Mind Management Angela May

31Dec/132

2013 Year in Review

In 2012 I took a major step away from setting goals, this is the only record of a "goal list" I could find:

Which I mostly made good on. The moon is farther away, but I did spend a lot of time being spaced out. And LOOK at this dang waffle I ate for my birthday, I mean WOW

Instead of goals, I continued with 2012's focus of building and maintaining habits, and focusing my work into phases. I do think I improved over 2012, but a serious injury and some drama in my personal life really threw me off my game in the last quarter. Like the last few years, this year had a theme:

2011 was about taking bigger risks in my career.

2012 was about building good habits.

2013 was about focusing on what matters.

And, all things considered, I think I did okay! Here is another new tactic I wanted to share: Instead of tracking progress towards goals, define what matters to you and track what you accomplish. It sounds similar, but unlike a goal list, there aren't glaring holes staring you in the face, and it reminds you what really matters. Instead of a "to-do" list, it's a "to-done" list.

Yes, I tracked how often I saw particular friends. That might seem weird, but I have a huge problem with withdrawing and becoming a total hermit. Remember, the theme of 2012 was "focus on what matters"! I will be continuing with these tactics because I think it's starting to pay off. For the first time I don't see any glaring things in my life that I'm eager to change. I want to do everything I've been doing in 2013, but more and better.

2014's theme is the year of self. I want to learn to be kinder to myself, truer to who I am and I want to take more personal risks.

I think it will be a challenging year, I already have a lot of travel scheduled and a lot of impending deadlines! But I think if I focus on doing the best that I can every day, I can make it through. Onward!

Filed under: Misc 2 Comments
20Mar/135

Feedly Review

Hi Everyone! I said I would come back and review some of the Reader alternatives out there, so here is the first of those. I'm going to be reviewing Feedly today, which was the most frequently recommended RSS reader alternative to Google Reader.

Feedly is built off of Reader, but they say that they're working on building their own back end so that the end-of-Reader would transition seamlessly. I'm inclined to believe them because the whole site would cease to exist if the Reader API goes up in smoke, but of course I'm going to have to export a backup of my feeds just in case.

The process of signing up and logging into Feedly was super simple, and all of my feeds imported immediately and beautifully. Which was impressive because I was trying to log in while their servers were still being hammered by a flood of people. (Since they upgraded their servers, everything has been smooth and fine.)

Some things I notice about the web interface:

  • I'm SO glad it kept my folders and I'm glad I can rearrange the order of the folders, but I don't like how I can't seem to rearrange feeds WITHIN a folder. That's a drag. I mean... it's NOT a drag, I want to be able to drag them. I like having prioritized hierarchies within folders as well as having a hierarchy to the folders themselves. Because I'm crazy, leave me alone.
  • Within the folders they're not sorted by the number of new posts... or alphabetically... I can't discern how they're sorted, actually, and I can't change it and that bothers me for reasons.
  • Feeds with unread items are hidden under a "view more" tag which is actually kind of nice. It cuts down on clutter that tends to freak me out and is a nice viewing experience. It's especially nice for a few rare-to-update feeds that I keep uncategorized, like my Craigslist alerts. I don't need to see a list of the dozens of alerts that I have all the time, just tell me if something pops up. I like it.

The Web Reading Experience:

Of course the most important thing about a reader is one's experience while actually using and reading the thing. I poked around in the settings awhile to see what kind of customization I could achieve and one of the first things I found was colour themes, which was exciting. I really like the purple theme. "Ability to theme it purple" is a guaranteed express path to being my friend in the app world.

I also use the "Decreased Productivity" Chrome extension. I work in a co-working space and because I follow a lot of comic and nerd feeds, sometimes an unnecessarily sexy lady picture comes up in my feeds! That problem is a topic for the another day, but Decreased Productivity solves it by turning off all the pictures and colours on a page. I find it works really well with Feedly, so that's a bonus.

For each feed or category of feeds you can change the default view, which is great. For some types of feeds I want magazine view, others I just want the titles (list view). It's nice to be able to customize that. However, in everything but "full page view", scrolling through the items doesn't mark them as read - which is a major annoyance for me. There is a "checkmark" option, but I don't like that I have to scroll all the way back up to the top of a list in order to mark everything as read. It's odd, but as I reflected on why this bothered me so much is because, I realized, I spend most of my time in my RSS feeds deciding what I'm NOT going to read and clearing them out.

I love that you can "j/k" tab through feeds, seems like there are other keyboard shortcuts as well, but I haven't learned them yet.

I like being able to directly tweet something fairly easily. In  Reader I was more often 'one upping' things in G+, but something about Feedly - even though it's connected to ONE account - wants to use the google account I'm currently logged into in another tab (my professional account) which is not where I want to broadcast from. It's a minor and confusing issue, but the tweet interface works really well so that's nice.

At first I was really annoyed that Feedly was a "chrome app" instead of just a regular frickin' website. I know it seems absurd but the level of friction required for me to tab over to the apps page as opposed to clicking recent pages or just typing in a url was really annoying at first. But I discovered later on that you *can* just open a tab with the feedly url and it works fine. Usually logins that are connected to Google accounts is a problem because I manage several different google accounts at different times of the day!

