Solving writing problems by physically pushing through and letting yourself go

I don’t know if this is just me, but I find that certain writing problems (such as difficult conceptual problems that produce a writer’s block because they prevent you from progressing and altogether are putting you off the writing process) can only be solved by physically pushing through, by which I mean pushing your body (and mind) substantially beyond its comfortable limits.

I am something of a health fanatic. I’m careful about what I eat, I monitor my weight, and I exercise daily. But I find that when it’s crunch time, and I need to deliver the goods (which means coming up with a new contribution to knowledge as an academic, i.e. as a professional writer), the solving of some problems (and the meeting of my deadlines while producing a piece of work that is of sufficient quality to be accepted as an internationally competitive piece of research, as defined and required by my particular academic community), necessitates the abandoning of my healthy habits.

I end up having to work longer hours, exercise less, eat food that I otherwise wouldn’t touch, and put my body and mind under substantial strain (by sitting behind a desk far too long, staying up far too late, drinking far too much caffeine, eating far too many carbs), until I finally have an epiphany about how to solve the conceptual or practical problem, after which writing suddenly becomes a lot easier.

I feel this is a process of “letting go” of some things and liberating my mind to be open to some other things. It feels like achieving a moment of selflessness. Unfortunately this “letting go” is not just of the wholesome spiritual kind but also a “letting myself go” that quite quickly translates into additional inches to my waistline.

Maybe I just have to accept that the production of word count correlates with the production of body fat, and my goal should be to achieve a reasonably healthy balance between periods of productivity and periods of fitness across the year, so the latter can support the former, and that the former do not entirely overwhelm the latter.

What is particularly ironic about this situation is that the “physical” aspects of pushing through, and the resulting physical pain and after-effects in terms of weight gain, are due to the extreme reduction of physical activity (resulting from being stuck in the same position behind my desk for prolonged periods of time).

Do some outlining. Then outline some more…

I once more had to realise that when the writing is not going well, it might be because I haven’t figured out what I wanted to say, meaning that I probably need to do more outlining. So here is my freshly rediscovered rule of thumb: “when you’re stuck, when you got the writer’s block, just do some outlining. And then outline some more. And then some more.” And then you will know what to write about and how to organise your thoughts. In fact outlining is not only about developing the content but also deciding the order in which the content is going to be presented, i.e. the flow of logic, the order of presentation, and the structure of the content. All the more reasons to do some outlining, and then outline some more.

Using Natara Bonsai with WorkFlowy

Natara Bonsai has long been my favourite outliner, but in the last couple of years it has been gradually displaced in my daily use by WorkFlowy, mainly because WorkFlowy syncs automatically and seamlessly across all my devices using different platforms, which is very useful for capturing notes and todos and having them always available.

Nevertheless, there are situations where Natara Bonsai is still my go-to choice. For example, when I need to organise, analyse, sort and resort large lists, or when I need to hierarchically structure some complex information, where it helps that different hierarchical levels can be displayed in different colour, to guide the eye.

Fortunately it is very easy to get information from Natara Bonsai back into WorkFlowy. All you need to do is install the OPML export template from the CarbonFin website (instructions available there), then export the Bonsai outline as a .opml file, open the .opml file using your favourite text editor (for this task I like to use Notepad++), and simply copy and paste the contents of the .opml file directly into a WorkFlowy bullet point. WorkFlowy will not only preserve the outline hierarchy but it will also display any Bonsai outline item notes as inline WorkFlowy notes.

Here is a Bonsai outline (the final bullet point has a note, displayed in the pane on the right):

Natara_Bonsai_12_03_2016

And here it is after having been pasted into WorkFlowy (note the inline note under the last bullet point):

WorkFlowy_screenshot.png

Addendum:

Frank Degenaar points out in the comments section that it is possible to add colour to a WorkFlowy outline as well, using the “Painter for WorkFlowy” Chrome add-on and some stylesheets using the “Stylish” add-on. That is definitely true and I do make use of those tools in my WorkFlowy all the time. It would only take me a minute or two to reconstruct the colour scheme of the above Bonsai outline in WorkFlowy, and the two would look fairly similar (especially if I change the dark WorkFlowy theme to a light one).

