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!

Getting Unstuck By Switching Environments

Sometimes I get stuck when working on something. I’ll sit at my desk, staring at the computer’s display. Nothing! It’s not that I don’t know what I need to do next. Instead, something in me resists moving forward. Perhaps I’m feeling overwhelmed, or maybe I’m distracted by some other issue I must deal with.

When I’m feeling stuck, I’ll usually pack up my laptop and move to a nearby coffee shop or public library. Switching to a different environment usually does the trick. The combination of a 10-15 minute walk and entirely different surroundings are enough to allow me to regain my focus. I treat the excursion as an appointment with myself, one that will focus on getting a particular thing done. When I get to my destination, I’m usually ready to get back to work.

While this trick invariably works when I switch to a different physical environment, I find that switching information environments often makes a difference as well. For example, perhaps I don’t leave my desk but instead switch to working on my iPad in a different app. Often, changing contexts from the laptop to a mobile device is enough of a jog to help me regain my attention.

In especially busy days, I’ll often switch several times: I’ll move to work on my iPad in a coffee shop, and then walk a bit more to work on my paper notebook at the library, then come back to my office to work on the larger display there. This helps me draw boundaries around tasks: whereas I spent the last hour focused on project A, now I’ll spend the next couple of hours on project B. The change of place creates a clean break between activities and helps introduce some variety in my day.

I’m lucky to live in a time when we have powerful portable computing devices and the flexibility to work when and where I want. I try to make the most of it; doing so contributes to my productivity.

The Role of Paper in Learning

How do you learn a new subject? Let’s say you’re starting work on a new project, one where you have expertise in the craft but not the domain. You’ll be working alongside subject matter experts. Their time is limited; you don’t want to waste it by asking lots of newbie questions. It’s up to you to come up to speed fast so you can ask relevant questions and help structure the problem.

As a strategic designer, I find myself in this situation often. For example, a few years ago I worked on the design of a system that was meant to be used by neurosurgeons and radiologists. While I’d designed user interfaces for complex systems before, I didn’t know much about neurology. Working in this space required that I get up to speed quickly on a complicated subject matter. (No “it ain’t brain surgery!” jokes on this project!)

Over the years I’ve developed techniques for learning that work for me. I’ve written before about the three-stage model I use. To recap: when learning a new subject, I aim to 1) contextualize it, 2) draw out the distinctions in it, and 3) explore its implications. I strive to make each stage actionable: to make things with the new information I’m learning.

What kinds of things? It depends on the stage of the process I’m in. In the very early stages, it’s mostly scribbles, sketches, and various notes-to-self. Further on in the process, I look to share with others — especially with people who know the subject matter. In both cases, I’m looking to establish a feedback loop. Seeing the ideas out in the world changes my relation to them. I’m reminded of the tagline on Field Notes notebooks: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Spot-on. The act of putting pen to paper changes my relationship to the idea; the act of articulating it nudges me to give it structure and coherence.

I deliberately chose the phrase “putting pen to paper;” this process doesn’t work as well for me with digital tools. I’ve been experimenting for years with digital sketchbooks, but keep coming back to pen-and-paper for speed, reliability, and ease-of-use. That said, digital tools play an essential role. My (continuously evolving) learning ecosystem includes software like OneNote, Ulysses, OmniFocus, and Tinderbox. Recently I’ve also started experimenting with DevonThink. These tools all serve specific needs and do things that paper can’t do.

There’s lots of overlap between these tools, so why have so many of them? It’s tempting to want to cut down the ecosystem to as few tools as possible. But putting everything into a single tool means sacrificing important functionality; the ones that do lots of things don’t do any one of them as well as dedicated tools. For example, OneNote, Tinderbox, and DevonThink can capture reminders, but none of them do it as well as OmniFocus, which is designed for that purpose. (Having OS-level, cross-app search functionality such as macOS’s Spotlight is a boon, since it means not having to remember which app you put stuff into.)

A paper notebook could be the ultimate “does everything” tool. People have been taking notes on paper for many hundreds of years. There are lots of frameworks around that allow you to use plain paper to track commitments (e.g., bullet journals), separate signal from noise (e.g., Cornell notes), etc. Paper is super flexible, so there’s always the temptation to do more with it. But paper is far from perfect for some learning activities. For example, capturing lots of long texts and finding patterns in them (what I’m using DevonThink for) is best done with digital tools.

While the form of my learning ecosystem keeps evolving, it’s increasingly clear what role my paper sketchbook plays: It’s a scratchpad where raw thoughts and ideas emerge. It’s not for capturing long texts. It’s not for sharing with others — not even with future me (i.e., “to remember it later.”) Instead, it’s an extension of my mind; a sandbox where I shape for myself — thus internalizing — the things I’m learning.