The App Reading Experience:

As I mentioned before in my wish list, one of the key things that I need out of a reader is the ability to sync to my mobile account and serve me feeds on Android. Feedly has an app and it's a beautifully designed app... but it has some functionality issues.

When the app first opened it gave me a little tutorial about where to swipe to get to various things but after a few days of practice I'm *still* messing it up. Swipe right to get the categories doesn't always seem to work. Sometimes you swipe left for the next story, sometimes you swipe up... it's inconsistent and I haven't decoded when it's one or the other.  Tapping in to read more works well, though.

The biggest problem is I keep accidentally backing out of the app. When I'm done with a category, my instinct is to back to the 'main menu' where I would pick another category, but instead it backs me out to my home screen. SO ANNOYING! I know this is just me doing it wrong but it's such a natural thing for me to want to do that it's a really hard habit to break. I think I picked this up from reddit_is_fun, you dig into a topic and then back out to get back to the list of topics, and I like that the app warns you if you're backing out too far and are about to close the app.

When I used the app on my phone to browse through condensed view feeds (or even 'magazine or card' views) it wouldn't mark them as read in the app, and that was a major annoyance at first. Eventually I found the settings for the app (they're at the very bottom of the right hand swipe menu, below all your categories) and there is a checkbox there which makes it tend to mark as read rather than not. Big improvement. I'm still having a few issues syncing what is read and unread between the app and my computer, but I'm still testing to see where the issue actually is and how consistent it is.

Reading comic feeds in this app kind of sucks but that is not something I've ever done since it *always* sucks.  Incidentally if reading webcomics on your phone is a thing you'd like to do, ComicsChameleon is working on a thing, it's in beta for iphone right now. Just a note.

So that's Feedly

Overall I think it's pretty good! Lots of tips here from the Feedly people themselves on different ways you can navigate and customize your experience. It seems like they're working really hard to incorporate feedback and make changes, so I don't know! Overall the experience was positive and I expect better things to come from this service. I'm going to test a few others just for the sake of completeness but if you're looking for a replacement, I can recommend Feedly.

Tagged as: 5 Comments
13Mar/136

LONG LIVE RSS

Hi everyone. Today Google Reader announced that it will be sunsetting in July and I'm pretty upset.  RSS is the primary way that I consume information from the web.  Google doesn't owe me anything and it's completely within their rights to do this but Reader was almost a perfect service. It was easy to use, lightweight, FAST, perfectly integrated with Android in a beautiful app... pretty much everything I needed. Finding a replacement service that will have all of those features will probably be a bit tough and a minor inconvenience, but I'll survive. That's not why I'm writing this post today.

The reason I'm writing this is because the announcement has dug up a lot of people who don't understand RSS and its value, and a lot of confusion over why some people are so passionate about it. I've been trying to evangelize the use of RSS for years with mixed success, so this doesn't surprise me.  Hopefully this post will help demonstrate the value of RSS and feed reader services. Even if I can't convert all of you, hopefully I can help you understand why I'm so *mad*...

What is RSS?

You're on a website and you find it interesting. You want to know when it updates. You find this button:

You click it and it takes you to a url with a bunch of posts on it, maybe some code. You copy and paste that url into a reader service, the reader service tells you when the website updates. That's it! It's so basic and simple that it can be easy to overlook how powerful it can be.

Why RSS?

I recognize that I am not a 'standard use case', but I'm not a standard use case for anything. I'm hyper about time management and information management. I'm interested in a lot of different things, and my level of interest in those things vary. Sometimes the information is vital and I want to know right away. Other times I have a "passing" interest and I only want to know about it sometimes. The main thing is that I don't have a heck of a lot of time to spend sifting through information that I may or may not want.

The problem of the internet

  • the internet has tons of high value content that I care about
  • the internet also has tons of inane nonsense that I don't care at all about
  • websites update at all sorts of random times
  • I have a terrible memory

Without RSS I'd have to rely on aggregators (like Reddit or other news sites) to tell me what content I should be caring about, and I would easily get drawn into random chains of links that don't end up taking me anywhere of value.

AIN'T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR DAT

The information that I want is highly specific, and most 'news' sites are too superficial. Also, I don't want that information all the time! I need to concentrate on what I'm doing. When I do want it, I want it organized and ready for me to consume. RSS is the way I make sure that when I WANT to waste time by reading things on the internet, I'm only reading interesting, valuable things.

HOW I USE RSS

So here's a breakdown of how I use my feeds, more or less. I quit the news, and I have to be very careful about wasting too much time on general interest sites that update a lot, like Reddit or i09 or Gawker or whatever. Those are good sites! But I know myself and I know I'm a procrastinator. I also know that general news sites make me very anxious and can result in me getting really angry or worried at inconvenient times.  However, there are certain things that I care a lot about - like local events, technology stuff, comics, time management blogs (yes that is a 'thing')...

Whenever I run into a website that has information I think is interesting, I'll grab the RSS feed and throw it into Reader.

These feeds are grouped into folder by category. I don't think too hard about whether I should subscribe to something, I just grab the feed and get it into reader so I don't forget it, and leave the task of assessing the value of the content to my overall life for a later time.

