What Did I Learn?

Like many other people, I have a morning routine. Journaling is an important part of this routine. Every morning, at the start of my day, I set aside a few minutes to reflect on the previous day and what today holds.

I’ve written before about the structure of this journal. Recently, I’ve added a new section: What did I learn? Specifically, what did I learn the day before? (And by implication: How do I need to change my behavior?) I sit with it for a little while, replaying the previous day. These are some other questions that help with this exploration:

  • What did I try that didn’t play out as I expected?
  • What expectations did I have that weren’t met?
  • What expectations were exceeded?
  • What information would help reduce the gap between these expectations and actual outcomes in the future?
  • How can I procure this information?
  • What patterns have I noticed?
  • What happened unexpectedly/serendipitously?
  • What resonances/synchronicities did I notice?

This last question may seem weird; it requires unpacking. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about something and the next day (or sometimes, the same day), I’ll come across the same idea in a podcast, book, article, etc. An echo of sorts. Sometimes these resonances are very peculiar ideas, to the point where I’m startled by the coincidence.

I don’t think there’s anything supernatural at work. The fact that the concept stood out merely suggests that I’m paying attention to it on some deep level. It’s like when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car and suddenly you see the same model everywhere. Those cars were always out there, but now your mind is primed to pay attention. These could be important signals.

Note these are questions about things that are under my control: my attitudes, expectations, plans, etc. I don’t bother to document things I learned due to events happening in the outside world, out of my control. (E.g., stuff in the news.) Rather, I’m trying to establish a feedback loop that allows me to become more effective over time. Growth calls for introspection; What did I learn? is a useful trigger.

Blogging as Gardening

A lovely blog post by Marc Weidenbaum:

The year 2019 is, according to Merriam-Webster, among other sources that track such things, the 20th anniversary of the origin of the word “blog.” Anniversaries are welcome opportunities to renew vows, to rejuvenate traditions, and to build on foundations.

2019 is also the 20th anniversary of jarango.com. My site started as my online business card but soon turned into a (not very active) blog. With the (coincident) disappearance of Google Reader and the rise of social media, my writing here whittled down to a couple of posts a year.

That changed a couple of years ago. I was in the final stretch writing Living in Information, and wanted to keep writing. (I know, weird.) I was also contemplating the next stage of my career as a solo consultant and was thinking about ways of getting my ideas out in the world. Also, like many others, I’d started to question the value of what I was doing in social media. It seemed to me at the time that I was creating an awful lot of content to feed somebody else’s bottom line. If I was going to be writing anyway, why not do so in my own information environment? A return to regular blogging was an obvious step under these circumstances.

Blogging is (unfortunately) an unusual enough activity these days that people often ask me why I do it. I tell them how much pleasure I get from writing (as I said, weird) and how it draws some attention to my services. But I also tell them the most important benefit I get from this blog is something Mr. Weidenbaum highlights in his post:

As Iago says in “Othello,” in a different context, “our wills are gardeners.” Blogs are gardens of ideas. (I mention gardens a lot when I talk about blogs. It’s because gardening is a key metaphor in generative music and my blog activism is a stealth campaign for generative music. Just kidding. Kinda. It’s mostly because it’s a useful metaphor for blogs, and I have a garden.)

(If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ve seen the metaphor of gardening in generative music and how we can use it to build resilience online.)

When it comes to ideas, the blog can serve as a public sketchbook — that is, one that 1) exposes ideas early and often, 2) to people with a wider variety of perspectives, so 3) the ideas can be strengthened (or discarded) through feedback. Writing here allows me to share things I’ve learned and things I’m thinking about very quickly — that is, in an unpolished state. This often results in pointers that invariably make the ideas stronger. Writing — even “quick and dirty” writing — helps me structure my thinking. I’ve often discovered what I really think about a subject by having to think about how to tell you about it.

So thank you for indulging me by reading this far. Please do get in touch if you have any thoughts on the stuff you read here.

Bring Out Your Blogs

Simplifying My Newsletter

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but every two weeks I send out a newsletter. It started shortly before Living in Information was published, in response to folks who’d asked to be notified about the book’s progress.

