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.

Learn about the rest of the principles here.

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/

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.

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.

The 7 Principles of PRINCE2

The principles of PRINCE2 are what make a project a PRINCE2 project. The principles are not designed to be ironclad rules, but rather a guide on the best way to approach projects.

The PRINCE2 principles are:

  • Universal – They can be applied to any project
  • Self-Validating – They have been proven to work by being used in many projects over a long time
  • Empowering – Knowing you are working with effective tools gives you confidence in your work.

What Are The 7 Principles?

The 7 principles I will describe in this blog post are:

  • Continued Business Justification
  • Learn from Experience
  • Define Roles and Responsibilities
  • Manage by Stages
  • Manage by Exception
  • Focus on Products
  • Tailor to Suit the Project

Continued Business Justification

The project manager must make sure the project is still going to provide a positive value and is still needed by the users at each stage of the project.

Cutting a project short that won’t be worth the time, money and effort is good, because it frees up that time, money and effort for projects that are worth it.

Learn from Experience

  • Beginning – Learn from similar previous projects
  • During – Learn from what has happened so far on the project
  • After – Learn from the project once it is finished

Defined Roles and Responsibilities

Everyone on the project needs to know what they should do and what they should not do. This stops people wasting time, money and effort doing the same work, or work someone else is better suited to.

Everyone also needs to know the best way to communicate with other people on the project. Got some remote workers? Best to know upfront, so you can arrange to speak virtually or on the phone.

Manage by Stages

A “management stage” is a single block of the project, like gathering requirements or developing the welcome screen.

Shorter management stages are easier to control, larger ones require less direct management, so can be reduce the workload on the Senior Manager (only really applies to huge projects).

PRINCE2 projects all have at least 2 management stages:

  • Initiation (the start)
  • Anything after that

The end of each management stage is when documents should be updated and the project should be checked to see if it is providing enough value to be worth continuing (Continuous Business Justification)

Manage by Exceptions

Set boundaries for the project, that if passed, mean it has failed and should end. Generally these have a little wiggle room.

The most common exceptions are:

  • Cost
  • Time
  • Quality
  • Scope
  • Benefits
  • Risk

Focus on Products

Projects that focus on producing something are more likely to be successful. You can justify to a client an application you have built much more easily that some generic improvements you made to worker productivity. A product is thing that has been made.

Agreeing on what the final product will look like with users make it less likely they will be unhappy with the final product as they told you that’s what they wanted. It also helps to stop users adding new features and ideas through the project, which can lead to the project never finishing because there’s always one more thing.

Tailor to Suit the Project

All projects are different, so make sure you adjust your project management accordingly. If the project is smaller and simpler you may be more hands on, if the project is large and complex you would likely need to delegate more and keep track of people rather than getting stuck in yourself.

Now you have a top-level definition of the 7 principles of PRINCE2, do any of these sound wrong to you? Do they sound right to you? Has it changed the way you will manage your projects? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Manage Projects: An Introduction

Projects are everywhere. You have to solve a problem for a client? That’s a project. You want to build chairs in your spare time? Each chair is a project. You want to write a series of blog posts? Those posts are a project. But how do you manage a project to make sure it’s a success? I don’t know. So I am going to learn about it from “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2” and share what I learn with you.

Time For Some Jargon

What is Prince2?

PRojects IN Controlled Environments. I realise that doesn’t tell you much, but the whole book is about PRINCE2, so we will have a better answer at the end of this series of posts.

What is a project?

PRINCE2 defines a project as: “A temporary organisation that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case”. Seems unnecessarily wordy to me.

A Project is something you (or a team) do in a limited amount of time to make something valuable. It’s that simple.

The Power Of 7

PRINCE2 loves the number 7. There are:

  • 7 Principles – What makes a project PRINCE2
  • 7 Themes – What must be managed to make a project successful
  • 7 Processes – What must be done at each stage of a project and when to do it

That is the exciting journey that lays ahead. Projects are the best way to create positive change, so learning how to make them a success seems like a worthy goal. Come back next time to read about the 7 Principles in detail.

