The Stopping-Off Point

November 22, 2014

I’m quite keen on reading posts on productivity, even though I rarely come across anything startlingly new. The principles seem timeless, it’s their disciplined implementation that’s hard, or at least very challenging.

One such post, recently seen in the The Chronicle of Higher Education lists ‘The Habits of Highly Productive Writers’. One point did however grab me:

“They leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again. Some writers quit a session in the middle of a sentence; it’s always easier to continue than to begin. If you know where you’re headed the next time you sit down, you’ll get there faster. There’s an activation-energy cost to get things brewing. Lower it however you can.”

I realised that when I write I usually split items into tasks and aim to finish them off, one after another. Consequently I start each one from scratch, which usually means there is an obligatory period of procrastination or prevarication before I get into the flow (especially when tasks span days).

Bearing the above advice in mind, once I’ve finished a task (say, reviewed and published a blog post), I’ll now try sketching out the main aspects of the next one or two so that when I approach them I’m not starting cold i.e. I’ll be changing my stopping-off point. Alternatively I might even go so far as to write the first few sentences.

It’ll be interesting to see if this becomes overall a better process. The approach is not limited to just writing of course, it can apply to nearly any task.

On the same day as reading the above article, I read a couple of related ones (although very different in slant) but which also discuss overcoming barriers to writing and publishing (or most things actually).

One, by James Clear, discusses the clash between Goals and Systems. It’s a good read and here’s an extract:

“As an example, I just added up the total word count for the articles I’ve written this year. (You can see them all here.) In the last 12 months, I’ve written over 115,000 words. The typical book is about 50,000 to 60,000 words, so I have written enough to fill two books this year.

All of this is such a surprise because I never set a goal for my writing. I didn’t measure my progress in relation to some benchmark. I never set a word count goal for any particular article. I never said, “I want to write two books this year.”

What I did focus on was writing one article every Monday and Thursday. And after sticking to that schedule for 11 months, the result was 115,000 words. I focused on my system and the process of doing the work. In the end, I enjoyed the same (or perhaps better) results.

Let’s talk about three more reasons why you should focus on systems instead of goals.”

The other, which sounded a bit too detailed for me personally, but which had some good points to think about was the software product Vitamin-R (Mac only, but there should be lots of Windows alternatives). This emphasises the habit of time-slicing and monitoring tasks, something I’ve often found quite effective in the past.

You can read about the philosophy behind the product (which is the important part anyway) in the User Manual, which is a free download. You can then try to adapt it to any system you use, or else you can trial or buy the software directly if you prefer (a recent review of it is here).

See also: Start The Day With An Unfinished Sentence.


Financial Innovation – Alternative Finance 2014

November 12, 2014

alternative-finance-2014-spread-1500px

Facts about Alternative Finance in the UK (click to enlarge)

I’ve been looking at alternative finance schemes for a few months now. There’s a lot of them and it’s not always straightforward comparing and contrasting them. Consequently it’s helpful that Nesta, partnering with the University of Cambridge, have just produced a large scale survey of the sector (the report is a free download, see links below):

Say ‘financial innovation’ and what comes to mind for many is the investment banks and complex products that were at the centre of the financial crisis. Yet in recent years we’ve seen the term become associated with a new type of finance provider, those businesses and online platforms gathering under the banner of alternative finance.

Finance models such as crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending are at the heart of this as they harness internet technologies to bring those with money and those who need it closer together and aggregate numerous small investments or donations to meet large funding needs. Businesses, community groups and individuals are using this industry to either get funding they cannot access elsewhere or to get it quicker and on better terms.

Full details here (incl. the report) and there’s a handy summary-type blog post here.


Teaching To Learn

November 9, 2014

how-we-learn-slideshow-1-728

In this context it’s also invaluable to remember that:

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” – Albert Einstein

Doing the latter is actually not common or easy as people often take lots of things for granted eg jargon. This is related to the so-called ‘curse of knowledge‘.

See also a previous post on the role of collaborative conversation in education.

Topic first spotted on the blog of Nick Milton.

Picture credit here.


Thinking Differently With Feynman

November 3, 2014

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” – Richard P. Feynman

I wonder how many times a teacher or lecturer says that, or something similar, in class!

Of course it’s necessary to try to follow and understand the accepted way but there’s no harm and probably a lot of enlightenment in trying to think about things differently or originally as well.

Here are some other Feynman quotes to think about (click to enlarge):

Feynman Quotes

You might also be interested in:

Feynman Day At The Bloomsbury

Feynman And His Multifaceted Communication Skills

Picture credit here.


Saying No Effectively

October 30, 2014

Parse_NOb

I’ve written a number of times (see below) on the importance of saying ’no’ to certain business situations even if they sound quite enticing. It’s obviously easier written about than actually done so it was interesting to read how some very successful people handle this.

On his blog, Dan Martell, a Canadian entrepreneur, gives some principles:

I do have some “non-negotiables” for my replies:

  • I never lie
  • I always respond (as long as it doesn’t look like mass spam)
  • I always give a yes or a no

together with some sample responses, including:

Take a meeting

Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, scheduling a meeting is tough, lets start with an email. How can I help?

