Principles of Ultralearning: 2) Focus

The modern world is a carnival of distractions. Every person, every device, every surface is screaming for your attention.

How can anyone get any work done? With Focus.

When you’re focused, distractions melt away, your attention is like a laser and you get stuff done. You could even finish reading not just this sentence, but the whole post, without checking your phone.

What is Focus?

Focusing is maintaining concentration on one subject for a period of time.

Focus is becomingly increasingly rare in our distracting modern world.

Therefore, focus is a skill that can boost your effectiveness in any skill.

What Makes Focusing So Difficult?

Focusing is difficult at 3 different stages:

  • The Beginning
  • The Maintaining
  • The Optimising

Failing to Start – The Beginning

Procrastination is not a character flaw, it’s something even the most successful people struggle with. It’s human. Why do you think the George R. R. Martin hasn’t released a book in so long?

Beating procrastination is a 2-step process:

Step 1 – Recognise you are procrastinating.

Are you avoiding work because you don’t want to do that task, or because there is something you do want to do more?

There is no one plan to suit everyone.

We all have our own vices, my drug of choice is binge-watching TV. Streaming services are against me! They’re just so damn convenient.

If you are looking to do something more pleasurable and you have the time and energy to do so, do it. Then it’s no longer a distraction.

If you are avoiding something you don’t like doing, but know you should, move on to Step 2.

Step 2 – Manage to concentrate for 5 minutes.

Just 5.

For some reason, our brains resist work the most in the first 5 minutes. Then your brain realises you aren’t harming it, relaxes and lets you carry on.

Next thing you know an hour has passed and you have written a handy new blog post… Maybe that’s just me.

Failing to Carry on – The Maintaining

Now that you’ve started and passed those gruelling 5 minutes, you just need to keep it up.

There are 3 forces conspiring to pull you away from your work:

  • Your Environment
  • Your Task
  • Your own Mind!

Environment: The Stuff Around You

Why is the environment trying to distract you? Is it because you didn’t recycle last week? Probably not, but shame on you all the same.

Many people prefer to have the TV on or some music (myself included) to make sure they aren’t stuck in silence. But when it comes to learning, anything else taking your attention will actually reduce the amount you learn.

When learning, you’re better off removing anything else that takes your focus. Your brain can only hold 4 chunks of information at one time after all.

Task: Your Project Itself

Have you ever had to do something difficult, taken one look at it, and decided it’s not for you? This is the because difficult things make us uncomfortable which makes us want to quit. Remember Dumbledore drinking that (sadly fake) Horcrux?

Your ultralearning project shouldn’t taste as bad as fresh Horcrux

In this situation, you need to try to organise your resources you learnt about in Principle 1: Metalearning to better suit your style of learning. If you know you space out watching videos, try to find the transcript of the same material, for example.

If the topic is truly incomprehensible, you could end up just watching the video, but taking nothing in. You can avoid this by summarising each thing you learn. This will take longer, but you will learn much more.

Mind: Your Mind Has Betrayed You?!

You have finally started typing the essay to end all essays. Scholars will worship your beautiful prose, as your fingers dance across the keyboard, but wait, didn’t you forget to fold your socks?

If there is a genuinely solvable problem distracting you, just do it. Then get back to work with peace of mind.

The real struggle comes from problems you can’t solve.

What will happen with Brexit?! What if a super volcano erupts and blocks out the sun, starting a new ice age? Why did you make that lame joke to the person you liked all those years ago?

These kinds of thoughts are unhelpful and extremely distracting.

If you try to fight them, then they will win.

You will end up going over and over the problem in your head and not focusing on your project at all.

The best method is to take an idea from mindfulness. The wonder drug of the past few years.

If you observe the thoughts distracting you.

Notice them.

Let them go.

The nagging thoughts can leave you and you can focus again.

Admittedly, this is much easier said than done. Fortunately, mindfulness is actually a muscle, even if you fail to get it right first time, you strengthen your mindful maximus (not a real term) and it becomes easier next time.

Failing to Perfect – The Optimising

You have now figured out how to focus like a laser on one topic, but what if you wanted to connect completely disparate ideas?

There are two types of useful thinking when you are learning: Focused and Diffuse. These are a spectrum and can be optimised for each problem.

Focused Mode

Focused thinking is best for doing something that requires very narrow concentration like throwing a dart a specific point or understanding a new difficult concept.

Diffuse Mode

Diffuse thinking allows your mind to wander more and pull connections from different parts of your store of knowledge.

This is best for constructing a creative idea from multiple parts that don’t link in any obvious way.

