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Going Paperless: How I Simplified My Tag Organization in Evernote (Part 2)

Last time, I talked about how and why I simplified my notebook organization in Evernote. Today, I’ll discuss how I’ve simplified my tag organization. Both are still works in progress, but the tags more so than the notebooks.

To start, let me say that I’ve never been much of a tagger. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Evernote has a powerful search engine that usually allows me to find whatever I’m looking for in just a few seconds.
  2. With such a good search engine, adding tags is usually counterproductive for me, since it takes time to add them to a note, but I can find the note just as easily without them.
  3. Tags have a tendency to grow like weeds. I’d end up with a huge number, and when I look at them, I find that more than half my tags have less than 10 notes associated with them.
  4. With lots of tags, there is a tendency to forget how I’ve tagged something. In some places, it gets tagged “project” in others “projects.” This actually make searching by tags worse. If I search for everything tagged “projects” I don’t get the notes tagged “project” for instance.

That said, I do find value in tagging notes under certain circumstances. Regular readers will recall this diagram:

Evernote Search

I find tags very hand for describing the “who” part of a note. I assign family member names as tags to notes to denote who that note is related to. Tags can sometimes be helpful with the “what” as well, but in all cases, a solid taxonomy is important for preventing uncontrolled tag growth. I’ll talk about that in a moment. First, let me show you what my tags used to look like.

My old tagging system

Old Tags

My old tagging system had 147 tags. Notes with tags are a little tricky because some notes have multiple tags and that obscures the actual count. However, a better measure in my opinion is how many tags were associated with 10 notes or less. In the old system 83 tags had 10 notes or less. Put another way, 56% of my tags had 10 notes or less.

10 notes is somewhat arbitrary, but it works for me. Of course, tags have to start somewhere, but generally speaking, these tags never really got used beyond their initial creation.

The system was flawed in other ways. There were inconsistent uses of the tags, and no real taxonomy with which to guide their usage. In my new tag organization, I’ve tried to fix that.

My new tax taxonomy

When I decided to simplify my tasks, the first thing I did was sketch out a taxonomy for the tags that would ensure that they did not grow accidentally. I also wanted to taxonomy to be a useful guide for what I used tags for. This taxonomy can be broken into two parts, the tag grammar, and the tag usage.

My tag grammar

The grammar is pretty simple. There are 3 rules:

  1. Tags will be lowercase.
  2. Tags will use hyphens instead of spaces.
  3. Tags will always be singular.

Let me explain each of these.

Lowercase just is more for uniformity of the look-and-feel, and to avoid unnecessary decision-making. Whether the tag is some thing, like bill, or a proper noun, it will always be rendered in lowercase.

Using hyphens instead of spaces actually makes searching a little easier. If I have a tag called “kitchen remodel”, I need to use quotes around my tag when I am searching. In other words, my search would look like this:

tag:"kitchen remodel"

However, if I use a hyphen instead of the space, I don’t need the the quotes around my search:


It might not sound like much, but it saves some frustration (plus 2 characters for every search). It also helps to ensure I don’t get weird search results by typing something like this:

tag:kitchen remodel

which actually looks for notes tagged “kitchen” that have the word “remodel” somewhere in the note.

As far as the tag always being singular, this helps avoid confusion. Should I call it “project” or “projects”? I no longer need to worry about that decision. It is always singular. I like singular because in the context of a single note, it makes sense. A note tagged “project” is clearly part of a project. “Projects” just sounds awkward to me.

This, of course, is personal preference, but having these three rules of grammar at the outset made it much easier to consolidate and simplify my tags.

My tag usage

Having established a basic grammar, I wanted to define how and when I’d use tags so that it was clear for any given note that I created. Actually, I already had a basic framework which I defined in a post back in January 2013. I tend to see my notes falling into one of four general categories:

  1. Documents. Notes with attachments like PDFs, Word files, images, etc.
  2. Events. These are notes that represent some event on a timeline. They could be notes from a meeting, or, more often than not, something that gets into Evernote through some automation I’ve set up, like a Foursquare checkin via IFTTT.
  3. Milestones. This is a special class of events that represent some achievement that I want to identify specifically. The day the Little Man graduated from pre-school, or the day the Little Miss said her first word.
  4. Information. These tend to be just plain vanilla notes. Maybe a shopping list, maybe an address that I jotted down, maybe something I clipped from the web.

