Posts filed under “Creativity & Productivity”

Seasons of Work: Summer School Part 2

This is a “show your work”  post about sharing some of my thinking around  my own career development.  You can read Part 1 here

Last year, I wrote about my strategy of taking online courses in the summer (click here for a refresher). As I’m well into my semester, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned as I’ve refined my process. I think it’s amazing that we live in an age where we have access to the best professors at leading universities FOR FREE.

This Summer’s Courses: 

  • Online Games: Literature, New Media & Narrative (Vanderbuilt University)
  • Social and Economic Networks: Models and Analysis (Stanford University)
  • Networks Illustrated: Principles Without Calculus (Princeton University)
  • A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment (Indian School of Business)

 

1) Choose your platform wisely: I love the coursera app.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 11.43.59 PM

Last year, I took a few classes on the MIT Open Courseware platform, but I found it bulky and annoying. It took me twice as long to complete the courses because it was such a pain.  I’ve been using the Coursera App obsessively ever since and I love it for several reasons.

  • It has an easy to use design, especially on mobile devices. User experience is key for me, especially if I’m going to be frequently accessing the app. I found the app to be intuitive and well designed, and it’s made it painless to access and interact with content.  It’s super easy to add, delete and change courses too.
  • You can download videos and course materials for offline viewing. This has been my favorite feature! As I wrote in my last post, I like to maximize my enjoyment of summer weather, and this app makes it easy to consume course materials on the go, meaning I can catch a lecture while I’m out and about – preferably on a nice patio or by the seine. Alternatively, you can power through a bunch of lessons on long airplane rides, making your travel time productive and interesting. Especially if you fly in one of United’s old, horrible airplanes that have no televisions oroutlets. (Seriously United?? Not even an outlet?!)

 

2) Build it into your weekly schedule

One of my favorite quotes comes from Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Workweek. He says: A lack of time is a lack of priorities. Here’s what I believe: continuous learning is essential for professional development. So it’s a priority for me. I make time for it in a way that makes sense to me and I’m realistic about what I can and can’t accomplish.

I purposefully schedule my courses in the summer because I make a conscious effort to scale back other responsibilities. I would totally fail at completing them if I tried to do it in the winter, which is one of my busiest times. I set aside time each week to sit and study some of the material. The day of the week might change depending on my schedule, but I always make sure I include the time.

Find the cycle that works for you: is it 20 minutes a day? An hour a week? Make it work for you. Self-paced learning means there are no excuses to making it fit with your schedule. Commuting time, waiting in line, coffee breaks, workouts, while cooking – there’s always an opportunity to listen to one of the lectures if you know where to look

Pro tip: Depending on the complexity of the material, I can increase the speed of the videos to 1.5 or 2x the normal speed without losing comprehension. If it’s really technical stuff, then I won’t multitask and will listen to it at normal speed. Experiment and see what works!

3) Be realistic about what you can do

I’ve learned that consistency is far more effective than quantity as a metric of achievement. When I first started, not only did I completely underestimate the time it would take to complete the materials, but I set up crazy expectations about how much time I was going to devote to this every day.

I have since learned that it’s better to set the expectation of constant forward momentum. I don’t force myself to adhere to the course schedule, because I’m auditing the courses, I don’t feel the pressure to stick to their timelines, and focus on completing the course in a way that makes sense to me. There’s no harm in starting with one course if that’s all you have time for.

I’ve managed to take more courses without getting overwhelmed by just making sure that I did something consistently. Even if all I could do one week was listen to 30 minutes or 10 minutes – who cares! It’s better than zero, right?

4) Figure out how to capture the information

Last year, I took a bunch of notes in my moleskin as I was going through the courses, but I didn’t plan out how I was going to use the information. This year, I think I’m going to type up my notes, and create a filing system for them online (Evernote or simplenote are great for this.) I’ll be sharing some of my outlines as well, so be sure to subscribe to my newsletter if you’re interested in getting those!

 

5) Always Include A Wildcard

Wild Card

Most of the courses I take are centered around the digital space, big data or strategy. However, I always make sure I include one totally random course. You never know what will inspire you. Incorporating different schools of thoughts and unrelated subject matters will only enrich your knowledge base. This year, I’m taking A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment because I think the premise is super interesting.  Other wildcard courses on my To-Be-Learned include:

  • The Psychology of Popularity (University of North Carolina)
  • Superhero Entertainments (National University of Singapore)
  • Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences (Rutgers, State University of New Jersey).

