Mark Koester

Personal Blog. A Data-Driven Life. Minding the Interstitial Spaces since 2007.

Instapaper: Empowering How I Read Articles With Highlights and Tracking

Are you facing a never ending pile of articles to read? Have you ever remembered this amazing post you recently read but forgotten the title or URL? Or are you just hoping to augment and improve how you read and learn stuff online using technology?

One empowering approach to reading and learning in the internet age are read-it-later apps. My tool of choice is Instapaper, and with a few additional tweaks, as I’ll go into below, it can be even better.

A read-it-later app enables you to save articles from the web and (surprise, surprise) read them later. They generally give you a better reading experience without all of the ads and distractions too. They are largely intended as a way to capture stuff that comes up while working on one thing, avoid distraction, and read it when it is more convenient.

The three most popular approaches today are Pocket, Instapaper and Evernote. Each of these lets you save articles and then read them offline on a mobile device or computer using their app.

At their most basic, each make article reading experience better and less distracted. Each can also be leveraged to build an external, digital memory of the things you read. You can look back in time and know what you read and when. You can create even a year in reading as I did to see trends. Moreover, when your biological memory slips, you can simply search your archive of saved articles to find the reference or quote that stood out.

As I recount in How to Track the Articles You Read and Augment Your Digital Memory, the two tools I previously used were Evernote and Pocket. Both are good options, but over the last year or so, I’ve become a real fan of Instapaper.

On the surface, Instapaper is extremely similar to the slightly more well-known and popular, Pocket. Not only does Instapaper provide a beautiful and clean reading experience, it gives some empowering extra features, especially if you depend on internet research for your work or studies.

The two features that most stand out for me are highlights and tracking:

  • Highlights enable me to mark up important passages as I read them. I use a similar feature on Kindle and for PDFs too. While highlights don’t automatically create memories and learning and in fact we shouldn’t forget that highlighting and re-reading are two of the least effective learning techniques (Dunlosky, 2013), they are a good starting point, since instead of re-reading an entire article, you can just extract the key parts you highlighted. What I often do when I’m researching a new topic is during my initial search, I first save various articles into Instapaper. After that, I read those topic-focused articles in the app and highlight accordingly. Then once I’m ready, I export all of the highlights and use them to summarize in my own words. This is part of my knowledge cycle and my general note-taking technique.
  • The other thing I love about Instapaper is its tracking capability. Unfortunately, Instapaper doesn’t provide any internal way to track or visualize your reading history just yet. Fortunately, it is easy to set it up your own tracking and visualizations. By either accessing its API with some code or using its integration with IFTTT, you can extract your entire reading history, including article read, articles liked and all of your highlights too.

Ultimately, this combination of a beautiful reading experience, highlights and tracking have made Instapaper my go-to app for reading articles now.

In this post, I want to explain what is Instapaper and how to set it up for tracking and knowledge management. I’ll share how to export your highlights locally, walkthrough a bit of code for data analysis, and show how you can use Google Sheets for cool and simple data visualizations too. At the end, in my conclusion, I share my dream for the next, most futuristic read-it-later apps.

Once we are done, I hope that you too will be ready deploy your own empowering article reading and learning system with Instapaper!

How I Write: My Favorite Tools and Apps for Writing

So, you want to write? And you’re looking for a few tools to make your writing easier, better organized or adapted for a new publishing format?

I’ve written and published over 300 blogs, articles and book chapters over the last several years. While the tools aren’t as important to me as the time, attention and process I put into writing, I’ve come to find good tools can empower and smooth out several aspects of my research and creative process.

These are the tools that put me into writing zen!

Whether you are working on the next great American novel, creating a work report, penning a poem, or just striving to get a shareable blog post done, here are my favorite tools for writing for writers.

NOTE: This list is Version 2.0 (circa August 2019). If you are interested in my writing tools from early 2018 (which included Ulyssess and Evernote), see Version 1.0 of this post.

No YouTube: 30-Day Challenge

Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve been tracking my Youtube usage. I came to discover that I was spending on average about an hour a day watching YouTube videos. While there are a lot of things I love about YouTube, it comes with some negatives. So, for one month, I gave up YouTube.