Each of these general categories has its own usage, and so I tried to come up with a clear usage definition for each one. For instance, here is my usage for Documents:

This is a [___________] ______________ for _________________
           Category     Document Type      Entity

When I am tagging a document, say one that I’ve scanned in, I use the above template to tag it properly. I say to myself that the thing that I just scanned is a tax form for Jamie. Or, if you want to see it in the template:

This is a [_tax_______] _form_________ for _Jamie___________
           Category     Document Type      Entity

Note how neatly this model fits with my grammar? Three tags will get added to the note. All 3 are singular. All will be lowercase when I add them to the note, and use hyphens instead of spaces.

The brackets around Category mean that it is optional. I use it where appropriate, and don’t use it where it doesn’t make sense.

The category is a fairly broad classification, with a set number of tags that I try to keep as narrow as possible. It includes things like tax, medical, dental, retirement, school, insurance.

The document type is more narrow in scope, focusing primarily on the type of document: form, paystub, receipt, statement, and contract are among the most common ones that I use.

An entity is the person, company, project or organization to which the form is related. And yes, there can be more than one entity tag for a given document. So a medical form for the Little Man’s school might look something like this:

This is a [_medical___] _form_________ for _little-man, school_
           Category     Document Type      Entity

The note gets 4 tags: medical, form, little-man, and school. If I search for all documents tagged little-man, this will show up. If I search for all documents tagged “medical” and “form” this will show up. You get the idea.

For notes that represent events and milestones, if they get tagged at all, the generally get entity tags. In other words, who or what is this tag related to?

What does my new tag organization look like?

While my tags are still more of work-in-progress than my notebooks, I have really made an effort to clean them up and bring them inline with my grammar and usage. Here is what my tag structure looks like today:

My new tags

I’ve gone from 147 tags to 76–I’ve nearly cut my total tags in half. 29 of my 76 tags have 10 notes or fewer associated with them. That’s still a fairly high percentage (38%) but in this case, I know that most of these will increase over time as more notes are brought into this framework.

And you’ve probably noticed there are still a few problems:

  • There is a “benefits” tag, which should be renamed “benefit”
  • And there is the awkward “Disney.2012″ tag which is really there as a placeholder that will eventually go away. Part of the process of simplifying my tags has involved building a temporary scaffolding that eventually gets taken down when all of the work is done.

Some tips for simplifying your own tags

As I went through this process, I gained a few insights that might be useful to others who plan on doing the same. These are not taxonomy specific, more process-specific on how you go about simplifying your structure.

  1. Export all of your notes with tags before you get started, so that you have a backup if you really screw things ups.
  2. Grab a snapshot of your Tags page before you get started so you have a baseline to work from. I grabbed mine with Skitch and stored it right in Evernote.
  3. Write down your taxonomy before you get started. This may seem tedious, but I can’t emphasize enough how much it helped me to have a clear, unambiguous taxonomy to work from.
  4. Tackle the low-hanging fruit first: if you are just renaming a tag, all you need to do is right-click on the tag in your tag page and click Rename…
  5. Be sure to sync Evernote after your updates so your changes propagate to all of your devices.

When you’ve finished with your updates to your tag organization there are a few post-update  tasks to keep in mind:

  1. Test out your new organization to make sure it works the way you expect.
  2. Don’t forget to update any saved searches you have. Change a tag name does not update your saved searches. They need to be updated manually.
  3. Don’t forget to update tags at external integration points. If you have the Web Clipper automatically tag your notes, you’ll need to be sure to update the tags there. If you use IFTTT and include tags in your workflow, you’ll want to update your tags there as well.
  4. If you have email messages set up to automatically send email to Evernote, and include tags in the subject line, you’ll want to make sure to update those tags (in the subject line) as well.