 

I hope you found this post helpful and are inspired to kick start your own  summer school. If you’re into lifestyle design, I’ve written about it here and here. Happy learning!

 

If you’re interested in staying updated about my research, upcoming books and general cool things I find online, sign up for my monthly newsletters and get my best stuff first. Subscribe here.  

Over-Connected: The psychology of information consumption

This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here

 

I was  excited to be invited to keynote the Management and Business Summit in Madrid, Spain last week. I spoke about the intersection of technology, analytics, and marketing. In particular, I focused on how our relationship with information has changed and the potential impact on brands. In this post, I want to focus on our relationship with information and some of the underlying factors at play that push us to be over-connected. What does it mean to be over-connected? Today, thanks to the proliferation of technology we have the ability to constantly engage with information. From Kindles and iPads to cellphones and smart television we have never lived in a time where connectivity was so ubiquitous. Everyone has something to say and everyone wants to be heard.

 

From Limited with Fixed End to Unlimited & Open Ended 

To understand why we are drowning in information we need to spend some time tracing our evolving relationship with information. We are currently in the process of shifting towards an unlimited and open ended information ecosystem. Traditionally, we have operated on a foundation of data scarcity. Think back to when the newspaper and the evening news were your source of information. Whether it’s textbooks or the current event section, we have grown up in a world where there was always an end point. A finite moment we we’re done – we’ve accumulated all the necessary information to needed to master Grade 12 Chemistry or AP English. Now this is no longer the case – there is never an end point and we are battling years of conditioning to be ok with that.

My nephew was recently working on a school paper about the viscosity of lard and he was having trouble getting it done because he kept finding more and more research and information that he could source. He was looking for that end point. When I explained to him that he would never be able to read every single article about this topic before his deadline, he became upset. “How will I know that I know everything that I need to know about this subject?” He asked. And the best that I could offer was that eventually, you did reach a point where you were reasonably informed about general issues and had to make a call to stop researching and start writing.

As an author, I constantly struggle with this. It’s the reason why ArchiTechs never became a book and instead has become an ongoing series of essays. I kept waiting for that end point, and I never found it. Now, I’ve had to teach myself how to be ok with not knowing everything, and finding that point where I’m confident enough to be able to make a research-based claim while knowing that there is always a risk that somewhere out there could be a piece of information that could change everything.

Today, information is more fluid and we’ve developing a constant work in progress mentality that is different from the way we’ve been taught to evaluate information in the past. This new landscape has created some anxiety for us as consumers since I believe we are still unconsciously looking for that end point and explains why we sometimes get sucked into these information black holes – we’re looking for an anchor point that no longer exists and that is creating a struggle in how we interact with information.

 

 Triangulating the Truth: 

It’s not just the amount of information we have to process but the types of information. It used to be that only experts, journalists, and authors had the ability to share information.  Now, anyone can set up a website and start publishing information in minutes. This has made identifying the truth to be far more complicated. It’s easier than ever to cover up allegiances, sponsorship, and political leanings and we must be vigilant in questioning the validity of our sources. Our grasp on what’s happening is less defined than what we’re used to and this creates a need to continuously seek out information to help inform our point of view.  I think about how internet hoaxes, faked news stories, and other events have made me far less trusting of online content than I used to be. This distrust has made us extra careful, and I know that I always spend extra time double and triple checking any online source of information just to make sure it’s accurate.

This has become more difficult with the rise of native advertising – sponsored content that can pass for journalist editorial, making it difficult to separate unbiased reporting from corporate agendas. Jon Olliver has done a great piece on the threat of native advertising and the risk that it poses in disseminating information that takes an interesting twist on the truth.

 

I believe that teaching our children how to critically evaluate information is going to be a key survival skill in today’s information economy. We have to teach them to ask questions, investigate the source and to always be on the look out for misleading or biased information. We need to teach them how to triangulate the truth, to peel back the layers. Information is our greatest weapon, but it’s also something that can be used against us if we’re not careful.

