Personal library: What do you need?

What’s in your library? And maybe more to the point, what are you going to add to your library in the future? How do you use it?

These are all questions that can help you figure out how to manage your personal library more effectively. Today’s post is going to look at them in more detail.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

Why think about this?

Library schools talk about how a library should learn about and provide resources that fit the community it serves – but each community is different. So we take courses, as librarians, about how to do that better. One common course is called something like Collection Development or Collection Management, which is a rather boring label that is really about something much more interesting.

My Collection Management professor was fantastic (thanks, Dr. Lesniaski!) and I still think about what I learned in that class multiple times a week, more than a decade later.

One of the things he focused on was the idea that what makes a library more than a random collection of items is that it’s built on relationships – and specifically, the relationship between a given item, the other items in the collection, and the people who use it.

That’s a concept that applies well to personal libraries, though it’s obviously a lot simpler when you’re only thinking about a small number of people who use the collection.

When I’m looking at my own collection, it helps me ask questions and make choices (and it also helps me figure out what things I maybe want to focus on adding next, or what things I could find new homes for.)

What do you have?

It’s good to start with a few questions that have to do with your physical reality. By that, I mean both the physical objects, and how you access the digital ones.

1) What kind of items do you have?

Some people want all the print. Some people have switched to ebooks but have some print items. Some people buy CDs or vinyl or DVDs. Others have moved entirely to digital formats.

Different kinds of items need different kinds of management, so having a list of what broad categories of things you’ve got is really helpful as you start thinking about how to manage it.

This is also a good time to think about content – what kinds of books and items are you wanting to keep. Are you pretty sure you’re going to want to keep them long-term, or are they things you may read and then be done with? Most people have some of both.

Do you have books you keep for sentimental reasons? A lot of booklovers do. On the other hand, they can be tricky to manage: sometimes they take up lots of space or are in poor physical condition (enough that they’re hard to read – or if you have allergies or insect issues, they may really not help.) That can lead to some hard choices. The first step for all of these questions is being aware what you have.

2) Is that possibly going to change?

What you have right now is probably working okay for you – but maybe you know things are going to change for you. (Or maybe you’re really not happy with what you’re doing and this is why you’re reading a series about personal libraries.)

Maybe you’re shifting into more digital stuff because you’re traveling for work a lot, or have a baby (and you can read on a digital device more easily than holding a book open while feeding them.)

Maybe your physical surroundings are going to change – if you’re planning a big cross-country move, or are looking at downsizing the space you live, or taking on roommates, your physical collection can be taking up a lot of space, and you may want to make sure you really do want to keep all of that (or move it).

Of course, it goes the other way – maybe you’ve finally had time to refinish the attic library space in the house you bought a few years ago, and your books can come out of boxes and live on shelves. (Like friends I know. So envious of that space.)

3) How do you feel about how things are working right now?

Maybe you feel pretty good about it, but you’d like better ways to manage some things. Or a way to put things on shelves in a way that makes sense to you.

Or maybe you feel overwhelmed by it – you don’t know where things are, you feel like there are some things you’re never going to use, but you don’t know how to sort through them.

You don’t need to figure out the answers immediately, but knowing how you feel about this, in general, will help you make better-informed choices.

4) Do you lend things to other people? Or borrow them?

Some people do and some don’t.

If you do lend things, you probably want some method of keeping track of that (if for no other reason than knowing that you can’t find that thing because someone else has it right now.)

If you regularly borrow things (from the library, from other people) you might want to set aside a shelf to keep them on, so you know where they are and can return them easily.

5) Do you have any specific storage needs?

Often, this can be very driven by the physical space we’re in. I’ve had more than one apartment where I had really limited space where shelving could fit. My current apartment is more reasonable, but it was a good reason to keep my shelving needs as minimal as I could for a good 10 years of my life.

If you have mobility or other health issues that mean bending over or working with materials near the floor can be a problem, maybe you don’t want to use shelving close to the floor. In my current set up, the books I use least live down there.

6) Where will items be used?

Sometimes this is obvious – the cookbooks are probably going to be more use close to the kitchen then up in the attic, and the books about crafting or art might live well near the art supplies.

Sometimes it’s a lot less obvious, in which case you can start thinking about other questions, like how much space different areas have, and can you shelve a complete set of books about this thing there, or do they have to go in this other location if they’re going to all be together.

7) Do you expect to add new titles? Where?

Why does this matter? Shelving! If you keep adding more print titles or other physical media, you need somewhere to put them.

If you know you’re going to keep adding physical objects, you probably want to plan that into your shelving – both in terms of having space to put things and in terms of how you arrange what you have right now. Digital items, obviously, don’t have the same kind of impact.

What I do

(This is not what you should do. This is what works for me right now, and is an example of how to think about different pieces.)

I currently have three sets of those 4×4 square shelves from Ikea – they’re a little weird for shelving books (they’re deep) but they work great for mixed materials. Also, the cat loves taking over the top of one of them to look down at me from a high place. I have two in my bedroom space, and one in the living room.

One and a half of them have print books, the other one and a half have bins for clothes, space for jewelry, and various other items. Two squares have sheet music. Some of the books (mostly the mass market paperbacks) are double stacked.

As someone who’s Pagan, my Pagan books live in the bedroom, because it means there’s less chance of odd conversation if someone comes in to do work in other spaces in the apartment. It hasn’t been a huge problem for me, but I know of people where it can be. Family who don’t approve, or friends of friends, that kind of thing. In my case, it also means they’re handy to where I actually do ritual stuff.

The cookbooks are right next to the kitchen, and my herbalism books. I also decided, in general, to put the non-fiction out there, and the fiction is on the shelves in the bedroom.

The ebooks are managed in Calibre (more about that in an upcoming post).

All my books are catalogued in LibraryThing (more about that, too), and I have separate collections for print and ebooks, so I can tell immediately where things are.

At this point, I add new print books only occasionally (maybe a dozen or two a year, in a variety of areas) and I continue to buy some titles in ebook I have in print, so I’m still sometimes freeing up shelf space.

Next time

I’ll be talking about one of the most emotionally complex questions for people who love books – letting them go from our collections. (And yet, why that can be a really good idea.)

Personal libraries: Background

I think about personal libraries a lot. The questions about a personal library obviously are somewhat similar to a library than many people use (how do we know what we have, how do we store it in a way that makes sense, how do we find things on the shelf).

And yet they’re totally different in others, because the choices we make don’t have to work for lots of unknown people.

So, over the course of a few posts, I’m going to talk about:

  • What my personal library’s like
  • Some things I’d like to improve
  • Useful tips for getting a handle on your library

And I’m sure more as I start writing and realise there’s this thing I want to talk about.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

My personal library

So, one thing you should know is that I read a lot – on average over 100 books a year.

I am weirdly superstitious about talking about specific lists of what I’ve read in any detail (I feel like this gives a very intimate look into the inside of my head and steals my soul) but it’s usually about equal parts fiction and non-fiction, with a side of Pagan-specific material.

The fiction’s mostly a mix of fantasy and mystery, with a dash of romance. The non-fiction is mostly popular non-fiction. I’m fond of books that talk about a single subject (microhistories) or dive into a given place or time or situation.

The second thing you should know is that I’ve done three long-distance moves in my adult life. Books are annoying to move long-distances, and also heavy.

I’d already begun to move to ebooks when I did the second of those moves.

For one thing, I read really fast. It used to be that on any trip, my bag would need to be half books, to keep up with my reading speed. This was both heavy and awkward. And there was always the question of “I’m going to this thing, and I might be waiting for half an hour. Will I run out of book?”

These days, I have six hundred books that sit on my phone, and I can swap what I’m reading on the fly. I usually have a print book around too (in case of technology issues, for reading in baths, etc.) but it’s one per trip instead of half a dozen or more.