Admittedly, at times I missed watching videos online, especially comedy and some news updates, but largely I found life better without YouTube than with it. It showed me just how complicated one’s relationship can be with technology and various digital services. YouTube and many other services are designed to hook us and keep us using them. They are designed to be addictive. Sadly, as of now, we can’t adjust these technologies to fit our ideal way of using them either.

30-day challenges are a great way to experiment with something in your life. Month-long challenge is largely about discovery and are burdensome than full-on goals or building new habits. By trying something out for a month, you can figure out if it’s something you want to continue going forward.

Most of the routines I now have started as short trials or challenges, like running, daily morning pages, and time tracking. I’ve done a number of month-long experiments over the years, and I am especially a fan of tracking them too. In fact, some of my 30-day challenges were tracking-specific challenges, like what I did with mood tracking and tracking my bowels.

I had a couple motivations for this 30-day No YouTube challenge. The first was to spend less time binge watching random online videos and more time reading, writing, and other personal projects. I figured I’d lose out on some amount of news and content, but that seemed okay to me. I hypothesized that an extra 8 hours a week would mean more books and articles read and possibly a bit more time on the computer. Basically, the main thing I expected to see a big difference in my time logs and media usage. This wasn’t exactly what I find.

Like any technology, YouTube has its pro’s and con’s. Experiments like these provide a good way to figure out what works for you.

In this post, I want to share about about my month-long No YouTube challenge. To give a bit of context, in the first part, I’ll talk about what is a 30-day challenge and some of the benefits of this kind of short-term discovery type of goal. After that, I’ll briefly share how and why I did one on YouTube Watching. We will then dig into the my data and tracking logs to figure out what what changed (and what didn’t!) over the last month. Finally, I’ll conclude with some general observations on the challenge, technology, and if and how I’ll use YouTube going forward.

NOTE: If you are interested in tracking your YouTube usage, I’ve written a complete guide to YouTube Tracking.

Can Meditation Improve Your Attention? Self-Experiment Into Mindfulness and Cognitive Testing

The reported benefits of meditation are quite impressive: better physical health and happiness, less stress and anxiety, and even improved mental health and cognitive functions.

Unfortunately, I’m skeptical guy. I like data and research to back up such claims. Frankly, the advantages of meditation almost seem too good to be true. Is this a pseudoscience? Can meditation really improve our bodies and our minds? Which types are effective and how?

I recently bought the Muse Brain Sensing Headband in an attempt to ponder some of these questions about the mind and meditation. Muse is a wearable that tracks your brainwaves using EEG and provides real-time neurofeedback while you meditate. It’s relatively popular in the quantified self and biohacker space. Built using dry electrodes and seven sensors, it’s essentially a stripped down, four-channel EEG monitor (compared to standard ten-channel). The aim of the device is to quantify your mental states and subtly train you to meditate better through auditory cues (chirping birds and nature sounds).

In order to explore this claim about the cognitive benefits of meditation, I decided to do a self-experiment, also known as a n=1 or n-of-1 trial. For a few weeks, I took daily cognitive tests both before and after I either meditated with Muse for 10 minutes or did some other activity for roughly the same amount of time. Using neuropsychological tests used to measure cognitive impairment, the test results should be able to tell me if meditating provides any cognitive benefit in areas like attention, information processing, and reaction time.

An n-of-1 trial is an experiment done on a single person using a series of interventions over a period of time. Basically it’s a modification of the classic crossover design wherein the invervention and placebo are tested in alternating patterns. The interventions themselves are often blinded (meaning you don’t know which medication you are taking at one time), and they are either completely randomized or given in a balanced cross-over schedule (like ABBABAAB). Outcome measurements are taken throughout to record the effects. These could be biomarkers, tests, surveys or something else. After a few rounds, statistical analysis is used on the outcome measurements to see if there was an effect and to determine which intervention was best. Additionally, you typically note any adverse effects.

In my own case related to meditation effect, the outcome I wanted to measure was an improvement in my cognition. The intervention or experimental variable I was testing was meditation, compared to other activities, which would be the placebo. It was impossible to blind the intervention, since you obviously know if you are meditating or not, so you might call it an open label experiment.

The tests I used were taken from standard neuropsychological assessments, frequently used to diagnosis cognitive impairment and in clinical trials on different drugs and supplements. I took the tests in the same place and around the same time daily, shortly after breakfast and roughly one hour after waking up. After several weeks, I then did some statistical and data analysis to check and visualize the effects and to see if they were significant.