 

 

Pavlov’s Dogs: Obessed with Notifications 

Finally, let’s not discount the cognitive impact that comes from being constantly connected. Research has shown that when our devices ding with a notification, a small amount of dopamine is released into our brains. We’ve inadvertently trained ourselves to anticipate and look forward to those small dings and beeps. We get a rush from being stimulated, from being connected with other people, from following breaking news.

I believe we have developed an expectation of constant stimulation due to over-connectivity that could be troubling. I recently read an experiment where people were left alone in a room with nothing in it except a device that shocked them when they touched it. They were told to wait for the experiment to start but the real study was to see how people coped with boredom. It turns out – not well. Participants all used the machine – basically we have become people who would rather cause ourselves pain than sit around and do nothing.

 

TL:DR:  We have an outdated model of information organization that is pushing us to find the fixed end – a mythical creature on it’s way to extinction in the age of the Internet. We have an unlimited amount of content to feed our desire and we’ve created a physiological reward mechanism that is training us to continuously engage with our devices and remain in a state of over stimulation. We need to develop a better approach to manging information, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that in an upcoming blog post.

 

If you’re interested in staying updated about my research, upcoming books and the cool things I find online, sign up for my monthly newsletter and get my best stuff first. Subscribe here!   I also keynote about many of these subjects and am happy to design custom content for your event. 

Book Review: Essentialism the Disciplined Pursuit of Less

This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here

 

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably noted that I tend to be interested in a million and one things.  In the past, having a broad (and random) knowledge base has come in handy on client projects or in my writing, but  it has also been  a huge detriment to my productivity. I want to try and do so many things that I get overwhelmed and end up not making progress on anything. Last year, I stumbled upon a book called “Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less” by Greg McKeown and it has had such a big impact on my life that I wanted to share my top three take-aways.

From the back jacket cover:

The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.  It is not  a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.

By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy – instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.

Essentialism is not one more thing – it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to learn who to do less, but better, in every area of their lives, Essentialism  is a movement whose time has come.

 

The book guides you through a process that involves three phases: explore/evaluate, eliminate, and execute.

  • Explore/Evaluate: Essentialist give themselves the opportunities to explore a wide variety of activities and ideas before they narrow down to their final selection. They never commit to anything without first thoroughly analysing how it fits within their goals and objectives.
  • Eliminate: Identifying the things you want to work on is not enough, you have to then  eliminate the activities that don’t make the list. This includes unnecessary meetings, social obligations, or other projects. Greg recommends focusing only on the “vital few.”
  • Execute: The last part of the process involves actually doing the work. Essentialist have the discipline to stick to their focus and refuse to be sidetracked by unexpected requests or opportunities that will distract them from their goals.

I found the model to be helpful and easy to implement. My brain is always racing with so many ideas that it’s easy for me to get caught up in something that isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. I realized that if I was going to accomplish anything substantial, I would have to cut a lot of other stuff out – even if they were fun activities.

 

 

1) Create the Space to Think

One of the most important lessons I took from this book was to schedule in blocks of time to think, evaluate, and explore. It today’s productivity-obsessed culture it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have to fill up every minute of the day with work or social activities. In my group of friends everyone is running around so much that the term “so busy” has become a joke. Every week, I go over to my favorite coffee shop for a few hours to catch up on my reading, write morning pages, and just take some time to think about how everything is going. That time has become extremely valuable in gaining clarity about the things I want to pursue- and those I have to let go.

 

2) Prioritize Your Life or Someone Else Will

Unfortunately, we live in a work culture that has trained us to be hyper-reactive to all communications, meeting requests, and projects. People expect instant responses to their requests, even if that means interrupting your work on something important. For this reason, establishing clear prioritize for yourself is essential in getting things done. For me, hitting my daily word count and with working out are two big priorities. I will try to complete those before tackling emails and calls. That way, I always know that I’ve made good progress on the things that matter, without getting caught up meetings and requests.

I have stopped saying that I am “so busy.” Tim Ferris has said that a lack of time indicates a lack of priorities and going through the Essentialism process, I now wholeheartedly agree. If you don’t make time for your dreams, your health, your friends and your family – you’ll definitely pay for it later. (Coincidentally, ignoring those things are the most common regrets of the dying.)