The more you learn the more you will know which type of thinking is better for the situation.

See my earlier post to learn about the first principle of Ultralearning – Metalearning.

Have any more tips on better focus? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Principles of Ultralearning: 1) Metalearning

ULTRALEARNING: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense” – Young’s self-described imperfect definition.

Ultralearning is a tool used to teach yourself things extremely quickly and effectively. In the book, Young gives many examples of people he calls “ultralearners” who master things from languages, public speaking, scrabble and chess. He even has examples of his own achievements: completing the MIT Computer Science course in 1 year, learning 4 languages in a year and drawing very realistic portraits in 30 days.

The book draws on 9 principles of ultralearning:

  1. Metalearning: Learning how to learn
  2. Focus: Learning how to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time
  3. Directness: Learning by doing the skill or using the knowledge you wish to learn
  4. Drill: Ruthlessly attack your weakest points until you don’t block your learning anymore
  5. Retrieval: Using testing as a way to learn
  6. Feedback: Getting genuine critiques on your work to confirm if you are truly learning
  7. Retention: Making sure you remember what you learnt
  8. Intuition: Learning how to understand at a deeper level, not just memorising
  9. Experimentation: Learn how to keep learning even once you have reached mastery

Metalearning

Metalearning is learning how to learn.

An oversimplified example would be to say that you can memorise 2+2=4 but learning how to add the numbers allows you to figure out any addition, rather than memorise every possible sum.

Why, What and How?

Metalearning can be broken down into why you want to learn something, what will count as success for you and how you will achieve your goal.

Why?

Your reasons why can either be Instrumental or Intrinsic.

Instrumental: You are learning the skill or knowledge in order to achieve an outside result, such as a promotion or a new job.

Intrinsic: You are learning for the sake of learning and don’t necessarily care if there is an immediate use for the skill.

What?

The what of your Ultralearning Project can be broken down into 3 main categories: Concepts, Facts and Procedures:

Concepts: Ideas you need to understand

Facts: Information you can just memorise

Procedures: Anything you can only learn through practice, such as pronunciation

How?

You need to know all the resources you have available to you. These can be planned through Benchmarking and Emphasise/Exclude methods:

Benchmarking: Figuring out the common learning methods as a starting point for your project. This can be reading lists, internet searches, or advice from an expert.

Emphasise/Exclude: Go through all the resources you listed in your benchmark and if they are not relevant, Exclude them. If a resource is not only relevant but more effective than most, you can use it more, Emphasise it.

How Much Should You Plan?

Young says to aim for 10% of the total duration of the project, but he says this isn’t law.

If you are doing a particularly large project (thousands of hours +), then you may only want to spend 5% of your time planning.

Also, don’t feel your planning all has to be done at the beginning, you can do more research during the project, such as when your learning slows down.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The longer you keep using a specific technique or working on a particular skill, the less improvement you will see.

At the beginning, there is so much you don’t know, that every time you progress, you progress a lot. Once you know more, the amount more you knew is much smaller.

Imagine you have no water, then you get a pint of water from the tap. You now have infinitely more water than you had. Get another pint, you have twice as much water, another pint, you have 1.5 times what you had, this keeps going on until one more pint is just a drop in the ocean.

Learning using the same method will eventually lead to you progressing in tiny drops at most.

This is a sign you need to try another technique for your Ultralearning project. If you don’t have an idea for one, it is time to do more research.

I will write a summary of each principle outlined in the book, but I highly recommend reading the full book for yourself. The stories Young tells and the depth of explanation are much greater.

Ultralearning, is a new book by Scott Young, who is most well know for his blog about learning and the impressive learning challenges he has completed. The book can be found at the follow address: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/ultralearning/

A Simple 7-Step Plan to Achieving Any Goal

Get that winning feeling

Achieving goals feels good, that’s why people do horrible crazy things like marathons, climbing mountains and triathlons. They don’t love being in pain and out of breathe, probably. But they love that feeling of accomplishment when they’re done.

Now that we know why people like to achieve goals, lets find out how they do it.

Not all goals are sporting, they’re just the ones I found easiest to get examples of. Your goal could be getting your product to market, solving a business problem or passing an exam.

The Navy SEALs have a 7-step plan to achieve any goal. It’s so simple you could start using it right now.

Ask Clarifying Questions

In order to succeed, you need to know what success is. If it’s a 10k run, success could be crossing the finish line, finishing in a certain time or beating a certain individual. Find out which one is your measure of success.

Identify All Your Resources

How much will it cost? What technology can you use? What skills do you have? What can your network offer you?

Clarify Roles and Responsibilties

If you have a team, they should all know exactly what to and when to do it.

