Thursday, October 10, 2019

How I Get My (Blog) Ideas

I was speaking with a buddy about the Persistence blog post I've been working on.

He gave me some great input, and asked how I come up with topics. I told him about online resources, including the HubSpot Blog Topic Generator, as well as my own approach.

Today I'm sharing what works for me. These are anecdotal steps you should use as a starting point, then revise as you experiment and figure out what works for you:
  1. Create a Writing Schedule & Location
  2. Warm Up Your Brain
  3. Ask Yourself Relevant Questions
  4. Nurture Your Ideas in an Idea Box
That's it. Good luck! Ba-bye!

Just kidding!

Below are the details.

Create a Writing Schedule & Location

This is no different than what any author does. You need to have a regular schedule that's non-negotiable and dedicated to this activity.

I suggest setting this at your optimal time of day. If you're a morning person, then it's in the morning. If not, it's whatever time you have the clearest head and most energy. If you're not sure what that is, checkout this Wikipedia article on Circadian Rhythm and this Huffpost article on discovering your peak energy hours.

I use a 90-minute block, once a week. This gives me enough time to write, while reserving the other days for my business. The block consists of two 40-minute writing sessions with a 10-minute break in between to grab coffee, or just walk around. Physically walking around helps me get perspective or even new ideas. So, I intentionally write in a place that's far from my coffee and forces me to walk a distance.

Do I always take the 10-minute break? No. If I'm in a groove and ideas are flowing, when I'm writing so fast and well that my fingers are cramping, then I just go with it. If I'm not, then I take the break and give my brain a chance to digest, then find its groove.

I do a couple of other things to stay on task during my time. First, I have a designated room, away from people. It’s a quiet area, with a cleared up desk, a window view of the outdoor trees and regularly blooming flowers, and a door that I can close to reduce interruptions. This is the place where I do my best work and also where I take all of my meetings. It's not my regular stand-up desk since I also can't seem to write well if I'm standing.

Next, I use a timer. I do this for any block of time, including meetings. It's a great habit that helps me concentrate on the activity at hand, respect other people's time (if I'm in a meeting), and create urgency for myself.

During this time, I know I'm not doing anything else: no emails, texts, browsing (unless I'm researching), or phone calls. I'm there for one thing and one thing only.

Does this guarantee no interruptions? Of course not. Life happens and you deal with it. Nevertheless, the steps help me think of and treat my block of time as priority, not just something I would do if I felt like it.

Warm Up Your Brain

My brain needs warm up, just like the rest of my body before a rigorous exercise. To warm up, I re-read and edit a blog post I’m working on, if there is one, or read my Idea Box and refer to the list of blog topics there. You’ll read about the Idea Box shortly.

If I’m starting a new post, I sometimes have to read the Idea Box topics a few times or do some additional online research to help me focus on what I'm about to do.

I've also used this time to see the stats on my blog, mainly to figure out which articles are getting read the most, refer back to them and see if I need to make any edits.

I'm a late adopter of this idea, but I've come to realize that writing blogs is not a fire-and-forget activity. You need to constantly edit, revise and update even blogs you wrote years ago. Given I have some older posts that come up on searches from time to time, and how my writing has changed over the years, there's plenty of work I can do here.

Once I’ve gone through my Idea Box, picked something, I just start writing for the remainder of the allocated time. One thing I have to be careful of is going off too many tangents when I’m warming. The point of the allotted time is to write or somehow further the details of what I want to write, in the same way that a physical warm up is preparation to workout. The physical workout is the central part of the activity. In that same way, writing is the central part of my blocked time.

So, I can’t just research. I have to at least bring back what I’m learning in each block of time and make some notes or actually write an article. This is where the two 40-minute blocks really help. Once my alarm for the first block goes off, if I’ve not been writing, I know I need to refocus and start jotting down details and start writing the article in my second 40-minute block.

So, the timer is really key to keeping me focused on writing.

Ask Yourself Relevant Questions

So, how do I come up with ideas?

I ask a lot of questions about what's going on at home, business, politics, with my skills, people I know, and, generally, anything that sparks my curiosity. Here's a sampling of some generic questions you can start with:
  1. What have I been working on and have some expertise about (for professional / business blogs) that I can share as Best Practices, ideas to pursue, stories with my readers?
  2. What book am I reading that’s worth recommending and why?
  3. What have I observed (about work, family, politics, my hobbies)? Observations are unique and represent how someone views the world. It’s helpful to someone who may see the world the same way or differently.
  4. What articles have I read online that seem related to one another or provide some insight that’s not explicitly stated in each article?
  5. What ideas from disparate practices seem to merge together (based on reading, interviewing, observing)? This requires being curious about a lot of unrelated things and using various resources to learn about them.
  6. What articles have I written that should be reviewed, revised, taken down, updated?
  7. What general pattern do I see in what I’ve already written that I can talk about (with links back to the original articles)?
  8. What meaningful, passionate, interesting, curious conversations have I had with friends, coworkers and family that would make for a good (anecdotal) story? This is how I came up with this article.
  9. What do I do every day (with family, at work, in the garden, on vacation, on my commute) that’s effective in addressing something outside of that subject? For example, how can getting rid of weeds in the garden help in business, or what can I learn form pets that I can use in my meetings.
  10. What lessons have I applied that have produced results? What results did I get? How is the process the same or different from what others do? How can it be abstracted to be used by others?
  11. What am I learning that’s worth recommending and why? This could be based on the books or blogs read that seem worthy of recommending.
  12. What do I want to learn that I can research and tell people about? How can my research help others?
I suggest you come up with your own questions, and ensure they all start with or contain What, How, and Why. These are all open-ended questions that require longer explanations, and they can become the seeds for your blog post titles. Questions that start with When, Is, Does have short answers and don't necessarily trigger any ideas.

