books Knowledge

The Marginalia Time Machine

A few years ago I started writing the date in the margins of books when I underlined or took notes. When I revisit books it’s been fun to see when I was there last and to get some context for notes in the margins.

Give it a try! It’s a an easy tip that adds just a bit more enjoyment to reading.

Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity Software Technology

PersonalBrain vs. Mindmapping Part II

After writing yesterday about the differences between PersonalBrain and Mindmappers, I started thinking more about what the core difference between them are.

  • Is it a temporal difference? Mindmaps tend to expire whereas information in PersonalBrain tends to be valid over a longer period of time.
  • Is it a difference in the amount of data you can to see at once? Mindmaps allow you to see possibly hundreds of nodes at once where realistically in PersonalBrain you can only deal with maybe 10 or 20 on the screen at a time.
  • Is it a difference in the way you can connect the information? PersonalBrain is more organic and mindmaps are structured.

While these are all valid points, they don’t get at the heart of it which seems to be:

In PersonalBrain each node is first class data, whereas in a Mindmap, nodes have hierarchal importance. This means that in PersonalBrain any element in the “plex” can have infinitely detailed information associated with it. You can extend any node with unlimited sub-nodes that provide additional detail without consciously structuring the data to allow for specialization.

For example, I’ve created a Mindmap of my notes for the book Linked and one of the nodes in the map is “Power Laws”. The more I research power laws and get into the details, the more nodes I’ll need to add. Eventually, one of two things will happen – either the mindmap will become cluttered and unwieldy or I’ll have to start a new mindmap. If I do the latter, I’ll then have to remember it exists and open separately if I go back to my book notes. Neither is desirable.

In PersonalBrain if I have a power laws node I’ll never run out of space under it and everything associated with that node can be associated with any other node in the system.

On the other hand, it’s sometimes beneficial to have the concept of a leaf node and the structure a mindmap offers. In PersonalBrain it’s difficult to emphasize the importance of a node since there really isn’t the concept of the “center node” that a mindmap has.

So, the conclusion remains the same–different tools for different purposes.

Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

An example of flow in Anna Karenina

In part Chapter Four of Part Three of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy I came across a great example of flow, written well before Mihály Csíkszentmihályi formally identified and defined flow in 1990 and it became popular in positive psychology.

In the example, Levin, a Russian land owner, decides to go out and work side by side with the peasants who work his land. The job at hand is mowing the long grass to make hay. Levin is an inexperienced mower, but wants to try it anyway.

Initially he struggles a bit with it:

The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously.

And alongside the strong peasants, he begins to feel that he won’t have the energy to finish:

Levin followed him, trying not to get left behind, and he found it harder and harder: the moment came when he felt he had no strength left, but at that very moment Tit stopped and whetted the scythes.

After finishing his first row he gets a taste of victory:

And this long row seemed particularly hard work to Levin; but when the end was reached … Levin walked back in the same way over the space he had cut, in spite of the sweat that ran in streams over his face and fell in drops down his nose, and drenched his back as though he had been soaked in water, he felt very happy. What delighted him particularly was that now he knew he would be able to hold out.

Still not quite perfect, “His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut.” but he’s intent on getting it:

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible.

Then, the great description of his feeling of flow:

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.

It’s pretty cool how closely Tolstoy’s description fits with Csíkszentmihályi’s definition.

PS – Yes, it’s been 10 months since my last post. Despite being pretty busy, I just haven’t felt I’ve had much to write. Hopefully there will be a few good posts coming up in the near future.

GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity Software Technology

Personal Brain 4 Review

I recently discovered Personal Brain and I’m taken with it. It took me a couple hours of experimentation and more importantly, playing with Jerry Michalski’s brain to get used to it and to realize how powerful it is. For those of you who ‘get’ and use GTD, I’ll say that this gave me the same feeling I got when I started really using GTD-it’s a trusted system for all the information I want to make sure I remember. It’s more than that though–it’s a way to find patterns in knowledge and thing I’m learning, a way to create patterns, to store about anything… it’s fun, addictive (after a little over a week I have well over 1000 thoughts).