I do most of my reading on screen now. I still love a physical book, but my actual practical set up means I mostly read them in the bathtub or at work (where we use print heavily, but also digitized versions)

A little history

When I did the move from Minnesota to Maine in 2011, I looked at my print books and thought about what I really wanted to move. (Especially when I wasn’t sure what my apartment was going to be like for shelving: I rented it sight unseen.)

I made the decision to move things in a few categories:

  • Pagan books (for reasons explained in a moment)
  • Books where the physical object had meaning, not just the text.
  • Books I reread regularly not yet available in ebook versions
  • Books that would not be readily available (either via the public library or used book sources) if I decided I wanted them again.

I got rid of almost everything else. I got down to about 220 print books, if I remember right – a dozen boxes sent media mail across the country.

I kept the Pagan books for two reasons. One is that I wanted to have copies I could open up while working with someone, and let them look at. (With some friends, I’m willing to lend, too.)

The other was that replacing that part of my library would be very challenging – many of the books don’t have electronic versions, or they’d be unsatisfactory since it would be a pain to look at diagrams or illustrations of particular aspects or charts. So, print it is.

(I have bought some since in electronic version for various reasons, but not many.)

The truth is, there’s a lot of books where laying hands on them again later has not been all that hard. I’ve had a couple of regrets of things that went to used bookstores, but only one or two.

In a lot of ways, I found it freeing – books are tremendous things, but they can carry a lot of weight in our head. The weight of memories, the weight of expectations, the weight of emotions.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is set that free, and let it transform into something else.

If you want to try this yourself, there’s a low-risk way to do it. Look at your shelves, with the guidelines that I’ll be talking about in the next parts of this series, and put books you’re not sure about in a separate box, somewhere that you can get to but that isn’t right on your shelves or the easiest to get to.

See if you get things out of that box in six months. Or a year. If not, maybe that’s a book that could find a new home.

Coming next

Future parts of this series will talk about:

  • Building a library as a collection
  • Dealing with works we’re sentimental about.
  • Organising books on shelves – theory and practice
  • Simple cataloging approaches

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.

One spreadsheet to rule them all : tracking 2018

Why track things like this?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I kept a somewhat absurd spreadsheet in 2017, and updated it for 2018. (2017 part 1 here, part 2 over here, and initial 2018 thoughts here.)

Why another post?

I had a question from someone wanting to know if I could share in more detail (so here’s a sample you can copy and save as a Google Sheets file – it has a week of data in it so you can see how it works.) Also a few improvements in layout.

I’ve made a few advances in layout since I wrote the most recent of those posts, so here’s a more complete explanation. (I am still using the same tracking apps as in the first part of the 2017 posts, so I’m not duplicating that info here.)

In addition, I had some thoughts (useful to me, and maybe others) about how to give incentive to the things I want to do more of.

Green leaves curling up around the word "productivity"

What changed in 2018?

Going into 2018, I thought about what I wanted to track better, or make more of a priority.

How was my day?

In 2017, I was tracking on a 4 point scale to get a rough idea of my day. In some ways, this was very helpful – I learned that about one day in 4 or 5 is a not good day for me (I feel lousy, don’t get much done, can’t focus) which is very helpful to know in terms of long-term planning. (It also suggested that I should be more consistent about sleep in a couple of specific ways.)

But four points isn’t very nuanced. I wanted a system that gave me more nuance, and maybe more incentive for doing more of the things I wanted more of in my life. So this year’s is seven, with some variations possible.

(I should note that I expect it to be very rare to get only 1 or 2 points.)

More writing

I joined two online writing communities, with two different commitments. I was already tracking what I was writing, but one of the communities I signed up with a habit pledge (number of days writing) and the other is words.

My words goal is actually well under what I did last year, but the number of days is a significant stretch. (Last year, I wrote on about 150 days, and I’m aiming for 240. That’s a big jump.) Last year, I had a lot of days in which I didn’t write, and then would do 1500 or 2000 words at once. This year, I’m experimenting with more consistency but maybe hitting smaller totals each day.

Besides those communities, I want to track what I write to see patterns in what I’m working on (especially the fiction / non-fiction divide and how long it takes me to do things like write course materials.)

More reading

I’ve always been a big reader. My number of books has dropped off significantly since there has been a lot more content online (even through college, I was at about a book every 2 days). In 2017, I read 77 which is significantly fewer than I wanted.

I also wasn’t happy with my tracking. I was tracking in a separate wiki, and in practice I would get behind on updating (and especially the data entry part of that.) So this year, I’m trying a plain list that has author, title, genre, and then a link to more about the book.

Mid-length goals

I’ve mentioned that I was thinking a lot about this post from Shawn LeBlanc about using an 8 week cycle for projects.

I’m Pagan. And specifically, a kind of religious witch who celebrates 8 Sabbats. Four fire festivals, two solstices, two equinoxes. So, for me, it made sense to split my year into 8 (slight uneven) segments for planning over about 6-7 weeks. Each cycle, I’m going to pick 3-4 longer-term goals (which might not be complete projects) in different parts of my life.

Use it for other useful data

Since this spreadsheet is almost always open in the browser for personal stuff (email, Todoist, and then this sheet, usually), I have decided to use it for other stuff I want to keep handy.

Topics for blog posts, for example, so that whenever I think of a new one, I can stick it there and skim when I want something to write about.

Reference lists, like my cataloging terms for LibraryThing.

Knitting. (That sheet doesn’t appear here: I’m working on a project which is ‘make lots of smaller objects’ that will eventually be joined, so that tracks how many of which colour I’ve made.)

What I don’t track

I try to keep my tracking to things that I, personally, am motivated by but not obsessive about in the way that doesn’t help. I don’t track food things in general because I get into a bad place about it. If I need to do it temporarily, I use an app or use a new file. I also try not to double-track things. I’ll enter data from apps that are tracking it, but I try to only have to track it once.

Points

Seven point system, with some possible adjustments.

  • Did I get at least 30 minutes of physical activity (not exercise: this includes walking around at work, light housework, etc.)
  • Did I take my meds? (or take my meds + have a health-related appointment?)
  • Did I get both more than 7 hours sleep and more than 70% sleep quality?
  • Did I write any words?
  • Did I do more than 4 large tasks. (see below for description)
  • Did I do my daily spiritual practice? (More on that on the spirit sheet)
  • Did I do anything creative? (Writing isn’t counted here, because it gets counted elsewhere, but drawing, knitting, etc. all count. Going to a concert or theatre would too, but I don’t count routine TV/movie viewing or reading.)

Adjustments:

  • Extra point for more than 1000 words.
  • Minus one point if I have anything in the ‘sick’ column.
  • Plus one point if I declare a rest day (to encourage me to take a day easy without messing with points averages.)

Note that it’s possible to get more than 7 points (which I did January 1st.) The additional point for days I feel sick is to make sure I get a more accurate account of days when I’m not doing as well, even if I turn out to be reasonably productive.

I also hope it’s clear that I don’t expect to get all 7 points every day. Two are pretty easy for me to do (take my meds, and do the very brief spiritual practice that is what I track with ‘North Star’.) I fairly reliably don’t get the points for movement at least one day on the weekend (and sometimes that’s very deliberate, because I’ve overdone it on previous days.) I’m hoping to get the points for writing every day, but I know from experience I will have days where I don’t manage it.

I basically consider everything from 4 points and up to be a reasonable day, in terms of feeling good I did things that are priorities.

Overview

The file has a number of different sheets within it. (I’ve deleted a couple that have personal data or lists: knitting, the list of cataloging terms I use for LibraryThing, etc.)

Here’s the sheets in order, with a brief explanation. This is from the sample sheet, so I’ve removed a couple of more personal things as described above. You can click on the image to get the full size version.

Screenshot of summary page: described in text.

Summary (image above) : Overview of entire calendar month, with rating for each day. Columns where I have gotten a point are light gray. (Sleep is a little different: it shows me where I’ve hit my goal, but I only get the point if both meet my requirement.)

