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The Macaroni and Cheese Project

The Macaroni and Cheese Project
Macaroni and Cheese

If you live in a civilized nation (especially the United States), chances are you’ve had occasion to make yourself up a batch of Macaroni and Cheese. It’s something of a staple of young adult life, especially in college dorms where cash is scarce and any meal that costs less than $2 to make is just fine. And even though it’s a multi-step process, most people can hammer out a plate of this stuff with little effort after just a couple of attempts.

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Personally, I found the making of this pauper’s delicassie to be a rather excellent example of how to effectively manage a “project” (in the GTD sense, a set of two or more physical actions which produce a well-defined outcome). Here are a few tips to illustrate what I mean more clearly:

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  • Know your outcome – A bit overly simplistic when talking about Mac n’ Cheese, but something that’s often overlooked when planning a project. What is your goal, exactly? Or, to use the parlance of The David, what would the successful completion of this project look like? In this case, obviously, it’d be a steaming plate of cheap pasta with some cheese-like dressing all over it. The important thing is to avoid ambiguity when defining your project outcomes (like, for instance, “Learn to Dance”).
  • Be Prepared – You wouldn’t set out to make Mac n’ Cheese without the proper ingredients and utensils, would you? Selecting and gathering the appropriate tools and information needed to complete a project should be part of the project itself. If I decide to make Mac n’ Cheese, the first thing I’d do (beside actually getting the box from the grocery store) would be to make sure I have the milk and butter. Next, the sauce pot and strainer, and so forth. Again, sounds extremely obvious, but I know I’ve personally set out to complete projects for which I was absolutely ill-equipped! Like going and buying an orange tree to plant in my backyard without having ever verified that I had a functional shovel waiting for me (don’t laugh). When you choose that Next Action, make sure you’re actually ready to perform it when the time comes!
  • Spice it Up and Be Flexible – If you’ve committed yourself to learning how to program in Ruby, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to follow your Ruby text’s tutorial instructions exactly. If you come to a point where you’re thinking “I wonder if I can do [something]”, give it a shot! Same thing with our old Mac n’ Cheese. In addition to the normal “box” preparation, there are countless ways to trick out your meal (fresh ground pepper and a whole bunch of parmesan cheese – and thank me later). Bottom line, be ready for your project to take slight changes in direction based on intermediate outcomes or changes in priority. And you never know what enlightening little tidbits you’ll pick up if you manage your projects creatively!
  • Monitoring your Progress – Very few projects (especially Mac n’ Cheese) are “set it and forget it” operations. You need to keep an eye on the state of affairs to make sure no funny business is going down while your back is turned. How many overly-confident Macaroni chefs out there have overcooked the noodles because they were off reading RSS feeds? Or let the pot boil over because they didn’t adjust the post-boil temperature correctly? No, the conscientious cook knows that, after the first few minutes, you need to pull a noodle out every 30 seconds or so to see if they’re ready to come off of the heat. In a very bohemian sort of way, this would be like doing your weekly review – except you’re tracking the progress every few minutes instead of once per week.

Again, a somewhat silly example, but once you’ve allowed the GTD mindset to pervade all of your practices and procedures, it really is quite amazing how these principles will shine through, even from the most unlikely of situations!

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Brett Kelly is a computer programmer, coffee roaster and productivity geek from Southern California. In addition to driving his wife crazy, he also provides relevant, practical (and often humorous) tips on GTD, Technology and Productivity at The Cranking Widgets Blog (feed).

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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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