In practice, this entails jumping back-and-forth between digital tools and paper. I once aspired to consolidate these steps into a “smart sketchbook” (see here and here) that would allow me to eschew paper. However, I increasingly value the role my physical sketchbook plays in my learning ecosystem. Its limitations are an advantage: using it requires a shift in modality that keeps ideas flowing, vibrant, and malleable.

Designing Your Life

When designing things to be understandable, coherence is an important goal. Perhaps it’s the ultimate goal. It is for me. I aspire to coherence in (and between) all aspects of my life: work, teaching, writing, family. Every day I ask myself: how can they come closer together? How can one inform the other? How can I generate the most value with the least waste?

I’m currently working on the systems studio class I’ll start teaching in a few weeks. I have several other projects going in parallel: a keynote speech I’ll deliver in February, client work, this blog. They all connect somehow. Invariably, there’s tremendous energy at the connection points. Themes emerge. I press into these themes, dig deeper. (“Emerge” is the right word — this is not a top-down process. Instead, the interests lead the way. I discover them by doing, by trying out new ways of being in the world.)

The last chapter of Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 is titled “Design Your Life.” The following paragraphs from this chapter speak to me:

My opening line to my students, and a recurring theme in my classes, was that the big design problem isn’t designing a house for your parents or yourself, a museum, or a toaster, or a book, or whatever. The big design problem is designing your life. It’s by the design of your life that you create the backboard off which you bounce all your thoughts and ideas and creativity. You have to decided what it is you want to do each day.

There’s an Eddie Murphy movie in which he plays a soothsayer, and he makes the comment that you only have about 75 summers, 75 falls, 75 winters, and 75 springs. You only have 75 of everything, so you better make good use of them. Time is your only commodity — what else do you have?

If we are able to design our lives, wouldn’t the best result — the best measure of success, ultimately — be that every day is interesting? Most people don’t have enough interesting things in their lives, so in place of interest they try to accumulate money and power. But I think you’re going to be a better businessperson if you look at your life as a collection of hobbies, a collection of interests, not a matter of things you do during the day and things you do in the evening — or what you do during the day and what you do during the weekend. Think of everything you do as driven by and connected to your real interests, and it will affect everything you do.

Thinking about it as a design problem, as Wurman suggests, gives us agency. There are variables at play; our lives are ongoing prototypes of different configurations. Resistance — fear — manifests as habits we must overcome. Sometimes the work is a slog. The converse — joy, flow — is a clue to being on the right track.

Making a List

Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, Merry Christmas to you and yours! My family and I celebrate. Like many other people, we open presents on Christmas morning. My kids have just finished opening theirs, and have now moved on to Netflix. So I have a bit of time to reflect.

On my mind this morning? Lists.

Lists are central to the practice of information architecture, and one of the unique aspects of Christmas, as many people celebrate it today, is that it prominently features lists. Several weeks (or in some cases, months) ahead of Christmas Day, children start thinking of gifts they’d like to receive. They make a list. They write it down so they can share it with siblings, friends, parents, etc. and — if the household encourages that sort of thing — with the Fulfiller of Wishes: Santa Claus.

For the child, assembling this list is an exercise in structured fantasizing. “What would I be like if I had this  particular thing in my life? And what about this other thing?” For better or worse, the child starts identifying with the list. Not the things in the list, but the collection itself. One child’s list will be different from another’s; a reflection of their unique personalities through material objects. (I have three kids, and they each make their own lists. When making them, they negotiate to avoid requesting exactly the same things.)

While we are fortunate enough to afford presents, my wife and I don’t like this overly materialistic aspect of the holiday. We do get the children gifts at this time of year (their expectations set by the culture we live in), but we try to keep it simple and minimal. So when our children making their lists, we encourage them to prioritize. “If you had to choose, would you rather have x or y?” The list is a perfect structural construct for this. (Perhaps this is a good way to introduce them to the concept of bubble sorting?)

When Christmas Day comes, the children compare the gifts they’ve received to the lists they made. If there’s too much variance, they may feel slighted — even if the presents they receive are objectively better than the ones they had on the list. The list is a sort of token for their individuality; a structured manifestation of their desires; a reflection of their personality. The child put this highly personal statement into the universe as a concrete artifact that can be verified. Does the universe care? Will it pay heed to who he or she is as a person?

For a child, this list is a big deal.

