Astrology and planning

I promised a post about astrology and planning. This is a combination of ‘why might you care’ and ‘how I do this’

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Astrology, huh? I’m a librarian, right? Supposed to be a rational person, wanting my world to be backed up by evidence. And astrology doesn’t fit into that at all, by modern scientific standards.

But part of me is fascinated by the way that astrology and astronomy were once one field. And how a lot of the essential principles – observation of patterns and testing them – stay the same. A lot of me is pretty comfortable with the idea that astrology is a good way to take a clear look at different areas of my life in a systemic way on a regular basis.

I don’t believe that’s what’s going on in the nearby universe is dictating what we do here on planet Earth. But I do believe that there are cycles in humanity (and that some of those match in interesting ways with planetary cycles). And I definitely believe that looking at the patterns over time helps me figure out what’s going in my life, and how I feel about that.

How do I use astrology?

(By which I mean, how do I use it in my productivity and planning.)

1) This year, some information is on my One Spreadsheet To Rule Them All (as I mentioned last post, I have known for a while that the lunar cycle has some impact on my sleep, but I’m curious about any other patterns, and that means collecting data.

2) Astrological events go into my to-do app (Todoist) so that they pop up on the appropriate day. On the average day there are anywhere from 3-10 different events (because I have a steady popup for the outer planets).

3) This year, I’m also adding a paper planner (in my case, Benebell Wen’s Metaphysician’s Planner for some specific things.

Spreadsheet

I’ve talked about the spreadsheet before, but I’ve made a couple of updates in the last fortnight.

I mentioned that I have a section for perceived experience of the day – for me, this is roughly ‘airy stuff’, ‘fire stuff’, ‘water stuff’ and ‘earth stuff’ or focus, energy, joy, and embodiment. Each gets a number on a five point scale, and higher averages give me another point on my point totals on the day too. This should help me track days that have less focus or the days I just can’t get stuff going or cope with having a physical body well. Then I have the moon phase, done with emoji symbols so it shows the state of the moon. (I use the fairly traditional method of having the full and new moon each last for three days, the actual date and the day on either side.)

The next set of columns are taken from Benebell Wen’s planner, specifically the monthly ephemeris. Each day has a notation for what the inner planets are doing (for astrology purposes, that’s the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.) Each has a column, in which the sign is represented by a two letter abbreviation (because getting astrological symbols into Google Sheets won’t work for what I want.)

Each of those signs is then automatically colour coded so I can see if it’s an air, fire, water, or earth sign (the background colour) and also cardinal, fixed, or mutable (by the colour of the text: cardinal is white, fixed is black, and mutable is gray.) This makes it really easy to see at a glance if there’s a lot going on in a particular sign, or if a lot of signs are in a particular element.

Retrogrades are noted by a black border and bold text, so they stand out a bit.

The next columns on the summary page list how many ritual things I did (zero to .. well, however many.)

Then there’s my regular morning practice of listening to a song from a playlist and drawing a Tarot card. The Tarot column also colour codes based on the suit (Majors are purple.)

Mansions of the moon are still pretty new to me (they’re a form of lunar astrology that was heavily used in the early medieaval period, and particularly in Arabic sources, and not so much after that.) Each of them is associated with particular actions to do or avoid. The Lunarium site will let you get calendars of when they fall (along with lunar days, sign of the moon, and so on).

Because I’m still learning them (and okay, there’s 28 of them, I probably won’t remember all their meanings for a long time to come!) there’s a note on each numbered cell with a summary of what that mansion focuses on (and the traditional name and image associated with each one.)

These can be used to plan magical work (especially in coordination with other timing approaches, like the day of the week or moon sign). Each also has an elemental association (and colour code).

If the mansion changes while I’m likely to be awake, I note the time of change, and the next sign. (If I’m likely to be asleep, I don’t bother.) In Google Sheets (which is what I use so my spreadsheet is available by web everywhere), you can copy the notes in.

Why are these all on the spreadsheeet? Because the spreadsheet is the easiest place to see (and track) the basic overlaps of what’s going on on a given day. I have it open every day (often all the time or multiple points during the day) and the info on it is persistent (unlike my todo list, where things disappear as I check them off.)

To do app

I put specific day information (and repeating days, like a retrograde or outer planet signs) into my ToDoist. I have a project specifically for astrology information (with several sub projects just so I can keep things straight.) These include:

Lunar: New and full moons, with questions from Briana Saussy’s AstroRx for the year. I mark the beginning of the entry with the emoji for the moon phase.

Zodiac: For each zodiac sign, marked with the sun (for the sun being in that sign). I put additional notes in the comment field (these are long, so I don’t want them taking up tons of space on my list all the time, but I do want them handy for review.)

Specific days: (marked with different emoji depending on what’s going on). Solar eclipse days and their questions from Bri’s guide, as well as particular conjunctions of note.

I also add entries each week based on Austin Coppock’s daily almanac (being a Patreon supporter gets you a file at the beginning of the zodiac sign for the coming month). I really like his day by day breakdown, but entering them every week (on Sunday for me, when I usually have a bit of time in the morning) works better for me than doing a whole month at once, and gives me a head’s up for anything coming that week I should be aware of.

Each day has the signs for the moon (one or two, depending on transits) so I can see at a glance where they are, and also this forces me to learn the symbols more reliably. (I’m in that place where I do actually know them, but I feel like I don’t quite.)

Longer periods: Long transits, retrogrades, etc. (I also put in a note to plan for Mercury retrograde a week ahead of time. Since I was putting them in anyway.)

All four of these get gathered up by a filter (I call it ‘planets’) that will pull all of the astrological data for the day, so I can read through it and get it out of the way of the rest of my to do list early on. I also have one called “upcoming astrology” which covers the next seven days so I can look ahead easily without hunting for things.

Planner

So the final question is ‘what goes in the planner’ and ‘why did I get one’. This is the piece I want to work out this year. Benebell Wen’s planner has a great deal of additional material, and I’m waiting on the print copy (via Lulu)

My plan is to write in the astrological information more specific to me on there, and then us it to keep ongoing notes over the year. I have been exploring keeping some of those notes in a Traveller’s Journal set up, and while I like the physical aspect of that a lot, I found that there was a lot of overlap (or I had to spend a chunk of time on a daily basis updating, in ways that were hard to fit into my schedule.)

So instead, I think I’ll be aiming at looking at different aspects and writing a few notes as I go. And I want to use it to track some future planning. (I anticipate getting some pretty washi tape to mark off dates for some long-term projects, but I haven’t figured out exactly what yet.)

What’s the goal here?