Whenever I want to read something (like for a break from work), I boot up reader and look at my feeds.

The feeds that have updates will be highlighted with a number of posts. The feeds that haven't updated are plain. Why would I waste my time checking a website that hasn't updated?

I'll click through the feeds that have updates that I'm interested in at that time. There are certain bloggers who I find very insightful, but I'm not always in the best mindset to consume them. Sometimes I'm very curious about the world of finance, and other times I'm not as interested. Sometimes I really want to know what's going on in the world of Android, but not every moment of the day. I pan through feeds very quickly, skimming posts and headlines and dismissing whatever I don't find interesting. If I want to read more, I'll open it in a new tab, and then spend some time reading the articles in depth. If a feed updates too frequently with information that I don't think is interesting, I will delete it from the reader. After getting to know a feed, I'll prioritize which ones I want to read in which order for various topics.

By carefully curating which feeds I follow and in which order, I can maintain a high value stream of just-in-time information that is perfectly relevant to MY LIFE. ME, specifically. I can cut out all the chatter that is just wasting my time and distracting me.

Look, I recognize that this is a bit obsessive, but being very mindful of what types of information are IN and what types of information are OUT is very central to the way I live my life and maintain my tenuous grip on sanity. Well... passing for sanity.

BEST USES FOR RSS

RSS isn't always the best way to get information. Some things, like, say... BC Transit alerts, I want to have more urgent notifications for. RSS is best for high value information that updates semi-frequently and isn't urgent. Maybe it's regularly, but I can barely remember the sites I like, I don't have a hope of remembering when they update.

The best RSS feeds I've found are for:

  • In-depth analysis blogs that aren't necessarily 'news' but are very good at synthesizing information. I don't want to miss these updates, but I don't need them the second they update.
  • Local event alerts.
  • Highly specific news that I care about but might not happen often enough to justify going to a website every day. (Research happens slowly, guys!)
  • 'passing interest' feeds that update infrequently, such as artists that I want to keep an eye on who might only update once or twice a month.
  • WEBCOMICS - I still maintain that RSS is the best way to consume webcomics (at least in terms of keeping track of their update schedule)
  • Hyper-customized alerts, like Craigslist. Did you know that you can nab an RSS feed for a Craigstlist search? I'm in the market for a used banjo ukelele. Yes, that's a thing, but you can imagine how often they pop up on Craigslist. Having an RSS feed for the search term locally allows me to keep track of average price and also jump on any opportunities that might come up.

OTHER WAYS TO GET CONTENT THAT AREN'T AS GOOD AND WHY

Oh leave me alone, I know that's a terrible title. I'm writing quickly.

"Bookmarks" and other 'dumb' methods that collect lists of urls but don't tell you when they update

  • Relies on me checking a list of bookmarks
  • Wastes my time by requiring that I check through sites even if they may not have updated. The whole point of RSS is saving time.

"Social" services like Twitter

  • I'm a twitter junkie, but I'm even MORE ruthless about the type of feeds I will allow into my twitter stream. In twitter I only want the information that I care about the MOST (or that's the most entertaining) Therefore...
  • no good for information I 'sometimes' care about and other low-value noise
  • the people that I want to be social with are not necessarily the people I want to get news from. My interests are very specific.

"River" services like tumblr or Google +

  • These are a problem because there are several feeds I subscribe to that are "high value" but "low frequency". The high value posts get drowned out by more frequently updating posters that may be of lower value.  I don't want to miss those high value feeds!
  • Endless scroll is dangerous, my friends...

"Aggregator" services like Reddit or a news website

  • Aggregation services put you at the mercy of what someone else thinks you should read that day, not necessarily what you care about
  • They're dangerous time pits and you run a high risk of discovering something that will make you very upset for no good reason
  • Reddit is glorious and problematic the same way that the internet is glorious and problematic. A lot of interesting stuff, sometimes really disturbing weird people, a whole lot of noise. The whole point of RSS is filtering out that noise so trying to find in depth analysis in Reddit is kind of like hunting for couture items in a thrift store. It happens! But there's a lot of ugly t-shirts too.

"Notifier" services like IFTTT or Email

  • I ALREADY HAVE SO MUCH GOING ON... there are maybe two things I would want direct email notification about
  • I have a wide variety of interests that I'm curious about but I don't want to be interrupted all the time.

The SOLUTION....

I don't have a solution. Sorry! I wrote this post in a huff just because I was all riled up about Reader going away and a bunch of people talking smack about my beloved feeds! But this is what I'm going to try over the next couple of weeks: Feedly, The Old Reader, Netvibes... we'll see what else I can dig up. I'm also going to take another crack at IFTTT and see what I can get out of it.

This is my wish list for an RSS reader

  • Quick and easy way to add feeds
  • Please O Flying Spaghetti Monster make it easy to import my Reader feeds :'(
  • Both Web and Android compatible. I need my feeds on the go! But I mostly read on the web.
  • Some way to star or bookmark. Quick sharing is also a plus but not critical.
  • Really fast way to dismiss feeds and jump from one feed to the next
  • Some way to organize feeds into a hierarchy without too much effort
  • "Light" social - I'd be curious what certain other people are bookmarking or starring... not everyone on facebook though, blugh
  • Lightweight and fast without too much fluff.

