Trouncing technological distractions

The same research I mentioned last week that showed information workers are interrupted every 4 to 11 minutes also found that half of those interruptions are self-initiated! I suspect that also applies to people studying. I can tell you with certainty that it also applies to people who write books and blogs—that would be me.

The sad fact is, you are just as likely to interrupt yourself as to be interrupted by someone or something else. People in open plan offices interrupt themselves the most and I imagine that’s because of the distractions. You get distracted by someone in a nearby desk talking on the phone, you’ve lost concentration, and since your concentration is blown anyway, you do a quick self interruption of Internet surfing or solitaire or Facebooking or twittering or whatever takes your fancy.

You can’t prevent all interruptions, but you can choose prevent half of them by not interrupting yourself.

Technology is a huge distraction and, for many people, it’s an addiction as well as a time waster. It easily diverts your attention and energy to trivia. (Are you wondering whether you’re addicted? You probably are if you check your smart phone every 15 minutes or less. Gradually limit the time you spend checking your technology and don’t take it to bed with you: the blue colour of the LEDs spoils your sleep, which prevents you learning and consolidating the day’s events.)

If your job means you need to stay connected to technology, take a 10-minute break every hour and a half: take a walk, sit quietly, walk up a flight of stairs.

Otherwise, turn your electronic gizmos off when you don’t need them so you can use technology strategically. Accept you can’t read every email, tweet, social media post or news feed, nor can you post five times a day or tweet eight times a day (unless it’s part of your job to do so). Let your computer sort that incoming information into folders so you can read it when it suits you. And, by the way, respond and share only what adds value.

Don’t multitask with technology, either. Multitasking in general places a huge burden on your brain and the resulting mental fatigue takes its toll in mistakes, shallow thinking and poor self-regulation. Your brain’s control network loses the plot when it’s overwhelmed from multitasking or working towards too many goals (that’s why seven key result areas is the top limit). Too much multitasking, especially with technology, means your memory suffers and your behaviour is driven by immediate, situational cues—whatever distraction grabs your attention—instead of being aimed at your priorities.

Let your technology save you time, not waste your time!


Do you make any of these four common writing mistakes?

Whether in our work or personal lives, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we communicate more than any other activity. And we all know that the way we communicate speaks volumes about our character and our professionalism.

Whether you’re writing a email or a essay, speaking to someone in person or on the phone, or just chatting over a coffee, opportunities abound to upset someone, tarnish your reputation, or receive a lower mark than you’d hoped. Here are four common mistakes we’re all prone to when we write, whether it’s at work or study.

I think the first and biggest mistake a lot of people make is not reading over what they’ve written before hitting ‘Send’. And, unless you’re in a crowded office or the library, reading out loud is always better than reading silently. Reading what you’ve written out loud makes it easier to pick up mistakes in grammar and spelling, unnatural-sounding phrases and long, overly-complicated sentences. All those mistakes make you look, at best, careless. (And whatever you do, don’t rely solely on your computer’s spell chequer.)

Another big mistake is trying to sound like you’ve eaten the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The way you write should sound like the way you speak but with a bit better grammar and a more organised flow in term of thoughts and key points. And that really isn’t hard, since writing gives you time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. Even when you’re writing a formal report or an essay and there’s a certain way to structure it, you can still write naturally.

When you write naturally, you avoid the next big mistake, which is writing passively. Passive writing always gets a big yawn and makes it sound like you’re trying to ‘fudge’ the truth. Here’s passive: ‘The moon was jumped over by the cow.’ Here’s active: ‘The cow jumped over the moon.’ Much better. Here’s how to fudge the truth: ‘Mistakes were made.’ Much better to own up to them: ‘I made a mistake and here’s what I’ve learned from it.’

There is sometimes a good reason to write (and speak, for that matter) in the passive, for instance, when you want to be tactful. But generally, try to stick to the active voice when you’re writing. The clue is, any time you see a form of the verb ‘to be’ (the moon was jumped over, mistakes were made), get rid of it to make your writing active.

The fourth and final big mistake is throwing your thoughts down willy-nilly instead of thinking through what you want to say. Aim for a logical, easy-to-follow flow so your reader can easily grasp your points. People won’t read what you’ve written when you make it too hard for them.

