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Prettier Tinderbox Maps

I’ve created a couple videos recently that demonstrate some techniques I use to make my Tinderbox maps a bit more aesthetically pleasing. It’s important to note that 1) as a designer; and 2) as someone who is encouraged to make more maps when my maps look nice, I value these tricks, perhaps, a bit too much. This is because some of them compromise the integrity of the data between linkages. This is shameful! (I know!) But alas I remain a bit shameless about it because I’m making maps that make me happy and the maps help me learn, so two wins, one loss… I’ll take it. Here they are:

Some example maps (click to expand)

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Turning Reading Notes into a Tinderbox Map

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A reader emailed me this morning and wrote:

I've been in two minds about getting Tinderbox for some time due to the steep perceived learning curve. Your videos helped a lot.

What you didn't show was your process for getting information/ideas into TBX, and then creating the relevant reference links to other notes, etc. Would love to see another series on that :) {hint hint}"

And so, in the same rambling and rough-cut way I created my original Zettelkasten & Tinderbox videos, I created this four-part series. Part three is the worst — my apologies — but also, blame André. ☝️

A few notes before we begin:

  • Y’all. This is very boring.

  • I don’t think it matters so much how I map the information, but rather that I map it. For example, a few days ago, I was recalling the three types of triggers in BJ Fogg’s model for persuasive technology design and I did so by mentally traversing the map. The spatial layout created in Tinderbox helped me remember that those three triggers are: “sparks,” “facilitators,” and “signals.” See? I just did it again!

  • I think it is exceptionally important to just start mapping, you can always edit later.

  • This is so 100% me and my own way. I hope sharing it enables you to find you and your own way.

.Nearly an hour to waste awaits. Please, do at least watch it at double speed.

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Using Zettelkasten and Tinderbox to Document a Literature Review

As a designer, I developed a design process that I trusted in times when I was thrown a gnarly problem and wasn’t sure how to solve it. Trusting in my process gave me something to do toward a solution. It was working the process, never some brilliant stroke of insight, that got me through to a place of originality and creativity.

As a scholar, I must develop an academic process that I can trust for the gnarly problems I’m thrown (or more likely, that I create for myself). To develop this process, I have sought to understand how others discover articles, read them, take notes about them, reference those notes, and write something original and creative as a result.

I have realized lately that a process is emerging. I am trusting it and it seems to be working. In reciprocity for all those who have shared their processes for me to discover, I have decided to share a bit of my own. Warning: this is very rough. I sat down and recorded four parts over the course of an afternoon. There’s no editing, no retakes, just me talking through what I’m doing right now. It’s highly boring and at the same time, I’ve sat and watched many similar videos as I was trying to find my own path and found them invaluable.

The tools I mention in these videos are:

Nearly 45 minutes of walkthrough follows in the following four Youtube videos… enjoy?

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Reading is Useless: A 10-Week Experiment in Contemplative Reading

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This morning, I published a reflection on a 10-week "contemplative reading" experiment I conducted last quarter. By contemplative reading, I mean I paid attention to the experience of reading itself alongside paying attention to the text I was reading. It was a transformative experience for me and I hope that I'll continue to prioritize this way of reading as my coursework continues. Here it is:

Reading is Useless: A 10-Week Experiment in Contemplative Reading

I hope you are enriched by this reflection. Please let me know what thoughts or experiments it inspires in you.

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Reading Strategy: Annotations

 
 
 

The above image is a page from Thomas Merton's book, Love and LivingI would like to use it as a reference to demonstrate how I'm annotating my academic reading these days. 

 
 

 
 
 
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Strategy 1: Underlining passages that resonate. 

I'm a heavy underliner. I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it as if I weren't smart enough to only highlight the most important things. Or, that I wasn't skilled enough to remember everything. But now, I look at underlining as a way to relate to the text. Almost the same as if I were to nod my head in understanding while talking to someone. 

 
 
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Strategy 2: Highlighting confusing parts.

As I mentioned last week, I've started a shameless habit of marking anything I don't understand while I'm reading. It could be that I get the gist of it, but wouldn't really be able to explain it. Or that I have no idea at all and need to look it up, which was the case here. I see these highlights as evidence of paying good attention and being curious. 

 
 
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Strategy 3: Marking when I'm distracted.