The type of day columns allow me to get a count of rest days, unusual days (not my usual schedule), days with errands, and days I was sick. (R, U, E, and S). And then of course notes, so I can say things like “snow day”. I’m also noting weekends this year, to see if those are a pattern.

Body : Tracks overall activity, minutes of exercise, then category. (Human is my tracker. Other activity is usually household chore stuff.)

Doing : Tracks tasks done – I track in Todoist, and use the Potterverse money system for size of task, because a completely non-metric system works better for me than dithering over the difference in size.

In practice, knut is something that I read or reviewed quickly (like reminders), sickle is a task that takes 10-15 minutes (like a straightforward reply to an email) and a galleon task is something that takes me an hour or more or involves a significant effort. (If it’s multiple hours, I count it the appropriate number of times.) They calculate a total.

Writing : The left column is the total number of words. The columns are specific projects, broadly defined. At the right, I calculate total number of days written, and have links to the communities I’m doing challenges for this year. And the average words per day so far.

Read : What books I’ve read. I’m not tracking days, but am tracking number per month, and genre. (More on data validation in the next section.)

Spirit : These are spiritual/religious things I want to keep track of doing. My actual daily practice at the moment is listening to at least one song off a playlist I set up that has about 65 songs in it. (I hit shuffle a couple of times), and the list in my working sheet pulls the titles in when I start typing them.

Ritual is to note if I did anything that was more involved ritual. Creativity is what I did that was creating something (as described above.) The next three columns are my Tarot summary column (colour coded by suit) and then the cards for the entries. The last column gives me totals for the month.

(Note that on the sample I’ve replaced the songs with ‘yes’ when I did them, and removed the actual card names from the Tarot reading column. Some things feel like oversharing.)

Week : This is the week by week summary – I use this to see if there are any broad patterns I should be aware of (big changes in activity or exercise for a not-obvious reason).

Month : Same deal, but for months. (The calculations for this are more complicated because they involve total days in the month.)

Goals : Sheet for the mid-term planning.

Written : Tracking sheet for writing details – the samples should give you an idea. (This is helpful for seeing what specifically I was working on.)

Topics : Parking place for possible blog posts.

Archive : At the end of each month, the entire month’s summary gets pasted here (use paste special -> values!) and it will do a running count of quality of day.

Cyclical planning : My math on how many days are in each cycle. Entirely ignorable (and deletable) if not applicable to you.

Goals : Template for the mid-term goals. Year goals go at the top, as I finish cycles I’ll past them in rows below.

Finally, two sheets for calculations and validation, which I’ll describe below.

Calculation

Last year, I ended up doing a lot of the calculation semi-manually (getting the totals from the individual sheets, then scribbling them on a piece of paper to transfer to the week or month.)

This year, I wanted to set it up so I could copy and paste the week and get the totals. (The month is calculated on the month summary sheet already.) This meant a bunch of careful alignment of columns.

This is why there’s a ‘days written’ column in the daily summary, when it’s not really necessary. It’s so that when I do larger totals, I have that space filled.

The books category needs to be manually entered (that’s why it’s highlighted in gray) since I need to look at the actual dates. (Writing this has made me realise I really should turn that month into a proper date. Right then!)

I’ve caught a couple of glitches in the calculations, so there may be more lurking. It’s sometimes hard to proof these without a certain amount of variable actual data.

I pull the month onto the calculations page since it’s sometimes handy for proofing and just as a comparison.

Data validation

This sheet does two main things. At the top, it does the actual calculations for each day’s points for the month. (Usual for checking it’s working right.) The gray columns are the ones that actually give points.

(“Both good” counts the total for sleep time and quality, and “total” gives me the point if that number is 2. “More words” is for the extra point for more than 1000 words.)

The bottom of the sheet contains data validation columns for different things. There are two benefits to this – one that you can get a drop down menu for the things that are more complex (Tarot card names, song titles) and second that you can do counts for things like Tarot suites more easily without worrying about typos.

Summary

Obviously, much of this can be edited or adapted to your needs – if you’re doing data validation, you may need to double check that the range is correct (this is on the sheet that references it).

Questions welcome, either here or through the contact form. (I’ll likely see the form a bit faster.)

A day in the life of a librarian (October 2017)

Welcome to a periodic installment of ‘day in the life’ because I figure it might be interesting to see what this looks like for a librarian. This was not quite a typical day, but it gives a good range of the kinds of things I do.

(I’m not being very specific about the content of some of the things I’m working on, both because of patron privacy and because it’d fairly quickly directly identify where I work: instead, I’m talking about the kinds of questions and projects in more general terms.)

Image: A wooded path with autumn leaves, trees arching overhead. Text reads: Librarians: Day in the life (October 2017)

A not quite typical Friday

5:15am :

Get up, do minor morning computer things, put on swimsuit and nicer work clothes on top. Make sure to pack jewelry and a nicer hair thing. (Normally, I am a knit top, knit skirt, and hair in a braid person, but we have international visitors today.)

6:00am :

Leave my apartment, drive to the fitness club where I swim. Swim from 6:25 to 7, shower, change, drive to work.

7:35 am :

Get into the library. Our library and archives assistant is working in the archives this morning (so she can be up in the library this afternoon) so I turn on the lights, unlock the stacks, and pull the cart of materials for our visiting researcher out into my office.

For the next hour, I eat breakfast, work through my email, review some pages on the intranet that we need to tidy up, and read web pages about the people who are visiting this afternoon, so I can have a better sense of their possible questions. Forward one question to other people in our institution who can probably identify the thing being asked about much more quickly.

We’re light on questions today – only the one so far. Some days, I come in to find three or four waiting.

8:45 am:

Quick bathroom break, set up our webcam for monitoring our researcher and wait for her to show up at the front desk.

We have a very small staff (me, our archivist, and a shared assistant) and visiting researchers work at a desk in my office. It’s common for archives to have limits on how materials are handled (that’s another post!), and for people using materials to be observed the entire time.

Our IT folks helped us figure out a webcam option (pointed at the work table researchers use, but we can’t see things on their screen or notes, just that they’re not mishandling materials), which means I can take a quick break (bathroom, to help someone else, etc.) with a little advance warning now.

However, there are some other limitations: there’s some kinds of work I have a much harder time doing or focusing on, and I can’t do things involving extended phone calls or going back and forth to the stacks. And I can’t have music on, and there are definitely some tasks I find easier or more pleasant with music or a podcast.

This researcher has been here for two days already, so we don’t need to cover any of the basics like how things work.

9:00 am:

Waiting for researcher to appear. Get a reply to the ‘track down this particular thing’ with a list of other people to ask, send the question off to them. Answer another email re: the library newsletter. Open most recent newsletter so I can set up this month’s version (it goes out the last week of the month.)

My researcher days involve a certain amount of ‘can’t start more complex task because I am waiting for them to show up/come back from lunch, and don’t want to get into the middle of something’

9:35 : Go to plug in my phone for music, researcher arrives. Get her settled.

9:50 am:

Get a call from our front desk: there is a walk-in visitor who’d like to visit the library. Get assistant to Skype in from downstairs to keep an eye on researcher.

It turns out to be a book jobber who buys books from various sources including library discards and resells on Amazon/eBay (she is here with a friend doing something at our institution.) We discard very few books, but I give her a chance to look at our free shelf.

10:15 am:

Get back to my desk to actually do things. Take a while to settle down again. Answer an email about shifting one of our general email addresses over to Gmail (we are at the tail end of shifting from Outlook to Gmail: I am delighted by the switch, but will be glad when everything’s in one system.)

Get an answer back about the thing this morning, remove stuff not to be shared with person who asked (a “The person who developed this is very elderly, you might be able to reach her at this email” which is the kind of thing we don’t pass on to researchers unless actually necessary.)

11:15 am:

Work on newsletter. Pause to make an accessible version of a handout I want to include in the newsletter.

