September 15, 2020

What's your process for improving?

Corey Stewart @MostLearned

Almost by definition, Indie Hackers are thrusting themselves into new markets, technologies, and situations on a daily basis. Most people just take for granted that they are learning and improving.

For those with a structured approach, I'm curious...what do you do to speed up the process for your self-improvement?

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    Improvement is all about "closing the loop" in a control theory sense. That is: attempting to do something, getting feedback about what happened instead, and reconsidering your actions to look for improvement.

    I try to do this a few ways: getting the right frequency of feedback (this is usually more frequent than you would guess) and getting higher-quality feedback.

    For example, I haven't written Javascript in 5 years. I'm relearning how to write it using a modern stack. I'm increasing the frequency of feedback: I'm splitting my work into small changes and doing the full stack of changes (writing components, wiring them to the backend, adding tests) so that I get a lot of practice making complete changes. In the beginning, I also asked Twitter friends for basics of approach and got some suggestions and corrections. I've been programming for 20 years, so I have a sense of when I'm fighting the system. I've also been comparing my changes to more established open source projects, which has given me more rapid feedback on how to restructure things.

    So I've been breaking it down into steps:

    • Trying to do a small change end-to-end
    • Getting feedback about what I should have done
    • Introducing this into my new plan for how to operate
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      Reminds me of a quote...

      "I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better." - Elon Musk

      Excellent synopsis of your process. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      BTW, I checked out your Twitter profile and see you carry that discipline into other pursuits as well (screen time feedback vs books read and the more qualitative interpersonal skills). Good for you!

      As a previous Organizational Development and Learning & Development professional I applaud your approach to improvement. I'm sure you're a model employee for this discipline at Etsy. 👍

      Tell me...what generic tools do you use (digital or otherwise), if any, to keep a pulse on your feedback loop? Ex. Learning Journal, habit tracker, etc.
      Is it a personal tool or does Etsy provide something to this effect?

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        Intrapersonal: Etsy has review cycles where we get 360 degree feedback at regular intervals.

        Feedback on code/designs/approaches/etc: I know a bunch of engineers across the stack, so I can get gut checks and suggestions before I get too far into projects.

        Feedback on more tactical/technical things: I look for things that I do a lot and make notes to improve them. For example, I'll organize my workflow into scripts to make it repeatable. I use Google Tasks to keep a small TODO list of what I intend to do over a week, and delete things off the bottom that have languished too long. If they mattered, I'd re-add them. For more common things (using an IDE), I'll look up efficiency tips and look for keyboard shortcuts or plugins for things I do often.

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          Awesome. Thanks again for the responses. Great insight!

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    For me, the biggest efficiency hack is "just-in-time" learning, or learning what I need for the immediate task at hand. I also spend time learning for things I anticipate are just around the corner.

    In the past, I wasted time learning things that might be useful. Even if I was right, by the time I ran into the thing, I had forgotten my learnings and had to re-learn the thing again.

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      Great insign, Steven.

      How often do we get sucked into the internet vortex of reading articles that are genuinely interesting to use, probably useful in some area of our life, but we don't have the opportunities to actually use the information with some sort of repetition to make it "stick?"

      I think the majority of us know the difference between being busy and being productive. However, more often than we realize we fool ourselves into thinking we're learning when it's really just an exercise in entertainment for that precise reason...we're not going to use the valuable information.

      The solution? Just in time learning combined with trials, feedback loops, and constant iterative improvements mentioned earlier by Jake.

      How is your project coming along, Steven? Does it solve any of these problems / assist with solutions?

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        Hi Corey, I'm still working on building the app. It's by far the most complex app I've ever built, so I've really had to level-up my coding skills and it's been a real challenge. Hope to have a beta in the next month or two.

        The app is going to be mostly focused on task and time management, initially. The primary goal is to boost productivity "output," and I consider learning as more of a productivity "input." But I hope to include note-taking in the future which could be useful for learning. I've thought about including a spaced repetition feature to the notes, but I haven't decided yet. As far as note-taking goes, I'm more interesting in organizing information right now that memorizing it.

        I see you're working on a spaced repetition chrome extension yourself, I'd love to try it out when it's ready. I read your updates and I can definitely agree that I have the problem of having read many books/articles and not being able to recollect well.

        Here's my perspective on spaced-repetition – obviously it works. But it can also be a waste of time if you're memorizing things that you don't use or need. Of course, what you will use/need is sometimes hard to predict.