That's pretty much it. Google, thanks for ruining my day, over the next couple of months you can be assured that I'll be taking steps to migrate myself away from Drive and possibly even Gmail. I won't be burned twice.

7Jan/130

Merlin Mann on Getting Things Done

Has "get more organized" been on your annual goal list for a little bit too long?

The Back to Work podcast recently did a series on David Allen's book/system "Getting Things Done" - a system I also borrow heavily from - and it's a great series of talks.

Check it out!

Thanks, Merlin and Dan for a continuously excellent podcast!

31Dec/123

2012 Year in Review: Tactics and Outcomes

End of year reviews are kind of a standard thing for blogs, aren't they? I really like writing them, but I was thinking to myself "oh who cares, these are boring." But then I realized, I care.  I was really enjoying reading the retrospectives of the people online I know/respect/follow, so I'm writing up my own. This is my year in review, from a productivity perspective.

Habits and Phases:

I'm not sure when exactly I came to this decision, but this year I focused on habits and phases.  I put less emphasis on how much I could finish and when (scheduling and deadlines) and more on just doing the same things in the same order every day. Habits. This was really fundamental to my success this year. I wasn't perfect, of course, but the habits existed and whenever I fell off the wagon I knew what I needed to do to get back on track.

Phases is another tactic that I felt really went a long way. Instead of trying to hack away at little pieces of every project throughout the year, I deliberately threw as much weight as possible behind one project at a time. This was a significant change in the way that I approach my work, and it took a lot of discipline to defer major projects and trust myself to pick up on them later. In the early part of the year, everything went into Book 2. I wasn't allowed to do anything until all the artist editions were finished! After that I declared "the summer of not giving a f**k" where, instead of focusing on work, I deliberately set out to enjoy as much of the summer as possible. Finally, in the fall (when it's rainy and I don't want to be outside) I threw a TON of weight behind writing my graphic novel. Focusing as much of my energy as possible on one specific thing at a pre-determined time of the year was a really useful tactic this year.

Inspiration Time: Discipline is important, but it's SO much easier to work on something when you feel like working on it. This year I gave much more weight to my emotions when it came to deciding what to work on. I still push myself to work (versus being lazy), but for certain portions of the day I'm allowed to work on whatever I want. Maybe I don't have any creative energy and I just want to organize something. Maybe I had a random idea I really want to tackle. I allow myself an hour or two to focus on whatever is drawing me (as long as it's productive). This, for example, is why I'm writing this blog post. I have other things to do, but it was on my mind! I found this tactic really energizing and a good way to break out of a rut (that comes from throwing all your weight behind something in a phase.)

Batching: I've mentioned batching in the past, but this is a tactic that has become a really fundamental part of the way I work. I resist answering email until I can sit and answer a lot of it. I try to clump all my chores together. The point is: group like tasks together because you expend way more energy switching gears from one type of taks to another than doing the actual tasks.

Learnings:

  • Emergency fund. FOR SERIOUS
    • I have an emergency fund, but this year I was shown just how essential it is. Whether it was just a short-term float that gave me more options or an actual emergency lifeline. I lost my job this year, and I didn't get any severance. I was fully qualified for Employment Insurance, and I submitted paperwork right away, but I didn't actually get any payment until after I got my next job! And that payment is only a fraction of the three months of rent that I had to cover. I had an emergency fund, so it was fine, but it really underscored the importance of it for me.
  • Not everyone is going to like you, and that's ok, because the people who do like you are super cool
    • This year I had a re-epiphany. This is something that I figured out in high school, but somehow I forgot. I got into a phase of networking and I was really concerned because a few connections continued to elude me. Then I decided, I don't care. I'm not opposed to making new friends, but it's just as valuable to me to deepen the connections I already have. Why beat myself up over a missed connection?
  • When I write, it's hard to do anything BUT write.
    • This was a really interesting learning, but writing really is all-consuming for me. I have trouble keeping up with chores, friends... when I'm in a writing groove, all I want to do is write. This is fine, but now that I'm aware of it, I'm better able to schedule around it.
  • Digitizing
    • I got a new Android phone in November 2011 and this year I really embraced digital organization for the first time. I still use a physical notebook for random ideas and scribblings, but I'm moving much, much more of my planning to digital tools - Evernote in particular.
  • To-DONE lists
    • I do try to write down the key things I want to accomplish in a given day, but beyond those crucial things I've found that it's better to write down what I DID do rather than stressing about what I DIDN'T do.
  • Self-managed success
    • A brief interlude in employment gave me an opportunity to test something that I've been wondering for a long time. Could I make it as a self-employed worker? Thankfully, the answer is YES! With a few minor tweaks to my existing systems I could easily maintain the self-discipline required to be a self-employed worker. I'm not about to jump ship, but it's an interesting thing to know.
  • Oh my goodnes...It's working.
    • Looking back on everything I've accomplished this year I really feel as if these mind management tactics are really helping me keep this strange life under control. This was especially highlighted for me when I lost my job. One of my first thoughts was "it's ok... I have a list for this." And I did! I executed on the list and I was able to find a new (and better!) job after hardly any time out at all.