I made a video review of it (my first video review) here:

In the video I call Personal Brain “new”–really it’s only new for me, it’s been around for about 10 years.

Personal Brain is Java which means it’s available on Mac, Linux and Windows. It also means it’s not as Mac-like as most of my other favorite software, but it’s really not bad.

Personal Brain comes in 3 versions – free, core and pro. The core and pro versions are expensive. Fortunately the free version is very adequate. There’s also an enterprise version (BrainEKP) which is networked and web-based.

UPDATED: Video should work now – moved to YouTube

10 Ways GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

10. Don’t Stress About It | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the last in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.


10. Don’t stress about it. The purpose of improving your life is just that–improving it. A good way to tell if any of these steps are worthwhile is that you’ll feel better not only after you doing them but while you’re doing them. If you dread doing something it usually comes down to one of the following reasons:

  • You’re not confident you can do it well, in which case you need to break it down to steps small enough to accomplish and start moving. If you start breaking it down only to find it’s completely out of your capacity then just let it go completely. You can only do what you can do.
  • It’s not worth doing. If whatever it is doesn’t provide some innate satisfaction it may just not be worth doing. This isn’t a plug for hedonism, but the fact is that when you’re doing what’s right, generally it feels good at least at some level both while you’re doing it and after it’s done. (e.g. having the knowledge that it’s the best thing to do in the long run).
  • It’s a task you find menial, repetitive, boring etc. Washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning in general, doing the budget etc. Many times these tasks can be enhanced by doing other things at the same time. Listen to an audiobook while you wash the dishes. Meditate while you mow the lawn (who says you have to be sitting with your legs crossed!) If you’ve got problems doing your budget it may be that you need to re-analyize your finances and get them in order. For these kinds of tasks it comes down to distracting yourself from the menial, automating the repetitive if possible or searching for the true root of the problem and fixing it.Life does not always have to be exciting and stimulating but there’s hardly anything worth doing that can’t be enjoyed at least to a degree.

Once you’ve eliminated dread then it’s probable that a large portion of the stress will be gone from your life. Of course there is no way to simplify every cause of stress down to one small list but you can at least eliminate most self-imposed stress and this includes stress imposed by trying to do things to improve your life.

That’s it! Hopefully you’ve been able to glean a bit of useful information from the articles over the last ten days. If you have (even if you haven’t) I’d love to hear about it in the comments! As I stated in the beginning of the series I really believe that if the things I’ve suggested in these articles are applied to daily life they will really improve the quality of your life and provide you with meaningful experiences and memories.

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10 Ways GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

9. Stop Broken Thoughts | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the ninth in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.

9. Stop broken thoughts. Broken thoughts are those subtle patterns that aren’t quite big enough to fall into the bad habits category. This means that despite their harmful effect they often escape under the radar. Broken thoughts often take the form of justifications. Examples? I’m just going to leave my dish here by the sink, I’ll wash it later (when you know your spouse will end up washing it). I’m bookmarking this article to read later (how often do you ever go back and read old bookmarked articles?). I’ll hang my shirt up later (when you know it will be there for a week before you touch it).

At first it will be hard to recognize broken thoughts since they are so ingrained into our world views–they are things we do every day and we’re so used to doing them that we don’t even recognize that they are harmful to ourselves or those around us. If you make an effort to find them soon you’ll notice broken thoughts everywhere which might be negative if weren’t so easy to fix!

Often broken thoughts are the result of procrastination–anytime you hear the word later pronounced by your inner-voice let it be a trigger that alerts you to the possibility of a broken thought. The other big one is offsetting responsibility to someone else. If you’re leaving something because someone else (your wife/husband/mom/dad/co-worker) will pick up your slack it’s a broken thought–improve their life and yours and take care of it yourself.

The great thing about these broken thoughts is that fixing them generally takes a day or two–they’re not like bad habits that can take years to cure. It’s such a good feeling to see a noticeable improvement so quickly. It keeps you on your toes and keeps your actions in sync with your values.