Over the past year, the newsletter has grown — both in reach and size. Having coffee with a close friend this week, he confided that he doesn’t read the newsletter any more because messages have gotten too long. (See for yourself.) I’ve also gotten feedback through other channels that, while useful, my messages have become unwieldy.

It’s time to do something about it. I’ve redesigned the newsletter’s format to focus on the essential: helping folks design information environments more responsibly, with a couple of cool things thrown in to spice things up. I’ll also occasionally add notices about upcoming workshops and such. But the main drive will be sharing useful information in an easy-to-digest format.

The first issue featuring the new design goes out early tomorrow morning. Sign up here to get it. And if you’re already receiving the newsletter, I’d love feedback — please let me know what you think of the new design.

Desert Island Apps

I’m always looking for ways of optimizing my personal information ecosystem. By this, I mean focusing on the work rather than futzing with the environment where the work happens. Ideally, I’d log into my computer, do a bunch of work, and then log out without having to think too much about the tools I’m using or how I’m using them.

The challenge is that digital tools are constantly evolving. There may be a new app out there that eases a part of my workflow, or perhaps one of the tools I’m already using has a hidden feature I’m not using. Sometimes such innovations can lead to tremendous efficiency gains, so it’s important to step back and review the ecosystem every once in a while. It’s a tradeoff between spending time working on the work versus on the way we work. A subtle, but important distinction.

Earlier in my career, I devoted a higher percentage of my time to working on my ecosystem than I do now. My toolset has been relatively stable for a long time. In part, this is because I eventually realized that many “new and improved” digital tools are specialized adaptations of more general, deeper tools.

For example, when my family and I were preparing to move to the U.S., I bought an app that allowed me to catalog my book library. I spent quite a bit of time messing around with that app. Eventually, I realized it was actually a specialized spreadsheet — something that’s also true of many lightweight data management apps. Rather than spending time learning a new app that perhaps adds a couple of timesaving features (in the case of the library app, it was reading ISDN codes), I could devote the time instead to figuring out how to do what I needed with the tool I already had: Excel.

Excel is an example of what I call a “desert island” app. Like the concept of desert island books (i.e., the short list of books you’d like in your bag if you were to be stranded in a desert island), these are digital tools that I could use to get my work done even if I had access to nothing else. They tend to be deep and broad, have large and devoted communities of users, and have been around for a long time. Other tools that fall into that category for me are the Emacs text editor, the Unix shell (along with its suite of “small pieces loosely joined” mini-tools), OmniGraffle for diagramming, and Tinderbox for making sense of messes.

Editing my newsletter in Emacs.
Editing my newsletter in Emacs.

These are all tools I’ve used for over a decade. (In the case of Excel, Emacs, and the Unix shell, over two decades.) But even after all this time, I’m nowhere near mastering them. My relationship with these desert island apps is a lifelong journey in which I will continually become more proficient — which will, in turn, make me more efficient. I test drive new apps now and then, but I always return to these old standbys. The effort of learning to use them in new ways is often less than that required by integrating new tools into my workflow.

What about you? Do you have “desert island apps”? Please do let me know — I’m interested in learning about what makes digital systems stand the test of time.

Trading Off Freedom for Convenience

Google Docs is notifying users of the new Microsoft Edge web browser that their browser is unsupported. It’s surprising, given that Edge uses the same rendering engine as Google’s own browser, Chrome. I don’t know if there’s anything nefarious going on (i.e., Google trying to stifle competition in the browser space), but I was reminded of all the trouble I’ve been having lately with my preferred browser (Safari).

To recap: Chrome’s dominance in the market is now large enough that many web app developers target it by default, often at the expense of less popular browsers like Safari. One side effect of this is that some apps don’t work — or don’t work as well — with Safari. The situation has gotten worse since I wrote my previous post on the matter a little over a month ago. More and more major apps are failing for me in Safari, while Chrome gives me no such trouble. This includes systems that are key to my business, such as Quickbooks, Webex, and one of my banks’ websites.