Worth coming back to – my goals here have three parts. I need a system that keeps track of what I need to do (and when – and some of my tasks are ‘in six months, come back to look at this thing’). That’s Todoist, for me. I want to learn more about astrology, so weaving the information in day by day will be a help.

If all of this seems overwhelming, I recommend Bri’s Planning by Starlight, which starts out with some really simple places to begin.

Finally, I want a place to keep track of notes and day to day patterns that are more qualitative (quantitative goes in the spreadsheet…) and the written planner will do that.

Resources

Both of these are great resources – go as deep into them as you feel comfortable with.

Yearly cycles

One thing I’m thinking a lot about right now are yearly cycles.

In my religious practice, Samhain (October 31st) is the end of the old year, and nominally the beginning of the new year. But it is also the beginning of a fallow period when we rest and take stock of what’s going on in our lives. For me, this is coming out this year in figuring out my new tracking system and spreadsheet for next year (which I am actually planning on starting on Yule (December 21 this year) rather than January 1st.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Tools

Tools should work for us, not against us, so I did a lot of thinking this fall about what I wanted to pay attention to in the coming year – what kind of data I wanted to collect.

To Do Lists

In terms of my todo lists, I’m keeping to much the same model as the past year, using Todoist with projects divided by planetary influence (in practice, this means I have a lot in Sun (professional life), Moon (religious life, including my coven work), Mercury (writing), and much less in Venus (arts, pleasures, relationships – including friendships, mostly because those things show up when I have something planned and don’t linger on the list for long), and Mars (things that are actively and aggressively getting worked on. I tend to use it for lists to help me structure vacations and immediate projects.)

Ongoing items

One thing I do is that I put astrological data into my to-do list for particular days. I’m going to come back to this part in a future post, because I’m waiting on a planner that will be part of the process.

Spreadsheet

I keep a rather obsessive and thorough spreadsheet that tracks a lot of daily items – this lets me see shifts in patterns. To pick a really easy and obvious one this year, I started using a CPAP machine at the beginning of October. Almost immediately, I realised I was walking 20-30 more minutes on the average work day than I had before, almost entirely without noticing I was doing it. That’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t spot without the spreadsheet.

Two different conversations got me interested in looking at whether some astrological information had any bearing on things (and I know from my sleep tracking app, Sleep Cycle, that my sleep tends to be worse around the new moon, and dip around the full moon too.)

So, this year’s spreadsheet is set up to help me figure out that data.

Here’s a shot of the summary spreadsheet for next year. I have some totally fake data in the first couple of lines to help me figure out some of the scoring.

Screenshot of spreadsheet for 2019 - described in following text.

From left to right, here’s what there is (you’ll note this begins on December 21st, the winter solstice):

  • Month
  • Day of month
  • Total score for the day (based on some complex calculations)
  • A score for how I perceive my focus, energy, joy, and embodiment are (roughly, ‘air things, fire things, water things, earth things’ if you want to put it that way.) This is a qualitative estimate, not based on actual data, but I want to see if there are patterns in how I feel.
  • Whether I did any specific ritual acts that day (listed in detail on a separate sheet)
  • The zodiac signs for the sun, phase of the moon, and sign the moon is in.
  • My song of the day and Tarot card of the day.
  • The mansion of the moon (see the note below.)
  • How many words I wrote that day
  • Task totals – these include tasks off my todo list (grouped by knut, sickle, and galleon as last year, so basically tiny, smallish, and large, where tiny is ‘I read a reminder’, smallish is ‘5 minutes to the length of writing an email that isn’t too complicated’, and large is ‘one to two hours of focused attention’.
  • Activity: total amount of movement and a separate number for deliberate exercise and/or walking outside of my usual daily routine.
  • Sleep time, quality, and my AHI for the CPAP machine (which is roughly ‘how many apnea incidents per hour.)
  • Brief astrology notes.
  • Columns to note sickness or unusual days. (Basically other things that might affect my stats.)

The top of the sheet lists how many of each kind of day based on point totals. (I think I’ve got this better calibrated for 2019: in 2018, there tended to be narrow clustering in just two maine categories, which is not as helpful. I may continue to play with the spread once I get more data in.)

What are mansions of the moon? They’re a rather old approach to astrology, and I’ve been learning about them. Specifically, this has the mansion the moon starts in, when it moves, and where it ends, since often they change mid-day. (If they change before 7am or after 10pm – otherwise known as when I am probably asleep – I don’t bother noting the time of change.

Big changes from last year:

Instead of managing each month on the main spreadsheet and then moving the previous month to a separate archive sheet, I’m keeping everything in one sheet, for easier and better statistical data over time. Instead, I split up the month and day into separate fields, so that I can filter out past months easily if I want to.

I’ve added some statistical periods. In 2018, I tracked weekly and monthly patterns (this lets me see if chronic health stuff is sneaking up on me.)

In 2019, I have a long cycle tracking sheet: 

  • Lunar month
  • Sabbat to Sabbat cycle (about 6 weeks, but varies)
  • Calendar months

I also have a shorter cycle tracking sheet. This covers moon phases, rather than weeks. 3 days of the new moon, the waxing moon (about 10-11 days), the 3 days of the full moon, then the waning moon (also 10-11 days). This is slightly more fuss to set up, but I just need to set up one set of calculations at a time. These are now based on averages rather than sums, to accommodate the varying number of days.

With all of these, I’m really curious to see if there are patterns of focus and energy that shift over these periods, or things like my writing wordcount, or other things of the kind. Plus the sleep I’ve already mentioned!

Revisions to activity and ritual sheets

This year I’ve set it up so that physical activity and writing get automatically added to the totals, rather than the somewhat erratic inclusion I managed in 2018.

For activity, I have a sheet that tracks activity, sleep, and errands (with selection of options). Last year I was tracking medical appointments in a similar way, and found it helpful to see patterns. Each of these automatically adds a large activity point, plus there’s a calculation for points based on how much physical movement and exercise I did. (One point for exercise greater than 25 minutes, half an additional point over an hour of general movement, and another half point for over 2 hours.) I get points for hitting my targets for amount and quality of sleep, too.

For tasks, I am now separately tracking things done at work vs other tasks (they each get a set of three columns). I have a column to add additional tasks for amount of writing (500 words of writing is half a large task, in terms of points. I normally do 1500-1700 words of writing in an hour of actual time spent writing. Which is not the same as “I am technically writing, but right now I am poking at a forum post or looking something up”).

The activity points from the previous paragraph get added in here. The goal is to get a reasonable total for “How much stuff of all kinds did I do today.” Editing, for the record, gets tracked separately as a task.

My writing sheet is much the same as last year: columns for the major types of projects, so I can see totals by project, plus some space to show me high and low wordcount days, how many days I broke 1000 words, etc. Points for tasks are assigned based on number of words, and that is now all auto-calculated.