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10 Ways GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

8. Recognize What Makes You Happy | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the eight in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.

8. Recognize what makes you happy. Reflect on the parts of your day that bring you real satisfaction. Everyone is working towards something, but what makes you happy now? Rate your overall satisfaction with your quality of life for each day on a scale of 1 to 10, focus on the things that happened that pushed the number higher rather than what made it lower. Try to incorporate more of what made you happy yesterday into today.

I think that too many people pass through the happiest times in their lives without recognizing them as such. Live in the moment–savor the things that bring you true satisfaction. If you’re in school focus on the opportunity you have to spend every day learning and improving yourself rather than on how hard it is to have so much homework and so little free time. If you’re starting your career relish the opportunity you have to shape your path rather than focusing on how good it will be once you have a raise or a better position.

Taking time each day to rate it will help you realize either that you’re already living a pretty happy life or it will help you recognize the specific things you can do to improve your life by incorporating more of what brings you real and immediate satisfaction into each day. Take small steps that will lead towards longer term improvements. Remember that serving others and making the lives of those around you better directly contributes to your own quality of life.

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10 Ways GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

7. Go Outside | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the seventh in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.


7. Go outside. If you don’t naturally spend time outside, make it a point to do it more. There’s something about the expanse of the sky that will bring out your inner philosopher. Consider this passage from Tolstoy in War and Peace as Andrew lies on the field of battle at the point of death:

…how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!..’

Outside is where ‘real’ stuff happens. Read Lonesome Dove (read it outside of course) and you’ll know what I mean. If you paint, do it en plein air. If you write try writing on real paper outside. While you’re out there, count the bugs. Become a bird-watcher, catalog the plants you see. Learn the constellations. Everywhere you look outside you find things the the combined human knowledge can’t explain–so many mysteries, so much to discover.

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10 Ways Family GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

6. Spend Time With a Child | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the sixth in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.
6. Spend time with a child. If you have one, consider yourself lucky, if you don’t, I bet you have friends who would be happy to let you borrow theirs for a few minutes (or hours). It doesn’t matter what age they are, children see the world entirely different. Look at it from their eyes. Be their hero. Appreciate what they appreciate. Enjoy the simple things again. You’ll love it and they’ll love you for it.

Take the time to just do the things they want to do rather than being a teacher. With my son this would usually include one of the following:

  • Playing with sticks or dirt
  • Reading Where’s Waldo
  • Playing with Play Doh
  • Swinging at the Park
  • Playing the “talking car game”

Children will help you appreciate the simple things in life. They’ll keep you on your toes with questions that you can’t even begin to answer. They’ll amaze you with the seemingly endless levels of energy they have. After spending time with a child you’ll also realize just how much of an influence you are over their moldable minds–they almost worship you. It is a humbling experience.

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10 Ways GTD Knowledge Lifehacks Productivity

5. Debate something | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the fifth in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.

5. Debate something. If you think you know about something, nothing will prove it like arguing it with someone who’s smarter or more informed than you. Find a friend you can debate with who has ideas that are different from your and who won’t be offended by debating them–this is easier said than done, but it can provide you with some of the best mental stimulation possible.

It’s healthy to raise your voice every once in awhile in a heated discussion. Debating is a way to introduce controlled tension into your life which is good for you. Arguing will spur you on to learning, it will challenge your beliefs and forcing you educate yourself.

Everyone is part of groups that dictate at least to some degree how we think. This could be your political affiliations, religion, university, career etc. To a degree it is okay to accept what these trusted sources tell you without feeling the need to prove every fact, but finding it out for yourself through research and debate will either serve to strengthen your affiliation with the group through gaining your own knowledge or help you gain the courage to distance yourself from groups you would rather not be associated with.

Be passionate. Seek truth. Be willing to accept being wrong to arrive at the greater goal of knowing the truth.

If you don’t have anyone to debate with, challenge yourself mentally. Always think a step deeper. Know something? Are you sure? What caused it? What comes after that? How would someone who “knows” something different dispute what you know?

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