However, the colouring-in capability of Natara Bonsai works quite differently from that of WorkFlowy and serves a different purpose. You can set up Bonsai so that it automatically colours in your outline items according to the outline level position they occupy. This means that if you promote or demote an outline item, its colour will change accordingly and automatically.

While it is possible to retrospectively colour in a WorkFlowy outline by adding a colour tag to each item individually and manually (which would be time-consuming in the case of very large and multi-level outlines), these colours will not change when you demote or promote these items, as their colour tags will travel with them.

The  key point here is that when using Bonsai, the colour scheme has already been set up as default (using the procedure I described earlier), so I don’t have to pay any attention to the colouring-in, it just works automatically as I type away and keep promoting and demoting items. In contrast, with WorkFlowy the colouring-in needs to be done manually, individually for each item, and retrospectively, after the item has been added, and it does not change, if I move the outline items, thus breaking the logic of the “colour by hierarchy level” scheme.

This difference becomes significant when you want to work on large and complex lists and you want to pay attention to the text, rather than be disrupted by the mechanics of colouring-in. Bonsai just allows you to work faster, without having to make decisions about and fiddle with every single item, as you would have to in WorkFlowy.

By the way, as I have already explained in that earlier post, it is possible to use other criteria for the automatic colouring in Bonsai, such as category, priority or due date.

Using ConnectedText for project and task management

Here is a copy of a post I just made on the OutlinerSoftware forum, in response to a forum member’s problem about how to deal with a large volume of tasks prompted by emails with attachments:

… since I’m a CT enthusiast, let me describe how CT could be used to deal with the above type of problem (partly also for my own amusement at the end of a long week, but also if anyone else might be interested in this).

This might not satisfy your “quick entry” requirement, as there is a bit of setting up involved, but after a while a lot of it can be automated by using keyboard shortcuts and templates (and even more so with AutoHotkey scripts).

There would be many different ways to do it, but here is the simplest scenario (using either the desktop or USB portable version), and the benefits:

1. create a new CT database (“project”) for managing your work projects.

2. when you get an email with attachments that you need to do something about,

2a) create a new “date and time topic” (a new document with temporal features) in CT and give it a descriptive title (can have up to 256 characters),

2b) select all relevant text in the email,

2c) drag and drop it into the CT topic,

2d) if the attachments are important, save them on the hard drive in a folder, and then drag and drop the files into CT from your file explorer, which would create links to the files (clicking on which would launch them in their respective applications, such as Word, PDF reader etc.).

Benefits so far:

Moving the email and the attachments over into CT will identify them as important (a todo), and they won’t disappear as more emails arrive in the Outlook inbox.

Keeping such tasks in “time and date topics” will automatically order them chronologically, and can be also sorted in reverse chronological order, and viewed as a list in the Topic List pane. They can also be navigated through a Calendar interface.

Links to topics created on the same day will be displayed at the bottom of each “date topic”, as “tasks”.

Having the contents of the email and the links to attachments in the same topic will serve as a mini dashboard for that task. More content and files can be added to it, and it can be linked (using wiki links) to other tasks in the CT database.

It can also be split into smaller, linked topics, as a task grows (which can be visualised as a mind map or outline in the graphical Navigator pane).

It is also possible to open and view multiple topics as floating (repositionable) windows, which helps when you need to refer to other tasks in other topics.

3) In order to identify this task as part of one of your larger projects, add a “Category” label to the topic, denoting the project. This will help filter tasks belonging to the same project, e.g. by ticking that category in the Category pane. Alternatively, a separate CT “project” (database) could be created for each real world project, if we are talking about huge projects. But normally it’s better to work from one database initially.

4) Add a red warning type icon to the topic in the Topic List pane to signify it requires attention. Topics can be filtered according to their icons in the Topic List.

