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How I use Google Chrome custom search engines for quick access

Posted: - Modified: | geek, productivity, tips

I move as much as I can of what I know to the Web so that other people can use what I share. Added benefit: I can find things quickly! I use custom search engine shortcuts to help me quickly look up stuff. For example, I frequently refer to blog posts. I can type “b search terms” into my Chrome address bar to search my blog. Neat, huh? Here are the search engines I've defined.

Blog b
Blog category bc
Blog tag bt
Flickr – mine f
Flickr tag ft ~
Google Drive d
Google Calendar c
GMail m
Google Contacts p
Trello t

Here's how you can define your own search engines:

  1. Click on the menu button.
  2. Choose Settings > Manage Search Engines.
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the Other search engines list.
  4. Add your own, one at a time.

%s will be replaced by the search terms from the command line.

Super handy!

Try setting up search engines for yourself. It takes a few minutes to set up one, and it makes searching so much easier.

Emacs tweaks: Export Org checkboxes using UTF-8 symbols

Posted: - Modified: | emacs, org, tips
UPDATE 2014-03-28: Newer versions of org have the org-html-checkbox-type variable, which you can set to unicode. Use M-x customize-variable org-html-checkbox-type to see if you have it.

This snippet turns - [X] into ☑ and - [ ] into ☐.

(defun sacha/org-html-checkbox (checkbox)
  "Format CHECKBOX into HTML."
  (case checkbox (on "<span class=\"check\">&#x2611;</span>") ; checkbox (checked)
        (off "<span class=\"checkbox\">&#x2610;</span>")
        (trans "<code>[-]</code>")
        (t "")))
(defadvice org-html-checkbox (around sacha activate)
  (setq ad-return-value (sacha/org-html-checkbox (ad-get-arg 0))))

To find this code, I searched ox-html.el for [. Eventually I found org-html-checkbox, which is directly called by org-html-format-list-item instead of being a function variable that you can change. So that meant I needed to override the behaviour of org-html-checkbox through defadvice. You can see above how I wrap advice around org-html-checkbox and replace the return value with my own function. For more about advice, read the Emacs Lisp Intro manual.

To find the hex codes for the UTF-8 characters, I searched Google for UTF-8 checkbox and found BALLOT BOX WITH CHECK. I used the hex code so that I didn't have to worry about encoding issues. I tested it by updating one of my weekly reviews. Tada!

Inspired by Grant from Wisdom and Wonder.

Focus and fluency: learning when you're a fox

Posted: - Modified: | learning, tips

One of the things that Ramon Williamson shared in our podcast on Helpers Help Out Episode 8:  The Art of Copywriting for Google Helpouts is picking the one thing you're going to be known for and focusing on it. It makes sense that he emphasizes it so much, since another thing he likes saying is that your mess is your message, and focus is one of the things he's been working on.

It reminds me of the saying about the fox and the hedgehog: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing (Archilocus). It turns out that Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay called The Hedgehog and the Fox about how Tolstoy was more of a fox but really, really thought that he should be a hedgehog, and how messed up that was. I'm basing this on Wikipedia's summary–it's on the Internet, so it must be true–since I'm still waiting for the library copy to arrive. It sounds fascinating.

2014-02-08 The fox and the hedgehog
2014-02-08 The fox and the hedgehog

Anyway. We are mostly told that we should be hedgehogs. Focus. Pick a niche. That's the only way you're going to be great.

Of course, I can totally hand-wave and say that Improvement is the key organizing principle unifying all the things I'm interested in. Learning is improving the way you improve. Coding is simply an idea frozen in a form the computer can understand. Delegation is about improving processes. Writing and drawing is about helping others improve. Rationality is about improving decision-making. But being interested in improvement is like saying you're creative or motivated–so generic that it doesn't say anything. I might as well ‘fess up to the fact that sometimes I'm curious just because I am.

I am a fox. I have many interests. I am getting better at making the most of my foxiness. I resonate with books like Refuse to Choose and Body of Work, and with this quote from an awesome polymath:

I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

Buckminister Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb

If you are also a fox, a wide-ranging learner, maybe we can swap strategies and tips. For example, it helps that my interests tend to build on each other. (I'd use the word “synergistically”, but that's so 1980s.) Taking notes helps me pick things up again, and it also lets me share along the way. Systems help me keep things going even when my attention is elsewhere. Self-acceptance makes a big difference – when you're not fighting yourself, you have more energy for going forward.