So far, I’m pretty happy with my new, simplified organization of notebooks and tags. It feels leaner, and more agile, and it is definitely easier to use than it was before I cleaned things up.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: How I Simplified My Notebook Organization in Evernote (Part 1).

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The Start of World War I

I‘m more than halfway through my reading of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 1. Yesterday, as I was about to head out to lunch, I said this on Twitter:

I was referring to the fact that the book was creeping up on the start of the First World War. However, in a remarkable coincidence, it turns out that yesterday, July 28, was exactly 100 years since the official start of World War I back on July 28, 1914. To the day. That is pretty creepy.

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Various Updates for Sunday, July 27, 2014

First, sorry I haven’t been as active here as usual over the last week or so. As you might have guessed, things have been busy. But even for me, they have been unusually busy. Two big projects at the day job reached simultaneous critical milestones last week, and that took up a lot of my time. I’ve also been busy writing articles, and working on stories. And on top of that, I’ve been writing a bunch of code. Here is what RescueTime had to say about my productivity last week:

My productivity for the week of July 20

Keep in mind that my productivity pulse is typically in the 65-75 range. When it is in that range, I feel comfortable, and not overwhelmed. Below 65 and I start to feel a little lazy. Above 75 and things start to get a little intense. My average for the entire week was 78. There were days when I was close to 90.

In any case, here are a few updates of possible interest to folks:

1. R.I.P. Maggie: On Friday, we said goodbye to one of our two cats, Maggie. Maggie was nearly 18 years old, and had been healthy her entire life, except for the last few weeks. She had a tumor combined with some other infections. We thought that with some medication  she might rebound, but it wasn’t to be. She was a sweet cat, and will be missed by all of us.

2. Part 2 of my Going Paperless series on how I’ve simplified my Evernote organization will appear on Tuesday. Part 1 covered how I’ve simplified my notebook organization in Evernote. Part 2 will cover how I’ve simplified my tag organization. I had to delay it last week because–well, see the chart above. But it will be out on Tuesday.

3. My latest column for the Daily Beast went live on Thursday. The third piece in my column on quantified self for The Daily Beast went live on Thursday. This piece, titled, “Self-Tracking for N00Bz1 provides a simple 3-part framework to consider for folks who want to investigate self-tracking.

4. I’ve added some features to my Google Writing Tracker. I posted about it on Friday. I’m in the process of doing some major refactoring, and I’m alpha-testing some new functionality that breaks my writing down into fiction and nonfiction. (Hint: so far, so good.) In the meantime, I’ve made my Daily Almanac script–which works with the writing tracker to produce a daily summary email–available to anyone who wants to use it. I updated the project on GitHub for anyone interested.

5. For the first time in nearly a year, I’ve done no reading for 2 consecutive days. That’s how busy I’ve been. Seriously, it has been intense.

6. Some changes to the blog are coming. Nothing too dramatic, but I am testing out some new styles. For the most part these will be subtle changes that should improve the look of the site, and take advantage of improvements to CSS and browser capabilities. The biggest change will be to my How I Became a Professional Science Fiction Writer page. That should be pretty cool, so stay-tuned for that.

7. I started watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon series. Since I’ve stated here often enough that I’ve pretty much given up television, it is only fair when I admit to slipping. The Little Man had been watching episodes, and occasionally, I’d hear one in the background while writing or doing some other activity. What struck me first was how much better they were than the last 3 movies. The writing is pretty darn good. So are the story arcs. The Little Man has just finished the first season, and I’m only on episode 6 or 7, but I am enjoying it. Usually, I’ve been watching an episode or two just before bed. On some nights, I’ve tried for more, but I’ve just been too tired lately.

I think that’s about it. Once again, sorry for not being as active here as usual. Hopefully things will return to normal soon.


  1. As with a lot writing for news and magazine outlets, I write the article, but the editor typically comes up with the title. I mention this only because Kelly said that “N00Bz” didn’t sound like a word I’d use.
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The Daily Almanac Has Been Added to My Google Writing Tracker

One of the most frequent requests I get regarding my Google Writing Tracker is to make my Daily Almanac available as part of those scripts. The wait is over. Today, I pushed out the Daily Almanac the Google Writing Tracker project on GitHub.

