You’re doing it wrong

That morning, my mind spun as I tried in vain to re-create the various perceptions and emotions that had been written into Google’s servers and were now abandoned to the ether. I felt a sudden sense of mourning that I still have not gotten over. And yet, to my surprise, I felt something else alongside it: a conflicting sense of relief and even levity. I would never have voluntarily deleted all of those emails, but I also can’t deny, not entirely, that there is something cathartic about sloughing off those thousands of accumulated disappointments and rebukes, those passionate and pathetic fights and dramas, even those insights and stirrings—all of those complicated yet ephemeral layers of former selves that no longer contain me. I began to accept that I would need to imagine my way back into those previous mental states if they were truly worth revisiting—and that if I could not, then the loss was necessarily manageable. I closed my laptop, wandered outside into the specific corner of France that my former selves’ cumulative choices had led me to inhabit, and was overtaken by a sense of hope.

~ Thomas Chatterton Williams from, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/11/deleted-emails-gmail-inbox-capacity/672244/

Disclosure: I quoted the entire last paragraph. Yes, that takes the zing out of the article—but I fear few of you, dear readers, will click through for something… this again, Craig?! …related to my opinions about email.

If you have folders (and sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders) of email, or especially if your Inbox is not empty: You are doing it wrong. Don’t save the email. Instead figure out why you feel the urge to save the email. Then fix that urge.

The real underlying problem is that systems thinking is not something everyone is accustomed to. And lest you fear that Wikipedia article, it’s really very helpful. Does this sound like something worth understanding?

Systems thinking is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. It has been used as a way of exploring and developing effective action in complex contexts.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_thinking

You’re saving that email because it has a photo attached. Saving this other email because it has the order confirmation for that thing you just ordered—should be fine, but every once in a while you need that email when the thing doesn’t show up, or you need to return it, or you can’t log into their online system. Saving this other email because it has the details for that thing we’re going to. And this email has a link to something your friend said to read. That email is a newsletter you really want to maybe read later some day maybe. And so on. I’m not saying it’s easy to imagine systems for all of that stuff— but it is possible. Pick one of those emails, and have an honest think about why you’re saving it.

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slip:4a123.

Cursive

It was a good book, the student told the 14 others in the undergraduate seminar I was teaching, and it included a number of excellent illustrations, such as photographs of relevant Civil War manuscripts. But, he continued, those weren’t very helpful to him, because of course he couldn’t read cursive.

~ Drew Gilpin Faust from, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/10/gen-z-handwriting-teaching-cursive-history/671246/

People of a certain age know that cursive is no longer taught and that of course there must be people who can’t read or write cursive. But I certainly wasn’t clear on when the sun actually set. (Hint: Teaching of cursive ended in 2010.)

What struck me in this article was how Faust’s not knowing about the sunset of cursive knowledge sparked an interesting discussion among himself and the students in his class. Rather than rail against the cessation of cursive education, I’m left with interesting questions: I was taught a specific, super–simplified form of cursive. I know there are other styles, even hardcore calligraphy, which I can barely read. While there are lots of reasons trotted out for why cursive should be taught, maybe I should go through the effort of learning another form of cursive to put my efforts where my mouth has always been? If my cursive knowledge—for example—opens up my ability to access certain documents, wouldn’t it be better (my own argument goes) to learn another form, or to practice even more, to access even more?

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R e p e t i t i o n

The popular history of spaced repetition is full of myths and falsehoods. This text is to tell you the true story. The problem with spaced repetition is that it became too popular for its own effective replication. Like a fast mutating virus it keeps jumping from application to application, and tells its own story while accumulating errors on the way.

~ Piotr Wozniak from, https://www.supermemo.com/en/articles/history

If you’ve never heard of Super Memo, and you click over there, it’s likely to distract you for an hour. This article is both the origin story for Super Memo and for spaced repetition. I’ve read at least one other thing (I’ve not read this article in full, but I have read at least one other one), that is a comprehensive deep dive. Today, I’m sharing this in the hopes that you’ll glance over at it, skim around and realize that, since you will then be acquainted with Wozniak, I am not the most systems-crazy person you know of.

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Three habits

The thing about really deep learning is it actually changes the structure of your brain. You are breaking an old pathway and creating a new neurological pathway. […] The three habits I’ve talked about—seeing in systems, taking multiple perspectives and asking different questions. Those are the natural habits of people who are farther along in this adult development path. If we can encourage ourselves to develop some of those patterns in ourselves, and we can be learning those things in ways that create new neural networks, then suddenly, we are living our way into these more advanced forms of development as we are just going about our daily lives.

~ Jennifer Garvey Berger from ~1h 13m into, The Mental Habits of Effective Leaders with; transcript edited for clarity; https://fs.blog/knowledge-project-podcast/jennifer-garvey-berger/

slip:2me1.