My learning tends to be shaped by a strategy of picking low-hanging fruit. Things that require low effort/risk and give high rewards are easy choices. Do them first. For the next step, I like focusing on things that require low effort/risk (even if they give low rewards) over things that require more effort/risk with the promise of more rewards. I think it's because the accumulation of these baby steps often brings you surprisingly close to where you want to go, making things that were previously difficult much more doable. Knowing this inclination, I break high effort, high reward tasks down into things that take less effort.

2014-02-07 Low-hanging fruit
2014-02-07 Low-hanging fruit

One of the interesting and challenging things about learning like a fox is that you're a beginner over and over again. It can feel a little discouraging to struggle with learning something new while hedgehogs around you are comfortably settled in their expertise. It's worth it, though. I love that moment when things start to snap together, when your knowledge starts to mesh, and then you can take advantage of more and more connections and then what you're learning becomes part of the way you think. You become fluent. Maybe not Pulitzer-prize-winning fluent, but “I can say what I mean” fluent, which feels awesome.

This journey never ends, actually, since there's always more to learn, always another plateau of mediocrity to get through. But it's still so much fun. I'm working on getting even better at being a beginner so that I can get to that fluency faster. So that's part of the reason I learn like a fox: I like the challenge of a new topic, and I love the ways ideas connect with previous knowledge.

2014-02-08 Learning and fluency

2014-02-08 Learning and fluency

What are the things I'm relatively fluent in, and what am I working on building fluency in these days? It's good to celebrate how how far you've come, and it helps to be aware of what you want to learn so that you can deliberately learn. Hedgehog-me would probably have focused on programming, but fox-me has picked up lots of other interesting things, and I don't mind the trade-offs. In my teens, I used to feel insecure about not being a Super Awesome Geek (e.g. Linux kernel hacker or Emacs core contributor), but actually, adding writing and drawing and tracking worked out really well, and the things I'm learning now will add even more to this life.

So I'm working on learning delegation, packaging, asking, connecting, animation, business… Lots of things to learn, and there's even more beyond those topics. Can't wait to see what it might be like with enough fluency in these topics to see how things fit together and to just do things. =)

2014-02-08 What could that fluency look like

2014-02-08 What could that fluency look like

What are you building fluency in?

More tips for self-directed learning: deliberate practice

Posted: - Modified: | learning, tips

Learning on your own can be really hard. Once you get past the basics, there aren't that many books or courses about what you're interested in. It makes sense. It takes effort to make a book or course, and authors and teachers tend to prefer larger markets. As you gain experience, you need more specialized knowledge, and it can be hard to find existing packaged information or people who can give you good feedback. People around you might not know what you're talking about, and you might not be able to find mentors in the same city. Even figuring out what you want to learn and in what order can be challenging, especially if you're learning about the intersections of topics instead of just one topic. Here are some tips I've picked up for learning on your own:

Look for inspiration. Find people who are doing what you want to be doing. Ask yourself: What do you like about their work? What do they do differently? How can you learn from them? They might never write a book or teach a course–they might not even recognize that what they do is worth teaching others–but you can still learn from their example. You can learn by watching them, and you can even reach out and talk to them.

Review your work. Try to find examples where you've already done what you want to do, even if it was by accident. Ask yourself: What did you do well? What did you like about it? What was different? What can you improve on next time? Look for ways to deliberately practise the skills you want to develop.

Make your own maps. If you're learning about something that doesn't have a clear outline or curriculum, it's easy to feel scattered and discouraged. Make your own map. List your questions, and keep track of your progress as you answer them. Figure out what the next steps are. You might be able to ask mentors to help you make a better map. Mentors can tell you if there are easier ways to learn something, or if there are related topics that you would find useful. Make your own curriculum so that you don't feel lost.

2014-02-02 Learning on your own

2014-02-02 Learning on your own

If you're learning about things on your own, you'll probably need to come up with your own ways to practise what you're learning so that it becomes part of the way you work. Instead of being intimidated by the size of what you want to learn, break it down into smaller skills that you can practise. Look for ways that you or other people have done it well, and plan your own exercises so that you can learn how to do well consistently. Deliberate practice is the key towards building confidence and skill. Think about how you can practise that skill in a way that gives you quick feedback on whether you're doing it right or wrong. You might be able to check your work on your own, or this might be something a coach or mentor can help you with. Keep track of how you do on these exercises – it's great to feel your progress.

If you're having a hard time with the exercise you've come up with, break it down into smaller pieces and try working more slowly. Improve your accuracy and consistency before you improve your speed. If you find the exercise too easy, take the next step. Think about the results you're getting and adjust the way you practice. Good luck!

