Tracking Ideas – A Technological System

Here’s a cool trick you might find useful.

I carry a physical notebook with me pretty much at all times so that I can jot down to-do lists, ideas, quotes, etc.  While my commonplace book system is great, I wanted a better system for tracking those spur of the moment ideas that I want to file away for later, such as blog posts, vlog ideas, career ideas, etc.  I could record it in my notebook, but then I would either need a way to collect them at the end of each month when I switch to a new notebook, or I would be forced to copy them over month to month.

The system needed two things.  First, it needed to be mobile.  My notebook is mobile, but for the reasons above, it was proving to be inadequate.  Tracking ideas in a document or spreadsheet from my computer solves the ease of use problem, but it limits the mobility.  Similarly, just having a digital file on something like Dropbox is cumbersome because, while I can access it from my smartphone, navigating the file directory on my phone is tedious and updating files on a small screen is frustrating for something that I wanted to be quick and painless.

The second need, alluded to in the problems above, is that it needs to be frictionless.  The more complex a system is, the less likely I am to use it over time.  Hacks, systems, tricks, and tips are great, but if it’s a chore to use and implement, I tend to abandon them relatively quickly because, let’s face it, I’m weak-willed and lazy (see any of my posts about failing to go to the gym…)

With those two considerations in mind, I stumbled on an option and found inspiration in a video my vlogging partner, Jim, posted on Youtube:

 

I set about to appropriate his system and adapted it for my own use.

I created an IFTTT (IF This Then That) action that when I made a note from a homescreen widget on my phone, it would automatically save it to a designated spreadsheet in my Google Drive.

IFTTT ingredient

 

I have it set up to just record the date and time of the note, and the notes content to the next empty row.

In Google Drive, I set up a new spreadsheet with multiple tabs.  This way, all the ideas come from my phone to the first tab of the spreadsheet.  From there, I can move the ideas to different tabs to better organize them by category.  In the green cells, I note where I moved the idea, then I hide the relevant row when the information is copied over.  This allows me to have all the ideas collected in one place (the front page), but completed actions are hidden to streamline the process.

IFTTT spreadsheet 2

 

All that was left to do was set up a widget on my phone and start recording ideas.  The widget for IFTTT was already available as an option, so I didn’t need to download any extra applications.

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From my homepage, I tap the round icon at the top-right of my screen.

 

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From there, I type in the idea, usually with a preface comment to help me sort things later.

 

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I then tap the blue circle at the bottom of the note and it sends it to the spreadsheet. 

 

IFTTT spreadsheet

 

It’s been a handy system so far.  I can access the sheet from my phone, but primarily I need it on my computer, so the cross-platform utility is great for me.  It also allows me to captures a wide variety of ideas without needing to put them to separate lists initially, whereas if I captured these in my notebook, it would be hard to sort, search, and categorize without dedicated lists.  I like the flexibility and the streamlined process.

Let me know if you have any systems that you find handy.  I’m always on the lookout for good ideas to test out.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

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I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Principled Thinking (part two)

Since my last post on principles, I’ve jotted down a few more ideas in my notebook.  I’ve transcribed my thoughts under the photo below.

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6. Where appropriate, seek to reduce or limit choice pools.
a.) Too many choices is paralyzing.
b.) Extraneous choices impacts rank(ing) orders.
c.) Choice + paralysis  will cause decision friction –> procrastination, and inertia will  grind things to a halt.
d.) Time and resources get wasted in the decision process –> you trade off value.
e.) Most decisions can be whittled down by routine and quick preference (gut reaction) –> use 80/20.
f.) Invest time in deliberation for high stakes outcomes or decisions that interest you.
i.) Also invest when decision process is educative for you.

This entry largely captures what my behaviours are like when it comes to making decisions versus where I want them to be.  By nature, I’m a risk averse and indecisive person.  I tend to sit on decisions far too long, to the point where they can cause anxiety when it’s finally time for me to make the call.

I also tend to lack preferences in a lot of things.  For instance, I usually don’t have a strong preference when it comes to picking a place to eat, so I’m terrible at deciding where to go but I’m perfectly happy to go along with choices made by others.  There are many things I’m starkly black-and-white about (which is really annoying to my wife), but most of the time I sit in a middle state like Buridan’s ass.

Therefore, this set of principled notes captures where I want to be – to quickly narrow down extraneous choices (because too many options usually leads to diminished outcomes), and to automate where I can.  Then, I can focus on the really important decisions or use the deliberation process as a teaching tool for myself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

What I’ve Been Reading (As of October 29th)

While it’s only been a month since my last reading update, I’ve turned-over a fair number of books in that time.  Here’s what’s on my nightstand or playing from my speakers this month.

