My Todo System

I used to overcomplicate my todo system.

My todos were scattered across workflowy, email, various plain text files, a weekly planner, my white boards,  and Dropbox. This doesn’t include the post it notes covering my desk, reminding me to check whichever planner, and notes to self on various topics. I would then write down my immediate todos (4 items) on a post it note to begin working, I would inevitably lose that post it and write another one with the same content.

My weekly planner is located on my tablet, and I would keep this open always. I’ve since begun using my tablet for project design and documentation*, and can no longer keep my todos continuously visible (which led to the aforementioned mess).

I find it is useful to have my todos to be immediately visible, this frees up my mental cache to focus on brainstorming by eliminating the need to actively keep in mind the mundaneties of everyday life. Thus, without structure to organize them spatially, post it notes grew colonies and conquered my desk.

Finally, I realized that considering self betterment an ongoing project is a productive perspective. It allows for more focus, and less guilt maintaining your physical and mental health when you could be working on a project.

With this mental freedom, I sat down and unified my todo system. I’ve finally settled upon a simple routine that works wonderfully for me.

The board is broken up into (annotated below)
0. Self improvement & documentation
1. Development of math & physics intuition
2. Low priority
3. Today (indexed 0,1,2,3 by order of planned completion — indexes adjusted throughout day)
4. Done

If I’m not at home, I email myself todos to add to the board.

*I maintain a writeup for each one of my active projects (linked to relevant files in dropbox) in One Note. These writeups include an “in progress” tab for detailed, longer term, project specific goals.

Todos requiring temporal synchrony with another party are listed on Google Calendar (i.e. calls to professors, doctor’s appointments)

How to: Learn a New Discipline

tl;dr In order to build your knowledge base, start with a question you want answered and work back from it.

Competence in many skills > the mastery of only 1 skill.

Competency in a skill leads you to recognize beautiful executions of the skill; this gives you the power to appreciate the beauty hidden in the world around you.

Example: If you study the art of trombone playing, you are more likely to appreciate the talent of a street musician that is playing high notes with rich timbre.

Wide-spread knowledge in both art and STEM reveals connections between seemingly unrelated concepts; connections that others do not see. These connections often lead to valuable and creative solutions. Overspecialization is dangerous.

Fostering your competency in many fields
$\rightarrow$ wide-spread aesthetic appreciation
$\rightarrow$ being a connoisseur of life.

Complement mere competency by studying a few select topics in enough depth to appreciate their deeper beauty and underlying simplicity.

How, you might ask, do you achieve competency in many disciplines?
Would you like to learn [physics||maths||…], but have no idea where to start?

0. Start with a question that you want answered and work back from it.

This is an effective way to enjoyably learn any field!

Once you have an interesting question to motivate you and esoteric terms to guide your reverse-engineering, you have the motivation and a plan to build your knowledge base.

1. Get excited.

After your burning curiosity pushes you past the give-a-damn point, you give a damn about the basics of the fields that hold the answer to your question.

Having this excitement transforms the drudgery of simply-worded beginner books into a treasure hunt for the missing puzzle pieces you need to understand your interesting question!

2. Explain what you’ve learned.

Explain concepts to yourself &| to those willing to listen

Understanding of a concept and the ability to explain the concept well go hand in hand. Explaining what you’ve learned will reveal the holes in your knowledge base that might otherwise go undetected! Fill these holes.

Thank you, Matthew Lynn, for leading our interesting discussion to cover this topic!

Too Many Ideas: Avoiding “Ooh Shiny” Syndrome

It is often the affliction of creative people that we have too many ideas, and think of time as our most precious resource.

The solution?

0. Mission-Based Motivation

Reframing your situation is the key to making work play. Convincing yourself that your current project is “shiny” can be done by finding the one answer to Why are you doing what you do? [Ryan Lelek].

This must be one answer: what’s yours?

{Some examples to get you started:
To make an impact? To learn? To innovate? To solve an unsolved puzzle?}

1. Write It Down

Leaving half-finished unconnected ideas in your mental cache detracts from your usable RAM. The fear that your new idea will be lost will pollute your focus on completing your current project.