For those who don’t know, my Google Writing Tracker is a set of script that automate the process of tracking what I write every day. Since I do all of my writing in Google Docs, these scripts run automatically each night, look at what I wrote, tally up the stats and record them in a spreadsheet. They also email me a copy of all of my writing for that day, including differences from the previous day.

Along with those scripts, I built another script that I call my Daily Almanac. This script culls that spreadsheet that is populated by my Writing Tracker scripts and gives me a summary report each night. The report tells me how much I wrote that day, and breaks it down for me. It also identifies any streaks I may have set (369 consecutive days of writing as of today) and any records I may have set. (The most words I’ve written in a day, etc.) I set up my Daily Almanac to send the nightly email to Evernote so that I have a nice record there of my day-to-day writing activity. Here is what a typical Daily Almanac entry looks like:

Daily Almanac July 23

The Daily Almanac is now available for anyone who wants to use it with the Google Writing Tracker. I have checked it in to the project on GitHub, and I’ve updated the README file with detailed steps for setting it up.

As always, this is a use-at-your-own-risk thing. I just don’t have the time to support these scripts. The best I can do is make them available for others who want to give them a try, and encourage folks to add to improve upon them. Be sure to read the instructions carefully, and if you do find any bugs, feel free to open up an issue in the GitHub project. I may not fix it any time soon, but at least it will get tracked.

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Alpha Testing an Update to My Google Writing Tracker

Beginning today, I am doing some alpha testing of the first significant update to my Google Writing Tracker scripts in more than a year. I will be testing these out myself over a period of a week or two before pushing the changes to GitHub.

The newest feature is that the writing scripts now track both fiction and nonfiction writing. This may not seem like much, but it is a big deal for me, as I have been writing a lot more of the latter lately and want to be able to look at the data to see how much of what I write each day is fiction, and now much is nonfiction. Fiction and nonfiction columns are captured separately in the Writing spreadsheet, and a third column keeps track of the total writing, fiction and nonfiction.

My Daily Almanac has been modified to report on this. Here is what a new version of my Daily Almanac email looks like when it is sent to my Evernote account:


The script distinguishes between fiction and nonfiction by looking for a tag I include at the end of my template document:

  • Fiction = Fiction
  • {Nonfiction = Nonfiction

I am also working on a few other changes:

  • I’ve added the ability to run the script in a test mode, that sends the email containing what you wrote that day, but does not actually update any values.
  • I’ve added a check to make sure that the script only looks for Google Doc files in the sandbox.
  • I’m working on simplifying the setup process.

It will probably be 2 weeks before I push these changes to GitHub. However…

I have added my Daily Almanac script to the GitHub project today because I know a lot of people were asking for that. Stay-tuned for the next post for more details.

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Using RescueTime to Answer the Question: When Do I Write?

I‘ve written quite a bit about how much I write, and that I find ways to write every day. What I haven’t talked about much is when I do my writing. Remember, I have a full time day job, and two little kids, so my time is very limited. In order to write every day, I needed to adjust to the fact that I couldn’t count on a fixed time of day, or a fixed duration of time in which to write. I had to learn to write whenever the time became available.

Since early this year, I have been using RescueTime on all of my computers. For those not familiar with it, RescueTime is an application that tracks what you do on your computer and provides you with data about your productivity. RescueTime has a database of applications and websites and ranks them anywhere from Very Unproductive to Very Productive. It gives you a “productivity pulse” from 0-100 telling you how productive your days were. One of the things that RescueTime captures is when you used an application and for how long.

Yesterday, I finally got around to playing with RescueTime’s API, and was able to pull out data about my use of Google Docs, which is where I do all of my writing. I learned a lot about when I write by looking at that data. I also confirmed some things that I already knew.

When do I write each day?

I went back to March of this year and took data from March 1 through yesterday. I filtered the data to look at just the “Writing” activity in RescueTime–that is, applications that are related to writing. I further filtered those down to Google Docs to ensure that I was capturing my regular daily writing, all of which I do in Google Docs. I aggregated the data by hour to see when during the day I typically do my writing. Here is the results:

When Do I Write

You can see that the vast majority of my daily writing is done between 7-9 pm. Indeed, of the 102 hours of writing that RescueTime has logged since March, more than half–53.1 hours–has taken place between 7-9 pm.