This episode from Shane Parrish’s, The Knowledge Project, podcast is excellent. About two-thirds of the way through the 90 minutes, they start going really deep into mental habits including specifics of how to change one’s mindset. The title of the episode could well be expanded to, …of Effective People.

I’ve been asked how it is that I do what I do, in podcast conversations. Here Berger and Parrish have explained it; Frankly, I better understand how I do it, now having listened to Berger. These three habits she points out are the magic that I use to power my conversations. I’ve always had the habit—my parents would say, “to a fault”—of asking good questions. About 35 years ago, when I became immersed in engineering, physics, computers, and the Internet I perfected the habit—here I would say, “to a fault”—of thinking in systems. And 10 years ago, as I began my journey rediscovering my personal movement, I realized the magnificent knowledge and experience available to me through others’ perspectives.

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Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition comes up in discussions of optimal learning. Once one learns something, it’s best to review it after a period of time, then a second review, third, etc.. with the time between the reviews increasing. There are class structures and software packages which implement this. (Randomly over the years I’ve even considered dumping everything I ever wanted to learn into such a system.)

Part of the power of the spacing is that you don’t come to expect when a particular bit of information will be reviewed. “Oh! I need that knowledge, I guess it is important.” It all apparently causes the brain to not allow the knowledge to expire and be lost. I’ve discovered that my regular usage of the slipbox is randomly, (in the sense that I have no sense of what or when to expect to bump into an idea again,) reminding me of things.

For example, I had a slip, “4c2se1j” with an idea for a blog post on it. As I was writing the post, which involved Sönke Ahrens, I flipped to her name in the slipbox to add this slip’s address to things related to her. She’s on the slip at “4c1ae(3)”. (Because “4c1ae” overflowed to a second “4c1ae(2)” and then third slip “4c1ae(3)”.) Next to her name I added “4c2se1j”. Your eyes may have glassed over, but that’s just another random moment in my using the slipbox—nothing particularly interesting there.

While doing that, my eyes flashed across two addresses already on Ahren’s line…

First, “2ho1”. Just four characters, but I instantly recognized the “2” as a book reference, and Ahren’s book is “HOw to take smart notes.” Several of the ideas from the book flashed through my mind.

Second, “4c2ko1a”. That looks gnarly, but “4c2” is themes. “4c2ko” then must be a word with first-letter K, and first-vowel O, and it has to be related to Ahrens? …that’s easy. That would be the slip for “KnOwledge systems”. I don’t know for sure (without looking) what’s on “4c2ko1a” but lots of ideas related to knowledge systems popped into my mind.

Don’t be distracted by my insane, paper-slips in physical-boxes system. There are countless ways to take notes. (Ahrens has a lot of great stuff to say about that, and I’d argue she has The stuff to say about it.) My point here is that by taking notes into a system that is designed to help me think—not tell me how to think—it does in fact help me think and helps me learn and remember.

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slip:4c2ko1c.

Consistent, Current and Context-driven

The podcast episode, Consistent, Current and Context-driven, is a scant 5 minutes and 43 seconds long. You’ll probably want to pause and take some notes. After it widens your eyes, go revisit your copy of Getting Things Done—or omgbecky buy a copy, …how do you not own a copy?

Everything I have ever accomplished is because I have systems within which I can think and operate; our brains are for having ideas, not for remembering things [such as: to-do lists, dates, reminders, etc.]

slip:4c2ge2a.

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Brain-slipbox alignment

A faithful reader hit reply recently and asked…

How do you get your brain to be consistent with your slipbox? I’m thinking it would be an excellent thing to do/have, but I also know that if I was filing thoughts under a tab where I thought it should go, there’s a good chance that when I look for it later, a different tab is where I’m going to think it should be.

The short answer is: I don’t get them consistent; I don’t actually want them to be consistent. That’s not what the slipbox is for.

And then a two-part longer answer:

First: It is vastly better than my brain at keeping track of things. For example, if I have a name, I can find entry points into the slipbox by using the index of people. That’s at “4c1”. “4” is the common place book. “4c” is slipbox indices. “4c1” is for people. It’s a visually easy to spot section of the cards though. I use 3×5 tabbed dividers to find the main letters. Grabbing a random card— “4c1lo” (that’s four-C-one-L-O) has people whose last name starts with “L” then first vowel of “O”. The card has “London, John”, “London, Jack”, “Lombardi, Vince”, “Loomis, Carol”. In this case names that actually start “LO…” but that is not usually the situation. Next to “Low, Steven” is a reference “3/211027a”  … and I know what the “3” section of the slipbox is: recorded conversations. So that’s a conversation I had with the person on 21-10-07. To summarize: Given any name, I can find them in the slipbox; or I can tell they’re not in the slipbox. In other situations, I can go into the box: “what were my notes on that book?” I can find books (digital, physical, essays and papers too) are in the “2” section of the slipbox.