The newsletter is a simple Word doc that goes up in our staff intranet. There’s a section about something the Research Library offers (this month, I’m talking about getting research articles), an Archives thing (usually a recently digitised collection) and then information about the month’s book display and a list (with some brief annotations) of new titles in the library.

12:00 pm:

Have lunch with colleagues and researcher (outside on a picnic bench: we are making the most of the last of the decent weather.)

12:30 pm:

Back at my desk, doing a few small things before my 1:00 meeting.

1:00 pm:

Meeting and tour of campus with two people (the CEO and an architect) from overseas who are doing a tour of schools and organisations like ours around the world to see best practices for specific kinds of design. They were fantastic.

(Also fantastic: the foundation that gave them a multi-million dollar grant on the condition they did such a tour. Very smart. They were learning a lot from seeing how different places did things and what was working for them best.)

3:30 pm:

Dash back from the tour just in time to let my assistant go for the weekend (since she’d been the staff member in charge of our researcher.) Grab a bottle of fizzy water because that was a lot of walking. Catch up on email that came in while I was gone, try to finish the newsletter except for pulling the new books.

3:55 pm:

Discuss interesting reference puzzle with archivist. Put interesting puzzle on to-do list for Monday, because the amount I will get done before leaving is approximately 3 minutes and a lot of frustration. See researcher back out to the main door, do a few tiny things.

(As a note, the research on Monday involved about 90 minutes of diving into the actual process by which people made sculptures in the 1840s. Who knew?! We’ve got useful answers now, though.)

4:15 pm:

Head home, via my local pharmacy for a flu shot. Get back home around 5:30 (due to the flu shot: I normally get home around 5.) Make dinner, fall over, do brainless things for the rest of the evening.

Jenett’s quick guide to evaluating information

I got nudged by a friend to do a ramble about information evaluation. It might have gotten a little away from me.

Basic principles:

  • We all have biases and things we know more about than others.
  • Some people are more up front about this than other people.
  • Ditto goals. We all have them, some people are more up front about them.
  • Be really suspicious of the people who claim they have the absolute truth and are telling you for your own good.

(They probably don’t and they probably aren’t. Especially if you don’t have a preexisting trusting relationship. Real world stuff has fewer absolutes, for one thing.)

Information: A quick guide to information evaluation (image of a fountain pen and blank lined notebook)

Who is this person (or What is this source?)

Start with the basics. Who’s telling you this thing? What’s their background? If it’s a website without an individual author, what do you know about the site?

You may need to file this in “Need to do some more research” but knowing you need to do that is a great first step. First thing: check out the ‘about’ page, or a bio. Usually this will give you some hints on what they’re about and what they care about most.

If you’re not sure where to start with that, try searching the person’s name (plus maybe a term from the topics they write about, if you need to narrow it down) or search on the name of the site. Sometimes adding in words like ‘review’ or ‘about’ will help.

Even just knowing what kind of source this is can help. Personal website? Newspaper that’s actually well-known and reasonably respected (even if you don’t agree with them)? Pocket of internet culture you weren’t previously aware of? Political group hidden behind astroturfing techniques?

I sort things into “Probably reasonably competent”, “Dubious” and “Need more information”, personally.

Probably reasonably competent sources are those I’ve checked out before, and came up reasonably well sourced. I still need to check the specifics here, but they get some starting benefit of the doubt. Dubious sources are those that have come up short before. Everything else gets filed in ‘need more info’.

What are their goals?

Education? Information? Sell something? Share something gorgeous or fun or amusing? Are they trying to persuade you of something?

What do they get out of you believing them and taking them (or their information) seriously? Are they being up front and honest about that?

Here’s an example: sales sites are not the most fun thing ever, but there is something refreshingly honest about “Buy this thing from me and here’s why.” It’s clear what the people want, and usually pretty clear what’s involved in getting it.

On the other hand, a lot of sources in the political realm are trying to persuade you of things, but it’s not always clear what they’re trying to persuade you of. (Or whether they’re not trying to persuade you at all, but are instead signalling to their core base what they care about.)

This is often where you see a lot of vagaries and unsourced information that plays on emotions rather than treating you like the intelligent, thoughtful, considerate person I want to think you are.

Where did they get their information?

This is where we get to the meat of things. People who are saying trustworthy things should give you a way to check, or more information about how they know that.

When we’re talking to a friend, we put what they tell us in the context of all the other things we know about them. They’re reliable as anything with a ride when it’s important, lousy at getting stuff to the post office.

They have a lot of specific experience in dealing with Mercutian rabbits, and the last fifty things they told you about those rabbits turned out to be right, but they’re not nearly so reliable about Venusian wombats. And they’re normally great about Saturnian leopards, but there’s this one weird quirk, don’t trust their grooming recommendations.

When we’re reading a random website, we don’t have that. We can’t put some of what they’re saying in context without more information.

That’s why their sources matter. Do they tell us where they’re getting their info? If it’s unnamed experts and sources, be dubious. (Though there’s a link below with some more about how to evaluate this with more nuance.)

If they claim specific expertise, can you verify that or does it seem in line with what someone with that expertise would say? (If someone claims to be a lawyer or doctor or librarian and says stuff that is way outside what you’d expect, be dubious without more specifics. Maybe a lot more.)

When is this information from? Is this a topic where currency matters a lot? Some topics change fast, some don’t. Sometimes the info that debunks a current thing has been around for a while (so older info may still be helpful in sorting this out.)

What kind of source is this, and is the information presented in a way consistent with quality information in that kind of source? Reputable newspapers don’t generally go in for explicit personal insults or completely unverified sources. (Unless they’re quoting someone who used one.) Less reputable current events sources might.

Expect better of where you go to learn things. If they’re not giving you meaningful information, go to sources that that will. You can do better than speculation and gossip.

Other key tips

Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.

There just aren’t that many absolutes in the world. This is especially true when looking at expert statements: few experts will give 100% certainty. If they do, they will likely also be explaining why. Look for that explanation.

If a media source says something absolute, check into what the experts actually said, and what information they looked at to get there. Chances are pretty good the expert was not nearly so absolute about things.

Be dubious of things that are too good to be true, too weird, or too perfect.

Again, the world just isn’t like that very often. The more we realise that we live in a world that has a lot of shades of colour and nuance and different experiences in it, the sooner we’re going to get better at evaluating information effectively and using it well.

Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?

Sourcing is often not the top priority in these cases. Which is understandable, but just because someone’s having emotions all over the place doesn’t mean you have to use everything they tell you as the basis of your decisions.

Emotions don’t mean someone’s wrong, mind you.

It is, for example, pretty reasonable for someone to be emotional about a topic that has a major impact on their daily life, health, safety, family, or religion, if other people are treating it as a purely intellectual discussion. But a story that’s playing on your emotions to make you feel upset or riled up or righteously victorious, you should be suspicious of that.

If emotions are in play, and you’re not in the middle of the discussion, it’s usually better to pause and take a moment to look at what’s being said.

Who has real experience with this thing? Who doesn’t? How does what people are saying match up with other kinds of information you can find or your experience of people or situations? Who has what at stake? Is this a real person who has specific experiences, or is it a made up storm of emotion that’s trying to get you to react a certain way?

Some additional resources:

Here are a few additional links worth reading

This is only a beginning – there are lots of nuanced issues involved in how we find and evaluate information I haven’t even touched on here (like who decides what gets researched that you can refer to later.)

Sharing information effectively

I’ve been having conversations recently about sharing information, specifically the medium used. Not the complex things, like how you frame something differently, but the simple “When do you share a link? Text? A video?”

(We got into this because of the tendency of some people to link a whole bunch of videos without summaries or other content information as part of discussions – it especially happens with some threads of political discussion, but I’ve seen it on other topics, too.)

This lead me to three questions, a principle, and some discussion.

The questions:

1) Are you switching modes?

2) Are you asking for a chunk of someone else’s time, focus, energy, or attention (beyond what would be a reasonable part of the interaction they’re currently in.)