This data aggregates all days in the date range, including weekends. I sometimes write early on Saturday or Sunday mornings, especially when I know I have a big day ahead, so there is a spike there. Also, I sometimes write when the kids nap on the weekends (something that is increasingly rare), and so you see a small spike between 1 – 3 pm as well.

If I break things down by weekday/weekend writing times, here’s how things look:

Weekday-End Writing

The pattern on weekends is roughly the same as weekdays, and yet the chart is a little deceiving because it makes it look like I write a lot less on weekends than on weekdays. But remember, there are only 2 days in a weekend, and 5 days during the workweek. From March to the present, I’ve spent 76 hours writing during the workweek. This averages out to 15.2 hours per weekday.

However, I’ve spent about 30 hours writing on weekends in that same period. This averages out to 15 hours per weekend day. Put another way, I’ve written a total of 15 hours for each day of the week in the period from March to the present. I write just as much on the weekends as I do on weekdays.

An important note on the data collection

One thing I want to emphasize here. All of the data was collected automatically by RescueTime. I did not have to log my writing time. I did not have to take any extra steps, beyond opening my document and typing. RescueTime captures it all, automatically. Indeed, there is a gap in the data. When I was on vacation in Maine, I took a laptop with me that I forgot to install RescueTime on, so none of my time that week was captured.

But the key point here is that all of this data was generated without my having to take a single action beyond doing what I normally do. Of course, I did have to spent a few minutes creating the charts for this post, but the data was already there. I just had to grab it and process it. This, in my opinion, is a vital element to consistent tracking. If I had to take steps to log my time each time I was writing; if I had to “clock-in” and “clock-out” I would never have collected the data in the first place.

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No Going Paperless Post This Week

I am under the gun on a couple of projects at the day job that have tight deadlines. I am also under the gun for some writing-related projects. To give me a little breathing room, I’m going to take this week off from the Going Paperless post. Part 2 of my 2-part series, How I Simplified My Note Organization in Evernote will come on next Tuesday, July 29.

Sorry for the delay. In the meantime, if you haven’t checked out Part 1 yet, you can find it here. And, of course, there are more than 110 other Going Paperless posts that I’ve written.

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365 Consecutive Days of Writing

365 Days of Writing Click to enlarge

This evening, I wrote nearly 1,900 words, and in doing so, achieved a major milestone. I have now written for 365 consecutive days. That’s one full year. The last day on which I did no writing was July 21, 2013, the day I traveled home from the Launch Pad Astronomy workshop. Since that day, I have written every day, to the tune of 344,000 words. Over the course of the last 365 days I have averaged 943 words per day. That is roughly 40 minutes of writing per day, or a grand total of about 243 hours spent writing.

On my best day in the last year, I wrote more than 5,300 words. On my worst day, I barely scratched out 70. But I have written every day.

This streak, while significant, is part of a larger effort to write every single day. Since I started on this adventure, I have now written 508 out of the last 510 days.  That’s not too shabby.

The chart above shows the last 365 days. You can click it to see a larger version. It’s interesting to note a few patterns in the data. The one that jumps out at me the most is how my 7-day moving average fell during the cold winter months. Also, on 8 separate occasions, I’ve exceeded 3,000 words in a single day.

As you might expect, I’m pretty happy today!

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Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Kelly has been watching Doctor Who. She watches an episode or two each evening. Usually I am writing or reading while she is doing this, but occasionally, I’ll get sucked into an episode. It’s rare, but it happens. It has, however, happened the last two nights in a row. She watched an episode called “Silence in the Library” and I was vaguely reminded of Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. It was a fascinating episode, really. And it ended with a “To be continued…” cliff-hanger.