So, what were the results?

Meditation improved my attention and other cognitive functions! Unfortunately so did any other activity I did. In fact, the main takeaway from the final results showed that meditation was not the most significant variable on cognitive improvements. Instead, the experiment revealed that simply re-taking the tests led to both an intraday improvement (meaning an improvement in the before and after) and a cumulative, linear improvement (meaning my first 5 to 10 scores were lower than my last 5-10 scores). In short, what I found was my cognitive testing was improved mostly through a combination of practice and training effects. I got better not because I meditated, but because I tested again and again.

In the rest of this post, I want to look at this experiment and the results in a bit more detail and explain what happened and why. Hopefully by the end of the post you’ll understand what are cognitive tests, a bit more about meditation, and how to do your own self-experiment on the meditation effect!

Scoring Your Weekly Goals

I leverage science, goals and goal-setting in a number a ways. But recently, I started something new. I started “scoring” them. This has proven a good way to periodically check my efforts over time and my organization in reaching the things that matter.

When it comes to goals, one way I use them is to prioritize what’s important.I use goals as multi-step pursuits. I’m also a believer in the science of goal-setting to improve my chances of reaching epic objectives. I use goal planning as a method to balance out a number of competing interests and objectives over time. For longer-term stuff, I even built a DIY goal tracker to help set, schedule, and align tasks and projects (aka sub-goals) towards reaching my yearly and lifetime “missions.”

Unfortunately one of the challenges with goals is how to quantify them. Over the past several months, I started to keep score on goals on my weekly goals. When combined with constructive goal setting, I’ve found it to be a good way to ensure I’m goal-aligned in my doings.

Data-Driven Health Trackers: An Actionable List

A data-driven health tracker is a tool you can use to track and monitor different aspects of either your health status or your health habits. This can empower you on your journey towards data-driven health and personal development.

I recently wrote about the importance of understanding the difference between heath and fitness apps and wearables that monitor your health status VS. those that support and track your healthy habits and goals. The key question there was: Are you tracking a health indictor or healthy habit?

In this followup, I want to share my list and breakdown of data-driven health trackers and where they fit on the divide between tracking health status and tracking healthy habits. Where relevant, I’ve included a link to a write-up with more background, tools and how to track.

In turn, I’m working on a write-up of data-driven health numbers to go with these trackers soon.

Hope you find it helpful.

NOTE: If you are looking for an overview of the self-tracking space, checkout my Quantified Self Mind Map.

What Am I Meditating for? In Pursuit of a Definition of Meditation

Meditation is one of the most touted habits we are all supposed to do these days. Meditation and mindfulness are lauded for a range of associated benefits from physical and mental health to cognitive improvements and beyond. It’s believed to be beneficial for both healthy and sick people alike. In short, meditation can supposedly make you mentally calmer, physically healthier, and cognitively better.

But can it really? If so, how? And which types?

Personally, I’ve been interested in meditation for awhile. A few years ago, I meditated nearly daily using some of the popular guided meditation and mindfulness apps available. Eventually, my interest and practice wained. I “felt” I had gained a few benefits, but I was a bit disappointed both by the time commitment and by the failure of my meditation practice to bring about more profound changes.

Perhaps I had the wrong expectations, perhaps I wasn’t meditating right, but increasingly I think my struggles around meditation reflect deeper questions about how to define what is meditation and all of the different types of meditations that exist. This difficulty to classify meditation is a sentiment echoed in the research on meditation too.

Infused in local culture and religion and bantered about in popular culture, meditation remains a pretty poorly defined term. In spite of the long tradition and a lot of current research, “there is no consensus on a definition of meditation in the scientific literature” (Ospina et al, 2008). Basically, no standard definition of meditation exists.

There are similar issue with the word “mindfulness” that has long left whatever it meant historically and philosophically and now seems to apply to just about everything including staying in the moment as you wash the dishes or eat a meal.

In all this confusion, I want to know: What is meditation? What are the types? And how do they affect us and our brains?

For our purposes and as I’ll explain in detail below, I define meditation as:

A multi-step process whose two principal components are 1. the methods or cognitive strategies used and 2. the enhanced mental states it brings about.