3) What does this add to the conversation in the place you’re already in?

Here’s the principle. Use material outside the space you’re currently talking in as supporting material, not the core of your contribution. Give people a reason to consider taking time for the content.

If you don’t do that, and you browbeat people for not using a different kind of content in the way you want, well, that’s not an honest discussion, is it? People are going to notice that.

1) Are you switching modes?

I started thinking about this because of someone linking to uncontexted videos in a text-based discussion on a site that is set up for longform text discussion.

But it’s also true if you link to a PDF in a text discussion. If you are on Twitter and link a podcast episode. If you’re listening to a podcast episode or the radio and they reference visual materials. In a short-form text format (texts, Twitter, Facebook) linking to a lengthy news story on another site.

All of these are about switching modes. Sometimes, that’s really appropriate and informative. But if it’s handled poorly, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Personally, it makes me less likely to take other things someone says seriously.

Here’s the thing. Handling it well is pretty simple.

If you are switching modes, tell people that you are. Give them a brief summary so they can decide when and how they might want to explore that.

Things to include:

  • What’s the format you’re linking to?
  • Why are you dropping it into this conversation?
  • How much content is it? (Especially for video or audio.)
  • What are the key points, if someone can’t watch/listen/read/access it?
  • Any major accessibility notes. (Is it purely an image? Not captioned? Only auto-captioned?)

You don’t need to be extremely precise about these things: a brief summary will be really helpful in the vast majority of cases.

It can also be very helpful to identify a specific part (particularly in a longer work) that is relevant to the conversation or that you’d like to discuss more.

Example summaries

(All examples entirely made up.)

Video link:

There’s a great video that illustrates this perspective. It’s about 20 minutes, from ExampleUser on YouTube. Auto-captioned, but the speaker is facing the camera. The part most relevant here starts at about 10:30, about the purple rabbits.

 

PDF link:

There’s a PDF that goes into this. About 50 pages, but the opening summary is the part I’m interested in, especially the discussion of how they chose people to interview.

 

Images being discussed on a podcast:

You can find the image from our show notes for this episode on our website, but the important parts are the claws, which are about eight inches, and were used for digging burrows.

 

Linking to a long detailed source:

Much more detail at this link – about 20,000 words. The discussion of previous experience is about a third of the way through, and there’s a significant chunk of citations at the end.

 

Referencing a much longer work (a book, in this case)

I got most of this from a really great book, called Finding All The Things, by Named Author. The book’s quite long, but I found it worthwhile and recommend it to anyone who’s really interested in how our current search algorithms got developed.

 

Audio track

Here’s a version of the song (about 6 minutes) via YouTube. Lyrics on the screen.

 

You can see here that these examples are brief, and should be pretty straightforward to explain if you’re familiar with the content you’re sharing. None of them require extensive additional time on your end , but they’re tremendously helpful to people trying to figure out if they should click through or make time for this, and why.

They also help someone continue the conversation even if they can’t take in that piece of material now (or anytime soon).

2) Are you demanding someone’s time?

People have a lot of things going on in their lives. What those are will be different for each person.

You don’t get to decide how they spend their time. (Unless you’re paying them, or have an agreement about that.)

Often when people won’t click through to videos, or point out accessibility issues, they get a “Well, it’s less time than Game of Thrones” (or whatever the current TV of choice is. (Like people who are poor get the “Well, stop buying a daily cup at Starbucks.”)

That’s making a false equation.

I set out what my day looks like when it comes to information consumption in a previous post. Your day probably looks pretty different, but the point is, there’ll be some things that are easier for you or fit more comfortably in your day, and some that don’t.

(Key points if you don’t want to read that post: I read very fast, so I can consume most written content much more quickly than video or audio. I can listen to some podcasts while at work, but my time to watch video content is pretty limited and it competes with a number of other things I want to do like writing or projects.)

Example : me

If I’m watching a video for content, I want to pay attention to it – and my time for that is pretty limited, both by time slot and by attention. My current backlog of “Video I know I’d like to watch but requires more attention than I can usually manage after work” is currently well over 20 hours, and growing.

So, if you link me to a video, it’s competing with that 20 hours (plus all the other things I’d like to do), but if you give me text, I will get through it much faster.

Other people might be quite different. They might find it harder to get through text, and have an easier time with audio (or a longer commute or a job where they could listen more than I do.)

There are some tendencies, though. Video tends to be least accessible. Someone doing a long commute on public transit might have more time, but they might also have data or battery limits. Someone at home with young kids might not want to expose those kids (or themselves!) to random undescribed content from an internet stranger.

There are also accessibility issues to think about – I’ll get to those at the end of this post.

3) What does this add to the conversation?

People having a conversation in a particular place have probably chosen to spend time in that place for a reason – often because the format and kind of conversation suits them for some reason. Even if it’s not ideal for them, if they spend a bunch of time there, they’ve probably figured out how to make it work for their specific preferences.

(Obviously, many of us are somewhat flexible about this: we may use a format that’s not our favourite because someone we really like talking to strongly prefers it, or needs it. There are reasons I’m hanging out on Twitter more than I used to.)

The people in a space are there because they want to have conversations with the other people there. At least spaces that are focused on conversation (rather than one-to-many content or one-upsmanship.)

The more time you’re asking someone to spend, the more that’s important to remember.

Thinking about proportions

If I’m in a text-based discussion, and the comments are a few hundred words each, each comment is going to take me a minute or so to read. (And most comments will be shorter than that…)

If we’re in the middle of that kind of exchange, and you suddenly want me to watch 45 minutes of video, you’re asking me to spend 20 times as many minutes on your comment as I am on every other comment in the conversation.

If you want me to do that, it’s up to you to tell me what’s so compelling and why it’s worth that significant a proportion of time.

The same thing is true if you want me to read a long PDF, or work my way through a complicated flow chart graphic, or read a bunch of interconnected discussions with many links and hundreds or thousands of comments.

Expecting people to spend 45 minutes of their time on the thing you think is important, when it’s off to the side of the main conversation is unrealistic. People might spend 5, but more than that, and they probably want to know why it matters.

Giving a summary, and a “If you want more, here’s where I got more about that” is a good start.

In other words, use the links and other modes of content as supporting evidence, not your only contribution.

Talking in your own words about what a source or approach does for you is ideal – that’s you talking, and they’re in a conversation with you, directly, not with your video (or audio or PDF or whatever) link.

If you just want to monologue, well, that’s a different thing. Monologues are fine things! But don’t blame people for deciding not to be in dialogue with them, and doing something else with their time.

Accessibility

The final piece of this is that not all types of content are equally accessible.

If someone is an ongoing and active user of a particular site, you can probably assume they’ve sorted out ways of using it that work for them (at least well enough.) If they’re not on the other site you link to, though? Maybe it’s not accessible to them.

Someone might be visually impaired, and not able to get anything out of that really gorgeous but badly described infographic or chart. Or that PDF may be so badly organised it will take as long to navigate it as to get a sense of the content.

Someone might have hearing impairments and the thing you linked to has lousy auto-captioning. Even when the captioning’s okay, it takes extra time and energy for them to figure out who’s speaking and to sort out context cues that others can hear (like background noises, music cues, or who’s speaking.)

Someone may find some sites frustrating or impossible to use for design reasons. They may have medical conditions affected by flashing images or lights, and not want to watch videos without someone checking that’s okay. They may have specific experiences that mean they’re strongly affected by some kinds of content, images, or sounds, and watching those things (especially without warning) will mess them up for hours or days.

Someone may have young kids at home or just not care to listen to some kinds of language or content themselves. (Or at least not without some warning and a chance to prepare.)

Someone may have medical issues that make concentration and focus precious things. They may find it much less tiring to process text than audio or video, or short text compared to longform conversations. Switching from one location to another online often changes these things too.

