f(x) -> ~dac

Becoming Better

What harms us is persisting in self-deceit and ignorance.

Marcus Aurelius

This post is an attempt by me to describe a few techniques/practices I’m trying to use in the pursuit of becoming better. What I’m trying to improve is my knowledge, its application, my general behaviour, and consistency in all of these things.

The root of this endeavour can probably be traced back to Saem asking me which notebook system I use as we and a few other friends suffer from a minor notebook addiction (Paper-ya is dangerous). At the time I had never heard of bullet journalling nor any of the other systems and none especially met how I tended to approach note taking. After more recently discussing the concept of the non-zero day with Tyler, he sent me a link to a modern copy of Benjamin Franklin’s journal. Reading the Farmam Street post on common place books was the final missing piece for me.

I’m roughly 3 weeks in to this new process and am finding it quite useful. After ranting to several people about it, Omar suggested I document what I’m doing and here we are.


To be more specific, I’m defining a “better me” as one who:

  • creates more things (efficiently, valuing completeness)
  • wants to hear opposing view points and ideas in order to find the truth faster
  • has more knowledge
  • has more patience
  • is basically kinder and more supportive.

I think the last point is something many of us might define differently. I do not at all think that kindness means blanket acceptance of everything somebody else desires and neverending sympathy but rather showing everyone common decency, basic respect, and an interest in understanding where another person is coming from (their experiences, goals, limits).

The Books

In this pursuit of a better me, I use three different notebooks.

The Franklin Journal

As the reproduction I mentioned above sold out quickly and I already have more notebooks than I know what to do with, I’m using a small pocket notebook for this. The format is essentially the same as Franklin’s with some small modifications, one of which is that each week gets a page for “lessons learned last week”. This is just a space for me to detail any large overarching themes or things I discovered. The chart tracking my failures at the 13 virtues on a daily basis is the same as in the reproduction.

As in Franklin’s original, each day gets two dedicated pages:

  1. The Plan, a list of non-work goals I have for the day. This is another difference in that I don’t use a set schedule as Franklin did. Between the tools for my job and Google Calendar I have enough tools to track and schedule based on hours, etc.
  2. A set of “goodness” goals for the day.

The Plan

Everything in my daily plan is related directly to my own personal goals and improvement. This can include everything from dedicating time to a project (this blog post has been in a couple of Plans) to exercise and basic housework that needs doing. What occurs in every Plan is reading.

Each daily plan has a goal of at least 40 pages read from the book I’m currently working on as well as at least one longer form blog post or paper. This has been very helpful in keeping my pace up and Charles recently told me he similarly blocks off reading time in his calendar. For blog posts and papers in this context, I try to look for things outside my normal areas of experience, such as articles on Model View Culture or even completely different areas of study such as (today) Equality of What. That last one is a bit longer and more difficult for me so I’m dedicating a few days to completely digest it.

Each item I complete gets a check-mark and each item I fail to complete gets an X.

Doing Good

As in Franklin’s journal, this page is always titled “what good will I do today?”. I’m treating it as an exercise in reflecting on how I can make a positive contribution to the communities I participate in. Based on an article on gratitude posted recently by Geordie, I’ve lately been trying to integrate expressing gratitude to others as part of this.

At the end of the day I add “what good did I do?” to the middle of this page and list what actions I have taken to positively impact the communities and people around me.


All of the above likely sounds relatively strict. An important part of this so far for me has been to set the bar a bit high and forgive myself for failing. It’s an ongoing process of learning about how I spend my time and what I prioritize. The Franklin journal helps me measure my progress so that I can see when I’m lapsing and when I’m improving – a continous self-intervention. The great thing about the Plan is that even if I don’t complete everything, it’s an easy way to make sure I have a non-zero day (or non-one, non-two, etc).

While I try to start every day by setting a Plan and Goodness goals, I have failed to do this a couple of times as well. When this occurs, I borrow Omar’s practice of performing a personal retrospective at the end of the day. As in the agile software development side of things, I simply describe a 2-3 things I thought went well and 2-3 things I know I could have done better. The key for me has been to keep the aspects of reflection and measurement unbroken.

My Common Place Book

I originally came across mention of this in Farnam Street’s post “How Do People Get New Ideas?” which linked to a post on combinatorial creativity. Before I knew the term “common place book”, this notebook started as a place for me to make general observations and notes about the papers I read and rough outlines of ideas and presentations.

It still serves these purposes but has become more focused on the following as well:

  • Specific ideas and quotes from texts. The quote I opened this post with is an entry, along with a few thoughts about it and some of the surrounding text.
  • My thoughts on the portions of texts I extract or sections of things I’ve read. If I disagree with something I read in a blog post, I expand on it in this book and come back to link other supporting or dissenting ideas and opinions to it.
  • Trying to synthesize a larger understanding of these items I latch onto. Reading Meditations was where this practice started to really take shape for me but elements of it helped earlier this year when reading AIM-349. I suspect this sort of thing is second nature for those with more of a background in serious study.

My Project Book

This is a bit of a side channel for possible product ideas and specific projects I want to plan in a bit more depth, all software related at present. Here I try to describe ideas for projects more fully, sometimes mocking/sketching out what aspects of them might look like. These descriptions and sketches are a minor form of private feasibility study or even gut check and have led to me discarding some ideas before wasting too much time on them. Because this book often distills thoughts and research items from my common place book, it tends to fill at a slower pace than the other two notebooks.


For those also suffering from notebook addictions, here’s what I’m actually using:

  • My Franklin journal is a lined Leuchtturm pocket notebook. The size is pretty much perfect for the amount I write.
  • My common place book is (embarassingly?) a swag notebook from F5 made by Journalbooks, I believe this is the model. As it’s almost full now, I have a dotted Leuchtterm replacement ready to go.
  • My project book is a grid Works notebook. I like the rubberized cover but the Leuchtterm and Rhodia papers are nicer.

If you care about pens, I’m pretty simple. I stick to the Zebra F-301 currently with 1.0mm refills.