So there we go. Whether you’re writing for work or for your studies, you can easily avoid those four big mistakes.

Set your learning up

How effectively do you learn? Are you a graceful learner or a lurching learner? Here are some tips to help you learn nimbly based on the two kinds of prior knowledge you use when you learn:

  1. knowledge about the subject itself
  2. knowledge about how you learn.

The more of these learning strategies you use as you study, the more easily you can learn the material at hand as well as keep on learning about it.

  • Think about what you already know about a topic before you launch into learning more about it.
  • Draw pictures or diagrams to help you understand the subject.
  • Ask yourself questions to test your understanding as you’re learning.
  • Discuss what you’re learning with others and how you can apply it.
  • Go over the material in your mind until you confident you really know it.
  • Go back over material when you don’t fully understand it.
  • Make a note of things you don’t fully understand to follow up later.
  • When you complete an activity or assignment, look back over it to see how well you did and to fine-tune it.
  • Make a study plan to organise your time for learning and completing activities and assignments.

Try these strategies before you attend a class or workshop:

  • Think about the topic, what you already know about it and what might be important ideas to listen for.
  • Know what you will do to remember the key ideas.
  • Think about any questions you may have about the topic or how to apply it.

Enjoy your learning. See it as an important pathway to the future, not a chore!

What do you believe knowledge is?

I had a good clean out of my files the other day and came across a relatively old (1997), but interesting and still relevant research paper by Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich. It explains how our beliefs about what knowledge is affects how deeply and effectively we are able to learn.

Where does knowledge lie for you in each of these three continuums?

  1. Knowledge is made up of separate, clear facts; or Knowledge is made up of interrelated, complex concepts.
  2. Knowledge is absolute: right or wrong, true or false; or Knowledge is continually evolving and therefore uncertain.
  3. Knowledge is provided by experts; or Knowledge can be created through our own thought processes.

When your beliefs about knowledge fall on the right of those three continuums, you are able to learn more effectively than when your beliefs about knowledge cluster to the left of those continuums. Here’s why:

  1. Believing that knowledge is simple leads to simple learning strategies. You think you’ve learned something, for example, when you can remember it. When you believe knowledge is complex, you know you know it only when you can organise it, explain it to others and put it to work for you. The first belief means you stop studying when you’ve memorised the material while the second means you keep studying until you understand it.
  2. Believing that knowledge is certain leads to sweeping generalisations and absolute and fallacious thinking; using words like ‘never’ and ‘always’, for example, are signs of poor thinking based on the belief that knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, believing that knowledge is uncertain and evolving enables you to hold contradictory conclusions and ideas in your mind, think them through, and develop your own opinions based on your judgement and experience.
  3. Believing that knowledge is something handed down by experts leads to accepting what is said or written rather than thinking it through critically. Believing that knowledge comes from thinking and reflecting, experimenting, testing and assessing means that you can develop arguments and counterarguments more readily and you can accept that while experts have specialist knowledge, they aren’t always right about everything. (My post, How to get top marks on your essays, can help you develop arguments and counterarguments.)

Fortunately, we know that we can change our beliefs, or mindsets, so you may want to take a moment and think about how well your beliefs about knowledge are serving you and what you can do to alter them in order to learn more easily:

  • What do you know about your own beliefs about knowledge?
  • How do you know that’s what you believe?
  • Do you understand enough about the implications about your beliefs about the nature of knowledge?

Here are three ideas that may help you expand the way you think about knowledge so you can better understand the world around you and be a more effective learner and manager:

  • The next time something doesn’t happen as you expect it to, rather than write it off as an ‘exception to the rule’ or sweep it under the carpet, try examining it in order to find out more. That  adds to your store of knowledge and helps you understand how things really work.
  • When confronted with a ‘fact’, either one of your own beliefs or a statement made by someone else, ask yourself Why it is true? Why may it not be true? Thinking that something is true because ‘everyone says so’ or because there is no way to prove otherwise are fallacious arguments and the result of simplistic thinking. Dig deeper. Try to relate this ‘fact’ to other things you know; think about it in terms of the strategic perspective, or big picture, rather than the detail, for example.
  • To make sure you’ve really grasped a concept, theory or approach, explain it to yourself in your own words; then explain it as you would to a seven-year old; then explain it as you would to your parents.