These are systems I interact with on a daily basis. As a result, I now keep Chrome open all the time alongside Safari. I don’t like this situation, for the practical reasons I documented in the previous post. But more philosophically, I don’t like it because it’s a constraint on my freedom to determine the components of my information ecosystem.

The foundational components of my ecosystem are:

  • its operating systems (macOS and iOS),
  • file managers (Finder.app and terminal shell),
  • web browsers,
  • text editors.

I could get much of my work done with just these components. There are other specialized apps in the ecosystem (spreadsheets, diagramming software) that are very important to me, but not to the degree a text editor or a web browser are. (I can access spreadsheet applications using a web browser.) Being forced to replace one of my preferred options for these central components rubs me the wrong way.

Software organizations like Google want us to be all-in on their information ecosystems. I see this goal as being in tension with my wish to define and control my personal information ecosystem. Google’s ecosystem has a lot of neat features — especially if you must collaborate with other folks. (Something I do a lot.) One easy way out for me would be to acknowledge the reality of my current needs and switch over to Chrome. This would certainly be more convenient for me. But convenience often comes at the expense of freedom.

There was a time in my life when I used a lot of open source software: My PC ran on Linux; Firefox was my browser of choice; I worked mostly using Emacs and a host of *nix command-line tools. I had a great deal of freedom. I could even tweak the kernel of my operating system! But I also spent a lot of time maintaining this ecosystem. Every (seemingly) minor tweak required hours of Googling. And all of these tools were “behind the curve” technologically; the more commercial ecosystems had more and better features. I spent almost as much time trying to find workarounds as I did trying to work.

Eventually, I gave up on the whole open source thing and moved back to the Mac (this was at the beginning of the OS X era.) Mac OS was much more convenient than Linux, but it was also more limiting. That was part of its appeal. I also held on to some aspects of it (Firefox, Emacs) which were also present on the Mac. I was excited to switch from Linux to Mac OS, and undertook it with full awareness of the tradeoffs it required.

I’m reminded of this transition as I contemplate how to approach my web browser woes. I’m not excited about having to switch over to the monoculture du jour for the sake of convenience. This time, I’m also aware of the tradeoffs required this time around — and I’m not happy about it.

How I Go Offline

In response to my earlier post about work-life balance, Daniel Souza asks:

This is an important question. I’ll answer it here rather than on Twitter, where my responses will get lost among all the other chatter.

It’s important for me to have “offline” time every day. There are certain practices that allow me to do so, and I will cover them below. That said, I don’t think of these practices as something exceptional I do to regain my sanity or anything like that. They’re just part of my day, like going through my email is part of my day.

I think one of the main reasons why people crave “offline” time is that they haven’t yet learned to manage their use of information environments effectively. For example, many people leave notifications on by default. Many of the digital systems we interact with are designed to capture our attention so it can be sold to the highest bidder. The constant stream of interruptions is exhausting and counter-productive. As important as it is to take time to be “offline,” it’s as important to develop healthy use patterns for online environments.

On to Daniel’s question. Here are some practices that allow me “offline” time:

  • Reading. I read a lot, mostly in physical books or in a Kindle device, neither of which can send notifications or allow me to open another app.
  • Meditating. I set aside time (usually 15-20 minutes per day) for mindfulness meditation. This does for my mind what flossing and brushing does for my mouth.
  • Naps. Not something I can do every day, but a practice I take advantage of as frequently as I can. 30-45 minutes is enough to reset my entire system and keep me going for several hours.
  • Hiking. One of the upsides of living in Northern California is nearby access to wonderful hiking trails. My family and I frequently take advantage of this privilege.
  • Long baths. This may be TMI territory, but I love taking long baths. We had a wet winter this year (after a long drought) so I can now indulge more frequently with less guilt. (I often read in the bath.)

There isn’t anything exceptional about these practices. They don’t take a long time. They’re not things I do because they take me offline; I enjoy doing them and being offline is a side benefit. Again, while being offline (daily!) matters, having a healthy relationship with online environments is as important. If you’re in a position to do so, take back control of your attention. At a minimum, turn off unnecessary notifications.