A habit I picked up with the Pomodoro Technique is to mark when I felt an internal pull of distraction. I mark this with a dash (-). You can also mark when you experience an external pull of distraction (like a phone ringing or a person stopping by). I mark that with a hash (#). In this reading, I got distracted internally at exactly that point in the text. 

 
 
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Strategy 4: Marking when the bell rings.

As I mentioned last week, I've been working on a practice of contemplative reading and part of that is playing a bell of mindfulness every three minutes using an app on my phone. I mark each time the bell goes off with a small circle. This helps me be present to the bell and it also helps me see patterns in the pace of my reading.

 
 
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Strategy 5: Annotating my thoughts.

I used to write in the margins, but since there's hardly ever enough room I've begun to make notes in a different place and note them in the readings with a circled letter of the alphabet. Sometimes I type my annotations and sometimes I write them in my Bullet Journal. For this reading, I wrote in my journal. The annotation simply says, "R. Don't follow ballgame." I wrote this because I feel I get the first two points (there is no me or there is nothing), but I'm not sure what it means that "me seeing me" means I'm not in the ballgame. Is it that "I" don't participate in life because the true self is the one observing the self in the ballgame? Yeah, not sure. But the annotation will come in handy when I talk this over with my advisor.

 
 
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Strategy 6: Marking key points.

I mark key points with an asterisk, which is probably the most helpful strategy of all those listed. It's helpful when I write the reading note and it's helpful when I'm in conversation with others and my mind is scrambling to remember what I found particularly important about a text. It's very easy to spot while skimming several pages and a good reading strategy in general to be looking for key points while you go.

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Reading Strategy: A List for Auntie Mame

After I read an article or book chapter related to my studies, I try to write a reading note immediately after. It has the following structure:

  • Summary

  • Commentary

  • Quotables (with page numbers)

  • Questions

Reading notes help me reflect on the reading as a whole, crystallize my thoughts a bit, and give me something to refer to in the future. This quarter, I've also been experimenting with contemplative reading. What I mean by that is being determined as I go, but I'm aiming to achieve the following:

  • Give myself 2-3 times the amount of time I'd normally give myself to read something

  • Be present to the sensory/emotional/social/intellectual experience while reading

  • Read with compassion for myself, the author, the world

So far, this experiment has been a lot of fun. I've used a meditation app to play a bell of mindfulness every three minutes while I'm reading, which invites me to be present to my posture and to notice if I've gotten lost in thought or the content. It's made my "non-contemplative" reading feel a bit more spacious and it's inspired an additional two categories in my reading notes.

The first category is called process and it's simply a description of how life unfolded while I was reading. Where I was, how long it took, any interruptions or memorable events, etc. 

The second category is called Patrick's List and it is a list of everything I didn't understand while reading. Instead of feeling bad about not understanding a concept or argument, I open to what I truly do not know. I highlight words and phrases in gray (as opposed to yellow, which indicate passages that resonate) and at the end of the reading note, I go through all the gray highlights and make a list. The practice reminds me of the following scene from one of my favorite movies, Auntie Mame. 

For example, here is the list I made while reading Donald Wiebe's The Failure of Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion this morning:

  1. What is meant by “God-talk” and how it is different from ‘god-talk’ and talk about God (gods).

  2. What exactly “Ultimate, Transmundane Reality” is. And what “Supermundane” is.

  3. What “exclusivist theologies" are.

  4. What “Christian atheism” is

  5. The sentence “‘ontic reality (existence) of the “Focus” of religion." on p. 403

  6. The distinctions between historical, systematic, theoretical, foundational, and Confessional theologies.

  7. The word “countenance” when used as a verb.

  8. What the “theological agenda” is universally assumed to be.

  9. The meaning of the words philological, sui genesis, epoche, inter alia, students qua students.

  10. What happened at the World Parliament of Religions in 1890s.

  11. What “the truth question” refers to, exactly.

  12. What “theological suspicion” is.

  13. What the “descriptivist doctrine” is.

  14. What ecclesiastical means, especially in reference to control or domination.

There is no shame in Patrick's list, only evidence of paying good attention and being curious. It is in this spirit that I write my lists. As I type each entry I sound out the long words and say them in my head as Patrick would, with a spirit of inquisitiveness and innocence. It keeps me honest with myself and gives me so many starting places to explore the literature, should I want to. Besides, as Auntie Mame says, I shouldn't need these words for months and months. 

