Category Archives: kaizen

Optimizing my day

My old routineMy new routine

Maybe there’s some truth to the advice, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Thanks to jetlag, I’ve been up uncharacteristically early. I like the new rhythm my day has taken.

Before this jetlag-assisted early start, I used to stumble out of bed, scarf down a quick breakfast, and head to the office. Waking up was a gradual process, and it took me about an hour or so to warm up for more creative work. After I returned from the office, I tried to squeeze in some personal creative time in the evenings. I found it difficult to write when my brain was tired from work. Finding the time to exercise was low on my list, as it took me away from other things I would rather be doing.

Yesterday, I simply couldn’t stay in bed past 3:30 in the morning. That gave me plenty of time to exercise, plan my day and my week, and write a thousand words for my book. I arrived at the office at 8 o’ clock and worked on my most important tasks. Because I had breakfast earlier, I got hungry earlier, too. Fortunately, I had brought brownies from the Philippines, and that helped me last until lunch time. I felt myself winding down in the afternoon, so I worked on some more routine tasks. When I got home, I spent some time tidying up and chatting with other people. This was a good way to relax and get ready to sleep. I was asleep by 8.

Today I’ll find out if I can repeat that rhythm. This morning, I woke up at 4:30. I prepared oatmeal, then exercised while the oatmeal simmered. Exercising first thing in the morning meant that I woke up quickly and with lots of energy. I even found the time to bake peanut butter cookies. The only hiccup was that I had some filesystem problems with my laptop, so I didn’t get around to writing as much as I wanted. I spent some time sketching instead.

Tonight, I’ll see if preparing breakfast and lunch in the evening is a good way to use my downtime to free up some of my personal creative time. Tomorrow, I’ll set my alarm clock for even earlier. I’d also like to move my morning writing session earlier, perhaps even before breakfast. Kaizen: relentless improvement.

Building my visual vocabulary: Breaking down other people’s sketchnotes into component parts

I want to draw more expressively. Some easy ways to improve my visual vocabulary are to look at how other people draw things and practise drawing with those styles. I started by redrawing the images onto index cards, but it was a hassle to keep the index cards sorted. Besides, I wasn’t looking forward to the error-prone process of scanning all the index cards in and making them available on my phone or computer. I didn’t want to fuss about with splitting my screen and trying to draw in a small section, or browsing through pages on my tablet while redrawing things on my tablet PC. I wanted a quick and easy way to build a visual glossary in preparation for drawing things myself.

Skitch turned out to be a great way to quickly capture small sections from other people’s sketchnotes and add them to Evernote. Ctrl-% captures a screenshot. That requires too much hand gymnastics and popped up a dialog, so I used AutoHotkey to map my F5 function key to ^`%{Space}. This meant that I could hit a single key to capture the screenshot and send the previous one to Evernote, so I could keep one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard. It was relaxing work, and so easy that I got a little carried away. I captured some 800 images before I sat down and started classifying them.

I wanted to label each image with a keyword that I could use to find it. Another Autohotkey shortcut mapping F6 to !nv{Enter}{Esc}{Tab}^a made it much easier to move the note to my Visual Library notebook and select the next note for editing. I settled into the rhythm of typing in keywords and pressing F6, and after a couple of hours, I’d classified all the images I’d captured so far. I spent a little time merging similar concepts for easier review, ending up with 575 entries in my visual library.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Many sketchnotes have just a handful of images. Some feel very graphical anyway because of lettering flourishes and creative layouts. My style actually involves more mini-images than many of the ones I’ve seen, but I don’t develop them to the level of detail in some people’s sketchnotes.
  • A good portrait goes a long way. I should practise drawing people.
  • Simple shading has a nice effect. A light gray tone or a subtle shadow colour can really add depth.

There are still plenty of other sketchnotes to harvest drawings from, so I can alternate harvesting images with practising drawing them.

Links: Skitch, Evernote, Autohotkey, the Sketchnote Index

When it comes to juggling multiple interests, it helps to limit your expectations

imageI have a lot of ideas, and it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that I’m not making progress on as many of them as I want to. It’s simple math. If I make progress on two projects but let eight languish, I tend to feel guilty about those eight.

So I’m borrowing an idea from just-in-time delivery: the kanban method. The ideas are (according to Wikipedia):

  • Visualize: See what you’re working on and where it is in the workflow. Also, keep track of where you’re approaching the limits.
  • Limit work in process: My limit is probably two projects in focus. I work on one at a time. The other is there for switching to if I hit a snag or need to change things up. (See also: Managing Oneself) Everything else is on the back burner, the someday/maybe list, or the “nifty idea but probably not for me” list.
  • Manage flow: I’m not paying much attention to this yet. It would be interesting to track how things move from current to back burner. I have some of that data through my timetracking.
  • Make policies explicit: What gets a project onto my someday/maybe list, onto my back-burner, or into focus? There are lots of ideas that I’m happy to let other people explore; I pick up only projects that I’m personally motivated by and that I see value in. Of those, I identify which ones I can actually make some progress towards today. I focus on 1-2 things that I like the most (especially if other people want them too). I don’t stop myself from working on back burner things, but I no longer have to feel guilty about letting them lapse. If it turns out that I don’t actually spend time on back burner items in a month or two, that’s usually a good sign it’s a someday/maybe thing due to lack of present motivation or capability.
  • Implement feedback loops: I haven’t paid much attention to this yet. Usually, people nudge me if I let some projects take too much of my attention.
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally (using models and the scientific method): Tweaking my mindset to minimize guilt-friction is a good, small improvement. Looking forward to other small improvements!

Strict kanban would probably mean not even starting until I’d cleared off at least one work in progress, I think. I’m not that strict. I’m happy to switch back and forth, but it’s good to be clear about what I’m focusing on. That way, I don’t feel pulled in ten different directions.


Writing is my key project. Drawing, Quantified Awesome, and Emacs swap in and out of the #2 slot. Delegation tends to be more on the back burners. Someday/maybe? More business stuff, getting better at gardening, learning sewing, and so on. If I were better at delegation, I might be able to increase my capacity to do more, but it’s a lower priority at the moment (I appreciate the extra cushion that frugality gives me). I’m cheating with “Writing” and the books on my list – I’m planning to write them in short segments, one blog post at a time.

Knowing this helps because when requests come in for things that I’m not focused on, I can happily and guiltlessly refer them to other people. It makes decisions easier. Do I spend $X to attend a conference or course on Y? No, that’s on my someday/maybe list. It’s good to know what you can say no to in order to say yes to other things.

I might be able to make more progress if I focused on driving 1-2 things to completion, not switching them on and off the back burner. In that case, I would eliminate writing from my list of projects (it’s never done!) and move up the book projects. I tried that kind of intensive writing with Wicked Cool Emacs and it burned me out a little, but maybe I’ve learned since then. I like the interplay of interests, though. Maybe I can experiment with “week on, week off” patterns – there’s value in immersion as well…

Anyway, the point of this post is: I can’t do everything at the same time, so I’m learning to not stress out about it. =) If that’s something you struggle with too, then you might find that clearly identifying the things you are focusing on and gently letting go of the other things (at least for now) might help. 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. =)