Now, let’s say that you’d want to reorder these tasks according to their priority/urgency, which currently are listed in chronological (or reverse) order. For this, you can create an “outline” file in the Outline Pane (or multiple outline files, one per each project, i.e. category). Then,

5) Drag and drop selected tasks (i.e. “time and date topics”) from the Topic List pane into the Outline pane. This will create new outline items with links to the topics.

The benefits are that you can now quickly reorder the various tasks in a hierarchical tree, and it only takes a click to launch any of the linked topics. The Outline Pane has other useful features such as checkboxes (that cross out the done tasks), icons, hoisting etc.

When a task is done, then you can also change the topic icon from a red warning sign to a green tick. The benefit of using CT and date and time topics is that a permanent record of the task and all its contents and linked files will remain in the database and will be easy to find in the future (through search, or the dates, or other parameters).

This would already work as a basic task management system. The above assumes that you have the Topic List, Category, and Outline panes docked in the CT desktop, so it’s easy to see everything and drag and drop stuff from one to the other.

But CT also has a host of other features that make it possible to make the task management system more sophisticated.

This is a long enough post, so I don’t want to go into the details, but there are commands that one can add to templates that can be automatically inserted when a new topic is being created, and they enable you to add “attributes” or “properties” to each topic easily, e.g. to display a pulldown list to choose whether the task’s importance is “very important, important, medium, low, or none,” or a checkbox that, when ticked, adds the “Done” property.

Other options could include adding start and due dates to a topic (task).

The key benefit of using such attributes/properties is that now you can create a summary page (e.g. the Home page of the wiki database or “project”, that is easy to click on or call up with a hotkey), which will automatically populate and update a table of todos with the dates ordered according to a selected parameter (such as start or due dates or importance), another table for actions that are done but you’re waiting for others (this requires adding a “waiting” property, and the name of the person responsible), and another table with the Completed tasks, just for the record.

Here is a link to a CT forum discussion with some templates and more details on this approach:

http://connectedtext.com/forum/index.php/topic,3139.msg15299.html#msg15299

Notable PDF is getting there

I’m not sure if I mentioned it here before, but last year I got myself a Chromebook (a 1st gen. HP Chromebook 14), to replace my aging and increasingly decrepit (or should I say decrapit) iPad 1 as my main portable note-taking and web-surfing machine. I quickly became a Chromebook convert, especially after I discovered how easy and convenient it is to use Chrome Remote Desktop to access my Windows 7 PC, thus always having my office with me.

The only area where my Chromebook and Chrome OS were lacking and where my iPad 1 (with the GoodReader app, for instance) was still superior was PDF annotation. It was certainly possible to read a PDF on a Chromebook but there was no satisfactory solution to annotate a book-sized PDF, both online and offline, and then be able to export the annotated PDF file or the annotations themselves. Not until Notable PDF appeared on the scene that is. I have been using Notable since its beta days on and off, but until recently I kept running into problems that made me return to annotating on the PC or on my old iPad.

However, in recent weeks I checked back again and I was very pleasantly surprised that Notable have ironed out some of the obstacles that kept me from adopting it permanently. Finally I was able to download my annotated PDF file and open it in PDF XChange Editor on the PC, and I saw all my highlights and annotations in place. It is still not perfect, as the highlights in XChange Editor show up as some kind of colour overlay rather than XChange’s own native highlights, but hey, I can live with that. What is more important is that I am now able to read and manipulate my Notable annotations in XChange Editor.

Moreover, Notable has some tricks up its sleave that give it a distinct advantage over some other PDF annotating options. Notable PDF is a Chrome browser extension, which makes it cross-platform on desktops, as long as you have Chrome installed on your other machines.* It appears to save the annotations in the cloud, which means that it doesn’t matter where you keep your file, and how many copies of your file you have, it will sync the annotations to that file (and its copies) across all the browsers. You can even have two different copies of the same PDF file open in different machines in Chrome, and the annotations will sync live and automatically, in front of your eyes. This feature of course would be very useful for collaborations, as you can see instantly what others are commenting on that file.