But what were the RESULTS?

The good:

- Health

My health this year wasn't stellar, but the reason it's in "good" is because it was so much better than it was in 2011. I was a mess last year, and I feel like I lost months of my life to anxiety and depression.  I decided that my situation needed to change. I made some significant sacrifices and put a lot of energy into just taking better care of myself.  It was worth it! It was a hard road but I feel so much stronger for it.  I also planted a garden this year and started biking to work, which are two things I've wanted to do for a long time.

- Achievement


  • Book 2 printed and paid off within a week
    • It isn't totally fair to credit this fully to 2012- I started working on the project in July 0f 2011 - but this year I successfully launched the book and completed 300 artist editions and shipped every one. It was a lot of work. And it was scary! My first full colour book, twice as big as the last book.

  • I wrote 350+ pages of my graphic novel, bringing the writing part of the project to 75% completion. I put a LOT of energy into this this year, and I wanted to finish the whole thing in 2012 but I'm proud at how far I've gotten. I don't think I could have done any more than this.
  • Wrote and completed a short story for the seventh Cloudscape anthology. I was in the first four, and I missed the next two for reasons, getting involved with Cloudscape again was something I really wanted to do and I'm glad I got it done! Further, I forced myself to learn a new drawing program to do this.
  • Solo speaking engagement at the library on the topic of Writing Comics. I was also on two panels at VanCAF, one at Webcomics Rampage and two at "ComfyCon". Pretty good year for speaking!
  • Officially became an professional engineer
  • I always forget to mention this because it is so ingrained into my life now, but I did all of that while working full time and maintaining my weekly full-colour webcomic. I missed zero comics and was late for only three this year!

- Travel


  • Fulfilled the bi-annual adventure pact that I have with my husband by  making it to Peru this year. I'm so excited about this because I was really starting to doubt we would be able to pull it off! "Only" two weeks, but I went with friends for the first time and it's forcing myself out of the house to get there that's the real point to me.
  • Local trips - got some good skiing/riding in, as well as four solid hikes and a camping trip

  • Webcomic trips - took the comic to six conventions this year, three of which were away

- Career

  • I worked at three different full-time engineering jobs this year, and was only out of work for five weeks. Managing those transitions occupied a LOT of my attention. I was gutsy and I took some pretty hefty risks. But at the end of it overall Iwould say it was "good" for my career!

- Love

  • Trevor stood by my side all year long even though I filled the apartment with books and boxes and was really crazy for a much of it.
  • I'm also really grateful to my amazing friends. I'm really consistently blown away by how awesome my friends are :)

The bad:

- Financial Instability

  • Don't misunderstand - I got through it ok. I remained debt-free and I'm doing fine! But if there's one bad mark on the year, it's this matter of "instability". At the beginning of the year, I had to pay for the book 2 print run (which, since I'm self-published, was out of pocket.) I had saved up for it, but it's thousands of dollars. Right after that payment went through, something went sideways and I lost the ability to collect payment through my website! THAT SUCKED! It was a few very difficult weeks to repair that damage and I was starting to worry that I would not actually be able to pay off the book for a long, long time. BUT THEN I repaired the damage and the book paid itself off. WHEW! This was all happening right as I was quitting my first job to start my second. A few weeks without payment there. Then, in November, the second company suddenly collapsed and I found myself without work! Thankfully, I found the third job after five tense weeks, and I'm back to being a productive citizen.

- Hermitdom

  • I have a tendency to become withdrawn, especially when I'm absorbed in a project. That was especially true this year. I don't mind being a total hermit (which is what makes the habit so dangerous) but I feel like I need to put more effort into spending time with my aforementioned awesome friends.

FORWARD

It's strange this year to have only minor tweaks planned. Stick to the habits, keep it up! I've decided to sacrifice travel to conventions for extra time working on my graphic novel and I'm really looking forward to it.

Filed under: Misc 3 Comments
4Oct/120

Foundational Habits: Finishing

image

Hi there! Lately I've been reviewing foundational tactics listed in my index.  First, I took a moment to emphasize the importance of writing things down. Then, I reflected on goals. Next up is "actions".  The things that I have to say about actions are much more tactical (different types of note systems, how and where to write things, reminder systems, etc.), and we'll be covering that in the next few posts.

But first, I want to talk about finishing things.

No matter how much talent you have (or lack), or what you are trying to achieve, those who finish and ship (to borrow Seth's term) will find more success than those who don't.

This seems simple, but it is key:  FINISHING THINGS is a talent in itself that needs to be developed. No matter what you're trying to do, and no matter how much innate talent you have, without the separate talent of knowing how to finish something, you won't get far.

What does "finishing" mean? It means knowing how to look at a work and say "yes, enough. It's time to move on." THEN, you also need the courage to "ship" - to tweet it out, upload it to your blog, submit it to an anthology. "Finishing" is knowing when your work is ready for critique and then submitting it to be critiqued by the public.

What stops us from finishing?