Each member of your team should know when they can and can not act and they should know how what they do will affect the mission.

Focus Relentlessly On Your Goal

There are no excuses. You must reach your goal. Finding it too hard? Push through, or lean on your teammates. Can’t solve a certain problem? Attack it from a different angle or see if someone in your team can solve it.

Think Through All Possible Contigencies

Try to predict any issues you may face. Now think of ways around them. You can avoid many problems and roadblocks by trying to predict them.

Train Until You’re Stress Proof

The more you train a skill, the less effort it takes, the faster you can do it and the fewer mistakes you will make.

After-Action Reviews

Don’t blame anyone. Everyone did their best, but some things still went wrong. Figure out what went wrong, then figure out how to do better next time.

Now you know the 7 steps to achieve any goal, try them out and let me know what goals you want to achieve below.

The Creative Power of Misfits

Have you ever felt like an outsider on your team?

You may just be the most valuable person on your team, according to Adam Grant an organisational psychologist and the host of WorkLife with Ted a podcast about what makes workplaces not suck.

In this episode, Grant tells a story about how Pixar wanted to create another hit after the success of Toy Story, but they didn’t have any more good ideas.

Then Brad Bird, writer, animator and director from Pixar collected dedicated Pixar employees who other people said were a little odd, or difficult to work with, people who felt they had been ignored in the past, but still loved Pixar. Misfits.

This is key, as misfits who don’t care about your company’s cause anymore don’t give their best work or they might just quit.

Bird gathered these misfits and asked them what they wanted to do but hadn’t been allowed to do or hadn’t been able to do because the technology didn’t exist yet. Then told them, that’s what they would do.

The movie they made with this approach was The Incredibles. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, but it was a huge hit, their biggest hit at time of release, and is still beloved by millions.

When Should You Use Misfits?

Grant says the best time to shake things up at your company or in your team is actually when things are already going well.

When things are going well, you have the most time and resources, so you can afford to take risks in the hopes of higher rewards.

It is much more common to shake things up once a company or project is failing, but by then it’s often too late. The damage is done.

So when things are going smoothly, you should consider rounding up some misfits and breaking the status-quo.

Why Use Misfits at All?

Doing things the way they have always been done, will not get you anywhere new.

If you want safe, steady results, keep doing what you’re doing.

That said, your competitors are probably taking risks and finding ways to get ahead. Blockbuster carried on as they were and ignored the changing times and technologies, remember them?

Grant cites a study that says that listening to misfits and letting them work on their own ideas has been shown to be as valuable to the company, as an external consultant or expert, but much cheaper, as they already work for you.

How Do You Motivate Misfits?

Motivating misfits can be difficult.

These are likely people who are already disgruntled due to being an outsider or having felt overlooked in the past, so how do you get them to gruntled? Or better yet, excited?

Grant says the best way to fire up some misfits is to tell them that someone whom they don’t respect doesn’t believe in them.

To get a creative team like designers pumped, tell them that the “suits” upstairs don’t think they can do this, that those stuffy executives are having doubts.

This will make your misfits want to prove those people wrong and will do everything in their power to do so.

Don’t Tell Misfits Their Peers Don’t Believe In Them

If you want to discourage your misfits, then use the exact same method as above, but have the source be someone whose opinion they do value.

If you tell your misfit clan that their direct manager or an expert in their field doesn’t believe in them, they will be more likely to believe you and feel deflated.

So be careful with your reverse psychology, your choice of villain makes a huge difference.

How To Stay Motivated After a Big Win

You’ve just made The Incredibles.

You and your team are amazing. You’re no longer misfits, you’re now heroes. Now that you have nothing prove, how do you stay motivated to create your next win?

The key is to make the team underdogs again.

Proving to people you’re worth more than other people think, is what gets pissed-off-employees fired-up.

The difficult part is to make the challenge meaningful.

You can’t just create a faceless enemy, the team needs to believe their villain wants them to fail.

To believe in the goal they are trying to achieve.

Your team needs a purpose.

If this post made you rethink who to put on your next groundbreaking project, please let me know in the comments below.

What is in a Business Case? And Why Your Projects Need One

Is this a Business Case..? No, no it is not.

What are they and why should you care?

A Business Case is a document that the Project Manager can refer to see the project is still useful, still something the users would want and still doable.

This is the fourth post in my PRINCE2 series to learn more about Project Management. The Business Case is one of the Themes of PRINCE2.

Some Jargon For You:

Benefits: Any measurable improvement to the business. Does it make the business better? No? not a benefit. Can you specifically measure the impact of the goodness created? No? not a benefit.

