Journaling Part 2: The Daily Note and Morning Pages

A quick review of my journaling setup as per my previous post:

  1. A simple bullet journal for daily habit tracking
  2. Morning Pages
  3. Keeping a Daily Note

I detailed my BuJo approach in the last post. That is the quickest part of the routine. You could just keep a BuJo and gain lots of benefit. Since I wanted to also boost my creativity and productivity I adopted the two other practices.

Continue reading “Journaling Part 2: The Daily Note and Morning Pages”

Getting started with a journal

I have always been a sporadic journal writer, only regularly documenting daily experiences while traveling, winding down during the end-of-day decompression in my room. Many years ago I made it 1/5 the way through a 5-Year Journal. This year, I’m giving journaling a serious try, and have found it to be like a delayed mindfulness practice. Each day you set aside time to self-reflect after the fact. In just one month I have already learned a lot about my regular day-to-day self. Here are some things I have learned about the practice in general, and how I am applying it.

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A better process for reading, writing, and thinking: zettelkasten

I read a lot. Maybe too much… I am not a particularly fast reader, and I only do about 48 books a year (about 70% of those books in audio).

Chart showing number of books read per year.
Stats from Goodreads

So why do I say that I read “too much”? It is because I can barely remember anything I have read in the past. To date, since 2010, I have ticked off over 500 books. But like most people, I have forgotten pretty much all of it. Is it because I am consuming too much too quickly? Of course not. It because I am not retaining knowledge in an effective manner.

A few months ago my buddy asked me an intriguing question: “What note taking system do you use?” He said he was reading a new book on taking better notes… I thought he meant what app do I use. I have about 15 note taking apps on my devices, so I launched into a (yet again, unnecessary) comparative analysis lecture. What we was really asking was about my methodology. It was pretty simple: I annotate books like crazy in my Kindle, using different colours for certain things, then export the notes to plaintext and store them in one of my many note-taking apps. Generally I write only short articles or book reviews, so during writing I usually pull up my highlights in a window on the left, and a bit of an outline on the right, and piece together my draft that way. When I do a book reviews I might read four or five books from the author to get a sense of their ouvre. It is not too difficult to keep all the salient points in my head.

Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.
Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.

But for writing that relies on more sources, especially longer writing, this approach is impossible. The big thing my approach lacks is connecting what I am reading with other knowledge. I am relying solely on my memory to hold all the relevant points in order to generate insight. And since the human brain is fallible (well, mine at least), the raw materials used to generate insight are constantly receding into the murky past. This results in me being a victim of the “feature-positive” effect, which is when one puts more emphasis on information that they have recently encountered, even if it is not the most relevant (ie. Recency > Relevancy).

My master’s thesis was over a hundred pages, with dozens of references. My current book will be much larger. I needed a better approach. So I asked my friend about that book he was reading…

The Getting Things Done for academics

There are lots of “productivity gurus” out there selling you bunk. I am a guilty sucker ✋, I’ve tried a bunch. The only two I have stuck with, and evangelize still today, are the Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done methodologies (note, Inbox Zero is heavily based on GTD, so it is really just one methodology). GTD saved my life back in 2005 when I was running my first web design company, had too many competing priorities, and was dropping the ball all over the place. The GTD book by David Allen is super popular — because it works. I even mentioned it in my post of Your life-changing books.

So when it came to having a methodology for taking notes so that I could retain more of what I read, and thereby come up with better insights, I started looking at the book recommendation of my friend: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

cover of the book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

I am not going to write about the how here. It is one of those things that is deceptively simple, and if you read the book you will see its many impacts on learning, thinking, and creativity. However, to sum up the “simple technique” from the subtitle: it is about reading with a pen in hand and recapping the ideas you are reading in your own words in full sentences, then connecting the ideas in those notes to ideas in other notes to build a web of knowledge, and finally putting notes from various sources together to produce writing products like articles, papers, or books.

From a productivity standpoint, it is similar to GTD in that it breaks projects down into discrete, manageable tasks so you won’t freeze up due to your lack of productivity. You focus on the process and not the outcome, which is much more motivating. If each day you are faced the monolithic task of “writing a book,” it is understandable why you can’t leave dirty dishes in the sink and cannot log out of Twitter. But if you set your goal to be simply writing a handful of well-constructed notes each day, that is a much easier task to tackle.

Each day you add notes and make connections, then make notes about the connections. This is where “thinking” happens. This is the work: the productivity that you can easily measure every day. This is the zettelkasten methodology, or what some people call building a “second brain.”

Cartoon with two boxes: the left box is labelled "INFORMATION" and contains a number of randomly distributed dots. The right box is labelled "KNOWLEDGE" and has the same random distribution of dots, but this time each of the dots is connected to at least one other forming a "web of knowledge"
Source

The zettelkasten is the field where you harvest your ideas, your daily productivity is seeding that field with a critical mass of useful notes.