For spiritual work, I track my song and Tarot card of the day, and then add points based on what kind of ritual work I did, so I can see how that balances out over time.

In this case, I assign points based on length and duration: a short ritual (like the weekly series I’m doing) is 1 point, a more involved ritual might be 2 or 3, a standard class with my witchy students is 1 point (but prepping the class notes and sending out the post-class notes are both other tasks, tracked on the task sheet.  An hour working on study at home is 1 point, etc. This allows me to accommodate stuff that’s more magically or energetically involved, while having a default that’s fairly low-key.

Then I have logs for writing (what did I write, how many words on that), a reading log (what did I read when, and the genre, and format), and a ritual log (a brief note of what I did when, and any notes about it). More formal ritual notes go elsewhere, this is just so I have an easy record of timing/exertion.

The next sheets are my long and short cycle statistics (already described).

Finally, I have a page of statistics, that will tell me how many times I have pulled particular Tarot cards (both by card and by group – so I can see how many of each suit, how many aces, as well), songs, read different genres, and so forth. I use the lists there to create data validation for different fields (so typos don’t mess up my statistics.)

This all seems a little ridiculous, but I really do find the data helpful to me in managing long-term chronic health things, noticing drops in what I’m getting done before they start to be a significant problem, and in balancing out what I’m doing.

Updating

One really good question is how long it takes me to enter things.

  • Sleep and exercise I track on apps, and I enter the data somewhere between daily and every four to five days. Basically when I am at a computer with web access and have five minutes I don’t want to do something else with.
  • I log writing and ritual as I go, because otherwise I forget the details and they’re a pain to reconstruct later.
  • I track most tasks in a to-do app (ToDoist) and add them up every couple of days. This is the one I’d like to work on better habits for, because doing a batch of four or five days gets tedious. The actual counting doesn’t take very much time at all, because it’s usually obvious to me what I’m doing. Doing this also forces me to keep better stats for what I’m doing for work (and as a librarian, having stats makes it easier to talk to my boss about my workload and capacity for other projects.)

Setting up the sheet has been done in bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks. I usually set something up, test it, and this year I’ve done a bunch of sample data to figure out how to recalibrate the point system that measures the overall nature of the day, basing my lowest range on the bare minimum points for a day, and adjusting it proportionately.

I should finish by noting the points are fairly arbitrary (they’re designed to be roughly equal chunks depending on area of life: body and activity (i.e. sleep and movement), perceived state of being, tasks, with a few extras around the edges for other things. What I mostly want to do is to be able to compare good days to not so good days, and have a general sense of how many not-so-good days I have.

(In 2017, when I started doing this, about one day in five came out as a not so good day. That is really tremendously helpful data for adjusting medical treatments, and for being able to plan ahead. Planning for one day in five to be sort of lousy means I should adjust my expectations on how much I get done.)

Making space

One of the things I think about a lot is how to leave space in my planning – both time for recovery and time for the unexpected to pop up.

A few years ago, I read the book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco.. It talks about the importance of leaving space for the unexpected, and for rest and recovery. A lot of productivity tools focus (rather a lot) on getting more and more and more done, without thinking about quality, creative thought, or long-term space for things to grow in their own time.

So, today, I want to talk a little about four kinds of space.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Space for questions

I’m a librarian, so my job is made up of long-term projects (things that take weeks or months or even years to accomplish), and also of questions people ask me, which come in unpredictable numbers. Oh, there are some common things: we get many fewer questions in August (when few staff are on our campus) or over the winter holidays, and we get many more at the start of the school year, or when student projects gear up.

So a librarian needs to plan enough time to manage the immediate questions (and leave space to answer them) as well a way to make regular progress on the long-term plans.

I can come into work, and one day have five complicated questions that all need time and attention, or I can come in and have nothing waiting for me (and maybe one or two brief questions during the day). So I need to be able to be flexible. Normally, I come in, deal with whatever reference questions have come in, and then work on the longer-term projects in the late morning and afternoon, but it all depends on meetings and other events. An excellent process for managing tasks to do is essential for me!

Planning

I’ve done my share of event planning over the years, especially in the Pagan and science-fiction communities, and one of the key things I learned is that at about 2 weeks out from the event, some weird thing is going to come up that is going to swallow up time and energy in your planning committee. Chances are good it will be sort of ridiculous. By which I mean, a thing that is not actually essential for the success of the event, but about which enough people have strong feelings that if it isn’t resolved, a noticeable number of people will be upset, cranky, or sulky.

The way I see it, there are two basic responses to this kind of pattern. You can bull through it, and deal with the cranky and sulky. Or you can go “Ok, there’ll be a Thing here, I don’t know what it is yet, but I will factor time for dealing with the Thing into my calendar as we get to that point. If we turn out not to need it, then yay, I get my time back.”

(I learned this after an event where I ended up spending a day and a half driving to different office supply stores to get whiteboards of a certain size. I’d planned some time for the unexpected for that event, but not that! After that event, I adjusted how much time I set aside just in case.)

If you’re doing things more than once, pay attention to the timing and the ebb and flow. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and I’ve learned that in the third month of a three month writing cycle (when I’m wrapping things up), my word count is significantly higher than the first two months.

I’ve also learned that I tend to procrastinate more in the second month on getting words done (the first month, it’s new and exciting. The last month, I know where I’m ending up, and it’s rolling downhill.) Knowing those things helps me plan a bit better. Maybe I can change my tendencies there (that would be better!) but if I can’t, I can at least arrange my life so there’s a bit more writing time in the third month to finish on my self-imposed deadline.

Glitches in timing

We’re just past the Samhain season, and for me (and a number of other Pagans I know), there is a tendency toward time-slippage at certain times of year, including this one. You know that thing where you sit down, and you look up and it’s three hours later? Or you work and work and work on something, and only fifteen minutes have gone by?

I know that happens to me more at this time of year (my perception of time is usually pretty reliable, but for a month or so, it gets wonky.) Again, I could try and ignore it, or I could go “Ok, this is a thing that happens fairly reliably.” and make some different choices about it. For me, that means being extra careful when scheduling things for that month, and making sure not to overload my to-do list, so I can have time for the slippage without the added stress of not getting important things done. Depending on the tasks for the day I may also be a bit more aggressive about using alarms or automated reminders to help me keep track of time.

Space for the unknown

Last but not least, there is the critical need for space to let your mind wander. Many of us get our best ideas in the shower, or while commuting, or other times when we are doing a necessary physical task and our mind is unoccupied. What happens, then, if we make more space for that in our lives?

Hopefully, we end up with many more creative ideas in our heads! There are so many opportunities here if we just leave ourselves a little space.