PRINCE2 projects create PRODUCTS, using products creates a change in the business. These changes create OUTCOMES. These outcomes produce BENEFITS for the business.

For some weird reason negative outcomes are called DIS-BENEFITS. I think the creators of PRINCE2 wanted the least catchy name they could think of.

Want an Example with that Jargon?

Jargon is all well and good, but how can we really understand something? With some super sexy context of course.

Output

New Sales System

Outcome

Sales are processed quicker and more accurately than the crappy old system

Benefits

10% cost reduction and 15% more sales

Boom. That is context.

Business Justification

Business Justification sounds very impressive. But what does it mean?

Some more jargon coming your way.

To keep a project being worth the trouble, you must justify the Business Case. The project must be Desirable, Viable and Achievable (DVA). What are these terms? Why do they rhyme?

Desirable: The project balances cost, benefits and risk (not the same kind of desirable as a chocolate lava cake, sadly)

Viable: The project will create benefits for the business

Achievable: The project can be done. It is not some impossible task.

What Makes A Business Case a Business Case?

It is vital that you, as Project Manager, create and maintain a Business Case on any PRINCE2 project.

You must review and update your Business Case after any events or decisions that affect the DVA.

Your Business Case must define how to manage the project so you get the benefits and outcomes the business needs.

You must record all the roles and responsibilities of the project team in your Business Case.

The key idea of a Business Case is why? Y0u must define why this project must be done.

Verifying and Maintaining Business Justification

AKA checking the project should be done and making sure it’s still worth the cost.

For a truly well-managed project you must check it it is still worth the cost at the following times:

  • The beginning of each step in the project
  • The end of each step in the project
  • Any time a new issue or risk is noticed!
  • When a backup plan is created
  • At the very end of the project

Remember, the customer is the ultimate judge of the whether or not the project was justified.

Ensuring and Confirming Benefits are Realised

AKA making sure the project is a success.

Sadly, many systems never get used. A system is not just for Christmas people! Here are some common reasons why a system may not get used:

  • If a project is part of a larger programme, it may not be able to produce all those juicy benefits on its own. You could create a damn good wheel, but the customer can’t drive home in a wheel.
  • The project team could make a fantastic product but not train the customers how to use. Remember the first time you drove a car? Imagine there were no driving instructors and you had to just get that bad boy home. Training matters.
  • People can just lose enthusiasm. Some projects take a long time, the customer doesn’t care anymore or some newer shinier, project comes along. You need to keep their precious attention or your project will crash and burn.

A truly successful project has the products used, not just created.

If you learned something or you want to try your own Business Case now, please let me know in the comments below.

Bouncing Back From Rejection

Being rejected hurts. Sadly, you can’t avoid rejection the rest of your life, but you can learn from it.

You can even improve because you were rejected according to Adam Grant an organisational psychologist and the host of WorkLife with Ted a podcast about how to make work not suck. Listen to the podcast for yourself, it’s got great advice and is told in an interesting and accessible way.

The Best Way to Take Rejection

You can react in many different ways to being rejected. You could cry, you could shout, you could be just brush it off.

Grant says the 2 most common reactions to being rejected are:

  • Blaming yourself
  • Blaming the other person

Blaming Yourself

Blaming yourself seems like an obvious choice. You didn’t get that job because you aren’t good enough. You didn’t get promoted because you don’t deserve to. You were fired because you’re garbage.

This option is not only hurtful, it’s wrong.

You will only damage your confidence and self-esteem by blaming yourself. You won’t actually learn anything useful.

On to option 2 then.

Blaming The Other

You are good enough, that company doesn’t know talent. You did deserve that promotion over Jeff. You aren’t garbage, the company that fired you is.

This feels much better.

You aren’t to blame. The world is. Screw you world!

Sadly, this option doesn’t help you grow either.

If you never see the part you had in your failures, you can’t learn from your mistakes. Learning from our mistakes can be one of the best ways to improve.

So, How Should You Handle Rejection?

The two options you just read about are only the most common, but not the best.

Grant tells us about 3 ways you can accept rejection, that are much more effective:

  • Focus on fit
  • Be Self-Compassionate
  • Take it in your stride

What If It’s Not The Right Fit?

Do you ever feel your job just isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing?

Fit isn’t something you can see on a job description or point at in the office. Fit has to do with the way you feel about the work you do, the people you work with and the places you work.

A bad fit can be:

  • A job that doesn’t let you be creative enough.
  • Colleagues who say you’re too quiet, even though you have lots to say, if they’d just let you.
  • Being stuck in an office when you love being outdoors and active.

