • Confusing plans with reality

What tools and tactics do people use to minimize the hassle of misplacing things?

  • Build automatic habits
    • Have one clearly defined place for each thing, or very few clearly defined places
    • Explicitly encode memories around picking things up or putting things down
      • Looking
      • Mental note
      • Note to self, out loud
      • Text note
      • Audio note, recorded
      • Picture
    • Have a handy holding place for in-between things or miscellaneous things, and review this frequently (ex: bin, belt bag)
  • Reduce retrieval costs
    • Regularly tidy with fresh eyes
    • Make lists of where things are
    • Label containers with their contents (ex: cabinets)
    • Keep things clear and tidy
  • Label
    • Label things so that in case they’re lost, someone might be able to return them to you
    • Offer rewards
  • Reduce the need for the item
    • Replace or supplement often-misplaced identification with always-present information or more frequently used devices (ex: biometrics, keycodes, smartphone)
    • Buy or budget for replacements (ex: pens)
    • Keep extra stock of items in multiple places (ex: pens)
    • Minimize the number of unneeded things you carry, and keep other things in a known place (ex: infrequently-used keys)
    • Eliminate the item entirely
  • Add alerts
    • Track location (ex: smartphones, parking)
    • Add proximity alerts (ex: smartphone-laptop Bluetooth proximity detection, tracking stickers)
  • Fill in gaps
    • Retrace steps
    • Ask someone else who might be able to look with fresh eyes or who might have different memories

When are these tools particularly useful?

From “External and internal memory aids: when and how often do we use them?” (Intons-Peterson and Fournier, 1986):

  • When intervening events may interfere
  • When there’s a long delay between encoding and retrieval
  • When accuracy is important
  • When information is difficult to remember
  • When there’s limited time to remember
  • When you want to avoid the effort of remembering

Based on these thoughts, what can I tweak about my life? Maybe I can pay closer attention to incidents of misplaced things and other action slips over the next few weeks so that I can see where the gaps are….

Break down what people mean so that you can learn from the specifics

People are vague. You are vague. I am vague. We say things without digging into the details; we often use the first word that comes to mind. This makes sense — otherwise, we’d spend all our time clarifying.

You can learn a lot from digging into things and making them more specific. (… she writes, self-conscious about the use of the vaguest word of all: “things.”)

I’m fascinated by the challenge of understanding what people mean. I realized this while looking at it from two different directions:

  • When someone give an excuse like “It takes too much time,” what’s the excuse behind the excuse, and how can we address that?
  • When someone gives a compliment like “Thank you for sharing an inspiring post,” what kind of inspiring was it, and how can I get better at that?

Let me start with the example of inspiration, because it’s something I want to translate into concrete feedback and action. I thought about the different responses I have to things that inspire me.

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration -- index card #inspiration #breakdown

2015-01-14 Understanding different types of inspiration – index card #inspiration #breakdown

  • Idea: Inspiration might mean coming across something I didn’t even know I wanted. Now that I know it’s possible, I can work toward it. (This happens a lot with Emacs, which is why I like reading Planet Emacsen)
  • Clarity: Seeing other people who have reached my goals (or who’ve travelled further down the path) helps me understand those goals better. What do I really want? What are some ways I can get there? I can see that more clearly thanks to other people who have illuminated the path. (Talking to executives helped me realize I don’t want to be one.)
  • Alternatives: Inspiration can help me see different ways of doing something. For example, I looked at ways other people coloured their sketchnotes and picked several techniques to try.
  • Beginning: Inspiration can show me that something is less intimidating than I thought it was. It can help me figure out a good place to start and give me the courage to do it. Programming tutorials help me get through the initial challenges of a new framework.
  • Action: Inspiration can move me to act on something. I already know it’s a good idea and I’ve been meaning to do it, but sometimes I need that extra push. Comments with questions and suggestions help me a lot.
  • Perseverance: Sometimes I can feel lost or discouraged. Remembering that other people have dealt with bigger challenges helps me address my anxiety, focus on my goals or my progress, and keep going. Anecdotes are easy to find.
  • Hero worship: I often come across stuff that looks so awesome, I don’t think I could ever do anything like it. This is the type of “inspiration” we tend to get bombarded with. This is the least useful kind of inspiration, I think. It takes a little work to transform it into the kind of inspiration I can use: I need to reflect on what part of it resonates with and how I can incorporate a little of that into my life.

In what ways do I want to inspire others? How can I get better at that?