Nurture Your Ideas in an Idea Box

This has been one of the best things I've done. I don't remember where or when I read about it, but the general idea (no pun) is to track your ideas in a virtual or actual "Idea Box". It's like the Suggestion Box you see at stores.

Once you come up with all of your questions, put them on paper, real or virtual. Some people create a special folder or notepad for this. I like to use a few things, depending on where the ideas occur to me:
  • A Paper Notepad: Yeah. I know. I still use some paper notepads. I have them laying around on my desk and by my bed, for those ideas that I need to immediately jot down before I forget them
  • Google Keep: to quickly jot down ideas when I'm away from my computer but have my phone
  • Google Docs: to keep track of all the questions / ideas I've come up with, and details for each that I want to pursue, as well as any notes on physical books I read. This is my de facto central repository and my actual Idea Box.
  • Pocket: for tagging and saving a soft copy of all articles that may be of interest.
  • Kindle / Nook apps’ notebook feature: for highlighting and taking notes on eBooks
Bottomline is that I use tools for various scenarios that help me quickly access them and jot down the ideas. In my case, the ideas are often triggered by something I may have read or seen, then somehow my brain connected it with something else that’s happening right then and there. I need to quickly get it down before I forget.

I just make sure that I transfer all of the notes from the various devices to a central location. This is my actual Idea Box. In my case, that’s a specific document in Google Docs that I bookmark and go back to for mining ideas, adding details and, eventually, using to write a blog...or to ignore them because they don’t sound as interesting as I first thought.
I hope you find the tools and ideas helpful and that they serve as a jumping point for you to come up with your own.

Good luck and happy writing! Feel free to contact me via the form on this page with any ideas or list of tools of your own. I’m always eager to learn from others how I can do something better.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Long Away, Not Dead...Yet!

A few months back, I started working on a post about persistence, how to plan for getting things done, and creating good habits. I thought it’d be a fairly straightforward, short post based on my readings and anecdotal lessons at work and just living.

The more time I spent on it, the more I thought I had to cover other related topics to build up to my recommendations.

It’s been agonizing to sit down and write. Every time I open up the post in Google Docs, I either draw a blank, realize there are other things I want to add, or I’m overwhelmed with how much I still have to write, rewrite, omit or even other resources I want to reference.

Anywhoooooo, it’s still not done. I work on it weekly and started out with a goal of writing 500 to 1000 words on the subject that grew to just under 10k words a couple of months back. It’s now back down to 4800 words, and I’m only half way through it!

I’m probably going to break it down into multiple posts, with the main theme of persistence and building habits running through all of them. There’s a bit about goal setting, dissimilar, I hope, from a lot of other posts out there, as well as general planning vs. taking action.

This is part of what’s holding me from publishing it: I don’t want to just regurgitate what’s already out there. I want to somehow add something to it, even if it’s examples of using the other authors’ recommendations in my life and their consequences.

The joke is not lost on me: the post emphasizes action and getting things done, rather than aiming for perfection, but I’m taking my time trying to perfect the post!

I get it. Ha ha!

But why am I boring you with all of this?

Well, I was reading through my emails and I saw a new post by Tim Urban of Wait But Why blog that opened up my eyes. Tim’s been away from posting anything new for close to three years since he’s been working on a VERY long post about the state of human nature. He learned a lesson in the process: you still need to post shorter articles, even if you’re working on a larger one.

So, that’s what I’m restarting. I want to post something new regularly, while I work on larger posts. It’s kind of funny. This is what Seth Godin recommends and practices too. I hope I’ll be half as insightful as he is. He certainly inspires me to be.

My immediate next post, on this road to the larger one, is born out of a couple of conversations with some professionals: how to come up with blog post topics.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Feed Your Inner Brainiac: Blogs & Podcasts to Fuel the Fire - Part 2 of 2

Feeding your brain doesn't need to be restricted to reading books.  There are many great in-depth blogs and podcasts that can get you there too.

In the previous post I listed some of my recent favorite books to fuel your interests, plant new seeds, and get you excited about learning.

In this post, I’m giving you my favorite blogs and podcasts, with specific articles and episodes from the last six months that have influenced me to think a bit more and harder.

Let me know what you think and if there are some you’d recommend.

  • Farnam Street
    The site slogan says it all: "Upgrade Your Thinking"!