For me, this means that I plan on a certain amount of productivity in a given day (usually 3 or 4 big tasks at work that take an hour or more), 5 to 10 smaller ones (sending emails, doing things that take 15-30 minutes), an hour of something at home that’s useful but not demanding (blog maintenance, updating things, taking notes) and an hour or so of writing. If I have extra things (a doctor’s appointment, an oil change, etc.) I know I need to adjust my expectations about what else I’ll get done so I can get enough rest and enough space for me to think and be creative.

Writing tools

In honour of NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, here’s a post on how I get writing done.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

What is NaNo?

If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, where an awful lot of people commit to writing 50,000 words (in classic form, of a novel or other fictional work. But there are lots of Nano Rebels, too.) There are write-in events in many locations, and lots of other ways to connect. I’ve done things for Nanos before, but I think I have a really good shot at winning (that is, getting to 50K) this year.

(Learn more here.)

My writing

Since last Nanowrimo, I have been alternating between a fiction project and various shorter forms of non-fiction (blog posts here, posts for Seeking, etc.) I keep a daily spreadsheet for a lot of things, including my daily wordcount, and I average about 1000 words a day (give or take a couple of hundred), though I have some days with only a few hundred, and a few days where I do three thousand or more. (I can’t keep that up for very long, though!)

When: I do my writing in the evenings. I come home from work (a pretty standard day job, though I start work at 7:30am and end at 4, getting home between 4:30 and 5.) I make dinner, putter around online, and then sometime between 8 and 9, I settle in and write for an hour.

If something’s being really demanding in my head, wanting to get own on the page, I sometimes write for half an hour over lunch, but that’s pretty rare.

How: Like a lot of writers, I have some little rituals that help. I usually have something to drink (seltzer water or herbal tea). I have a series of playlists in Spotify for different moods that don’t have words (try mining other people’s playlists for ideas – lots of movie soundtracks work. Try searching for RPG (role playing game) playlists: there are a bunch out there for different moods or energy levels (fight scenes vs. resting, etc.)

Tools

I’m currently doing most of my initial drafting on a site called 4thewords.com which is a gamification tool for writers. You write a certain number of words in a certain time frame to defeat monsters and complete quests. (And they do special quest series for Nanowrimo and a couple of other events during the year!) There’s a small fee to support the site, $4 a month (with some options for winning additional time in some ways.)

Turns out, I am in fact a sucker for completely quests to get nifty clothes for my avatar. It’s also handy to have a (sometimes very rough) draft somewhere web accessible.

When I finish a fiction section or longer non-fiction (usually a chapter), it goes into Scrivener (an app beloved by many writers, that lets you manipulate sections and has a number of additional handy tools) where I can more easily do additional editing.

For shorter things (like blog posts), it goes into Ulysses, a writing app that has a convenient posting tool from right inside the app.

Then I make notes about how many words I wrote in my spreadsheet. I have one sheet that is a log of what I wrote (how many words, what it was in general terms – so “BookTitle – 35” for chapter 35 of that particular book. or “Seeking – cost” for a reminder of the topic. Then I have another sheet that calculates by type of writing, so I can see the different projects over the course of the month. (At the end of the month, this gets transferred to a yearly archive spreadsheet, so I can look at long-term stats if I want to.)

You’ll want different tools, quite possibly, but I’ve discovered this combination works well for me, and keeps me chugging along with good productivity.

Managing online spaces for yourself

I’ve heard or been around several conversations recently about people thinking about their interactions with the Internet, and what it meant for them.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Let me start by saying that I am one of those people whose friends are in the computer. Oh, I’ve met a fair number of them, the ones I’m closer to, by now (or we met somewhere in person, and continued the conversation online).

But as someone with chronic health issues that include fatigue and stamina issues, if I didn’t have the Internet, my social interactions would be down to people I see at work (and with one exception, there’s a whole set of things I don’t talk about with people there: my religious life, my health, my writing project – most things that matter to me outside of work.)

I’d see one of my college friends and her husband and family once a month (they live a mile from me: we have a monthly dinner scheduled so we actually see each other.) I’d see the other local college friend and her family maybe every six weeks, depending. And that’d be about it, maybe once or twice a year travelling to see other people.

That’s not a great life. It’s certainly not the one I want to be living.

Because of the Internet, I chat with both of them (and a bunch of other people) pretty much every day on a private MUCK 1. I post on forums, and dabble in Twitter, and I’ve been learning more about Discord. I poke my head in at Facebook for a couple of closed groups relating to my interests. (This is the one I’d gladly give up if I could access them some other way.) I find interesting links and things to read (and sometimes comment on) on MetaFilter. I have an account on Dreamwidth where a lot of my personal day to day notekeeping goes, and I run my own blogs (this one and others.) I read a few Tumblrs. There’s a weird little librarian microblogging site I hang out on. You get the idea.

I learned about all but one major news event on the internet since at least 2001.

(The one exception was the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in the summer of 2007. I was sitting at a computer in my grad school library computer lab – I’d moved a few weeks ago and didn’t have internet at home yet. Someone came in with the news right before it turned up online.)

And once I learn about a thing, there’s a host of sources for me to get more information or perspective or meaningful connection, if I put my mind to it.

Some of those places work better for me than others, of course, but they all make a difference in my life.

I also use the Internet to make me much better at my job, much better as a priestess and witch, much better as a writer and communicator of things in my head. I read widely, I use tools on the internet to help me find high quality pieces I wouldn’t come across any other way. (Oh, my parents got some of the same things out of reading three Sunday newspapers plus the weekday ones, but that also has some complications…)

I have a couple of theories about why people struggle with online spaces, based on way too many years using them (I effectively started in 1994, when I got to college. That was the year after the Endless September when it was still exciting that your web page background was something other than pale gray.)

But I also have some tools that help me make the experience more of what I want, and less of what big social media companies think I should want (or trolls, or any other group or individual that thinks they know what I want more than I do.)

1) Aim for the spaces that give you the most control.

There’s a reason I do a lot of my actual talking about things on Dreamwidth, where there are public posts, but also locked ones, so that you don’t have to worry about the Internet descending on your head without warning. Where you can talk to people who have context about your life and choices, or you can link to other posts that do if you want or need.

The sites that want to control what you see, arrange it, those get a lot harder to manage. It’s harder for you to pace yourself with content you’re less able to deal with.

If the conversation is public (or even friends-of-friends permissions), you never know when you’re going to get suddenly tangled in a conversation that got really weird in no time flat. Or worse, if you’re going to hit something horribly hurtful, destructive, or worse.

(And basically any site that relies on an algorithm for display, there are tons of things you’re not seeing that you have no idea you’re missing. I hate that part.)