2014-02-04 How to create your own exercises for deliberate practice during self-directed learning

2014-02-04 How to create your own exercises for deliberate practice during self-directed learning

How to read blogs efficiently with a feed reader

Posted: - Modified: | learning, reading, tips

Books tend to be better-organized and more in-depth, but these days, I get more current information and insights from blogs. Reading lots of blogs can take time, though. Worse, it's easy to get distracted by the interesting links and ideas you'll come across. Next thing you know, it's two hours later and you haven't even started working on your project.

Here are the tools and strategies I use to read blogs. I hope they help!

I subscribe to blogs I regularly read, and I read them using a feed reader. Some blogs are great for inspiration and serendipity. Other blogs are written by people I'd like to learn more about, and I don't want them to disappear in my forgetfulness. Instead of subscribing by e-mail, I use a feed reader to organize the blogs I want to read in different folders, so I can prioritize which folder I want to read first.

You might not have come across feed readers yet, or you may already be using one without knowing what it's called. Feed readers (also known as aggregators) are tools that go to all the blogs you've subscribed to and get a special version of the blog updates formatted so that computers can easily understand it. The tool then displays the information in a form you can easily read.


Many feed readers allow you to organize your subscriptions into folders. For example, I have an “AA Skill Development” folder for professional development blogs that I skim when I find myself with a moment of time. I add “AA” to the beginning of folders that I'd like to see first in the list, since the folders are alphabetically sorted. Organizing your subscriptions into folders is great because that allows you to quickly read through lots of similar topics together.

I read most blog posts on my phone, quickly paging through headlines and excerpts. I rarely read blogs when I'm at my computer. After all, I could be doing something more productive instead, and I don't want to get distracted by the links. The Feedly app isgreat for this because it can synchronize across devices. Many feed readers even let you read while you're offline, which is great for learning things when I'm on the subway. Lately I've been skimming through everything, newest posts first. It doesn't take me a lot of time to do so, and it means that I don't forget to read the folders down the list.

When I come across something I find interesting, I use the Save for later feature in Feedly. I can then follow up on it when I get back to my computer by checking my Saved for later folder. I usually save this for my weekly review. In fact, I have an If This Then That recipe that copies my saved items into Evernote, and I have an Emacs Lisp script that exports that list and makes it part of my weekly review. That's probably the geekiest part of my setup, so don't worry if that makes you gloss over. =)

You don't have to read everything. You don't even have to skim through everything. Feel free to use the Mark all as read feature, or to ignore the unread count.

Most feed readers can autodetect the feed for the site you want to subscribe to. For example, if you want to add this site to your Feedly, you can try putting in and it should show you the recent posts. I write about a lot of different topics, so if you want, you can subscribe to just one category. For example, if you only want my learning-related posts, you can subscribe to .

I like using the free Feedly reader, and there are many other options out there. I hope you find something that works for you!

Adapt to your learning style

Posted: - Modified: | learning, tips

Books are great, but they're not for everyone. If you find it hard to get through a book, figure out what your personal learning style is, and adapt to that instead. Do you prefer listening to audio or watching presentations? The Internet has plenty of resources, and many libraries carry audiobooks and DVDs as well. Do you prefer doing things with your hands? Experimenting is getting easier and easier.

That said, reading is a skill you can get better at. If you can become more comfortable with reading–or at least, with getting the most important points from a book or a summary of it–you can access a treasure trove of people's knowledge through the ages. Here's a sketch of mine from 2012 on How to Read a Book (Adler and van Doren)

Still, if you've got a choice of learning formats, why not pick one that follows your learning style? =) Good luck and have fun!

Learning from online role models

Posted: - Modified: | learning, tips

Have you identified any role models for the skills you want to learn or improve?

When people tell me they want to learn more about something, I often ask them who they look up to as role models for the skills they want to build. It really helps to have a clear picture of what success looks like, and then you can play “spot the difference” to figure out specific techniques or steps for improvement. You might not want to do everything that your role models do or suggest, but studying them can show you options and ideas you might otherwise have missed.

I get a lot of value even through learning from role models from a distance. Since there are so many ways to learn, I generally don’t want to ask for people’s attention, so I rarely reach out. Instead, I try to build things up so that people talk to me. =) Other people get a kick out of getting e-mails, tweets, or comments from famous people. If you’re one of those — or if you want to ask your role model for more specific advice — here are some tips for building that connection!

2013-11-22 Learn from online role models

(Also, it really does help if you tell people what you’re learning from them or trying to learn from them! =) Sometimes people don’t know what they know until someone asks.)