In life, as in technical writing: you have to choose

A heap of scrap metal. One of the chief rules of tech writing – or at least one of my chief rules – is to not dump into the manual every scrap of information I have on hand.

The tech writer’s job is to present, to select, to shape. As with art, it’s not just about what you put in, it’s about what you leave out.

One of my freelance jobs was to create a help file for a program on crop genetics, a knowledge domain that was literally beyond my ken. I could not hope to understand the ins and outs of how to use that program in the six short weeks I worked on the project because I couldn’t understand what it output and what you could use the output for.

In that case, I opted for my standard fallback plan: make the help file procedural (describe the mechanics of using the program) rather than conceptual (the big ideas and concepts on crop genetics that inform the program’s design). If you don’t know where to start, go with procedural first: most users are simply bewildered by a new application’s user interface and appreciate any sort of road map that helps orient them to basic operations.

Then, after you’ve played with the application for a while, you can begin to divine a little more of its purpose, what it could be used for, and perhaps how to write topics that make more specialized operations easier for the user.

I’m not a scientist, but I am an avid user of applications. I can play with an app, push buttons, look at file extensions, note the preferences options, and pretty much plot the entire outline of a procedural help file in my head. I was lucky enough to have the developer and some expert users at hand, so I could quiz them on common workflows or on what a beginner would need to know vs. an expert user. Through playing around, reading old documentation, and interviewing experienced users, I created a help file/user guide that I think got most users 80 percent of the way there. For a product that had no help file before I got there, I think it was a good start.

What would have sunk the project was to pretend to know more than I did. Had I simply dumped my notes onto the screen, in the hopes of conveying the false impression that I knew what I was writing about, then I would have done the user a disservice. If an application’s interface is inscrutable and upside-down, then a help file that is equally obtuse or eccentric is simply another insult thrown in the user’s face. It means I have not served as their stand-in and advocate. Instead of me making sense of the application so that they could use it to meet their needs, I have instead forced them to do the sense-making.

The old saying goes “if everything is important, then nothing is important.” It’s up to me to select what’s important for the user to know, what is less important, what is not important. I put those choices into the document, release the document into the world, and wait for the feedback that tells me whether I got it mostly right. If I’m lucky, I get another chance to make the next version a little better.

It has been only very recently that I’ve thought about how this lesson applies to life. Or my life, in particular.

The way I’ve typically spent my time and filled my head is to stuff myself full of projects, both urgent and non-urgent, real and imagined: acting, arts classes, writing groups, neighborhood board, yoga class, reading, writing, brainstorming a new side business idea, watching every episode of “Parks and Recreation” or “Clatterford,” moving every icon on my MacBook desktop 10 pixels to the left, opening every PDF downloaded in 2013 to judge it worth keeping – in short, an insane amount of activity.

As I’ve pared away my responsibilities outside the home, and in general slowed down my analytical thinking, I’ve noticed how I’ve splattered my energy and attention all over the place. I enjoyed myself, no doubt about it, but I was always a little frantic too.

Because, I think, I had not done my job and selected what was important, what was less important, what was not important. I did not choose. Choosing was actually quite terrifying because I have always had a case of FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) (Wikipedia, Article). The series of posts I did on being an information packrat echo this theme: the present-day discomfort of hoarding anything – information, experiences, books, salt-and-pepper shakers – is easier to bear emotionally than any supposed pain of missing out on something in the future. The chaos in my head of trying to DO IT ALL, of making sense of all this stuff, of attempting to manage it, was stressing me out.

Recently, on re-reading and re-listening to the works of Michael NeillGeorge Pransky, and Sydney Banks, I decided to reduce my multiple input streams and multitasking and multiple-priorities. As best I could, I chose to sit quietly a little more often than I do. And have a little less on my mind. My mind is forever a-buzzing with ideas and projects and strategies, and I was exhausted. It was time to choose and edit which thoughts to listen to, which ones to let go, and which ones could wait for a while.

Letting my thinking settle down has, to a degree, also slowed down my manic need to fill my day with activity. I don’t know why that is, but it is. I’m not initiating many projects or meetings nowadays. I’m not furiously brainstorming my next side-business idea and trying to figure it all out. I’m re-reading a book instead of rushing to the next one. I try not to chase the next thing I simply must do before doing the next thing. Everyone has preferences and I’m able to hear them a little better now that the noise in my head has subsided.

As for distinguishing between mindful activity and mindless web surfing, well, I’m still working on that. It’s like distinguishing between craving and hunger; I know what will make me feel more satisfied later so I know what choice makes sense now. Sometimes I do binge, and that’s OK.

Another saying in the self-help world: “how you do anything is how you do everything.” I hope I can learn how to do in my life what I’m able to do pretty successfully in my work. It takes time and practice. There are false starts and do-overs. I’m on the lookout for feedback that tells me whether I’m getting it mostly right. I hope to make the next version a little better.