So I spend the majority of my time and energy in sites where I have control (Dreamwidth), or sites where there’s thoughtful and consistent (and fairly transparent) moderation (Metafilter, the Pagan forum I’m staff on)

In the other places, I do things to help me control the firehose. I use Facebook almost exclusively for the groups. I have them pinned, I go read the things once or twice a day, and I go away. Most of the time I don’t even look at my main feed. (Fortunately, most of my close friends use Facebook solely to post adorable pictures of their children for grandparents or similar things, and our actual content-heavy conversation happens elsewhere.)

I use Tweetdeck and Twitter lists to manage what I’m reading. In Tweetdeck, I have a column each for a couple of close friends who are more active on Twitter than anywhere else, then ones for the people I read most often, librarians, writing, my elected politicans (it’s a handy way to get at all of their statements on things). Oh, and my allergist, who announces office closings there. Again, I check in once or twice a day, comment, share things occasionally.

And I read the handful of Tumblr accounts I really want to follow not through my dashboard, but by reading them in my RSS reader.

2) Decide what you want to get out of a given space.

Oh, you can change your mind, later. And it often takes a bit to figure out how using a given space works best for you. (Some spaces, by design, encourage longer or deeper conversations. Others cater to short quips and make it easier for trolling, nastiness, or misunderstandings to happen. Not just by how they handle abuse and harassment, but just in the kind of discussions they favour and discourage.)

When I’ve talked to people who want to change their social media lives, I ask what they’re looking for. To connect with friends? Figure out where that’s going to happen, and then figure out how to make the space work for you. Maybe that’s Facebook with some lists you set up with close attention to who can see what. Maybe that’s a private Twitter account. Maybe that’s deciding to swap emails regularly with one friend to keep in touch because your habits don’t overlap.

Maybe it’s finding topic-focused discussion spaces. Forums are less familiar to many people than they used to be, but they’re still there. More people are exploring using social media as a way to point at blogs and other spaces they control again, rather than having everything be on social media sites. Maybe it’s using a specific tool but in a really limited way, for a particular purpose.

I learned a long time ago that people will use a given technology in vastly different ways – and much of the time, that’s fine. Do the thing you need, not the thing the site tells you you need.

(The one downside is that if the site doesn’t care about your use, you may find relevant features dropped or changed, sometimes without much notice.)

3) Look for spaces that are well managed and give you tools.

If you’re on a site without active moderation, learn the tools the site gives you to mute, block, ban, or otherwise remove people from your bits of the space. Don’t feel bad about using those tools on accounts that are not interacting in good faith with you. That can be spam, or it can be those people who think linking to a 45 minute video to make their point is (I ranted a bit about this in a post from last year).

If a site doesn’t let you have reasonable control over your own experience, reconsider whether you want to be there.

If the site does have reasonably active moderation, like many forums or Discord channels do, take time to read the rules. (They may not remove problem comments or users immediately, but have a process to do so that’s reasonably up front).

This will tell you not only what the rules are, but what the site values. A place that makes it clear they value discussion and debate (but spells out what that means) is different than a place that says “Be nice to each other.” (Nice is notoriously difficult to define. It’s one of my signs of a site or resource that hasn’t had to deal with many challenges and that might not handle future ones well.)

4) Put the things you value where they’re easy to get to.

(And put the other stuff somewhere else…)

This is probably key to my management of my online time and space. I put the places I want to spend the most time in my main toolbar. (In order, my current lineup is Gmail, Todoist, Feedly (my RSS reader), Dreamwidth, the Cauldron (the Pagan forum I’m staff on), YNAB (my budget site), and then there are folders for everything else. I have half a dozen forums I check at varying degrees of frequency, and a dozen or two more I poke my head into occasionally.

I deliberately don’t have bookmarks for Tweetdeck (for Twitter) or Facebook: I want those to be things I deliberately decide to enter (even if it’s just typing the first few letters in the location bar and hitting the auto complete.)

Oh, and you won’t see news sites in there. I get news in my email from several different sources, and I’ll go check news stories when there’s a big specific story, but again, I don’t want it to be a thing I’m mindlessly clicking into. In my email, they get filtered into a specific label (not my inbox), and I skim through them and open the stories I’m interested in a couple of times a day. When there are big stories, I go looking for more information from multiple sources.

In my RSS reader, I have things grouped by topic. Really busy sites (like Metafilter) get their own section, so I can quickly skim, open the posts I’m interested in, and mark the others read. I can read things about libraries, or about Paganism, or divination, or a range of other topics, and easily leave other things for later.

I don’t keep social media apps on my phone (I do have an ebook reader app) and I keep interactive ones several screens back, and the things that I use for my own tracking/information on the first couple.

I don’t personally have a lot of issues with the constant refresh loop once I do the above, but I’ve used various of the extensions to block or limit time on sites that weren’t a great choice as needed, until I could sort out longer term habits that were better for me.

5) Re-evaluate regularly.

It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to change things up. Letting the people you’re close to on a specific tool know is handy, if you can manage it. (I worry about people when I realise I haven’t seen them around for a bit, and many of us may not have other forms of contact or not be sure it’s okay to ask.)

But it’s fine to change up what you’re doing. Maybe you’re a person where disconnecting or taking a social media break, or a break from a specific site is really helpful for you. Maybe you don’t know and you want to find out. Maybe you figure out you need to handle it differently. (Because you’ve changed, or learned something new about what you prefer, or the site has changed.) Maybe it’s that the world is pretty awful in a lot of ways right now, and you need to take out some of the places that spills over relentlessly onto you.

That said, there are so many different ways to connect online – so thinking about what ones actually work for you (or might) can help you figure out better options than just ditching them all.

1 What’s a MUCK? It’s one of a handful of similar code bases – others related ones include MUDs and MUSHes – that allow you to create text-only spaces for people to hang out and chat. You can link rooms together to create much larger spaces, describe the people and things in them, create objects that do things when you type commands. I played a number of text-based games on them in college and after, but these days we have a private one for chatting, mostly.

Research tools: what I use

Time for a new series – this one on keeping track of reference materials. In this post, I’m going to talk about a couple of different aspects. Then, in future posts, I’ll be looking at some specific tools to keep track of references, like Zotero (one of the citation management programs.)

Research tools: an astronomical device opens up like a pocket watch with many tools

Why have a system to keep track of things?

If you’re only managing a few references, or a few sites (for values of ‘few’ that go up to about 50), you probably don’t need a big system – you can keep track of a few dozen things in a word processing or text file pretty easily.

