Overwhelming technology and how to shrug about it

A friend posted this on Facebook today:

Dropbox, We Transfer, #, twitter, UHDTV, Clouds, uploads, downloads, TECHNOLOGY OVERLOAD!!!!!!!! Not a bloomin clue.

I want to tell you what I told her, just in more detail and hopefully more usefully.

Here’s the thing. If I work this out on my fingers – hang on, you should always show your working out. Okay. Today I have used…

Drafts 4, Mail, Word, Pages, Evernote, OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, Awesome Clock, TextExpander, Calendar, Fantastical, MailChimp, Twitter, Facebook, Buffer, WordPress, Safari, iTunes, live-streaming radio, Podcasts, iCloud, OmniPresence, Dropbox and probably more.

That’s nice. But I only know that because you asked me. If you’d just said oi, what have you done today, I wouldn’t have thought to mention the tech, I’d have said:

It’s been a good day. I wrote about 3,000 words.

There was an interesting profile of Jonny Ive in Vogue the other day that touched on how we feel about technology:

In 1985, the year [Steve] Jobs was forced out of Apple, Jony Ive was in design school in England, struggling with computers, blaming himself. “Isn’t that curious?” he says now. “Because if you tasted some food that you didn’t think tasted right, you would assume that the food was wrong. But for some reason, it’s part of the human condition that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us.”

A Rare Look at Apple’s Design Genius Jony Ive — Robert Sullivan, Vogue (1 October 2014)

I’ve seen this. I’ve had people wail down the phone, convinced they had a virus because actually Word did something to their text. And I think you can see the same assumptions in my friend’s Facebook post there: “not a bloomin’ clue” is there synonymous with her feeling she should, wondering how people do and, if I can put thoughts into her head, maybe even resentment that she has to deal with all this stuff.

Look at my day. I didn’t get up thinking oooh, I’ll start with Drafts 4. I thought god, I’m late writing this piece and have to get it done before I can do that. If I did get up thinking, right, I’ll use Drafts 4, I don’t think I’d be a writer, I’d be someone who likes fiddling with technology.

Plenty do, plenty of people enjoy the intellectual challenge of getting Windows to work, and that’s cool but I think that’s a hobby. I think that’s the tech being someone’s aim and interest where I and I suggest my friend there are more interested in our work. It happens that I use a lot of tech to do mine and she would rather not.

I enjoy these tools and I can’t make my friend do that but I can tell her to shrug. If you’re not using twitter, so what? If you are using OmniFocus, cool. If you are using Windows, we can get you the help you so badly need.

You will never learn how to use anything by sitting there with a manual in your hand and a song in your heart. You will learn how to use everything when you have a need for it. You want to get a huge file to someone, you’ll see how to use Dropbox. You want to take minute and have a chat but you’re working alone, you’ll find Twitter. You want to waste your life and become aggravated to the point of coronary, you’ll buy a PC.

I believe this and I know it to be true: you learn from necessity and you learn a lot, you learn everything. I would now say I know Photoshop well but it’s from fifteen years of needing to use it to do the smallest, tiniest things. There was a tiny, trivial, even tedious little task at the Radio Times website that meant someone had to use Adobe InDesign: I did it because it meant once a week for two years I was using InDesign to find more and more.

InDesign is a big, daunting application but that weekly dose of it was far more useful than a lesson would’ve been. Enough so that I later got a freelance gig specifically because I knew how to use InDesign.

So don’t study, don’t look at this as opportunity to learn or a requirement to catch up, just do your job. Maybe you could keep an ear out for tech that helps you because I promise it transforms my work. But in principle, shrug. Alright?

Cramming doesn’t work: space out learning and revision instead

After six hours of looking at study material (and three cups of coffee and five chocolate bars) it’s easy to think we have it committed to memory. Every page, every important fact, evokes a comforting feeling of familiarity. The cramming has left a lingering glow of activity in our sensory and memory systems, a glow that allows our brain to swiftly tag our study notes as “something that I’ve seen before”. But being able to recognise something isn’t the same as being able to recall it.

Different parts of the brain support different kinds of memory. Recognition is strongly affected by the ease with which information passes through the sensory areas of our brain, such as the visual cortex if you are looking at notes. Recall is supported by a network of different areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, which coordinate to recreate a memory from the clues you give it. Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.

Memory: Why cramming for tests often fails – Tom Stafford, BBC News Online (18 September 2014)

I don’t know, I’d need to be more organised in order to have the time to space out when I revised or crammed. But read the full feature for more, if you’re not currently cramming.

The other best way to learn something

Seriously, have a need to solve a problem or achieve a thing, that will get something into your noggin better than anything. But if you can’t do that, if you’re doing something general like studying for an exam, you can also do this:

When you’re studying something new, think of somebody you know and plan to teach it to them. Fellow students, a colleague, your significant other, anyone. As you go over the material, detail specifically how you would convey the knowledge to that person so they could understand it just as thoroughly.

Learn More Efficiently by Planning to Teach What You’re Studying – Patrick Allan, Lifehacker (14 August 2014)

Allan’s full piece is a report about an academic report and drilling down through the piece can only get you to the official abstract without subscribing. You’ve got the idea anyway.