Someone may get most of their online access from work or school (so some sites may be blocked, or some content could get them in trouble). Others may have limited data or technology access, so they can only watch videos in specific places (and need to balance that against other tasks.) Some people may be in a public internet space and not want to click on unknown sites, or be using a network that has filtering.

You probably know these things about your close friends. (I hope so, anyway!) But you probably don’t know many of them about someone in a given online conversation.

Long story short

Pointing people at undescribed content isn’t a good way to get them to engage with your points. If you care about the conversation, give them some content in the context you’re all currently talking, and take a sentence or three to explain what you’re linking to.

It feels weird to explain this, but clearly, it’s a thing a lot of people on the Net haven’t adequately internalised yet.

What I do: taking things in (text, sound, video)

Round about now, it might be useful to note how I take in information, and what I do with it.

I’m laying this out not because I think anyone else should do things the way I do, but because doing so gives a way to talk about some other possible approaches and issues, and figuring out what choices might work for you.

You should know about me…

I have – for reasons related to the chronic health issues – a pretty set routine about my life. This means my day to day is pretty consistent (and that I try to keep it like that.)

I read very fast compared to most people, but find watching videos for active content very tiring (and I also have a very limited amount of time that’s something I can reasonably do.) Audio’s somewhere in the middle: I can only do some things while listening to podcasts, but they include driving and time at work.

(I’m also laying this out because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about different kinds of media and how I use them, for an upcoming post, and explaining it here will make it easier to reference when I get there…)

Where I get things

Reading online

My core online reading includes my Dreamwidth reading list, and The Cauldron (the online pagan forum I’ve been on for approaching two decades in some form, and am currently staff.)

The former takes me about 10-15 minutes to read several times a day, unless someone’s made an extra long thinky post, the latter runs between about 20 minutes a day and an hour or more, depending on what replies I make.

I have a large number of blogs in my Feedly rss reader, and they produce about 120-200 posts a day. A number of these are from very busy sites (Metafilter and Ask.Metafilter) where I read only the ones I find intriguing from the opening, and it also includes a handful of Tumblr blogs where the posts tend to be short.

On an average day, I probably read 30-50 actual posts, and skim a lot of others.

I find Metafilter and Longform.org both fabulous for finding longer in-depth reading material that gets me looking at things from a different perspective, or getting me to read about something I might not have selected.

I dip into Twitter, though I have lists set up so I can keep up with a few close friends on there, and skim other things as I have time.

Finally, on the news front, I have digital subscriptions to two papers and one of my local NPR stations. They all send me at least daily updates on new stories, and I click through the ones that interest me. (Plus various other newsletters, information from organisations I donate to monthly, and the other stuff that happens in email.)

ebooks

I have a long To Be Read pile, read some amount of fanfiction on a regular basis (some of which can be quite long). These days, most of my reading is in electronic form (three long distance moves will convince even the most ardent adorer of books that moving the physical objects is a pain in the neck. And the arms and the back.)

So I mostly only buy print of titles I might want to lend out or reference with people in future (Pagan titles, mostly, or things where the print layout really matters) and everything else is digital. Conveniently, this also means I can walk around with 600+ books in my pocket, and never have to have the “Might I run out of book while out today? I’d better bring another one” mental discussion with myself, like I do with print.

My ebooks go into Marvin, an app that has a very functional list feature. I move items into “to be read” lists by broad genre (fiction, non-fiction, and Pagan) so I can skim different things, and then have a “read next” list for things I want to read sooner than later, a “read” list for things I’ve read, and so on.

I read about 10 books a month, give or take, though I’ve had months where it’s only about 4, and months with 15 or more (especially if I’m travelling.) In months where I’m short on brain, it’s a lot of reading things I already know something about, or rereading old favourites.

I’ve read for at least 10 minutes (and usually more like 30) every night of my life I could read, except for a handful of times. Since I do most of my reading on my phone these days, I also do a lot of bits of reading at other times (waiting for my work computer to boot in the morning, while things are processing, etc.)

Listening

I got the podcast bug fairly hard within the last year or so. I actually have three different kinds of podcast listening I do.

Swimming :
I swim three days a week before work, and I have a waterproof MP3 player and headphones. I put them in when I get ready to swim, and turn it off after I’ve showered and changed and gotten back to my car, which is right around an hour total. Keeps me from getting bored. I mostly go for longer ones here, and usually with multiple hosts, because I find that easier to follow early in the morning.

Work :
Some of my work tasks involve routine sorting of information that gets a little tedious, so I listen to podcasts while I’m doing that.

Since I work in a school (not directly with students, but with a range of people nearby at times), I want to be attentive to content, so I avoid some topics and podcasts. I mostly aim for history podcasts about topics I know something about (but not tons) which works out well for me.

Driving:
My commute is about 25-40 minutes (depending on traffic) and I listen to podcasts there. This is when I’ll listen to other content (there’s a couple of spooky or true crime ones that I won’t listen to at work, or Pagan/esoteric topics, and I avoid explicit political discussion there too.)

Watching

A lot of my video watching is material I am already familiar with – it’s what I have on while I’m home after work (or on the weekends) doing other things online.

Right now, I’m watching Classic Doctor Who from the beginning (BritBox made all the surviving episodes available streaming last year: I’ve seen them all at one point or another, but in many cases, not for decades.)

I usually get through 1-2 hours in a given night, but if I need to really focus on content, then the video is the only thing I’m doing, and time for that is a lot harder to come by.

What that looks like in a day

On the average workday, I get up, read my core online spaces, get dressed, get my things together, and drive to work, while listening to about 30 minutes of a podcast. (Some days I go swimming, first, and listen to about an hour of podcasts while swimming. Either way, I’m out the door within 30 minutes of getting up.)

I go to work. Sometimes I can’t listen to anything (because there are other people – volunteers, interns, visiting researchers – working in my office.) Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes it’s podcasts. It probably comes out to 3-5 hours of podcasts a week.

During this time, I’ll take breaks while I’m waiting for things to run, check in with the core online spaces, read blog posts, and so on.

I drive home (another 30 minutes of a podcast), get home around 5 and do things like make dinner, be sat on by the cat, eat dinner, and other necessities.

From here, on a good day, I’ve got about 3 hours of time I could do something with (including making and eating dinner) before my concentration goes away. On a bad day, I’ve already run out of focus. That’s due to multiple chronic health issues that can play havoc with concentration, focus, and ability to process new stuff at all efficiently.

This is my time for writing (hi!), reading more blog posts, knitting, making images for the blog, some kinds of other project work, and basically any other small hobby things.

This is also the only slot where I can actually watch video. So for me, video has to be really extra important for me to make the time for it. Written material (blog posts, books) or podcasts, I’ve got multiple places I can do them, and they take me a lot less processing energy.

It’s often a question of “Watch this video thing attentively or write a blog post?” or “Watch this video attentively or help out a friend with a question” or “Watch this video attentively or do this project” Most of the time, the video loses.

About 9pm, I start wrapping up, do one more pass through my core online spaces, and I try to be lying down in bed by 10. I read for 15-30 minutes (This is my one solid book-type reading time, though I read in small chunks at other times during the day. I read about 10 books a month, to give you an idea of my text to audio processing ratio.) Then I fall asleep.

How does that add up?

In total, my average weekday involves:

  • 1-3 hours of audio material
  • 30-60 minutes of reading a book
  • 1-2 hours of background video time
  • A hard to count amount of time in text-based online spaces (reading, commenting, etc.) but probably 3-4 hours most days.
  • Little focused video time (an hour once or twice a week at most, usually)

My weekend time is obviously a bit more flexible – there’s no going to work in there! – but it’s also when I work on larger projects at home, or just relax.

I’m curious

Where do you get your information, and what forms work for you?

I share some of the reading I’ve found particularly interesting in my fortnightly newsletter (and a new one will be out on Wednesday) so if that’s a thing you’re intrigued by, you can sign up over here.

Productivity : Tarot spreadsheet

Last post, I talked about what I track in my daily spreadsheet. Most of the things I count are pretty straightforward (at least if you’re comfortable with spreadsheets), but the way I set up the Tarot sheets is a bit less intuitive.