    That's exactly what you get out of this site.  The site was founded by Shane Parrish, "a former cybersecruity expert with Canada's top intelligence agency" (link to article by The New York Times). That certainly got my attention and interest to find out what this guy had to say. 

    The site is an aggregate of blogs about deep learning, mental models, how to read better, among many other topics on the subject of learning.  Parrish recommends slow reading to internalize many of the concepts he presents.  In fact, I got turned on to him after reading his Medium article on how Speed Reading is Bullshit.

    Be forewarned: though he has many articles that are shorter, there are some that take 30 to 60 minutes to read.  They're all well worth it.
  • Design Luck by Zat Rana
    Zat Rana is another author whose works published on Medium got me interested in his blog, Design Luck.

    His blog focuses on psychology, sociology and philosophy. He has an interesting take on happiness and meaning of life or, as he likes to call it, "The Simple Art of Not Being Miserable". 

    I loved reading It's not What You Know. It's How You Think to learn that all struggles boil down to an internal one to make sense of the world by finding patterns that help us navigate it. It smacks of the mental models concept from Farnam Street, with a more philosophical / historical take on it.

    I've tended to set goals in my life, many far reaching and long-term with shorter-term milestones to help me get there. I've had some disappointments, but it's largely worked for me. 

    However, I got a whole new perspective about goals when I read Zat's All Goals Are Problematic -- Except One. It's a great exploration about setting a direction and evaluating at any point whether what you're doing is working toward that direction.  It reminded me of The One Thing book, recommended in the previous article.
  • Wait But Why
    The Wait But Why blog's an oldie in the sense that the newest article on here is from April 2017.  However, these articles are so well researched, referenced, and important that they're worth a read.

    I can't recall how I found this blog.  The site's authors originally envisioned selling artifacts that were related to their articles, though I'm not sure that system worked out. I certainly didn't buy any, but I appreciated what they'd put together.

    My favorite reads are parts of multi-series articles, each of which will take you anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to read.  They are best read over a few days to allow for digestion of the concepts.

    I recommend the series about Elon Musk and how his vision will change our future, The AI Revolution that delves into the possible outcomes of AI and what it could mean for human's evolution or extinction, and the very tactical but eye-opening article on Your Life in Weeks where you realize how much productive time you really have.

    Although this is an older blog, there are A LOT of posts here that you can spend weeks reading.  I'm still digging through their archives via an email subscription that recycles the material. 

I admit, I'm late to the whole podcast thing, but there are a few that I find interesting.
  • Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam
    Holly cow, is this a good podcast!

    I listened to one of his repeat podcasts on NPR One and I was hooked.  One of my relatives had talked about his podcasts and how they focus on science and sociology, with an emphasis on science.  Shankar brings together some of the best minds in the world to talk about current events and sociology topics, providing results of many studies that seem counter-intuitive.

    I loved listening to BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down to understand the psychology of such scenarios...and how to get out of them.

    My want to get outdoors was reinforced once I better understood why we need to be around greenery in his podcast on Our Better Nature: How the Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life.

    I was very surprised by how our genetic coding AND reinforcements through family and society make for predictable markers of our politics as individuals and society when I heard Nature, Nurture And Your Politics.  This one tied in well with his next podcast about the reasons many Americans voted for Trump in Voting With A Middle Finger: Two Views On The White Working Class. I came away from it having a much better understanding of the pains of middle class America.
  • Bag Man by Rachel Maddow
    I know there are many who don't like Rachel Maddow, given she's an MSNBC news anchor and left leaning.  I take what she says with a grain of salt and think she's very good on finding details to bubble them up to our attention, however she decides to interpret them.

    I happened on her mini-series podcast, Bag Man, via NPR One (have I given away my politics yet?).  It's about the partially-forgotten first Vice President of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew.  As it turns out, he was a very polarizing figure and a crook, involved in many payoffs before AND during his time in the White House. 

    This was a fascinating story in what it revealed about the techniques corrupt politicians use to manipulate the media, some of which has been employed more so in the last few years to rile up Americans against each other. 

    I found a great many lessons in the podcasts that have helped me better consume media and understand the political games, as well as how to have civil conversations with people who have opposing perspectives.
  • Duolingo
    I'm sure many have heard of Duolingo, the app, for leaning a new language. I've been using it to learn and reinforce what little Spanish I know.

    As I wanted to get a better ear for Spanish speaking people, I tuned in to the Duolingo Podcast and I was not disappointed.  Not only is this a great way of hearing native Spanish speaking folks speaking their own dialect from around the world, the stories they tell are fascinating.  They focus on day to day adventures and struggles of people in those countries.

    The podcasts ended up not only helping me better understand the spoken language, but get a better world view without necessarily traveling to all the places they referenced.
Though it doesn't fit in as a blog or podcast, one of the best subscriptions I've purchased is to Medium.  It's where I first learned of Shane Parrish and Zat Rana. There are many great articles posted here daily and anyone can find something they're interested in.

As a final bonus, I highly recommend using Pocket for saving articles in a central location to read later, archive, take notes on, and generally better consume them when you're able to.  This is a great tool to ensure you're NOT speed reading and truly digesting the content.