 

3) Embrace the Power of No

It’s completely liberating to say no. Saying no to the things you don’t want to do is easy, the real hard part is saying no to the things you actually want to do because there are other things that are more important. For me, finishing my novel last year was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. To do so I had to be very realistic about my limited free time since we were still writing and finalizing The Decoded Company. So I said no to a bunch of other stuff I wanted to do: spanish lessons, drawing class, learning the ukulele – I love all of these things but writing my novel was more important. It was cutting those stuff out that allowed me to focus and push through and write nearly 100,000 words in my spare time.

This year, I have a few projects around digital culture that I’m toying with, not to mention I want to write another novel, so I’m forcing myself to really evaluate how much time these projects will take before committing to starting them. Ultimately, this book has been a big in deciding what to pursue and what to let go. Prioritizing your dreams is a hard exercise, but an essential one if you want the chance to truly pursue them.

 

 

Bonus: Download a free copy of Greg’s  “12 Myths that Lead to an Unfulfilling Life,”

 

 

[SciPO] Course Debrief: Altucher & The Creativity Habit

This is the first “show your work”  post about my Innovation and Emerging Business Models course for Sciences Po’s MBA in Economics and Finance in Paris. You’ll be able to see subsequent entries here

This past summer, I was invited by SciencesPo, France’s leading university for Social Sciences, to teach a course on innovation for their first year MBA program.  11 sessions later, I can’t believe we’ve reached the end of the semester! For the past few months, every Wednesday I’ve hopped on the metro and headed over to the beautiful campus in the sixth arrondisement, right in the heart of Saint Germain. Now that the course is wrapping up, I’ll be blogging a bit about the curriculum, the research I came across and my experiences in general.

Tomorrow will be our final class, and my students will be presenting their final projects: an innovation brief tracking emerging areas of opportunity in an industry of their choice. I encouraged them to pick an industry they were serious about engaging in and so far it’s been a wide and eclectic mix ranging from men’s grooming and women’s fitness to home-schooling and robotics.

Before diving into “innovation tools” I wanted to spend some time identifying the necessary conditions needed to cultivate innovative thinking on an individual, team, or industry wide level. Too often, we see the focus only on the end-result innovation, glossing over the necessary conditions that were required to generate success. For the first few modules, we focused on creativity and on identifying the necessary skills to help foster innovation.

Creativity is a habit that can be developed: James Altucher’s Idea Machine

On an individual level, creativity is a habit that can be developed and it requires making a concentrated effort to come up with ideas and seeking out new sources to spark our curiosity and making new connections between different ideas. I took inspiration from the brilliant James Altucher‘s idea machine strategy and at the beginning of each class, I would choose a topic at random and give them between 5-7 minutes to come up with ten ideas.

I got a lot of resistance. Why 10 ideas? Why a limited time frame? What’s the point? Will we be graded? Will we have to share our ideas?

The first time we did this, the topic was “10 Businesses You Could Start.” No one could come up with 10 ideas.

What’s interesting was the conversation that happened when we started digging into to why. Some people had placed restrictions on themselves in terms of capital or resources even though I hadn’t given those constraints. Some people were getting bogged down in how to execute the idea, some people were afraid of not having ideas that were good enough. Talking about this helped them realize the limitations we each face when trying to come up with something new. We learned to take inspiration from everything around us, to identify pain points, to make crazy connections even if they don’t make sense, and – most importantly, to let go of the ego pressuring us to come up with “perfect ideas.”

During another class I told them to take two separate ideas and combine them to  create a new idea (Altucher calls this Idea Sex, lol).

“But it doesn’t make any sense!” I was told by one very logical student. “Who says it has to?” I replied. A big pause, and then a grudging nod. This is a safe space, I told them. It’s not about coming up with ten good ideas, but just 10 ideas. It’s like doing push-ups: we’re just making the muscles stronger so that when we DO need to come up with good ideas, we’ve had good practice.

Subsequent exercises remained a bit difficult but by class five, I felt like we had hit our stride, with the majority of people being able to reach 10 ideas. The feedback from doing this regularly has been tremendous. Some students are amazed that they’ve managed to come up with 120 ideas over the course of the semester. Others told me it sparked creativity in other classes and they found themselves thinking of new ideas more frequently. By class ten we had become idea generating machines – they looked at the topic and went to work immediately, a far cry from the confused and sometimes frightened faces at the beginning of the term.