I have been working with this methodology for the past couple of weeks and it has been pretty freeing. Like when you do your first GTD brain dump and feel your stress dissolve because you trust the system, I have been recording all the ideas/facts/data I have been coming across in my system, freeing my brain up for thinking, which is the most enjoyable creative act to me. After reading the book How to Take Smart Notes I see there are many more benefits to using a zettelkasten other than productivity. I feel like it has been life-changing, and it certainly has already impacted the approach I am taking with my new book.

If you want to learn more, in this video the author gives a nice introduction to the concept and its history (at about the 30 minute mark he discusses productivity). That is highly recommended viewing, but I would also recommend the book. It is short, and packed with ideas (it generated 3,300 words of notes in my zettelkasten!).

100 days of meditation

At 6am this morning I quietly rose out of bed, padded into the bathroom to wash the sleep out my eyes, and then sat down on a cushion in front of the fireplace in my living room, surrounded by shadow and silence. Crossing my legs into a half-lotus position, I took a couple of deep breaths, and then settled into my morning habit… a habit I have been able to maintain for 100 days as of today.

screencap of InsightTimer profile page
Profile on InsightTimer showing 100 consecutive days.

At the very beginning of this year I set out four “goals.” I wrote these goals on my dive slate which hangs in my shower. One was to build a meditation habit. Kickstarting that habit was a reason I went on retreat at the Birken Forest Monastery this summer. As a side note, one thing I have learned about New Years resolutions is to not necessarily try to do them cold turkey. Give yourself some space to build towards the goal, and when the time is right, it will happen. Two of my other goals (learn more about Buddhism, and lose weight) have been successful. This year I have lost 20 pounds and so far have read 13 books on Buddhism, in addition to going on 2 retreats and planning my third for the year end. It might take a few months to get started, so don’t give up on your resolutions too early.

But back to the meditation habit. As you can see from the data, I have been consistent ever since that time at the monastery, except for one day: Aug 19th. If not for that, I would be at 135 consecutive days. But who is counting? I suppose I should not cling to the numbers… 😉

chart of meditation time by date
2017 sessions to date. The vast majority come after my retreat (indicated by the arrow on the left)

100 days is nothing compared to more experienced practitioners, but it is a milestone for me. Meditation has been a game changer in terms of stress reduction. But there are many more benefits waiting to be unlocked. Currently I only do the basic breath meditation for about 20 mins per sit. I sit at least once a day, and often twice. More recently I have been listening to some guided mettā meditations. I would really like to explore other meditation techniques, but I feel like I need access to a teacher. Spending time at retreat helped me get started (I first picked up Bhante G’s Mindfulness in Plain English 7 years ago, but only sporadically tried to sit, and only did so for very short periods) and in order to move to the next level, I am going to look for more instruction.

6 months meat-free

On December 28th 2015 — about to consume yet another holiday family dinner of turkey and ham with all the trimmings — I decided to stop eating meat.

It has been six months and I have kept to that promise. It has not been very difficult actually, but I should be sure to give full credit to my wife for her great recipes… otherwise I would be doomed to canned veggie soup and frozen fish and chips forever.

Since that holiday meal of mashed potatoes, corn and salad, I have not eaten the flesh of any animal that casts a shadow upon land. I still do consume fish and other seafood, plus eggs and some milk. My diet is ovo-lacto pescatarian, but I self-categorize as an environmental vegetarian.

The reason I stopped eating meet is to fight climate change.

Feed production and livestock production account for 14.5% of global carbon emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Beef produces the most carbon.

chart from UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Producing corn for feed, hauling it to the cows, watering them, feeding them, hauling them from one location to another, dealing with their “methane” production, then slaughtering and shipping the beef to parts around the world… now when I look at the label on a pack of steaks in the supermarket and see “Product of New Zealand” I just shake my head. And with the post-war advanced consumer culture we have, more meat is being consumed making things even worse.

So I removed myself from the system.

Is this a real solution? Should I be comfortable and complacent while riding gallantly on my moral high horse? Well, no, not really. Although we grow some of our vegetables, and frequent farmer’s markets and the like, much of the fruit and veggies we get in western Canada come from Washington, California or Mexico, especially in the winter months. And the shrimp I still eat has many other ethical problems. But like all things, you have to take it one step at a time. And this certainly has been a good talking point over the past half-year. I think I have been able to contribute a little to awareness of the problem, and I see no reason to stop now.

Photo: Some recent food pics from my Flickr.

The Interest Stack and Attention Debt

Me in 2003, deep in thought watching the Cambodia jungle.
Me in 2003, deep in thought, watching the Cambodian jungle, back when life was simple.

Levels of analysis is a way of studying a political problem from (generally) three different perspectives: individual, state, and the international system. Using this framework I started examining my interests — all of the things I keep tabs on and projects I am involved in outside of my day job. There are a lot, and I fear I might have to go on another information diet. This is simply an exercise in mapping all the directions my brain is being pulled in a at once. Once that is achieved, I can better apply the scalpel to gain back more time to think.

Lining my interests up by scale like some sort of technology stack I came up with the following categories:

  • Individual
  • Family
  • Community
  • Citizen
  • Global
  • Space

Here is a breakdown of each one:
Continue reading “The Interest Stack and Attention Debt”