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DOOMSDAY IS ... Friday (for 2014)

Which means that Friday falls on: doomsday_sign


  • the last day of February (this is the key fact if you remember nothing else. Doomsday is always the last day in February for every year.)
  • 4/4, 6/6, 8/8, 10/10, and 12/12
  • 5/9 and 9/5
  • 7/11 and 11/7
  • March 7 (7 days after the last day of February)
  • January 3, except for leap years (years divisible by 4), when it’s January 4

It’s easy to remember Doomsday for the even months. To remember the day for the odd months, use the mnemonic, “I work 9-to-5 at the 7-11.”

The algorithm was developed by mathematician John Conway, creator of The Game of Life and a good egg all around.

Isn’t it wonderful knowing stuff like this? I can never know enough fun stuff like this. I don’t remember where or when I first stumbled across the Doomsday algorithm, but I have always enjoyed it and it’s quite handy when someone asks “what day does September 24th fall on?” So…

  1. For 2014, Doomsday is always on Friday.
  2. Doomsday is therefore on Friday, September 5th.
  3. Add 21 to get September 26th (multiples of 7 make the addition easy).
  4. September 24th is Wednesday.

A bit of mental math never hurt anyone. That said, I have not gone down the rabbit hole of learning all the rules of the algorithm so that I can mentally compute the day for any given date. Whilst I appreciate that it would make my mind a little more nimble mathematically, I prefer the lazy man’s way of simply looking at a calendar.

However, there are no shortage of sites where you can learn the full algorithm if you want. My favorite site for the algorithm includes lots of background information and additional resources. But maybe you need your hand held till you build up your confidence (and there’s no shame in having your hand held). In that case, use’s remarkably well-hidden Doomsday Calculator. which steps you through each calculation till you can learn it by heart. Click the “Show/hide all steps” link to see all the steps on one page.

As for me, I will continue to check each new year’s calendar for the last day of February and start my calculations from there.

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Let the calendar decide

Bacon Cheeseburger and Teriyaki Burger - The H... Oliver Burkeman writes the weekly This Column Will Change Your Life for the UK Guardian. The column is a brief, cheeky, well-researched survey of self-help topics of all sorts, from philosophy to life hacks. Burkeman is himself an author of a self-help book that is on my personal wishlist.

He had an interesting confluence of topics recently: one on “triple constraints” and one on adopting a 12-week, rather than 12-month, perspective on goal-setting.

The “iron triangle” is that eternal triad of choices from which only two can be selected. The classic triple constraint is “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.” Burkeman lists constraints for other domains, such as home cooking (“tasty, nutritious, or easy to make”) and vacations (“exotic, cheap, or relaxing”). Resources are limited and choices have to be made. As Burkeman says,

…[H]istory is littered with the corpses of businesspeople and politicians who foolishly thought they could ignore [the triple constraint]. Respect it, on the other hand, and even the sky may be no limit. When JFK promised to get a man on the moon within a decade, he wisely didn’t also promise to get it done cheap.

But the triple constraint isn’t the only model for this kind of choice theory. David Sedaris writes about meeting a woman who went to a management seminar where she was told that everyone has four burners in life: family, friends, work, and health. Turn off one of those burners, and you’re a success. Turn off two of those burners, and you’re a big success. The woman Sedaris described had chosen to focus on work and friends — and she was a big success.

James Patterson wrote about juggling five balls: family, friends, health, spirit, and work. The work ball is made of rubber while the others are made of glass. If you drop the work ball, it’ll bounce right back. But if you drop any of the other balls, they’ll scuff or scratch or shatter permanently.

As Burkeman says, the idea is to realize that you can’t have it all, that life is about trade-offs and you have to make choices. But some people, when faced with this menu of choices, paralyze themselves and decide not to choose. And because they refuse to choose, they may endure suffering worse than the momentary pain of having to give something up. Even if the giving up is only for a little while. And so instead of moving forward even a little bit, mindful of constraints, they choose to stay in place.

Is there a way to make that choosing easier? In an earlier column, Burkeman described the psychology of the “goal-looms-larger effect”: that burst of extra energy you get finishing all that work just before leaving on vacation. By the same token, the further away a goal is, the less urgent it appears and so the less hard you work towards it. This inclines us to slack off and think, “Oh well, that’s months in the future — I’ll start tomorrow. Or next week.”

The 12-Week Year argues that a year is simply too long of a timeframe to work with. The goal is so far away that one never feels the emotional juice to run toward it. And too many unpredictable events — health crises, home emergencies, sick family members — over the course of a year that you can’t predict or plan around.