Attend an event

Thanks for the opportunity, but I’m already committed that day. Appreciate the invite.

Read a long email

Thanks for reaching out, but unfortunately I won’t be able to process your full email. How can I help?

Involvement in a new project

Thanks for thinking of me, but unfortunately I’m over committed with Clarity (his company) + a growing family. I’m going to have to pass this time.

I keep a fairly detailed journal on what I do every day (initially I was curious where all my time was going…). However, in spite of blogging about it, I’ve realised that I don’t particularly write about things that I decide not to do or to follow up.

This is a bit more than having vague ideas and noting them down for further thought but rather definite decisions that are made (some will, with hindsight, be mistakes of course!).

In the examples above, it’s illuminating that whilst the answer is ‘no’ a hand is held out to do something smaller and more manageable (‘how can I help?’).

The skill then becomes to keep involvement at this practical level and for this not to be misinterpreted as the first step in agreeing something more time-consuming.

Related:

Saying No To New Ideas

The Power Of Yes And No Journals (I obviously didn’t decide to implement this on a regular basis!)

Never Say No Immediately


New Ways To Fund Science

October 22, 2014

Sean Carroll is a research physicist at the California Institute of Technology specialising in general relativity and cosmology. He’s written a number of well-received popular books on the subject (eg The Particle at the End of the Universeand is certainly media savvy.

In an interesting development, he’s currently trying to raise private funding for interdisciplinary research projects in his areas of expertise.

From Benefunder:

Your contributions will support Dr. Carroll’s research as he investigates fundamental challenges in theoretical physics. Funding will allow him to bring together researchers to tackle interdisciplinary questions that are not funded by traditional funding sources, and pioneer new and risky approaches to big questions. All contributions are useful – a few thousand dollars would support graduate students, while hundreds of thousands could fund postdoctoral researchers at a crucial stage in their career.

It’ll be interesting to see if this type of approach takes off as it may lead to viable new ways of carrying out leading edge scientific research.

Again, from Benefunder:

Benefunder is a marketplace that allows donors to find, fund, and follow researchers and other university initiatives in a simple, efficient way.

Benefunder partners with top universities to gain access to top researchers and initiatives across all disciplines to ensure that your donations go to the intended use. Researchers create and manage their profiles on our site, which must be approved internally prior to getting published. This way you always get the most up to date information regarding their work and can rest assured knowing that all our causes are in fact vetted.

See also Ten Things About Time You May Not Know.


Cultivating Collaborative Conversations

October 20, 2014

I sometimes visit Bill Gates’ blog, GatesNotes, to see what books he’s reading as well as for his occasional and interesting reviews eg here. The leading header on the blog a while ago was an interview he had with a Teacher of the Year (Washington State, 2014).

Although education is not a primary interest of mine, I watched the video above and quickly became fascinated.

From the blog post:

Katie had an insight that really struck me: She said we’ve known for a long time that most students won’t learn if you just stick them in a classroom and make them listen to a lecture. They have to put the learning to use and make it relevant to their own lives. And yet most teachers still get their professional development at seminars and conferences, where they sit listening to lectures. “We would never do that with kids,” Katie said, “but we still do it with teachers.”

This extract relates to quite a few posts on this blog on different ways of sharing knowledge (see knowledge management category on the rhs).

The main points from the short video above are:

  • Time – the school principal is heroic enough to give the teachers time to learn through mutual collaboration (as opposed to cramming yet another task into an already busy schedule; in other words, something else is given a lesser priority!). I can imagine that just doing this one thing sends out a very powerful message. The example given is that the in the monthly 45 minute staff meeting, 30 minutes is spent on discussing ‘instruction’ (how can we all teach better?).
  • Large group collaboration – this is for generating the big picture and is typically not hands-on.
  • Small group collaboration – this is for applying the big picture insights to specific areas, say physics or French and is hands-on.
  • Visits – a group of teachers go around the school to see how well the ideas are working out, taking the whole working environment into account (for example the use of graphics on the walls might be very effective and this approach could be used elsewhere).

An example discussion question is: How do we develop strategies for better student dialogue, how do we help kids have more constructive conversations in class?

This question sounded pretty impressive to me!

I have no experience of teaching in high school although I have taught at various universities during my time in academia. However, in common with many other lecturers, I had no formal training for this, let alone (planned) collaborative discussions about good methods that worked.

I was curious if any of this could be transferred to a business setting, even in an approximate way.

For example, replace the above school discussion question by: How do we develop strategies for better business dialogue, how do we help people have more constructive conversations in their work environments, leading to better understanding, motivation and results?

The first thing that came to mind was a partial overlap with the idea of ‘knowledge cafes’ that are already being successfully used in various organisations eg see here. Typically they start with a question for a whole group which is then discussed in detail via small groups. The full group then gets together again to see what personal insights or actions the discussions may have lead to.

The school approach above could be thought of as a type of ‘cafe’ which roles on month after month and where the questions are collaboratively developed. Importantly it also includes the facility of seeing how insights are realised in particular settings through visits e.g. to working offices. In a business setting, such a ‘cafe’ (based on collaborative conversations) would become an integral way of working rather than a separate activity.


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