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Helping the Family to Get Things Done

Helping the Family to Get Things Done

helping hand

    Ever had a conversation with your brother about how he feels like he never seems to get anything done beyond checking his email? Or talked to your mother about her difficulties finishing a project?

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    Have you ever tried to help them set up a system — make their lives a little simpler or a little more productive? And had that attempt blow up in your face?

    My experiences with helping my family (and many friends, as well) — even when they ask for the help — seem guaranteed to blow up in my face. If I’m lucky, I get a shrug and a ‘This just isn’t working for me.’ If I’m not lucky, at the next family get-together, I’m in for some serious snubbing.

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    Why is it so hard to help someone else become more productive?

    At least in family situations, we all generally seem to assume that we have one another’s best interests at heart. I want my father to read a book on productivity or my cousin to filter her email because I think these actions will make their lives easier. And, fairly routinely, relatives ask for some sort of help. Every family get-together seems to focus on some new project: someone’s building a deck or planning a party or otherwise needs help. So, why is helping a friend or a family member out with productivity problems so much harder than pounding a couple of nails into what will eventually be a front porch?

    I’ve got a theory: there’s a right way of hammering a nail. Try pounding a nail upside down and you’ll see how many variations you can really come up with. But with productivity, or even simply making a person’s life a little bit easier, there are thousands of different options. And the options that work perfectly in my life just aren’t going to work as well in anyone else’s — where I need to focus on handling my email addiction, my father needs to deal with an overflowing voice mail box. The techniques that get me through the day don’t translate into his lifestyle.

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    What is the solution?

    We don’t want to leave our friends and family struggling in a situation where we think we might be able to help. But it can be hard to introduce techniques to other people: we can be very excited about a new trick or tip that they may not be able to use, or they may be resistant to changing their system, or a half dozen other difficulties. If you want to share the system you have developed, or even just a small trick that you think another person will find useful, there are ways to go about it that won’t get you kicked out of the next family reunion.

    From my experiences, the most important step is to be okay with people not only ignoring your suggestions but flat out telling you that you’re wrong. Remember, you like these people, or you wouldn’t be offing your help. Pushiness won’t help anyone. So take a deep breath and let it go. Arguing about it will only lead to trouble: my attempts at making my mother’s life easier only got her to threaten to swap me for a grateful child. And, yes, I freely admit that if I hadn’t gotten so emotionally involved with her incoming email, I would have been safe from all such threats. Remember, it’s just email or shopping lists or whatever. The people are the important thing: if their system works for them, leave it alone.

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    You should also keep in mind that different people work well with different systems. Many people consider ‘Getting Things Done’ ideal for their lives, but just as many have decided that, while it’s a great framework, there are plenty of detail that need tweaking — and even more that just don’t like the way they would need to adapt GTD to their lives, or their lives to GTD. Rather than pointing people towards your perfect system, you can often provide more help by pointing them towards the resources they need to find their own niche. While it might be a shameless plug, I think a site like LifeHack is going to be more valuable to someone you want to introduce to the concept of productivity than just handing them a copy of ‘Getting Things Done’ and expecting them to read it. For one thing, the posts here are a heck of a lot shorter than a book — which means that your friend or relative doesn’t need to make a big time commitment to start. For another, there are lots of options and lots of explanations of the pros and cons of those options.

    I won’t argue that there is value in reading ‘Getting Things Done’ or a half dozen other productivity books, but most books aren’t primers: they aren’t a good starting place for someone who doesn’t know that there are options beyond overflowing inboxes and packed schedules. They’re generally written for someone who’s already taken a step or two in the direction of making life a little easier.

    Where to start?

    Rather than sending off books or lists of links, I’ve been able to help my friends and family by narrowing my focus. I’ll email a link to one specific article that directly addresses what problem they’re currently facing. And I don’t offer to walk them through it — I leave it up them to ask if and when they decided they need help. Sure, it’s rare that anyone actually uses the information you pass along in exactly the way you expect, but they often will be able to find some sort of use for it.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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