So the authors instead suggest breaking the calendar year into smaller 12-week “years.” Scale your goals and tasks to fit inside that smaller box, create a list of weekly tasks that you can check off, and you stand a greater chance of meeting your scaled-down “annual” goals. By the end of the calendar year, you’ll have likely accomplished far more than if you’d spread the work out over the standard 12 months.

This isn’t a new idea to me. JD Meier, in his book Getting Results the Agile Way, and on his Sources of Insight blog, has long recommended adopting three major accomplishments for the year, each quarter, each month, each week, and each day. It’s not hard to see how one can take a large goal, such as losing weight or finding a new job, and then break those big amorphous goals down into smaller, more concrete quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily tasks. The 12-Week Year authors have taken that chunking-down idea and packaged it in a smarter way. (I’ve not read their book, so I’m sure they’ve added their own flourishes and enhancements to the process, too.)

So maybe one way to reconcile oneself to tough choices — whether triple constraints, four burners, or five juggling balls — is simply to timebox. Pick a period of time — whether it be 12 weeks, from now till July 4th, from March 15 to April 15 — make the hard choice and try it out. Play with it. Leave one of the burners off, drop one of the balls. You can do it knowing that it’s possible to pick them up again in the next time period. This way, you can rotate through each area of focus throughout the year, knowing that your choice is both firm and not forever.

This reminds me also of Steve Pavlina’s “one week on, one week off” idea, which he attributes to Napoleon Hill. Go full out for an entire week — writing, programming, cooking — and then take the next week off.

These issues are alive to me at the moment because, of course, I have choices to make and focus is sometimes hard for me to achieve. Too many wonderful things to do, not enough time for everything I’d like to do, and no optimal blend that will balance everything on a daily basis. So the solution that bubbles up for now is to not try to balance things. Pick an area or project, focus on it during my evening project-time, and let go of those things that don’t fit in the timebox. When the project is done or at a place where it can be maintained with minimal effort, then see what else in my life needs that attention. Look for balance in the long-term.

That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.


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If you have concluded that “Ignorance is bliss” and prefer to cater to your perverted appetite with your favorite predigested food, which is so tempting, so sweet in the mouth, so easy to gulp, so smooth to swallow, so stimulating, and so fashionable, then lay this book aside until you have learnt through disease and pain that it pays to adopt the natural and moral diet.

I also find it sad that because his book is filled with a whole bunch of nonsense, that’s why it’s a bestseller; that’s why we’re talking. Because that’s how you get on the bestseller list. You promise the moon and stars, you say everything you heard before was wrong, and you blame everything on one thing. You get a scapegoat; it’s classic. Atkins made a fortune with that formula. We’ve got Rob Lustig saying it’s all fructose; we’ve got T. Colin Campbell [author of The China Study, a formerly bestselling book] saying it’s all animal food; we now have Perlmutter saying it’s all grain. There’s either a scapegoat or a silver bullet in almost every bestselling diet book.



Kenneth Koch reading “You Want A Social Life With Friends“ (2000)

This was recorded by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Here’s what she has to say about it:

One of my favorite poems appears in the book on page 144. It is called So You Want A Social Life With Friends, and it is by Kenneth Koch. In the fall of 2000, I had the privilege of recording Mr. Koch reading this poem in his Upper East Side apartment for an audio magazine project I was working on. I used a tiny Radio Shack tape recorder, and take full responsibility for the lack of high sound quality. (But I do admit I like the crackling and soundproof-lessness.) He was an impeccable, flawless reader—we were finished in two or three takes. Though he had been reluctant to agree to our session, once underway, he was a gracious, charismatic host. He had set up a nice tray with glasses of grapefruit juice. Fitting, because the whole thing was bittersweet. Mr. Koch died a year later. I believe this is one of his last recordings.

Amazing! One of my favorite poems, too.

It’s a cycle. You start a story, and it’s stupid. You don’t have any ideas. You’re washed up. Finished. And then you get a sliver of an idea, but it’s kind of dumb. Ugh. Then you start working it, and it becomes, oh, maybe. Alright. Yeah, I am going to finish this story. I did finish it! It’s not terrible! [Then] you don’t have any ideas. Is that what life is? It’s just a series of enacting the cycle. Lately, it’s become kind of wonderful to say, ‘Yeah, so now I’m at the point where I don’t have any ideas. Is is a crisis? No, it’s not a crisis. You’ve been here before. And maybe even you could enjoy that moment when you’re bereft of ideas… The goal would be to keep enacting that [cycle], live to 190, and put the period on the best story ever.

One of the things I learned about the world of art,” Teller says, “is there are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings—there was some guy who could walk up and do that. But art is work like anything else—concentration, physical pain. Part of the subject of this movie is that a great work of art should seem to have magically sprung like a miracle on the wall. But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.” To see Vermeer as “a god” makes him “a discouraging bore,” Teller went on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.