If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late by James J. Sexton

No, I didn’t get this book because my relationship is in trouble.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  My relationship with my wife is great, and I want to keep it that way.  I first came across Sexton in a Lifehacker podcast along side Esther Perel and I thought he had some interesting perspectives on relationships as a divorce lawyer.  This book distills his 20-years of law experience and covers a gamut of reasons why relationships fail.  The thinking is that while he doesn’t know what makes a good relationship, he knows all sorts of reasons why they don’t work, and the reader of his book can learn from the mistakes of his clients.

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

I pre-ordered this a few weeks back and it just came in the mail, so I haven’t had a chance to get very far into it.  I first encountered Greene through a book recommendation from a friend of mine for his book, Mastery.  I was intrigued with the material in Mastery, so I’ve kept an eye on Greene since.  I listened to a the audiobook for the 48 Laws of Power, and I listened to a bit of his Art of Seduction (though I never finished it).  Greene, like his protege Ryan Holiday, is a master of research synthesis.  While his books are a bit of an animated bibliography, I think it’s the best representation of the genre.  He digs into history to learn lessons from key figures to articulate his thesis.  Instead of reporting on the achievements of others, Greene feels like a chronicler of insights.  I’m looking forward to what this book has to offer.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read this one until now.  I’m familiar with the well-known courtroom scenes from the movie, but I was never assigned this while I was in school.  Since I’ve been reading a steady diet of non-fiction, I thought I should dig into some quality fiction.  I’m less than an hour into the audiobook, but already I find Scout to be an intriguing character (narrated by Sissy Spacek).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

While my wife and I were heading off on our mini-honeymoon after the wedding last month, we found it difficult to talk about anything that wasn’t about the wedding.  The planning and lead-up to our nuptials was over a year in the making, so in the afterglow of the party, we didn’t have much to talk about.  Instead of riding in complete silence, we bought a copy of the Deathly Hallows on audiobook for the drive.  I’ve only read the book once, and that was way back in 2007 when it was released (I bought it during a layover in Heathrow Airport on my way home from Kenya).  We only listen to the book while together in the car during long(ish) drives between cities, and it’s funny how often we shut it off to talk about the story, or how stupid Harry (the character) is when you really think about it.  It’s honestly among my favourite times spent with my wife.

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

I bought this book with high hopes, but sadly I’m finding it a bit of a let down.  The Ikigai concept has floated around the interwebs and on my radar for a little over a year now.  It got picked up in the blogosphere (mostly on Medium for me), so when I saw the book I thought I should check it out.  This particular book is a hard animated bibliography.  I think its greatest sin is that it talks about Ikigai by first covering other well-known philosophical ideas, such as Frankl’s work in Man’s Search for Meaning.  I had hoped the concepts would stand on their own, or at least be situated with the original Japanese contexts that they were born out of.  Instead, it cobbles together a bunch of summaries of other publications and presents them in digest format.  Because the book is short with big font, I’ll slog through it, but it’s not what I had hoped it would be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Principled Thinking

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While I haven’t finished reading it, I have been thinking about the book Principles by Ray Dalio.  As the title of the book suggests, Dalio has published his comprehensive list of principles that Bridgewater Associates uses as part of its decision-making framework.  He encourages others to adopt this method for refining processes and capturing on paper a person’s or organization’s core beliefs  through carefully considered principles.  The thinking is that these principles create a process for filtering information so that decisions remain within scope by removing extraneous considerations.

I have a notebook that I use to jot down thoughts about myself and my personal development.  I needed a place to collect my thoughts in one place about where I am, what direction I am heading, and where I want to go in both life and career.

Recently, I started sketching out some ideas for what my own list of Principles would look like.  I suppose “principles” might be the wrong word.  “Beliefs” might be a better word; “aspirations” also fits in there because I know that I don’t always do the things that I believe I should do (for instance, 5a and 5b below are things I conveniently forget when I’m mad at someone).

This is an incomplete, work-in-progress list.  I’m not even sure that I’m heading in the right direction, but these were the five things that came to mind when I first sat down to start collecting these thoughts.  Below, I have transcribed the notes seen in the photo above.

Many of these ideas have been taken from the various books I’ve read over the last few years.  I suppose it’s a bit of a distillation of all the ideas that were strong enough to make an impression with me.  I expect that this list will need many more additions and revisions, but keeping it a living document would be beneficial to capture how I grow as a person over time.