        Right now, my learning has a clear purpose – to help me launch then grow my business. Any other learning gets put on the backburner. And when it comes to coding, I basically do "natural" spaced repetition. For example, I have a coding problem that I don't know how to solve. I google the solution and implement it, but I don't try to memorize it because there's a good chance I won't need it again for a long time, if ever. A week later, if I need that solution again, I google it again. That's the spaced repetition. And there's a trade-off... is it more efficient to spend time upfront to memorize the solution? Or should I spend time later re-googling the solution if I need it again? Over time I've come to prefer the latter approach. If I need something more than once, the spaced repetition will happen naturally.

        You can see that my perspective is biased toward making/producing. But other people may have different goals. If you're trying to be creative or innovative, you may be better off internalizing lots of information because then your brain can make more connections and have more insights.

        Anyway, we could probably have a very interesting and lengthy discussion on the topic, but I have to get back to work.

        Good luck on your project and I hope to see it soon!

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          I'd love to see your app as well. Despite the multitude of note-taking apps available there seems to always be room for differentiators...I just read yesterday ROAM research raised a serious round of cash.

          Interesting take on the "inputs" vs "outputs". I'm going to give that some thought. I was listening to an Indie Hackers podcast yesterday and Courtland was talking to someone about positioning a product in the marketplace to influence perceived competitors and ultimately price. I think there's something there to leverage for my own project.

          Funny enough, my journey with this app has led me to agree with you: a priority should be given to information that is useful sooner than later. However, I found a weird "grey zone"I hadn't considered previously...

          When I first began making the app, it was intended to be for the mass accumulation of facts. Every solution I came across (Ankii, Quizlet, Memrise, etc.) was overly complicated for my desires. I wanted a process I could I could get in and out of in less than 60 seconds. I solved the problem.

          However, that solution meant it was easy to put too much information into the app. My daily reviews were burdensome from the standpoint of spending too much time in the app. And, as you mentioned, I was trying to remember a lot of information that I didn't "need" in the moment. It was wasted effort from a practical standpoint.

          That changed one day when I started doing daily post mortems. Instead of looking to external sources of information for improvement, I analyzed my own information (the experiences I had that day). I looked for broad generalizations, mental models, and trends that were relevant to me that day and would be in the immediate future. The lessons were actionable because they were related to things I was physically doing in the real world.

          Here are some actual entries I have:

          • "Do a better job of adding to the gift list for Caitlin."

          I realized right before my girlfriend's birthday I was struggling once again to think of something to buy for her. I immediately put this note into my app and thanks to spaced repetition the thought is loaded up into my subconscious during my morning review. My subconscious now "looks for" opportunities to add to the gift list. In less than a month I've got two items in queue for Christmas and am just generally more thoughtful and attune to her wants/needs.

          • "I noticed that when confronted with a piece of information today that was in conflict with my previous notion, I instinctively believe the first bit of knowledge and regard the second as incorrect. This is despite the fact that both statements are unverified and I have no reason to believe one "fact" over the other. Catch yourself when this happens."

          It was a trivial piece of information, but I realized I was weighing one "fact" more heavily simply because of the order in which I obtained the two conflicting "facts." I wanted to highlight other areas of my life this was occuring. Turns out, it happens a lot in casual debates with friends.

          • "Compound interest is dogged incremental constant progress over a very linage time frame. When you break the cycle and interfere with the progress of compound interest you lose momentum or, worse, trend back to the norm. You have to be constant." (Peter Kaufman)

          I actually cycle this one through the app with a higher frequency and treat is more as a mantra. Its helps me maintain a 10,000 ft view of my life/goals, keeps the "highs" and "lows" of daily life into perspective, and motivates me to put in work every day.

          So, as you can see, I found this "grey zone" of relevance that I hadn't considered before. The information isn't "fact cramming," it is "useful," and I am able to benefit from the spaced repetition approach.

          Eager to share it with you when it's available (it's actually a PWA as opposed to Chrome Extension now).

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            Thanks for sharing. I feel like everyone has a unique perspective on both learning and productivity, which is always interesting to see. KIT and good luck!

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    Via getting a mentor (especially when getting started). I was lucky to get a mentor in fitness, dancing, software development, and wish I had in business (although I already figured things on my own after being in business since 2006).

    Basically, getting external feedback on what you're doing. Am I looking good when I'm dating? Am I doing the fitness exercises in a right way? Am I spending time on stupid things in business? etc. etc.

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      Wonderful! I helped start and run a mentor program at my last company. Love to hear people making use of the concept.

      How did you structure your relationship? Ex...Did you meet regularly? Have specific agenda items? Document lessons learned?

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