So last night, she watched the concluding episode, called “Forest of the Dead,” and once again, I was sucked in. But I liked it. In fact, the double-episode quickly rose to the top of my favorite of the small handful of episodes that I’ve seen, eclipsing “Blink,” which was the first episode I ever watched, after a crowd-sourced recommendation. The ending of “Forest of the Dead” was spectacular.

Now, before anyone jumps into say, “Oh, you have to watch episode x, or y, or even z!” understand that this was a fluke. As much as I liked the episode, I just don’t have time for TV. Unless I really need to give my brain a rest, the time I spend watching TV is time that I could be writing. It’s not that I don’t like what I see. It’s that I like writing more.

Well, also, with rare exception like this double-episode, I can’t really stomach TV dramas anymore.

In any case, I thought I should at least mention that I saw and enjoyed both these episodes of Doctor Who since there are people out there who can’t believe that, as a science fiction writer, I don’t watch the show regularly.

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Advice to My Kids as They Begin Their Education

Next month, the Little Man will start Kindergarten. He has been in pre-school since he was 15 months old, spending his days from 7 am – 4 pm at the school (as does the Little Miss) and so he is used to the long days, but this will be at a new school, and it will be the real beginnings of his education. This got me thinking about my own schooling, which in turn got me thinking about what advice I’d offer to my kids as they started out with their own education. It didn’t take me long to come up with 4 things to pass along:

1. It is okay to make mistakes, get things wrong, and occasionally fail at something, so long as you try to learn from those mistakes.

The Little Man in particular gets frustrated when he makes a mistake, or when he doesn’t win at a game. I’m not sure where this comes from because I’m of the opinion that mistakes are how we learn. Natural geniuses aside, learning is rarely easy. I can remember how halting I read when I first learned to read. I had to sound out every word, mangling half of them. It seemed to take forever to get through one page. But one day, I no longer noticed the words. Instead, I noticed the story that they told. It took practice (a lot of practice!) but I got there.

Even failing at some things shouldn’t get you down. We can’t be expert at everything. In college, I took a macro economics class. I attended every lecture. I did all of the assigned reading and homework. I ended up with D in the class. To this day, macro economics stumps me. In many respects, the earlier you learn your trouble-spot, the better you are.

The most important thing is to try to learn from the mistakes you make, in school work, and socially as well.

2. Write in your books!

I wish I had done this more. Write in your books! When you are reading, write your thoughts in the margins as you go. Include your opinions (“This passage is wonderful!”, “Was Doyle on crack when he wrote this?”). This will say you work when it comes time to talk about what you’ve read. But by writing in your books, you also make the book uniquely your own.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Winston Churchill are just three people who wrote in the margins of the books that they read. You will be in very good company.

3. It is okay to have an opinion about things; it is okay not to like something you have read for school.

Through about 7th grade, I went through school thinking that every book I was assigned to read had to be good, because otherwise, why would it be assigned. (The notion of learning what not to do by reading a bad book was foreign to me.) Sometime in 8th grade, however, we had to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I read it, and loathed it. Looking back on it, I just think I’m not a fan of the loquacious Victorian style. What bothers me most, in retrospect, was that I was afraid to express my opinion of the book in class out of fear that I’d get in trouble for not liking the book.

At some point (probably in 10th or 11th grade) I did express my opinions about books in class. What I found was that my teachers seemed to like this. Looking back on it, I think it is because it was clear that I read the book and formed an opinion about it.

There will be things that you read that you won’t like. Read them anyway, learn what you can from them, but don’t hesitate to express your opinion about them. It is part of the joy of reading.

4. It is okay to go beyond what you are learning, if you find it interesting.

If you find yourself interested in something you learned in class, or read about for class, by all means, pursue it. Don’t feel like you have to be hemmed in by what you are given in class. If you read about Soviet-era Russia in a social studies book, and want to learn more, go to the library and check out a history book. If your science book spends a few paragraphs on black holes and you want more, go to the library (or online) and learn more.

It is okay to go beyond what you are learning in class if you find it interesting. You can also use what you learn later, and if you are entertained while learning, that is all the better.

The main problem with advice like this is that it usually has be learned from experience. That may be so, but this is the advice I would pass along to the Little Man and the Little Miss as they begin their journey through school.