If you find yourself in a photoshop document, noodling for an hour on a reflection of a reflection zoomed in at 800%, you may want to ask yourself - what is it that's keeping me from finishing it? Usually it's fear. If I keep pushing this reflection back and forth I can keep this work from being finished. I can keep telling myself it isn't "ready", and then I won't have to publish it.  I won't need to open myself up. I won't need to start the next thing and face that horrible expanse of blank canvas again.

Of course there is value in craftsmanship. Of course taking pains to do the best work you absolutely can and making something beautiful is worthy of your time. I'm saying that there will come a point in whatever you are working on when your time is no longer noticeably enhancing the current work and could be better applied to working on something else.  THAT is where the finishing talent comes into play. Recognizing when you're at that place and saying "yes. It's ready. What's next?"

How do you practice finishing?

Simple... just finish things! And like most things that we learn, the key is to start small. I work with many comickers and a common mistake that I see is when they plunge into massive sprawling projects before they have the skills required to wrestle it to the ground. I will admit... I made this mistake myself. If I had a time machine I would go back and tell myself to work on finishing shorter things before trying to tackle the long thing. I try to tell this to as many people as I can because I wish someone had told me.

Start Small.

Before the symphony, write and finish a ten second song. Go through the entire process and find a way to share it.

Before the mural, start with the tiniest canvas you can find. Finish that one tiny canvas. Then a 4x6 triptych. Then five portraits. Then a dozen 11x17 landscapes. Commit yourself to a number and a deadline and finish things.  Keep that promise.

Before the robot, start with a blinking thing. Then a poking thing. Then a dumb walking thing. Keep finishing devices that are slightly more complicated and slightly smarter.

Before the novel, start with the shortest short story you can make that still has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Publish or Perish

Here is another big reason to practice finishing things and starting small: you can't get paid for something unfinished. Or, if you prefer, a finished things is ten times as valuable.

Webcomickers often get demoralized when, after a few months of updating their comic, they still don't have a substantial audience. Your audience is smart: they've had their hearts broken before. Why should they get invested in a story when they don't know if they can trust you to finish it? Finishing is an unusual skill, which is all the more reason you should learn to develop it.  Rare skills are more valuable. And if you've finished something before, they're more likely to trust that you'll finish something new.

Having a reputation for sticking to your commitments is immensely valuable - far above raw talent, style, or uniqueness.

Finishers get paid.

Finishers get to move on to what's next and learn something new.

Finishers level up.

Go get it done!

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25Sep/120

Foundational Habits: Goals – good or evil?

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Most personal development books will start with a treatise on goals.  Unhappy? Well, golly you need some goals! Don't you have goals? Goals goals goals, the only answer!

Certainly, I started this blog that way. And yet, lately there's been rebellion afoot. Some bloggers that I really respect have recently been speaking out against the concept of goals, and in particular our obsessively goal-driven society. Instead, they recommend that you build habits, focus, daily motivation. Let go of distant targets and live in the now.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. The reason I started this blog with goals is because I really believed the process was helping me, but as the years went by I did start to transition more to a habit and daily focus practice. But are goals really a problem?

The True Value of Goals

I still think learning about goals is worthwhile. At the end of the day, all the little goals you complete won't make the difference - the only goal that really matters is happiness - but you will be improved by the process.

The true value of setting goals is in the process of looking at your life, finding what is making you unhappy, and drafting a plan to remedy the situation. All the other trappings of goal setting - the SMART goals, the tracking, the timelines... are just motivational tactics to help you build the discipline required to actually execute the plan.

The real benefit is in practicing the process bringing an idea to fruition. When I first started setting goals, some of them seemed impossible. What if it wasn't actually possible to lose weight? What if I was stuck here? What if I was reaching for a state that was not really within my capacity? Year after year, I set a bunch of goals and I worked towards achieving them. I learned a lot about the right way and the wrong way to approach it. I was demoralized by the blown deadlines, by not being there yet.  I beat myself up for not having the discipline to change. I really believed that I was on a impossible road.

But then.... something started to change. I started meeting goals. First little ones, then larger ones. Maybe not on time and maybe not to the grand result that I had envisioned - but I made a change. I improved something about my life, and then I did it again. I made a good thing a bit better. I lessened a bad thing.

And more than anything else, I started to believe.  No matter what I dreamed up, I believed that I could change anything in my life. It would take a LOT of time and effort, certainly, but I believed it could be done and THAT was the major turning point.

Goals... evolved

Once I believed in myself, the stress of being so rigid about goals outweighed the benefit of actually achieving them. I couldn't respond to changing situations, I couldn't jump on opportunities. So I changed my tactics a bit. I still brainstorm goals and flesh them out, but I don't track them as rigidly. I don't have concrete deadlines for anything except product launches and other events that are obviously time-bound (trips and events).

I know I can trust myself to stick to something and execute a plan, so NOW I'm able to change my focus from goals to habits. I'm still learning, I'm still experimenting with my process, but I still think that the goal exercises that I outlined at the beginning of this blog helped me.  I just now believe that they are a beginner's tactic that shouldn't be followed forever.

Lessons Learned

Setting yourself on a path of self improvement is just like any other pursuit. When you first learn to play the guitar, you agonize over the names of the chords, you strain to keep your fingers in position. You are encouraged when you strum a recognizable tune, but it's hard. You make a lot of mistakes. You have to concentrate on every little step.