Second: The slipbox is not meant ONLY to be a card catalog system. It’s not ONLY a giant index of things. It’s primary goal is to have a conversation with the entire collection [whatever I’ve put in the slipbox so far] of my thinking. It’s not a database of bits of information (“Harrisburd is the capital of Pennsylvania”) but rather a database of thoughts about things.

I admit it’s all very obtuse. After a year of fiddling with it, I’m convinced that it’s adding value to my life, but I still find it very hard to explain. One parting thought from a book about note taking is that one needs a context and system within which to think. Not a strict plan for how to think. The context and the system need to be as UNstructured as possible to enable the flexible thinking.

Finally, there’s a tag for all the slipbox posts, that might yield additional breadcrumbs if you flip through them, https://constantine.name/tag/slipbox/

Hope that helps :)

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How does one take notes…

…when the goal isn’t to end up with a pile of notes?

There are many scenarios where, over time, I do want to end up with a collection of notes. This is straight forward; start taking notes, and keep them somewhere. Bonus points if you review them, or use them as reference, or do anything with them.

But what if I have a scenario where I want to “do a better job” but I don’t care at all about the notes themselves. Suppose you have a regularly scheduled recurring meeting, but you don’t need a historical collection of notes. In fact, suppose you don’t actually need notes, but you think: It would be nice to know what we did last time, so we can follow-up next time.

And so I’m thinking this would be easy. I’ll just have a pile of notes (physical, digital, whatever) and I’ll go through them and … wait, what, actually? Recopy them? gag, that’s tedious. How many do I keep? How long do I keep the old ones? Here’s what I came up with…

I’m working in a single digital document. I have a heading, “Ongoing,” at the top that has the big things we currently have on our radar. The list has some dates with notes; “Oct 2020 — started that big project” and similar things.

Next I have a heading, “Jan 5, 2022” with the date of our next scheduled meeting. When that meeting arrives, I start by doing something very weird: I add “9876543210” on the line below the heading. Then I take simple bullet-point notes under that heading. “We discussed the foo bazzle widget needs defranishizing,” and similar items. Before our meeting ends, I add a heading for the date of the NEXT meeting, ABOVE this meeting’s heading. This pushes the heading and notes down the page a bit.

Then I continue reading. The heading just below this meeting’s, is the date of our last meeting. Just below the heading is “9876543210”, which I put there when we had that meeting. I delete the “9” from the front. I read my notes from the meeting. I may even edit them. Sometimes things that were obvious then, don’t seem so obvious a week later.

Then I continue reading. The next heading is the one from two meetings ago. Just below it is “876543210” — think about that, if it’s not obvious that last week, I read this part and already removed the “9”. So this week, I remove the “8.” Read the notes.

I work my way down each of the historical dates. Snipping a lead number, off the front of the line after each heading. 7. 6. 5. etc.

At the very end of the document, I find a heading that is from 11 meetings ago. Below the heading is “0” — because I’ve looked at these notes 9, 8, 7, 6, etc deleting a digit each time. These notes are now quite old. In fact, they should be irrelevant after 11 meetings. If they are not, I figure out what I have to add to “Ongoing” (the very topmost heading)… or perhaps I put a note under the coming meetings heading (just below “Ongoing”.)

It sounds wonky, but it’s magic. One digital document, you can skim the entire thing right in any of the meetings. You can search in the document. I can be sure I’m not forgetting things, but I can be sure I’m not making a huge collection of crap I’m never going to look at again.

Care to guess where that delete-a-digit each time comes from? It’s an idea from book printing. When they used to set type (physical lead type in trays) they would put “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10” (or other orderings of the numbers) in the cover plate. Then print the book. What printing? This one is “1” Next printing? …they’d just chip off the “1” and print “2 3 4 5…” in the book… second printing. They still print those weird sequences of digits in digitally printed books. I believe this one is a second edition, 3rd printing…

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First anniversary

tl;dr: Yes, it really does work.

It’s been one year since I started collecting my thinking in a slipbox. In the photo, the box on the left is full of materials—blank slips, dividers, etc. The box on the right is the older portion of my collection of quotes; It’s the portion of the quotes which has been released as daily podcasts for the Little Box of Quotes. The center box is the meat of the slipbox and contains over 1,000 new slips, with about 250 of those being new quotes. But, enough with the statistics.

What can I do with it? A startling amount of interesting things come out. I’m not going to write up an article right here to prove it. But suffice to say I’ve recently been dipping into the slipbox to augment something I was writing. I’m trying to remember, any time I’m writing anything, anywhere to pause and ask the slipbox about it. When I do that, I almost always find something to add.

One really big question I had when I started the slipbox was whether I wanted it to be physical or digital. I’m happy to report that I made the right decision. So much of my life and things that I do are digital. I’m so tired of digital stuff. Any time I can be doing something in the physical world, that’s a plus. Never once have I regretted not being able to free-text search the slipbox. Instead, it remains a pleasantly tactile experience to search, retrieve, and create.

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