To me, this feature means more flexibility. For example, the copy of  the PDF file I’m reading is saved on the hard drive of the Chromebook. When I’m offline, the annotations are saved offline, and then synced when I’m back online. However, I also have a copy of the same file on my Google Drive account in the cloud, and if I’m on another machine, let’s say a PC at work and I do not have my Chromebook with me with the original file, I can just open the copy from Google Drive, and Notable recognises it as a copy of the annotated file and it populates it with the annotations saved on their server. I find this rather clever and very useful.

In any case, I just wanted to say that I’m happy now to include Notable PDF among my favourite apps and recommend it to others, especially Chromebook users. While it’s not entirely perfect for my needs (I wish the yellow highlights could be converted to native highlights in PDF XChange Editor, so they can be extracted from there), it is probably the best option for PDF reading and annotating on Chromebook today. Also, I have been following them for the past year, and development has been on-going, so I am hopeful that Notable will continue to be improving.

Update:

* Having just looked at their website more closely, it turns out now they also have a web app, so in fact you can use their service on any browser, not just Chrome.

Using Classic Calendar with ConnectedText

While ConnectedText does come with a built-in calendar that in conjunction with its “date topic” documents and outliners allows one to produce all kinds of sophisticated project plans and carry out date and time-related tasks (see some examples here and here), sometimes you may just want to use a very basic calendar to plan a project over a week or a month in relation to a piece of work that you happen to be using CT for.

This is where Classic Calendar [free] comes in very handy, as it is light, easy to use (it uses plain text), and it can be launched from within CT, so you can always remember to use it.

Classic CalendarTo create an individual instance of Classic Calendar, all you need to do is place a copy of the ClassicCalendar.exe file into your current project folder (for example, if you are writing a book, then you could put it into the folder that holds files associated with that manuscript in your directory, and within that folder it might be best to put it into its own folder called “Classic Calendar,” so its settings files can be preserved there), and then either drag and drop the .exe file from there into a CT outline (to create a shortcut) or place an Application Button into the body of a CT topic, so you can launch it from there by clicking on it.

ConnectedText with Classic CalendarYou can have as many Classic Calendars for different projects as you like, as long as you put them into separate folders.

Latest enhancements to my ConnectedText ‘ecosystem’

Actually I’ve used these tools for some months now, I just haven’t had a chance to mention them on this blog. I use the two in conjunction with each other, so it makes sense to mention them together.

The first tool is a software called TaskSpace. The need arose for this one with the introduction of the floating windows feature in ConnectedText v. 6., which allows you to open an unlimited number of CT ‘topics’ (documents). If you work with a multi-monitor setup (and even if you don’t), there comes a point where you might have several floating windows open, which you would need to move around individually (in my case from one monitor to another), which quickly becomes a hassle. Moreover, floating windows come into focus every time you have the main CT application in focus, meaning that the floating windows would obscure whatever other app window you might want to look at in the other monitor while looking at the main CT window.

TaskSpace solves both of these problems. Firstly, by using the handy CTRL+SHIFT+M combination, you can send individual CT floating windows to a single TaskSpace window, where you can further organise them into rows and columns, and then move them around the various monitors as a single window. It is also possible to create tabs within TaskSpace, so you can add as many CT floating windows to it as you like. Secondly, the paid-for version of TaskSpace also gives you the option to change the behaviour from “always on top” to “normal” etc., which I presume would disconnect the floating windows from the main CT app, making it possible to view them independently (and hide them from view at will). I say “presume” because I’ve never tried that feature. I use a comparable feature that comes with Direct Folders, where you just right-click on the close button of any window (except Chrome, with which it doesn’t work for some reason), and the window changes from “normal” to “always on top” and vice versa.

Here is a screenshot of a TaskSpace window with three CT floating windows docked:

TaskSpace_with_CTThe second tool is a piece of hardware called Boogie Board Sync, which I use almost exclusively with ConnectedText, by creating handwritten notes, syncing them via Bluetooth to my PC, converting them from PDF to .PNG files in PDF-Xchange Editor (which allows you to semi-automate the process by setting up the file names and desired image resolution), and dropping them into CT. Then I use TaskSpace to view these handwritten notes as CT floating windows in one monitor, while working away in CT in the other monitor. I use Boogie Board Sync mainly to capture ideas concerning my main writing project quickly (especially when my PC is not turned on), and then I tick them off in CT eventually, once the work recorded in the BB Sync file has been done.