But once you get over a few dozen, it gets harder to keep things organised. Our brains have a harder time processing a long list: it’s easier to miss something, or duplicate entries, or otherwise have housekeeping errors. Different people will have different length limits, but somewhere between 20 and 40, you’ll probably hit your personal ‘this is too long’ .

The same thing goes if the items you’re keeping track of fit into multiple categories. It’s one thing to have a list of items you need to read – but what happens when you want to list things as “to read” and then by the type of content. How do you file things? Do you list it every possible place? That makes for a much longer list.

Either way, if you want to keep track of lots of things, you need a system.

What kinds of options are out there?

For many people, the system that works best will depend on what you’re trying to keep track of. You may need a different approach for websites than for print books, or a different way to handle ebooks.

I suggest that you think about the difference between what you own, and what you use as reference material. You may want to own a book (and keep track of the fact you own it), but not care about it as reference material. You might have a system for keeping track of books, and a different one for tracking reference material. Having multiple systems can be annoying (and potentially confusing) but not if you’re clear about why you’re using a specific tool.

Here’s what I use:

What books I have copies of: LibraryThing

I use LibraryThing to keep track of everything I own – print and ebooks. Items get entered in the catalog. I have a collection of print books (so I can just search things I have in print), or ebooks (just things that live on my phone.)

Everything also gets content-specific tags like genre, or when it’s set if it’s historical, or topic. I keep my tags edited, so that I can search them easily, and I refine them regularly so that I don’t have tags with only a couple of items unless it’s really necessary. (I am not a fan of lists overwhelming for me.)

You can add books with a simple form or by importing a spreadsheet if you’ve been using a different tool, or by scanning the back of books in many cases with a tool in the mobile app.

If they’re print books, they also get assigned a tag that indicates where they’re shelved (so I can find them again.) The shelving tags are really simple – I have the IKEA cube bookshelves, so I do A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2, B3, B4, etc. Each cube only has about 12-15 books, so it’s easy to spot once I’m looking in the right place.

The actual ebook files are managed through Calibre. This means I can search or tag and manage files much more easily, or save files to a different place if needed.

Costs: LibraryThing has a fee for over 200 books in an account. The fee is $10 for a year, or $25 for a lifetime account. (Obviously, one of these is a much better buy if you expect to keep using the site.) Calibre is free, but they appreciate donations!

Websites I want to share: Pinboard

Pinboard describes itself as “a bookmarking website for introverted people in a hurry.” (It’s also been described as anti-social bookmarking, in contrast to social bookmarking.)

I have a personal account, and one for coven links. My personal account is private and where I put things I want to find later, the coven site is public. You can set tags, group tags, and do some additional things.

I use Instapaper as an interim tool to keep track of things I want to save, read later, or think about reading.

Costs: There’s a yearly fee for new Pinboard accounts ($11 a year right now) and it’s well worth it if you want to share bookmarks, keep track of more items than your web browser’s bookmark tools will handle easily, or access bookmarks from multiple browsers or devices.

Instapaper is free, and there are other similar services (Pocket is the other big one)

References (books, websites, PDFs): Zotero

Zotero is one of a handful of widely used citation management programs, and the one I’d recommend for most people – it’s free, has an add-on for Chrome, and has other benefits. It will help you keep track of references, and you can produce a formatted bibliography with a few clicks (though you probably still need some human review. Citation styles are tricky!)

If you’re in academia, you may have access to other options through your school. Your library (or the library website) probably has more information. (There are certain advantages to using the same system other people in your institution are, and if you’re working in a research lab or closely with a professor or researcher, you may not have a lot of choice about which tool is used.)

Costs: Depends on the tool, but Zotero is free. If you want to store PDFs on their site, you’ll likely need to pay for additional storage if you have more than a few.

Notes and writing: Ulysses, 4theWords, Scrivener

My briefer writing is sometimes a little tricky, because Ulysses is a Mac only app, and I can’t access it at work. You can have lots of folders, tag items, create smart folders, and much more. There’s even a publishing option for putting things into WordPress (and a few other tools).

I’m also using a site called 4thewords which is exploring a gamification approach to writing. You battle various monsters and win by writing a certain number of words in a span of time. As you do quests, you can earn items for your avatar or other game objects. As I wrote this sentence, I won a battle of 500 words.

It also keeps some stats I’m finding more useful than I expected about how long I was actively writing a given piece. (And I’ve found the battles a certain incentive for doing just another hundred or two hundred words, several times.)

Scrivener is where my long-form writing lives, and it is amazing for being able to move things around, save a piece you cut but want to keep just in case, and has a lot of tagging and drafting tools to help.

Costs: Ulysses is a subscription (it’s also currently part of the SetApp subscription option, if you’re interested in other apps they offer, which includes Aeon Timeline, a popular timeline app) and 4theWords has a month free trial and then is $4 a month.

There are obviously lots of free options in this space: I use Google Docs for sharing word processing with other people, and especially for editing that we’re looking at together. It’s also my go-to for things I may want to add to during lunch at work.

Come back next week.

Join me next week for part 2, things to think about when choosing tools.

If you use other tools you think I should look at, I’d love to hear from you – the contact form is probably the best way.

RSS feeds and you

I’ve seen several people talking about a resurgance in independent blogs and RSS readers recently – so it’s clearly time for a post about what they offer and why you may want to make them part of your research and learning process.

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What are independent blogs?

This is a term used for blogs that people host themselves, that are not part of some larger social media network. That means that they control what gets posted, they can determine the layout of the site, and (other than some actual legal limits and the site host’s terms of service), they can decide what they include or don’t include.

The good thing about this is that if a site changes its focus, or gets bought, or changes its focus, you still have all your own content, under your own control. And modern tools make it pretty easy to share what you create on other social media sites.

Blogs are also great for putting up longer thoughts or posts (like this one) even if you then quickly reference them in a site where long discussions don’t work as well (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram are all designed to share things other than long-form content at a stable location you can return to and review easily.)

Back in the early web, you had to remember to go check blogs and see if they’d posted anything new. That meant loading lots of pages, and could get really annoying really fast.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. Basically, it looks for a particular kind of content on sites (a ‘feed’) and gathers all of that information in one place.

That means instead of loading all your different sites and checking them manually, you open the RSS reader, and you see all the new posts in the RSS reader. It’s particularly great for blogs that update erratically or rarely – you can be sure you’ll see posts when they happen.

Depending on a vareity of settings (some on your end, some on the blog’s end) you may see a short summary or beginning of the post, the full text of the post, the full post with any graphics, or something else. You can always click through to the actual site if you want to see the post in all its glory.

As you can guess from that, RSS readers can also be great if you want a simplified reading experience (just the text without graphics or flashy designs or ads), or if you have bandwidth concerns.