But that’s not the only prominent Christmas list. There’s another list-maker in this interaction: Santa Claus himself. I’m referring, of course, to the following verse from the classic song Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

Here we have the Fulfiller of Wishes wielding a taxonomy: Serving as both judge and jury, he’ll determine who will benefit from his largesse. The terms aren’t made clear. What exactly constitutes a transgression? What behavior would risk you landing on the dreaded “naughty” category? Beyond indirect references to the state of your consciousness (“He knows if you are sleeping / He knows if you’re awake”), you don’t know. At least you have some comfort in knowing there’s a process for assuring the quality of the data: Santa is checking the list twice.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town was written in the 1930s, when the U.S. was in the grip of the Great Depression. The song featured a few verses that have since been dropped:

The season is near
For happiness time
Gotta bring cheer with every last dime
Santa Claus is coming to town

We’ve gotta dig deep
And cover the list
Gotta see that nobody is missed
Santa Claus is coming to town

Let’s keep the home-fires burning
Let’s give without a pause
Let’s prove to those less fortunate
That there is a Santa Claus

In these verses, the onus of generosity shifts from the Fulfiller of Wishes onto all of us: It is we who must “dig deep” to ensure everybody in the list is taken care of. A beautiful thought — one more fitting with the spirit of the season.

Five Practices for Using Information More Mindfully

We’re coming up on the end of the year, and you may be contemplating resolutions for the New Year. I haven’t had success with lists of resolutions drawn up before January 1. Invariably I’ve faltered on one of them by the second week of the year, and then all falls apart. Instead of writing resolutions, I use the quiet time afforded by the holidays to consider what I could’ve done better in the past year. Then I think about small habits I can implement or experiments I can try to help me fix those things.

Talking to people this year while promoting Living in Information makes me think many folks are feeling overwhelmed by the information environments in their lives. If this describes you, then you may need to be more mindful in how you use information. One way to do it is to establish daily habits and routines around the use of your digital devices and apps. Here are five practices you can try to start off the New Year with a healthier relation to information. I’ve tried (and had success with) all five; any one of them can help you.

Take a digital sabbatical

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is a relatively quiet time for many people at work. This makes it a perfect time to take a digital sabbatical. By this,​ I mean severely curtailing your use of information environments.

When I take a digital sabbatical, I go entirely off social networks and only check my email sporadically, perhaps once every two or three days. (You may want to avoid checking email altogether if you can help it.) I let people know beforehand that I won’t be availabl​e, and set up an autoresponder on my email so they know when I’ll get back to them. I use the time to do things in the “real world” with my family (such as skiing) and reading books.

Start a book journal

One of the effects of our notifications-driven information culture is that our attention spans are becoming shorter. One way to combat this is to read more books. (The digital sabbatical is an excellent time to finally tackle that book you’ve meant to take on for a while.)

While reading longer-form can be more challenging if you’re used to the pace of social media, I find that taking notes on what I’m reading helps. I’ve kept a journal of the books I’ve read for the past eleven years. Knowing I’ll be writing about what I’m reading helps me do so more mindfully. I also retain more of what I’ve read. There’s also a sense of achievement that comes from periodically reviewing the books you’ve read. A journal is an excellent way of keeping track.

Uninstall time sinks

By now you may be thinking, these practices sound like work. Well, here’s one you can do right now and which won’t require much effort: uninstall the time sink apps from your phone/tablet. Just delete them; you can always install them again if needed.

When we’re tired or overwhelmed, we don’t make the healthiest decisions, whether it be overeating or checking Twitter mindlessly. Removing opportunities to indulge is a time-tested approach to managing these things. Spending time without them may make you realize you don’t need them as much as you thought you did.

In the past few months, I uninstalled Twitter and Facebook from my iPhone and iPad. I haven’t gone off these places completely; I now use them only on my Mac, and only at certain times of the day. I still occasionally find myself waiting in line at the coffee shop and wanting to check Twitter. When I do, I remember why I uninstalled these apps from my phone.

Create daily information rituals

Instead of mindlessly checking into Twitter and Facebook whenever I have a bit of downtime, I now do it at particular times of day I’ve set aside for social media. Setting aside time to do so helps me be more conscious in their use. Nothing’s likely to happen in these places that can’t wait.

I’ve created several small information rituals that I do every day. One of them has to do with engaging with people in those information environments. Others include keeping a daily journal and writing for this blog. I have a sequence of steps that I go through when I’m doing these things. For example, I’m writing this post while enjoying my first cup of coffee of the day.

Any day when I don’t have time to write for the journal or the blog, I feel something’s missing — much as I do if I don’t brush my teeth. Getting to the point where these things felt necessary took time; the first few weeks I had to drag myself to the keyboard. I kept coming up with excuses of all sorts. Resist that temptation! Eventually, it’ll become second nature.

Use tools to monitor your screen time

Again, sounds like a lot of work. It can be. But there are also some simple tools that can help you become more aware of how you’re using your computer/phone/tablet. They’re especially useful in helping you identify the apps that are using up your time.

Some of these tools may already bee installed in your device. As an iOS user, I’ve found Screen Time insightful. (Here’s more on how I’m using Screen Time.) On the Mac, I use a third-party app called Timing that offers more extensive time tracking. (If you’re an Android user, look at Google’s Digital Wellbeing program.)