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Get Freer with Freewriting

This quarter I've been exploring freewriting*. I've discovered Peter Elbow and Marion Milner and Pat Belanoff. I've introduced a freewriting activity into the undergraduate design thinking course I TA-ed for, I began a research project with Morning Pages writers, and I'm noodling on an idea for a collaborative freewriting tool that would help groups through stuck or stymied moments in their creative process. I've also played with my own freewriting, experimenting with new methods and tools.

FOR EXAMPLE, I'VE BEGUN TO FREEWRITE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY COMPOSITIONS BY PUTTING ON THE CAPS LOCK AND WRITING WHATEVER'S ON MY MIND FOR A LITTLE WHILE BEFORE GOING BACK TO 'REGULAR' WRITING MODE.

This morning, while reading Belanoff's Nothing Begins With N**, I stumbled on her list (p. 27-29) of ways to make your writing more "free," which in turn may make it more original, clarifying, cathartic, and (ironically) structured. Here are a few of her exercises (paraphrased by me) that I thought were especially easy to try:

  1. Write for longer and longer periods of time and more quickly. For example, set a timer, write, and then the next time you freewrite, set the timer for the same amount of time, but write more than you did the time before. Or set a word count and time how long it takes you and try to beat it the next time. As you go along with this practice, increase the timer or word count from time to time (ha!).

  2. Get everything out of your head and onto paper (or the screen) in 3 minutes. List making is fine for this activity.

  3. Freewrite about the process of freewriting instead of freewriting about whatever you're working on or through.

  4. Freewrite only questions. Ask every question you can think of.

  5. Freewrite for five minutes, then put that writing aside and rewrite what you just freewrote. Wait five minutes. Try to rewrite your freewriting once or twice more. Afterwards, look at the writings and compare them. Did your ideas evolve? What was consistent? What was lost?

More to come from me on freewriting and especially that Morning Pages study. Still figuring out what and how to blog my academic journey and this morning's reading struck me as simple and straightforward to share. If you have thoughts about freewriting, please tweet or email them to me.


* Here's a typical prompt for freewriting from Elbow: The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write "I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say" as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.

** I love the story of how this book was titled: A student who was being encouraged to freewrite said "I have nothing to say," to which the instructor replied, "Nothing begins with an N."

A Guide to the Personal Retreat

Recently, I led a staff retreat day for Literary Arts, a wonderful organization in Portland, OR. In preparation for the day, I created handouts for each of the activities I'd planned to do.

I snapped a photo during the Morning Pages workshop and posted it to Instagram. On a phone call later, my friend and colleague Sarah Lutman said she wished she could've been there. I mentioned that I had handouts from the day that I could send her and she was eager to receive them as she was already planning a personal retreat day and might use some of them as inspiration. In that moment the idea of converting those handouts into something any individual might use for his or her personal retreat was born.

I've since edited the handouts so that they apply to individuals and also added some instruction around planning for and filling a day of personal reflection. It is with gratitude to Literary Arts, Sarah Lutman, and each of the idea creators represented within (most especially the ones I know personally: Anton ZuikerDave Gray, and Nick Sousanis) that I present to you the first version of A Guide to the Personal Retreat. I hope and intend to update it with added suggestions and activities in the years to come.


A Guide to the Personal Retreat

This 12-page PDF guide contains advice and instruction for creating your own personal retreat. It will help you plan and structure a seven-hour day and fill it with reflective activities that I've vetted through my own personal retreat experiences.

Here's a list of the activities included in the guide, each linked directly to their original creators:


As requested in the guide, please send your questions or any stories (and images!) about your retreat to beck@becktench.com

How I Use TextExpander to Avoid Using the Words Should and Just

Don’t should on me, I won’t should on you, and most of all never should on yourself.
— Frances Ulman, PhD

I began using TextExpander, née Textpander, in 2006 because it helped me save time and reduce typos in my code. The software logs your keystrokes and when you type a certain combo of them — e.g. ddate — it automatically replaces it with something more meaningful, like the actual date — e.g. December 17, 2015.  You can set these replacements up to be simple, BEck automatically changing to Beck, or more complex, substituting dynamic info or even pasting the contents of your clipboard. 