I personally keep 4 notebooks:

  1. Main composition book for brainstorming.
  2. Personal journal in a plain text document.
  3. Pocket sized Field Notes book for ideas that occur at inconvenient times.
  4. Todos in workflowy.com
Free yourself from fear, and add to cached ideas when you have improvements. It is an amazing feeling to search through an old notebook and find that you’ve already worked out the answer to a current problem!

2. Set False Deadlines

We feel the need to autograph our work with excellence, which leads us to waste our time on insignificant details and feeling like our work is never fully completed (even if it is by other’s standards).

As Donald Knuth says, “The root of all evil is premature optimization.”

For drawing, I set a time limit of 2.5 hours. I set a time limit of May 3rd to submit my nonprovisional patent on my latest wheelchair modules.

These artificial deadlines allow you to feel like you’ve “finished” a project to the best of your ability, and move on to fully devote yourself to the next project.

Worry not, my friends. These 3 large changes may take time to become integrated into the busy lifestyle of an active creative.

However, that hard work is worth it! I’ve found that implementing these 3 changes allows me to satisfy my obsessive drive to finish what I’ve started whilst laying the groundwork for my future projects.

Hopefully, they will also help you!

Reframing the Gluten Scanner

A lesson that every scientist (or any person in a fast-paced creative field) learns: be glad when we find out that our research idea has already been done.The situation can be re-framed as follows:

  1. It’s awesome that there are others working just as hard as you to better the world.
  2. Reassurance that you’re not idiotic.
  3. You can now devote your precious time to developing your other projects.
I learned this lesson in 2011. After proving myself competent by assisting others in the robotics lab, I was encouraged to pursue an independent research project.
I excitedly came up with a list of ideas, then progressively descended into disappointment.
In the crowded lab, I said aloud, “It seems that every project I come up with has either already been proposed or wouldn’t be funded”.
To which the senior engineer in the lab (whom had not spoken to me before) responded, “Welcome to science!”.

One of the main projects that I’ve been working on is a gluten scanner.

The scanner allows those with food allergies to avoid accidentally poisoning themselves. This is done in one of two ways:

Raman Spectroscopy Method

  • Identify the minima and maxima on the absorption spectrum of a given protein (currently gluten) with a 1D array of IR / Vis lasers and an Avalanche photodiode Si(c).
  • Perform differential data analysis to determine if the food is contaminated.

This scanner would be able to analyse the food ~>1cm in depth without effecting the food, whereas (if desired) taking a small sample out of the food at an opportune sampling point allows for deeper results.

Originally planning on taking spectroscopic approach, I found that it was incredibly noisy (see below) to detect gluten in a vinegar solution [gluten is insoluble in water], let alone amongst protein rich food!

Thank you, Sunnyvale Biocurious, for training Paul on the spectrophotometer!

Realizing the specificity of the antigen-binding sites on antibodies, I came up with the following biomarker approach to significantly increase the accuracy of my device.

Biomarker Method

Gluten is a protein composite of gliadin and glutenin (stuck together with a starch). G12 and A1 are antibodies that bind to gliadin (a highly immunotoxic 33-mer peptide).

Although A1 has a higher sensitivity to gluten (0.33ppm) than G12 (0.5ppm), most Celiac patients have a 20ppm poisoning threshold (far below both thresholds). G12 is far less expensive, and thus the better option for regular consumer use if you aren’t willing to synthesize your own antibodies in bulk.

Anti-gliadin antibodies can be paired with a colorimetric assay to form a biomarker-based detector in the form of: a toothpick-sized detector to poke into food || the gluten-detecting equivalent of litmus strips.

G12       (Image credit: PDB)

In the past few days, I found that there are a set of devices, GlutenTox, which use my planned approach. Since this realization, I’ve also come across 6sensorlabs, and the TellSpec.

It seems to me that these solutions are not cost-effective enough to be sustainable for daily use. This is likely because antibodies are expensive unless you bulk synthesize them.