As you practice, it becomes more natural. You don't think as much about the nuts and bolts, you focus more on tone and flow and making something beautiful.

If you're just starting on a path of self-improvement, I still recommend that you go through the goal- setting exercises. Make sure the goals are SMART, practice turning them into actions. Once you have some successes under your belt... try loosening up a bit! See what happens. Are you happier? Are you still making progress? If not you might need to return to these tactics and continue building discipline.

The only goal that matters is happiness.

10Sep/120

Foundation habits: Write it Down!

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Hey everyone, I've been re-evaluating a lot of my tactics lately, and to that end I've reorganized the Index page. Different advice will apply at different times so I want to make it easier for you to find the tips you need when you need it. Check it out!

Over the next few weeks I'll be reviewing what I consider foundational habits: the tactics that have helped me the most throughout my journey, through many different phases of my life.

The first and most important habit - regardless of your situation or what combination of tactics you're using - is the habit of writing things down.

People often lament to me that they wish they were more "organized", whatever that means. The first thing I always ask them is if they have a habit of writing everything down. I'm always shocked how many people don't practice this!

"Oh, I'll remember."

Think about that for a moment. We lead very complex lives; juggling multiple projects and appointments, shifting deadlines, and lists of tasks that are miles long. Never mind our complex inner lives of dreams, aspirations and emotions... There's a lot going on up there!

By not writing things down, you're relying on a piece of meat to keep it all straight and current for you.

To use a nerdy analogy: it's the difference between RAM and ROM. Your brain is excellent RAM - immediate processing power. By just trying to remember everything you need or want to do, you're using bits of RAM to hold onto these thoughts. This is not an efficient use of processing power! Transfer the thoughts to ROM - long term storage - by writing them down, and you'll have more free RAM to get things DONE.

Why write things down:

- it solidifies the thought and aids memory
Thoughts are somewhat amorphous. Especially emotional things like fears and anxieties can be a tremendous weight on your mind because they aren't solidified yet. It's just a mysterious something that is bothering you. By putting the thoughts into actual words and phrases on paper, you're able to more clearly see and evaluate what is bothering you, and then take action. Also, I've found that the simple practice of committing things to paper improves my meat-memory!

- it gets it off your mind.
As I mentioned earlier, committing the thoughts and tasks to paper frees your mind up for the more important tasks of concentrating and doing. Even this blog is just a repository for snippets of things I've been thinking about. I just write it out quickly and then I can get back to work.

- once written down, it can be modified
There are lots of things that you can do to words on paper that you can't do to amorphous thoughts that live only in your mind. Written statements can be evaluated - especially fears and anxieties. Once your fear is staring you in the face from the page, you can look at it more objectively and ask "is this true? What can I do about it?"

Only written lists can be clarified, expanded upon and prioritized. This takes the idea one step closer to being an action you've completed.

Where to Write

In order to build a habit of writing things down, you'll need a place to write things! I'll go into more detail describing these in future posts, but the best device is one that is always with you, and where the thoughts won't get lost. I've found a combination of digital and analog works best - I have a small blank notebook that I always keep with me, and I use a site called Evernote to store other random notes. In the past, I've been known to just open up a notepad doc and start mashing thoughts into it. It doesn't need to be fancy! Whatever works for YOU.

The first step: just get in the habit

-choose a place to write things and KEEP IT WITH YOU

Just keeping the paper and pen with you at all times is an essential habit to build. Without a place to put notes, you'll lose them!

- write thoughts, appointments, notes as they come to you. Immediately!
The moment someone tells you something you need to remember, pause to write it down. They won't be offended, actually they'll know you're taking them seriously. They would be much more offended if you forgot the appointment!

- remember to forget
I mentioned before how writing things down gets them "off your mind". Actually, this takes a bit of practice. After you've written something down, it can still be rattling around your head, getting in your way. You must consciously remind yourself to let the thought go. It's written down now, you can address it later when you can better dedicate yourself to it.

- remember to remember
The last step in the process is remembering to go through your notes at a later time. Not all of them will be useful... Some thoughts are best left to languish in a notebook. The good ones can be turned into actions and taken care of.

Good Luck!

30Aug/120

Stuck? Lower the bar to take that first step.

VanDusen Gardens

You may notice something different about this blog post.

Something... colourful? Squareish? It's right there at the top!... the picture!

Well, big deal, I mean, most blog posts have pictures, that's blogging 101!

Yes, but this picture is special. I didn't rip it off google or a flickr creative commons search. I took that picture. Specifically, I took this picture in the VanDusen Botanical Gardens.

There's a lesson in this photo.

When I started this blog, I had the idea that I would personally take all the photos for the blog posts. If you go back to the veeeery first posts, you'll see I started off strong. I love taking photos, but it's one of those hobbies that I've had to sacrifice in order to focus on greater passions. I thought I would get more bang for my effort buck- I'd get to practice my photography, and the blog posts would get pictures!

Well great plan but...

I stalled.

There were many reasons why I failed to follow through on this idea.