My favorite feedback was a comment from a student who stopped to tell me: “I never thought of myself as an idea generator, but this class has shown me that if I practice, I can come up with some great concepts. It’s changed the way I look at myself.”  I was happy to see their ability to come up with ideas improve dramatically over the course of the class. Innovation is about seeing connections and you can only get to that place if you train yourself to always be thinking about new opportunities.

While I can’t claim to do the idea generation exercises every day like James suggests, I do them during my morning pages with enough regularity that I can vouch for their effectiveness. It’s such a simple thing to do, and it can have a big impact on your ability to innovate.

So a big thank you to James for helping us become idea ninjas!  Speaking of James, I’m a huge fan of both his blog, and his book “Choose Yourself” which I highly recommend you read!

If you’re interested in staying updated about my research, upcoming books and general cool things I find online, sign up for my monthly newsletters and get my best stuff first. Subscribe!  

Productivity Tips for Peace of Mind: Part 2 – Batching

This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here

In the first part of this series, I wrote about how automation is one solution to reduce decision fatigue: the deteriorating quality of our decision making ability over a sustained period of time. My experiments with automation were very successful, and I wanted to continue to build on these positive experiences by trying out another productivity trick: batching.

Batching is when you group similar tasks and do them all at the same time. Things like email, reading, blogging, household chores and even cooking can be combined into one chunk of time. I’ve been using my own hybrid of Dan Sullivan’s Entrepreneurial Time Keeper and David Allen’s Getting Things Done since 2008, a blend of context-based to-do lists and batching my days into focus, buffer and rest days. Batching is built in, but I’ve tried to refine my approach to other parts of my life. I already batch several things including responding to emails, calls and meetings and running errands, so I decided to see if there were other missed opportunities for batching that I wasn’t taking advantage of.

 

1) Content Consumption: Feedly and Pocket are your two best friends.

The biggest shift for me was batching content, both online and offline. Now, instead of checking social media sporadically, I devote two 20 minute periods during the day – I use them as rewards for completing tasks. That way, I deep dive in and get updated on all the tweets, pictures of babies, and blog posts that my network is producing. I do the same thing for my inbox – I check it three times a day. Once in the morning, once after lunch and once when I’m when I’m ready to call it a day. Anything that requires an involved answer gets flagged and then dealt with during the last email shift of the day – this ensures that I stay on track of getting my big important tasks done.

I’ve been a long time fan of RSS readers (Feedly is my favorite thing ever) and this helps me minimize my casual web-browsing. I generally go to a cafe with my iPad and spend two-three hours reading over all the blogs that I follow. I have become very strict with when I read content. If I do come across something interesting but not related to my task, I quickly send it to Pocket and then I know it’s been captured, and I can look it over during my next reading batch.

Honestly, I don’t know how people manage their content without an RSS feed, I would be completely and utterly lost.

 

2) Content Creation: Blogging

As I’ve started regularly blogging again, I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall off the bandwagon this time around. Normally, I blog on my buffer days, but I used to only work on one post at a time. Now, I’ve batched a few hours together in order to produce 3-5 blog posts instead just one. Since I’m already in the blogging zone, it’s much easier to generate and research other ideas for different posts at the same time, and I’ve found that it’s easier for me to draft several posts over the course of three hours than to work on one post a day.

 

3) Food

This was one that I had missed. I used to only prep food for a day or two in advance on my buffer days, but I wondered if I could increase my time horizon to span the whole week. Turns out, you can! I discovered a great baked oatmeal recipe that it’s easy to make and nutritious – one casserole dish results in an entire week of breakfast for Jesse and I! Win!

I also found that doubling or tripling recipes when cooking has been a great way to freeze meals and have enough left overs to last for the week. Quinoa for dinner turns into having quinoa ready for a salad the following day.

 

VERDICT:  Batching definitely increases your output and makes your life easier overall. It also helps reduce the amount of switching you do between tasks, allowing you to deep dive and achieve a state of flow. Batching also clears your calendar, leaving you with the large blocks of time you need to do your best strategic work, instead of letting emails, social media and coffee dates derail or priorities.

 

Other articles I found on Batching: 

Michael Hyatt shows how batching and the pomodoro technique make leaders more efficient.

Darren Rose at Problogger.net talks about how he batches his online tasks.

 

If you’re interested in staying updated about my research, upcoming books and general cool things I find online, sign up for my monthly newsletters and get my best stuff first. Subscribe here.