Defining meditation is a challenge. Basically, I’ve come to realize the importance of distinguishing between different techniques and methods of meditating and their intended goals. There might be benefits that go beyond meditating itself (a claim we will look at elsewhere), but at its origins meditation was intended as a mental practice that brought about a new kind of thinking or a new state of consciousness. Buddha and many others were meditating to reach an understanding of themselves and of the universe.

So, before we can examine the benefits, let’s try to define meditation first.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to walk-through how I came up with this definition and look at the two key parts: methods and enhanced mental states. After settling on a naive definition, we are also going to briefly survey several popular types of mediation and then look at some key features that are common to most meditative experiences. I’ll do my best to include various alternative definitions I found along the way.

Hopefully by the end of the post, we’ll be equipped with not only an operational definition of meditation but we should be able to answer the question why and for what purpose we are meditating for. Furthermore, I think this kind of definition is a good starting point for other technological, biological, or pharmaceutical methods in pursuit of cognitive enhancement or other phenomenological experiences.

Data-Driven Health: Are You Tracking a Health Indicator or Healthy Habit?

There is a lot of excitement around how technology can be applied to improve our health. It seems like every day there is some new technology, wearable, pill, test, service or app aiming to track, monitoring, improve or cure us of each and every bodily aligment. There is even a growing number of companies and tools aiming at human optimization, neuroenhancement, and peak performance, sometimes called “biohacking.”

For basically all of health tech, the goal is to improve our health, and, whether its a wearable, test or something else, each is claim to be tracking some our health.

But what are these technologies tracking? And how do they fit into the pursuit of data-driven health and wellness?

Quantified Self and Self-Tracking Mind Map: Conceptualizing Tracking and Other Data-Driven Tech

With so many quantified self tools and ways to track a life, it can be a bit confusing. A mind map can help.

A mind map is a graphical, visualization technique that is intended to help with structuring, organizing and understanding information as well as facilitate creative thinking. It’s is also one of the best ways to synthesize and understand information in general.

Here’s my mind map of the quantified self and self-tracking space. The intention is to help you conceptualize the overall tracking technologies space as well as hopefully enable you to better track different aspects of your own life and, in turn, engage with your personal data accordingly.

In the rest of this post, I want to explain the motivation behind the project and briefly walk through why I’ve categorized things accordingly.

One of the principal points I want to make is the division I make between tracking or data collection AND data engagement or being data-driven. While we might obsess about how to track an area, we often fail to take the time to engage with the data we are collecting. For me, one of the key motivations for self-tracking is not data collection but using data to provide a feedback loop towards what I’m trying to understand or a goal I’m trying to reach. This is really only possible if you engage with whatever you are tracking.

Goal Tracker for AirTable: A Flexible Tool for Goal Pursuit Tracking and Management

Having a goal is easy and exciting. But goals only get accomplished when you pursue them, not because you simply make them. So, if you want to improve your goal attainment, arguably one of the most important goal action steps you can do is to convert your goal intentions into goal pursuits.

What is a goal pursuit and how to track it?

I define a goal pursuit like this: Goal Pursuit = Goal + Time Period + Specifics

Obviously, there is more to this formula and to pursuing goals, but this gets us to a few of the essentials when it comes to both the science of goals and how to think about organizing and managing your goals over time. It also gets to a framework that allows for tracking your goal pursuits too.

Let’s break this down a bit:

  • A goal or goal intention is the thing want. It might be quite specific (“Run a marathon under 4 hours”), or it might be quite abstract (“Become a recognized expert in XYZ domain”). But generally a goal is an object of desire that lacks the defined steps on how you will get there. It’s the fantasy target.
  • By contrast, a goal pursuit represents a state change. It’s no longer just an idea or object of desire; it is a thing you are working on.
  • The time period just means we’ve stated an expansive of time when we will pursue that goal. Even better is if you state a habitual time and place.
  • The specifics of your goals means you’ve stated exactly what you plan to do to move towards that goal and ideally made it something you can measure. Being more specific when you set a goal is one of the key activities to improving the success and performance of your goals

Practically-speaking a goal pursuit takes form once you take your abstract goal and get specific about how you’ll get there. Scientists call this the “goal decision” or “goal striving.” Intuitively there is something different between wanting something abstractly and actually doing it. This is the difference between a goal fantasy and goal pursuit.