So there you go, five practices to help you make more mindful use of the information environments in your life. Many aren’t easy, but the payoff can be significant. One final piece of advice: be gentle with yourself. Building new habits takes time. (Some people say it takes as long as ninety days!) If you falter after the first day, pick yourself up and try again. You’ll be more successful if you go at it one habit at a time. Don’t overload yourself. The point of these activities is helping you have greater control, not less. Good luck!

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.

Uses for YouTube

YouTube has long been in the “guilty pleasure” category for me: a source of vacuous entertainment. There’s the hit of nostalgia upon discovering old episodes of a show you enjoyed as a child, vicarious consumption through unboxing videos, the mildly voyeuristic thrill of peeking down other people’s rabbit holes. While enjoyable, I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about these uses for YouTube; it’s been a (mostly) pleasant, if not entirely harmless, waste of time.

But something has changed recently: I’ve found myself getting real value from YouTube. Instead of (or rather, in addition to) turning to the platform for mindless distraction, I’m coming to it more for task-specific training. For example, yesterday I learned how to mend a pair of jeans that had a hole in them. I’ve also used YouTube to learn about the characteristics of different types of fountain pen inks, the proper form for a yoga pose I find particularly challenging, how to play one of my favorite songs (Rush’s Subdivisions) on the piano, and critical information that helped me with various work projects.

Which is to say, I’m increasingly using YouTube not just for entertainment, but also for education. Learning these things in video format has been much more efficient than doing so by other means. I can see what the other person is showing me, rewind, pause, replay to go at my own pace. There are often several options to choose from, with varying levels of skill. (Skill at both the activity I’m trying to learn and capability of the presenter as an instructor.)

Most of these educational videos aren’t slickly produced by professional educators, but by individuals who are sharing their passions. They often make up for their lack of professionalism and structure with charm and passion. In short, they’re educational and entertaining. But it’s a new type of entertainment, very different from the prime time TV programming of old.

YouTube offers an ad-free tier called YouTube Premium. I’ve long resisted paying for it given how many other streaming entertainment channels I’m already paying for. But thinking about how I’m using these things, I’ve decided to give it a go. If I had to choose between two paid streaming services, should I go with the one that only shows me slickly produced movies and TV shows, or should I go with the one where I’ll be learning useful life skills?

(One complaint I have about YouTube Premium right now is that it seems to aspire to become another “just entertainment” medium. Rather than foist second-tier movies on me, I wish it’d be better at helping me discover new things to learn.)

Intentional Computing

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Alex Baumgardt—who gifted me a functioning logic board—yesterday I brought my old Mac SE/30 back to life. My kids spent an hour or so exploring old games on its 9-inch monochrome screen while I reminisced about the days when that Mac was my primary computing experience. (My daughter Julia is smitten with Zork; I’m giddy.)

The kids had lots of questions.

“Does it have color?” No, it only has black and white.

“Does it have sound?” It used to. Gotta look into that.

“Does it play [current game]?” No, alas.

“Was it expensive?” In its day, it was very expensive.

“Does it ‘do’ the internet?” No, this one doesn’t.

An artifact from a different world.

I put my iPhone 8 Plus next to the SE/30. The phone’s screen lit up instantly, as it always does. It’s always on, and always on me. I’ve stopped thinking about using the iPhone as something I do. Instead, it’s become a natural extension of my day-to-day being. I simply take it out of my pocket, sometimes mindlessly.

Using the old Mac, on the other hand, is an intentional act. It’s off most of the time. To turn it on, you must flip a large mechanical switch on its back. It makes a loud, satisfying “thunk!” Various noises follow: a fan spinning up, the faint chirping of the disk drive. Then the “happy Mac” icon on the screen. A little world coming to life. Eventually, a folder appears showing the software available on the system. There’s not much there; a few games, a paint program, perhaps a text editor. No web browser, of course. (Although this particular Mac once had Netscape installed on it; I’d use it to browse the early web through a dial-up modem.)

“What do I want to do now?” isn’t a question I ever asked of this system. If I’d gone through the trouble of turning it on, it was because there was something I needed to do: work on a history paper, sequence some music, create an architectural model. (Yes, on the 9-inch screen! Good times.) A more intentional—a more mindful—way of computing. Closer to using a fine tool than a television.

I’m writing this in Ulysses’s “distraction-free” mode. Many text editors today have a similar feature: a way of forcing our always-on, always-connected, always-beckoning devices into something that works more like an SE/30. But what I’m talking about here is more than cutting out distractions; it’s about a different conception of the work and the tools used to do the work. It’s about computing as a discreet activity: something with a beginning, an end, a goal, with no possibility of meandering onto random destinations. As wonderful as the iPhone is (and it is a technological wonder), revisiting this 30-year-old computer made me think George R.R. Martin may be onto something.