  • I like inspiring with ideas, playing with what’s possible. I can get better at that by sharing more of these little tweaks.
  • I think out loud in order to help people with clarity. I sketch out the reasons and consequences of my choices so that other people can learn without necessarily having to make all those choices themselves.
  • I explore and summarize alternatives so that people can use that to figure out what might fit them. I can get better at that by researching what other people have done, generating a few new ideas (possibly by combining other ideas), and testing things out so that I can share my experiences.
  • I break things down to help people with beginning. This is why I like addressing the “Yeah, but…”s, the excuses, the things that get in people’s way. This is also why I like sharing ideas, because that can help pull people forward.
  • I’d love to get better at moving people to action. I haven’t given this as much thought yet, but I think it’s the most important.
  • I don’t have much to share in terms of perseverance. I’ve been very lucky.
  • I definitely don’t want to be in the region of hero worship. It creates too much distance and can shut down action.

Breaking a general statement down into more specific statements helps me learn a lot. I ask myself: “What would I or someone say that captures a different aspect of this?” and I write that down. When I split off different aspects, I can understand those aspects better, and I can understand the whole thing better too.

This technique is good to use for excuses, too.

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses -- index card #excuses #breakdown

2015-01-14 Breaking down excuses – index card #excuses #breakdown

I’m getting better at catching myself when I give an excuse, drilling down with “Why?” and splitting it out into different excuses. (I guess, thanks to my parents’ patience, my inner toddler never stopped asking questions.) Then I can check if those excuses match what’s getting in my way, or if they don’t resonate with me.

A technique I often use is to imagine other people giving those excuses, since sometimes my mind is perfectly willing to ascribe weakness to others even when it gets defensive about itself. ;)

I like sharing these excuses because that might help other people get over theirs. It’s often easier to recognize one of your excuses instead of trying to articulate it yourself. “That’s it! That’s what’s getting in my way!” you might say. Or even if you don’t find something that completely fits, you might find something close, and then you can ask yourself: “What’s missing here?”

For example, what does it mean when someone says something “takes too much time”? What’s really getting in their way? Here are some ideas I came up with:

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time -- index card #excuses #breakdown

2015-01-14 What does it mean when something takes too much time – index card #excuses #breakdown

“Too much time” is too vague to address. On the other hand, if you think something takes too much time because you’re trying to do something complicated, you might be able to ask yourself: “What do I really need? Can I get away with doing something simpler?” and then reduce the task to something small enough for you to get started with.

Break things down. Find the statement behind the statement or the excuse behind the excuse, and you’ll have more to work with. Instead of getting frustrated because you can’t come up with one specific answer, come up with lots of them, and then see if you recognize yourself in any of them. Almost there, but not quite? Come up with more answers, maybe combining aspects of the ones you already have. This will not only help you understand yourself, but also understand others–and help others understand themselves and you.

If you find my posts inspiring, would you consider helping me understand more about what kind of inspiration you get and how I can get better at it? If you’re reading this because you recognize one of your excuses in it, would you mind figuring out what your more specific reasons are and what could address them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Thanks!

Index cards

I’ve been drawing more on index cards than in sketchbooks lately. I keep a stack of index cards on my bedside table, and I have a few more in my belt bag. Index cards are great because they really can contain only one thought, so they’re not at all intimidating to start. I know I’ll finish the card. Index cards are also sturdier than the small notepad I carry around, and since I’m not tearing off pages, I don’t have to worry about fiddly little paper bits. Compared to index cards, a 8.5×11″ sheet feels like such a generous expanse. Although the extra space of a sketchbook lets me get deeper into a topic, it also sometimes results in half-drawn pages when I’m distracted by another thought or something that I need to do.

2014-09-10 Index cards

2014-09-10 Index cards

So maybe that suggests a new workflow for developing ideas. I can start by brainstorming topics on an index card. Then I can pick some ideas to flesh out into index cards of their own, and from there, to sketchbook pages. Blog posts can explain one sketch or collect several sketches, and they can link to previous posts as well.

2014-09-10 Possible workflow for developing ideas

2014-09-10 Possible workflow for developing ideas

This should help me think in bigger chunks

Update: Developing thoughts further

I’ve been drawing my thoughts for years, on and off. I found some sketchbooks with old mindmaps and explorations. Still, writing was the main way I thought through things, and I made good progress in learning how to outline so that I could think about progressively larger topics. In September, I re-started the habit of drawing through my thoughts – and posting them, thanks to a sheet-fed scanner that made sharing easy.