The science of goals pushes us both to think about goals and goal pursuits as multiple step endevours and to apply science-backed strategies at key junction in our striving. According to the Goal Setting Theory, the best technique in a goal pursuit is get specific and set an exact, targetted, measurable and difficult initiative to work on. According to the well-research technique of implementation intentions or if-then plans, one effective goal practice is to set the how, the when, and the where so you figure out a cue or trigger, like a place or time and then mentally link it to the goal behavior you want to induce.

How might we go about organizing, managing, and even tracking our goals and goal pursuits?

As a long-time self-tracker and proponent of the data-driven life, goals have proven a rather elusive area to track. While it’s relatively easy to track many aspects of our lives from books read and tasks completed to miles run and time on devices, tracking goals proves difficult for two reasons:

First, we often think of goals as just a list of things we want, so it feels like there isn’t much to track. Just make a list and check them off when you complete them.

Second, when we do attempt to track our goals, we often limit our thinking about tracking goals to something measureable. We come up with some related output of our goals, like miles run, time, habits, etc. A tool like BeeMinder is a good example of a tool that tracks an underlying output metric and helps us view our goal progress accordingly. While this can be a good technique for some goals, it actually isn’t tracking goals as a process or cycle of action steps. What we want is a goal tracker that tracks much more than a single metric.

Goals are more than just a list of wishes we hope to get and more than a single definable metric. Goals exist the nexus of our goal intentions and specific goal pursuits over time. Goals often go through a cycle of setting, pursuing and reviewing. There are steps forward and steps back and a lot of figuring stuff out. What we want to track and manage is this long-term cycle of goal pursuits over time. And, as far as I know, there isn’t a complete tool available today that lets us manage and track our goals as multi-stage pursuits.

So in order to solve this problem and apply techniques from the science of goals, I’m excited to share a tool I’ve built to help you better track and manage goals.

Using Airtable, which is a mix of a spreadsheet application and a database, I’ve created a goal tracker that allows me to keep an on-going list of my goals and dreams and to convert those into periodic goal pursuits that I further track, manage, and optimize. Additionally, the flexiblity of AirTable allows you to apply some of the most actionable and effective techniques from the science of goals. This means we are not only tracking what’s happening but we are applying powerful strategies to get better at reaching our goals.

In short, Goal Tracker for AirTable is a free tool that helps you organize, manage and track both your goals list and your goal pursuits.

Goal Tracker provides a simple way to record all of your current, past and future goals. You then use these goals to formulate goal pursuits. You can think of goal pursuits as a short-term goal, initiative or project. Goal pursuits link those goals to a time period and allow you to get specific about what you’ll do. For example, if your goal is “run a marathon,” then your goal pursuit might be “May 2018 (Run Marathon): Complete 10 training runs, run 100km, and complete a half marathon.”

Using the tool, you now have a list of goal pursuits so you can better organize and visualize over time. Goals are a struggle and will fail, but having a tool to organize and track allows you better stay on top of the process. You are not only pursuing a goal but also optimizng the meta-skill of managing goals. By consistently linking goals with a specific initiative in a certain time frame, you have effectively applied several key techniques from the science of goals too.

Get Goal Tracker for AirTable Now

Goal Tracker is a free tool you can download for AirTable. I have no affiliation with AirTable. I just think it’s a cool tool that works well for flexible information management and for prototyping goal and project management tools like these. Feel free to customize, add or tweak and, of course, send me your thoughts, feedback and areas to improve! Additionally, if you prefer another tool, I think you can accomplish the same style of goal tracking using just simple files or another spreadsheet app.

In the rest of post, we are going look at the core features and usage of Goal Tracker for Airtable. We will first briefly look at AirTable, what it is and how it works. After that, our main objective is to get you up and running with using the tool to track and manage our goals. Along the way, I’ve included a few examples of customizations and deeper concepts related to how AirTable works and how it relates to both the science of goals and productivity principles for good goal management. Finally, I’ll conclude by sharing my own motivation for building this tool and tips for the overly ambitious goal pursuer been using it.

Note: The psychology of goals lies at the heart of why I’ve been building and using this tool. I’ve purposefully left out too many academic references here to focus on the tool and usage itself. If you are interesting in exploring the underlying science, check out my on-going blog series on the Science of Goals.