The best way to learn something

Rig it so that you have to learn it. Arrange it so that you need to learn it. Right now, for instance, it would be handy if I learnt how to code apps in Swift but I don’t have to. Not for weeks. And in a few weeks or a couple of months when the need comes, I will be kicking myself that I didn’t spend some time on it now – but I will be wrong.

Truth be told, I’ve watched a video, I’ve got Apple’s documentation and I’ve skimmed that. I’ve not exactly ignored Swift but still, I don’t know it. But I guarantee that when this project moves on, I will have three to five days in which to do the job and I will do it.

Simply because I need to.

Now, this isn’t the usual writer thing of only being able to work when there is a big, scary deadline. lt’s a genuine way to learn something new: the need to use something in order to achieve a goal is the way that you fix it in your head.

Have a deadline, yes, but also have a very specific itch you need to scratch. When you’re just studying something in general, everything has equal weight and nothing is more important or urgent than anything else. When you specifically need to achieve a particular thing, you are shovelling everything else out of the way. Yes, yes, how do I do this? Fine, fine, what do I need to do right now?

You can see that this determination would get you the answers you need. You would then also think that this would make you an expert in exactly one job, one type of task. That you’d be no further forward in anything else to do with the subject.

But that’s wrong.

Focusing on the particular teaches you the general too.

You’re nodding, you’re willing to believe this, you know it sounds plausible, but you’d like a bit of an example. Okay. Here it is: Scrivener.

I bought Scrivener for my wife Angela Gallagher maybe 18 months ago. I’d played with the trial version, I could see that it would do a thing she needed, and I’d heard all the constant praise this word processor has got. It is so praised and so persuasively praised by people I rate that a few months ago, I bought my own copy.

And proceeded to not use it.

Until last Friday when I had an idea for a non-fiction project that involves writing quite a bit of new material but also compiling a lot of existing stuff. A lot. I mean, this is the book that will collect the best of The Blank Screen’s first 1,000 articles.

I needed a way to grab all the text that I might possibly want to use, then I had to find a way to compile it, re-order it, edit it, join bits together, split some stuff apart. I could’ve done it in Word or Pages but I’d have to hold the whole project in my head and focus on one or two pages at a time. In Scrivener, I could make each article a separate short section and choose to focus on a page or look at the whole picture.

Full disclosure: I worked out the sequence in OmniOutliner. But I did so after adding all the text to Scrivener and naming each bit.

The book works out at 70,000 words and is a big project with a very specific aim and I had a really clear goal. Which means I have just spent a week hammering the bejaysis out of Scrivener. Previously I have recognised its advantages and what type of projects it would be good for, I have liked what I’ve seen and I have very much liked the company name of its maker: Literature and Latte. But now I feel I know Scrivener well and.

Everybody who uses Scrivener tends to have two very strong opinions about it: they love it and they wish to hell that there was an iPad version.

I love it and I wish to hell that there was an iPad version.

Scrivener is available for Windows and Mac and costs £31.99 UK or $44.99 US. You can get it on the Mac App Store and both the Mac and Windows versions are on the official Literature and Latte site where you can also get a very generous trial period.

Just a thought about software

It’s easy to hear that you can speed up your work with tools like TextExpander or Keyboard Maestro and then either feel overwhelmed with trying to learn them or just find that you spend so much time playing that you don’t write enough.

Take on one new piece of software at a time. When it becomes like breathing, then try the next one.

And for each you try, don’t study them. Read the examples of what they can do, pick one that sounds useful to you, use that. Nothing else.

It sounds wrong: you spend a tonne of money and you’re only using it for this one piddly thing? But studying software doesn’t work. Needing it for a particular job does. When you need the software to do more, use it for more. You learn it because you’re actively using it for a purpose, you absorb it because it makes sense to you.

And remember above all else: using software is a lot easier than writing.

Studying: it’s not the time, it’s the mileage

From the site LifeHack – note, that’s not Lifehacker – comes a series of five steps for learning something and of them all, number 1 is best. Number 1 applies in so many places:

Focus on number of repetitions, not on the amount of time we practice.

When we say that we “studied for five hours straight,” we are often deceiving ourselves. How much of that five hours was spent in focused attention? How much time did we spend on distractions, like checking our email, or Facebook or Twitter? The key is not the length of time we spend when learning something. The key is the amount of learning repetitions that we engage in. Repetition is one of the most powerful levers we have because it wires our brain. The power of repetition is well known by top performers, athletes, musicians, and the military. Time spent is not nearly as important as the number of reps.

So here is the first step: get rid of the watch. Instead, focus your attention on completing repetitions. Instead of saying, “I’ll study my notes for two hours,” say, “I’ll read my notes through, line by line, three times from start to finish.” This causes you to focus your attention on results. It also eliminates the “illusion of effectiveness” because you can’t fool yourself. Either you completed the task, or you didn’t.

5 Hacks to Speed Up Your Learning – Ryan Clements, LifeHack (undated)

Read the rest. I’m still exploring the LifeHack site; haven’t decided what I think yet.

How to Learn – by Lewis Carroll

Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!, and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights.

A Random Walk in Science, writers include Lewis Carroll (UK edition, US edition)

Via Brainpickings, this feature is about Carroll’s four rules of learning and what he tortoise.