I tend to draw one thought per page and write about one thought per blog post. I also tend to draw way more than I publish each day. I wondered if I could combine the drawings and the words to “chunk” what I was thinking about into larger topics, so that a blog post could logically group together several sketches. With a mindmap to help me keep track of the sketches (acting basically like an outline, but with icons, easy folding, and quick navigation), I could keep an eye on topics that had accumulated several sketches. Once I’d fleshed out the topic a little, I could write it up as a blog post, include the images, and replace those notes with a link. Working well!

How to think in bigger chunks

2013-09-25 How to think in bigger chunks

I had tried collecting text snippets in the past, but I tended to lose them in my archive. Because the drawings were compact, easy to review, and easy to track in my map, I found it more fun to go over them compared to the text. Unlike the partial thoughts I’d saved in my text archives before, most of the drawings were enough on their own: an answer to a question, a reflection on an idea. It was easy to remember enough context to turn them into a blog post.

So that’s the bottom-up approach: think about several ideas, and then put them together. I was curious if this new approach would also help me with the top-down approach, which is to take an idea and then go into the details.

Developing thoughts further

2013-09-25 Developing thoughts further

I was reading a student-oriented book about writing that reminded me of the idea of developing thoughts. The author wrote that short essays usually meant that the thoughts weren’t developed enough – that the student could go into more detail or explore the implications of the topic. I made a list of some ways that I could develop a thought further. I had thought about this in a text-centric way, but now that I’ve been drawing a lot more, I can see how exploring the details in drawings has been helping me develop thoughts.

Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

2013-10-21 Fitting multiple thoughts on a page

Drawing one thought per page requires a lot of paper, and I have a steadily growing stack of sketchbook sheets piling up on my shelf. Although I’ve scanned the sketches using my ScanSnap, I keep the paper around for extra flipping-through fun. I briefly considered trying to fit more thoughts onto a page, but I think the one-thought-per-page system works well for me. It also makes the images easier to include in blog posts like this.


I feel like I can think about topics that are 3-4 times as large as I could before, especially if I spread them out over time. I’m looking forward to getting even better at organizing these, sharing them, and planning the next steps. I like the way drawings help me quickly pick up the thread of my thoughts again, and how the map helps me plan where to go next. So far so good!

If you’ve been struggling with developing thoughts over a period of time, try drawing them. You might find that it’s easier to mentally chunk topics that way. Check out my one-page guide for getting started with visual notetaking, and go through these other resources for sketchnote beginners. Good luck!

Daily drawing update: So far, fantastic!

I’ve been pushing a lot of sketches through my evolving workflow. This is fantastic. In the past 20 days, I’ve done 100+ of these thinking-on-paper drawings, about 70+ of which are public. It’s fun to turn the sketches into blog posts afterwards. I find them more motivating to flesh out than headlines or outlines, so you’ll probably see a lot more sketches in this blog. (See, I’m learning more about illustrating my blog after all!)

This is my workflow now:

  1. I draw a thought on paper using black, blue, red, and green pens.
  2. I scan the sheets using ScanSnap and my phone, which can rotate and publish images to Flickr more conveniently than my computer can. (It’s funny how that works.)
  3. Photosync automatically downloads the images from Flickr to folders monitored by Evernote, so they’re imported into my !Inbox notebook.
  4. If I want to colour the image, I use Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and re-save the JPGs to the Evernote attachment folder as well as the Photosync folder, which updates the Flickr image.
  5. Before I move the Evernote item to my public notebook, I tag it, copy the note link, and add the entry to my Freeplane mindmap so that I have a hyperlinked overview (sneak preview of my map: Mapping what I’m learning).

My new sketching and thinking workflow, and mindmap comparisons

One of the nice things about a limited canvas (whether paper or digital) is that there’s a natural end to your drawing. You run out of thoughts or you run out of space. Either way, that’s a good time to stop and think about what you need to do next. In a text outline or a mindmap, I can just keep going and going and going.


I’ve been thinking about how I can do things even better. As it turns out, assigning Autodesk Sketchbook Pro as the default application for handling JPGs lets me easily edit images stored in Evernote. Freemind lets me add markers to map nodes, so that’s a halfway-decent flagging system (no electronic equivalent of Post-It flags on the image itself, though). I’m looking forward to turning this kind of focus on something that isn’t related to learning or drawing. It’ll be interesting to see if visual thinking does well for deep dives in other areas too, although I suspect it will.

How can I think on paper more effectively

Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice to have an easy way to resize, upload, and synchronize images so that I can save new versions and have previous blog posts updated? Someday…

Anyway, here we are! I should do a video about all the different pieces – the workflow’s pretty sweet, actually. As awesome as my digital sketchnoting workflow? I don’t know. They’re great for different reasons, and I’m glad I’m adding more tools to my toolbox. =)