Principles

1.) Establish a locus of control
a.) Live intentionally, not reactionary/re-actively
b.) Don’t fly on autopilot on non-value added things (watching Netflix, YouTube)
c.) Automate necessary tasks; set-it-and-forget-it routines

2.) Extreme Ownership
a.) Take ownership over outcomes
b.) Bad stuff happening might not be your fault, but it’s your problem and your responsibility for the solution
c. View setbacks as opportunities for new or different things (“Good” ~Jocko)

3.) Radical Forgiveness
a.) Accept that you are flawed and subject to irrationality
b.) You will make mistakes (and have bad judgement)* – be comfortable with that
c.) Mistakes are fine as long as you learn and grow from them.  Don’t do it again
d.) Dust-off, re-centre, recalibrate, re-engage

4.) Define the problem – Gene Kranz
a.) Determine the scope
b.) Focus on delta’s, not negatives
c.) Never bring problems to your boss unless you genuinely can’t solve them

5.) Empathy
a.) Remember the Fundamental Attribution Error
b.) You don’t know the struggles people are grappling with, or their history prior to your interaction
c.) People want assurance that they are being heard;  that they matter
d.) Never attribute to malice which can be accounted for by ego, ignorance, or differing priorities

*Note added after I photographed the page from my notebook

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Best Blog Post (to date)

I set up  this blog as a way to force myself to write.  With a few minor exceptions, I’ve managed to put out a post every Monday morning for the last few years.  While the tone and theme of the blog shifts around a bit, it’s been a pretty consistent thing.

One thing that is surprising to me is the top blog post on the site.  There is one post that consistently gets more traffic than any of the others (almost daily, in fact).  If I didn’t have access to the metrics, I would have never guessed which one it is.

My best blog post, to date is ……. (*drum roll*)….

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

Yeah, no kidding.

It’s far and away the most popular post.  It’s more popular than my landing page, which means that people often find my blog through a Google search before clicking through to the rest of the site.  Below is my top 15 pages according to views.

Top 15

I suppose there are a few good takeaways I could make use of if I were looking to optimize this blog for hits or monetization.  First, writing reviews of popular apps gets a lot of clicks.  As does talking about health and fitness (or, more specifically, failing at health and fitness).  And finally, people like reading about life/career developments – and posting your content to Facebook for your friends and family to read will get you a good number of hits each time.

I suppose now I have a goal to write something that will drive more traffic than Zombie, Run!  Good luck to me.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Locus of Control – I Re-Assembled the Elliptical!

While I have recently joined a new gym in our new city after the move, I have used it once as of writing.  I have yet to work out a schedule that allows me to easily pick up the habit of exercising.  This is, of course, a terrible excuse to not exercise.

Exercising at the gym will either be something I do before work, or something done after work.  Each of these options have complications that provide just enough friction that implementing them is stopped by my slothful lizard brain.

In order to exercise at the gym before work, I’d have to wake up earlier.  This is hard for me for a few reasons:

  • Because I work at the bar a few nights per week, my sleep schedule is variable, so keeping a consistent bed and wake-up time is challenging.
  • I’m a heavy sleeper, so finding a way to wake me up without disturbing my partner is difficult.
  • I’ve developed a habit of snoozing when my alarm goes off.
  • Being late to work is bad, so if I’m late to get to the gym, it throws things off for me.
  • I’m lazy.

In order to exercise at the gym after work, I have a few barriers that I’d need to overcome.  Ideally, I’d go straight from work, but:

  • On days when the dog is at daycare, I’m usually the only one who can pick him up before they close since my work is closer.
  • On days when the dog is at home, I need to go home first to take him out to relieve himself.
  • Because I’m the first one home, it makes more sense for me to start dinner.
  • I have the habit that once my “pants come off,” or if I sit on the couch, it’s hard for me to get up and go again.
  • Exercising after work is challenging if I’m tired from work.
  • I wouldn’t be able to workout on days after work when I also work at the bar or have board meetings (mornings are more likely to be clear of other scheduled activities).
  • I value spending time with my significant other over going to the gym.

These are all excuses.  They are in no way real impediments to going to the gym.  Instead, they provide just enough friction to stop me from making a change.

Another option would be for me to workout at home.  Until recently, we’ve been limited in what we could unpack while the renovations were ongoing.  However, now that the renos are done, we are in a position to reclaim more space in the basement.  The disassembled elliptical was buried behind boxes of stuff, and there was little extra floor space that could be used to set up the machine.

Last week, I decided that I wanted to finally set up the elliptical so that I had no excuses for skipping some form of exercise.  I wanted to take back some locus of control for my fitness.  Everything listed above is coded in language that suggests I have no control over my situation.  There’s always a reason outside of myself that prevents me from committing to exercise – “if only things were different, I’d exercise.”

But this is wrong.

In truth, there is nothing stopping me from exercising.  I’m making excuses on why I’m not modifying my behaviour.  Instead of whining and whinging about why I can’t exercise, I need to address the nagging feeling that I am drifting about in my day to day life.  I don’t feel in control of things, but this is false.  I tend to react, without intention.  I act as if I don’t have an active agency in how I spend my time.  By not making decisions about how to fix my behaviour, I’m still making a decision – only now I’m pretending to be a victim of circumstance and pushing off ownership of that decision to do nothing.

And so, last week I decided to take back some locus of control and re-assemble the elliptical and go for a run.  This is not a behaviour change, but merely a first step.  (Or several steps according to my FitBit…)

Now, I must be responsible for continuing to take those steps.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan