Category Archives: Balancing Technology

The Records Project (A Study of Paper vs. Computers)

One of my interests is finding efficient and useful ways to create, store, and retrieve information. I’ve tried tools ranging from wikis to to-do list managers to databases to Evernote to electronic notebooks to binders and paper notebooks, and while I continue to use a small fraction of those tools, still the grass is always greener on the other side, and I’m continually trying new ones.

When I recently started my biggest project to date, though, I knew that success required tools that would work and that would keep working, and, to my surprise, I’ve found those tools. This isn’t to say that they have not changed and been added to and removed from and modified, but their core has remained, and the project has remained workable, useful, and interesting to me – unlike nearly every other system I’ve used for more than a few months (I’m coming up on a year and nine months now). Because it’s been such a success, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from the project, and I would like to share the general idea.

Paper vs. Computers

When people talk about how to store and access information in the Information Age, the first and often most divisive question is whether it should be accessed through one or more computers or printed on sheets of dead tree. The debates inevitably come down to the same arguments over and over: Computers let you access information more efficiently, computers are the wave of the future, computers are faster to work with, computers let you back up your information. But then computers can crash, and paper is easier to read and work with, makes it easier to include information that’s more complicated than letters of the Latin alphabet, and doesn’t require you to have a charged battery. I’m sure you could supply a few more sound bites if you were called upon to do so. Nobody ever seems to win these arguments, although both sides are usually quite sure they’re right.

The debate is often portrayed as a battle between the enlightened people who understand technology and will carry the torch into the future and the technophobes who stick to paper because they’re scared or ignorant of technology or don’t want to give up what they’re used to, who hang on desperately to the relics of a bygone age and have been seduced by some foolish notion of emotional attachment to having paper in their hands. If this is the narrative you’re used to, the answer you read on the website titled The Technical Geekery might surprise you.

My answer, actually, is that we’ve built a false dichotomy for ourselves. There is no reason why a system needs to be limited to one medium, or why a system should be limited to one medium, except for lack of imagination, laziness, and the kind of technological elitism described above. At best, the people developing email systems, word processors, and databases implement a “print” function while looking down their noses at users who still want to take the antiquated and environmentally irresponsible action of printing out a document. So much more is possible! There is no reason why a system analogous to hypertext cannot be implemented on paper, except for the fact that almost nobody does it (the rare specimens of paper encyclopedias that remain being one of the few exceptions). There is no reason why we cannot have electronic searching and eBook copies of our printed documents, except for the way the book industry has developed. There is no reason why part of a system cannot be part on paper and part electronic (and I don’t mean that your book includes a CD-ROM containing ugly, buggy, and worthless software that works only on a specific type of computer and was thrown together at the last minute and shoved into the back of the book along with a prominent note on the front cover that you’re making a good purchase because it comes with a FREE CD!). And there is no reason why a combined system like this cannot exchange information in both directions as it develops. These ideas are what I’ve explored – to great success – in my project.

The Records Project

This project is called the Records Project. It’s a surprisingly slippery concept to define, so I’ll describe it simply: the core idea of the project is that I sit down and write about my life every day. That might end up being three lines on a sheet of paper that very briefly sketch the important events of the day, or it might end up being several thousand words of exposition or exploration or ranting. It all depends on the amount of time I have and my mood and what happened during the day. (Incidentally, I think this flexibility is key to the success of the method: some days there just isn’t the time or interest to do anything more than three lines on a sheet of paper, but making that an acceptable entry has ensured that I haven’t given up on the project.)

There are two places where I write things in the Records Project, and I’ll look at each of them in turn.

Random Thoughts

The first is called Random Thoughts, and it’s a document that’s been evolving since 2009. In this document I put quotations, anecdotes, ideas, and notes to myself; I add things if and when I feel like it. It’s kept in two text files on my computer; one is an archive and the other contains the current year’s notes. In order to be able to reference things in the document, the entries are numbered sequentially. Using some custom Linux Magic™, if I know I want to go to, say, entry 3456, I can call up the Random Thoughts window (which I always keep open on my laptop), type ;ta 3456, and the program figures out which file and what line that entry begins on and brings me there.

The power of that system starts to become apparent when you consider that, after more than 4500 ideas that run through your mind enough to make worth recording, you start building off of ideas you’ve had previously and it’s nice to keep track of how they link together. If, when I’m writing a new entry or when I’m reading old ones, I’m reminded of something else, I do a search of the document to find the other entry, and I link them together by simply writing the number of each next to the other. Thereafter, if I’m reading one and want to see the other, I can position my cursor over the number and press Ctrl-] to go look at the other entry.

(A section that you can skip over if you want, for those interested in the theory of linking: My links go both ways, a method known (creatively enough) as bidirectional linking. Most of us are used to unidirectional links because that’s what we have on the Web, but in many cases the connection is equally valid and interesting in both directions. The main reason many systems don’t use them is that it’s more difficult to maintain: you have to go place a link at the other end, and in a system like the World Wide Web, you probably don’t have permission to write a link onto somebody else’s web server. Since this is all my system, the only issue is the effort, and I’m committed to the better links it produces, so I write “BL” (for Backlink) and the source at every location I link to, even when this means going to the shelf and grabbing another notebook when it wouldn’t otherwise have been necessary.

The stories of other pioneering hypertext systems and some people’s insistence on bidirectional links on the Web are fascinating; take a look at this, for instance.)

Here’s an example page of Random Thoughts (click to enlarge):

Random Thoughts screenshot

CBs

CB stands for Chrono Book, a name chosen because once upon a time I had many other types of notebooks titled “something book.” My CBs are 80-page Moleskine Cahier notebooks; there’s nothing magical about that type of notebook, but I like them, they’re likely to be around for a while, and sticking with the same ones makes things nice and consistent. I’m on my twenty-fourth one at the moment. I make sure to write an entry in it every evening, but beyond that there are no requirements about the content or length. (Occasionally, if I don’t have time to treat the events of the day properly, I will put the entry off until the next day and just make some brief notes before going to bed.)

Here’s what a typical page looks like:

cb9-example

Searching CBs

The paper-is-for-Luddites camp will point at me here and say, “Hah! But how do you find anything in your 2000 pages of paper notes?” Believe me, I thought about this before I started – and while I admit that I do not have full-text search and that that can sometimes be a liability, I can still find things remarkably well. The heart of the system is an index of each notebook, which I maintain in the front cover of each notebook as I write, adding to it after I finish each day’s entry. When I finish the notebook, I type all of the index entries into the Records Project Paper Augmentation System (RPPAS).

The RPPAS is a custom software package that I wrote from scratch; here is where being highly computer-literate comes in handy. I took a long, hard look at how long it was going to take and other possibilities for handling the task, but found that there was no other software that even remotely resembled what I wanted. The RPPAS is still in development, but all the essential features that I need work.

The software runs in a terminal (a text-based interface) because it’s easy to program and efficient to use. It looks like this:

RPPAS screenshot 1

With the RPPAS, I can search all of my indexes at once for keywords I’ve put in the index. Once the results are displayed, I can press the number next to it to see what notebooks and pages that keyword is used at. Here’s an example for the keyword “Technical Geekery”:

RPPAS screenshot 2

If there are a number of locations listed for the same keyword, it can be pretty tough to figure out which one used the keyword in the way you were thinking of. Since index entries are really just a concise way of describing the content of the page, I wrote the “nearby” query to quickly list other index entries around a given one. For instance, in the following screenshot, I can easily learn that the rather vague entry “gender” listed in CB14 was about a discussion we had in my sociology class about whether the concept of gender should exist in society, as well as the “unpopular opinion” that arose as part of the discussion:

RPPAS screenshot 3

I happen to remember offhand that “CB14” began during the end of the Interim term of my freshman year, but that’s not something I can count on for all the notebooks I have, especially as I continue to add more. So if I don’t remember when the events in CB14 actually were, I can use the aptly named “When was” query, which shows the dates as well as the events listing, a list I put in the front cover of each notebook listing the most salient events:

RPPAS screenshot 4

This system allows me to find most things in about thirty seconds of searching at the computer. The downside of indexing as opposed to the full-text search possible on a computer file is that I might neglect to add a certain keyword or have not thought about the relevance of that keyword to the text at the time when I wrote it, and I would then be unable to find it by searching that keyword in the index. Even on the occasions where this happens, information is rarely lost forever; I can often remember a related concept which is in the index and find it that way.

It is foolish but common to assume that full-text search is intrinsically superior to paper-based search methods like indexing. Full-text search can be defeated as well; I recently couldn’t find the list of classes I intended to take next semester in my Random Thoughts document, even though I was certain that I’d written them in there. After manually paging through the document scanning for it, I found that I’d described them as “courses” rather than “classes,” causing the search to miss it. Full-text search, when used for large documents, also has an unfortunate tendency to find all sorts of things that are not actually relevant (unless you remember the exact wording that was used), forcing you to wade through piles of irrelevant information. Since index entries are assigned manually, they only get attached to things that you consider important, and you can use the same wording in the index for related pieces of information that don’t actually share a keyword in the text.

(Before you ask, Google succeeds in providing useful full-text searches of the unimaginably massive amount of data on the Internet using an extremely complex algorithm which draws on all kinds of metadata provided by sites (including index-like keywords!), the number of links to each page, what other users have looked at, the user’s personal search habits, and God knows what else; any system smaller than Google simply does not have the data or the computational resources to make that a useful approach.)

Exchange between Mediums

At the end of my discussion of paper and computers, I alluded to the idea that my definition of a good paper-computer hybrid system includes exchange of information in both directions. I have three ways of doing this (besides the already-described searching mechanism).

First, in addition to references within CBs and Random Thoughts, I use references between the two. Often I want to quote something I wrote in Random Thoughts in CB, or I want to allude to an event or experience from CB in something I write in Random Thoughts. So I simply write “RT 2412” in my CB or “CB20.56” (volume 20, page 56) in the Random Thoughts entry. If I want to look up the Random Thoughts entry, I go to the computer and type ;ta 2412 into my Random Thoughts window; if I want more information on the event, I can do some poking around in the RPPAS with that reference, or I can go to the closet and grab the notebook. There is really no disconnect between the electronic and paper components.

Second, I scan all of my completed paper notebooks into the computer, thereby addressing another of the anti-paper objections, that I might lose the notebook, drop it into the water, or have my house burn down. The scans are high-quality enough that I could reprint them or use them as a substitute for the paper notebooks if necessary, although I’d still much rather have the originals.

Finally, I occasionally print out a copy of the index, which I can use if I don’t have a computer handy and which will itself provide a backup to the computer version. (I do back up my files, but you never know for sure what might happen.) I’m a typography nerd, so I spent some time creating a feature that uses the LaTeX engine to create a nice, compact index (PDF, as an image at legible quality would be huge).

Why?

I know there’s probably one more burning question for many readers: why go to all this bother? This might be a question of why I want to use the hybrid paper/computer system, or why I’m doing this project at all. These are valid questions, and I’ll take them in turn.

Paper is a different medium than a computer. And because of this, I write differently on paper than I write on my computer. In particular, after many years of hard work and practice, I’m an extremely fast and natural typist (it’s a bad day that I type at less than 100 WPM in complete comfort). In my simple form of handwritten shorthand I can reach about 50WPM when I’m giving myself writer’s cramp while frantically scrawling scribbles that I might be able to read back in five minutes. Typing would mean that I could write more; for a while I kept a journal on the computer, and I think I did write more words than I do now. But for CBs I like writing slower, taking a few more minutes to reflect and really think about the words I’m writing instead of mashing them out on the keyboard.

Call me weird, but I also like writing by hand, and it’s something I don’t get a lot of chances to do nowadays, so paper gives me that chance. As I said before, I tried keeping a journal on the computer for a while, and I was inconsistent with that because I didn’t enjoy it; it always felt like a chore. I wanted to have a record of what I was doing and my thoughts, but I didn’t want to write it, and that’s as much a recipe for failure as trying to become a professional musician when you can’t stand practicing your instrument. Writing by hand with my fountain pen and my notebooks and going through the ritual of numbering and indexing makes it less of a task. Occasionally writing does feel like a task in this system, but only rarely, usually when I have something on my mind and resent having to take the time to do anything else at all.

That’s why the project has succeeded with paper, and why I don’t think it would have succeeded on the computer. It would also be a tremendous, unsearchable mess if I hadn’t developed the computerized indexing system and moved all of my random notes into the computerized Random Thoughts. This is why the combination is the solution.

But why do it in the first place? There are plenty of reasons, but a couple stand out. I initially started the project because I wanted to improve my autobiographical memory, and that has certainly happened. I’m sure that it has also made me a better writer, even in the relatively short timespan of the project. I’ve written over 450,000 words in RT and CB combined, and even when I’m not trying to produce polished writing, writing that many words cannot help but improve your writing skills. And often I do look something up in the thesaurus or spend some time working out how to express a complex idea. Finally, it satisfies my desire to have a complicated, organized system of information that is truly useful, and I get to play with information systems while accomplishing something.

Should you try something like this? It would be silly to say there is a right answer to this question. But a Random Thoughts–like document takes practically no effort and can be both lots of fun and extremely useful. All you have to do to start is create a new document in your word processor or text editor of choice and start typing whenever you have something you want to write down. That can be quotations, stories from your day, reminders about things you need to do, anything you want. Sure, there are tools that will make it easier to use (for instance, I have macros that will jump between files, find numbered references, and automatically insert the next unused number for a new entry), but you don’t need them to get started.

My CB system is for the truly dedicated. I have not left out an entry for a single day so far, and I don’t intend to. Regardless of how picky you are about that, it takes time and deliberate effort to write something regularly, and most people will give up (including me, until I found this system). It also takes additional time and motivation to maintain the search system so that you can find things. I think it’s worth it, but everyone will not, and we would live in a boring world if everyone did.

That said, I highly recommend a project of this kind (if at a lower level of commitment), even if you only try it for a couple of weeks and conclude it’s not for you. And trust me, it gets easier: once you’re past the first couple of months, it changes from being a difficult project you’re working on to something you just do.

If you’re interested in the RPPAS software I described earlier, my code and a manual can be found on GitHub, licensed under the GNU General Public License.

The Smartphone Manifesto

This week I made the decision to get a smartphone. I’m heading off for college at the end of the month, and I thought it would be nice to have a phone that I actually carried. You see, I previously had an iPod Touch and a flip phone, which was nice because the phone was cheap to own by modern-smartphone standards ($15/month) and the iPod did almost everything an iPhone does. The problem was that I used the phone so rarely I stopped carrying it around, which meant that it lost almost all of its value as a cell phone. Besides, I figured, it would probably be nice to be able to text sensibly in the modern world, and having a mobile data connection is pretty useful too. And my grandparents graciously volunteered to pay for the phone and the connection throughout my time in college (thanks!), so there seemed little excuse not to go ahead.

But I recognize that for someone like me, who wants to maintain control of my life and not be interrupted and distracted constantly, I’m playing with fire. It’s too easy to let a smartphone get out of control. At least with my previous setup, it was relatively impractical to be texting people constantly while also trying to work, or to start browsing the Web while hanging out with other people. That’s changed now; as much as people say the iPod Touch is an iPhone without the phone, it’s different to have an always-on connection, even if you nearly always have wifi anyway. So that’s why I’ve written up this little manifesto for myself. It doesn’t have to be right for you as well, but maybe you like some of the ideas in it.

What a Phone Should Not Be
First and foremost, and really covering all the other points as well, no technology should ever be in control of me, whether a phone, a computer, or even a pencil and a piece of paper. I should remain in charge of my life and the way I choose to use my time.

#1. A distraction
I find that there is almost nothing in the world, no matter what people would have me believe, that truly requires my attention immediately. It can wait for a few seconds, fifteen minutes, an hour, maybe even a couple of days. Just because my phone or computer decides to beep or buzz does not obligate me to respond to it. Nobody is going to be in danger if I don’t answer an email as soon as it comes in. I’ve turned off notifications on incoming email on both my computer and my mobile devices; I still check my email fairly frequently, but I do it when I deliberately decide I am going to go check my email, not because someone happened to send me an unimportant message at that moment.

My phone should be similar. I believe there is no shame in using the “do not disturb” switch and ignoring other people for a while. If it’s truly an emergency, people can always ring me again immediately (which bypasses the function on my iPhone) or call someone else near me. Even if I decided not to be disturbed and it completely prevented someone from getting in touch with me in an emergency, it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. After all, the person calling me has a phone, so they can always call someone else, or 911 if it’s really that bad. And before we had cell phones, the entire world dealt with being unable to reach each other at any moment for hundreds of years. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to be able to contact someone right away and get an answer to my question or get their help, but I believe what we’re giving up—our ability to concentrate and work undisturbed—is far more valuable in the long run.

So if you call or text me, I might answer and I might not. If I don’t, I don’t hate you and I’m not ignoring you, and I will get back to you if you can have a moment’s patience. Text messages don’t self-destruct if they’re not read immediately, and there’s this handy thing called “voicemail” that lets people talk to me and tell me what they need even if I don’t answer, and I can call them back soon.

Unfortunately, this is a hard thing to do in the modern world; people get upset when they call or text someone and they don’t answer right away. Because I’m trying to take charge of my own time and my right to refuse incoming messages until a better time comes, I will try to give other people more leeway here too. And even if I am annoyed at other people for not responding to me, it remains their right to do so (assuming they’re not being paid to answer people on time).

#2. Indispensable
It’s fine for my technology to be useful and to give me abilities I wouldn’t have otherwise. I couldn’t talk to anyone I know at any time I desired or access the entire world’s collective knowledge without a phone or computer. I even have an app called Chromatic Glass that helps me see distinctions between colors I can’t see without it (I have fairly bad red-green colorblindness). I refuse, however, to let a phone be the only way I can possibly accomplish a task, and I want to be prepared so that I will never feel utterly lost without it. I once overheard a student behind me on the bus complaining to his friend that he had lost his phone, and so now he couldn’t buy more drugs because his only record of his dealer’s contact information was in the phone he’d lost. Obviously he had larger problems than dependence on his phone, but it is important for me to consider what would happen were I suddenly forced to work without my phone. I keep as much of my data as possible synced to different places so I can still access it elsewhere if necessary, and I try to have alternate ways of accomplishing roughly the same things that I can with my phone. I don’t want to feel like I would be lost without my phone (or even my computer, which I rely on far more). Even if nothing ever happens, I don’t believe it can be good for me to put all my trust in my devices.

I believe there is no shame in deciding I don’t need to be connected to the world for a while and leaving the house without my phone. Sometimes it’s good to remind myself that I’m not going to die or become helpless without my mobile device. (I don’t normally feel that way, either, but I have still panicked more than was warranted when I have temporarily lost my iPod, and this feeling tends to get subconsciously pressed into me by other people’s conceptions of mobile devices.)

#3. The default action
When I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to just pick up my phone and start playing with it. Technology has a way of becoming the first thing people think about, and sometimes therefore the only thing we think about. That makes it more indispensable and more in control of us, rather than the other way around. It limits our ability to think for ourselves and our ability to simply sit and be bored. Personally, when I bought my iPod Touch I tried downloading some games, and I found I really didn’t like it. The feeling of sitting down and having nothing else to do and therefore pulling out my iPod and zoning out was just something I found deeply disturbing. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for everyone, but it means I don’t have any plans to do it again. A mobile device being my default choice when I have nothing to do, to me, means I would never have time to think. For people that choose to use mobile devices in this way, I think it is important to decide deliberately to do so when in a given situation rather than to do it automatically.

What a Phone Should Be
At first I thought I might write a list of attributes like in the preceding section here, but I hardly think it’s actually necessary. The difficult thing with a smartphone is not to envision possible uses or ways it could make your life better—there could hardly be anything easier (as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of apps available for download at the touch of a button). You have a device with thousands of times the processing power of computers that only half a century ago took up an entire room, and it fits easily in your pocket. It has access to basically any information you could possibly want to look up. It can record the world around you and play it back on demand. It can listen to your voice and understand what you want it to do (well, sometimes). As Clarke’s Third Law says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And it’s not hard to imagine what kind of mileage you could get out of magic.

No, the real challenge is figuring out what you shouldn’t do with it. And basically, I think that can be summed up by saying you should remain at a certain distance from it. Remember that your phone is supposed to be a helpful tool for you to use how you wish; that’s why you’re paying good money for it, after all. Smartphones weren’t designed to tell you what to do and interrupt you when you want to be working. But it’s easy to let it happen.

The Art of Personal Indexing: The Complete Guide to Indexing Your Paper Notes

Contents

Why This Article?
One of the biggest advantage of electronic documents has always been that they’re easy to search. Good ol’ Ctrl-F has probably saved millions of hours since its invention. But what if you’d rather have something on paper, but you still need to be able to search it? I don’t have a keyboard and a little display in the front of my notebooks, but I do have an index, and in a large number of cases it works nearly as well.

The index seems like a lost art nowadays with so many references moving online. Maybe that’s not so surprising: making a generally good index is quite difficult and historically has been a profession, and there’s actually an organization called the American Society of Indexers. But if you just want to help yourself find stuff when you put it away in your notebook or binder, it couldn’t be easier to start an index. In fact, you’re the best-qualified person to make an index for yourself, because you know how you relate ideas way better than anyone else.

I’ve found a surprising lack of resources on the Web relating to this idea, so I’m writing my own. While I’ve designed this guide for notebooks because that’s how I use it, most of the techniques should apply to binders as well, or maybe even filing systems with a little bit of adaptation.

(As a side note, the plural of index as used in this article is indexes. Indices is a more Latin form nowadays used only in mathematical contexts.)

Examples
You might prefer to look at these once you’ve read some of this guide, but if I put them at the end you might not know I had them here until you finished. I’ll refer to them later on. (Click on an image to enlarge it.)

A journal index.
A dream index.
A quote index.

A Topic Book index (ideas, thoughts).

Influences on This Technique
What got me interested in making my own indexes in the first place was an article by Lion Kimbro in the book Mindhacker, as previously mentioned way down in the middle of this article. He also wrote a book, How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which gave me a few more ideas. Many of the techniques are borrowed from one or both of these books, but I’ve added some of my own experience and provided a bit more description.

My favorite idea from there, and one that I’ll repeat several times here, is this: “There are no binder police.” (I’ll say notebook for better consistency with this article.) It’s great to look at other people’s techniques and learn their rules. It’s also great to make up your own rules. Organization makes things more consistent and more useful. But sometimes stepping outside the lines is even better, and here, if you do, nobody is going to tell you you did something wrong. Don’t wonder whether you can draw an arrow in your index if I didn’t tell you to. Do it! Here’s a secret: if you like, you can even do something “wrong” just because you can. It feels pretty good sometimes.

What an Index is Not
An index, as described in this article, is not a sequential list of the contents of your notebook. This article talks about the indexes the author uses, which consist of writing a page number next to the title of an entry with no particular order. While I don’t doubt this works for the author, personally I wouldn’t call it an index—it’s much more like a traditional book’s table of contents than an index. The problem with that approach, at least for me, is that, while it’s a little bit easier to create, you have to scan the entire thing to find what you’re looking for, which takes away a good part of the efficiency (and, frankly, the fun) of using an index in the first place.

An index is not a list of titles. You want to extract words or concepts from your content and provide multiple ways to access it, because that’s the way your brain works.

An index is not an exhaustive list of every possible word you might relate to a page in your notebook. Don’t hesitate to add useful keywords to the index, but only add ones you honestly think you might use to get back to that point.

Finally, and most importantly, even after those rules, an index is not something that gets created only according to rules that are set in stone. Remember, there are no notebook police. If you want to write a note next to one of your entries, do it. If you want to flip the order of two entries, draw a big arrow on the page. If you want to add something that’s not even in this notebook, do it!

Numbering Your Pages
This is both a boring topic and a boring task, but it’s a topic that cannot be avoided. If you don’t have any page numbers, you can’t have an index. Unless you’re really lucky, your notebook probably won’t come with page numbers in it, and if you’re using a binder and loose-leaf, it definitely won’t.

If you’re going to use your notebook completely linearly, from front to back, you can get away with numbering pages as you use them. I personally prefer to go ahead and do it all at the beginning anyway even though it’s a boring job just because I’d rather not deal with it later, but you may feel differently. If you’re splitting the book into multiple sections or using some other organizational system, though, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and number every page at the beginning.You can get lazy if you like and only number every other page (either numbering with only odd numbers on the right side or using every number and using .5’s for the left side). However, if you’re picky like me, you’ll probably want to number all of them. If you do go for numbering all of them, number all the right-hand or left-hand pages first, then go back and do the others—it’s much faster since you don’t have to move your writing hand back and forth.

Update 2013/06/28: There’s one other option, sometimes called the “quadrant method.” See the appropriately named section on this Moleskine/GTD fan page.

In any case, make sure you’re turning the pages carefully so you don’t skip any accidentally. If you do miss a page, that’s not the end of the world either—the notebook police aren’t going to fine you for being clumsy. Just number the pages in between with decimals or fractions (I have at least one notebook that goes 86 – 86⅓ – 86⅔ – 87). And if you accidentally skip a number, you’ll just be missing a page number—it doesn’t matter.

If you’re picky and paranoid about screwing up the numbering, you can do 20–50 pages on one side, then go backwards doing the facing pages, checking your work as you go along. That way you’ll catch it easier and have fewer pages to correct if you decide to change them.

You can put your page numbers anywhere on the page you like. Personally, I’ve gotten used to using the outside bottom corners, but there is not even a guideline for this, much less a rule.

If you’re using a binder, you have the ability to add pages in the middle of already existing pages. You can do whatever you like for numbering added pages, but I recommend using decimals between the existing pages. So if you insert a sheet between page 24 and page 25, number the front side 24.3 and the back 24.7. If you later add something between 24.7 and 25, number it 24.8 and 24.9, and so on. If you prefer integers, you can start by numbering by tens (if you’re old and geeky enough to remember programming in BASIC, you’ll be familiar with this technique).

With a binder, you can’t number only one side of the pages, because if you insert a page in the middle later, one of the pages will suddenly have a different (implied) number. However, if you trust yourself to remember to add the missing number every time you add a page in the middle, you might be able to get away with it.

Making an Index
Your index should go at one end of the notebook. Most books have an index in the back, but feel free to put it at the front if you prefer—that’s what I usually do. Don’t put it in the middle, though, because the very front and very back pages are by far the easiest to find.

For a 240-page journal-size notebook, I use five pages. For an 80-page notebook, I use two. Those are the only sizes I’ve experimented with extensively, so I can’t offer advice on others, but give scaling it a shot and see what you find out. You’re going for the most information in the fewest number of pages without making it messy or difficult to read. (I write multiple entries per line, usually 2–3, letters about 2mm tall; see the examples.)

Then write big letters along the left side of the page (preferably in a different color than you intend to write in the index with). Some letters need more space than others. In a 240-page ruled notebook with 30 lines, I use five or six as a baseline number and add, subtract, or combine letters as needed.

  • C usually takes up more space than any other letter. Give it at least one-third more space than a baseline amount.
  • I takes up somewhat less space than average.
  • J and K can be combined effectively into JK, using an average amount of space together.
  • N and O can be combined into NO, using an average amount of space together.
  • Q needs almost no space, as one would expect. I prefer to not combine it with either P or R, since they are average space-users, but rather to write it on its own, giving it only one or two lines.
  • S needs more space than average.
  • T does too.
  • U and V can be combined into UV and still use slightly less space than average.
  • W takes the most space of any of the end-of-the-alphabet letters, but can still use slightly less than average.
  • XYZ123 can be just one section and still look empty most of the time. (123 indicates entries that start with a number, like 3-ring binder or 911.)
(The above assumes that you’re using English for your notes; if you’re using a different language, you’ll need a different letter distribution.)

You can plan out the letter distribution ahead of time if you like: multiply the number of lines per page by the number of pages, divide it by the number of entries (you can do 26 if you like, but as shown above, you probably want to combine some of them), then add and subtract from each letter to adjust the distribution, making sure the total number always remains the same. The one catch with this system is that you probably don’t want to split a letter over multiple pages, so you have to deal with also grouping the letters into sets of the number of lines on a page as well.

Using an Index
Whenever you add some notes to your system, whether by writing them, copying them, filing them, or punching and binding them, add some entries to the index. Good keywords

  • are not the title of the page (we’re not going for a list of contents).
  • do not apply to very many other notes (a keyword that has 15 page numbers is annoying since you have to look up many of them).
  • are things you would think of when trying to find these notes (that seems obvious, but sometimes I find myself putting keywords in the index that are related to the notes but I couldn’t possibly expect myself to use when looking something up).
  • if in doubt, should be the first things you think of, because those are probably the same keywords you’ll think of when you’re looking for it again.

You can take a look at my example indexes for some ideas for keywords. If you don’t understand what one is, that’s good—it means it’s personal.

I prefer to write names as Lastname, Firstname, but sometimes I have to skip out of this pattern when I don’t know somebody’s last name. If I’m afraid I might forget someone’s last name, I’ll often enter it in my standard format, then add an entry “Firstname, see Lastname”. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how you prefer to do it as long as you’re relatively consistent.

Try to roughly alphabetize the entries within each letter. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it won’t be, since you can’t predict what entries you’ll use next, but at least you can have items whose second letter is a at the beginning and ones with u‘s near the end. I’m still working on learning second-letter distributions for different letters; for instance, nearly half of words that start with c start with co, and most of those start with com or con. But don’t worry about these minutiae at the beginning, just try to get the entries roughly in order.

I start with two columns, the first roughly A-L and the second M-Z; if one of them fills up and you still need to add more to the letters in that column, you can squeeze some entries in between, use some of the space from an adjacent letter, or put the entry somewhere else where there’s space and draw a line to the place where it should go. I’ve done this several times in the first example index.

A final note here: be careful with the index pages! One of my notebooks recently split apart at the first page because I turn to that page so much and probably don’t do it too carefully (you can sort of see the damage in the final example). If you’re using loose-leaf paper, put those little reinforcement stickers around the holes (if you don’t have any, you can imitate them by taping over the holes on both sides and then re-punching the paper through the tape). If you’re using a notebook, be gentle when you turn to the index so you don’t rip the index pages out or wear through the binding.

The Index is Never Finished
It’s frustrating to have a nicely designed and maintained index, flip to the index, and be unable to find what you were looking for. It’s even more frustrating to do this twice. So if you can’t find something, don’t just page through the notebook and find it and then continue on your merry way. Find the place, but then add it to the index under all the keywords you tried to find it under. That way, next time, you won’t have to do the same thing.Similarly, if you do find something in the index but only after you’ve thought of several different keywords, add the ones you were originally thinking of. And if you’re reading some notes and suddenly think of a brilliant keyword you didn’t think of before, go ahead and add it (just be prepared to find that you have, in fact, already written that one in the index—it will happen).

Advanced Topics
If you’ve never made an index before, don’t worry about these things now. But if you’re looking for more, here are some other advanced ideas that I’ve found useful.

References
Sometimes you might want to reference some other notes somewhere else. If they’re in the same notebook or binder, you can just write the page number (I always write references in green ink, but I’m particular like that and I write with a four-color pen). If they’re in a different notebook, though, you’re going to have fun writing things like “that yellow spiral-bound notebook” or “the one I currently keep in my pocket.” So it’s better to start numbering your notebooks/binders and classify them if you have different kinds. I have the following system:

  • TB (Topic Book) – Ideas, things that don’t really go anywhere else.
  • CB (Chrono Book) – More conventionally known as a journal, but “journal book” sounds really dumb.
  • DB (Dream Book) – What it sounds like.
  • PB (Pocket Book) – A little tiny green notebook that I squeeze random ideas into and then put somewhere else.
  • QB (Quote Book) – Another pocket-sized notebook with quotes from stuff I’m reading.

Each set has a volume number, and every volume has page numbers, so I can write, for example, TB1.53. This reference is easy to write inline in other notes or in an index. Someday I’m hoping to make an index that covers many notebooks, but right now I don’t have enough notes to make it necessary or worthwhile.

Internal Non-Page Numbering
Sometimes it might be easier or more useful to index by a numbering system other than pages. For instance, in my dream journal, I number each entry and use that for my index. It may be less precise, since one entry can span multiple pages, but it’s more useful for finding what happened where.

You don’t need to adapt your index in any special way, you just have to remember that the numbers aren’t page numbers. If you don’t number the pages, that won’t be hard to remember, but if you’re picky like me (are you seeing a pattern yet?) you might want to number the pages anyway and include a table of contents in the back that maps your internal numbering system to pages, or use the pages for some other thing.

It’s useful to add a second set of page numbers at the other end of the page (top if you numbered pages at the bottom, or bottom if you numbered pages at the top, or either if you didn’t number pages at all, or on the side if you like to break the rules, or on the back of the page if you’re just weird) that match the internal numbering, in a way similar to the guide words in a dictionary. Thus if you find that you want to look up #459, you can just flip through the book at that corner until you see the number 459.

Multiple Pagination Systems
In my Topic Books, I have a separate section at the back for quick notes. Some of these later get made into full pages or sections, some of them don’t. In any case, I like to index them. The information density is so high, however, that it’s not useful to give the number of the page—there could be twenty completely different ideas on the same page. So I number these ideas separately.

Page numbers then get written in black next to keywords in the index, and quick note numbers get written in blue. If you don’t have multiple colors, you can put page numbers for one of the systems in parentheses, or precede them with a B or a smiley-face, or whatever you fancy.

The Index Game
This isn’t really a technique, but it can be fun all the same. If I look at the index of one of my journals, I can instantly remember a bunch of the stuff that happened during that time just from reading the entries—indexes actually serve as a decent summary.

The Index Game, then, is to look at an index (preferably one you haven’t used in a moderate amount of time) and try to see how much you can remember about the notes that correspond to each entry without turning to that page. For every one you succeed on, you’ll probably strike out on several more, but it’s amazing how much you can remember about some of them even when they’re extremely random.

One trick is to look at the page number, then scan the rest of the index for other items with the same page number or a nearby one; hopefully another one will help you remember.

How to Prevent Compulsive Browsing

Guess what happened to me the other day? I had a big project to work on. Before I started, I figured, I would just check my email and my Facebook account “really quickly.” So I did. I still didn’t really want to start, so I checked my Google Reader feed. Then I read some things linked to that, and some things linked to that. Then I looked at the clock and noticed that I’d just wasted a whole hour.

Everybody has a different weakness; maybe yours is Reddit, or Memebase, or Google News. I have a huge problem with Wikipedia; I love learning about random stuff so much that I click any links that look interesting, and then I click some links in those articles, and eventually I notice that I’ve moved ridiculously far from my original topic.

Ironically, it was several levels of links out from my Google Reader feed that I learned of the program that has worked wonders for me. It was an article called “How to Quit Wasting Time on the Internet” that showed up in the related articles section of a website I’d reached after clicking a link on one of the pages I reached by clicking a link on Reader. Given that I was undeniably wasting time on the Internet at the time, I immediately clicked the link.

The article has a large number of suggestions, so if you’re interested in more options and tools, take a look at it. But what worked for me was a Chrome extension called StayFocusd. It has two modes:

  • A daily limit on browsing time for particular sites. You make a list of sites you often waste time on (I have Facebook, Google Reader, Lifehacker, The Onion, YouTube, Wikipedia, and for good measure even though I don’t often visit them, Reddit and StumbleUpon). You can also check a box that will count sites you access by clicking links on time-wasting sites as time-wasting sites as well (very important for sites that are primarily lists of links to others, such as Google News or Reader). Then you choose how long you want to give yourself to browse these sites per day (right now I have 20 minutes, but I’m still trying to find the best amount). After you’ve used up that time, you can’t visit those sites for the rest of the day, and you can’t increase the time either.
  • A complete block for a given amount of time. This is called the “nuclear option.” You choose the length of time you need to be distraction-free and whether you want to block just your blacklisted sites or the entire Internet, and after you click the button there’s no going back.

It’s quite possible to cheat if you want to; for instance, you can simply open a different browser in which the extension is not installed. But unless you have really serious self-control problems, you don’t really need to block things entirely, you just need to give yourself a reminder. As soon as the extension informs me that I’m not supposed to be visiting a website, I immediately realize what I’m doing and lose the desire to try. Having a timer also works wonders to remind me to scan lists of articles quickly rather than waste time reading unimportant ones.

I had no idea how much time I was wasting this way until I installed the extension. Since installing it, I find myself wondering what I should do much more frequently; though I wasn’t aware of it, apparently I had a tendency to just start browsing the Web and then get drawn into something that way.

If you’ve ever had a problem with compulsive browsing, this extension could give you time you didn’t even know you had.

Download StayFocusd for Chrome

(Note: There are similar extensions for Firefox; see the original article that I linked earlier for some of these.)

Low-Tech: Use the Most Basic Effective Solution

Ever find yourself wondering whether you should use the latest app or buy the latest fancy device to replace a simpler, lower-tech tool? Here’s a rule I recently came up with to help decide. Simply put: One should use the lowest-tech solution that meets one’s needs.

This may seem strange in the modern world with all our fancy gadgets and innovative smartphone apps: Why would you prefer the low-tech solution unless it was perceptibly better? By way of answering, I’ll ask a hopefully easier question: why wouldn’t you pick the high-tech solution?

  • Simplicity. You’ve probably heard the acronym KISS (“Keep it simple stupid”). If a sheet of paper works just fine, why should you use a computer system or a tablet? Unless it’s actually more useful that way, you’re only adding needless complexity. This is not to say that the simpler solution is always better; rather, the simpler solution is better if it also does everything you need it to. If the tablet truly is more useful, then by all means go with it—the key is that at equal levels of utility, the simpler system is better.
  • Fragility. In nearly all situations, the more complex a system gets, the more likely it is to fail. (You could argue that some complex systems are complex because of all the checks and failsafes in them, but in the end there is still more to go wrong than in a simpler system. No matter how good your battery charging and warning system is, it’s still going to be harder to run out of battery life on your paper.) If there is no difference in utility, it makes sense to choose the system that’s less likely to fail.
  • Flexibility. The simplest systems are often easier to adapt to other purposes, and they’re often easier to fix when something goes wrong or turns out not to work the way you intended.
  • Cost. I don’t really mean financial cost; while low-tech methods are sometimes cheaper, it can go either way (if you already have a computer or a smartphone that is capable of duplicating the function of another system, needing a separate device or piece of equipment will cost you more). However, the more complex your system gets, the more time and energy you must put into learning it. Sometimes this is totally worth it (if you’ve found a new computer program that can help you do your job in half the time, for instance), but other times it proves to be a waste of effort.

Here are two test cases I’ve run into:

  • Anki. Anki is a flashcard system that manages your studying for maximum efficiency. I have 17,525 cards in Anki at the moment and can expect to see about 300 of them on any given day (if I’m studying every day, as I’m supposed to), getting maybe 260 of those correct on the first shot. Imagine for a moment that I instead had chosen to implement this with paper flashcards instead.A 1000-count of plain white 3×5 index cards costs me around $10 on Amazon, making around $180 just for the paper to date (plus probably another $20 for ones I spoiled initially or chose to delete at some point). Anki is completely free (assuming you already have a computer) and even if you want to buy the paid mobile version, that’s only $25. Then we have the space that 18,000 index cards takes up: a stack of 100 index cards is about 3x5x0.875 inches. Stacked all together, those index cards would be over 13 feet tall! And from this stack, I would somehow have to figure out which 300 to study.This isn’t quite as impossible as it might seem; there are reasonably efficient algorithms for handling this kind of study, even by hand. But the point is that it would be a huge pain. In this case, the low-tech solution does not meet my needs in any way, so I move to a more complicated and high-tech system.
  • Notes. On the other hand, if I just need to sketch something out or write down a note quickly, I reach for a sheet of paper, a sticky note, or an index card. Writing the note on the computer does not make sense: I could talk about the ways in which paper is more flexible, but it’s easier to describe the ways in which using a computer doesn’t make sense: if I’m making a list of things I’m trying to remember to do in the next 20 minutes, I don’t need the storage or searching capabilities that a computer or phone can provide (in fact, it’s more likely to never get deleted and junk up my notes collection or filesystem). If I’m writing in Notepad and suddenly realize I need to include a diagram, I have to open up a different program or app to do that (and if I tried to avoid that by going with a drawing app from the start, I’d probably lose the organizational abilities of a more text-oriented notes program). Additionally, there is significant overhead in opening an extra app or program (and getting the appropriate device if not already using it).

    The flexibility and simplicity of paper won out here: it can be used for nearly anything and is nearly always available.

If you ever feel like you’ve been drawn into using new software or tools that sounded like they were useful but turned out to be more of a burden or useless than anything else, give the simplicity test a shot next time: Is the new system legitimately more useful (and significantly enough so to cover the cost of learning it)? Or does it only add more complexity with little to show for it?

A Week Without the Internet

I’ve spent my last week mostly disconnected. It’s been a surprising week in a lot of ways, and a very good, relaxing, and productive one as well.

The Plan

  • For the first weekend, I did not touch any internet-enabled device.
  • Afterwards (weekdays), I used the Internet at school for an online class, to work during one meeting, and to research how to change the date format on an assignment I needed to print. I also glanced at my email twice to confirm nothing really urgent had come up (I read only two emails total further than the subject).
  • I also did not play any electronic games or use my iPod Touch for anything except looking up notes during that meeting and studying. I barely text at all, but if I did I would have refrained from that as well.

For most of the time I kept my Ethernet cable disconnected and in a drawer in another part of the house, which prevented me from connecting for something trivial. On my wireless devices, I used the “forget this network” option. (I still knew the password, but not having it immediately available was all the deterrent I needed.)

Effects
I spent most of the weekend and some of the following week picking up, deep-cleaning, and organizing my room. It’s better than it’s looked in years now (it remains to be seen whether I can keep it that way, but I’m going to try). I can’t say that I got a ton of other stuff done since I spent hours on that—I suppose I could try it again sometime and see how I fared.

I noticed that I got my homework (and other tasks I needed to do) done a lot more expediently. With fewer distractions and fewer of my customary things to do, I was much more likely to just sit down and do it.

Most noticeably, though, the way I reacted to my Internet connection being gone surprised me. If you use your computer a lot, you’re probably familiar with the feeling you get when you find your internet is down. (If you don’t use or like computers or the Internet too much, think of your electricity being out.) Do you sometimes go around expecting to do things, then realizing you can’t do them because the Internet / power is out? It’s easy to forget everything that the Internet does for us nowadays because we’re so used to it being there. I don’t feel that I’m completely dependent on or addicted to the Internet (and I should know, since I just spent a week without it!), but I’ve even been known to open a browser before I remembered that I didn’t have a connection.

Yet this week hasn’t been full of those “duh” moments. Indeed, I was surprised to find myself hardly missing my Internet connection at all. Sure, there were plenty of times when I realized I couldn’t do something (order an item from Amazon, look up the answer to a question, or research something I heard about and was interested in). When I had one of these moments, I added an item to my “List of Things to Do on the Internet,” to be handled when I got back. But I didn’t put things on the list after I tried to do them and couldn’t; I always knew I couldn’t do things before I tried them. I think it’s because my separation from the Internet was planned and intentional, rather than being a technical problem suddenly thrust upon me. Seeing the difference has been quite educational.

I also found that the need to be in touch with what’s going on is considerably less than I thought. (I’m speaking of the level of need perceived by people today and what society expects of us—the actual need is of course still lesser.) I looked at my email twice, as I mentioned earlier. I never found an email that actually required my attention until the last day (which I saw only after my break was done anyway). I left an autoresponse message giving people my phone number if they felt their message was time-sensitive; only two people took me up on it.

I’m happy to get back online (starting today). It’s nice to be able to look things up, read about what’s going on in the world, and communicate with others. But this week felt really good, too; it was a much-needed break from being in constant contact with our friends and the news of the world. Those abilities are certainly useful, but it’s also important to sometimes take a step back and remind ourselves that it isn’t the only thing that matters.

I’ll certainly look into doing this again, though I’m more inclined to go for a couple of days or a weekend rather than a full week. Nevertheless, the longer time span was definitely educational, and I’m glad I did it.

How to Set Up Your Own Break
I’d recommend that everyone give this a shot. A week is probably a little bit overkill at first, especially if your job depends on using the Internet (sure, you can make an exception for that, but if you’re connected during work every day, it’s not really the same). Many of these ideas are still useful for short periods of time, but they’re especially aimed at (and important for) longer breaks.

  • Decide on conditions. Having a plan for what you will and will not do makes it easier to keep going with it. List the dates you plan to be off and what exceptions you’ll make. Write it down and give it to someone else to create accountability.This may seem like a silly exercise—after all, the point of taking a break from using the Internet is not to test your willpower, it’s to give you a break. Unfortunately, we’re so used to having the Web right there that just saying “All right, now I won’t use the Internet” probably won’t work.
  • Visit networks and let people know what you’re doing. Post a status update, write an automatic vacation reply, whatever is normal for that network or method of communication to let people know you’ll be away for a bit. If you like, you can provide a phone number for urgent things. You don’t need to do this, but if you don’t, people will probably ask you what’s going on. Here’s my email autoresponse:
To the copyright holder/owner/writer of this email—
I am taking a break this week from my regular Internet connectivity. I will be back on February 9, 2013. If your email is time-sensitive and cannot wait until then, feel free to call me at [my phone number].
Thanks for your understanding.
Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://sorenbjornstad.com
  • Liberate digital data. If you have an electronic, online calendar, to-do list, or anything else that you expect to need during your break, get the relevant information on paper. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using these normally, but if you have to keep connecting to access them, it’s much easier to justify doing other things “while you’re there.”
  • Make an “internet list.” If you write down things you want to do online, you won’t have to feel bad about not doing them—you can simply do them later (and by that point, perhaps some of them will have become irrelevant or uninteresting and you won’t have to do them anymore—always a nice feeling).

And most important of all, enjoy your break: get something done that you’ve been putting off, or get some much-needed rest.

Using the Internet to Recall Sayings and Quotations You’ve Forgotten

Ever remember fragments of a saying? Or just part of a quote? You’re not alone. The trick is figuring out how to search for it. Here are two searching tricks to rescue you from that annoying feeling of remembering just part of something.

1: The Asterisk
There’s a really handy Google trick that almost nobody seems to know about: an asterisk (*) matches any single word. This lets you easily search for quotes that you can only remember part of. For example, “one death is a * a million deaths is a *” will easily bring up Joseph Stalin’s fairly well-known statement, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” (I have this posted on my wall right in front of me, so I’m not liable to forget it, but I couldn’t think of a better example.)

 

This trick works wonders; there are only so many possible sentences with that precise structure, and if it’s something reasonably well-known, the first page of hits is liable to give you a unanimous verdict on what you were trying to think of. If you get irrelevant results (which has actually never happened to me), you can try putting the whole thing in quotes. It’s also possible that you remembered the part that you knew wrong; try adding more asterisks in places you weren’t sure of.

 

2: Searching Books on the Internet
This is what happened to me the other day. I remembered the following phrase: “You may be the world champion tetris player, but eventually….” That was it. For the life of me, I could not figure out where it came from, or indeed any information about it. So I went to Google and just typed that in. Guess what? There was exactly one hit, a Google Books result taking me to exactly the passage I was looking for.

 

To test whether this was a transferable trick, I grabbed five books from my bookshelf, flipped them open to a random page, and typed in a quote from each. A search for the quoted passage (only ten words long or so, and devoid of any specific names) brought up the correct title of the book in five out of five cases.

 

The uniqueness of fairly mundane English sentences is truly surprising. Some things that worked:
  • “It lay out in the open, several feet away and unreachable” (Once Upon a Time In the North by Philip Pullman, 1 result)
  • “nudging people to use the standard cursor keys” (Windows XP Annoyances for Geeks by David Karp, 3 results)
  • “For the last six months we have exhausted every means of locating you” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 3 results).
So next time you can’t remember the source of a quote you’re thinking of, forget about thinking hard and scanning through books–just type it into Google. In most cases the websites also let you see a couple of pages of context, so you probably don’t even have to go get the book. Remember to use quotation marks around the quote, assuming that you’re fairly sure your words are exactly right–you’ll get much more relevant results.

 

Many sites and devices that you might use have their own search features (for instance, I can search all the books and documents on my Kindle from the main screen), but with the success rate of this technique, I’d only recommend using that if you don’t have immediate access to Google.