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 ( 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:

Select this entire line and copy it.

Step 2

Open 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!

The Top Posts on in 2018

We’re now in a relatively quiet part of the year for folks in the Western Hemisphere; it’s a good time to reflect on what has gone well — and not. In that spirit, I thought it worthwhile to review the posts that have had the most views in this site in 2018. (This measure means the most recent posts get sidetracked, but this isn’t meant to be a rigorous assessment.)

The most popular thing I shared this year was an explanation of my semantic environment canvas. This isn’t surprising since it’s less of an opinion piece (as many of my other posts are) and more of a tool. The site’s second most popular post of the year was an example of these semantic maps.

The third most popular post of the year was about the end of engagement as a metric for measuring the success of information environments. This was prompted by Google and Apple releasing versions of their mobile operating systems that allow users to monitor and limit the time the spend on their phones.

The site’s fourth most popular post of the year dealt with organizational politics; a subject that everyone who works in large(r) teams encounters, and which designers are often ill-prepared to navigate skillfully.

The fifth most popular post was a description of what semantic environments are. Back to the canvas! Since three of the posts in the top five this year were about semantic environments, I’ll share one more.

The sixth most popular post was my notes on Factfulness, the amazing book by the late Hans Rosling (et al) that was released earlier this year. If you haven’t yet read Factfulness, make space for it in your queue; it’ll give you a more realistic — and hopeful — perspective of the world you live in.

Some reflection… I write in this site as a means of flexing my writing muscles. I try to share stuff you’ll find useful, but getting lots of views isn’t my primary goal. That said, the success of the semantic environment canvas posts has me thinking about the direction of this site, and how I can make it more useful by posting more tools. What about you? What would you like to hear more about? Please let me know.

Blogging and Social Media

“Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”
— Stephen King

A little over a year ago, I completed the bulk of Living in Information. I’d found my voice, and wasn’t ready to put the microphone down. So I started blogging again. While it may seem old fashioned—and perhaps a bit quixotic—I’m loving it.

I’m in service to ideas. Most aren’t original to me; I just give them a voice. Blogging helps me make them a thing in the world. It compels me to dig deeper than I could if I was writing exclusively in environments designed for other ends.

Facebook is great for finding out what your acquaintances are up to. It’s given the Web enough structure for your high school friends to share photos of their pets. Twitter is great for pithy, context-free hot takes. A disaster for discourse.

These environments prioritize novelty and engagement, not coherence and continuity. They’re designed to hold your attention, not to help you reason. I can’t point you to any viable ideas I’ve posted on​ Facebook or Twitter. They’re there but are now indistinguishable from the detritus.

Don’t get me wrong. I love these social networks and have no plans to leave them in the near term. But that’s because I know their role in my life. (Hopefully, they helped bring you here.)

It’s a cliché, but a true one: I’m often unsure of what I think until I’ve written about it. I’m thrilled to have a venue where I can “think out loud;” where I can give ideas life. And I’m thrilled that you’re here. This place isn’t bustling like the social networks, but that’s a good thing. Hopefully, you’ll find stuff of value without feeling nudged.