  1. I don't get my camera out as often as I like to, and when I do, I'm teeeerible at organizing the photos.
  2. I post to my blog during downtime at work, but my photos are hiding on my harddrive at home. It takes a lot of willpower to remember to open a perfectly fine blog post and rifle through my photos after a long day.
  3. I quickly ran out of subjects that matched the posts I was writing. Even in an abstract sense.

The natural reaction to this type of stalling (or MY natural reaction at least) is to make the problem INFINITELY MORE COMPLICATED.

"I should schedule photo days! I'll make a list of all the subjects of upcoming posts and invite my friends to come with me and snap some pictures!"

"Hmmm getting out during my busy schedule - not to mention my friends' busy schedules - is really tough! Maybe I should just look around for a budding photographer who is willing to collaborate. I'll just give her a bunch of subjects to shoot and work out some kind of payment scheme for the photos!"

THEN I got stuck on who this photographer would be, how much I would pay them, whether I could actually get the post topics out to them in advance, whether they would flake out...

The result is I didn't have any photos at all on my blog posts. For MONTHS (embarassing!)

I needed to flop the problem on its head and simplify.

Address the core problems, not the surface symptoms.

I've got plenty of photos, but the root of the problem was my disorganized system and my bad habits. I recently cleaned out my whole PC, upgraded all my systems and now capturing photos is much more automatic. Now when I tag my photos, I drag the ones I like to photoshop right away, quickly tweak them and save them to a separate folder. It'll take discipline, yeah, but it's a habit I NEED to build if I want to keep my PC clean.

The photos need to be where I am. Part of my new system is a folder in the cloud. These web-ready photos aren't so big, so into the folder they go! Once I post it, I delete it from the cloud.

The third problem was an emotional one. I wanted all the photos to be ideal little masterpieces that magically captured the essence of the post I was trying to write. Ummmm yeah. Suuuure. The stuff I'm writing here is either abstract or mundane. Unless I want to resort to "stock businesswoman frustrated over papers #37" it's just not going to happen.

How LOW can you GO?

So here is the new system: I'll take photos when I'm takin' 'em, but mostly they'll be the ones I've taken in the past. The photos will always be by me, but they probably won't have anything to do with the post.

I don't care.

The goal was to sneak myself some photography time. I know I suck, maybe I'll slowly get better!

Here's hoping it sticks this time.

24Aug/120

Focus

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I've always been a person who has a lot of interests, and I do a lot of things. Over the last couple of years, however, I've really been trying to bring my energy into focus and to try, instead, to accomplish fewer, grander things. Things that take significantly more time but mean much more to me.
It's been a difficult transition, because most of my time management skills revolve around having a million things that need to get done and some very concrete deadlines.
Now my list is just "make progress on x" and my deadline is amorphous and distant. Of course, I still have to work a (different) 9-5 day, and I still have real life grown up chores to do. I've had a hard time making this work. Here are some tactics I've been testing:

- A little bit every day

There are days when I have hours and hours to focus on the project. Then there are other days where, regrettably, I must do the laundry or see the doctor. On those days I try to reward myself by spending just a bit of time at the end of my day working on the project. It makes me feel like I haven't abandoned it - I'm still making progress - even if the progress is very limited. Ironically, sometimes I finish more on those days than the ones where I have more time available! The muse is fickle and cruel, it's your job to provide it every opportunity available to move through you. (Site note: On these days I like to put a "check mark" next to the item on my list. I can't cross it out, because I still need to work more on it tomorrow, but the check of "hey I worked on this a bit" gives me a bit of the same kind of satisfaction.

- Take breaks to accomplish micro projects.

If you're a person who often likes to share their work the moment it's finished, being deep in a secret project can be miserable. You're working hard every day, but when asked all you can report is "yep, still work on that thing I can't show you yet." A perfect example of this was when I was looking for my first job. Every day I worked to find postings, craft applications, go to interviews and wait for callbacks, but I had nothing to show for it. Making a comic once a week made me feel that I had at least accomplished something worthwhile. Make sure you aren't sacrificing TOO much of the time you need to make headway on your big project, but when you feel stuck - take a break, FINISH something, and then get back to work.

- Have fun

Just because you're working a big thing, and every spare moment is a moment you could use to work on the thing does not mean that you are a prisoner who must be punished for being a creative. Take breaks to see your friends, enjoy a sunny day, go on a mini vacation.

- Batch your other work into days off

If you want to work on the project and not on tasks, work on the project. If you want a break from the project to do some other stuff, take a break. (Just be mindful of what's a "break" and what's "procrastinating because you're afraid.) Batch all your other tasks into "off days".Usually, by the time you get to the end of those off days, you'll be anxious to get back to your project!
I'm still working to find the best way to tackle this type of work. How much of it needs to be discipline? How much of it needs to be play? How much is "enough", and how much is "too much"? How can I tell when I've hit either point?
Just remember: You want to get it done, but you also want to enjoy the process. It's not worth having if the journey there is continuously miserable.
GOOD LUCK
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Mind Management…

...is about getting the most out of life. These are my own personal strategies for figuring out where I need to go and how to get there. Whether you're an "over achiever", or just need help finding balance, these tips might help!

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