An Experiment In Editing – 4: To Sell Is Human

The following is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Jason Fried’s post on Signal V. Noise about a writing class he would like to teach. In the hypothetical class, he aimed to show that editing and compressing is truly valuable. That’s why the posts get shorter, not just varying in length, he aims to go from the fully explored idea to just the main point of the text. I am going to attempt to do this with several of my posts, as an experiment to see if it helps with my writing skills.

To see the original post, please click here.

One-Line Version

Selling is important, selling solves problems, selling can make lives better.

One-Paragraph Version

Every job involves persuading people, a good solution to a problem, needs people to believe in it, for it to be implemented. You need to understand people, keep going when things get tough and understand the problem you want to solve. To move people, you need you pitch your offer, be able to adapt to changing situations and you need to work for the customer. Not just yourself.

Three-Paragraph Version

Why Sales?

Every job today has an element of “non-sales selling” (persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve them making a purchase). These skills are critical in all jobs, so we are all sales people. In a world where everyone has access to the same information, moving people can be a way to help people solve a problem, not screw them over.

The ABCs of Selling

Attunement – Understanding your customer, so you can figure out the best solution for them, as an individual.

Buoyancy – Being able to keep going despite all the rejection you will face trying to move people.

Clarity – Understanding the situation as clearly as possible, so you can solve problems your customers didn’t know they had or didn’t know could be solved.

Skills You Need, To Be Good At Moving People

Pitch – Your customers can’t buy your offer if they don’t know it exists. If you never put the information into the world, it doesn’t exist. An effective pitch is crucial to moving people.

Improvise – Plans fail, situations change. You need to be able to think on your feet and adapt to the situation as required.

Serve – A good salesperson ultimately serves their customer. You can improve your service by making it personal (find a way to improve your customer’s situation). Or by making it purposeful (find a way to improve the world, even just a little bit).

One-Page Version

This book is about how Sales not only deserves a re-branding from being all about pushy con-artists, but that Sales is actually a necessary skill for workers everywhere today.  

We All Work in Sales

A Survey of western workers, found that 1 in 9 people work in traditional sales, but that the other 8 in 9 spend 40% of their time in “non-sales selling” (persuading, influencing and convincing people in such a way that doesn’t involve them making a purchase).  Pink refers to this as “moving people”

How We All came to be in Sales

One of the skills that seems to be universally useful, is the skill to move people. Teachers move their students when they get them to study hard and learn for their futures. Nurses move people when they work on building a treatment plan with their patients to create a plan that works and they will stick to outside of the hospital setting.

Does Sales Deserve Its Bad Reputation?

The success of a sales technique is determined by the amount of information on both sides of the transaction. If the seller has more information, he has more power, so he can use tricks and be pushy to get more sales. Today, every person has access to the same information as everyone else, this means the seller and buyer are equally powerful, so lies and tricks won’t work. So today, the best salespeople actually work to find the best solutions for their customers, not just to get the best deals for themselves.

Attunement

Attunement, is all about understanding your customer. The better you understand the person and their needs, the better chance you have of being able to help them with their problems and therefore the better chance you have of making the sale.

Buoyancy

Salespeople face a lot of rejection. No matter how persuasive you are, you can’t persuade everyone. If you give up at the first failure, you will never sell anything. Being able to bounce back and carry on is key to surviving in sales.

Clarity

Clarity allows you and your customer to see the situation clearly and understand it. You can offer a solution to a problem your customer may not have known even existed or that they did not have know could be solved.

Pitch

The pitch is how your customer learns about your offering. If you never make the offer, no one ever finds out about it and therefore never buys it. The stronger the pitch, the more likely you will move people.

Improvise

Selling on a formula doesn’t work in a world where information is so readily available. Being able to react and adapt to situations is a key skills in moving people.

Serve

As a salesperson, you have the opportunity to improve the lives of others, your offer solves a problem. There are two ways to serve. Make it personal, find a way your offer benefits the person. Make it purposeful, find a way your offer makes the world a better place.