By thinking about how we think, we can all learn to be more effective thinkers and more effective learners.

The easy way to reach a goal

My father used to say ‘He’s a real Walter Mitty’ when he was referring to someone he thought was just a day-dreamer who never took any concrete steps to reach their goals. (Walter Mitty was the sad sack loser character in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, a short story by James Thurber first published in 1930, which was later made into a film in 1939 and again in 2013.) It turns out that research backs up the plot line that when you just fantasise, you don’t achieve much at all.

What does work, though, is holding positive expectations regarding achieving your goal. That’s because positive expectations are based on experience, and so are more realistic, while fantasies and just wishful thinking. Just thinking about the outcome makes it seem like achieving it will be easier than the reality, so you kid yourself you don’t need to do much work.

What about visualisation, I hear you ask. Yes it’s true that lots of research-based advice says visualisation works. But it needs to be the right kind of visualisation. Using your mind’s eye to project yourself into the futures and see and feel yourself achieving your goal is one kind of visualisation. That’s the fantasy kind that doesn’t work.

Visualising yourself doing what it’s going to take to achieve your goal is visualisation that does work. You can imagine yourself stepping up to the podium to receive your qualification (lessening the odds that it will actually happen ) or you can see yourself studying in the evenings or saying ‘No’ to a tempting night out in favour of hitting the books, for example, which vastly improves the odds.

There are two main reasons that visualising the process works. The first is that it helps you ‘see’ and plan out the steps you need to take to reach your goal and encourages to think about all the many barriers in your way and how to overcome them. The second is that feeling the emotion lessens your nerves.

No excuses now. Think about, and visualise, the process, not the outcome. OK, reaching your goal may not be easy, but it’s a lot easier to reach this way.

Three tips for easier learning

This first tip shouldn’t come as any surprise, but I have a suspicion that a lot of students are so busy juggling the many facets of their lives that they feel they just don’t have the time to do it. What am I talking about? The simple but hugely learning enhancing technique of simply reflecting on what you’ve just learned. Yes, just spending some time resting and reflecting on what you’ve learned really helps it stick. So from now on, instead of thinking of R&R as Rest and Relaxation, think of it as Rest and Reflection.

One way to reflect on what you’ve learned is to re-explain it in your own words to yourself. Or to an imaginary friend, if you have one. Or to your cat. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re ‘teaching’ it to ‘someone’. Another way is to reflect on how you can put the information to use. Or you can think about how you’ve seen what you’ve learned put to use by someone else. Or think of a time when what you’ve learned could have been effectively put to use. Or review the key points and any new vocabulary you’ve learned.

Here’s another tip: Before learning or studying new material, think about what you already know about the topic. That’s called metacognition and it’s a really important learning tool. One of the reasons is that it gets the neural circuits in your brain, where information ‘sits’ about the topic, firing off and readies them to accept new information about the topic. It also gives the new information about the topic a ‘home’ to nestle comfortably into, so you remember it more easily.

Here’s the third tip: When you’ve finished studying, grab a few ZZZZZZs. When you sleep, your brain cells connect with other cells, which makes information flow more easily. And somehow those connections made while you sleep hang around, so that what you’ve learned stays there — provided you keep those connections active by putting what you’ve learned to use or at least, keep reviewing it. Another benefit of a nap is that when you’re sleep deprived, you can’t earn as easily. Check out a study published in Science.

The best way to take notes

I’ve just been reading a study which shows that, despite the increasingly common practice of taking notes on a laptop, taking notes the good old-fashioned way–by hand– dramatically improves your understanding of the subject.

While you may remember as many facts when you take notes on your laptop, you don’t glean the all-important conceptual understanding. Ergo, since management is largely about concepts rather than facts, the last thing you want to do is take notes on your laptop!

The authors of the study think that the reason is laptop note takers pretty much transcribe the lecture, while longhand note takers process the information, select the important bits, and put it in their own words before writing them down, all of which increase learning.

When you’re taking notes, then, don’t’ try to capture everything the lecturer is saying. Instead, think about the lecturer’s message and write it down in your own words.