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Readers Respond: Your Stumbling Blocks

Readers Respond: Your Stumbling Blocks
Your Stumbling Blocks

About 10 days ago, I accidentally posted a question I had meant to schedule for later this month, and as I’m coming to expect, your responses really got me thinking. The question was simple: What one big productivity block do you most struggle to overcome? But the issue it raises — how can we keep ourselves on track? — is really complex, and speaks directly to why a site like lifehack.org exists and continues to attract a daily readership in the six figures.

We talk a lot about goals, motivation, and self-development. All of these things share a common root: desire. The desire to fulfill our destinies, maybe, or to attain for ourselves something that’s missing, whether that’s security, luxury, meaning, or even just a sense of completion and closure.

Planning our own absence

But things get in the way of us attaining the things we desire. Sometimes those things are external factors — a harsh government, a poor economy, bad business choices by our employers. But much of the time, what keeps us from fulfilling our desires is internal. Some things we have no control over — health problems, for instance. Boris left a particularly touching comment last week:

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I do a very good job at managing most activities related to my business. However, no matter how well I planned… I have chronic health problems that get in the way very often.

I don’t have chronic health problems, but even something as simple as a cold or a toothache can derail all my planning and send me into a tailspin of depression and self-doubt — I can only imagine what it must be like to experience that on a regular basis.

The thing with health issues is that, although we can work really hard to keep ourselves fit, we are always under the threat of a sudden flare-up, whether of a chronic illness or a new infection or injury. No matter how much we tell ourselves that we are captains of our own destinies, our bodies can betray us, laying us low in a matter of moments.

The answer to this lies, I think, in planning. I’ve been strongly inspired by Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Work Week. Ferriss devotes a large part of the book to describing systems that continue to work even when we’re not there to run them. The point, for Ferriss, is to allow us the time to gallivant around the globe in search of tango lessons or extreme sporting events (or, I suppose, enlightenment), but the lesson applies to those of us worried about a sudden illness knocking us out of commission for a week, a month, or a year. Set up systems that require as little attention as possible, so you can commit your time to activities that serve your self — whether that means spending six months seeking the latest thrill or six months recovering from an injury.

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Strengths, Focus, and Vision

There are also internal forces that act as stumbling blocks that we do have some degree of control over, or that are within our power to change. Tom Gray says his biggest stumbling block is not playing to his own strengths:

I spend too much time working on things that would be better delegated or farmed out and not enough time in activities where I shine.

Kevin X says he struggles to maintain focus, keeping his attention on the things he’s doing instead of the things he wants to do when he’s done:

When I am on one project, I start to think about another. When I move on to a new part of the day, I find myself thinking about something in the past. Even when I am trying to sleep (the best time of the day) my mind wanders so much and I think of great new ideas (which I have to quickly write down) or of the past day and the next day.

And gstar writes of the importance — and difficulty — of keeping one’s vision in mind:

maintaining the “big picture” of where you are ultimately trying to go. I’ve heard it said, “Take care of the details, and the rest will take care of itself” – How do you narrow down what those details are, while not losing track of the overall goal?

What these three things have in common is a lack of self-reflection — taking the time to sit down with one’s self and really thinking about who one is and what one should be doing. This is, I realize, a tall order, and one that Western society, at least, doesn’t make much space for.

Which is why it’s so crucial that we make that space ourselves, that we insist on the time to explore our own needs and desires. This isn’t touchy-feely, hippie stuff — this is what it takes for us to realize our fullest potential, and in that light, it’s what makes us human. We need time to figure out what are strengths are and how best to develop and use them, time to make sure that the things we are doing are really the best use of our time, and time to see our lives in the big-picture view so we can work out where we’re headed and why we’re headed that way.

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I think it’s telling that virtually every productivity guru, every organization coach, and every successful leader advocates some sort of ritualized self-awareness time, whether that’s a yearly retreat, daily quiet time, or a weekly review. What they don’t tend to say is how hard it is to really think about this stuff! To discover your strengths it’s necessary also to think about your weaknesses, about ways you can improve, about things you’ve done wrong and things you need to do better. To think about your vision it’s necessary to escape all the myriad demands on us to perform, produce, and prepare. To really focus we need to have something worth focusing on — and finding that special thing can be a lifelong calling.

Instead, we procrastinate. Marina says, “[My stumbling block] is always waiting until a “better” time to write that book/blog post, launch that program, etc.” Brian Yuong says, “Any time I hit a complex section of a project my mind tells me I could be more productive if I shift to another project that has been on the back burner for awhile.” Tracey says, “I put off things that I find unpleasant, such as returning phone calls, and in doing so make tasks much more difficult than if I’d just done them in a timely manner…” And on and on.

Why are so many of us working on things that either don’t make best use of our strengths, don’t engage us enough to hold our attention, or don’t advance us towards any vision of what our lives should be like? I realize there are things we have to do to pay the bills, take care of our responsibilities to family, friends, and society, or just get through from day to day, but they shouldn’t be the majority of our actions!

We need to take these moments of hesitation, these “procrastinable” tasks, as warning signs that we’re running off-track — or, worse, stalled out. And when too much of our lives is pushed to the “back burner”, we need to see that for what it is: as a sign that change is necessary.

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For most of us, that doesn’t mean shaving our heads and running off to Angola to herd sheep. It means making time — not finding it, but making it — to recapture our strengths, focus, and vision. Figure out one thing that needs to change, and change it. Repeat as necessary, until life is on the front burner.

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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.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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