I’ve used it all sorts of ways, but I’m writing this post to share with you the way I’ve found most beneficial: I use TextExpander as a method for questioning my use of words I’d rather avoid. Specifically, the words should and just.

I create snippet for the word I want to avoid — e.g. should — and I tell TextExpander to replace it with that word followed by a question mark — e.g. should?.

It’s easy enough to delete the ? if I want to use should, but it requires me to consider it first. After a while, I added a snippet for the word SHOULD in all caps, replacing it with should in lowercase for times when I’m sure I want to type it and don’t want to be bothered. The small step of holding down the shift key still requires me to be intentional about its use.

I added the word just recently, after a couple tweets I made in a moment of frustration with my use of the word seemed to have some resonance with my friends and followers.

This blog post isn't an endorsement of TextExpander, though I obviously like it and find it useful, but rather it is an exploration of ways we can use technology to help us become who we want to be. 

How to Write Morning Pages

On October 20th, 2010 I started a practice of writing Morning Pages. It’s since become a space I use to reflect and find clarity, but taking an hour to write each morning hasn’t happened easily. It's required priority, boundary setting, and forgiveness. Here’s how I make it happen:

I Use Ritual

In her book, The Creative Habit (library), choreographer Twyla Tharp writes about how humans use ritual to understand things that are hard to understand — things like death, and God, and creativity. She recommends establishing a ritual to habitually put yourself in a creative space. 

Here’s Twyla’s morning ritual: 

She wakes at 5:30am, puts on gym clothes, hails a cab and goes to the gym. Notice that no part of Twyla’s ritual involves choreography. She has set up a series of minimally effortful actions that propel her into a groove as opposed to a rut. Twyla says her ritual is complete when she hails the cab. Hailing the cab is the point of no return for her creative process. If she gets that far, she’ll end up in the dance studio later in the day. 

My morning ritual looks like this:

I take two gummy vitamins, make an embarrassingly elaborate cup of coffee, and then number three pages: 1, 2, 3. My ritual is complete when I number the pages.  If I make it that far, I’ll propel myself into a groove and write. If I don’t, I’ll take my fancy cup of coffee and check Facebook.

I Use Envelopes

In The Artist's Way (library), Julia Cameron writes that you can throw your Morning Pages away after you're done, but I’ve never been able to do that. She says that the point of the activity is to exhaust the logic brain and parlay that state of mind into your next creative act. Morning Pages do that for me, but their content is too valuable to me to toss.

Still, it is easier to write honestly when your writing can’t be revisited.  To achieve this without throwing them away, I seal completed pages in an envelope.  There’s power in that thin strip of glue — it’s enough to keep me honest while writing and also prevents me or anyone else from revisiting. 

Anything Goes, Within Bounds

There isn’t a right way to write Morning Pages. Some days I draw symbols in between words, or do long division when I'm trying to figure something out, or repeat words or sentences when I can't think of anything else to write.

There is one wrong way to write them, though, and that’s to go beyond three pages. On days when three pages aren’t enough, I still stop when I’ve reached the back of page three. This keeps the scope of my practice nicely contained, which is especially important on days when the words don’t come easily.

I Write Them By Hand

I write with pen and paper and recommend everyone do the same. Handwriting matters (NYT) and it also slows us down, which is good because part of the benefit of writing pages is thinking about things at a contemplative pace.

Because handwriting is harder for those of us who type all day, I also use good tools like fancy stationary and an agreeable fountain pen. This adds a dignity and importance to the practice that influences how much I value it.

I Keep Trying

A month ago, I went through my collection of Morning Pages envelopes and counted them. I wrote 505 mornings out of the 1,561 since I started. That’s one out of every three, or a failure rate of 68%. Considering how often I fail to meet my goal, it would be understandable if I just gave up, but I haven't and I've written reams — over half a million words — as a result.

Failure and success aren't mutually exclusive. Don't let a single or double or triple failure stop you from the bigger goal. Practice is called practice for a reason.

Give It A Chance

Whether it's for personal or professional reasons, or both, Morning Pages are a great way to introduce reflection and self-awareness into your life. Imagining who I'd be without them is like imagining who I'd be without years of good therapy. Start a ritual, forgive yourself when you fail to meet it, and see where it takes you.