Direction and Action

Invariably, the most popular posts on this site are the ones that deal with tools and practices. Whether I’m railing against wireframes or showing you a way to make language visible, if it features a concrete tool or technique, the post is likely to have traction. This doesn’t surprise me.

My tool-centric writings fall on the craft end of the craft ↔ philosophy continuum. Philosophy is a harder “sell” than craft. Most people would rather know what to do rather than how to think; they want things they can put in practice on the proverbial “next Monday morning.” The more actionable something is, the better.

Except that action can be undirected. And effecting action towards the opposite of “Good” (perhaps unintentionally) makes things worse. Direction without action frustrates; action without direction muddles.

I don’t aspire to give direction in my more “philosophical” writings. Instead, I’d like you to entertain the possibility that direction matters, and that you ought to discover one for yourself. The world provides ample evidence of things that are going well and things that could be better; it’s up to you to determine what those are and what you can do about them.

How to Subscribe to a Podcast by URL

Yesterday I launched my new podcast, The Informed Life. I’m excited by the reception the show has had thus far; comments and views have far exceeded my expectations.

I announced the show in the middle of a three-day weekend (in the U.S.) thinking this would make it a soft launch. Why would I do this? Well, mostly because it’s my first foray at producing a podcast and there are sure to be kinks that need ironing out. But another reason is that there are parts of the process that are beyond my control. One of these is having the show appear in the main podcast directories.

I’ve submitted the show to Apple, and am in the process of doing so to other directories as well. I’m unsure how long it’ll take for Apple to approve it so it’ll show up in the Podcasts app. But that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to it yet! In fact, it’s quite easy to do so — even if it takes a few more steps. All you need to do is subscribe using the podcast’s RSS feed. I’ll show you the steps below.

(These instructions are specific to the Apple Podcasts app on iOS, but most mainstream podcast players allow you to subscribe to shows using RSS feeds. You may be able to do it with your app, though specifics will vary.)

Step 1

Copy the show’s RSS feed:

https://theinformed.life/category/episodes/feed/

Select this entire line and copy it.

Step 2

Open Podcasts.app and go to the Library tab. Tap on the Edit button in the upper right corner.

Step 2

Step 3

Tap on Add a Podcast by URL.

Step 3

Step 4

A dialog box will pop open. Paste the URL you copied in step 1 into the field in this dialog box. Press Subscribe and then Done.

step 4

Step 5

The podcast should now show up in your library. Listen away!

Step 5

I’ll post here (and on Twitter) when the show is listed in the main podcast directories. In the meantime, I hope this process helps you follow along.

Introducing The Informed Life Podcast

I’m excited to announce that I’m launching a podcast, The Informed Life. The tagline hints at what the show is about: Better living through skillful information management.

In this age of smartphones, social media, and fake news, you have access to more information in more situations than ever before. Information is central to how you make decisions. It can enrich your life, but it can also squander your attention. What if you could use information to help you achieve your goals?

The Informed Life will explore how folks from different fields manage their personal information ecosystems to be more effective:

  • How are they using information to their advantage?
  • Do they use social media? If so, how do they get the best out of it without wasting time?
  • How do they deal with communications over email and chat?
  • How do they keep track of commitments?
  • How do they keep their project-related documents together?

I suspect everyone does these things a little bit differently, and want to learn what works and what doesn’t.

The first episode is a conversation with my friend, co-author, and publisher Lou Rosenfeld. We discuss how he manages information to effectively coordinate the various workstreams at Rosenfeld Media, including the upcoming Enterprise Experience conference.

You won’t find The Informed Life in your favorite podcast directory yet. That will come over time. For now, you can listen by visiting TheInformed.Life, following on Twitter, or subscribing with your favorite podcast client. (Here’s the RSS feed.)

I’m new to hosting a podcast​ and am looking for feedback on how to make it better. Please get in touch if you have thoughts or comments on the show. Hope you enjoy it!