Keeping things in order

If you’re like me (or lots of other people, I gather) you read different sites for different reasons. You may want to group things in your reader to make it easier to keep up. Some things you may care about reading all the time, others you may dip into when you have some spare time, but mark as read when you’re busy.

Many people find it helpful to divide their feeds up into groups, to make it easier to find things, or to skim things they’re sometimes interested in, but don’t read all the time.

Here are my folders (and an explanation of the less obvious categories)

  • Academia
  • Authors (blogs by authors)
  • Business (blogs about business things – mostly small business or writing focused)
  • Comics
  • Divination
  • Food (recipe blogs, mostly.)
  • Legal issues (mostly copyright and intellectual property issues, since that’s a particular thing I’m interested in.)
  • Libraries
  • Pagan
  • Practicalities (where I put advice, finance, and lifehack type blogs)
  • Stories (authors focusing on folklore)
  • Technology
  • Thinky (see below)
  • Voluminous reading (also a see below.)

“Thinky” is my category for long-form writing I usually want to think about more. Longform.org is a good example (they link to three or so long-form articles every day), or John Scalzi’s blog Whatever (even though he’s an author, it goes in the Thinky category because a lot of his posts are things I want to chew on or take some time with.)

Voluminous reading is where I stick things that produce a lot of posts, or posts I mostly want to skim past and just read the ones that are interesting. Some people find very active blogs frustrating, because they want to read it all. I feel like that unless I put them in a special section that’s labelled so I know I’ll be skimming through. Metafilter feeds go here (they can produce 20-50ish posts in a day, depending on how busy things are.)

And then two sort of special categories:

  • Tumblrs
  • AO3 subscriptions

I find the Tumblr interface frustrating, and I also do a lot better reading through individual people’s blogs in order, rather than everyone’s posts intermingled (why this matters to me on Tumblr, I have no idea, because I’m fine with it in other contexts). Handling it this way lets me have a space to read a particular person’s Tumblr easily.

AO3 are my feeds for particular tags for fanfic on Archive of Our Own – mostly specific canons that get intermittent posts but not always very frequent. That way, when there is something new, I can check in.

Want more ideas?

There’s a great discussion post on Metafilter about one of the articles about RSS coming back, which has recs for different apps and tools, if you want more ideas.

How research has changed: citation managers

The last in my current series on ‘how research has changed’ is that I want to mention citation managers.

This is not intended to be a guide to how to use them – I haven’t had the time or focus to work that up yet! Instead, consider this a starting point for learning more about them.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

What’s a citation manger?

It’s a piece of software that helps you keep track of what you’ve found and where you’ve found it.

Specifically, they allow you to enter articles, books, and in some cases webpages into the manager, format the metadata, and do things with it. Some of them allow you to save PDFs in the software, but even if the manager you choose doesn’t do that, it will help you keep track of what you have.

Metadata?

Metadata is the term for information about content – for a book, the metadata includes things like the author, title, or publisher.

A better explanation might be this one from Scientific American’s blog, about 5 years ago, where Bonnie Swager explained metadata using Santa Claus’s naughty and nice lists.

(Whatever you think of this particular story and mythology, it’s a much more fun example than a lot of the ones out there, and she does a great job explaining different kinds of metadata with it.)

This information helps you sort and filter information. Maybe you want all the things by a specific author, or all the things written around a particular time. Or maybe you half remember the title of something, but know you read it and put it in your system at a particular point – if your metadata includes the date an entry

If you want a more detailed explanation of metadata, including a number of standards sets for managing it, there’s a PDF that Bonnie links to at the end of her article that is a dead link there, but can be found on the National Information Standards Organization website: Understanding Metadata

What are the options for citation managers?

There are several different widely used citation managers out there. Some of them cost money. If you’re a student at university or work for one, you may have access to an institutional subscription, but if you aren’t, there are a couple of free options (or free + a fee for additional storage space).

The big names are RefWorks (usually needs a university subscription), EndNote (in a couple of versions), Mendeley, and Zotero. The University of Minnesota has a handy chart comparing the last three in detail (they discontinued their RefWorks subscription for cost reasons).

If you want a really detailed comparison, here’s another chart (which has multiple pages) from the University of Wisconsin Madison.

All of them should have methods for exporting and importing data (important for academics, since different institutions have often picked one or two to focus on or provide rather than others, and people do move institutions.)

I’ve tended to gravitate toward Zotero, for the combination of cost and the fact it works best with online sources, but I’m still working out my best workflow for managing materials. There’s a web extension for Chrome that allows you to connect between the desktop app and the browser.

Fee for space: One place these managers charge fees is to store materials. Just storing information about an item is a small amount of plain text (which takes a tiny amount of space on modern computers). If you want to store full PDFs in your manager tool, however, you may need more space.

If that’s a problem, you can always choose to save your files somewhere (cloud service, your computer, a backup drive, whatever makes sense. Ideally more than one of those as a precaution!)

What can you do with one?

Even if all you do is make a list of resources in there, that’s probably a big win. You can tag or organise your entries in all sorts of different ways, marking things you’ve read and things you want to read, different topics, and much more.

However, citation managers become invaluable if you’re doing any kind of formal writing where you might need to produce reference lists, bibliographies, end notes, or footnotes. They can take all that metadata and do most of the work of putting it in the correct format.

(You may need to do some review and minor editing: computers are great at this kind of task, but sometimes need help with which words are capitalised or unusual entries.)

If you’re serious about research, or you’re managing a lot of complex files, you owe it to yourself to check out citation managers and other research tools. They’re a lot less awkward and clunky to use than they were just a few years ago, and they can really make your life much easier if you spend a little time keeping on top of them.

How research has changed : digital work flow

Penultimate in the current series on how research has changed, I want to talk about digital-only workflows.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

Electronic workflow

I don’t know about you, but a whole lot of how I get information starts digitally these days. Having a workflow that works for you is critical if you’re doing larger projects.

There are a fair number of resources out there to help you get a grip on tools that work for you (I’m going to talk about my current setup here, but there are lots of other ways to do this.)

I find the Prof. Hacker blog, a collective blog focusing on tech tools and resources, a helpful read. A lot of the tools aren’t things I need, but they highlight things I want to know about fairly regularly, and I find it interesting to know about other tools. The already mentioned Productivity Alchemy podcast also brings up interesting tools regularly, on a less academic front.

Basically, though, you want a way to collect things, and then a way to organize the things. If you’re like me, many of your things may be webpages or sites.

My basic workflow

This is what I use for all online content I want to save – it works for me, but it’s not the most elegant option. What I like about it is:

1) I can use it from any device

I use a Mac at home, a Windows machine where I can usually add browser extensions but not apps at work, and an iPad when travelling. Because this relies on extensions (or the iOS ‘send to this app’ option) it’s pretty easy to use anywhere I happen to be.)