It’s possible you were talented enough for a job or promotion but you just didn’t gel well with that team or in that environment.

You aren’t the problem, your fit is.

There will be plenty of places where you do fit in better, so think about why that job didn’t work for you and what parts did work for you. Then use that information to find a better fit.

Self-Compassion

Maybe you were to blame. That doesn’t mean you are garbage. People make mistakes, why should you be any different?

If you can learn to be kind to yourself, then making mistakes won’t be the end of the world. You can take the pain, soothe yourself, then learn from it.

Grant tells us about Post-Traumatic Growth, in which we become stronger because of a large failure or trauma we had in life.

This happens when we have the attitude of “I survived that, so I can definitely survive this“. Like you managed to write that dissertation despite still doing all your other subjects at uni, so you can definitely get through this project at work.

Take It In Your Stride

There are 2 approaches to taking rejection in your stride.

See Yourself as More Than Your Job

First, you can realise that the person rejected only one part of you.

You aren’t your job, or your painting or your dating profile.

You are made up of many different parts.

If you consider yourself a husband, father, surfer, knitter and accountant, then when someone doesn’t like your knitting, they have rejected 20% of you at most. That means 80% of you is left unscathed, which hurts a lot less than 100% of you being rejected.

Remember You Still Have Fans

The second way is to realise that one person rejecting you isn’t everyone rejecting you.

There could 500 people who hate your cooking but there could be 500 or 5,000 people who love your cooking.

Unless your contribution to the world is child-murder, you are unlikely to be rejected by everyone. Take comfort in knowing you still have some fans.

Please let me know in the comments below if this has helped you think differently about rejection.

The 7 Themes of PRINCE2

If you want to manage a PRINCE2 project successfully you must follow the 7 Principles of PRINCE2, follow the 7 Themes of PRINCE2 and use the 7 Processes of PRINCE2. In today’s post, we are looking at the 7 Themes of PRINCE2.

The themes of PRINCE2 describe the qualities that make up project management that you must address to have a successful project. All the themes can be tailored to suit the project (as we saw in the 7 themes of PRINCE2).

The 7 Themes of PRINCE2 are as follows:

  1. Business Case – Why?
  2. Organisation – Who?
  3. Quality – What?
  4. Plans – How? How much? When?
  5. Risk – What if?
  6. Change – What is the impact?
  7. Progress – Where are we now? Where are we going? Should we carry on?

1. Business Case

All projects start with an idea.

The idea should provide something useful to the business. The Business Case is a document that says what makes this project useful.

Wondering why you are doing this project? Check the Business Case.

Need to know if changing the direction of the project will still be useful? Check the Business Case.

Need to know what the end product should look like? Check the Business Case.

2. Organisation

All projects involve people.

Some people will benefit from the project. Some people will manage the project. Some people will create the products of the project.

The Organisation theme tells you all about all the people, who is doing what and who is getting what.

3. Quality

For Projects to have been worth it, they need to be high-quality.

The project manager (PM) must agree with the people benefiting from this project (the stakeholders) and the people making the products, how good the product will be. Then the PM makes sure that level of goodness is what the stakeholders get.

If the stakeholders need a lower cost, then the PM will have to get them to agree to lower quality and vice versa.

4. Plans

For a project to succeed, you must know how to do it and when to do it.

Plans go hand in hand with quality. Once you know what to make, you need to know how to do it well.

The plans are the matched to each person at each stage of the project. Everyone should know what to do and when to do it, regardless of their status.

The PM will also refer to the plans when they communicate updates on the project to the stakeholders. Things going according to plan, is good. Not going to plan and we have a problem.

5. Risk

Projects go wrong. But, you can make it less wrong.

Operations have likely been perfected over a long time of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

A project is generally new. New is uncertain. Uncertainty leads to things going wrong. Some of these things can be predicted and maybe even prevented.

Managing risk is vital.

6. Change

Projects aren’t set in stone.

Situations in the business change so the projects change to keep up.

This theme deals with changes that can be managed in a project. This could be the PM responding to changes the stakeholders want or the products not suiting the Business Case.

7. Progress

Projects cause things to change, positive change is progress.

This theme explains how the project matches the plans for the project. Is the project performing going well? Does a problem need to be escalated? Is the project as far along as it should be?

Progress also tells you if the project should continue. Perhaps you have spent too much time and money and not got enough results. Ending a project that produces no results is valuable to the business too, in the resources it saves.

The book goes into each of these themes in detail in their own chapters, but now you have a high-level idea of what each theme is and how it’s important to project management.

If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.