One of the things that’s really true about spreadsheets is that they can do a ton of things, but it’s often hard to see the potential until you have a thing you want to track (and play with it) or can explore some examples.

It relies on a couple of more complex formulas, and has three basic sheets. I’ve made a copy of it so you can see. You won’t be able to to edit it, but if you have a Google account, you can make a copy for yourself – go to File and ‘Make a copy”. I left a week’s worth of card draws there so you can see how it works, but you can delete those (just delete what’s in the B and C columns)

I’m also going to explain the basics of how it’s set up, so you can play with it in Excel or Numbers or LibreOffice, or another spreadsheet tool if you like. (These other programs use the same formulas, though some of the syntax may be slightly different.)

Image of spreadsheet screenshot showing different coloured totals. Text says: Productivity, Tarot spreadsheet

What I track

While I love having a Tarot deck in my hands, I discovered I often don’t remember to check for a card of the day before I get myself out the door (that’s the downside of an early start time and an early morning). Via the app, I can check when I get to work, easily and conveniently.

Sheet 1 : Daily cards

This has four columns:

  • Date (in whatever format you prefer)
  • Card
  • Suit or Major
  • A column that combines these.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing daily Tarot card readings : described in text.

Here are the daily cards for the first week of this year: The Heirophant, Page of Pentacles, The Wheel of Fortune, the Page of Swords, the Ace of Pentacles, the Star, and the Four of Pentacles. The name of the card is in the second column, the suit in the third, and the combination of the two in the third column.

You can actually just enter the card name manually (so long as you are completely consistent) but I use two optional tools to discourage random typo errors. Typos will mess up your statistics, because this spreadsheet is only going to count things that exactly match what you tell it to count.

I use data validation on the second column to verify the card names. This looks at a column of the card names on the “data validation” sheet and will only allow me to enter names on that list. As a side benefit, this means that as you start typing, you get a drop down menu of the choices that match that card. If your deck uses different names for some cards, you can adjust the text on the data validation sheet.

The third column is suit : I used conditional formatting to change the color based on the suit, because I like to be able to glance at it and see the difference. In this case, highlight the column, and then set up five rules, one for each suit plus the majors. Conditional formatting looks at what’s in the area you select and changes the formatting based on what’s there. In this case, it does a different background colour for each suit. On the stats page, I did something a bit more complicated with conditional formatting. We’ll get there in a minute.

I use the fourth column to automatically generate the statistics consistently. This uses the concatenate function which combines text strings. In this case, it combines the thing in the second column (B), a hyphen and spaces (the thing in the quotes), and the thing in the third column (C).

It looks like this as a formula:
=Concatenate(B2,” – “,C2)

The results will then say things like “The High Priestess – Major” and “Six – Cups”

Once you set up one row, you can click, hold, and drag it down the entire column to copy the formula line for line (or if this doesn’t work for you, you can edit it manually.)

The quote marks indicate that text should be inserted. You can put anything you like in there, but the – mark is nice and consistent, and lets me count both majors and suits easily.

Sheet 2 : Statistics

This is the more complicated one, since it counts automatically from things on sheet one. Basically, there are six columns. Four suits, the Major Arcana, plus a general statistical count of type (suits, numbers, court cards). I use additional columns to make the spacing attractive and more readable for me.

Screenshot of Tarot statistics sheet, described in text

The basic formula looks like this: =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!C:C,“Major”– this is an example from the first count, for Major Arcana cards. 

  • = tells the spreadsheet that the next thing is a formula.
  • COUNTIF is a formula that counts only if an entry in the identified range matches the identified text “Major” in this case)
  • The part up to the comma tells it where to look (up to the comma). In this case, it is a range. You can click and identify ranges in other sheets in most spreadsheet apps, so this is looking at column C on the ‘daily cards’ sheet.
  • The thing in quotes is what it’s looking for. “Major” in this case. (This is why consistent terms are important.)

Here are some other examples:

  • The specific card “The High Priestess” : =Countif(‘daily cards’!D:D,“The High Priestess – Major”
  • The specific card “Six – Swords” : =Countif(‘daily cards’!D:D,“Six – Swords”)
  • All Pages : =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!B:B,“Page”)
  • All Cups : =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!C:C,“Cups”)

Different columns for different goals:

Note that these look at different columns, depending on whether you’re looking at for a class of card (Pages, in column B), a suit (Cups, in column C) or the combination (column D). This is why the first sheet is laid out like it is – it allows for much more elegance in counting the stats.

Color formatting:

I’ve also applied conditional formatting so it’s easy to see at a glance which cards come up more often. There are an absurd number of variations possible in how you set this up, so find something that’s pleasing to you. Here, I’ve chosen colour scales relating to the suits (with purple for the majors, and blue for my generic statistics because I like blue.)

These scales weight the colors, so you can see that there are differences depending on the totals. (In this case, I’ve set the midpoint colour to be 50% of the highest number in the range.) This means the shades will change as you enter more data.

Looking at smaller amounts of time

This spreadsheet looks at everything in the main sheet – so in my case, it’s all the cards I’ve pulled from January 1, 2017 to July 31, 2017. (Because it’s still the middle of August, and I haven’t put August’s data in.)

What happens if I just want to look at a month? Or three months? In that case, I can easily look at a smaller portion with just a couple of steps (though I should be careful to avoid deleting the data I want later.)

  • Make a duplicate of the Daily Cards sheet. Maybe move it to the end where I won’t accidentally click on it.
  • Edit the daily cards data to just show the time period I want.
  • Look at the statistics and save a copy.
  • Copy the data from all the days back to the Daily Cards sheet.
  • Delete the extra duplicate sheet I made in step 1.

If this sounds too complicated, you can just count manually. If you want to have months separate, you can make duplicates of both the daily sheet and the stats sheet, rename them (for example : June 2017), and then edit the part in the formula that says ‘daily cards’ to the new name you’ve chosen, i.e. ‘June 2017’. Obviously, this is sort of a pain in the neck.

One more example of spreadsheet power

After writing the last post, I did some more fiddling with my stats sheets. I have multiple chronic health things, so part of why I’m charting things is to see how I’m doing, and whether there are any patterns I should be aware of.

Screenshot of tracking spreadsheet: described in following text.

Here’s an example from the week I took vacation in July (I stayed home and set up this site, mostly.)

  • Column A : The date
  • Column B : Number of items in the next columns that qualify as ‘good’ or better.
  • Column C : Moon phase (it turns out I do usually do a bit worse over the full moon. Good to know!)
  • Column D: How much activity I got (general movement + exercise).
  • Column E : How much exercise I got (in this case, I walked downtown a couple of times).
  • Column F: How long I slept (I color code particularly long nights so they stand out)
  • Column G : Quality sleep (a percentage my tracking app gives me)
  • Column H : How many words I wrote
  • Column I : How many tasks I completed.
  • Column J : Tarot card of the day (colour coded in text.)
  • Column K and L : Notes for unusual days and if I was sick.

What you can’t see in this screen shot is a set of columns used to generate the number in Column B.

  • Column M : Total number of “good” or better for that day.
  • Column N : Uses CountIf to count if activity was more than a certain level. (30 minutes, in this case)
  • Column O and P : Count sleep info, using CountIf (more than 7 hours, more than 70%)
  • Column Q : Adds them, so I can do the calculation in Column R.
  • Column R: Looks at the total in column Q. If they were both good (i.e. the total is 2) it uses CountIf to give me one point. If the total is less than 2 (i.e. I didn’t sleep enough, or not well enough) it doesn’t count it, so no points. I figure that if either one was below my fairly generous margin, I didn’t actually sleep well.
  • Column S: Did I write things? Counts if I’ve written any words that I track (not casual discussion, but anything lengthy)
  • Column T: Was I reasonably productive? My baseline here is 3 or more big tasks.
  • Column U: Uses CountIf to count if there is anything in my “Sick” column

This part takes a little explaining. For Column U, I wanted to note why I was sick – a cold? A migraine? Feeling generically lousy (multiple autoimmune issues means that happens to me sometimes). But I wanted it to count that I felt sick no matter what the text was. So, I used what’s called a wildcard – something that will match any text in that cell. In Google Sheets, * (an asterisk) is the usual wildecard.