2) The management can be sporadic

Obviously, there are benefits to keeping on top of it, but the way my system works, it’s okay if I get behind on moving from the collection point to the organisation part.

3) I can usually find the thing I’m looking for.

This is key. If I couldn’t find things, it’d be a bad system. But I usually know which place to look for it, and the search tools work well enough.

Steps

I rely on two tools, Instapaper and Pinboard. Instapaper is currently free (but is owned by Pinterest, so changes are possible in the future). Pinboard has a small yearly fee ($11 currently) but is run by someone independent, Maciej Cegłowski, who designed and runs the site. There’s also a full page archival option for another $25 a year.

(There are plenty of other tools out there for saving things as you read them, but I really do recommend Pinboard for organizing them once you’ve got them.)

My actual steps look like this.

  • Read or find a thing I want to save.
  • Use extension to save it to Instapaper.
  • Periodically, go through Instapaper and move new items to about 8 folders in Instapaper for later sorting.
  • When I’ve got time and feel like it, put things into Pinboard with much more useful tags.

Right now, I go through Instapaper every two weeks, a few days before I start doing my newsletter for the fortnight. I have a folder where I put the links I want to share in the newsletter, so I can work my way through writing them up efficiently.

My other folders include recipes, links related to my day job, writing, Pagan topics, writing, and business things. I have a catchall folder (cleverly called ‘links’) for anything else I want to save. I also have folders for things to read (which is where I save books I want to read), and things to watch or listen to.

Every so often, I make a point of churning through links and tagging them in Pinboard – it’s a great project for when I don’t have a lot of focus to write and have a thing I want to watch.

I usually can remember if I’ve moved something to Pinboard yet, so I also usually can figure out where to look for something.

Having a two step process also helps for saving things to read later (especially when I’m travelling and have less time or internet access), or weeding out highly aspirational recipes I’m never going to actually consider making.

I use this process for all my links, but it’s pretty easy to see how to adapt it for research work. You could have a folder for each big project, or make a point of moving those to a bookmarking service more frequently.

Or you could use a citation manager. Which will be my final post in this series, coming next week.

Looking ahead to research: part 3

Making a plan for larger projects

Here we are at part three of making a plan for larger projects. How do we break down a big project into something more manageable, when we’re not quite sure what we’re going to be finding once we start?

This post talks about five questions you can ask yourself. The final part of this series, next week, will talk about a couple of examples.

Looking ahead to research : view of rocks looking out toward a twilight ocean.

Questions

What do you want to accomplish?

Different kinds of goals have different outcomes. The kinds of information that will help you most if you’re designing a ritual may be quite different than those that help for non-fiction writing, fiction writing, or designing a divination tool.

One way to start is to figure out what your end result looks like or will be used for. That will help guide some of your questions and resources.

Another part is figuring out what you’re hoping to answer or learn about. Here are some possibilities (and there are many more I’m not listing…)

  • Answering a specific question (How did they do that thing, why does it work like that, how did something develop?)
  • Looking for a new direction for your path (much more open ended)
  • Finding resources that are like ones you’ve found and liked.
  • Beginning to learn about a new topic.
  • Deepening your understanding of a topic where you know some of the basics.
  • Connecting with people who have a lot more experience in that thing (experts, leaders in the community, people with specialised skills.)

Each of these will have different ways you might want to go about it.

These questions can also help you begin to figure out how much time this might take – or how deeply you want to get into a question.

For example, you might be writing a ritual that includes a deity or story you’re not as familiar with. Different people will have different feelings about how much research is needed, but there’s often a way to create a meaningful and respectful ritual that works with resources many people can access relatively easily (public in-depth info) and with 5-10 hours of focused work (plus some additional time for thinking about it, maybe, while you’re doing other things.)

And yet, someone else might decide that they really want to dive deeply into that same deity or stories, and that be a much more involved process requiring translation of texts, learning how to make sense of particular styles of art or styles of writing, and much more.

Here’s a way to try framing your goal: I want to understand X so that I can Y. (Examples below.) Try replacing ‘understand’ with ‘learn’ or ‘explore’ if that helps.

Do you have a deadline?

One really pragmatic question is ‘when do you need this by’? Some questions have harder limits than others.

If you are doing research to write a ritual, you need to have the information before the ritual and probably not the day before, either! You’ll want time to create the ritual and get the things you might need or want for it! Usually you’ll want to be done with your research at least 2-3 weeks in advance if not more.)

Other projects might take months or years or even decades! (Serious long-term study of Tarot or runes or astrology, for example – any complex system with many moving pieces, materials in multiple languages and from multiple cultures, and with many layers, is going to take you a while to get a grip on.)

With these huge projects, you should be realistic that they’re huge, and also figure out a way to break down the huge project into small pieces, so that you can feel like you’re making progress.

A good framing for your goal is: In the next X months, I want to Y. (Where Y is related to your specific research goal.) p

Are there subgoals in your project?

Often, once we understand our actual desire (what we want to do this research or learning for) it gets easier to break it down.

Maybe there are stages in our project – we have a thing we need or want to do first, and then continue later. Maybe our project is very big, but it’s clear we probably want to start with an overview of the topic in some way. Maybe we can do part of it on our own, but then we’ll likely want to find a way to get deeper and draw on other people’s expertise, like a course or talking to someone who knows that thing much better.

Are there resources that might help?

There are so many options here. Start a list.

It doesn’t need to have answers on it. It can have things like “Something that explains what this thing is” or “A book that gives me a general overview of what was going on here that century.”

(In my day job, I have had several questions come up in the past few months that deal with different parts of India, and while I can pick up specifics from a variety of sources, I have added a couple of books that give an overview of Indian history or a good look at current social issues there to my to-be-read list. Figuring out that would be helpful was one step, finding the books is a second, and reading them is a third, and it’s okay to pause on any step if you need to.)

Similarly, you might identify skills that would be helpful. These can be partial skills, not becoming expert.

For example, maybe becoming just a little bit better at some research skills will open a lot more doors for you (like learning what academic writing focuses on, how to make the most out of articles, or how to find academic sources.)

Maybe it’s learning a little bit of a language – Duolingo can be great for giving you an idea how the language works, some key vocabulary, even if you never remotely become fluent. And if nothing else, it may make it easier to understand how names or some customs work in that language or culture.

(I might or might not be working through sentences in Welsh and can say that I am a dragon and I like leeks, at the moment. Though I had to check and see if I like leeks plural, or if I’ve learned the singular yet.)

Final part

In the final part of this series, I’ll look at some different kinds of projects, and how I break them down.