BB_SyncIf you are a CT user and you are still looking for a Christmas present for yourself, I can highly recommend the BB Sync. But make sure to read the Amazon USA etc. reviews about it to understand its limitations. Many customers seem to have unrealistic expectations about it, and then they complain that BB Sync didn’t meet them. However, if you read carefully what BB Sync offers, and you’re happy with those limitations (such as the inability to recall notes on the device itself – saved or deleted notes need to be synced with the PC to be viewed), then BB Sync can become an invaluable tool for getting handwritten notes into a PC quickly, and into ConnectedText in particular. There are of course many other possible use case scenarios, such as e.g. using BB Sync to write handwritten diary entries and then using the date topics feature in ConnectedText to build a handwritten journal.

Alternative Natara Bonsai download site

My blog stats tell me that there is a steady stream of visitors looking for Natara Bonsai, ever since the main download site has disappeared a few months ago. It seems that there is still at least one site where Bonsai 5 Desktop Edition can be downloaded from (and there may very well be some others out there). I don’t know whether this site is legitimate, so download anything at your own risk, and make sure you scan the file for viruses. However, I know of at least one reader who has done so, and he sounded happy. Here is the link: http://64.226.29.51/Bonsai/Download.cfm. It seems to be some sort of a mirror of the original site, as it looks identical. If you do not have a license, you could try to contact the administrator of the Natara blog to find out if it is still possible to purchase one.

Natara Bonsai

Natara Bonsai is one of my old time favourites. While there are some other capable outliners out there, when I need to analyse textual data in long and complex lists, none are as easy and fast to use as Bonsai. The last version I have is v. 5.0.3 Build 3233. I run it on a Win 7, 64-bit machine, and it works perfectly.

Planning a PowerPoint presentation in Gingko

I have just discovered another great use for Gingko, the horizontal outliner: planning PowerPoint presentations. Why not just use PowerPoint itself? There are a number of reasons. While PowerPoint is very good for presenting the end result, it is not so good for developing the content itself. Sure, you could start adding the content straight into the slides; however, if you still need to develop the conceptual side of your argument, you will find that PowerPoint is not the best place to work it out in.

Firstly, space on each slide is limited. You could try moving some of the expanding new material into the notes area below the slide, but then soon you will start losing contact with the text, as it will disappear under the fold–not to mention that you can only view the comments for one slide at a time. This will inevitably prompt one to move content into a new slide, and the dangerous proliferation of slides begins.

However, presentation time usually is also limited, which means that it would make more sense to determine the maximum number of slides up front, and stick to it religiously. This is where Gingko comes in. Let’s take the example of a 30-minute presentation. If you apply a rule of thumb that one slide will take about 3 minutes to present and explain, then you should have no more than 10 slides.

As Gingko index cards look very much like slides, it is easy to set up 10 blank Gingko cards sequentially in a column. As you start developing the content and find that you have more material than you can present in a single slide, you can start moving the less relevant material to linked cards in an adjacent column to the right. Gingko allows you to add as many linked cards as you like, in as complex a hierarchy as you like, while preserving the integrity of the original 10 slides.

The reason this works well for conceptual development is because you can see all the material laid out in front of you (as opposed to the single slide view in PowerPoint), and it is easy to move text and cards around as you are abstracting, reducing, organising, and synthesising. No matter how messy and complex your working-out process is, at the end the original slides will contain the essence of your project, assuming that you have stuck to your guns and avoided the temptation to add more new slides.

Think of the top 10 slides as the tip of the iceberg that contains all the essential information that needs to be presented. Everything under the water level is still important as supporting material, but it does not need to be featured in the slides themselves, considering that there wouldn’t be time to discuss them in the presentation anyway. The end of the process is just a simple copy-and-paste job from Gingko to PowerPoint, although you could also use some of the other more sophisticated export options available (Markdown, HTML, .docx, impress.js, or json).