Here’s what that looks like for a day I was sick (May 9th) : =Countif(L130,“*”)

The total (column M) adds up the good points (Activity, decent sleep, writing, tasks), subtracts a point if I was sick (otherwise it just subtracts 0.)

Then I just had to drag the formulas down the screen so they covered the entire year, and there we go! I’ve got another sheet that calculates percentages of how the days went (so I can tell you that I had good days about 3 days out of 4. Which is useful to know – and useful to know that about one out of four days, I can expect to not get as much done as I hoped for, whether that’s because of a cold, a migraine, or feeling ill in other ways, or just plain lack of brain. (My stats also tell me that I was ill about half those days, so the other half are my brain just not working well.)

Total spreadsheet geek

As I said last time, if you’re baffled by how I did this but want one for yourself? (Putting the data in is so much easier than setting it up!) That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project.  Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.

I’m also very glad to answer questions here, or via the contact form, if you’re just trying to figure out how to do a specific thing.

Want more stuff like this? My next set of posts coming up are going to be about copyright and some related topics, but I’ll be circling back to productivity in the not too distant future. Check out my newsletter which will have occasional links about it as well as other things I’ve found interesting in my travels around the net.

Productivity : Spreadsheet of doom (how I do my personal tracking)

I have spreadsheets for a lot of things. (Enough that my friends tease me about them.)

The one I use most often is my personal tracking sheet. Why do I track things over time? Because it gives me a comparative sense of I’m doing.

I’ve had a rough few days, brain-wise: a grand state of exhaustion for no obvious reason and brain fog that’s making it hard to get much done. At the same time, I can look at the data and figure out if there are particular patterns.

Screenshot of tarot tracking speadsheet with statistics : text reads productivity : spreadsheet of doom

What I track right now:

Sometimes I track more, sometimes I track less. These have been pretty consistent for at least a couple of months now, sometimes much longer. (The last ones I added were sleep time and quality, which I’ve kept data on for years, but weren’t in the spreadsheet.)

  • Activity I get (and how much deliberate exercise)
  • Sleep amount and quality
  • Tarot card of the day
  • Words written
  • Productivity
  • Number of unusual days (outside my normal schedule) and days I was sick.

And then I do a summary page by week (so I can see changes over time) and by month (for larger chunks of time)

Unusual days are the number of days that were outside my ordinary schedule (so vacation, travel, etc.) and sick days are days in which I felt sick enough to not do at least some of the things I would normally do (so when I’m home sick from work, but also ‘I am getting over a horrible cold and sleeping miserably and can’t brain at all’ which took up two weeks this May. Just as a random example.)

I divide it up into different sheets: here’s what that looks like. E is exercise, T is Tarot, W is writing, S is productivity stats. Since it’s hard to show you data that isn’t very personal, here’s a list of what the sheets look like instead.

On my list to add in (probably starting in September) are astrological transits, to see if that is related to any particular pattern.

Screenshot of spreadsheet sheets (described in nearby text)

I also keep writing topic ideas and a log of things written in this sheet (since I have it open a lot and it’s easy to add things here), and then the summaries by week and month. The last sheet is data validation for the Tarot cards, and for categories for my writing topics. I prefer having that on a separate sheet for tidiness.

I used to have all the archive data on the same sheet, but found it annoying to scroll back and forth, so I separated the archival info out into its own sheet. I copy each month’s data to the archival sheet at the beginning of the new month, and update the summaries and do some additional number crunching on it. This week’s addition to that is looking at how good the day was by different categories and counting that up.

Tools I use:

Two Google Sheets spreadsheets. Why Google? So I can access them from home or work (or with some annoyances, from the iPad while travelling. Also, I like the formatting tools a lot.

One sheet has my current data (by calendar month) plus a summary. The other has archival data (previous months).

I track the information that goes into the spreadsheet in multiple apps. (The ones I use are all iOS, but equivalents exist for other phone OS)

General activity

I use Human.

This app tells me how many minutes I moved for. I add in exercise manually (since that’s usually swimming, and my phone and the pool are not friends.)

If I walk somewhere for more than 10 minutes, I manually edit the time to count that as exercise. I also have a column for activity my phone doesn’t count (mostly housecleaning, where the phone is usually on my desk while I’m doing things.)

I use my phone rather than a specific fitness gadget because the phone’s basically always on or near me, and I lost two Fitbits before I figured out that part.

Because of the chronic health issues, part of why I track activity is so that I know if I’ve had an unusually active day so I can take steps to rest, recover, and take care of myself – more activity is not necessarily better for me!

Sleep quality and amount:

I use Sleep Cycle.

This is not always the most incredibly accurate (I’ve had nights that felt pretty lousy that the stats said were pretty good, and vice versa) but it is good at catching when I actually fell asleep, and if I was up in the middle of the night and I feel like the overall trends match my experience.

It also works very reliably for me as an alarm. (I should note I’m a light sleeper, though). It can be set to wake you up in the lightest part of your sleep phase.  It will also make note of weather, heart rate (using a pulse tool with the light from your camera’s flash) and some other useful statistics.

For example, I sleep less well pretty reliably around the full moon and new moon, and sleep better between them. Perhaps more usefully my sleep quality tends to be a lot better on Friday and Saturday nights (aka the days I don’t get up early for work) which makes me more protective about scheduling them. I try to avoid scheduling things that mean I need to be up and moving at a set time (at least before about 10) now.

Tarot card:

I use the Shadowscapes deck app for my cards.

Anything that produces a card will work for this, whether that’s a deck or an app. (And if you like apps, the people who made the app for the Shadowscapes one also have a number of other decks.)

I track what cards I get over time, and find the summary of what cards came up interesting. My weekly summary does a simple count by type (Major Arcana, Swords, Wands, Cups, Pentacles), though I’ve got a more thorough card counting sheet I’ll talk about in a minute.

The Tarot card stats look like this (this screenshot has all my daily cards from January 1, 2017 until June 30, 2017. I actually find it fascinating that the suits come out almost even over time. And yet, over six months, there are some cards I’ve never pulled for a daily, and a number I’ve pulled five or six times.)

I’ll be talking about how to set up a spreadsheet like this in my next post.

Screenshot of Tarot card statistics : described later in text

Productivity:

I use Todoist, as described in the previous blog post. I then count up the number of each size of tasks, and add it to the spreadsheet.

This is just a quick slash and tally on a scrap of paper: since I divide my tasks up by size, I write K (for knut), S (for sickle) and G (for galleon) across one side, the dates down the left, and just count and tally, then add them all up. It goes very quickly for me.

Putting the task count in a spreadsheet lets me measure how productive a week was (overall) against other weeks, and figure out if there’s something that’s messing me up.

Words written:

Counted in whatever app I’m writing in (or copy and paste into a thing that will tell me) and put in the appropriate column.

I track both number of words, and number of days I wrote that week or month. My current goal is to write at least 5 days a week, and I’ve got half a dozen projects, so there’s a column for each general project. Over time, that helps me see where I’ve been doing more writing or less.

Fun with spreadsheets

Of course, these techniques can be applied to a lot of other topics – one of the things I learned about spreadsheets is that a lot of people use them only in the ways they’ve come across before. I hope seeing some other examples and hearing about some additional things they can do help.

Come back on Saturday for how I set up the Tarot spreadsheet!

Baffled but want a spreadsheet set up for your own personal goals? That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project. (Spreadsheets like the one described above are probably under an hour’s work on my end, especially if you can explain clearly what you’re hoping for.) Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.